David Bentley Hart in his book, That All Shall Be Saved, makes the case that the idea of universal salvation is strongly supported in the New Testament and in the Tradition of the Church. This is the 2nd post in this series which began with the post And All Mankind. What Hart really targets as misguided is a notion of an eternal hell where sinners are perpetually tortured for their sins. This idea he argues is unworthy of the God of love and even illogical if one believes firmly in justice. Punishment for wrong doing is one thing, but the idea that someone is eternally tortured for a finite sin goes beyond reason. Additionally, true justice would have punishment as serving some redeemable value. What good is punishment that never corrects or improves or helps a person? How is that type of punishment consistent with the God who so loves the world?
Say to them, As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel? (Ezekiel 33:11; see also Ezekiel 18:31-32)
St. Romanos the Melodist offers us Christian insight into Ezekiel‘s prophetic words:
“Now I shall make all known to you and I shall prophesy to you, All-Holy, unblemished.
For fall and resurrection,
your Son is set, the life and the redemption and the resurrection of all.
The Lord has not appeared so that some may fall while others rise,
for the All-Compassionate does not rejoice at the fall of mortals.
Nor has he now come to make those who stand fall,
but rather he is here hastening to raise those who have fallen,
ransoming from death what he himself fashioned,
the only lover of mankind.
(On the Life of Christ: Kontakia, p. 31)
And from the desert fathers we find a very motherly and earthy understanding of the Ezekiel prophecy:
A brother asked Abba Macarius, “My father, I have fallen into a transgression.” Abba Macarius said to him, “It is written, my son, ‘I do not desire the death of a sinner as much as his repentance and his life’ [see 1 Tim 2:4 and 2 Pet 3:9].
Repent, therefore, my son; you will see him who is gentle, our Lord Jesus Christ, his face full of joy towards you, like a nursing mother whose face is full of joy for her child when he raises his hands and his face up to her. Even if he is full of all kinds of uncleanness, she does not turn away from that bad smell and excrement but takes pity on him and lifts him up and presses him to her breast, her face full of joy, and everything about him is sweet to her. If, then, this created person has pity for her child, how much greater is the love of the creator, our Lord Jesus Christ, for us! (St. Macarius The Spirit Bearer: Coptic Texts Relating To Saint Macarius, Kindle Location 269-279)
The unconditional love of a mother for her child is a most exquisite image of God’s love for us. God is not repulsed by the filth of our sins but desires to embrace us with God’s eternal love if only we will allow ourselves to be so embraced.
It is true, of course, that for Paul the cross of Christ revealed the law’s wrath upon sin, in that it was an eminently legal murder; but it certainly revealed nothing about the will of God toward his creatures enslaved to death, and was in no sense a ransom paid to the Father to avert his wrath against us. For the earliest Christians, the story of salvation was entirely one of rescue, all the way through: the epic of God descending into the depths of human estrangement to release his creatures from bondage to death, penetrating even into the heart of hades to set the captives free and recall his prodigal children and restore a broken creation. The sacrifice of Christ was not a “ransom” paid to the Father, but rather the “manumission fee” (λύτρον, lytron) given to purchase the release of slaves held in bondage in death’s household. (Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location 342-349)
The Good News is that God wills to save His human creatures from bondage to sin and death, not to consign them to an eternity of hell. Salvation is liberation from sin and death. Salvation brings an end to the place of the dead, the place where humans are separated from God’s Kingdom.
Basil of Caesarea (c. 329–379) once observed that, in his time, a large majority of his fellow Christians (at least, in the Greek-speaking Eastern Christian world that he knew) believed that hell was not everlasting, and that all in the end would attain salvation. (Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location 45-47)
This same idea is common in the early church.
For the earliest and greatest of the church fathers in general, the story of salvation was really quite uncomplicated: We were born in bondage, in the house of a cruel master to whom we had been sold as slaves before we could choose for ourselves; we were born, moreover, not guilty or damnable in God’s eyes, but nonetheless corrupted and enchained by mortality, and so destined to sin through a congenital debility of will; we were ill, impaired, lost, dying; we were in hell already. But then Christ came to set us free, to buy us out of slavery, to heal us, to restore us to our true estate. In pursuit of those he loved, he invaded even the very depths of that hell we have made for ourselves and one another—in the cosmos, in history, in our own hearts—so as to drag us to himself (to use the actual language of John 12:32). (Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location 358-364)
Hart is echoing the thoughts found in Patristic writings:
“God is not One who requites evil, but he sets evil aright. … The majority of humankind will enter the kingdom of heaven without the experience of gehenna.” (St. Isaac the Syrian, THE SPIRITUAL WORLD OF ISAAC THE SYRIAN, p 269)
“… there is no sin so great that it can conquer the munificence of the Master.” (St. John Chrysostom, BAPTISMAL INSTRUCTIONS, p 32)
“Do not say that God is just…David may call him just and fair, but God’s own Son has revealed to us that he is before all things good and kind. He is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked (Luke 6:34). How can you call God just when you read the parable of the labourers in the vineyard and their wages? ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong…I choose to give to this last as I give to you…do you begrudge my generosity?’ (Matthew 20:13). Likewise how can you call God just when you read the parable of the prodigal son who squanders his father’s wealth in riotous living, and the moment he displays some nostalgia his father runs to him, throws his arms around his neck and gives him complete power over all his riches?
It is not someone else who has told us this about God, so that we might have doubts. It is his own Son himself. He bore this witness to God. Where is God’s justice? Here, in the fact that we were sinners and Christ died for us… O the wonder of the grace of our Creator! O the unfathomable goodness with which he has invested the existence of us sinners in order to create it afresh! … Anyone who has offended and blasphemed him he raises us again … Sin is to fail to understand the grace of the resurrection. Where is the hell that could afflict us? Where is the damnation that could make us afraid to the extent of overwhelming the joy of God’s love? What is hell, face to face with the grace of the resurrection when he will rescue us from damnation, enable this corruptible body to put on incorruption and raise up fallen humanity from hell to glory? … Who will appreciate the wonder of our Creator’s grace as it deserves? … In place of what sinners justly deserve, he gives them resurrection. In place of the bodies that have profaned his law, he clothes them anew in glory … See, Lord, I can no longer keep silent before the ocean of thy grace. I no longer have any idea how to express the gratitude that I owe thee … Glory be to thee in both the worlds that thou hast created for our growth and delight, guiding us by the path of thy majestic works to the knowledge of thy glory!” (St. Isaac of Ninevah quoted in Olivier Clément’s The Roots of Christian Mysticism, pgs 306-307)
Next: An Eternal Hell?