But that’s not what the Bible says!—a not uncommon cry uttered by many who first encounter the greater hope. If we Christians know anything, we know that the Bible teaches everlasting damnation, and we have the verses to prove it. We know that “Jesus taught more about hell than he did about heaven” (J. D. Greear). We know that Jesus spoke more about hell than “all other Biblical authors put together” (Tim Keller). We know that Jesus and St Paul believed “not only that hell is real, but that it is heavily populated” (Dwight Longenecker). We know that “all of His words about the fate of men in the age to come are emphatic that hell is eternal, and contain not a hint of universalism” (Lawrence Farley). “Simply put,” pronounces Steven Lawson, “Jesus was a hellfire and damnation preacher.” In conclusion: “To not believe in hell is to not believe in Jesus” (H. B. Charles).
The overwhelming majority of Christians firmly believe that Jesus and his Apostles taught everlasting perdition. 1500 years of tradition has rendered it indubitable. Just pick up one of the standard translations of the New Testament. If believers are to be persuaded that apokatastasis is true, weaknesses of the infernalist interpretation of the Scriptures must be exposed and an alternative reading persuasively advanced. We need a fresh hermeneutical paradigm that makes compelling orthodox sense of the biblical witness. Biblical scholars and theologians need to do what Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and St Gregory of Nyssa did in the second, third, and fourth centuries.
David Bentley Hart devotes his second meditation in That All Shall Be Saved to the biblical witness. In my opinion, this is the weakest chapter in the book. The author’s decision not to include footnotes and not to provide careful exegesis of the key infernalist texts undermines his presentation. Hart knows his ancient Greek, and he knows the New Testament as only a translator can know it; yet the scholarly literature is vast and probably unmasterable. Readers need to know that the author has engaged this literature, and they need to know upon whom he is relying. This is one area upon which Hart cannot simply speak from his own authority and erudition, not if he wishes to convince others.
An example: Hart states that the notion of an eternal hell is “entirely absent from the Pauline corpus, as even the thinnest shadow of a hint” (p. 93). This will come as a surprise to many. What about 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10‽ This passage is often quoted by defenders of the infernalist position, yet Hart fails to mention it. Here’s the RSV translation:
This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be made worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering— since indeed God deems it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant rest with us to you who are afflicted, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at in all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. (RSV)
The bolded sentence sure seems to speak of an everlasting punishment, and it’s easy to see why those who rely on English translations interpret the text as affirming what we would call damnation. But now compare Hart’s rendering from his translation of The New Testament (DBHNT):
A clear indication of the justice of God’s judgment in finding you worthy of God’s Kingdom (on behalf of which you also suffer), since it is just on God’s part to repay those afflicting you with affliction, but you who suffer the affliction with repose in our company at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven, along with the angels under his power, in a flaming fire, exacting justice upon those who do not know God and do not heed the good tidings of our Lord Jesus—who will pay the just reparation of ruin in the Age, coming from the face of the Lord and the glory of his might. On that day when he comes to be glorified by his holy ones and to be worshipped with wonder by all those who have been faithful (because our witness to you was trusted).
The bolded sentence reads quite differently. No wonder Hart insists that eternal hell is absent from the Pauline corpus. But he should have quoted the text in the chapter, accompanied by exegesis and argument. As it is, we are only left with his categorically expressed but unsubstantiated opinion that hell is not to be found in the letters of the Apostle.
A similar concern might be made raised regarding Hart’s decision not to provide us with a detailed exegesis of Matt 25:31-46, perhaps the most important infernalist text in the gospels. Compare two verses, as rendered by the RSV and DBHNT:
Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (RSV)
Go from me, you execrable ones, into the fire of the Age prepared for the Slanderer and his angels. (DBHNT)
And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (RSV)
And these will go to the chastening of that Age, but the just to the life of that Age. (DBHNT)
Again, very different translations, in this case made possible by the wide semantic range of the adjective aionion/aionios, which derives from the noun aion (“age,” “epoch”). Whereas the RSV has rendered aionion as “eternal,” Hart gives it an eschatological twist: “of the Age,” “of that Age.” Given the context of the last judgment, Hart believes that “aionion punishment” need not signify duration of punishment but may intimate the kind of punishment the wicked will suffer (specifically, punishment proper to the final aeon). His translation therefore leaves open the possibility of corrective, remedial punishment. Similarly, “aionion life” need not be speaking of duration but of the life that belongs to the Kingdom. Its intended meaning, in other words, is qualitative rather than quantitative: it points to the age to come (see “Sometimes Eternity Ain’t Forever“). Hart elaborates:
And so, if one assumes that the teachings recorded in the gospels are indeed faithful transpositions of the Semitic terms he used into their recognized Greek equivalents, then one must ask precisely which of the former lurk behind the latter in the texts of the New Testament. Here, happily, the Septuagint provides something of a guide. In its pages, the words aion and aionios correspond to various forms and uses of the Hebrew ‘olam (or alma in Aramaic), which can mean an “age,”or “epoch,” or a time hidden in the far past or far future, or a “world” or “dispensation,” or even occasionally perhaps “forever,” but which can also mean simply any extended period with a natural term, and not necessarily a particularly long period at that….
No matter how we interpret the discrete terms, however, we must never forget that today the entire ensemble of references that we bring to these phrases is wholly detached from the religious world of Christ’s time, and particularly from its eschatological expectations. It seems absolutely certain, for instance, that the words aion and aionios are frequently used in the New Testament as some kind of reference to the ‘olam ha-ba, “the Age to come,” which is to say the Age of God’s Kingdom, or of that cosmic reality now hidden in God that will be made manifest at history’s end. It seems fairly certain, at least, that in the New Testament, and especially in the teachings of Jesus, the adjective aionios is the equivalent of something like the phrase le-olam [“unto an age”]; and yet it is no less certain that this usage cannot be neatly discriminated from the language of the ‘olam ha-ba without losing something of the special significance it surely possessed in Christ’s time. The issue then is not one of how long, but rather of when, or of what frame of reality—what realm, that is, within or beyond history. (pp. 125-127; my emphasis)
One might add that if the persons who originally translated the sayings of Jesus’ from Aramaic into Greek had wanted to emphasize the perpetuity of punishment, they had other perfectly good words available to them—for example, aidios (“eternal”) and atelevtos (“endless”). In the postscript of his New Testament translation, Hart offers the following lexical information:
The first is that there is a genuine ambiguity in the term in Greek that is impossible to render directly in an English equivalent. Aiōnios is an adjective drawn from the substantive αἰών (aiōn, or aeon), which can sometimes mean a period of endless duration, but which more properly, throughout the whole of ancient and late antique Greek literature, means “an age,” or “a long period of time” of indeterminate duration, or even just “a substantial interval.” Its proper equivalent in Latin would be aevum. At times, it can refer to an historical epoch, to a time “long past” or “far in the future,” to something as shadowy and fleeting as the lifespan of a single person (in Homer and the Attic dramatists this is its typical meaning), or even to a considerably shorter period than that (say, a year). It can also, as it frequently does in the New Testament, refer to a particular universal dispensation: either the present world or the world to come or a heavenly sphere of reality beyond our own. Moreover, the adjective aiōnios, unlike the adjective ἀΐδιος (aïdios) or adverb ἀεί (aei), never clearly means “eternal” or “everlasting” in any incontrovertible sense, nor does the noun aiōn simply mean “eternity” in the way that the noun ἀϊδιότης (aïdiotēs) does; neither does aiōnios mean “endless,” as ἀτέλευτος (atelevtos) or ἀτελεύτητος (atelevtētos) does; and, in fact, there are enough instances in the New Testament where the adjective or the noun obviously does not mean “eternal” or “eternity” that it seems to me unwise simply to presume such meanings in any instances at all. Where it is used of that which is by nature eternal, God in himself, it certainly carries the connotation that, say, the English words “enduring” or “abiding” would do in the same context: everlasting. But that is a connotation by extension, not the univocal core of the word. (p. 538; see Terms for Eternity by Konstan and Ramelli)
Supporters of eternal perdition may feel that Hart is exploiting a lexical loophole to advance his universalist agenda; but the objection also works the other way, with perhaps even greater plausibility. Whereas Origen and Gregory recognized the polysemy of aionios, and therefore refused to interpret the word in eschatological contexts as meaning “eternal,” other theologians had no problem importing their infernalist commitments back into Scripture itself. The 19th century scholar J. W. Hanson notes that when the Emperor Justinian ordered the patriarch of Constantinople in 543/544 to convene a local synod to condemn the teachings of Origen, he wrote: “The holy church of Christ teaches an endless aiónios (ATELEUTETOS aiónios) life to the righteous, and endless (ateleutetos) punishment to the wicked.” Hanson comments: “Aiónios was not enough in his judgement to denote endless duration, and he employed ateleutetos. This demonstrates that even as late as A. D. 540 aiónios meant limited duration, and required an added word to impart to it the force of endless duration.”
In his book Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? Hans Urs von Balthasar maintains that Scripture confronts us with two forms of absolute statements, asserting both eternal damnation and universal salvation (the latter significantly outnumbers the former). We must not attempt to reconcile them, he says, but must hold them together in antinomic tension. Hart rejects this tactic and proposes instead a hermeneutic of dual eschatological horizons:
For myself, I prefer a much older, more expansive, perhaps overly systematic approach to the seemingly contrary eschatological expectations unfolded in the New Testament—an approach, that is, like Gregory of Nyssa’s or Origen’s, according to which the two sides of the New Testament’s eschatological language represent not two antithetical possibilities tantalizingly or menacingly dangled before us, posed one against the other as challenges to faith and discernment, but rather two different moments within a seamless narrative, two distinct eschatological horizons, one enclosed within the other. In this way of seeing the matter, one set of images marks the furthest limit of the immanent course of history, and the division therein—right at the threshold between this age and the “Age to come” (‘olamha-ba, in Hebrew)—between those who have surrendered to God’s love and those who have not; and the other set refers to that final horizon of all horizons, “beyond all ages,” where even those who have traveled as far from God as it is possible to go, through every possible self-imposed hell, will at the last find themselves in the home to which they are called from everlasting, their hearts purged of every last residue of hatred and pride. Each horizon is, of course, absolute within its own sphere: one is the final verdict on the totality of human history, the other the final verdict on the eternal purposes of God—just as the judgment of the cross is a verdict upon the violence and cruelty of human order and human history, and Easter the verdict upon creation as conceived in God’s eternal counsels. The eschatological discrimination between heaven and hell is the crucifixion of history, while the final universal restoration of all things is the Easter of creation. (pp. 103-104)
A few pages later he succinctly distinguishes the two horizons:
the more proximate horizon of historical judgment, where the good and evil in all of us are brought to light and (by whatever means necessary) separated; and the more remote horizon of an eternity where a final peace awaits us all, beyond everything that ever had the power to divide souls from each other. (p. 109)
I find this two horizons model suggestive, and I hope that preachers and biblical scholars will take note. As Hart comments, it makes “exceptionally cogent sense of the grand eschatological vision of 1 Corinthians 15. At least, Paul certainly appears to speak there, especially in verses 23-25, of three distinct moments, distributed across two eschatological frames, in the process of the final restoration of the created order of God” (p. 104). Those three moments are (1) the exaltation of Christ, (2) the exaltation of all who are united to Christ, and (3) the Son’s deliverance of the Kingdom to the Father, when God will be all in all. Hart then points us to 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, where Paul describes God’s final judgment upon humanity:
For no one can lay another foundation beside the one laid down, which is Jesus the Anointed. Now, if on this foundation one erects gold, silver, precious stones, woods, hay, straw, each one’s work will become manifest; for the Day will declare it, because it is revealed by fire, and the fire will prove what kind of work each person’s is. If the work that someone has built endures, he will receive a reward; if anyone’s work should be burned away, he will suffer loss, yet he shall be saved, though so as by fire. (DBHT)
Hart contends that the bolded verses refers to all of humanity, not just the baptized. If Paul believed that there is a third class of people, namely, the eternally damned, he has forgotten to mention it.
At this point it may prove fruitful to introduce Douglas Campbell’s new book, Pauline Dogmatics, into the conversation. Campbell would disagree with Hart’s reading of 1 Corinthians 3:11-15. In this text, he argues, Paul is speaking only of the baptized. Campbell points us to 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17, which restricts the general resurrection to the faithful followers of Jesus. As far as unbelievers and the wicked, they suffer absolute annihilation, either at the moment of death or at the glorious return of Christ (1 Thess 5:3; 2 Thess 1:8-9):
Paul seems to have believed that the resurrection is a gift to the loyal followers of Jesus, with only a limited number of folk receiving it. This scenario, essentially of an entirely positive but limited bodily resurrection, can explain why, on the one hand, he excludes recalcitrant sinners from any part in the future blessed kingdom at all…. But on the other hand, his account of the future kingdom’s consummation is explicitly saving and universal. “Everyone” in the new cosmos will be bending the knee to Christ and confessing him on that glorious day, he says clearly and repeatedly. (pp. 418-419)
But as interesting as a discussion between Campbell and Hart on the question of the general resurrection would be, this is not why I have referenced Pauline Dogmatics. Even though Campbell believes that Paul believed that only the righteous baptized will be resurrected on the last day, he also believes that the core principles of Paul’s theology call into question a restricted resurrection and point toward the salvation of all:
Paul himself was not an explicit universalist. However, I believe we are entitled to suggest that he is one implicitly…. Jesus is qualitatively and quantitatively superior to all of humanity as represented by the story of Adam, not inferior. His story, which is God’s story, must dominate the story of Adam, and not the other way around. Moreover, Paul is explicitly universalist in relation to unbelieving Israel. In view of the tensions in his writing, then, it does seem necessary to push through his deepest insights, which are grounded in the God revealed in Jesus, and let Paul reinterpret Paul. God really is love all the way across and all the way down. The covenant is unbreakable, and it ultimately enwraps us all in the gracious purpose of God that was established with us through his Son before the foundation of the world. (p. 436)
The Apostle Paul—explicit or implicit universalist?
And what about Jesus?
P.S. In my next article I will summarize Hart’s exegesis of Rom 9-11, which he presents in his third meditation.