This is especially true when it comes to “hot button” topics, of which Universalism is one. (By “universalism” I mean the theological view that all will eventually be saved and no one will finally be damned.)
And here I must be specific: by “Universalism” I do not here mean the hope that everyone will be saved or the view that perhaps everyone will be saved. One can hope for the eventual salvation of all and entertain this is a possibility or even a probability without being a Universalist. As I use the term, for example, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware is not a Universalist, for he simply believes that we are allowed to hope for the salvation all. He retains a certain degree of reverent agnosticism about the issue and admits that we cannot be sure that all will be saved. By the term “Universalist” I mean someone who asserts that it is a certainty that all will eventually be saved, either because each person will enter into bliss immediately after death or because they will enter into bliss after a period of purgative suffering. By this definition, Metropolitan Kallistos is not a Universalist. Dr. David Bentley Hart certainly is—and a combative one at that.
A while ago I wrote a few blog pieces on the topic of Universalism (access here, here, here, here, and here), and later an entire book on the subject. The blog pieces provoked a very large number of comments. By perusing those comments, I came to certain conclusions about the real roots of Universalism, and also that there are two ways of reading Holy Scripture.
One way of reading Scripture is the patristic way—that is, the reader tries to situate the Scriptural text within its cultural context and then to understand what it meant to its original audience. That exegetical task accomplished, the theologian and pastor will go on to apply the text to the current situation today. Occasionally a certain amount of change will be required in the current application. Sometimes no such change will be required at all, such as in Paul’s words about fleeing fornication. The necessity or otherwise for change in application depends upon the amount of cultural specificity underlying the original counsel and whether that culture differs from ours. One’s personal feelings are left entirely to one side, and rigorously excluded from exegesis and application.
For example, I may not understand why St. Paul is so emphatic when he tells his readers to flee fornication. I might feel that he is too uptight in his denunciation and that the friends in The Big Bang Theory are just fine in their fornication, thank you very much. Or I might not understand why St. Paul would say that the sacrifices offered by nice pagans to their gods were actually offered to demons, and I might feel that Paul and the Fathers after him were being too unkind to well-intentioned paganism such as was once found in Rome and is now still found in India. But a patristic phronema will prefer the wisdom of Scripture to one’s own wisdom, and conclude that if I don’t “get” how Scripture’s assertions can be true and moral, the problem lies with me, not with Scripture.
The assertions of Scripture trump our own feelings of what is morally right. If we feel that the Scriptural assertions are immoral or absurd, we might return to the exegetical drawing board and check our math again. But if we conclude that Scripture actually teaches something we feel can’t be right, we must conclude that it is our feelings or conclusions that are in need of correction, not Scripture. Our feeling might need correcting because we are misunderstanding Scripture, or drawing unwarranted conclusions from Scripture, or because we are too much the children of our age and have swallowed lies which set us up to find Scriptural truth problematic. But at the end of the exegetical day, we must give our assent to what Scripture teaches. Otherwise one falls into the condemnation found in an aphorism ascribed to St. Augustine: “If you only believe in the Gospel the parts you like, it is not the Gospel you believe in, but yourself”.
There is however another way of reading Scripture, and that is the way opted for by Universalists. It is to let one’s emotions, feelings, and judgments have the final say and act as the interpretive lens through which Scripture is read. The main arguments given for advancing Universalism are almost never rooted in a minute exegesis of the Scriptural texts, or in a survey of the Fathers or of the consensus of church interpretation throughout the centuries (i.e. in Holy Tradition). They are almost always philosophical.
For example, we find the philosophical argument that, since God created everything, He is ultimately morally responsible for the final outcome of everything His creatures do, including the evil impenitence of the damned when they reject Him. Since God cannot do evil, (so the argument goes) eventually everyone must repent and be saved, for the continued existence of evil in the damned would be God’s fault. Of course the argument that God is morally responsible for everything His creatures do because He created them also includes all the evil actions that His creatures do in this age as well, so that it is difficult to see how this argument evades the charge that it still makes God the author of evil. One notes a glossing over of this conclusion in the haste to assert that everyone will repent in the end. Nonetheless, the argument says that God would be ultimately responsible for the misery of the damned. It is felt to be intolerable that God would make creatures knowing that even one of them would be damned and so, since He did make creatures, no one will be damned.
Closely allied to this argument is the one that says that God made the human will in such a way that it could never finally hold out against God’s love, but must eventually submit to Him. God made man with free will and since no sinful will is really free, eventually all human beings will eventually repent of their sin. This seems to be an attempt to win the debate by settling definitions in advance in favour of one side, a kind of philosophical cooking the books. The idea that a human choice could be once freely and sinfully chosen and then become self-destructive to the point of the permanent erosion of freedom is not so much refuted as ruled out of court in advance by definition.
A third argument made by Universalists rests upon the solidarity of mankind. Its slogan is (along with that of the Marines) “no man left behind”, so that all must be saved. So, either all human beings must be saved, or none can be saved. We will all stick together of necessity by being part of creation, and we will all be saved together or will all go down together. The idea of some will be saved and some will be lost is ruled a moral impossibility at the outset.
It is this last argument that contains the most emotional resonance and pulls at the heart-strings. It is too horrible for us to feel that our dear old Uncle Walt will not be saved. C.S. Lewis alluded to this emotional difficulty in his The Great Divorce as the assertion that “the final loss of one soul gives the lie to all the joy of those who are saved”—the idea that the saved in heaven would be tormented by the thought that some were suffering in hell. This notion is countered by the realization that heaven and hell are not parallel states or places. It is not as if the saved are relaxing in the penthouse while the damned are suffering in the basement. It is also countered by the notion that our experience of self-aware suffering here will be the same as that found in the damned—that Uncle Walt, if damned, will bear any resemblance to anything we had known as Uncle Walt here on earth.
My point here is not that these arguments are all fatally flawed (though I think they are). My point is that all of these arguments are based upon philosophy and reason, not upon minute Scriptural exegesis, and they draw their strength from the intensity of our own emotions. It is emotionally intolerable to think that anyone will be finally damned. One therefore casts about to find philosophical arguments to support the assertion that eventually everyone will be saved.
It is the same with the Biblical exegesis of the Universalists, which is driven by the same determined desire to interpret the Scriptures in a way that will allow for Universalism. Concerning this, the words of Dr. David Bentley Hart in his new book That All May Be Saved are perhaps instructive. Regarding the New Testament’s teaching on the final state, he writes that none of “the New Testament’s eschatological language . . . should be received as anything other than an intentionally heterogenous phantasmagory, meant as much to disorient as to instruct…the more closely one looks at the wild mélange of images . . . the more the picture dissolves into evocation, atmosphere, and poetry”. The Book of Revelation in particular is essentially set aside as “a religious and political fable”.
Behind the multi-syllables, it is almost as if Hart is throwing in the exegetical towel and admitting that Scripture is not clear or authoritative on this topic. One sees why Universalists are determined to deny that aionios can ever mean everlasting, but must always mean merely “age-long”, and why they are driven to such exegetical desperation as sharply distinguishing between the phrase “to the ages of the ages” (as indicating eternity) and “to ages of ages” (as indicating merely a long time). Such moves reveal that the engine driving their interpretation is powered by a previous determination to find Universalism in the Bible at all costs.
We see this prior commitment to a desired conclusion in their church history as well. The massive consensus of the Fathers, the teaching of the ecumenical councils, the iconography and hymns of the Church counts for nothing, and is simply set aside. If the Church has always believed that some will be damned, so much the worse for the Church. Thankfully we now have the Universalists, led by such men as Dr. Hart, to straighten us all out. I will here only note that this position makes nonsense of the Orthodox belief that the Holy Spirit guides the Church into all truth. It is incompatible with the received self-understanding of Orthodoxy and Tradition. It is quite compatible, however, with the historical approach of such groups as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who assert that the entire Church erred grievously about basic Biblical truths throughout most of its history, only to get itself straightened out in the twentieth century at the hands of a select few.
At the end of the day, I do sympathize with the Universalists. No one takes delight in the thought that anyone will finally be damned, and the Universalist ad hominem assertion sometimes heard that those denying Universalism must somehow want sinners to the damned is simply untrue and perhaps a bit slanderous. God desires that all men be saved. It is with sorrow that we must confess from our reading of Scripture and Tradition that not all men will be. Universalists are motivated not so much by a minute and objective exegesis of Scripture and a reading of Tradition as by their own emotionally-driven philosophical conclusions. This latter is a precarious basis upon which to challenge and set aside two millennia of Scriptural exegesis.