Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Wherein Your Humble Blogger confesses he erred ... but not by much

David Bentley Hart, not a Pluralist.
Last week, after reading about a paper done by Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, I wrote an article defending the doctrines of Final Judgment and Hell against what I thought was universalism, which I defined as the belief that there is no Hell, that everyone goes to Heaven.


“Your argument follows a faulty initial premise, and therefore fails,” writes a discerning reader. “Not to put too fine a point on it, your initial premise is a fallacious definition of Universalism. Universalism is definitely NOT the belief that there is no Hell, no Judgment, and that everyone gets a ‘Free Pass.’ That, for the record, is Pluralism, the belief that all belief systems are equally valid, something that classical and patristic (yes, patristic) Universalism doesn’t teach.” In a follow-up post, Discerning Reader suggested — not too kindly, and without much specificness — some people I could read so I could learn what the hell I was talking about.

In haste, so as not to further propagate bulls**t on the Internet, I took the post down.

Okay, I’m not a theologian. Comparing theologians to engineers who design skyscrapers, I’m just the grunt at the job site, digging the ditches and shlepping the wallboard up to the 88th floor. In the column to your right, you’ll see a couple of items disclaiming all pretensions to infallibility. But I don’t believe I have to have a degree in theology myself to know when theology ends up contradicting the revelation.

So the key distinction between pluralism and universalism is that universalism still retains the final judgment and Hell. HOWEVER, universalists posit that all humanity will in the end be reconciled to God. So people still go to Hell; but Hell turns out to be a version of Purgatory, in that it exercises a penal function but still has a definite end. Everyone still goes to Heaven; in the universalist version, some just have to make a pit stop along the way.

Like the owner of the Esso station said to the lost driver, “You can continue down the highway you’re on, or you can take the next left. Either way, you’ll end up in the wrong town.”

Holy Writ frequently emphasises the eternal duration of hell-punishment by speaking of it as an “eternal reproach” (Daniel 12:2; cf. Wisdom 4:19); an “eternal fire” (Judith 16:21; Matthew 18:8, 25:41; Jude 7), an “eternal punishment in destruction” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). That the word “eternal” is not to be understood in the sense of a duration which is indeed long but limited is proved by parallel expressions like “unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12; Mark 9:42), or Hell, “where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not extinguished” (Mark 9:43 et seq.), as well as by the contrast of “eternal punishment”—“Life everlasting” in [Matthew 25:46]. According to [Revelation 19:3], “the smoke of their torments (of the damned) shall ascend for ever and ever,” that is, without end. Cf. [Revelation 20:10]
The “restitution of all things” [apocatastasis] announced in Acts 3:21 does not refer to the lot of the damned, but to the renewal of the world which is to take place on the coming-again of Christ. (Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma [tr. Patrick Lynch, 1955], p.481)

 Discerning Reader is right to mention that there are patristic citations in which universal salvation is mentioned or defended, in particular in Origen and St. Gregory of Nyssa. But there are also Church Fathers who explicitly avowed eternal damnation, while some mentioned the universalist theory without giving it explicit backing. Indeed, even Origen seemed to waffle on the question. Some quotes on the eternal-damnation side:

  • “Do not err, my brethren. Those that corrupt families shall not inherit the kingdom of God. If, then, those who do this as respects the flesh have suffered death, how much more shall this be the case with any one who corrupts by wicked doctrine the faith of God, for which Jesus Christ was crucified! Such an one becoming defiled [in this way], shall go away into everlasting fire, and so shall every one that hearkens unto him.” (St. Ignatius, Letter to the Ephesians 16)
  • “For among us the prince of the wicked spirits is called the serpent, and Satan, and the devil, as you can learn by looking into our writings. And that he would be sent into the fire with his host, and the men who follow him, and would be punished for an endless duration, Christ foretold.” (St. Justin Martyr, First Apology 28)
  • “And, looking to the grace of Christ, [the martyrs] despised all the torments of this world, redeeming themselves from eternal punishment by [the suffering of] a single hour.” (The Martyrdom of Polycarp 2)
  • “For as, in the New Testament, that faith of men [to be placed] in God has been increased, receiving in addition [to what was already revealed] the Son of God, that man too might be a partaker of God; so is also our walk in life required to be more circumspect, when we are directed not merely to abstain from evil actions, but even from evil thoughts, and from idle words, and empty talk, and scurrilous language: thus also the punishment of those who do not believe the Word of God, and despise His advent, and are turned away backwards, is increased; being not merely temporal, but rendered also eternal.” (St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4:28:2)
  • “... [H]ow can it be believed that all men, or even some, shall be withdrawn from the endurance of punishment after some time has been spent in it? How can this be believed without enervating our faith in the eternal punishment of the devils? For if all or some of those to whom it shall be said, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels,’ are not to be always in that fire, then what reason is there for believing that the devil and his angels shall always be there? Or is perhaps the sentence of God, which is to be pronounced on wicked men and angels alike, to be true in the case of the angels, false in that of men?” (St. Augustine of Hippo, City of God 21:23)
  • “It is in vain, then, that some, indeed very many, make moan over the eternal punishment, and perpetual, unintermitted torments of the lost, and say they do not believe it shall be so; not, indeed, that they directly oppose themselves to Holy Scripture, but, at the suggestion of their own feelings, they soften down everything that seems hard, and give a milder turn to statements which they think are rather designed to terrify than to be received as literally true.” (St. Augustine, Enchiridion 112)

Universalism, to the extent that it was held by any of the Church Fathers, was by no means the dominant eschatology in the early Church. Rather, it seems that even the few who held it for the most part merely offered it as a possibility rather than insisted on it as a certainty. Against this position came the Athanasian Creed, which declared, “... [T]hose who have done good, will go into life everlasting, but those who have done evil, into eternal fire.” (Denziger 40) And a (perhaps corrupt) version of Origen’s apokatastasis was condemned at a synod in Constantinople in 543 (Canon 9, Denziger 211).

Ross Douthat writes:

The doctrine of hell ... assumes that our choices are real, and, indeed, that we are the choices that we make. The miser can become his greed, the murderer can lose himself inside his violence, and their freedom to turn and be forgiven is inseparable from their freedom not to do so.
As Anthony Esolen writes, in the introduction to his translation of Dante’s “Inferno,” the idea of hell is crucial to Western humanism. It’s a way of asserting that “things have meaning” — that earthly life is more than just a series of unimportant events, and that “the use of one man’s free will, at one moment, can mean life or death ... salvation or damnation.”

The universalist attempts to make a compromise between the just God of  the doctrine of Hell and the notion that the torments of the damned are somehow unworthy of a good, merciful God. However, we’re somewhat blinded by the metaphor of physical torment, as if a phrase like “the fires of Hell” were meant to be taken literally rather than as a symbol for, say, the spiritual anguish created by an isolation not only from God but from all good things — an immaterial void in which the soul in despair perpetually feeds upon itself.

I think that, as noble a sentiment as human pity can be, it’s sometimes so coercive that, to end others’ suffering, we would rather do evil than do nothing. Satan makes use of this coercive element to blackmail us into evil through compassion, to offer us consequentialist choices: “Either commit evil X, or allow evil Y to occur. Which is worse?” God, I submit, is beyond such compulsion; at any rate, I believe He is not so narcissistic or neurotic that He must feel Himself a bad Father when His children insist on making bad choices that harm themselves or each other.

More to the point, as Douthat says, even such a compromise as making Hell temporary functionally denies us the fullness of free will: we will be saved, whether we want to be or not. We must not be allowed to make irrevocable choices, say the tender-hearted; we must not be deprived of the everlasting Beatitude that comes from reconciliation with God merely because, in the incompletion and skew of our perception, we hate Him and everything associated with Him.

The most salient fact of Christianity’s difficult teachings is that they are difficult. “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” (John 6:60 NABRE) However, as I said in that now-lost earlier post, the theologian, regardless of his good intentions, has no veto power over the revelation: he cannot change it to suit his more “enlightened” sensibilities. Christ, through his redemptive suffering and death, has offered us all the opportunity to reconcile ourselves with God. However, he leaves us free to resist grace. (St. Augustine: “He who created you without your help will not justify you without your help.” [Sermon 169 11:13]) Our choices really do matter.

Which, I ask you, is more unjust: that God should leave us free to choose Hell, or that He should compel us to enter Heaven against our will?