" . . . yet thyself, O Savior, destroying the power of death, and with thee raising up Adam and releasing ALL men from hell." So sing the faithful in the Evlogetaria just before the resurrection gospel is read in every Sunday Matins service in the Orthodox Church--a perpetual celebration of Easter. Then, at the end of Matins on the Sundays of tones 5-8 this troparia is sung: " . . . O Lord, redeeming ALL men from the snares of the enemy."
What do these shocking words from these hymns mean? How literaly, or not literally, are we to understand them? What is the grand, full, historical context of these words? How do we avoid that dreaded doctrine known as "universal salvation"? Or should we indeed avoid it? Is there hope for the rich man (Lk. 16:20-31, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus)?
It is to this topic that Orthodox rising star Archbishop [Metropolitan] Hilarion Alfeyev addresses with full vigor and incredibly detailed research into the voluminous works of Orthodox liturgical theology throughout the centuries. Indeed, it is Alfeyev's unequivocal mission to "bring justice" to the authoritative place of liturgical theology noting that "Christians celebrated liturgical services long before the appearance of the New Testament . . ." (p. 210) Preceding this there are thorough sections looking at the New Testament, apocryphal literature and patristic writings as well. But the main star of this book is the liturgical theology. Tragically, the bulk of Protestantism has cut itself off from the depth of the wonders and riches of these invaluable sources of spiritual and theological understanding.
Until . . . along came Mars Hill evangelical pastor Rob Hill and his recent book, Love Wins, which set off a flury of controversey within evangelicalism regarding the existence of hell and the final destination of all people. This was prominently displayed for all on the front cover of the April 14, 2011 issue of Time Magazine. Bell writes, "something new is in the air," but ironcially implies that something OLD is in the air when he says, "At the center of the Christian tradition since the first church, have been a number who insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God." Did, in fact, Bell actually read the opening, signature quotation in Alfeyev's book taken from The Vespers of Orthodox Holy Saturday?: "Hell reigns, but not forever, over the race of mortals."
Indeed, Alfeyev lists the Orthodox fathers (pp. 163-4) who were prominent in these teachings in addition to a wonderful look at St. Gregory of Nyssa, the most prominent Orthodox theologian regarding this subject. In addition St. Isaac the Syrian isn't overlooked. One can't help but the refer back to Alfeyev's previous book, The Spiritual World of St. Isaac the Syrian, where immensely popular Bishop [Met.] Kallistos writes in the Forward "the only interpretation of judgement and hell that makes any sense." (p. 10)
In his impressive statistical analysis of the vast array of liturgical texts Alfeyev cites an impressive 75% of these texts as all inclusive of the human race being the object of Christ's work in hell. Indeed, "The teaching that Christ trampled on death by death, abolished the power of the devil, and DESTROYED HELL--is general church doctrine." (p.209) Having said this, Alfeyev, in no uncertain terms, vigorously upholds that other pillar of Christian belief--freedom of the will--with a fascinating psychological twist on the effects of love on contrasting groups of people. He also concludes that "there are no easy, simple answers." (p. 193)
This is an incredible read, but likely only for those who are truly open to the extensive and historical authority of the Orthodox Church. Out of kindness and love Abp. Hilarion greatly understates the power (and narrowness) of Protestant (especially conservative, evangelical) thought regarding this subject. As one of my favorite evangelical authors, John Piper, wrote, "Farewell Rob Bell."