David B. Hart on Universal Salvation and Human Freedom

Last week Dr. David B. Hart visited Eclectic Orthodoxy and engaged in instructive conversation with folks on the “Readings in Universalism” page. This morning I skimmed through the comments thread and culled from them some of David’s more interesting and provocative statements. Others I could not extract, as they are so deeply embedded in the ongoing conversation.

“There is no verse in the New Testament that unambiguously threatens eternal punishment. There are three that are regularly invoked by the Hellfire Club (my fond name for those who have some emotional commitment to the idea of a hell of eternal torment), but none of them really says what they imagine it says. Conversely, the seemingly very clear statements of universal salvation number quite high (47 at my last casual count).” (10 May 2015)

“The classical Platonic-Aristotelian-Christian understanding of freedom is one in which the rational will of necessity, when set free from ignorance, wills the good end of its own nature; and perfect freedom is the power to achieve that end without hindrance. Thus God is perfectly free precisely because he cannot work evil, which is to say nothing can prevent him from realizing his nature as the infinite Good. Similarly, for Gregory of Nyssa or Gregory of Nazianzus, perfect freedom is liberation from the fetters of ignorance that constrain the rational will from seeing the Good as what it is. For Augustine, the highest freedom is the perfection of human nature in a condition of  non posse peccare. For Maximus, the natural will is free because it tends inexorably towards God, and the gnomic will is free precisely to the degree that it comes into harmony with the natural will. And so on. Since, after all, all employments of the will are teleological–necessarily intentionally directed towards an end, either clearly or obscurely known by the intellect–and since the Good is the final cause of all movements of the will, no choice of evil can be free in a meaningful sense. For evil is not an end, and so can be chosen under the delusion that it is in some sense a good in respect of the soul (even if, in moral terms, one is aware that one is choosing what is conventionally regarded as ‘evil’); and no choice made in ignorance can be a free choice.

“In simple terms, if a deranged man chooses to slash himself with a knife or set fire to himself, you would not be interfering with his ‘freedom’ by preventing him from doing so. You would be rescuing him from his slavery to madness. This is why the free-will defense of the idea of an eternal hell is essentially gibberish. Which, incidentally, does not break from the ‘synergist’ view. It is merely to say that the cooperation of the created will with God’s is still a cooperation–if needs be by terrible purgation–in restoring a human soul to its natural state. I think of Gregory of Nyssa deals with this quite delightfully and cogently in De anima et resurrectione.” (11 May 2015)

“As it happens, I number among my friends and acquaintances some of the greatest scholars of Orthodox canons and councils and history in the world; and to a man they would assert that the Orthodox Church–no matter what the inclinations of its catechists and prelates may have been down the ages–has never definitively condemned universalism as such, or even addressed it under any synodical or conciliar conditions of special import. It has condemned some teachings that are also, as it happens, universalist. But the sort of universalism found in Gregory and Isaac, which fully acknowledges the reality of judgment and hell, has never even been addressed.” (12 May 2015)

In response to a libertarian formulation of human freedom and the claim that the development of personhood requires epistemic distance between Creator and creature:

“It may be that I simply have not come across universalists of that variety. I am familiar with patristic universalists, with a variety of mediaeval and modern figures, I revere George MacDonald especially…but I probably am entirely unaware of a great deal of popular universalism.

“Even so, I still cannot grant the liceity of the way you formulate freedom. Part of it is that there is a difference between being ‘informed’ in the modern sense (possessing “information” and then, in a second movement of deliberation, deciding upon it based upon some distinct set of criteria) and being truly “in-formed” in the classical sense of being reshaped by the glory of God. God is not a species of cognitive information in the former sense, some finite object available to my judicious gaze. To know God is to be transfigured into what is revealed. At that point of truest liberty, freedom and necessity are no longer distinguished, any more than they are in the Father’s own love of his own essence in the Son and Spirit. Remember, the only thing to which Paul says we are predestined (well, marked out for in advance, really) is to be conformed to the image of Christ. No less austerely apophatic thinker than Maximus says that we achieve freedom (and are perfect as Christ’s Father is perfect) when all distance (diastema) disappears and we rush into the embrace of love.

“Again, I think compatibilism and determinism are both inapposite to the question of freedom; they concern a libertarian model of free acts that I believe logically vacuous. But my hostility towards analytic philosophy and its native categories occasionally verges on the unreasonable. Simply said, all things are determined to an end, a final cause, and will reach that end, and hence fulfillment, unless some unnatural interruption prevents them; but rational nature is capable of interrupting itself. Still, willy-nilly, all natural wills return to God, and know the fire of glory as bliss or torment, but even that torment is a knowledge of truth that cannot not convert the will, however gradually, to its true end. Otherwise God will never be all in all and creation will never be completed. That teleological understanding of the will, and of its relation to nature, simply cannot be forced into the categories of libertarian or determinist thinking, and I honestly wish Christian theologians would stop using the Analytic categories for that reason.” (12 May 2015)

“I think I have been pretty clear in saying that the conversion in question is necessarily a conversion of the will through its own free (and progressively freer) act. Even the will’s power to say no, however, is animated by its primordial hunger for the Good and, as Gregory and others argue, to that it cannot say no, except by ceasing to exist. That is the act of all its acts. So, in time, over the ages perhaps, it continues to seek its rest in God, freely but, for that reason, inevitably.

“Analytic philosophy does not own words like ‘determined,’ incidentally. My problem is specifically with the current analytic categories of determinism, compatibilism, libertarian freedom, etc., because they all presume an originally voluntarist understanding of free will, which is simply incoherent. When I use ‘determined’ in that sentence, I am just speaking of final causality, primary causality.” (13 May 2015)

“Because God is not a finite object over against you as a subject, you cannot simply turn away towards ‘something else.’; He is the ground and end of all desire and knowledge as such, the Good in itself. You cannot choose or not choose God the way you would choose or not choose a cup of coffee. You desire anything because of your original desire for God as the transcendental Good and Beautiful; you know anything because of your original intellectual appetite for God as the transcendental Truth as such. Even in desiring to flee God, you are desiring God as the ‘good end’ you seek in godlessness. He is inescapable because all being, goodness, unity, truth, and beauty simply are God in their transcendent truth, and because a rational nature is nothing but an infinite dynamic orientation towards that transcendent end. The natural will, as Maximus says, can will only God. Don’t think of God as a candidate in a political race, whom you could simply reject and be done with; he is the original and final act of your every discrete act of desire. And, in the ages, since God is all and there is literally nothing beyond him, the natural will is always seeking its natural supernatural end. Simply said, God is not an object of desire; he is the end that makes desire.” (14 May 2015)

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18 Responses to David B. Hart on Universal Salvation and Human Freedom

  1. Brad Jersak says:

    Thanks so much for both hosting the conversation and now extracting some of the central nuggets! Will be sharing and reposting … there’s gold here.


  2. Aaron says:

    That last paragraph…. whoa.


  3. tgbelt says:

    I’ll pray more earnestly for his good health so he can write his book on this and hopefully address the question of freedom at length. ;o)


  4. Leah Sommers says:

    Fascinating conversation! And how very exciting to learn that he is working on a Bible translation. Slightly off topic, but is there any info available on if/when it will be published and available for purchase?


  5. Jeff says:

    Dr. Hart is awesome!


  6. Stephen says:

    Here is a link to “The Book of the Bee” that Hart references elsewhere in his comments. It is a Syrian catechism that teaches UR.



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  8. SF says:

    As someone who’s done exhaustive analysis of virtually every exegetical claim that’s been made by universalists, the claim that there are as many as “47” verses supporting universal salvation is outrageous. (The claim that there is no support at all for eternal torture is also presumptuous.)


  9. I love Dr. Hart’s (St. Isaac’s, St. Gregory Nyssa’s) vision of God in His infinite love. Philosophy makes my head explode. When I read Dr. Hart, I have to struggle with “philosophical acumen-envy”! As I’ve mentioned before, all I’ve managed so far to read of Dr. Hart are short essays and The Doors of the Sea (and that was with a dictionary by my side).

    Dr. Hart, if you listen in here–I can’t thank you enough for that book (Doors</em)! There are some choice passages I go back to again and again when I need the lift–just as I did as a child with C.S. Lewis' Narnia series, btw–and it always makes my spirit soar in worship of God and my eyes spring about a thousand leaks!


  10. SF says:

    Also, can I add that characterizing some people as holding the views they do because of an “emotional commitment to the idea of a hell of eternal torment” is pretty offensive? All the more so considering that there are an untold number of mainstream scholars who, through following excellent historical-critical exegetical methodologies, have indeed arrived at the view that some of the earliest Christians (including those who authored texts in the New Testament) envisioned eternal torment.


  11. Paul says:

    If universalism is true, then why are the authors of the new testament so urgent in their appeals to avoid false teachers and apostasy. Why would the church evangelize, If all will be saved.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Paul, I wrote this article just for you. Well, maybe not just for you, as I was in the process of completing when you posted your comment; but do think of it as “just for you.” 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Brad says:

      It’s really pretty simple:
      1. We are in a collective reality, a “shared dream,” if you will. What we believe creates what we experience.
      2. When enough of us collectively believe, the “great commission” is fulfilled. This is the parousia.
      Sooner is better than later.


  12. Paul says:

    Thank you Fr Kimel,
    I am reading your post that was created “just for me” 😉


    Death has indeed been abolished by the resurrection of Christ who raised all humanity WITH and IN himself 2,000 years ago. Death is only death if it holds eternal power over its prey. Since the resurrection our flesh may cease to function, but the spirit goes back to the God who gave it. What we call fleshly death is no loss to God. He started with a measure of dust in Adam and when anyone draws that last earthly breath, God still ends up with that same measure of dust. God comes out even on the dust deal after all. We are the winners in the end! We simply trade our temporal fleshly existence for an eternal and spiritual existence. According to scripture, “It does not yet appear what we shall be like, but this we know; when [Christ] appears we shall be like him.” That’s good enough for me! ~ Ivan A. Rogers


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