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)