David Bentley Hart: 4 Meditations on Apokatastasis
2: In the end of all things is their beginning
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.
In our first post we introduced the concept of apokatastasis, which Paul writes about in 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 understands Jesus and the New Testament writers to teach that there is a coming judgment upon human sin, but that this judgment is not the final word. Beyond that, “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” (p. 104). DBH sees universal salvation as the only logical conclusion to the Christian story.
As far as I am concerned, anyone who hopes for the universal reconciliation of creatures with God must already believe that this would be the best possible ending to the Christian story; and such a person has then no excuse for imagining that God could bring any but the best possible ending to pass without thereby being in some sense a failed creator. (p. 66)
And that brings us to Hart’s second meditation, on God as Creator.
It is not the way of the compassionate Maker to create rational beings in order to deliver them over mercilessly to unending affliction in punishment for things of which He knew even before they were fashioned, aware how they would turn out when He created them—and whom nonetheless He created.
• St. Isaac of Ninevah, Ascetical Homilies (quoted, p. 64)
Hart testifies that he learned from Fathers such as St. Isaac, Origen, Gregory and Maximus that “protology is eschatology.” What we understand about God as Creator informs our understanding of the world’s relation to God and his ultimate design for it. “The end of all things is their beginning.”
[T]he cosmos will have been truly created only when it reaches its consummation in “the union of all things with the first Good,” and humanity will have truly been created only when all human beings, united in the living body of Christ, become at last that “Godlike thing” that is “humankind according to the image.” (p. 68)
God created toward an end, and if that end includes the damnation of people created in God’s image (in some theological traditions — the vast majority of people), then what shall we say of God’s goodness? And what shall we make of such scriptural claims as “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 5:20-21).
And what does the eternal punishment of sinners say, Hart asks, about Christ’s sacrifice and the real cost of saving only a remnant of humanity? “[W]hat would the mystery of God becoming a man in order to effect a merely partial rescue of created order truly be, as compared to the far deeper mystery of a worthless man becoming the suffering god upon whose perpetual holocaust the entire order of creation finally depends?” (p. 85)
In either case—eternal torment, eternal oblivion—creation and redemption are negotiations with evil, death, and suffering, and so never in an absolute sense God’s good working of all things. (p. 87)
However, David Bentley Hart argues, this cannot be.
If God is the good creator of all, he must also be the savior of all, without fail, who brings to himself all he has made, including all rational wills, and only thus returns to himself in all that goes forth from him. (pp. 90-91)