"St Isaac the Syrian, a Theologian of Love and Mercy" by Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev

Programming Note:
I found this talk by Orthodox Bishop Alfeyev to be extraordinarily illuminating and helpful. First, I basically agree with everything in this talk. I'm 100% with St. Isaac. And second, this talk is a great rebuttal to the objection that visions of universal reconciliation are somehow squishy, liberal, modern inventions. This view goes back to the Fathers.

"St Isaac the Syrian, a Theologian of Love and Mercy"

[Excerpts from the paper delivered by Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev at the World Congress on Divine Mercy, Lateran Basilica, Rome, April 4, 2008]

In this paper I would like to present the teaching of St Isaac the Syrian, one of the greatest theologians of the Orthodox tradition, on love and mercy.

St Isaac the Syrian, known also as Isaac of Nineveh, lived in the seventh century and was a hermit. Little is known about his life. He spent much time as a hermit and composed books on monastic life. At a certain point he was consecrated Bishop of Nineveh, but very soon after consecration abdicated from episcopacy.

The following East Syrian legend, preserved in Arabic translation, tells us of his abdication. The first day after his ordination, when Isaac was sitting in his residence, two men came to his room disputing with each other. One of them was demanding the return of a loan: ‘If this man refuses to pay back what belongs to me, I will be obliged to take him to court’. Isaac said to him: ‘Since the Holy Gospel teaches us not to take back what has been given away, you should at least grant this man a day to make his repayment’. The man answered: ‘Leave aside for the moment the teachings of the Gospel’. Then Isaac said: ‘If the Gospel is not to be present, what have I come here to do?’ And seeing that the office of Bishop disturbed his solitary life, ‘the holy man abdicated from his episcopacy and fled to the desert’ (Cf. S.Brock, Spirituality in Syriac Tradition. Kottayam, 1989, p. 33).

The precise date of Isaac’s death is unknown, as is the date of his birth. It is quite likely that already during his earthly life he was venerated as a saint. After his death his glory increased as his writings spread. Joseph Hazzaya, who lived in the eighth century, called him ‘famous among the saints’ (A.Mingana, Woodbroke Studies, t.VII, Cambridge, 1934, p. 268). Another Syrian writer calls him ‘the master and teacher of all monks and the haven of salvation for the whole world’ (J.B.Chabot, De sancti Isaaci Ninevitae, Paris, 1892, p. VII). By the eleventh century, due to the Greek translation of his writings, Isaac became widely known in the Greek-speaking East. In the Middle Ages Isaac’s writings were translated into several European languages. From this time his name became known and appreciated also in the West.

Divine love which reveals itself through the created world

God, in Isaac’s understanding, is first of all immeasurable and boundless love. The idea of God as love is central and dominant in Isaac’s thought: it is the main source of his theological opinions, ascetical recommendations and mystical insights. His theological system cannot be comprehended apart from this fundamental idea.

Divine love is beyond human understanding and above all description in words. At the same time it is reflected in God’s actions with respect to the created world and humankind: ‘Among all His actions there is none which is not entirely a matter of mercy, love and compassion: this constitutes the beginning and the end of His dealings with us’ (II/39,22). (Here and below the figure ‘II’ refers to Part II of Isaac’s writings: Isaac of Nineveh, ‘The Second Part’, chapters IV-XLI, translated by Sebastian Brock, Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium 555, Scriptores syri 225, Louvain, 1995). Both the creation of the world and God’s coming on earth in flesh had the only aim, ‘to reveal His boundless love to the world’ (Chapters on Knowledge IV,79).

Divine love was the main reason for the creation of the universe and is the main driving force behind the whole of creation. In the creation of the world divine love revealed itself in all its fullness: ‘What that invisible Being is like, who is without any beginning in His nature, unique in Himself, who is by nature beyond the knowledge, intellect and feel of created beings, who is beyond time and space, being the Creator of these, who… made a beginning of time, bringing the worlds and created beings into existence. Let us consider then, how rich in its wealth is the ocean of His creative act, and how many created things belong to God, and how in His compassion He carries everything, acting providentially as He guides creation, and how with a love that cannot be measured He arrived at the establishment of the world and the beginning of creation; and how compassionate God is, and how patient; and how He loves creation, and how He carries it, gently enduring its importunity, the various sins and wickednesses, the terrible blasphemies of demons and evil men’ (II/10,18-19).

Divine love is a continuing realization of the creative potential of God, an endless revelation of the Divinity in His creative act. Divine love lies at the foundation of the universe, it governs the world, and it will lead the world to that glorious outcome when the latter will be entirely ‘consumed’ by the Godhead: ‘What profundity of richness, what mind and exalted wisdom is God’s! What compassionate kindness and abundant goodness belong to the Creator! With what purpose and with what love did He create this world and bring it into existence! What a mystery does the coming into being of the creation look towards! To what a state is our common nature invited! What love served to initiate the creation of the world..! In love did He bring the world into existence; in love is He going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of Him who has performed all these things; in love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally comprised’ (II/38,1-2).

The will of God, which is full of love, is the primal source of all that exists within the universe (II/10,24). God is not only the Creator of the universe and its driving force: He is first of all ‘the true Father’, ‘who in His great and immeasurable love surpasses all in paternal affection’ (I/52, 254). (Here and below figure ‘I’ refers to the English translation of Part I of Isaac’s writings: The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, [transl. by D.Miller], Boston, Massachusetts, 1984). Thus His attitude to the created world is characterized by an unceasing providential care for all its inhabitants: for angels and demons, human beings and animals. God’s providence is universal and embraces all (I/7, 65). None of His creatures is excluded from the scope of the loving providence of God, but the love of the Creator is bestowed equally upon all: ‘...There is not a single nature who is in the first place or last place in creation in the Creator’s knowledge.., similarly there is no before or after in His love towards them: no greater or lesser amount of love is to be found with Him at all. Rather, just like the continual equality of His knowledge, so too is the continual equality of His love’ (II/38,3).

All living creatures existed in God’s mind before their creation. And before they have been brought into being, they received their place in the hierarchical structure of the universe. This place is not taken away from anyone even if one falls away from God: ‘Everyone has a single place in His purpose in the ranking of love, corresponding to the form He beheld in them before He created them and all the rest of created beings, that is, at the time before the eternal purpose for the delineation of the world was put into effect... He has a single ranking of complete and impassible love towards everyone, and He has a single caring concern for those who have fallen, just as much as for those who have not fallen’ (II/40,3).

The providential care of God and His love extends to angels, who were the first product of God’s creative act, including those who had fallen away from God and had turned into demons. According to Isaac, the love of the Creator towards fallen angels does not diminish as a result of their fall, and it is not less than the fullness of love which He has towards other angels (II/40,2). ‘It would be most odious and utterly blasphemous’, Isaac claims, ‘to think that hate and resentment exists with God, even against demonic beings; or to imagine any other weakness, or passibility, or whatever else might be involved in the course of retribution of good or bad as applying, in a retributive way, to that glorious Nature. Rather, He acts towards us in ways He knows will be advantageous to us, whether by way of things that cause suffering, or by way of things that cause relief, whether they cause joy or grief, whether they are insignificant or glorious: all are directed towards the single eternal good’ (II/39,3).

To say that the love of God diminishes or vanishes because of a created being’s fall means ‘to reduce the glorious Nature of the Creator to weakness and change’ (II/38,4). For we know that ‘there is no change or any earlier or later intentions, with the Creator: there is no hatred or resentment in His nature, no greater or lesser place in His love, no before or after in His knowledge’ (II/38,5). Nothing that happens in creation may affect the nature of the Creator, Who is ‘exalted, lofty and glorious, perfect and complete in His knowledge, and complete in His love’ (II/10,23).

This is why God loves equally the righteous and sinners, making no distinction between them. God knew man’s future sinful life before the latter’s creation, yet He created him (II/5,11). God knew all people before their becoming righteous or sinners, and in His love He did not change because of the fact that they underwent change (II/38,3). Even many blameworthy deeds are accepted by God with mercy, ‘and are forgiven their authors, without any blame, by the omniscient God to whom all things are revealed before they happen, and who was aware of the constraints of our nature before He created us. For God, who is good and compassionate, is not in the habit of judging the infirmities of human nature or actions brought about by necessity, even though they may be reprehensible’ (II/14,15).

Even when God chastises one, He does this out of love and for the sake of one’s salvation rather than for the sake of retribution. God respects human free will and does not want to do anything against it: ‘God chastises with love, not for the sake of revenge… Far be it that vengeance could ever be found in that Fountain of love and Ocean brimming with goodness!’ (I/48, 230).

Thus the image of God as Judge is completely overshadowed in Isaac by the image of God as Love (hubba) and Mercy (rahme). According to him, mercifulness (mrahmanuta) is incompatible with justice (k’inuta): ‘Mercy is opposed to justice. Justice is equality of the even scale, for it gives to each as he deserves... Mercy, on the other hand, is a sorrow and pity stirred up by goodness, and it compassionately inclines a man in the direction of all; it does not requite a man who is deserving of evil, and to him who is deserving of good it gives a double portion. If, therefore, it is evident that mercy belongs to the portion of righteousness, then justice belongs to the portion of wickedness. As grass and fire cannot coexist in one place, so justice and mercy cannot abide in one soul’. Thus one cannot speak at all of God’s justice, but rather of mercy that surpasses all justice: ‘As a grain of sand cannot counterbalance a great quantity of gold, so in comparison God’s use of justice cannot counterbalance His mercy. As a handful of sand thrown into the great sea, so are the sins of the flesh in comparison with the mind of God. And just as a strongly flowing spring is not obscured by a handful of dust, so the mercy of the Creator is not stemmed by the vices of His creatures’ (I/51, 244).

Rejecting with such decisiveness the idea of requital, Isaac shows that the Old Testament understanding of God as a chastiser of sinners, ‘visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation’ (Ex.20:5; Num.14:18), does not correspond with the revelation that we have received through Christ in the New Testament. Though David in the Psalms called God ‘righteous and upright in His judgments’ (Ps.117:137), He is in fact good and merciful. Christ himself confirmed God’s ‘injustice’ in His parables, in particular in the Parables of the Workers in the Vineyard and of the Prodigal Son (Mt.20:13-15; Luke 15:20-22), but even more so by His incarnation for the sake of sinners: ‘Where, then, is God’s justice, for while we are sinners Christ died for us?’ (I/51, 250-251).


According to Isaac, the final outcome of the history of the universe must correspond to the majesty of God, and that the final destiny of the humans should be worthy of God’s mercifulness. ‘I am of the opinion that He is going to manifest some wonderful outcome’, Isaac claims, ‘a matter of immense and ineffable compassion on the part of the glorious Creator, with respect to the ordering of this difficult matter of Gehenna’s torment: out of it the wealth of His love and power and wisdom will become known all the more - and so will the insistent might of the waves of His goodness. It is not the way of the compassionate Maker to create rational beings in order to deliver them over mercilessly to unending affliction in punishment for things of which He knew even before they were fashioned, aware how they would turn out when He created them - and whom nonetheless He created’ (II/39,6).

All afflictions and sufferings which fall to everyone’s lot are sent from God with the aim of bringing a person to an inner change. Isaac comes to an important conclusion: God never retaliates for the past, but always cares for our future. ‘...All kinds and manner of chastisements and punishments that come from Him’, Isaac suggests, ‘are not brought about in order to requite past actions, but for the sake of the subsequent gain to be gotten in them... This is what the Scriptures bring to our attention and remind us of.., that God is not one who requites evil, but He sets aright evil’ (II/39,15-16).

The idea of love contradicts the idea of requital, Isaac insists. Besides, if we are to suppose that God will punish sinners eternally, this would mean that the creation of the world was a mistake, as God proved to be unable to oppose evil, which is not within His will. If we ascribe requital to God’s actions, we apply weakness to God: ‘So then, let us not attribute to God’s actions and His dealings with us any idea of requital. Rather, we should speak of fatherly provision, a wise dispensation, a perfect will which is concerned with our good, and complete love. If it is a case of love, then it is not one of requital; and if it is a case of requital, then it is not one of love’ (II/39,17).

All of God’s actions are mysteries that are inaccessible to human reasoning. Gehenna is also a mystery, created in order to bring to a state of perfection those who had not reached it during their lifetime. According to Isaac, Gehenna is a sort of purgatory rather than hell: it is conceived and established for the salvation of both human beings and angels. However, this true aim of Gehenna is hidden from those who are chastised in it, and will be revealed only after Gehenna is abolished. All those who have fallen away from God will eventually return to Him because of the temporary and short torment in Gehenna that is prepared for them in order that they purify themselves through the fire of suffering and repentance. Having passed through this purification by fire, they will attain to the angelic state. ‘Maybe they will be raised to a perfection even greater than that in which the angels now exist; for all are going to exist in a single love, a single purpose, a single will, and a single perfect state of knowledge; they will gaze towards God with the desire of insatiable love, even if some divine dispensation (i.e. Gehenna) may in the meantime be effected for reasons known to God alone, lasting for a fixed period, decreed by Him in accordance with the will of His wisdom’ (II/40,5).

God cannot forget any of His creatures, and for everyone their proper place is prepared in the Kingdom of heaven. But for those who are unable to enter immediately into the Kingdom, the transitory period of Gehenna is established: ‘No part belonging to any single one of all rational beings will be lost, as far as God is concerned… He has devised the establishment of the Kingdom of heaven for the entire community of rational beings - even though an intervening time is reserved for the general raising of all to the same level’ (II/40,7).

Isaac was quite resentful of the widespread opinion that the majority of people will be punished in hell, and only a small group of the chosen will delight in Paradise. He is convinced that, quite the contrary, the majority of people will find themselves in the Kingdom of heaven, and only a few sinners will go to Gehenna, and even they only for the period of time which is necessary for their repentance and remission of sins: ‘By the device of grace the majority of humankind will enter the Kingdom of heaven without the experience of Gehenna. But this is apart from those who, because of their hardness of heart and utter abandonment to wickedness and the lusts, fail to show remorse in suffering for their faults and their sins, and because these people have not been disciplined at all. For God’s holy Nature is so good and compassionate that it is always seeking to find some small means of putting us in the right, how He can forgive human beings their sins - like the case of the tax collector who was put in the right by the intensity of his prayer (Luke 18:14), or like the case of a woman with two small coins (Mark 12:42-43; Luke 21:2-3), or the man who received forgiveness on the Cross (Luke 23:40-43). For God wishes for our salvation, and not for reasons to torment us’ (II/40,12).

The teaching on universal salvation, which is so explicitly preached by Isaac the Syrian, has never been approved by the Orthodox Church. On the contrary, Origenist idea of the apokatastasis ton panton (restoration of all), which has certain resemblance with this teaching, was condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Council. However, we would not completely identify Isaac’s idea of the universal salvation with Origenist ‘restoration of all’. In Origen, universal restoration is not the end of the world, but a passing phase from one created world to another, which will come into existence after the present world has come to its end. This idea is alien to Christian tradition and unknown to Isaac. The latter is more dependent on other ancient writers, notably Theodore of Mopsuestia and Diodore of Tarsus, who also developed the idea of universal salvation, yet in a way different from Origen’s. On the other hand, it would not be fair to say that Isaac simply borrowed the ideas of his predecessors and inserted them into his own writings. Isaac’s eschatological optimism and his belief in universal salvation are ultimate outcomes of his personal theological vision, whose central idea is that of God as love. Around this idea the whole of his theological system is shaped.

Nevertheless, Isaac’s teaching on universal salvation evokes the following questions: what is the sense of the whole drama of human history, if both good and evil are ultimately to be found on an equal footing in the face of God’s mercifulness? What is the sense of sufferings, ascetic labour and prayer, if sinners will be sooner or later equated with the righteous? Besides, how far do Isaac’s opinions correspond to the Christian tradition and to the teaching of the Gospel, in particular, to the Parable of the Last Judgment, where the question concerns the separation of the ‘sheep’ and the ‘goats’?

First, in speaking about the absence of any middle realm between Gehenna and the Kingdom of heaven, Isaac does not deny the reality of the separation of the sheep from the goats, and he even explicitly refers to it. But his attention is directed far beyond this separation, for he does not regard it as final and irreversible. As we saw, the Last Judgment is a reality which Isaac recommends one to ponder over every day, and the experience of the separation of a sinner from his fellow human beings is clearly depicted by Isaac when he speaks of the Judgment. However, his main point is that the present life is a time when the separation actually takes place, and the Last Judgment will only reveal that spiritual state which was reached by a person during his life. Thus, the Parable should not be understood as a dogmatic statement concerning the final destiny of the righteous and sinners, but as a prophetic warning against not having and manifesting love for one’s fellow humans during one’s earthly life.

Secondly, Isaac warns that the torment of Gehenna is terrible and unbearable, even though it is limited in time. Gehenna is a reality that is in no way denied by Isaac. But he understands it in the context of the Gospel’s message about God’s unspeakable love and boundless mercy. For Isaac, God is primarily a householder making those who worked only one hour equal to those who have borne the burden of the whole day (Matt.20:1-15). A place in the Kingdom of heaven is given to a person not on the basis of his worthiness or unworthiness, but rather on the basis of God’s mercy and love towards humankind. The Kingdom of heaven is not a reward, and Gehenna is not a requital: both are gifts of the merciful God ‘Who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’ (1 Tim.2:4).

Finally, the theological system of Isaac the Syrian is based on the direct experience of the mystical union of an ascetic with the love of God. This experience excludes any possibility of envy of other human beings, even to those who have reached a higher spiritual state and thus have a chance of receiving a higher place in the Kingdom of heaven. Moreover, the experience of unity with God as love is so full of delight in itself that it is not for the sake of any future reward that a person prays, suffers and toils in ascetical labours: in this very suffering, in this very prayer and ascetical labour, the experience of encounter with God is concealed. The reason for prayer, bearing afflictions and keeping the commandments is, therefore, not one’s striving to leave other human beings behind and to obtain a place in the age to come that is higher than theirs. The sole reason for all ascetical toils is the experience of the grace of God which a person acquires through them. An encounter with God, a direct mystical experience of the divine love which one receives during one’s lifetime is, for Isaac, the only justification for all struggles and efforts.

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