David Bentley Hart: 4 Meditations on Apokatastasis (3) — What do the scriptures say?

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)

39 thoughts on “David Bentley Hart: 4 Meditations on Apokatastasis (3) — What do the scriptures say?

  1. BUt
    “The Gift of Men is a bitter Gift indeed.”
    — Arwen Evenstar, after the death of Aragorn

    And the Nine rRngs ensnared the Nazgul by promising a way around that Gift, i.e. “you’ll live forever”. But the promise did not mention it’d be as undead extensions of the Dark Lord. (And in the movie version, the Mouth of Sauron is implied to have taken a similar offer, except becoming disfigured corporeal undead instead of an incoporeal Wraith.


  2. Iain, thank you. I need to read the book.

    If this word is entirely neutral (or if the division of sheep and goats takes place in human history as Perriman suggests in the links above), we are freed to look at all of the other scriptures that may point to apokatastasis.

    We are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves and love our enemies. How can we not pray for God to have mercy on ALL as we ourselves need such mercy?

    Lord have mercy…


  3. Jesus doesn’t even *say* “everlasting”: the word is “aionios”, literally “of / for the ages”, and there is no end of argument amongst greek scholars as to what exactly the word means. It doesn’t, or doesn’t necessarily mean everlasting specifically: it is used for things that aren’t temporary or intermittent, or which will last a long time, have no specific end date, or may in some context mean “in the future” or “in the age to come”. IIRC Hart deals with it somewhere in the book. The use of the word is entirely neutral as to whether or not some future end to the punishment may be envisioned.


  4. You should remember that Hart is eastern Orthodox. Central to eastern Orthodox theology is the “harrowing of hell”. They take very seriously the idea that Christ in dying descended to death and hell and rescued the sinners languishing there. It is Christ, in dying, who preaches to the dead and rescues us from hell – he doesn’t just save the Christians here on earth during their lifetimes: he wouldn’t have needed to die to do that.


  5. Is the ‘Mean Judge God’ a part of our own selves then? 🙂

    Is a saying:
    “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do. (Anne Lamott )


  6. But then I believe that all non-human spiritual beings have “subtle body”-like bodies, angels and demons included.


  7. Angels can sin despite their “incorporeality,” but once they become demons they can’t repent because of it? If repentance is predicated on having a body to repent with, isn’t sin likewise predicated? Surely you aren’t saying that angels have bodies (although I rather believe they do, like the so-called “subtle body” of Hindu metaphysics)?


  8. Joel, Hart handles this text somewhat differently, but I recommend at least considering something else he says regarding many of the “Jesus warns of hellfire” passages. Many scholars think that this parable, like many or most of Jesus’ warnings, were not about a final judgment at the end of the age, but rather are referring to the fiery ordeal at the Fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. One of them is Andrew Perriman, and you can read his posts on the subject: https://www.postost.net/2015/11/judgment-sheep-goats, and https://www.postost.net/2015/11/instructive-parallel-sheep-goats-judgment, as well as a related post: https://www.postost.net/2015/11/my-arguments-against-ortlund-s-restatement-packer-s-arguments-against-annihilationism


  9. Well, if this is purgatory, it has a lot more work to do on me, and, given my age and inertia, not a lot of time left, unless it extends into other incarnations (or reincarnations?), one right after the next for who knows how long.


  10. Wayne, I am not a sola scriptura person, and you can find a lot of evidence of that in the archives of this blog. However, Hart’s reading of the biblical evidence is strong, in my opinion. I have always found Ephesians 1:9-10 to be a strong statement of God’s ultimate design for all creation.

    But Hart leans heavily on several of the early Fathers as well. He also recognizes how the doctrine of eternal conscious torment developed over the centuries, especially in the Roman church, and finds that development wanting and troubling.

    And, I think his position is also made more likely because of his Orthodox view of the gospel, which downplays the forensic perspectives of the Western church and emphasizes the victory of Christ over the powers that enslave humanity.


  11. “Should teaching about hell be part of the proclamation of the gospel? No! No! No! The proclamation of the gospel means the proclamation that Christ has overcome hell, that Christ has suffered hell in our place, and that we are allowed to live with him and so have hell behind us. There it is, but behind us! … Don’t fear hell, believe in God! Believe in Christ!”

    “So please understand me. I would not take a light view of hell: it is a very serious thing, so serious that it needed the Son of God to overcome it. So there is nothing to laugh about, but there is nothing to fear, and there is nothing to preach. What we have to preach is fearlessness and joy in God, and then hell remains aside.”

    —- Karl Barth on how preaching the good news of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with scaring the hell out of people first.


  12. Mule,

    How do you reconcile #3 with “And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal“?

    My heart wants all to be saved. My head can’t get past this saying of Jesus. Does it simply come down to believing Jesus doesn’t mean “everlasting” when He says “everlasting”. Please forgive me if you’ve answered this in previous comments.


  13. One has to wonder what is the purpose of our temporary incarnations, then. RobertF raised the question that if our physical death changes nothing, why not start in Eternity?

    1) We were made to inhabit the physical universe, and represent God here.
    2) Demons, according to the Tradition cannot repent. Also according the the Tradition this is tied to their incorporeality. In this sense our mortality is really what Tolkien called ‘the Gift of the One to Men’ as it made our sinfulness temporary and limited.
    3) It is because our evil is limited and temporary that Eternal Conscious Punishment is an abomination, and cries out for a fix.
    4) Because it is limited and temporary, it is indeed fixible.

    There are days, though, that I want the Mean Judge back, just not for me. For people who cut me off in traffic, telemarketers, and Indian IT recruiters.


  14. I have wondered more than once… Maybe THIS is purgatory. Maybe judgement happens at the end of life, but we don’t really know what happens next and maybe we return here if there is a need and we are willing… Who knows?

    Maybe the life review that so many people mention after a near-death experience is the judgement. What is in the scriptures is the best we know, but was written by humans who had filters, culture and prejudices even as they wrote prayerfully, meditatively. And it was curated by other, sometimes flawed, humans.

    So, do you limit your knowledge to sola scriptura? Or do you make a canvas out of the entire knowledge base? BTW, I am in the universalist camp, have been for quite a few years. I also believe that the Christ will perfect ALL of creation and we are deep into that process.


  15. maybe it’s a ‘healing’ thing? Our Lord is ‘the Great Physician’ and we humankind are wounded

    can’t help but think that that we get a glimpse into the mind of Christ in this verse:

    “35Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness. 36When He saw the crowds, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
    (from the Holy Gospel of St. Matthew, chapter 9)

    it is said that ‘hurting people hurt people’ . . . . maybe, in the process of ‘salvation’ all the hurt all the way back ‘comes undone’ (?)
    How little we really understand the mind of God. We try to make him into a ‘judge’, and a mean one at that; but then along comes this Christ with His compassion for lost people, and we find out we were so wrong. Why is the word ‘mercy’ not emphasized in the evangelical world, or do they call it ‘grace’? Seems that the Incarnation of Christ embraces the whole of humanity, which He took to Himself, in order to heal it.


  16. dep, I hear you, and have asked this question myself many times over the years.

    What do you make of 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, which speaks specifically of Christians facing judgment?

    Or of Romans 14:10, clearly written to believers, which says, “For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God”?

    Or, again, of 2 Cor. 5:10 — “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad”?


  17. Waiting for the prodigal to return, or trying to convince the idiot older brother to come in and celebrate.


  18. there is really only ONE ‘enemy’

    “The infernal serpent; he it was,
    whose guile; Stirred up with envy and revenge,
    deceived; The mother of mankind ”

    (John Milton – Paradise Lost)


  19. I’m all for universal salvation, that even after death God in Christ will never give up on his creation but I’m finding this a bit perplexing (not a bad thing). According to Hart, is the Christian to spend time being purified after death or is that period of purification only for those who had no faith in Christ? If it applies to the Christian too, somehow it seems to me, Christ’s life, death and resurrection are not sufficient in Hart’s scheme of salvation.


  20. Of course humans are enemies of God. However, God loves his enemies and while we were still sinners sent his son do die for us. In the Bible it is always us, not God, who are the obstacle to reconciliation.


  21. Steve, I would agree that annihilationism is more compatible with what I read in scripture than eternal conscious torment in hell. But I am sympathetic with what Hart is saying here — at least at this point in my journey.

    Hart does not simply call scriptures that challenge his position as “mysteries.” He believes in a righteous judgment. He does not believe that this is the ultimate reckoning. The scriptures that speak of judgment he sees either as the penultimate purification or judgments in history such as the destruction of Jerusalem. I happen to think that the vast majority of Jesus’ prophecies about judgment fall into that latter category. He was warning his generation of an imminent danger that befell them in 70 AD.

    As for people being God’s enemies, I will allow that people act as enemies of God and they certainly have acted as enemies of God’s people throughout history. For this they (and we all, to some extent) bear guilt for participating with the dominion of Sin, Evil, and Death in this world. I don’t deny that. But ultimately, does God view us, the ones God created in his image, as his forever enemies? I don’t accept that. If we were, I don’t think he would have sent Christ to live our life, to bear our sin, to suffer our death, to lay dead in our grave. If Hart is right, then Christ did all this to rescue us from the powers that both have dominion over us as their victims and corrupt us into participating with them in the sinister work that opposes God.


  22. CM, aren’t there multiple scriptures that describe humans as having been enemies of God?
    NT examples include Romans 5:10, James 4:4
    And, stated another way, anti-Christ? 1 John 2:22, 2 John 1:7, etc.

    I get the impression (admittedly, based solely on his excerpt in your post) that when David Bentley Hart is confronted with scriptures that might challenge his viewpoint, he conveniently sets them aside as an unknowable mystery, rather than trying to understand their intent.

    For my own position, I think there is a stronger scriptural case to be made for “annihilation” vs. universalism.


  23. –> “…what then is the purpose of a Christ?”

    I might be universalist, but I still feel Christ is the Way and the only Way. And over the reason I believe in God and Jesus is that this whole “Christ” thing is the only way I can be certain God loves me. So, what is His purpose? To prove God’s love. How does that fit into universalism? Those who will be ushered in despite never acknowledging Him or saying the Sinner’s Prayer will discover in one cool moment how much God loves them.


  24. flatrocker, when it comes to Christ’s role, I think the question might be, “Who is the enemy?” Are we, sinful human beings, God’s enemies, or did Christ come to defeat the enemies that rule over us — Sin, Evil, and Death?

    If God’s plan in Christ is to save some human beings who are his enemies and destroy the rest as his unrepentant enemies, then Christ effectively died only for those who accept his sacrifice, and in my view that diminishes his work.

    If, on the other hand, Christ came to rescue all human beings from the grip of Sin, Evil, and Death, then his work may be understood as effective for all humans who are their victims.

    As Hart says, that does not give humans a free pass, for God will have justice on the last day. The fire of his judgment will also burn away all human works that were done in partnership with Sin, Evil, and Death, and before the glad welcome we receive, we may very well have to endure a fiery purification.

    Perhaps the Last Judgment could be seen as the ultimate “Truth and Reconciliation Council.”


  25. Words like “obvious” are loaded with personal bias and a bit of a shaming angle toward those who would dare to not see how obvious it is.


  26. Rick,
    And expanding on this, the idea of universal salvation is very intriguing and quite hopeful. It holds so much beautiful promise. What a wonderful possibility for us all in the “afterlife” embrace from a God of pure love that will prove so utterly irresistible there is nothing keeping us from embracing him in return. Hence either the elimination for the need of a hell or that it was a false theology to begin with is quite attractive.

    However, this leads to a prickly question – what then is the purpose of a Christ? Why not just allow for the inevitable embrace to occur in the afterlife and be welcomed into the beatific presence. Where in that formula is a Christ necessary?

    As much as universalism is such an attractive possibility, I still tend to fall in the Von Balthasar camp which is (paraphrased) – “I know there’s a hell and I pray that is is empty.” This simple pithy statement seems to provide a purpose for a Savior as well as recognize the possibility (albiet, I pray, small) of our human ability to say no to the embrace of an all loving God.

    By contrast, universalism seems to diminish and possibly eliminate the need for Christ and the possibility that we might just simply choose to walk away. Also, in lining up with Von Balthasar, this doesn’t necessarily end up with eternal torment from a vindictive and wrathful creator. Maybe there is another way.


  27. Agreed. I hope this fellow is right, too. But when he writes “The texts of the gospels simply make no obvious claim about a place or state of endless suffering” and then read what Jesus says in Matthew 25:46 I wonder what Harts definition of “obvious” is.


  28. I find it personally ironic and a bit curious that my belief in Jesus/God began only because of this whole “saved to Heaven, avoidance of eternal Hell” thing – Yes, I said the Sinner’s Prayer and became born-again — yet now I am more of a universalist and see Hell the way Hart and many here at iMonk see it. I also find it curious that my born-again self of twenty-five years ago would probably view my current Christian self as a heretic…LOL.

    That said, I was just perusing my bookcase the other day and was drawn again to Peter Enns’ fine book, “The Sin of Certainty,” and certainly (yes, intentionally used) don’t want to fall into the trap of being certain about Hell’s non-existence. And one of the things I like about the iMonk community is that although some who frequent here do appear “certain” about their beliefs, many of us here are forever challenged by doubt.

    I want to HOPE I’m right about my current view of hell, and about universalism, but I don’t think I’ll ever be CERTAIN about those views….LOL.


  29. and yet there is this to think about:

    “God is love, and ALL who live in love live in God, and God lives in them”
    (1 John, chapter 4)


  30. My evangelical professors would no doubt say that the ‘all’ in those passages is an ‘exclusive all’, limited to those who believe, and quote John 3:16 for support (‘whoever believes in him would not perish’).


  31. But Christ did not bring a ‘spirit of fear’, which is why the REAL ‘gospel’ is all about PROCLAMATION of a new King, and the proclamation is joyful and for the entire Creation which awaits its renewal in God’s time.


  32. If Eternal Hell was off the table, a lot of churches and preachers would collapse completely.

    “If you can’t love ’em into The Kingdom, SCARE ‘EM INTO THE KINGDOM!”

    I know what it is to be paralyzed by such Fear.


  33. “we are saved by hope ”

    “. . . there are times
    when He arrests us in our activity,
    and rests us under His overshadowing wing,
    and quiets us in the secret place of the Most High . . . ”

    (A. B. Simpson—Days of Heaven Upon Earth )


  34. Thanks for this comprehensive review and discussion. I read the book several months ago and it helped confirm what I’ve come to think over a number of years.

    The last couple of days I’ve been getting ready for a short trip, so haven’t been able to contribute to the discussion. However I’ve done a quick scan each day and oberve that this has been an intelligent and helpful consideration.


  35. It is disturbing that there are those for whom Hell — eternal/everlasting, conscious, torment/torture — is such a central part of faith that they consider it a sin worthy of consigning one to Hell to hope and pray that all will be saved from Hell. But as for the rest of us, let’s hope and pray that Hart has it right.


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