Can Persons Be Saved?

by David Bentley Hart

Read part one and part two of the series.

Before resuming my “itinerary” of the argument of That All Shall Be Saved, one additional point seems worth stressing. Though in the last installment the issue was raised of whether God intends or permits evil, the book’s argument has nothing to do with the traditional problems of rational theodicy. The question is not “Why does God permit evil if he is both omniscient and omnipotent?” or “Why is the possibility of evil necessary for creation?” or even “Is this the best of all possible worlds?” All of those are perfectly interesting queries in their proper place (or so I hear); but that place is not this book.

It is a good mereological rule that to try to understand the whole in terms of its parts and to try to understand the parts in light of the whole are two very different operations of reason (induction and deduction, to be precise). It is one thing to attempt to judge the relative goodness or badness of a discrete evil in relation to some final purposes we cannot see, but another thing altogether to judge the goodness or badness of a supposedly total narrative that pretends to describe the whole rationality of all its discrete events. The former judgment can never be more than conjectural; the latter is a matter of logic. There may logically be such a thing as an evil that is redeemed in the greater good toward which it leads; there is no such thing as an unredeemed evil that does not reduce any good end toward which it might lead to a mere relative value. In the former case, it is logically possible that evil may be non-necessary in the ultimate sense, but a real possibility in a provisional sense—though even then only as a privation that will ultimately be effaced from the “total picture.”

We may, at least, stipulate as much for the nonce, and assume that the possibility of transient evils is part of the progressive process whereby free spiritual beings are called into existence out of nothingness. But the final state of creation, as a finished totality, will not be redeemed in some yet more ultimate end; in its sheer permanence and finality, it must be accounted as itself the end for the sake of which all the conditional evils and imperfections leading to it were provisionally and temporarily tolerated. So my question remains: does the story Christians habitually tell about God oblige us to believe that he directly intends evil as evil, even if only as a possibility, as a permanent part of his final design for creation.  And the reason for asking this is obvious: if God can will any evil as a final unreconciled evil, then he is not the transcendent Good, but only a finite agent possessed of an only relative moral status. And my argument is as simple as it is undeniable: even if God wills a final evil only as a possibility within creation’s design, he has already positively willed it as an intrinsic feature of that pattern, and it is this that touches on who God is.

Which brings me to the book’s fourth major “theme,” which concerns precisely what, according to the actual language of Christian scripture, that final intentional horizon might be. And here I defend one classical universalist reading of the texts of the New Testament—especially of 1 Corinthians 15—over against what I take to be clearly inferior readings. After dealing with various hermeneutical issues, such as what the text actually says about “hell” or its eternity, I move on toward something like Origen’s or Gregory of Nyssa’s understanding of eschatology as involving a twofold judgment: first a judgment on the immanent shape of human history and on each of us as historical subjects, then a more encompassing and ultimate judgment on the eternal shape of creation in the divine intentions “The eschatological discrimination between heaven and hell is the crucifixion of history, while the final universal restoration of all things is the Easter of creation”—or so my book claims.

It is also its claim that only this eschatological language is able to synthesize all the theological claims of the New Testament (including the surprisingly large number of explicitly universalist statements) into a single theological picture without evasion, contradiction, or duplicity. This part of the argument deals with such issues as the immanent eschatology of John’s gospel, and of “preterist” readings of Christ’s prophecies in the synoptic gospels, and how the two might be reconciled in an “eschatological” understanding of the triduum of Christ’s death and resurrection.  It deals as well with Paul’s understanding of the relation of the Church to Israel in God’s eternal counsels, and the eschatological grammar of the book of Revelation. It also advances sundry exegetical claims, such as the assertion that, in the New Testament, the word aiōnios—usually rendered as “eternal,” and of relevance to this discussion only with respect to a single verse—might better be understood in many instances as being a reference to the “Age-to-Come” and in other instances as a reference to the divine reality “above” the world of “time” (chronos). On the whole, however, this part of the book cannot really be very effectively summarized.

What can be stated with considerable certainty, and with quite a good deal of scriptural evidence, is that wherever the narrative of salvation becomes most developed, especially in Paul’s theology, it necessarily expands into an affirmation of the universal and cosmic scope of God’s saving work in Christ. Whether or not Paul was ever explicitly a universalist, it is obvious that his understanding of the logic of salvation in Christ becomes completely internally coherent only as a universalist narrative. Thus, such famously difficult verses as Romans 5:18 or 1 Corinthians 15:22 (difficult, that is, for proponents of eternal perdition) ought not to be treated as incautious hyperbole or rhetorical excess, but as moments of extreme clarity in the unfolding of the Pauline vision. So too, verses such as Romans 11:32 and 1 Corinthians 3:12-15 cannot be confined within the logic of limited election without dissolving into empty babble.

In part, this is because—as Gregory of Nyssa so clearly saw—the very concept of what a saved “person” might be makes no sense within such limits.

This, at any rate, is the substance of the book’s fifth theme: what the nature of finite personhood is, and what it would really mean (morally, in this world or any world to come) for any soul to reconcile itself to the bliss of union with God in the absence and on the condition of the perpetual torment of any other soul. The principal claim here is that, whether we consider the most intimate relationships we have with others or consider instead the most remote and perhaps abstract of our human connections, we will find that ultimately it becomes meaningless to assert the salvation of any person apart from all others. Whether something else might be saved—some anonymous spark of spiritual identity, something more primordial or more ultimate than personality as such—is another matter altogether, and one that falls largely outside Christian tradition.

Some things are obvious: it is difficult to imagine what becomes of the actual person who was, say, a mother if she enjoys eternal beatitude despite the eternal dereliction of a child whom she loved and who loved her and whose presence in her life (most importantly) constitutes an essential part of who she is as a person. In a sense, however, it is no less difficult to understand how, say, a man who never knew that child, and perhaps never even really knew that mother, remains the person he was if he must become indifferent not only to that child’s fate, but to her grief as well, in order to enter into the bliss of the Kingdom. The issue here is not merely one of the extrinsic association that exists between persons, but of the very ontology of personhood itself. Our relations to others in fact constitute us as the persons we are, and there is no such thing as a person in perfect isolation. If any person is in hell, so too is some part of every person whose identity was shaped by his or her relation to that damned soul.

But these attachments necessarily belong to a continuum of relations and interrelations that simple logic tells us extends to all persons everywhere.  In order to affirm the true beatitude of the saved, one must introduce partitions into that continuum, invariably arbitrary, in order to define areas of morally and emotionally acceptable indifference; but, as soon as one does that, one discovers that that region of indifference is actually limitless, since it must potentially accommodate not only any person who might fail to be saved, however proximate or remote, but also anyone related by bonds of love or fidelity to that person, and so on ad infinitum.  And this means that one has, morally speaking, proleptically detached one’s happiness from the well-being of everyone else, since—as demonstrated earlier in the text—what one is willing to sacrifice to achieve one’s end, even if only as a possibility, is something one has already absolutely surrendered.

At the last, the realm of one’s concern must in principle contract until nothing but the isolated self remains; and thus the ethos of heaven proves to be the same as the ethos of hell: every soul for itself. And this remains true—more so, in fact—if one argues that God might spare the redeemed the knowledge of the lost by expunging them from memory (as one especially absurd argument goes).  For then, of course, what would then be saved could not really, in any meaningful sense, be a person any longer; it would be only the remnant of a person. In fact, it would be some other creature altogether. In which case, one’s “salvation” would really be one’s annihilation as a particular person within the community of created persons.

Finally, the sixth theme concerns the nature of human freedom and the incoherence of attempts to defend the reality of an eternal hell as a correlate of that freedom. This, however, is where I began this report, so I need not revisit the topic.

I do, however, have one more thing to say.

David Bentley Hart is an Orthodox theologian, cultural commentator, and author. His book That All Shall Be Saved was published in 2019 by Yale University Press.