Note: recently a friend asked me to review Dr. Hart’s book and respond to it, and I obliged for friendship’s sake. Given the importance of the topic and the stature of an author such as Dr. Hart, the response is necessarily detailed and long.
The first thing that a reader should know about Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved is what Dr. Hart is here offering the reader. Hart is not writing as an objective church historian, surveying and summarizing the works and views of the Fathers. He is also not writing as a careful Biblical exegete, examining and explaining texts of Scripture. Rather, in this book Dr. Hart is writing as a lawyer arguing a case in court, with all the passion and lack of objectivity one expects of one’s lawyer. If one is on trial, one does not expect one’s lawyer to argue both sides of the case with calm objectivity, but to concentrate exclusively on whatever argues in defense of his client, ignoring or dismissing (perhaps unfairly) whatever evidence points to the client’s guilt. In fact, objectivity is the last thing one expects from one’s lawyer while he is arguing the case in court. One expects objectivity from judges and juries, not from lawyers; that is how the legal system works.
Knowing that Dr. Hart is writing as a lawyer arguing the case for universalism also explains his extraordinary use of vituperative language—a vituperation all the more extraordinary since it is combined with admirable personal honesty and even flashes of humour. Those arguing for the contrary case (i.e. for the traditional faith of the Church regarding the eternity of damnation) are dealt with very roughly: they are denounced continually as “infernalists”, as those afflicted with “moral idiocy”, “collective derangement”, “chronic intellectual and moral malformation”, “emotional pathologies”, and “moral squalor”.
Quite the barrage of insults, and especially when one remembers that these insults therefore apply to the majority of the Fathers. One asks, if the Fathers were thus afflicted with moral idiocy and squalor, why should one trust their judgment about anything? Insulting one’s contemporaries is one thing. Insulting St. Basil, St. Augustine, and St. John Chrysostom is quite another. One expects such a cavalier dismissal of the Fathers from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but not from someone claiming to be Orthodox. Such angry passion from the pen of a scholar is only explicable when one remembers that Hart is not here writing as a scholar, but as a lawyer—and a lawyer fighting desperately with his back to the wall. The desperation accounts for the passion—all creatures growl and bark when they are cornered, including (apparently) academic ones.
Dr. Hart takes on a multitude of opponents, arguing that not only is the traditional faith of the Church erroneous, but that those who merely dare to hope for the salvation of all (such as Urs von Balthasar) are equally blameworthy. Hart “has very small patience for [von Balthasar’s] kind of ‘hopeful universalism’” (p. 66). Neither do those who assert that the lost are annihilated quite escape his wrath. While admitting that this view is “considerably more palatable” than that of the “infernalists”, for him “eternal torment, eternal oblivion are negotiations with evil, death, and suffering and so never in an absolute sense God’s good working of all things” (pp. 86, 87). For Dr. Hart the only view that is in any way morally acceptable is a firm and loudly proclaimed certainty that all will finally be saved, including the devil and demons. Every other view is not only wrong, but morally reprehensible. No wonder his back is to the wall.
Hart wrote his book explicitly confessing that he thought it would do little to convince his traditional opponents (p. 4). I would like to offer the following with a like confession that I suspect it will similarly do little to convince universalists like Dr. Hart. But a rejoinder needs to be offered if only to avoid the impression that Hart’s recent tour de force has struck his opponents dumb and with no rejoinder.
The lawyer’s rhetoric begins soon enough. Dr. Hart opens his book with a citation of 1 Timothy 2:4, rendering it as “Our savior God… intends that all human beings shall be saved and come to a full knowledge of the truth” (italics mine). The translation of course is Hart’s own, and serves his theological agenda. The Greek here rendered “intends” is of course thelei which almost every other translation renders as “wills/ wants/ desires”. At the risk of sounding like alphabet soup, this is the rendering adopted by the AV, the NASB, the NET, the NIV, the RSV, the NRSV, the NEB, the NAB, the TEV, the Jerusalem Bible, and the Douay. The difference between Hart’s rendering and that of everyone else is not insignificant. The verb thelei does not indicate a settled determination on God’s part, as Hart’s choice of rendering suggests. For example, Paul writes that he desires (Greek thelo) that all Christians be celibate, and also that all might speak in tongues, though he acknowledges that such things are impossible (1 Corinthians 7:7, 14:5). Hart’s rendering of thelei as “intends” is an attempt to cook the books at the outset. It offers a preview of the methodology he adopts throughout the book.
In this rejoinder I would like to examine Hart’s book regarding his use of his ad hominem approach, his philosophical arguments, his handling of Scripture, his use of church history, and finally his personal investment in the question.
Hart’s ad hominem approach
Proponents of universalism seem to find the ad hominem approach in the debate about eternal punishment all but irresistible. We see this in Dr. Hart’s consistent use of the term “infernalist” to describe the Church’s traditional view regarding the eternity of hell, as well as in the insult suffused throughout the book. One sees it also in Hart’s insistence on portraying this traditional view in the most lurid terms imaginable.
Thus on p. 11 Hart speaks of “how viciously vindictive the creator of such a hell would have had to be to have devised so exquisitely malicious a form of torture and then to have made it eternal”. The idea (found in such popular authors as C. S. Lewis and others) that the sufferings of the damned are in some sense self-inflicted seem discounted from the outset. Hart’s lurid caricature of his opponents’ position is the only understanding of hell allowed into the arena of debate. Dr. Hart sets up a straw man.
It is the same with Hart’s apparent preoccupation with Calvin and his doctrine of double-predestination. This also might be considered as rather low-hanging fruit, since Calvin’s understanding of sin, guilt, and predestination (and that of St. Augustine or even Pascal) is not the only one on the market. They do, however, offer the easiest targets for scoring debating points and expressing impassioned moral outrage.
Dr. Hart seems to find it difficult to resist thinking that his “infernalist” opponents are all somewhat morally infernal themselves. Thus former Evangelicals who have converted to Orthodoxy are pilloried as “victims of their own diseased emotional conditions” and Hart says that he “has no doubt” that if he “were to inquire deeply into their pasts” he “would encounter any number of depressingly mundane psychological explanations for their heartlessness” (p. 29). Such people, he believes, must be “simply too morally indolent to care about anyone other than themselves and perhaps their immediate families.” He “has to say, that a person in that condition has probably already lost the heaven of which he or she feels so assured” (p. 31).
This is quite unfair, and would seem to require something like supernatural insight on the part of Dr. Hart into the secret motives of his opponents. One wonders whether he arises in prayer to thank God that he is not as other men are, like those Evangelicals who have converted to Orthodoxy or those heartless infernalists. Judging the inner motivations of complete strangers is not just futile; according to James 4:23 it is also dangerous. In a volume already loaded with impassioned rhetoric, such judgments are hardly necessary.
Hart’s philosophical arguments
These constitute the heart of the author’s case for universalism, and he returns to it again and again—perhaps not surprisingly since his degrees are in philosophy.
One of Dr. Hart’s arguments is rooted in the notion of what it means to be a rational agent. “A rational agent in full possession of his or her faculties” could never “in any meaningful sense, freely reject God absolutely and forever” (p. 18). Thus “we cannot not will the satisfaction of our beings in our true final end” (p. 41). “In the end, even when we reject the good, we always do so out of a longing for the Good…We act always toward an end that we desire, whether morally, affectively, or pathologically; and, so long as we are rational agents, that end is the place where the ‘good’ and the ‘desirable’ are essentially synonymous terms” (p. 42). “For a rational spirit, to see the good and know it truly is to desire it insatiably and to obey it unconditionally, while not to desire it is not to have known it truly, and so never to have been free to choose it” (p. 79-80). Thus “absolute culpability—eternal culpability—lies forever beyond the capacities of any finite being. So does an eternal free defiance of the Good” (p. 43, italics original). In other words, God made us with a constitution that cannot ultimately reject Him or become self-destructive.
Dr. Hart elaborates on this basic theme at length and repeatedly; I will not reproduce his entire argument here. I will only ask if this is how all rational spirits were constituted, how did Satan fall in the first place? Presumably he was made “seeing the good (i.e. God) and knew it truly”. Yet Satan did not “desire it insatiably”, but still managed to rebel. Dr. Hart believes that in the end, after all have been saved, such rebellion, evil, and earthly suffering will cease to matter. But the question must still be squarely faced regarding how this happened at all. Hart says that, “You cannot reject God except defectively, by having failed to recognize him as the primordial object of all your deepest longings, the very source of their activity” (p. 184). That may be; but clearly that is what happened, and it brings with it the consequences of self-induced slavery and self-destruction. And one needn’t look all the way back into such pre-history as the fall of Satan. I have a deacon who works in a men’s prison, and he says that he encounters such things routinely. Evil, perversely chosen precisely because it is evil, is a sad reality. It is true that it makes no philosophical sense. But it is a fact nonetheless.
Dr. Hart also suggests that the classic distinction between God’s perfect and permissive will is invalid. He pours contempt on the “specious distinction between God’s antecedent and consequent wills—between, that is, his universal will for creation apart from the fall and his particular will regarding each creature in consequence of the fall. Under the canopy of God’s omnipotence and omniscience, the consequent is already wholly virtually present in the antecedent” (p. 82). This means, he admits, that “every evil that time comprises, natural or moral…is an arraignment of God’s goodness: every death of a child, every chance calamity, every act of malice; everything diseased, thwarted, pitiless, purposeless, or cruel; and, until the end of all things, no answer has been given” (p.72-73). But all will be well, he affirms, because “within the story of creation, viewed from its final cause, there can be no residue of the pardonably tragic, no irrecuperable or irreconcilable reminder left behind at the end of the tale; for, if there were, this irreconcilable excess would also be something God has directly caused” (p. 71-72). In other (and fewer) words, the evil that exists now is not a moral indictment of God because it will all be resolved one day and everyone will repent. But saying that it will all come around right in the end does not make evil to be any less evil than it is. It is difficult to see how this avoids making God the author of evil. Hart’s undervaluing man’s free will and of man’s ability to successfully defy God comes at a high price.
Dr. Hart further contends that a short lifetime of sin could not possibly merit an eternity of suffering. He is scarcely the first person to have affirmed this, but he says it so well. Thus: “A retribution consisting in unending suffering imposed as recompense for the actions of a finite intellect and will, must be by any sound definition disproportionate, unjust, and at the last nothing more than an expression of sheer pointless cruelty” (p. 44). Therefore no soul “could possibly, under the inevitable conditions of existence in this world, earn for itself a penalty that is at once both ‘eternal’ and ‘just’…We are therefore incapable of contracting a limitless or unqualified guilt” (p. 37, 38). Such a punishment could only be the result of God’s desire to give “a demonstration of his power to do as he wishes”, having nothing to do with justice (p. 47).
As I have written elsewhere, the apparent disproportion of the penalty to the sin—an eternity of punishment for a brief lifetime of sin—vanishes when one realizes that the sufferings of the lost are not an amount of punishment that God measures out in recompense for a measured amount of sin. Rather it is the self-chosen result of the damned themselves. Their sufferings last eternally not because God has decided that is how long the punishment should last, but because everyone, including the lost, will live eternally. The only question is whether that unending life will be one of joy or misery. The lost have made themselves incapable of joy, and so their misery lasts forever because they will last forever. In the same way, the joy of the saved lasts forever because they also will last forever, not because God has decided that for their comparatively few years of righteousness they will have an eternity of joy.
I tried to express this by saying “time is the foundation for eternity”. Dr. Hart finds this unconvincing (I assume I am the one referred to as offering “one of the more truculent assaults on [his] arguments”; in the absence of absolutely any footnotes in the book, it is hard to tell). Hart responded that “it would be a very curious architect indeed who would think an infinite edifice erected upon an ever more infinitesimal foundation a well-conceived and duly proportioned design” (p. 204). But by anybody’s figuring, that is exactly what all theologians (and preachers) affirm—viz. that what we do here in this life matters in the next, and our present actions determine our eternal destinies. It seems that Dr. Hart is denying precisely this, and asserting that what we do in this life ultimately does not matter in the next. In which case, why bother about anything—including writing (and reviewing) books?
Finally, I would add that whatever philosophy might say about the question, it must stand down and take second place to the teaching of Scripture. This is not “Biblicism” or an “‘oracular’ understanding of scriptural inspiration which sees the Bible as the record of words directly uttered by the lips of God through an otherwise dispensable human intermediary” (p. 92). That fundamentalist straw man is not here in view, but rather the conviction of all the Fathers that Scripture always teaches truth and that it stands above the wisdom available to philosophers. We will examine Dr. Hart’s understanding of the teaching of Scripture below. For now I only observe that any philosophical argumentation is of limited and subordinate value to Scripture.
Hart’s handling of Scripture
It is here that Dr. Hart dramatically parts company with the Fathers and the teaching of the Church. Hart professes to accept the authority of Scripture, but he denies that terribly much of our doctrine can be based upon it, and so what he gives with one hand he effectively takes away with the other. It is true that Scripture cannot yield a tidy system of belief, a rule-book like a set of Ikea instructions. But the Church has always turned to the Scriptures to find the truth of what Christians were to believe and proclaim, so its teaching must be coherent and consistent enough for that. One of course should not rip Scripture away from its ecclesial context with its interpretive rule of faith—as Irenaeus reminded us. But given that rule of faith, Scripture teaches clearly enough.
Dr. Hart seems to disagree. Regarding the Gospels and the teaching of Christ about hell, he writes, “The variety and apparent incompatibility of the metaphors Jesus used to describe the Age to come in his public ministry should be taken as a prohibition upon any dogmatic pronouncements on the matter” (p. 117)—a prohibition not heeded by any of the Fathers, since they all made dogmatic pronouncements on the matter based on what they read in the Gospels. For Hart, Christ’s words about “the deathless worm and inextinguishable fire and all other such images (none of which, again, means quite what the infernalist imagines) are themselves mere figural devices within the embrace of an extravagant apocalyptic imagery that, in itself, has no strictly literal elements” (p. 94-95). Most exegetes grant that the images may not be literal. But if we don’t take them literally, we still take them seriously—and Hart seems not to do so. Describing them as “mere figural devices within the embrace of an extravagant apocalyptic imagery” gives them less weight than they deserve. Not surprisingly Hart regards all such teachings as “allegorical, pictorial, vague, and metaphorical in form” (p. 94). Allegorical, maybe. Pictorial, certainly (along with everything else in Christ’s teaching). But vague? I suggest that they are all too clear, and that is the problem.
The Book of Revelation in particular does not impress Dr. Hart—presumably because it has so much to say about hell that he finds uncongenial. He describes the book (or perhaps “denounces it”) as “so arcane a text that any absolute pronouncements on its nature or meaning are almost certainly misguided” (p. 106). He regards it as the work of “a secretive community” (and thus presumably not the work of St. John) so that “without any inkling of the cryptadia concealed beneath its countless figural layers” no one “could hope to grasp even a shadow of a fragment of its intended message” (p. 107). In Dr. Hart’s view, the book is not about the end of time “so much as a manifesto written in figurative code by a Jewish Christian who believed in keeping the Law of Moses but who also believed that Jesus was the Messiah” and is “about the inauguration of a new historical epoch in which Rome will have fallen, Jerusalem will have been restored”. The discerning reader will therefore “not attempt to make sense of the Book of Revelation” (p. 110).
One notes that this is hardly the approach of the Fathers who wrote commentaries on the Book of Revelation, nor of the many scholars who write commentaries on it today. No one claims it is the easiest book in the Bible to understand, but scholars ancient and modern are not so baffled and in ignorance of “its intended message” as is Dr. Hart. All sorts of modern commentators have written commentaries on the Apocalypse, explaining its intended message and agreeing on its basic outlines, even if they might disagree about the name encoded as “666”. It is not the closed book for them that it is for Dr. Hart. I suspect that Hart finds the Apocalypse a closed book because he has closed it himself, after finding its message unwelcome. And in fact one of the things that all scholars seem to agree upon in the Book of Revelation is the eternal punishment with which apostates and the wicked are threatened. The references to and meaning of the eternal lake of fire could scarcely be clearer. This, I suggest, accounts for Dr. Hart’s lack of enthusiasm for the last book of the Bible.
The rest of the New Testament teaching fares little better in Dr. Hart’s estimation. He writes, “It is absurd to treat any of the New Testament’s eschatological language as containing even in nuce, some sort of exact dogmatic definition of the literal conditions of the world to come…None of [Christ’s teachings] should be received as anything other than an intentionally heterogenous phantasmagory, meant as much to disorient as to instruct…The picture dissolves into evocation, atmosphere, and poetry” (p. 119). For Hart, all the New Testament has to teach about the age to come is that justice will be established within historical time by divine intervention, and another justice will be established in the age to come—“beyond that, only the poetry and the mystery remain” (p. 120).
Most everyone will grant that we are not given detailed literal descriptions of the age to come, and that the gates of pearl described in the Apocalypse are described symbolically. But that is a far cry from Hart’s effective writing off of practically everything in the New Testament about his least favourite topic. What Dr. Hart is really saying is that the New Testament tells us practically nothing at all about the last things, despite the many verses concerning them in the Gospels, the Epistles, and the Apocalypse. It is, in fact, his way of leaving the inconvenient teaching of the New Testament to one side.
It also accounts for his not dealing with the many parts of the New Testament which argue against universalism—verses such as Romans 2:1-16, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Galatians 5:19-21, Ephesians 5:5-6, Philippians 3:17-19, 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9, Hebrews 10:26-31, James 5:1-5, 1 Peter 4:17-18, 2 Peter 2 (the entire chapter). The list is hardly comprehensive, yet I could find no hint of their existence in Dr. Hart’s book. It is as if Dr. Hart’s New Testament contained only verses capable of a universalist interpretation.
It is these bits of the New Testament which Dr. Hart likes quite a lot—namely the bits which speak of Christ coming to save all men. He quotes a number of them, describing them as “universalist statements” (p. 95), without further comment or commentary. For him, the universalist meaning of the passages is too clear to require comment—despite the fact that throughout the history of the Church these passages have been read quite differently. They could mean that everyone will finally be saved—or they could mean that salvation has been provided for everyone, but that not everyone will avail themselves of it (which is how the Church has traditionally understood these passages). The point is that these texts all require exegesis if their exact meaning is to be understood—an exegesis which Hart does not engage in, except in a few instances. These instances reveal the weakness of his position, for in his rush to find universalist proof-texts, he simply mishandles them.
Take, for example, his handling of Romans 11:32, which reads, “God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all’ (RSV). Concerning this verse, Hart writes, “Paul dared to ask, in the tortured, conditional voice of the ninth chapter of Romans, whether there might be vessels of wrath stored up solely for destruction only because he trusted that there are not: because he believed instead that all are bound in disobedience, but only so that God might finally show mercy to all” (p. 73).
Hart’s jump from Romans 9:22 to Romans 11:32 without further comment or exegesis scarcely inspires confidence in his grasp of Paul’s argument. A complete exegesis of the passage (which I agree differs from that of Calvin) cannot be offered here. But even a superficial look at Romans 11:32 must locate it in its immediate context.
Paul’s point here is that the Jews were disobedient to the Gospel so that the Gospel might be then offered the Gentiles, who accepted it and found mercy. Through the mercy shown to the Gentiles, the Jews will one day become jealous and accept the Gospel and be shown mercy themselves (compare v. 11-15). Careful exegesis of v. 32 must recognize that the mercy shown to all comes through their acceptance of the Gospel in this age—for Paul referred to the salvation of Israel happening before the Second Coming (v. 25-27). The mercy promised in v. 32 does not refer to some event many ages and aeons after the Second Coming, but something occurring within history after the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. As Paul made clear in v. 22, whether or not one experiences God’s kindness and mercy or His severity and judgment depends upon whether or not one has faith. In Hart’s haste to find support for his universalism, he has leaped upon Romans 11:32 without locating it within the totality of Paul’s arguments throughout Romans 9-11.
Or take Hart’s reading of John’s Gospel. For him, the language of the fourth gospel “seems irresistibly to point toward a collapse of the distinction between the final judgment of all things and the judgment endured by Christ on Calvary” (p. 127). Though Hart does not view John’s Gospel as erasing the eschatological horizon of history, he still insists that “It is not clear…that the fourth gospel foretells any ‘last judgment’ in the sense of a real additional judgment that accomplishes more than has already happened in Christ” (p. 127-128, italics original). This view of John’s Gospel would certainly minimize or dispose of a future condemnation of the wicked and of those who reject Christ.
But what then of such verses as “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides upon him” (John 3:36), or “The hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28-29), or “He who rejects me and does not receive my sayings has a judge; the word that I have spoken will be his judge on the last day” (John 12:48)? All of these verses, along with others, show that John’s Gospel, in harmony with the rest of the New Testament, anticipates a final judgment in which some will rise to life and others will rise to condemnation. There is indeed realized eschatology in the Gospel, but it does not negate the future judgment to come, nor God’s wrath upon those who reject Christ.
It is clear that two of Dr. Hart’s favourite Biblical passages are 1 Corinthians 3:12-15 and 15:23-24. We will examine them one at a time.
The first text, 1 Corinthians 3:12-15, reads, “Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.”
Hart regards 1 Corinthians 3:12f as describing the fate of all men after death, comprising “two classes of the judged: those saved in and through their works, and those saved by way of the fiery destruction of their works. If Paul means us to understand that there will so be yet another class—that of the eternally derelict—he does not say so. And though, admittedly, later tradition has tended to take these verses as referring only to two distinct divisions within the limited company of the elect, Paul certainly says nothing of the sort” (p. 105-106). For Hart, these verses say that everyone will be judged, and affirm that everyone will be saved. Everyone will pass through the fire into final salvation; some with a reward, and others without one.
Once again Hart rips the text from its immediate context and presses it into service for his favourite doctrine. In the opening chapters of his letter to the Corinthians, Paul deals with his discovery that the church there is divided into cliques and subject to various cults of personality. Some factions trumpet the name of Paul, others the names of Apollos, or of Cephas, or of Christ (1:10-12). He denounces these divisions as the fruit of their spiritual immaturity and failure to recognize true wisdom (1:18-3:4). He then asks rhetorically, “What then is Apollos? What is Paul?”, thereby seeking to dismantle their partisan loyalty to specific teachers and their divisions. Each teacher, he insists, is simply a servant through whom they believed, and each teacher has his own contribution to make: Paul planted and Apollos watered after him (3:5-7). Varying the metaphor, he says that he laid a foundation and now other teachers are building upon it, offering their own teaching (3:10). The reference here is to the teachers in the Corinthian church, who until then were crowing about their superior fidelity to Paul, or to Apollos, or to Cephas, or to Christ.
Paul bids these teachers take care how they build: if they build (i.e. teach) with the solid teaching of loyalty to Jesus Christ as their foundation, they are building with gold, silver, and precious stones. If they continue to build and teach with the comparatively worthless teaching of loyalty to themselves as local gurus (and thus continue to promote divisions), they will be building with wood, hay, and straw. Those who inculcate loyalty to Christ in their teaching will receive a reward on the day of judgment when they pass through their fire of testing, for their work will survive the flame. Those who inculcated loyalty to themselves in their teaching will receive no reward after they pass through the fire, for their work will be burnt up.
It is clear that in this passage that Paul is not talking about the fate of all men, but solely about the fate of those Christian teachers in Corinth. It is of course true that Paul here says nothing about the “eternally derelict”—not because such a class did not exist, but because they were (happily) not found among the Corinthian clergy causing divisions within that church. If one wants to find Paul’s words about a class of the eternally derelict, those words are not hard to find. A page or two further along, he speaks of “the unrighteous” and says that they “will not inherit the Kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9). Indeed, he lists some of their characteristics and again insists that they “will not inherit the Kingdom of God” (v. 10). He repeats this twice, saying to the Corinthians, “Do not be deceived”. Evidently some universalists were then suggesting that these sinners would inherit the Kingdom of God at the end after all. Paul is emphatic that it is not so.
Dr. Hart shares with many universalists a determined enthusiasm for Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:23-24, which functions as a kind of prism through which all other verses in the New Testament are viewed. These verses read, “Each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then [Greek epeita] those who belong to Christ at His coming. Then [Greek eita] comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For God has put all things in subjection under His feet. But when it says, ‘All things are put in subjection under Him,’ it is plain that He is excepted who put all things under Him. When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subjected to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all.”
Concerning this passage, Hart says that Paul here speaks “of three distinct moments, distributed across two eschatological frames, in the process of the final restoration of the created order in God… first the exaltation of Christ, then the exaltation at history’s end of those already fully united to Christ, and then the ‘full completion’ at the end of all ages, when the Kingdom is yielded over to the Father”, after which Christ will subject Himself to the Father and God will be all in all (p. 104-105).
For Hart (as for Origen) the sequence is clear: 1. Christ’s resurrection from the dead, three days after His crucifixion; 2. the resurrection of all the Christian dead at the end of the age; 3. the final restoration of all “at the end of all ages”. We note that for most universalists, this event was far in the future—the phrase “the end of all ages” meant that the final apokatastasis would occur after many, many aeons.
Once again Dr. Hart rushes in to seize upon this text in the service of universalism, not paying close enough exegetical attention to it. In this passage St. Paul focuses upon the final resurrection of the dead at the end of history, which he considered as the climax of this age and the link to the age to come which will consist of a new heaven and a new earth. His main point is that the final resurrection of all, long expected by Israel, began with the resurrection of Christ. This final resurrection consists of two phases: Christ the first fruits (raised from the dead on the third day), and then (Greek epeita) the resurrection of everyone else at His Second Coming. This Coming signalled the end, when Christ would deliver the Kingdom to His Father.
Paul expresses the connection of Christ’s Second Coming and the final triumph of God by the Greek word eita. This is a temporal connective word. Thus its use in Mark 4:17, which reads, “They [i.e. the ones sown on the rocky ground] have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then [Greek eita] when tribulation or persecution arises, immediately they fall away”. One sees here a temporal connection, for the tribulation arose not long after the word was received. In 1 Corinthians 15, this word connects the resurrection of those who belong to Christ with “the end”—i.e. “the end” was the next event after the resurrection of all at the Second Coming, not an event aeons after this.
One sees this too in the logic of Paul’s words regarding the final events. Christ must reign until all His enemies are destroyed and put under His feet (v. 25). The final enemy, death, will be destroyed at His Second Coming when all are raised from the dead (v. 26). Paul then further explains (interpreting Psalm 8) that the reference to “all things being put under His feet” does not include the Father who put all things under His feet (v. 27). Indeed, he says, when Christ finally has all things put under His feet at His Second Coming, He will then deliver all things to the Father and Himself be subject to the Father so that the Father may be all in all (v. 28). We note here the order: the Son has all things put under His feet at the time of final resurrection of the dead, at which time He Himself offers all this to His Father and subjects Himself to God so that God may be all in all.
Please note: this subjection of the Son to the Father occurs when all things have been put in subjection to the Son at the time of the Second Coming. Therefore the time when God becomes all in all occurs not “at the end of all ages”, but at the end of this age, at the time of the Second Coming and the resurrection of the dead. The universalist timeline—Christ’s resurrection, then the resurrection of all the dead at His Second Coming, then (skipping over the creation of the new heaven and new earth) the end, after countless aeons—is hardly credible. God’s final triumph at the end when He will be all in all does not wait for countless aeons after Christ’s Second Coming. It is brought about by that Coming.
This is consistent with the apostolic understanding of the age to come found throughout the New Testament: at the end of this age comes the Second Coming of Christ, and with it, the restoration of all things, the new heavens and the new earth in which righteousness dwells (see Acts 3:21, 2 Peter 3:11-13). An event aeons after the Second Coming of Christ and the establishment of a new heavens and a new earth is never in view. In fact this event cannot be found in the Biblical picture of the last things; it is solely a fantasy concocted by the universalists.
Dr. Hart also looks at the meanings of Greek words to find support for his assertion that all will be saved. In particular, he looks at the Greek words kolasis (punishment) and aionion (eternal) and attempts to suggest meanings at variance from the traditional ones.
The former (kolasis) he simply asserts means “corrective rather than retributive punishment” (p. 117). Here he selects one possible meaning from others in order to promote his view that the kolasis promised by Christ to the wicked in Matthew 25:46 was merely corrective—i.e. that it would eventually end after those punished had been sufficiently corrected, and so the punishment of the lost would not be everlasting.
In the Septuagint Greek the word was in fact used to describe divine retribution. In Ezekiel 14:3 it described the punishment due to idolaters for their sins. In the Wisdom of Solomon 11:13 it was used to describe the plagues upon the Egyptians. In Wisdom 19:4 it described the final punishment of the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea. In 2 Maccabees 4:38 the word described the punishment of a certain Andronicus who was killed for his crime. None of these uses suggest a merely corrective punishment for those committing the crimes, and in the case of those killed by their kolasis, no further repentance was possible. The Septuagint’s the use of the word (and therefore the Lord’s use of the word in Matthew 25:46) does not suggest merely correction, but retribution. Hart here prefers theoretical etymology over actual use to make his case.
It is similar with Hart’s assertion that the Greek aionion in the New Testament always means only “age long”. Hart connects it (correctly) with the Hebrew olam, and therefore insists that the word never means “eternal” or “unending” in its New Testament usage. Thus he says that the term “might better be rendered today as something like ‘unto the age’ or ‘for the age’…[or as] meaning simply an indeterminately vast period of time” (p. 126). Thus Christ’s promise that the unrighteous will endure aionion punishment means only that the punishment will last for an age, or for an indeterminately vast period of time, and then will come to an end when all are finally saved at the end of all ages.
Obviously the Biblical terms olam and aionion can mean something vast but finite. But the terms are also used to describe something eternal and unending. Thus Timothy 6:16: “To Him [i.e. God] be honour and eternal [Greek aionion] dominion”. Presumably God’s dominion is eternal and unending. Or consider its use in Philo: in his work on Noah’s Work as a Planter [in chapter 8], Philo writes of “the unending [aidios] word of the eternal [aionion] God”. Here there is no sharp distinction between aidios (meaning “unending”) and aionion (as supposedly meaning merely “age-long”), for then God’s word would be unending whereas God Himself would be merely age-long. Obviously Philo used the two words as virtual synonyms. The word aionion often means “unending, eternal, everlasting”.
The question is: what did the word mean in Matthew 25:46 where Christ describes the punishment of the unrighteous as aionion? Church Fathers as diverse as St. Augustine and St. Basil have both commented upon the parallelism used in Matthew 25:46, pointing out that the same word aionion is used to describe the fates of both the righteous and the unrighteous, so that if the life of the righteous is unending and eternal, then the punishment of the unrighteous must be unending and eternal too.
But the exegetical question cannot finally be decided by lining up duelling Church Fathers. Exegesis of Matthew 25:46 involves locating it within the culture of its time and asking the question, “Given the culture of its time, how would Christ’s hearers have understood His apocalyptic sayings about the fates of men in the age to come?” Hart insists that “plucking individual verses like posies here and there from the text is no way to gain a proper view of the entire landscape” (p. 88-89). That is true. To avoid plucking posies one must situate the text within its time and culture—in this case, within the time and culture which produced such works as 2 Esdras, 2 Baruch, the Assumption of Moses, the Book of Jubilees, and the Book of Enoch. Hart admits that Enoch declares that the punishment of the wicked will be eternal. But so do these other pseudepigraphal books—they all declare that the punishment of the wicked will last forever. These books were precisely the “landscape” in which Matthew 25:46 was spoken. This means that Christ’s hearers would have understood His words there about olam/ aionion punishment as saying the same thing as these other works—viz. that the punishment of the wicked will be unending.
Dr. Hart’s handling of Scripture is determined in advance by his desire to find in it support for universalism. That is why each text must somehow lead to his desired conclusion. We see this methodology in almost all his exegetical forays. The rejection of Esau (mentioned by Paul in Romans 9:13) must somehow be overturned, and so Hart notes that Esau “is not finally rejected in the story of the two brothers; he and Jacob are reconciled, to the increase of both” (p. 136).
Again, Hart simply fails to understand the texts he is handling. The text in question (God’s choice of Jacob over Esau) had solely to do with which brother would carry the covenant, and Esau’s forfeiture of it was never overturned. The fact that he and Jacob were later reconciled is nice (and never mentioned in the New Testament), but irrelevant to the question of covenant dealt with here by Paul. The portrayal of Esau as the embodiment of foolish loss is also found in Hebrews 12:16-17, which says that Esau “sold his birthright for a single meal” and “that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears”. Hart seems almost incapable of reading any text in the Bible that points away from his desired conclusion.
We see this almost perverse determination to find happy endings in his handling of Revelation 22:14-15. This text reads, “Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and every one who loves and practices falsehood.” Hart concludes from this text that “those who have been left outside the walls and putatively excluded forever from the Kingdom will be invited to wash their garments, enter the city, and drink from the waters of life” (p. 109).
But this is not what the text says, and it flies in the face of the entirety of the book’s message, which is that one must hold fast to the Faith if one would avoid eternal punishment (see Revelation 14:9-12). Indeed, given that the Book of Revelation largely consists of an almost lurid binary of the difference between the Lamb and the Beast, light and darkness, the city of God and the lake of fire, the collapse of the binary in a little verse tucked in at the end would be astonishing. But in fact this verse does not hint at the collapse of the binary, but simply reinforces it. Those who washed their robes and thereby possess the right to enter the city did so in this age through their persevering faith in Jesus. The blessing here pronounced on them is one of seven blessings or beatitudes found throughout the Apocalypse, and all reveal the blessedness of those who keep their faith in the face of persecution. There is nothing in the text to remotely suggest that this was an invitation to wash their robes after death or after aeons in the lake of fire. Those outside the city were not being invited to wash and enter the city; they are referenced solely to emphasize the privileged status of those already within. Once again, Hart’s exegesis is driven by his relentless determination to find what he wants to find in the Bible.
Hart’s use of Church history
Dr. Hart’s portrayal of the question of eternal punishment in the first Christian centuries is of a piece with his handling of Scripture. He opens his book by saying that St. Basil the Great “observed that in his time, a large majority of his fellow Christians…believed that hell was not everlasting” (p. 1-2). That is true: St. Basil did observe that—and in the same spirit that St. John Chrysostom continually observed that in his time a large majority of his fellow Christians to whom he was preaching were worldly. Both St. Basil and St. John were not passing along the results of polling their fellow theologians; they were lamenting the worldliness of the half-converted multitudes.
Hart concludes from St. Basil’s comment that the majority of Christian thinkers and theologians were universalists in his day, and in his version of church history, all was well (at least in the Christian east) until the church there started to go off the rails after Constantine. He writes of the “gradual hardening of the church’s teachings on hell into the infernalist orthodoxy” which occurred “over half a millennium”.
This lamentable distortion (earlier pilloried as a “grim distortion of the gospel” and as “enormous corruptions; p. 133, 138) took place as the church entered its imperial phase of existence. In Hart’s view “The more the church took shape as an administrative hierarchy and especially as it became an organ of and support for imperial unity and power, the more naturally it tended to command submission from the faithful…institutions all but inevitably evolve into those configurations—structural, ideological, ethical, emotional—that best fortify their power, influence and stability. And fear [i.e. fear of hell] is a majestically potent instrument” (p. 206). In other words, the Church’s teaching on hell increasingly suffered corruption after Constantine to the point where it was “a grim distortion of the gospel”. But prior to this, at least in the Christian east, the original and happier universalist understanding prevailed which declared the good news that eventually everyone, including Satan and the demons, would be saved.
But then if this was so, how does one account for the overwhelming number of early Fathers, both east and west, who wrote otherwise during those early years of supposedly pristine universalism, and declared that all would not be saved? One could mention writings such as the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, 2 Clement, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Epistle to Diognetus, the Martyrdom of Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Tatian, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Minucius Felix, Cyprian of Carthage, Dionysius of Alexandria, Lactantius, Anthony the Great, Ephraim the Syrian, Basil the Great, Cyril of Jerusalem, John Chrysostom, Jerome, Augustine, John Cassian, and others. These Fathers constitute the majority view even in the early centuries, and so belie the suggestion that most of the eastern church was universalist in the early years.
There was, of course, a kind of minority report in those years from men such as Origen, Evagrius, Gregory of Nyssa, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Diodore of Tarsus, and Isaac of Nineveh. These are cited so often by Dr. Hart that one starts to think of them as “the usual suspects”. And perhaps, with the exception of Gregory of Nyssa and maybe Isaac of Nineveh, the appellation is not entirely unwarranted, for some of them fell under conciliar condemnation for their works. Origen’s teachings were condemned at the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553 (as admitted by Brian Daley in his comprehensive survey, The Hope of the Early Church, p. 190.) Origen was also condemned by name along with Evagrius, and Theodore of Mopsuestia in the first canon of the Council in Trullo in 692.
What of Gregory of Nyssa, to whose works Hart continually returns? He was indeed a Church Father and a great saint, but no one bats a thousand. That is why what is authoritative is the consensus of the Fathers and not the views of any single saint, and in the consensus that eventually formed regarding eternal punishment, the view of St. Gregory was left behind. One needs to keep up: Epiphanius’ aversion to images (he once tore down a curtain that bore an image of Christ) was acceptable in his day, but would not have been acceptable in the ninth century. It is the same with Gregory of Nyssa: after the issue had been dealt with at ecumenical councils and a consensus reached, universalism was no longer an option.
It is interesting to notice how Dr. Hart regards the mass of Christian population at that time. In his view, it was then “generally assumed that there were mysteries of the faith that should be reserved for only the very few, the Christian intellectual elite or pnevmatikoi, ‘spiritual persons’…while the faith of the more common variety of believers should be nourished only with the simpler, coarser, more infantile versions of doctrine…It was commonly assumed among the very educated of those times that the better part of humanity was something of a hapless rabble who could be made to behave responsibly only by the most terrifying coercions of their imaginations” (p. 200, 201).
This is quite the indictment of the Church. Denunciations of all Christians but the elite as simple, coarse, infantile, and hapless rabble sound more like words found among our classic enemies, such as Celsus. In Hart’s reconstruction of church history, the real and genuine teaching was reserved for the elite few, while the teaching about hell offered to the majority of the baptized faithful was false and a corruption of the gospel.
One asks: did the teachers pandering to the coarse and infantile multitudes in those early centuries know that what they were teaching about hell was false? Were the many Fathers of those early years, men such as Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Cyprian of Carthage, as well as men such as Basil the Great and John Chrysostom, aware that they were offering “a grim distortion of the gospel” to their flocks and to the world at large? Or were these Fathers sincere, but deceived, somehow unable to understand the Scriptures they read, which are now so clear to universalists such as Dr. Hart?
The cost to suggesting that those early Fathers were in fact misled, deceived, and unable to distinguish between the gospel and a grim distortion of it, is very high. For if they were that clueless and easily misled about the basic gospel, why should anyone trust their words and their writings about anything?
Dr. Hart is convinced that the Church’s long tradition regarding one of its central tenets is wrong—and not just wrong, but reprehensible and immoral. His dismissal of this tradition runs like a thread throughout his book. He freely acknowledges that after the pristine time of Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, it was all downhill. He admits that the teaching of an eternal hell is “the broad mainstream” (p. 75), “the majority tradition” going “down the centuries” (p. 74), and that it is “deeply fixed at the heart of almost all Christian traditions” (p. 78). Yet for all that it is still “an unpremeditated corporate labor of communal self-deception…a long tradition of error” (p. 19). In his view “Christianity not only had arisen in Hellenistic and Semitic lands, but also had in all likelihood never entirely succeeded in spreading beyond them in a pure form” (p. 16)—in other words, the faith spread by the Church into the west and into all the world was not pure, but fatally compromised. It was only in the nineteenth century that this lamentable situation “began, if every so slightly, to turn back again” and improve (p. 2). This does not, it hardly needs saying, involve a very robust faith in the ability of the Holy Spirit to guide the Church into all truth.
And, in Hart’s view, it all could have been so different! If only the Church at large had listened to his hero, Gregory of Nyssa! “Would that Christian tradition had…heeded Gregory of Nyssa instead [of Augustine). So many unpleasant confusions might have been avoided, so many young minds might have been preserved against psychological abuse, so many Christian moral imaginations might have been spared such enormous corruptions” (p. 138).
In Hart’s “tireless refrain”, his “cri de coeur” (his words) one can recognize the voice of every heretical reformer throughout the Church’s long history. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Christadelphians, and all other Unitarians throughout the world all produce their own tireless refrain, “Would that Christian tradition had heeded Arius instead of Athanasius!” Radical reformers of the sixteenth century also utter the same cri de coeur, “Would that Christian tradition had heeded the Council of Hiereia in 754 on the matter of icons!” If only…If only…
The history of the Church throughout the centuries is full of such roads not taken. Orthodox Christians believe that the Holy Spirit guides the Church in its historical sojourn, so that when the Church finally makes up its mind and reaches a settled consensus on matters of the faith (such as the divinity of Christ, the legitimacy of icons, and the eternity of hell), then that “broad mainstream” and “majority tradition” represent the truth. The alternative to such a belief in the reliability of the Church’s tradition (expressed by the consensus patrum, the conciliar definitions, and the Church’s liturgy) is complete subjectivism, where every man does what is right in his own eyes and becomes his own ultimate authority. In a word, the alternative to embracing the reliability of the Church’s Tradition is ecclesiastical chaos.
Yet this seems to be precisely what Dr. Hart knowingly holds. In his final conclusion in the final paragraph of his book, he says, “For me [rejecting the Church’s teaching on hell] is a matter of conscience…As such, conscience must not abide by the rule of the majority. Placed in the balance over against its dictates, the authority of a dominant tradition or of a reigning opinion has no weight whatever” (p. 208; italics mine).
One can only admire such clear-headed honesty as Dr. Hart drops the mask of Orthodoxy by declaring that the Tradition by which Orthodoxy lives and is defined has no weight whatever for him. I repeat: this was ever the stance of those throughout history who preferred their own views and wisdom to that of the Body of Christ. Dr. Hart may possibly be correct in his views, and certainly to be praised for his consistency and candour. But his claim to be authentically Orthodox or to represent an Orthodox approach can no longer be sustained.
His personal investment
One must appreciate Dr. Hart for sharing so much of himself so publicly. He says that when he first heard the notion of an eternal hell around the age of fourteen from a book belonging to his older brother and from a sermon in his Episcopal church he found the notion nonsensical and abhorrent (p. 10-11). In his own words, “The conclusion I had reached as a result of the sermon that day remained with me, and I have never really wavered from it since then. I still find myself unable to repudiate my initial, callow response: a slight shiver of distaste at the naïve religious mind at its most morally obtuse” (p.12). Thus Hart begins the First Meditation of his book by saying, “I have always—or, at least, for as long as I can remember thinking about such things—been an instinctive universalist as regards the question of the ultimate destiny of souls. Part of the reason for this, I confess, is purely affective: I have always found what became the traditional majority Christian view of hell…a genuinely odious idea, both morally and emotionally” (p. 65). One here notes the predominance of emotion as the engine driving this view—one embraces universalism because one’s emotions are stirred at the thought of eternal suffering and one simply cannot bear it.
Hart feels quite strongly about this. For him, it is the hill which he and his Christian faith are willing to die on: “I have been asked more than once in the last few years whether, if I were to become convinced that Christian adherence absolutely requires a belief in a hell of eternal torment, this would constitute in my mind proof that Christianity should be dismissed as a self-evidently morally obtuse and logically incoherent faith. And, as it happens, it would”. It is hard to resist the conclusion, having read all of That All Shall Be Saved, that Hart argues so long, so vociferously, with such superficial Biblical exegesis, and with such disdain for most of the Fathers because he desperately trying to convince himself. To date he has succeeded.
For Dr. Hart, belief in an eternal hell is the deal-breaker. To continue to be a Christian, he must remain a universalist, and on the altar of his universalism he is quite prepared to sacrifice the Church’s faith in the consensus of the Fathers and the reliability of her Tradition. In this game, nothing else counts at all. The experience of Christ in prayer, the evidence for His Resurrection, the miracles of Jesus and His saints, devotion to His Mother—none of this has enough worth or evidentiary value for him to continue as a Christian if universalism be not true. It is almost as if Christianity=universalism, and the entirety of the Faith is collapsed into preoccupation with a single idea.
Hart’s appeal to conscience, however, is not to be despised. Dr. Martin Luther once (reputedly) took the same stand as Dr. Hart: “Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me.” But I suggest another path forward is possible.
I agree with Hart and with others that the thought that the lost will suffer eternally is emotionally difficult. Yet one need not fixate upon the notion that hell is a subterranean torture chamber constructed by God for the purpose of tormenting sinner in order to satisfy the demands of justice. Other less primitive models remain, which (for example) suggest that it is the nature of sin to erode freedom and personhood so that lost have rendered themselves incapable of repentance and change. Their suffering is therefore self-inflicted and has little or nothing to do with the voracious demands of justice.
The way forward is acknowledge one’s limitations. If one is not be able to understand how the suffering of the lost is consistent with the love of Christ and the final triumph of God, but is convinced that Jesus is Lord, and that the Church is His body, one will confess that His love must be compatible with the suffering of the lost somehow. The fact that one cannot now see how this could be so is only proof of one’s limited wisdom and insight. What we cannot understand now when we see through a glass darkly, we will understand in the age to come when we will know as we have been fully known. But we should not allow our present lack of understanding to set the terms of the Faith. We must have greater faith in God’s love than we do in our own powers of understanding.
We can retain our conscience and abide by its witness because in our consciences we know that our powers of understanding are limited, and we prefer the wisdom of the Church to our own judgment. In the final analysis, it all comes down to a matter of humility.
Dr. Hart is right about one thing certainly: the choice between the traditional teaching of the Church on this subject and universalism is fundamental, and not simply a matter of minor detail, such as one’s views on the Millennium.
In the Church’s traditional view, mankind has deeply revolted against God and has admitted a spiritual cancer into its soul which will result in the suffocation of its spiritual life if not healed. Christ came to provide this healing and to bring into the Kingdom of God any and all who will repent and open themselves to the light before death takes them and it is too late. Hence the urgency of St. Paul’s cry, “Behold, now is the acceptable time! Behold, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthians 6:2). In the universalist view, everyone will eventually be healed of this spiritual cancer in the end, regardless of their choices in this life. Our eternal destiny is fixed and nothing that we do in this age ultimately matters when it comes to our final salvation.
These two views are incompatible with each other, and if consistently embraced will produce two very different kinds of spiritual life and approaches to spiritual warfare. The stakes are very high: Dr. Hart believes the Church’s traditional teaching constitutes “a grim distortion of the gospel”; I believe that universalism is a dangerous fantasy which can imperil men’s salvation. One must choose between them. Dr. Hart has made his choice. It is up to readers of his book to make theirs.