Hell is with us at all times, a phantom kingdom perpetuating itself in the wastes of sinful hearts, but only becomes visible to us as hell because the true kingdom has shed its light upon history. In theological tradition, most particularly in the East, there is that school of thought that wisely makes no distinction, essentially, between the fire of hell and the light of God’s glory, and that interprets damnation as the soul’s resistance to the beauty of God’s glory, its refusal to open itself before divine love, which causes divine love to seem an exterior chastisement. Hell is the experience (a possibility in each moment) of divine glory not as beauty, but as a formless sublimity; it is the rejection of all analogical vulnerability, the sealing off of the “self” (or the cosmos) in univocal singularity, the “misreading” of creation as an aboriginal violence. The “fire” of hell is that same infinite display of semeia [signs] by which God is always declaring his love, misconstrued (though rejection) as the chaotic sublime rather than the beautiful, not susceptible of analogical appropriation, of charity; it is the soul’s refusal to become (as Gregory says) the expanding vessel into which the beauty of God endlessly flows. For exile is possible within the beauty of the infinite only by way of an exilic interiority, a fictive inwardness, where the creature can grasp itself as an isolated essence. Hell is, one might almost say, a perfectly “Kantian” place, where the twin sublimities of the star-strewn firmament above and the lofty moral “law” within remain separated by the thin tissue of subjective moral autonomy: where this tissue has become impervious to glory, the analogy of the heavens is not the transforming voice of God but only a mute simile, an inassimilable exteriority, and so a torment. Hell is the perfect concretization of ethical freedom, perfect justice without delight, the soul’s work of legislation for itself, where ethics has achieved its final independence from aesthetics. Absolute subjective liberty is known only in hell, where the fire of divine beauty is held at by, where the divine apeiron [limitlessness] miraculously divests itself at the peras [boundary, end, extremity] that, in Christ it has already transgressed and broken open, and humbly permits the self to “create” itself. True, though hell is the purest interiority, it is also by contagion a shared interiority, a palpable fiction and common space superimposed upon creation, with a history of its own; but still, it is a turning in, a fabrication of an inward depth, a shadow, a privation, a loss of the whole outer world, a refusal of the surface. For Eastern Christian thought, in particular, it makes no difference here whether one speaks of death, sin, or hell: in each case on speaks of the same privation, the same estranging history, the same limit shattered by Easter; and hence there can be no aesthetic explanation of hell (something that few of the Fathers occasionally foolishly attempted) that would make of it a positive moment in the exposition of divine beauty, a part of the universe’s harmonious ordering of light and darkness. Hell cannot serve as an objective elements of the beautiful—as source of delight—because it is an absolute privation of form and quantity; it has no surface, nor even a shadow’s substance; its aesthetic “place” is the sealed outside of an inside.The Beauty of the Infinite by David Bentley Hart
Every early church father that I have found (Justin Martyr, Chrysostom and Origen) understands Christ in Matthew 10:28 to be saying that God can destroy body and soul (or breath) in hell (Vale of Hinnom). Only a tiny minority of recent scholars think that Christ is talking about Satan in Matthew 10:28. According to Peter Kreeft, N.T. Wright and Ben Witherington, Christ is saying that Rome is not the real enemy because Rome can only destroy your body, while Satan can destroy body and soul.
Reading over the passage some more, “fear” appears four times within a few verses: “do not fear” (them) twice in verses 26 and 28 followed by “instead fear” (the one) in verse 28 and finally “do not be afraid” (of my Father) almost immediately again in verse 31. This makes it clear that the overall message of Christ to his disciples is that they do not need to fear those who can kill them now and that their Father in heaven cares for every sparrow that falls and every hair on their heads and will honor this care for them despite their calling now to pick up their own cross and to suffer with Christ.
Finally, Christ speaks positively about the loss of our soul (or breath) just a couple verses later: “whoever loses his soul for my sake will gain it” (verse 39). Paul also says that our “soulish body” must die in order for us to receive our “spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:44-45). The same Greek word for soul (or breath) is used twice by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 that Christ uses in Matthew 10:28 and 39, with both Christ and Paul indicating that our soul must be lost in order to inherit the fullness of life with God (having received what Paul calls a “spiritual body”). [As an aside, N. T. Wright and David Bentley Hart had an exchange a few years back over this passage from 1 Corinthians 15.]
Taking all of this together surrounding Matthew 10:28, a good case can be made for understanding Christ to be saying:
- Don’t be afraid of the Romans who can kill your body because the real threat is Satan who can kill body and soul. My Father in heaven, however, cares for every sparrow that falls and every hair on your head, and you therefore have no reason to be afraid. I will recognize you as my own before my Father if you have recognized me as your own by giving up your life for me when terrible persecutions will come upon you. In fact, you need to be willing to give up your body and your soul for my sake in order to gain eternal life with me for your soul.
However, the vast majority of Christians from the earliest years understood Christ to be saying something more like:
- Don’t be afraid of the Romans who can kill your body. Only God has the power to destroy your body and your soul in the final refuse heap. Do not fear my Father in heaven, however, who cares for every sparrow that falls and every hair on your head. I will recognize you as my own before my Father if you have recognized me as your own by giving up your life for me when terrible persecutions will come upon you. In fact, you need to be willing to give up your body and your soul for my sake in order to gain eternal life with me for your soul.
Here are a variety of resources that I found on Matthew 10:28 from various places:
- N.T. Wright on Matthew 10:28 – Satan or God?
- Matthew 10.28 — Why Annihilationism is not Universalism
- Peter Kreeft makes the same claim “Satan not God” as the destroyer of souls in his book Practical Theology.
The earliest commentary I could find, takes the position that has been the strong majority understanding throughout Christian history:
“Fear not them that kill you, and after that can do no more; but fear Him who after death is able to cast both soul and body into hell.” Matthew 10:28. And hell is a place where those are to be punished who have lived wickedly, and who do not believe that those things which God has taught us by Christ will come to pass.Justin Martyr in The First Apology, Chapter 19
When Origen comments on Matthew 10:28 (and Luke 12:45), he admits that it is God who ‘can destroy both the body and the soul in Gehenna’ but emphasizes that while the text speaks of human beings who do in fact kill, it says of God only that God can destroy the sinner. How could God actually do such a thing, he wonders, ‘since the Savior has come to seek and save those who perished’? In view of Christ’s saving act, Origen seems inclined to doubt the eternal character of divine punishment, If there are some texts in which he speaks of Gehenna as a definitive state, there are many others which seem to view it as a purifying chastisement.“Apocatastasis in Patristic Theology” by John R. Sachs, S.J., Weston School of Theology. Theological Studies 54 (1993).
In “Homily 34 on Matthew,” Saint John Chrysostom makes the case that Christ in the 10:28 passage is giving his disciples the ultimate confidence against persecution:
Then, because He had lifted them up on high, He again gives warning of the perils also, adding wings to their mind, and exalting them high above all. For what says He? Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul. Matthew 10:28 Do you see how He set them far above all things, persuading them to despise not anxiety only and calumny, dangers and plots, but even that which is esteemed of all things most terrible, death? And not death alone, but by violence too? And He said not, you shall be slain, but with the dignity that became Him, He set this before them, saying, Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear Him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell; bringing round the argument, as He ever does, to its opposite. For what? Is your fear, says He, of death? And are you therefore slow to preach? Nay for this very cause I bid you preach, that you fear death: for this shall deliver you from that which is really death. What though they shall slay you? Yet over the better part they shall not prevail, though they strive ten thousand ways. Therefore He said not, Who do not kill the soul, but, who are not able to kill. For wish it as they may, they shall not prevail. Wherefore, if you fear punishment, fear that, the more grievous by far.
Do you see how again He does not promise them deliverance from death, but permits them to die, granting them more than if He had not allowed them to suffer it? Because deliverance from death is not near so great as persuading men to despise death. You see now, He does not push them into dangers, but sets them above dangers, and in a short sentence fixes in their mind the doctrines that relate to the immortality of the soul, and having in two or three words implanted a saving doctrine, He comforts them also by other considerations.
Thus, lest they should think, when killed and butchered, that as men forsaken they suffered this, He introduces again the argument of God’s providence, saying on this wise: Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall into a snare without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Matthew 10:29-30 For what is viler than they? says He; nevertheless, not even these shall be taken without God’s knowledge. For He means not this, by His operation they fall, for this were unworthy of God; but, nothing that is done is hid from Him. If then He is not ignorant of anything that befalls us, and loves us more truly than a father, and so loves us, as to have numbered our very hairs; we ought not to be afraid. And this He said, not that God numbers our hairs, but that He might indicate His perfect knowledge, and His great providence over them. If therefore He both knows all the things that are done, and is able to save you, and willing; whatever ye may have to suffer, think not that as persons forsaken ye suffer. For neither is it His will to deliver you from the terrors, but to persuade you to despise them, since this is, more than anything, deliverance from the terrors.
Finally, here is the passage form Matthew’s Gospel with context (from a recent translation of the New Testament by David Bentley Hart):
13And if in-deed the household should be worthy, may your ‘Peace’ come upon it; but if it should be unworthy, may your ‘Peace’ revert back to you. 14And whoever should not welcome you, or should not listen to your words, on departing outside that household or that city shake the dust off your feet. 15Amen, I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that city. 16See: I send you forth as sheep into the midst of wolves; so be as wise as serpents and as guileless as doves. 17And beware of men; for they will deliver you up to councils, and they will flog you in their syna-gogues; 18And you will be led before leaders and even kings for my sake, as a witness to them and to the gentiles. 19But when they deliver you up do not worry over how or what you might speak; for whatever you might say will be given to you in that hour; 20For you are not the ones speaking, but rather the Spirit of your Father is speaking in you. 21And brother will deliver up brother to death, and father child, and children will rise up against parents and put them to death. 22And you will be hated by all on account of my name; but whoever endures to the end, that one will be saved. 23And when they persecute you in one city, flee to another; for, amen, I tell you, you will most certainly not have finished with the cities of Israel before the Son of Man arrives. 24A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his lord. 25It suffices that the disciple become as his teacher, and the slave as his lord. If they have arraigned the master of the household as ‘Beelzebul,’ how much more so those who belong to his household? 26Therefore, do not fear them; for there is nothing that has been veiled that will not be unveiled, and nothing hidden that will not be made known. 27What I say to you in the dark, speak in the light; and what you hear in your ear, proclaim upon the house-tops. 28And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; but rather fear the one who can destroy both soul and body in the Vale of Hinnom. 29Are not two sparrows sold for the smallest pittance? And not one of them will fall to earth without your Father. 30But even the hairs of your head have all been numbered. 31So do not be afraid; you are of greater worth than a great many sparrows. 32Therefore, everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge him before my Father in the heavens; 33And whoever denies me before men, I also will deny him before my Father in the heavens. 34Do not suppose that I have come to impose peace upon the earth; I came to impose not peace but a sword. 35For I came to divide a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a bride against her mother-in-law-36And a man’s enemies: the members of his house-hold. 37Whoever cherishes father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever cher-ishes son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38And whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. 39Whoever gains his soul will lose it, and whoever loses his soul for my sake will gain it. 40Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who has sent me forth. 41Whoever welcomes a prophet because he is called prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a just man because he is called just will receive a just man’s reward. 42And whoever gives one of these humble ones a cup of cold water solely because he is called disciple, amen, I tell you, he most certainly will not lose his reward.David Bentley Hart’s translation of this passage (Yale UP, 2017).
I have always thought this the most fascinating aspect of C.S. Lewis’s sole genuine theological masterpiece, The Great Divorce: it so brilliantly and penetratingly depicts the psychological conditions of those who condemn themselves to hell that it inadvertently shows this self-condemnation to be as much a condition of unwilling slavery as of willing perversity—as much adventitiously imposed as internally cultivated. Indeed, the impersonal and personal here are one thoroughly interwoven fabric, a single hell already there before we were born, and from which a God of love alone can set us free.“When Only Bad Arguments Are Possible: A Response to Diem (among others)” posted on 26 July 2020 by David Bentley Hart at Eclectic Orthodoxy.
I have always thought this the most fascinating aspect of C.S. Lewis’s sole genuine theological masterpiece, The Great Divorce: it so brilliantly and penetratingly depicts the psychological conditions of those who condemn themselves to hell that it inadvertently shows this self-condemnation to be as much a condition of unwilling slavery as of willing perversity—as much adventitiously imposed as internally cultivated. Indeed, the impersonal and personal here are one thoroughly interwoven fabric, a single hell already there before we were born, and from which a God of love alone can set us free.From “When Only Bad Arguments Are Possible: A Response to Diem (among others)” posted on 26 July 2020 by David Bentley Hart at Eclectic Orthodoxy.
From Sergius Bulgakov’s The Bride of the Lamb:
It is necessary to understand that the parousia, the comíng of Christ in glory, that is, in the manifestation of the Holy Spirit, is, as such, already the judgment. The parousia cannot be an external and mutually indifferent encounter between God who has come into the world and man who remains in his isolated state of being, as he was before this encounter. On the contrary, man too is clothed in glory and incorruptibility, and the creaturely Sophia becomes transparent for the Divine Sophia. This changes man’s very being, This encounter with God, this entering into the realm of the divine fire, is not something optional for human beings. It is inevitable. For some this is the time of liberation (“look up, and lift up your heads” [Luke 21:28). For others it is a time of fear and horror: “then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matt. 24:30). No one can avoid this encounter, for it is not an outward encounter but an inward one. For many this will be an unexpected and undesired transformation of their being, for the transfiguration, the light of glory given to human beings, can do more than illuminate. It can also consume in fire.
What is this fire that burns the chaff? And how is the judgment accomplished? The Judge is the Son of man, to whom the Father has given the power to judge those whom “he is not ashamed to call…..brethren” (Heb. 2:11, 17; cf. P 82:1: “God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods”). About this judgment, which is the baptism of the world by fire, the Forerunner of the Lord says: “He (Christ) shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire” (Matt. 3:11; Luke 3:16). This baptism by fire refers not only to the Pentecost of Zion, which opens up the kingdom of grace and serves as the precursor of the Pentecost of the world, the kingdom of glory in the parousia. This baptism is in fact the glory as the manifestation of the Holy Spirit. Christ enters the world in an evident manner for every human being by the power of the Holy Spirit. The parousia manifestly clothes every human being in Christ by the Holy Spirit.
It is precisely in this sense that the parousia is also the judgment. And Christ, as the Judge (John 5:27), judges by the Holy Spirit. Human beings are clothed in Christ, who is the Truth and the Life, by the life giving Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of Truth. This means that every human being is inwardly confronted with the truth about himself. Every human being sees himself in the truth, by a vision that is not abstract but living, like the consuming flame of a fire from whose light one cannot hide, for all will become visible: “for judgment I am come into this world” (John 9:39), says the Lord. “Now is the judgment of this world” (12:31). But this judgment will be accomplished by Christ through the Comforter: “when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment…Of judgment, because the prince of this world is judged” (16:8, 11).
The manifestation of God’s glory in the world is also the manifestation of the truth itself, as well as the abolition of falsehood and the power of the father of lies (John 8:44). No falsehood, no self-deception, no error will have a place in the kingdom of truth, and this “exposure” by the Spirit of truth is already the judgment. By virtue of the truth this judgment becomes for everyone a self-judgment, a shedding of the veils of falsehood and self-deception that cover emptiness. The enthronement of Christ in the world, the reign of God come in power, is the Holy Spirit that fully, without any kenosis, pours forth upon all flesh. Christ’s revelation in the Holy Spirit has an irresistible force, which is manifested both in the universal resurrection and in the transformation of the world, with a transfiguration and glorification that extend to all flesh. This illuminating and transfiguring power is expressed in the image of fire, not natural of course but “spiritual,” which will penetrate the “spiritual” body and the spirit itself. The fire of the future age consumes, but it also transfigures, illuminates, gladdens.
…The judgement and separation consist in the fact that every human being will be placed before his own eternal image in Christ, that is, before Christ. And in the light of this image, he will see his own reality, and this comparison will be the judgmnent. It is this that is the Last Judgment of Christ upon every human being. In this judgment, the “books” are opened, for the Holy Spirit gives the power to read them clearly. Human life in all its fullness and connectedness is manifested in the implacable, inwardly irrefutable light of justice. This is a global vista, referring to man not only as a personal being but also as a generic one. Both man’s life and his responsibility are conditioned by and linked with the destinies of the whole human race. He is judged or rather he judges himself in Christ as belonging to all humankind, to the whole history of “all the nations,” in the total concreteness of all-human, universal being. He now knows this being as the life of Christ’s humanity, which He assumed in His double nature
…The proper self-determination of every human being in his creaturely freedom presents itself here as a certain self-evident reality, and not only as an external judgment upon him. This means that the Father left the judgment to His Son, who Himself is the Son of man, and, in His humanity, every human being finds himself and the judgment upon himself. This judgment is therefore not transcendent but immanent. In every human being, his own unreality or nakedness, his failure to wear a wedding garment at the wedding feast, is clearly distinguished from Christ’s reality. Just as the Holy Spirit manifests Christ in glory, so it reveals Christ’s presence in every human being. The judgment is the theophany to the world of the Son sent by the Father in the Holy Spirit. Resurrection in incorruptibility and glorification is precisely the Last Judgment, in which creation appears before the face of God and sees itself in God. For the image of God, given to man at his creation, is also the judgment upon man in relation to his likeness, which is the realization of this image in creaturely freedom. The “likeness” is the book of life opened at the judgment. God’s image will be revealed to every human being by the Holy Spirit as inner justice and judgment for creaturely life. This judgment of Christ is also every human being’s own iudgment upon himself. It consists in each person seeing himself in the light of his own justice, in the light of his proto-image, which he perceives in his resurrection under illumination by the Holy Spirit. The Judgment is the judgment of every human being in his true image upon himself in his “likeness.” As such, the judgment is self-evidently persuasive. This genuine image for every human being is Christ: The judgment consists in the fact that the light has come into the world (see John 3:19). “For judgment I am come into the world” (9:39)
Is it possible to reject this ontological self-judgment upon oneself as inappropriate and unconvincing? No! It is not possible, for one is judged by one’s own being, by one’s own truth. St. Isaac the Syrian says that the torments of hell are the burning of love for God, the burning fire of this love (we will encounter this idea again when we consider the burning in hell). This idea is also applicable to man’s relation to his divine proto-image: being aware of how distant he is from his proto-image in his given state or likeness, a human being nevertheless recognizes himself in this image as he could and should be according to God’s thought. He loves this image of himself, judges himself by it, compares himself to it, does not and cannot retreat from it inwardly.
This proto-image is Christ. Every human being sees himself in Christ and measures the extent of his difference from this proto-image. A human being cannot fail to love the Christ who is revealed in him, and he cannot fail to love himself revealed in Christ. The two things are the same. Such is human ontology. Love is the Holy Spirit, who sets the heart afire with this love. But this love, this blazing up of the Spirit, is also the judgment of the individual upon himself, his vision of himself outside himself, in conflict with himself, that is, outside Christ and far from Christ. And the measure and knowledge of this separation are determined by Love, that is, by the Holy Spirit. The same fire, the same love gladdens and burns, torments and gives joy. The judgment of love is the most terrible judgment, more terrilble than that of justice and wrath, than that of the law, for it includes all this but also transcends it. The judgment of love consists of a revolution in people’s hearts, in which, by the action of the Holy Spirit in the resurrection, the eternal source of love for Christ is revealed together with the torment caused by the failure to actualize this love in the life that has passed. It is impossible to appear before Christ and to see Him without loving him.
In the resurrection, there is no longer any place for anti-Christianity, for enmity toward Christ, for satanic hatred of Him, just as there is no place for fear of Him as the Judge terrible in His omnipotence and the fury of His wrath. The Lord will come as He was on earth: meek and humble in heart, though now in glory. But this meekness and humility will burn hearts by their love and their judgment. God-Love judges with love the sins against love.
Material in this post is from “The Life and Visions of Krəstos Śämra, a Fifteenth-Century Ethiopian Woman Saint” by Wendy Laura Belcher from African Christian Biography: Stories, Lives, and Challenges edited by Dana Lee Robert (Cluster Publications, 2018), chapter 5, pp. 80-101. (Available online at wendybelcher.com.)
The autobiography of 16th-century Ethiopian nun and visionary, Saint Krestos Samra (meaning “Christ Delights in Her”), is likely the oldest account by any woman in Africa. Although dictated to a monk who wrote it down on the saint’s behalf, Gädlä Krəstos Śämra has strong claims for authenticity even from a secular historical standpoint. Saint Krestos Samra married into the imperial family, lived in extravagant wealth with hundreds of slaves attending her until about the age of forty, abandoned the last of her eleven children to enter the monastic life in penitence after killing a slave (who she raised from death by pleading with God), founded a renowned monastery after years of extreme asceticism, and is currently Ethiopia’s most beloved female saint. Despite its value, this work has never been translated into English.
Here are a few excerpts from the chapter that give a scholarly analysis of the document before the translated passages:
Gädlä Krəstos Śämra is an example of a distinctive Ethiopian genre called a gädl (spiritual struggle; plural: gädlat), used to tell the inspirational story of a saint’s life. This genre began to be written in the fourteenth century and flourished until the end of the seventeenth century.
…Her visions are not presented in abstract mystical language but are quite concrete, including clear stories about repentant magicians, fragments of consecrated bread that fly, abjecting the body by sucking Christ’s wounds, and meeting Satan in his guise as head of the church. In one, she demands that Christ forgive all the damned and then travels to hell to plead with Satan to accept Christ’s pardon so that human beings will no longer suffer due to their enmity (see Appendix 2 for an English translation of this section).
…Krəstos Śämra even debates with Christ, pressing him like a disobedient son to forgive humanity. In one of her miracles, a man was using a plant for magical protection. When Krǝstos Śämra prayed to Christ that the man be forgiven for practicing magic, Christ responded that he would not forgive him because the man had used the plant demonically. In a typical moment, she responded by arguing with Christ, pointing out, “You created the plants!” Christ bowed to this argument and forgave the man. It is for tactics like this that the scholar Ephraim Isaac has reportedly called her “the mother of peace” and an Ethiopian female philosopher.
…Gädlä Krəstos Śämra is just one example of Ethiopia’s thousands of original texts, less than 5 percent of which are available in any European language.
This English translation of one portion of the autobiography Gädlä Krəstos Śämra is by Michael Kleiner and Wendy Laura Belcher:
Then my lord Jesus Christ came to me, in great glory. When I saw him, I fell at my Lord God’s feet. Immediately, however, he raised me up with his holy and blessed hands without blemish.
Then he said to me, “Don’t be afraid, my dear Kristos Samra. Rather, tell me your heart’s desire.”
I replied, “If you permit your maidservant [to ask], tell me why you created our father Adam in your image and likeness, and why you were crucified on the wood of the cross. Was it not for the sake of Adam and his offspring?”
Christ replied, “Yes, I was crucified for their sake.”
So I said to him, “If your crucifixion happened for their sake, pardon [all] those who have died, from Abel up to now and in eternity, O Lord! Truly, you are merciful, slow to be angered, given to compassion, and righteous. There is no other God than you, you are all-powerful, and nothing is impossible for you; the entire earth does not [even] fill your hands.”
Now Christ replied to me with these words, “Please judge [for yourself], my dear Kristos Samra. [Weigh] the sins that Adam and his offspring have committed [against] the cross that I, your creator, carried in the court of Caiaphas and Annas with Pontius Pilate as their superior: If they are weighed on the scales, which one is heavier? Does not my suffering [in human hands], which I received on [Good] Friday, weigh heavier?”
When Christ said this to me, I trembled and fell to the ground.
Immediately, he raised me up again with his holy hands and asked me, “All the tribulation that I suffered, for whom do you think it was? As the prophet Isaiah says, ‘He came to be slaughtered like a sheep, and like a sheep that does not give a sound before him who shears it, he too did not open his mouth despite his suffering.’ As scripture said, I was crucified on a wooden cross—a wicked servant slapped my face, impure people spat on me, and Pilate, sitting on his throne, ordered me to be whipped. Thus was I treated: Shall I show humanity mercy or shall I punish them? Please judge [for yourself], my dear Kristos Samra.”
When Christ had said these things to me, I fell on my face and said to him, “Why do you tell me all the time: ‘Judge [for yourself]?’ You judge, please! Can a servant pass judgment together with his master, or a maidservant together with her mistress? Don’t treat me in this way, O lord! [I merely ask,] Is there any wood that doesn’t smoke [when burned], are there humans who don’t sin? So, pardon them, without questions.”
So Christ replied, “Please tell me your heart’s desire, my dear Kristos Samra, that which is in your heart.”
At that point I replied to him as follows, “My lord, I would like you to pardon the devil, and for all humanity to be saved from being condemned to [eternal] suffering. Truly, you don’t desire the sinner’s death, but rather his turning back [from sin]! This is why I say to you: ‘Pardon the devil!’ Don’t think that I like to say all these things to you. Rather, [I do it] for the sake of Adam and his offspring, because their flesh is my flesh.”
After I had said these things to Christ, our Lord replied with a laugh, “You’re asking me for a difficult thing, my dear Kristos Samra! Many saints who were before you have not asked me for this.”
After saying this, Christ summoned Saint Michael, the head of the angels. He said to him, “Go and take her to Sheol, because she has asked me to liberate the devil from the [realm of] punishment with [eternal] suffering.”
Immediately, Saint Michael, the head of the angels, took me with him to Sheol. As we were on our way, I said to Saint Michael, head of the angels, “From now on, all humanity shall find rest because I believe that the devil wants to be pardoned and not to be Lord God.”
Then we arrived in hell. My brothers, what can I tell you about the suffering that is found there? I saw people biting each other as if they were dogs.
Then Saint Michael, the head of the angels, said to me, “Summon the devil [and find out] if he wants to be saved.”
So I called out for him, in the language of the angels, “Satan!”
Instantly, Satan shouted [back], in a loud voice, “Who calls out for me, in the place where I am Lord God of many hosts?”
After Satan had said this, he came to me and told me, “I‘ve been looking for you for a long time. Today you have finally come to my home.”
At this point, I replied to him, “Come out quickly! Our Lord has pardoned you, as well as those who are yours.”
When I said this to him, he became enraged. He seized my left hand and dragged me down to the lowest level of She‘ol. However, Saint Michael came to my [aid], following me with his sword of fire in his hands. [With it,] he then struck that abominable [creature] who knows no mercy.
My brothers, what can I tell you about the wailing that arose in that hour! All the [captive] souls swarmed me like bees. [Fortunately], the number of souls who escaped from [hell] on the wings of Saint Michael and on my own wings was something like 100,000. I was delighted when I saw how happy those souls were. I frolicked among them just like a young calf; I was like a horse that races in the king’s presence.
After that, I went to [Christ] my creator, and prostrated myself to the glory of his rule. I said to him, “Is this how you have judged, O Lord?”
He replied, “Have you taken some booty from the hands of the devil?”
I replied, “Yes, my lord, I have, through your power.”
Now he summoned Saint Michael, the head of the angels, and said to him, “Go, take those souls to the home of my dear Kristos Samra.”
At that point I asked him, “Where is that home of mine, my lord?”
He replied, “Your home shall be with my mother [in heaven]. I hereby give you the name of Batra Maryam and commission you as my mother’s shoes and adorn you with great grace and majesty. Blessed are all who love you.”
God has one goal: when the whole fullness of our nature has been perfected in each man, some straightway even in this life purified from evil, others healed hereafter through fire for the appropriate length of time, and others ignorant of the experience equally of good and of evil in the life here, God intends to set before everyone the participation of the good things in Him, which the Scripture says eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor thought attained. …The difference between a life of virtue and a life of wickedness will appear hereafter chiefly in allowing us to participate earlier or later in the blessedness which we hope for. The duration of the healing process will undoubtedly be in proportion to the measure of evil which has entered each person.St. Macrina the Younger quoted by her brother St. Gregory Nyssa from On the Soul and the Resurrection.
Wendell Berry on Heaven and Hell:
I imagine the dead waking, dazed, into a shadowless light in which they know themselves altogether for the first time. It is a light that is merciless until they can accept its mercy; by it they are at once condemned and redeemed. It is Hell until it is Heaven. Seeing themselves in that light, if they are willing, they see how far they have failed the only justice of loving one another; it punishes them by their own judgment. And yet, in suffering that light’s awful clarity, in seeing themselves in it, they see its forgiveness and its beauty, and are consoled. In it they are loved completely, even as they have been, and so are changed into what they could not have been but what, if they could have imagined it, they would have wished to be.Wendell Berry in A World Lost.
A few folks have asked me for this list from time to time, so I plan to start maintaining it publicly. Here is a list of online articles by David Bentley Hart going back in time (with his exchange with N.T. Wright separated below):
- “Three Cheers for Socialism: Christian Love & Political Practice” in Commonweal Magazine on February 24, 2020 here.
- “A Pakaluk of Lies” in First Things on February 14, 2020 here.
- “Why Do People Believe in Hell” in The New York Times on January 10, 2020 here.
- “Misenchantment” in Commonweal Magazine on January 6, 2020 here.
- “Manoussakis and his Pear Tree”in Eclectic Orthodoxy on November 7, 2019 here.
- “‘Gnosticism’ and Universalism: A Review of ‘The Devil’s Redemption’” in Eclectic Orthodoxy on October 2, 2019 here.
- “1 Timothy 2:3-4: will, intend, or desire?” in Eclectic Orthodoxy on September 23, 2019 here.
- “Theodicy and Apokatastasis” in Eclectic Orthodoxy on September 20, 2019 here.
- “Divorce, Annulment & Communion: An Orthodox Theologian Weighs In” in Commonweal Magazine on August 26, 2019 here.
- “Quentin Tarantino’s Cosmic Justice” in The New York Times on August 6, 2019 here.
- “Can We Please Relax About ‘Socialism’?” in The New York Times on April 27, 2019 here.
- “Anent Garry Wills and the ‘DBH’ Version” in Eclectic Orthodoxy on February 11, 2018 here.
- “The Gospel According to Melpomene: Reflections on Rowan Williams’s The Tragic Imagination” in Modern Theology on January 26, 2018 (not fully accessible without a fee but can be previewed and purchased here).
Exchange with N.T. Wright:
- N.T. Wright published “The New Testament in the strange words of David Bentley Hart” in The Christian Century on January 15, 2018 here.
- David Bentley Hart published “A Reply to N. T. Wright” in Eclectic Orthodoxy on January 16, 2018 here.
- David Bentley Hart published “The Spiritual Was More Substantial Than the Material for the Ancients” in Church Life Journal on July 26, 2018 here.
- James P. Ware published “The Incarnation Doesn’t End with the Resurrection” in Church Life Journal on June 21, 2019 here.
- David Bentley Hart published “Looking Awry at Resurrection Bodies” in Church Life Journal on July 04, 2019 here.
A few older favorites by David Bentley Hart:
- “Saint Origen” in First Things from October 2015.
- “Traditio Deformis” in First Things from May 2015.
- “God, Gods, and Fairies” in First Things from June 2013.
- “Tsunami and Theodicy: Haiti” in First Things from January 2010.
- “The Secret CommonWealth” in First Things from October 2009.
- Here is the full list from his years at First Things (November 1998 to February 2020).
David Bentley Hart also frequently appears in online video interviews and podcasts. I have transcribed portions of some of these:
- See here for a conversation about the new heavens and the new earth as well as some philosophy of the mind in an interviewer with Robert Wright from February 26, 2020.
- See here for a conversation about the living cosmos in an interview here with Jason Micheli from April 13, 2018.
- See here for some conversation about classical liberalism, Karl Marx and other topics in an interview with Jason Micheli from October 18, 2019.
- (Separately, I also have various favorite passages from Hart’s books collected here along with a few of my own ruminations about some of his work.)
Finally, here is a reading list from David Bentley Hart that has frequented the internet since November of 2015 when Ben Davis posted an email from David Bentley Hart recommending these titles for any theologian:
- Metaphysics (4th edition) by Richard Taylor
- He Who Is by E. L. Mascall
- Existence and Analogy by E. L. Mascall
- The One and the Many by W. Norris Clarke
- Proofs of God by Matthew Levering
Theology (always start with the fathers):
- Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man
- Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and Resurrection
- Ps-Dionysius, Complete Works
- Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ
- Athanasius, On the Incarnation
- St Isaac of Ninevah (especially the “Second Volume”)
- Maximus the Confessor, Chapters on Love
- Maximus the Confessor, The Cosmic Mystery of Christ
Mediaeval and Early Modern Theology:
- Symeon the New Theologian’s Mystical Discourses (or whatever it’s called in English)
- Bonaventure’s Journey of the Mind to God
- Nicholas of Cusa
- Thomas Traherne, Centuries
- George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons
- Sergius Bulgakov, Bride of the Lamb
- Hans Urs von Balthasar, Glory of the Lord. (This is a seven volume set.)
- Vladimir Lossky’s Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church
- Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World
- Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics part IV, (There are 5 volumes in this set. 14 total.)
- Henri de Lubac’s Supernatural (currently being translated I believe, but if you read French go ahead)
- Rowan Williams’ Resurrection (2nd edition)
At a recent book club discussion (on The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, to give only the subtitle), a gentle Christian lady seated to my left asked me if the author David Bentley Hart could still be considered a Christian after his most recent book—That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation (Yale UP, 2019). I told her that I did not have the qualifications or authority to answer that question but that I really appreciated the book. My godfather—a third generation Orthodox priest of Eastern European ancestry—had gone to the bathroom just before this question, and I directed it to him a little later in the course of the conversation. He joked that he had stepped out at just the right time before answering that he had not read the book but that Hart had reportedly gone too far in saying that his thesis was the only possible correct understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Just before our book club meeting, my godfather told me that he had never imagined reading a David Bentley Hart book because of this author’s reputation as snarky and polarizing. However, the book club in his church selected The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, and he had thoroughly appreciated it. When talking about the passage on Peter’s tears and how Christ gave a face to the faceless, my godfather shed his own tears. He was also amazed that anyone had been able to give him compassion for Julian the Apostate.
As our conversation touched on the topic of universal salvation, I reminded my godfather of how he had once reassured me that I was far too insignificant to ever be at serious risk of becoming a heretic. He laughed and said that he belongs in the same category. To be a heretic, you must be a false teacher who needs to be formally confronted by a church authority and who then refuses to be corrected. Certainly, I am concerned to understand and love all that the church teaches to the best of my ability, but I am unlikely to ever have the responsibility of being a teacher within the church who would ever be worth anyone’s time to actually bring before the church for formal correction.
So if I am not qualified to say anything about the position taken by David Bentley Hart in That All Shall Be Saved, why am I writing this review? Well, honestly, it is mostly because I have three other little writing ideas waiting patiently to get out into words, and this content is one of two little clusters of ideas that feel like they are sitting in the way. So I’m weak, and I’m taking the easy way around. Writing always helps me to understand my own thoughts a little better and to continue on with the next ponderings. Finally, there is the excuse that a few other people (besides the kind lady beside me in the book club discussion) have asked me about this book. For these various reasons, I’m offering my poor thoughts freely to anyone who wants to know.
I’ve read the book twice and also read about a dozen reviews of it, and here is the short answer regarding what I think: being intellectually persuaded that all will be saved has no value compared to learning actually to long for the salvation of all people—learning to live and to pray like I really want it. In his letter to Timothy, Paul describes “God our Savior” as one who “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2:3-4). Looking at the whole of what Jesus Christ reveals to us, it seems clear that to be a person after God’s own heart, we should learn to desire the salvation of all people. This is widely and clearly taught in my own Orthodox Christian tradition. David Bentley Hart goes far beyond this, however, and argues that the only coherent understanding of the gospel revealed by Jesus Christ includes the eventual restoration of all things to a right relationship with the Creator (a concept known among the Greek fathers as apocatastasis, coming from Acts 3:21). Hart follows a tightly constructed philosophical case that he claims, repeatedly, to be irrefutable (within the book as well as in essays responding to critics of his book). This philosophical case involves a close examination of what we can coherently mean by speaking of God as loving, good and omnipotent. His case includes a number of biblical reasons (flowing out of his recent translation of the entire New Testament) as well as historical and theological reasons. However, these biblical and theological points are all secondary to his main metaphysical arguments.
Historically, Hart describes a church in which the idea of apocatastasis was the majority position, at least among clergy in the Greek-speaking east, for almost the first 500 years:
The great fourth-century church father Basil of Caesarea (c. 329–379) once observed that, in his time, a large majority of his fellow Christians (at least, in the Greek-speaking Eastern Christian world that he knew) believed that hell was not everlasting, and that all in the end would attain salvation. This may have been hyperbole on his part, but then again it may very well not have been; and, even if he was exaggerating, he could not have been exaggerating very much, as otherwise the remark would have sounded silly to his contemporaries, whereas he stated the matter as something almost banal in its obviousness. Over time, of course, in large part as a result of certain obvious institutional imperatives, the voices of the universalists would dwindle away to little more than a secretive whisper at the margins of the faith.
Theologically, Hart leans most heavily on Gregory of Nyssa (Basil’s younger brother) who defended apocatastasis plainly in several existing texts. Follow this link for an extended quotation in which Hart moves between multiple texts to unpack Gregory’s theology of our salvation as only being possible as a whole human race because the image of God is only revealed fully in all of humanity as one body that is connected to Jesus Christ as our head.
In his scriptural arguments, Hart only touches upon a few basic points regarding key terms such as age, eternity and hell as these are used by various biblical authors. He also outlines a scriptural understanding of human history as being contained within two envelopes or horizons, both at its beginning and at its end. God’s restoration of all things takes place, in some ultimate sense, beyond the confines of our current temporal framework. Our experiences within time now as well as after death (which Hart leaves mostly unaddressed as essentially unknown) are certainly of eternal significance and involve both deep suffering (a real hell in this life and the next) as well as the potential for profound joy.
This raises a critical point of contrast between Hart’s universalism and that of many contemporary universalists. Hart is not presenting a cheerful or positive picture of our condition now or after our deaths. It is clear that Hart considers our desires and longings to stay with us as we go to encounter the fiery love of our Creator beyond this life, and it is also clear that it will be a terrible thing as most of us find that our desires are not for our God in whom we are made to find our joy. Beyond these differences, Brad Jersak offers this helpful summary of the distinctions from “pop universalism” in this blog post:
The universalism Hart advocates is a specific subset that some call patristic universalism. Unlike pop universalism, Hart retains all the key vital features found in two of my favorite saints, St. Gregory of Nyssa (which is also to say, St. Macrina the Younger) and George MacDonald. Hart might describe these elements differently, but in general, they expand on the tenet proffered earlier:
✦ Jesus Christ alone is the author and finisher of our salvation.
✦ The Incarnation of Christ, climaxing in his Passion (death, descensus and resurrection) is the fundamental means by which God saves us and restores all things.
✦ Sin and death matter greatly, but Christ has already and will ultimately overcome sin (by his freely given forgiveness) and death (by raising up humanity in his resurrection).
✦ There will be a final judgment, and although it’s nature, duration and details are held in mystery, the agenda and outcome are revealed as entirely restorative and redemptive.
✦ That all sentient beings will ultimately willingly embrace this salvation through the restoration of their natural wills, established in Gethsemane and effected by the beatific vision, when every eye sees him, every knee willingly bows and every tongue joyfully confesses the Lordship of Christ.
[Hart’s] patristic adaptation of the universalist label may work with his fans, but I suspect he’ll confound and confuse both disciples and detractors who assume universalists abandon any the above essentials because that’s exactly what most do. This isn’t Hart’s fault. The problem is with the term and with sloppy readers (if they even bother with reading). If we’re to call Hart a universalist on his own terms, then I recommend always including the patristic modifier and insisting others do so also.
Beyond just this one helpful category of patristic universalism (which might also be called apocatastasis), it is also critical to note that there were several distinct doctrines of apocatastasis described and defended within the first five or six centuries of Christianity.
These differences are essential to understanding the frequently cited point that universalism or apokatastasis was condemned as heresy by the Fifth Ecumenical Council (A.D. 553) and ratified again by the Sixth Ecumenical Council when the the fifteen anti-Origenist anathemas were reviewed and kept in place. Fr. Aidan Kimel’s blog provides an excellent review of the scholarship surrounding these matters. He explains that many scholars consider the fifteen anti-Origenist anathemas to have been added on later without full conciliar authority. Even if they do carry conciliar authority, it is clear that they are condemning a distinct and distorted doctrine of apokatastasis that was developed by disciples of Evagrius Ponticus centuries after Origen or Gregory of Nyssa. In this regard, Fr. Aidan cites Brian E. Daley (Hope of the Early Church: A Handbook of Patristic Eschatology):
The denounced theses represent a radicalized Evagrian Christology and cosmology, and a doctrine of apokatastasis that went far beyond the hopes of Origen or Gregory of Nyssa. They envisage not only a spherical, ethereal risen body, but the complete abolition of material reality in the world to come, and the ultimate absorption of all created spirits into an undifferentiated unity with the divine Logos, so that even the humanity and the Kingdom of Christ will come to an end. …E. M. Harding agrees that the views of the sixth-century Origenists were rooted not in Origen himself but in the teachings of Evagrius Ponticus. Augustine Casiday concurs, with an important qualification: just as there are crucial differences between Origen and sixth-century Origenism, so there are crucial differences between Evagrius and sixth-century Evagrianism. [See original blog post for full citations.]
In his recent book on the apokatastasis (as taught by at least one of the Cappadocian Fathers, Gregory of Nyssa), David Bentley Hart is not advocating any of the later versions that may have been condemned as heresies by the Fifth Ecumenical Council (such as those involving the pre-existence of souls or “the ultimate absorption of all created spirits into an undifferentiated unity with the divine Logos”).
What Hart does do in his book, however, is utterly reject and vigorously condemn the idea that any human would be left in eternal conscious torment by our God. He makes it clear that the doctrine of eternal conscious torment is morally despicable to him and rightly condemned in his view as idodic and horrific. Many reviewers have commented on Hart’s harsh language. He has responded that he intentionally reserved his blistering invectives for despicable ideas (that distort and hide who God is) and not for any of the particular people who have taught and defended these ideas over the centuries. Hence, readers will typically find that Hart will argue civilly with Calvin’s thinking (for example) and save his disparagement for Calvinism. This distinction is small comfort to most fellow Christians. It should be noted, however, that Hart does not play favorites at least. A beloved theologian of many people sympathetic to universalism in recent decades is Hans Urs von Balthasar (d. 1988) who made the case that Christians can and should hope for the salvation of all. Hart says that he “has very small patience” with this idea and dismisses anyone who is “timidly groping his way toward some anxious, uncertain, fragile hope.”
This brings me back to my own position on all of this. I’ve appreciated reading and learning. Hart’s case was compelling and will keep me reading and thinking about this at some level for the rest of my life. However, what matters is clearly the love (or the lack of it) within my own heart for God and for my neighbor. Whether or not I am intellectually convinced that my neighbor will be saved is not the most critical issue. In fact, any intellectual confidence on my part could easily become a distraction, an idol or a reason for complacency. Therefore, I prefer to face questions in response. Do I long for my own salvation and the salvation of my neighbor? Do I have the heart of Jesus Christ toward all those who I have come to know, and do I desire more than anything else for them to grow in their love for my Heavenly Father? Do I see the apathy and self-indulgence in my own heart that leaves me cold and suffering even within the warm and loving presence of my Creator? I am not criticizing David Bentley Hart with any of these questions. Right or wrong in all the particulars of his case, Hart is clearly zealous to defend our loving Father as Jesus Christ reveals Him perfectly to us. Moreover, Hart’s calling is obviously different from mine which makes is foolish for me to judge it. At the end of it all, I don’t want to feel compelled to turn over every stone within each part of the arguments or to come to rest upon my intellectual confidence. I want simply to grow in my desires for others to know and enjoy God’s love.
Note, if you are interested in more about this book, here are three reviews from a variety of positions:
- Jason Micheli (positive review from December 4, 2019)
- Michael McClymond (critical review from October 2, 2019)
- Peter Leithart (critical review from October 2, 2019 and which is followed by a response from Hart that raises many profound exegetical questions about the Old Testament)
Finally, here are two books that several others who I respect have recommended in connection to this:
- Origen: On First Principles by John Behr
- A Larger Hope?: Universal Salvation from Christian Beginnings to Julian of Norwich (Volume 1 of 2) by Ilaria L. E. Ramelli