Russian Orthodox Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev explained Eastern teachings that, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn said, “shared our understanding of God’s limitless love.”
Russian Orthodox Bishop: God’s Mercy is immeasurable love of the Father; Cardinal Schonborn Agrees
By Dan Valenti (Apr 6, 2008)
How far can the mercy of God extend? Is there a limit? According to Jesus’ own revelations to St. Faustina, the answer is no. God’s mercy for His creation is unfathomable, without boundary, and unlimited by any constraint, human, or non-human.
In an amazing, even surprising ecumenical moment in the Catholic Church’s first World Congress on Divine Mercy, Russian Orthodox Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, bishop of Vienna and Austria as well as temporary administrator of the Diocese of Budapest and Hungary, took Divine Mercy to its logical conclusion. God is Love, all He created and sustains is always loved by Him. Even the creation that rejects Him continues in existence by His love. This unfathomable Divine Mercy can even make hell* “Gehenna,” temporary, according to Bishop Hilarion, who spoke on Day 3 of the Congress (Friday, April 5) at St. John Lateran Basilica.
After Bishop Hilarion’s presentation, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn,
who is presiding over the Congress in the name of Pope Benedict XVI,
chatted warmly with Bishop Hilarion, shaking his hand and thanking him for his “courageous witness on the absolute mercy of God.”
The congress had found its electric moment.
Love Beyond Understanding
Referencing St. Isaac the Syrian, a 7th-century holy man and hermit revered in Russian Orthodoxy as “famous among the saints,” Bishop Hilarion shared his understanding of divine love and the “merciful heart” found in humans as providential love’s great manifestation. This “love is beyond human understanding and above all description in words. Divine love was the main reason for the creation of the universe and is the main driving force behind the whole of creation.”
Calling Divine Mercy “a continuing realization of the creative potential of God,” Bishop Hilarion told a rapt audience of some 8,000 that the driving force of “the true Father” is His “immeasurable love,” a love that surpasses understanding, though it does not require understanding to be experienced.
“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,” Bishop Hilarion said. “God’s providence is universal and embraces all. None of His creatures is excluded from the scope of the loving presence of God … 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 toward them.”
Bishop Hilarion then took the attendees hearing this extraordinary teaching through a list of acts performed by the merciful God, beginning with creation. Though God knew mankind would fall and reject His love, He created us anyway. “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'” (from The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian translated by D. Miller, Boston, Mass., 1984, p.51).
Forgiveness, ‘Without Any Blame’
In an astounding declaration of the power of God’s mercy, Bishop Hilarion stated that God does not make mistakes or create unredeemable trash good only to be thrown away. Though God respects human choice and free will, even when the choice is to reject Him, His love and mercy can forgive literally without exception, “without any blame.”
The Bishop said God’s love flows equally over all creation, animals, man, and angels, as well as everything in between and outside.
Speaking of angels, Bishop Hilarion said, “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 (my italics). According to [St.] Isaac, the love of the Creator towards fallen angels does not diminish as a result of their fall, and it is no less the fullness of love which He has towards all angels. ‘It would be most odious and utterly blasphemous’ Isaac claims, ‘to think that hate and resentment exists with God, even against demonic beings.'”
To claim that God’s mercy “diminishes or vanishes because of a created being’s fall” involves a human reduction of God’s glorious nature and imposes upon God “weakness and change,” the Bishop said. This would be a perverted creation of God in man’s own sinful image and likeness, a true “blasphemy.”
God, Bishop Hilarion said, contains no hatred or resentment, “no greater or lesser place in his love.” That is the reason we can confidently state, he said, that “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. 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.”
Mercy means that all “blameworthy deeds” are forgiven “without any blame.”
Take a look at what the Diary of St. Faustina in number 598 states:
“Oh, how ardently I desire that every soul would praise
Your mercy. Happy is the soul that calls upon the mercy
of the Lord. It will see that the Lord will defend it as His
glory, as He said. And who would dare fight against
God? All you souls, praise the Lord’s mercy (63) by
trusting in His mercy all your life and especially at the
hour of your death. And fear nothing, dear soul,
whoever you are; the greater the sinner, the greater his
right to Your mercy, O Lord. O Incomprehensible
Goodness! God is the first to stoop to the sinner. O Jesus,
I wish to glorify Your mercy on behalf of thousands of
souls. I know very well, O my Jesus, that I am to keep
telling souls about Your goodness, about Your
God is Love, Not an Angry Judge
According to St. Isaac, Bishop Hilarion said, the image of God as Judge “is completely overshadowed by the image of God as Love (hubba) and Mercy (rahme. According to him, mercifulness is incompatible with justice.” Bishop Hilarion said we should not interpret literally the figurative God that the Old Testament describes in anthropomorphic terms such as “wrath, anger, [and] hatred.” He added:
“Rejecting with such decisiveness the idea of requital, Isaac shows that the Old Testament understanding of God as a chastiser of sinners” holding generations of children responsible for familial sins “does not correspond with the revelation that we have received through Christ in the New Testament.” The Bishop said that Christ Himself confirmed the reality that God bears “no hatred towards anyone, [only] all-embracing love, which does not distinguish between righteous and sinner, between a friend of the truth and an enemy of the truth, between angel and demon. Every created being is precious in God’s eyes. He cares for every creature. … If we turn away from God, He does not turn away from us.”
Bishop Hilarion termed the Incarnation the moment when the love of God “revealed itself to the highest degree.” He said people “are called to answer the love of God with their own love” as best the can, but that the return love by humans to God on earth will always be less than perfect. God understands that, and, according to the Bishop, this explains how the infinite and perfect God, can forgive our sins. “Here St. Isaac emphasizes that God does nothing out of retribution: even to think that way about God would be blasphemous.”
God as Love Overcomes Gehenna
There is another idea worse than that, Bishop Hilarion said, again, referring to St. Isaac’s teachings.
“Even worse,” the Bishop said, “is the opinion that God allows people to lead a sinful life on earth in order to punish them eternally after death. This is a blasphemous and perverted understanding of God, a calumny of God.” To the contrary, from the first created angels to the present moment, God’s love drives the universe, which, according to the Bishop, leads to St. Isaac’s most important idea about Divine Mercy: “that the final destiny of the history of the universe must correspond to the majesty of God, and that the final destiny of humans should be worthy of God’s mercifulness.” This majesty may even modify Gehenna or hell itself, he said.
Bishop Hilarion then quoted St. Iassac on “the difficult matter of Gehenna’s torment”:
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 … [A]ll the more since the foreplanning of evil and the taking of vengeance are characteristic of the passions of created brings, and do not belong to the Creator. For all this characterizes people who do not know or who are unaware of what they are doing.
The standard objection to this line of thought is that the conception of such a merciful God leads to laxity in people or a loss of the fear of God, the Bishop noted. But, he said, the opposite is true. Saint Isaac believed that knowing the merciful God in this way would cause more love of God in people, not less. When that happens, people will realize “the measureless mercy of the Creator.”
Again, Bishop Hilarion emphasized, if we say otherwise, we attribute to God’s actions; a pettiness and weakness that is ours, not His. We should cease speaking of a God of retribution, Bishop Hilarion said, and focus on God’s “fatherly provision, a wise dispensation, a perfect will which is concerned with the requiting of former things by means of … complete love.”
The Mystery of Hell Leading to Heaven
The Bishop continued:
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. … Thus, Gehenna is a sort of purgatory rather than hell. It is conceived and established for the salvation of both human beings and angels. … According to Isaac, 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.
Hell, therefore, according to Bishop Hilarion, is transitory. Once more, he emphasized that this is the logical conclusion that is derived once we establish the major premise that above all, God is Love, and that He is unlimited mercy. He said that God established the Kingdom of heaven for all created beings, “even though an intervening time is reserved for the general raising of all to the same [heavenly] level. And we say this that we too may concur with the magisterial teaching of Scripture.” Such an understanding of Divine Mercy will cause people to love God more and not less.
Divine Mercy shows us God’s full love, and for that reason, Bishop Hilarion said, St. 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.”
In this way, the first World Congress on Divine Mercy had found its electric moment.
An Improvisation for the Ages
In an impromptu discussion afterward between Cardinal Christoph Shonborn, Archbishop of Austria, and Bishop Hilarion, the Cardinal expressed his deep thanks to his Orthodox counterpart for his “courageous teaching” on the depth of God’s mercy. Asked by this reporter if he found anything that he could not accept about Bishop Hilarion’s remarks, Cardinal Schonborn said, “Nothing at all, because as the Bishop said, all creation falls under the care of The Divine Mercy.”
Thus, in an amazing ecumenical moment, unqualified Divine Mercy washed over this Congress. Cardinal Schonborn and Bishop Hilarion agreed that St. Issac’s teachings were not well known by most Catholics, but the Cardinal said this doesn’t mean that we cannot “share our understanding of God’s limitless love.” Asked point blank if he could accept the idea that God’s love can make even hell temporary, the Cardinal responded, “How can there be a problem with any proposition that presents The Divine Mercy as the limitless manifestation of Love? I welcome and learn from [Bishop Hilarion’s] teaching.” **
Those standing around to witness this incredible moment smiled, and people rushed up to Bishop Hilarion. Cherry Silcock-Stone, a marketing and administrative analyst for Concorde International in Kent, England, was one of those people. With joy in her face, she thanked Bishop Hilarion for his merciful teaching. “You have revealed something so wonderful,” she said.
The World Mercy Congress had just caught fire.
* The Eastern Church holds that two states exist — heaven and hell — and that sanctification is more process-orientated. Thus, hell is where this process takes place. We are in the middle of the process of sanctification at the moment of our deaths, the work of holiness is an eternal one, since God’s holiness is limitless and hence forever beyond us. The Western Church speaks of purgatory as a state where the “residual debt” due to sin is “worked off” before the Second Coming. Both realize the truth of the process of becoming holy by God’s holiness, thus the cleansing “state” is temporary.
** A time of purgation is temporary, yet the time of eternal damnation is a fact of Jesus’ teaching on the Last Judgment (cf. Mt. 25: 31-46). Thus, a need for living mercy day by day (how we show mercy to others) is the basis of salvation or damnation.
Dan Valenti writes for numerous publications of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception, both in print and online. He is the author of “Dan Valenti’s Journal” for thedivinemercy.org.