Did St. Gregory of Nyssa Teach Eternal Damnation?

Post by
Tyler Cohen

For Aquinas this justice is unending and teleologically directed towards something other than what is seen in Nyssen’s concep­tion. For Nyssen, the cleansing punishment might even last for aeons for some portion of the wicked, varying according to the appropriate taxis/ordering.


One reader of Eclectic Orthodoxy has brought up two passages from St. Gregory of Nyssa’s work De Infantibus Praemature Abreptis (On Infant’s Early Deaths). On the face of it, one of these two sections may suggest that Nyssen was in fact not a universalist. The second of which would appear to strengthen this, in its indication of Nyssen’s interpreta­tion of a psalm which articulates that the joy of the saints in heaven after judgment day is increased by the torments of the damned. I will deal with the first section and then the second. Morwenna Ludlow has addressed these two passages as well, though not in quite the detail I aim to do here, in her work Universal Salvation.[1] Ludlow indicates that of all of St. Gregory of Nyssa’s works which are extant, only this one in isolation can form the strongest argument that St. Gregory was of the belief that the punishment in the coming age is unending. Therefore, any argumentation or examination to discern St. Gregory of Nyssa’s universal­ism or lack thereof needs to address this text. However, as will be seen, any argument from this text also relies on the more robust eschatological accounts in other works of Nyssen’s.

To begin dealing with the first section, I would like to examine the New Advent translation (trans. William Moore and Henry Austin Wilson),[2] followed by attention to the original Greek in order to clarify what may be misleading:

We learn as much too in the case of Judas, from the sentence pronounced upon him in the Gospels (Matthew 26:24); namely, that when we think of such men, that which never existed is to be preferred to that which has existed in such sin. For, as to the latter, on account of the depth of the ingrained evil, the chastisement in the way of purgation will be extended into infinity; but as for what has never existed, how can any torment touch it?— However, notwithstanding that, the man who institutes a comparison between the infantine immature life and that of perfect virtue, must himself be pronounced immature for so judging of realities.

There are a few important terms and phrases to grasp here: (1) The crucial phrase “εἰς ἄπειρον παρατέινεται” translated as “extended into infinity,” (2) the phrase “ἡ διὰ τῆς καθάρσεως κόλασις” translated as “the chastisement in the way of purgation,” (3) and lastly “ὀδύνη” translated as “torment.” I will deal with each of these, the first being the most crucial.

As for the first phrase, the word “ἄπειρον” is the key term. What one does not know unless one knows Greek is that this term actually has two distinct meanings, and in all likelihood the first usage and meaning is that which generated the second usage and meaning. The first usage and meaning effectively means “that which is not experienced or is able to be experienced” and “ignorant by means of lack of experience.” The root of the word peir is the etymological root from Greek through Latin for our English “experience” even. And the alpha-privative apeir, in Greek, is prefixed to a vast amount of words which indicate “inexperience with…” For example, ἀπειρόμοθος (inexperienced in toil), ἀπειρομάχας (inexperi­enced in battle), ἀπειρόπλους (inexperienced in naval navigation), and many such words. The second usage of the term signifies “boundless, infinite, countless, innumerable, indef­inite,” with some metaphorical extended usages of the term. Both Liddell-Scott-Jones and Lampe post this more ambiguous meaning of the term as ‘indefinite but not necessarily without end’ or ‘indefinite but ambiguous in regards to an end.’ As one can see, the second meaning of degree, number or quantity beyond what is accountable grows out of the first meaning of that which is inexperienced or not able to be experienced.

The second phrase, “ἡ διὰ τῆς καθάρσεως κόλασις,” containing two key terms. The first is κόλασις, which, frankly, should be translated as ambiguously as the term is in the Greek and thus as “punishment.” The word predominantly occurs as “chastisement,” as in the text above); however, there are instances, such as in 3rd Maccabees 1:3 in which a stand-in for the king is killed in his tent, where it is used in the sense of just vengeance. But “punish­ment,” in all of its ambiguity, is precisely the scope of this Greek term, and the generic point is ‘to punish or chastise in response to evil or transgression.’ However, our second term in the phrase is the key: τῆς καθάρσεως. It defines this phase, which the translation does adequately represent. The term signifies “cleansing”—as in moral/spiri­tual cases, in cooking, surgery, rhetoric (clarify), winnowing (chaff from grain), tree-pruning, and clearing land. As a predicate of “punishment” or “chastisement,” it dictates the purpose of and goal of the punishing—namely, purification. Nyssen is very aware of Scripture and its precarious texts in this vein; he is just very careful not to transpose theological truths flatly from the ἱστορία (narrative) or γράμμα (letter; literal/literary meaning) without carefully engaging θεωρία (contemplation) which must abide by other theological axioms.

In the third phrase “ὀδύνη” is dubiously translated as “torments.” As is standard fare in much of patristic literature, ὀδύνη, or most simply “pain,” is just as generic a term for late antiquity as it is in English; save for the exception that it and synonymous terms are often associated with purification through askesis or the ascetical reception (the soterial “χρήσις/usage”) of the misfortunes of this life.

Context is likewise important here: for the argument Gregory is developing, it is crucial to determine the meaning of this passage. The example of the coming chastisement of Judas and Judas-like individuals is placed for purpose of abstract to more generic truths: that it is better to not have come into life at all than to have been born and live and become exceed­ingly wicked, and better still to have come into life and fully pursued and partici­pated in God via the taking on of virtue. To say this most explicitly: the duration of the chastisement of Judas and Judas-like individuals is not crucial to the argument. What is analogized from this is simply that aforementioned principle. Indeed, both “infinite,” or “without end” and “indefinitely (possibly with or without end)” can work here as what is implied. Either “infinite” or “indefinite” can work here among other words. The point being not duration but precisely ambiguity about the duration. Indeed, from Nyssen’s schematical taxis (ordering of salvation for those perfect down to those who possess more evil than good) in De Anima et Resurrectione (On the Soul and the Resurrection) and elsewhere, one gets the sense that he conceives that such purification of the exceedingly wicked could take aeons of chastisement within that greater eschatological aeon. And in fact, the second open ended fear of possible interminability is probably the point. My paraphrase of Nyssen to this effect:

It is best to live a long life and increase in virtue for the purpose of the benefits which come in the eschaton. It is not ideal but is permitted by God in his providence that some die early in their infancy for the purpose of preventing some from becoming exceedingly evil (but there may be other reasons why he does this which I am unaware of!). And worst of all is to become exceedingly evil. For we know from the interaction of Judas and Jesus in the Gospel, that it is better to not have been born at all than to become as evil as Judas. Because of how deeply evil has attached into the very being of such persons, the cleansing chastisement may extend into uncertain bounds (maybe forever)! Thus it is shown that it is better to never have made it far in life than to become so abounding in wickedness.

Nyssen must, after all, be read in context of all of his other works. And unless one can demonstrate that he shifted his views decisively on this point or, more absurdly, never believed or explicated such a notion, one should assume he is being consistent. His many other statements, most notably in In Illud: Tunc Et Ipse Filius (Concerning That: Then Even the Son Himself (will be subjected to the Father) (1 Cor. 15:28)) and De Anima et Resurrectione demonstrate his doctrine of apokatastasis most clearly, but there are even more beyond this. Given this, the effect is such that Nyssen wants to imprint his readers with the notion that infants experience early deaths because of God’s providence and that this can be inferred from the statement of Christ in the gospels concerning Judas’ because of his imminent betrayal: “It would have been better for that one not to have been born!” The presence of “cleansing correction (ἡ διὰ τῆς καθάρσεως κόλασις)” in tandem with this probably is for the purpose of theoretic or possible infinity, even if not real or truly inevitable, even if Nyssen does not actually believe that this is what the eschaton will hold for even those most wicked of souls. The vast majority, if not entirety, of Church Fathers, even the universalist ones, at the very least hold that the fear of hell and the severity of the pains required for such purification, as well its indefiniteness leading to the possible interminability, is salutary for any and every soul here and now in this liminality.

Finally, my translation of the Greek text:

Through Judas, we are taught from the voice of the gospel that on the basis of evil having been established it is better to have been entirely anhypostatic (ἀνυπόστατον; never made manifest). For on the other hand, the depth of evil having become so deeply rooted, the cleansing chastisement (ἡ διὰ τῆς καθάρσεως κόλασις) is thus stretched out indefinitely. But how can the one not having existed have pain (ὀδύνη) fastened to it? And if someone should wish to judge the virtuous life against the infantile (life) and (those of) untimely (death) (ἄωρον), really such a one themself is immature (ἄωρος) submitting such a judgement concerning such realities.

Now that this first section has been handled in respect to those crucial points, the secondary section may be dealt with—namely, the benefit added to the saints in heaven, while those in hell are suffering. The New Advent text reads:

But some one will say, “It is not all who thus reap in this life the fruits of their wickedness, any more than all those whose lives have been virtuous profit while living by their virtuous endeavours; what then, I ask, is the advantage of their existence in the case of these who live to the end unpunished?” I will bring forward to meet this question of yours a reason which transcends all human arguments. Somewhere in his utterances the great David declares that some portion of the blessedness of the virtuous will consist in this; in contemplating side by side with their own felicity the perdition of the reprobate. He says, “The righteous shall rejoice when he sees the vengeance; he shall wash his hands in the blood of the ungodly” (MT Ps 58; LXX Ps 57); not indeed as rejoicing over the torments of those sufferers, but as then most completely realizing the extent of the well-earned rewards of virtue. He signifies by those words that it will be an addition to the felicity of the virtuous and an intensification of it, to have its contrary set against it. In saying that “he washes his hands in the blood of the ungodly,” he would convey the thought that the cleanness of his own acting in life is plainly declared in the perdition of the ungodly. For the expression “wash” represents the idea of cleanness; but no one is washed, but is rather defiled, in blood; whereby it is clear that it is a comparison with the harsher forms of punishment that puts in a clearer light the blessedness of virtue.

In essence, it appears that Nyssen is harmonizing with other Christian voices throughout history (Tertullian, Martin Luther, et al.) who maintained that the torments of those in hell adds to the beatitude of the saints in heaven. One example of this would be Thomas Aquinas’ reiteration of an interpretive gloss of a similar text from Isaiah which reads:

And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh. (Isa 66:24)

And the gloss which reads, “The elect will go out by understanding or seeing manifestly, so that they may be urged the more to praise God.”[3] Aquinas’ interpretation of Isaiah 66:24 is effectively the same as Nyssen’s interpretation of Psalm 58 (LXX 57), saying:

I answer that, nothing should be denied the blessed that belongs to the perfection of their beatitude. Now everything is known the more for being compared with its contrary, because when contraries are placed beside one another they become more conspicuous. Wherefore in order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned.[4]

Furthermore, Aquinas will use the same psalm which Nyssen interprets here, but to apply it so as to teach that it is the divine justice which is being inflicted upon those in hell which stimulates so much happiness to the saints in heaven—it is not their suffering which incites this elation.[5] As David Bentley Hart has noted, this is still morally grotesque of Aquinas to articulate.[6] And Aquinas’ disturbing sensibility here is not lessened, as he argues the need for the saints in heaven to experience nothing of pity or compassion—a sentiment that cuts directly against more than a few Eastern saints, ancient and modern[7]—for it would be entirely futile and therefore irrational to harbor such a disposition to the eternally damned:

But in the future state it will be impossible for them [the damned] to be taken away from their unhappiness: and consequently it will not be possible to pity their sufferings according to right reason. Therefore the blessed in glory will have no pity on the damned.[8]

Are we then to classify St. Gregory of Nyssa among such voices? In a sense, yes, because he makes that initial interpretive move. However, Nyssen does not seem to grant that one could rejoice in their punishment as distinct from their suffering. And I would even grant something to Aquinas and whatever variety of Thomist on this point: that there is a distinction between the justice done and the suffering experienced. One can certainly grant that the death of an evil person is just insofar as it ceases the evil which they propagate. However, that one might rejoice in the visceral pain or torment suffered which may be entailed in said death of an evil or vicious person and the undignified corruption of their body should be entirely attributed to our sinful and passion-riddled hearts, rather than to any true and virtuous sense of justice. The death occurring to an evil person does not cease to be evil, only that as an evil it simply obtains some good, that is, the cessation of their evils; the evil of death terminates the evil of a wicked person.

So what sets Nyssen apart then, even if we grant Aquinas’ distinction between the justice done and the suffering experienced? Simply this: that for Aquinas this justice is unending and teleologically directed towards something other than what is seen in Nyssen’s concep­tion. For Nyssen, the cleansing punishment might even last for aeons for some portion of the wicked, varying according to the appropriate taxis/ordering. And it does appear that he leaves the door open to the theoretical possibility that it may never end—probably for rhetorical effect—even if he teaches elsewhere that it will come to an end in time. However, the purpose of the pain, of the kolasis or chastisement/punishment, is katharsis or cleansing/purification. Thus, even though Nyssen distinguishes that what is rejoiced in is the contrariety of the blessedness, and not even the justice/punishment per se (where Aquinas takes a step farther in stating so).[9] If we extended Nyssen’s interpretation to theoretically encapsulate Aquinas’ articulation here, then still the nature of what is said is distinct; for the saints in heaven would be rejoicing over the cleansing, the purification which is occurring to those in hell, but not necessarily the pain they are experiencing. The very nature of the purpose of punishment drastically changes the entire mood and, in effect, the moral quality of the contrasting punishment here. This is probably why Hart did not bring up St. Gregory of Nyssa’s articulation here:[10] because if the nature of punishment in the coming age is ordered towards something other than endless torment, principally toward salvation/purification, then it is categorically a different meaning.

To strengthen this reading, one can attend to Gregory’s De Inscriptiones Psalmorum (On the Inscriptions of the Psalms) in which he attends to this very psalm[11] and articulates a number of clarifying points: that the first two verses are David’s judgement of those who are supposedly righteous alike with those who have fallen, that David himself stands above the tumult of the world and looks down lamenting the sinners who have lost their way, that he emphasizes that taking the psalm as a whole will yield that this lament over sinners is the predominant sentiment, that the storing up of blessings for the righteous is one of the points of the psalm, and that God does not actually evince anger or wrath (only something like them). There Nyssen’s interpretation of the washing of hands in blood is semantically identical to here: it is about the contrariety of the blessedness of the saints.

Nyssen’s conception then should primarily be taken in its seriousness about the nature of hell, and the purpose or goal of God’s antidosis/repayment in hell as intentionally restorative. Even if one ultimately disagrees with St. Gregory of Nyssa on the eventual salvation of all, one should at least believe that those who do not attain this salvation will end up in a cyclical state of perpetual but never-ending purification, and thus maintain Nyssen’s teleological position. One can simply believe that Nyssen, even as a saint, and as “The Father of the Fathers,” is wrong on the one point of the eventual redemptive outcome. We should not conceive that saints are inerrant in their every word, only that the illumination and purification of the saint may potentially make one infallible, even if it were the case that it never in fact has happened or will happen in history.[12] But this returns us to the primary matter of the debate about universal salvation, its place in their respective ecclesial dogmatic proclamations (or lack thereof), among other related and pressing issues, which many scholars, theologians, priests and laymen have been debating more in recent years. On this return to that path, I leave off to others.

Source: Eclectic Orthodoxy


[1] Universal Salvation: Eschatology in the Thought of St. Gregory of Nyssa and Karl Rahner, 82.

[2] Readers may also wish to compare Casimir McCambly’s translation “Concerning Infants Who Have Died Prematurely.”

[3] ST Suppl., Q. 94, Art. 1, s. c.

[4] ST Suppl., Q. 94, Art. 1, co.

[5] ST Suppl., Q. 94, Art. 3, co.

[6] David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell and Universal Salvation, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2019) 78-9, 146-50.

[7] St. Isaac of Nineveh and St. Silouan the Athonite, for starters.

[8] ST. Suppl. Q. 94, Art. 2, co.

[9] In Nyssen’s In Inscriptione Psalmorum 2.15, he does however make an extra step, stating, “Not in exulting (ἐπιχαίρων) in the undoing of those sinners (τοῖς ἀπολλυμένοις), but as placed parallel to himself [the Psalmist/David] to the things of those [sinners] contrasting, then he will be blessed himself from sound judgment because he did not come to be among those, among whom he sees the avenging (τὴν ἐκδίκησιν) of sinners.” It needs to be said here that Nyssen’s explanation is careful to distinguish the kind of satisfaction or pleasure which occurs among the righteous: from the text of the psalm itself, which Nyssen restates “they will make merry (εὐφανθήσεται)” when they see the avenging of God, but this is not malicious “exulting (ἐπιχαίρων; almost always a deleterious kind of celebration),” but instead the righteous on will consider themselves blessed (μακαρίσει). Nyssen is careful to distinguish that their celebration is not a wicked kind. And it is important to recognize that Gregory does not make the move (which Aquinas makes) of the celebration of the punishment even. This is the difference of being thankful that something terrible has not befallen oneself when seeing it occur to someone else (Nyssen) contrasted to being thankful for the just punishment of evil persons, which is still distinguished from their actual experience of suffering and torment (Aquinas).

[10] Hart, 78-9.

[11] Gregory of Nyssa, In Inscriptiones Psalmorum, 2.15.

[12] As early as St. Maximus the Confessor, we see plenty of statements, primarily in his Ambigua, of the language of infallibility being ascribed to certain saints, namely St. Dionysius the Areopagite and St. Gregory of Nazianzen. By the time of Palamas, one finds much stronger claims about a host of saints—a phenomenon that Sergius Bulgakov comments upon with particular clarity in his essay “Dogma and Dogmatic Theology.”

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