The earliest promptings I felt towards Catholicism were motivated by ecumenism. The Creed says there is only one Church, not many. However, even after I decided to join the Catholic Church, certain teachings remained difficult for me to accept. I was very committed to the doctrine of apokatastasis (“universalism”), and because I was committed to it, it was difficult for me to reconcile my universalism — which was formed in conversation with patristic voices like Origen and St Gregory of Nyssa — with the broad majority consensus in Catholicism that some will be damned.
There were multiple possible outcomes to my story. One solution I tried but ultimately failed to implement was reinterpreting the Catholic consensus about Hell. Norman Tanner’s critical edition of the decrees of the Oecumenical Councils — councils like Nicea and Chalcedon that represent a supreme exercise of the infallibility of the Church, which is guided by the Holy Spirit into all truth — omits the anathemas against Origen. A number of scholars, including Kallistos Ware and David Bentley Hart, insist that the Emperor Justinian’s anathemas are not against Origen’s universalism but against a theological system falsely attributed to him. But the main anthema that I could not get past was as follows:
“If anyone says or thinks that the punishment of demons and of impious men is only temporary, and will one day have an end, and that a restoration (ἀποκατάστασις) will take place of demons and of impious men, let him be anathema.”
Perhaps Norman Tanner’s critical edition believes the above should be omitted. But what if it was not? Even if it did not belong to the Fifth Oecumenical Council, it seems to have become the broad mainstream view of the Christian faith. How could I square that with universalism?
There is a lot of great literature being released on universalism in ancient and modern Christianity. (Personally I recommend reading Michael McClymond and Ilaria Ramelli on the topic.) It’s something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about since I began looking into universalism in 2015, and with major revisionist scholars like Ramelli and David Bentley Hart publishing on universalism this year I think now is a good time to address the debate in general terms.
Basically the broad consensus of Christianity for the past thousand and a half years or so has been that it is possible to be damned permanently, but recently a number of voices both popular and scholarly have begun to protest this picture, arguing that a truly good God would not allow the eternal damnation of a human or demon. The logic seems pretty straightforward. If God cares about all people — and Christianity insists that He does — then the sorrow of anyone should be of ultimate concern to God.
Working with a genuine aspect of the Christian tradition, contemporary universalists point to authors like Origen, St Gregory of Nyssa, and some others who seem to have explicitly taught or held universalism as an interpretation of damnation. It’s important to stress that these “patristic” universalists attempted to take the language of damnation very seriously. Interestingly, most early universalists were Greek speakers, and so they arguably would have been very poised to interpret the Greek of the original New Testament text. For Nyssa and early universalism, damnation is in many respects very similar to what has become the doctrine of “Purgatory”, which the exception that Nyssa believes everyone will reach Purgatory whereas Catholicism holds that only those who die in the state of grace are able to arrive into Purgatory. It goes without saying that this sort of universalism is not mere sentimentalism. The fires of divine love must purify and refine the most recalcitrant sinners into icons of God.
Even scholars who are not as convinced as Thomas Talbott or David Bentley Hart have expressed friendliness to the idea that everyone might return to God in the end. Famous Catholic authors like Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar have both been open to this possibility, and the Wesleyan Protestant scholar Jerry Walls speaks with eloquent intellectual honesty in saying, “I find myself in the ironic situation that I would be delighted if one of the things I have been defending throughout my career [e.g., eternal damnation] turns out to be wrong”. Even from a hard line traditionalist perspective, the value of universalism as a theological tradition is that it represents a good faith effort to preserve the semantic content of Scripture’s testimony to God’s real desire that all people be saved (1 Timothy 2:4).
“[God] does not rest content with having 99 sheep in the fold, but continues to seek the one who is lost, and rejoices when he is saved (Luke 15:3-7)… in view of this, eternal hell is an entirely contingent reality. There is nothing necessary about it… Eternal hell only exists on the condition that some of God’s free creatures reject God’s love and grace and persist in doing so. So the reason I believe in eternal hell is because I believe some, unfortunately, will in fact persist in refusing grace…” (Jerry Walls)
My own view is that we should be cautious in re-appropriating theological opinions that were not only lost to tradition but positively opposed by it. The Ordinary Magisterium is just as important as the Extraordinary, even if not as explicit. My most honest psychological self-analysis tells me that it is possible for me to prefer choosing sin to choosing God, and I see no prima facie reason to doubt the possibility that I could willingly prefer sin to God for all time. That’s really all that needs to be said to say that it is possible for any one us to be damned.
How should Christians feel about the surge in popularity of universalism? In my opinion, we ought to tread carefully. On the one hand, the idea of damnation is obviously very sad. It is tragic to think that we could reject God forever, and the Bible itself clearly teaches that God does not desire the loss of any sinner. On the other, millennia of dogmatic tradition have led to the majority view that it is possible to be damned. In spite of the ways God helps us to return to Him, it would seem that He desires us to voluntarily choose communion with Him, and that freedom implies the possibility of choosing otherwise than God.
There is a priority of truths in the Christian faith. That God is light and love without darkness (1 John 1:5, 4:8) is integral to the Christian claim of His goodness. If you can’t comprehend the possibility of eternal damnation while simultaneously believing in God’s goodness, I’d recommend being a universalist for a while. If you’re like me, maybe it will help you until you’re able to better grasp the paradox of infinite love and permanent loss. Traditionally speaking, we are not asked to choose between believing that God is love or that God is wrathful. Rather, we are obliged to believe that “God is love”, and, if my interpretation of tradition is correct, that it is possible to be damned. (Bishop Robert Barron has argued that the possibility of damnation is paradoxically a consequence of God’s loving nature.) If I am reading correctly the Christian faith, it is possible to hold both opinions at once.