May we hope for the salvation of all (even if some will be damned)?

by Steven Nemes

Will everyone be saved, or will some be lost forever? If some are lost forever, will they be punished unendingly in hell or will they eventually be annihilated and pass out of existence? I don’t know the answer to these questions. I think there are good arguments in favor of each of the three major positions in Christian eschatology—viz., traditionalism, conditionalism, and universalism—and so I abstain, in quasi-Pyrrhonian fashion, from committing myself to one view or another. Nevertheless, I do think I can give a good enough argument in favor of adopting a particular attitude towards the possibility of universal salvation which is in prin­ciple consistent with either a traditionalist or conditionalist interpretation of the relevant “hell texts” in the New (and Old) Testament. More specifically, I think that universal salva­tion can be (perhaps ought to be) the object of Christian hope, desire, and prayer, but it cannot be the object of Christian teaching, preaching, or knowledge. I think Christians ought to hope, desire, and pray for the salvation of all human persons, but they should not teach or preach that everyone will be saved, nor can they claim to know that this will be so. Moreover, I think that such an attitude towards the possibility of universal salvation is compatible with either a traditionalist or conditionalist interpretation of the classic “hell texts” because I think the function of those texts is not so much to predict with accuracy the final destination of some number of human beings, but rather to motivate repentance and evangelical outreach on the basis of the real, existent, but avoidable danger of damnation.

Put another way, universal salvation remains an epistemic possibility, even if all the relevant biblical passages describing the final destiny of sinners are interpreted along traditionalist or conditionalist lines. I know this (or at least I claim this) because there are various instances in Scripture in which God unconditionally declares the future destruc­tion of some sinners, leaving no room for ambiguity or hope of salvation, and yet this does not happen. On the contrary, it is arguable that God uses such unconditional, “hopeless” language precisely for the purpose of avoiding the very scenario of punishment and destruction which He predicts.

Let me give a few examples. When the Hebrews worship the golden calf, the Lord tells Moses: “Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation” (Exod. 32:10). Moses intercedes, however, as a result of which the Lord “changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people” (v. 14). Now, as a classical theist, I do not think that the immutable, impassible, omniscient God really changed His mind or that Moses managed to convince God to do something other than what He already had been planning to do. On the contrary, I think that God spoke that way with Moses precisely to bring it about that Moses would intercede for the Hebrews and so that he could be a channel of God’s mercy. Indeed, viewed in this light, it becomes all the more significant that God seems to try to discourage any intercession on Moses’s part (“let me alone”)—He forbids Moses to do precisely that which He intends to get him to do. This opens up an impressive interpretive option: God warns of destruction and punishment, even forbidding intercession on behalf of the sinner, precisely to bring it about that the intercession is all the more passionate and, as a result, all the more effective.

Or consider what God tells Ezekiel: “Though I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ yet if they turn from their sin and do what is lawful and right … they shall surely live, they shall not die” (Ezek. 33:14-15). The message to the sinner is straightforward and doesn’t leave any room for doubt: you shall surely die. Yet, if the sinner, in response to this unhappy disclo­sure of the future, turns from her wickedness and repents, then she will not die. Of course, the sinner is not told this herself. It would seem rather counterproductive to make this condition known to the sinner, because it undoes the force of the “surely” in “you shall surely die.” It leaves her with the option of repenting later, rather than effecting desperate repen­tance here and now, as the unconditional “surely” manages to do. And God is perfectly happy to be proven wrong in His categorical predictions about the future, if it means that a sinner has turned from death to life and from evil to righteousness (v. 11). I want to stress the discrepancy between what God says and what actually happens: God says that the sinner will surely die, leaving no room for doubt or interpretation; but if the sinner repents, then God’s description of the future is falsified, and precisely this seems to have been the point all along.

This also happens in the story with Jonah. The message which God gave Jonah to share with the Ninevites was relatively straightforward and clear, as far as doomsday oracles go: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jon. 3:4). There was intended no implicit “escape clause” in Jonah’s message, as is clear from the uncertainty and trepidation in the king’s decree: “Who knows? God may relent and change His mind” (v. 9). And yet, because the people repent, God does not destroy them — they escape the future from which there was (seemed) no possibility of escape! The narration of Jonah says that “God changed His mind” when He saw how the people repented (v. 10), but again, I do not think that this is literally what happened. God is omniscient; He knew what the Ninevites were going to do in response to Jonah’s message. He is immutable and impassible; the prayers or repentance of any sinner cannot actually change His disposition towards her or make Him act otherwise than He already was going to act from eternity. Rather, I think the more plausible under­standing of the event is that God knew that the Ninevites would repent if Jonah preached to them by unconditionally announcing their imminent destruction (rather than explicitly making it conditional upon some acts of repentance on their part), and so that is what He decided should happen. God is not bothered by the fact that what He says does not come true; what is important to Him is not the death of the sinner (even if this preserves the truth of His words), but that he should turn and live (Ezek. 33:11).

Now, if on these occasions God made use of an unconditional prediction of destruction and punishment precisely in order to prevent such a thing from coming about—whether through the intercession of a righteous person, or else through the repentance of those so threatened —then it is obviously possible for Him to be doing this in the New Testament threats about hell, also. But what does “possible” mean in this context? I am talking about epistemic possibility, not metaphysical possibility. I believe there is already a fact of the matter as to whether all will be saved or not; I don’t think it is metaphysically indeter­minate. But I also think that there is no way to know the truth of the matter about this question, because it is always epistemically possible that the Bible’s threats about hell and damnation are providen­tially ordered by God to preventing the very threats from coming true—whether through the repentance of sinners, or the intercession of the righteous who worry about the fate of others, or (most likely) because of a combination of these factors.

The Bible teaches us to make “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings … for everyone” (hyper pantōn anthropōn, on behalf of all human beings) because “God our Savior … desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:1, 4). I remain unconvinced by John Calvin’s proposed interpretation, according to which St. Paul means to say that God wants all sorts of people saved—“kings and all who are in high positions” (v. 2)—even if He does not strictly speaking want every person to be saved. I think this is a theologically motivated interpretation of a text which is otherwise sufficiently transparent in itself. God wants pantes anthrōpoi to be saved, which quite clearly means every human being or all human persons. And because He wants that all be saved, He also enjoins us through His apostle Paul to pray for the salvation of every human being, on the basis of the salvific intervention of “Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all (hyper pantōn)” (vv. 5-6). Beyond this, Christ teaches us to pray in a very specific way: namely, with a kind of child-like confidence that we will receive the thing we asked for from God. “Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive” (Matt. 21:22; Mark 11:24). “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Matt. 7:7). “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it” (John 14:13-14). His disciples took up this same attitude: John says that “if we ask him anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him” (1 John 5:14-15); and James says we should ask for wisdom “in faith, never doubting” (Jas. 1:6). Thus, if Christ teaches us to pray with such confidence—not presumption!—and if Paul teaches us to pray for the salvation of all, then it seems to me eminently biblical and justified to pray with confidence for the salvation of all human beings. We should pray for this end with the same kind of confidence and faith and even “expectation” that we would have when praying for a family member or close friend who is sick or in need of help. (Maybe we should pray with even greater confidence, since the Bible commands us to pray for the salvation of all!) And indeed, this is what we are doing —for all sinners are nevertheless part of the human family, and we are “close friends” insofar as we all share the same human nature, with all its weaknesses.

Someone might raise an objection at this point: “If the threat of eternal damnation does not literally come true in the case of any creature at all, then won’t the threats have been empty? Has God simply been lying this whole time?” In response, I suppose I could make a few points. First, I do not think there is any point in holding out hope for the salvation of demons or the devil. Paul, in any case, commands us to pray for all human beings, never for the demons or for Satan. So, the question is whether or not God’s threats of damnation will have proven empty if no human beings are damned. Second, I don’t think the threats will have been empty, so long as the possibility of damnation was a real one—i.e., so long as some persons would have been damned forever, had they never repented or had no one ever prayed for them, etc. (This remains a real possibility; that is why the threats and predictions are made in the first place. So, the epistemic possibility of damnation cannot be excluded, regardless of whether this damnation is interpreted along traditionalist or conditionalist lines. This is why I do not accept a kind of dogmatic universalism, in addition to rejecting dogmatic traditionalism or conditionalism.) Third, I think the following argument, even if it may seem sophistic, can dispel any worries about God’s having lied about hell and damnation:

(i) God cannot lie (Num. 23:19; 1 Sam. 15:29; Tit. 1:2; Heb. 6:18).
(ii) Yet, God makes categorical declarations about the future destruction and punishment of some sinners which nevertheless go unfulfilled; indeed, He probably makes such statements with the express purpose of falsifying them through their very terrible nature.
(iii) Therefore, to make such statements with such an intention does not constitute lying.

If someone objects to this argument, I don’t know what else to say in its defense except that the premises are true and the conclusion follows from their conjunction.

Universal salvation therefore remains an appropriate object of Christian hope, desire, and prayer, regardless of whether or not the relevant “hell texts” are interpreted along traditionalist or conditionalist lines. Indeed, universal salvation remains an epistemic possibility even if all distinctly universalist interpretations of the “hell texts” are hopelessly mistaken. This epistemic possibility—to my mind, anyway—rules out any dogmatic confidence in traditionalism or conditionalism. At the same time, however, I think that dogmatic universalism is also excluded. Instead, I prefer not to make any judgment whatsoever on what will be, limiting myself to the way in which I orient myself to the eschatological outcome. The argument thus far has been very brief and quick, of course, and much more would need to be said to make it maximally convincing. I have already done this work in my Heythrop Journal article “Praying Confidently for the Salvation of All.”

* * *

Steven Nemes is in the middle of a PhD in Systematic Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He writes philosophical theology and attempts to utilize a fusion of analytic, phenomenological, and Thomistic insights in his work, in addition to teaching an online bioethics course at Grand Canyon University. He really enjoys the jazz guitar stylings of Pat Metheny Group.

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43 Responses to May we hope for the salvation of all (even if some will be damned)?

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Steven, thank you for writing this piece for Eclectic Orthodoxy.

    If I understand you correctly, your argument presupposes a basic ignorance about the final destiny of human beings: given that we do not in fact know that some or many will be damned (or in fact are damned), we may appropriately hope and pray that all will be saved. Does that sound right?

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    • Steven says:

      Hi Fr Kimel,

      First, let me take this opportunity to thank for you publishing my article!

      Now, to answer your question… I wouldn’t say that my argument presupposes ignorance about the final destiny of some humans, but rather attempts to establish it. God sometimes predicts or announces the destruction of some sinners precisely so as to prevent what He predicts or announces from coming to pass. Because that is true, it follows that this may be what is going on in the case of the texts which warn about hell. If this is a possibility, then we cannot claim to know what will happen to people on the basis of those texts.

      Now, with this in the background, the argument from Paul’s injunction to prayer for all, drawn from 1 Tim. 2, is strengthened. Because we are taught to pray for all, and because we are taught to pray in the hope of receiving what we ask for, then we ought to hope (and in a certain sense of the term, to “expect”) that all will be saved.

      So it is an argument in two stages. The first stage is establishing ignorance about final destiny, the second is establishing how a Christian ought to orient herself to the question of the final destiny of humankind.

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    • Steven says:

      Hi Fr. Kimel,

      I don’t know that my argument presupposes ignorance so much as it attempts to establish it. The argument has two stages. First, I establish ignorance about the final destiny of sinners on the basis of those OT texts where God predicts/announces the destruction of some sinners precisely for the sake of preventing it from taking place. Second, by appeal to Paul’s injunction to prayer in 1 Tim. 2:1-6, I argue that Christians ought to pray for universal salvation and, because are taught to pray with a particular attitude (hope, expectation, confidence), therefore we ought to hope for universal salvation without claiming to know whether it will be a reality.

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  2. Tom says:

    Great to see your post here Stephen!

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  3. Tom says:

    I appreciate the attempt, Stephen. I’m unconvinced, though, that what you describe as going on (in passages like Ex 32|Moses and Ezek 33|Jonan, etc.) really works. That God would describe consequences he knows will not eventuate is a problem (for me at least) because it’s just dishonest in my view. It doesn’t seem possible to honestly threaten someone with prospects you cannot honestly intend. But I don’t take these passages as describing outcomes that God knows to be other than anything but historically contingent – i.e., I’m not a classical theist who believes God is absolutely immutable in every conceivable sense.

    But that aside, there are other issues. In the cases of Moses, Ezekiel and Jonah, what’s described (viz., people dying on account of their rebellion) is in fact conceivable. So at least in terms of the logic of the engagement, there’s no problem (epistemically) for us assuming the rebellious people in question really would die apart from their repenting. There’s a real (historical) contingency here. But this doesn’t work when one tries to understand threats of (supposed) ‘eternal/irrevocable’ torment in the same manner. Why not? Because it makes it impossible for these passages to function ‘as warnings’ for anyone who doesn’t accept that the warning truly describes a genuinely possible (conceivable) future. God may not intend it, but for it function existentially as a warning, I have to believe he intends it. And this is where the problem comes up. It’s that ‘conceivability’ that is the problem – not with respect to various warnings of death and judgment (because those ‘are’ perfectly conceivable), but with respect to warnings of irrevocable suffering/hell.

    To ‘hope’ universalism is true is not just to concede rationally that the proposition generates no logical contradictions. That’s a bland, steril, almost trivial kind of hope. What hopeful universalists mean (I think) is something that actually engages them in committing to see the world from within that hope ‘as conviction’, even if they admit, “Well, sure, in the end, who knows? I could be wrong.” To hope in this sense is to live “as if” something is true – to “try it on,” even if one has to admit that ultimately one could be wrong, and that so long as one lives as if it’s true one doesn’t take it to function dogmatically on the level of the Creeds. But I don’t think this kind of hope works within your proposal about how to relate to Scriptural warnings.

    Hart, as everybody knows, I think, complained some time ago about folks who label themselves “hopeful universalists.” He doesn’t agree it’s a meaningful label. I think he’s nit-picking, but maybe if the distinctions are laid out more precisely that would help. It’s one thing to genuinely ‘not know’ which of propositions A, B or C is true (assuming they’re jointly exhaustive and mutually exclusive props). But to hope C is true is to believe it’s ‘possibly true’, and in the case of UR one has to ask what reasons one has for believing UR is ‘possibly true’.

    It’s here (in seeing what it is about God and the world that makes UR properly ‘conceivable’ or ‘possibly true’) where the difficulty arises, as I see it, for your proposal, for in the case of UR, the conceivability of C is predicated upon divine characteristics and a view of the God-World relation that render A and B inconceivable. That is – A, B, and C are each possibly true in the sense that any humble, finite knower ought to confess, “Sure, I could be wrong; I’m a finite knower,” but where C = ‘God cannot abandon those he loves because as infinite love he is the ground of all possibility’, then A, B and C are mutually exclusive ‘in their very conceivability’. In the end, to hope C is right is to hope A and B are false, in which case there’s simply no existential way to relate oneself to an A-threat or a B-threat “as if” it’s true because one is already relating oneself to C “as if” it’s true.

    Of course – I could be wrong about all this. 😀

    Tom

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    • Tom says:

      Also, can’t the Orthodox ‘teach’ the traditional view of hell as irrevocable torment? Isn’t it a part of some Orthodox catechisms? I thought so. But if so, then how can such an Orthodox person grant the ‘hopeful’ possibilities described in contradicting views re: hell? If an Orthodox is permitted to ‘teach’ (to claim to know) his view while the hopeful universalist cannot, then doesn’t that (a) contradict Stephen’s claim that none can claim to know (and thus ‘teach’) his/her view, and (b) doesn’t it mean the traditional believer in hell must relate differently to biblical warnings re: hell than must hopeful universalists?

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    • Steven says:

      Hi Tom,

      Thanks for your response!

      I will grant that my argument is not very persuasive if you don’t also grant the premise of classical theism.

      I don’t think that damnation is inconceivable, even if universalism is true. In my article (to which I linked at the bottom of the post), I offer a particular interpretation of damnation as a result of free choice, drawing from Ratzinger and Stăniloae. Damnation understood as voluntary self-exclusion from eternal life is compatible with both eternal suffering and annihilation. I don’t agree that the possibility of universal salvation necessarily excludes the possibility of damnation in the way you suggest, because the freedom of the human being is what grounds the possibility of either salvation or damnation.

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      • Tom says:

        Good stuff Stephen. You enjoying Fuller? My niece teaches at Biola and the best-man in my wedding lives in Pasadena. I’m in Sacramento. Wish I could get town your way more.

        I’m with you on the role that ‘free’ choice plays (‘free’ needing some defining). I don’t see any possibility for a coherent view of UR that relies upon God saving us outside the (gnomic) exercise of the will. It’s that ‘will’ that went astray and that ‘will’ that has to come home. So I don’t draw any sort of terminus ad quem at which point God simply ‘saves’ people when he wants to. Free choice in this sense is a non-negotiable for me.

        But this doesn’t imply what you have to assume is possible, and that is the possibility of a ‘foreclosure’ upon all possibility of Godward movement. The conceivability of hell as irrevocable ‘self-exclusion from eternal life’ entails the conceivability of such ‘foreclosure’ (indeed, such self-exclusion unto irrevocable loss just *is* the foreclosure of the self by the self). But proponents of UR, as far as I can tell, don’t grant the metaphysical possibility of such ‘foreclosure’ (because the will’s scope of possibilities is asymmetrically grounded, teleologically, in God). Metaphysically speaking we’re simply not capable of stepping outside that relationship to define the very ‘possibly of being’ for ourselves. That’s nonsensical (given creation ex nihilo of course).

        Sorry – I’m rambling. You weren’t as concerned about the pro’s and con’s of UR per se but the way we relate ourselves to biblical warnings that threaten irrevocable loss. My not being a classical theist aside, though, I think that even a classical theist who was a hopeful universalist wouldn’t be able existentially-speaking to relate him/herself to biblical warnings as genuinely threatening eternal suffering (which he’d need to believe to be motivated to change) because that believer is relating to those same warnings “as if” they cannot threaten such suffering. One would have to rearrange more fundamental beliefs about God and the world to create space within oneself to ‘hear’ those passages as actually threatening irrevocable loss. My sense is that no one who is able to imagine him/herself into such a space is a hopeful universalist to begin with.

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  4. brian says:

    Hello fellas,

    Self-chosen hell (CSL’s “doors locked from the inside”) is still rooted in a modern “libertarian” notion of freedom. I don’t think it’s really coherent with classical theism: we shouldn’t separate will from intellect, freedom from participation in the Good. The entire metaphysical being of person should not be isolated in terms of modern choice. The conflict between gnomic and natural will diminishes to zero when flourishing personhood is attained. Unless one posits an unhealed madness, no creature chooses hell. And Tom, I don’t think divine immutability (like impassibility) implies a lack of dramatic possibility. It will strike us as paradoxical, at least, but God’s perduring love is simply constant — that is what is immutable and not dictated by or reactive to finite creatures, though clearly love will manifest differently in the context of individual actions.

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    • Steven says:

      Brian,

      I address the question of freedom of the will in my article “Christian apokatastasis: Two Paradigmatic Objections,” which was published in Journal of Analytic Theology. It was published before the article which I summarize in this post. In the JAT article, I defend universalism by appeal to an intelectualist account of the will. By the time I wrote my Heythrop Journal article, however, I came to the conclusion that dogmatic universalism is insufficiently supported in the Church’s tradition and is ecumenically unacceptable (Catholic dogma excludes it). So I tried to find a version of universalism that anyone could in principle hold.

      Liked by 1 person

      • brian says:

        Hi Steven,

        Balthasar did not think Catholicism necessarily excluded universalism. I think I understand where you’re coming from. There has always been a minority presence in favor of universalism in Church tradition. Personally, I don’t really bother about what is ecumenically acceptable or not, but then again, I am a bad Catholic. Is the Heythrop Journal article accessible online?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Steven says:

          It was reading von Balthasar that convinced me that dogmatic universalism is not a Catholic option. I think you might be misrepresenting his book.

          There is a link to the Heythrop Journal article in the post above, at the very end.

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          • Steven, contrary to popular opinion, I think von Balthasar was playing it safe and was in reality an adherent of apokatastasis. Although he shies away from the dogmatic position in his books, he seems, at least to me, to draw all the premises for apokatastasis while technically denying its conclusion. At the end of his book he proposes that the loss of anyone is “infinitely improbable.” What does infinitely improbable mean? In practice I don’t think we can distinguish between infinitely improbable and practically certain.

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          • Steven says:

            Perhaps you are right. I should add that I was also influenced by Ratzinger and Stăniloae, who are not similarly optimistic.

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          • brian says:

            Well, my opinion is only a surmise. I’ve stated it here before. I think Balthasar was probably a convinced universalist and made the case for hope because he believed it the only way to present the idea to dogmatic Catholic theologians.

            Liked by 2 people

    • Tom says:

      I agree, Brian. It was your point to Steven, but I just want to add, I also don’t espouse a voluntarist notion of the will severed from its teleological grounding in God. I agree the conflict between the gnomic and the nature collapses with the attainment of personhood (love the way you put it). My point is just that the diminishing of this conflict, the flourishing of personhood, is chosen (gnomically); one chooses one’s way into the beatific vision. That’s why I balk at the idea that God secures our assent by essentially vaporizing the gnomic will with the sheer brilliance of his revelation. (But forget I even mentioned this!) :o)

      Liked by 1 person

      • brian says:

        Revelation doesn’t override gnomic will; it does clarify the irrationality of sin.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Tom says:

          How clear? Clear enough to collapse the gnomic exercise of the will into the natural?

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            Tom, I would say “complete” instead of “collapse”. The idea is not that the gnomic is annihilated but rather fulfilled and enlightened: the distance between the gnomic and the natural is bridged by willful participation in the End for which it was created. This is an infinite epektasic journey from glory to glory.

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          • Tom says:

            Robert and Brian,

            I wish I could better pinpoint what remains outstanding between us re: this point. I think we agree that generally speaking hell as judgment is best understood as the pain of enduring the revelation of God’s presence and his glory, not his absence. I think we disagree over the nature of the choice which the judged then make en route to restoration.

            If we say the revelation of God’s glory so clarifies the nature of evil that the very possibility of misperception (and thus any continued misrelation) is essentially removed, then we have a problem, namely, God essentially determines the movement of the will by flooding the mind with light which reduces choices to one – namely, God. This is a problem, because if God can secure our relating rightly to him in such a manner, we ought to ask why he didn’t go that route from the get-go.

            My point is that the reason he didn’t go that route from the get-go is because there is no such route. We must begin and travel within a certain epistemic distance that defines the distinction between the gnomic and the natural will, and while the gnomic can rest finally and irrevocably in its natural orientation toward the good, it must choose to do so ‘gnomically’ as it were, within the epistemic distance that makes it possible to say ‘No’. That’s why I asked Brian “How clear?” because the gnomic will must deny itself, risk itself, by faith, in the face of the Void. That’s the truth of our finitude, the metaphysical price-tag of getting created, finite sentient creatures into union with God.

            If you can help me understand where our disagreement still is, I’m all ears. Or we can chat about it later; I didn’t wanna side-track discussion of Steven’s post.

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            Tom, I am not suggesting, and I don’t think Brian does either, that the gnomic process of willing the good is lessened or circumvented in the least bit. To this point – does grace override the gnomic will in this life? Was the Theotokos consent to God qualitatively reduced, or bypassed altogether, due to the apparent clarity of understanding the divine will, the understanding of which arguably grew over time? The church has made the case that the Theotokos had been oriented towards the divine will prior to miraculous conception, that this was a process which started from her birth.

            Does willingness do to the will of God denote an undue influence in our lives, so that we are not really free? It seems to me that perhaps the vestiges of modern libertarian freedom may be operative in your inquiry. I don’t see a prior orientation towards the good as impinging upon freedom, for it still requires the deliberate process that we will the good in an infinite progress of participation in the good which is the first, the means and the end.

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          • Tom says:

            Robert: Does willingness do to the will of God denote an undue influence in our lives, so that we are not really free? It seems to me that perhaps the vestiges of modern libertarian freedom may be operative in your inquiry.

            Tom: I knew that would come up. But I assure you, I don’t hold to any voluntarist notion of agency as the will free from all teleological constraint or grounding in/toward the Good. But it would be a mistake to think that positing the mere capacity to say ‘no’ to the good implies a commitment to voluntarism. As Hart argues, this capacity to determine our own ‘yes’ and ‘no’ is not itself freedom, but it is the possibility of freedom.

            Robert: I don’t see a prior orientation towards the good as impinging upon freedom, for it still requires the deliberate process that we will the good in an infinite progress of participation in the good…

            Tom: I’m on board with Gregory’s notion that we forever expand ecstatically into the infinite goodness of God. That said, I’m not quite sure I’m following you here – a “deliberate process” is one thing, a “deliberative process” is something else. I certainly hope that gnomic “deliberation” with respect to whether we embrace the good (or not), love God and others (or not), etc., will cease. We don’t forever progress toward ‘that’ without ever arriving. I’m simply saying that rest from the deliberative indeterminacy of the will with respect to choosing rightly/wrongly ceases through its proper exercise ‘as deliberative’.

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  5. Steven says:

    Tom,

    I think you should probably read my longer article in Heythrop Journal. Some of the nuances of my view come into greater evidence there.

    I think the church should that sinners will be damned eternally (whether this means eternal suffering or else annihilation, whatever) while praying that this not take place. I don’t think that unknowability = unteachability.

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  6. Robert Fortuin says:

    Steven,

    Thank you for your contribution. To make your position tenable it seems to me one would have to extend an unacceptable agnosticism to God as creation’s first and final cause; to God’s unfailing love; to God as the Good, the True and the Beautiful; to the infinity of God’s mercy. I find such agnosticism impossible to reconcile, in any intelligible sense, with the Christian Gospel. Equivocity ultimately leads to theocide.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Steven says:

    Fr. Kimel et al.,

    It seems most of the discussion about my post is coming from a convinced universalist perspective, whereas my intention was to temper the conviction of dogmatic traditionalists and conditionalists and motivate a kind of hopeful universalism while granting their preferred interpretations of the relevant “hell texts.” Obviously if you think that eternal damnation is metaphysically impossible, then my argument is not going to be very interesting or convincing to you … but neither is it intended for you.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Is it really an improvement to go from the position that God wills creatures to infinitely unending torment to the position that God may possibly not do so? We go from God is evil, to, ‘well perhaps we can hope that He is not evil, but He may well be’. What kind of God such as that summons hope universal?

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  8. Mike H says:

    Thanks for your essay, Steven.

    If I’m understanding the gist of it, you’re focused primarily on if/how a hope for the salvation of all can coexist given the apparent scriptural certainty that some will be damned. The answer given is that, although you see final (not a purgative) damnation as unequivocally communicated in the mode of a certainty, it is actually a contingency. The mode of certainty – effective at inspiring sufficient fear – actually serves to brings about the avoidance of that which is communicated as certain, and that is it’s purpose. It’s sort of the flip side of Robert Jenson’s mode of unconditional promise (again, just a “mode”?)

    I’m sure some of the readers here have seen the movie The Matrix. Neo is told that he’s “The One” but he’s unconvinced. He goes to see the Oracle, who gives him a quick look and confirms to him that he’s not. But really, telling him that’s he’s not The One is a strategy to help him realize further in the story that he is. “She told you exactly what you needed to hear,” he’s told later on. Was The Oracle “errant” or “deceptive”? I’m not drawing any theology from the movie, just saying that the parallel is that the “mode” and content of communication actually brings about the reality that it explicitly disavows.

    Now, I find this problematic on a few levels. Setting philosophical/theological questions about free will, the nature of the Bible, etc. aside for the moment, I wonder if you could respond to a pastoral/anecdotal type of question. Basically, does that actually work? I know that fear can get a response. It can get people to “play ball”, but does it inspire faith and trust? I could argue, historically and anecdotally, that this “certainty” is just as likely to destroy the possibility of faith as create it. That’s not to argue explicitly for or against any of the 3 eschatological positions, only that ultimate terror doesn’t have the greatest track record in developing an ethos of faith, hope and love. Any thoughts on that?

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    • Grant says:

      I can’t add much to the debate over the article but I’m not sure that I can agree with the idea universalism shouldn’t be taught as potentially true or presented and lived in the Gospel. This is if I’m understanding you correctly, as I feel it should most definitely be put forward as a live and orthodox theological view and position just as valid and allowable as it’s opposing positions. And if someone is convinced of it they should teach and express it (as opposed to those who are genuinely uncertain on the matter).

      And I would agree with Mike above at questioning the pastoral value of eternal torment. I have both seen in a number of people’s lives and my own the devistation this view and consistent view of God it delivers can contribute to, with no positive examples of love, hope and faith (only thankfully rare encounters with some Christians who have fallen into a corrupt pleasure at the thought of it occuring to some others).

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    • Steven says:

      I think there are countless examples of saints and holy people of God who loved God with all their hearts and also took seriously the risk of damnation because of the gravity of sin. I don’t think the pastoral problem is a real problem, if the matter is approached wisely, with the appropriate sensitivity and gravity.

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      • Mike H says:

        Well that’s true I suppose. My earlier question wasn’t as much about taking seriously the risk of damnation and pastoral sensitivity in general as it was about the functional effectiveness of “unconditionally hopeless” language as an intentional means to motivate repentance and the concept of God “making statements with the express purpose of falsifying them.” To me, the hermeneutic seems fraught with pastoral peril.

        I want to clarify though, I do really appreciate the hermeneutical aspect that what appears as the unequivocal last word of death may not in fact be so. To the degree that can help people pray confidently, I think that’s a beautiful thing. Thanks again.

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  9. Steven says:

    This article has been very helpful to me and much appreciated. Looking forward to downloading your lengthier essay and reading it.

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  10. Steven,

    I enjoyed reading your article very much, and want to give it another read when I can make the time. I’m a conservative Lutheran so don’t believe that the unredeemed have any good spiritual impulses (i.e. no free will as regards spiritual things), so there are parts where I’d nuance your argument. In general though, I appreciate your orientation and attitude as regards the issue, as I also think taking the plain meaning of passages like those in I Tim 2 seriously is critical for Christians.

    +Nathan

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  11. Steven,

    I’d like to add my thanks as well for this well written article. I think that the debate here surrounding convinced vs. hopeful universalists is an important one; but, I don’t want to delve further into this issue. What I really liked is how you dealt with the matter of contingency in biblical prophecy. I plan on touching on this in my next article on the exegetical case for Reformed Universalism. I don’t know if you are aware of the articles by Richard Bauckham, Richard Pratt, and Robert Chisholm on the subject of prophetic contingency, but they are well worth consulting.

    While I think the case can be made for a convinced universalism on several accounts – exegetically, theologically, and philosophically, I do think that the issue of contingency is of real importance to the hopeful universalist position. The pattern of warning of a specific punishment and the rescinding of the sentence, thus leaving the prediction unfulfilled is a common motif in the OT prophetic witness. The point of judgement oracles in the OT is, almost without exception, intended to bring about repentance both for Israel and the nations. When we get to the NT, whether in Jesus’ prophetic parables or the apocalyptic prophecies in Revelation I think that we have to keep this background in mind. Just because the threat of judgement is given does not guarantee the sentence.

    As to the question of pastoral concerns, I do not think that the threats of judgement need to be softened in any way – they are realities that must be dealt with. Hell as the church generally understands it has many connotations, some have warrant in Scripture and some probably do not. Nonetheless, my sense is that the NT does warn of a reckoning that people should rightly fear and avoid by fleeing to Christ for mercy. This doesn’t mean hell is forever, but it is what I might describe as the unnecessary necessity. In the end, as MacDonald describes, “love is inexorable”, but the journey into willful surrender to that love might not be entirely pleasant for the hardened sinner.

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  12. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Comments about the threat discourses of Jesus reminded me of this passage from John Sach’s 1991 essay “Current Eschatology“:

    Jesus’ parables do not contain a threat that in fact some are going to be damned, but they do confront the hearer with the real possibility that if he or she does not repent and embrace the gospel, he or she will be lost. They do not predict what is in any case certain to happen, but what will happen if one spurns Christ. Such stories issue a clear warning: 46 Don’t let this happen to you. Thus, eschatological descriptions concerning finaljudgment are best understood as ways in which the Bible speaks about human freedom and responsibility before God. Properly understood, therefore, such biblical texts offer no proof whatsoever that anyone will in fact be damned. The preaching of the gospel, on the lips of Jesus and in the ministry of the Church, is an “open situation.”

    More work needs to be done by universalist scholars on the hermeneutics of eschatological statements in the NT.

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    • I completely agree. The rhetoric of prophecy is an area that needs attention from a universalist perspective. I would expand this to a canonical reading of eschatology, because the continuity between the NT prophetic witness and the OT is unquestionable. It would be very interesting to see a work of biblical theology along the lines of Beale, Childs, Eichrodt, or Von Rad from a universalist framework.

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  13. brian says:

    Tom,

    Bulgakov foresaw the need for continued pedagogy and repentance in an afterlife where eschatological clarity was available. I am not asserting that character shaped by historical choice is overrun. I am saying that the gift of creaturely being perdures as agapeic freedom. God is not reactive to our failures and perversities in the sense that the Original gift is taken away or God’s desire for loving eschatological community frustrated or defeated by creaturely opposition. I think that sinful blindness — the kind that reduces the person to the concept of an atomized individual where the destiny of one is somehow separable from the destiny of all (Nyssa’s pleromatic unity) — will be eradicated. You will be freed from the illusions of the psychic ego, but that does not abrogate the pain of breaking free from various cocoons of madness or the demands of opening up to the freedom of an unimaginable Good. It isn’t a magic that reduces the person to a thing; that is the precise antithesis of what God is doing.

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  14. Robert Fortuin says:

    Tom, I would think that progressive satiety lessens the appeal of the forbidden, but as much as we can speak of progression, it seems to me we can’t speak of completion in an ultimate sense, and as such the gnomic process would seem to perdure – understood this way the gnomic is the mark of the creature. Of course one can make a case for the cessation of the gnomic altogether, such as that based on the voluntary and complete submission of the human to the divine will in Christ. In any case, as epektasis moves onward in free deliberate deliberation the gnomic will is increasingly healed and freed from its diabolic scattering and oriented towards the proper Good. That seems to me more in line with a perpetual growth and participation in beatitude.

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  15. John H says:

    Steven,

    I have a couple of questions related to the reference to Staniloae’s kenosis of hell in the Heythrop Journal article. Briefly, for those who have not read the article, the kenosis of hell is Staniloae’s idea that God will withdraw His presence from the lost souls in hell so as to maintain the ontological distance needed to perpetuate the wayward will’s state of everlasting rebellion. The notion is that the souls of the blessed in heaven will not feel empathy for the lost because they will be joint participants with God in the eternal respect and dignity accorded to the freedom of the human being, even if such freedom entails eternal conscious torment.

    I have two problems with Stanilloae’s position. First, human freedom for him is voluntaristic in nature. The sole rationale for the kenosis of hell is to preserve the gnomic will’s capacity to choose badly, which is to say not choose the Good. How is this position consonant with classical theism, which sees true freedom as choosing to do the Good. Was Staniloae a voluntarist?

    Second, it seems that Staniloae is revisiting a very old argument which was most succinctly stated by Aquinas in the Summa. For Thomas, the bliss of the elect will be enhanced by the knowledge that God’s justice has been glorified in the suffering of the damned. But in the end it does not matter whether the elect become impervious to eternal suffering due to a celebration of God’s Justice or to the dignity of human freedom. In either case, as David Bentley Hart observes, the personhood of the elect would be destroyed. To paraphrase Hart, a person is nothing but the sum total of all of the interactions and relationships that she has experienced. So what remains of personhood if a human being’s capacity to empathize with horrendously brutal suffering is curtailed by notions as abstract as divine justice (Aquinas) or human freedom (Staniloae).

    I cannot therefore agree with either you or Staniloae that even if some beings are indeed lost forever, the joy of the blessed will not be lessened due to their knowledge that God has preserved their dignity by respecting human freedom.

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