From That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation by David Bentley Hart:
In his great treatise On the Making of Humanity, Gregory reads Genesis 1:26–7—the first account of the creation of the race, where humanity is described as being made “in God’s image”—as referring not to the making of Adam as such, but to the conception within the eternal divine counsels of this full community of all of humanity: the whole of the race, comprehended by God’s “foresight” as “in a single body,” which only in its totality truly reflects the divine likeness and the divine beauty. As for the two individuals Adam and Eve, whose making is described in the second creation narrative, they may have been superlatively endowed with the gifts of grace at their origin, but they were themselves still merely the first members of that concrete community that only as a whole can truly reflect the glory of its creator. For now, it is only in the purity of the divine wisdom that this human totality subsists “altogether” (ἀθρόως, athroōs) in its own fullness. It will emerge into historical actuality, in the concrete fullness of its beauty, only at the end of a long temporal “unfolding” or “succession” (ἀκολουθία, akolouthia). Only then, when time and times are done, will a truly redeemed humanity, one that has passed beyond all ages, be recapitulated in Christ. Only then also, in the ultimate solidarity of all humankind, will a being made in the image and likeness of God have truly been created: “Thus ‘Humanity according to the image’ came into being,” writes Gregory, “the entire nature [or race], the Godlike thing. And what thus came into being was, through omnipotent wisdom, not part of the whole, but the entire plenitude of the nature altogether.” It is precisely and solely this full community of persons throughout time that God has elected as his image, truth, glory, and delight. And God will bring this good creation he desires to pass in spite of sin, both within human history and yet over against it.
…For Gregory, moreover, this human totality belongs to Christ from eternity, and can never be alienated from him. According to On the Making of Humanity, that eternal Human Being who lives in God’s counsels was from the first fashioned after the beauty of the Father’s eternal Logos, the eternal Son, and was made for no other end than to become the living body of Christ, who is its only head. It is thus very much the case that, for Gregory, the whole drama of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection was undertaken so that the eternal Son might reclaim those who are his own—which is to say, everyone. By himself entering into the plenitude of humanity as a single man among other men and women, and in thereby assuming humanity’s creaturely finitude and history as his own, Christ reoriented humanity again toward its true end; and, because the human totality is a living unity, the incarnation of the Logos is of effect for the whole. In a short commentary on the language of the eschatological “subordination” of the Son to the Father in the fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, Gregory even speaks of Christ as having assumed not just human nature in the abstract, but the whole plērōma, which means that his glory has entered into all that is human. Nor could it be otherwise. Such is the indivisible solidarity of humanity, he argues, that the entire body must ultimately be in unity with its head, whether that be the first or the last Adam. Hence Christ’s obedience to the Father even unto death will be made complete only eschatologically, when the whole race, gathered together in him, will be yielded up as one body to the Father, in the Son’s gift of subjection, and God will be all in all. At Easter, Christ’s resurrection inaugurated an akolouthia of resurrection, so to speak, in the one body of the race, an unfolding that cannot now cease (given the unity of human nature) until the last residue of sin—the last shadow of death—has vanished. Gregory finds this confirmed also, according to one of his early treatises (a “Refutation” of the teachings of the theologian Eunomius), in John 20:17: When Christ, says Gregory, goes to his God and Father, to the God and Father of his disciples, he presents all of humanity to God in himself. In his On the Soul and Resurrection, moreover, Gregory reports the teaching of his sister Makrina that, when this is accomplished, all divisions will at last fall away, and there will no longer be any separation between those who dwell within the Temple precincts and those who have been kept outside, for every barrier of sin separating human beings from the mysteries within the veil of the sanctuary will have been torn down; and then there will be a universal feast around God in which no rational creature will be deprived of full participation, and all those who were once excluded on account of sin will enter into the company of the blessed. We see here the exquisite symmetry in Gregory’s reading of scripture’s narrative of creation and redemption, and in his understanding of eternity’s perfect embrace of history: just as the true first creation of humanity (Genesis 1:26–27) was the eternal conception in the divine counsels of the whole race united to him while the second (Genesis 2:7) was the inauguration of a history wholly dependent upon that eternal decree, so the culmination of history (1 Corinthians 15:23) will at the last be, as it were, succeeded by and taken up into this original eternity in its eschatological realization (1 Corinthians 15:24), and the will of God will be perfectly accomplished in the everlasting body of Christ.
For Gregory, then, there can be no true human unity, nor even any perfect unity between God and humanity, except in terms of the concrete solidarity of all persons in that complete community that is, alone, the true image of God. God shall be all in all, argues Gregory in a treatise on infants who die prematurely, not simply by comprising humanity in himself in the abstract, as the universal ideal that he redeems in a few select souls, but by joining each particular person, each unique inflection of the plērōma’s beauty, to himself. Even so, Christ’s assumption and final recapitulation of the human cannot simply be imposed upon the race as a whole, but must effect the conversion of each soul within itself, so that room is truly made for God “in all”; salvation by union with Christ must unfold within human freedom, and so within our capacity to venture away. For Gregory, of course, good classical Christian metaphysician that he was, evil and sin are always accidental conditions of human nature, never intrinsic qualities; all evil is a privation of an original goodness, and so the sinfulness that separates rational creatures from God is only a disease corrupting and disabling the will, robbing it of its true rational freedom, and thus is a disorder that must ultimately be purged from human nature in its entirety, even if needs be by hell. As Gregory argues in On the Making of Humanity, evil is inherently finite—in fact, in a sense, is pure finitude, pure limit—and so builds only toward an ending; evil is a tale that can have only an immanent conclusion; and, in the light of God’s infinity, its proper end will be shown to be nothing but its own disappearance. Once it has been exhausted, when every shadow of wickedness—all chaos, duplicity, and violence—has been outstripped by the infinity of God’s splendor, beauty, radiance, and delight, God’s glory will shine in each creature like the sun in an immaculate mirror, and each soul—born into the freedom of God’s image—will turn of its own nature toward divine love. There is no other place, no other liberty; at the last, to the inevitable God humanity is bound by its freedom. And each person, as God elects him or her from before the ages, is indispensable, for the humanity God eternally wills could never come to fruition in the absence of any member of that body, any facet of that beauty. Apart from the one who is lost, humanity as God wills it could never be complete, nor even exist as the creature fashioned after the divine image; the loss of even one would leave the body of the Logos incomplete, and God’s purpose in creation unaccomplished.
Really, we should probably already know all of this—not for theological reasons, but simply from a sober consideration of any truly coherent account of what it means to be a person. After all, it would be possible for us to be saved as individuals only if it were possible for us to be persons as individuals; and we know we cannot be. And this, in itself, creates any number of problems for the majority view of heaven and hell. I am not even sure that it is really possible to distinguish a single soul in isolation as either saint or sinner in any absolute sense, inasmuch as we are all bound in disobedience (as the Apostle says) precisely by being bound to one another in the sheer contingency of our shared brokenness, and the brokenness of our world, and our responsibility one for another. Consequently, I cannot even say where—at what extremity of pious despair—I could possibly draw a line of demarcation between tolerable and intolerable tales of eternal damnation. Some stories, of course, are obviously too depraved to be credited and may be rejected out of hand: A child who, for instance, is born one day in poverty, close to the sun in lonely lands, suffers from some horrible and quite incurable congenital disease, dies in agony, unbaptized, and then—on some accounts, consecrated by theological tradition—descends to perpetual torment as the just penalty for a guilt inherited from a distant ancestor, or as an epitome of divine sovereignty in election and dereliction, or whatever. Now most of us will recognize this to be a degenerate parody of the gospel, so repugnant to both reason and conscience that—even were it per impossibile true—it would be morally indefensible to believe it. But, then, under what conditions precisely, and at what juncture, does the language of eternal damnation really cease to be scandalous? For me, it never does, and for very simple reasons. Let us presume that that child who dies before reaching the font does not in fact descend into hell, and is not even conveniently wafted away on pearl-pale clouds of divine tenderness into the perfumed limbo of unbaptized babes, but instead (as Gregory of Nyssa believed such a child would do) ascends to eternal bliss, there to grow forever into a deeper communion with God. This is a much cheerier picture of things, I think we can all agree. But let us not stop there. Let us go on to imagine also another child born on the same day, this one in perfect health, who grows into a man of monstrous temperament, cruel, selfish, even murderous, and who eventually dies unrepentant and thereupon descends to an endless hell. Well, no doubt this brute chose to become what he became, to the extent that he was able to do so, conscious of the choices he was making; so maybe he has received no more than he deserves. And yet, even then, I cannot quite forget, or consider it utterly irrelevant, that he was born into a world so thoroughly ruined that a child can be born one day in poverty, suffer from some horrible and incurable congenital disease, die in agony … What precisely did that wicked man, then, ever really know of the Good? And how clearly, and with what rational power over his own will? Certainly he did not know everything, at least not with perfect clarity, nor did he enjoy complete rational discretion or power over his own deeds and desires. Not even a god would be capable of that. This thought alone is enough to convince me of the sheer moral squalor of the traditional doctrine.
Yet this still is not my principal point. I want to say something far more radical, something that I touched upon lightly in my First Meditation above. I want to say that there is no way in which persons can be saved as persons except in and with all other persons. This may seem an exorbitant claim, but I regard it as no more than an acknowledgment of certain obvious truths about the fragility, dependency, and exigency of all that makes us who and what we are.