The Mysterious Case of a Missing Catechism Chapter on Orthodox Eschatology

Yesterday, an online friend of mine (Aaron Beethoven) shared a passage in English that was purported to be translated from a French catechism published for use by the Orthodox church in 1979. This passage seemed to be saying that the doctrine of eternal torment in hell was a monsterous abuse that Orthodox Christians must reject:

Let us state outright: the idea of eternal hades and eternal torments for some, and eternal blessedness, indifferent to suffering, for others, can no longer remain in a living and renewed Christian consciousness the way it was once depicted in our catechisms and our official theological textbooks. …It is high time to put an end to all these monstrous assertions of past centuries, which make of our God that which He is not: an ‘external’ God, Who is merely an allegory of earthly kings and nothing more. Pedagogical intimidation and terror is no longer effective. On the contrary, it bars entry to the Church for many of those who are seeking the God of love.

I could not find this English translation in many places online, and none of them provided much information. Therefore, I asked around for more information, and this is what I have learned.

Catéchisme pour les familles: Dieu est Vivant (my own translation of the title being Catechism for families: God is Alive) was published in 1979 (with another French edition printed in 1987). It was a work for church use by French catechists, theologians and priests from Russian, Greek and French backgrounds. Olivier Clement was the editor and a contributor alongside Fr. Cyrille Argenti and Fr. Alexandre Turincev. The book received the blessings of Metropolitan Meletios (Greek) and Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) of Surozh.

It was published in English as The Living God: a Catechism (2 volumes, translated by Olga Dunlop) by SVS Press (where it is noted that it was originally written in French as a “catechism for the family” but with little other information given online about the source book). Mysteriously, a chapter of the original text was left out of this English edition. I have not yet read this SVS Press edition, so I do not know if this missing chapter is noted or explained in their book in any way. This chapter was titled “L’ESCHATOLOGIE ORTHODOXE” (“Orthodox Eschatology”) and was written by Father Alexandre Turincev who had initially published it in the Orthodox journal Contact (no. 54) in 1966.

An English translation of this missing chapter was published in the Greek Orthodox Theological Review (58:1-4) in 2013 as “An Approach to Orthodox Eschatology.” This was translated by Brad Jersak (with the Monks at Holy Transfiguration Hermitage, British Columbia) and Michael Gillis. You can find a full PDF of it here.

As I inquired about this, a few who could read French and had the text in French suggested that the translation I found online was not strong and that the brief passage was taken out of context. I’ve now been able to read the entire chapter in the English translation by Brad Jersak and Michael Gillis (published in the Greek Orthodox Theological Review). This entire chapter is beautiful and profound with a clear depth of understanding regarding patristic Christianity as well as a strong sense of just how terribly our understandings of Christian eschatology have gone astray over the course of Christian history in various damaging ways. It seems clear to me that the controversial passage in question entirely fits the full context of the chapter. I could give many other examples from elsewhere in the chapter, but consider this one:

We have arrived at the crucial point: Gehenna, hell, damnation, eternal suffering. …First, one remark: the notion of “eternal” (Greek: aionios) does not belong to the category of obvious and clear concepts. In the vulgar sense of the term, eternity is understood as a measure of time, or rather as a lack of measurement, as an essentially flawed infinity—an absence of end. But in the Bible, “eternal” is synonymous with God or divine life. For this reason, eternity is not commensurate with time. …Eternity is a life of another “nature,” another quality. Eternity is the fullness of divine life. And hell? Does it exist or not? St. Thérèse of Lisieux has written somewhere, “I believe that hell exists, but I do not think anyone is there.” It is easy to understand her. The pure and angelic Thérèse seeks to defend the infinite love of her God against the dogmas of the implacable guardians of the faith …But she, along with them, is mistaken if she thinks hell exists as an objective place, designed or created by the Creator and predestined for the damned.

While this passage illustrates that the wider context of the whole article agrees with the shorter passage circulating online, Fr. Alexandre Turincev does go on to talk about what hell is. He even describes hell as eternal in this passage (as translated by a native French reader who has maintained online that Fr. Alexandre Turincev does not support universalism): “The fact that we will be judged at the Last Judgement by the Love and the Truth of God certainly does not diminishes our responsibility for our life and does not take away anything to the tragic nature of our situation. …Only man, by freely refusing it, or revolting against it, can oppose this (God’s) compassion and ever remain in the suffering of his refusal (of it).” With more context and in the translation by Brad Jersak and Michael Gillis, this reads:

The mercy of God is limitless. Before it, the ‘sin of all flesh,’ says St. Isaac the Syrian—all the sin of the world—is ‘but a handful of sand thrown into the Immense Sea.’ Only man, by a free refusal or rebellion, may oppose this mercy and remain always the suffering of his refusal. The Eastern Fathers love to repeat this saying: ‘God created us without us, but he cannot save us without us.’ St. Isaac the Syrian, in his Homily 19, says the following, characteristic of the Orthodox view of ‘the last things’: ‘Let the sacrilegious thought that God ceases to love the sinner never enter the mind of man. But love acts in a double way: it torments sinners and becomes a source of joy to those who have performed their duty.’ ‘In my opinion,’ adds this Father, ‘the torment of Gehenna is repentance.’

Returning to the original passage that I found circulating online, I also closely compared the English translation of it circulating online from an unknown translator with the translation published by Brad Jersak and Michael Gillis. Both English translations looked consistent and faithful to each other in their meanings (despite being varied in their word choice and syntax). Finally, I took the French text and ran it through Google translate to get a third English version which did not indicate any issues in the two human translations.

This missing chapter is bold and beautiful. It seems clear that Fr. Alexandre Turincev was a patristic universalist (sometimes also called purgatorial universalism or ἀποκατάστασις). His chapter frequently quotes one of the most outspoken voices on this topic from the ancient church, Saint Isaac the Syrian. It also seems clear that Fr. Alexandre Turincev found most of the more familiar Christian teachings on eternal torment to be monstrously repugnant and damaging to the church. Finally, the entirety of these clear teachings from Fr. Alexandre Turincev were fully approved for use in the training of all those new to the faith by the distinguished and responsible figures of Olivier Clement, Metropolitan Meletios (Greek) and Metropolitan Anthony Bloom.

Fr. Alexandre Turincev with a copy of the catechism to which he contributed.

Why this chapter went missing in our only English edition of this book seems likely to me to be a sad story. Evidently, our Orthodox faith in America is not as deeply informed by this aspect of our Christian tradition from its earliest years. I would be grateful to learn more about this missing chapter and its author. I would also be grateful to hear of any reasons for why this chapter was left out of our English printing of this resource.

If you are interested, as a next step, be sure to read this full chapter by clicking here to get a PDF.

In addition, here is the other English translation of a brief passage from this missing chapter that has circulated a online in a few places (translator unknown):

Let us state outright: the idea of eternal hades and eternal torments for some, and eternal blessedness, indifferent to suffering, for others, can no longer remain in a living and renewed Christian consciousness the way it was once depicted in our catechisms and our official theological textbooks. This outdated understanding, which attempts to rely upon Gospel texts, renders them literally, roughly, and materially, without penetrating into their spiritual meaning, which is concealed in figures and symbols. This understanding is becoming a more and more intolerant violation of the conscience, thought, and faith of the Christian. We cannot tolerate that the sacrifice on Golgotha turned out to be powerless to redeem the world and conquer hades. Otherwise, it would be necessary to say that all of Creation was a failure, and Christ’s feat was also a failure. It is high time for all Christians to jointly witness to and disclose their intimate mystical experience in this realm, and in the same way their mystical hope and, perhaps, their indignation and horror regarding the materialistic representations of hades and the dread Judgment set forth in human images. It is high time to put an end to all these monstrous assertions of past centuries, which make of our God that which He is not: an ‘external’ God, Who is merely an allegory of earthly kings and nothing more. Pedagogical intimidation and terror is no longer effective. On the contrary, it bars entry to the Church for many of those who are seeking the God of love.

To compare to the text above, here is the English translation of this same passage as translated and published by Brad Jersak and Michael Gillis:

Let us state frankly: the idea of eternal hell and eternal suffering for some and eternal bliss (indifferent to suffering) for others can no longer remain in the living and renewed Christian conscience as it was formerly presented in our catechisms and our official theology courses. This archaic conception, which claims to be based on the Gospel texts, misunderstands them in a literal, coarse, and material sense, without penetrating the hidden spiritual meaning of the images and symbols. This conception is increasingly showing itself to be an intolerable violation of Christian conscience, thought, and faith. We cannot accept that the sacrifice of Golgotha has revealed itself to be powerless to redeem the world and conquer hell. Otherwise we should say: creation is a failure, and redemption is also a failure. It is high time for all Ghristians to witness in common and reveal their mystical experience—intimate in this area—as well as their spiritual expectations, and perhaps also their revulsion and horror before materialistic, anthropomorphic representations of hell and the last judgment, and of the heavenly Jerusalem. It is high time to be done with all these monstrosities—doctrinal or not—which are often blasphemous, from ages past, which make of our God of love that which he is not: an “external” God who is merely an “allegory of earthly kings and nothing else.” The pedagogy of intimidation and terror is no longer effective. On the contrary, it blocks entry into the Church to many who are seeking a God of love “who loves mankind” (the “Philanthropos” of the Orthodox Liturgy).

If you read French (which I sadly do not), here is this same brief passage in the original language:

Disons franchement : l’idée de l’enfer éternel et de souffrances éternelles pour les uns, de béatitude éternelle (indifferente à la souffrance…) pour les autres, ne peut plus, dans la conscience chrétienne vivante, rénovée, rester telle que la présentaient autrefois nos catéchismes et nos cours officiels de théologie. Cette conception archaïque, qui veut s’appuyer sur les textes évangéliques, les comprend d’une manière littérale, grossière, matérielle, sans pénétrer dans le sens spirituel caché des images et des symboles. Cette conception se présente de plus en plus comme une violation intolérable de la conscience, de la pensée et de la foi du chrétien. On ne peut admettre que le sacrifice du Golgotha se soit révélé impuissant à racheter le monde et à vaincre l’enfer. Sinon il faudrait dire : la Création est un échec, la Rédemption aussi est un échec. Il est grand temps pour tous les chrétiens de témoigner en commun et de révéler leur expérience mystique, intime dans ce domaine, ainsi que leurs espérances spirituelles, et peut-être aussi leur révolte et leur épouvante devant les représentations anthropomorphes matérialistes de l’enfer et du Jugement dernier, comme de la Jérusalem céleste. Il est grand temps d’en finir avec toutes ces monstruosités, doctrinales ou non, souvent blasphématoires, des siècles passés, qui font de notre Dieu-Amour ce qu’il n’est pas : un Dieu “externe” qui n’est qu’une “allégorie des rois terrestres et rien d’autre”. La pédagogie d’intimidation et de terreur n’est plus efficace, au contraire, elle barre l’entrée dans l’Église à beaucoup de ceux qui cherchent un Dieu d’amour et “qui aime l’homme” (le “Philanthrope” de la liturgie orthodoxe).

Finally, for a little more context from the original French text as printed in Catéchisme pour les familles: Dieu est Vivant, this text below comes from from the three images above (shared with me and some others online):

L’ESCHATOLOGIE ORTHODOXE

CHAPITRE IX
Une approche de l’eschatologie orthodoxe
par le P. Alexandre Turincev

Arrivant presque au terme de cette Septième Partie sur le deuxième Avènement du Seigneur, au cours de laquelle nous avons parlé, en particulier, des signes précurseurs de ce deuxième Avènement, de la fin du monde et du Jugement, il nous paraît utile de donner quelques extraits d’un article du P. Alexandre Turincev, paru dans la revue Contacts (nº 54, deuxième trimestre 1966).

Cet article est intitulé : « Une approche de l’eschatologie orthodoxe ». (Eschatologie veut dire ce qui concerne les fins dernières, le sort de l’homme après la mort.)

Le P. Alexandre, qui a une longue et profonde expérience des âmes et de la vie chrétienne, témoigne ici avec chaleur de sa foi et de son espérance devant « l’énigme du monde et de l’homme, celle de la fin dernière de l’évolution cosmique, du sens de l’histoire humaine, du destin de chacun de nous… » Il est convaincu que « le monde ne peut pas être expliqué à partir de lui-même » et que « son sens et son but suprêmes sont cachés dans l’histoire de l’homme et non pas dans l’évolution du cosmos. » Il affirme que «c’est en vain que l’homme cherche, en dehors du Christ, l’explication de ces énigmes».

«L’avènement de la vie du siècle à venir suppose la fin de
celui dans lequel nous vivons, “la fin du monde”. Mais…

[page break]

«(…) Saint Jean Chrysostome, dont le sermon inspire conclut, dans la liturgie orthodoxe, les matines de Pâques, clame : “L’enfer a été frappé de mort lorsqu’il rencontra le Christ”, et il ajoute : “Il a été frappé de mort, parce que tu l’as anéanti, frappé de mort, parce que tu l’as humilie: frappé de mort, parce que tu l’as enchaîné: frappé de mort, parce que tu l’as tué.”

«Dans le contexte eschatologique général, comment faut-il considérer ces affirmations follement catégoriques de saint Jean Chrysostome concernant l’enchaînement, l’humiliation, la mort de l’enfer, son anéantissement? Disons franchement : l’idée de l’enfer éternel et de souffrances éternelles pour les uns, de béatitude éternelle (indifferente à la souffrance…) pour les autres, ne peut plus, dans la conscience chrétienne vivante, rénovée, rester telle que la présentaient autrefois nos catéchismes et nos cours officiels de théologie. Cette conception archaïque, qui veut s’appuyer sur les textes évangéliques, les comprend d’une manière littérale, grossière, matérielle, sans pénétrer dans le sens spirituel caché des images et des symboles. Cette conception se présente de plus en plus comme une violation intolérable de la conscience, de la pensée et de la foi du chrétien. On ne peut admettre que le sacrifice du Golgotha se soit révélé impuissant à racheter le monde et à vaincre l’enfer. Sinon il faudrait dire : la Création est un échec, la Rédemption aussi est un échec. Il est grand temps pour tous les chrétiens de témoigner en commun et de révéler leur expérience mystique, intime dans ce domaine, ainsi que leurs espérances spirituelles, et peut-être aussi leur révolte et leur épouvante devant les représentations anthropomorphes matérialistes de l’enfer et du Jugement dernier, comme de la Jérusalem céleste. Il est grand temps d’en finir avec toutes ces monstruosités, doctrinales ou non, souvent blasphématoires, des siècles passés, qui font de notre Dieu-Amour ce qu’il n’est pas : un Dieu “externe” qui n’est qu’une “allégorie des rois terrestres et rien d’autre”. La pédagogie d’intimidation et de terreur n’est plus efficace, au
contraire, elle barre l’entrée dans l’Église à beaucoup de ceux qui cherchent un Dieu d’amour et “qui aime l’homme” (le “Philanthrope” de la liturgie orthodoxe).

[page break]

«Un saint moine du Mont Athos, un staretz qui fut presque notre contemporain, écrit ce qui suit, en s’adresavec toute la multitude de tes freres, et quand il ne resterant qu’un seul des ennemis du Christ et de l’Eglise dans les ténèbres extérieures, ne te mettras-tu pas avec tous les autres à implorer le Seigneur afin que soit sauvé cet unique frère non repenti? Si tu ne le supplies pas jour et nuit, alors ton cæur est de fer – mais on n’a pas besoin de fer au paradis.”

«Et saint Paul, qui était si véritablement uni au Christ qu’il a pu affirmer : “Ce n’est plus moi qui vis, mais c’est le Christ qui vit en moi”, n’a-t-il pas dit qu’il était pret a être “séparé du Christ pour ses frères”?

«Chacun de nous ne doit-il pas de même supplier le Seigneur : Que tous mes frères soient sauvés avec moi? Ou alors que je sois, moi aussi damné avec eux! Notre Seigneur n’attend-il pas de nous une telle priere? Et cette prière ne sera-t-elle pas la solution du probleme de l’enfer et de la damnation ?»

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