Once upon a time, I would have been considered a traditionalist. That was back when I was an Episcopal priest. In my parishes I was known for my evangelical-Lutheran preaching (thank you Robert Jenson) and my firm commitment to Anglican catholic orthodoxy (thank you Jim Daughtry). Eventually I came to the attention of the national church with my authorship of the Baltimore Declaration. My celebrity status was short-lived (thank God), but I’m proud to say that it earned me hate mail and the opprobrium of bishops. Two decades passed. In May 2011 I entered into the communion of the Orthodox Church. In becoming Orthodox, though, I discovered that I had unwittingly become, at least in the eyes of many Orthodox, a progressive and heretic (and unwelcome saboteur). Apokatastasis—this is the one topic on which my fundamental theological commitments have changed since seminary. To find myself once again standing in the whirlwind of controversy was neither what I wanted nor expected. I naively thought I could hide from disputation by wrapping myself in the cassocks of St Gregory of Nyssa and St Isaac of Nineveh—both beloved saints, both outspoken universalists. Not so apparently. So once again I find myself living in the ecclesial fringes. God makes his plans, so here we are.
During my years of ministry as an Episcopal priest, I was a defender of the free-will construal of eternal damnation, C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce being my favorite text on the topic. In the mid-90s, after reading Balthasar’s Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? I became a hopeful universalist. For me this was a easy step hardly worthy of comment. If one believes that the divine love is absolute and unconditional, as I have believed since seminary (thank you James and Thomas Torrance, Robert Jenson, Gerhard Forde, and Robert Farrar Capon), then how could I not join Balthasar in his hopeful universalism? Of course the Hound of Heaven will pursue us until we surrender to his mercy and good will. That is simple gospel truth.1 But like Balthasar and many others, I could not become a full-fledged universalist because I could not see my way through the freedom of will objection. The objection seemed insurmountable. For me personally, therefore, to be “hopeful” could only mean: if any one can find his way through the free will objection, God can and will … probably … maybe … But always there remained the unspoken “or maybe not.” The “maybe not” long vexed me. It called into question my foundational apprehension of the gospel and therefore my preaching and ministry. Is God really, really, really good or only maybe good? Does the Lord Jesus truly will our happiness, or does his will change when confronted with an obdurately evil person?2 In 2010 (or perhaps earlier) philosopher Thomas Talbott entered my life in the form of his book The Inescapable Love of God. He convinced me that the free will objection can be satisfactorily answered (thank you Tom). The following paragraph jumped out at me:
Let us now begin to explore what it might mean to say that someone freely rejects God forever. Is there in fact a coherent meaning here? Religious people sometimes speak of God as if he were just another human magistrate who seeks his own glory and requires obedience for its own sake; they even speak as if we might reject the Creator and Father of our souls without rejecting ourselves, oppose his will for our lives without opposing, schizophrenically perhaps, our own will for our lives. [William Lane] Craig thus speaks of “the stubborn refusal to submit one’s will to that of another.” But if God is our loving Creator, then he wills for us exactly what, at the most fundamental level, we want for ourselves; he wills that we should experience supreme happiness, that our deepest yearnings should be satisfied, and that all of our needs should be met. So if that is true, if God wills for us the very thing we really want for ourselves, whether we know it or not, how then are we to understand human disobedience and opposition to God.3
Exactly. We speak so blithely and confidently about human beings freely rejecting God decisively, definitively, irrevocably; but does such a destiny-defining choosing for hell make rational sense? Surely only a mad, ignorant, or emotionally disordered person would embrace everlasting misery and torment—and in each case we would regard the person as mentally incompetent, both legally and morally. Divine Love would never allow such an irrational, self-destructive decision to stand.
And then came the cataclysm of 2012: my beloved son Aaron died by suicide, compelling me to bring my universalist convictions to public expression in the funeral sermon. I could not remain silent and cannot remain silent. If the gospel is true, the Lord will find a way to reconcile all sinners to himself in cosmic transfiguration. If the gospel is true, all will be healed, all will be made right, all will be glorified. Our divine Creator would not, could not make a universe in which his salvific will could be effectively neutralized. That would be like trying to square a circle. The divine love is its own necessity. Apokatastasis is but the gospel of Christ’s absolute and unconditional love sung in an eschatological key.
But what about free will? The simple answer: why believe it is a problem for the transcendent source and creator of our free will? “With God all things are possible” (Matt 19:26). Edith Stein speaks of God as outwitting our freedom. If I were to address this problem in a sermon today, I would likely invoke the image of a computer programmer. Programmers occasionally (albeit unethically) leave a backdoor through which they may evade firewalls and antivirus software if they need to. What backdoor then did God install? An ineradicable, insatiable hunger for him!4 We were not created as beings neutral to his love and therefore free to damn ourselves forever whenever we damn well choose, God dammit. That is the voluntarist myth which the Church has no business entertaining, much less teaching. If God were interested in libertarian fair play, he would not have made it impossible for us to find our happiness except by union with him. In a fair scenario the playing field would be even, as it were. Choose door #1 (eternal bliss with God) or door #2 (a jubilant never-ending holiday in Disneyland, the French Riviera, or Banff)—no matter which we choose our happiness is guaranteed. Only then would a disinterested choice be possible. But that’s not how the game is rigged. It’s either eternal joy or infernal misery. The only question is whether God can deliver the self-damned from their confusion and egoism, thereby bringing them to the point where they want to choose door #1, the very door they would have freely chosen if they were not enslaved to their delusions, pathology, and disordered desires. “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You” (St Augustine).
In commenting upon Dr Larry Chapp’s recent blog article “Universalism, Balthasar, the Massa Damnata, and the Question of Evangelization,” I do not intend to wade into an intradenominational dispute; but Chapp’s wrestling with the traditionalists of his communion resonated. Orthodoxy too is plagued with its own hyperdox, individuals who seem to be more concerned with the uncritical preservation of tradition than with the gospel of Jesus Christ. I should note another point of contact: back in 1978 my wife and I came briefly into the orbit of the charismatic movement and were baptized in the Spirit, receiving the gift of tongues. On one summer night the Lord granted me an experience of his Spirit that convinced me at a profound existential level both that God existed and that he loved me with a boundless love. It was a glorious, ecstatic, joyful moment, and I look back upon it with deep gratitude.
Chapp’s principal concern in his article is to defend Balthasar against the unjust attacks leveled against him by the traditionalists. I agree with most of his article, but would like to engage him on two points. Before naming them, I first want to share Chapp’s Amazon review of That All Shall Be Saved. The review, posted on 11 February 2020 and titled “An Irrefutable Argument,” has recently been deleted, but fortunately I copied it two months ago:
As a retired professor of theology, one who specialized in the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar, I approached Hart’s book with a largely negative attitude. I smugly believed that there was no way to improve upon Balthasar’s measured and reasonable approach. Namely, that we are allowed, theologically, to hope that all are saved even though we must hold out for the real possibility that some are damned. Furthermore, I am always deeply suspicious of any modern theologian, even one I am fond of like Hart, claiming that they alone have now uncovered, for the first time in centuries, what the New Testament “really” said, as opposed to all of those lesser lights who have gotten things wrong for millennia. I am always suspicious of a Magisterium of one.
But as soon as I started reading Hart’s work it became clear immediately that this was an argument that was going to have to be dealt with. As I read the text I found myself trying to poke holes in his argument, only to find that he addressed those very criticisms later in the text and smashed them to pieces. And slowly, slowly, it began to dawn on me that the arguments he was pursuing were irrefutable. So then I turned to the various reviews of the text that were coming out, hoping to find smarter minds than mine laying waste to his arguments, his exegesis, and his historical analysis. But as I read the reviews what became clear was that the authors had no idea how to refute his main philosophical and theological arguments, and opted instead for ad hominem attacks, or spurious and specious counter arguments to some arcane point of history.
And so I had to reluctantly admit, that I was part of that crowd of theologians that Hart mentions who knows damn well that the doctrine of an eternal Hell is a bestial idea, but cling to it out of a false sense of commitment to a set of dogmatic a priori ideas. And I also had to reluctantly admit that Hart’s mild criticism of Balthasar’s position is entirely correct. And so I came to view Hart as the completion, by way of correction, of Balthasar’s approach.
I think this is one of the most important theological texts written in a very, very long time. This is an absolute “must read” for anyone interested in this topic.
Now compare the review with the following statement from Chapp’s blog article:
But with regard to Balthasar’s views on Hell let me just mention before I proceed that I can honestly say that it is not an issue that I dwell upon or care that much about because it is not a topic that I think is central to Balthasar’s overall theological project but is rather a piece of highly speculative theologizing which is downstream from the main current of his thinking. As a scholar of Balthasar’s theology I am drawn to the profound truth and beauty of his christology, trinitarian theology, ecclesiology, and theological anthropology. His massive trilogy is a monumental achievement that has drawn the praise of many fine, orthodox, theologians, too numerous to mention, as well as Saint Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict. I do not share all of Balthasar’s conclusions with regard to the topic of Hell (nor does Bishop Barron for that matter) and consider his assertion that it is “infinitely improbable” that human freedom can resist the divine offer of grace in the long run a bridge too far. He might be right, but it is not a position that I am willing to defend. I share his view that we can reasonably hope that all will be saved given the depth of Christ’s soteriological action, and that we should pray for that to happen, but beyond that I prefer not to speculate for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, it is not something that keeps me awake at night and it most certainly does not rob me of my enthusiasm for Balthasar’s broader project. Even the great Aquinas got some important things wrong, but that fact does not send me into a screaming tirade against his dangerous perfidy whilst tossing his Summa into the bonfire. [emphasis mine]
On the face of it, it looks like Dr Chapp has retracted his assent to the central arguments advanced in That All Shall Be Saved. In the comments section I posed to him the following question:
Larry, your defense of Balthasar against Martin & others is most welcome, but may I push you on this a bit? Would Martin’s position be more palatable if he were obsessed, not with a densely populated hell, but with a thinly populated hell? I know this is an unfair question. I [am] just sneakily trying to persuade you to engage David Hart’s critique of Balthasar’s universalist hope.
His gracious response:
It is not an unfair question at all but a most pertinent one. Thanks for commenting. The post wasn’t really about universalism so much as it was about condemning the massa damnata thesis as necessary for motivating evangelization. I did not want the primary focus to be a debate about universalism but rather a debate about how bestial the massa damnata approach is. That said, I definitely agree with Balthasar although I think Hart’s critique is something that needs addressing. I have read Hart’s book and he and I had a few friendly email exchanges about it. I loved the book and think his arguments are powerful. However, as a Catholic the Church’s dogmatic tradition does not allow me to embrace universalism. Balthasar understood this too. Furthermore, I think at issue too is that I just don’t think we are given to know who is not saved, or if all are. Still, Hart’s book is powerful and I encourage everyone to read it. [emphasis mine]
In an earlier age Catholic theologians maintained a discipline not to publicly dissent from authoritative Church teaching but to keep their concerns and criticisms in-house, as it were, i.e., to communicate them only in publications read by the schola theologorum (Newman’s phrase). This is one reason why the teachings and reforms of Vatican II were such a shock to the Catholic laity. They were not privy to the scholarship and debates that preceded the “new” theology. But with the dawn of the internet, the speculative privacy of theologians has disappeared. Every published thought is now available for scrutiny. I almost feel like I should apologize to Chapp for reprinting his review of TASBS. I wish neither to embarrass him nor put him in an awkward position; but I do wish to engage his article, particularly given that only a year or so ago he found Hart’s argumentation “irrefutable.” I hope that at some time in the future he will write a substantive analysis and critique of TASBS. Eclectic Orthodoxy would be honored to publish it.
Regarding Chapp’s statement “it [the possibility of eternal damnation] is not something that keeps me awake at night,” I respectfully offer this fraternal correction: Larry, the question of universal salvation should keep you—and all Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant believers—awake at night! Eternal torment is an objective evil and horror. It is not evangelically inconsequential and must not be relegated to the theological backroom. Just as the question of justification by faith (“How do I find a gracious God?”) contentiously brought the gospel of God’s grace and mercy to the forefront of ecclesial reflection and preaching in the sixteenth century, so the question of apokatastasis (“How do I find a God who triumphs over evil and death?”) is now bringing the gospel of God’s eschatological love to the same forefront.
- Does God’s love, actualized in the saving work of Christ, intend every human being?
- Is this love truly absolute, infinite, unconditional, victorious?
- Can the risen and glorified Christ be trusted to accomplish his good purposes in our lives, despite our wickedness, sins, failures, and contumacy?
- Is the gospel of Jesus Christ truly good, liberating, transformative news, or is it just another form of exhortational moralism?
- How can the absolute and infinite love of the Creator be reconciled with the eternal sufferings of the damned?
- If God has freely created the world ex nihilo, and if the sufferings of the damned is everlasting, why does this not logically entail that God is ultimately responsible for this tragic and horrific eschatological conclusion to the biblical story of salvation?
How we answer these questions, and others like them, determines the preaching, mission, and flourishing of the Church.5
In his article Dr Chapp chastises traditionalists for their “obsession with a densely populated Hell.” I deem the criticism misplaced, first because I doubt it accurately represents the traditionalist concern, but primarily because it misses the evangelical point. As I asked in my comment to Chapp: “Would Martin’s position be more palatable if he were obsessed, not with a densely populated hell, but with a thinly populated hell?” Surely the answer must be no. The number of the damned is irrelevant. Hell does not become more agreeable if it is populated by only a few. Even if only a single person is eternally damned, hell remains morally abhorrent. One is one too many.
This reminds me of my initial reaction to Pope Benedict’s instructive encyclical Spe salvi, published during the short time I was a Catholic (that’s another story). Benedict identifies three kinds of people (§§45-46):
- The truly holy—those “who are utterly pure, completely permeated by God, and thus fully open to their neighbours—people for whom communion with God even now gives direction to their entire being and whose journey towards God only brings to fulfilment what they already are.” These individuals are immediately admitted to the beatific vision at the moment of death. They are few in number, Benedict suggests, or at least a minority.
- The truly wicked—those “who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves…. In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell.” At death these persons are immediately condemned to eternal suffering. They too are few in number or at least a minority.
- The in-betweens (my phrase): “For the great majority of people—we may suppose—there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul.” At death these persons are admitted to a post-mortem process of purification, cleansing, and healing (traditionally called purgatory) to prepare them for the vision of the Holy Trinity.
I was surprised by the Pope’s speculation on the numbers of the blessed, the damned, and the in-between. How could he know, and why even conjecture on the matter? I eventually typed out my thoughts for my old blog Pontifications and published it under the title “Counting the Saved” (16 February 2008). It’s interesting to reread this article after so many years. My concern back then was that all such conjectures detract us from repentance:
All conjecture on the number of the saved and the damned directs us away from Christ. Look at everyone else, we say. Most are pretty good people, are they not? They do not appear to have damned themselves by a definitive destruction of love and denial of truth. Yes, they aren’t saints. Yes, they will probably need to undergo purgatorial purification. But isn’t it encouraging that most will be saved? And if the majority, perhaps the large majority, of folks will be saved, then odds are I am included in their number! After all, I’m not nearly as wicked as Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin. And thus I decline, without even realizing it, the summons to faith.
I also sent a link to the piece to Fr Richard John Neuhaus, with whom I occasionally corresponded. As I recall he expressed basic agreement. Neuhaus too was a hopeful universalist and vigorously defended Balthasar against his detractors in a First Things article, “Will All Be Saved?”
So why did this old article of mine come to mind? I suppose because of Benedict’s belief that hell is thinly populated. All this worry about numbers is a distraction from the real issue at hand—hell itself. The traditionalists grasp this better than do the hopeful universalists—hence the fury of their attacks. Despite all the qualifications and nuances advanced by Balthasar and Ware, the traditionalists rightly see that the the hopeful position, if taken seriously (not all of its advocates do), subverts the homiletical and ascetical practices that embody the dogma of eternal damnation, thereby emptying the terrifying threat of eternal perdition of its power. And without the threat, what’s the point of the dogma?
In his review of That All Shall Be Saved, Chapp acknowledges the cogency of David Hart’s “mild criticism” of Balthasar’s position on hell. Here is the relevant passage from TASBS:
I want to make it absolutely clear that I approach these meditations not as a seeker tentatively and timidly groping his way toward some anxious, uncertain, fragile hope. Unlike, say, the great Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988), I would not think it worth the trouble to argue, as he does, that—given the paradoxes and seemingly irreconcilable pronouncements of scriptures on the final state of all things—Christians may be allowed to dare to hope for the salvation of all. In fact, I have very small patience for this kind of “hopeful universalism,” as it is often called. As far as I am concerned, anyone who hopes for the universal reconciliation of creatures with God must already believe that this would be the best possible ending to the Christian story; and such a person has then no excuse for imagining that God could bring any but the best possible ending to pass without thereby being in some sense a failed creator. The position I want to attempt to argue, therefore, to see how well it holds together, is far more extreme: to wit, that, if Christianity is in any way true, Christians dare not doubt the salvation of all, and that any understanding of what God 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 entirely incoherent and unworthy of rational faith.6
Hart’s criticism of the hopefulness position is simple and may be traced back to the writings of George MacDonald. If we can imagine a better eschatological outcome to the story of creation, then the Lord sure can too; indeed, his imaginings of cosmic apokatastasis precede and ground our own. The critical difference is that the good God’s imaginings necessarily become reality. His act of imagination is identical to his act of creation is identical to his act of knowing is identical to his act of being. Capon comes close to saying what I’m struggling to express:
Because the divine knowing—what the Father knows, and what the Word says in response to that knowing, and what the Spirit broods upon under the speaking of the Word—all that eternal intellectual activity isn’t just daydreaming. It’s the cause of everything that is. God doesn’t find out about creation; he knows it into being. His knowing has hair on it. It is an effective act. What he knows, is. What he thinks, by the very fact of his thinking, jumps from no-thing into thing. He never thought of anything that wasn’t.7
Just substitute “imagines/imagined” for “thinks/thought.” What God imagines is.
Do I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that all will be saved? No, of course not—just as I do not know with certainty that God exists or that Jesus is risen from the dead or that God loves unconditionally. I believe that God exists, etc., but I do not know that he exists, etc. I guess that raises a host of questions, particulary regarding the respective meanings of knowlege and belief, knowing and believing. I’ll let let those more astute than I think all this through. For me, it’s just a matter of honesty and commonsense. Nor does anything change if an infallible teaching office is thrown into the mix. I still have to believe that this office has spoken truly. But I do believe that in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, God the Holy Trinity has revealed that he loves every human being. I do believe that eternal salvation is a gift bestowed upon us by the preaching of the gospel, received in faith and repentance. And I do believe that God will most certainly bring the story of humanity to a happy and glorious conclusion, precisely because I believe that he is absolute, infinite, and unconditional Love who died on the cross for my sins and rose again for my justification. For me, these are articles of faith—indeed, together they constitute one article of faith. But perhaps there is another distinction to be made. Most of the articles of faith speak in the past and present tense—God exists; YHWH entered into covenant with Israel; Jesus died on the cross for the sins of mankind; Christ rose from the dead on Easter morning and now lives at the right hand of the Father; the Spirit has been poured out upon the Church; Jesus Christ and the Spirit are homoousios with the Father; the Holy Trinity is absolute, infinite, unconditional Love—but there are also others for which we use the future tense—God will deify the faithful; Jesus Christ will return in glory to deliver creation from its bondage to evil and death; the incarnate Son will judge the quick and the dead. For the former it makes a kind of sense sense to say that the Christian believes them to be true, while for the later that he or she hopes they will come to pass. But this is a difference without a difference. As Richard Neuhuas comments: “Faith is hope anticipated, and hope is faith disposed toward the future.”8 Hope enjoys the same measure of certainty as faith—no more, no less.
“Hopeful” universalism? It is only genuinely hopeful if we confidently believe, without qualification, that God will save all. Gehenna is but a purifying, sanctifying means to that glorious consummation.9 In the words of George MacDonald: “I believe that no hell will be lacking which would help the just mercy of God to redeem his children.”10
 I am convinced that the apprehension of the Holy Trinity as absolute and unconditional Love necessarily entails universal salvation. That it took me so long to see this obvious conclusion testifies to the power of tradition. If there is a debate to be had, therefore, it must first address the confession that God loves humanity unconditionally. All other matters are secondary. See my article “Apokatastasis and the Radical Vision of Unconditional Love.”
 This question resolves (I think) into the question of God’s antecedent and consequent wills. See David B. Hart, “What God Wills and What God Permits,” Public Orthodoxy (5 May 2020).
 Thomas Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God, p. 172.
 On preaching, see my article “Preaching Apokatastasis: St Isaac the Syrian and the Grammar of the Kingdom,” Logos 58 (2017): 197-213.
 David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, p. 66; emphasis mine.
 Robert Farrar Capon, Between Noon and Three, pp. 235-236. If in response someone should exclaim, “This means that there is a world in the multiverse where Tolkien’s Elves actually do exist,” I shall gladly assent. 😎
 Richard John Neuhaus, “Will All Be Saved,” First Things (August 2001). I do not know the exact page. Limited space no longer allows me to retain my old issues of journals and magazines.
 Note my use of the biblical word “Gehenna.” Christian universalists most certainly believe in Gehenna. We know the possibility of self-damnation all too well, both in our own experience and the experience of our fellow human beings. And we believe it is proper and necessary for the pastor to warn, in the most severest terms, the terrible consequences of unrepented sin. We just don’t believe in hell.
 George MacDonald, “Justice,” Unspoken Sermons. In a sermon delivered at All Soul’s Unitarian Church, New York City, on 11 May 1873, MacDonald declared: “We do not hope half enough. ‘This is too good to believe,’ we say. But, if there be a God, nothing is too good to believe; and, if Christ be His Son and messenger and image, humanity is divine and God is human. A father’s heart, a heart like our own, only infinite in tenderness, will be found at the bottom of things”—reported by the Rev. Henry Whitney Bellows, quoted in Wingfold (Winter 2007). Also See Jordan Wood’s article comparing Balthasar and MacDonald: “George MacDonald against Hans Urs von Balthasar on Universal Salvation.” Also see my article “Hell as Universal Purgatory.” In one of his lectures on Dante, MacDonald remarked: “When the [Protestant] Church thought that three places for departed spirits was too many, she took away the wrong one. I do indeed believe in a place of punishment, but that longing and pain will bring us back to God.”