The case against eternal damnation

By Robert Wright, Jun 07 2020

Not long ago I had a conversation on The Wright Show with the renowned Christian scholar David Bentley Hart, who subscribes to the doctrine of universal salvation—which, I’m happy to report, holds that no one suffers eternal damnation. Hart cites a long lineage of support for this idea in Christian thought, and he contends that a close reading of Christian scripture supports it as well. Plus (to oversimplify his argument slightly) there’s the question of what kind of God would want you to suffer forever. Hart is an engaging, witty, and very learned conversationalist, and I learned a lot from him. 


You're a very well-known [and] prolific theologian. And you've written a book called That All Shalt Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation, in which you bring good news to us all. Which is that none of us—not me, not even Sam Harris—is going to hell. That is your view, right? 

Well, I definitely don't believe in an eternal hell, no.

I prefer to think of myself more as a scholar of religious studies, by the way, than a theologian—and there are a lot of people who would prefer I call myself that, as well.

But yeah, the book is about Christian universalism—about not only its history, but its logic. Principally, it's a philosophical argument that's negative in form. I'm afraid I don't know that it brings good news, but the claim it does make is that the only way [classical Christian claims] can be coherent is in the form of one of the classical universalist construals. It's a somewhat more minimal claim. 

But you're a Christian, so presumably you do believe they're coherent? 

Well, I believe in certain configurations they're coherent, yes. 

Namely yours. 

Or Gregory of Nyssa's, Issac of Nineveh's—there's a long tradition there. That doesn't mean that I'm an apologist for the Christian religion in whatever form it takes. I think there are Christian truths, and there's quite a lot of nonsense that goes under the name of Christianity. So it's not an apologetic project for me. 

Although you did write a book called Atheist Delusions, which presumably took issue with the New Atheists? 

Not really my title, incidentally. They're mentioned at the beginning and at the end. Actually, the book that deals more specifically with the New Atheism was called The Experience of God. I have very little patience for the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheism as they were then. 

It's, I think, a fad that has more or less passed anyway. There are more interesting arguments to be had between religious believers and unbelievers and everything in between. I think that was a period of extraordinary crudity in public discourse on these matters. Kind of glad it's passed. 

I'm happy to put that behind us. 


So, you mentioned Gregory of Nyssa, which leads to the question how radical is the idea of universal salvation both in a contemporary context—if you just kind of look at the current landscape of opinion among theologians and clergy and so on—and historically? Gregory of Nyssa lived 1600 years ago or something. 

Fourth century. 

Well, controversial for whom? In the early centuries of the Christian Church, and specifically in the more Eastern quarters of the Greco-Roman world—the Semitic and Hellenistic part of the Empire—it was apparently quite a live option for many centuries, partly simply because the Greek of the New Testament was more flexible and more ambiguous in its meanings than the translations we're familiar with. But also there were well-established schools of thought that had built up a very impressive exegesis of scripture and of tradition that was universalist. 

By the end of the fifth century, it's very much dying away in Christian history, and it remains something of a subterranean current. It had a presence in the Persian and East Syrian part of the Christian world, Central Asia as well, in what's called the East Syrian or Assyrian Church, where it remained a very lively part of the tradition. 

But, on the whole, if nothing else, it didn't serve institutional imperatives very well, and it died out well before the end of the first half of the millenium. 

The institutional imperative being that if you don't sign up for Christianity, you're in trouble? 

Yeah. Let's be honest. The more … open and nebulous eschatology of the first one or two centuries—and it was much more nebulous than most modern Christians realize—worked fine in a context in which the Christian movement was doctrinally diverse, geographically scattered, without a very easily recognizable central structure of authority. … 

After a specific tradition within Chritianity became established as the great church tradition of the empire, and suddenly Christians were not in the company of those who willingly entered into this association from the pagan world but were more or less the whole population of the empire—other than, say, Jewish communities or one or two recalcitrant pagans—suddenly, the church was an institution of civil order and political decorum, respectability and stability—something it most definitely wasn't in its early years. In fact, it was fairly subversive teaching in its earliest form. 

At that point, it's obvious which version of the eschatological story was going to be triumphant: it'd be the one that had the greatest power to coerce conscience and control imagination. 

I don't mean that this was a conspiracy—I don't mean that some cunning group of bishops got together and said "we've got to scare the hell out of these people." I just mean that it was inevitable as a matter of historical development that the most rigid and most terrifying form of eschatology would become dominant. 

Okay. But there have been various appearances of the idea of universal salvation. For one thing, the origins of the Unitarian Universalist Church is a merging with a Universalist Church. So that would be a part of their belief. 

By the 18th and 19th centuries, it had become a very powerful movement. Unitarians, you could say, broke off from the Orthodox mainstream—but you couldn't say that, say, of the Russian Orthodox Church, where every significant intellectual figure of the Russian 19th and early 20th century was a universalist either explicitly or implicitly. You know your Dostoevsky. 

Not really, but go ahead. 

Well, in the famous dialogue Rebellion (this comes just before the Grand Inquisitor's tale), when Ivan is talking to Alyosha about what he objects to—why he can't consent, why he returns his ticket to the Kingdom to God—one of the curious things that is often overlooked is he assumes a universal reconciliation. He assumes that all will be saved, and that's precisely what he can't bear to imagine—because for him, the injustices, the suffering of this life, especially the suffering of children, is too high a price to pay even for the universal kingdom of love and knowledge. 

But also in the Anglican tradition... It's amazing how many figures from the nineteenth century—names you would know: the Brontës, Tennyson, Lewis Carroll—[were universalists]. So, in the nineteenth century it became a serious movement again, and among scriptural scholars, like the great F.D. Maurice, the English Christian Socialist...

Didn't the Second Vatican nod toward universalism? 

Let's simply say that the Roman Church has been kind of trying to make it harder and harder to get into hell. 

I'm for that. 

The problem, of course, with Roman Catholicism is you have such a huge dogmatic panoply weighing down on the body of the faith, because dogma continues to develop, supposedly. Whereas, say, in the Orthodox Church, which is my affiliation, there hasn't really been any dogmatic movement since the 7th or 8th century. And so far fewer things have been defined, and so far fewer things have been forbidden. 

You mentioned you are in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. I gather you converted from, I don't know, Episcopalianism or something?

Yes. Good guess. 

And is universalism—the idea of universal salvation—more common in the Eastern Orthodox tradition? 

It has recurred with more frequency, and you will find it somewhat more widespread, definitely, than in Roman Catholicism or Magisterial Protestantism—but you have just as many people in the Orthodox Church per capita who object to the idea, believe me. It's a controversial topic in the East as well. 

But I'll say this: in the 19th and 20th century, if you look at all of the significant Orthodox thinkers—philosophers, theologians, scholars of religion—the vast majority of them were universalist, to a surprising degree. The greatest philosophical mind the Orthodox Church produced in the modern age, Sergei Bulgakov, was also the most systematically universalist.

Scriptural arguments against the existence of hell

So, let's talk about your reasons for believing that no one spends eternity in hell. 

You have more than one argument and, of course, there are various approaches. You could talk about scripture and say there's no clear scriptural foundation. You can talk in a more theological way and say that what we surmise about the nature of God isn't consistent with eternal damnation. 

Why don't we start with the scripture part, and talk about how often do we see clear [references to hell]... 

It's an old argument, of course. 

If you mean how many places in the New Testament—which is the only place you have to look, because the Hebrew bible doesn't have a concept of a place of post-mortem punishment except fleetingly, perhaps at the edges of the inter-testamental period—that whole eschatology was in a sense taken on board as a result of intellectual/cultural commerce with Persia and with the Zoroastrian tradition there. … 

What we have in the New Testament are a great number of recognizable metaphors from that period, but no pictures of a place of unending torment after death. Even the word that's often translated as "hell" traditionally in the preachings of Christ, when he's talking about whatever it is that he's talking about in his eschatalogical discourses, if they are even eschatological…—The Gehenna, the Vale of Hinnom—is more an image borrowed from Isaiah, a place of the destruction of rubbish and of corpses. It's just an all-purpose, sort of portmanteau metaphor for throwing things out, getting rid of them.

So it's the city dump. It's Jerusalem's city dump. 

Well, it wasn't really that, though it's been called that before. It has more to do with a place of sacrifice, a place where there were perhaps disposals, but also charnel grounds. It's also an image of a place filled with the bodies of the fallen in Isaiah and Jeremiah. 

There's only one verse in Matthew (25:46) that's traditionally translated as having something to do with everlasting punishment. But again, "everlasting" is a translation of "aionios" and there are long traditions of "What does this mean in the Greek? How does it render the [la ahlâm?] of the Aramaic that Christ would have been speaking? The word “punishment'”—is it retributive? Does it mean “aonios”in the sense of final, ultimate?" It's just that one elusive verse. 

And what is that verse as conventionally translated? 

It simply says—you know, it's about the separation of the sheep and the goats. Some enter into eternal life, others into eternal... “correction” is what "kolasin" really means in Greek, originally. 

But "eternal" or "of the age" or "of the age to come" or "for a long time" or "of a divine nature”—all these things are plausible renderings of the way "aionios" figures in the grammar of the first century. 

Then, the earliest Christian documents of all, the letters of Paul—there's no mention of a place like hell at all. He clearly had no concept of such a place. For him, the whole issue was that there is an age we inhabit [and] a cosmic restoration coming, an age to come …, and one wants to be a part of that reality through a restored, transfigured cosmos—not a heaven, but of a restored creation. 

But for him, the only place he ever mentions a "fire of judgement" is in First Corinthians 3, and there he talks about two classes of person: those whose works have been good works (and therefore they'll withstand the trial of this fire, and such persons will naturally receive their reward); [and] then there are those whose works have been evil, and those works will be burned away. But then he goes on to say "and yet he (that is whoever's works are destroyed) will be saved through the fire, by way of the fire.” There's no third class mentioned.  

There are a couple images in the book of Revelation. Again, a book of extraordinary… People who think that they know what the book is about are lying to you or to themselves. But, whatever the case, the imagery is all wildly symbolic and metaphoric, and even the one verse that leaves you with some notion that there's a final destruction in a lake of fire of those who didn't make the cut, it's followed by this sort of dream-like coda in which the world is restored, Jerusalem is the center, and those who are left outside are now invited to come in anyway, just to wash their garments. 

So trying to make sense of this imagery in terms of the later mythology of some kingdom of torture presided over by Satan, we do it habitually. We read it back into the text, but certainly the eschatology of the early Christians had nothing like that kind of simple, clear, structure. 

But there are verses that certainly seem to indicate that believers get something of consequence that non-believers don't. Probably the most famous is John 3:16 which, as conventionally translated, is "for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." 

Or, "whoever is faithful to him will have the life of the age, or the divine life." Yeah. 

But the implication seems to be that you don't get eternal life if you're not a person of faith.

Again, if the word means "eternal" in the sense you're thinking of. 

As I say, the early tradition—people like Origen, or Clement, or Gregory of Nyssa, Isaac of Nineveh, or Macrina, or Theodore Mopsuestia, Diodore of Tarsus, to give you a few universalist names)—would again say that there's an eschatological horizon in history, and they would read it through that Pauline pericope I just gave you. 

There are those who, instead of simply being part of the new creation, first must be purified, purged, restored, recreated, made whole, have to go through the painful process of being separated from their own egos, from their own cruelty, from all the things that cut them off from love of others. 

So you think it would be more consistent with scripture to think of a hell that's not eternal, but maybe would be an unpleasant period of reconciling yourself with God? 

Well, first of all, isn't that true, anyway, of life? We've all had that experience of … hell as … shutting ourselves into our own egos and our own resentments, and we find that we torment ourselves through rejecting the love of others. 

But also, the question of the book is "Is there a coherent story here at all? The New Testament is full of claims of universal redemption. They always get overlooked, but they're just there. Romans 5:18. First Corinthians 15:22. 

Why don't you tell us what one of those says? 

Well, just that just as all human beings fell or inherited death in Adam, so all will be given life in Christ. Things like that. 

These formulations are actually legion in the New Testament. “It's the atonement not just for us believers, but for the whole of the Cosmos.” Things like that. Those verses far, far outnumber [the others]. And then you have the actual teachings of Christ…

I always find it odd: it's not just, of course, say, American fundamentalists… there are people who take this incredibly metaphorical language, and they recognize that it's metaphorical to a point, but then impose a literal meaning on it which they assume is non-negotiable. 

So… Let me take a sip here. 

Sure. 

Let's pretend this is water. 

What is it actually? 

It's water. I'm trying to make a bad joke. 

You know, I was brought up Southern Baptist, and at communion, you know what was in our little glasses?

Grape juice? 

Grape juice. We didn't get wine. 

Yeah, well. . . ay yay yay. 

And I should make clear to people listening, you're not drinking wine. That looked like Pelligrino or something. 

It is San Pelligrino, yes. 

But they'll see that Christ uses all sorts of metaphors and then somehow, because they've inherited this notion of a simple, uniform teaching about heaven and hell, somehow in their mind they make these metaphors combine into a single image. 

So, image of ovens destroying chaff, you know — they recognize that the ovens are metaphor (you would think metaphors for destruction, as would be the case also of the invocation of the Gehenna, or just throwing out the rubbish), but somehow they think that that's a clear statement about eternal punishment. Obviously, it's not. That's not the language that's being used. 

Or, being left out of the party. I mean, the wedding feast—it sounds so grand and ominous in the King James, you know, "at the outer darkness weeping and gnashing of teeth." But, really, the party's going on inside, and you got locked outside, it's a dark night, and you're shedding tears because you're angry that you got left out of the party. A milder image, but also still not an image of eternal torment. 

The only image you get of torment in Christ's teaching is there are three points where he talks about being sent to debtor's prison and being abused there by the torturers—but those all come with an "until" attached, you know? 

So, yeah, I would say that if there's a consistent story being unfolded in the New Testament—I'm not insisting there is, but if there is—the universalist one makes sense of all the verses, one way or another, come hell or high water, so to speak. Whereas the traditional image we have, aside from all the other problems it brings with it (like the sheer moral unintelligibility of the idea), makes a nonsense of all those universalist claims — it makes them sound like they're nothing but vapid hyperbole, as if Paul went around making wild claims that he didn't really believe. 

The problem with original sin

So, your belief is that there is no clear foundation, to say the least, for the idea of an eternal hell in the New Testament, and that leaves you free to ask the question, well, does the idea of eternal damnation just make sense in light of what we believe about God? And your answer is no. 

Before we get to that answer, that whole issue, you mentioned a few minutes ago Adam having, well, sinned. Now, an idea that had taken root by the time of Constantine, ... the time at which, as I understand you, the notion of eternal damnation became really firmly rooted in doctrine... 

More and more from that period onward it became an inevitability, yeah. 

Okay. So, by that time, the notion of original sin associated with Augustine had also taken root. 

Well, Augustine came a little later in history, he comes at the end of the fourth century, and not at the beginning, not when Constantine first appears. 

But yeah, Augustine's understanding of original sin is the idea of an inherited guilt. That's true. That, by the way, is not part of Eastern Christian tradition—that's unique to the West. 

So, I guess you've answered my question, if he came a few decades too late to have set the stage for Constantine and others. I was going to ask, did the idea of original sin have a lot to do with the idea of eternal damnation? 

It definitely came to, especially in the Western synthesis... 

The very term “original sin” is problematic. In the East, the tradition was simply to say that we were born in slavery. All the legal language that Paul uses is civil language regarding slaves and buying them out of slavery. The things that we often see translated as "ransom"— for instance "lytron"—that just really means the manumission fee for setting slaves free who are laboring under a cruel master, or prisoners in the house of death.

But, in the West especially, … it came to be dogma that human beings are born guilty of something because they had inherited a culpability—obviously, a contradiction in terms, just according to logic. The notion that you can inherit a culpability means nothing other than somebody is attributing a culpability to you that you yourself did nothing to contract. If there were such a thing, it would just be, you know, the ultimate cosmic injustice. 

But that, therefore, everyone is actually born already meriting eternal suffering is one of the most colossally perverse ideas ever to arise in the human religious imagination.  

You mentioned this idea of the language of ransom, of paying off some debt as the path to salvation, right? If you flesh that out, I gather that the idea is that Jesus' death is what paid off that debt. I kind of thought that was part of Paul's theology.

Not really, no, there's not a whole lot of talk about debt in that sense in Paul. 

Again, he uses the language of civil law as a metaphor, which is simply: what did it cost to set the prisoners free? What was the manumission fee? That's all he's asking. And so there's no indebtedness to God that Christ pays, according to Paul. 

Really, the earliest understanding of salvation was a much more linear sort of tale of the divine heroes, so to speak. 

It was: here, the cosmos had fallen in bondage to death, God entered into the condition of estrangement. 

That's the language Paul uses, it's one of triumph and overthrow and victory: death is overthrown, the powers below the earth, the powers on high, principalities, powers, dominions, thrones—these are the names of angelic orders of gods or, you know, angels of the nations. He's very much a man of the cosmology of that time. 

And basically what salvation is is rescuing an entire cosmos that has fallen into bondage to death. 

The fiduciary, the economics of paying off an angry God with the blood of an innocent victim is, again, a later development, principally in the West, and another of the rather barbaric notions that we kind of got entangled with Christian beliefs. 

Okay. So... 

I mean, as I told you, I'm not an apologist for Christianity in the abstract. 

Why hell doesn’t make sense

Let's do move to your argument that this just doesn't make sense. 

One thing you hear from atheists is who would believe in a God that would condemn to hell somebody who made a bad decision along the way, or somebody who was born in a part of the world where they had no opportunity to hear about Christ, or whatever? You've heard this kind of argument. 

It's a good argument. 

Yeah. That somewhat captures the spirit of your argument, right?

Look, I honestly believe that when Christianity just became a system of salvation—in the sense that you get as many people into the club as possible—that the actual radical nature of the claims made by the early church kind of disappeared. 

It looks to us mythological, and in large part is, but these notions of a creation estranged from God, longing to be reunited to God, and God becoming human as human beings can become God—which is the famous line that you find repeated ad infinitum by the Eastern fathers, "theosis divinization"—all of that falls by the way, and instead we get this rather banal story that doesn't make sense about wrath and retribution. 

And comes with it the story of an eternal hell, in which we're asked to believe, say of the unbaptized, or of the unconverted, or maybe even just of the people who are just morally unlucky, that an infinite creative intelligence that is also infinite love and justice would actually create conditions that will lead to rational nature suffering eternal torment. The idea is so obviously contradictory, so obviously false, so obviously logically meaningless—I mean, it's just gibberish at the level of sheer predicative logic—that we have to convince ourselves it's true by the most extraordinary rationalization. 

So the history of Christian thought on hell, if you look at it, is of ever more ridiculous arguments being made to preserve a premise that never deserved to be held by any sane person to begin with. 

So, the term theodicy refers to the problem of evil: why would an omnipotent and benevolent God, a good God who could in principle set the world up however, in any way—why would a God like that permit horrible things to happen? 

And that's sometimes taken to refer to just the suffering we see on earth that undeniably does happen. But I think … one thing you're saying is, look: to throw eternal damnation into the equation just … makes theodicy that much harder to overcome, as an intellectual obstacle to belief.

It does. … But the truth of this is that you have two fundamentally different questions. Because theodicy is possible. It's not wise to undertake it, but it's possible. 

That is, you could say that transient evils can be explained in terms of an ultimate good, if they lead to an ultimate state from which all evils, in an ultimate sense, had been banished and that allows for the creation, say, of free spiritual nature as it's inevitable [conclusion]. There are any number of answers to theodicy.

The question of hell is very different, because there you're talking about, supposedly, what enters into the final pattern of the reality that God intends in creating. 

And at that point... There are all these old theological distinctions between what God directly wills and what he indirectly permits for the greater good. That distinction collapses at an eschatological horizon, because the ultimate state of things is the one creation that an omnipotent God obviously positively wills. 

And so when you bring eternal hell into it ... you're claiming that God—who, by classical Christian claim is not only good, but "the good" as such, the transcendent ontological plentitude of "the good" being in the full splendor of its transcendental attributes—directly wills evil. ... So that the act of damnation and the act of creation are more or less interchangeable with one another, where individual souls are concerned. 

There's no way you can continue to pretend that this is an only provisional evil leading to an ultimate good. Rather, what you have is a relative good and a relative evil, which is the contrary of the Christian claim. 

Again, as I point out, the issue in the book is the rational coherence of the story as a whole. Are the classical Christian claims coherent? And usually they aren't, if they involve the idea of eternal perdition. 

Okay. So it's one thing to say, well, this suffering will be worth it in the long run —you know, it will serve some greater good that will show up in the long run. —but if the suffering is eternal, then that [doesn't work]. 

Yeah. And then, you know, you ask yourself, well, what does that mean? 

It means that part of the calculus of creation, then—there's a long passage in the book that's a kind of a game theory—the calculus of the creation is what are the stakes that God's willing to give up in order to bring about the end he desires? 

And if, in fact, that's "the damned"—either through direct predestination, or just through the stochastic probability that some people will fall and others won't—then God has made a compromise with evil for the sake of a relatively good end. And that's, again, contrary to the most basic classical claims Christianity has always made about the divine nature, about the metaphysics of transcendence, and so on and so forth. 

Okay. So, one connection ...between the problem of evil in the sense of the suffering we see and the question of eternal damnation, is that one common answer to the problem of evil is to say, well, yeah, God could have made it so that everything is peaches and cream, but God wanted us to have free will. 

Free will means you will make mistakes. Suffering will happen. 

And sometimes that same answer is given to explain eternal damnation, right? It may seem unjust, or it may seem unfortunate, but you have free will and you screwed up, and you have to suffer forever. 

Again, that's the most popular answer today. You know, CS Lewis—the gates of hell are locked from the inside, and all that. 

And, to some degree, psychologically, it's true—to the degree that we all experience the hell that really exists, that we all know—it's because we choose not to love, and the love of others becomes a torment to us. 

But it's totally nonsensical as a justification for the idea of an eternal hell, for any number of reasons. 

One, it presumes a libertarian model of freedom that I think is rationally unsustainable. If you look at what it is that can actually logically be called a free act, it would have to be one that takes the form of the classical notion of the intellectualist model of liberty. 

Which is that, first of all ... you have to be sane, really, to make free choices. If you see somebody who wants to run into a burning building and be consumed by the fire because he's got it into his mind that the angels are telling him to do this, and that it will be a delightful thing, his choice to do that isn't really free, is it? 

You have to know what you're choosing. And so every time you reject what would really make you happy, what would really be the satisfaction of the deepest promptings of your nature, you do so out of ... a certain amount of ignorance. You've made a mistake. As you said, freedom makes it possible to make mistakes. But mistakes are themselves a kind of bondage, right? It means that your freedom was constrained by the limits of what you knew or of your rational capacity. 

In the classical view of freedom, you need to accept that a rational nature desires the transcendentals—you know, the good, the true—there's an index of values that you long for, what will actually satisfy your nature. Because you have that transcendental orientation of the will and the mind towards [beauty]: like, "I want this because it's beautiful"—that's because you have a transcendental desire for beauty first, before you can desire a finite object as beautiful. 

That makes you free. It gives you an index within which to make judgments. 

Freedom is always rational. It just is. To the degree that is irrational, the closer it comes to a purely spontaneous physical accident, like an embolism or an earthquake. … If there is real freedom, it has this structure. You're making judgments in light of an index of values that exceed the boundaries of the empirical world, but that are the entire orientation of your nature. 

And this isn't all that abstract. Again, we can see it in the sort of example I gave you. A fool might thrust his hand into the fire, but only a lunatic will keep it there, because his nature desires pleasure rather than pain. 

If you really believe, as the Christians claim is the case, that God is the sole good of being, the source and the end of all things, the only thing that can truly fulfill a  rational nature in its own natural end, it’is longing for good, it's longing for love, it's longing for truth, beauty—then there can never really be a free rejection of God except under, to a very limited degree, irrationality or ignorance.

And so the claim that a rational creature chooses unending torment and the thwarting of his or her nature, just out of a perversity that has no rationale, no rational basis, and saying that that's a free decision made compos mentis that therefore justifies the teaching of eternal dereliction and misery is absurd. It's, again, a logically vacuous claim. 

The example I always like to give—you know Frank Stockton's story "The Lady or the Tiger"? 

No. 

Well, he's not quite as famous as Dostoyevsky. 

I can be excused for this one? Okay. 

Yeah, why don't you review it, just on the assumption that [our listeners don't know it]. 

The story is about a mythical kingdom in which there's a tyrant king who sort of semi-civilized, who's come up with a way of punishing criminals, which is they're put in an arena and there are two doors. Behind one ... is a famished tiger, who will devour them if they open that door, and [behind] the other is the most beautiful available maiden in the village, and they'll immediately be married. (It's assumed the criminals are men, this is a 19th century story.) Those are your two choices. ...

In the story, there's a courtier who's been sentenced to this because he fell in love with the king's daughter. Now, what makes him freer: not knowing which door is which, or knowing where the tiger is, and where the girl is? In the latter case, he's freer to make a free decision. What are the chances that he's going to choose the door with the tiger?  

Well, 50/50. 

No, I would say zero.

Oh, you mean if he knows.

If he knows, and he's sane. Right. That's the point: it's not the choice that makes you free, it's knowing what you're choosing. But the more you know, the less there is to choose, the free will naturally spontaneously moves towards the end that it actually desires. 

So are you saying that, by definition, truly sinful behavior cannot be a product of free choice?

Not fully free, not perfectly free, not free enough to justify the teaching of an eternal hell, no. 

Okay. Is part of your argument kind of like: look, God set this whole thing up,  isn't God ultimately responsible for the repeated commission of these things? It's like, if you're the CEO, ultimately, everything happens on your watch: you're the one who hired them, you're the one who trained them. It's not an exact analogy, but is there a little bit of that spirit? 

To a certain extent, yeah. That's part of the argument. 

The first meditation in my book is on, again, collapsing the distinction between will and permission and God, if you really think through to the end what you're saying when you make certain claims about what God would will or not will. 

What does someone like Origen or Gregory of Nyssa thinks that the point of creation is? It's ultimately to call spirits out of nothingness into eternal divinizing union with God, and within a frame of created nature, which is full of the glory of God, and is absolute. That's it. That's the whole point. 

If you don't reach that end, then God's will has been thwarted. 

If you think that God's will is to set up this ridiculous game of chance, in which you either get the golden ticket or you don't, you either get in to see Willy Wonka or you don't, and if you don't, you're going to be tortured forever… that I think is an impoverished and rather silly, cartoonish decline from this sort of glorious cosmic vision that you find in Paul in, say, First Corinthians, Chapter 15

To go from that… First Corinthians 15 is one of the great texts in the religious literature of humanity, it's up there with the Isha Upanishad or the Lotus Sutra, it's one of those things that, when you read it the first time—and you really read what's there as opposed to what you've been taught to find there—it should shift your vision of what the religious imagination is capable of seeing. To go from that to this silly tale, in which God has set up this game of winners and losers, and the losers are just vindictively tortured forever, to me it's just an obscene corruption. 

The Kingdom of God

Okay. So, we talked a little about the extent to which hell has a foundation in the scripture in the New Testament. Let's talk a little about heaven. 

I mean, you do see the phrase "Kingdom of Heaven..." 

"Of the heavens," yeah.

Or "Kingdom of God." But I think a lot of people say that would not have meant to people of Jesus's day what a lot of contemporary Christians imagine when they think of heaven, which is a place separate from the earth up there that you go to. 

Right. The eschatology of the whole Bible, Jewish and Christian alike, is this-worldly. 

"Kingdom of heaven" just means the kingdom of the heavenly places or the transcendent places, the places on high. ... It just means "the divine place." 

When the kingdom of the heavens comes to Earth, it is to transform Earth. So all of the language of redemption in the New Testament is of a new heaven, a new sky, literally, a new earth—and all the animals are there rejoicing, and there's plant life and animal life and human life. It's a communal, cosmic restoration in which the glory of God now pervades everything.

In the Eastern Christian tradition, which has certain pronounced mystical tendencies, even at the center of dogmatic life, a very popular image is to say that the end of creation is for creation to become like the Burning Bush — pervaded by the glory of God, but not consumed.

This is the bush that Moses saw. You want to just quickly remind people ... the importance of that. 

Ah, I guess the days of that sort of general cultural literacy on these things can't be presumed. 

I think you can no longer assume, yes. Just as alarmingly, I am told that there are now people in college who don't remember the movie The Matrix.

Well, yeah. As Gnostic allegories go, it's not the best one in cinema, but it wasn't that long ago. Personally, I prefer the Truman Show. ...

The first theophany in the book of Exodus, the first vision, the first showing of God to Moses is in the form of a burning bush—a bush that is not consumed by the flames. And the angel of the Lord, or Yahweh himself, depending on which of the verses you're looking at—these things tend to be conflated in the Bible—speaks out of the bush to Moses, and that's the first time Moses is deputed by God to be his liberator. ...

[And] how are you applying the Burning Bush to this?

Just that this was the vision of the purpose of creation in the New Testament, or in the early church. It's not that human spirits are wafted away to an ethereal paradise, but rather that the whole cosmos—it's right there in Paul, chapter eight of Romans— that all of creation is groaning in anticipation of the glory that will be revealed, you know. Or Revelation: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth.” It's not about a heaven elsewhere.

So just to nail down this question of what "kingdom of heaven" might've meant at that time, I gather it referred to a time at which the Kingdom of God would come to earth, so to speak. It's a kind of end times thing, and the idea wasn't that you enter the kingdom of heaven as soon as you die but—in your view, everyone—but certainly, at a minimum, all believers will enter it when it arrives on earth. And presumably, dead people will be resurrected and so on. 

Yeah, I mean, it's also called "the age to come." All the expectation—and we have to be clear about this—for Paul and, apparently, for Jesus (though, again, [for] Paul, we have his direct words and [for] Jesus, we have what he's reported to say), this is an imminent thing that's coming.

Right.

And, it didn't. You know? 

So, the question is then what, theologically, did Christianity do with that? 

Well, some say: in a sense, this language is all taken up in Christ's own story. He is the one who dies, arises, his body is the kingdom, so on and so forth. 

Or it can be deferred to a distant horizon. A lot of the eschatological language in the Synoptics, especially in Matthew and Mark, clearly is meant to refer to things that already have happened in history: the destruction of the temple, and all sorts of… It gets very confusing. 

The tidy eschatological picture later Christians formed, and have inherited, is a synthesis. It's not there in an obvious form in the texts. Instead, what you have there is a lot of ambiguity, a lot of promises of grace, a lot of promises of justice. 

A lot of the language is political. I mean, we make the division between the political and the religious, [but] it doesn't seem to be the case here. Christ's doctrines, his teachings, are extremely political. They were about the relief of the poor, and of the justice that God would bring to those who were cast down and rejected and oppressed by the wealthy and the powerful. This was part of the kingdom as well, and part of the kingdom that can be lived out in history.

So I think much of what we think we know the early Christians taught, what we think we know Christ or his followers believed, is more or less a projection of later centuries of a picture that simply doesn't correspond to what was originally there. ... 

Mysticism in the Eastern Orthodox Church

I think you said earlier ... that the Eastern Orthodox Church is more mystical than other traditions in Christianity. ... What does it mean? 

Well, I'll say this: [in] the Eastern churches—the Eastern Orthodox Church, but also the Coptic and the Assyrian Churches—the spiritual life is more central, the mystical life is more central. 

Now, in part, that's just a historical reality that much of the Eastern Christian world was conquered by Islam, either out of the Gulf or by the Turkish in the Ottoman empire. And so the centrality of institutional power of the sort you see in Rome wouldn't have made any sense. And so the center of the Orthodox Christian life, tended to be places like Mount Athos, places where the contemplative life [was practiced].

And all the great spiritual movements, all the great revivals in Orthodox history, have been tied into the mystical traditions, especially Hesychasm—a certain practice of contemplative prayer that has certain physical disciplines—and so on. 

So in that sense, it's true: the contemplative, the mystical life, is more central in the East than it is in the West.

Can you elaborate a little on what you mean by the mystical life? I mean, you mentioned contemplative prayer...

[It’s] a life in which the devotion to prayer, and a life of charity, allows one in this life at least a foretaste of real union with God, with real divinization, with real transfiguration in God. 

According to this tradition, this isn't just a psychological state, it's something that one experiences spiritually, mentally, physically. That in this life, the sort of divinizing experience of holiness is possible, but it's an ascetic discipline. 

I mean, it's not that obscure an idea. Every major religious tradition has its mystical schools. They tend to be more or less dominant in different parts of those traditions. 

Speaking of that, I actually came across your name recently while I was reading an essay on the perennial philosophy—you know, it’s the 75th anniversary of Huxley’s book The Perennial Philosophy... What "perennialism" refers to is the idea that all the great spiritual traditions have some common core. ... Do you consider yourself a perennialist? 

I don't like the name, only because a lot of the people who use that name have very suspect politics. 

What is the political correlation?  

There just tended to be—not in the case of Huxley, don't get me wrong, I'm talking about the term “perennialism”—there were simply people who were sort of anti-democratic, and the term is often used for people like Evola, and others who have a fascist tendency. It's unfair, to associate that term with that, but nonetheless it's a term that comes with associations. 

But I mean, yeah, I believe God revealed himself to all people. I've never made any secret of that fact. … As I told you, my degree is in religious studies, not in theology, and a lot of my early study—and a lot of my continued study—is in South and East Asian religion and philosophy and language.

I think I mentioned in That All Shall Be Saved how moved I was, early on in life, by the figure of the Bodhisattva in the Mahayana—this image of one who has achieved enlightenment, and could neatly make his exit stage right from samsara into nibbana, and elects instead to work tirelessly for the liberation of all beings, so that all will enter in before him. I mean, how profoundly that moved me when I was a boy! 

And I still think it's a figure that Christians should reflect on—you know, what claim is being made there about the nature of true compassion.

Did your attraction to some parts of Buddhism lead you to ever become a meditator or anything like that, in the Buddhist tradition?

[Holds up a Mala] That's a Mala. [Laughs] I mean, I'm not sure how to answer...  

Not that most East Asians do actually meditate. It's just the Americanized version of Buddhism emphasizes that in a way. 

Some of it does. If you've ever met members of Soka Gakkai, they're Nichiren, and they actually discourage meditation. Buddhism is every bit as various as Christianity in this regard. 

I find the meditative techniques tend to be the same in all the traditions, though—you know, Buddhism, Sufism, Christian Hesychasm—the same sort of quieting of the will and of the mind, the attempt to move from the ascetical to the illuminative, to that experience, ideally, of union—which I've never had—[with God], or of enlightenment, if you prefer. 

So I'm not even sure how you would say "in the Buddhist sense"—I mean, all the meditative schools seem to insist on the same sort of disciplines of the will and mind. If we're just talking about technique...

Yeah, I guess I did mean technique. I mean, I assume in an Eastern Orthodox contemplative prayer, you're generally reciting something, if only internally?

Like the Jesus prayer, which functions like a mantra. The constant repetition is supposed to become almost physiological to the point where the prayer prays itself in you. You're not even consciously exerting yourself to do so. …

David’s view of personhood

Is there anything else you want to say about the book or about the idea of universal salvation? It's a very appealing idea. 

Again, I'd just emphasize that the center of the book is a series… And we never got around to one of the principle issues in it ... about the interpersonal constitution of what personhood is. To me that, too, is crucial to the discussion. 

But ultimately it is meant to be a single argument. All these bits are meant to fit together so that each one creates a roadblock to a path of exit for those who don't want to follow the argument to the end.

Now, I think I'm a fairly good dialectician. I think it's a successful argument. But, whatever the case—whether it succeeds or not—the thing I do want to emphasize is the negative form of it. 

My claim is just very simply that either the story is coherent or it's not—whatever story Christians want to tell about God—and any version of that involves eternal perdition for a certain number of souls can only be maintained at the cost of equivocating on—and thereby essentially denying—some other essential aspect or affirmation of Christian belief. And that most of us really know this, we just don't allow ourselves to know that we know it. ...

You referred to the idea that personhood depends on interpersonal... The idea is that, in God's conception, the ideal form for us to assume is, in some sense, one of kind of unity among ourselves. Like all humans add up to kind of a single person or something? 

Well, that was definitely Gregory of Nyssa's view that it's only the totality of humankind, fully reconciled one to another and then with God, that humanity according to the image of God actually comes into existence. 

But it's not just that, I mean, it's just the simple fact that who we are, what we are—we're not isolated essences. I mean, we simply aren't. We're finite beings. And so who we are is in large part constituted by the others that have shaped us, that have made us. 

And what you're asked to contemplate—the sort of traditional picture of hell—is not only that you could enter into your final beatitude and still be the person you are in the absence of and indifferent to the suffering of not only those you've known, but all those who, from afar, you're related to by the absolutely indissoluble web of interrelations that constitutes all of humanity throughout time—ultimately, you end up with a picture, with ... Christians being asked to believe that the ultimate principle of heaven is exactly the same as the ultimate principle of hell, which is "every soul for itself." 

It's a bizarre and uncomfortable picture. 

Yeah. Not a very flattering picture of us that we can be happy knowing that these people who took a wrong turn somewhere are going to suffer forever. And, presumably, God had a more flattering picture is part of the argument.  

(Laughs.) Well, I don't know. I understand that much of the religious language we use is nothing but the babble of babies trying to make sense of something they can't yet begin to comprehend. But I know this: I have to believe that God—God in the full proper sense, the infinite act of being who is the good, the true, the beautiful—is actually morally superior to me.

(Laughs.) That's very humble of you! I should say you're not —

I mean, I'm being pretty minimalist. ... I could be more minimalist and say He has to be morally superior to Donald Trump, or you know, to Hitler. But I'm just saying that He generally has to be at least morally superior to somebody who would forget his wife's birthday or something. 

Yeah. Well, I think you have colleagues who would say that you're not always known for your humility in your arguments but, for the record, you do not think that you are superior to, or even equal to God.

No, I can honestly say that I do not, and I have never for a moment even suspected that I might be so.

Illustration by Nikita Petrov.

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