Maximus, Paul, and Jesus on Annihilation and Apocatastasis

In seventeen minutes on this video from Love Unrelenting, Jordan Wood recently gave a brilliant account of why Maximus the Confessor is best understood as a universalist. Wood goes well beyond the famous Maximus scholar Hans Urs von Balthasar who Wood summarizes by saying:

His position was that Maximus was himself a confident universalist but did adhere to a certain tradition which thought that [apocatastasis] was a doctrine or a belief best reserved for those more mature in their faith, more mature in their spiritual progress, so that [weaker believers] wouldn’t misunderstand it, and it wouldn’t become justification for moral or spiritual laxity.

Wood agrees with von Balthasar in this assessment of Maximus, but Wood moves on to point out depths of thought in Maximus related to judgment and salvation that Wood has never seen developed or commented upon in relation to universalism by any other Maximus scholars. Focused in particular on how Maximus understands the promise of Nineveh’s destruction followed by God’s refusal to destroy Nineveh, Wood shows how Maximus understands that “its destruction and its salvation is the same” (from question 64 of Questions of Thalassios). Wood explains how Maximus considers us to create false selves that must be destroyed. Therefore, “what [Nineveh] made of itself, it had to be destroyed, but it’s being destroyed is the same thing, it is one dimension of its being created, in other words, being saved, truly created.”

This idea that Wood unpacks from Maximus is also present in Saint Paul, as Wood points out: “You are only saved because you are crucified with Christ and no longer live. You have to put off your old self in order to be made new in Christ.” I would add that this same teaching is also present in Jesus Christ who splits everything in our world into endless pieces (Luke 12:49-51) and insists that “he who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39) or that “no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” because “flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (John 3:3-6). Christ’s teachings confront everyone in every moment so that we are constantly presented with a crisis of decision that divides our false self from our true self over and over so that we are sometimes exposed as wheat and sometimes as tares (Matthew 13:24-43). Ultimately, we are each both condemned among the goats and saved among the sheep (Matthew 25:31-46).

If this idea made explicit in Maximus the Confessor is present from the New Testament onward, then this would resolve a tension in Saint Paul that David Bentley Hart has commented on often:

Sometimes [the Apostle Paul] was a universalist; sometimes he believed that there were those who would pass away with the age of this world that’s passing. I mean, he clearly didn’t have this horrible notion of an eternal hell. Paul, I think, goes back and forth. When he is in the full flow of his theological genius as in 1 Corinthians 15 or Romans 5 through 11, the vision is irresistibly universalist. At other times, when he is just thinking about his normal, everyday concept of the age to come (there is this age that will pass away; a new age will come; and those who are with Christ will receive spiritual bodies and live in the age to come and everything else will pass away, including Hades), then maybe he is not. [From 46:23 to 47:26 of the video interview “Free Will and Other Things: The Complete Interview” recorded by Steven HAuse for use in sections at his Love Unrelenting YouTube channel and shared in full by David Bentley Hart at Leaves in the Wind on August 6, 2022.]

This is not a tension that bothers Hart at all because Hart has no trouble with the idea that biblical authors would not have had everything figured out. Hart would not expect any author to be entirely consistent in their thinking from one time to the next or even from one transporting flow of thought to another. Likewise, I do not have a problem with normal human limitations showing up in biblical texts as a part of God’s inspired self-revelation. Humans are not consistent thinkers or conceptualizers from one moment to the next or from person to person. This would naturally show up in the scriptures and in no way needs to threaten their authority or inspired nature.

However, if there is a resolution to this apparent dilemma in Paul’s thought, it would be good to realize it. Moreover, we should probably not be too surprised if Paul were more consistent and thought out in his vision on the universal outcome or conclusion of all creation than Hart seems to grant. As a highly educated Pharisee, this seems likely to be a topic that Paul would have studied from his youth in some depth and in categories of thought and language that are now profoundly alien to us.

While I’ve not seen Hart comment as much on this with the teachings of Jesus, there is also this same apparent tension in Christ’s teachings between annihilationism and universalism. One of the best scholarly works on this topic—Kim Papaioannou’s book The Geography of Hell in the Teaching of Jesus: Gehena, Hades, the Abyss, the Outer Darkness Where There Is Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth—argues persuasively that Jesus had no concept of eternal conscious torment but that he was an annihilationist who sounded at times like a universalist.

It should be obvious how the idea that Jordon Wood draws out from Saint Maximus—that our destruction is also our salvation or creation—can help to resolve this tension in both Jesus and Paul between annihilationism and universalism. Hart himself has pointed out many times recently that, when Paul is talking about “his normal, everyday concept of the age to come,” we should not take this in sequential terms. Paul and Jesus understood “this present age” to be hidden within “the age to come” as much or more than it is “before” the age to come. If we are to be utterly destroyed by the burning of all time as we know it in this age, then we are also to be born through these flames within the higher age that is “to come” for us once we have been destroyed. Such a layering of ages—so that the utter destruction of our false selves is the means of new creation—makes far more sense of the writings in the New Testament than any other reading (although I’m not saying that there is any need to make some kind of perfect conceptual harmony out of all the human voices of the New Testament). This is also, generally, how the earliest Christian writers understood these texts up through the time of Saint Maximus at least.

It is also apparent that these early Christian writers (as well as Jesus and Paul) felt that such teachings should not be presented as universal salvation without making it even more clear, first and foremost, that terrible destruction (the death of us all) must come and that it must come moment-by-moment with a divine and unquenchable fire that will burn for all of fallen time until nothing that we now know remains unchanged or incomplete.

Other Resources

Bonus: Transcription of Jordan Wood on the Universalism of Maximus the Confessor

Thank you to Steven HAuse of Love Unrelenting. Starting at 2:15.

Was Saint Maximus a universalist? I think, to my mind, there are about three passages that are more, if you will, infernalist sounding. These are, for example: One of them, he’s commenting on Jude 6, the everlasting chains shackling the fallen angels mentioned there, which is an allusion to 1 Enoch. He at one point interprets those chains as the fixity, the immobility, of the free will so that they will never enjoy divine rest. Okay, so that sounds like a sort of infernalist, traditional picture of at least the fallen angels, in that case (and in another text, maybe, wicked human beings) who will never go [to heaven].

But there’s also, I would say, eight to ten at least, passages were Maximus, whether sometimes a little bit more broadly (like he’s casting a massive vision about the return of humanity and human nature to God through Christ) but you know [where] his emphasis is always on the full accomplishment of that project, that before all ages, that Christ himself is the beginning, the middle, and the end of all ages. He even says in one famous text that in him all the ages and all the creatures within those ages in Christ were created. [They] have their beginning and end, and so they never come to rest until they rest in God, in their true rest. There’s another text [where] he’s clearly aware of Saint Gregory of Nyssa’s idea in a few different texts that evil by its nature is limited and so will run out, that the wicked soul, even if it takes eons and it is looking everywhere, every time it imagines for itself rest, a final purpose, a final destination, insofar as that’s wicked, that’s actually a false and self-deceptive picture, and so what that soul will find is disappointment. But the very fact that it finds disappointment means that we’ll continue to move and continue to look elsewhere. So there are some texts as well where Maximus seems to be aware of that and entertains Gregory’s position as his own that that [searching] eventually will come to an end.

So anyway, you’ve got that division of texts. I do think that, if you’re talking quantity, that the weight goes towards the universalist picture. Now I think there are three things to note about Maximus and apocatastasis or universal salvation that are not often noted.

1. The Theological Climate or Situation Surrounding Maximus

Number one, we do have to be cognizant or mindful of the situation Maximus was in, being on the far side of Constantinople too, whose cannons, you know, depending on how you read all that scholarship in the debate, may or may not condemn Origen, maybe by name, maybe, maybe not. Maybe the canons are targeting some sort of later Origenist system. Maybe they weren’t even a part of the original council and so forth. But at the very least, even if you say that the Origenist canons were not a part of the original council, it’s clear for example, one of the earliest texts that Maximus has, called Questions and Doubts, he’s explicitly asked about apocatastasis and Gregory of Nyssa’s use of it. You could go earlier a century or so before that and the correspondence of Barsanuphius and John in Palestine. Another novice brings to them a letter, questions about apocatastasis and Gregory of Nyssa: “Hey, it looks like Saint Gregory actually supports this idea of apocatastasis. How could that be?” So that in that tradition, again, and especially, once again, if Maximus is from Palestine, and is in that sort of network, the idea of certain monks or novices coming upon writings of Saint Gregory of Nyssa or Origen or whoever and finding these texts that are pretty explicitly universalist and then wondering about: “Hold on, how can it be?” It isn’t at all surprising that that would be raised. It’s also not surprising that there would be hesitance around Maximus’s answer to the question.

2. Withholding Some Teachings (like Universalism) from Those Who are Not Ready

In fact, I think one of the major scholars of Maximus from the last century, also himself a major theologian, the Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar: his position was that Maximus was himself a confident universalist but did adhere to a certain tradition which thought that was a doctrine or a belief best reserved for those more mature in their faith, more mature in their spiritual progress so that they wouldn’t misunderstand it, and it wouldn’t become justification for moral or spiritual laxity.

So there’s two things here in what I’ve just said. Number one, it may have been somewhat of a risky business to get involved in openly and really clearly declaring universalism after 553, maybe, maybe not. The other thing, though, is that there is this spiritual tradition which would want to be cautious about just opening up such a doctrine for everyone. Whether or not that’s still valid is a different question, but I’m just saying for Maximus in his historical context, that could be there. Balthasar, a hopeful universalist but also a scholar, wrote a great book on Maximus and argued that that was actually his position. You can tell that a few times there’s like three main passages where Maximus says something like, “We could give a more lofty interpretation to these words, but we should pass over this with honorable silence lest it should cause somebody to stumble or whatever. So you see Maximus being aware of that spiritual tradition which wouldn’t be cautious with such a doctrine. So that’s one thing, is the context of Maximus and whether or not he’s going to be explicit about his own beliefs on this matter.

3. Two Metaphysical Points Showing Subtle Depths in the Ideas of Maximus About Judgment and Salvation

3.1. How Humanity is One Body

But I do think there are two parts of his thought that deserved to be noted and often are not in these discussions about whether or not he’s universalist and in what sense. The first thing is that Maximus does adhere to something close to Gregory of Nyssa’s view of nature, human nature, which is that human nature isn’t some kind of reality beyond the world of space-time that is already there and we all sort of participate in it just a little bit, but the whole of human nature really is the collective of all the members of human nature, in other words the entirety of human beings. Every human being together makes up, constitutes, human nature as a whole.

And there are innumerable passages of Maximus where he talks about Christ, for example, one well-known one, descending into Hades, liberating and freeing—he actually calls it the land of darkness and eternal shackles, eternal bars, bonds—which Christ, when he goes down as the light, he disperses the darkness of ignorance. [Maximus] is talking about Hades, and Christ breaks, as the power of God, he breaks the eternal bars and so frees all of, liberates all of human nature from its enslavement to the cruel devil. My point is that if Maximus says—as he seems to be very consistent in many other places—if he actually thinks that human nature isn’t really fully human nature apart from the collective totality of all human beings, then it wouldn’t really make sense to say all of human nature has been liberated except some human beings that never were. Because they’re a part of human nature, right; they’re just as much a part of it to make it whole as anybody else. So unless you have all of the individuals, you don’t have the nature itself completely.

3.2. How Our Destruction and Our Salvation are the Same Thing

So that’s one point that’s sort of a metaphysical point, and it comes from his christology. But that’s a whole other side of things, and I think it’s relevant. But the other thing, really, that I think is even more moving even and profound spiritually, is that Maximus also has a view of sin and of evil as—just to put it in my quick phrase—I’ve written about this a little bit—as something like a false incarnation. So he thinks sin isn’t just breaking a law of God, nor is it just privation, like evil is just the privation of the good which is a comment he does [make]. He thinks it is privation in a certain way, but he actually thinks really what it is is the attempt to bring a delusion or a fantasy generated by the mind to combine it with what he calls at one point, he’s doing an allegorical interpretation of the golden calf from the from Exodus, and he says to combine it with the molten gold the melted down gold of the passions and you impress upon it a fantasy of your intellect some delusion (like, I’m so great; I deserve to be respected; I deserve to dominate; I deserve this or that sort of gratification of lust, whatever it is, whatever the delusion you’re entertaining in your mind), and you impress that image upon the passions of your own soul and you to, with your own person, with your own life, bring it into being. So that’s like an attempt to incarnate something which God never wanted to create which is to say not a creation of God, not willed by God.

And so I say all this because then if that’s true, Maximus is very clear that divine judgment entails the destruction of what you and I, through sin, have illicitly brought into being. So it’s not just a lack of doing the good, it’s positively creating something which shouldn’t have been made at all. So what do you do with that leftover, that sort of residue; you need to destroy it. And actually coming to see that you need to destroy this—what you’ve made of yourself, what you’ve made of your own soul what you make of the world, and the way you fantasize or interpret it—coming to see that you need to destroy it, and then going through the process of destroying it through ascesis, through prayer, through liturgy, through all the works of faith and the spiritual life, that is the judgment of God working through you so that salvation might be accomplished.

So [Maximus] has a great allegorical interpretation, for example, of the book of Jonah. This is in question 64 of Questions of Thalassios if anyone’s interested, and he says there that God moves from conditional threats to Nineveh, you know, if unless they repent, I’ll destroy them—there’s a moment where he moves to an unconditional threat like, it’s too late none of us Nineveh is going to be destroyed. And of course we know, at the end of the story, it’s not to Jonah’s great disappointment. So the question arises, “Well hold on a second, how can God say this city is going to be destroyed and then it isn’t?” It’s like what he says was going to come to pass never does. Well Maximus’s creative interpretation is, actually, it was [destroyed], and its destruction and its salvation is the same. Because what it made of itself, it had to be destroyed, but its being destroyed is the same thing—it’s one dimension of its being created, in other words, being saved, truly created.

So I think that’s really relevant, and I never, I hardly ever see that. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that brought into the discussions about whether or not Maximus was a universalist because it’s important to know that when you run across the text in Maximus where he’s talking about divine judgment and the total destruction of sin and evil and of the wicked and of the devil and what the devil has made of himself and so forth, you might be tempted to think oh well if he thinks that that’s going to be eternal judgment, eternal destruction, an absolute annihilation of evil and wicked beings, creatures, humans, or angels, then I guess he’s just an infernalist. Because that sounds like there’s, you know, sounds like Revelation 20 or something. It’s like lake of fire stuff: throw the devil and his angels in there, you know.

The kind of subtle thing—and I can’t say that Maximus ever explicitly spells this out—so I don’t claim that. But what I will say is that there’s nothing inconsistent with him saying, “No, no, no, the devil and his angels will be destroyed and forever chastened in that way or chastised in that way.” But that’s not inconsistent with their true salvation because, in fact, you, as we should know from Saint Paul, you are only saved because you are crucified with Christ and no longer live. You have to put off your old self in order to be made new in Christ. So there’s an element of destruction even in our own salvation right now, which is now just begun. So if that’s true of our salvation, why wouldn’t it be true of anything’s salvation or any creature’s salvation?

So I think that element—that destruction and salvation can be two sides of the same coin, two dimensions or elements of the same process—that is a kind of subtlety in Maximus’s ascetic thought as a monk who is practicing this way of life that I don’t think has been sufficiently taken account of in this discussion. So, in brief, do think Saint Maximus was a universalist? Yes, I think he was. Do I think he explicitly said that in a way that’s like it couldn’t be argued? No, I wouldn’t go that far. Do I think his thought would sort of suffer from an incoherence if he wasn’t a universalist? Yeah, I think it would. Do I think there’s more to take into account to get a better, more nuanced picture of his view of these matters? Yeah, I do. So that’s the best sort of briefest way that I could try to answer that controversial question.

Christ on the Cross between the Two Thieves by Peter Paul Rubens (oil on panel, painted between 1619 and 1620, height of 14 ft and width of 10.2 ft).

33 thoughts on “Maximus, Paul, and Jesus on Annihilation and Apocatastasis

  1. You realize that if we are “utterly destroyed” then what is supposedly being saved through this process is not in fact us, but something wholly alien to us being implanted and bursting out xenomorph-style?


      1. A self is not, and cannot be, false. And moreover if the first creation was so awful why would anyone trust that the second go around would be any different?


      2. I project a false self into many situations. And the second creation is the result of our entire participation at full capacity. We don’t have that capacity yet, therefore hell.


      3. You may pretend to be something that you’re not, but that doesn’t change the actual conscious self behind it unless the actual experience itself does – ie. one might pretend to be brave so hard that one actually becomes brave.

        And if humans lacked the capacity to participate, who’s fault would that be? Does one blame a defective product, or the manufacturer?


      4. I agree that the natural or true self always lies behind the false self and only truly desires the goodness of God (as much as our false self at the surface may not admit that). As for who to blame for our false selves, God doesn’t manufacture anything. God only invites free and rational spirits to participate in His infinite life (which not every spirit will do at first in).


      5. Speaking of the surface and beneath as if they were two separate individuals, instead of just one? No, just no. What is “at the surface” is merely the continuation and visible expression of what is “below”, they are one and the same.

        You realize that that position is completely nonsensical, right? Insofar as you subscribe to the idea of one God, the creator of everything, there is nowhere that this “false self” or the veil of lies covering the supposed “true self” could have come from except him.


      6. The surface can be an illusion that has no source but our own incomplete strivings and no end but its annihilation by our own true life with God.


      7. That is no more a rational thought than declaring ignorance is necessarily a part of knowledge. Particularly if you declare, as you do, that the end of discovering our “true selves” is the elimination of all choice by virtue of mind being so drowned in the torrent of God’s “goodness” that it can no longer think about or seek anything else. There’s no reason not to skip straight to that step.


      8. Seeking life within infinite goodness is still an entirely free and personal act of the will and reason. And skipping straight to the point where every act and desire are true would only be to create a puppet or fictional character.


      9. If you define freedom as being so utterly submerged in God that you neither can nor will think about or choose anything else, then yes you obviously could skip straight to that step. If the me that chooses, that thinks, and that refuses to believe in even the existence of, much less the goodness of, any sort of supreme being or divinity is a false self destined to be destroyed at the end of time, there’s no reason for it to exist right now. It is a falsehood that will melt in the face of God, no choices required.


      10. You’re fully articulating half of my point. To be living beings, however, we must will and desire our own creation. That cannot happen without the possibility of some resistance and confusion.


      11. If what you’re saying about our true selves is indeed true, then yes it obviously can. For they can never desire anything except God’s goodness, and that unfailingly. So there is clearly no need for the “possibility of resistance and confusion” to get from here to there.


      12. Is this a second response? We must achieve divine life and love for ourselves, and every one of us depends on every other one. It’s a long journey in this liminal fallen time together. God can’t make us as mature divine beings with no participation from us or with no possibility of us collectively failing to see (for a time) all that we have received in each other.


      13. …Yes. Yes he could. That’s so plain I fail to see what you’re even objecting to. If God is omnipotent, which is one of your premises, then he could quite easily implant any amount of knowledge into our heads at any moment. As ignorance is nothing but a lack of knowledge sufficient amounts of doing so would, on your paradigm, invariably produce the desired end results.


      14. Fallen time is time taken up by shared suffering and self discovery. It is time that only incompletely participates with God’s life and ends in death which Christ makes into an entry point.


      15. The only reason one would need to discover anything is because was not adequately informed from the start.


      16. Oh my. I’ve taught three children to ride a bike and to cook an egg and to enjoy playing with dozens of other children on a lively playground. I’ve been a principal for seven years at a school with hundreds of children. God is inviting billions of free rational spirits to enjoy an entirely shared divine life in pursuits of infinite options together for mutual creativity and love. To invite us to become what we are becoming, God must take the risk of temporary mistakes on our part and even sustained group attempts at insurrection.


      17. But if you could snap your fingers and instantly teach your children to ride the bike perfectly, without the pains of falling and scraped knees, would you? If you’re any sort of good father, then yes, obviously.

        Your average person has difficulty resisting a warm chocolate chip cookie. If all this God’s supposed goodness were on display from the moment we were born, there would be no need for all this misery and no loss for it.


    1. “It is a falsehood that will melt in the face of God, no choices required.”

      In essence, this is accurate. As one of my favorite priests put it, heaven is like the soup at the Waldorf. You get it no matter what you order.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Great, so we’ve agreed that under this cosmic scheme there is absolutely no point in the present order, as all our false selves will all melt away when the layers of illusion keeping us trapped in our false selves will all be burned away by the divine light like a morning fog by the rising sun, and nothing will be lost in doing so.

        *looks around*

        So what’s God waiting for again, his DoorDash?


      2. But our “true selves” already do. We just don’t know it yet. So, again, what’s he waiting for?


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