The Remarkable Unity of Rhetoric and Dialectic in ‘That All Shall Be Saved’

by Jordan Daniel Wood, Ph.D.


I had resolved to avoid, at all costs, making the substance of my reflection on David Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved about its rhetoric. Rhetoric features prominently among the main concerns of the book’s alacritous critics, whose reviews read mostly like a culled catalog of naughty words combined with implicit and explicit allegations of guilt by association (with nineteenth-century Unitarians, Moltmann, Rob Bell, Satan, and so forth). And so, having read the book three times, I wanted to ignore these diversions. But then I came to suspect that the gross caricatures of Hart’s rhetoric throughout the book betray a more fundamen­tal misunderstanding of his actual viewpoint and its supporting arguments which, predict­ably, have gone mostly undiscussed.

And yes, that is my position regarding his rhetoric. I don’t find Hart’s rhetorical or polemical tone particularly menacing or overweening. That judgment, I confess, might well be the result of immersing myself in scripture, where Jesus calls Pharisees “sons of hell” and Paul wishes aloud that his opponents would castrate themselves and John revels in the vision of the Whore of Babylon’s fatal demise; and in the Church fathers, who so frequently depict their interlocutors as “godless atheists” and attribute their error to “moral and intellectual stupidity” (to quote a passage of Cyril’s I read just a few days ago). Maybe I’ve become alto­gether tone-deaf to razor-sharp rhetoric. Nevertheless, I shall argue that Hart’s universalism entails exactly the rhe­torical stance he adopts in the book, and that, conversely, correctly appreciating the rhetorical performance aids comprehen­sion of the fundamental dialectic he employs in defense and explication of apokatastasis.

Hart’s thesis is as plain as it is bold: “If Christianity taken as a whole is indeed an entirely coherent and credible system of belief, then the universalist understanding of its message is the only one possible” (3). His is no half-spoken, Balthasarian “hopeful universalism,” for which Hart has “very small patience,” especially “when it seems like a strategy for crediting oneself with a tenderheartedness that one might nevertheless be willing to doubt in God” (103). Balthasar asked if we might dare to hope for universal salvation. Hart contends that “Christians dare not doubt the salvation of all” (66). Not that Hart pretends this radical thesis ever enjoyed some sort of majority status in Christian tradition, contrary to the claims of certain critics. He knows he represents the underdogs of Christian history, and that his case might “serve merely as a kind of negative probation of the tradition—the plaintiff’s brief dutifully submitted by an advocatus diaboli, on behalf of an eccentric minority position, in full anticipation that the final verdict will go to the other” (5; cf. 187, 199, passim). He knows that even among churchly sympathizers universalism “was never, as a rule, encouraged in any general way by those in authority in the church” (201). Any insinuation that Hart seeks to dupe the reader into thinking universalism was ever anything more than an underground current in Christian tradition is dishonest and should be dismissed out of hand as fraudulent.

I will proceed through three phases, then a finale. First I portray the rhetor­ical stance Hart occupies throughout the book, which, once again, I hope will burn away a few more straw­men. I’ll then distill what I take to be Hart’s two basic dialectical theses and the way they imply one another—that rational freedom is only truly free when it possesses full knowl­edge of its own origin and end, God; and that God’s infinite goodness is revealed just to the degree he does not create any rational creature who will perpetually fail to attain to true knowledge and thus true freedom. Here again, I hope to clarify a few misunderstand­ings and mispri­sions about these arguments. Attending carefully to the dialectic should manifest the profound unity of Hart’s dialectical theses with his rhetorical stance, and indeed uncover just what sort of position universalism is and is not. My final remarks countenance the unique necessity of the universalist’s rhetorical and dialectical unity. That unity shows the rhetoric involved is not a matter of arrogance, but of faith. Or, to put it frankly, Hart’s universalism is a pious (and childlike) rebellion against every species of theological and religious nihilism.


Hart never accuses any individual person of anything. Nowhere in this book will you read that x or y person “is a moral cretin,” to employ a favorite fabrication of the detractors. Not that Hart shrinks from excoriating specific doctrines or theological views. The doctrine of infants’ limbo, for example, “mitigates but does not dispel” the “moral idiocy” of the idea that unbaptized babies will not attain the beatific vision (76). Or the Evangelical apolo­gist’s urging that we should cease to pity the damned because such pity is fruitless “is nothing more than a counsel of moral imbecility” (147). But the apologist himself is not simply an imbecile. Hart never links the genesis of his opponents’ views, however heinous or incoher­ent he takes these to be, to the bare fact that they are mere morons or willful idiots. That includes every type of infernalist, too. And that, I think, is because he’s committed to the absolutely fundamental (and traditional) conviction that error, lies, and even enmity are always nursed by ignorance.

When Hart does characterize the actual persons who propagate the views he judges illogical or morally repulsive, he does so in the very terms he uses to characterize the whole of fallen humanity: as at least partial victims of circumstance, of error and prior falsehoods, misun­der­standings, ignorance, delusion, as well as the crippling sense of external and lamentable constraint. Right from the start he recognizes that most infernalists, “even very intelligent persons,” tender arguments for understanding hell as the eternal conscious torment of the damned because “they feel bound by faith” to do so (12; cf. 28, 35, 43–4). Nor does he place the blame solely upon the shoulders of this or that scheming group or individual: “The conspiracy, so to speak, is an entirely open one, an unpremeditated corporate labor of communal self- deception, requiring us all to do our parts to sustain one another in our collective derangement.” Hence he regards

the entire process as the unintentional effect of a long tradition of error, one in which a series of bad interpretations of scripture produced various corruptions of theological reasoning, which were themselves then preserved as immemorial revealed truths and, at the last, rendered impregnable to all critique by the indurated mental habits of generations. (19, my emphasis)

When Thomas followed Lombard in affirming that heavenly bliss is amplified by the sight of the damned, he was “the victim not only of a defective narrative, but also of the rigor of his own mind.” Thomas, after all, was unquestionably “a brilliant thinker,” but raw capac­ity and sincere piety offer no invincible defense against ignorance and error; genius can even aid these latter (168). More, Hart even evinces a form of empathy for that great spectral nimbus hovering about the Reformed tradition: “I do not hold Calvin himself necessarily account­able for this, since in this matter he was the product of centuries of bad scriptural interpre­tations and even worse theological reasoning” (51). If Calvin is to be distinguished by anything, it’s the rigor and candor with which he makes plain what lay latent in previous tradition (80–1). Tertullian, Lombard, Aquinas, Luther, indeed all purveyors of the majority view receive the same partial exculpation: “None of these good pious souls was doing anything other than following the only poor thread of logic he had to guide him out of a labyrinth of impossible contradictions; the sheer enormity of the idea of a hell of eternal torment forces the mind toward absurdities and atrocities” (78).

Hart, then, to the degree that he does assume a rhetor­ical stance toward his individual interlocutors, addresses them as (understandably) self-deceived, in opposition to their own most basic desires and intuitions of the truth. Infer­nalists “do not really believe in it at all, but rather merely believe in their belief in it” (29; cf. 204). That’s to say, infernalists are not yet explicitly aware that their putative outlook contradicts “the deepest moral prompt­ings of their souls,” as Hart puts it. And he knows that this judgment will be met with his opponents’ reproach “for presuming to know what they really believe better than they themselves do” (31). Yet his presumption about their deepest held convictions—that “we refuse to know that we know” that the mere possibility of eternal conscious torment for even one freely created rational creature stands as “a complete contradiction” to the simultaneous confession that God is the Good itself (202–3)—is, I maintain, an ineluctable issue of the very dialectic native to his arguments for universal salvation. It is no patronizing piece of polemic.

A necessary corollary of Hart’s rhetorical stance that infernalists do not fundamentally believe what they think they must is that Hart himself cannot but disbelieve what he knows he cannot. “I certainly cannot believe what I find intrinsically unbelievable” (202). There is a palpable inevitability in truly seeing universalism and seeing it as true, you might say. Unless one sees the truth as truth for oneself, a doctrine or belief, however venerable or obligatory or cherished it may initially appear, might just as well be an error believed in good faith—but an error nonetheless. If, though, seeing heaven’s truth entails the inability to see it otherwise, and if universalism is a truth of heaven we can perceive at all, then seeing it as the truth will seem to us like “a conversion of the heart” whereby one “comes to see, pre­cisely where one formerly had perceived only the fires of hell, the transfiguring glory of infinite love. And ‘love never fails’ (1 Corinthians 13:8)” (62).


Just here rhetoric fades into dialectic. We have not yet considered Hart’s rhetorical form as a performance of his dialectic. That requires tracing his arguments for universalism. I do so now. Hart actually makes several arguments—philosophical (about the interrela­tionality of persons, for instance), theological, christological, exegetical, and so on. I consolidate these into two dialectical theses. These correspond to the two basic questions which frame the entire book:

  • Does it really lie within the power of a rational creature freely and finally to reject God?
  • Can we call God “good” (or the Good) in any intelligible sense if he freely wills to create a world which includes the possibility that one rational being will fail to embrace God and thus be reduced to a state of unending conscious torment?

Hart’s theses are meant to answer both with “an unyielding no” (27–8, 208). Let me state them succinctly and in my own terms:

  • Perfect rational freedom requires an ultimate object of desire and total knowledge of that object, God; without the former it’s not “rational,” without the latter it’s not “free.”
  • Divine freedom and goodness require that God would never create rational creatures he would or could not truly liberate.

Both, of course, are logical arguments based upon what Christians say of God as the sole origin and end of all creation. The first thesis provides a philosophical account of freedom derived largely from the classical metaphysics of rational freedom and its natural orienta­tion toward the transcendentals (the Good, the True, the Beautiful, the One), which are convert­ible with one another and are God himself. The second thesis offers the inverse inflected by theodicy. By “theodicy” I do not mean that Hart’s universalism promises an explanatory solvent for particular tragedies or provides a determinate justification for any particular evil. I mean rather that it seeks to preserve the rational and moral integrity of predicating infinite goodness (and mercy and justice and love) of God, which, Hart insists, infernalism neces­sarily threatens. In this sense Hart’s second thesis invokes theodicy’s more basic acceptation, whether, that is, God is just, reliable, trustworthy, morally coherent enough for me to recognize and to believe in. And, in fact, Hart is crystal clear throughout the text that it is the second issue, that of our moral picture of God, that constitutes his “primary” and “chief” concern in these matters (12–13, 17, 47, 52, 79, passim). I’ll return to that point after examining each thesis more attentively.

1. Rational freedom. Hart knows that the most popular infernalist defense today is to claim that rational creatures must possess the “ability” to reject God in perpetuity or else they are not truly free. Freedom, they say, must not be coerced, must only ever choose and act towards its end out of its own spontaneity. God himself cannot guarantee a rational soul’s final outcome without thereby rendering that soul unfree. Perhaps, then, hell, if it contain any soul, is itself contained in and in some sense created by that very soul—its hatred, enmity, ignorance, rage, rebellion. So perhaps, as in Dante, “every fallen soul can become fully what it has chosen to be” (22–3). Hart confesses that he himself was “briefly content with this way of seeing things” (17), and that, though this view is quite wrong, it is not “contemptibly so.” It does not inflict “irreparable harm to one’s understanding of goodness or of God, and so without requiring the mind to make a secret compromise with evil (explicitly, at least)” (171).

Notice that the free will defense of infernalism involves a claim about what must finally be the case for rational freedom. Infernalists sometimes rest their case on the very pedestrian observation that, obviously, we experience the fact that rational creatures can and do refuse God everyday. Surely, the argument runs, at least some number of rational creatures might do so without end, falling progressively into themselves, into an ossified state of obstinate rejection of all that is good and holy. This view might even appear decked in the form of self-deprecating piety. I can imagine all God’s creatures basking in eternal bliss except me. I alone will suffer perdition’s relentless torture. The pious version strikes me as particularly odd, since, of course, it still appears eminently preoccupied with oneself. When we deal with primordial origins and final ends, the universalist would surely retort, why fixate on yourself as if your current condition of ignorance and hostility yields the deepest insight into God’s own goodness and ingenuity? Why imbue your current weaknesses with final significance? And do you not sense that God, at least, would suffer tragedy at even your eternal loss? Here we begin to sense that Thomists and Augustinians alike indulge an unwarranted epistemic optimism, a supreme confidence in their ability to derive what’s final from what’s provi­sional; it’s just that Thomists prefer happier infer­ences, Augustinians grimmer ones. On the whole, though, the crucial thing is to realize that the free will defense amounts to an extrapolation from what is provi­sional to what is supposedly final. Hart’s treatment of the nature of rational freedom, then, merely meets the infernalists on the very ground they themselves have staked.

For Hart (and many before him), if a choice or act lacks a determinate end, it is indistin­guishable from “a pure brute event” or a “sort of spasmodic ebullition, emptily lurching toward—or, really, just lurching aimlessly in the direction of—one chance object or another, without any true purpose” (40, 174). A rational act differs naturally from impersonal forces, obeisance to nature’s laws, or aleatoric events exactly to the extent that it necessarily involves a determinate end and the accompanying desire to actualize that end. Of course the end might be mistaken, morally wrong, a sheer delusion. But error still means intending an end, though one that is not true. Error itself makes sense only as an end-making act. Despite some odd proposals from a few wistful Neo-Jansenists, there really is no sense in calling something a rational act that lacks any determinate end, still less sense in thinking such a happening rises to the level of moral culpability. No one is blameworthy for obeying gravity or suffering an embolism.

I said a rational act must contain a determinate end and the desire to actualize that end. Rationality always involves the will, and it always involves willing something as good for the agent willing. This is an ancient and venerable insight. Even the murderer, as Augustine notes (Conf II), acts under the delusion that killing will bring something good for him—the satisfaction of revenge, the vindication of (vigilante) justice, or some more sadistic pleasure which, as pleasure, the murderer still desires as a relative and appealing good. None of this, as Hart notes (41), serves to exonerate all malefactors of whatever degree. Actually, the situation appears in many ways far more desperate. These insights into rational action mean that when we do evil, we do so (assuming we’re not simply insane) with enough knowledge of what is good to be culpable and with enough ignorance of the Good to be enslaved to our own delusions. We are slaves to sin (Rom 6.15–23), not masters of it. Every creature is “subjected” to vanity (Rom 8.20), not gods of it. We are not Dr. Frankenstein’s monster; we are the ancient dragon’s playthings (Rev 12.17).

But “the truth will make you free” (Jn 8.32). And that is absolutely so in the case of the ultimate object of truth and love, God. For God is the very origin and end of every rational will. He alone, as Truth itself, perfects the intellect. He alone, as Beauty and Love itself, perfects the will. True freedom, as opposed to the modern libertine conception of freedom as sheer spontaneity and indeterminacy (which not even Kant would abide, really), is exactly the freedom to become what and who one truly is, without impediment. And who can be what they truly are apart from union with God, one’s very origin and end? So Hart:

We are free not because we can choose, but only when we have chosen well. And to choose well we must ever more clearly see the ‘sun of the Good’ (to employ the lovely Platonic metaphor), and to see more clearly we must continue to choose well; and the more we are emancipated from illusion and caprice, and the more our will is informed by and responds to the Good, the more perfect our vision becomes, and the less there is really to choose. (172–3)

Or, as Maximus elaborates the same point, commenting explicitly on God as our “beginning and end” (Rev 20.6):

For from God come both our general power of motion (for He is our beginning), and the particular way that we move toward Him (for He is our end). If an intellective being is moved intellectively, that is, in a manner appropriate to itself, then it will necessarily become a knowing intellect. But if it knows, it surely loves that which it knows; and if it loves, it certainly suffers ecstasy toward it as an object of love. If it suffers this ecstasy, it obviously urges itself onward, and if it urges itself onward, it surely intensifies and greatly accelerates its motion. And if its motion is intensified in this way, it will not cease until it is wholly present in the whole beloved, and wholly encompassed by it, willingly receiving the whole saving circumscription by its own choice, so that it might be wholly qualified by the whole circumscriber, and, being wholly circumscribed, will no longer be able to wish to be known from its own qualities, but rather from those of the circumscriber, in the same way that air is thoroughly permeated by light, or iron in a forge is completely penetrated by the fire, or anything else of this sort. (Amb 7.10)

If we can know God as he is and yet refuse him to his face, then he is not the origin and end of our rational will. Conversely, if we do not yet desire him as he is, it is because we do not yet know him as he truly is, namely as our own ultimate object of desire. That is why Maximus states plainly that “evil, then … is ignorance of the benevolent Cause of beings,” which scripture represents as the Tree of Disobedience whose fruit introduces the “mixed knowledge” of good and evil (QThal 1.2.16); and this mixed knowledge inculcates illicit self-love; and this self-love subjects us to the vanity of ever vacillating between pleasure and pain, all of which stems from “ignorance, which is their primary cause” (QThal 1.2.21).

In fact for Maximus, as he argues at length (Amb 42), to deny that our perfect freedom and desire lies only, ultimately, and naturally in God himself severs us so completely from God as our origin and end that we become, unwittingly perhaps, either Manicheans or … Origenists! If we can possess full knowledge of God while our will remains unmoved to love him unto ecstasy, then this lends credence to the putatively Origenist idea that we might grow tired of God, as if the unfathomable plenitude of his beauty and love and joy were not quite enough to sate us. We might, then, lapse again and again upon (re)union with God. Or if, having fallen once from our first love, and having then undertaken the torturous odyssey of return to God, who is our “homeland,” we are then rendered some­how indissolubly united to God, our true and stable desire—in this case God on his own appears unable to accomplish what an excursion into the netherlands of tragedy and sin and ignorance—evil—proved able to secure, that is, everlasting bliss in the embrace of God. On this account, Maximus perceives, really we owe our eternal reward to two fundamental principles, God and evil, since only through the work of both were we made whole without threat of further dissolution.

One might object that this renders our freedom vacuous because it determines our end in advance, as it were. Hart retorts that only a determined end can make us truly free, since, of course, “rational volition must be determinate to be anything at all.” Otherwise it’s just a chance event. “Freedom is a relation to reality,” he writes, “which means liberty from delusion” (178). Thus our fallen condition is more profoundly dire than the view that simply extends our current rebellion-in-ignorance ad infinitum. On Hart’s view, we are enslaved with shackles of ironclad links, for we cannot be truly free unless we are liberated from ignorance, and yet we must come to desire what we do not yet know so that we might be truly free.

[I]t seems to me impossible to speak of freedom in any meaningful sense at all unless one begins from the assumption that, for a rational spirit, to see the good and know it truly is to desire it insatiably and to obey it unconditionally, while not to desire it is not to have known it truly, and so never to have been free to choose it. (79–80)

And if the rebellious rational soul never truly knows what it rejects under a veil of decep­tion, and thus was never truly free fully to know what it rejects—how could anyone think it just that such a soul would be damned to eternal conscious torment in perpetuity? “Hence, absolute culpability—eternal culpability—lies forever beyond the capacities of any finite being. So does an eternal free defiance of the Good. We are not blameless, certainly; but then again, that very fact proves that we have never been entirely free not to be blameless—and so neither can we be ever entirely to blame” (43).

2. Divine freedom and goodness. The first dialectical thesis leads inexorably to the second. If God is the origin and end of rational creatures—including their freedom—then no rational creature could or would refuse God without doing so ignorantly. And so if a creature does in fact perpetually reject God unto final and everlasting torment, then God would have freely elected to create a being from nothing that God knew (and thus willed) would be damned, afflicted by an ignorance God himself would never undertake, or is powerless, to rectify. But would or could an infinitely resourceful, omnipotent, good, just, merciful God create such a world?

All of us, we are told, have been born damnable in God’s eyes, already condemned to hell, and justly so. And yet God, out of God’s love, races to rescue (some of) us from God’s wrath, because God would otherwise be technically obliged to visit that wrath upon us, if lovingly, on account of that ancient trespass that bound us helplessly and damnably to sin before we ever existed; at the same time, however, God also lovingly fails or declines to rescue many of us, because he lovingly grants us the capacity freely to love, even if he lovingly withholds the conditions that would allow us to recognize him as the proper object of our love… (and so on). In the end, somehow, justice is served, love is vindicated, God is good; of that we can be sure. Happily, all of that is degrading nonsense—an absolute midden of misconceptions, fragments of scriptural language wrenched out of context, errors of translation, logical contradictions, and (I suspect) one or two emotional pathologies. (24–5)

It is nonsense, Hart argues, because the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo makes God’s act of creation a supremely moral act. Precisely “because God and creation are ontologically distinct from one another,” he writes, “they are morally indiscerptible” (68). Creation does not complete the divine nature, as if God had to undergo a process to become God. God doesn’t need the world as an instrumental means to become what he is. The world, then, is nothing but the sheer expression of divine goodness and freedom. The one thing creation ex nihilo adds to the metaphysics of emanation, Hart notes, is “the further assurance that in this divine outpouring there is no element of the ‘irrational’: nothing purely spontaneous, or organic, or even mechanical, beyond the power of God’s rational freedom” (71–2). And if creation’s sole rationale is God’s own rational freedom, then all the possibilities and especially the final actuality of creation manifests the very character of God: “Precisely because creation is not theogony, all of it is theophany” (73). The end reveals the beginning; both are God’s freely elected self-manifestation. Nothing but God made God make the world. It is a product of his pure will, and what God wills reveals what God is like, who God is.

If matters prove otherwise, then I, at least, cannot see how John could have presumed to know from Christ that “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 Jn 1.5). The bottomless abyss of the divine will would render any of God’s actual desires merely partial manifestations of the vast and dark sea of infinite possibility that remains ever dark to our gaze—except, apparently, not dark enough that many still presume to know that God has not done all he could have done. But we can set that point aside for the moment. Hart’s immedi­ate point is simple enough: even if God created a world on only the unlikely possibility that one of his beloved rational creatures might languish in eternal fire, then God’s act, as a perfectly moral and free act, has already accepted the relative goodness or justice or value of willing such a possibility at all. “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard,” as Hart quotes Mallarmé. Whatever God could possibly permit reveals something eternally present in God himself.

This is an easy thing to grasp. Suppose someone tells me that my father might have mur­dered an innocent old man for twenty dollars, and I say: “Well, maybe. I’d like to wait and review the evidence before I judge.” That very hesitation is already a moral judgment about my father’s character. What must I think of him to think him capable of such a thing, even if I don’t presume to know he actually did it? Rather, because I know my father, I would say to this person straightaway: “No he didn’t.” And no one, I take it, would consider such confi­dence evidence of blameworthy presumption on my part; it would be a necessary result of my absolute confidence in the sort of man my father is. Who would dare to blame me for this? If, of course, it turned out that my father did murder an innocent person, my response would be: “I suppose I never really knew him.”

That, I think, is really the nature of Hart’s second thesis. Given all we know of God, particularly in and through Christ, if it somehow turns out that God did create a world that included even the slight possibility that he freely create a person in full knowledge of that person’s tragic end in everlasting misery, and for a rebellion that is itself always circum­scribed by ignorance, then all we can really say is: “I suppose I never really knew him.” We call him just, good, merciful, love, light, possessive of a power that means “with God nothing is impossible” (Lk 1.37; Matt 19.26). And indeed we certainly know that he wills the salvation of all (1 Tim 2.3–6; 2 Pet 3.9). So if, in the end, we see that God did not accomplish this will, or did not will the kind of world within which his will would be accomplished (which is to say that he didn’t consequently will what he antecedently willed—a contradiction and nonsense), and yet freely willed to create a world that would deny his own will—then perhaps the gloomy depths of moral irrationality really do constitute the deepest truth of God our Father. I guess we just never knew him, and so never spoke sensibly of him at all.

Hart’s deliberations in these pages are not far, therefore, from the kind of thinking he’s been doing for years. The Beauty of the Infinite asked whether Christianity’s evangel of peace can proclaim a God who is truth itself and beauty itself without succumbing blissful to the specter of ontological violence. Atheist Delusions and The Experience of God defended the coherence of classical conceptions of God by challenging atheist critics to appreciate those conceptions on their own cogent terms. The Doors of the Sea probed and found wanting many blithe responses Christians utter before unspeakable tragedy, and sought to retain Christian credibility only by renouncing all such claims to rationalize history’s surds. In these and other works Hart has always played the relentless examiner of the Christian picture of God and world, and he did so with the sort of confidence anyone laying claim to know the truth should have—with the conviction, I mean, that such exposure to dialectical fire will only prove the faith still purer, if, that is, it is indeed the truth. It really should not shock us, then, that he regards “the traditional majority view of hell” to be “the single best argument for doubting the plausibility of the Christian faith as a coherent body of doctrine or as a morally worthy system of devotion” (65). One might not get all the fuss, or perhaps one has made existential peace with the prospect that God has the prerogative to be(come?) precisely the contrary to whatever one conceives as “good” in an intelligible sense. But it still seems odd to fault Hart for taking the Christian faith too seriously when it claims to reveal not just some fun facts about God, but very God in the flesh.

Before terminating this section, I should pause to say what Hart’s dialectical argument is not. It is an argument about final outcomes and primordial origins (these are the same—God), not insight into any particular case as particular (60). It’s an argument that all shall be saved, not how that will unfold. Surely the latter is where the true mystery lies. And, really, perhaps that is one way to characterize the fundamental divide in these matters: infernalists perceive divine mystery in the possibility that divine wisdom and power, looming as far above our ken as the heavens above the sea, might freely will a world that it knows cannot accomplish the divine will; but universalists perceive the mystery in the fact that divine wisdom and power, which has assumed for us definite form in Jesus Christ crucified, will somehow accomplish the divine will to save all and so become “all in all” (1 Cor 15.28). Paul, after all, was never thrust into rapturous ecstasy before the brute “beyond” of divine trans­cendence, as if the grandest mystery of Christ amounts merely to the injunction that we dare not judge him according to the “justice” or “wisdom” he in fact became (1 Cor 1.30; 2 Cor 5.21). And Paul doesn’t think much of the Athenian altar to the “unknown God” except to make that God known (Acts 17.16-34). What does elicit Paul’s utter astonishment and praise and marvel and wonder and worship is his coming to see that “God has shut up all in diso­bedience that he might have mercy upon all“—”Oh the depths of the wisdom and knowledge of God!” (Rom 11.32-3). I tell you a mystery: Christ our God will save all; he alone knows how to penetrate to the core of the most obdurate heart. But do not ask me how!1


Hart’s two dialectical theses unite to form a single substantive argument. If God himself is a rational creature’s ultimate object of desire and truth (thesis 1), and yet that creature might in ignorance forever repel God, then this would mean God freely created that beloved being without the conditions for its own liberation; it would mean, that is, that we could no longer sensibly distinguish God’s act of creating this creature from his act of damning it—a notion which evacuates the very idea of divine goodness of any intelligible content (thesis 2). If we are truly free, we know the Truth; if we do not know the Truth, we are not yet truly free. Thus “true freedom is contingent upon true knowledge and true sanity of mind. To the very degree that either of these is deficient, freedom is absent. And with freedom goes culpability” (177, my emphasis).

At length I circle back to my own basic thesis that Hart’s dialectic implies his rhetoric. If Hart is correct that God is the Good whom we desire even as we desire wrongly and in error, then no error—including the error of infernalism—merits complete culpability. The infernal­ist is deceived about God to the extent that he or she fails to see that God will save all. And yet this too is a misjudgment made in ignorance. It is an error, in Hart’s view, and so it is irrational, morally moronic, and the rest. It impugns the very nature of God, so what else could it be? Do we not recall that one of the commonest reasons many Fathers rejected certain literal interpretations of scripture, and opted instead for spiritual or mystical readings, is because the literal rendering would be “unworthy of God”? So Hart’s rhetorical stance issues necessarily from his dialectical argument, just as necessarily as denying and ridiculing the possibility that God commanded literal genocide in Joshua was for Origen and Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus and even Augustine (at times) required by our assurance of God’s goodness, mercy, justice, and love.

If I’m right about the rhetoric-dialectic unity autochthonous to Hart’s universalism, then two observations follow.

First, universalism is not a calculative speculation. It is a claim about God’s very being, and indeed a claim that God’s very being is our own deepest and most proper desire. The very logic of universalism demands that it make the most absolute claims, or else it isn’t true at all. Its denial, then, given its truth, can only be held under a veil of ignorance, a necessary symptom of the inability to see something essential to God. This is not some cheap or condescending rhetorical trick. Nor is it a mundane point, as if I mean merely that any error is necessarily an unintentional one, so that immediately consequent upon seeing the truth one renounces one’s prior ignorance. No, I mean rather that if a truth is of God’s very essence, misapprehending or doubting or denying it cannot, under the univer­salist logic of rational freedom Hart defends, be anything other than an epiphenomenon of ignorance, an unintentional or gnomic wavering of transcendental conviction, a betrayal of one’s own most deep down desire and knowledge of the true God—our delight, our all, our truth, our irresistibly gorgeous love.

Second, universalism, then, inexorably dares to claim that its truth is the very truth every rational creature believes, even as that creature thinks it does not believe it. Willing in error is still itself a sign that one wills God as one’s own ultimate transcendental object and horizon. And choosing to believe the infernalist picture of God is a willing in error. It is therefore not entirely culpable, which is why Hart could never attribute the infernalist’s belief in their belief, as he puts it, to the infernalist’s very person. Hart’s contention throughout the book, which also unifies his rhetoric and dialectic, is that what has become for him an explicit conviction and matter of conscience about the God who creates nothing that he will not save is in fact everyone’s truest and deepest conviction. That, I think, is why he concludes the book with these precise words:

As I say, for me it is a matter of conscience, which is after all only a name for the natural will’s aboriginal and constant orientation toward the Good when that orientation expresses itself in our conscious motives…. Nor do I believe that this is arrogance on my part. For me, the option of such assent simply does not lie open. It is not even conceivable…. We may revere tradition or respect the sincerity of those who tells us all those venerable tales that we are asked to accept on faith. But there is only one path to true freedom, and so to God. In the end, we must love the Good. (208–9)

What profound audacity to presume a correspondence between one’s own eschatological vision and the visio dei! And yet I’ve often heard infernalists make this retort: How could the Church have been in error about this for so long? Leave aside the convenient appeal to “the Church,” whose exact referent almost always eludes. Notice instead how the riposte expresses exasperation, disbelief, even, that God might permit opacity on so grave a matter, and permit it at length. Has it occurred to these protesters that this disbelief is precisely the universalist’s own, though admittedly the latter’s opens upon a far grander scale and about far graver matters? How, after all, could God permit the opacity of devastated creation to prevent so many and for so long from coming to a knowledge of the truth—God’s very self? And to allow—nay, to positively and intentionally summon forth the very conditions for the possibility of—an opacity which misleads and induces ignor­ance, an ignorance that incurs the most drastic and final and horrifying consequences imaginable to the human soul! So many are loathe to entertain the possibility that “the tradition” might have been wrong or unclear on significant matters, only then not to bat an eye at the possibility—indeed the likelihood—that God has providentially permitted a considerable number of human lives to pass under the thick cloud of finitude, sin, trauma, tragedy, loss, pathology, miscalculation, misperception, malformation, miseducation, and a host of other mostly unwanted con­straints that have veiled their own heart’s true desire from them for an eternity of conscious torment and perpetual vanity. God, it seems, would never abide his pilgrim Church to trouble my certainty about such matters; he apparently has little problem allowing the mass of humanity to err unto perdition. And, even more apparently, he certainly cannot brook disbelief about the latter belief, even if that disbelief proves inspired by saints within that same pilgrim Church.

And so it seems that, in the end, the infernalist too presumes a rather tight correspon­dence between his or her own eschatological view and the very truth God is: infernalism com­mends God’s sovereign prerogative to call forth creatures from which he has every right to withhold the conditions of their own liberation from ignorance—prevenient and efficacious grace, say. Thus an ardent universalism can seem to them only as a sort of rebellion against God. Infernalists, then, are so profoundly certain of their view that they come to regard those who oppose them as evidence of their view’s veracity. They too dare to wed rhetoric and dialectic. Only they do so against their own deeper and diviner instincts.


😀 That Single Footnote 😀

[1] This is just how Michel Corbin, SJ, concludes his marvelous (and neglected) work, La grâce de la liberté: Augustin et Anselme (Paris: Cerf, 2012), 359–60. He doesn’t think Paul’s discussion of election and universal salvation in Romans 9–11 yields a “dialectique que l’homme puisse maîtriser,” but it does offer “cette assurance” that Paul’s conclusion in Rom 11.32 is the world’s destiny. In fact, I recommend reading Corbin’s interpretation of Romans 9–11 (in a final chapter called, “La restauration universelle,” 319–60) alongside Hart’s (133–8), since they arrive at the same conclusions.

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Jordan Daniel Wood is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Theology at Providence College. He wrote and defended his doctoral dissertation on the christological metaphysics of Maximus Confessor at Boston College. Most importantly, he’s the husband of an ICU nurse and father to three daughters under age 5.

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“Love opens the eye of the soul to the sight of Jesus”

When love acts in the soul it does so wisely and gently, for it has great power to kill anger and envy, and all the passions of wrath and melancholy, and it brings into the soul the virtues of patience, gentleness, peaceableness, and friendliness to one’s neighbor.

People guided only by their own reason find it very hard to be patient, peaceful, sweet-tempered and charitable to their neighbors when they treat them badly and wrong them. But true lovers of Jesus have no great difficulty in enduring all this, because love fights for them and kills such movements of wrath and melancholy with amazing ease.

Through the spiritual sight of Jesus it makes the souls of such people so much at ease and so peaceful, so ready to endure and so conformed to God, that if they are despised and disre­garded by others, or suffer injustice or injury, shame or ill-treatment, they pay no atten­tion. They are not greatly disturbed by these things and will not allow themselves to be, for then they would lose the comfort they feel in their souls, and that they are unwilling to do. They can more easily forget all the wrong that is done them than others can forgive it even when asked for forgiveness. They would rather forget than forgive, for that seems easier to them.

And it is love that does all this, for love opens the eye of the soul to the sight of Jesus, and confirms it in the pleasure and contentment of the love that comes from that sight. It com­forts the soul so much that it is quite indifferent to what others do against it. The greatest harm that could befall such people would be to lose the spiritual sight of Jesus, and they would therefore suffer all other injuries than that one alone.

When true lovers of Jesus suffer harm from their neighbors, they are so strengthened by the grace of the Holy Spirit and are made so truly humble, so patient, and so peaceable, that they retain their humility no matter what harm or injury is inflicted on them. They do not despise their neighbors or judge them, but they pray for them in their hearts, and feel more pity and compassion for them than for others who never harmed them, and in fact they love them better, and more fervently desire their salvation, because they see that they will have so much spiritual profit from their neighbors’ deeds, though this was never their intention.

But this love and this humility, which are beyond human nature, come only from the Holy Spirit to those whom he makes true lovers of Jesus.

Walter Hilton

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Christ and the Endless Performance of Modernity

By Alexander Earl

Modern life is an endless performance. Like the proverbial monkey, we are more than eager to dance, and we hope our dancing will be seen and rewarded. While technology has exacer­bated this vice, it would be a mistake to think it has changed the formal quality of anything; rather, all it has done is change the material causes by which our nature is worked out. The tools we use to make statements about ourselves, which we consider utterly necessary to our value and well-being, is positively a multitude. Social media, personal websites, public pro­jects, business cards, chic clothing, hair dyes, tattoos, selfies, even what we choose to do with our weekend and how we will display it to others evince the diverse methods we employ to make a statement about ourselves to the world.

In short, modern life revolves around the desire to be seen and validated. This point is a truism. Nothing can ultimately thwart nature, not even modernity; even in its bewildering attempt to destroy any conception of nature it still must operate within its limits and rhythms. Since human beings are by nature rational, political, and liturgical, we are bound to see these realities expressed, even if inchoately. It was a truism in the ancient world that the differentiating feature of the human being was its rational capacity; we use our discur­sive abilities to “cut reality at the joints,” as Plato said. However, the ancient concep­tion of reason is not the Cartesian one of subjective isolation. We never truly engage in the rational in isolation, for by nature we seek bonds of affection and mutuality. Hence, when Aristotle articulates human nature, he has no trouble discerning that we are political animals. We come together ultimately not for self-sufficiency, or even worse some kind of utilitarian contract, but rather so that we can perfect our rational natures and engage in the noblest activity of all: contemplation. Yet, again, it would be a mistake to think contemplation entails isolation; even Aristotle knew contemplation is better with friends. The condition for contemplation is always political. The Christian tradition takes this fact and roots it in an ancient value that is often overlooked: piety. True contemplation means attuning and harmonizing ourselves with reality through worship; offering reality to reality for reality. In Christian language, it is Eucharistic all the way down, and our whole being and world must be consecrated to that end.

Thus, considered from the vantage of religious practice, the whole display of modern performance is nothing other than a liturgical one. It should not surprise us, therefore, that we find human beings in the act of consecrating reality all of the time, even if it is to idols. The addiction (and what else is it?) to social media, social posturing, and self-augmentation, be it from otiose clothing to sex changes, speaks to the metaphysical truth that all being is manifestation. To be is to reveal oneself, and the act-of-revealing entails being seen, being known. It is a particular instance of the endless and eternal dance between knower and known. It cannot help but beckon the language of the erotic, for the motion of knower to known is a desire for consummation and communion. In fact, the Platonic tradition would say eros is most properly intellectual. It is because eros is an intellectual reality that our bodies mirror it in a material way. We do ourselves a disservice if we fail to recognize the metaphysical priority.

To make the point more acute, the vessels of modern performance are indistinguishable from the vessels you might find, say, in an Orthodox liturgy. The gold of the censer, the candles, the lamps, and so forth, is still there, it is just used for our iPhone cases and wristwatches: our new vehicles for communicating with reality. The pure cotton, silk, and linens of the vestments, curtains, and altar dressings now make up the luxury garments of fashionistas, and, per usual, are usually reserved for the high priests of our age. The expertly crafted and beautifully ordered wood, stone, marble, and glass is dedicated to the great temples of commerce, as any cursory glance at the likes of Dubai will demonstrate. Even time itself must be sanctified to the prevailing order. As well catechized moderns, we all know what the work day and work week consists of. We all know the sanctity of happy hour and brunch. We all know what evenings are dedicated to celestial festivals and which are reserved for opiate-like rest. In the end, this point is rather trivial, human beings are so effectively liturgical that we simply cannot escape it.

What distinguishes us from our prede­ces­sors is that the “to” and “for” of our activity is a great void, the Great Nothing, as many com­mentators have already pointed out. The modern turn toward subjectivity, volunta­rism, nominalism, and so forth, has left the most pernicious vacuum of intelligibility. Even though I am still a rational being and can do nothing to thwart it—since any attempt to do so will at the very least guise itself under some rationale—the pervading Cult of the Will, the idea that my will is governed by no prior rational ends, robs me of any sense of the power, nobility, and sanctity of my rational faculties and their right rule over my appetites. Likewise, even though I am a political animal with contem­plative ends, everything around me subdues the natural affection of familial bonds and local friendship to the Cult of Ego. That is, all things must serve whatever spontaneous and irre­pressible display of selfhood happens to emerge from the void of the Cult of Will. All objects of knowing are subservient to already prior ideological commitments and reduced to the vacuity of my subjectivity (however utterly incomprehensible that is).

So too, as the term “cult” suggests, these two gods are what they are only because they serve the liturgical impulse of human nature, and as such they must likewise manifest a third god: the Cult of Eros. For this infinite act of will that goes out to dominate all in service to its endless impulse is still, inescapably, bound to the primordial reality of consummation and communion. However, given the depth of this perversity, it can only do so in a horridly grotesque and reptilian fashion, a fact easily discerned by the industry of pornography, the culture of casual sex, and the technologies that serve them.

Our nature is simultaneously rational, political, and liturgical, and so these three perver­sions are likewise inseparable; an Unholy Trinity emerges. Like any religious experience, the altar to the Great Nothing should make us tremble in fear. It is inscrutable, insatiable, and its ways are unknowable. This Unholy Trinity promises us liberation through the endless performance of the sacrifice of each to the all. Even the Christian economy of salvation is inverted. Where we are paradoxically promised true selfhood in Christ through a self-emptying, the modern story of salvation demands endless indulgence and so leaves us with no self at all. In the wake of this realization, I cannot help but recall a poem by Philip Larkin:

When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise

Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives—
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide

To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That’ll be the life.
No God any more, or sweating in the dark

About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds. And immediately

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

Even a fever-pitch macabre horror film could not compete with that vision, precisely because it is no vision at all. It is utter privation: the great void of nihilism. In the transcendental gaze only ever captured by poetry, we are given a taste of the new world order of sexual liberation, the benefits of dispensing with tradition, and the final relief that we will not be held accountable to anything, certainly not God, and certainly not hell. The whole of life has no transcendental ends, no meta-narratives to force intelligibility upon us. What endless happiness! What paradise! Let us sing together in jubilation our new thrice-holy hymn to the Unholy Trinity, Holy Nothing, Holy Nowhere, Holy Endless, grant us paradise!

If only. And maybe the vision would be convincing if there were no symptoms from its application. I once saw a student dress up as “Netflix and Chill” for Halloween, cladded with the requisite devil horns, as listless in its presentation as it was in its content. When I asked her to explain to me the inspiration, she calmly explained it was out of irony. Perhaps it was. In any case, it reveals that even a teenager immersed in the truisms of modernity can still make a connection between our behavior and the demonic. What other recourse is there, really, to make sense of our little epoch? What is more disturbing is when recognition is followed by embrace. There are those who not only make recourse to demonic imagery, but are soi-disant nihilists. Such eager displays of the Great Nothing should give us pause.

It is easy to be reductive about these sorts of things, and it is not as if the past fifty years is lacking in similar examples. We could chide it to the inevitable behaviors of late-adoles­cence in an act of hopeful dismissal on our part, or we could tend toward the self-righteous com­fort of the street-preacher of Armageddon: all hope is lost! The end is nigh! Both options strike me as unexplanatory. More charitably, my suspicion is that nihilism is now the only thing on offer. As prophesized by Nietzsche, the delusion of the “English fat-heads” is quickly falling away. Even Christianity in its popular expressions is just nihilism draped in Christian wares. It has so thoroughly absorbed the philosophical presumptions of modernity that it can only engage Christ through its distortions. Such things should not surprise us, for what better weapon than to co-opt the language of “Christ” to modern ends? Christ himself assures us as much, “for they will say Lord, Lord, and I will say I never knew you”; Outside of the orthodox context that makes sense of Christ-language, all is noise. The most impor­tant truths are not worth being uncomfortable for. Nonetheless, I am under no impression that a human being can look nihilism dead on and “choose” it. It is at the very least incom­prehensible in terms of any coherent metaphysics of desire (since I always desire something under the aspect of the good). On the contrary, what has happened is a mass deception of the most demonic kind. Our natures—rational, political, liturgical—have been perverted and oriented to the Unholy Trinity, and we have been told there is simply no other option. So what else should we expect to see?

Of course, there is another option: the full revelation of reality in the person of Jesus Christ. In terms of these reflections on performance, Christ is the only relevant perfor­mance, and more importantly the final performance. His life, death, and resurrection capture everything it means to be human, what it means to have value, what it means to be manifest and to be seen. Hence, every work he does is given to us for imitation; we have one performance to give, and that is the one that participates in Christ, in all he is and does; most pertinently, in the way that he dies. The anaphora of St. John Chrysostom has been an endless source of reflection on this point, “for on the night in which he was given up—or rather gave himself up for the life of the world.” The shift from “given up” to “gave himself up” is what Fr. John Behr styles the shift to theological vision: to not see some peasant betrayed, tortured and killed by the powers that be, or to see Christ’s death as a tragic interruption to an otherwise profound ministry of social justice, but rather to see in his very death God’s eternal activity. Christ did not become incarnate and then die, he became incarnate to die. In fact, it is only in his death that we see the incarnation. The greatest tragedy of modern Christianity, in whatever form you wish to emphasize, is the loss of the intimate connection between Christianity and ascesis, between Christianity and martyrdom, to say it even better: between Christ and his cross.

In contrast, Americans are particularly obsessed with questions regarding the status of their salvation, hell, and supernatural phenomena such as angels and near-death experiences, not to mention the oddly Gnostic (despite the fluidity of the term) and materialist conceptions those concerns often take. There is, of course, no accident here. To separate Christianity from martyrdom is inevitably to become reductionistic. We end up with some kind of utilitarian calculus: what is the bare minimum condition for X? So to say, what is the bare minimum condition for communion with God? The question could not be more wrong­headed! As Christ says, “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” This rampant nihilism is the product of a minimalist Christianity. On the contrary, we must not ask about minimums, but of maximums. To fail to do so is to separate Christ from the cross. To appeal to Fr. John Behr again, Christ’s rebuke of Peter in Matthew 16, the most vicious rebuke given in the New Testament, is precisely a warning against this separation. The passage is worth contemplating in full:

When Jesus came to the area of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They answered, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “You are blessed, Simon son of Jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father in heaven! And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven.” Then he instructed his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ. From that time on Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and experts in the law, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. So Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him: “God forbid, Lord! This must not happen to you!” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me, because you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but on man’s.” Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

This passage is one of the few moments where one of the disciples ‘gets it right.’ However, we should note that even the confession that Christ is the Son of God is incomplete. After Christ’s granting of the keys and promising the Church’s endurance, he instructs the disciples to not tell anyone of these things. This injunction is not some esoteric “messianic secret,” it is letting the students know that they do not have the full story yet. We can see this fact by paying close attention to what immediately follows Peter’s confession. Christ reveals to them what it means to be the Son of God: to suffer, to die, to be raised. Peter’s rebuke is evidence that the disciples do not grasp the content, the real meaning, of the earlier confes­sion, and that failure is met with the harshest response, “Get behind me, Satan!” That is the reply given to the one who would separate Christ from the cross! Moreover, we see that to follow Christ just is to follow him to the cross. The mere confes­sion that Christ is the Son of God is not enough, the demons do that just fine; rather, we must not only understand the intimate connection between the Son and his cross, but we too must take up the same life of self-denial; we too must become cruciform; we too must lose our lives.

To see Christ for who he is entails responding in ascesis, entering into his life, death, and resurrection through our whole being. It is a process that reestablishes the will’s subjection to rational ends, and not just any rational ends, but the Logos himself. Where my ego is often inverted in the monologue of narcissism, Christ’s cross brings it outside itself, that is, makes it kenotic and dialogical: self-emptying instead of self-gratifying, other-oriented instead of self-oriented. Only through this self-emptying does the ego, paradoxically, discover itself. Autonomy is the greatest modern delusion; my endless attempts to ground myself in myself are futile. Instead, I only discover myself when I enter deeply into relation, when I allow myself to be constituted and supported by those around me. In short, I am only a self in reference to others.

However, that relationality cannot merely be horizontal, it must also be vertical. Eros that is merely horizontal is nothing but consumption, because the things of this world can never provide lasting communion. They are fleeting tastes, and so we must always be out looking for more. Instead, we only become ourselves when we are all mutually ordered together in love to the transcendental end that establishes it all, God. Selfhood must be formed by the True Self, the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which, unsurpris­ingly, is also a relational community of love. In the ascetic response to God’s love for us in Christ, love encounters Love, and replaces the Unholy Trinity with the true Triune God. This truth is most manifest on the cross, for it is there that we see a perfected will, a true self, and everlasting love. It is the divine invitation for us to know the Truth, live together in mutual contemplation of the Truth, and offer the whole cosmos, including ourselves, as mirrors of the Truth—rational, political, liturgical.

To engage in this battle with the Great Nothing requires weapons, and the ascetic tradition gives us the necessary ones for conducting it. Just as we have lost the vision of virtue, so too we have lost how the ascetic disciplines perfect our nature. For example, St. Maximus the Confessor aligns prayer, almsgiving, and fasting with the various faculties of the soul. To aid our rational faculty we must attend to constant prayer. To temper our spiritedness and orient our will, we must learn to give alms. To conquer and properly order our appe­tites, we must relentlessly practice fasting. Every moment we undertake these ascetic disciplines, we order our whole being to manifest the divine likeness. Moreover, we do not undertake this process in isolation, for not only do we conduct battle with the powers and principalities of this world, but we do so through the strength of the Church militant and triumphant.

Every act of prayer is a death blow to the Cults of the Age that make demands on your time and how you should use it, so let us begin to sanctify our whole day through small acts of prayer. Every act of charity not only conquers pride and self-importance, but it reunites us to the true political community in love, thereby affirming the imago dei and slaying the beasts of the age that would have us gorge ourselves endlessly on vapid praise and consumption.

Every act of fasting, from food and from sex—and the right orienting of them thereof—destroys the industries of mass-processed goods, animal cruelty, sex trafficking, and needless bodily disease, to name just a few. The gorged pig that lives its whole life side­ways in a pen, slaughtered on the altar of the Great Nothing, with no consideration to nature, pain, or consequence, is a symbol of our own spiritual state. You are what you eat, as they say, so let us instead consume frequently the Body and Blood of the Lord, the lamb slain from the foundation of the world on the noetic altar, partaking of his life and slaughter, so that we might not only have life, but have it abundantly.

Let us not be mistaken, we will either liturgically consummate all to the Triune God, or we will become the false Trinity. There is only one option before us: a complete, unequivocal, and unqualified commitment to the liturgical and ascetic life of the Church, in all of its beauty and demand. We must recover a vision of the cosmos as theophany—as a rich and multiva­lent manifestation of the Divine—in all its sacramental and ascetic depth, which sees the end of human nature as fully partaking of the divine nature and attaining total transfigu­ration.

Such a vision cannot suffer the endless dichotomies between nature and grace, reason and revelation, church and state, and so forth, that plague modernity. There is no place with­out grace, no space where the Lord is not King, no reality that does not offer him unceas­ing praise. Our Holy Fathers succeeded amidst the indefatigable powers and values of Rome, not to mention infighting among the faithful. Through the grace of God, we can do it again. Only when “Christ plays in ten thousand places” will we know what it means to be human. And that performance has only just begun.

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Alexander Earl currently teaches Theology and Philosophy at a college-preparatory school in Santa Monica, California. He holds a Masters of Arts in Religion and Philosophical Theology from Yale Divinity School.

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Apprehending Apokatastasis: The Vision of St Gregory of Nyssa

The greatest challenge for the preacher of the greater hope is to articulate a vision of Jesus as mediator of apokatastasis. It is insufficient for him or her to occasionally declare: “Oh, by the way, all will be well.” Our congregations need a compelling vision of God, Christ, and the Christian life to replace their apprehension of punitive deity and their works-righteousness understanding of discipleship. The need for such a vision obtains even if church discipline forbids the explicit preaching of universal salvation, perhaps only permitting the universalist hope of Hans Urs von Balthasar and Kallistos Ware. We may still proclaim the love of Christ in its radical unconditionality; we may still announce the Lord’s Paschal triumph over sin and death; we may still declare the consummation of God’s redemptive plans in such a way as to generate in the hearts of our people an indomitable hope in the good and loving God.

But where do we find this vision? In That All Shall Be Saved David Hart commends to us St Gregory of Nyssa. Over the course of seven pages he provides a magnificent, beautifully written statement of Gregory’s theology and anthropology (pp. 138-144; copied below). One might even call it a metanarrative of Christ. Attempting to summarize what Hart has written would only result in travesty. I lack the skill. These eloquent pages need to be slowly contem­plated and inwardly digested. Some readers may be inspired to directly engage some of Gregory’s writings; others to read Hart’s rich discussion of Gregory in The Beauty of the Infinite. Ultimately, though, we must find our own words in which to proclaim the vision of apokatastasis, for it is through the prism of personhood that the gospel comes alive for others.

In recent years a handful (and it really is just a handful) of scholars have challenged the long-standing identification of Gregory as a universalist. I occasionally get emails asking my opinion. I am, of course, not a patristic scholar, nor do I have a command of Gregory’s theology. I have asked two Gregory experts, Fr John Behr and Dr Andrew Radde-Gallwitz, about this revisionist interpretation. They are not persuaded and, for what it is worth, neither am I. It seems more likely that the revisionist interpretation is driven by a desire to bring Gregory into conformity with infernalist orthodoxy. But let the scholarly chips fall where they may.

* * *

So it goes. Even Homer nods. And Augustine, for all his brilliance, did quite a lot of nodding in his later years. Would that Christian tradition had—this is my incessant lament, my tireless refrain, my cri de cœur—heeded Gregory of Nyssa instead. So many unpleasant confusions might have been avoided, so many young minds might have been preserved against psychological abuse, so many Christian moral imaginations might have been spared such enormous corruptions. When Gregory looked at the eschatological language of the New Testament, what he believed he saw was … not some everlasting division between the two cities of the redeemed and the reprobate, but only a provisional division between two moments within the single economy of a universal salvation. What he found was … two distinct eschatological horizons, one wholly enclosed within the other. For him, the making and redemption of the world belong to that one great process by which God brings to pass the perfect creation that has resided from everlasting in the divine will, conceived and intended by him before all ages. All of created time is, he believed, nothing but the gradual unfolding, in time and by way of change, of God’s eternal and immutable design. For him, in fact, creation is twofold; there is a prior (which is to say, eternal) creative act that abides in God, as the end toward which all things are directed and for the sake of which all things have been brought about (described in Genesis 1:1-2:3); and there is a posterior creative act, which is the temporal exposition—cosmic and historical—of this divine model (whose initial phases are described in Genesis 2:4-25). From eternity, says Gregory, God has conceived of humanity under the form of an ideal “Human Being” (anthropos), at once humanity’s archetype and perfection, a creature shaped entirely after the divine likeness, neither male nor female, possessed of divine virtues: purity, love, impassibility, happiness, wisdom, freedom, and immortality. But this does not mean, as we might expect, simply that God first created the eternal ideal of the human, and only then fashioned individual human beings in imitation of this universal archetype. Rather, for Gregory, this primordial “ideal” Human Being comprises—indeed, is identical with—the entire pleroma of all human beings in every age, from first to last.

In his great treatise On the Making of Humanity, Gregory reads Genesis 1:26-7—the first account of the creation of the race, where humanity is described as being made “in God’s image”—as referring not to the making of Adam as such, but to the conception within the eternal divine counsels of this full community of all of humanity: the whole of the race, comprehended by God’s “foresight” as “in a single body,” which only in its totality truly reflects the divine likeness and the divine beauty. As for the two individuals Adam and Eve, whose making is described in the second creation narrative, they may have been superla­tively endowed with the gifts of grace at their origin, but they were themselves still merely the first members of that concrete community that only as a whole can truly reflect the glory of its creator. For now, it is only in the purity of the divine wisdom that this human totality subsists “altogether” (athroos) in its own fullness. It will emerge into historical actuality, in the concrete fullness of its beauty, only at the end of a long temporal “unfolding” or “suc­cession” (akolouthia). Only then, when time and times are done, will a truly redeemed humanity, one that has passed beyond all ages, be recapitulated in Christ. Only then also, in the ultimate solidarity of all humankind, will a being made in the image and likeness of God have truly been created: “Thus ‘Humanity according to the image’ came into being,” writes Gregory, “the entire nature [or race], the Godlike thing. And what thus came into being was, through omnipotent wisdom, not part of the whole, but the entire plenitude of the nature altogether.” It is precisely and solely this full community of persons throughout time that God has elected as his image, truth, glory, and delight. And God will bring this good creation he desires to pass in spite of sin, both within human history and yet over against it. He will never cease to bring the story he intends in creation to pass, despite our apostasy from that story. At the same time, however—so Gregory says in his treatise On Virginity—sin has inaugurated its own history, its own akolouthia of privation and violence, spreading throughout time from its own first seeds, striving against God’s love. And so, of course, throughout the course of human history, God’s original unfolding of creation must overcome the parasitic unfolding of evil. Even so, humanity, understood as the pleroma of God’s election, never ceases to possess that deathless beauty that humanity, understood as an historical community, has largely lost. God, reflecting eternally upon that beauty, draws all things on toward the glory he intends for them, although according to a mystery—a grace that does not predetermine the operations of a human freedom that, nevertheless, cannot ultimately elude it.

For Gregory, moreover, this human totality belongs to Christ from eternity, and can never be alienated from him. According to On the Making of Humanity, that eternal Human Being who lives in God’s counsels was from the first fashioned after the beauty of the Father’s eternal Logos, the eternal Son, and was made for no other end than to become the living body of Christ, who is its only head. It is thus very much the case that, for Gregory, the whole drama of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection was undertaken so that the eternal Son might reclaim those who are his own—which is to say, everyone. By himself entering into the plenitude of humanity as a single man among other men and women, and in thereby assuming humanity’s creaturely finitude and history as his own, Christ reoriented humanity again toward its true end; and, because the human totality is a living unity, the incarnation of the Logos is of effect for the whole. In a short commentary on the language of the eschato­logical “subordination” of the Son to the Father in the fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, Gregory even speaks of Christ as having assumed not just human nature in the abstract, but the whole pleroma, which means that his glory has entered into all that is human. Nor could it be otherwise. Such is the indivisible solidarity of humanity, he argues, that the entire body must ultimately be in unity with its head, whether that be the first or the last Adam. Hence Christ’s obedience to the Father even unto death will be made complete only eschatologi­cally, when the whole race, gathered together in him, will be yielded up as one body to the Father, in the Son’s gift of subjection, and God will be all in all. At Easter, Christ’s resurrec­tion inaugurated an akolouthia of resurrection, so to speak, in the one body of the race, an unfolding that cannot now cease (given the unity of human nature) until the last residue of sin—the last shadow of death—has vanished. Gregory finds this confirmed also, according to one of his early treatises (a “Refutation” of the teachings of the theologian Eunomius), in John 20:17: When Christ, says Gregory, goes to his God and Father, to the God and Father of his disciples, he presents all of humanity to God in himself. In his On the Soul and Resurrec­tion, moreover, Gregory reports the teaching of his sister Makrina that, when this is accom­plished, all divisions will at last fall away, and there will no longer be any separation between those who dwell within the Temple precincts and those who have been kept outside, for every barrier of sin separating human beings from the mysteries within the veil of the sanc­tuary will have been torn down; and then there will be a universal feast around God in which no rational creature will be deprived of full participation, and all those who were once excluded on account of sin will enter into the company of the blessed. We see here the exquisite symmetry in Gregory’s reading of scripture’s narrative of creation and redemption, and in his understanding of eternity’s perfect embrace of history: just as the true first creation of humanity (Genesis 1:26-27) was the eternal conception in the divine counsels of the whole race united to him while the second (Genesis 2:7) was the inaugura­tion of a history wholly dependent upon that eternal decree, so the culmination of history (1 Corin­thians 15:23) will at the last be, as it were, succeeded by and taken up into this original eternity in its eschatological realization (1 Corinthians 15:24), and the will of God will be perfectly accomplished in the everlasting body of Christ.

For Gregory, then, there can be no true human unity, nor even any perfect unity between God and humanity, except in terms of the concrete solidarity of all persons in that complete community that is, alone, the true image of God. God shall be all in all, argues Gregory in a treatise on infants who die prematurely, not simply by comprising humanity in himself in the abstract, as the universal ideal that he redeems in a few select souls, but by joining each particular person, each unique inflection of the pleroma‘s beauty, to himself. Even so, Christ’s assumption and final recapitulation of the human cannot simply be imposed upon the race as a whole, but must effect the conversion of each soul within itself, so that room is truly made for God “in all”; salvation by union with Christ must unfold within human freedom, and so within our capacity to venture away. For Gregory, of course, good classical Christian metaphysician that he was, evil and sin are always accidental conditions of human nature, never intrinsic qualities; all evil is a privation of an original goodness, and so the sinfulness that separates rational creatures from God is only a disease corrupting and disabling the will, robbing it of its true rational freedom, and thus is a disorder that must ultimately be purged from human nature in its entirety, even if needs be by hell. As Gregory argues in On the Making of Humanity, evil is inherently finite—in fact, in a sense, is pure finitude, pure limit—and so builds only toward an ending; evil is a tale that can have only an immanent conclusion; and, in the light of God’s infinity, its proper end will be shown to be nothing but its own disappearance. Once it has been exhausted, when every shadow of wickedness—all chaos, duplicity, and violence—has been outstripped by the infinity of God’s splendor, beauty, radiance, and delight, God’s glory will shine in each creature like the sun in an immaculate mirror, and each soul born into the freedom of God’s image—will turn of its own nature toward divine love. There is no other place, no other liberty; at the last, to the inevitable God humanity is bound by its freedom. And each person, as God elects him or her from before the ages, is indispensable, for the humanity God eternally wills could never come to fruition in the absence of any member of that body, any facet of that beauty. Apart from the one who is lost, humanity as God wills it could never be complete, nor even exist as the creature fashioned after the divine image; the loss of even one would leave the body of the Logos incomplete, and God’s purpose in creation unaccomplished.


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“There is no one God detests and repudiates more than the person who bears a grudge, whose heart is filled with anger, whose soul is seething with rage”

Christ gave his life for you, and do you hold a grudge against your fellow servant? How then can you approach the table of peace? Your Master did not refuse to undergo every kind of suffering for you, and will you not even forgo your anger? Why is this, when love is the root, the wellspring and the mother of every blessing?

He has offered me an outrageous insult, you say. He has wronged me times without number, he has endangered my life. Well, what is that? He has not yet crucified you as the Jewish elders crucified the Lord. If you refuse to forgive your neighbor’s offense, your heavenly Father will not forgive your sins either. What does your conscience say when you repeat the words: “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,” and the rest? Christ went so far as to offer his blood for the salvation of those who shed it. What could you do that would equal that? If you refuse to forgive your enemy, you harm not him but yourself. You have indeed harmed him frequently in this present life, but you have earned for yourself eternal punishment on the day of judgment. There is no one God detests and repudiates more than the person who bears a grudge, whose heart is filled with anger, whose soul is seething with rage.

Listen to the Lord’s words:

If you are bringing your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and first go and be reconciled. Then come and offer your gift.

What do you mean? Am I really to leave my gift, my offering there? Yes, he says, because this sacrifice is offered in order that you may live in peace with your neighbor. If then the attainment of peace with your neighbor is the object of the sacrifice and you fail to make peace, even if you share in the sacrifice your lack of peace will make this sharing fruitless. Before all else therefore make peace, for the sake of which the sacrifice is offered. Then you will really benefit from it.

The reason the Son of God came into the world was to reconcile the human race with the Father. As Paul says: “Now he has reconciled all things to himself, destroying enmity in himself by the cross.” Consequently, as well as coming himself to make peace he also calls us blessed if we do the same, and shares his title with us. “Blessed are the peacemakers, he says, for they shall be called children of God.”

So as far as a human being can, you must do what Christ the Son of God did, and become a promoter of peace both for yourself and for your neighbor. Christ calls the peacemaker a child of God. The only good deed he mentions as essential at the time of sacrifice is reconciliation with one’s brother or sister. This shows that of all the virtues the most important is love.

St John Chrysostom

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David Hart Responds to Michael Pakaluk

“One would never know it from reading the reviews in First Things, but That All Shall Be Saved is in fact a closely argued and continuous philosophical and theological argument. Its central contention is that the sort of universalism that one finds in Gregory of Nyssa is the sole version of the classical Christian narrative of God and creation that does not—if subjected to the most rigorous logical scrutiny—become incoherent at one or another crucial juncture …”

Go to full article

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Apprehending Apokatastasis: Predestinating to Perdition

No theological topic provokes more angst, consternation, and passionate debate than the Latin doctrine of absolute predestination (yes, even more so than apokatastasis). No matter how carefully formulated and gently proclaimed, what we hear is this: from the mass of sinful humanity, God chooses some persons to everlasting bliss while quietly passing over the rest, forsaking them to their infernal fate. Thomists try to soften the blow by assuring us that God provides sufficient grace for everyone to turn to him in faith, but the assurance never really assures. The preteritional spectre haunts the proceedings. How can God be infinite and unconditional love if, possessing the power and freedom to confer efficacious grace unto eternal salvation, he voluntarily refrains from doing so. An absolute predestina­tion of only some entails an absolute decision not to elect the rest. A terrifying divide between divine love and divine grace is thus introduced. God wills the good of every human being yet—in his abundant and overflowing grace—selects only some to enjoy eternal beatitude in the Holy Trinity. The non-chosen he abandons to the interminable torment they so richly deserve. Not surprisingly, the doctrine of absolute predestination comes under trenchant criticism by David Bentley Hart:

For, according to the great Augustinian tradition, since we are somehow born meriting not only death but eternal torment, we are enjoined to see and praise a laudable generosity in God’s narrow choice to elect a small remnant for salvation, before and apart from any consideration of their concrete mer­its or demerits (ante praevisa merita, to use the traditional formula), and his further choice either to predestine or infallibly to surrender the vast remain­der to everlasting misery. When Augustine lamented the tender­heartedness, the misericordia, that made Origen believe that demons, heathens, and (most preposterously of all) unbaptized babies might ultimately be spared the torments of eternal fire, he made clear how the moral imagination must bend and lacerate and twist itself in order to absorb such beliefs. (That All Shall Be Saved, p. 76)

Absolute predestination calls into radical question the love of the Father for all of human­ity. God desires the salvation of all (1 Tim 2:4), yet apparently not all. He saves the elect, but to the non-elect he speaks words of final reprobation: “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers” (Matt 7:23). The universality of the Savior’s salvific will is revealed as less than universal. Nor is the contradiction resolved by positing a distinction between, on the one hand, “God’s irresistible predestination of the elect to beatitude and, on the other, the ‘irresistible permissive decrees’ by which he sends the derelict to a damnation they never had the power to escape” (p. 48). Christ died for the ungodly. He would never accept the election of only some sinners; by death and resurrection he has elected all. Yet once the doctrine of everlast­ing perdition is dogmatically asserted, predestinarians have no choice but to invent a distinction to explain the schizophrenic incoherence within the Godhead, a contradiction between love and grace that can be neither rationally explained nor evangel­i­cally justified. Nor does it help to posit the libertarian freedom of the lost to reject God’s gift of salvation. Ortho­dox and Arminians may appeal to creaturely freedom to justify dam­na­tion but not those in the Augustinian and Thomistic traditions: through his effica­cious grace, God can bring to repentance even the most incorrigible and obdurate, if he should so will. Yet he does not—thus hell.

Hart directs the bulk of his ire to the clear, and clarifying, double predestinarianism of John Calvin. Calvin states his position:

By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he deter­mined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death. (Institutes 3.21)

Calvin makes explicit that which was implicit in St Augustine all along. It is just a short step from preterition to negative reprobation, from negative reprobation to foreordination to damnation:

Really, Reformed tradition is perhaps to be praised here, if only for the flinty resolve with which it faces its creed’s implications: Calvin, as I have noted, had the courage to acknowledge that his account of divine sover­eignty necessitates belief in the predestination not only of the saved and the damned, but of the original fall of humankind itself; and he recognized that the biblical claim that “God is love” must, on his principles, be accounted a definition not of God in himself, but only of God as experienced by the elect (toward the damned, God is in fact hate). (pp. 76-77; emphasis mine)

Double predestination inflicts a mortal wound upon both the Church’s apprehension of divinity as a Trinity of persons united in mutual self-giving and the salvific recapitulation of humanity in the God-Man. As Hart rightly observes, “God is love” no longer speaks of the Father, Son, and Spirit in their immanent trinitarian life, as manifested in the econ­omy of salvation, but only of their benevolent actions on behalf of the elect. The Father of Jesus Christ is replaced by an Oriental potentate arbitrarily plucking from ruin the fortunate few. In the words of Calvin: “Decretum quidem horribile, fateor” (“It is a dreadful decree, I confess”). Most Christians are repelled by the doctrine of double predestination, yet if Hart is correct about the signifi­cance of the final judgment for the divine identity, Calvin has simply stated what must be the logical case: God wills hell from all eternity (see “Revealing the God Behind the Curtain“). At this point the unity of the Godhead is shattered and the atoning work of Jesus Christ undone (see T. F. Torrance, “Predestination in Christ,” and James B. Torrance, “The Incarnation and Limited Atonement“).

But what about Romans 9-11? These three chapters constitute the locus classicus of predestinarian biblical exegesis. Space prohibits lengthy discussion. Readers may wish to read the chapters in Hart’s translation of the New Testament, followed by a careful reading of pp. 130-138 in That All Shall Be Saved. In Romans 9-11 the Apostle Paul wrestles with the painful question of Jewish failure to accept Jesus as the chosen Messiah. Did the LORD summon the tribes of Israel to himself only to make them vessels of his wrath? Will he now abandon them in favor of the Gentile believers in Christ? Hart summarizes Paul’s reflection:

We know, he says, that divine election is God’s work alone, not earned but given; it is not by their merit that gentile believers have been chosen. “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated” (9:13) (though here, recall, Paul is quoting Malachi, for whom Jacob symbolizes Israel and Esau symbolizes Edom, which would seem to be, if one imagines the point to be merely the separation between the damned and the saved, the very inverse of the typology Paul is employing). For his own ends, Paul continues, God hard­ened Pharaoh’s heart. He has mercy on whom he will, hardens whom he will (9:15-18). And if you think this unjust, who then are you, 0 man, to reproach the God who made you? May not the potter cast his clay for purposes both high and low, as he chooses (9:19-21)? So, “then, what if” God should show his power by preserving vessels suitable only for wrath, keeping them solely for destruction, in order to provide an instructive counterpoint to the riches of the glory he lavishes on vessels prepared for mercy, whom he has called from among the Jews and the gentiles alike (9:22-24)? It is a terrible possibility, admittedly, and horrifying to contem­plate, but perhaps that is simply how things are: The elect alone are to be saved, and the rest left reprobate, solely as a display of divine might; God’s faithfulness is his own affair. Well then, so far, so Augustinian. But then also, again, so purely conditional: that “what if … ?” must be strictly observed. For, as it happens, rather than offering a solution to the quan­dary in which he finds himself, Paul is simply restating that quandary in its bleakest possible form, at the very brink of despair. He does not stop there, however, because he knows that this cannot be the correct answer. It is so obviously preposterous, in fact, that a wholly different solution must be sought, one that makes sense and that will not require the surrender either of Paul’s reason or of his confidence in God’s righteousness. Hence, con­trary to his own warnings, Paul does indeed continue to question God’s justice; and he spends the next two chapters unambiguously rejecting the provisional answer (the “vessels of wrath” hypothesis) altogether, so as to reach a completely different—and far more glorious—conclusion. (pp. 134-135)

In reading these chapters, Hart counsels us, we must keep in mind throughout the hypo­thet­ical mood of Rom 9:14 (“What then shall we say? Is there injustice with God? Let it not be so!”), Rom 9:22-24 (“And what if God, though disposed to display his indignation and make known what is possible for him, tolerated with enormous magnanimity vessels of indigna­tion, suitable for destruction …), and Rom 11:1 (“Therefore I say, ‘Did God reject his people?’ Let it not be so!”). Paul’s thought experiment leads him into a wondrous revelation:

So I say: Did they stumble that they might fall? Let it not be so! Rather, through their error comes salvation for the gentiles, so as to provoke them to envy. But if their error is enrichment for the cosmos and their discomfi­ture enrichment for the gentiles, how much more so the full totality of them? … For if their rejection is reconciliation for the cosmos, what is their acceptance except life from the dead? (Rom 11:11-12,15)

For I do not want you, brothers, to be ignorant of this mystery, lest you be arrogant in yourselves: that a hardness has come upon one part of Israel until the full totality of the gentiles enter in, and thus all of Israel shall be saved, just as has been written, “The one who delivers will come out of Zion, he will turn away impiety from Jacob, and this is the covenant on my part with them, when I take away their sins. On your account, as regards the good tidings, they are enemies; and yet, on account of the fathers, as regards election, they are beloved. For God’s bestowals of grace and vocation are not subject to a change of heart. For, even as you once did not trust in God but have now received mercy through their mistrust, so they now also have not trusted, to the end that, by the mercy shown you, they now also might receive mercy. For God shut up everyone in obsti­nacy so that he might show mercy to everyone. (11:25-32; emphasis mine)

Paul’s “predestinarianism” leads him to a strong assertion of the salvation of Israel … but not only of Israel but of all humanity. In the eschatological consummation there will ultimately be no vessels of wrath, for in Christ God has made all human beings vessels of mercy, “prepared beforehand for glory” (Rom 9:23). The people of the covenant may stumble, but the LORD will never permit them to fall into final impenitence—just so, for all of humanity. The elect are but “the firstfruits of the grand plan of salvation,” writes Hart. “The ‘derelict’ too will, at the close of the tale, be gathered in, caught up in the embrace of election before they can strike the ground” (p. 137).

(Go to “The Vision of Gregory of Nyssa”)

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