Our Problem with Forgiveness
People really like Hell. Or at least they really like the idea of Hell. And many are positively gleeful at the notion of some or another of their fellow human beings being tormented forever in its fiery furnaces (that’s right, forever, for eternity, for an expanse of time the human mind cannot fully comprehend). Oddly enough, it is clear that, pious professions aside, even eternal damnation’s most ardent supporters do not believe themselves in line for torments everlasting.
I suppose I always knew this. I grew up in Colorado before Colorado was cool, in a time when the state’s political and cultural life was dominated by Focus on the Family and evangelical megachurches. And I have known plenty of people who believe that unless you are “born again” in a rather specific way, you are damned for all time. None of these people, to be clear, believed that the Orthodox baptism I received as an infant was of any effect and feared (one cannot help but believe honestly) for the state of my immortal soul. And let’s not kid ourselves. Though we Orthodox, in general, might take a slightly less legalistic approach to the question of salvation and damnation, the immense popularity of the idea of aerial toll houses over the past few decades gives proof to the fact that we are just as morbidly obsessed with God’s impending judgement and wrath as your run-of-the-mill televangelist.
So, yes, I knew that Hell, or more specifically the idea that some people would be damned for all time, had a special hold on our collective imagination. That being said, I was still surprised by the reaction that David Bentley Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved has received, even in circles where I suspected that it would be well-received. Some of the objection, at least superficially, seems to be that Hart is not apologetic enough in his attack on the idea of eternal damnation, which frankly seems a bit odd, to be honest. As Hart quite eloquently and skillfully demonstrates in page after page of his book, the real obscenity lies in the argument that God, whom we revere as all-good and all-loving, would construct the universe in such a way that even one soul which He created would find its end to be eternal torment. Hart is right. The universalist argument is, when logic and compassion are applied, when humanity’s fingerprints are wiped clean from the glass of our theology, essentially irrefutable. What seems to have so shocked and offended is not that Hart has made the argument for universal salvation, but that he has made it boldly and unapologetically.
Because universalists are supposed to be apologetic about our position. We are supposed to express it as a hope, perhaps a childish or naive one. And we are supposed to make large allowances for the possibility that we are wrong. A nod of deference to the majority consensus. The fact that I have continually offered the title of Hart’s book as That All Might Be Saved speaks to the reflexive uncertainty that I have cultivated around my own belief that, in the fullness of time, God will reclaim all He has created. Hart has succeeded in laying out the argument for universal salvation and against eternal damnation with such logic and clarity as to make it apparent that such uncertainty is uncalled for. And the reaction from others to this has made equally clear the horrid miscalibration in the moral compass of Christendom.
I read That All Shall Be Saved in the same week that Amber Guyger was convicted and sentenced in the murder of Botham Jean. At her sentencing, Jean’s brother, Brandt Jean, offered Guyger, a former Dallas police officer, his forgiveness and a hug. It was a deeply private moment that generated a huge amount of public controversy. An act of personal forgiveness, born of Brandt Jean’s Christian faith, mired in the complex landscape of American racism and police brutality, both past and present. Across the political spectrum, people pounced on the moment to make their already long-established point. This included the clearly wrong point that what Guyger did was not that bad, as well as the correct point that there are legitimate questions about how, against the backdrop of America’s horrific racial history, black forgiveness of injustice has been weaponized in the service of white supremacy. But just as Jean’s forgiveness of his brother’s killer should not be used to dismiss the injustice of his brother’s death, these legitimate questions about a culturally and historically specific rhetorical phenomenon should never (least of all for Christians) serve as an excuse to reject forgiveness as the best and only sustainable path.
What was clear in the public reaction to that moment of grace, that human act of pardon, was how deeply uncomfortable we all are with forgiveness, with mercy, with grace. It demonstrated how (depending on what we need it to be in any given moment) we see such grace as either a giant eraser coming down from the sky and whipping clean every consequence or as the Path of Fools, destined to uphold and establish forever every cruelty, every injustice, every barbarism. The truth, however, is much grander: forgiveness and grace are the tools by which God will repair the broken cosmos, the means through which the Creator will at last restore His creation. And our ability to participate in this grand restoration is an act of the Divine economy, a blessing not a burden. And, ultimately, not something that needs us. God could do it alone. He simply prefers to do it with us.
The reaction to Brandt Jean’s forgiveness illuminated the reaction to David Bentley Hart’s book, because they were born of the same impulse, the same error in our thinking and theology. Or rather, the same broken spot in our humanity. And it reminded me of a story from my childhood: I have a sister who is only fifteen months younger than me. It is the perfect recipe for sibling rivalry, and as children we fought intensely and often. When we did, we would inevitably get sent by my mother down to my father’s office to have our punishment doled out. What I remember most about sitting on that brown leather couch opposite Baba’s mahogany desk, loaded with case briefs, a Black’s Law Dictionary, and leather-bound volumes of the Colorado Revised Statutes, was not my own apprehension at lost privileges or extra chores, but the positive delight I felt in the knowledge that my sister was about to get it good. Somehow the pleasure I took from knowing my sister would be punished, removed my own fear of punishment. It was a temporary delight, however, one that quickly disappeared when the effects of my own penalty came into being.
I cannot help but think that our collective discomfort with forgiveness and attachment to eternal damnation is not all that different than the delight I felt in my father’s office. There is something deeply satisfying about anticipating our enemies’ (and even our annoying little sisters’) punishment, even when it puts us in the firing line. But I would not worship a God who offers us such a perverse pleasure as holy. And thus I am fortunate that this is not the God who rules the universe. Our God has a much grander plan in store for His creation and for us His creatures.
“Do not call God justice,” said St. Issac the Syrian “for he has not dealt justly with you.” Which I suppose, if we for a second look past his saintly mantle, is not a very polite or apologetic way to remind us of God’s mercy. That All Shall Be Saved is a well-argued, well-reasoned piece of theology. It demonstrates its irrefutable point as just that. And the collective reaction to it by so many demonstrates exactly why it is needed. Hell is popular, and it is time we start asking ourselves why the hell that is.
Katherine Kelaidis is a writer and historian whose work focuses on early Medieval Christianity and contemporary Orthodox identity in non-traditionally Orthodox countries.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.