How Gregory of Nyssa has Helped My Theology

I know how this post may look at first glance to many people. “Oh, would you look at that – it’s another progressive type Christian rambling on about how great that Origen and Gregory of Nyssa were and how we are all so silly for still believing in eternal hell.”

It is true that, more often than I am proud to admit, my blog has turned into a space for venting my theological frustrations. I would like to think that my break from writing this past month or so has been an attempt on my part to depart from more emotive blogging. All of this said, please permit me to share my thoughts on Gregory of Nyssa.

I originally heard of Gregory of Nyssa, who lived during the 4th Century, in the context of universal salvation. For anyone unfamiliar with the term “universal salvation” or “universalism,” I will try to summarize briefly the idea as I am using it here.

Christianity is, to a great degree, a religion that is concerned with “salvation.” Now, “salvation” is not a typical term in conversational English today. (English speakers who use words like “salvation” these days are probably Tolkien nerds who listen to Dragonforce and have beaten “Through the Fire and Flames” in Guitar Hero on the highest difficultly level.) In essence, of course, salvation simply means rescue. Christianity is concerned with rescue. A rescue from what, one might ask?

Naturally, different Christians will explain the matter differently. I would summarize the great Christian rescue by simply saying that in Christian thought, our God has given human beings a task. Because the Christian God is – firstly, as it could be argued – a God of love (1 John 4:8), the Christian God desires for human beings to govern the earth in accordance with the justice of love.

Now it would not take any great measure of wit for someone to point out that human beings, historically speaking, have not done a very decent job at all of exercising their power over others or the earth with any sort of real justice. (If one reads the Wikipedia page about the 20th Century, one will quickly see what I am talking about.) Many would even say that the extent to which humanity has failed in this supposed task constitutes sufficient testimony in the intellectual court against the very existence of such a god of love. To connect this discussion to a matter of justice that is close to my heart, I point out that human beings have, especially in recent modernity, been an ecological disaster. Tons of animal, plant, and algal species are going extinct, and the pollution of air is a serious problem in some parts of the world. This is to say nothing of the countless wars we have waged as a species throughout our relatively short history. Humanity’s failure to “do justice” and “love mercy” (Micah 6:8) has created many sorts of ingenious torments for others. We could call these torments, perhaps provocatively, “hells.”

One theological mistake that it is possible to make is to think of hell as a place of its own, a postmortem Tartarus of pain for those who believed the wrong things or messed up badly enough in life. But, as David Hart so eloquently puts it, “hell is no space within creation, no event, though its story is everywhere told, its dominion everywhere suffered.”[1] The rescue for which Christianity longs, then, is for deliverance from the evil – from the “sin,” “death,” and “hell” – that humanity gone wrong is all too prone to generate.

Shockingly enough (even to me, someone who has been a Christian for practically my whole life), the rescue that Christianity proclaims is a Middle-Eastern peasant from the first century named Joshua (or, more famously, Jesus) of Nazareth. In Christian thought, Jesus of Nazareth lived his life in the shadow of the cross upon which he died. Some have even remarked that the gospels, the four books in the New Testament that tell the story of Jesus’ life, are really just passion narratives (stories about the cross) with extended introductions. According to Christians, then, Jesus lived his life in the shadow of the cross. But once he got to the cross, what did he do? What was the cross all about?

The New Testament teaches that Jesus “swallowed” the total sin, death, and hell of humanity – and indeed, of the whole universe (Colossians 1:15-20) – in the godless death that was Roman crucifixion. Christianity claims, radically enough, that God was there, in a Jewish peasant’s death on a cross, swallowing death in victory (1 Corinthians 15:54-57, 2 Corinthians 5:19, Philippians 2:5-11).[2] The rescue that Christianity claims to offer is a rescue from the judgment that we proclaim on ourselves by living in our sins, our deaths, and our hells.

Having said all of that, universal salvation is simply the view that Christ’s death on the cross will ultimately be effectual for all creatures. In other words, because of what Christ did, every creature, including even the devil himself, will one day respond with grateful acceptance to the love of God in Jesus the King.

It is due to the idea of universal salvation (“universalism”) that I first heard of Gregory of Nyssa.[3] Gregory taught that evil is finite. It is impossible, therefore, for a creature of God to remain in evil forever. God is infinite. Good is infinite. The infinity of God essentially swallows the limitedness of evil, and with it, hell. Gregory teaches, in line with mainstream Christian tradition, that there is indeed punishment from God; but for Gregory, as for Origen before him, punishment is remedial, and not final.

Gregory of Nyssa’s ideas have helped me come to terms morally with God’s decision to create.[4] Yes, God created a world that now contains numerous forms of evil, but the promise of the Christian gospel (“good news”) is that God will “sum up everything” in Jesus (Ephesians 1:10). Gregory’s moral vision as demonstrated in his protology (theology of the beginning of creation) and eschatology (theology of the consummation of creation) is what, finally, I have most benefited from. Gregory, perhaps more than any other thinker throughout Christian history, understood the goodness of God in creation and the total, cosmic victory of God in rescuing creation. Whether or not we share precisely his views on how this works out, it is a moral principle that I believe is near to the very heart of what it is Christians call “the gospel.”

[1] David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, pg 400.

[2] Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God, pgs 250-255 contains one of my favourite meditations on 1 Corinthians 15:54-57 and its theme of death being “swallowed in victory.”

[3] I first learned of universalism in college from reading online about the great 20th Century theologian Karl Barth. Technically, Barth was a kind of open universalist. That is, he did not officially believe that all would be saved, but merely affirmed the possibility and taught it as something to be hoped and prayed for.

[4] Many of my thoughts about Gregory have been inspired by David Bentley Hart’s book The Beauty of the Infinite (particularly the section called “Eschaton”) and essay God, Creation, and Evil. The latter of these two works can currently be accessed online for free.