David Bentley Hart: 4 Meditations on Apokatastasis
3: What do the scriptures say?
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.
Thus far we have considered the concept of apokatastasis and the implications for eschatology that arise from believing that God is the good creator of all. In his second meditation, Hart reflects on some of the biblical material that supports his case.
Here are some scriptures to which David Bentley Hart points:
- Romans 5:18-19 – through one act of righteousness came a rectification of life for all human beings
- 1 Corinthians 15:22 – as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be given life
- 2 Corinthians 5:14 – one died on behalf of all
- Romans 11:32 – God shut up everyone in obstinacy so that he might show mercy to everyone
- 1 Timothy 2:3-6 – our savior God, who intends all human beings to be saved
- Titus 2:11 – the grace of God has appeared, giving salvation to all human beings
- 2 Corinthians 5:19 – God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself
- Ephesians 1:9-10 – the mystery of God’s will, to recapitulate all things in Christ
- Colossians 1:27-28 – that we may present every human being as perfected in Christ
- John 12:32 – when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw everyone to myself
- Hebrews 2:9 – that by God’s grace Christ might taste of death on behalf of everyone
- John 17:2 – you gave him power over all flesh, so that you have given everything to him, that he might give them life in the age to come
- John 4:42 – this man is truly the savior of the world
- John 12:47 – I came not that I might judge the world, but that I might save the world
- 1 John 4:14 – the Father has sent the Son as savior of the world
- 2 Peter 3:9 – the Lord is magnanimous toward you, intending for no one to perish
- Matthew 18:14 – your Father in heaven desires that not one of these little ones should perish
- Philippians 2:9-11 – that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend
- Colossians 1:19-20 – to reconcile all things to him
- 1 John 2:2 – he is atonement for our sins, and not only for ours, but for the whole world
- John 3:17 – God sent the Son into the world not that he might condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him
- Luke 16:16 – the good tidings of God’s Kingdom are being proclaimed, and everyone is being forced into it
- 1 Timothy 4:10 – we have hoped in a living God who is the savior of all human beings
What about other NT texts, particularly those sayings of Jesus that seem to speak of a final division between the wheat and the tares, the children of the kingdom and the children of the evil one?
I find no warrant in that for assuming that the highly pictorial and dramatic imagery of exclusion used by Jesus to describe the fate of the derelict when the Kingdom comes—barred or locked doors, the darkness of the night outside the feasting hall, wails of despair and teeth grinding in frustration or anger or misery—corresponds to any particular literal state of affairs, or to some specific perpetual postmortem state of the damned from which there is no hope of deliverance. I am not even willing to presume that the “inexcusable” blasphemy against the Spirit, mentioned in all three synoptic gospels, is one for which an everlasting penalty must be exacted—whether that be endless torment or final annihilation—rather than merely one that necessarily requires purification instead of pardon. The texts of the gospels simply make no obvious claim about a place or state of endless suffering; and, again, the complete absence of any such notion in the Pauline corpus (or, for that matter, in John’s gospel, or in the other New Testament epistles, or in the earliest Christian documents of the post-apostolic church, such as the Didache and the writings of the “Apostolic Fathers,” and so forth) makes the very concept nearly as historically suspect as it is morally repellent. All that can be said with perfect certitude is that to read back into these texts either the traditional view of dual eternal postmortem destinies or the developed high mediaeval Roman Catholic view of an absolute distinction between “Hell” and “Purgatory” would be either (in the former case) a mere dogmatic reflex or (in the latter) a feat of pure historical illiteracy. (pp. 117-118)
…To me, therefore, it seems almost insane for anyone to imagine that such language can be distilled into specific propositions about heaven and hell, eternity and time, redemption and desolation. All it tells us is that God is just, and that the world he will bring to pass will be one in which mercy has cast out cruelty, and that all of us must ultimately answer for the injustices we perpetrate. It is a language that simultaneously inhabits two distinct ages of the world, two distinct frames of reality, neither of whose terrains or vistas it pretends to describe in literal detail: It at one and the same time announces a justice to be established within historical time by divine intervention and affirms a justice that can be realized only beyond historical time’s ultimate conclusion. It is intended, it seems obvious, to move its listeners to both prudent fear and imprudent hope. But, beyond that, only the poetry and the mystery remain. (p. 120)