WARNING: The following is not for the egregiously pious, or the dogmatically doubtless, or the party apparatchik. It is for people with a a few nagging questions about serious theological controversies. It also helps to have a sense of humor. I am calling this a “reflection” because it really is as much a reflection on the past four years of my religious life as it is a reading of David Bentley Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved, which deserves a proper review by a proper theologian with the requisite academic credentials. I am but a mere layman struggling to come to terms with the interminable.
“I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil:
I the LORD do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7)
“The LORD hath made all things for himself:
yea, even the wicked for the day of evil” (Proverbs 16:4)
With a title like That All Shall Be Saved, you could be forgiven for expecting the dead-tree equivalent of click bait. But not if the author is David Bentley Hart. The Eastern Orthodox theologian, whose works include The Beauty of the Infinite, Atheist Delusions, and an original translation of the New Testament, has given us a robust apologia for his fervent belief that the idea of eternal conscious torment is moral “imbecility,” not to mention logically incoherent, and rooted in some combination of poor translations of Scripture, dogmatic loyalties, “anachronistic assumptions regarding the conceptual vocabularies of the authors of the New Testament,” and the misguided genius of St. Augustine, whose baleful influence regarding original sin and its transmitted “guilt” have sentenced even infants to either a mythical limbo or, yes, the lake of fire.
In addition, Hart argues at length that if you think you can “choose” against your own greatest good, the love of God, you’re quite mad, and so not morally responsible. But God is. “We are doomed to happiness,” he teases.
Lest you think Hart is merely suggesting an “option” for Christians when thinking about hell, like one of those books that offer “Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy,” he’s not. In a response to an online review of his book, Hart writes:
The argument I make in my book—that Christianity can be a coherent system of belief if and only if it is understood as involving universal salvation—is irrefutable. Any Christian whom it fails to persuade is one who has failed to understand its argument fully. In order to reject it, one must also reject one or another crucial tenet of the faith. The exits have all been sealed. I suppose I could be wrong about that, but I do not believe it likely. Nor do I think I am being particularly arrogant in saying this. In the end, I believe my book merely points out something that was obvious all along.
Well, that’s refreshing.
The argument I will try and make is that, if Hart is right, then divine revelation doesn’t reveal very much, or at least not enough, having proved the source of much confusion among the overwhelming majority of church teachers and preachers, saints and doctors, theologians and lay apologists for 1,900 years on an issue as vital to the subject of religion as where people go when they die.
With that said, I nevertheless found Hart’s theological polemic a fascinating tour de force (rendered in his now-characteristic baroque prose style) and quite emotionally satisfying (which is not the same thing as ultimately convincing). And that’s the problem. There’s a sense in which Hart makes his case too well—not only against hell, but one could argue against heaven too. As deftly as he insists on “some analogical index in the moral truths to which Christians are supposedly bound” between God and mortals—in other words, God is not beyond our common understanding of good and evil—it’s perhaps the hardest argument for him to pull off, despite his outsize intellectual gifts. Once you start with the question “How could a good God permit…?” the game’s over. You may as well become a Unitarian and be done with it.
But I’ll come back to that.
To begin with, Hart believes in a “hell,” just not that hell, the hell of the infernalists (“infernalist” being his shorthand for those who believe in eternal conscious punishment of the damned). He believes in “the hatred within each of us that turns the love of others—of God and neighbor—into torment.” He also considers the possibility of, though never forthrightly commits to, a postmortem state where those who have rejected God’s love or who have spent a life in pursuit of misguided ends are purged of their sin, selfishness, and mental debility. But it is curative, not punitive, and eventually all—Hitler, Stalin, Vlad the Impaler, Andrew Johnson, even high school gym teachers—will be received into the Kingdom of God.
Hart insists that for at least the past 1,600 years or so, the majority, traditional, typical (pick a modifier) arguments in support of eternal damnation for unbelievers and apostates are simply wrong, based on poor exegesis and a kind of theological momentum: it’s repeated so many times as a given, a kind of package deal that comes with the gospel, that one inevitably finds it in Scripture even when it’s not really there.
Moreover, Hart is convinced that before the advent of such North African infernalists as Tertullian and Augustine, universalist ideas were far from eccentric.
This, already, is arguable. As Michael McClymond writes in his exhaustive (if not exhausting) The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism:
A full examination of the views of the early church authors, both before and after Origen, does not support the concept of a universalist “minority report.” In the second-century Greek writings—including the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, the letters traditionally attributed to Clement of Rome, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the writings of Irenaeus and Justin Martyr—there is not only a lack of attestation for universalist views; there is instead a clear affirmation of a final dual outcome of heaven and hell. Much of the literature connected with martyrdom expresses a fervent expectation that the martyrs will pass into eternal bliss with God, while those who persecuted them—unless they repent—will go into hell.
Perhaps Hart would say that is neither here nor there. More important than toting up Church Fathers is the answer to the question “What does it mean to say that an infinitely good God created ex nihilo?” The end must be understood from the beginning, which is God’s perfect creative freedom. What would ultimate Goodness create? It cannot be anything that betrays the essence of what Goodness means. To create living creatures with nerve endings in the full knowledge that the end of some, perhaps many, perhaps even most, is limitless torment is to ascribe to this deity utter moral failure (certainly failure of the imagination). However you construe it, such a God for whom there is room in His creation for the damned—those who reject His goodness and love and are tortured “day and night” fixed in their obduracy—can’t be Good.
God could not, then, directly intend a soul’s ultimate destruction, or even intend that a soul bring about its own destruction, without positively willing the evil end as an evil end; such a result could not possibly be comprised within the ends purposed by a truly good will (in any sense of the word “good” intelligible to us.
No refuge is offered here by some specious distinction between God’s antecedent and consequent wills—between, that is, his universal will for a creation apart from the fall and his particular will regarding each creature in consequence of the fall. Under the canopy of God’s omnipotence and omniscience, the consequent is already wholly virtually present in the antecedent.
What it comes down to for Hart is not that we are judging God by some merely human standard of conduct, but rather it is “our story” about God that should be brought before the bar and judged for “internal coherence.” Most of us, apparently, are lousy storytellers.
Among the usual objections to universalism that Hart dispenses with early is that eternal hellfire is the price personal autonomy must pay. In other words, the free will argument. While Hart and the Reformers come at the issue from very different perspectives, they both arrive at the same conclusion, that any kind of “libertarian” free will that can decide for or against eternal life is chimerical. As Hart states it:
When, therefore, we try to account for the human rejection of God, we can never trace the wanderings of the will back to some primordial moment of perfect liberty, some epistemically pristine instant when a perverse impulse spontaneously arose within an isolated, wholly sane individual will, or within a mind perfectly cognizant of the whole truth of things; we will never find that place where some purely uncompelled apostasy on the part of a particular soul, possessed of a perfect rational knowledge of reality, severed us from God.
No mind that possess so much as a glimmer of consciousness of reality is wholly lacking in liberty; but, by the same token, no mind save one possessing absolutely undiminished consciousness of reality is wholly free. This is why we rightly distinguish between acts performed compose mentis and acts performed non compos mentis, and why we determine someone’s mental competency or incompetency in large part from how clearly he or she understand the difference between actions that serve his or her good and actions that do not.
As you can see, in Hart’s construal, the “divine purpose” is man-focused (which I would distinguish from man-centered): In the beginning, God not only created the heavens and the earth, but intended the chief end of man to be Himself, which is to say, the Good. And the Fall did not, could not, change that, because God does not change. This is very different from the Reformed/Calvinist emphasis on God’s glory being man’s chief end, but not that far, I would argue, from the Lutheran emphasis on Jesus as man’s chief end, in whom we find our life and purpose. And no one found in Christ is lost. (The question, of course, circles back to who finally is found in Christ.)
Hart’s dismissal of the free will objection to universalism is rooted in Christology. If Jesus possessed a fully human nature, and yet he could not sin, which is to say could never under any circumstances reject the love of the Father or defy His will, then there is no such “freedom” to say no to God inherent in human nature. Thus, any argument that begins, “To be fully human, one must be able to say no to God” is dead in the water or Jesus wasn’t fully human.
Deliberative liberty is nothing but the power of any given person to choose one end or another. The point remains, then, that a human being cannot be said to have the “capacity” for sin if sin is literally impossible for the person he is; and so, even if this capacity was wanting in just the single person that Jesus happened to be, while yet that single person truly possessed a full and undiminished human will and human mind, then the capacity to sin is no necessary or natural part of either human freedom or human nature.
In short, because freedom consists in pursuing the ultimate Good, and Jesus always pursued that Good and could not do otherwise, Jesus was the freest person ever to walk the earth. Our so-called freedom to reject God is only evidence that, well, man everywhere is in chains.
* * *
I didn’t get very far into this book before I began to wonder whether Hart’s thesis was to be proved by force of ad hominem. Many are the appearances of words such as depraved, inane, absurd, dissembling, degrading, vacuous—a litany of contumelious adjectives intended to render readers conscious only of their own intellectual Blimpishness or outright sadism. And the mere idea that you could offer a novel argument to challenge a defense of universalism, which you wouldn’t think needed much of a defense given how it is characterized as the only morally defensible conclusion an honest broker could reach, is deemed “not advisable.”
So if you’re one of those damned infernalists, you’ve lost before you’ve even begun. But Hart’s not looking for a fight here. “Most rhetorical engagements on these issues are largely pointless, partly because they are interminably repetitive, but mostly because they have less to do with logical disagreement thank with the dogmatic imperatives to which certain of the disputants feel bound.”
In other words, the theology of your particular church tradition demands you believe in eternal conscious suffering in a literal hell.
But why? Hart’s conclusions are rooted in some rigorous philosophical arguments about what it means for God to be God “properly understood.” Perhaps because universalism is contradicted by Scripture and has been denounced as heresy in at least one ecumenical council. Hart denies this, however, even though, as McClymond writes:
The Greek Orthodox theologian Chrestos Androutsos (1869–1935), professor of theology and ethics from 1895 to 1935 in Chalki and then in Athens, authored a Dogmatics (1907) that was considered in its day the most complete exposition of Orthodox theology. In this work, Androutsos writes that “the theory of Origen and of Gregory of Nyssa concerning the apokatastasis of all—and concerning the repentance of the demons and the ungodly—has been condemned by the church.” In support of this claim, he cites the seventh and eighth anathemas of the Fifth Ecumenical Council.
Reading McClymond, whose massive 1,300-page tome came out in late 2018, in tandem with That All Shall Be Saved is entertaining to say the least. Hart leaves out, strangely, the gnostic, esoteric, and exotic origins of much universalist thinking. For example, unless I missed it, Hart never mentions that Origen, the real granddaddy of Christian universalism, believed in the transmigration of souls, a key aspect of his soteriology. He also cites as a witness to the universalist cause the Russian thinker Sergei Bulgakov. Although Bulgakov left open the possibility of endless suffering for the morally obdurate, he was sympathetic to the idea of universal reconciliation. He also believed the human spirit to be divine, rejected creation ex nihilo, and taught a “Sophiology” that entailed, again according to McClymond, “ideas of eternal Godmanhood.”
MyClymond also digs deep into the Platonic presuppositions of Hart’s favorite Church Father on the subject of universalism, or at least the one he quotes most extensively, St. Gregory of Nyssa. I think it’s fair to say that Hart would see any objection on this score as just ignorance masquerading as a kind of “gotcha” apologetics. He exhibits no patience for those who see the “Hebraic” as hermetically sealed off from the “Hellenic” given the interpenetration of the two worlds. There were, after all, Hellenized Jews just as there were God-fearers among the Greeks. What Bible did the apostles read and apparently quote from, but one that had been translated into Greek for the Diaspora faithful?
But should it not be concerning that
on gnostic-kabbalistic-esoteric premises, everyone is saved because humans are expressions or aspects of God, and it is inconceivable that God’s expressions or aspects will remain forever alienated from God’s own self. Everything separated from God must eventually come back to God. The metaphysical starting point is the presumption that the creature is not fully distinct or separate from the Creator. [McClymond]
Starting with Boehme and on through
Don’t misunderstand: I am not accusing Hart of gnosticism by association. Because you approve of some ideas promulgated by a great thinker doesn’t mean you embrace them all. But it seems strange to me that Hart never anticipates objections to universalism as an idea that seems to pool naturally into the same swamp of nuttiness as, for example, the mystical and metaphysical fantasies of a Jacob Boehme and his acolytes, almost all of whom practiced automatic writing as guided by “spirit beings (often referred to as angels)” [McClymond]. Huh.
* * *
What about predestination and election? For Hart, the Augustinian and Thomist interpretation (not to mention that of the magisterial Reformers) is little more than a concession to chance, and if some must be damned, then aren’t they, in fact, performing the true substitutionary atoning for the sins of those who win the golden ticket to heaven, allowing God to display His sovereignty, justice, and righteousness so the redeemed can enjoy His mercy?
But, then, for the redeemed, each of whom might just as well have been denied efficacious grace had God so pleased (since no one merits salvation), who is that wretch who endures God’s final wrath, forever and ever, other than their surrogate, their redeemer, the one who suffers in their stead—their Christ? … I for one do not object in the least to Hitler being purged of his sins and saved, over however many aeons of inconceivably painful purification in hell that might take, but I do most definitely object to Hitler fixed forever in his sins serving as my redeemer in some shadow eternity of perpetual torment, offering up his screams of agony as the price of my hope for salvation.
If this isn’t convincing, Hart’s exegesis of Romans 9-11, the Reformed’s locus classicus for the doctrine of double predestination, is both brilliant and persuasive, and makes the typical Arminian explication seem like a Hallmark card written by Charles Finney’s halfwit nephew.
For those who insist on Scripture verses to prove every doctrinal, Hart has those too, translated from the biblical Greek by the author himself. But be forewarned. His tone is that of someone who offers biblical warrant for his beliefs merely as a concession to weak brethren, and so is done almost under duress.
I am not very tolerant of what is sometimes called “biblicism”—that is, the “oracular” understanding of scriptural inspiration, which sees the Bible as the record of words directly uttered by the lips of God through an otherwise dispensable human intermediary, and which entails the belief that the testimony of the Bible on doctrinal and theological matters must be wholly internally consistent—and I certainly have no patience whatsoever for twentieth-century biblical fundamentalism and its manifest imbecilities…. And while I dislike the practice of reducing biblical theology to concentrated distillates—“proof texts,” that is—I gladly concede that, at the very least, a certain presumptive authority has to be granted to whatever kind of language the Bible uses most preponderantly. This, though, is not nearly as simple a matter as one might imagine.
You said it.
Nevertheless, it quickly becomes obvious that Paul is an especially rich resource for the universalist camp. Consider: Romans 5:18-19, 1 Corinthians 15:22, 2 Corinthians 5:14, Romans 11:32, 1 Timothy 2-6, Titus 2:11, 2 Corinthians 5:19, Ephesians 1: 9-10, Colossians 1:27-28, Philippians 2: 9-11, Colossians 1: 19-20, and especially 1 Timothy 4:10 (“we have hoped in a living god who is the savior of all human beings, especially those who have faith“—my emphasis, Hart’s translation).
And then there are verses from the Gospel of John, 1 John, Luke, 1 Peter, and others. Lined up they offer an admittedly powerful biblical sanction for belief in the final reconciliation of all things: universalism.
But what about Scripture verses that argue against it? Start with Matthew chapter 5. Well, first off, you’d have to come to terms with what “Gehenna” meant to Jews in the first century. Hart: “How it was interpreted by the differing schools of theology is almost impossible to reduce to a single formula or concept. Clearly it was understood sometimes as a place of final destruction, sometimes simply as a place of punishment, and sometimes as a place of purgatorial regeneration.”
The fourth gospel proves no refuge for infernalists either. “In John’s gospel, at least, it often seems as if the qualification aiōnios indicates neither vast duration nor simply some age that will chronologically succeed the present age, but rather the divine realm of reality that, with Christ, has entered the cosmos ‘from above’” And “it is not clear…that the fourth gospel foretells any ‘last judgment’ in the sense of a real additional judgment that accomplished more than has already happened in Christ.” (Hart offers up a brief but telling lexical history for the Greek words normally translated as “age,” “eternity,” and “eternal,” and explains how an “aeon” most often meant “a substantial period to time” or an “extended interval” and not necessarily forever and ever.)
Let’s brush back decidedly weak, albeit common, arguments against universalism. For example, how many Christians hold dear an anti-universalist reading of Scripture because they fear that, if their churches came to teach and confess that God will eventually save everyone from their sins, religion and its exhortations and devotional habits would become, if not pointless, at least unnecessary? Why not eat, drink, and be merry: screw whom you like, rob whom you like, kill whom you like? Sure, you may get a few kicks to the nads in the afterlife, but it will all work out in the end.
But after two millennia of teaching hell as the ultimate punishment for evildoers and unbelievers, I believe we have fairly reliable metrics to determine effectiveness. Sure, it works on some sensitive, or overly credulous, souls. But overall? A helluva lotta Christians eating, drinking, and being merry, screwing, robbing, and killing whomever. Why? Well, aside from a weakness of the flesh, if you believe in hell, you assume you can always repent after a really backslidden weekend or even a really backslidden life. And doesn’t God have to take you back? That’s sorta His job, no? And if you’re an unbeliever, then hell isn’t real to you in the first place. It’s like threatening somebody with an honest Hollywood accountant or a 16-0 Jets season. And if you’ve never heard of Christianity except as a vague rumor of what Europeans and Americans believe, then it’s all somebody else’s business. (And their traditional religions probably have their own various “hells” to contend with.)
Surely people convert more often than not for reasons other than fear of hell. Most, I daresay, do so because their lives are empty and meaningless without God, not without hell. And as I have argued before, when Rob Bell was agitating everyone, double-predestinarians are the last people who should care whether an eternal conscious torment of the damn is emphasized in a church’s “What We Believe.” Either you’re in or you’re out, and it really has nothing to do with you. The roll of the election dice took place in the Big Casino before you were a thought. If it came up craps, you were going to the bad place, whether the love of God or the wrath of God was preached at you (assuming you heard any preaching at all). And if you walk away from the table a winner, well, again, you were graced with House odds, and so what did it matter whether you thought hell a silly superstition: GOD IS LOVE.
You might also ask, “If universalism is true, why go to church?” For the same reason you have family reunions, I guess. And to be reminded that we are saved not only from something but for something: our neighbor, whether believer or hater. Consider Jacques Ellul, a Barth-influenced universalist:
A place like hell is thus inconceivable. The difference between the Christian and the non-Christian is not one of salvation. Salvation is given by grace to everyone. Christians are simply those charged by God with a special mission. The meaning of being a Christian is not working at your own little salvation, but changing human history.
Also, aeons of torment don’t sound all that pleasant. Imagine being told: “We’re only going to burn lit cigars into your genitals for 10,000 years. Then they’ll be cake.” I still think you’d want to avoid that arrangement if at all possible. But that’s just me.
In short, if universalism is false, it’s not because it would fail to motivate people to perform good works or their religious duties. Why should gratitude to God for the gift of eternal life prove an insufficient incitement to piety? Because it’s not exclusive anymore? Because it’s been too promiscuously dispensed? If that’s the case, I sincerely doubt a fear of hell will prove any more effective.
* * *
I SAID UP TOP THAT I found Hart’s argument emotionally satisfying. This is what I mean. His most compelling picture of what eternal conscious torment actually entails if you think hard enough about it is drawn not from the infernal depths but from the perspective of the saved. If Thomas Aquinas and Peter Lombard¹ were wrong to teach that “the vision of the damned will increase the beatitude of the redeemed (as any trace of pity would darken the joys of heaven),” how will the saved “cope” (for lack of a better word) with the loss of loved ones to the lake of fire? Hart relates an idea put forward by an “Evangelical writer—this one a philosopher (of sorts) who periodically insists on perpetrating theology, always with catastrophic results” to the effect that God will “veil the sufferings of the damned from [the saved’s] eyes, and will even elide all memory of the lost from their recollections.”
Here is where I believe Hart is most effective. Who exactly is saved? Forget numbers for the time being; think instead personality, or person, or soul. Is a person whose memories have been deleted from their consciousness the same person as he or she was on earth?
Who are we, other than all the others who have made us who we are, and to whom we belong as much as they to us? We are those others. To say that the sufferings of the damned will either be clouded from the eyes of the blessed or, worse, increase the pitiless bliss of heaven is also to say that no persons can possibly be saved: for, if the memories of others are removed, or lost, or one’s knowledge of their misery is converted into indifference or, God forbid, into greater beatitude, what then remains of one in one’s last bliss?
I once proposed a different dilemma when thinking about who exactly constitute the saved.
In 2015, I suffered something of a health crisis that went from being potentially traumatic to much ado about nothing. While contemplating the prospect of an early departure from this vale of tears, I realized I had no real desire to go to heaven, if only because that meant living forever, a prospect so depressing it almost made me want to live. I didn’t even much care if that meant never being “reunited” with my much loved and much missed parents. Why? My concern was not dissimilar to Hart’s in his critique of the infernalist view: Would they be the people I knew? Not because they would be either indifferent to the suffering of damned loved ones or so thoroughly lobotomized that it would be as if I were encountering zombie cosplay editions, but because they would no longer be flawed. The parents I knew were, after all, fallen human beings. And those flaws often were the source of some of their greatest compensatory virtues and endearing quirks. As I wrote at the time:
Even the idea of being reunited with loved ones is kind of weird. Say I met up with my parents, whom I miss very much. Would they be my parents anymore? And by that I don’t mean would our familial relationships be irreparably altered in the New Jerusalem or the Unprecedented Baltimore or wherever it is we’re transported. I mean, what would perfected editions of my parents be? Certainly not my parents. More like the Director’s Cut. My parents had flaws, blind spots, quirks, like everybody else. Two “glorified” people would be strangers to me. If I were to meet up with them again, I’d want them just as they were, not ablaze with blessedness, ready for their close-up of the beatific vision.
And what about me? Vaporize my neuroses and I have no personality at all. “Heaven” was beginning to look a lot like a convention of casino greeters and restaurant mâitre d’s, all perpetual smiles and best behaviors. I’m from New York. What some people judge to be rude or wacky, I consider texture.
Granted, at the time I was speaking more out of a kind of despair than any serious attempt at sussing out the state of the redeemed. But it did make me realize something. I had lost my faith. It was like trying to remember a name that used to be at the tip of my tongue but now was a file gone missing in a corrupt hard drive that was impossible to retrieve. Words like God, Jesus, atonement, salvation, sin, faith, justification, sanctification became suddenly unintelligible: you may as well have been reading me the End User Agreement for WordPerfect.
And when I say “lost my faith,” I don’t mean in the “I hate my church with its praise bands and PowerPoint presentations” or “I’m really mad at God” or “God must be really mad at me because I didn’t get a pony and I’ll show him” kind of way. It was as if the whole theological/biblical/apologetic edifice I had erected to keep nagging questions from becoming calamitous had simply collapsed in one go. I couldn’t even remember what the building looked like, never mind what it was used for. The idea of some eternal, perfect, omniscient, omnipresent Abba figure who knew me and loved me and wanted good things for me (and, in the language of 1980s pop-evangelicalism, “had a plan for my life”) seemed so utterly ridiculous that I began selling off hundreds of my Christianity-themed books, to the horror of everyone who knew of my almost fetishistic attachment to my personal library.
I was so convinced that my faith was as dead as disco, I published this on my website.
The soul’s God-shaped hole made famous by the infamous St. Augustine was not so much empty again as filled with a kind of cement. It was heavy and uncomfortable and would admit no light or sound. My apostasy had become not a weight lifted from my shoulders but something positively weighing me down. Perhaps it was a side effect of lament: all those years I had wasted pursuing something, or Someone, I had now come to believe to be pure myth, and not even the good kind of myth, like Prometheus or that sequel to The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai.
So what had I been looking for all those years? Forgiveness of sins? If I’m brutally frank, not really. I assumed that was the entrance fee to the Kingdom of God. You repented in order to get past God’s bouncers. But I had never really felt guilty before God. I could feel guilty before another human being whom I had hurt or let down or neglected because of laziness or self-absorption. But I never really felt guilty before God. An Against you, you alone, have I sinned kind of thing. Fear, sure. The whole wrath of God idea can be quite unnerving at 3 in the morning. And given how wretchedly many people are treated even in this life, one can only imagine what horrors could be cooked up for them, for you, in the next. But that’s not the same thing as guilt. And that’s because I had always believed, if really pressed, that life was a rigged game. I had seen so many people—family, and family friends—trapped in ways that it was impossible to shrug off as just an accumulation of bad decisions. And yet that was quotidian life stuff. When it came to the larger issue of eternal salvation, well, I certainly had spent enough time in confessional Lutheran and Reformed circles to have been baked in monergism—the idea that God alone is responsible not only for providing the means of salvation but also for effecting regeneration and imbuing one with saving faith. This made nonsense of a “free” will. (As Eric Hoffer writes: “The exaltation of the true believer does not flow from reserves of strength and wisdom but from a sense of deliverance: he had been delivered from the meaningless burdens of an autonomous existence. ‘We Germans are so happy. We are free from freedom.’”)
Corporate guilt, the family inheritance of the Fall, is no guilt at all. How can I be held personally responsible for Sin when it’s inevitable? Or is it a matter not of Sin but of sins, those icky excrescences of an underlying condition, like phlegm from the flu. “You didn’t have to do that particular bad thing, did you?”—as if the symptoms were controllable while the disease remained unchecked. “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Exactly.
Augustinian, Thomist, Calvinist, Lutheran: either you are elect or you are not, whether you preach double predestination or fudge the theological language with talk of being “passed over” for salvation, like the fat kid in a pickup basketball game. (Arminians assume you’ve been given all you need to be saved by virtue of a universal prevenient grace. You’re like an astronaut equipped for a trip to the moon. Up to you to avoid landing in that crater now that God has overriden the autopilot. But if God wants all to be saved, and he knows that the death of your child from neonatal sepsis will cause you to lose faith, why wouldn’t He prevent…? Well, you know how that goes. It seems what we really need is not so much prevenient grace as prevenient disaster insurance.)
Was I looking for community in my Christian sojourn? Uh, no. I have never been much of a joiner. To this day, I have a library card and a Triple AAA membership, and I may let that library thing go. The last party I went to I literally cannot remember. More than anything else, I was looking for an answer to what Colin Wilson describes as The Outsider’s first question, also the first question of philosophy—”not ‘What is the Universe all about?’ but ‘What shall we do with our lives?’” I was looking for a singleness of purpose, something, or Someone, who could bring into focus what I was supposed to be doing with my life. I was looking for that self-help cliché meaning, for the rails on which my life was supposed to run amid a chaos of criss-crossy desires, choices, dreams, and all the ways I could wind up jackknifed and in a ditch.
But what I found was just another kind of chaos. And how can you be free in a world of chaos?
Freedom posits free-will; that is self-evident. But Will can only operate when there is first a motive. No motive, no willing. But motive is a matter of belief; you would not want to do anything unless you believed it possible and meaningful. And belief must be belief in the existence of something; that is to say, it concerns what is real. So ultimately, freedom depends upon the real. The Outsider’s sense of unreality cuts off his freedom at the root. It is impossible to exercise freedom in an unreal world as it is to jump while you are falling.
You can’t live with an abiding sense of chaos, or unreality, without pulling the jail-cell door shut on yourself. In that case, nothing is worth doing. And it is only in the doing that meaning is found. But do what?
Only the obedient believe. If we are to believe, we must obey a concrete command. Without this preliminary step of obedience, our faith will only be pious humbug, and lead us to the grace which is not costly. Everything depends on the first step. It has a unique quality of its own. The first step of obedience makes Peter leave his nets, and later get out of the ship; it calls upon the young man to leave his riches. Only this new existence, created through obedience, can make faith possible. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship)
A few months after posting that spiritual obituary on my website, I took it down. I could find neither peace nor satisfaction in this new state of internal affairs, and nagging questions plagued me as to the cause of this spiritual upheaval, and so I decided to heed Bonhoeffer’s counsel to an unbelieving friend. I would act as if I believed. I would continue to study, continue to pray, continue to champion an orthodox Faith, and see if whatever it was I had succumbed to would finally leave my system, like salmonella.
The first lesson to be learned is that once you open that “How could a good God [fill in the blank]” business, you’re almost certainly doomed to spiritual Chapter 11. For example, before you get to hell, you have to start with Eden. Why the Fall? Hart barely touches on the subject, only to say that “evil is a tale that can have only an immanent conclusion…its proper end will be shown to be nothing but its own disappearance.” So in some supreme economy of ultimate justice, evil will prove to have amounted to nothing. Does that include all the suffering it has wrought, too? Nothing? Who granted utter “privation” the unique privilege of causing so much misery in God’s good creation?
Why did Goodness permit the collapse of original innocence (which Omniscience could only have foreseen) when he wanted only good for His image-bearers in the first place? The creation had barely made its appearance when suddenly everything goes all Windows VISTA. Early Genesis has two generic humans threatened with a penalty they could not possibly have grasped (“You will surely die”). One is beguiled by a talking snake (which should have been a dead giveaway); the other, his wife. And as a consequence, we wound up with Herod, Nero, the Black Death, the Spanish Flu, trench warfare, spite, the DMV, Facebook, and season 8 of Game of Thrones. What the hell?
And that was the second Fall. (Remember those rebel angels?) Did Omniscience learn nothing the first time around? And was this really the best Omnipotent Goodness could do right out of the creation starting gate?
And speaking of Hitler, would it have violated some Divine Prime Directive to have nudged the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna to have let the son-of-a-bitch sit and paint for a while? I mean, he wasn’t that bad.
These questions don’t just go away. The cognitive dissonance between what you think you must believe to be a “good Christian” (define it however you like) and what you experience of life in the world (not to mention life in the church) can be like tinnitus. From hell.
* * *
Every quasi-Christian cult or sect—think Christian Scientists, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons—argues similarly about their minority-opinion status: We’ve got it right, the rest of Christendom is wrong. The only advantage Hart’s universalism has, at least by his reckoning, is that he can locate examples of it early in the development of Christian thought, in those first four centuries, before the extremely influential St. Augustine embedded the predestinarian and infernalist hermeneutical paradigm into the Western religious imagination.
And yet, has revelation proved so opaque that most people in most places have failed to understand something as vital as eternal life? Tyndale’s plowman may have known more scripture than the pope, but neither he nor the pontiff seemed to have understood it. Both, apparently, had been brainwashed by centuries of bad exegesis to misread a good God’s intentions. You can forget even an intellect the magnitude of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s. The Austrian philosopher rejected Origen’s universal restoration as “more Greek than biblical,” an assertion Hart swats away: “As for Wittgenstein’s animadversions on Origen’s views, they are nearly spectacular in their facile crudity.”
Poor Wittgenstein. And poor us. After all, in this reading, God, who wishes us nothing but good, nevertheless saddled us with a Church, ostensibly the very body of Christ our redeemer, that was either theologically illiterate or deliberately cruel, imposing on the unwashed masses a campaign of psychological terror to keep the wicked and the weak in line with threats of never-ending hellfire, when He knew it was a cruel and preposterous lie all along. For all His omnipotence, there doesn’t seem to be anything he can do to stop it, except of course raise up the occasional voice crying in the wilderness, such as Hart.
I kept asking myself as I read That All Shall Be Saved whether Hart reads the God of the Bible as little more than anthropomorphisms of “facile crudity,” a mélange of metaphor and myth. I can’t help but be put in mind of Greg Boyd’s attempt to spare God even more bad PR: his two-volume The Crucifixion of the Warrior God. He, too, is an Origen fan. A plain reading of Scripture, however, even making room for metaphor and myth, can render only one sobering conclusion, for both Hart and Boyd: God has a supernatural tolerance level for human suffering.
There were some present at that very time who told [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13: 1–5).
Gee, thanks for the pep talk, Jesus. Where’s Joel Osteen when you need him?
Over at Al Kimel’s Eclectic Orthodoxy blog, I found this, in a pseudonymous review of Hart’s book:
Yet would an eschatological disclosure render our earthly misery finally comprehensible? If God could provide a morally sufficient reason for divine inaction in the face of horrendous evil, would it not further inculpate God, especially given the reality of God’s miraculous, discrete interventions in the course of salvation history? The scandal of particularity so central to Christianity makes itself felt with special acuity at this moment, when we recognize that God is present to us at every moment in the spectacle of our suffering. But to deny that there exist any morally sufficient reasons for our concrete suffering (as Hart surely does) would not obviate the problem, for as we have already noted, divine foreknowledge of the fall and the resultant world of misery functionally and morally renders all suffering a necessary moment in the divine plan. Universalism’s celebratory mood thus subtly transforms into a marked ambivalence towards the silent and spectating God.
Dare I say it: Hart and the much-despised arch-infernalist John Calvin are opposite sides of the same coin. They both want the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to make sense: the former (Hart), moral sense; the latter (Calvin), soteriological sense. But what about the cross makes sense? A Jewish preacher of Apocalypse hangs beaten and bloody from Roman cross beams, the title “King of the Jews” mockingly marking His torture device, only to show up three days later alive and walking through closed doors, still bearing His wounds and accounted “Lord and God” by idol-phobic monotheists who will lose their lives preaching his name as the only one under heaven by which anyone is saved from sin, death, and the devil. Then the Crusades and Benny Hinn.
Sure, why not? Isn’t that the logical, coherent, and indisputably moral climax to the human adventure? I mean, the story practically writes itself.
* * *
Geez, Anthony, the way you tell it, the whole religion seems pretty screwy. Is there a way to make sense of this farrago of contradictory texts, divergent Church Fathers, and East-West divide?
OK, let me rephrase: Not unless you’re simply willing to live with a certain level of paradox.
Hart, of course, will have none of that:
And what could be more absurd than the claim that God’s ways so exceed comprehension that we dare not presume even to distinguish benevolence from malevolence in the divine…? Here the docile believer is simply commanded to nod in acquiescence, quietly and submissively, to feel moved at a strange and stirring obscurity, and to accept that, if only he or she could sound the depths of this mystery, its essence would somehow be revealed as infinite beauty and love. A rational person capable of that assent, however—of believing all of this to be a paradox concealing a deeper, wholly coherent truth, rather than a gross contradiction—has probably suffered such chronic intellectual and moral malformation that he or she is no longer able to recognize certain very plain truths.
And Luther will have none of Hart:
We have to argue in one way about God or the will of God as preached, revealed, offered, and worshiped, and in another way about God as he is not preached, not revealed, not offered, not worshiped. To the extent, therefore, that God hides himself and wills to be unknown to us, it is no business of ours. For here the saying truly applies, ‘Things above us are no business of ours. … Diatribe, however, deceives herself in her ignorance by not making any distinction between God preached and God hidden, that is, between the Word of God and God himself. God does many things that he does not disclose to us in his word; he also wills many things which he does not disclose himself as willing in his word. Thus he does not will the death of a sinner, according to his word; but he wills it according to that inscrutable will of his. It is our business, however, to pay attention to the word and leave that inscrutable will alone, for we must be guided by the word and not by that inscrutable will. After all, who can direct himself by a will completely inscrutable and unknowable? It is enough to know simply that there is a certain inscrutable will in God, and as to what, why, and how far it wills, that is something we have no right whatever to inquire into, hanker after, care about, or meddle with, but only to fear and adore. (LW 33:139-140)
The Lutheran tradition stands in a unique relationship to universalism. First there were the Lutheran Pietists of the 18th century, some of whom were genuine universalists or leaned in that direction, and transmitted their beliefs to England and the new world. But confessional Lutherans have traditionally interpreted all those inclusive Scripture verses cited and translated by Hart as not only evidence for a universal atonement but also for something called “universal objective justification” (UOJ)—that God was reconciling the whole world (no exceptions) to himself, “not counting their transgressions against them.” “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5: 6–8).
The Formula of Concord affirms:
We must in every way hold firmly and sturdily to this, that, as the preaching of repentance, so also the promise of the Gospel is universalis, that is, it pertains to all men, Luke 24:47. For this reason Christ has commanded “that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name among all nations.” “For God loved the world and gave His Son,” John 3:16. Christ bore the sins of the world, John 1:29, gave His flesh for the life of the world, John 6:51; His blood is “the propitiation for the sins of the whole world,” 1 John 1:7; 2:2. Christ says: “Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” Matt . 11:28. “God hath concluded them all in unbelief that He might have mercy upon all,” Rom. 11:32 . “The Lord is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance,” 2 Pet. 3:9.
Call it a hypothetical universalism, given that no one must be damned. God does not need to “demonstrate” his justice or his sovereignty by torturing anyone for breaking the law. (Before whom, exactly, he would be making this demonstration is never quite clear, as if He were auditioning for the role of “God.”) It is a strange justice and an even weirder notion of “sovereignty” that allows the Author of Life to be taken captive by sinful men and nailed to a cross, but that then demands someone be damned to show who’s boss.
And yet, within Augsburg’s precincts is found the idea that even Jesus can’t hold on to the twice-born if the latter are determined to exercise their non-freedom freedom and forfeit their salvation. Despite the Lutheran insistence that faith and regeneration, not to mention eternal life, are pure gift, which one can only receive and never earn, there is still the possibility of the “lapse” from the New Adam (Christ) to the Old Adam (our sin nature).
As Adolf Köberle notes in his Quest for Holiness:
Every lapse from the old nature is our own grievous guilt. Because there is a quickening Spirit present, Who gives the impulse and the ability for prayer and service, it becomes a sin for which we are accountable when we do not pray, do not obey, do not hold fast to our “first love.” …
Someone might ask, if dare and jubere, if description and prescription, thus coincide in faith, why is there any further need of commandments that demand action? This objection is only possible when the opposite pole of the double relationship is overlooked, the fact that while we can neither create nor maintain the new life we can always lose it [emphasis mine].
Apparently, we don’t do. We only don’t do. Unless what we do is sin. Which is the precursor to unbelief. Our “cooperation,” apparently, is purely negative. We are capable of failing to believe even after we have been given the gift of faith. We are capable of rejecting, of denying, of refusing.
We are Masters of Destruction.
If the Old Adam retains its negative power such that it can trump the power of Christ to save, then how on earth is anyone saved, if we are in fact incapable of any good thing in and of ourselves, only evil, which is to say, only what is contrary to God’s perfect will and holiness, despite our liberated will and all those oughts? What greater example of this evil can there be than our rejection of God’s good gifts in Christ? If it’s a battle between Christ and the Old Adam, and the Old Adam can triumph, what kind of savior is He? Shouldn’t the Second Adam supersede the First? What exactly did Christ accomplish on the cross? A justification that is won for all but that could, theoretically at least, redound to the benefit of no one?
Jesus saves and sanctifies the ungodly—unless they’re really, really ungodly and allow the fallen human negative to trump the divine gratuitous positive.
Call it a paradox, a contradiction, a “chronic intellectual and moral malformation,” yet it’s all there in the New Testament. You have assurance of salvation side by side with fervent warnings against falling away (John 15:6; 1 Corinthians 15:2; Galatians 6:8-9; 2 Timothy 2: 12; Hebrews 6:4-6, 10:26; 2 Peter 2:20-21). Why waste the syllables if you can’t lose your salvation, or you never had your salvation in the first place (reprobate that you are)—or, more to the point of Hart’s book, it’s all going to work out in the end anyway so you’re going to be worried about a moral imbecility?
The Formula of Concord again:
31. Above all, therefore, the false Epicurean delusion is to be earnestly censured and rejected, namely, that some imagine that faith and the righteousness and salvation which they have received can be lost through no sins or wicked deeds, not even through wilful and intentional ones, but that a Christian although he indulges his wicked lusts without fear and shame, resists the Holy Ghost, and purposely engages in sins against conscience, yet none the less retains faith, God’s grace, righteousness, and salvation.
32. Against this pernicious delusion the following true, immutable, divine threats and severe punishments and admonitions should be often repeated and impressed upon Christians who are justified by faith: 1 Cor. 6:9: Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, etc., shall inherit the kingdom of God. Gal. 5:21; Eph. 5:5: They which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. Rom. 8:13: If ye live after the flesh, ye shall die. Col. 3:6: For which thing’s sake the wrath of God cometh upon the children of disobedience.
33. But when and in what way the exhortations to good works can be earnestly urged from this basis without darkening the doctrine of faith and of the article of justification, the Apology shows by an excellent model, when in Article XX, on the passage 2 Pet. 1:10: Give diligence to make your calling and election sure, it says as follows: Peter teaches why good works should be done, namely, that we may make our calling sure, that is, that we may not fall from our calling if we again sin. “Do good works,” he says, “that you may persevere in your heavenly calling, that you may not fall away again, and lose the Spirit and the gifts, which come to you, not on account of works that follow, but of grace, through Christ, and are now retained by faith. But faith does not remain in those who lead a sinful life, lose the Holy Ghost, and reject repentance.” Thus far the Apology.
Hart would no doubt see in the Lutheran construal of the Faith just another self-contradictory dodge. Remember: If even a Hitler is damned for eternity, Christianity is morally suspect and inferior in the mercy business to, say, Mahayana Buddhism (see pp. 14–15).
Hart notes, for example, that Paul never once mentions “hell” per se. The closest he comes is 2 Thessalonians 1:9: “They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” (In this vein, the Book of Revelation speaks of “a second death.”) This seems to give credence to the annihilationist view, which, it should be noted, Hart also dismisses:
The ultimate absence of a certain number of created rational natures would still be a kind of failure or loss forever preserved within the totality of the tale of divine victory. If what is lost is lost finally and absolutely, then whatever remains, however glorious, is the residue of an unresolved and no less ultimate tragedy, and so cold constitute only a relative “happy ending.”
But this seeks to define the stakes of “divine victory” when Scripture does not. I personally find the annihilationist view the most compelling biblically, as did the late great Anglican teacher-preacher John R.W. Stott. I share Hart’s disdain for such bloodless arguments as “Everyone deserves hell, so the fact that God saves anyone is sheer grace.” As Paul declares: the wages of sin is death, not being set on fire forever.
Whether annihilation would be preceded by a punitive form of punishment (as opposed to a curative form) based on what they knew (Luke 12:47-48) or how depraved they were, I have no idea. I simply think an appeal can credibly be made to Scripture for the possibility; it’s also easier to come to terms with (which, of course, is not dispositive but merely an appeal to sentiment). A lake of fire of eternal torment is also found in Scripture, and for that matter so is some kind of universalism (“Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people,” Romans 5:18).
We can all grant that God does not owe eternal life to anyone. But the idea that some Sinhalese tea exporter who has never heard the gospel deserves eternal misery because he was not perfect in thought, word, and deed is, well, pick a Hartian epithet. And even Lutherans’ UOJ doesn’t come to terms with the apparent pointlessness of reconciling all sinners to God when most of those sinners will still be damned because they were “providentially unfortunate” to have been born in the wrong place at the wrong time—that is, bereft of a preacher. If you say they are damned because of their sins, well, for the skatey-eighth time, who did Jesus come to save but sinners, who cannot possibly save themselves? If you say they are damned because they are not Elect but rather are the Passed Over Ones, then the difference between Lutherans and Reformed on this issue is at the rhetorical level only, and Hart’s condemnation of this scheme as little more than a grotesque game of Hazard remains in effect.
I give! I admit it! An eternal punishment doesn’t make a lot of moral sense. Even the “sinners offend against the infinite dignity of an infinite God and so deserve an infinite penalty” bromide is just that. Hart: An “absolute culpability—eternal culpability—lies forever beyond the capacities of any finite being.” If one is left proffering God’s absolute sovereignty as the absolute justification for an eternal hell, well, don’t get Hart started on Calvin, whom he makes out to be a proto-Ionesco.
I regard the picture of God thus produced to be a metaphysical absurdity: a God who is at once supposedly the source of all things, and yet also one whose nature is necessarily thoroughly polluted by arbitrariness (and, no matter how orthodox Calvinists might protest, there is no other way to understand the story of election and dereliction that Calvin tells), which would mean that in some sense he is a finite being, in whom possibility exceeds actuality and the irrational exceeds the rational.
In other words, or rather in Hart’s, “Calvinism is nothing but a savage reductio ad absurdum of the worst aspects of an immensely influential but still deeply defective theological tradition.” That would be Augustinianism. Yet both Hart and Calvin are determinists of a sort: Calvin for reprobation and Hart for universal salvation. Hart’s argument for God’s ensuring that human beings retain their creaturely freedom even as He determines their ultimate end takes up a great part of the book, which you’ll just have to buy and read for yourself. OK, OK, one quick quote: “The suggestion, then, that God—properly understood—could not assure that a person freely will one thing rather than another is simply false. Inasmuch as he acts upon the mind and will both as their final cause and also as the deepest source of their movements, he is already intrinsic to the very structure of reason and desire within the soul.”
Sound familiar? Brothers under the skin?
And yet, and yet, if so many have gotten it so wrong for so long about this hell business, then what else are we mis-exegeting in Scripture? I mean, how difficult would it have been for Paul or John or Ringo (the real author of Hebrews) to have written one simple sentence: “And so we preach the good news that all are saved by the Cross of Christ: believers, unbelievers, Jews and Gentile idolators, even the unrepentant—all will see the Kingdom of Heaven” if it was so important to convey the character of God?
* * *
I wish Hart had spent more pages on the Atonement. I realize that’s not the focus of the book, but it is not irrelevant. The Eastern Orthodox generally have no use for penal substitution theories. Jesus’s death is seen as a liberation: we are freed hostages, no longer captive to sin, death, and the devil. It eschews monergism and unapologetically teaches a divine-human synergism. Fleeting references to the cross include a nod to Jesus’ having won a victory over death, and that, per Gregory of Nyssa, it enabled Him to “reclaim those who are already his—which is to say, everyone.”
What of the wrath of God, which “remains” on the disobedient (John 3:36)? Hart seems to consider it little more than a fetish indulged in by fundamentalists. One could be forgiven for walking away from this book thinking that the Incarnation is salvific in and of itself, as if Jesus had redeemed mankind simply by becoming a man.
I bring this up because there is no coming to terms with the wages of sin until we try and understand what the Bible teaches about it, which is to say, sin.
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. …
“Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matthew 5:21–30).
What is the redemptive price of an illicit thought? Or of even callous indifference to the suffering of a complete stranger, never mind rape or murder or abuse of one’s parents—or the orchestration of genocide (or feticide)? Some have seen in the “prison” image and paying the “last penny” a reference to purgatory, but I can’t see how that is exegetically defensible. It’s almost certainly a this-world example of the poor being oppressed by the rich and thrown in literal jails. It’s a way of comparing the severity of civil law with the literal hell born of ultimate justice. If you think things are harsh now, wait until the next life.
So what is the price to be paid for sin? Well, first of all, it can’t be quantified. There can be no penitential quid pro quo. The price is the same for every sin: the death of God, the true Passover lamb, whose blood is sprinkled on those who believe, so that the angel of death will pass over them. No blood, no life.
And life is given for life:
“The clearest statement that the blood sacrifices of the Old Testament ritual had a substitutionary significance, however, and that this was why the shedding and sprinkling of blood was indispenable to atonement, is to be found in this statement by God explaining why the eating of blood was prohibited: “For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.” (Lev 17:11) (The Cross of Christ, Stott)
Fast forward to Paul: “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5: 7b-8).
I’m convinced this dispute is not really between those who believe in eternal conscious torment and those who do not; rather, it’s between those who believe that sins can be purged through some kind of personal, finite suffering and those who believe that the only righteousness with any purchase in the Kingdom of Heaven is Christ’s alone. We come to the wedding feast dressed in His perfection, not our own. “Everything that Christ has is ours,” wrote Luther, speaking of the great exchange: our sins for His alien righteousness.
Psalm 32:1: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.”
Matthew 22:11-14: “But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”
1 Corinthians 1:27–31: “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”
If Christ is our righteousness, “whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith,” what’s the purpose of a postmortem purging? And how exactly would that work for those not found in Christ? Let’s assume the talk of fire is metaphorical. Presumably the suffering is real. How does our suffering purge us of sin? By causing some poor bastard to scream: “God is good! I’m a sinner! Really sorry! Please stop now!”? Isn’t this forbidden by the Geneva Convention? And is this holiness? A postmortem purgation would have us believe that the Inquisition got it right.
Moreover, a purgative view of the afterlife dilutes the cross of its sacrificial value. In fact, the most potent objection to universalism could be said that it makes the cross all but irrelevant. As McClymond writes:
Purgationist universalism also does away with grace. … Instead there is a clear affirmation of distinction and even of separation between God and humanity that must somehow be overcome. Yet rather than affirming that Christ is the one who overcomes this separation, purgationism shifts this work from Christ to the human individual. Stated bluntly: people go to heaven when they are good enough for heaven. Bulgakov’s The Bride of the Lamb (1944) makes painfully clear this eclipse of grace in purgationism. He rejects the idea of “free forgiveness” and insists instead that all sinners will make full and complete “expiation” for their own sins. No one after death goes simply to heaven or to hell, says Bulgakov, but rather to some intermediate condition that represents a mixture of these two. Both heaven and hell exist in each of us, and so there is much inwardly that requires purification. Bulgakov’s insistence on full reparation for one’s own sins gives his theology a moralistic and impersonalistic ethos. One wonders what Bulgakov thinks Christ accomplished for sinners. It is unclear whether Jesus’s coming made a decisive difference inasmuch as everyone has to suffer until they expiate their own sins.
It’s justification by misery. Squeeze a Pol Pot hard enough and you’ll make a St. Francis of him yet. If only Jesus had known.
I guess you could argue that the postmortem purgatorial “fires” are the “fires” of the suffering of Christ’s own self-sacrifice, which serves to conform the up-till-now unrepentant sinner to Christ’s own image, seeing as the poor wretch either never had a chance or forfeited it in this life.
But where do you find that in Scripture, which is the only foundation we have for saying anything about the God revealed in Christ? Are we to believe there was some oral tradition that escorted Scripture down the centuries but was only recognized as divine truth by an elite, perspicacious few?
At what point does our reasoning about the ways of God simply fail? Reason is great for curing smallpox and building prostheses and fast cars and even faster cellphones and the Great Wall. It lands men on the moon and turns barren land into flourishing cities. It’s also great, it should be added, for determining whether the sun goes around the earth or the other way around; whether the earth is a disc: a circle, but flat, like a record album; whether the earth is 6,000 years old or 4.45 billion; whether New Jersey was under water during the flood written about in Genesis. Etc.
But it is useless in explaining the hypostatic union or how God could “die” or the mysteries of the Sacraments or the nature of a spiritual body. And it certainly cannot begin to fathom how a crucified Jew could reconcile the fallen world to God, or how
when God makes alive he does it by killing, when he justifies he does it by making men guilty, when he exalts to heaven he does it by bringing down to hell, as Scripture says: “The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Shoal and raises up,” Sam. 2:6. —Luther
If there is one person in Scripture who has pierced the veil, who has seen heaven, or some approximation of it, it’s the Apostle Paul: “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.”
Which is probably why the apostle leaves us this quote to ponder: “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.”
Nor the heart of man imagined and which may not be uttered. A signal for all of us to stop trying? And about the hell thing too?
* * *
I guess some of you are thinking atheism’s looking mighty good right about now. I can easily see how someone could become so thoroughly persuaded by Hart’s deconstruction of the infernalist’s sadistic Yahweh that she could no longer believe any part of this absurd story. I can definitely see the appeal to the intellect of a purely materialist understanding of everything. Let’s see: First there is nothing. Then there is something. Then the something got really big really fast. (One day it will get really small.) Then it got really hot. (One day it will get really cold.) Then after a really long time, the dinosaurs came. Then they went away. Except for the birds. Then Einstein’s walking around Princeton talking about a unified field theory.
It all makes sense now. Except it could be completely wrong.
Look, think long and hard enough about any of these “Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades or loose the cords of Orion?” questions (also known as the Fermi Paradox, but I could be mistaken about that) and nothing completely satisfies (except perhaps for the completely unreflective, who don’t ask such questions in the first place as they’re too busy watching reruns of 21 Jump Street). In our heart of hearts, we assume we could have done a better job as creators. I mean, did we really need 120,000 species of flies? What’s…what’s with all the flies? So many damn flies.
Perhaps this is why so many Christians cling to a denomination with, if not a blind allegiance, perhaps a myopic one. If they were not snugly moored to a particular tradition that has worked out pat-ish answers to these ultimate questions, and were instead left alone with their Bibles, they would either lose their minds or lose their faith. Not everyone has the cocksureness of a David Bentley Hart that he is reading the koine Greek of the New Testament, the first-century cultural context, and the extrabiblical literature with sufficient rigor and accuracy that he can insist that most everyone is wrong and that he and his coterie of early Eastern Fathers are right.
Others, the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd, prefer to keep their doctrinal options open. You never know who’s going to publish something fresh and dangerous that will widen the horizons of Sunday school Christianity. Which is why I think Anglicanism, despite its reputation as being theologically promiscuous, remains a real option for those who still yearn for a church home but who are not prepared to go in the other direction and pope. There’s breathing room in Anglicanism. But no one will ever accuse it of being coherent.
* * *
OK, what if we start from the beginning: not with a theologian’s a priori notions of who God must be, or God in se, and what was on His mind when he decided to create anything in the first place, which itself reduces the Ground of Being to the guy who invented Gorilla Glue, but rather with how He has chosen to reveal Himself in his final revelation. And that would be Jesus.
Why is it so hard to focus on Him, acknowledge our limits, and leave all speculation behind?
I mean, aside from a natural intellectual curiosity, and because we don’t want to feel as if we’re being three-card-monted with all this invisible Friend stuff, and because we just want to know what God knows. (The Garden of Eden scenario may be a myth, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.)
The New Testament documents were written in a time when the world was, from the cramped perspective of first-century men, a much smaller place, and when oppressive forces—the principalities and powers—were in your face to such an extent that justice must have seemed more important even than mercy. What Hart sees as informing the mental landscape of Augustinians with their predestinarian doctrines, I see informing much of the New Testament world:
The brute invocation of divine sovereignty as an argument for the moral intelligibility of hell exercised a more immediate logical appeal in the days when the heathen cult of class still held sway over the better part of humanity’s moral imagination, and when men and women were accustomed to servile cringing before the arbitrary whims of potentates, and to offering up obsequious encomia to their masters’ “divine right” and “absolute sovereignty” and squalid nonsense or that kind.
But for 21st-century worldlings, justice and fairness and equality have become the yardsticks with which we measure everything. And the whole “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” business seems so unjust and unfair and the basis for an eternal inequality.
But that’s not all of it. Unlike a first-century Near Eastern peasant, we’re well aware of the size of the world, with its 7.7 billion inhabitants and regular threats of a population apocalypse. At the same time, the lives of more and more of these folk have been made accessible to us thanks to technology. We have thrust before us by way of 24/7 global media so much terrifying suffering that we cannot even begin to conceive of how to ameliorate it, never mind completely arrest it. To keep our sanity, and our soul, we need to believe there’s going to be at least a happy ending, if not for absolutely everyone, then for most.
Look, there comes a point in all debates when the Christian must simply say, “I don’t know. It was not revealed. Believe what was revealed. Leave the rest as to God.”
The last way to come to know God is to fixate on a single attribute—His goodness, sovereignty, justice, holiness. You’ll find yourself in a Room 101 of tortured reasoning. Fixate on Jesus given for you, and you’ll find the forgiveness of your sins and new life, which is the whole damn point.
Does that answer the “What of those who never hear?” question? Obviously not. But neither does Jesus, except to say, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” a fool’s errand (and often a deadly one) if all are ultimately saved and always were.
As for That All Shall Be Saved, dare I be cheeky and say that David Bentley Hart would make a damn good Protestant? (And I can’t think of anything he’d find more insulting.) Why? Well, he finds Church Fathers that best represent his beliefs, like Gregory of Nyssa (who failed to convince even his own brother of the truth of universalism) and Origen, and rides them like Eddie Arcaro on Whirlaway. (Think the magisterial Reformers and St. Augustine.) He has a set of Bible verses verses he deems determinative, that give scriptural ground to his position, and then used those as controls, reinterpreting all the verses that contradict those convictions. Evangelicals and the Reformed have virtually cornered the market on this. “Take eat this is my body,” except body doesn’t mean body. “Baptism now saves you,” except baptism doesn’t mean water baptism. “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world,” except world means the elect only. “It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance,” except impossible means possible. And “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction,” except destruction means final rehabilitation. “They which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God,” except shall not means will.
And so it goes. Hart has his version of Christianity and will suffer no contradiction. Catholics, of course, have theirs; Eastern Orthodox theirs, Lutherans theirs, Calvinists theirs, Baptists theirs—hell, Mormons too.
If this sounds like relativism or postmodernism or Pontius Pilatism (What is truth?), then you tell me who has the real Christianity, and I’ll tell you that’s the version that comports best with your psychological and emotional makeup, personal history, and cultural context. You’ll deny it: “See—it says right here in Scripture! (No, here!) Saint So-and-So believed it! The Council of Oswego, New York, decreed it! Read the bull of Pope Flagellatius III! Reason demands it! We can’t let the Buddhists beat us in the mercy Olympics!” I’ll deny your denial. You’ll deny mine. And so on.
So are we left with mere fideism? A leap of faith? A leap toward faith? A principled agnosticism? An unprincipled dogmatism? Good questions one and all. Unfortunately, office hours are closed. See the bursar on the way out.
* * *
I’m tempted at this point to say something superficially irenic like, “I hope Hart’s right,” but that would be to trivialize his book. First of all, Hart has no respect for such moral equivocation, even from a thinker as distinguished as Hans Urs von Balthasar.
Neither do I.
I hope Hart is wrong. Because if he is right, then I was right to apostatize in 2015. I was right to consider the Christian story found both within the covers of the Bible and conveyed in church history to be so much moral and narrative chaos. What good is the Word of God when no one can get right such an essential of the Faith as the life to come? Even the church body that claims for itself infallibility and a magisterium apparently confuses purgatory with hell. What exactly does such a Word reveal but that even the apostles were muddled. If in the end we are purified of our sins by having the spit kicked out of us in the Afterlife, or by a transmigration of souls, or by some theosophy-sounding gibberish, well then Christianity is a sham and Jesus merely a martyr to church-state politics.
Remember, Hart did not write his book as a contribution to some debate, as a mere opinion, as an option for Christians wrestling with the goodness of God. As quoted up top, he asserts with the full-throated certainty of a film critic that his argument is “irrefutable.” Anyone who rejects it didn’t understand it, denies one crucial tenet of the Faith or another, and/or renders Christianity incoherent. This is not on the level of a paedo- vs. credo-baptism debate, or bishops vs. elders. This is what finally defines Christianity as morally defensible, able to hold its own against a Mahayana Buddhism and its merciful Bodhisattvas.
So by this reckoning, even if I was wrong to reject Christ—I wasn’t finally responsible but only a slave to “the accidental and mindless,” which is all a rejection of one’s own ultimate good—God—can ever be.
So who did what I did and wrote what I wrote? If we’re all just slightly loony and perverse versions of our ideal selves, who would never do or say anti-God stuff if we were in our right minds, then who was I? Certainly not the Anthony who will, if Hart is correct, spend eternity in the Kingdom of Heaven. There’s crazy Anthony (Hello, thanks for reading) and then there’s the Platonic ideal who would never do the stupid things I have done but who will spend eternity praising God for ridding him of that guy.
So I guess ideal Anthony goes to heaven. But, brother, I’m here to tell you, you’re going to have to introduce me to him, because I wouldn’t recognize him from Adam.
But hold on: Where is it written that some pristine cognitive state—total sanity—is the only basis of personal responsibility before God? There is such a thing as being found guilty of breaking a law you didn’t even know existed. Ignorantia juris non excusat. And yet no one can credibly say that the Tao, as C.S. Lewis called it, that natural law we cannot not know, has not been sufficiently promulgated. (Has there ever been a culture in the history of the world that taught you should be wretched to your parents? I mean before 1968?) We first encounter law as an accuser. You are guilty. Who can stand before a holy God, whose face no one can see and live, and declare, “I am innocent by virtue of a flawed understanding of my ultimate Good”? There will be no excuses (“I’m only human! I had a sin nature! It was the woman you gave me who gave me the fruit”), as much as we’d like to think them exculpatory and morally sane. I fear the insanity plea is just a philosopher’s trick, useful only when arguing before Pascal’s God of the philosophers, but little more than vain bleating before the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.²
* * *
May I make one small suggestion, one that no doubt will get me accused of committing the logical fallacy of arguing from authority or of warbling the same insipid hymn from the Augustinian catholic tradition, only in a Lutheran key? I offer this as someone who had lost his faith in part because of the very controversies ventilated above. As someone who was nevertheless was granted repentance when he had no right to it or claim on it (Against You, You only, have I sinned). As someone who kneels at an altar rail each Sunday and receives the body and blood of Christ because Someone, not something, like nostalgia or “emptiness” or, heaven knows, a fear of hell, but Someone, who really didn’t care how many books of historical criticism I had read or how angry I was about this or that, but who, in an inaudible but nevertheless verbal manner (For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty), insisted that certain promises had been made at my baptism and that He intended to keep them. As a wanderer who was found yet again, during that time “called Today,” because all our second chances are for this life only, and because “eternal destruction,” whatever that means, is not temporary misery.
As someone who has learned how to be rid of hell once and for all, to put it out of one’s mind for good, and would like to help others put it out of theirs,
repeat after me:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”
¹ Hart also cites Luther in this regard. “When asked whether the saved would feel any sorrow seeing their family members cast into hell’s flames, he replied ‘Not in the least. In fact, they will rejoice.’” But I could not find any evidence for this. Neither could several Lutheran pastors who had access to digital libraries of Luther’s work. So rather than just assume it was wrong, I decided to email Hart and ask his source. He was gracious enough to respond, to the effect that it was a “notorious but well-attested anecdote” “mentioned by Kierkegaard and others as a commonplace piece of information.” He could not remember off the top of his head the biographies in which he had read it. Again, it’s not a quote from Luther but something someone writes about Luther. I have no doubt Hart did read it somewhere. I’d just love to know where. So much misinformation has been dispensed about the Reformer, from the days of Cochlaeus on, that, until the source of this anecdote can be definitively nailed down, I would treat it with as much credibility as that notorious quote of Abraham Lincoln’s: “Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet.”
Hart is not wrong, however, to remind his readers that down through the centuries there have been Christians, some extremely influential and downright brilliant, who have taught that the saved will be able to witness the suffering of the damned and rejoice in their punishment. Nor is he wrong to be repelled by the notion. In addition to Catholic saints and doctors of that church, many prominent Reformed theologians and preachers have positively reveled in the idea. See this Reformed Theological Seminary student’s über-serious defense of this grotesque notion, not to mention the catena of Reformed voices he cites in support. Below are just three:
“When they [the saints in heaven] shall see the smoke of their torment [the damned], and the raging of the flames of their burning, and hear their dolorous shrieks and cries, and consider that they in the meantime are in the most blissful state, and shall surely be in it to all eternity; how will they rejoice!”
“What bliss will fill the ransomed souls,
“When they in glory dwell,
“To see the sinner as he rolls,
“In quenchless flames of hell.”
“As it will aggravate the miseries of the damned to see others in the kingdom of heaven and themselves thrust out (Luke 13:28), so it will illustrate the joys and glories of the blessed to see what becomes of those that died in their transgression.”
It’s hard not to read this stuff and wonder whether they weren’t the ones who were non compos mentis.
² I believe exceptions are made in the case of the children of that Sinhalese tea exporter, at the very least, and other children who die without access to baptism, and the clinically insane or mentally disabled, to whom God can extend a special grace or mercy. Then again, I believe many special graces and mercies will be extended to “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Revelation 7:9–10)