by Richard Bernier, Ph.D.
In the 2016 remake of the classic film The Magnificent Seven, a motley crew led by Sam Chisholm, played by Denzel Washington, is called upon to rid a town of a bullying tyrant. In an exchange with one of the principal townswomen, Emma Cullen, who has lost almost everything to the villains, Sam asks her “So you seek revenge?” Emma answers him, “I seek righteousness, as should we all. But I’ll take revenge.” It is, if I may say, an immensely satisfying line that captures one innocent woman’s refusal to surrender her ideals even as her oppressor’s impunity galvanizes her to yearn at least for his downfall if not his redemption. How often do the rest of us not look at some egregious example of shameless devilry, of monstrous inhumanity, and think “Let even this be redeemed, ibut at the very least, let it be avenged.” Most of us, even those of us who are Christians, I would venture to guess, have certain persons in mind whom we feel it would be neither difficult nor overly painful to imagine suffering eternal torments. At first glance, it seems one would have to be exceptionally charitable to muster a really heartfelt tear or shudder at the prospect of eternal damnation for the architects of the Holocaust, the Gulag, the Holodomor, the Killing Fields; for tormentors of children, for that vile fiend who designed an electrified chair to terrify the young Indigenous inmates of a Canadian residential school. It is all very well to seek righteousness; but there are times when all of us would take revenge. To read Dante is to become uncomfortably aware of a man who, for all his immeasurable talents, saw in the literary portrayal of the Last Things an opportunity to settle a few scores.
And yet, the pithiest and most concise affirmation of Christian soteriology is that line from the 21st chapter of the Apocalypse: “Behold, I make all things new.” However weary and calloused one might be in one’s outlook, nevertheless the sovereignty of Christ, trampling on death by death, victorious over the enemy, and on those in the tomb, lavishing life – this sovereignty seems mocked if the understandable human settling for revenge creeps into the Lordship of Christ over the transformed cosmos.
Prescinding for a moment from the very worst examples of human obliquity such as those just catalogued, it seems that settling for revenge rather than righteousness is even more plainly inconsistent with the Christian notion of Christ’s Lordship if we think, not of Pol Pot or Beria, but of the teeming masses of us who are just muddling through – such as your Great-Uncle Ned, a thoroughly decent chap who never managed to be terribly punctilious about attending Sunday Mass; our kind and just and generous neighbours who have not in any obvious way received the grace of faith; or the immense multitude of little ones who pass away without seeing the light of day let alone the waters of Baptism. The Lord makes all things new, and His mercy endures forever, but there are in our churches some solid traditions of consigning any number of such hapless souls to perdition without, it must be said, much dismay. This ought to trouble us. It ought to trouble us even in those utterly depraved cases I just mentioned; let us take as a specific example that loathsome individual who set out to inflict fear and pain on the little children from Indigenous communities sentenced to miserable years in a residential school. Even here, it seems to me, there is a world of difference between retribution with a fiery core of justice, and revenge with a rotten core of cruelty. An understandable justice might say “I would like to see that monster suffer as long and as deeply as he must until he himself has felt all the pain he inflicted, until he truly and from the depths of his being begs forgiveness from God and from his survivors.” On the other hand, to say, “I just want him to suffer and to go on suffering in anguish and despair for the rest of eternity with no hope of deliverance” – that is a revenge in which any spark of justice seems to have been extinguished.
The remarks that follow will not be about a single verse, but there in black and white in First Timothy is a most apposite verse, the verse that says concisely what so much of the Christian Faith conspires to affirm: God our saviour…wishes all people to be saved. It is not that this or any single verse proves anything definitively, but this phrase from Timothy expresses in a few words what is expressed throughout the Scriptures, Hebrew and Greek, the mystical traditions of the Church, and the lives of its most beloved Saints, such as Francis of Assisi, Thérèse of Lisieux, Seraphim of Sarov, or any number of others: the Divine act of Creation and the Divine act of Redemption arise from Divine charity and compassion and must be defined in terms of charity and compassion all the way down the line or they make no sense at all.
“God our Saviour wishes all people to be saved.” This sentiment immediately gives rise to entire departments of Theology as faith, seeking understanding, parses the verse and those like it. What does it mean to be saved? Once we grant that God wishes something, how is it that we don’t immediately move from the subjunctive to the indicative mood – for doesn’t God’s wishing something make it so? And if not, why not? “God our Saviour wishes all people to be saved” – the observation should delight but not really surprise us, once we have accepted that Christ’s life and teaching were Good News.
He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed. (Luke 4:18, RSV)
Make this mission selective rather than universal, and you immediately nullify its claim to be Good News. We can confidently take this as a conviction of orthodox Christianity and thus as our starting point: “God our Saviour wishes all people to be saved.” Any contraction of this circle of mercy in the name, let’s say, of one or another version of predestination, is at best a depressing triumph of clever cheese-paring wordplay over the radical hope promised by the Incarnation, and is at worst the most hideous of blasphemies.
And yet a phenomenological survey of orthodox Christian faith and practice reveals persistent and widespread conviction that some kind of perdition, some kind of personal eschatological catastrophe, remains a real menace and one to be taken with great seriousness. This conviction arises first of all, of course, from the pages of the Greek Scriptures themselves and particularly the Gospels. Christian literature, Christian art, Christian homiletics, are shot through with an often intense anxiety that the final destiny of some is damnation, a permanent torment of separation from God, the intensity of which is represented by, even when it is not formally believed to consist of, scorching flames and ghastly shrieks and odours unbearable. It is this fearful prospect that the author of the Dies Irae seeks to be delivered from:
Confutatis maledictis, Flammis acribus addictis, Voca me cum benedictis.
In the words of Irons’ translation:
When the wicked are confounded, Doomed to flames of woe unbounded, Call me with Your saints surrounded.
What are we to make of these “flames of woe unbounded”? This fiery imagery is of course not so very far from the New Testament images of the Gehenna, of the lake of fire, of the unquenchable flame, perhaps the very one that burns up the chaff. It is tempting to move on quickly from these popular, more fanciful or detailed portrayals of Hell in the Christian tradition, on the grounds that nobody really believes them, at least not anymore. However, Christian literary and artistic depictions of Hell are also part of the legacy of the Churches, and they continue their catechetical function even when they are no longer attached to pulpits, altars or cloisters but hang among the comfortingly eclectic holdings of art museums, or are read in the sheltered confines of the seminar room. Consider the central place given to lurid descriptions of Hell’s torments in some homiletic resources and traditions in the West. James Joyce draws upon such chilling sermons for our disedification; in Québec, the Redemptorist Order were sometimes nicknamed the rédempterroristes because of their reputation for parish missions where Hell was preached with blood-curdling zeal. Christians are quick, I think, to take pride in the way cathedrals and stained-glass windows have served as catechisms for the unlettered; but then it would be inconsistent to insist on getting a pass on the nastier bits. It is all very well to derive a frisson of sophisticated amusement from the darker themes in Hieronymus Bosch, but his demons and hellscapes were no joke; they were no mere study in whimsy for the generations of unlettered faithful praying and trembling with his work looming over them.
What, then, have the churches made of damnation, theologically speaking?
First, and most bluntly: Christians have widely believed that it is possible, and terrible, to be punished by God for all eternity. Let your imagination run as wild as it might with specific torments, these can only approximate how dreadful Hell must be. Hell is real, on this view, and we have no basis for supposing it will be unpopulated. While everyone admits that Dante’s Inferno and Bosch’s hellscapes are no Lonely Planet guides by experienced visitors to the realm of everlasting torment, nonetheless, on this view, these artists’ instincts for what Hell may be like are perceptive and dependable ones, powerful not because they get the details right, but because they catch the drift of what must be meant by eternal damnation – namely, that it is the supreme and the only definitive tragedy.
But if eternal hellfire has this pedigree of being professed across many years and many cultures, and if it is the view that even now is in possession of the field, why bother attempting to revise it or question it? What is the point of disputing something so entrenched?
Well, it is because such a notion of a never-ending non-medicinal punishment is monstrous, plain and simple. No amount of mental or verbal gymnastics can really make intelligible the claim that an utterly loving and just God deliberately sentences some of His rational creatures to an eternity of unbroken anguish, whatever form it takes, without even sleep or coma to alleviate their grief, and with no healing or remediation possible. It is this point in particular that David Bentley Hart makes at length and very persuasively in That All Shall Be Saved, his vitally important recent book on universal salvation. Hart argues that positing a loving and just God who wills an eternal, conscious, non-remedial punishment is so starkly and manifestly perverse, and that the efforts to defend that view are so alien to reason and human experience, that the claim practically rises to the level of a logical impossibility. He is not alone in his misgivings, although he is exceptional for the vigour with which he expresses them.
In the first edition of his Apologia pro vita sua, St John Henry Newman initially wrote that he believed in eternal punishment but that he had “tried in various ways to make that truth less terrible to the reason“: in subsequent editions he changed that line first to “I have tried in various ways to make that truth less terrible to the intellect” and finally “I have tried in various ways to make that truth less terrible to the imagination.” This is an intriguing evolution, suggesting that Newman found the doctrine of Hell even more terrible to the heart than to the mind, or that he did not wish to undertake any defence of Hell which would require an attempt to adduce reasons, or a defense of the indefensible. Whatever Newman’s motives for adjusting so subtly the way he framed his reticences about the doctrine of Hell, we can see in Christian history a number of theological and pastoral efforts to make the doctrine of eternal damnation less terrible to the intellect and imagination, even when, as with Newman, the doctrine itself is not in question.
A first very modest step away from the unthinkable is to explicitly deny that Hell is in any sense a torture chamber: to deny that the sufferings are physical (failing which we would have to posit that God created a lake of fire or an icy prison), to deny that specific punishments are meted out in the manner Dante portrays, to deny that the damned are handed over to the demons for their malicious sport. This first step which we might summarize as a denial of Hell conceived as punishment in favour of a Hell conceived of as separation and alienation – this first step already takes us a long way from what Herbert McCabe notes “seem to have been largely projections of sadistic or vindictive fantasies,” from what Hell has often been in the Christian imagination, from the Vision of Tundale to Dante to Bosch to the New Yorker cartoons for which the palpable physical and elaborate emotional torments of Hell are a favourite trope – a long way, for that matter, from the third part of St Thomas’ Summa and the prima facie meaning of the formulation employed by the First Council of Lyon. Nonetheless, I think very many Christians today recognize the necessity of denying that Hell is a purpose-built torture chamber since otherwise we are obliged to claim that the Father deliberately causes sufferings which cannot be redemptive or medicinal or even pedagogical since they are unending, entirely retributive, in no sense restorative, and out of all proportion to what a human being can possibly merit.
The reason for taking this step is that the first and most glaring scandal of most traditional versions of eternal punishment is their lack of the two precise things that alone can make any punishment tolerable, namely the quality of being finite in time (so that there is hope of deliverance), and the quality of ultimately having some benefit for the person suffering. Can there be any satisfaction in seeing even the worst of villains punished if there is no way it can ever do them any good, if it cannot wring true repentance from their hearts? That, truly, would be revenge without righteousness.
But even if we take away the ghastliest and most blasphemous component of the conventional Western view, namely the positing of deliberately created torments, we are still left with the scandal of an eternity of despair that can never do anyone any good, even if that despair is framed, as it usually is nowadays, as entirely self-inflicted. Many catechists today will insist that God sends nobody to Hell, but that it is a state we choose for ourselves. Still, self-inflicted or not, an eternity of futile despair and unrelieved loneliness looks like a defect in Divine charity, no matter how hard we squint. It must also be said that many critics of universalism, whether Hart’s version or another’s, object that eternal punishment has been held by most Christians in every age while universal salvation has not. However, those raising this objection do not typically consider themselves equally bound by the fact that most Christians in every age envisioned Hell not purely as a state of separation, not purely as a spiritual alienation, but as a realm of outright punishment. It is entirely understandable that defenders of the doctrine of eternal punishment should want to distance themselves from the implications of seeing God as a kind of Grand Inquisitor, but it illustrates vividly how selectively they take the views of the Councils and the faithful as authoritative. The move to spiritualize Hell, after all, is not a triumph of the prima facie meaning of Scripture over subsequent accretions, given the language of worms and fires and the gnashing of teeth; it is a triumph of the primacy of God’s goodness over any secondary doctrines. If the Church can permit itself to qualify the flames in the name of God’s goodness, then many Christians will want to qualify other aspects of the established view, and with good reason.
Hence it is that attempts have been made to go even further, to mitigate the sting of positing this sort of damnation in the first place.
For example, one may argue that whatever Hell is like, we may at least hope it will remain strictly a theoretical possibility that will never actually exist for any person. This is von Balthasar’s position, and the position evoked by Bishop Kallistos Ware in The Orthodox Way and much more developed in the essay “Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All?” in The Inner Kingdom. I also take this to be Pope St John Paul’s point when he writes in Crossing the Threshold of Hope that we can’t even confidently say that Judas is a lost soul. In this view, it is possible to hope that all shall be saved, not by having their freedom overridden by grace or Divine decree, but on account of the sheer happy coincidence that, between grace and mercy and the essential goodness of human nature, nobody will in the end be lost. This position has the advantage that it allows us not to think very much about what damnation means – when the unpleasant topic arises in conversation or reflection, we can simply hope for the best and not dwell on it too much. This is probably the least controversial version of universal salvation, although von Balthasar does have his Catholic critics, among others, who consider that the data requires us to posit at least some lost souls. However, von Balthasar’s view meets even the very exacting doctrinal demands of the Latin Church’s pronouncements on the matter. The discipline of the Latin Church seems to leave little room for universal salvation to be preached in that Church, but von Balthasar’s version of the hope that all shall be saved is a kind of conditional universalism available to the Roman Catholic preacher.
Nonetheless von Balthasar’s earnest hope does not resolve the problem of what it means for our theodicy to posit damnation even if only as a theoretical possibility. Suppose I announced to this room that I have strewn landmines from here to City Hall but I add, “don’t trouble yourself too much – it may be that all of you will be lucky enough not to step on one.” I expect you would find your curiosity and indignation as to my motives, and your alarm at my state of mind, will remain unsatisfied by my assurances. In the same way von Balthasar’s hope in a de facto universal salvation fails to dissipate the weighty concerns raised by Bentley Hart.
Another quite different possibility is to maintain the eternity of punishment but to remove the scandal of apparent Divine indifference to this ongoing suffering by positing that lost souls will be annihilated or not be granted their immortality – in short that, while they will not enjoy life and the Divine presence, neither will they experience ongoing loss and despair. This is Fr Robert Wild’s position as expressed in his book A Catholic Reading Guide to Conditional Immortality (Resource Publications, 2017), a position he arrived at after concluding that eternal damnation is untenable but that universal salvation is inadequate as a doctrine to account for the radical implications that the Christian tradition has normally ascribed to our choices. This rather grey prospect of conditional immortality, dreary though it may be, spares the Christian the obligation of positing a God indifferent to the hopeless suffering of His beloved creations. If there is no way of confidently proclaiming that Hell is an empty set, then annihilation or non-survival seem like the next best thing, certainly better than an eternity of loneliness and despair.
In a similar vein, some who have broached the problem of eternal punishment have emphasized that eternity should not be seen as an endless succession of moments in time but as another mode of existence where time does not operate in the same way. Chuck Norris may have counted to infinity twice, but this is not an ability available to us average mortals – so that instead of taking as a model the intemperate homilist’s vision of hell as an endless series of desperate moments, we should instead understand it as a permanent state of separation beyond the categories of time.
But however we parse the place of eternity in one’s notion of hell, neither annihilation nor despair is very Good News at all, and this brings us to the various ways Christians have sought to make the doctrine of Hell less terrible to the intellect and imagination by making it temporary; and with this removal of eternity from the equation, we are in the territory of universal salvation, for apokatastasis as applied to human beings does not mean there is no justice or consequence of sin, but precisely that perdition need not or even must not be permanent.
One popular way of implicitly denying Hell’s eternity is also an interesting attempt to shift the locus of responsibility for damnation: namely, the position that Hell is real but that it is eternal only because, and if, the damned refuse to repent. This I take to be what C.S. Lewis means when he writes in The Problem of Pain that the doors of Hell are locked on the inside, and what he develops so beautifully in his extraordinary story The Great Divorce. A Hell continually freely chosen by the damned is much easier to grapple with than a doctrine of inexorable, unending, non-medicinal punishment or even alienation – but of course to posit such a Hell really means that we have ceased to describe perdition as eternal and have ceased to describe it as an inflicted torture. If those doors could be opened at any moment by those separated from God, if it is a self-chosen and reversible damnation, then it is not eternal but merely indefinite and accords a greater role to ongoing human agency than even most classic Western notions of purgatory. This idea that Hell is locked on the inside is very popular among catechists and evangelizers today, and understandably so, for it is much easier to speak with a straight face about the boundless mercy of God if even the lost are never truly lost beyond all hope. On the other hand, Lewis was not a universalist, and Kallistos Ware uses the locked-door image in The Orthodox Way, but still affirms that Hell is eternal – presumably because the soul is held to be fixed in its disposition and beyond conversion. This view, that the possibility of a change of heart ceases at death and the will becomes fixed, is a widely repeated claim for which I have not yet been able to see a persuasive argument. Be that as it may, if I have been rendered utterly incapable of unlocking a door, the fact that it is locked only on my side is of little comfort.
Another approach to denying Hell’s eternity is to affirm, not that it is a prison whose door is locked on the inside, whose sentence is self-imposed, but to conceive of Hell’s sufferings as a redemptive purgation, as a medicinal or remedial process that can and will end when the soul repents and is sufficiently purified. In effect, this view collapses the distinction between Hell and what the West calls Purgatory, and attributes to Hell some of the main features that the Western Tradition has normally ascribed to Purgatory, notably that it is limited in time and medicinal or restorative in nature. This is what I understand Origen, St Gregory of Nyssa, Hilarion Alfeyev, and Bentley Hart to be positing. Recent quite indispensable work by Ilaria Ramelli and Robin Parry has documented persistent affirmations of one form or another of universal salvation in different eras of Christian history. Thus whether universalism is true or false, it is no myopic innovation of a misguidedly soft-hearted age but a recurring, one might say incessant concern of Christians in the face of the difficulties raised by the doctrine of eternal punishment, and is by some accounts a persistent return to the liberating hope of the New Testament, though this is contested strongly by Hart’s critics.
Assessing these competing visions of the Last Things means weighing their respective cogency but it also means weighing how readily they can be squared with the Scriptures, Holy Tradition, the canons of the Councils, and the teaching of the Fathers. It won’t have escaped our attention that on the matter of Hell, the Eastern and Western Churches have chosen over the centuries to go, by and large, down somewhat different paths. Advocates of belief in a universal human salvation often find their most kindred spirits among the Eastern Fathers particularly, notably St Isaac of Nineveh, St Gregory of Nyssa, St Evagrius Ponticus, St Theodore of Mopsuestia, St Athanasius, and others, and among modern Orthodox thinkers such as Bulgakov, Alfeyev, and of course Bentley Hart. At the same time, as Ramelli shows, this contrast should not be overstated as there are ancient Western authors sympathetic to universalism. Still, it is instructive to compare the treatment of Hell in two modern Catholic catechetical instruments of particularly solemn weight, namely the Catechism of the Catholic Church intended for the whole Catholic communion but preponderantly Western in outlook, and Christ our Pascha, the catechism of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church. The 1999 Roman Catechism over several paragraphs reiterates the traditional Latin position that Hell involves punishment and is eternal; in contrast, Christ our Pascha treats of the topic very briefly in a single paragraph, specifically disavows the word “punishment”, and says nothing about eternity, turning instead to Maximus the Confessor and Origen for the imagery of an unrepentant soul that is not said to be separated from God but to be at war with itself. The choice to cite only Maximus and Origen on this topic is itself a very instructive choice of sources, as Origen is the most famous of Christian universalists, while Maximus is generally considered to be a universalist as well.
There are a number of critical points that must be explored in any discussion of universal salvation, especially the question of what we are to make of the New Testament’s claims about the fiery destiny of some, the implications for human freedom and responsibility, and the problem of how universalism might be squared with some of the magisterial affirmations of the Churches.
There is also the objection, often levelled, that universal salvation trivializes the implications of our actions. Let’s say for the sake of argument that it does. If eternal punishment is the solution, then the cure is worse than the disease. This is a point Bentley Hart makes especially powerfully – the idea that there is anything any of us poor creatures could do that would literally merit an eternity of unremitting despair is beyond credence, because of what it requires us to affirm about God and because what it requires us to believe about human nature.
Even more to the point, let us suppose instead that the vision of C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce were the truest version we have of the Last Things. Far from making our choices trivial, this vision recognizes that in fact we are constantly choosing Heaven and Hell every day. It would be a childish mistake to take only immediate lethal threats as worthy of concern. If my doctor tells me that an excessive predilection for Snickers bars may not kill me this afternoon but it will eventually make me miserable until I smarten up — that is not shallow or trivial but a real warning of a little Hell I am needlessly creating for myself. If a friend warns me that if I persist in checking social media incessantly, I may not die on the spot but I will live a more and more unhappy and stress-filled life, until I choose to learn to manage my futile rage — that perspective does not trivialize my choices, but urges me to cherish my life more carefully. It is truer to our experience and thus far more persuasive to say “Keep this up and you will live to regret the Hell created by your anger, your heartlessness, your intemperance, your lusts, your cruelty, your refusal to trust God; and you will find it an excruciating journey to come back to grace, life, and peace.” That is far more persuasive than to say “The disposition of your will at the instant of your death – no matter how you have lived the rest of your life – will be your fixed and unchangeable disposition for the rest of eternity, so make sure you get that moment right.” And it is certainly more persuasive than to say, “We can only really live with our own claims about Hell by hoping nobody ends up there.” These important questions are beyond the scope of my remarks here but a number of the works cited, especially those by Bentley Hart, Ramelli, and Wild, do explore these problems in greater depth.
I do want to say a word about one particular question raised by universalism.
The official pronouncements of the Roman Catholic Church raise important questions for all those sympathetic to universalism and at the same time committed to grappling seriously with what it means to be in communion with Rome. Justin Shaun Coyle has written an interesting and hopeful essay entitled “May Catholics Endorse Universalism?“, published on the website Eclectic Orthodoxy. Fr Aidan Kimel, who manages and contributes to the site, has curated some of the most interesting work on the subject of universalism, and Coyle’s essay is specifically intended to address what versions of universalism, if any, might be available to a Roman Catholic who is guided by that Church’s pronouncements on the matter of eternal punishment. Coyle proposes a vision of how universal salvation might be squared with the Roman Church’s suite of official statements in favour of eternal punishment, and as I see it that vision is consciously in harmony with what Bentley Hart offers. In a nutshell, Coyle distinguishes between the true and the shadow self, between the sinner who burns everlastingly and the beloved soul which is liberated from those flames to everlasting life, no longer a sinner by the very fact of having his or her sins permanently purified. It is a reading well worth exploring by Roman Catholics, especially now that Bentley Hart has newly given voice to the grave objections that stand against the classic position. If Bentley Hart is right, then Roman Catholics will certainly want to think about how to receive Lateran IV and Lyon I in ways other than they have generally been received. Coyle’s project is one such attempt at a re-reading; doubtless others are possible and desirable. But some rethinking of Lateran IV and Lyon I becomes imperative, and Eastern Catholics will want to continue to think about what it means doctrinally to be in genuine communion with Rome while faithfully and fully retaining our own proper traditions, including an openness to universal salvation that is anchored in our history, in our theological and spiritual sources, and above all in our commitment to the Orthodox faith as to the nature of Christ and the nature of Divine charity.
I would like by way of conclusion to offer a few thoughts about one specific objection that has been levelled against the doctrine of universal salvation, namely: Doesn’t the hope that all shall be saved remove the incentive for holiness?
I contend that it does the opposite: to take the most obvious human parallel, the faithful love of our friends or family or Fred Rogers does not normally lead us to treat them shabbily, rather it draws us up to greater generosity and love. We don’t normally mistreat a beloved friend or family member because we are confident that she will not abandon us; her devotion instead evokes in us greater humanity. Consider St Ignatius of Loyola’s’ meditation on Hell in his Spiritual Exercises, a key moment in the Exercises where the exercitant faces what kind of person he or she intends and wishes to be with God’s grace. It would completely cheapen the whole process, the very spirit of the Exercises, if it merely urged us to avoid sin to avoid the torments of the damned; and such a craven and fearful attitude would belie the Exercises’ own portrayal of God’s love and of the freedom and abundant life for which we are created. This is shown by the pinnacle of the Exercises, the “Contemplation to Attain Love.” This contemplatio vigorously dismisses motives of fear and self-interest to consider simply how the graciousness of God ought to evoke in us love and collaboration.
It would be a caricature of the apokatastatic vision to suppose that positing an indefinite period of deep and cleansing purification is a kind of laxity, an insanely optimistic delusion. A major theme of recent work on apokatastasis (Bentley Hart, Talbott, Parry…) has been that the hope embedded in Jesus’ Good News seems incompatible with eternal punishment; however, as the universalist Fathers understood, the purification that most universalist views envision as the purpose of the unquenchable fire is no day at the beach. Jesus’ eschatological teaching, for all its shadows and hints, seems clear about this: if we persist in injustice, in cruelty, in selfishness, in blasphemy, all these will eventually have to be purified as if by fire, and we will not be delivered from this fire until every trace of ungodliness has been burned away. This is no invitation to complacency.
If we envision Hell, not as an eternal punishment, but as the intrinsic consequence of living as though we and the rest of the human family and the rest of the world are mere accidents rather than creations; if we envision Hell as the natural evolution of what St Ephrem’s Prayer calls “slothfulness, discouragement, ambition, and idle talk”, then we will grasp that Hell really is the extension beyond death of what we are all living right now when we do not live by faith, hope, and charity. The imperative to evangelize is tremendously plausible and powerful if by grace we elect to avoid that sort of Hell for ourselves and others: Hell understood as Citizen Kane’s lonely deathbed, Sam Rockwell’s desolate base in the film Moon, Kayla’s stark and lonely world in the film Eighth Grade, or even grimmer Gehennas of our making. The imperative to evangelize is all the more plausible and powerful once we wish to avoid Hell understood as the world of the Gulag and the death camp. Look at BergenBelsen, or Lampedusa, or the suicide rates among young men in Québec, and then try to say with conviction that if we focus mainly on what sin is already doing to us right now, the stakes are just too damn low. We do not have the luxury of taking revenge when we must be seeking righteousness.
With Julian of Norwich, with St Catherine of Siena, with Dorothy Day, we must remind each other: All the way to Heaven is Heaven. Would anyone know this to be true by listening to what we profess to believe?1
 These remarks were delivered at the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies [MASI] in Toronto on February 25, 2020. I am very grateful to Dr. Brian Butcher and Rev. Dr. Peter Galadza for the opportunity to speak at MASI. A version of this text is published in LOGOS: a journal of Eastern Christian Studies, vol. 60, nos. 1-4, (2019).
* * *
Richard Bernier works as an administrator in Concordia University’s Faculty of Arts and Science (Montreal) and teaches in philosophy and religious studies at Concordia, and at McGill University where he obtained his doctorate. He is a member of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church.