David Bentley Hart: 4 Meditations on Apokatastasis
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).
- First, the exaltation of Christ
- Second, the exaltation of those united to Christ (at Christ’s coming, at history’s end)
- 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.