“Therefore the question that must be asked is what, positively, do the Holy Scriptures in their fullness teach regarding the nature of the final condemnation and its duration.” This is the task that Fr Stephen De Young sets out to accomplish in his article “Hell (Unfortunately) Yes.” It’s quite the ambitious task. Protestant and Roman Catholic scholars have been intensely debating the topic of justification for centuries—books upon books, articles upon articles, have been published. Decades of ecumenical discussion have been devoted to the question of justification and salvation. If you are acquainted with the literature, you know that scholars cannot agree on what the Apostle Paul taught on justification, much less on what the entire Bible teaches on it. (And let’s put aside the even more difficult hermeneutical question of how a collection of ancient documents can teach anything. That is to make the critical move from the historical-critical reading of the biblical writings to the theological reading of the biblical writings as Scripture.) Yet Fr Stephen does not feel the need to tell us which biblical scholars he is relying upon, much less constructively engage those scholars who disagree with him. Instead he dogmatically advances his interpretation of the biblical witness as if it unquestionably represents THE teaching of Holy Scripture. Here is my first criticism of this article—its biblicistic hubris. How is this piece different from thousands of other internet tracts that purport to tell us what the Bible teaches about _____?
But to make matters worse, Fr Stephen has framed his article as a critique of the universalist hope, yet it’s unclear if he has read any of the universalist literature, whether Orthodox or otherwise. When challenged on this over at the Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy blog, he tells us that acquaintance with this literature is unnecessary, because the Bible patently and obviously excludes universalism:
I spent so much time in the piece on the Biblical definition of justification, and the fact that God’s punishment in Scripture is only remedial within the covenant community, and then only for a certain period of time (this life on Earth), because the type of Universalism you describe, which I understand quite well, argues from a different definition of justification, and a different view of God’s punishment, than is expressed in Scripture.
Your criticism in reference to C.S. Lewis amounts to saying, “Your article is bad because it isn’t a different type of article.” As I said from the beginning, I was not writing an article to refute a set of arguments for Universalism. I wrote a piece seeking to summarize the teaching of Scripture about the final condemnation, justification, and the nature of God’s punishment. If you don’t see your view reflected there, its because in my opinion, your view isn’t the view taught by Scripture. (citation)
If my piece was intended to refute this or that view, you would have a point. My piece is an attempt to lay out positively what the Scripture teaches about the topics listed repeatedly above. I don’t need to know anything about any alternative views to make a positive case about what I believe Scripture teaches. If your view is something other than the view I laid out in the piece, then I am saying your view is not the one taught by Scripture.
I chose that approach for a reason. Simply put, I don’t have the time or interest to attempt to understand the ins and outs and minutiae of every individual Universalist’s variant on Universalism and try to refute them individually.
My piece represents what I believe the Bible teaches. Lots of people have lots of other views with all kinds of individual variants and variables. My argument is that all other views are wrong because they are not the view taught by the Bible. I don’t need to understand and individually refute all possible alternatives. (citation)
My jaw dropped when I read these two comments yesterday.
(Fr Stephen, if this is what you truly believe, if this is how you believe theological debate is to be conducted, then I cannot take your article seriously. Ignorance is not a virtue. If you want to publicly criticize the universalist hope, then you have an obligation to thoughtfully read the exegetical and theological arguments advanced on its behalf. Take a look at my universalist reading list. I’m happy to make recommendations.)
In his article the author announces that he does not want to get bogged down debating the meaning of specific verses. He proposes an alternative approach—the identification of the controlling biblical narrative or what some scholars refer to as metanarrative. I have no objections. It is the approach N. T. Wright, for example, has taken in his writings. But it is easier said than successfully done. Few scholars can match Wright’s erudition, but many have not been persuaded that the data supports his proposed salvation-metanarrative (and Wright’s metanarrative is more convincing than De Young’s). One thing for sure, there is no way to accurately state a master narrative without engaging in the exegesis of specific biblical verses. We do not first declare the grand story of the Bible and then force the individual texts into the procrustean bed we have fabricated. There needs to be a cycling back and forth between text and the story we hope we have accurately reconstructed, with the willingness to change our reconstruction if it does not make sense of the texts.
Hence I note the conspicuous absence of the figure of St Paul in this article. How does one talk about what the Bible ostensibly teaches about justification, without directly engaging the Apostle’s letters to the Romans and Galatians? It can’t be done. Period. But Paul raises all sorts of problems for the author’s thesis. I am not claiming that he unequivocally supports the universalist hope (but check out Thomas Talbott’s universalist reading—Talbott has updated this chapter in the 2nd edition of The Inescapable Love of God); but he definitely throws a spanner into the infernalist works. The Scriptures are so much more complex and challenging than Fr Stephen is willing to acknowledge.
To my readers: if you are interested in considering a plausible metanarrative of Scripture from a universalist perspective, I recommend that you take a look at The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory MacDonald. The author (whose real name is Robin Parry) has a PhD in Old Testament. One thing I particularly like about this book is its modesty and caution. The author presents his convictions forthrightly, but he acknowledges that his exegetical arguments are not bullet-proof and discusses alternative interpretive possibilities. It’s a model of how these difficult questions need to be analyzed and discussed.