Recently I purchased a CD from our local Roman Catholic parish where my wife is a member. I have recently become engaged in an ongoing study of the issue of Patristic Universalism, or Apokatastasis. I saw this CD about hell, presented by Dr. Scott Hahn, and hoped I could get some good and substantive answers to the many questions that are now swirling around my brain in regards to this doctrine. The people on the side of Patristic Universalism have some serious things to consider, and my hope was to find out if there was a good refutation of these things from Dr. Hahn.
I was deeply disappointed.
I wrote a letter to Lighthouse Communications, the people who create and distribute the CD’s teaching Catholic dogma to the faithful, hoping for a letter in return. I am also deeply disappointed to have received not even the kindness of an acknowledgment of writing.
Here is the letter I sent:
I recently saw one of your CDs on display in our local parish. Because I have a current interest I in the subject addressed in the CD, I purchased it. The CD is WHY IS THERE HELL? by Dr. Scott Hahn. After having listened to it, I feel compelled to write to you regarding its contents.
For a man of Dr. Hahn’s intellect and abilities, this was a profoundly disappointing performance. There is an increasing discussion in social media regarding the teaching of Patristic Universalism. It is in this light, and having listened to several authors regarding the possibility of God’s immense love bringing all home to be with Him, I was hoping for a strong intellectual dissent from Dr. Hahn which would help me in my search for the truth. I did not get it.
Dr. Hahn did not address the following issues which are very much seminal to the universalist argument:
1. The existence in the Church, prior to Augustine, of a large body of work and notable saints who taught that God’s love will eventually bring all to Himself. Chief among these is St. Isaac the Syrian, along with notables such as Clement and Jerome. In all Christendom, from A.D. 170 to 430, there were six Christian schools. Of these four, the only strictly theological schools, taught Universalism, and but one endless punishment. The idea of eternal torment (ET) did not take root until Augustine presented it, along with other radical ideas which broke with the Early Fathers who had come before him. I heard not single word from Dr. Hahn regarding this fact, but only a sideways condemnation of Origen and apocatastasis, a rather typical cheap shot which is taken by defenders of ET. Origen was condemned, but Apokatastasis was not, only Origen’s distortions of it. But this is the tactic of the weak fighter – pick on the easiest target out there and have at it. Hahn tries to say on the CD that ET has been the traditional position of the Church. Maybe in Rome starting in the sixth century, but not in Greece.
2. For a man who is, by his own testimony, well-versed in Greek, his refusal to address the corrupted translation of the Greek New Testament into Latin by Latin fathers who not only knew little Greek but, by their own admission, despised the language, speaks volumes to me. It has the look of someone running away from a fight he knows he cannot win.
The many places in which the Latin translators have translated the Greek words “aion” and “aionios” as eternal are not true to the meaning of those words. Translation from one language to another is a tricky business at best. It is made even worse when those doing the translating either are ignorant of the linguistic meanings of the original texts, or even worse, have an agenda to fulfill. I was hoping that Dr. Hahn, being one who knows Greek, would address this, but alas, he runs from the fight.
3. Philosophical issues:
A. What are the philosophical ramifications of the clear scriptures which state that “God is love” and that he is merciful. Dr. Hahn refuses to enter into discussion of whether a true father burns his child in and eternal and never-ending fire for a temporal sin? Is such behavior really consistent with a God who is not only identified as love, but has told us to forgive our enemies? Does God exempt Himself from the very moral behavior (forgive your enemies – do good to them) which He enjoins us to practice? Dr. Hahn does nothing to address this, other than a weak passing attempt at trying to link God’s retribution to His love. He fails. Revenge is not love and has nothing to do with love. Correction and restoration are true of a father’s heart. Love always seeks remediation and restoration of the fallen.
Furthermore, Dr. Hahn does not go into detail in explaining exactly what justice is and the different types of justice which exist: retributive, restorative, and remedial. Another opportunity for deep explanation of Catholic thought is entirely lost. It seems that the Western Church has decided upon God getting even with His enemies is proper eschatology and that’s that.
B. Tied in with that, another issue which was not addressed is this: why do we pray for the dead if their state is unalterably fixed immediately at death? It is a waste of time and breath if that is so. There is also no specific text in scripture which states that the state of the dead is unalterable. It is an argument from silence at best.
C. What does it say of God’s omnipotence if His will can be thwarted by mere man or any creature? There are explicit statements in Scripture which state that Christ is the Savior of all men and all mankind. (1Tim. 2:4) Is this the will of God, or merely a fond wish from Someone unable to make all His holy will come to pass? Dr. Hahn doesn’t come near this with a 10-foot pole in his dissertation, taking the easy road of supposed Church tradition. Yet, as mentioned above, this is not “Church tradition” until established in the 6th century.
D. There is an absolutely pathetic attempt to defend ET by an appeal to the “glory and majesty of God” in which Dr. Hahn says that because of God’s infinite majesty, the punishment therefore must be also of infinite nature. This is Anselm of Canterbury’s skewed idea, and it falls entirely out of line with proportional justice found in the Scriptures. The principle of Lex Talionis teaches us that the punishment fits the crime, not the office of the person. There is nothing in Scripture which indicates that stealing a loaf of bread is to be punished by being cruelly tortured and then torn apart by four horses. Yet that is the equivalency of punishment that ET suggests for temporal sins.
E. Here is something I would very much like ask Dr. Hahn and have his answer: if it is true that God desires (wills) the salvation of all mankind and desires that none be lost, if He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, then why does He allow demons to tempt and deceive men into eternal ruin? This is not the action of One who wishes the salvation of all, any more than if I say that I wish the purity of my sons and then subject them to vile pornography on a daily basis. One must ask the question then, to what purpose is the allowance which is given the devil is on earth? If it is to get men to fall into sin, to damn them forever to eternal miserable torment, and God allows it, then to me that places a rather large black mark on the character of God. Indeed, the God of ET found in the Western Church eschatology strikes me as being more like the pagan gods of Rome than the God Who manifested Himself in love in our Lord Jesus Christ, being willing to die for all mankind and Creation.
F. If God loses even one sinner in eternity, can not the devil have something of which he may gloat about forever? If sinners are lost, is the Cross truly a victory? Has Christ really won if there are yet enemies, even if they are in hell forever, who spend all eternity hating him with every fiber of their being. Can the will of God be thwarted? Have those in the ET camp even taken the time to consider the philosophical ramifications of the loss of even one soul in eternity?
To sum up Dr. Hahn’s whole argument on this CD, it would seem to be “The Church teaches it, the Scriptures teach it, and that settles it.”
No, it doesn’t settle it – at all. It doesn’t settle it because in the original Greek, you cannot support eternal punishment. Aionios and aion have to do with the concept of the “age” and not eternity. This is dishonest scholarship. The Church is supposed to be the faithful transmitter of the truth “once delivered to the saints.” If universalism was taught up until Augustine’s writings began to destroy it, one wonders if the Church has been derelict in Her duty? And since I was taught in RCIA that the Church is the pillar and ground of the truth, these discoveries are causing me no small amount of spiritual angst, much the same as when I discovered that John Calvin’s teachings were not practiced in the first century.
Doctrinal issues are supposed to be hashed out in councils which discover the truth and reflect the mind of the Holy Spirit (Council of Jerusalem – Acts 15). Since when did the independent musings of a single man, Augustine, carry the weight of the whole Church without being looked at or discussed before being accepted as truth, especially when they attacked the current dogmatic teachings of the time? The same must be asked about the development of the idea of hell as written about in the Medieval Ages and expressed in Dante’s Inferno. This is especially troubling when you consider that the Church is identified in Scripture as “the pillar and ground of truth.” What am I supposed to think when I see that the original autographs of the Scriptures and the teaching of five centuries has been ignored? To what purpose? Could it be to “keep people in line by fear” as a means of control, as has been suggested by some? Given the historically wretched behavior of some of the power hungry hierarchical members of the Western Church, that suggestion may not be far off-base.
There is so much more that could be addressed, but I close with this thought. The CD is a sad excuse for quality apologia. “The Church teaches this and you better believe it – OR ELSE!” That is not apologia, and as a convert who was brought into the Church by Dr. Hahn’s teachings, I am quite frankly appalled. With the quality of Universalist apologia out there from the Patristic Fathers, the Scriptures, and Catholic philosophers, if you want to win this battle, you will have to do much better than this production.
Dr. Hahn, if you want to prove yourself and truly defend the teaching of ET as being truth, debate Professor John Kronen or Professor Eric Reitan. David Bentley Hart and Fr. Aiden Kimel would also provide a stout intellectual and scriptural defense of the universalist eschatological paradigm. In short, there is no lack of scholarly defenders of universalism. Or is this CD just an attempt to keep the mindless unwashed in line with threats of eternal fire? If so, I am sure that you have succeeded, but I will not so easily be swayed without a strong defense of the ET position. And that CD was NOT IT!