The eschatological horizons of David Bentley Hart’s universalism

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David Bentley Hart thinks that we find in the New Testament “seemingly contrary eschatological expectations.” The discussion is found in the second meditation, on judgment, in his book That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, & Universal Salvation.

He has listed a number of texts which, in his view, appear to “promise a final salvation of all persons and all things, and in the most unqualified terms.” One of the most important is the statement in 1 Timothy 2:4 that God “intends all human beings to be saved and to come to a full knowledge of truth,” which I considered in a recent post. But it must also be admitted that “Jesus speaks of a final judgment, and uses many metaphors to describe the unhappy lot of the condemned.” How are these two aspects—universal salvation and final condemnation—to be reconciled in a coherent theological system?

The “hopeful universalism” of Hans Urs von Balthasar, according to which the two absolutes must be held in prayerful and unresolvable tension, is rejected as “intellectual timidity.” Hart writes: ‘I cannot quite suppress my suspicion that here the word “tension” is being used merely as an anodyne euphemism for “contradiction.”’ He proposes, instead, a narrative solution:

the two sides of the New Testament’s eschatological language represent not two antithetical possibilities tantalizingly or menacingly dangled before us, posed one against the other as challenges to faith and discernment, but rather two different moments within a seamless narrative, two distinct eschatological horizons, one enclosed within the other.

So the “judgment” images refer to the “furthest limit of the immanent course of history,” which is the boundary between this age and the age to come, and to the division between “those who have surrendered to God’s love and those who have not.” Beyond that is a “final horizon of all horizons,” at which even those who have removed themselves as far as possible from God “will at the last find themselves in the home to which they are called from everlasting, their hearts purged of every last residue of hatred and pride.”

The first horizon is the “final verdict on the totality of human history”; the second is the “final verdict on the eternal purposes of God.” The distinction can be neatly mapped on to the story about Jesus:

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.

Paul’s grand eschatological vision

Hart finds support for this schema in the “grand eschatological vision” of 1 Corinthians 15:23-28. Here Paul appears to speak of “three distinct moments, distributed across two eschatological frames”: 1) the exaltation or resurrection of Christ; 2) the exaltation of those “united to Christ” at the end of history (the first horizon); and 3) the “full completion” at the end of all ages, when the Son gives the kingdom back to the Father (the second horizon). Only at this end of all ends do we attain the promise that “God may be all in all.”

This “full completion,” Hart suggests, is implied earlier in the letter, in what he takes to be the only image that Paul actually provides of the “final reckoning.” There are two classes of the judged: “those saved in and through their works, and those saved by way of the fiery destruction of their works” (1 Cor. 3:10-15). Later tradition understood this to refer to a distinction within the company of the elect, but Paul does not say as much. Hart concludes that Paul does not envisage a group of people left over at the “full completion” who will be “eternally derelict” or liable to “eternal torment.”

Some briefly outlined objections

This strikes me as a bold attempt to ground a theological dialectic in the apocalyptic vision of the New Testament. I go some way with the reading of 1 Corinthians 15:23-28—I think Paul does differentiate temporally between the resurrection of those in Christ at the parousia and the “end”, corresponding more or less to John’s distinction between two resurrections (Rev. 20:4-6, 12). But in the end I think it fails, for the following, briefly outlined reasons.

1. The premise of the universalist argument—as of much traditional theology—is that the central concern of the New Testament, and of Christianity generally, is the salvation of individuals. I disagree with the premise. The central concern of the New Testament, taken as a whole, is the advent of the rule of YHWH through his Son over not only his own people but also over the nations of the ancient world. The scope and purpose of salvation, whether of Jews or of Gentiles, are determined by the “political” narrative. Any account of New Testament eschatology has, in the first place, to address directly the concrete historical realities and outlooks that attended the essentially Jewish faith in Jesus that shaped New Testament thought.

2. The second of the three “moments” that Hart identifies in 1 Corinthians 15:23-28 happens at the parousia. Nothing in the New Testament suggests that this was understood to be a cosmic, end-of-history event, the beginning of a transcendent age to come. It is a “political” event, the climax to a historical process, analogous to the coming of a king to establish justice and be acclaimed by his citizens. The parousia presupposes the continuation of political realities. From Jesus’ perspective it is directly linked to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. From the perspective of the apostolic communities in the wider Greek-Roman world it is directly linked to the collapse of paganism, the defeat of their enemies, the end of persecution, and the confession of Jesus as Lord by the peoples of the empire.

3. The exaltation of “those already fully united with Christ” (1 Cor. 15:23; cf. 1:7-8) refers to a “resurrection” at the time of the parousia, as part of the vindication of those who suffered because of their testimony to Christ (cf. 1 Thess. 4:14-17). What is said about this “first resurrection” of the martyrs makes it clear that it is closely associated with the theme of opposition to the proclamation of the gospel in the early period. Hart’s approach disregards the intrinsic historical shape of Paul’s narrative.

4. The “end of the age” is likewise the end of a historical period, not the end of history. There is some excellent discussion here, and Hart recognises that aiōn may mean only an “epoch” or “indeterminately vast period of time.” But he is “absolutely certain,” nevertheless, that in the New Testament the reference is to ‘the ‘olam ha-ba, “the Age to come,” which is to say the Age of God’s Kingdom, or of that cosmic reality now hidden in God that will be made manifest at history’s end.’

For Jesus the age that was coming to an end was the age of second temple Judaism (cf. Matt. 24:1-3). For Paul the age that was passing away was the age of the Greek and Roman gods (cf. Acts 17:30-31; 1 Cor. 7:31). The transitions would be traumatic, and only those who persevered to the ends would be saved (cf. Matt. 24:14; 1 Cor. 1:8; Phil. 2:12-16), but what would follow would be the rule of Christ and the twelve over Israel, or the rule of Christ and the martyrs over the nations.

5. I regularly make the point that the coming of the kingdom of God is not a cosmic event, even though it may be accompanied by cosmic signs. I think that it makes better sense of the biblical data if we confine “kingdom” to the management of God’s people as a political entity in relation to the nations, and let “new creation” stand as the final event, at the end of history, when the last enemy has been destroyed.

6. I see no real distinction between Hart’s two horizons. They may be assigned to their separate spheres, but we need no more than a brief and uneventful Sabbath between the crucifixion of history and the Easter of new creation. This is barely a narrative. It rather looks as though the first horizon is the end of this age, and the second is the beginning of the age to come. That, in effect, is what it means for one to be “enclosed” within the other.

Paul, by contrast, seems to have thought that there would a significant period of time between the parousia and the “end,” during which Christ would destroy “every rule and every authority and power,” culminating in the final defeat of death. I take this apocalyptic language to refer to prolonged, meaningful historical experience. In the age to come there will still be enemies over which Christ will exercise a supreme, God-given authority for the sake of the church (cf. Eph. 1:20-23), because the church will have to bear witness throughout “the coming ages” (Eph. 2:7). Hart’s proposal may require an extended purgatorial period between the two horizons (“their hearts purged of every last residue of hatred and pride”), but this is not what Paul describes here.

7. The “day of fire” of 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 is not a final judgment of humanity. Paul is speaking quite narrowly about the work of the apostles. In Corinth, as in other cities, he has laid a foundation, which is Christ, and other “servants” of Christ are building on it. The apostles are the workers, the building is the church. When a day of persecution comes, the construction work will be severely tested, as though by fire. If the community survives the testing, the apostles who worked on its construction will be rewarded. If the apostle’s work is burned up and destroyed in the fire, “he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.”

So to repeat…

A proper account of salvation, even of eschatological salvation, must be constructed around a historical narrative, because at the heart of the New Testament is a concern for the historical existence of the people of God during a period of political upheaval and transformation. The language of Jewish apocalyptic perhaps lends an air of cosmic finality to these horizons, but I think that Jesus and the apostles, by and large, remain realists concerned with the survival and vindication of Israel in the ancient world. Hart, as I hope to show in a piece on the language of hell, understands this, but it loses out in the end to his overpowering theological argumentation.

Samuel Conner | Mon, 09/30/2019 - 16:23 | Permalink

I wonder whether it may be that in the future, in the discourses of the churches, “theology” and “exegesis” will have less and less to say to each other. Granting historical narrative understanding of the text, that might be a natural and perhaps even desirable development.

I don’t have a deep understanding of EO thinking, but I do have the impression that it may be the richest, of the various historically orthodox streams of church reflection, in terms of the depth and breadth and variety of the ideas. Reading here and there, I have the feeling that “there is a lot of really interesting (and perhaps valid in its own terms) reflection here, but is that what the cited texts mean?”

DBH argues powerfully and persuasively in what little I have read, and perhaps he’s right (I certainly hope so). The arguments stand on their own, IMO, and don’t really need the text, or so it seems to me.

@Samuel Conner:

He takes a lot more trouble over the theological arguments than over exegesis, but certain aspects of the exegetical debate he does take quite seriously. I guess the point is that he is arguing against both theological and biblical “infernalists.” I tend to write for a broad “evangelical” readership, so it is important to me to get the biblical part right. But in my defence, the biblical testimony has to be seminal for churches that confess Christ.

@Andrew Perriman:

Re:” the biblical testimony has to be seminal for churches that confess Christ “

Heartily agreed.

I’m thinking in terms of a useful phrase I encountered in Wright, “finding Nth Century answers to Pth Century questions”.

At present, the churches are pre-occupied with the question of “individual ultimate fate”. That doesn’t seem to have been a paramount 1st Century question, but it’s hard to imagine that this question will go away in the present-day churches. But perhaps there are not definitive “1st century answers” to this “21st century question” to be found through exegesis.

That’s more or less my intuition, that for questions of this kind, that the text shouldn’t be forced to answer, because it wasn’t the concern of the authors, that “theology” may have to take the lead. And if the narrative historical approach is valid (I’m inclined to think that it is), there may be many questions of present-day interest that are of this kind.