Richard Neuhaus on the Universalist Hope

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14 Responses to Richard Neuhaus on the Universalist Hope

  1. This is the first time I’ve read anything by Neuhaus.
    He sounds clear, humble, generous and loving.
    What other works of his would anyone recommend?
    Thank you.


  2. Morgan Hunter says:

    I have always found the argument (mentioned in the paper as being made by his detractors) that no impulse to evangelization remains without the threat of eternal damnation to be odd, as there is a clear counter-example in Buddhism, whose missionary zeal reached from Persia to Japan to Indonesia. Rather odd as well is the idea (also alluded to) that only everlasting punishment has any deterrent value: plenty of fire-and-brimstone Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Taoist, Zoroastrian, and Rabbinic Jewish warnings of horrific yet temporary otherworldly punishments exist–not to mention Catholic advice on “How to Avoid Purgatory”! For that matter, the threat of purely this-worldly punishment is generally thought to deter crime, and enormous humanitarian efforts are made to alleviate purely this-worldy suffering. Anyway, forgive me for going on about this, but in my opinion the claim by one of Father Neuhaus’ critics that only the feat of eternal damnation kept him from running amok doesn’t even require the appeal to nobler reasons for acting virtuously that Neuhaus provided for its refutation.


  3. Karl says:

    Let us recall Aquinas:

    The rejoicing in the suffering of the damned comes from the idea of justice. Justice is the highest virtue so joy should accompany it.

    Not palatable to modern ears, but…


    • Hi Karl,
      Justice, if rightly defined ( i.e. God restoring all things as opposed to vengeance), may be the highest virtue though I see all virtues as proceeding from love.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      This is a good example of following the logic of eternal retribution to its end. If God ordains eternal retribution, then it must be good and just. If our wills and minds are aligned to God’s, then we will rejoice in the justice of the eternal punishment of the wicked. Anything less would suggest that God is less the perfect in his justice.


  4. Mike H says:

    Good points. For whatever it’s worth, it’s not only unpalatable to modern sensibilities. Many ancient ears also found it unpalatable. I also think modern man is highly conditioned to see “justice” as synonymous with retribution.

    If the unalterable starting point is “eternal conscious torment” and “justice” is synonymous with retribution, then the logic seems inexorable.

    Eternal conscious torment becomes the deepest and most fundamental truth, and it therefore is and must be synonymous with “justice”. A person being “good” must necessarily entail a love of “justice”. Therefore the “blessed” will rejoice in the suffering of the damned out of this love of “justice” (and this may include the damnation of “babies a span long”, in the words of Calvin). That anyone might find such a thing deplorable nowtherefore represents a sort of moral deficiency or lack of vision, a “weakness” that the redeemed will apparently be free of in the eschaton. There’d be no reason not to rejoice after all – no reason for any beatific vision to hide the ghastly spectacle from the eyes of the redeemed – precisely because it’s not really ghastly at all.

    One would think that the logic of this would cause one to question a system that necessitates it in the first place, but it doesn’t seem to work out that way. We find ways to make Christ and the Gospel fit into it. I think that does great damage.

    I often see ECT argued by a dogmatic appeal to “justice”. But then the nature of “justice” as being inherently retributive is argued by a dogmatic appeal to eternal conscious torment. It’s circular.

    In any case, I think this is a perversion of the word “justice” – biblically, theologically, philosophically, and pragmatically (for crying out loud). It’s not (only) a subjective emotional thing.

    “Justice” by George MacDonald was a game changer for me.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Jonathan says:

    Retribution can only be understood as part of restoration, and historically that is how it’s been understood. What is being restored is some sort of order or balance. Eye for an eye is a very basic and widespread concept.

    Another basic and widespread concept is that the social standing of the victim of a crime or other offense partly goes to determine the nature of the infraction and the fitting retribution. This idea has no doubt found its way into Christian descriptions of ECT. It may be faulty in any or every application, but this idea of incommensurability is bound up with a primordial intuition of the hierarchy of being that I don’t think most religionists can sincerely repudiate.

    Legal theory is extremely complex. This is not surprising since law is one of the most fundamental categories of civilized thought and experience. Accusing a religious tradition of being “juridical”, as sometimes happens, is silly. Civilization is juridical. Any Christian theologian who wants to treat God as lawgiver and judge is perfectly justified in so doing, but he must be at least as sophisticated as a purely mundane jurist. Two hugely influential Christian thinkers who had very legal educations are Augustine and Calvin. But there are other traditions of law than those which Augustine and Calvin knew.

    In the Anglo-Saxon tradition, we see very prominently in the medieval and early modern period the evolution of common law and courts of equity (or chancery courts). Basically, this is about non-retributive dispute resolution. It is a different kind of law than criminal, civil or statutory law. Bankruptcy court would be an example of where equity has merged into the main stream of modern law. If one is going to try to understand the cosmic lawgiver by looking at earthly jurisprudence, it’s important to bear in mind how many and various are the kinds of the latter.

    All law seeks to cultivate stability by resolving disputes in a restorative way. Ideally, restoration stops the cycle of violence, i.e. does not lead to further need for restoration. The modern state is a great innovation in this sense. Without the modern state, or something capable of exercising a similar apparatus, you have something like blood money. This is the term for the common practice in northern European cultures before and during Christianization that goes something like this: I kill a guy in a tavern brawl. Either I pay his relatives off, or they come and do me in. They might do me in even if I do pay them off. Either way, if they get me then my family goes after them, and so on. The state’s intervention stops the cycle of violence, because private citizens or subjects, even grouped into families, can’t take revenge on the state: it’s too big, abstract and powerful. So when the state apprehends me for the murder and punishes me, my cronies can’t revenge me and the story ends there. In the West before the modern state we suffered the cycle of violence constantly, even in very civilized societies. Think of the Romeo and Juliet story. That’s a pretty accurate depiction of how things went down in renaissance Italy. Wherever the state isn’t the indisputable most powerful player — such as in an oligarchy or a warlord society or a literally “outlaw” situation like that of a criminal underworld — there is nothing to stop the cycle of violence.

    Nothing except the supernatural, that is. Greek drama is all about this. So is the Gospel. Of course it’s possible to see the various religious models of violence-transcendence (Greek drama was part of a religious festival) as being as natural or evolutionary as the retributive instincts they counteract. That’s a separate matter. The only point I have to make is that the overall tenor of the great religious traditions is clearly one of clemency and compassion that is unprecedented elsewhere in culture, arguably even in the state (however enlightened it fancies itself). Legally-minded religious thinkers who act as though God only practices civil or criminal law fail to grasp this, though I believe their intentions are good. God is every kind of law. We understand now that all the kinds of law have to work together, balancing each other, to be stabilizing and restorative. But it’s important to realize, I think, that as moderns we have a privileged perspective. The contours of a revelation become clearer when it’s been kicking around in history for a couple of millenia. And old ideas die hard.

    I’ve gone on at length (forgivably, I hope — I plead for clemency!) because, as Fr. Neuhaus wrote, the concept of justice is for many people central to the question of universal salvation. Jurisprudence is one of the best places to start from in thinking about justice. In other discourses the word has become watered down or confined to obscure researches into historically distant thinkers. It’s important to read Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas and all the rest, of course, but in looking at legal theory and history you take in a whole culture’s paradigm for understanding and — the most important thing — applying standards of justice. In other words, what Christian universalists need is a good lawyer. You know what they say, it’s always useful to have one in the family.

    Liked by 2 people

    • 407kwac says:

      Is law related to sacrificial cult? Seeing as both are designed to restore social and/or cosmic equilibrium perhaps we should see them as connected? But here’s where things may get interesting–David Bentley Hart explores the theme of “Death, Sacrifice and Resurrection” in this talk and shows how the Cross both fulfills and condemns/subverts all worldly notions of justice/sacrifice through the resurrection:



    • brian says:

      Beautifully written and well-conceived, Jonathan.

      As I would like to write a bit on my novel today, I cannot respond with anything like the kind of erudition such an exposition deserves. I would not fundamentally disagree with anything you say here, though I have an instinctive resistance to lawyers. I do take issue with the claim that using “juridical” as a pejorative is just silly. “Juridical” is often short-hand for an entire mode of thinking about God, justice, love, etc. In any event, I think there is still something mysterious about the advent of law and to speak of God’s relation to law or of a good that is perhaps prior to or beyond the law involves a kind of awareness and reflection that is frequently lacking. In the realm of art, for instance, does not the genius create by his or her talent what later may become law? Prior to the creation, the law does not exist. Justice coincides with the determinate creation.


      • Jonathan says:

        Thanks, Brian. Do you know William Gaddis’ A Frolic of His Own? It’s like a late-twentieth century American Bleak House. One of the best opening lines in modern lit:

        “Justice? — You get justice in the next world, in this one you have the law.”


  6. John H says:

    Excellent article by Father Neuhaus, Father Kimel Sometimes it seems that a more organized form of doctrinal authority as is present in Catholcism may be beneficial Thus Van Balthasaar’s Dare we hope that all men shall be saved? received the Nihil Obstat imprimatur from the RC Doctrinal authorities, meaning that it is free from any serious errors of faith or morals Since Von Balthsaar asserts in that book that in fact all Catholics have a duty to pray and hope for the salvation of all, the issue would appear to be settled for us And, as Father Neuhaus states in the article, we also pray for the salvation of all souls Mass: “Lord may this sacrifice which has made our peace with you advance the peace and salvation of all the world”. Of course there are ultra conservative Catholics who seek to either obfuscate or deny this truth, which is the very reason for the article in the first place. Some things are always true no matter which Church you belong to


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