I recently read David Bentley Hart’s new book, That All Shall Be Saved. Hart made a great and intellectual defense of so many things that I have believed and hoped were true. I spent most of the last 40 years of my life calling people to pray, “Lord, have mercy.” I have felt if God were not merciful, our liturgies in the Orthodox Church make no sense whatsoever. Why call people to pray for God’s mercy if God has already decided not to be merciful but to condemn everyone to hell? Is the Church a fraud and deceiving people to beg mercy from a ruthless, blood-thirsty and unforgiving tyrant who has already issued an irrevocable condemnation of sinners? I have not believed that. The Church seeks God’s mercy and forgiveness because She knows God to be forgiving, steadfast in love and abundant in mercy. Christ’s coming into the world and dying for us wretchedly on the cross is the greatest sign of God’s loving-kindness. And I don’t think God’s Word will return empty to Him as the Prophet Isaiah says: “so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11). Christ’s death on the cross will bring resurrection to all and so accomplish God’s will for us.
I am no doubt among those misguided souls whom St Augustine criticized at the beginning of the 5th Century “as misericordes, ‘the merciful-hearted’ (Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location 38-40). Yet, it seems to me it is exactly what our Lord Jesus called us to be. And my reading through the history of Orthodoxy says I’m in good company as well. For example I think St Silouan the Athonite is certainly a misericordes. I have written several blog series related to this topic and you can find two of those threads beginning with the posts Images of Salvation or with Hell No?
You can read those blog series to see what things I’ve read that have shaped my thinking on these issues of salvation and damnation. In this blog series I will be quoting some things I’ve mentioned before, but also am adding new material, and I will be weaving Hart’s comments into the posts.
Hart who dismisses biblical proof-texting as a method of argumentation nevertheless offers an abundance of New Testament texts in support of his position: Matthew 18:14; Luke 16:16; John 3:17, 4:42, 12:32, 47, 17:2; Romans 5:18-19, 11:32; 1 Corinthians 15:22; 2 Corinthians 5:14,19; Ephesians 1:9-10; Colossians 1:27-28; Philippians 2:9-11; 1 Timothy 2:3-6, 4:10; Titus 2:11; Hebrews 2:9; 2 Peter 3:9; 1 John 2:2, 4:14. He claims there are many more such texts and far more than support the position of those he disdainfully calls the “infernalists”– those who proclaim an eternal hell for sinners. Hart’s overall appeal is not to proof texts, but to taking the whole of Scriptures into account and analyzing the ideas with reason and logic. He offers an overview of the topic which includes the entirety of Scripture and Tradition and not just a few quotes wrested from the whole. He has done the hard work of synthesizing the Tradition into a coherent framework. For him it is not the number of quotes one can come up with but how they reveal God to us. Taking St Paul as an example, Hart notes:
“If Paul means us to understand that there will also be yet another class—that of the eternally derelict—he does not say so. … If he really believed that the alternative to life in Christ is eternal torment, it seems fairly careless of him to have omitted any mention of the fact. In every instance in which he names the stakes of our relation to Christ, he describes salvation as rescue from death, not from perpetual torture.” (Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location 1474-1476)
Paul indeed mentions the wrath and judgment of God, but does not according to Hart mention an eternal hell. St John Chrysostom commenting on Romans 3:29 and being critical of a Jewish exclusivism says:
It is as if Paul said, “Why do you think it strange that all humans could be saved?” Could God be partial? They outrage the glory of God by insolence toward the Gentiles, refusing to allow God to be the Lord of all. If God is the Lord of all, then God cares for all. If God cares for all, then God saves all alike through faith. This is the reason Paul says, Is God the God of Jews only? Is God not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also. For God is not partial but is shared by every person, unlike the gods in the myths of the Greeks. (St. John Chrysostom, Romans: Interpreted by Early Christian Commentators, Kindle Loc. 1804-8)
Hart applies the same logic to Christian thinking as Chrysostom does to Jewish thought. The same criticism can be leveled against Orthodox who hold to an exclusivist or exceptionalist perspective. We can think about how we pray at the Divine Liturgy each time we celebrate it (from the OCA translation):
You were pleased to ascend the cross in the flesh and deliver Your creatures from bondage to the enemy. (entrance prayer)
O God, our God, Who sent the heavenly Bread, the food of the whole world, our Lord and God, Jesus Christ, (proskomedia)
have mercy on us and save us for He is good and loves mankind.
For the peace of the whole world,
Your love for mankind is inexpressible
through Your inexpressible and boundless love for mankind, You became man, yet without change or alteration
Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven
We also offer You this reasonable worship: for the whole world
And all mankind.
and upon us all send forth Your mercies.
That our God, Who loves mankind
While certainly some of the prayers of the Liturgy are specifically for believers, for those who repent, for Orthodox Christians, the Liturgy has plenty of prayers for all of humankind and for the entire world. The Liturgy is not exclusively exclusivist. We pray constantly for the Lord to have mercy, for God to act according to God’s own nature, which is love, loving kindness, goodness and mercy. We are to be like God in offering mercy to all. And so we pray for everyone and work to be a light to the world, not a lamp hidden under an onion dome.
“But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” (Luke 6:35-38)
“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. … You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:44-48)
Orthodox perfection means to love as God loves us. And God’s love is for the entire cosmos as well as for all humankind.
Next: That All Shall Be Saved