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One benefit of doing academic work in accounting ethics, as I have done, is that one gets a sense of the high standards of truthfulness that public companies must meet in their disclosures. I want to take those high standards and apply them to what theologian David Bentley Hart has written about Basil the Great. Theologians, of course, should be held to even higher standards, because what theologians teach affects people’s lives and souls. But the public company standard suffices to make the point.

Let’s examine what Hart says in his recent book, That All Shall Be Saved, as if it were a public company disclosure:

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.

Hart cites Basil to support his view that universalists—those who believe that all persons will eventually be saved and united with God—were not an “especially eccentric” group in the early Church. They “cherished the same scriptures as other Christians, worshipped in the same basilicas, lived the same sacramental lives.” They simply did not believe in an everlasting hell. Basil’s observation shows, Hart claims, that universalists were even a majority in some places. Alas, he writes, that enlightened view dwindled away over time because of “certain obvious institutional imperatives”—until the rise of the Unitarian-Universalists in the late nineteenth century.

Hart clearly thinks Basil’s observation is important. It’s on the first page of his new book and is the lead statement on the inside flap. It’s prominent on the book’s Amazon page. And no wonder Hart thinks it’s important: “Basil of Caesarea” is the famous St. Basil, one of the great Greek Doctors of the Church.

Hart has repeated the statement in different places with different emphases. In the New York Times, he wrote:

Late in the fourth century, in fact, the theologian Basil the Great reported that the dominant view of hell among the believers he knew was of a limited, “purgatorial” suffering.

In his translation of the New Testament, published three years ago, Hart noted:

Late in the fourth century, for instance, Basil the Great, bishop of Caesarea, reported that the vast majority of his fellow Christians (at least, in the Greek-speaking East with which he was familiar) assumed that “hell” is not an eternal condition.

In each version, Hart maintains three things: (1) Basil is making an “observation” or “report”; (2) he is remarking about a “large” or “vast” majority; and (3) he is commenting on his “fellow Christians.” In That All Shall Be Saved, Hart adds that Basil reports on (4) the profession, or credo, of this large or vast majority, and that (5) their profession includes the article that “all in the end would attain salvation.” One pictures a confident throng of universalists filling the basilicas in the East in the early centuries.

Sometimes Hart refers to Basil’s “observation” to make a point about how, he thinks, the Greek language was understood in the fourth century. The point is a bit technical, but bear with me, because it is important.

When Jesus says in the last judgment that the unrighteous will “go away into eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:46), the Greek word rendered “eternal” is aiōnios, and that rendered “punishment” is kolasis. Hart reasons that if, as Basil reports, the vast majority of Christians in his day believed that hell was limited and purgatorial, while they accepted the words of Jesus, then they must have thought that the word aiōnios meant only “for a long time” or “for the Age” (as Hart likes to render it in his translation of the New Testament), rather than “eternal.” Similarly, they must have thought that kolasis meant only purgatorial cleansing, not retributive punishment. Here’s how he puts it in That All Shall Be Saved:

As I noted in my introduction, Basil the Great reported that the great majority of his fellow Eastern Christians assumed that the aiōnios kolasis, the “chastening of the Age” (or, as it is usually translated in English, “eternal punishment”) mentioned in Matthew 25:46 would consist in only a temporary probation of the soul; and he offered no specifically lexicographic objection to such a reading.

In other words—and this is the sixth thing Hart claims about the interpretation of the Bible and the meaning of words—(6) this vast majority of Christians interpreted that verse from Matthew in a universalist way, Basil knew this, Basil reported the fact, and he implicitly accepted that that interpretation was plausible, since he did not object to it.

Hart, then, makes six claims. If, say, I were a plaintiff’s lawyer in a class action lawsuit against a corporation, this is how I would lay out and distinguish all the separate claims put forward in the corporation’s disclosure. Now we need to consider whether these six claims are misleading.  

First, consider the passage from Basil on which Hart is relying. It is a question and reply found in Basil’s “short” ascetical rules. (The scholarly reference is J.P. Migne, Patrologia Graeca, vol. 31, columns 1263–6.) The question posed to Basil is, how can the punishment of hell be eternal, if in one place in Scripture Jesus says that some of the unrighteous will be punished more severely than others? If hell is eternal, wouldn’t they all get the same punishment?

Basil answers that, although hell is eternal, there are levels of hell. So the eternal punishment can be worse for some than for others. Basically, this saint’s view of hell and Dante’s are the same. Basil adds that the more obscure passages of Scripture need to be interpreted in terms of the more explicit passages elsewhere, and that Jesus teaches very explicitly—and in multiple places—that hell’s punishments are eternal:

Now, the Lord says in one passage that they will proceed to everlasting (aiōnios) punishment [Mt. 25:46], and in another passage he sends some people to the everlasting (aiōniov) fire that is prepared for the devil and his angels [Mt 25:41], and yet another time he mentions the Gehenna of fire, and adds: “where their worm does not die, and the fire is not extinguished”. . . [Mk 9:44, 48]. In the divinely inspired Scripture there are these and similar passages in many places.

We see that Hart has misrepresented Basil as regards (6). Basil could not possibly cite these passages as he does—against the view that the punishments of hell are temporary—unless he believed that they must be interpreted as saying that those punishments are eternal, as he plainly states. Basil leaves no room for other interpretations to be plausible.  

Basil continues:

Although such things have been set down by Scripture, here too it’s the Devil’s artifice to make it so that the many, like men who have been induced to forget these and like words and statements of the Lord, sign on to the view that there is an end to the punishment—doing so with even greater daring than when they sin. 
After all, if at some future point there will be an end of everlasting punishment, then surely everlasting life, too, will have an end. But if, in the case of life, we do not allow this to be thought, what sort of reason could there be for gratuitously assigning an end to the everlasting punishment? For the attribute of “everlasting” (aiōnios) is applied equally in the case of each. For “these will go,” he says, “into everlasting punishment, and the righteous, into everlasting life.”

Basil goes on to say that, once these matters have been agreed upon, we ought to understand the singular, more obscure statement of the Lord (that punishments will vary in severity) to refer to different degrees of punishment without end.

These lines from Basil, which I have translated literally, are the sole basis for Hart’s various representations. So how truthful are those representations? Let’s go through the claims one by one.

Hart says (1) that Basil is making a “report” or “observation.” This is not true. Basil is giving a warning. He warns against the artifice of the Devil and certain incoherent interpretations of Scripture.

Next, Hart says that Basil is reporting about (2) a “vast” or “large” majority of (3) his fellow Christians. It’s best to take these claims together. The relevant expression in the quoted text is “the many.” In the Greek, the expression is actually “the many among the human race” (hoi polloi tōn anthrōpōn), which is an expanded form of the common expression hoi polloi, “the many,” a term often used pejoratively.

Basil uses the expanded expression in some other works, and there he seems to mean something like “humankind insofar as it is left to its own devices” or “humankind considered apart from the gospel and its grace.” For example, in one place he says “the many” seem to him to be like clouds in the sky, blown from place to place by the wind—that’s how they shift about in their convictions, from one thing to another. Elsewhere, he writes that “the many” dismiss and ignore their sins and suppose that no punishment is forthcoming for them.

So the phrase has the sense here, apparently, of “the human race as showing its characteristic faults and twisted failings,” and, indeed, as susceptible to the deceptive plots of the Devil. It functions more as an idealization of our bad tendencies than as a head count. Thus Hart's claim (2) is highly misleading. 

Moreover, Hart has somehow added “believers” or “fellow Christians” to the text. But Basil is speaking about the human race insofar as they are oblivious to the words of Christ, that is, precisely insofar as they are not, or do not act as, believers or Christians.  He certainly is not referring to faithful Christians who are like others in every way except by being universalists. So Hart’s claim (3) is also misleading. In fact, it is the opposite of what Basil is saying.

Finally, as regards (4), in no sense is Basil speaking about what Christians profess, but only about what the Devil tricks people into holding, which plays into their sense of self-protection or self-justification as sinners. And, contrary to (5), there is absolutely nothing in the passage concerning the putative conviction of Christians that all persons (presumably including the Devil) become reconciled to God in the end.

Hart is also wrong to say that Basil “offered no specifically lexicographic [sic] objection to such a reading.” Basil does discuss the meaning of words. He says that those who think the punishment of the unrighteous comes to an end are not paying attention to the meaning of the Lord’s words, like people who have forgotten them. He even goes so far as to say that “we do not allow it to be thought” that everlasting punishment has an end. So here is even more evidence that Hart speaks falsely about (6).

If I were a plaintiff’s attorney in a class action lawsuit, at this point—after showing that the company’s disclosure was materially misleading on all six matters—I would rewrite the “disclosure” to show what it ought to have said for it to be truthful. This is how I might do that:

Warning. St. Basil the Great, a doctor of the Church—who loved Origen but nonetheless did not embrace universalism—as early as the fourth century, warned the faithful against teachings like those which you will find in this book by David Bentley Hart. 
Basil taught firmly that such views could only be entertained by those who had, as it were, lost sight of the plain and repeated teachings of the Lord. It would be the height of daring to believe such things, he said—and so, obviously, to teach and promote them would be much worse. To do so, Basil would say, amounts to collaboration with the Devil, who, in his characteristically deceitful ways, would like nothing more than for people to suppose that the everlasting punishment of hell does not exist. 

However, in this case, rather than rewrite what Hart writes about Basil, I would keep it at the front of his book, and then add the warning above, along with this line: “You can get a good sense of how deceitful this book is by noting that its author has somehow twisted St. Basil’s warnings against the Devil’s trickery into—what Basil himself would call—support for the Devil and his purposes.” It really is a masterful bit of trickery.

If this essay were a complaint in a class action lawsuit, I would be confident that the case would be successful. The defendant would need to settle, or be found guilty. Either way, the defendant would need to issue a retraction and a restatement. I would expect a parallel lawsuit against the auditors to be equally successful. But will Yale University Press, which edited the book, playing a role not unlike auditors, insist on corrections? Will David Bentley Hart retract his misleading statements? 

Michael Pakaluk is Ordinary Professor of Ethics and Social Philosophy at the Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America. His latest book is The Memoirs of St. Peter.

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