David Bentley Hart: 4 Meditations on Apotakastasis (4) — The ultimate reconciliation of Esau

David Bentley Hart: 4 Meditations on Apotakastasis
4: The ultimate reconciliation of Esau

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. Then we talked about some of the biblical material that Hart uses to support his case.

In his third meditation, David Bentley Hart reflects upon the nature and destiny of human beings, created in the image of God. He refers to Gregory of Nyssa and his musings about the eschatological teachings of the New Testament.

In his great treatise On the Making of Humanity, Gregory reads Genesis 1:26–7—the first account of the creation of the race, where humanity is described as being made “in God’s image”—as referring not to the making of Adam as such, but to the conception within the eternal divine counsels of this full community of all of humanity: the whole of the race, comprehended by God’s “foresight” as “in a single body,” which only in its totality truly reflects the divine likeness and the divine beauty. As for the two individuals Adam and Eve, whose making is described in the second creation narrative, they may have been superlatively endowed with the gifts of grace at their origin, but they were themselves still merely the first members of that concrete community that only as a whole can truly reflect the glory of its creator. For now, it is only in the purity of the divine wisdom that this human totality subsists “altogether” (ἀθρόως, athroōs) in its own fullness. It will emerge into historical actuality, in the concrete fullness of its beauty, only at the end of a long temporal “unfolding” or “succession” (ἀκολουθία, akolouthia). Only then, when time and times are done, will a truly redeemed humanity, one that has passed beyond all ages, be recapitulated in Christ. (pp. 139-140)

This “full community of persons” rescued by God is the true Image of God intended by the creator, which he will bring to pass, despite the dominion of Sin, Evil, and Death that has ravaged the course of human history. “Only as a whole,” Gregory said, can the humanity God created “reflect the glory of its creator.”

The divine image which humanity bears is that of Christ. The humanity God fashioned is in the likeness of the Divine Son, who became incarnate, suffered death, and rose again to reclaim his own and to ultimately fashion the entirety of humanity into the living Body of Christ, of which he is the Head.

Such is the indivisible solidarity of humanity, [Gregory] argues, that the entire body must ultimately be in unity with its head, whether that be the first or the last Adam. Hence Christ’s obedience to the Father even unto death will be made complete only eschatologically, when the whole race, gathered together in him, will be yielded up as one body to the Father, in the Son’s gift of subjection, and God will be all in all. (p. 142)

Taking his cue from Gregory, David Bentley Hart meditates on the impossibility of the truly autonomous individual.

I want to say that there is no way in which persons can be saved as persons except in and with all other persons. This may seem an exorbitant claim, but I regard it as no more than an acknowledgment of certain obvious truths about the fragility, dependency, and exigency of all that makes us who and what we are. (p. 146)

…Personhood as such, in fact, is not a condition possible for an isolated substance. It is an act, not a thing, and it is achieved only in and through a history of relations with others. We are finite beings in a state of becoming, and in us there is nothing that is not action, dynamism, an emergence into a fuller (or a retreat into a more impoverished) existence. And so, as I said in my First Meditation, we are those others who make us. Spiritual personality is not mere individuality, nor is personal love one of its merely accidental conditions or extrinsic circumstances. A person is first and foremost a limitless capacity, a place where the all shows itself with a special inflection. We exist as “the place of the other,” to borrow a phrase from Michel de Certeau. Surely this is the profoundest truth in the doctrine of resurrection. That we must rise from the dead to be saved is a claim not simply about resumed corporeality, whatever that might turn out to be, but more crucially about the fully restored existence of the person as socially, communally, corporately constituted. For Paul, flesh (σάρξ, sarx) and blood (αἷμα, haima), the mortal life of the “psychical body” (σῶμα ψυχικόν, sōma psychikon), passes away, but not embodiment as such, not the “spiritual body” (σῶμα πνευματικόν, sōma pnevmatikon), which is surely not merely a local, but a communal condition: Each person is a body within the body of humanity, which exists in its proper nature only as the body of Christ.

…We belong, of necessity, to an indissoluble coinherence of souls. In the end, a person cannot begin or continue to be a person at all except in and by way of all other persons. (pp. 153-154)

If we as persons are so intimately and organically connected to one another, “each of us…an entire history of attachments and affinities,” then, David Bentley Hart concludes, “either all persons must be saved, or none can be” (p. 155).

The illustration from Hart’s meditation which speaks most to me is that of Jacob and Esau. Paul quotes Malachi, “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated” (Romans 9:13). Many who read this forget the ending of the story and thus misinterpret the heart of God (as well as the true point of Paul in Romans).

Yes, God chose Jacob at birth and not the firstborn Esau, and Jacob cunningly obtained his brother’s birthright and blessing. Esau was left out in the cold while God personally accompanied scoundrel Jacob through all his experiences as a runaway from home.

But what happened in the end? Was Esau ultimately rejected? Absolutely not! The story of Jacob and Esau reaches its glorious culmination when Jacob returns home, the two brothers tearfully embrace, and Jacob admits to seeing the very face of God in his sibling.

There is, it turns out, no final division between the elect and the derelict here at all, but rather the precise opposite: the final embrace of all parties in the single and inventively universal grace of election. (p. 136)

30 thoughts on “David Bentley Hart: 4 Meditations on Apotakastasis (4) — The ultimate reconciliation of Esau

  1. Beaker,

    St Irenaeus of Lyon, “Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching”
    St Gregory of Nyssa, “On the Making of Man”
    St Basil the Great, “On the Human Condition”
    – I know the first is available online at Christian Classics Ethereal Library, the others probably as well, but they’ve all been printed in small books by St Vladimir’s Press – maybe interlibrary loan, or used bookstore? Try CCEL first – the translations are a bit dated, but still readable.

    I recommend Fr John Behr’s YouTube talks about Becoming Human. He also did a good series at The Little Portion Hermitage. He’s a Patristics expert, specifically studying St Irenaeus, and he has a very interesting personal background, too.

    For now, avoid most monastic writings; the context and “flavor” is that of a more concentrated focus on our sins, and that’s not what most people need at first.

    Good to “see” you, as always!



  2. Interesting stuff. It actually puts me in mind of hearing the Gospel in a way I could relate it to myself for the first time, which was from Francis Schaeffer. All the Jesus words about sin & stuff didn’t really make sense to me – but when he talked about humankind’s existential lostness, that we don’t know who we are in this universe, & related it back to being in a broken relationship with the Creator, due to sin, it began to make some sense.

    I’m also a huge fan of the becoming ‘Human in the Image of God’ trajectory, so much of what put me off ‘religion’ was my observation that Christians were as anti-human as they were anti-sin (& clearly God was too), & all that was left to be was a religious automaton. I no longer believe that, but I do sometimes still fear it. Do you know of any Orthodox readings on the goodness of being human?

    And, note my new name, my divorce finally came through.


  3. “who grew the wheat so that there might be bread in the store down there?’ He indicated the village at the foot of the hill where his cottage was. ‘A drunkard! Who paved the road so that I could take the bus to the city and visit my sister? An atheist working together with a blasphemer. Who shore the sheep that I might have this tunic? An adulteress! Yes, there are many sinners, but apart from them we have no life!’”

    Calvin himself understood this, even if his namesakes and benighted modern “disciples” do not.


  4. There is something about the chasm-like separation in Calvinism, whether in its pure or its decayed form, between the ‘elect’ and the ‘massa damnata‘ that is very graceless and indeed, tends to lead to despair.

    There is a story I read somewhere. Like Dana, I am getting more imprecise in my retention of material I have recently read. I believe this story is of Saint Paisios, but it could also be of any number of recently passed Elders, so I’ll phrase it so:

    The Elder saw her weaving her way up the steep slope to his little cottage. He knew her by reputation if not by face. She was a priest’s wife from one of the neighboring villages; kind-hearted but often given to complaining about others.

    ‘Father’, she sighed. ‘What can I do about my family? My daughter in University dresses scandalously, and she smokes. My brother is a Communist, and his children never attend church, not even at Pascha. And the people in my village! They are such sinners…’

    The Elder put a finger to his mouth. ‘Yes, there are many sinners in these dark days, but who grew the wheat so that there might be bread in the store down there?’ He indicated the village at the foot of the hill where his cottage was. ‘A drunkard! Who paved the road so that I could take the bus to the city and visit my sister? An atheist working together with a blasphemer. Who shore the sheep that I might have this tunic? An adulteress! Yes, there are many sinners, but apart from them we have no life!’


  5. –> “I was exponentially more grateful (and all the inner stuff that goes along with that – awareness of who I am before this Creator and King, etc.) and wanting to follow Christ than I ever had been under the threat of the rationale for eternal torment. It has been night and day in my soul. There really is good news to tell.”

    Dana, I might not have gotten there the same way as you, but I am certainly more grateful and “trusting” of Christ than I ever was under the threat of eternal torment. Like you, it is night and day for the soul. And yes… it really is good news to tell.

    Meanwhile, the “grace to you” neo-Calvinists continue to make God increasingly “grace-less,” and turning the good news of the Gospel into what is, at best, so-so news.


  6. –> “Why not call the game on account of pain and be done with it?”

    He created Adam and Eve (however you want to define that) in order to have companionship. Apparently, them being physically in the world He created was a VITAL aspect to that decision, since He could’ve just created them in some other form to be with Him “in Heaven.”

    So, part of His overall “plan” and intention is: Physical beings here on His “earthly” creation. Calling the game, then, on account of “pain” (self-inflicted pain at that, since “sin” and “brokenness” was never a part of His plan) just ain’t gonna happen.


  7. And of what benefit is baptism? One gets to be united with Christ now, gets to have a “head start”, so to speak, gets to have the best helps (if one is Orthodox, I’m convinced) for becoming able to die… uh, I mean for becoming Human in the Image of God 🙂 Do listen to some of Fr John Behr’s talks from the last 5 years or so.



  8. There are also many judgment texts regarding Edom in the prophets. However, consistent with the rest of scripture, judgment is pronounced according to works.


  9. Suffering simply is; that’s how it is in a world of people who are trying to sustain their own survival by their own means, in thrall to the fear of death (see my comment to Mule below).

    Yes, it is the opportunity for us to love people. Some of us do that, in the name and Spirit of Jesus. It’s hard and requires sacrifice, more than I know I am prepared to give at most moments in my life. Especially as Christians, we should do all we can – without violence – to relieve suffering.

    It’s also something that can be transfigured, made transcendent and redemptive by our willingness to undergo it in communion with Christ on the Cross. I don’t know how it works, but I know it works. It’s one of the ways – maybe the most important way – we become more like Jesus and express the image of God. This requires our consent.

    For those who cannot consent, who are the most innocent of victims, I can only point to the Cross, where God has taken all of it on himself. The Lamb was slain before the foundation of the world. At Christ’s return we will see exactly what he has done with it; I don’t think we could bear to know just yet, before we see Him as He is. There is no other answer for the present, and before suffering people we can only be silent and bow down, if we have the least bit of honesty.



  10. Mule,

    The comment’s probably going to be thrown into mod, but here goes.

    I had the occasion to be able to talk about the good news to a couple of fellow singers as we were carpooling home (captive audience for an hour!) from a rehearsal. Neither had been raised in a faith tradition, and both had only a sketchy understanding of Christianity, informed mostly by Evangelicalism and singing classical music. The driver has traveled extensively, and the year before she had been in St Petersburg. I knew she was going, but I didn’t know that she was going to be landing there on Pascha Eve and witnessing the whole bloomin’ service at one of the churches there. Not knowing Russian, she couldn’t understand the words, but did know that it was “Russian Easter”. What an open door that was for me to ‘splain it all 🙂 Summary, with lots of details and questions/answers omitted:

    “The first Christians understood that the reason we are in the mess we’re in is that, having lost communion with the source of Life when the first humans rejected God, we have an existential problem. The fear of death overwhelms us to the exclusion of just about everything else, and is why we do all the rotten things we do to one another; we’re trying to survive from our own means, rather than being connected to God. We perceive many, many things as being life-threatening to us, from something relatively minor like being teased all the way up to real, serious threats to our physical life, and we react to all of them out of the instinct for self-preservation, viewing others as our enemies, rather than from love, knowing that we are all interconnected and meant to live as brethren. That’s sin. Sin and death feed each other in a downward spiral toward non-existence, because when we die our soul is severed from our body and we, according to Jewish thought, are no longer human. God had to stop this. The Second Person of the Trinity became incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth so that he could show us how to live toward one another in love, and to take the burden of all our rottenness onto himself and remove it; we don’t know exactly how, but we believe that’s what happened in his Crucifixion. Then, because he could die as a human, he was able to get into death, and in his Resurrection he defeated the power of death. Those Russians were going crazy the way you saw because they’re celebrating that. What that means now is that, since we no longer need fear the power of death, the way is open for us as human beings to begin to live the way we know is right, in love and compassion and giving ourselves for others, no matter what happens to us for doing so.”

    Yes, this is a largely psychological explanation, but that’s where most people live nowadays, and my singer friends understood this. The driver made some remark like, “that’s the way a religion ought to be”. If I had had more time, I would have talked about how the Jews would have understood the Good News to be “God is now actually reigning”. That’s what the Gospels say Jesus announced: the good news of the kingdom of God (cf Is 52.7, and Luke 4 echoing Is 61.1). The Jews thought that would happen when God did the big violent, political thing they expected. What he did instead was something beyond war and politics: He inaugurated his reign through Christ both cosmically and in the heart of each human being. (This is where the Holy Spirit would come into the discussion.) His creation is on track toward its fulfillment in the return of Christ, to sum up all things and to deliver all things to the Father.

    Once I came to this understanding, dear Mule, I was exponentially more grateful (and all the inner stuff that goes along with that – awareness of who I am before this Creator and King, etc.) and wanting to follow Christ than I ever had been under the threat of the rationale for eternal torment. It has been night and day in my soul. There really is good news to tell.



  11. A very difficult question to answer, which Hart doesn’t actually set out to answer in his book. He’s written another book “The Doors of the Sea” (IIRC) which is closer to that topic, which I have sort of being meaning to get. TASBS deals solely with Hart’s universalism.


  12. Stephen, I wonder that, too. The only thing I can think of is whatever is on the “other side” will help answer this. Until then, I hear about what some must suffer through in this life and think to myself WTF?


  13. For this reason I am so jealous of Chaplain Mike. He gets to talk to so many non-churchy people about churchy things and get their non-churchy take on them. Just about all the people I talk to have tripwires set up in their minds to alert them to the impending mention of churchy topics which allow then to deflect the conversation.

    Not that I blame them.


  14. So, what is the proclamation of the Church? Of what benefit is baptism?

    It appears that the Gospel actually was Good News to many in the Greco/Roman/Aramaic/Coptic world. How this message get deformed into “Unless you’re churchy like me, you’re going to spend a long time in a very unpleasant place. Most likely forever.”?

    And for most people that is very bad news indeed. They don’t want to be churchy. They want to live; to eat, drink, “marry”, and “be given in marriage”.

    Every Liturgy we pray “For peace of the whole world; for the good estate of the holy churches of God, and for the union of all men, let us pray to the Lord. “. The word that is used in Greek is hen?se?s, “en-one-enning” if such a word could be made possible in the Greek.

    I have so much more I want to say, but I want to see where the discussion goes.


  15. I’ve been following all this with a great deal of interest but I have questions.

    If “all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well” then what is the point of all this suffering? Why not call the game on account of pain and be done with it?


  16. And yet…

    7 “You shall not detest an Edomite, for he is your brother; you shall not detest an Egyptian, because you were an alien in his land. 8 The sons of the third generation who are born to them may enter the assembly of the Lord. (Deut 23:7-8)


  17. what this says to me is that ultimately, brothers must be in a state of reconciliation in order to live in the light


  18. There is the slight complication that, while Jacob and Esau were reconciled, there was deep prophetic emnity against Esau’s descendants all the way up to NT times (part of the problem Herod the Great had with orthodox Jews was that he was an Edomite).


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