David Bentley Hart: 4 Meditations on Apokatastasis (1) — Introduction

David Bentley Hart: 4 Meditations on Apokatastasis
1: Introduction

David Bentley Hart’s book, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation, sets forth a powerful, passionate argument against the traditional Christian doctrine of eternal conscious punishment — that sinners wind up forever in hell — and for the belief that all shall be saved.

One argument that I shall make in this book is that the very notion that a rational agent in full possession of his or her faculties could, in any meaningful sense, freely reject God absolutely and forever is a logically incoherent one. Another is that, for this and other reasons, a final state of eternal torment could be neither a just sentence pronounced upon nor a just fate suffered by a finite being, no matter how depraved that being might have become. Still another is that, even if that fate were in some purely abstract sense “just,” the God who would permit it to become anyone’s actual fate could never be perfectly good…. (p. 18)

Hart has been accused of being “unrelentingly pugilistic,” in this book, beating “down opponents through cheap shots and emotional appeals” (Holsclaw, at McKnight). And, indeed, the writing is sharp and militant. At one point, Hart calls the traditional view of hell “degrading nonsense—an absolute midden of misconceptions, fragments of scriptural language wrenched out of context, errors of translation, logical contradictions, and (I suspect) one or two emotional pathologies” (p. 25).

But I think those who criticize him here are missing the point. Who, in his or her right mind, discusses the eternal punishment in hellfire of fellow human beings with cool detachment or as an academic matter of theology? In my view, Hart is absolutely right to pour his heart as well as his mind into fighting this battle. There is more than enough intellectual rigor here to debate, but it would not be at all seemly if one did not call out those who have promulgated these teachings for failing to feel the emotional and visceral nature of them and to acknowledge with pathos the toll these teachings have taken upon real human beings over the centuries.

Nevertheless, I leave most of that to David Bentley Hart. I would like to take some time here to examine his four meditations upon apokatastasis, his reasons for believing that, in the end, “all shall be saved.” The Greek word apokatastasis comes from Ephesians 1:9-10 —

He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth. (NASB, emphasis mine)

Hart translates the key phrase, “the recapitulation of all things in the Anointed.” He lists Eph. 1:9-10 as one of a number of texts that promote the idea of universal salvation. He is not unaware of other texts that seem to advance the idea of eternal judgment and hell, and he wonders why the tradition chose to uphold those while ignoring or explaining away the apokatastasis texts.

To me it is surpassingly strange that, down the centuries, most Christians have come to believe that one class of claims—all of which are allegorical, pictorial, vague, and metaphorical in form—must be regarded as providing the “literal” content of the New Testament’s teaching regarding the world to come, while another class—all of which are invariably straightforward doctrinal statements—must be regarded as mere hyperbole. (p. 101)

He also rejects the “hopeful universalism” approach taken by those like Hans Urs von Balthasar, who sees these two apparently contradictory sets of texts as irreconcilable, advocating that we hold them in tension with one another, respect the mystery of our inability to resolve that tension, and hope for the best — “to wait on God in a salutary condition of charity toward all and salubrious fear for ourselves—of a joyous certitude regarding the glorious power of God’s love and a terrible consciousness of the dreadful might of sin” (p. 103).

Hart’s own solution to the seemingly contrary eschatological expectations in the NT is to see them as “two different moments within a seamless narrative, two distinct eschatological horizons, one enclosed within the other” (p. 103). There will be a judgment upon human history and sin, but this is not the ultimate judgment. That will occur when all creation — and thus, all humanity — is finally reconciled to God.

In this way of seeing the matter, one set of images marks the furthest limit of the immanent course of history, and the division therein—right at the threshold between this age and the “Age to come” (‘olam ha-ba, in Hebrew)—between those who have surrendered to God’s love and those who have not; and the other set refers to that final horizon of all horizons, “beyond all ages,” where even those who have traveled as far from God as it is possible to go, through every possible self-imposed hell, will at the last find themselves in the home to which they are called from everlasting, their hearts purged of every last residue of hatred and pride. (pp. 103-104)

He likens this to the Cross and Easter Sunday. “The eschatological discrimination between heaven and hell is the crucifixion of history, while the final universal restoration of all things is the Easter of creation” (p. 104).

And he finds support in the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15: 22-28 —

For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming, then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death. For He has put all things in subjection under His feet. But when He says, “All things are put in subjection,” it is evident that He is excepted who put all things in subjection to Him. When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all. (NASB)

David Bentley Hart sees here “three distinct moments, distributed across two eschatological frames, in the process of the final restoration of the created order in God (p. 104).

  1. First, the exaltation of Christ
  2. Second, the exaltation of those united to Christ (at Christ’s coming, at history’s end)
  3. Third, “the full completion at the end of all ages,” when the Kingdom is given to the Father

Note, there is no mention in Paul’s scheme here of any who will be cast into eternal damnation. “All things,” to Hart, means “all things” in heaven and on earth. In order for “all” to truly mean that “all” will be saved, Hart references Paul’s picture of the judgment in 1 Corinthians 3, where two types of people will be “saved” — those whose works withstand the fire and those whose works are burned up in the fire — though they themselves are saved. In other words, though David Bentley Hart believes that all will be saved, that does not mean that people will miss having to pass through purifying judgment.

Next time: Hart’s first argument for apokatastasis.

20 thoughts on “David Bentley Hart: 4 Meditations on Apokatastasis (1) — Introduction

  1. DBH’s thesis is rooted in the eastern Orthodox (and historically the whole church’s) understanding that what we need saving from is not God’s anger, or judgement, or being sentenced to hell, or even, principally sin, but from suffering, decay and death. The suffering, decay and death of which this world is full is the direct consequence of sin, not some added punishment for it from God; God is not inflicting it on us but trying to save us from it. We are unable to stop sinning by ourselves, and this is spiralling us down into degeneration, suffering, decay and death, and beyond death further descent into the hell we have created for ourselves with our sin. Christ was sent to breaknthe cycle, transform our spirits, turn us around and bring us back towards God again. The thesis of universalism is Christ follows us down into death and hell and will bring us out, eventually rescuing all of us.


  2. I would say first that Paul saw no issue here. In 1 Cor 3 he speaks of a judgment through which our works either stand or are burned up. Either way, we are saved through Christ.


  3. That’s not a lot different from being a middle-class White American while millions of little brown men and women are squatting in the river fens of Bangladesh waiting for the next tide.

    Just sayin’ I can easily see it


  4. I’m pretty much a universalist now as well. Either Jesus has the power to save, or he doesn’t. Either Jesus is the Way, or he isn’t. Either Jesus loves everyone enough to sacrifice himself, or he doesn’t. Either schmucks like me can be saved, or we can’t.


  5. The “time” before Christ: shadow.
    The time since Christ became incarnate: icon.
    The Age to Come: True Reality.



  6. Was not the baptism that Jesus underwent from John one of repentance? And did he not mystically identify with our sins in that baptism? And did he not teach us to pray, “…forgive us our trespasses…”


  7. If, as CM says above in keeping with Hart’s argument, “We are part of each other, and if one of us suffers, all suffer”, then maybe our choices both here and on the other side of death, including our choice to repent, is not fully in our own hands, or even not substantially in our own hands. Perhaps we can repent for those who can’t. Or maybe the humanity realizes our repentance for us, by assuming our guilt in baptism.


  8. According to St. Maximos (AFAICUH) we had to go through all this so that God could become man. Now we go have to go through it so that man may become divine.

    John 6:28 – “I came from the Father” It dawned on me recently that Our Lord’s statement here could include everything that’s happened since the Big Bang.

    John 14:3 – “I go to prepare a place for you”. Same thing. This could include everything up to the Omega Singularity, including aeons of mindless materialism as did the times from the Alpha Singularity.

    Like sausage making, it’s a messy business, not neat, and everybody’ll be glad when it’s over. Now that’s probably worse a lot less than what DBH would say, but there it is.


  9. One thing has to square and I wonder how DBH squares it; the Orthodox tradition affirms that there is no repentance possible after death. Yet we Orthodox pray for the dead, and the most I’ve ever gotten out of Father Christos or Father Kevin is “It helps. We don’t know how.”


  10. Confronting the idea, promulgated by Aquinas and others, that witnessing the damnation of sinners will increase the happiness of those who are saved, Hart argues that we as human beings are not autonomous, isolated individuals.

    1) “Taking pleasure in Heaven by witnessing the damnation of sinners” has a formal name:
    The Abominable Fancy.
    2) American culture IS “autonomous, isolated individuals”. American Evangelical culture just adds Divine Right to this mix. So it is no surprise that The Abonimable Fancy and Eternal Hell would have quite a following in American church culture.

    How then, would heaven be heaven for us if our neighbor is being tortured forever in hell?

    “Better them than ME”?

    This reminds me of the Rapture Ready types who talked like they’d be beamed up to a catered Superbowl Suite in Heaven to watch the Tribulation and Armageddon as the Ultimate Spectator Sport.

    P.S. I actually wonder what a lot of Christians would do without God’s (hair-trigger) Wrath and the threat of Eternal Hell. Would their faith just collapse into nothingness?


  11. Eternal punishment is not even in the equation as far as I’m concerned; having no choice but to accede to a love we do not want, just because God can outlast us, is another matter. And if we cannot make an adequately informed choice in eternity, then we can’t now; in which case, what is all this drama about? Why not go straight to eternity, and start undergoing the process there in the clear eternal light right away instead of living in this half light? I guess we’ll see what Hart has to say, always remembering that as smart and theologically informed and articulate as he may be, it is necessarily only what he has to say.


  12. I take some kind of purgatory for granted at this point. If I’m going to be made holy enough to endure the closer and closer vision of God, I need a lot more work than I’ll get in this lifetime, and it’s not the kind of work that I can be absent from or unconscious during, like surgery; it’s probably more like the hard work of painful recovery following critical emergency surgery. It may be that being drawn closer and closer into the vision of God is itself that purgation.


  13. Hart deals with the argument of human free choice in some depth, which we’ll explore in posts to come. In brief, Hart asks whether human beings, who are limited in so many ways, can ever really make a fully informed choice in a matter such as this, and even if they could, if punishing a finite creature for eternity is a just penalty for such a choice.


  14. I prefer universalism, but how could I know for sure? I find the idea of eternal, everlasting, conscious torment/torture repugnant, and reject the idea of God as divine cosmic torturer. Otoh, I think it feasible that God may continue to respect the choice of his creatures even in eternity, and even if we keep saying “No!” to him, as he respects that choice now. That he has the power to compel or wear down our choice to one of acceptance of him, I have no doubt; but is it characteristic of love to win by hard power, i.e., brute force, or soft power, i.e.,eternal endurance? It doesn’t seem so to me. In any case, currently I don’t believe God is limited to only two choices, heaven or hell, when it comes to the eternal disposition of his human creatures; nothing in scripture or tradition shows that he is. I remain agnostic about most of the details of how this works out.


  15. Hart eloquently addresses the thing that “tipped the scales” for you, Stephen. Confronting the idea, promulgated by Aquinas and others, that witnessing the damnation of sinners will increase the happiness of those who are saved, Hart argues that we as human beings are not autonomous, isolated individuals. Our very nature and formation lies in our relationships and experiences with others. We are part of each other, and if one of us suffers, all suffer.

    I am not I in myself alone, but only in all others. If, then, anyone is in hell, I too am partly in hell. (p. 157)

    How then, would heaven be heaven for us if our neighbor is being tortured forever in hell?


  16. Interesting subject. As a supplement to the discussion let me recommend the recent HEAVEN AND HELL from Prof Bart Ehrman which approaches the subject from a historical/textual (though here popular) level.

    The book is about the development of the traditional views of the afterlife (and like most of traditional Christian doctrines they did develop over time). To cut to the chase Ehrman believes Jesus actually taught a form of “annihilationism”, that the unrighteous dead will be destroyed in the final judgement, although he considers the fascinating passages in Paul and the other NT writings that hint at some form of universalism. (Isn’t Paul saying in Romans 11 that all Israel will be saved?) .

    I was raised in a very conservative rural fundamentalist church and I heard “hellfire and brimstone” sermons from as far back as I can remember. But as I grew older the idea of eternal conscious torment never made sense to me. Who deserves to be tortured forever? The answer in my tradition was that you’re not being condemned because of anything you do but because of your “sin nature”. In other words you are condemned to hell simply for the crime of existing in the first place!

    This was the first chink in the armor that led me to ultimately abandon my fundamentalist upbringing. Through that chink flowed all the other objections that came to me one by one. What tipped the scales for me is the idea that I could spend eternity in divine bliss while billion and billions of people are being tortured. Could I do this? Would I want to be around people who could? .


  17. DBH is familiar to me mostly by the sound and fury he is causing in the Orthosphere, and he makes plenty of it. He does not suffer fools gladly; indeed, he does not seem to suffer them at all. This attitude has put him at loggerheads with the majority of the Orthodox blogosphere. Eternal conscious punishment is not foreign to Orthodoxy, and their descriptions of the Afterlife can be truly harrowing.

    What I have read about DBH’s defense of the Apokatastasis impresses me. It is not an ally-ally-in-come-free at the end of a cosmic game of hide and seek. It costs. Mostly, it costs Christ, but there is a glimmer in his writings that there will be plenty of suffering involved for all the [eventual] redeemed, kind of like Purgatory, but you take Aunt Maggie’s licks (freely, on her behalf) instead of your own.


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