In his article “Hell (Unfortunately) Yes,” Fr Stephen De Young invites us to judge the universalist hope according to the biblical witness. Specifically, what does the Bible teaching about “the nature of the condemnation issued when Christ comes to judge the living and the dead and that condemnation’s duration”? Rather than getting bogged down in exegetical debates about individual verses, he wants us to reflect upon the the fullness of the biblical witness.
“The controlling narrative for the entire Scriptures regarding God’s interaction with the world is covenant,” Fr Stephen declares. The model invoked is the ancient suzerainty (vassal) treaty, exemplified in the book of Deuteronomy: “the new king introduces himself, lists the deeds he has done on the people’s behalf, and issues to them the laws that they are now to follow.” What happens when one party breaks covenant? The wronged party takes the other to court. A judge hears the accusation, considers the evidence, and determines “who is in the right (justified) and who is in the wrong (condemned).” Unlike the American judicial system, which asks a jury of peers to determine justice, in the ancient system the judge both hears the evidence and then delivers a verdict. His task is to make things right and thus restore equity.
Those who have studied the ancient practices of covenant will be in a better position than I to judge the accuracy of Fr Stephen’s forensic description of Old Testament justice, but based on my reading of N. T. Wright, it seems accurate, as far as it goes.
The author then considers the question how God deals with those who stand outside the covenant community. Remember the story of Noah and the ark? God decides that because of humanity’s wickedness, it’s time to destroy all living things. But Noah finds favor in the sight of the Lord. Why? Because, Fr Stephen tells us, “the world is at enmity with Noah; it hates him and has oppressed him and his family.” We are to think of a dispute between the two parties, with God ultimately siding with Noah. Noah is declared to be in the right and the world in the wrong. At this point I think it not unimportant to note that the Bible does not actually state that Noah and the rest of the world were living in a state of mutual conflict and enmity. It’s a fair inference, I suppose, but only an inference. Gen 6:8 says that in the midst of the world’s wickedness and violence, Noah finds favor with God. 6:9 says that “Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God.” These statements certainly support the claim that Noah was relatively more righteous than his fellow human beings, but as Fr Stephen admits, he was not sinless. I mention this because it appears to me that Fr Stephen is engaging here in a bit of eisegesis in order to conform the story to his model of the Israelite law court. His model requires that Noah be cast in the role of plaintiff and mankind in the role of defendant. Would it not be more accurate, however, to say that all of mankind, including Noah, stands in the dock. We may then think of God as assuming the roles of both plaintiff and judge. (But what role do we assign to the Crucified? [John 12:47].) Noah is found innocent and everyone else found guilty. But perhaps the model of the law court isn’t the best way to interpret the story of the flood.
We now come to Fr Stephen’s key interpretive move:
Noah and his family therefore receive life, and the world receives condemnation. We see an anachronistic mention of clean and unclean animals on the ark of Noah just to make clear the point that the ark is here a microcosm of the covenant, through which Noah is saved from the wrath that comes upon the world. In this picture of judgment, we see that there is not a principle of proportionality. Noah isn’t punished lightly for his lesser sins while those in the world are punished more or less severely based on their relative sinfulness. Rather, condemnation means death, over against life, and there is no additional second chance. The second, third, and fiftieth chances were given while God, in His mercy, waited to judge the world.
The judgment is comprehensive and decisive. Some are justified and saved; many more condemned and utterly destroyed. There’s no middle ground. There is only vindication and condemnation, life and death. Perhaps we might even speak of the divine punishment as disproportional to humanity’s sins. The very wicked are killed right along with the middlin’ wicked. And most importantly for Fr Stephen’s argument, the judgment is final, decisive, and irrevocable. God ceases to wait upon humanity’s repentance and exacts final justice.
Fr Stephen believes he has scored a telling point against Orthodox universalism. Just before he begins his analysis of the Noah story, he states the following: “The Orthodox would-be Universalist position argues that every human person, regardless of their relationship to the New Covenant, is justified after paying a finite price of suffering for their individual sins.” I find this a curious construal of the “Orthodox would-be Universalist position.” As a general rule, we would-be Orthodox universalists eschew retributive notions of divine justice. We do not speak of purgative suffering as the imposition of a penalty that needs to be satisfied. As St Isaac the Syrian emphatically declares: “Love’s chastisement is for correction, and it does not aim at retribution.” If God condemns a person to Gehenna, it is only to effect that person’s ultimate conversion and repentance.
The lesson that Fr Stephen draws from the story of the flood (confirmed, he believes, by 2 Peter 3:18-22 and other Old and New Testament texts) is this: final judgment is final judgment. What else can “final” mean? At some point the game of life must conclude. At some point there will be no more time for repentance. At some point God will separate the sheep and the goats with eschatological definitiveness.
This eschatological hope is taken and seen as being fulfilled in Christ in the New Testament, as Jesus conquers and establishes His Kingdom over the entire earth. As prophesied by Psalm 109 (110), there is now an interval, during which we pray for that day when His Kingdom will come and His will will be done on earth, as it is now in heaven. The metaphors of the New Testament regarding the condemned, however, are in no way mitigated. The state of those on the wrong side of His judgment when He returns is described as outer darkness, as weeping and gnashing of teeth, of being shut out of the joys and beauty of God forever. Again, none of these metaphors have any sense of proportionality to particular sins, or of being a temporary state. Indeed, the nature of the judgment itself, that one side is in the right and the other in the wrong, does not admit of such. There is not suffering due to God for each sin. Rather, those who spent this life mourning are blessed, and those who spent it laughing are cursed; those who spent this life poor are blessed, those who spent this life wealthy are cursed; those who spent this life being persecuted and maligned for the sake of Christ will be blessed, and those who spent this life being thought well of and praised will be cursed. Just as there is no sense that the former blessings are ‘for a time’ (quite the opposite), there is no sense that these curses are ‘for a time’.
There’s nothing here with which an old-style revivalist preacher would disagree—just straight “repent or be damned” rhetoric. I have to admit that after all the banal Orthodox and Catholic preaching I have had to listen to over the past decade, a rousing fire and brimstone sermon might be just the tonic the doctor ordered—but please, no more than one a year.
It is unclear to me whether Fr Stephen is willing to entertain, or even can entertain, the possibility of salvation for non-Christians, given his strict understanding of covenant and divine judgment. “Condemnation is total for those outside of God’s covenant when the cup of their iniquity has reached its full,” he declares. “This constitutes generations in the life of a nation, but also corresponds to the life on this earth of a person, which is the opportunity which God gives in His Grace for repentance.” Yet may not God provide a way for nonbelievers to be saved, as he did for those destroyed by the deluge (1 Pet 3:18-20)?
(Go to “The Gospel of Deluge“)