And All Mankind

That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal SalvationI 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.

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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)

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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)

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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

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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.

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“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

10 thoughts on “And All Mankind

  1. bookofezekiel3

    Father, please remember the parable of sheep and goats in Matthew 25, how the goats are going into eternal fire.
    Please also remember that He said, not all those who call me Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven, only those who do the will of my Father in heaven. In that day, many will say (they are mine), but I will tell them: Depart from me, I do not know you, you who work iniquity.
    Please also remember that in the book of Revelations/Apocalypse, all those whose name were not found written in the book of Life were thrown into the lake of fire.

    One of those examples alone is enough to say that some people will indeed go to hell.

    1. Fr. Ted

      First, as I noted in my post, one is not going to win the argument by proof texting. One still has to account for the many texts which Hart cites that support the more universal interpretation of salvation. One could argue that one has to interpret the universal passages in the light of the passages that might support an eternal hell. But then one could argue just the opposite, that the universal passages are the key interpretive texts and the specific references to hell have to be read in their limited context but kept in the big picture of universal salvation.
      Then there is that theological picture of God is love and that God’s plan from the beginning of creation is to bring all of salvation into communion with God. That God intends to fill all in all with Himself and actually does so in Christ (Ephesians 1:23). If that is God’s plan, then how can there be an eternal hell which is the absence of God. Can God both be all in all AND create some space in which God is not all in all, or some space which somehow is outside of God’s love and being?
      In any case the PARABLE of the sheep and Goats (Matt 25) is parable, a story, not a dogmatic text. Christ spoke in parables exactly to avoid our overly literal interpretations and to encourage us to think and interpret. Revelations is notoriously hard to interpret and the Church has not endorsed any literal interpretation of it. In Rev 20:14-15, both death and Hades are thrown into the Lake of fire and apparently gotten rid of. The implication seems to be they are not eternal things but are both eliminated by God. In Rev 22:3 all accursed things are gone. They are not in eternal torment, but no more. If there are no more accursed things, that would seem to indicate hell and unrepentant sinners don’t exist anymore either. Christ promises to make all things new, not to make all new things (Rev 21:5). Everything is to renewed. Are sinners and hell somehow not included in all things?
      And in the Matt 7:20-23 text you mention, Christ literally never mentions hell. He tells those to depart from Him, but doesn’t say where anyone can go that is not in the presence of the Lord. You can read hell into if you want, but it is not in the text.
      As I note about Hart, he doesn’t claim that no eternal hell, does not mean there is no judgment or purging suffering. Nor does universal salvation solve any of the problems of life in this world – there are still sinners, people who do evil, people who don’t believe, suffering and death. Just none of these things have eternal value.

  2. I really want to believe this, but would all Christians acknowledge Christ when they are threatened with torture and death. “There is forgiveness with you so that you may be feared. . . . . If you deny me before men I will deny you before My heavenly Father.
    Of course “fear” in Psalms 130 could refer to something other than how it sounds to us.
    Actually, I’m about to read the book, so perhaps Hart will address these things in a convincing fashion. And I would welcome your input, Fr. Ted.

    1. Fr. Ted

      Well, meditate on Psalm 103. The entire Psalm focuses on God’s forgiving sins. At least in some Orthodox churches it is sung every Sunday. Unlike humans, [God] He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger for ever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor requite us according to our iniquities. (Psalms 103:9-10)
      I’m not sure if I understand your comment, but it sounds to me too much like a “gotcha” moment. For one wrong, one is doomed to an eternity of torture and torment. That is not a God of love, but more like a demon whom you should avoid and or keep away from you through magic phrases. It is part of what troubles Hart – a baby is born, lives one day and is unbaptized. By Augustinian logic, justice requires the baby to be barred from heaven. It makes God an ogre. It seems to me the big picture that Hart presents is exactly that God is trying to save us and doing everything in God’s power to save us. God is not looking for “gotcha” moments to justify sending us all to hell. If God’s main goal was to send people to hell, God did not need to give us the Law, nor speak to us through the prophets, nor send His Son to die on the cross. Some people act as if what we should be singing at Pascha is “Christ is risen from the dead so all sinners are going to hell.” Our message is God’s emptying of the Hades or hell by filling all things with divinity.

      1. Yes, indeed, Father; God is good and wants to save all. Even if it means a purification process in Hell, as DBH writes. But one has to take Christ to heart when He says if we deny Him, He will deny us before the Father. If we in America in the future face persecution and martyrdom by the authorities, we certainly will not want to recant, as there will be consequences for this. If not eternity in Hell, certainly a fiery purification process. I believe I remember that Isaac the Syrian said that this process will be painful in the extreme. This promise of denial must counterbalance the mistaken impression some may receive that they will eventually be with Christ even if they sin, even if they deny Him. We must not presume upon God’s goodness and mercy by sinning boldly, as M.L. once said. I”m halfway through David Hart’s book and I haven’t read anything that would address the serious consequences of expecting salvation despite a refusal to repent. If I remember correctly, some of the holy martyrs had to deal with pleading from family members that they spare themselves and the family by momentarily recanting. We know of many who refused to listen to such things, counting such a response a betrayal of our beloved Lord Jesus Christ. But not all Christians are prepared for the challenge of torture; especially soft and fleshly comforted American Christians like me. We need both the good news of salvation and the bad news of consequences for denial and refusal to repent, without a singular focus on one or the other.
        Perhaps DBH will address this in the second half of the book.

      2. Fr. Ted

        Hart never denies there are consequences for what we do, but his question is if we do something in this life which is wrong, with all of our own limits and limited understanding (denying Christ for example), is it justice to sent to an eternity of hell for a very temporal, and limited fault? Is it just to torture someone for all eternity with no hope for redemption? Hart accepts punishment which corrects, but hell doesn’t correct, it tortures without hope. How is that love or justice? Since we never have a perfect understanding of things but are always “one-sided”, can it ever be said that we fully understood the nature of our action? If we don’t have complete understanding of all the consequences of what we say or do, is is just for God to sentence us to an eternity of hell, or in fact will God be merciful to us because God takes into account our limited nature? God remembers we are but dust and so does not stay angry forever.
        Some years ago I heard on the radio a hellfire preacher talking about the war in Rwanda where the Tutsi and Hutu tribes were slaughtering each other. He told the story of a little girl whose entire village took refuge in a church (I forget which tribe they were). The enemy tribe surrounded the church and began shooting and bombing the church, killing everyone from the village in the church, and then entering the church and hacking people up just for fun – except the one little girl, somehow buried beneath the bodies of her family was alive. A few years after the event, when this girl who witnessed her entire village slaughtered in a church was asked what she thought about God, she said she no longer believed in any God. The preacher said with conviction that for those words she would burn in hell eternally.
        Now I ask you, do you believe that? She denied Christ. She went through hell, saw everyone in her family slaughtered and butchered in a church. Will she go to hell for all eternity after having survived hell on earth? Is that the Christ you believe in? Will not Christ rather gather her into His arms and embrace her for all her suffering?

      3. Fr. Ted

        A few more thoughts:
        Regarding our limited nature and limited ability to understand what we are doing: Did not Jesus on the cross forgive those who not only denied Him but crucified Him because they didn’t really know what they were doing? They had a very limited understanding of the situation. In his own defense, St Paul appeals to ignorance and unbelief in 1 Timothy 1:13 to explain why he rejected Christ. But this allowed the Lord to overflow His grace to Paul. Denying Christ did not lead to eternal punishment but to grace! Same is true in the Mark 16:9ff resurrection accounts, the Disciples disbelieve the witnesses and Christ rebukes them for their lack of faith, yet does not hold their disbelief against them for all eternity but instead sends them out into the world – but the Gospel does not record that they ever repented of their disbelief. Peter too denies Christ – not once but three times. No eternal hell for him either. And St Paul in 1 Cor 2:8 says the rulers killed the King of Glory exactly because they didn’t understand who He was. He really is providing a defense for them that they are not guilty of deicide.
        And even when Christ warns against denying Him before other people, the very next thing He also says: “And every one who speaks a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.” (Luke 12:10) Speaking against Christ is not the unforgivable sin.

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  4. I’m sure, Father, that you are much more acquainted with St. Isaac then I am. What I’m looking for in DBH’s book is on the order of these quotes by St. Isaac:

    “I also maintain that those who are punished in Gehenna are scourged by the scourge of love. For what is so bitter and vehement as the punishment of love? I mean that those who have become conscious that they have sinned against love suffer greater torment from this than from any fear of punishment. For the sorrow caused in the heart by sin against love is sharper than any torment that can be. It would be improper for a man to think that sinners in Gehenna are deprived of the love of God.” (I.28, p. 266)
    and
    “Let us beware in ourselves, my beloved, and realize that even if Gehenna is subject to a limit, the taste of its experience is terrible, and the extent of its bounds escapes our very understanding. Let us strive all the more to partake of the taste of God’s love for the sake of perpetual reflection on Him, and let us not have experience of Gehenna through neglect.” (II.40.1).

    This, while recognizing that, in the words of St. Isaac the Syrian,

    “[The Lord] is always looking beyond to the advantage that will come from His dealing with humanity. And one such thing is this matter of Gehenna.” (II.39.3,5)

    and also

    In the world to come, . . . he wicked, who all their life have turned aside to evil deeds, once they have been set in order in their minds by punishments and the fear of them, choose the good, having come to learn how much they have sinned, and that they have persevered in doing evil things and not good; by means of all this they receive a knowledge of religion’s excellent teaching, and are educated so as to hold on to it with a good will, and so eventually they are held worthy of the felicity of divine munificence. (II.39.8)

    The two sides of this coin will probably appear in the second half of DBH’s book, but I think it would have been better to include both throughout the book so that people will not get the wrong idea. I think we’re on the same page, Father, but the pastoral concerns in regard to a potential antinomic misconstrual among the weak in faith need to kept continually in mind.

    This is why priests and bishops are our true teachers; for you understand (to a degree of practical competency) both God and human beings (because of confession and the awareness ofspiritual movement of those who have confessed many times to you.

    Forgive me for taking so much of your time, Father.

    1. Fr. Ted

      However the Gospel is presented, there are ways it can be misconstrued. Antinomic misconstruals are indeed a problem in a hyper individualistic society – I agree with you. On the other hand, many have abandoned Christianity because they hear in it not Gospel but rules to be followed and many of the rules seem to them to be arbitrary, and sometimes serving nothing more than a “gotcha” purpose as if God intentionally set traps everywhere and knows we each eventually will fall into one or the other and lose salvation. God then becomes to them capricious, unpredictable and unreliable. You can serve Him but you never know for sure what He means or wants. They give up on God and decide to just do their best in life because God becomes for them hard to understand and a tyrant who can condemn you for any reason God chooses – who issues a Bible’s worth of complicated and unclear ideas and it is not clear which parts are important, so they give up reading it at all. Others see God as being all rules – the only virtue is obedience because God is an impatient judge waiting to pounce on every failure. There is no Gospel for them, only adherence to law and no love either for either you obey or you fail. And they often feel they can obey every jot and tittle and those who don’t deserve hell. They feel they’ve earned their way to heaven by following rules and they are sure they are righteous.
      Hart is taking on a whole segment of Christianity that is certain it knows the one and only way and reminding them that there is another side to the Gospel that is often ignored.

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