Andrew Louth on the Eastern Orthodox Hope for Universal Salvation

Andrew Louth in “Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology” writes the following about “Universal Salvation” in his last chapter of the book, The last things and eternal life:

“There is a deeper reason for Origen’s conviction of final restoration for all: for him it is inconceivable that Christ is to remain in sorrow for all eternity (after commenting on how Christ weeps over his sins as he wept over Jerusalem), on account of the failure of any rational creature to respond to his love and benefit from his sacrifice.

Whereas in Western theology, such a conviction rapidly dies out, in Orthodox theology hope in universal salvation, based on a conviction of the boundlessness of God’s love, has never gone away. St Gregory of Nyssa interprets the words of the apostle Paul’s teaching that God will be ‘all in all’ (1 Cor. 15.28) to mean the ‘complete annihilation of evil.’ St Maximos the Confessor likewise holds out the hope of the salvation of all. The grounds for this are principally the long-suffering love of God for all creation, and also the conviction that evil is without substance, but is rather a corruption of distortion of what is good. These two motives find striking expression in St Maximos’ contemporary, St Isaac the Syrian, who asserts that,

‘there exists within the Creator a single love and compassion which is spread out over all creation, a love which is without alteration, timeless and everlasting… No part belonging to any single one of all rational beings will be lost, as far as God is concerned, in the preparation of that supernatural kingdom’

and then adds, quoting Diodore of Tarsus, ‘not even the immense wickedness of the demons can overcome the measure of God’s goodness.’ The pain of hell is the result of love: ‘those who are punished in Gehenna are scourged by the scourge of love… The sorrow caused in the heart by sin against love is more poignant than any torment,’ Evil and hell cannot be eternal: “Sin, Gehenna, and death do not exist at all with God, for they are effects, not substances. Sin is the fruit of free will.  There was a time when sin did not exist, and there will be a time when it will not exist.’

The Orthodox hope, amounting to a conviction among many theologians, is that there is nothing beyond the infinite love of God, that there is no limit to our hope in the power of his love, at least regards as a legitimate hope the universal salvation of all rational creatures, maybe even of the devil and his demons.”


‘God will punish all atheists. They will burn in hell in everlasting fire’.
Obviously upset, the Staretz said,
‘Tell me, supposing you went to paradise, and there looked down and saw somebody burning in hell-fire – would you feel happy?”
‘It can’t be helped. It would be their own fault’, said the hermit.
The Staretz answered with a sorrowful countenance:
‘Love could not bear that, he said, “We must pray for all.”

– Saint Silouan of Athose (one of the greatest Orthodox saints in recent times)

On Our Current Divisiveness and the Role of Cultural Narrative


Are we seeing the predominant form and structure of our cultural narrative assumptions (I speak as an American) being deconstructed (intentionally or otherwise) into intuitive narratives of inherent divisiveness? I’m not one to romanticize the past, and beyond the innocence of my childhood, I don’t know what “good ole’ days” I would prefer to go back to. However, it seems to me that while I was coming of age the majority of past narratives presented in literature, media, and pop culture in general were all grounded in some basic common principles and ideals. The ideal that America would continue to strive to live up to it’s greatest ideas arising from a narrative of unity. The narratival principle that dysfunctional or unjust or harmful individual or communal relationships were the result of something that went wrong and needed to be fixed, with no exceptions. I grew up watching Boy Meets World and the original “classics” on MTV (including the first gruesome forays into reality T.V) and these shows portrayed narratives based on fundamentally agreed upon structures of unity (no matter how off base) – disagreements and divisions were simply a departure from this norm and would usually be fixed (or would be used as entertainment as they experienced a lack of ability be resolved). I know I am politically naive in terms of lived experience, because of my age, to partisan politics before the Obama Administration. But as a kid, I didn’t like George Bush or the war in Afghanistan and it wasn’t something that created tension, fear, or arguments that threatened to tear the family apart. It was a disagreement that made sense inside of the larger narrative of unity that agreed that human flourishing (or whatever political, spiritual, or humanistic term you prefer) was the ultimate goal and hopeful outcome of the collective narrative of humanity.


The Christian Scriptures present turning humanity against God, and ultimately against each other, as the oldest and greatest trick of the one eventually referred to as The Satan. The serpent seized on a division between Adam and Eve and created one between them and God. Cain and Abel divided themselves into a murderer and victim. Generations later, Cain’s legacy, Lamech, revered in his reputation as a mass murderer. Not long after that, the whole world was filled with violence which caused the cosmos to respond in like kind with the violence of the Great Flood. Humanity then tried to unite themselves, but not of a desire for the common good or to further God’s dreams for his creation. Their faux unity resulted in the largest original act of true division. Not diversity, division. It occurs to me that one could read the primordial account of humanity in Gen. 1-11 as the gradual division of humanity and the story of salvation from Gen. 12 onwards as the story of gradual unity. The church, God’s vision for humanity, his alternative society, is a community characterized by unity (albeit unity in diversity, much like the Triune God himself). This is perhaps the hallmark of the early Christian communities – here there were no slaves and masters, Jews and gentiles, males or females – there was a people united in Christ. How truly radical, today as it was then.


Division, of the destructive and irredeemable kind, has existed as long as the primordial tales of Genesis 3-11. It’s not a new plot twist onto the scene of the human theater. But might it have evolved? Might the principalities and powers manipulated it into a greater weapon against the world and the church than they previously thought possible?


The majority of political commenters, both on the right (usually in praise of a diverting strategy from mistakes and miscues of a leader they must endorse) and on the left (usually in a cringe-worthy hand-wringing that risks losing its effectiveness), are noting that divisiveness is being used as a tool. I can’t give credit to Trump, or Obama, or the Tea-Party, or rifts created in the cultural eras of Modernism or Post-Modernism, or the Media to creating this tool or being its sole users. I propose that this tool of dividing people against one another is not longer being employed on occasion as much as it is now forming a new shared narrative to be taken advantage of. Divisiveness is not longer a norm outside a more mature narrative of (at least pretend) unity. Divisiveness is the foundation and structure of the assumed cultural narrative. All issues, crises, topics, and opinions are enslaved to competing inside the gym of a world of inevitable and dehumanizing division. The NFL protests are no longer capable of being an impetus for discussion of anything meaningful, they are identity markers of what side of the division you are on (see the repeated phrase “Our Heritage”). The Harvey Weinstein scandal receiving little attention by the self-proclaimed media defenders of truth, morality, and scorched-earth comedians is not serious material for producers, celebrities, and audiences that aren’t looking or able for a real discussion or cultural progress but just entertainment that serves to confirm the identity the of audience as they are enslaved to define themselves as players of the narrative of division. The examples go on Ad infinitum.


I think the term “post-truth” captures the reality, in my opinion, that I see and experience more each day. We are in a time, space, community, and culture where evidence and facts are barely seen as opinions to be used solely to support already drawn conclusions, usually as reinforced markers of one’s identity in the narrative of division. This is a time when emotion and tribalism are more determinative of communities and opinions than discussion and education. (A lesson is to be learned, I think. The Modern and Post-Modern world was always too temped to a reductionist anthropology were humans were at their core rational, thinking creatures. We are perhaps more creatures of love (or worship, if you will) – which can be and often is closely related to emotion. I mourn the loss of critical thinking, but am not surprised by the anthropology that is increasingly establishing its dominance. Perhaps a post-truth society was inevitable in a culture that so wrongly estimated the irreducible nature and motivations of humans.


My very broad and inclusive statements and conclusions are obviously, and thankfully, not descriptive of many thoughtful people. They are nothing more than my stream-of-consiousness hypotheses, in all truth, though I fear many of my observations (if not larger commentary or conclusions) are in fact obvious and undeniable.  For my part, my pessimism on the human nature, apart from participation in the person of the Risen Jesus and the transformational work of the Holy Spirit, remains. I think I can propose a solution – both sides (politically, economically, racially) focusing on agreeing to a unifying underlying narrative as much, if not more than the issues, at least for a time being. To be clear, I am speaking pragmatically. I believe this not advisable, possible, or a live option for me because of m my conviction that ignoring systemic injustices in our society is a moral evil off the table as a choice for my private and public influence. Still, I can’t help but wonder if our just cause in fighting for these issues unwittingly deepens a narrative of division that will keep, further, and create new and perhaps worse problems that we can’t yet imagine.

My true hope, is in the church as witness, where unity in diversity is the norm. Where the narrative of one of the Almighty Father’s inevitable progress towards creaturely unity and an unmistakable call for justice and righteousness reigns. Where the narrative that in Christ there are no destructive walls of division. Where the narrative that through the Holy Spirit, equality for all is not only a dream but a possibility. Let us develop this narrative, fight for it, and pray for it’s development.
There will be differences and there will be divisions, but they can and will be productive  conflicts when they arise from a narrative of unity, or better put, a narrative of cruciform love.


Interview with Jeffrey D. Arthurs on “Preaching as Reminding”

5007364_01Jeffrey D. Arthurs is the Professor of Preaching and Communication at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and has a new book, Preaching as Reminding: Stirring Memory in an Age of Forgetfulness, coming out next month. You might know him from his previous two books: Preaching With Variety: How to Recreate the Dynamics of Biblical Genres and Devote Yourself to the Public Reading of Scripture.

InterVarsity Press was kind enough to provide me with an advanced copy to review (full review to come).

I read the book in two days as it captivated me as someone who is obsessed with the art of preaching and so I immediately asked for an interview with Dr. Arthurs so that I could discuss his thoughts with the author himself. He graciously agreed to the interview – I hope you enjoy it and I recommend you order a copy of the book sooner rather than later! 

Dr. Arthurs – first let me say thanks for agreeing to let me ask you a few questions about your upcoming book “Preaching as Reminding: Stirring Memory in an Age of Forgetfulness.” 
I enjoyed your use of neuroscientific research in regard to memory and find it to be a fascinating academic field myself with many overlaps into important theological conversations. As we move away from the “computer metaphor” approach to speaking and thinking about memory, do you have an alternative metaphor that you believe best matches the current science and is most helpful in regard to your thesis of preaching as reminding?

That’s a great question. You are a good interviewer! I hadn’t thought of this—a new metaphor—but maybe the one I used in the book captures current research on memory: a quilt (or is “sampler” the right word?) Our memories are made up of patches of clothe sewed into one coherent unit.

The subtitle of your book suggests that we are collectively a people tempted to be forgetful. Do you think this is a recent development, inherent to the human nature, or a mixture of both with perhaps technology and modern culture highlighting our propensity to forget things of ultimate concern?

I think it is most likely a mixture of both. The Bible is clear that humans are “prone to wander, Lord we feel it!”—we are prone to forget the God we love and his covenant. But our media saturated culture makes it increasingly difficult to concentrate, meditate, and retain what we have learned. Our phones jiggle, chime, beep, and flash, calling for immediate and brief attention. Our movies and videos jump, swirl, whirl, and sweep us into a fragmented multi-perspectival experience. If you want to meditate, slow down, and truly observe, go to the art gallery, not the movie theater. Plato worried that the  technology of his day—alphabetic script!—would ruin memory. He must be rolling over in his grave today.

On a similar note, there are many who increasingly feel that more traditional ways of “reminding” are not as useful now because of the technological and high-paced culture we live in. There is an increasing trend away from religious services that involve or center around a sermon or preacher. What are your thoughts on this development towards replacing a traditional speaker or preacher with more interactive and decentralized communication during services or events?

This is another good question and a big one. I feel that the Bible (NT in particular) gives us principles for worship services, not precise forms we must use. So worship leaders need to be aware of those principles and find ways to contextualize them in the crazy 21st century. Concerning the specific point you raise above—replacing a traditional speaker (I assume you mean monologic, authoritative teaching by an ordained officer of the Church) with decentralized communication: I’m a big proponent of using dialogue in preaching, but we must be careful to preserve one of the principles of NT worship—public teaching by a commissioned pastor. This is commanded in the Pastoral Epistles and is modeled by the early Church. If that can be done while using dialogue (and I think it can), then that probably helps contextualize preaching for the 21st century West.

In discussing delivery (expression, energy, emotion, and other nonverbal communication), as a tool for stirring memory, I couldn’t help but wonder how much this goes both ways in terms of the speaker and the audience (for lack of a better word). I’ve experienced times when I think my preaching quality was either increased or decreased based on the atmosphere and the energy/responses of the listeners. Do you agree that this is a two-way street? How can one best prepare and listen to a sermon – especially in hopes to help them deliver to the best of their ability? How do you deal with an audience that tends towards lowering your deliverability?

Great insight. Yes, energy and communication go both ways. The old communication model of Speaker—Message—Receiver is simplistic and mechanistic. In reality both “speakers” and “receivers” send messages. To be sure, the “speaker” is the primary sender, but receivers count! To prepare to listen to a sermon, pray for your own heart and for the preacher, reduce/eliminate distractions (e.g. turn off your phone), look at the speaker, concentrate with a view toward summarizing the sermon to someone who was not present, sharing your reflections as well as the bare content.

Can you recommend some preachers who highlight many of the skills you lift up in the book for someone like me who is interested in reading more excellent scholarship on the various components of preaching?

I would imagine that John Ortberg, Haddon Robinson, and E. K. Bailey are probably familiar to most readers of this blog. Lesser known, but worth reading, are authors Craig Oliver (Atlanta, GA) and Bobby Warrenburg (Beverly Farms, MA). Many African-American expository preachers (such as E.K Bailey and Craig Oliver) also employ many of the skills in my book successfully and admirably.

Dr. Arthurs, thanks again for talking to me. It was a pleasure.
Blessings on you and your work! 

Order the Book Now!5190

Is Brian Zahnd a Marcionite?

Brian Zahnd’s recently published Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God has been met with reactions that are largely boring in their predictability (spoiler alert: calvinists and the neo-reformed dislike it, arminians and the neo-anabaptists like it). Perhaps equally predictable were the inevitable claims that Zahnd is promoting some form of Marcionism. Since at least Karl Barth, it has been fashionable to label attempts at a Christo-centric hermeneutic as being dangerous reincarnations of this ancient heresy. My graduate studies on Patristic exegesis and the writing of my thesis on Cyril of Alexandria’s exegesis have led me to be skeptical of such claims.

Derek Rishmawy, in his lengthy review/critique of Zahnd’s book, makes a comparison between Zahnd and Marcion:

Here I sense, as the great Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel said of the German historical critics in his own day, “the Spirit of Marcion, hovering invisibly over many waters, has been brought to clear expression” (The Prophets, 390). Zahnd explicitly repudiates Marcion (60). And it’s true, he doesn’t have a total rejection of the Old Testament, he believes in a unity between the God of Israel and the God of Jesus, the Creator and the Redeemer, etc. But let’s be honest, chalking up Old Testament portraits of God, the sacrificial system, etc. to leftover “Bronze Age” religious impulses isn’t a good non-Marcionite move.

Marcionism isn’t just a matter of a strict dichotomy between OT and NT, but also certain judgments about what is fitting for God to do. Go read the church Father Tertullian’s The Five Books Against Marcion or Irenaeus’ Against Heresies. It’s not simply a matter of a Creator God versus a Redeemer God, but rather whether a good God could also be a God who has wrath and executes judgment against sin.

For that reason, it’s appropriate to see Zahnd’s hermeneutic as a sort of cross-Testamental, Neo-Marcionism. Both Marcion and Zahnd tell us that looking at Jesus means massive, sweeping portions of what the prophets and apostles testify about God (in both Testaments) is categorically false.

And to be honest, I am not so sure he can keep the two Gods together cleanly. I’ve argued this before, but in the Old Testament, YHWH just is the God of the Exodus and is known by what he did there, not just the salvation, but the plagues and forceful judgments (including the death of the firstborn). That’s at least as “violent”, if not more so than any Conquest text. And yet, if Zahnd is right, God couldn’t have performed any of those acts of judgment.

In which case, confessing the God of Israel as the God of Jesus Christ becomes a much dicier proposition.

This post is not an attempt to refute Rishmawy’s review of Zahnd’s book (although we would disagree) nor is it an attempt to pick a fight with him (I had not come across his blog before, but am generally impressed with the scope and precision of his scholarship – he seems also to be pretty familiar with the patristics book I quote primarily below). It is simply to make a point about Marcionism and the subsequent conclusions that should follow about labeling particular hermeneutical approaches as “Neo-Marcionism.”

Derek states that Marcionism is about “certain judgements about what is fitting for God to do” especially in relation to God’s goodness vs. his wrath/judgement. This is true, but this is not what led to his outing as the “arch-heretic” as opposed to many of the Church Fathers now revered for defending orthodox theology. Marcion was not alone in the early Church about using criteria about what is “fitting for God to do.” Tertullian himself actually invokes this phrase frequently as an argument for his interpretations of the text. In fact, the majority of early Church Fathers used a criteria of what is “worthy of God” as an interpretive tool. Add to that list: Clement of Alexandria, Origen of Alexandria, Eusebius of Caesarea, Didymus of Alexandria, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Cyril of Alexandria, Diodore of Tarsus, John Chrysostom, Theodore of Mopsuestian, Augustine, and John Cassion. [Mark Sheridan’s Language for God in Patristic Tradition: Wrestling with Biblical Anthropomorphism (quoted frequently below) is a goldmine for a detailed and clear study of these issues along with plenty of primary sources from the early Church Fathers.]

Marcion was also not alone in reaching the conclusion that certain Old Testament texts about God’s anger, wrath, and violent actions needed to be read or interpreted imaginatively because they were unfitting of God. Many of the above names also reached the same conclusions.

The wide range of texts cited in this chapter from both Greek and Latin early Christian writers illustrates a common approach to the problematic texts of the Bible. These writers use the categories of God’s “considerateness,” that is, his adapting himself to human ways of speaking, as well as the technical terminology of anthropomorphism, anthropopathism and what is fitting to or worthy of divinity in order to find an acceptable meaning for difficult and dangerous texts. Especially noteworthy is the exclusion of anger as an attribute of God. – Mark Sheridan, Language for God in Patristic Tradition: Wrestling with Biblical Anthropomorphism, p. 125, (emphasis mine).

“We have heard that the people try to excuse this most destructive disease of the soul (anger) by attempting to extenuate it by a rather detestable interpretation of Scripture. They say it is not harmful if we are angry with wrongdoing brothers, because God himself is said to be enraged and angered with those who do not want to know him or who, knowing him, disdain him.” (John Cassian, The Institutes, ACW, 58, trans. and. anno. Boniface Ramsey, O.P. (New York: The Newman Press, 2000), p. 193.)

The locus of heresy with Marcion was not with his diagnosis of a problem, it was with his prescription for a solution. An abundance of Church Fathers agreed that certain texts seemed incompatible with the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. You can disagree with them on that point, but that does not change the historical fact of their hermeutical approach. The problem for Marcion was his solution: a complete rejection of the inspiration of the Old Testament (among other texts) and his acceptance of a dualism of Gods. In contrast, the Church Fathers affirmed the inspiration of these texts (in fact, Marcion was perhaps the motivation for the beginning of the canonization process) and affirmed the ontological unity between the God of the Israelites and the Incarnate God in Jesus Christ. Many of them still understood there to be a problem of tension, but they solved it differently – through allegorical and figurative readings.  Again, feel free to disagree with them on this point, but it still does not change the historical record.

“The principal Christian response to (the conquest narratives) was to transfer everything on to the plane of the spiritual life through moral or spiritual allegory…The story of the conquest had to be interpreted in such a way that God could not be thought to have commanded such unspeakable cruelty.” – Mark Sheridan, ibid. p. 152, p. 162.

If Zahnd (or any one of other possible theologians) is a Neo-Marcionite, despite his explicit refutation of Marcionism, acceptance of the Old Testament as inspired, and belief in the ontological unity of the God of the Israelites and the Incarnate God in Jesus Christ, then count a large number of the Church Fathers as Marcionites as well. Believing that one’s conclusions are inconsistent is an understandable critique. However, if reading descriptions of God’s wrath and judgement in less than “literal” ways in light of the revelation of God in Jesus is a heresy, then be prepared to call more Church Fathers than Marcion heretical.

The notion of “theological interpretation” should be understood here then as the search for the correct understanding of the biblical texts by the major early Christian writers, especially those in the Greek and Latin traditions. The principal tool used in this search was an understanding of God, of the divine nature, derived in part from the Greek philosophical tradition, particularly the exclusion from the divine nature of anthropomorphic (in human form) and anthropopathic (with human passions) traits, but also informed by the understanding of God as revealed by Jesus Christ, a chief aspect of which was the divine love for humankind (philanthropia). What did not conform to these essential traits had to be excluded from (or distinguished from) the “true” meaning of Scripture, and the text had to be interpreted so as to provide a meaning that both conformed to or was fitting to the divine nature and was useful. – Mark Sheridan, Ibid. p. 20.

Why I Tell Stories When I Preach


“Profound truth, like the vocabulary of virtue, eludes formulation. It quickly becomes rigid, gives way to abstraction or cliche. But put a spiritual insight to a story, an experience, a face; describe where it anchors in the ground of your being; and it will change you in the telling and others in the listening.” – Krista Trippett, Becoming Wise

If you’ve heard me preach, you’ve probably heard me tell a few stories. Some of them are funny, some of them are personal and vulnerable, and some of them are drawn from history or current events. If you’ve heard me preach at a larger retreat or conference, you’ve likely heard a collection of my very best stories – narratives that I have told hundreds of times and customized in millions of ways until the story is exactly as funny and useful as needed.

At my last retreat, I was getting mic’ed up in the back of the worship hall before the third session began and a group of students walked up to me asking me what fun stories I would be telling that night. I gave them a grin and simply said, “I don’t know, I might have a couple good ones.” Far from feeling like I was just entertaining a few hundred young people with funny stories, that experience affirmed for me that I was connecting with the audience and that as a result I would be able to drive home powerful truths with even more effectiveness.

I believe firmly that the art of story-telling is a crucial skill to learn and practice for the purpose of preaching more powerful sermons. I believe this so strongly that I listen to a new stand-up comedian (I prefer narrative comedians over those who specialize in one-liners) in the car or airplane as I head to my next speaking gig. I do this for many reasons. It’s an entertaining way to pass the time, it builds a fire in me about how powerful the spoken word can be, and it’s a great way to develop speaking skills of timing, tone, and story-telling. Good comedians are experts at these skills and I’ve found that great preachers often have similarly developed instincts for public speaking.

So why do I tell stories?

1) Stories capture attention. 

What I’ve found as a public speaker is that a story doesn’t even have to be all that funny or presented in an organized way to captivate an audience. Those things certainly help, but there is something deeply human about our love for stories. It’s not just children who crave to hear a good story, either. When I’m weaving a good story together I’ve seen hundreds of adults listen with mouths agape, just as entranced as any child has ever been reading a children’s book at night. Stories capture attention, and as a speaker, once I have a group’s attention it is that much easier to drive home transformative truths.

2) Stories build empathy.

Stories connect a speaker far away on big a stage under bright lights – often unknown to the listeners – to the audience in an intimate way in just a manner of minutes. Speaking truth into people’s lives requires that they trust you. Identifying with the audience with a funny or relatable story allows people to tune-in not only to your presentation but also to you as a person. A good story, told correctly, will connect something I have experienced or learned in my life and allow me to pass on that wisdom in the role of a trusted friend, not a irrelevant stranger, boring lecturer, or a heavy-handed moralist. In this way, audiences are able to more deeply receive words of encouragement and challenge.

3) Jesus told stories.

I think it’s a remarkably over-looked fact that the majority of Jesus’ teaching consisted of parables. These powerful narratives were easily relatable, often funny (Jesus is quite the comedian in the Gospels, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear), and consistently challenging and subversive. These stories changed lives. They convinced people to leave their homes and follow Jesus on his path throughout Galilee and towards Jerusalem. We often whitewash the counter-cultural messages in many of Jesus’ parables, but I find it likely that his story-telling was a key contributor to his eventually crucifixion. Jesus told stories because he knew they were powerful and transformative ways to communicate the good news of the arrival of the Father’s loving Kingdom. I’m more that happy to humbly follow in his footsteps.

Mike Skinner

If you’d like to inquire about booking me for an upcoming speaking event, please email me at I’m currently focusing my speaking events around the following three topics: Christianity, Mental Health, and Education. These topics can easily be combined as well to serve the needs of your group! I look forward to speaking with you about how I can help you and your organization make a greater impact in our world.