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The antinomy of gehenna: Pavel Florensky's contribution to debates on hell and universalism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 September 2021

Erica Ridderman*
Duke University, Durham, NC, USA
*Corresponding author. E-mail:


In The Pillar and Ground of the Truth Pavel Florensky presents an account of hell, or ‘Gehenna’, that synthesises two seemingly irreconcilable claims: that God will save all people, and that some people will reject God forever. In insisting that both claims are true, and by recasting standard categories of final judgement, purgation and human identity, Florensky produces a novel contribution in contemporary debates about hell and universalism. I begin by surveying his account, then address two key interpretive questions raised by his critics, and conclude by situating his account within modern western conversations.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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1 By no means exhaustive, the following list might illustrate the current interest in universal salvation and its historical precedents. For collections of essays, see Robin Parry, A. and Partridge, Christopher H. (eds), Universal Salvation? The Current Debate (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004)Google Scholar; MacDonald, Gregory (ed.), ‘All Shall Be Well’: Explorations in Universalism and Christian Theology from Origen to Moltmann (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011)Google Scholar. For single-volume historical surveys of universalism, see the work of Ramelli, Ilaria L. E., The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis: A Critical Assessment from the New Testament to Eriugena (Boston: Brill, 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and idem, A Larger Hope? Universal Salvation from Christian Beginnings to Julian of Norwich (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019). For a much-discussed example by a prominent theologian, see Hart, David Bentley, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a reaction against the rising tide of universalism, see McClymond, Michael J., The Devil's Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2018)Google Scholar. For arguments in analytic philosophy, see Buenting, Joel (ed.), The Problem of Hell: A Philosophical Anthology (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010)Google Scholar; Kronen, John and Reitan, Eric, God's Final Victory: A Comparative Philosophical Case for Universalism (New York: Continuum, 2011)Google Scholar; Talbott, Thomas, The Inescapable Love of God (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014)Google Scholar; and four volumes by Walls, Jerry: Hell: The Logic of Damnation (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, Heaven: The Logic of Eternal Joy (Oxford: OUP, 2002), Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation (Oxford: OUP, 2012), and his summary book Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory: Rethinking the Things that Matter Most (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2015).

2 Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope ‘That All Men Be Saved?’ With a Short Discourse on Hell (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988). In this paper, I will focus only on options that assert God's will for universal salvation. Though perhaps not the dominant position throughout Christian history, it is widely accepted today and reflected in official Catholic teaching to which Balthasar refers. See Dare We Hope, p. 38, n. 3, in which he cites De oratione on 1 Tim 2:4 (‘Here we see that God's disposition to love aims at the salvation of all men without exception’).

3 Florensky, Pavel, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth: An Essay in Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters, trans. Jakim, Boris (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004)Google Scholar.

4 See Avril Pyman, Pavel Florensky: A Quiet Genius (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011), p. 37; or Robert Slensinski, Pavel Florensky: A Metaphysics of Love (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1984), pp. 162–3.

5 As Slesinski notes, Florensky made this quite clear in a public lecture called ‘Mind and dialectics’, which he gave before defending his dissertation. See Slesinski, Pavel Florensky, pp. 43–5.

6 Florensky, Pillar and Ground, p. 5.

7 Florensky's friend, Nikolai Luzin, read an early version of Florensky's work while in the midst of deep despair, and it pulled him out of the atheistic scientism in which he was steeped: ‘I felt as if I had leaned on a pillar’, Luzin wrote. ‘I owe my interest in life to you.’ See Graham Kantor, Naming Infinity: A True Story of Religious Mysticism and Mathematical Creativity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), p. 83.

8 Florensky, Pillar and Ground, p. 151.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid., pp. 153–4.

11 Ibid., p. 109.

12 Florensky ends the ‘Contradiction’ letter with a list of scripturally referenced ‘Dogmatic Antinomies’ that include the tri-unity of God, the two natures of Christ, and predestination and free will, among others. Ibid., pp. 121–3.

13 Ibid., p. 155.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid., p. 156.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid., pp. 22–4.

18 Ibid., pp. 39–42.

19 Ibid., pp. 68–9.

20 Ibid., p. 3.

21 Ibid., p. 157.

22 Ibid., p. 161.

23 Slesinski, Pavel Florensky, p. 161.

24 Florensky, Pillar and Ground, p. 161.

25 Ibid.

26 Ibid.

27 Ibid., p. 162.

28 Ibid., p. 168.

29 Ibid., p. 186.

30 Pyman, Pavel Florensky: A Quiet Genius, p. 79.

31 Slesinksi, Pavel Florensky, p. 162.

32 Ibid., p. 163.

33 Florensky, Pillar and Ground, p. 171.

34 Ibid., pp, 124–50.

35 Ibid., pp. 160–1.

36 Ibid., p. 175.

37 Ibid., p. 176.

38 Ibid., p. 180.

39 Ibid., p. 174.

40 Ibid., p. 161.

41 This too, Florensky thinks, is figured in the sacraments: ‘No sacrament makes sin not-sin: God does not justify untruth’ (Pillar and Ground, p. 161). Rather, God transforms creatures by severing them from their sins.

42 See Slesinski, Pavel Florensky, p. 163.

43 Florensky, Pillar and Ground, pp. 184–5.

44 Paul Gavrilyuk, ‘Divine Judgment in Pavel Florensky and Sergius Bulgakov’, International Journal of Orthodox Theology 9/3 (2018), p. 17.

45 Slesinski critiques Florensky for misconstruing the nature of Catholic purgatory in Pavel Florensky, p. 163. Accepting this critique, we can think of the ‘Catholic’ adjective as merely a stand-in for a particular view of purification that Florensky rejects. See Florensky's discussion in Pillar and Ground, p. 170.

46 On this point, he cites Matt 5:29–30, 22:11–13, 24:48–51, 25:11–13, 31–46; Mark 9:43–9; and John 15:4–6.

47 Florensky, Pillar and Ground, p. 181.

48 Ibid.

49 People have debated at length whether the term αἰώνιος means ‘eternal’ in the sense of ‘everlasting’ or of ‘for an age’. How one answers this question has significant implications. Here, I simply note Florensky's brilliance: one might take Jesus’ use of αἰώνιος as ‘eternal’ in an everlasting sense (the majority position in Christian history) and be a universalist. The two are not mutually exclusive.

50 Florensky, Pillar and Ground, p. 117.

51 Balthasar, Dare we Hope, p. 13.

52 Citing Josef Pieper, he calls this ‘double praesumptio’. See Balthasar, Dare we Hope, pp. 27–8.

53 Ibid., p. 23.

54 Ibid., pp. 236–54.

55 They have each published at length on the topic, often in conversation with each other. For a representative example, see Talbott's ‘Case for Christian Universalism’ in the first three chapters of Parry and Partridge (eds), Universal Salvation?, followed by Walls’ response in the same volume, ‘A Philosophical Critique of Talbott's Universalism’.

56 Florensky, Pillar and Ground, p. 156.

57 Ibid., p. 310.

58 Ibid., p. 312.

59 Ibid., p. 67.

60 Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, pp. 40–1, 172–9.

61 Ibid., p. 185.

62 Ibid., pp. 178–9, 185–6.

63 Ibid., p. 185.

64 Ibid., p. 143.

65 See MacDonald, George, ‘The Consuming Fire’, in Unspoken Sermons: Series One (Eureka, CA: Sunrise Books, 1989), pp. 2749Google Scholar. It is also worth noting that Balthasar mentions MacDonald in Dare We Hope, though he mistakenly assumes that his views match those of C. S. Lewis, who draws upon him and even casts him as a character in The Great Divorce. Where Lewis thinks that human freedom can overcome God's will for salvation (so that ‘the doors of hell are locked on the inside’), MacDonald clearly denies it. Hart also references MacDonald, but given that many of Hart's arguments are prefigured in MacDonald's sermons, his references could be much more extensive.

66 This is not an inevitability, of course, and Florensky even notes that Gregory of Nyssa calls the torments of purification an ‘accidental consequence of purification … like pain during an operation, like the unpleasant taste of medicine’, in Florensky, Pillar and Ground, p. 185. Nevertheless, it is a real danger with which any theological account should wrestle. One can think of, among others, Delores Williams’ famous critique of dominant ‘surrogacy’ models of the atonement, and the oppressive consequences these doctrinal formulations can have. See Williams, Delores, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2013)Google Scholar.

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