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