It is tempting to see a pattern here. Two attacks on my recent book That All Shall Be Saved have already been published by First Things, both exhibiting certain conspicuous commonalities. Each consisted principally in a series of misrepresentations of what the book actually says, punctuated by expressions of indignation or incredulity. Neither accurately described or even obliquely touched upon its actual argument. The first, by Douglas Farrow, was the more extravagantly “inventive” of the two. Michael McClymond’s somewhat torpid sequel was no more accurate, but less adventurous (though it did abound in righteous dudgeon). Now comes a third, from Michael Pakaluk, and it is at once the most violent and the most picayune of the assaults on my book to have appeared in the journal. It does, however, have the virtue of economy; it relies on a single gross misrepresentation, and it gets right to the point.
The issue is a passage from the writings of St. Basil the Great (or, at least, a passage from his Regula generally attributed to him) where, as I correctly note, the author states that the broad majority of Basil’s Christian contemporaries believed that the punishments suffered by the wicked in the next life will eventually come to an end. Pakaluk accuses me of suggesting that, in this passage, Basil is promoting the beliefs he describes. This is false. Nowhere in my book do I assert or suggest or imply or even vaguely hint that Basil was sympathetic to the universalists, much less that he supported their views. I am quite clear throughout the text about which of the Church Fathers I think believed in universal salvation and Basil appears nowhere on the list. One need only look at the two sentences he plucks from my book in their original context to see that Pakaluk misrepresents them in order to create the impression he wants.
In the case of the first quotation, for instance, Pakaluk neglects to mention that, in the book, I immediately go on to say that Basil’s claim might well be a hyperbole. I also note that, whatever the case, Basil was familiar only with his own part of the Eastern half of the empire (and, I might add here, he happened to live in a part of the Christian world where there was, we know, a strong universalist theological tradition in place). In the case of the second quotation, on the issue of how Basil dealt with the meaning of the word “aiōnios” when speaking of postmortem punishment, Pakaluk correctly quotes me as saying that Basil does not raise an objection to the universalist construal of that word on grounds of lexicography. What Pakaluk omits to mention is that that part of the book was not about Basil at all, but about the fluidity and ambiguity of precisely the lexicography of the word, and that passing reference was made to Basil only as an illustration of the fact. But Pakaluk, by suppressing the context of my words, uses them as an opportunity to pretend that I claim that Basil in fact endorsed the universalist reading of the term. The sleight of hand is maladroit, but no doubt effective enough for those who have not read the book.
So it goes.
Pakaluk also seems to think that I err in speaking of Basil’s remark as an “observation” or “report”—this because it is in fact, as Pakaluk says, a “warning.” I assume that no one really needs to be told that these are not mutually exclusive designations.
And then, as well, Pakaluk makes quite a hash of the phrase that Basil used to indicate the number of those he claimed believed in a finite hell: hoi polloi tōn anthrōpōn. Not that Pakaluk can do much here. True, the phrase has been rendered as “many persons” or something like that (which would be polloi anthrōpoi) in a few less literal translations of the text. But, when polloi is given with the definite article, so that it functions as a substantive, this yields the familiar idiom “the many,” which is always opposed to “the few,” “the minority,” “the rare,” or “the one.” When specified by the plural articular genitive of anthrōpos, the meaning is not really debatable: “the large majority of persons,” “the great mass of men,” “the crowds.” Pakaluk is quite correct that the phrase hoi polloi, then as now, often had an opprobrious connotation—“the masses,” “the rabble,” “the profanum vulgus”—but so what? Again, I never suggested that Basil was sympathetic to the universalist cause.
More absurdly, Pakaluk wants to argue that the phrase is not a reference to Basil’s fellow Christians, as I say it is, but is rather only an observation about humanity in general, taking in perhaps the pagan population and others outside the faith. Here Pakaluk’s obvious historical ignorance does him in, but so does plain logic; in fact, Pakaluk himself provides all the evidence needed to show that he is speaking nonsense. For one thing, there simply were not very many actual pagans left in Basil’s part of the empire, and certainly no appreciable number who would have been “universalists” of some kind and who believed in the purgatorial reconstitution of the soul in the afterlife. More importantly, though, as Pakaluk himself records, Basil argues against the belief of “the broad majority” by reference specifically to Christian scripture, and particularly to the parallel construction of Matthew 25:46. Had he been speaking of and to anyone but his fellow Christians, it would have been ridiculous to have done that.
So, where does this bring us? It seems clear that what Basil is saying in the passage in question is exactly what I claim he is saying. It is even more clear that Pakaluk has ascribed to me assertions that as a matter of objective fact appear nowhere in my book, in order to create a counterfeit scandal that will distract readers from what the book really does say. And yet, one cannot help but notice that, even if Pakaluk had really had any case to make, it would have been one that, once stripped of the theatrically exorbitant rhetoric of fraud and satanic deception, would have concerned only a contestable exegetical point regarding a vanishingly minor matter of little consequence for the book’s argument.
Perhaps, though, this too is in keeping with a certain pattern.
One would never know it from reading the reviews in First Things, but That All Shall Be Saved is in fact a closely argued and continuous philosophical and theological argument. Its central contention is that the sort of universalism that one finds in Gregory of Nyssa is the sole version of the classical Christian narrative of God and creation that does not—if subjected to the most rigorous logical scrutiny—become incoherent at one or another crucial juncture. The demonstration of this proposition is built around roughly half a dozen interlocking themes. To wit: 1) The possibility of intelligible analogical language about God in theological usage and the danger of a “contagion of equivocity”; 2) The total analogical disjunction that the idea of an eternal hell necessarily introduces into certain indispensable theological predicates and the destruction this can wreak on doctrinal coherence; 3) The relation between the classical metaphysics of creatio ex nihilo and eschatology, the necessary collapse of the distinction between divine will and divine permission at the eschatological horizon that this entails, and the consequent implications regarding the relative goodness of God’s action in creation and, by inevitable logical extension, of God in himself; 4) The relation between time and eternity, or between history and the Kingdom, or between this age and the next in biblical eschatology, and whether any synthesis other than a universalist one (and especially one that, like Gregory’s, uses 1 Corinthians 15 as a master key) can hold all of the scriptural evidence together in a way that is not self-defeating; 5) The ontological and moral structure of personhood; and 6) The necessary logical structure of rational freedom in relation to divine transcendence, especially as inflected by orthodox Christology, and the implications this has for the “free will defense” of eternal perdition.
I cannot unfold the argument here, of course, but happily it requires only a little more than 200 compact pages to do so, and those pages can be found between the covers of my book. If anyone is really interested in my argument, rather than in merely denouncing it unexamined, this list at least provides a kind of chart of navigation. And it is not really that hard to follow, if one is willing to try.
I have made no secret of my conviction that the book’s argument is more or less invincible. Call me arrogant if you wish. But my confidence is not based on some delusion on my part that I uniquely have seen the truth. Rather, I simply think that—a little like the mathematician Andrew Wiles, when he discovered the proof of Fermat’s last theorem—I have provided the correct demonstration of something that many of us have always already known to be true. And, having seen it, I cannot now un-see it again. It is a demonstration that can be supplemented and enlarged, but I do not believe it can be refuted. And this explains much, if I am right. The reason that Farrow, McClymond, Pakaluk and others cannot address the book’s real argument, but must instead indulge in flamboyant diversionary tactics and flights of frenzied polemic, is that they are incapable of answering it. Whether consciously or unconsciously, they know that it is an argument that they have already lost.
David Bentley Hart is a fellow of the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Studies.