An Open Letter to Fr James Dominic Rooney

Dear Fr Rooney,

In response to my twenty-five premises article on uni­ver­salism and hell, you write:

First, what you are listing are almost all con­clu­sions, with practically none of the relevant sup­porting premises for those conclusions. The issue then is that, obviously, these are not premises as much as various species of assertion that uni­ver­sal salvation is true, which would not support a non-circular inference to that conclusion.

Alas, I am forced to concur. I did not succeed in providing premises that might constitute a logically rigorous argument, proving yet again that I’m just a lowly blogger (dammit) not a logician. So let’s instead call them claims, assertions, propositions. The first assertion is absolutely crucial for the universalist vision. All of the succeeding ones depend upon it:

1. God is self-revealed in Jesus Christ as absolute and unconditional love (1 John 2:16)—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The absolute and unconditional love of God functions within universalist theological reflection as an ultimate axiom or first principle. It can neither be derived from nor justified by any ground other than itself; it can neither be proven or disproven by appeal to a higher philosophical, theological, or ecclesial system of thought. As an ultimate it can only be accepted or rejected—which of course neces­sarily entails a systemic circularity. Thomas F. Torrance puts it this way:

What we are concerned with here is the proper circularity inherent in any coherent system operating with ultimate axioms or beliefs which cannot be derived or justified from any other ground than that which they themselves constitute. It is the case, of course, that the primary axioms of any deduc­tive system are held to be justified if they are included within the consis­tency of all the axioms and propositions of the system, but, as Kurt Godel has demonstrated, any such consistent formal system must have one or more propositions that are not provable within it but may be proved with reference to a wider and higher system. However, when we are concerned with a conceptual system or a framework of thought which includes among its constitutive axioms one or more ultimates, for which, in the nature of the case, there is no higher and wider system with reference to which they can be proved, then we cannot but operate with a complete circularity of the conceptual system.1

To put it in theological terms, the unconditionality of the divine love is grounded in God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, experienced in and by the Spirit. As such it can only be apprehended through faith, worship, prayer, contemplation, ministry and service. As Torrance observes, this is precisely how the Church grasps two other ultimate beliefs central to the faith—namely, the divinity of Jesus Christ and his resurrection from the dead:

In the life and work of Jesus Christ we are confronted with an ultimate self-revelation of God into the truth of which there is no way of penetrating from what we already know or believe we know, far less of establishing or verifying it on grounds that are outside of it. It confronts us as an objective reality which must be accepted or rejected on its own ground, but it con­fronts us by a self-communication of God which lays claim to our commit­ment with the unreserved fidelity of our minds. It is no blind act of faith that is required, divorced from any recognition of credibility, for the reality of the incarnation or of the resurrection is the kind of objectivity which makes itself accessible to our apprehension, creating the condition for its recognition and acceptance, that is, in such a way that belief on our part is the subjective pole of commitment to objective reality, but intelligent commitment to an objectively intelligible reality which is to be grasped only through a repentant rethinking and structural recasting of all our pre-conceptions. That is why the New Testament speaks of the ultimate Word and Truth of God himself as meeting us in the incarnation, passion and resurrection of Christ, and why the resurrection no less than the incar­na­tion and crucifixion is apprehended only by faith, for it is only on the ground of faith, in which we allow our minds to yield to the intrinsic claims of God’s cognitive self-revelation in Jesus Christ, that we are able to think of the incarnation and the resurrection as what they really are, and think of them in terms of the disclosure which they themselves open up for our understanding. . . . That is certainly the way in which the early theology of the Church regarded the incarnation and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, as intelligible ultimates bearing their own proof in the self-evidencing reality of God’s own Word and Truth.2

The intrinsic truth of ultimate theological propositions, grounded as they are upon the divine self-communication in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, imposes itself upon the Church and the hearts of the faithful, not by the formal decrees of external authority but by the gracious witness of the Spirit in the liturgical life of the Church and the hearts of the faithful.3

I am reminded of a conversation with the great Lutheran theologian Robert W. Jenson back in the 80s. I’m sitting in his office with a list of questions. My first question: “How do we know that God’s love is unconditional?” I quoted a few biblical texts that seemed to support the opposite. He smiled and said, “Go back and reread the Bible.” He knew, of course, that one can read the Bible and plausibly conclude that God’s love is conditional. To see the Scripture as witnessing to a God of unconditional love requires a paradigm shift, and only the Spirit can generate such a shift.4 Ultimately, you either see it or you don’t. Yes, I know. It’s all very frustrating, but so it must be for foundational axioms that are not as self-evident as we think they should be.

“God is love,” St John the Evangelist declares (1 John 1:16). I take this statement first as referring to the intra-Trinitarian relationships between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and secondarily to the Holy Trinity’s relationship with his creation. God wills the good of every created being, both individually and as a cosmic whole. To speak of his love as absolute and unconditional is to assert that it will triumph over every obstacle, every evil, every sin, every form of rejection. God’s good and holy purposes will be fulfilled. As Jenson writes:

The gospel tolerates no conditions. It is itself unconditional promise. And when it is rightly spoken, it takes the conditions we put on the value of our life as the very occasions of its promise.5

Apokatastasis is but the gospel of Christ’s absolute and unconditional love sung in an eschatological key.

If one does not believe that God’s love is unconditional, then the other twenty-four prop­o­sistions in my list become moot. The infernalist/universalist dispute, in other words, is a dispute between two irreconcilable apprehensions of the divine love.

Consider, for example, the matter of God’s antecedent and consequent wills. St Thomas, following St John Damascene, invokes the dual will distinction precisely to explain why God’s desire that all shall be saved will not be fulfilled in the eschaton. It’s an odd dis­tinc­tion and really doesn’t explain anything; but the oddity disappears once one makes explicit the various conditions attached to the divine salvific will. When they are made explicit—as they must be when all things are considered—it becomes crystal clear that the dual will distinction rests upon a conditionalist understanding of the divine love. God may be omnipotent, but he doesn’t always get what he wants6—hence hell.

I firmly believe that God’s permission of historical suffering must be clearly distinguished from his ordination and willing of eschatological suffering. God permits the former because he intends the redemption and healing of the world’s agonies by the recreation of the cosmos. In the words of David Hart:

Given the metaphysics and logic of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, any distinction between what God wills and what God permits necessarily collapses at creation’s eschatological horizon; so too any distinction between God’s antecedent and consequent wills.7

In the eschaton the language of permission disappears because we are talking about God’s healing, fulfillment, and deification within himself of cosmos, history, humanity. (I realize that I have just made yet another unsubstantiated assertion, but that would take another article if not a book. I suggest you meditate on Revelation 21.) Divine permission neces­sarily becomes divine willing. God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. If such is not the case, it’s not the eschaton. The Kingdom of Jesus Christ is not a continuation of fallen history; it is new creation. Given the eschatological logic, if there is an sempiternal populated hell, God wills it so, along with the suffering and torment of its inhabitants.

Hart claims, and I agree, that the eschaton definitively reveals and makes manifest the divine character. When I first heard Hart say this in his Notre Dame lecture, I immediately nodded in assent. Having read a goodly amount of Robert Jenson, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and Jurgen Moltmann over the past forty years, I found Hart’s assertion obvious and uncontroversial, though I had not thought of it in relationship to the question of hell. The eschaton, after all, is precisely God setting all things to rights. Evil is eradicated; suffering redeemed; humanity delivered from sin and incorporated into the life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; the cosmos transfigured in uncreated glory. The eschaton, in other words, is the revelation of God’s antecedent will fully and finally accomplished. It is not just another chapter in the story of God and his world; it is the conclusion of the story and therefore necessarily reveals both what the story means and who the author is. That which went forth from God returns to God—good old fashioned Neoplatonic exitus et reditus interpreted through the lens of the gospel. In the eschaton the cosmos becomes unblemished, transparent, diaphanous, glorious theophany. Thus premise #6:

6. God wills himself as the good, fulfillment, and ultimate end of his creatures (theosis).

The crucial question before us is whether God’s love is unconditional. By my reading of Catholic theology, most Catholics reject the unconditionalist construal. Salvation requires the sinner to fulfill specific conditions (name the condition: faith, repentance, baptism, good works, virtuous character, etc.). So unless you are willing to think outside the Catholic dogmatic box, it’s difficult to see how constructive discussion between us can be had. I have been where you presently are. I preached and taught hell (in C. S. Lewis mode) for over thirty years. But you have not been where I presently am. You do not know the universalist vision from the inside. Perhaps this is why so many universalists feel that you have not accurately represented their convictions in your writings and tweets. At the present, you are outside looking in.

Somewhere I have suggested that the Reformation dispute regarding Luther’s assertion of justification by faith (sola fide) in fact anticipates the present dispute on universalism. Here I am following Robert Jenson’s interpretation that the underlying issue between Catholics and the Lutheran Reformers was the unconditionality of the divine love. When one reads the relevant documents of the American Lutheran-Catholic dialogue, this question came up again and again. Neither party could agree on an agreed statement of justification because they were divided by different apprehensions of the gospel. So it is with universalists and infernalists. We are playing in two different eschatological ball parks. For this reason most, if not all, of your objections to universalism do not touch the universalist case.

If God’s love is conditional, then it logically follows that the believer will affirm either hell or annihilation. If God’s love is unconditional, then it logically follows that the believer will affirm either hard universalism or, less boldly, hopeful universalism. Why? Because uncon­ditionality implies that God will overcome all obstacles toward the consummation of his love.

With all universalists, I believe that the doctrine of everlasting damnation is abominable. We are talking here about the gospel of Jesus Christ and the hope it engenders. There is no world but the world redeemed and transfigured in Jesus Christ. Hence all your arguments about the goods that God might bring about from the perpetual sufferings of the damned are irrelevant. I reject that odious notion out of hand. It’s so obviously contrary to the divine goodness.8 Call it moral intuition if you like, but it is an intuition grounded in a vision of the infinitely loving Creator. God wills the good of every rational being. He does not abandon them to their state of ill-being. Like the good shepherd, he seeks out the lost and restores them to the flock (Luke 15:3-6). The God in whom we believe would never sacrifice his children, wicked or not, to achieve any ostensible good. That is the way of Moloch, not the Father of Jesus. The only greater good is the reconciliation of all through the power of the Spirit.

We must begin our theological reflections with the new heaven and the new earth and then think backwards. At this point philosophy must submit to the crucified and risen Christ. In Destined for Joy, I speak of a hermeneutic of Pascha. A paradigm shift is needed, and all paradigm shifts require a willingness to look at the data differently: in other words, it requires a leap of faith and imagination. An analogy is the Einsteinian revolution. It’s not that Einstein discovered new data. He looked at the data differently and proposed a new paradigm. He put on a different pair of spectacles and realized that the data that seemed to adequately support Newtonian physics could be better explained by his theories of general and special relativity. The scientific experiments that confirmed his theories had to come later.

Neither scientific experiments nor philosophical argumentation can prove the truth of universal salvation. How does one prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that God’s love is absolute and unconditional?  The eschaton will provide the  confirmation of its truth (or not). In the meantime, all we can do is read and reread the Scriptures with the willingness and freedom to see things differently. You pays your money and you takes your choice. With all my heart I confess the absolute and unconditional love of God and the triumph of his Kingdom.

I wish you well, Fr Rooney. I suggest we bring this exchange to a close. It’s clear that constructive dialogue is presently impossible, though I hope that will change in the future.


[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Space, Time and Resurrection (1976), p. 15.

[2] Ibid., pp. 18-19.

[3] Readers will not be surprised that I reject the Roman Catholic doctrine of infallibility as defined by the First Vatican Council. Irreformable doctrines are not determined by formal criteria. They are determined by discernment of their intrinsic truth and gram­matical necessity. See “Gospel, Grammar, and the Infallibility of Dogma.”

[4] On paradigms and the doctrine of God’s unconditional love, see my article “Apokatastasis and the Radical Vision of Unconditional Divine Love.” For more on the uncondionality of the gospel, see “Preaching Good Good Very Good News,” “Gospel the Paschal Hope,” “Preaching Gospel as Gospel,” and my article published in Logos (2017): “Preaching Apokatastasis: St Isaac the Syrian and the Grammar of the Kingdom.” And finally, of course, my book Destined for Joy (2022).

[5] Robert W. Jenson, Lutheranism (1976), p. 44. Also see “Hell, Freedom, and the Predestinating Gospel.”

[6] As a believer in absolute predestination, St Augustine disagrees, of course. Omni­po­tence means that God’s will is never defeated: “But, however strong the wills either of angels or of men, whether good or evil, whether they will what God willeth or will something else, the will of the Omnipotent is always undefeated.” Enchiridion 102. Augustine remains a challenge for both the free-will defender of hell and for the univer­salist, but more so for the former. An Augustinian version of universalism remains a possibility: all one needs to do is to alter his understanding of divine election to “God wills the salvation of all rational beings.” See Oliver Crisp, “Augustinian Universalism,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 53 (June 2003): 127-145.

[7] David Bentley Hart, “What God Wills and What God Permits,” Public Orthodoxy (5 May 2020).

[8] See “When God Becomes Jack Bauer.”

This entry was posted in Universalism and Eschatology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.