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)
59 thoughts on “David Bentley Hart: 4 Meditations on Apokatastasis (2) — In the end of all things is their beginning”
This is especially useful since most of us aren’t named Ernest.
(Just thought I’d play the role of John Barry/dan today.)
The Harrowing of Hell by Christ plays a far larger role in Eastern Christianity than it does in the West, and all of the discussions of the Fathers that promote a universal salvation cluster around it.
Jason Micheli got it right in a blog post he did for Mockingbird yesterday. The post was about eliminating adverbs of qualification for partaking of Holy Communion from the Eucharistic liturgy, including “earnestly” repenting of ones sins before approaching the table. Near the end, Micheli talks about how we cannot meet the standard of “earnestly” repenting, we need help beyond our ability, and that Christ “repents us” for us. That’s about right, I think, with regard to repentance in this life or in some postmortem state.
It has just occurred to me that if you are right that repentance is impossible without someone or something outside oneself to interact with, may that not then be exactly the necessity of Jesus’s descent into hell? The thief on the cross was enabled to repent by his interaction with Jesus there: perhaps the dead in hell may likewise repent through their repenting to and with Jesus who is there in hell with them?
Well, the way you hear the Spiritual Warfare types talk…
Thing is, we perceive Time as linear, from the Past through the Present (the dividing line) into the Future. I don’t think we CAN perceive or experience it any other way.
The meaning of the word “repentance” also comes into play.
What is it, what do you do, and how much is enough?
Never heard a real clear answer on this, and like a lot of things it got tainted by one-upmanship games.
At this point, out of respect, of course I would not speak for Wade, but I think he has addressed the topic in the past on his blog site, maybe in a different context,
here is one site, and I’m sure there are others:
Good post and comments today. Very much enjoyed the different angles and perspectives.
Yes! We will be raised with bodies! If repentance is not possible in the postmortem/pre-resurrection state because there’s no there there, why wouldn’t it be possible in the resurrected state?
All of which means that Hart is expressing an opinion with regard to his position affirming universalism, however eloquent, theologically articulate, and thoughtful it may be; he has not settled the question of what actually happens, or will happen. I prefer universalism, but God is not bound by my preferences — nor Hart’s. I reject as morally repugnant the idea that God would hold any of his creatures in an eternal, everlasting condition of conscious torment/torture as a form of punishment for their sins; but aside from that, I simply have no idea how it all works out in the end. But I don’t think God is bound by having only two choices for his creatures eternal disposition, either heaven or hell.
Exactly. The writers of the New Testament sometimes wanted simple bloody vengeance visited upon their enemies, as did the Psalmist. They were morally imperfect, and what they wrote was sometimes morally imperfect.
Remember that whether here now or there later, the human body as well as the divine Spirit of Christ is omnipresent. You said below that according to Orthodoxy we can repent for those who can’t repent for themselves. I think this is central to the whole matter. The problem is that we may not know the need of those in the postmortem state, who they are or what they did, the immensity of total need, who needs repentance and who doesn’t, and our repentance is always imperfect and partial. Christ, on the other hand, in his resurrected humanity knows exactly what the need is, who needs what; and he identified himself with our sin in the baptism of repentance administered by John the Baptist. He has body enough, he has time enough, and is able to take us through the changes our sins require; and he can repent of them for us in his humanity, which is joined our humanity, just as he did at his baptism by John.
Christiane, I’m betting Burleson is no universalist.
It is possible that we — all or some — continue to be obstinate, etc., but that has nothing to do with repentance being precluded by lack of a body or lack of time and change.
Like I told Ian upstream, if repentance is so easy and obvious, why don’t they start now? If you respond that the need for repentance is not so obvious to us in the present state I wonder what will change after we are separated from our bodies. It is perfectly possible that we could continue to be obstinate, unforgiving, deceived, lost, confused, and scared, and now, dead.
Granted, words have a range of meaning (semantic range) and the meaning must be determined by the context, informed by use in similar contexts. ‘ekdikeo’ is used 6 times in the NT. The 2 times in Luke refer to ‘justice’ (parable of widow crying out to the judge), but the other contexts suggest revenge or punishment of some kind (Rom. 12:19, 2 Cor. 10:6, Rev. 6:10, 19:2). In Rev. 19:2, God has ‘judged’ the ‘great harlot’ (in graphic terms) and has ‘avenged’ their blood against her.
I used to tell my Baptist friends that while I believed in the ‘security of the believer’ I’m not sure the author of Hebrews did. In this context, I believe in redemptive justice, but I’m not sure the author of Revelation did. 🙂
So if something precludes repentance in the postmortem state, it isn’t lack of time and change, or lack of a body.
From the link above
Then why do they not begin the path of repentance right now? Are they stronger than God?
[It could very well be that the reason is because I have been such a poor example of repentance to them]
Orthodox Philosopher deals with all of this far better than I
>If you think about it, time and change are necessary presuppositions for repentance, in that there has to be a delta from one state to another.
If you think about it, time and change are necessary presuppositions for experience, even before they are for repentance. Otherwise your postmortem state is like heaven in the Talking Heads song, “a place where nothing ever happens.”
If repentance is impossible without a body, experience itself would be equally impossible. How would you experience anything without a body, or, what may amount to the same thing, without a consciousness moving in some kind of space/time? What would existence without experience mean? It’s nonsense, actually. The very concept of experience requires time for it to happen.
The word isn’t “avenge” as in “take revenge” but “do justice”, and, as Dana says, God’s justice is to vindicate the righteous, end the rule of the wicked, restore the lost and reconcile all to all in their right relationship with each other, not to inflict tit for that punishment.
This logic only works if the devils are more powerful than God.
Comment to Mule stuck in mod. Stay tuned.
If I understand Hart correctly, once we have true and full knowledge the stage will be set for us to be able to give up our delusions – it will become “unthinkable” for us to choose an eternity without communion with God.
I can’t speak to “avenging our blood”, but all I have read about how the 1st century Jews – and therefore the earliest Christians as well – viewed “judgment” was not as God wiping away all the rottenness with a sweep of his arm, leaving nothing but destruction. No, it was about God making everything right.
Pause to think of the ramifications.
“Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.
But is there for the night a resting-place?
A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
You cannot miss that inn.
Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
They will not keep you standing at that door.
Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come.”
The “hard data” the Early Church Fathers were working with, particularly in the East, was the consensus on the interpretation of Scripture. And according to that consensus, the “data” regarding what happens in and after the return of Christ and the judgment are missing from Scripture in any real sense. Doctrine isn’t based on figurative language in Scripture in the East; that’s why, though we have the book of Revelation as part of Scripture, we don’t read it publicly in any service. If the interpretation of figurative language in prophecies in the OT is connected to Christ, that’s another matter – the interpretation been revealed, through Christ’s Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection.
So, Eastern Christians may have opinions about what happens after the Lord’s return, but dogmatically it is still all an open question, no matter what Orthodox advocates of “traditional Hell” say. This leaves Orthodoxy as the only place where the hope of apocatastasis has a place to stand, dogmatically.
Dear to God (and me) Mule,
I don’t want my reply to get lost in the middle of the thread tangle, so here I am at the bottom with a few words for you.
>”I cannot shake the idea that the final reconciliation of all things will depend upon the ability of ourselves to forgive all things.” Wisdom, I had not considered this in any other than a personal sense, for myself, until you wrote it here previously. But I think you’re absolutely right on this, as one united to Christ, who forgave all things.
>”How would you negotiate with Christ for his salvation? What price would you exact?” Well, we shall all see Christ in glory, and that includes the glory of his enthronement on the Cross and all that means. It all comes back to the whole of Pascha.
>”Oh, It ain’t gonna be easy.” Cosmic understatement…
>”Without corporeal acts of mercy and self-denial repentance is mere regret.” We will be raised with bodies, remember? And although the body needs to follow through, metanoia is an inward turning. Not sufficient alone, but necessary.
>”Both the paths of virtue and vice are self-paving.” Remember: we shall see Him as He is, and we will know as we are known.
>”Purgatory is not accepted among the Orthodox.” But purgation/purification is, very much.
>”Once again, the presupposition of time after death.” My brain is at an age that can’t remember where I read a lot of the most recent things I’ve read. However, I do remember reading in more than one Orthodox source that some of the Fathers thought “everything” (resurrection, judgment, facing all our sin, etc) would happen “in an instant” – all at the same “time”.
>”This leaves the way open for Universalism, but it will have teeth. I think we’ll have to join Christ on the Cross to understand this more fully. Theosis may be something other than what I thought it was, a going down rather than a rising,” This. You’re catching the fragrance…
I keep coming back to the verse that really bothers me. I know it is apocalyptic and all that but Rev. 6:9-10 says ‘When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained; and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”‘
Here we have people, in God’s very presence – dead people – who clearly have a sense of time (‘how long’) and still have ‘unchristlike’ attitudes (‘avenging our blood’), and who seem unrepentant about it.
I long ago gave up on the doctrine of regeneration in any ‘sanctifying’ sense – we are all still the same wretched people we always were, though now some of us have a few new attitudes and directions, but not much. I’m beginning to wonder if even after death we don’t retain the same sinful attitudes (and actions?). Perhaps it will be grace, needed grace, forever.
As opposed to ADMIRING themselves in the mirror.
Burro, thank you for that link
I borrowed it and wrote about it over on Wade Burleson’s current post. The idea of a ‘moral dilemma’ was something I had thought about in connection with the “required mask/no mask/freedom” argument, but it was your link that helped me put thought to word. Thanks again.
Ursual LeGuin must be a reincarnation of Aud the Deep-Minded.
What a great story for provoking controversy within one’s own self (ie. a personal moral dilemma). 🙂
Sounds like one of the Orthodox speculations I’ve read online:
Purgatory and Hell are the same state of being. If you grow out of it (like the one ghost in The Great Divorce, it WAS Purgatory. If you NEVER grow out of it, it IS Hell.
Consider then the following. Both the paths of virtue and vice are self-paving. Repentance at one juncture facilitates repentance at another, whereas hardening at one juncture facilitates a hardening at another. If we grow too accustomed to rejecting the call to tame our passions when it is relatively easy to do so, what makes us think it will be easier after we are bereft of our members and senses?
And once again, we disregard the malice of the devils. We may not have the opportunity to do anything when we are completely on their turf. After keeping communion with them all our lives, they’re sure to be delighted with their new little plaything.
Why am I always the one introducing the controversy around here? I wish I could be irenic like Dana so you’d all think better of Orthodoxy.
Once again, the presupposition of time after death. I’ve always thought that it wasn’t proper to ask ‘where are the dead?’ but ‘when are the dead?’ My mother in law is back in 2008, which is no longer accessible to me, but it is accessible to Christ, and by extension, His saints.
Asymptotes. It may be that the dead are traveling a path perpendicular to ours now, which for us ended when they departed.
I understand the emotional need to get away from John MacArthur and RC Sproul smiling down over the everlasting torment of whist players, honky-tonkers, Democrats, and convenience store owners with a statue of Ganesh in the corner, just remember that Hart is a minority voice in Orthodoxy. An acceptable voice and an eloquent one, but still a minority voice.
I think Hart would (perhaps he specifically does, I must re-read the book) respond by saying that it is God himself who sets the conditions of death: if how we die and how we are when dead precludes repentance it is God himself who has ordered things that way so as to prevent us repenting – and that, as Hart says, would be monstrous.
“you cannot imagine any other state. I can’t either. My imagination is no more powerful than yours. All of my thinking about the intermediate state presupposes a kind of shadow body that may or may not be the case.”
Exactly. I don’t think any of us have enough hard data to specifically say there is one right answer to this question – even if we were an Early Church Father.
I don’t think one has to accept the Roman doctrine of “purgatory” to think that God’s judgment at the end will be remedial rather than punitive. Most of the arguments against it come from Jesus’ parables and the Book of Revelation (lake of fire, and all), but I happen to think that most, if not all of these statements, refer to judgments in time rather than the big one at the end. What Hart vigorously objects to is putting “justice” and “eternal punishment” side by side as though they are logically compatible. God will have justice, but for a finite being who is subject to so many contingencies that keep him/her from making a truly free eternal choice, that justice cannot logically lead to eternal punishment.
Furthermore, Hart’s understanding of gospel won’t allow it.
Yeah, y’all gonna argue yourselves right into the Roman Church. Not that that wouldn’t be an improvement for most of you.
Purgatory is not accepted among the Orthodox
And the philosophical/theological assumptions are….?
Like RobertF, you seem to presuppose we will experiencing the successive moments of the timestream passing us by as we move through them, simply because you cannot imagine any other state. I can’t either. My imagination is no more powerful than yours. All of my thinking about the intermediate state presupposes a kind of shadow body that may or may not be the case.
If you think about it, time and change are necessary presuppositions for repentance, in that there has to be a delta from one state to another. If the incorporeal state makes this impossible, then we are indeed in deep doo-doo. I’m not saying my beliefs are true and yours are false, I’m just not willing to presume on yours and go whistling blithely into the Afterlife with a false hope.
Even CS Lewis’ angel said to the lust-ridden man in The Great Divorce; “This moment contains all moments.”
“even the most minimal repentance gives Christ something He can work with.”
Repentance the size of a mustard seed? 😉
“Without corporeal acts of mercy and self-denial repentance is mere regret.”
We’ll, that kinda also undermines the concept of purgatory, too, doesn’t it?
” the consensus of the Fathers is that it is not possible without a body”
And the reason for that is…? This isn’t (just) snark, it’s a probing into all the philosophical/theological assumptions lurking behind that concensus.
Hart finds the idea, among other places, in 1 Corinthians 3:
Also, in the passage quoted Sunday, that Christ rules until all “enemies” have been put under his feet. Then he hands the Kingdom to the Father, is subjected to the Father, and God becomes all in all. In this, Hart sees a double horizon of future judgment and ultimate reconciliation.
It is also a dogma of the Orthodox Church that you can repent of the sins others commit, inasmuch as you participate in them or at least don’t rebuke them, and do acts of mercy on their behalf.
It appears from the story of the Prodigal son that even the most minimal repentance gives Christ something He can work with.
This leaves the way open for Universalism, but it will have teeth. I think we’ll have to join Christ on the Cross to understand this more fully. Theosis may be something other than what I thought it was, a going down rather than a rising,
Maybe He’ll have to become againthe idiot child for some Omelas, and He’ll call me to join Him.
And I am so unready for that.
It is far more justifiable to inquire where the idea where the idea of post-mortem repentance comes from, since the consensus of the Fathers is that it is not possible without a body. Without corporeal acts of mercy and self-denial repentance is mere regret. But we Protestants, both current and former, are deeply Gnostic. Don’t deny it. We view what survives death as the ‘essential’ part of us and the physical part as mere accident. What matters is not “the deeds done in the body”, but the cast of the mind and the intentions, whatever that phantom is.
I know I’m not “proving” anything. There is little in the Scriptures describing the intermediate state, and the Fathers have bigger fish to fry, such as guiding people to repentance in this lifetime.
I think you have hit the nail on the head there – the real issue is repentance after death. Assume this, and universalism makes sense, and indeed perhaps becomes inevitable. Assume it is impossible, and universalism is likewise impossible, because one cannot be reconciled to God and neighbour without it.
I’ve read Hart’s book, and it’s point is not to prove the Bible says this or that, but rather that if anyone is consigned eternally to hell it is because God decided it, and if that were true that would make God a monster and true reconciliation / joy in God and neighbour impossible. IIRC he says he can’t prove his argument is true, only that if it isn’t, Christianity’s basic promise can’t be either.
I can’t remember whether Hart deals with “no repentance after death” being an eastern Orthodox dogma in the book, since not being eastern Orthodox myself I don’t think it really registered.
And in that sense, the punishments of hell are not inflicted by God per se, but the natural results of people stuck in their blindness and self-destructiveness in a new spiritual state. As Niven and Pournelle have their main character say at the bottom of the pit of hell, hell is a spiritual asylum for the theologically, dangerously insane, locked up for the good of the rest of the universe (and their own good, their sufferings are God’s last resort to try to batter down their pride).
Side note – if anyone here hasn’t read their Inferno, do so. It’s fascinating.
That’s C S Lewis’, Niven and Pournelle’s (see their modern rewrite of Dante’s *Inferno*), and my take on the matter. Just look at how much people are willing to suffer here and now to feed their sense of pride…
Where exactly did the notion of “no repentance after death’ come from anyways? I’ve far more often seen it assumed rather than discussed and proven.
Arguably, the idea that after death everyone will have to face, understand, and repent of the evil they have done is not exactly letting people off easy. I bet a lot of people would choose an eternity of being tortured, while holding on to their pride and their self-justification, over having to actually look themselves in the mirror.
Nope, ain’t gonna be easy. There’s going to be plenty enough torment and purgation spread thick.
Mule, like you, l have also “lived a mostly well-negotiated life amidst reasonable people. I have little to forgive.”
I’m reminded of something that Lincoln said; “If my sorrow were equally spread among all of humanity there would not be a dry eye in all of the world.”
Oh, I forgot. Let’s assume as a mental exercise that repentance is impossible after death. If the tormentors of your loved ones departed life unrepentant, that is how you will negotiate with them; with all their pride and folly manifest for all to see. Leopold of Belgium won’t lower his head, but stare at you and Christ as if you were the offenders.
Oh, It ain’t gonna be easy.
I cannot shake the idea that the final reconciliation of all things will depend upon the ability of ourselves to forgive all things. This is easy for me, who has lived a mostly well-negotiated life amidst reasonable people. I have little to forgive. What about the father whose little girl has been abducted for sex slavery? What about the Congolese girl whose father had his limbs amputated by the agents of Leopold of Belgium? What Paradise would be theirs if they had to endure the authors of their torments in the Afterlife grinning like cats as if to say ‘See? It was just a game after all’ ?
What about the guy next door to you who thinks Black folk need to chill out and gays are a threat to a stable society? He’s a middle manager and he’d been told he needs to let ten people go in his department. He did it. You know exactly how he’s going to vote in November, and you’re taking it kind of personally. His reptilian son seduced your daughter and left her carrying his grandson, and he won’t return your calls. How would you negotiate with Christ for his salvation? What price would you exact?
“[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?”
is it possible some ‘christian’ folk who are heaviest in the ‘pointing of the finger’ might be unable to comprehend this quote?
do those who circumscribe the power of Christ to heal all wounds cut THEMSELVES off from the very gift of healing that they would deny others for whom they had contempt?