What is at stake in the universalist/infernalist debate? Perhaps the best way to answer this is to first identify what is not at stake.
What is not at stake is the christological foundation of salvation. I wholeheartedly affirm that salvation is through and in Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God.
What is not at stake is the freedom of the human being. I wholeheartedly affirm that God does not violate personal integrity nor coerce anyone into faith.
What is not at stake is the preaching of repentance. I wholeheartedly affirm that the preacher must summon sinners to repentance of their sins and personal participation in the life of the Holy Spirit.
What is not at stake is the horror of hell and the outer darkness. I wholeheartedly affirm that rejection of God necessarily results in spiritual death and is thus a fate about which the preacher needs to warn his congregation.
And I’m sure there are several more “not at stakes” that I cannot think of at the moment.
So what is at stake?—the good news of Jesus Christ. In this article and the next, I’d like to highlight what I believe to be the two essential matters—the unconditionality of divine love and the eschatological triumph of the risen Christ.
The Unconditionality of Divine Love
In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has been revealed as love—absolute, infinite, unconditional love. In the wonderful words of St Isaac the Syrian:
In love did He bring the world into existence; in love does He guide it during this its temporal existence; in love is He going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of Him who has performed all things; in love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally comprised. (Hom. II.38.2)
“God is love,” the Apostle John declares (1 Jn 4:8). God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Church catholic declares. The former is but the succinct expression of the trinitarian revelation given in the Scriptures. I believe, I hope, that all Christians agree with the above claim, though many disagree with the implications that the universalist draws from it. God wills the good of every creature he has made. As the Apostle Paul writes, God our Savior “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:3-4). And the Apostle John: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins” (1 Jn 4:10).
Yet while all Christians may affirm God as love, many balk at the description of the divine love as unconditional. They insist that God has in fact stipulated multiple conditions for the fulfillment of salvation, the most commonly mentioned being the free response of faith and repentance. Thus St Basil the Great:
The grace from above does not come to the one who is not striving. But both of them, the human endeavor and the assistance descending from above through faith, must be mixed together for the perfection of virtue … Therefore, the authority of forgiveness has not been given unconditionally, but only if the repentant one is obedient and in harmony with what pertains to the care of the soul. It is written concerning these things: “If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven” [Mt 18:19]. One cannot ask about which sins this refers to, as if the New Testament has not declared any difference, for it promises absolution of every sin to those who have repented worthily. He repents worthily who has adopted the intention of the one who said, “I hate and abhor unrighteousness” [Ps 119:163], and who does those things which are said in the 6th Psalm and in others concerning works, and like Zacchaios does many virtuous deeds. (Short Rules PG 31.1085; quoted in Augsburg and Constantinople, p. 38)
Patriarch Jeremias II cites this passage from Basil in his critique of the Lutheran construal of justification by faith, which he interpreted as undermining the necessity of good works. His critique is well worth reading, as are the responses by the Tübingen theologians. For the Patriarch, as for so many of the Eastern Fathers, the emphasis falls not on the sola gratia, as one finds in St Augustine of Hippo and St Bernard of Clairvaux, but on the repentance that draws to us the divine mercy: “Even if salvation is by grace, yet man himself, through whose achievements and the sweat of his brow attracts the grace of God, is also the cause” (p. 42). Clearly, though, this is not the whole evangelical story. I understand such statements as expressions of pastoral care, as exhortations to devote our lives wholeheartedly to a life of holiness and discipleship; but I have also seen, and experienced within myself, the spiritual and emotional damage that can be done by the rhetoric of “worthy repentance” and “worthy communion.” One cannot but hear this language as speaking of a divine love that is conditional upon the human response: God will be merciful to us if we believe, if we repent, if we obey or at least try very hard. Despite all that Christ has done, the burden of salvation finally falls upon the sinner. The urgent question then becomes, How do we fulfill these conditions and how can we ever know we have fulfilled them? Jeremias offers sound counsel to the despairing, yet the despair is precisely the consequence of the exhortation to perfection that appears to call into question the all-embracing love of the Father: “those to whom the promise of the kingdom of heaven is proclaimed must fulfill all things perfectly and legitimately, and without them it shall be denied” (p. 39). For the Patriarch, justification before God is a purely future possibility; and the threat of everlasting damnation, even if rarely stated, is never far away.
It’s not just a matter of achieving in our teaching a scholastic kind of balance between divine grace and human effort but rather of understanding how authentic faith is grounded upon the unconditional promise of eternal salvation. Jeremias understands that the grace and mercy of God precedes and anticipates, yet he cannot declare the love of God as unconditional, for fear of cultivating sloth, indifference, and presumption. Not unexpectedly the Tübingen theologians found wanting Jeremias’s conditionalist construal of the gospel: “But it is necessary that the divine promise be most clear and certain, so that faith may depend upon it. For were the assurance and steadfastness of the promise shaken, then faith would collapse. And if faith is overturned, then our justification and salvation will vanish” (p. 126). To a large extent the parties are talking past each other. Why so? I tentatively propose the following: Patriarch Jeremias is reflecting on justification from within the existential struggles and dynamics of the ascetical life, in anticipation of the coming judgment; the Lutherans are reflecting on justification from within the existential situation of having heard the future judgment spoken to them in the preaching of the gospel.
Another oft-stipulated condition of salvation is the time limit. As we have seen, this is the central assertion of Fr Stephen De Young’s article “Hell (Unfortunately) Yes.” At some point, either at the moment of death or at the Final Judgment, repentance assertedly becomes an impossibility for the sinner: either God withdraws his offer of forgiveness or the sinner becomes frozen in his obduracy. With the former, the divine love is truly understood as conditional; with the latter, the divine love remains theoretically unconditional but now effectively impotent and helpless. As Dumitru Staniloae puts it, the reprobate are “hardened in a negative freedom that cannot possibly be overcome” (The Experience of God, VI:42). In both construals the gospel is necessarily presented as contingent promise: “If you repent before such-and-such a time, you will be saved.”
Those who confess the universalist hope, whether in its weaker version (St Gregory Nazianzen, Fr Hans Urs von Balthasar, Met Kallistos Ware) or its stronger version (St Gregory Nyssen, St Isaac the Syrian, Fr Sergius Bulgakov), object to—indeed emphatically protest against—the conditionalist portrayal of deity. Their objection is not grounded on the exegesis of a particular verse or two but rather upon a deep apprehension of the God they have encountered in Jesus Christ. How someone achieves this apprehension no doubt varies from person to person. Some experience it through their reading of Scripture, others through sacrament and liturgy, others through prayer and mystical experience, others through their service to the poor, others through philosophical reflection, still others through the love bestowed upon them by their neighbors and fellow believers—or any combination of the above. But once the love of God is known in the fullness and power of its unconditionality, there can be no turning back. From this point on, it becomes the prism through which all of reality is experienced. God is love—absolute, infinite, unconditional love—and it is this vision of God that now informs the faith, hopes, and dreams of the believer. As Balthasar declares:
Love alone is credible; nothing else can be believed, and nothing else ought to be believed. This is the achievement, the “work” of faith: to recognize the absolute prius, which nothing else can surpass; to believe that there is such a thing as love, absolute love, and that there is nothing higher or greater than it; to believe against all the evidence of experience (credere contra fidem” like “sperare contra spem“), against every “rational” concept of God, which thinks of him in terms of impassibility or, at best, totally pure goodness, but not in terms of this inconceivable and senseless act of love. (Love Alone is Credible, pp. 101-102)
In the lapidary words of the Apostle Paul: “Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom 5:6).
Yet there is much in Scripture that seems to argue against the unconditionality of divine love, including some of the parables and teachings of Jesus. We need not rehearse these texts. I imagine that we all have wrestled with them and continue to wrestle with them. I remember posing this question to Robert W. Jenson in the late 80s. His reply (rough paraphrase): “Go back and reread the Bible.” At the time I didn’t find the reply particularly helpful, but I eventually came to understand what I think he was saying—namely, “Try looking at the Bible differently. Put on a different pair of spectacles.”
Is it a rabbit or a duck?
In his book Imagining God Garrett Green invites us to consider the role of theological paradigms in our interpretation of Scripture. Analogous to the role of paradigms within modern science, theological paradigms and metanarratives organize the data available to us and help us to make sense of it. “Our perception of parts,” he writes, “depends on our prior grasp of the whole” (p. 50). Perhaps the greatest stumbling block to a serious consideration of the universalist reading of Scripture is our inability, or refusal, to step outside the traditional paradigm of conditional love. How is it possible that God could accept us in our sinfulness, “just as we are”? What is needed is an imaginative leap to a new, but also very old, paradigm. Only then will we be able to apprehend the universalist reading as a coherent gestalt.
A few months ago a fellow Orthodox priest answered the question Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved?” thusly: “No, we do not dare to hope for such a thing. It is a delirious fantasy, neither a proper object of Christian hope, nor a proper subject for Christian speculation.” I was scandalized, just as I am scandalized by the anathemas recently delivered by my fellow priests at Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy. I understand why they believe that the universalist hope is heretical; yet when I read their articles, I am shocked nonetheless. I hear them proclaiming a different gospel than the one I have long, long believed and confessed. If God is not absolute, infinite, and unconditional love, then there is no good news of Jesus Christ and life is not worth living and dying. But if God is absolute, infinite, and unconditional love, then we may not put restrict his desire, willingness, and power to accomplish his salvific ends for mankind; we may not put limits on his love, for he most certainly puts no limits on it. God wills our salvation and only wills our salvation.
For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:38-39)
What is at stake in this present debate? Nothing less than our understanding of who God has revealed himself to be in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. Any qualification of the unconditionality of the divine love is intolerable. If there should come a point, any point, where God abandons the one lost sheep or no longer searches for the one lost coin, then God is not the Father of Jesus Christ, and our worst nightmares are true.