Four years ago David Bentley Hart announced on Eclectic Orthodoxy that he subscribes to the doctrine of apokatastasis and hoped to write a book on the subject. I do not know if this was the first time he had ever publicly shared his views on the subject—though one can find intimations of his universalist convictions going as far back as The Beauty of the Infinite (2004)—but it was news to me. The revelation quickly spread through Twitter, Facebook, and the theological world. Few scholars generate the kind of buzz that Hart does. And so we waited … eagerly … impatiently … anticipatorily. Two years later his translation of the New Testament appeared, with a controversial postscript that assured us that the aionion punishment of Matthew 25:46 should not be rendered “eternal.” We continued to wait. Finally, the long watch is over. The 2015 announcement has become Yale University Press reality: That All Shall Be Saved. It is an important book, though not in the way some have been hoping. Hart has not given us the definitive treatise on apokatastasis. You will not find detailed exegesis of the hell passages in the New Testament nor extended discussion of the Church’s dogmatic statements that (on the surface) condemn the greater hope. That All Shall Be Saved is important in the way The Doors of the Sea was important when it was published in 2005—that is, as a timely, and at times quite personal, reflection on a critical topic, replete with incisive theological and metaphysical insights and astringent polemic. It will bring apokatastasis back to ecumenical center stage. This doesn’t mean that universalism has lacked contemporary defenders. Over the past twenty years Thomas Talbott has been its most important and influential exponent. He is a sophisticated analytic philosopher, but unfortunately has not received the hearing in ecumenical circles he deserves. As a result the greater hope has continued to be seen as a fringe phenomenon. Hart, on the other hand, presents a different profile: Christian neoplatonist, student of the Church Fathers, respected philosophical theologian, pugilistic defender of the catholic faith, translator of the New Testament, Orthodox churchman. His theological heroes are Sts Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor. Hart is a formidable thinker with deep roots in the tradition.
That All Shall Be Saved is a brilliant piece of rhetoric. Despite disclaimers that he does not expect his book to change many minds, Hart clearly intends to convince us, intellectually and affectively, that apokatastasis is the only proper conclusion to the gospel story of Jesus Christ:
If Christianity is in any way true, Christians dare not doubt the salvation of all … [A]ny understanding of what God has accomplished in Christ that does not include the assurance of a final apokatastasis in which all things created are redeemed and joined to God is ultimately incoherent and unworthy of rational faith. (p. 66)
Hart could hardly have phrased his thesis any more sharply. Clearly this is an issue about which he feels deeply and passionately. As he writes in the concluding chapter:
I have been asked more than once in the last years whether, if I were to become convinced that Christian adherence absolutely requires a belief in a hell of eternal torment, this would constitute in my mind proof that Christianity should be dismissed as a self-evidently morally obtuse and logically incoherent faith. And, as it happens, it would. As I say, for me it is a matter of conscience, which is after all only a name for the natural will’s aboriginal and constant orientation toward the Good when that orientation expresses itself in our conscious motives. As such, conscience must not abide by the rule of the majority. Placed in the balance over against its dictates, the authority of a dominant tradition or of a reigning opinion has no weight whatever. And my conscience forbids assent to a picture of reality that I regard as morally corrupt, contrary to justice, perverse, inexcusably cruel, deeply irrational, and essentially wicked. (p. 208)
Confronted by such an emphatic moral stance, we readers have no choice but to attend seriously to the arguments presented in That All Shall Be Saved. The task of the theologian is to explicate the faith of the Church. He or she creatively engages the ecumenical tradition, acknowledging the diversity of legitimate opinions within it. There are, after all, different possible solutions to any particular theological puzzle. Doctrines are always open to new reformulations. The theologian may believe that he has presented a sound, perhaps even the best, interpretation; but he also knows that others of equal or greater competence may disagree. He fully expects critical responses. “Hopefully my arguments will contribute to the Church’s ongoing elaboration of doctrine. Maybe I’ll even get footnoted.” But when the theologian declares that the gospel of Jesus Christ is at stake, he has raised the stakes to an infinitely higher level. He has cut off our retreat to mere iteration of the tradition. We have no choice but to think with him and interrogate afresh the revealed sources of the faith.
If we believe that eternal perdition is a divinely revealed truth, dogmatically defined by ecumenical council and magisterial pronouncement, we are going to find it difficult to generate the kind of sympathy necessary to read That All Shall Be Saved. It is no easy task for a believer to assess a claim that a churchly teaching is wrong. Yet, Hart tells us, the gospel is at stake. Might it just be possible that eternal damnation violates the grammar of faith? I offer this counsel: temporarily bracket your belief in the traditional doctrine. Hear Hart out. Follow closely his reasoning. Test his conclusions. If his key arguments should prove probative, then we must conclude that the traditional doctrine of hell is not irreformable teaching. The Church cannot dogmatize falsehood.
From the beginning, the Church of the Apostles has proclaimed a message of transcendent good news:
In its dawn, the gospel was a proclamation of a divine victory that had been won over death and sin, and over the spiritual powers of rebellion against God that dwell on high, and here below, and under the earth. It announced itself truly as the “good tidings” of a campaign of divine rescue on the part of a loving God, who by the sending of his Son into the world, and even into the kingdom of death, had liberated his creatures from slavery to a false and merciless master, and had opened a way into the Kingdom of Heaven, in which all of creation would be glorified by the direct presence of God … It was, above all, a joyous proclamation, and a call to a lost people to find their true home at last, in their Father’s house. It did not initially make its appeal to human hearts by forcing them to revert to some childish or bestial cruelty latent in their natures; rather, it sought to awaken them to a new form of life, one whose premise was charity. Nor was it a religion offering only a psychological salve for individual anxieties regarding personal salvation. It was a summons to a new and corporate way of life, salvation by entry into a community of love. Hope in heaven and fear of hell were ever present, but also sublimely inchoate, and susceptible of elaboration in any number of conceptual shapes. Nothing as yet was fixed except the certainty that Jesus was now Lord of all things, and would ultimately yield all things up to the Father so that God might be all in all. (pp. 205-206)
And yet the Church came to believe that she must conclude the gospel narrative with an eschatological division between the blessed and the damned. To the liberating promise must be appended the terrifying threat of interminable suffering. As the Synod of Constantinople declared in A.D. 543: “If anyone says or holds that the punishment of demons and impious human beings is temporary and that it will have an end at some time, and that there will be a restoration of demons and impious human beings, let him be anathema.” How the eternality of hell came to be the teaching of the Church must be left to the historians. Hart’s concern is to remind us of the profound theological implications of the doctrine: if we teach that everlasting perdition is the possible final end of most, many, some, or even just one human being, then we must logically concede that God intends this infernal doom. The divine goodness is thus called into radical question:
The eternal perdition—the eternal suffering—of any soul would be an abominable tragedy, and therefore a profound natural evil; this much is quite clearly stated by scripture, in asserting that God “intends all human beings to be saved and to come to a full knowledge of truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). A natural evil, however, becomes a moral evil precisely to the degree that it is the positive intention, even if only conditionally, of a rational will. God could not, then, directly intend a soul’s ultimate destruction, or even intend that a soul bring about its own destruction, without positively willing the evil as an evil end; such a result could not possibly be comprised within the ends purposed by a truly good will (in any sense of the word “good” intelligible to us). Yet, if both the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo and that of eternal damnation are true, that very evil is indeed already comprised within the positive intentions and dispositions of God. (pp. 81-82)
The logic is startling, compelling, horrifying. We rarely think God’s free creation of the cosmos and everlasting damnation together, yet sound theology requires that we must. No matter how we understand damnation, whether as direct retributive punishment of sins or as self-determined alienation from the Good, it inescapably belongs to God’s pretemporal willing and act. God need not have brought the world into being from out of nothing, yet he did, hell and all—at least so the traditional doctrine teaches.
What then, we might well ask, does this make of the story of salvation—of its cost? What would any damned soul be, after all, as enfolded within the eternal will of God, other than a price settled upon by God with his own power, an oblation willingly exchanged for a finite benefit—the lamb slain from the foundation of the world? And is hell not then the innermost secret of heaven, its sacrificial heart? And what then is God’s moral nature, inasmuch as the moral character of any intended final cause must include within its calculus what one is willing to sacrifice. (p. 83)
Our discomfort grows. Surely there must be a way to absolve our heavenly Father of responsibility. Perhaps we might think of the creation of the world as a gamble of sorts. God takes a risk. He permits human beings to defeat his good intentions for them. As C. S. Lewis states: “In creating beings with free will, omnipotence from the outset submits to the possibility of such defeat.” Hell, therefore, is an unfortunate but necessary consequence of our freely chosen disobedience. Yet is this formulation morally coherent? Let us suppose that God has granted human beings godlike autonomy, and let us further suppose that
God created simply on the chance that humanity might sin, and on the chance that a certain number of incorrigibly wicked souls might plunge themselves into the fiery abyss forever. This still means, that, morally, he has purchased the revelation of his power in creation by the same horrendous price—even if, in the end no one at all should happen to be damned. The logic is irresistible. God creates. The die is cast. Alea iacta est. But then again, as Mallarmé says, “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard” (A throw of the dice will never abolish the hazard): for what is hazarded has already been surrendered, entirely, no matter how the dice may fall. The outcome of the aleatory venture may be intentionally indeterminate, but the wager itself is an irrevocable intentional decision, wherein every possible cost has already been accepted: the irrecuperable expenditure has been offered even if, happily, it is never actually lost, and so the moral nature of the act is the same in either case. To venture the life of your child for some other end is, morally, already to have killed your child, even if at the last moment Artemis or Heracles or the Angel of the LORD should stay your hand. And so, the revelation of God’s glory in creatures would still always be dependent upon that evil, or that venture beyond good and evil, even if at the last no one should perish. Creation could never then be called “good” in an unconditional sense; nor God the “Good as such,” no matter what conditional goods he might accomplish in creating. (pp. 85-86; emphasis Hart)
Here lies the core of Hart’s gravamen: if the doctrine of everlasting hell is true, then this means that the Holy Trinity eternally wills evil; yet that is impossible—it contradicts the paschal love revealed in Jesus Christ. The God who is absolute Goodness does not gamble. He wills only the good of his children and would never put at risk their eternal happiness. In the words of St Isaac the Syrian:
It is not the way of the compassionate Maker to create rational beings in order to deliver them over mercilessly to unending affliction in punishment for things of which He knew even before they were fashioned, aware how they would turn out when He created them—and whom nonetheless He created. All the more since the fore-planning of evil and the taking of vengeance are characteristics of the passions of created beings, and do not belong to the Creator. (II.39.6)
In the weeks and months to come, Eclectic Orthodoxy will be publishing several reviews of That All Shall Be Saved by theologians and philosophers. We shall see how they respond to the challenge David Bentley Hart has put before us.