Apprehending Apokatastasis: Predestinating to Perdition

No theological topic provokes more angst, consternation, and passionate debate than the Latin doctrine of absolute predestination (yes, even more so than apokatastasis). No matter how carefully formulated and gently proclaimed, what we hear is this: from the mass of sinful humanity, God chooses some persons to everlasting bliss while quietly passing over the rest, forsaking them to their infernal fate. Thomists try to soften the blow by assuring us that God provides sufficient grace for everyone to turn to him in faith, but the assurance never really assures. The preteritional spectre haunts the proceedings. How can God be infinite and unconditional love if, possessing the power and freedom to confer efficacious grace unto eternal salvation, he voluntarily refrains from doing so. An absolute predestina­tion of only some entails an absolute decision not to elect the rest. A terrifying divide between divine love and divine grace is thus introduced. God wills the good of every human being yet—in his abundant and overflowing grace—selects only some to enjoy eternal beatitude in the Holy Trinity. The non-chosen he abandons to the interminable torment they so richly deserve. Not surprisingly, the doctrine of absolute predestination comes under trenchant criticism by David Bentley Hart:

For, according to the great Augustinian tradition, since we are somehow born meriting not only death but eternal torment, we are enjoined to see and praise a laudable generosity in God’s narrow choice to elect a small remnant for salvation, before and apart from any consideration of their concrete mer­its or demerits (ante praevisa merita, to use the traditional formula), and his further choice either to predestine or infallibly to surrender the vast remain­der to everlasting misery. When Augustine lamented the tender­heartedness, the misericordia, that made Origen believe that demons, heathens, and (most preposterously of all) unbaptized babies might ultimately be spared the torments of eternal fire, he made clear how the moral imagination must bend and lacerate and twist itself in order to absorb such beliefs. (That All Shall Be Saved, p. 76)

Absolute predestination calls into radical question the love of the Father for all of human­ity. God desires the salvation of all (1 Tim 2:4), yet apparently not all. He saves the elect, but to the non-elect he speaks words of final reprobation: “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers” (Matt 7:23). The universality of the Savior’s salvific will is revealed as less than universal. Nor is the contradiction resolved by positing a distinction between, on the one hand, “God’s irresistible predestination of the elect to beatitude and, on the other, the ‘irresistible permissive decrees’ by which he sends the derelict to a damnation they never had the power to escape” (p. 48). Christ died for the ungodly. He would never accept the election of only some sinners; by death and resurrection he has elected all. Yet once the doctrine of everlast­ing perdition is dogmatically asserted, predestinarians have no choice but to invent a distinction to explain the schizophrenic incoherence within the Godhead, a contradiction between love and grace that can be neither rationally explained nor evangel­i­cally justified. Nor does it help to posit the libertarian freedom of the lost to reject God’s gift of salvation. Ortho­dox and Arminians may appeal to creaturely freedom to justify dam­na­tion but not those in the Augustinian and Thomistic traditions: through his effica­cious grace, God can bring to repentance even the most incorrigible and obdurate, if he should so will. Yet he does not—thus hell.

Hart directs the bulk of his ire to the clear, and clarifying, double predestinarianism of John Calvin. Calvin states his position:

By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he deter­mined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death. (Institutes 3.21)

Calvin makes explicit that which was implicit in St Augustine all along. It is just a short step from preterition to negative reprobation, from negative reprobation to foreordination to damnation:

Really, Reformed tradition is perhaps to be praised here, if only for the flinty resolve with which it faces its creed’s implications: Calvin, as I have noted, had the courage to acknowledge that his account of divine sover­eignty necessitates belief in the predestination not only of the saved and the damned, but of the original fall of humankind itself; and he recognized that the biblical claim that “God is love” must, on his principles, be accounted a definition not of God in himself, but only of God as experienced by the elect (toward the damned, God is in fact hate). (pp. 76-77; emphasis mine)

Double predestination inflicts a mortal wound upon both the Church’s apprehension of divinity as a Trinity of persons united in mutual self-giving and the salvific recapitulation of humanity in the God-Man. As Hart rightly observes, “God is love” no longer speaks of the Father, Son, and Spirit in their immanent trinitarian life, as manifested in the econ­omy of salvation, but only of their benevolent actions on behalf of the elect. The Father of Jesus Christ is replaced by an Oriental potentate arbitrarily plucking from ruin the fortunate few. In the words of Calvin: “Decretum quidem horribile, fateor” (“It is a dreadful decree, I confess”). Most Christians are repelled by the doctrine of double predestination, yet if Hart is correct about the signifi­cance of the final judgment for the divine identity, Calvin has simply stated what must be the logical case: God wills hell from all eternity (see “Revealing the God Behind the Curtain“). At this point the unity of the Godhead is shattered and the atoning work of Jesus Christ undone (see T. F. Torrance, “Predestination in Christ,” and James B. Torrance, “The Incarnation and Limited Atonement“).

But what about Romans 9-11? These three chapters constitute the locus classicus of predestinarian biblical exegesis. Space prohibits lengthy discussion. Readers may wish to read the chapters in Hart’s translation of the New Testament, followed by a careful reading of pp. 130-138 in That All Shall Be Saved. In Romans 9-11 the Apostle Paul wrestles with the painful question of Jewish failure to accept Jesus as the chosen Messiah. Did the LORD summon the tribes of Israel to himself only to make them vessels of his wrath? Will he now abandon them in favor of the Gentile believers in Christ? Hart summarizes Paul’s reflection:

We know, he says, that divine election is God’s work alone, not earned but given; it is not by their merit that gentile believers have been chosen. “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated” (9:13) (though here, recall, Paul is quoting Malachi, for whom Jacob symbolizes Israel and Esau symbolizes Edom, which would seem to be, if one imagines the point to be merely the separation between the damned and the saved, the very inverse of the typology Paul is employing). For his own ends, Paul continues, God hard­ened Pharaoh’s heart. He has mercy on whom he will, hardens whom he will (9:15-18). And if you think this unjust, who then are you, 0 man, to reproach the God who made you? May not the potter cast his clay for purposes both high and low, as he chooses (9:19-21)? So, “then, what if” God should show his power by preserving vessels suitable only for wrath, keeping them solely for destruction, in order to provide an instructive counterpoint to the riches of the glory he lavishes on vessels prepared for mercy, whom he has called from among the Jews and the gentiles alike (9:22-24)? It is a terrible possibility, admittedly, and horrifying to contem­plate, but perhaps that is simply how things are: The elect alone are to be saved, and the rest left reprobate, solely as a display of divine might; God’s faithfulness is his own affair. Well then, so far, so Augustinian. But then also, again, so purely conditional: that “what if … ?” must be strictly observed. For, as it happens, rather than offering a solution to the quan­dary in which he finds himself, Paul is simply restating that quandary in its bleakest possible form, at the very brink of despair. He does not stop there, however, because he knows that this cannot be the correct answer. It is so obviously preposterous, in fact, that a wholly different solution must be sought, one that makes sense and that will not require the surrender either of Paul’s reason or of his confidence in God’s righteousness. Hence, con­trary to his own warnings, Paul does indeed continue to question God’s justice; and he spends the next two chapters unambiguously rejecting the provisional answer (the “vessels of wrath” hypothesis) altogether, so as to reach a completely different—and far more glorious—conclusion. (pp. 134-135)

In reading these chapters, Hart counsels us, we must keep in mind throughout the hypo­thet­ical mood of Rom 9:14 (“What then shall we say? Is there injustice with God? Let it not be so!”), Rom 9:22-24 (“And what if God, though disposed to display his indignation and make known what is possible for him, tolerated with enormous magnanimity vessels of indigna­tion, suitable for destruction …), and Rom 11:1 (“Therefore I say, ‘Did God reject his people?’ Let it not be so!”). Paul’s thought experiment leads him into a wondrous revelation:

So I say: Did they stumble that they might fall? Let it not be so! Rather, through their error comes salvation for the gentiles, so as to provoke them to envy. But if their error is enrichment for the cosmos and their discomfi­ture enrichment for the gentiles, how much more so the full totality of them? … For if their rejection is reconciliation for the cosmos, what is their acceptance except life from the dead? (Rom 11:11-12,15)

For I do not want you, brothers, to be ignorant of this mystery, lest you be arrogant in yourselves: that a hardness has come upon one part of Israel until the full totality of the gentiles enter in, and thus all of Israel shall be saved, just as has been written, “The one who delivers will come out of Zion, he will turn away impiety from Jacob, and this is the covenant on my part with them, when I take away their sins. On your account, as regards the good tidings, they are enemies; and yet, on account of the fathers, as regards election, they are beloved. For God’s bestowals of grace and vocation are not subject to a change of heart. For, even as you once did not trust in God but have now received mercy through their mistrust, so they now also have not trusted, to the end that, by the mercy shown you, they now also might receive mercy. For God shut up everyone in obsti­nacy so that he might show mercy to everyone. (11:25-32; emphasis mine)

Paul’s “predestinarianism” leads him to a strong assertion of the salvation of Israel … but not only of Israel but of all humanity. In the eschatological consummation there will ultimately be no vessels of wrath, for in Christ God has made all human beings vessels of mercy, “prepared beforehand for glory” (Rom 9:23). The people of the covenant may stumble, but the LORD will never permit them to fall into final impenitence—just so, for all of humanity. The elect are but “the firstfruits of the grand plan of salvation,” writes Hart. “The ‘derelict’ too will, at the close of the tale, be gathered in, caught up in the embrace of election before they can strike the ground” (p. 137).

(Go to “The Vision of Gregory of Nyssa”)

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14 Responses to Apprehending Apokatastasis: Predestinating to Perdition

  1. Maximus says:

    I agree about the Augustinian-Calvinistic approach of efficacious grace. Not good! St. Augustine did, however, make an observation which seems useful here. In passages like Romans 11, he read the “everyone” to refer to the major grouping of Jews and gentiles rather than as referring to every single human being individually. This seems to be Paul’s meaning in context:

    “For, even as you [gentiles] once did not trust in God but have now received mercy through their [Jews] mistrust, so they [Jews] now also have not trusted, to the end that, by the mercy shown you [gentiles], they [Jews] now also might receive mercy. For God shut up everyone [Jews and gentiles] in obstinacy so that he might show mercy to everyone [Jews and gentiles].”

    This passage really says nothing about God’s mercy shown to every single human being ever born, even though it doesn’t exclude such an individual mercy. All it really says is that these two groups are both included, equally, in God’s saving plan. Thus, they need to live at peace with each other—Paul’s whole point in the epistle. The passage indeed teaches a sort of “universal salvation,” like the kind he described earlier: “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him” (10:12).

    “Anyone”…”all”…”everyone.” The Pauline sense of these terms normally seems to correspond with his mission to break down the religious/ethnic/cultural dividing wall that separates Jews and gentiles rather than denoting something specific about discrete individual human beings’ relation to God.

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    • mercifullayman says:

      My only question may be the conditional statement at the end of verse 12. Doesn’t that add a qualifier to who the “all” is referring to? I agree with your assessment totally. However, isn’t the “all” only applicable to those who “call on him?” I get the logical idea that all inevitably, could call on him, whether in this life or the next, but it does seem somewhat reduced when “all” is limited in that sense. I mean, if I never call on Him which I would have the ability not to at least for now, couldn’t I then be excluded from the “all” He so richly blesses, at least as how you’re explaining that verse at face value. (This is me merely being devil’s advocate, just trying to parse this out)

      So if “all” can be reduced here, could “all” be reduced in each possible suggestion? The only universal salvation that would occur in that sense would be one of type. All types will be saved, in this context, all types of Gentiles and Jews would be saved. So is it only consistent to interpret “all” as meaning all possible types in a Pauline corpus? Not all individual beings…. am I tracking that correctly? To link this to 1 Cor. then if God would have to be “all in all”, it would surmise all types that called on Him (ie the saved and who in Romans he is the Lord of, and nature, as nature cries out to him) would be the only rational part of the “all” that is submitted, if we think of it that way. All is merely a typological distinction. If you aren’t part of the “all” since you didn’t call on Him, then you don’t exist. You’ve moved towards non-being. If you are part of the “all”, you’d be submitted as you do exist, since he is Lord of the all.

      Maybe that’s circular, just trying to banter some and see what comes from looking at it through a different prism.

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    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      I’d agree that this is not a universalist passage (although it is at least Orthodox / Arminian) and the “all” in Romans 10:11-13 means “all who call upon the name of the Lord”, and I’d agree his purpose in the passage is to emphasise that this includes both Jews and Gentiles, but there’s no way his argument makes sense unless he really does mean every single individual who calls upon the Lord. His point is that it is equally true of every Jew and every Gentile, which is why there is no distinction. Trying to make him instead be saying that the saved will include at least some of both the Jews and Gentiles who call upon the Lord is just re-writing the text. There’s no justification that I can see for using this passage to infer that the unqualified “all”s that Paul uses in other passages in different passages in different letters somehow refer back to the qualified “all” in this one.

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      • Maximus says:

        I think you’re right, Iain. I’m happy to concede the second “all” in Romans 10:12 refers to individual persons “who call on Him” and to not the broad groupings of Jews and gentiles.

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        • mercifullayman says:

          Even then, would a collection of individuals….even at the personal level, still fall into the typology of Jew/Gentile referenced above? So isn’t it still essentially the same point that was made across the prior uses? (just parsing again.)

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      • mercifullayman says:

        That was why we were discussing it further. The issue becomes that last conditional statement. What does is mean for someone to “call on Him” in regards to efficacy. In what context do we hold to the power of that conditional act? If you add the additional texts across the corpus into it, you could see it from a universalist view (which I do.) I was merely saying that depending on one’s understanding of that conditional of the last few words of the phrase, in theory, you could spread that across all of the Pauline uses.

        If Paul has an apparent style (which we believe he does) then that means some continuity would be found. It’s why there is a difficulty for some to understand the viewpoint that we share. If I wanted to reread something into the text, my own view, I would be asking why the verse doesn’t read “For the same Lord is Lord of all; bestowing riches on all.” and stop there to include everyone easily. That would be me reading my own conjectures into the text. This qualified “all,” as Maximus and I were discussing, seems to qualify types, not everyone. My banter was just to see how far it could go within the context of that word. Thanks for joining in!

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  2. Maximus says:

    I considered the same thing, mercifullayman. One could argue that the connotation of Jew-gentile inclusiveness is still present in the second “all” of Romans 10:12, like this: “…for the same Lord is Lord of all [Jews and Gentiles], bestowing his riches on all [whether Jew or Gentile] who call on him.” I am probably wrong about that sort of appositive connotation, but, at the least, the context lends itself to that understanding.

    Either way, what is still clear about the second “all” is that it does not refer to all human being without remainder, but rather all *who call on Him.* The takeaway for me is that each Pauline use of “all” should be considered in light of any restrictions that may limit its meaning. I’m not at all opposed to theological readings, but these sort of (con)textual observations can help us to avoid basing weighty theological conclusions upon single words that actually cannot carry such weight.

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    • mercifullayman says:

      Wholeheartedly agree. I also think that’s what makes some of these discussions so tough sometimes. There is a double tracking that can occur, and then even getting into what is authentically Pauline, like say Romans or 1 Cor. versus something that could be potentially dubious…maybe a Timothy or 2 Thessalonians adds an even bigger layer to this discussion. I know literally zero Greek, and of course doing this all through translation and what other people say about it, but I would also think Humans say what they mean. Even in ancient times, we have words and connotations that would denote specific renderings. It’s why I buy the aionios argument. If they have words for what would indeed be eternal as in never-ending ever, they simply could have used it. That also somehow negates some of my own logical thinking too, i’m sure, but it seems like it’s easier to err on the side of Paul probably really meant what he said/wrote.

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      • SF says:

        The big problem is that it’s not as easy as other “unambiguous” words that *really* mean what others can’t mean. Aionios regularly suggests permanence/perpetuity, just as much as words like aidios can be used in a sense where they clearly *don’t* suggest something that’s never-ending.

        And if you read the “top” scholars on this, like Ilaria Ramelli, what you’ll find is that almost any time early Christians use these supposed “unambiguous words,” she somehow manages to twist them right back into ambiguity. She even somehow takes phrases like “unquenchable fire” and makes them mean “otherworldly fire.”

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      • Maximus says:

        A valid point concerning aionios. I’m not 100% convinced by either side on that issue. I think a good case is made that the sense (in Matt 25:46) is qualitative, “of the Age,” and not quantitative. Greek masters—who are also authoritative teachers in the Church—like Saint Basil, however, take it as quantitative. So, I’m torn. Honestly, since it’s unclear, I lean toward Basil’s reading and the traditional consensus. It’s a very difficult issue to settle definitively because, as you say, Matthew simply could have used the word which unambiguously means “everlasting.” I agree that Matt 25:46 is unclear about the duration of hell, so I would look to other passages, like Mark 9:48 and Revelation 14:11, for a more conspicuous teaching.

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  3. Grant says:

    Of course when you take creation from nothing into account by the transcendent and infinite I AM, them I’m afraid even free will system advocated by among other say many Orthodox and Arminians (well Orthodox that aren’t universalists 😉 ) is no different from say the Thomist or Augustinian (or Calvinist) when it comes to ultimate ends if they affirm some will or can be ultimately lost and damned. While it differs on a temporary level (such as Calvin having to issit that the fall was also God’s will) at the ultimate level, of God who is the Source and cause of all causes, who freely creates all things from nothing without anything restraining Him, brings into being the creation He wishes, being prior to and transcendent over all secondary causes and actions, which are enfolded in His Act of creation, and whose nature at large and in each specific He freely brings into being both as intended and in it’s fallen ordering, including all things properties, perceptions, where and when it comes into being, if it does. So if any are are damned for forever, this is something He intentionally brings into being, even in this conception as He could have created otherwise or not at all. So, a with the prior, here to, if any are lost forever, then this is something God intended from the start, and Calvin’s realization of what that means holds true (which of course is to deny central Christian claims of who God is, and who Christ reveals Him to be, which as Hart says, without universalism Christianity is incoherent, as one or more of it’s essential claims becomes effectively denied).

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  4. Iain Lovejoy says:

    Romans 9 is interesting. DBH’s take on it is a bit of a stretch. I speculate there may be a translation error that’s causing a problem. Verse 19 has Paul’s interlocutor asking why God is finding fault, and who is resisting his purpose. There is a Jewish tradition that I have heard of that if all Jews keep the law fully for two successive Sabbaths, then the Messiah will come. Paul doesn’t, as many translationns have it, ask in this verse who *can* resist God purpose, but rather asks who actually *is*. This verse then to me smacks of someone asking who is letting the side down and breaking the law and spoiling it for everyone.
    If this is right, verse 22 is answering this point, by suggesting that the truth of the matter is not that God is not collectively punishing all the Jewish people keeping for the behaviour of some, but rather that they are *all* “vessels fit for destruction” with whom God, as much as he would have *liked* to show his wrath and power upon them, as they richly deserve, has nonetheless not done so but instead been patient and long suffering with them. They are not preserved *for* destruction,
    but rather *against* destruction.
    Verse 23 then gives the reason why God has not visited his wrath upon the “vessels fit for destruction” – that they would produce Christ, God’s means of mercy for the whole world. Thy are not destroyed as an “instructive counterpoint” to the salvation of the nations, but rather preserved from destruction so as to be the means by which it is achieved.
    This to my mind has the advantage of reading the text as written, making sense, and not requiring the odd idea of a long-winded hypothetical which Paul doesn’t actually believe.

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    • Ben says:

      No, I don’t think so. Hart is reading it as written. Paul is clear. “What if?” The tradition of two sabbaths is from much later Rabbinic lore. There is nothing long-winded or indirect about the hypothetical construction. It is clearly what Paul is doing, in very simple terms, and then he rejects the hypothesis by reasoning to the proper conclusion. Your suggestion is interesting but not convincing. It would make the argument to follow make less sense, and it wouldn’t explain how Paul’s conclusion answers the question he’s raised.

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