David Bentley Hart’s Universalism: Part two. Some Reflections on “That All Shall Be Saved”

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“Once upon a time there was a woman, and she was wicked as wicked could be, and she died. And not one good deed was left behind her. The devils took her and threw her into the lake of fire. And her guardian angel stood thinking: what good deed of hers can I remember to tell God? Then he remembered and said to God: once she pulled up an onion and gave it to a beggar woman. And God answered: take now that same onion, hold it out to her in the lake, let her take hold of it and pull, and if you pull her out of the lake, she can go to paradise. The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her: here, woman, he said, take hold of it and I’ll pull. And he began pulling carefully, and had almost pulled her all of the way out, when other sinners in the lake saw her being pulled out and all began holding on to her so as to be pulled out with her. But the woman was wicked as wicked could be, and she began to kick them with her feet: ‘It’s me who’s getting pulled out, not you; it’s my onion, not yours.’ No sooner did she say it than the onion broke. And the woman fell back into the lake and is burning there to this day. And the angel wept and went away.”

(From: The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky)

“…to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”

(Ahab, to the whale, in Melville’s “Moby Dick”)

Dostoevsky’s famous parable of the onion is a story about grace and God’s unending desire for the salvation of even the most wicked. And it has always been a favorite of mine because it underscores the fact that the woman is not in hell because of some Ahab-like obsession with “grappling” with a God she despises, remaining unconquered in her spirit to the end and spitting in God’s face even as she is burning in the furnace.  It is very clear from the parable that the woman does not want to be in hell, does not despise God, desires to be in heaven, and grasps at the first chance she is offered to get out.  God’s infinite mercy is still operative, even in her case, but she is incapable of accepting the offer despite her desire to do so.  And she is incapable because her fundamental selfishness has ossified within her, attenuating her will to the point of severely limiting her ability to choose the good. In short, it is an incapacity of will born of sin, and not some grand defiance, that is the reason why some are incapable of embracing the good. The only real question then is whether or not it is possible for this incapacity to be healed by God in the next life.

All of this is why I have never been comfortable with the famous line from C.S. Lewis that the gates of hell “are locked from the inside.”  There is, of course, a sense in which that statement is true insofar as every one of our sins is a turning of the key against some particular good. Nevertheless, to lock the doors of hell from the inside implies an act of the will, an act of defiance, an Ahab-like hatred for the good so strong that the mere thought of being with God is repulsive.  It must be a very strong hatred indeed since it is resisting an infinite love that never ceases.  Therefore, locking the doors of hell from the inside is like a man who is in desperate need of cash locking his door and hiding under the sofa when he sees a Publisher’s Clearing House representative holding balloons and with camera crew in tow, ringing his bell.  In any sane Christian anthropology it is simply not possible that a human being can be so repulsed by the good that they can fully and definitively choose against it in a way so thorough and complete that it constitutes an eternal self-damnation.  The idea is appealing on a dramatic level with the essentializing of protagonists and antagonists into the categories of epic and myth, but it is unscriptural.  Whenever Jesus discusses eschatological themes in parable form, as in Matthew 25, it is very clear that those who have “missed the cut,” so to speak, through foolishness, ingratitude, uncharity, or fear, are sent into the “everlasting fire” by the just Judge and not because they have thumbed their nose at God and skipped defiantly into the flames of Gehenna on their own. 

It is very clear in the New Testament that the pains of hell are punitive and that they are not the result of sinners dousing themselves with petrol and lighting themselves on fire in an act of protest against the heavenly white whale.  It is true that Jesus, elsewhere in the Gospels, speaks of sinners as those who prefer darkness to light and that it is not Jesus who judges but his Word that judges in the conscience of the sinner.  But that strikes me as a phenomenological description of why people sin and why they have guilty consciences as a result of their sin rather than as a statement about hell being populated by volunteers.  This is born out when we read in John’s Gospel that Jesus says sinners prefer the darkness because they don’t want their evil deeds exposed (John 3:20).  “Judgment” in this sense is more of a turning away from God in order to avoid the exposing of secrets that true repentance and purgation would require rather than an overt rejection of the good as such.  It is, once again, the result of an incapacity and a blindness born of sin and not the self-exile of one who has seen God in all his glory and who despises it to the point of an absolute rejection. Indeed, and not to put too fine a point on it, the very incapacity of the sinner is an impairment of will that makes such a definitive rejection impossible.  In all of our sins there is indeed an implied rejection of the good.  And sometimes when we sin we explicitly and consciously reject some good.  But these are only partial rejections of particular goods, born of our concupiscence and woundedness in our earthly darkness, and not a definitive and constitutive rejection of the good as such.  Indeed, as Aquinas teaches, even when we choose evil we do so always and necessarily under the aspect of some kind of good that we desire, and that the nature of sin resides therefore in the sacrificing of a higher good for the sake of attaining a lesser good, and not some choice of evil for evil’s sake.

Returning to the parables of Jesus we see that they speak, not of a definitive rejection of the good and a self-exile, but rather of sinners caught by surprise because they did not harken to the voice of God in this life and who insouciantly lived their lives as if God does not matter.  The foolish virgins, the folks who engaged in a cowardly misuse of the talents gifted to them, the uncharitable goats, and the sinners in the time of Noah who Jesus uses as a model for all sinners who ignore the divine call until it is too late, all bespeak a motif of divine judgment upon foolishness. Nor does this theme of divine judgment seem to me to be a mere anthropomorphism that mythically expresses what is in effect a human self-judgment.  The theme of a divine punishment for willful sinfulness is too constant and too pervasive in both Testaments for it to be so easily dismissed as mythic in form.  

Finally, as I said in my last post, the binaries of heaven and hell that Jesus proposes to us are a christological intensification and transference of the “two ways” covenant theology of the Old Testament into the categories of the New.  Those who choose life (Christ) will be resurrected to divine life.  But those who choose death (rejection of Christ) will suffer a resurrection of condemnation (John 5:29). This is the central point Balthasar makes in “Dare We Hope” where the pre-Easter statements of Jesus highlight the fact that because of our sins we stand under “judgment” but that the post Easter emphasis shifts into the far deeper christological waters of God’s universal salvific will.  More on that later…

The “hell as self-exile” motif, therefore, appears in modern garb precisely because the very notion of hell as an endless exercise in punitive justice, or a fruitless and endless exercise in remedial purgation, doesn’t sit well with our sensibilities surrounding fair play.  In other words, the self-exile motif emerges as a direct result of our awareness that any concept of an eternal hell has to focus on a self-choice by the sinner rather than on a “throw away the key” God since the latter is intolerable.  Therefore, even though there is scant evidence for the self-exile motif in scripture, it is the only viable option left for the advocates of an eternal hell that appears to get God off the hook. The proponents of an eternal hell are also quite often some of the biggest opponents of the idea of post-mortem conversion, but are also, at the same time, some of the biggest purveyors of the hell as self-exile motif.  It is a strange juxtaposition because if a post-mortem conversion toward infinite goodness and love is not possible, then an eternal post-mortem “choice” to reject God is also out of the question because, apparently, choosing is no longer possible in the next life.  

Thus, hell’s eternity really is then a function of a divine decision since the sinner no longer has any say in the matter at all.  It is true that every time we sin we are moving further away from God and, therefore, perhaps hell represents the final drawing out of the inner telos of those accumulated decisions as a kind of “distillate” of who we truly are that then becomes a final eschatological state that is existentially determinative in a mysterious way we cannot understand this side of the veil.  More on that in a bit.  But for now it suffices to point out that that does not sound like the gates of hell being locked from the inside. It sounds more like an awareness that the choices we make in time, when transposed into an eternal mode of existence, are no longer transient and temporally sequenced events, but constitutively and finally, determinative.  I am not saying I entirely agree with that view.  But I am saying that our two choices seem to be between some version of David Hart’s universalism or some version of the traditional view that this life is truly determinative of my eternal state in the next. 

I have begun my discussion of Hart’s universalism with this long preamble since I think the strongest argument in his text is precisely this anthropological awareness, Thomistic in nature, that all human persons are fundamentally oriented to the good and that this orientation cannot be completely erased no matter how scarlet our sins might be.  Hart further concludes, rightly in my view, that no human sin in this life can ever be so definitive and determinative as to merit an eternal punitive consequence.  This is why I have been at pains to point out that the overall tone and tenor of the New Testament is marked by a notion of hell as a place of punishments for unrepented sins rather than a view of hell as some kind of self-exile.  Because this supports Hart’s thesis even further since punishments must fit the crime and eventually reach a terminal point.  And so once we receive the final recompense for our sins our incarceration should end. Furthermore, and following the penal analogy, even in this life incarceration has the double end of punishments for crimes and rehabilitation of the criminal.  It would therefore be strange indeed if our own efforts at remedial rehabilitation in the interests of retrieving a lost human being would evince a greater concern for the sinner than God’s hell does.  

Therefore, since I do not think the self-exile motif is scriptural and that it makes no sense within a Christian anthropology, the arguments Hart presents for a terminal point to our hellish punishments is an argument that is hard to refute.  It cannot be emphasized enough in this regard that Hart’s argument here is a moral one and hinges on what should be the obvious insight that God cannot be less moral than we are. And in this case the moral principle involved is that any punishment for sin that goes beyond the parameters of what the sin actually deserves is a violation of our own normal moral insights into fairness, as well as a violation of God’s own principles of retributive justice as expressed in the Mosaic lex talionis (“an eye for an eye”.)  

Therefore, if hell is indeed eternal then it must be something other than a mere “punishment” for sin conceived of in largely judicial categories.  The judicial analogy, though biblical, breaks down unless it can be lifted out of its legalistic motif and into a more christological set of categories.  Christ says in John’s Gospel that he does not judge anyone but that it is his “Word” that judges.  This points us beyond a merely forensic concept of divine punishment for sin and toward the notion that sin bears within itself its own recompense in the form of the destruction of our true humanness.  And, as I alluded to earlier, perhaps the divine judgment is therefore best conceived of as God allowing the sinner the freedom to self-destruct if that is the sinner’s choice.  Perhaps the decisive moment therefore happens at the moment of judgment during the death process wherein the sinner is invited to allow all of his sins to be exposed in order to thereby see them in the clarity of the Divine light and to repent of them all most fully and definitively.  This eliminates the issue, properly raised by Hart, concerning the disequilibrium between our earthly existence which is so very brief compared to the enormity of eternity. Because in the final judgment all will be made clear, all secrets exposed, and all sins repented of, if that is the sinner’s choice. The blessed would be those who freely choose this antiseptic and the “damned” would be those who cannot bear to have their secrets exposed and who reject the offer of purgative repentance.  

This approach raises two further issues.  First, the Catholic Church teaches that there is no possibility of post-mortem repentance.  However, it must always be kept in mind that “death” is a theological act/event even more than it is a merely biological event.  Strangely, the so-called traditionalists who are so intent on a fulsomely populated hell and who are adamant that if you “die” with unrepented mortal sins you go straight to hell, seem to buy into a thoroughly modern concept of death as something reduced to a biological event and nothing more.  When your brain dies you are dead and that is that. Now off to hell with you all you fornicators! But from a theological perspective you are not dead until God says you are. You are not dead until God “ratifies” your death as the decisive moment of entry into your final destiny. There are medieval traditions that speak about the immediate moments after death, and before entry into God’s presence, where the angels and demons fight over your soul which still lingers in a kind of no-man’s-land between biological death and the soul’s entry into its final state with God. Indeed, in ancient Jewish teaching the soul lingered near the body until it was buried or until around three days had passed after biological death, which is why the Gospels go out of their way to point out that Jesus was dead for “three days.”  Therefore, when the Church teaches that there can be no post-mortem conversion the full meaning of that teaching can only be plumbed if we have a full and clear view of what “death” actually is in a theological sense and all that this deeper understanding of death entails.  But we do not have such a clear view of things, and the Bible itself speaks of a “first death” and a “second death” in deeply mysterious ways rich with apocalyptic symbolism.  

It could very well be therefore that in a deeper theological sense that the decisive moment of judgment happens after biological death but before the final ratification of your death by God in the judgment. Nor is this the same as the self-exile motif wherein the sinner is specifically rejecting the love of God which it finds intolerable since what is being rejected is not the divine love as such, which in my view is impossible, but the “exposure” that the acceptance of this love entails.  This is a point beautifully made by C.S. Lewis in his marvelous, fictional meditation on hell in “The Great Divorce.”  In his narrative sinners in hell are given an opportunity to take a bus to the heaven’s vestibule in a grand and shimmering meadow, where they are greeted by denizens of heaven and invited to repent of their sins and to enter into joy. But they all, save one, reject the offer since they do not wish to give up their sins which they view as “essential” to who they are and as no big deal anyway.  It is not God as such that is being rejected but rather the painful process of confession, repentance, and conversion. Only the man whose sin is lust chooses to go in, which fits well with Lewis’s Platonism since lust is perverted eros which, when purged of its perversion, turns into a mighty stallion. Eros is the key here since those who still have the capacity to “desire” still have the capacity for God.

Finally, and given the anthropology that speaks of our fundamental orientation to the good, if this view is correct then there is a very real hope, despite the refusal of the characters in Lewis’s fiction, that no sinner would ever turn down such an offer since it would be a moment of the greatest clarity.  Therefore, Balthasar’s “hope” that all shall be saved would be thoroughly justified and the infernalist’s insistence that there “must” be some in hell since many do “die” with unrepented mortal sins would be unjustified and their flat-lined and modernist understanding of death as mere biological cessation would be undercut.  

But none of this matters to Hart since he already affirms the reality of post-mortem conversion and cares little for the Catholic teaching on that issue.  Hart’s deeper argument is with any concept of God that would allow for even a single person to be damned for all eternity.  Hart argues that since God in his creative act foreknew who was going to be damned that it would be cruel on God’s part to bring such a person into existence.  Since all of us are contingent and none of us “had” to exist, there would be no injustice on God’s part to not create beings in the first place who are going to be damned.  He criticizes the distinction in this regard between God’s antecedent and consequent wills and affirms that God must directly will whatever the end result of his creative plan is and therefore that he must also directly will all of the particulars of whatever is contained in that result. And if the end result contains eternally damned individuals then it must be something God wills. Therefore, if he allows some to be damned as part of his creative plan then he has directly willed something that is evil, which is impossible.  

That is a strong argument and I tend to agree with it.  Which is why my hope that all shall be saved is a strong hope rooted in the theological realization that God’s expressed will is that all shall be saved. That is the “end” result he has in view for creation.  And if that is his end view of how he wills his creation to turn out, then it certainly seems to stand to reason that he will indeed bring about such an end. 

However, I do also wonder if Hart’s argument does not prove too much.  It seems to me that the argument brings with it certain theodicy problems that inhere in some of its premises.  The argument Hart raises against a God who would knowingly create a person he knew was headed to damnation could also be used to condemn any God who would create an order that has any evil in it at all.  Surely there are possible alternate universes where no creature ever sins?  And our universe as a whole, no matter how immense, is also a purely contingent entity that did not have to exist.  So why would God choose to bring this little shop of horrors into existence when he had better alternatives? Why not just refrain from creating a cosmos with sinners in it and only create those without sinners? For that matter, why have a hell at all even in a universe with sinners?  Why not just cure sinners in a more clinical setting staffed with angelic therapists who cure through positive rather than negative reinforcements?  Why not a salvific scheme that involved the sinner traversing a nested hierarchy of spiritual levels all heading vertically upwards rather than a stint in the dungeon in its electro shock room before climbing on the bus to heaven?  Because no matter how “temporary” and purgative hell might be as a place of remediation, it will still be a place of great suffering, as even the great Origen noted.  Origen pointed out that even though it might be the case that all are saved eventually, the process whereby that happens will be horribly painful and that is why we should still seek to avoid sin.  And are not temporary sufferings as a result of evil still sufferings?  And isn’t evil still evil even if God will someday do away with it?  Why allow evil at all? I understand that the present evils are temporary and are perhaps allowed by God for the achievement of some greater good.  And therefore that God’s permissive will is in play here and not his direct will. Perhaps in some bizarre sense a fallen and redeemed world is a more glorious thing than a world that never fell. We see this expressed in the ancient exultet prayer (“O Felix Culpa”) and in many other residuals of the Christian Platonism of the early fathers.  But that seems to me dangerously close to the idea that evil was somehow necessary for God’s creative purposes, a flirtation that was common with many Christian Platonists.  I am not saying these are Hart’s views.  I am just thinking out loud as to what some of the possible entailments of his arguments might be.

I am sure, since he is a genius, that Hart has thought through these questions and so I offer them not as a rebuke but as an invitation to myself to try and understand his argument more deeply.  Hart’s own book on theodicy, “The Doors of the Sea,” makes the case that it is a mistake to try and find any deeper meaning or some grand divine design in the evils we suffer.  The randomness and meaninglessness of evil is precisely what evil is and thus to invest it with a deeper clarity is to grant it a dignity it does not have. But in the end this is still an answer to the theodicy problem that affirms that with regard to why God allows evil we just do not know. And we do not know because our vision is so very limited, we do not know what God knows, and we cannot plumb the full depths of the divine mind.  And while it is very true that we cannot stretch the meaning of terms like “love” and “justice” to such an extent that when applied to God they become equivocal to our own understanding of these words, nevertheless, even if we view the terms analogically, the “greater dissimilarity” between our knowing and God’s knowing still pertains.  

And so the possibility that God will bring beings into existence who he will allow to spin off into sin and damnation seems on the surface to be an abomination.  But I do not share Hart’s certitude that we can know beyond any shadow of a doubt that a good God would never do such things.  As I said in my last blog post, I am in the school of the cloud of unknowing, and thus I am willing to acknowledge a deep ignorance of what “damnation” and “beatitude” even mean beyond their denotative definitions in the theology books.  And I am completely comfortable with a more apophatic acknowledgment that the more that is revealed to us about eschatological mysteries the more that is also veiled and plunged into an even deeper mysteriousness.  

This is not a false equivocal use of terms or a cheap mystification.  Because there is indeed a deep mysteriousness to the whole question of the relation between human freedom, evil, and why God “allows” this or that to happen. The entire issue of what eternity actually is, and what judgment actually is, and what “hell” actually is, and what salvation actually is, and what the relation between divine and human freedom actually is, remains a deep mystery that is best approached with epistemic humility.  And even though the thought of someone being damned sets my teeth on edge, so too does the evil of a five year old girl being abducted, tortured, raped, and then buried alive by a monstrous piece of crap that God brought into existence knowing full well what horrors the creep was going to inflict on one of his innocent ones. I wish someone could explain to me how in Hart’s argument God is not to be indicted for these kinds of monstrous evils since they too are contingent and did not have to be. Explain why the murderous creep’s contingent existence was deemed creation worthy and why any appeal to notions of some “greater good” to come of it isn’t the stretching of the meaning of “greater good” to the very levels of equivocation that Hart criticizes in others? Why Hitler? Why Stalin? Why Pol Pot? Why any of us sinners for that matter? Why God would have created a universe filled with so much filth and murderous barbarism, and one which evolved into its present form as the result of trillions of violent predations, is as big an issue for me as why God might allow someone to be damned through the misuse of their own freedom. I get it, I get it…. eternity versus temporary evil and all that bilge… It all just sounds to me like a word salad game because as far as I am concerned a million Shoah’s are only slightly less vexing on a moral level than the issue of why God respects our freedom so much that he thinks a damned person who actually exists is still a greater good than a potentially damned person that God chose not to create. At least the damned in the infernalist universe of mosh pit flames are truly icky people whereas so much of the pain of this world is inflicted upon the most vulnerable and innocent.  And for me the existence of evils in this life – – evils that were clearly not “necessary” – – cry out to heaven for a justificatory response, but with none forthcoming save the cross of Christ.

I also think that Hart’s approach is insufficiently christological which has implications for Hart’s views on what constitutes hell’s “eternity.”  Hart seems to hold the view that the eternity of hell is really nothing more than some kind of an experience of an endless “duration” of time.  And if he is right about that then indeed such endlessness would be a cruel punishment for our finite sins committed in earthly time.  My view is that the difference between whatever is analogous in the next life’s experience of “time” to our earthly experience of time is so profound that I do not think we can truly envision what hell’s “duration” really entails.  My own halting speculations, such as they are, trend in the direction of viewing hell’s time as a kind of “un-time” where the soul does not participate in God’s eternity as such (and Hart agrees with this latter point) but exists instead, as C.S. Lewis puts it, as the “remnants” of a person, fragmented and dis-integrated, and locked in a state of despair in a perpetual motionlessness of non-time.  It isn’t God’s eternity, and it isn’t mere “duration,” but is rather a state we cannot even imagine of time’s negation. Hart’s views on hell are closer to the Catholic concept of purgatory on this score where there is, according to Catholic tradition, some kind of duration or time involved.  And it makes sense since unlike those in hell, the soul in purgatory can change – – and indeed it must change in order to be purified – – and change for a finite creature involves some kind of “process” that unfolds sequentially, so to speak.  

It is interesting to note that Hart’s views on hell would still stand unchanged regardless of whether or not Christ ever existed.  And that is fine given the moral nature of many of his arguments, but I do wonder if an opportunity for a deepening of our understanding of eschatology hasn’t been missed by ignoring the christological nature of hell.  Because I think a deeper christological analysis actually makes Hart’s arguments even stronger.

The concept of hell had already been developing in Jewish intertestamental literature and many of the images and metaphors for hell contained therein are used liberally by the New Testament authors.  However, a transformation of the categorization of hell as a simple zone of judicial recompense for wickedness takes place when the New Testament “existentializes” eschatology as a dramatic event rooted in a decision for or against Christ on a deep spiritual level.  One of the central motifs of all four gospels is that the entry of the eternal one into time is a catalytic provocation demanding a response.  Messianic time is portrayed as a Kairos containing within itself the full meaning of all of human history and is the fulcrum upon which all the rest of human history is balanced.  Now is the time for an intensification of all partial answers to God into a resounding “Yes” or “No,” which the unfolding of the messianic era will heighten into a crescendo until a final conflict between those who are “in Christ” and those who are not will usher in the Kingdom. Therefore, as I noted before, this represents the fulfillment of the Old Covenant’s “two ways” eschatology where the path to life and the path to death are held up as the main Kairos of the time of the “Law.”  The New Testament now relocates the focus of that eschatology away from Temple and Torah and onto Christ as the living Temple and the very embodiment of the Word that spirated the Law.  

What this does to our exegesis of the Dominical statements on hell is to place them into this larger dramatic context.  Seen in this light the starkness of the binary, black and white portrayal of the choice that confronts us must be seen as part of this motif of the intensification of history as a battleground with “eternal” consequences.  But the eternal consequences as described by Christ are misinterpreted if taken as straightforward predictions of what is going to happen in a literal sense and must instead be viewed as a form of “crisis language” intended as provisional, existential warnings of how serious the choice is.  They are words weaponized against lukewarm complacency in the face of the moment that confronts them in the person of Christ.  They are a call to enter into the drama that is unfolding and not an eschatological census.

Hart focuses his exegesis on the meaning of the Greek word “aionios” in Christ’s statements about hell, which Hart claims, based on his expert grasp of New Testament Greek, does not mean “eternal” or “everlasting” but should rather be interpreted as “until the end of the age” or “an age.”  This of course could therefore mean that all Christ is referring to is the end of the age of judgment and the beginning of the age of the restoration of all things in his Father’s Kingdom.   I will stipulate that Hart is correct in this understanding of the term since I am no expert in Greek and he is.  However, I am not certain this solves the matter entirely since elsewhere in the New Testament the clear impression is given that the “lake of fire” is never ending, e.g. in the book of Revelation when after the “second death” Satan and the demons will be tossed into the lake where they will reside “forever and ever.” Perhaps Hart or someone who has studied Hart more than I can shed some light on this. But my main point is that that his argument in favor of the idea that the New Testament does not teach definitively that hell is eternal is supported by my exegesis of the various verses in question as a form of hyperbolic and apocalyptic crisis language for the purpose of existential provocation.  This, it seems to me, is also Balthasar’s approach where he sees the verses in question as theological affirmations that we all stand under “judgment” rather than as merely predictive prophecies of what will definitely be.

Finally, it is no exaggeration to make the theological claim that it is Christ himself who “creates” and “locates” heaven and hell within the paschal event that has its center within his own Sacred Heart and his human will that effects our salvation in the crucible of its encounter with, and destruction of, evil.  When Christ is “lifted up” he draws all flesh unto himself which puts an exclamation point as well on the corporate nature of our salvation.  We are all incorporated into Christ on some level and thus Hart is also entirely correct when he points out that the loss of even one soul to eternal damnation diminishes us all.  And therein lies the powerful hope that Christ will not lose any of those that the Father has entrusted to him, and that includes everyone. Does anyone seriously believe that the Father only gave “some” souls to Christ and that the inclusion of sinners within the eschatological moment of his paschal heart doesn’t include everyone?  If some do hold to such a view in all seriousness, then they are lacking a true understanding of the full depth and breadth of the Incarnation.

Furthermore, Christ’s descent into hell, if it is not mythically conceived of as a superman event where Christ kicks in Satan’s front door and sucker punches him into submission, can only be properly construed on a theological level as an affirmation that hell is Christ’s heart as such, which has encompassed and experienced the full depths of human estrangement from God. Therefore, hell can no longer be described as a place where God is not, where love is impossible, and where the light of Christ’s burning heart doesn’t shine even in the “outer darkness.”  All concepts of hell that image it as an absence of God are mythological and unworthy of the Gospel’s christological concentration of all eschatological outcomes in the Lamb who was slain.  To be sure the scriptures say that the “light shone into the darkness and the darkness comprehended it not.” But at least that affirms that God’s light is in the darkness and who would dare say that it cannot ultimately bear fruit?

This has been a long blog post and so if you have read this far I thank you for your patience.  But the topic demanded a longer presentation and Hart’s book is too important to just give it a passing glance in a “drive by” essay of superficial musings.  I hope I have done justice to his book and to his arguments and any criticisms I have presented were offered in a spirit of deep appreciation for his work and in the spirit of open and honest dialogue.  Any mistakes I have made are entirely due to my own ignorance.  Those who were hoping for some hard and fast “conclusions” about the relationship between Hart’s universalism and Catholic teaching are probably disappointed.  Nevertheless, I have at least tried to show that the hope for the salvation of all is compatible with Catholic teaching based on the Christology I briefly put forward, and that the obstacle of no post-mortem conversions is not as daunting as it seems.  I also hope I have shown that the Catholic doctrine of hell’s eternity, though not entirely compatible with Hart’s view of the same, is not for all that as resolutely opposed to his views as it might at first seem, since the term “eternity” when applied to hell cannot possibly be the same as God’s eternity, and that hell’s “un-time” is located within a zone of existence already traversed by Christ.  Therefore, my conclusion is that the difference between “hopeful universalism” and pure universalism is a christological one, which I think Hart’s approach does not reject.  

Praised be Jesus Christ.

Dorothy Day, pray for us.

66 comments

  1. Dr. Chapp,

    Thank you for your reflections on DBH’s work – truly. I think that his is an extremely well argued position and responses to his work are generally underwhelming. I’m grateful that you have engaged with it in such a thoughtful manner, regardless of points of agreement or disagreement. I say this as a universalist for whom the question isn’t a matter of judging God or supposed presumption – but simply a question of who God is and what it means to say that He is truly the Good and Beautiful. I’m sure this comment section is about to explode in all sorts of directions so I don’t wish to engage in the argument per se – I simply want to say that I am grateful that you have obviously taken the time to engage with and understand universalist thought and not simply dismiss the position in a knee jerk fashion.

    Thank you.

    As an aside – I would like to take the moment to ask if you have happened to listen to Dr. Jordan Wood’s excellent informal discussion on Maximus the Confessor? He has an upcoming book on the Saint that I am eagerly anticipating. It can be located on the YouTube channel perennial digressions – it’s a tiny channel and the conversation meanders around at times, but it’s absolutely fascinating and my gut tells me you’d enjoy it.

    Peace in Christ!

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  2. “The argument Hart raises against a God who would knowingly create a person he knew was headed to damnation could also be used to condemn any God who would create an order that has any evil in it at all.”

    Ah, the problem of evil comes up again.
    Other worlds presumably can be (and perhaps are) created. But only this world produced you and I; both of us are contingent products of this world’s precise history including all of the evil things in it. To express the wish “I wish God had not created anything with evil in it” (or alternatively, “I wish God had created a world without the souls of the damned”) is to ask for your own death, and for the retroactive destruction of everyone and everything in this world.
    This world was literally made just for us. Because God loves us.
    Excellent essay, Larry.

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  3. “But I do not share Hart’s certitude that we can know beyond any shadow of a doubt that a good God would never do such things.”

    If he is willing to do that, if there is even a chance in your mind that God really is that unbelievably cruel, why would you ever except anything that purported to be a revelation from such a being? If he is willing to be so utterly callous to the creatures he makes, what possible reason do you have to believe that he would not also shamelessly lie to them? The very notion of such cosmic cruelty renders God untrustworthy, and without trust there can be no faith worth talking about.

    Please illuminate me, I genuinely do not understand how such an unknown, seriously considered, does not rationally lead to the end of all faith in such a God.

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    1. He already answered this in the rest of the paragraph. We just don’t know. The scriptures do not explicitly reveal universalism, nor do they explicitly reveal infernalism. You talk constantly of how terms like justice and mercy and farherhood must mean something we can relate to or else it’s all meaningless; in the same way, if scripture is to mean anything, it must mean something close to what a rational reader would interpret it to mean. And a rational reader could walk away from the Gospels thinking annihilationism is true, universalism is true, or some form that we don’t quite understand of infernalism is true. Therefore, we exist in a cloud of unknowing, as Dr. Chapp has explained at length.

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      1. But under those circumstances, why believe the scriptures? If a being is so far removed from our morality that he really would create what he knows will be miserable forever, what grounds do you have to suppose that he is at all what we would call honest?

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      2. Because we don’t know his ways with perfect clarity, only what he has ambiguously revealed in the scriptures. I’d put it back to you: what grounds do you have to believe the honesty of a being so far removed from our morality that he would create Elisabeth and Josef Fritzl?

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      3. Because I believe that all evil, even their’s, will be redeemed in the end. I don’t know why certain men are made and become what they were, but I have faith that those same men are objects of God’s love and will, someday, become something bright and glorious. No act of creation will have been in vain.

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      4. Actually, James, we can know that God will save all, if God is absolute and unconditional love. A being characterized by such love would never ever condemn or abandon even one of his children to everlasting torment and misery. To love is to will the good of the other, and interminable suffering can never contribute to the good of the one so condemned. So the real question is “Is God absolute and uncondtional love?” My answer is an unequivocal yes. This is who God has revealed himself to be in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If this is not true, then there is no good news to proclaim. At this point there can be no retreat into agnosticism. We are confronted with a fundamental decision that must be answered yay or nay. If we do not know who God is, then why would we ask anyone to live and die for him, why would we do so ourselves? But if God is not absolute and unconditional love, then he is no different or better than any of the pagan deities, none of which is worthy of our love, worship, faith, and obedience. If God eternally damns (or allows someone to eternally damn themselves), then let us be honest and admit that he is not absolute and uncondtional love.

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      5. Well said. I agree. I am not agnostic on the question of whether or not God wants us all to be saved. Nor am I agnostic about the fact that he offers that salvation to all. Not am I agnostic about the fact that he has the Will and the power to make it happen. And so my hope that all of this will come to pass is a strong hope that truly “expects” it to happen. My one and only hesitation is the question of dogmatic certitude. Is such a view clearly taught in Revelation? I do not think so. I think you can deduce it from Revelation via a series of steps, but I am not certain it is something that can be dogmatically certain. On the other hand, the Catholic Church has expressed dogmatically on certain Marian teachings which are also not explicitly in Revelation, but are rather secondary deductions from it. But at least those teachings were also in the lex orandi of the Church for millennia. Can the same be said of universalism? I have seen some studies that say Yes!
        Thanks for this comment Father. You are most welcome here.

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      6. “If this is not true, then there is no good news to proclaim.” Well I can’t argue with that. Beautifully put. Thank you, Father.

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    2. From my perspective, it would be a twofold approach:

      1. As well as being love, God is just. Not only is he just to his creation, but he also can’t *not* be just to himself. Should someone ultimately choose, in their life, to depart from God, then he owes it to himself (strictly speaking owe is the wrong word, but I can’t think of a better one) to not be joined in communion with such an individual. Hence, eternal separation.

      2. I don’t have a God-like knowledge of everything so can’t possibly determine whether such things are necessarily God or evil or indifferent. I can try to reason to certain positions, but the fact that I can’t neatly tie everything up in a now doesn’t cause me too much consternation.

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      1. 1. I have to agree with Larry on this one. Not only does the idea of self-exile appear to be contrary to the scripture, it also violates anything that we would remotely call justice. An eye for eye is not an eye for an eternity of misery.

        2. If you don’t think you know enough about the character of the being you worship to decide that such an act would not be in keeping with it, what exactly do you believe about your God and what he is like?

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  4. This blog has changed my views on hell, in that I now see that trying to assign it entirely to human agency (something you do to yourself) is unscriptural and quite likely misrepresents God.

    Re: “I will stipulate that Hart is correct in this understanding of the term since I am no expert in Greek and he is.”

    A number of experts have rejected aspects of Hart’s translations, including NT Wright. Hart had a series of exchanges with critics in First Things magazine, including one with Michael Pakaluk. I mention Pakaluk because he has translated parts of Aristotle and also the gospels of John and Mark. So he knows a thing or two about ancient Greek. I recommend his book “The Memoirs of Saint Peter” which is a translation of the gospel of Mark.

    Pakaluk has a quotation from Saint Basil which bears on how “aionios” should be read:
    “After all, if at some future point there will be an end of everlasting punishment, then surely everlasting life, too, will have an end. But if, in the case of life, we do not allow this to be thought, what sort of reason could there be for gratuitously assigning an end to the everlasting punishment? For the attribute of “everlasting” (aiōnios) is applied equally in the case of each. For “these will go,” he says, “into everlasting punishment, and the righteous, into everlasting life.”

    St Basil asks a good question. If everlasting punishment does not mean “everlasting”, then everlasting life may not mean “everlasting” either. Just “for the age”, as Hart puts it. We could play with the meaning of that for a long-time – perhaps it is just the 70 years mentioned in the bible, which you will get to live the way you should have lived it in the first place. Then extinction.

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    1. Mr. Kashman, matters are not so clear regarding aionios. It has a much wider semantic range than the English word “eternal,” not does it necessarily follow that because aionios is used in Matt 25:46 to describe the both the life and punishment of the eschaton that it should be interpreted quantitatively rather than qualitatively (contra St Basil): https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2017/10/08/sometimes-eternity-aint-forever-aionios-and-the-universalist-hope/. As already mentioned, Ilaria Ramelli’s ‘Terms for Eternity’ is necessary reading. Hart is hardly alone here. Origen, the greatest exegete of his day, certainly knew his Greek far better than anyone living today, and he did not draw the conclusion that Basil does. It’s a difficult matter.

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      1. I simply must get her book that you mention here. I would get her book on apokatastasis but it is $350! But I agree with all you say here. And it matters not if one follows Hart or Balthasar here because the important fact that has now been established is that the Dominical statements on Hell in Matthew 25 are not be taken as unambiguous and very clear endorsements for an eternal hell. Quite to the contrary. And as I argue in the blog post this view is further buttressed when one considers the “crisis language” existential form that all of Christ’s statements on hell take. It is a sub genre of apocalyptic. Thanks Father for posting.

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  5. I found Hart convincing the first time I read TASBS, but I also connected the dots to the problem of evil in this life and found his explanations wanting. Maybe I didn’t understand them; maybe it’s apples and oranges to compare eternal suffering for finite crimes and finite suffering for the innocent in this life, but I think this is where Hart’s argument ultimately falls down and we have to rest, however uncomfortably, on this cloud of unknowing or else just become atheists. The contagion of equivocity affects this life too. If there is no explanation for the suffering of a victim of unspeakable crimes in this life, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to really know what goes on in the next for the guilty.

    But I still find it hard to understand how the Church can lump together the Pol Pots of the world with those good people in my life who live in irregular marriages or can’t give up the drink or suffer from whatever sinful sickness into the same group of “in a state of mortal sin that deserves eternal fire,” but I think this is where Balthasar and Spe salvi come in.

    If this series is to continue, it would be great to see a discussion of Pope Benedict’s take on all of this. Some of Spe salvi seems to contradict the catechism, but I don’t really know. Would love to hear your take.

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  6. I want to second Ip’s comment. This is a wonderful blog post and a uniquely valuable Catholic contribution to the discussion of Hart’s work. It’s an excellent piece. Thank you for writing it.

    About the “lake of fire” (which Hart translates as “marsh of fire”) and the “second death”, Dr. Hart wrote several comments about the Book of Revelation in the discussion section of the blog post “The Deep Patristic Roots of Hart’s Universalism: A Response to Fr Lawrence Farley” at Eclectic Orthodoxy. In that discussion Hart explicitly stated his view that Revelation provides no evidence for an eternal hell, but I don’t recall that he elaborated on that point beyond repeating what he wrote in his book and pointing out that Revelation didn’t quickly catch on in the East. I found Ilaria Ramelli’s analysis of the Book of Revelation in “The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis” (pp. 43 – 62) to be more helpful. Dr. Ramelli also coauthored (with David Konstan) “Terms for Eternity: Aiônios and Aïdios in Classical and Christian Texts”, which is very relevant to this discussion and which Michael Cashman might also find worthwhile. It’s very thorough, 239 pages not counting the bibliography and index.

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  7. It yank you Dr. Chapp for this! I can’t help but think that Ferdinand Ulrich’s understanding of creation as gift would be fruitful here. There is something extremely important in that creation is a gift, in the full sense of the word, and not a loan as Ulrich presents it. This Ulrichian emphasis, it seems to me, can be a pathway to understanding human freedom better, which in turn could help us understand the possibility of hell and all that you discussed. I’m not fluent enough with his thought but I can’t help but think that what I have read of Ulrich could help tremendously . Thanks again for such a patient and clear post. I look forward to DBH’s response!

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    1. Hi Jason! I absolutely think Ulrich is significant here. Somewhere in his philosophy of gift there are some very rich resources to be mined for this very topic. Unfortunately, I have only read about Ulrich and not Ulrich himself. If you have perhaps you could contribute a blog post on the topic.

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  8. I posted the following on Facebook and share it here in case it may be of interest:

    I have just finished reading Larry Chapp’s lengthy review of ‘That All Shall Be Saved.’ It is an excellent, eloquently written review and should be carefully read by Catholic and Orthodox theologians. Chapp’s sympathy for the universalist hope–he is an expert on Balthasar–has allowed him to engage central arguments of the book at a level of understanding that most of Hart’s critics have heretofore been unable to achieve. I especially appreciate his insights regarding the existential intent of Jesus’ threats of Gehenna within its apocalyptic context. I am glad he has raised this and hope others will develop it. I suspect some biblical scholars have already done in another context. I do take issue with Chapp on a couple of points. As others have done, he advances the theodicy objection against universalism. I find the objection irrelevant. If we believe that God is infinitely good, then evil and horrific suffering will always tempt us to atheism. If theodicy is our concern, then the traditional assertion of eternal damnation should only intensify that concern. Hell certainly does not ameliorate the problem, and it certainly does not provide a satisfying explanation for the presence of evil within a world made by a good God. Only apocatastasis provides a “solution” to evil. If it doesn’t, then we should have the courage to reject the Christian God and embrace the atheism that haunts our dreams.

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    1. And here is a further conversation that took place in that same thread Father that I also now share. It is a conversation between myself and Kevin Rice:

      Kevin Rice:
      Dr. Chapp’s review is thoughtful and interesting, but I was bewildered by his giving credence to Problem of Evil objections to Universalism despite his awareness of the logical adequacy of their Felix Culpa solution and his understanding of DBH’s argument that the FINAL state of things is what God necessarily had to positively intend from the beginning. I don’t see how he can miss the way this de-fangs the problem of how God could will temporary evil as necessary for bringing about the initially intended good end state. The evil is not just merely temporal it is an intermediate state, the result of secondary causes (free agent creatures) not one willed initially and necessarily. A theodicy that includes the eternal damnation of some creatures cannot be rescued in that way. The necessary ingredients for a sound theodicy are (1) the evil cannot have been willed initially and necessarily as a means toward a desired good end, and (2) all permissively willed evils must be impermanent and (3) result in greater permanent goods than would have been otherwise.

      Larry Chapp:
      I think your observations Kevin are generally correct which is why on a purely logical level I guess the theodicy critique does not work. I accept that. However, what leaves me cold is how nonchalant universalists seem to be about the presence of so much evil in God’s very contingent creation on the grounds that “all is going to be well in the end.” Not without reason is the problem of evil the most vexing of theological problems and the number one reason many folks just cannot believe. Because God could have indeed created a cosmos without sin. So why didn’t he? Well… Felix culpa! The end result will be better in a fallen and redeemed world than a world that never fell. The end result will be better because God “allowed” evil than in a cosmos where he never allowed evil to enter in the first place. But this comes dangerously close to ontologizing evil in my view and has an air of “you have to crack a few eggs to make an omelet” about it. Furthermore, Christ could have come even into an unfallen world and we could have still been elevated into theosis even without sin. And so the argument that theosis will be even more glorious because it is the divinization of a sinful but redeemed creature needs to show how it is that a sinful but redeemed human nature will be more glorious than an elevated non sinful nature. These are debates worth having. But the “tie everything up into a neat ribbon with apokatastasis” answer needs far more justification than what universalists usually give.

      Kevin Rice:
      I feel you there, sir. Indifference to evil repulses me, too, even if it’s the necessary feature of considering, in a purely logical and dispassionate way, whether a certain objection to a view really does what it’s supposed to do. But let’s see if we can fix that with further reflection on what we are looking at as problematic. I propose the indifference problem may be fixed in this way:
      God wasn’t simply aiming at a mediocre world with no sinners. He wanted a better world with you and me and every single other person He actually did create in it because He loved US in particular. The world He wanted is ALL OF US IN PARTICULAR TOGETHER. Not just some abstract container of sinless Whosoevers.
      Could He have had THAT world, the world with all of us in it, but without any sins. Yes. __If we hadn’t sinned.__ That is the only way He could have already gotten the world He wanted (all of us) without any mixture of evil. Logically, He needed all our free cooperation, perfectly and in harmony, to get all of us together in a perfect state of freely consented harmonious cooperation. He didn’t get that. He supplied all that was needed for creatures to render that but we didn’t do our part.
      So to be clear, He wanted a certain world, the world with us, and He wants it to be perfectly good, with no admixture of evil. He WILL get that. He’s just not done yet.
      That is actually an important feature of DBH’s argument – the insight drawn from St. Gregory of Nyssa that the world that we are critically assessing God’s competence as a Creator over isn’t actually created yet. It’s still only half baked. We’re still in the oven. Just wait till the cake rises – then we’ll be looking at something!

      Larry Chapp:
      Yes! I think this is the only possible approach. And it is why ultimately I do not think the theodicy problem scuttles the universalist project. I often told my students at DeSales when discussing this topic to be careful what you wish for! Because if your view is that God should never have allowed evil to come into creation in the first place then you have just willed yourself out of existence. I then asked them to ask themselves a question: Do I think that I, despite my sins, am salvageable and worth it? I think most of us, if not all of us, would answer yes to that question. You have nailed it here Kevin because you have brought it down from the level of logic and abstraction and into the existential realm where evil really has its punch. You have made it concrete and specific. I am here because God loves me and wants me here, warts and all.
      This has just been an absolutely stellar conversation. I thank you all.

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      1. Larry, I am sitting on my deck on a beautiful day here in Roanoke, enjoying a cigar. I have just finished Sergius Bulgakov’s essay “Apocatastasis and Theology” in the just-published The Sophiology of Death. Two questions for you came to mind as I was reading it:

        1) Have you read much of Bulgakov, particularly his reflections on eschatology? Sophiology of Death contains three essays on apocatastasis in particular. I suspect you would enjoy them. They might even generate one or more blog articles (hint, hint).

        2) I know that Balthasar read Bulgakov, but did he comment on Bulgakov’s eschatology, particularly with his assertion of apocatastasis?

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      2. Jealous of the cigar! I love a good cigar with some bourbon.
        I love Bulgakov and I think his views are very pertinent to this conversation we are having. I have not read the Sophiology of Death but will now order it. Sounds great. As for Balthasar, it has been a long time since I have read his very brief remarks on Bulgakov. Balthasar appreciated the Russian sophiologists but had certain reservations. I would have to go back and reread his comments before discussing them here. Will do so soon.

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      3. Dr. Chapp,

        Thank you for sharing your reflections above as well as this interesting conversation. I appreciate your thoughtful and constructive contributions from a genuinely Catholic perspective.

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  9. …It cannot be emphasized enough in this regard that Hart’s argument here is a moral one and hinges on what should be the obvious insight that God cannot be less moral than we are…
    …is a violation of our own normal moral insights into fairness…
    …only slightly less vexing on a moral level than the issue of why God respects our freedom so much…

    IMO there are implicit assumptions in these statements that need to be examined, and the best way is to sidestep the facts of human moral evil and approach this using the facts of physical evil.

    Physical evil abounds. We see it in our genetic diseases. We see it in embryological mishaps. We see it in the beautiful landscapes that turn deadly when the same tectonic forces that built them collapse our buildings upon us and wash us away with tsunamis. We see it in the background or cosmic radiation from earth and sky that trigger cancers.

    Lucifer is not responsible for these things, nor are we. God is. It is God who is directly responsible for physical evil. It is also quite obvious why these physical evils exist: without the physical processes behind them we would see a creation where God directs everything without distance, and that would be a creation without a real possibility of human freedom. The only way out of these conclusions is to conclude that original sin in in some way responsible for the physical conditions that preceded the act of original sin, a conclusion that raises a causality issue so vast that it takes us directly to the Omphalos Hypothesis and to an unscriptural deceiving lying God.

    So we must conclude that “God really does respect our freedom so much,” so much that some of us whom he infinitely loves suffer great physical pain in this world. The only difference between this truth and the topic under discussion (aside from the ‘moral’ issue) is that this suffering is not eternal. Does that really matter? It would seem to be a difference of degree, the morality of Divine inflicted suffering remains.

    The conclusion would seem to be that yours’ and mine and David Bentley Hart’s morality is not God’s. The Book of Job says this. The Crucifixion says this, in which the Triune God inflicts and accepts suffering upon Himself. I have to conclude that the ‘morality’ of the three quotations at the beginning of this post is questionable.

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    1. “The conclusion would seem to be that yours’ and mine and David Bentley Hart’s morality is not God’s.”

      If that is so, then why call him “good”? C. S. Lewis is correct to say that if our goodness is not God’s goodness, then God’s “goodness” actually simply means “we know not what”. It’s purely a propaganda slogan. Which, of course, furnishes no moral motive for worship. If then we are to obey at all it will only be through fear, and even then this deity is so alien to us that we have no rational reason to suppose him honest in promises or threats. Limitless and arbitrary caprice paired with infinite power is all we’re left with once we dismiss God’s fundamentally moral nature.

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      1. If that is so, then why call him “good”?
        Because Jesus Christ, His Resurrected Son, said He was.

        C. S. Lewis is correct to say that if our goodness is not God’s goodness, then God’s “goodness” actually simply means “we know not what”.
        Correct. BTW, from what I can see there is little goodness in what we usually claim to be good about ourselves. A statement that claims the two to be close is another questionable assertion.

        It’s purely a propaganda slogan.
        That does not logically follow, you must PROVE that human and divine morals and goodness map very closely to make that true. Asserting such a map is true is not enough.

        Which, of course, furnishes no moral motive for worship.
        Again, our motive should be the Imitation of Christ. He worshipped His Father. Given the evil of the Crucifixion, why is that not reason enough? There are serious negative implications to any attempt that tries to diminish this motive for another.

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  10. “Because Jesus Christ, His Resurrected Son, said He was.”

    Why believe him? If he is not good as we perceive goodness, there is no reason to believe he is honest as we perceive honesty.

    “Correct.”

    So you worship an unknown quantity. Why?

    “BTW, from what I can see there is little goodness in what we usually claim to be good about ourselves. A statement that claims the two to be close is another questionable assertion.”

    You see no goodness in honesty, in thoughtfulness, in generosity, in patriotism, in loyalty, in brotherhood, in love itself? Then what, pray tell, is good?

    I’ll also let Mr. Lewis slip in again.

    On the other hand, if God’s moral judgment differs from ours so that our ‘black’ may be His ‘white,’ we can mean nothing by calling Him good; for to say ‘God is good,’ while asserting that His goodness is wholly other than ours, is really only to say ‘God is we know not what.’ And an utterly unknown quality in God cannot give us moral grounds for loving or obeying Him. If He is not (in our sense) ‘good’ we shall obey, if at all, only through fear – and should be equally ready to obey an omnipotent Fiend. The doctrine of Total Depravity – where the consequence is drawn that, since we are totally depraved, our idea of good is worth simply nothing – may thus turn Christianity into a form of devil-worship.

    What exactly does separate you from worshipping a particularly powerful demon? Moreover, why should I care what goodness or lack thereof you see in human goodness? You are human, your own sense of goodness does not escape your belief that such a sense is simply worth nothing.

    “That does not logically follow, you must PROVE that human and divine morals and goodness map very closely to make that true. Asserting such a map is true is not enough.”

    Yes it does. Goodness is a word with a specific meaning, which is tied to the usage people give it. Calling what does not conform to that meaning good is equivalent to calling a yellow flower purple – a meaningless and transparent lie.

    “Again, our motive should be the Imitation of Christ. He worshipped His Father. Given the evil of the Crucifixion, why is that not reason enough?”

    Why should we imitate him, if not because he is the supreme instance of goodness as recognized by men? Many tens of thousands of people have been crucified, why should this one in particular be of any great interest? What makes it an evil, if the morality of men is simply worth nothing? And why should we care?

    “There are serious negative implications to any attempt that tries to diminish this motive for another.”

    Absent human morality, the crucifixion is not recognizable as an evil at all by humans, nor Christ as good. Nor, for that matter, is there any discernable reason why imitating such a man is of any value at all to us, if it will not make us good as we understand good to be.

    You take Christianity an reduce it to the worship of a complete unknown for no moral reason – for if you had one you would have to acknowledge the goodness of the human morality that deems the reason good – which can only end in the mindless worship of sheer power.

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    1. Why believe him [Jesus]? If he is not good as we perceive goodness, there is no reason to believe he is honest as we perceive honesty.
      Because the Gospel accounts of Him are true and his disciples went to their deaths saying so. If that’s not good enough for you, you should think long and hard about what you believe and why. Especially regarding your “perceptions”.

      So you worship an unknown quantity. Why?
      Because worshipping a fully known quantity is by definition a false god, a projection of our own minds, an idol. Obviously.

      You see no goodness in honesty, in thoughtfulness, in generosity, in patriotism, in loyalty, in brotherhood, in love itself? Then what, pray tell, is good?
      Matthew 7:11 “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children…” Jesus himself implies that good things may be given for evil reasons. None of those good abstractions usually remain good in their human realizations. Most of the idealistic people I have met are very good haters. The main goodness I see in humanity is the simple desire for these good things, which is not the same thing at all.

      Why should we imitate him…And why should we care?
      Obviously you are having trouble. I don’t see your approach as much different than the fictional characters in Lewis’ The Great Divorce who left Heaven on the bus because God didn’t meet their standards. Perhaps the people most against the idea that Hell is locked from within are the ones most likely to turn the key themselves?

      You take Christianity an reduce it to the worship of a complete unknown for no moral reason – for if you had one you would have to acknowledge the goodness of the human morality that deems the reason good – which can only end in the mindless worship of sheer power.
      Wrong. “Complete unknown” is untrue, since we know what the New Testament affirms, and I fully accept it. Your use of ‘complete’ is either dishonest – by your own definitions it is not ‘good’ – or hysterical. I listed physical reasons in Creation to support my argument, I explained why denying them creates a God just as un-Christian as the one you claim to oppose, and you refuse to grapple with the assertions, you just dismiss them out of hand. Again, human morals and goodness cannot be assumed to be an effective standard by which to judge God (at least until you find a better proof than “It has to be so!”), and your acceptance of these assumptions is a false love that leads you to false conclusions.

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      1. “Because the Gospel accounts of Him are true and his disciples went to their deaths saying so.”

        Are they? Deciding that they are requires the use and accent of the very faculty which you would have me deny the validity. You cannot escape the need to think, to apply reason and morality to your beliefs. As Voltaire said, one needs reasons to deny one’s reason.

        Further, you missed the point completely. If God is as you say he is, there’s no reason to presume, even if you established certain texts to certainly be revelation, that he isn’t a liar. Our morality doesn’t apply to him after all. Guess what, our morality includes honesty.

        “Because worshipping a fully known quantity is by definition a false god, a projection of our own minds, an idol. Obviously.”

        Oh, now you’re backpedaling? Before it was “we know not what”, ie. completely unknown. Now you’re saying we can definitely know certain things about him? An unknown quantity is just that, unknown. There is no reason to worship it. You are worshipping at best Azathoth, at worst a demon.

        “Matthew 7:11 “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children…” Jesus himself implies that good things may be given for evil reasons.”

        No, he’s implying that an evil person can do a good thing – give a good gift to their children. Which seems rather obvious.

        “None of those good abstractions usually remain good in their human realizations. Most of the idealistic people I have met are very good haters.”

        That’s lovely for you, but even by admitting that these abstractions are in fact good you validate human morality – if humans have some idea of what actual good is, then in order for God to be properly called good he must line up with these things.

        “The main goodness I see in humanity is the simple desire for these good things, which is not the same thing at all.”

        In point of fact it is. A desire for good things is itself a definite good, a lack of desire for them is simply bad. To desire to be an honorable man, even if you should fail, is morally better than not to. Further, humans can and have gone to great lengths and made extraordinary personal sacrifices to realize their conceptions of these good things, so your idea that humans are bereft of them is simply not true.

        “Obviously you are having trouble. I don’t see your approach as much different than the fictional characters in Lewis’ The Great Divorce who left Heaven on the bus because God didn’t meet their standards. Perhaps the people most against the idea that Hell is locked from within are the ones most likely to turn the key themselves?”

        If God does not line up with what we call good, then the word good – a human word for a human concept – is not properly applied to him. This is simple logic, the position that words have specific meaning. If you cannot – or more likely, refuse to – see that, then you would be well advised to consider what you actually mean when you use that word as a descriptor.

        As Mr. Lewis said:

        And so what? This, for all practical (and speculative) purposes sponges God off the slate. The word good, as applied to him, becomes meaningless: like abracadabra. We have no motive for obeying Him. Not even fear. It is true that we have His threats and promises. But why should we believe them? If cruelty is from His point of view “good,” telling lies may be “good” too. Even if they are true, what then? If His ideas of good are so very different from ours, what He calls “Heaven” might well be what we should call Hell, and vice versa. Finally, if reality at its very root is so meaningless to us—or, putting it the other way round, if we are such total imbeciles—what is the point of trying to think either about God or about anything else? The knot comes undone when you try to pull it tight.

        “Wrong. “Complete unknown” is untrue, since we know what the New Testament affirms, and I fully accept it. Your use of ‘complete’ is either dishonest – by your own definitions it is not ‘good’ – or hysterical. I listed physical reasons in Creation to support my argument, I explained why denying them creates a God just as un-Christian as the one you claim to oppose, and you refuse to grapple with the assertions, you just dismiss them out of hand. Again, human morals and goodness cannot be assumed to be an effective standard by which to judge God (at least until you find a better proof than “It has to be so!”), and your acceptance of these assumptions is a false love that leads you to false conclusions.”

        I’ve said this before, and I will happily say it again: it is logically possible that the permission of finite evils might, in the end, resolve themselves into an infinite good, however much specific instances of such might test our faith. It is logically impossible for an infinite evil to ever be anything but an infinite evil – absolutely and forever bad. Theodicy and the eternal state of creation are not logically comparable.

        Secondly, not only is the validity of human morality assumed by God, repeatedly, Jesus himself asks his listeners to use it as a base upon which to judge.

        “And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?”
        -Luke 12:57

        It is in fact presumed very often, throughout the Bible, that humans are capable of witnessing and understanding the goodness of God by their own standard, and that on those ground they should choose to listen to him.

        “Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just?”
        -Ezekiel 18:25

        It is, in fact, impossible for humans to decide to follow an authority with their hearts, save by perceiving it and judging it to be good for themselves. There is no other way but that of brute force and terror.

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    2. …Goodness is a word with a specific meaning, which is tied to the usage people give it. Calling what does not conform to that meaning good is equivalent to calling a yellow flower purple – a meaningless and transparent lie.

      Really? We live in a time in which it is ‘good’ to take the mentally ill and give them hormones and surgeries to ‘change’ their sex. I say this ‘good’ is a lie, but the transparency is really obscure these days. Good is now evil and evil good.

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      1. “Really? We live in a time in which it is ‘good’ to take the mentally ill and give them hormones and surgeries to ‘change’ their sex. I say this ‘good’ is a lie, but the transparency is really obscure these days. Good is now evil and evil good.”

        It is a false application of a true good: compassion. But compassion itself is good. It is applied in this case with no small amount of ignorance, willful and otherwise, and no small amount of cynicism but that does not render the underlying principle false. Merely misapplied. Evil has no existence of its own, it is merely a distortion of some good.

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  11. From Calvin:

    I’ve said this before, and I will happily say it again: it is logically possible that the permission of finite evils might, in the end, resolve themselves into an infinite good, however much specific instances of such might test our faith. It is logically impossible for an infinite evil to ever be anything but an infinite evil – absolutely and forever bad. Theodicy and the eternal state of creation are not logically comparable.

    Oh, I agree. But if it happens it is due to God’s love and mercy, which is a mystery only hinted in the Gospels. Your “cut ‘n dried” answers regarding morality and goodness are not sufficient reasons to believe in it.

    It is, in fact, impossible for humans to decide to follow an authority with their hearts, save by perceiving it and judging it to be good for themselves….
    …It is a false application of a true good: compassion….”
    And I see no reason why the human perception and judgement of a “good for themselves” can be claimed to usually be protected from false applications. You certainly haven’t proved it to be so. In fact history shows they usually are not so protected. Biblical and Magisterial teaching are intellectually sufficient, but sociologically insufficient: so few really listen.

    “And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?” -Luke 12:57
    Read the whole passage. Jesus is saying the people do NOT judge what is right, that they make false applications. My point exactly/

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    1. “Oh, I agree. But if it happens it is due to God’s love and mercy, which is a mystery only hinted in the Gospels. Your “cut ‘n dried” answers regarding morality and goodness are not sufficient reasons to believe in it.”

      Define love and mercy in a divine context as related to their human context. If you cannot, what right have you to take human words for human concepts and apply them to God?

      “And I see no reason why the human perception and judgement of a “good for themselves” can be claimed to usually be protected from false applications. You certainly haven’t proved it to be so. In fact history shows they usually are not so protected.”

      Your reason is, by your argument, irrelevant. Your human faculties are no more protected from false applications than any other – including of course those informing you that Christianity is true, or that you should listen to the Roman Catholic Church. You’ve cut off the branch you’re sitting on, the only branch anyone could ever sit on.

      You should read C S Lewis on the concept of the Tao. Moral principles in human society have shown a good deal more uniformity than is commonly supposed. It’s like there’s some sort of internal law engraved on human hearts, almost like it reflects some sort of greater reality with which it is in fundamental accord. Hmmm…

      “Biblical and Magisterial teaching are intellectually sufficient, but sociologically insufficient: so few really listen.”

      Why? What moral and intellectual faculties have led you to that conclusion, and why do they apparently enjoy the certainty in this field that they do not in applying morality to God?

      “Read the whole passage. Jesus is saying the people do NOT judge what is right, that they make false applications. My point exactly/”

      You apparently do not understand how presumptions work, so let me fill you in. Merely to ask that question is to assume both that humans can judge for themselves what is right, and that they should. Elsewise the question is meaningless babble on the level of “Why do you not go scuba diving in molten lava?”.

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      1. Your human faculties are no more protected from false applications than any other – including of course those informing you that Christianity is true, or that you should listen to the Roman Catholic Church. You’ve cut off the branch you’re sitting on, the only branch anyone could ever sit on.

        1) By using the word “faculties” you have now moved the goalpost from morality to logic, without any clear reason for doing so other than the need to score a point.
        2) By doing so you have put yourself on that imaginary branch right along side me. You should have noticed that if you use someone’s argument (or in this case a caricature of an argument) against them, then you to a degree validate the argument.

        The reason for this misunderstanding is that you threw out a single line of C.S. Lewis, and I agreed with it without knowing the full context. With the full context I would say that Lewis is right and that maintaining an extreme ‘we can know nothing about God’ is untenable, because we know what Christian revelation tells us about God. My original statement was in effect ‘we cannot know everything about God’. I don’t see where there is any real conflict between the two.

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      2. Merely to ask that question is to assume both that humans can judge for themselves what is right…
        Correct. God gave humans the gift of reason.

        …and that they should.
        Correct. God does call humans to moral perfection, impossible as it may seem.

        But what you refuse to see is that humans consistently refuse to do what they can and should. Reason and the call to moral perfection are not enough. There is a thing called original sin. For humans to consistently do the good and moral things for good and moral reasons they must have received God’s grace and the support of the Holy Spirit. Jesus called them to repentance and to place their faith in Him as the cure for “And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?”

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      3. Define love and mercy in a divine context as related to their human context. If you cannot, what right have you to take human words for human concepts and apply them to God?

        Even if I can make such a definition, I have no right to brazenly apply it to God so as to make God into what I want.

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      4. Moral principles in human society have shown a good deal more uniformity than is commonly supposed. It’s like there’s some sort of internal law engraved on human hearts, almost like it reflects some sort of greater reality with which it is in fundamental accord.

        Of course there is ‘some sort of internal law engraved on human hearts’. Judaism has the Noahide law, Catholicism has Natural law. This is not new. Know what else is uniform? Human refusal to follow moral principles.

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      5. “1) By using the word “faculties” you have now moved the goalpost from morality to logic, without any clear reason for doing so other than the need to score a point.
        2) By doing so you have put yourself on that imaginary branch right along side me. You should have noticed that if you use someone’s argument (or in this case a caricature of an argument) against them, then you to a degree validate the argument.”

        1) Have you not been attention? The my argument has been, and continues to be, that human faculties are capable of judging morality correctly, and that includes the morality of the behavior purportedly exhibited by God, and consequently are able to know that a picture of one that purports to be goodness itself while acting contrary to goodness must be, by definition, false.

        2) My argument is for the reliability of human morality and reason, and its universal application. Yours is against. I sit firmly on the branch, you would saw it off out of fideism.

        “But what you refuse to see is that humans consistently refuse to do what they can and should. Reason and the call to moral perfection are not enough.”

        Apparently you don’t get it. Presuming that they can judge for themselves what is right is enough to demonstrate that they can judge whether or not a picture of God as presented lines up with morality, and correctly reject it if it does not.

        “Even if I can make such a definition, I have no right to brazenly apply it to God so as to make God into what I want.”

        So you’ve no warrant at all to apply either word to God, save your desire to spout baseless propaganda to make infinite cruelty sound appealing. Those words are nouns, they mean something.

        “Of course there is ‘some sort of internal law engraved on human hearts’. Judaism has the Noahide law, Catholicism has Natural law. This is not new. Know what else is uniform? Human refusal to follow moral principles.”

        Are blind as a bat? The point is not whether or not humans perfectly follow moral principles, it is that they know correctly what moral principles are and are capable of using their intellects to correctly evaluate whether or not someone is following them. Hence, they are capable of knowing whether a purported God is behaving morally or not.

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  12. Calvin, I skipped over your charge that I backpedaled regarding God’s ultimate unknowability (which is not true) and your charge that I worship demons (equally not true). But I just noticed them now.

    I think you have really dug yourself into a hole here.

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    1. “I think you have really dug yourself into a hole here.”

      I think the thing you profess to worship enjoys no conspicuous moral superiority over demons. Of course, you don’t think we can notice the difference.

      Oh and, predictably, you once again wholly ignored my point that if our morality is inapplicable to God so are our concepts of honesty, hence there is no reason to trust him in your scheme.

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      1. Oh and, predictably, you once again wholly ignored my point that if our morality is inapplicable to God so are our concepts of honesty, hence there is no reason to trust him in your scheme.

        Ah, but your point is based on a misreading of what I wrote. My I wrote was not based on honesty as a moral attribute of God, but rather on what is true as seen in God’s physical creation – a very big difference. It was a really minor point thrown on the table to head off a particular objection based on origin sin, it is hardly central to my argument. I ‘ignored’ your point largely because I didn’t see where you were going with your first formulation.

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      2. I think the thing you profess to worship enjoys no conspicuous moral superiority over demons. Of course, you don’t think we can notice the difference.

        What do you mean ‘we’? Are you calling in the referee? OK, Larry, do you think I worship demons?

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      3. “Ah, but your point is based on a misreading of what I wrote. My I wrote was not based on honesty as a moral attribute of God, but rather on what is true as seen in God’s physical creation – a very big difference. It was a really minor point thrown on the table to head off a particular objection based on origin sin, it is hardly central to my argument. I ‘ignored’ your point largely because I didn’t see where you were going with your first formulation.”

        No backing out. You’ve already committed to the position that God is not bound to morality as we understand it, hence he is not bound to be truthful with us in slightest. I see no reason to suppose that a being capable of engineering a creation where infinite torment will befall some of his hapless would not likewise lie to them.

        “What do you mean ‘we’? Are you calling in the referee? OK, Larry, do you think I worship demons?”

        By “we”, I mean “humanity”.

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      4. No backing out. You’ve already committed to the position that God is not bound to morality as we understand it, hence he is not bound to be truthful with us in slightest,

        I don’t accept your characterizations of my positions, I consider them deceitful. My main position is not ‘that God is not bound to morality as we understand it’ it is rather ‘that “God is bound to morality as we understand it” is an a priori statement that you – Calvin – must prove to falsify my thesis’. You haven’t.

        Tell us, what is humanly moral about God intending His Son to die on the cross to redeem us? If you can answer that we have a place to start, otherwise you are just blowing smoke.

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      5. “I don’t accept your characterizations of my positions, I consider them deceitful. My main position is not ‘that God is not bound to morality as we understand it’ it is rather ‘that “God is bound to morality as we understand it” is an a priori statement that you – Calvin – must prove to falsify my thesis’. You haven’t.”

        If God is not bound to morality as we understand it, “good” as applied to him is a meaningless term. If you assume he his not, then you have evacuated Christian claims of all content. Even worse, you have removed morality as any potential motive worship, because assuming him unbound by it means that we have no standard upon which to differentiate him from a demon. Thus you are left no coherent motives to obey beyond simple fear. The cross of Christ only has meaning assuming a preexisting, valid framework of morality into which it fits and we can judge it’s importance by. If you wish to claim him wholly innocent, one must be able to define what conditions would make him guilty.

        “Tell us, what is humanly moral about God intending His Son to die on the cross to redeem us? If you can answer that we have a place to start, otherwise you are just blowing smoke.”

        Well, to begin with, being that his nature is love itself it would be directly against what is his deepest essence to allow that which he freely and knowingly created to fall into irreparable ruin. If he is going to freely create, he has taken on an obligation to ensure that the goodness he imparts is not in vain, whatever the costs. It would also be, as Anselm might see it, a slight on his honor if he were allow the present fallen situation to stand. Something needed to be done, and that response seemed the best. I see no more contradiction to human morality there than a king sending his beloved son to a battle where he will surely die, but will in the process save the nation form a great evil.

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  13. The confession of faith which the fathers of Lateran IV make seems to take the view that there is already one resident in hell, namely, the devil, when they contrast eternal glory with Christ and eternal punishment with Satan.

    I don’t often see sympathetic reviews of Hart’s arguments for universalism (so thank you for that), and I largely agreed with what you wrote, except for when Hart tries to say eternal doesn’t ackshually mean eternal, for the same reasons someone else posted above.

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  14. Hart further concludes, rightly in my view, that no human sin in this life can ever be so definitive and determinative as to merit an eternal punitive consequence.

    Seriously, I didn’t expect that.

    This has been a very interesting post……in a disturbing way.

    Look, I’m just some rube without a degree in theology but I think I’m on very safe ground here in stating that quite a few Church fathers would have called you out on that statement. The whole thing about a mortal sin is………..that it’s mortal. It isn’t that complicated. The notion that are no mortal sins runs contrary—in a fundamental way— to Christian tradition and in less tolerant times would have been thought of as heretical. Now I’m all for free ranging debate but if you’re going reverse some of the fundamental principals Christianity then you’re going to have to have to have really good arguments to back yourself up.

    Maybe I’m a bit thick, but I’m not seeing them.

    There are a lot of points to debate here but the crux of the argument appears to lay here:

    The “hell as self-exile” motif, therefore, appears in modern garb precisely because the very notion of hell as an endless exercise in punitive justice, or a fruitless and endless exercise in remedial purgation, doesn’t sit well with our sensibilities surrounding fair play. In other words, the self-exile motif emerges as a direct result of our awareness that any concept of an eternal hell has to focus on a self-choice by the sinner rather than on a “throw away the key” God since the latter is intolerable

    Intolerable to whom? Hart (and modern theologians) or God, and this point is of some importance. The issue as I see it swing on the whole relationship between man, God and the whole “cloud of unknowingness” stuff. Revelation is confronting and uncomfortable and there’s a lot of disturbing stuff there but role of the believer is to make some sense of it, not explain it away because it is “intolerable”.

    I don’t like the idea of Hell, or of people being stuck there but I also know that God is good and smarter than I am, and if anyone is in Hell, there is good reason for it. I can honestly say that I can live in peace with that determination because I know that God is good, but more importantly, I accept God’s goodness on God’s terms even though I don’t understanding it at times In the relationship between myself and God, I accept that I am subordinate and don’t understand everything perfectly.

    Hart doesn’t do this. Hart inverts the relationship. Hart can’t accept a God that eternally damns because Hart does not think that that is what a good God would do. The Goodness of God is subject to Hart’s yardstick. Hart therefore has to “explain away” the God of Scripture into a God of Hart. Suddenly God becomes “evil” because he does what scripture says he does. Therefore to fix the problem Hart creates a God in his own preferred image, one that damns no one—contrary to scripture. By this mechanism we can produce whatever type of God we want. Emphasise this bit, neglect that one, waffle with phenomenological reflection, interpret a word differently and presto….a new God.

    The astute observer will recognise that the underlying mechanism at play here is Pride.

    I understand that the old “fire and brimstone” God was a mockery of His nature but so is Kumbayah Jesus. The real issue that Moderns have with God, is not the possibility of Hell but rather the notion that God can be good AND have a punitive/assertive aspect to his nature. But since that offends their sensibilities they stick with Kumbayah Jesus…..where everyone’s a winner…….or not.

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    1. When I read “Hart further concludes, rightly in my view, that no human sin in this life can ever be so definitive and determinative as to merit an eternal punitive consequence”, I had no trouble with it. But your post jogged my memory: Matthew 12:32 – “Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.”

      Putting aside arguments about what ‘speaking against the Holy Spirit’ means precisely, the fact that Jesus actually said this conflicts with Hart’s assertion. Frankly, I found Chapp’s nuances regarding Jesus’ statements in his first article to be very persuasive. I am disposed to accept arguments that significantly limit the chances for damnation. But if Jesus said that a sin shall not be forgiven, then we have to assume that sin is both real and humanly possible. I don’t think this negates Balthazar’s Hope at all, but it does tell us that Balthazar’s Hope and Hart’s Certainty are not the same thing.

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    2. Unfortunately, here is what you overlook. In order for us to presume that Christianity is in fact, true, we must assume the validity of the human reason and morality that would judge it true or false. That is, it must be something which is subject to judgement by reason, and subsequently to falsification by reason.

      Now, Christianity includes a picture of a God who is alleged to be goodness, indeed love, itself. In order for this to be true, those words must carry with them at the very least the ordinary meaning of the words as understood by humans. If they do not, then you have evacuated the claim of any meaning, and hence it is a worthless propaganda slogan at best. So we must assume some continuity between love as understood by humans and love as applied to God, the same with other qualities such justice, or truthfulness. Being that, then, we must in order to make any coherent claims assume that we understand at least something of the qualities being claimed of God, it follows that our moral and mental faculties must be capable of detecting whether or not purported behavior of his does in fact line up with these qualities or does not. That is, that humans are able to judge whether or not God is acting in a manner wholly inconsistent with love or justice, or not.

      All that being said, we arrive at the main point. Being that God is established by orthodox Christianity to be wholly self-sufficient and in need of no creatures, we cannot ascribe any necessity in creation to him. Being that he is ascribed omniscience and knowing the end from the beginning, we cannot ascribe any ignorance of the precise consequences of what he does in each individual act of creation to him. Putting those together, we can see that the final state of creation cannot be otherwise than a deliberate, knowing, unneeded act of of will.

      With all that finally established, we can see that any creature being tormented is not only infinitely bad in and of itself, but that it must have been due to a prior act of deliberate will on the part of God. As we are capable of correctly evaluating love to be, at the minimum, the willing of the highest good of the beloved, we can judge that any picture of reality in which such a thing will prevail is wholly inconsistent with the idea of love. Since Christian claims include one that God is love, if they also claim that such a doom is reality, or even a potential reality, then they have made claims which are radically inconsistent with one another. If a system contains claims which are mutually exclusive, the system is logically impossible and hence can only be judged to be false.

      Or, to sum it up, if claims of both God being love itself and a hell of eternal torment existing are both inviolate parts of Christianity, Christianity cannot be anything other than false.

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  15. @Calvin: “we can see that any creature being tormented is not only infinitely bad in and of itself, but that it must have been due to a prior act of deliberate will on the part of God.”
    I think you meant “…any creature being infinitely tormented”. Creatures are already being tormented, so your sentence appears to acknowledge that infinite badness is already here.
    I think you already believe that most of Christianity has been and is false. It is clear that most Catholic bishops, priests and theologians, most Orthodox bishops, priests and theologians, most Lutheran – well, you know where I am going – most of them have accepted an eternal hell, so in its leading representatives through two millennia, Christianity has met your definition of false.
    If we could miraculously perceive God’s goodness – we would say, yes it includes what we mean by good, but it is infinitely more and also different that the conception we held. God’s goodness includes his justice. We sometimes say that somebody in authority is “tough but fair”, and it is praise, even though it implies that that authority figure is willing to punish. We don’t say the person is only good when he is lenient.
    The blessed in heaven will see that the condemned in hell have been justly condemned, and that their condemnation is just, and that it is all consistent with God’s goodness. We shouldn’t be surprised that, given all our limitations, the full picture evades us in this life.

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    1. Yes, I meant infinitely tormented. That was a typo on my part that I didn’t notice until it was too late to edit it.

      And again, tough but fair would be something akin to an eye for an eye. A finite and roughly equivalent punish to the damage inflicted by the crime itself. An infinite penalty for what can only be a finite offense under conditions of ignorance, falleness, inherited bad tendencies, and of course the looming shadow of death is the opposite of tough but fair. It is both ludicrously unfair and absolutely pointless at the same time, an impressive combination.

      I don’t say that punishment is bad, I say that excessive, brutal, and pointless punishments are bad. Grounding a child and putting his eyes out with a hot poker are two different things.

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  16. Statements about hell as eternal punishment (or similar) are found in Justin Martyr, Ignatius of Antioch, Second Clement and “The Martyrdom of Polycarp”. All of these come from the second century – they are very early. So it seems that the Christian Church has always taught the reality of eternal punishment, and therefore by your (Calvin’s) argument “Christianity cannot be anything other than false”.

    So how does your claim that work? If something that has taught falsely for two thousand years would just change one aspect of its teaching, then it would become true in your opinion. Is that how it stands? Or is there a longer list of requirements for changes before you would regard it as true?

    In a sense each generation has custody of the faith and passes it down to the next. In the chain of believers and teachers who carried it across the centuries to you, there would almost certainly be a majority of believers in eternal damnation. It could be 100% – you might be the first in your “chain” to argue against it. Who knows?

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    1. Truth is truth, whether or not a majority believes in it. If something logically must be false, then it is false even if the whole world should believe it to be true. Neither does age impress me, any more than I would imagine the pedigree of Islam or Taoism moves you. Now, in point of fact a good number of people down through the centuries have come to believe in universal salvation, but that’s only a side point at best. My claim is that the logic of Christian claims does not work with an eternal damnation, giving the claims a fatal internal inconsistency. That which is inconsistent with itself must either be rid of the disconnect or be entirely false, there are no other options.

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  17. The following extract on false judgment, from the Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena with God the Father, may shed light on the discussion about how the Good Lord could allow some people to be in Hell.

    In n. 66 of the section “A Treatise of Prayer”, God the Father mentioned two kinds of false judgment; one regarding Himself, and the other regarding our neighbour:

    “The first with regard to Me, by which men judge My secret judgments, gauging falsely all My mysteries, that is, judging that which I did in love, to have been done in hatred; that which I did in truth to have been done in falsehood; that which I give them for life, to have been given them for death.

    “They condemn and judge everything according to their weak intellect; for they have blinded the eye of their intellect with sensual self-love, and hidden the pupil of the most holy Faith, which they will not allow to see or know the Truth.”

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  18. Dr. Chapp,

    I appreciate that you approach this topic with openness and humility, yet it also seems to me that the shape of your argumentation entails judgment of major transmitters of the Tradition, perhaps even the vast majority of them, as not merely mistaken, as each individually may be, but mistaken on rather basic, even simplistic, points of fairness and goodness. You say it ought to be “obvious” that God has to be better, and thus fairer, than we and that a God who creates someone whose choices will assuredly result in eternal punishment is an “abomination.” And yet is not the Western Church, at the very least, replete with saints who believed in an eternal hell? While readily confessing my ignorance of most Eastern sources I am under the impression that universalism has been a minority position among their churches as well. I can readily accept an argument that some Father or Doctor was wrong. I cannot accept that this particular error, so widespread among our paragons of virtue, was the result of a moral imbecility that has handicapped most of the Church throughout space and time. Yet if the strongest part of the case for universalism is what ought to be an obvious moral intuition, how do you avoid levelling that charge?

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    1. Ordo Virginum, thanks for the interesting extract from St Catherine.

      Aaron Sanders – I agree with what you’ve written. If universalism is true, we should conclude that the Holy Spirit does not guide the Church and that Catholicism is false. In this case, the obvious intuition is that the Church is an untrustworthy guide, and it is unclear what logic could be employed against this conclusion.
      Talking about “obvious moral intuition”, I don’t share the universalist’s intuition about this matter. Certainly when I think about infinite punishment, it can seem that nothing could merit this, but if I turn my thoughts to some of the terrible things that have been done, and are being done, my intuition is the opposite. My intuition is that some sins deserve eternal damnation. So when I think about one side of the ledger, they seem to have an argument, and when I think about the other side, I look forward to God’s vengeance. Somewhere in this blog, or maybe I read it elsewhere, it said that St Edith Stein tended towards universalism, but when she learned more about the crimes of the Nazis, she changed her view.
      The “logical” argument includes the idea that eternity means an infinite passage of time – I think eternity will be something else, something we can’t understand while we are in this life. They say that God will have failed if there is a single creature that he doesn’t save – who are we to decide what God must achieve? There is also an image of God choosing the parts of his creation separately: “I’ll create this one and it will be saved, and I’ll create this other one which will be damned.” and so on. This isn’t a very good image for God’s act of creation.

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  19. Larry,
    Thank you for you thoughts on this!
    I found them very helpful! I have just finished the book. I too am drawn to his ideas but I too wonder about whether his arguments could prove too much…
    While I like his discussion of the ground of the human rational will being in God, I was wondering if you find a kind Platonic psychic determinism here. If we sin, then we must be ignorant. If we are ignorant then we are not culpable. But this would this not apply to every sin? Could God ever blame us? Does it mitigate the idea of our own influence upon our being and character and the “lens” that our character shapes? I don’t know. I am not a theologian.
    Perhaps, there seems to be something missing here?
    Also, I am uneasy about Hart’s putting it in a kind Dostoevskyian bargain scenario, namely that 80% of Christians think that our happiness depends upon the suffering of these souls in some way.

    I may be out there but these are just some thoughts to feel out what I am thinking….

    Liked by 1 person

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