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 Fr James Daughtry). In June 2005 I left the Episcopal Church. After a brief sojourn in the Roman Catholic Church, I entered into the communion of the Orthodox Church in May 2011. 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). Eschatology, eternal damnation, apokatastasis—this is the one locus of my theology that has significantly changed since seminary. To find myself standing in the whirlwind of controversy was neither what I wanted nor expected. I naively thought I could hide from contentious debates 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 I now find myself living in the ecclesial fringes. Man proposes, God disposes.
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. Everyone in the grey town are invited to take a bus ride to heaven and to remain there, if they so desire. The gates of hell are locked from the inside. In the mid-90s, after reading Hans Urs von 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, 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, as I could not see my way through the free-will objection: human freedom necessarily entails the ability to decisively reject God. The objection seemed insurmountable. Maybe, somehow, despite all odds, against all evidence, God will save all—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 just maybe good? Does the Lord Jesus truly will our happiness, or does his will change when confronted with an obdurately evil person?2 Once we concede the possibility that some or many may be lost—despite our prayers and the prayers of the saints—our our hopeful universalism inevitably degenerates into sentimental wishfulness.
In early 2011 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 definitively and irrevocably; but does such a destiny-defining choosing for hell make rational sense? Surely only an ignorant, mad, or emotionally disordered person would knowingly and freely embrace everlasting misery and torment—and in each case we would regard the person as psychologically and spiritually incompetent. Divine Love would never allow such an irrational, self-destructive decision to stand. Almost immediately I realized I had become a full-fledged, confident universalist.
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—despite the standard doctrinal teaching of the Orthodox Church. 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 by his creatures made in the imago Dei. 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. Talbott speaks of God allowing us to hit our Gehennic bottom when we can no longer entertain our delusions. If I were to address this problem in a sermon today, I would likely also 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? Answer: an ineradicable, insatiable hunger for him!4 We were not created as beings neutral to his love and therefore free to eternally 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. Choose door #1 (eternal bliss with God) or door #2 (a jubilant, never-ending holiday in Disneyland or the French Riviera)—no matter which we choose, our happiness is guaranteed. Only then would a disinterested choice be possible. But that’s not how the infernalist game is rigged. It’s either eternal joy or everlasting misery. The only question left to ask is whether God can awaken the self-damned to their supreme and ultimate Good and thus deliver them from their confusion and egoism, thereby bringing them into that true freedom where they want to choose door #1, the very door they would have chosen if they were not enslaved to their ignorance, delusions, pathology, and disordered desires. In the words of St Augustine of Hippo: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
In 2002 the Los Angeles Times reported that the preaching of hell was at an all-time low in American pulpits. Apparently pastors have a bad conscience about hell. One wonders why. After all, it’s right there in Scripture, at least that’s what the infernalists so confidently tell us, yet many pastors have grown silent on the subject. It’s not because they have been reading my blog and have converted to the universalist creed. They will no doubt admit, when questioned, that eternal damnation remains a possibility. Yet they remain uncomfortable and troubled by this “essential” doctrine of the faith.
One Catholic theologian recently remarked on his website that eternal damnation “is not something that keeps me awake at night.” Yet surely it should keep us all—Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants alike—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 liberating news of God’s grace and mercy to the forefront of preaching and ecclesial reflection 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
Some theologians and pastors seek to mitigate the horror of hell by conjecturing, against the belief of the medieval Church, that the number of the damned is few. After all, most folks aren’t Adolf Hitlers. But does everlasting perdition become more palatable if hell is only thinly populated? Surely the answer must be no. The number of the damned is irrelevant. Hell does not become morally tolerable if it is populated by a minority of mankind. Even if only a single person is eternally damned, hell remains 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 the piece to Fr Richard John Neuhaus (with whom I occasionally corresponded and with whom I had the privilege of dining in Baltimore, along with my dear friend William McKeachie). 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?”
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 upon all proclaim the greater hope. Despite all the qualifications and nuances advanced by Balthasar and Neuhaus, the traditionalists rightly see that the the hopeful universalist position, if taken seriously (not all of its advocates do), subverts the homiletical and ascetical practices that embody the dogma of eternal damnation, thereby evacuating the terrifying threat of eternal perdition of its power. And without the threat, what’s the point of the dogma?
David Bentley Hart astutely zeroes in on the hopeful universalist position:
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. In an 1873 sermon, 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.7
If we can imagine a better eschatological outcome to the story of creation than a populated hell, then the Lord surely 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.8
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 absolute certainty that God exists or that Jesus is risen from the dead or that God loves unconditionally. I believe that God exists, that he loves humanity without limit, that he raised Jesus from the dead on Easter morning, that he poured out the Spirit upon all of humanity on the Day of Pentecost; but I do not know that these claims are indubitably true—nonetheless I have staked my life on them. One of my favorite books is C. S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair. The children, along with the marsh-wiggle Puddleglum, are captured by the Green Lady and taken into her underworld domain. She casts a spell upon them and attempts to persuade them that this dreary underworld is the real world, that everything that they remember about Narnia and the true world is but a dream. But Puddleglum stands fasts; he refuses to disbelieve:
Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a playworld which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.
Is not the dream of apokatastasis infinitely more beautiful, more enchanting, more glorious than the nightmare of hell? Which of the two do you think Aslan dreams when he falls asleep at night?
I guess this 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 cannot know this to be the case. Ditto for the Orthodox claim that ecclesial consensus, however defined and determined, establishes irreformable doctrine. If the doctrine of hell rests solely upon the dogmatic authority of the Church, that is a weak and shaky foundation indeed.
I believe, and confidently hope, that in Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, God will restore all human beings to himself. I believe, and confidently hope, that God will most certainly bring the story of humanity to a happy and glorious conclusion. How can I do otherwise?
- Do I not believe that the divine Creator is absolute, infinite, and unconditional Love?
- Do I not believe that our Father patiently, steadfastly, and eagerly awaits the return of his prodigal children?
- Do I not believe that Jesus is the good shepherd who leaves the rest of the flock to search for and restore the one lost sheep.
- Do I not believe that the Father’s only begotten Son triumphed over sin, death, and Satan by cross and resurrection?
- Do I not believe that salvation itself, including the faith that grasps it, is an unmerited gift (Eph 2:8)?
For me, these are articles of faith and together constitute one article of faith. To suggest that we may hope that all may be saved but must not publicly proclaim that it shall be so ultimately violates and denies that divine love revealed in the death and resurrection of the incarnate Son. Our hope rests upon the secure foundation of Pascha, not in wishful or illogical thinking.
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 and rose from the dead on Easter morning, the incarnate Word and the Spirit are homoousios with the Father—but there are also others for which we use the future tense—God will sanctify and deify the faithful, Jesus Christ will return in glory to judge the quick and the dead and his Kingdom will shall have no end. It makes a kind of sense sense to say that Christians believe the former to be true, while for the later we hope 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.”9 Hope enjoys the same measure of certainty as faith—no more, no less.
“Hopeful” universalism? It is only genuinely hopeful if we truly trust God to fulfill the promises of his love. It is only genuinely hopeful if we are willing to publicly proclaim that God will save all. How else, I ask, will the Church be brought to reconsider the doctrine of hell and reflect more deeply upon the gospel she is called to declare. The absolute love of God and his universal salvific will stands at the heart and center of our faith. That our Father would condemn his children to interminable punishment is unthinkable. Gehenna is but a purifying, sanctifying, perhaps painful means, means to that glorious consummation.10 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.” All of my blog articles cited in the footnotes are also included in my book Destined for Joy: The Gospel of Universal Salvation (2022).
 This question resolves into the issue 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, 2nd. ed. p. 172. I originally read the 1st ed.
 See my essay “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.
 Reported by the Rev. Henry Whitney Bellows, “George MacDonald in the Pulpit,” Wingfold 57 (Winter 2007): 27.
 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).
 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. We know that we may need the healing and purification that only the river of his fiery love of God can accomplish. And we most certainly 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 everlasting hell.
 George MacDonald, “Justice,” Unspoken Sermons. Also See Jordan Wood’s article comparing Balthasar and MacDonald, “George MacDonald against Hans Urs von Balthasar on Universal Salvation” and 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” (reported in “George MacDonald on Dante,” Wingfold 89 (Winter 2015): 34). On MacDonald’s universalist convictions, see Barbara Amell, “‘The Believing Faculty’: George MacDonald on Universal Salvation.”
(For this article I have cannibalized and revised material earlier pubished.)