2.2 The New Testament
In the New Testament, John the Baptist’s message is a prophecy of radical judgment: all those who are called ‘Israel’ from the ancestry of Abraham (Matt 3:9; Luke 3:8), will soon be met with annihilating judgment (Matt 3:7; Luke 3:7) and fire (Matt 3:10; Luke 3:9). Escape from this judgment is only possible on an individual level through John’s baptism and the subsequent rigorous ethical practice of repentance (Matt 3:8; Luke 3:8). On judgment in the NT as a whole, see Brandenburger 1993: 289–338.
Although Jesus may have been educated as one of John’s pupils (Becker 1996: 62), judgment does not stand at the centre of his proclamation. The Kingdom of God, understood to be breaking in through Jesus’ own work and life, is the focus of his teaching. However, the fact that Jesus himself had been baptized by John indicates his basic agreement with John’s proclamation. Careful exegesis of the biblical material (Luke 12:16–20; 13:1–5; and 16:1–7) indicates that Jesus thinks the entirety of Israel has been rejected unless it repents (Becker 1998: 53–58). This repentance, however, takes another form than that preached by John; it centres on the grace of God, who lets the sun shine on the good and evil alike (Becker 1998: 53–58). If texts such as Luke 17:34–36:
I tell you, in that night there will be two in one bed. One will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding together. One will be taken and the other left.
and Mark 9:43–48:
And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’
are understood to direct the reader to Jesus, then it is possible to see how Jesus reckoned on a double outcome of the final judgment, one that is again dependent on how one relates to the Kingdom of God breaking in through his person (Becker 1998: 58–60). Jesus shares with John the Baptist the notion that all of those alive in his time are lost, and that there will be a judgment. In distinction to John, however, Jesus assumes that God will forestall this judgment with saving action, which has broken in through Jesus’ preaching the Kingdom of God. Therefore, John the Baptist may be understood as belonging to the traditional order, because he measures human life in terms of behaviour and repercussions from one’s past. Jesus, however, measures life in terms of the future Kingdom of God which is characterized by divine grace and salvific action (Becker 1998: 79).
Likewise, Paul assumes that both Jews and pagans will fall under God’s wrathful judgment at the end of time (Rom 1:18). Paul’s reason for this belief lies in the fact that God’s law is in principle known to both groups (Rom 2:1–3:20), but that sin is of such strength (Rom 3:9) that ethically fulfilling this law is impossible (Gal 3:22; Rom 3:20). Nevertheless, salvation is possible in the final judgment, since Christ has died for humanity on the cross (1 Thess 5:9–10; Rom 3:24–25 etc.). For those who have come to faith in Jesus through the Holy Spirit, there is the possibility of salvation in the judgment, which will test by fire whether or not one’s work is built on the solid ground of Christ (1 Cor 3:11–15).
The notion that there is a final judgment to come, where Christ appears as judge and criterion of the judgment, is developed in the synoptic gospels. In Matt 25:31–46 in particular, the figure of a coming Son of Man as judge is identified with Christ. Faith in the person of Christ as a criterion of the judgment is bound up with an evaluation of a person’s ethical work, and judgment results in either eternal pain or eternal life (Rosenau 1993: 82–103).
Comparatively, in the Johannine literature, one finds a different picture. Here, the dominant idea is that the one who presently believes in Jesus as the eternal Logos and Son has eternal life, whereas the non-believer is already judged, so that a final judgment is expendable (Becker 1991: 288–296; cf. John 3:18–20; 3:36; 5:24; 12:46). For John, the fact that the Logos has become flesh demonstrates that he is the judge (John 9:39).
Finally, within the deutero-Pauline literature (i.e. literature attributed by the majority of NT research not to Paul but to a school of Paul, like Ephesians; Colossians; 2 Thessalonians ; 1 and 2 Timothy; Titus) an understanding of the judgment is presented whereby, through Christ’s redeeming action on the cross, the entire creation without exception is reconciled to God – with the final judgment having the single outcome of salvation for all (Col 1:20; Rosenau 1993: 56–81).
In sum, a range of different conceptions of the last judgment appear in the Bible that are difficult to reconcile with one another. In the Old Testament, one finds the notion of a collective judgment, while John the Baptist emphasizes the notion of only the individual, not the collective group, being saved from the last judgment. Most of the New Testament conceives of this judgment as taking place in the future. The Johannine literature is the exception, in that it assumes a present judgment. Depending on which text is consulted, the criterion by which the judgment will be determined could be human deeds, a person’s position in the Kingdom of God, the law, faith in the person of Christ, or combinations of these elements. Some texts imply the notion of a dual outcome, with eternal pain on the one hand and eternal life on the other; others depict a dual outcome with eternal life and annihilation – a dissolution of the damned person (1 Cor 3:11–15). A single outcome of universal salvation (apokatastasis panton) also appears (Col 1:20). The judge is often the Son of Man, who is generally identified with the person of Christ.
2.3 The last judgment in the history of theology
The divergent conceptions of the judgment in the Bible have demanded theological treatment throughout history. In contrast to many other theological problems, neither a clarification nor a minimization of the problem has emerged. What can be seen in the literature on the topic is rather a diversification, which can be classified through the existential meaning of the last judgment and its outcomes for believers. Since the last judgment and its results were often found to be threatening, and since threats often appear to occupy the human imagination more than nonthreatening realities do, this diversification can be easily accounted for. The task of systematic theology in this case is not simply tracing the diversification, but rather comparing various understandings of the last judgment, analysing over against their theological content and organizing them accordingly. Interestingly, in the history of doctrine, the last judgment itself ceased to be the main focus. Attention shifted to the outcome of the last judgment, and to the description, analysis, and critical examination of it.
In principle at least, more possible outcomes for the last judgment than have actually played a role in the history of theology are conceivable, such as the possibility of total reprobation, or an entirely negative verdict in which all are condemned. These hypothetical outcomes have had no significant role in Christianity, due to its character as a religion centred on the notion of salvation. Additionally, the concept of an appeal – as might be seen in contemporary law courts – is also impossible, due to the ultimate character of the final judgment. The remaining possibilities concerning the outcome of final judgment which have been most significant in the history of theology are: a dual outcome in the form of eternal life and annihilatio (annihilation of the rejected); a dual outcome in the form of eternal life and eternal pain, often arranged hierarchically; and a single, positive outcome. These three possibilities will now be outlined and evaluated.
2.3.1 Eternal life and annihilation
One understanding of the last judgment is that all created persons (humans and angels) have to be judged, and it leads to a dual outcome, where some will be saved and receive eternal life while others will be annihilated. The idea of a total annihilation of those who are not compatible with the eschatic reality rarely arises in the history of Christianity before the twentieth century. It is possible to derive this notion from the biblical witness, since the notion of the fire of judgment in 1 Cor 3:11–15 could be understood as corresponding to the idea that some will be completely annihilated. 2 Macc 7:14 presupposes that only the righteous will rise from the grave, not the unrighteous, making this text an indirect witness to the notion of annihilation. One can also interpret the Johannine notion of present judgment in a similar way, as noted above.
In the history of theology, the idea of annihilation was more likely to be advocated by persons and groups considered to be heretical by the church, particularly the Socinians and the later theology of the Enlightenment over which they exercised influence (J. C. Janowski 2000: 514–518). In the twentieth century, a rare exception within the Protestant mainstream came in the theology of Lutheran Carl Stange (d. 1959), who taught that in the event of death, those who were not in Christ did not endure beyond death (Stange 1930: 158). Those who had been made righteous ‘received confirmation on the last day that they have chosen life, whereas those without God have fallen into death’ (Stange 1930: 193).
Annihilation can be conceived in a variety of different forms (J. C. Janowski 2000: 523–524):
- Only the righteous experience resurrection, while the unrighteous remain in death and are lost from God’s memory;
- Everyone is resurrected, but the unrighteous receive the subsequent judgment of annihilation;
- Everyone is resurrected and the unrighteous first undergo a time of limited punishment before annihilation;
- Annihilation can be understood as the result of divine judgment, or as self-annihilation based on one’s own choice.
The advantages of this model are clear: the eschatical reality is limited to what is good and good alone. Further, there is no eternal perpetuation of evil. Finally, it appears to satisfy the divine attribute of justice. For a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of this model, see J. C. Janowski 2000: 524–532.
The disadvantages of this model, which ultimately led to its widespread rejection, are just as clear as its advantages. For example, annihilation can be conceived in two ways: annihilation as sentenced by God, and self-annihilation chosen by the judged person. In the latter case, humans become responsible for their own non-salvation, which is a kind of negative semi-Pelagianism, contradicting the doctrine of justification. Consequently, the redeeming work of Christ and the Spirit would have to be understood differently, ultimately affecting the doctrine of God. The eschatological reality would indeed be good, yet not exclusively dependent on God for redemption, which could only be avoided if one were to teach an antecedent doctrine of double predestination, which will be examined below.
Both cases, annihilation as sentenced by God and self-annihilation, would call into question God’s intentions for creation. On the basis of God’s potentia absoluta, God’s absolute omnipotence to bring about everything God wills, this model would indeed be a conceptual possibility, but one that comes at an extremely high price: God would not be faithful to Godself and God’s own decisions. Given the premise that God is love, and God is faithful to Godself – and accordingly, God’s veracity is a principle of God’s own being – the annihilation of personal creatures created and loved by God would appear to stand in contradiction to God’s own being, and would therefore result in an annihilation of Godself. This logical consequence can be avoided, but only when one understands neither justice, nor love, as being God’s highest attribute, but God’s arbitrariness. Such a notion, however, would be incompatible with the trinitarian self-disclosure. Thus, as Luther claimed, whoever is addressed by the divine word, be it in grace or in wrath, is certainly immortal (Luther 1968: 76).
2.3.2 Eternal life and eternal punishment
Christianity has mostly insisted on the notion of a dual outcome of the judgment, whereby some receive eternal life and others eternal pain. This doctrine has been widespread, extending from Augustine of Hippo (d. 430), who laid the essential groundwork of the doctrine; through Gregory the Great (d. 604), whose work helped to inspire the imaginative depiction of the dual outcome in art and literature; up to Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), who offered a comprehensive systemization of the doctrine. This form of the doctrine remained unscathed during the Reformation. Through the upheaval of the Enlightenment and the search for an appropriate hermeneutic for biblical texts, descriptions of the dual outcome in modernity gradually receded into the background given their plasticity. The theological problems at stake remained unresolved.
Since Augustine, an understanding has prevailed that those who receive a negative verdict in the last judgment are subject to a second death, which is not annihilation but eternal pain through fire and conscious torment, such as in the form of biting worms. The punishment of hell can therefore be conceived in terms of levels, from which a model of the levels of hell emerges, parallel to that of the intermediate states. Distinctions are made between those who are completely lost and cannot be prayed for, those who are lost but can be prayed for, and those who through the prayer of the living can receive some relief from their punishment. Whereas Augustine assumed that unbaptized children who died would receive the full penalty for sin, the later tradition referred to a neutral place of rest, the limbus infantium (‘Limbo of Infants’). The upper levels of hell, to which the limbus patrorum, the bosom of Abraham, belongs, was the resting place for the righteous of the Old Testament. This place was understood to have been empty given Christ’s harrowing of hell on Holy Saturday (on the diverse individual conceptions of the hierarchical dual outcome in Augustine, Gregory, and Thomas, see Vorgrimler 1993: 117–127, 136–146, 200–207. On the popular presentation of the harrowing of hell as found in Dante’s Divine Comedy, see Vorgrimler 1993: 175–190).
The notion of the dual outcome ultimately only changed in one significant way through the Reformation. For Protestants, the hierarchical structure of hell was abolished so that there were no longer any intermediate levels, effectively putting an end to such speculation in Protestant theology. Philipp Melanchthon (d. 1560) rejected a single positive outcome and retained the dual outcome in the Confessio Augustana:
It is also taught that our Lord Jesus Christ will return on the Last Day to judge, to raise all the dead, to give eternal life and eternal joy to those who believe and are elect, but to condemn the ungodly and the devils to hell and eternal punishment. (The Augsburg Confession, Art. XVII; Kolb and Wengert 2000: 50)
Not only does Melanchthon retain the dual outcome, but eternal pain is depicted explicitly in the Latin version of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession with words that are hardly to be surpassed in terms of their gruesomeness, that ‘the ungodly will be crucified with the devil without end’ (translation by the current author. For the Latin and German, see Wolf 1967: 310 [§66]: ‘confitemur […] impios vero condemnaturum esse, ut cum diabolo sine fine crucientur’. The English translation in Kolb and Wengert 2000: 233 softens this translation by omitting ‘To be crucified without end’).
The Christian tradition has maintained a diverse set of responses to the inherent problems of the notion of a dual outcome. One problem is that of those who have been saved to eternal life having compassion for those rejected, based on the rejected people’s capacity to love. This problem has been addressed in various ways, some perhaps astonishing for modern ears. The most radical notion is found in Tertullian (d. c.220), who understood eternal suffering as an experience of never-ending death, more horrible than being murdered, as actually belonging to the peace of eternal life (Daley 1991: 34–37). The medieval answer was more cautious. Compassion for the damned was considered impossible, since according to Thomas Aquinas compassion relates to a condition that could still be changed (Summa Theologiae [ST] III, q.94, a.2; Fathers of the Engelish Dominican Province [EDP]: 2960–2961). Aquinas maintains that the outcome of the final judgment is the definitive end of every possibility for additional change, to avoid contradicting the very notion of a final judgment (ST III, q.98, a.6; EDP: 2993–2994). According to Aquinas, it is not that the blessed will enjoy the torments of the damned in hell as such. Rather, they will rejoice in those torments but to the extent that the blessed see the order of divine justice and their own deliverance manifested in them (ST III, q.94, a.3; EDP: 2961).
Aquinas responds to the theological problem of how eternal punishment could be fitting for temporal sins by answering that eternal punishment is not unjust, because sin is not judged according to the severity of its temporal outcome in this world; rather it is judged according to sin’s nature as a transgression against the law of the eternal God (ST III, q.99, a.1; EDP: 2995–2998). Apart from these traditional arguments there are also a set of basic evaluations of the problems.
The dual outcome theory shares some problems with the model of annihilation, which can also be understood as a variation of the dual outcome theory (Rosenau 1993: 9).
If the dual outcome is the infliction of punishment because of the fact that humans have not attained a specific criterion in their life in the here and now – be it acting justly, having faith or rejecting the gift of the Holy Spirit – then the dual outcome attributes a soteriological relevance to human action that it cannot have according to the Reformation distinction between divine and human action. Grace would not be irresistible – a core feature of John Calvin’s (d. 1564) teaching and subsequent Reformed theology – and a structure far beyond that of semi-Pelagianism would have to be adopted. Ultimately, humans would be pronouncing judgment on themselves, and the final judgment would only be an immortalization of this human judgment rather than being a truly divine action.
The danger of this kind of soteriological self-contradiction was not entirely clear to the Reformation tradition. One example of such a dual outcome, in which God’s pronouncement of judgment is ultimately only the fixing of individual humans’ own self-judgments, can be seen in C. S. Lewis’ (d. 1963) book The Great Divorce, where he has his paragon George McDonald say: ‘There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done”’ (Lewis 1946: 75). Such an approach is a highly cautious relativizing of the notion of the dual outcome: it is not that a form of punishment will be independently imposed on human beings; rather the punishment consists precisely in the fact that human beings receive in eternity what they ask for in this life, without the possibility of changing whatever that might be. With this notion, Lewis had perceived – against the ordinary view that humanity makes its own bed and therefore has to lie in it – that the sinful human will is incapable of any good. In addition, the problem of the contradiction of how a God who is absolutely good can impose an eternal punishment does not arise at this point in the argument. However, it still does not change the fundamental soteriological problem of eschatological semi-Pelagianism, i.e. the view that humans are partially responsible for their fate instead of God alone.
It is certainly possible to work around this fundamental soteriological problem by relying on protology. In this view, before the beginning of creation, God had already decided on the rejection of the reprobate in the form of double predestination, which makes it possible to view the offer of grace through the death of Christ in its universal, biblical sense (John 3:16). It is nonetheless still possible to distinguish the universality of the offer of grace from its realization. This understanding can be seen in Augustine, who can identify the recipients of this grace as all-sufficient, yet limited at the same time:
What does ‘all’ mean? All those of the Gentiles and also all those of the Jews whom he has predestined, called, justified and glorified. He will not spare all men; but none of these will be condemned by him. (City of God 21.24; Augustine 2013: 1090)
This notion of double predestination was taken up by John Calvin (d. 1564) and developed into a broad doctrine, which then culminated in nineteenth-century Scottish ‘federal Calvinism’. This form of Calvinism asserted that the offer of grace – and therefore the death of Christ as a saving event – could not be understood as universal. Christ did not die for the world, but for the ‘church’, meaning the community of the faithful who have also received the gift of perseverance in faith (donum perseverantiae; Mühling 2005: 185–186, 230). The Synod of Dort in 1618 attempted to maintain Calvin’s double predestination against Arminianism. Nevertheless, another problem arose: while grace is great and God is the only agent of salvation, he is also the responsible author of the negative side of condemnation.
However, the problem affecting the dual outcome theory in all of its forms is magnified regardless of whether one understands the dual outcome in a semi-Pelagian manner – in terms of human contribution – or as generated by a double predestination. Sin and evil are made eternal in both cases, even if evil is simply being punished, which ultimately results in an ‘eschatological dualism’. In other words, the eschatical reality is not, in this case, exclusively good. If one accepts the dual outcome on the basis of a doctrine of predestination, the problem is protologically and theologically intensified: now, there is not only an eschatological dualism, but also a protological dualism. Conceiving God as exclusively good becomes the challenge one must overcome to maintain such a dual outcome espoused in many ways throughout the history of Christianity.
2.3.3 Universal salvation
The last remaining option regarding the last judgment is the possibility that all personal creatures, without exception, will experience eschatological salvation. This possibility is an ultimate reconciliation of all things, or ‘universal salvation’ (apokatastasis panton; not to be confused with ‘universal atonement’, meaning Christ died for the whole world, not only for those elected). Similar to the above possibilities, this notion also presents the alternative that humanity is either a participant in this outcome or it is a matter of God’s sole eschatical-soteriological action.
Although universal salvation has been rejected several times by the church as heretical, as in the confessional writings of the Lutheran church (Confessio Augustana Art. XVII; Kolb and Wengert 2000: 50), the doctrine has nevertheless remained a consistently held belief, even among prominent theologians.
It was Origen (d. 254) who established the standard for a doctrine of universal salvation. He sought to maintain human soteriological freedom and developed an approach (as far as it can be reconstructed) towards which the Fathers of the Eastern Orthodox churches have tended. Origen’s goal was a universal salvation that included the reconciliation of demons while also maintaining their free choice (On First Principles I.VI.1, II.I.2; Origen 2013: 70, 94–95).
The two principles of universal salvation affects are the goodness or grace of God and the created will. Goodness and grace imply God’s justice. The created will is the freedom of choice, not just for good or evil, but also for the self-constitution of rational creatures such as humans, angels, and demons. It involves no actual doctrine of original sin that presupposes the necessity of human sin after the fall. What is to be overcome is evil, which, as a middle-Platonist, Origen understood as being fully real and not only – as in the neo-Platonic tradition – as a deprivation of the good. Assuming there can be an endless amount of time, then it necessarily follows that at some point in time the wills of all rational creatures will be positively orientated towards God. This point is the moment of universal salvation.
Here, however, Origen assumes that the freedom of the will in created beings is preserved. But the same logic also means that, in an unending course of history, a new ‘fall’ must occur. Origen only wants to accept another fall as a logical possibility, but not the reality of such a second fall. Thus, when later church tradition rejected Origen’s formulation, claiming that he was teaching an ‘eternal return’ rather than a true salvation, the church was correct in principle, even though Origen himself explicitly rejected this idea.
The logical problems present in Origen’s teaching have not yet been resolved. For example, following the line of thought Origen used to introduce universal salvation on the basis of free will, one might also suggest the necessity of everyone turning away from God at some point in the course of history, or some turning to God while others turn away from God; the logic is not airtight. According to the logic of the argument, that the course of history does not break apart at this point – and that there is an eschatical reality of total damnation, universal salvation, or a dual outcome – is purely arbitrary (Rosenau 1993: 113–150).
The core of Origen’s argument represents a departure from Christian tradition. Origen incorporates Christian ideas into his theory at two points: one being the notion of salvation through Christ and the other being the notion of the last judgment.
As understood by Origen, the redemptive work of Christ as doctor or teacher makes it possible for creatures to have their wills rightly oriented (Rosenau 1993: 139–143). However, orientation is not sufficient to merit a person’s salvation but, at most, a necessary condition for salvation (Rosenau 1993: 139–143). The last judgment, however, appears differently. It has a practical rather than eschatical relevance, serving the role of a catalyst that accelerates the process by which creatures orient their wills to God. It is neither punishment nor annihilation, but a catharsis and reversion that erases only a false orientation of will (Rosenau 1993: 139–143). Origen tries to conceive the last judgment as an expression of the grace-filled action of God’s goodness. Without the element of judgment, the eschatic outcome would not occur. According to Origen, without judgment the eschatic outcome would also not be a matter of cooperation between divine grace and human action, but exclusively an accomplishment of human will. Without the last judgment, personal creatures would be self-sufficient and self-ruling.
A similar notion about human participation can also be found in the early Christian concept of the refrigerium, which was bound to the notion of a Sabbath from hell, an idea stemming from the early Rabbinic tradition. Tertullian (d. 220) seems to have first used the term in the Christian context, using it to refer to the ‘bosom of Abraham’ – i.e. the limbus patrorum (see above) – as a place between heaven and Earth (Finé 1957). Prudentius Aurelius Clemens (d. c. 413) developed the notion of a place of refreshment or cooling, to where the occupants of hell could go permanently or take rest in regular intervals from their torments (Stuiber 1957; de Labriolle 1912: 214–219; Parrot 1937). In the twentieth century, C. S. Lewis adopted the notion of the refrigerium and understood it to be cyclically recurring, an intermediate state offering the occupants of hell the opportunity to make their own decision about heaven (Lewis 1946: 67–68). Lewis thus approximates Origen’s version of the eternal coexistence of human and divine freedom. He did not, however, develop a doctrine of apokatastasis panton (universal salvation), but the payoff is rather a form of dual outcome: the damned are only damned in so far as they permanently damn themselves by not choosing salvation in the refrigerium.
Universal salvation can also be understood to occur without human participation. Early stages of this form of the doctrine can be found in the theology of Schleiermacher (d. 1834). According to Schleiermacher, human beings are absolutely dependent on God. Therefore, in their relationships with one another, humans are understood as being absolutely passive whereas God is absolutely active – which is nothing other than a description of the omnipotence of God. Schleiermacher’s starting point has the advantage of largely being able to exclude synergistic, semi-Pelagian tendencies from the outset, leaving only the alternatives of either double predestination or universal salvation. For Schleiermacher, double predestination, however, would contradict the simplicity of God, because God cannot be thought of as being divided into contradictory attributes (e.g. damning some and saving others). Similarly for Schleiermacher, a dual outcome in the judgment is thus tantamount to a dualistic understanding of reality. Double predestination or a dual outcome would further contradict the organic unity of all of humanity, since salvation consists in the fact that through the spirit the redeemed have a uniform consciousness of fidelity. If humanity forms an organic whole, then the possibility that some are eschatologically redeemed and some are not is excluded, given ‘the compassion for those who have been definitively excluded from blessedness would diminish the blessedness of the blessed and ultimately overrule it’ (Rosenau 1993: 183–184). Thus, the only outcome remaining is that of universal salvation, which Schleiermacher himself describes as follows:
If we consider the contrast between the Kingdom of God and the world at this point to be temporary, so that everyone who is now outside of the church will at some point be within it, then this discrepancy between both elements of self-consciousness is instantly removed. (Schleiermacher 1984: 169)
H. Rosenau has expanded and tightened this argument by means of modal logic and reflections on the relationship between actio dei and actio hominum, between human and divine action (Rosenau 1993: 402–427).
Given the premises with which he starts, Schleiermacher is correct, yet it cannot be adopted as compatible for a theory of universal salvation. It is not a soteriological theory about an eschatical universal salvation, but only a meta-theory about material theories of the eschatic outcome of the judgment, or concretely, of the dual outcome. Schleiermacher does not ultimately give an account of how universal salvation is accomplished or in what way it would unfold. He merely demonstrates with high acuity that the notions of annihilation and the dual outcome are not compatible with Christian thinking and are even irreligious (Rosenau 1993: 189). Schleiermacher’s arguments draw on the principle of the excluded middle (i.e. the logical principle that there is no third between a statement ‘A' and ‘non-A’) to negate the possibility of a dual outcome, so that only the simple outcome remains: a dual outcome and universal salvation constitute an alternative. Even if the premise were valid, it does not lose its status as a meta-theory. Schleiermacher does not show, how universal salvation is conceivable, he only shows that the dual outcome is not appropriate. It is possible to ask further about the possibilities along two different pathways:
- Are there indications in Schleiermacher’s work that clarify in what way universal salvation is possible?
- Does the choice between a dual outcome and universal salvation constitute a complete disjunction, excluding other possibilities?
A positive answer to the first question would provide support for the notion of universal salvation. Counter to this is the fact that there are humans who, at the time of their death, have not come to faith. Rosenau indicates that, for Schleiermacher, human development does not come to an end even after the death of the person (Rosenau 1993: 179). At the very least, this assertion would be a necessary condition of such a theory’s compatibility with the notion of universal salvation, and would be similar to an idea suggested by Thomas Erskine of Linlathen (d. 1870). Erskine believed that death is not an eschatical matter at all, necessitating the adoption of the belief that humans experience a post-mortal but pre-eschatic life (Mühling 2015: 295). However, such a view devalues the eschatical relevance of the here and now, similar to the idea of the intermediate states discussed in section 2.3.2.
The second question of whether there are ways beyond the disjunction of the dual outcome (to which the notion of annihilation also necessarily belongs) and universal salvation has been variously answered in the affirmative by the Christian theological tradition.
2.3.4 A step beyond the alternative: election and selective judgment
Karl Barth’s (d. 1968) approach is a suitable place to begin the search for alternatives to the single or dual outcome of the final judgment. His position is difficult to characterize. Some theologians believe he represents a third way out of the dilemma, whereas others do not. Some see him as presenting a doctrine of universal salvation, whereas others strongly dispute this claim. A third way can also be seen in Otto Weber (1951: 9–36, 12). Rosenau (1993: 191–222, 200) rejects Otto’s formulation and attributes a doctrine of universal salvation to Barth (see also Etzelmüller 2001: 316–317, 326–327, who rejects Rosenau’s claim about Barth).
Barth’s starting point is the doctrine of election, resembling the classical Calvinist form of the doctrine with regard to the linguistic forms Barth employs. According to Barth, the eternal decision about election (referred to in Reformed orthodoxy as the decretum absolutum) has the disadvantage of leaving open the actual extent of divine election: the classic version of the doctrine is unclear about who is and who is not elected. In order to solve the problems, reference had to be made to particular, concrete persons (by naming them, showing them, etc). Barth is claiming to do exactly this in his doctrine of the decretum concretum, understood as God’s concrete decision about election bearing upon the particular person of Jesus Christ as true God and true human. It is in Jesus Christ that the electing God and the elected human are concretely united; indeed, to the extent that the human being in Jesus Christ is elect, God chooses rejection for Godself in the same particular person of Christ. (Church Dogmatics II/2; Barth 2004: 94). Although Barth does not explicitly derive a doctrine of universal salvation from this claim (Church Dogmatics II/2; Barth 2004: 417–418), some theologians view such a universalism as deriving from Barth’s treatment of election (Brunner 1949: 346–352; Zahrnt 1966: 137; Rosenau 1993: 194). The election of the ‘multitude’ ensues from the election of the human being to salvation in Jesus Christ. Salvation remains open, but does not leave any room for individually lost humans because – in the unity of the electing God and the elected human – humanity is only elected to salvation, not to damnation. Here, the doctrine of universal salvation Barth perhaps intended cannot be arrived at by deduction from the notion of election in reference to Christ, since it opens up the possibility of the damnation of some humans and therefore a dual outcome (Rosenau 1993: 194–195, 199–202). But is it really Barth’s intention to claim universal salvation? The subject matter of Barth’s doctrine of election is Christ and humanity, not the number of the elect, which makes it clear that Barth is no longer focusing on the sum of elect human individuals and that his approach can be regarded as a step beyond the alternative. For Barth, it is important that nothingness (das Nichtige), i.e. evil, has to be eliminated. But nothingness for Barth is not simply the classical non-being, as in the neo-Platonic tradition. It has a pseudo-actuality, and it is the backside of election. The consequence for the outcome of the last judgment is that for Barth there has to be conceptually the set of a negative outcome, whereas in regard to the extension of this set the question has to remain open: It is not excluded that this set of the condemned might be an empty set. Barth was initially convinced that there really is a hell, but that it is probably not inhabited. Later, however, he dreamed that hell is not empty (Schildmann 2006: 234).
Barth’s point, that everything not compatible with the Kingdom of God has to be excluded from a post-judgment reality, is the legitimate interest of all defenders of the doctrine of the double outcome. This interest can be realized in different ways. The traditional way conceived the last judgment as a judgment of the individual human. Barth’s solution changes this focus by placing the true human person – Jesus Christ – in that place. Another possibility would be to conceive of human persons not as having a life-story, but as being a story themselves. ‘Human being’, ‘person’, and similar expressions then do not refer to a hidden substances or subjects, which have all that can be told of them as a set of predicates, but the story is identical with the person itself. In that case, a story, including its sequences, would be the object of judgment. Such a conception is the selective judgment regarding life-stories. Parts of this model can be found in Barth’s thought, as well as in other twentieth-century theologians such as Tillich (d. 1965; Tillich 1967: 398–401, 415–419) or Pannenberg (d. 2014; Pannenberg 1998: 608–630). For these thinkers, individual humans will not be saved or annihilated in the last judgment. Instead, according to the image of the fire used in 1 Cor 3:11–15, every sequence not compatible with the Kingdom of God in the life-story will be annihilated, while everything else will remain. As a result, the last judgment is always painful, but it also offers the possibility of continued existence equally to all particular humans, in that what was formerly evil has been separated out. In its various forms, this model can be called the model of selective judgment over personal biography, yet certain questions remain.
First, does this model imply that various things of eschatical value remain from the personal biographies of individual human beings, qualitative as well as quantitative? In borderline cases, would it mean that only the infancy and youth of a particular person would be of eschatical significance, whereas in another case, an adult human renders an eschatically enduring contribution?
Second, does this model not erase the fact that negative and harmful sequences also belong to human identity in the here and now? Could these things, which at present appear negatively, somehow appear positive within the context of the judgment?
Third, although this model sees human beings more as human becomings and constitutively as stories, it nevertheless conceives of them individualistically and not relationally. If one assumes a relational understanding of humans, the model runs into difficulties. For example, if some negative aspect of Person A is involved in a situation that contributes something positively to Person B, what would it mean for both persons if the negative aspect of Person A were to be removed?
Fourth, does this model of an atomistic individual enclosed within itself not negate personal unity, given the person also has to be seen as a relatum of relationships constituted with other persons and as a particular and constitutive part of a relational-narrative process? Again, one might here speak about human becomings rather than about human beings. (For connecting this insight of theological anthropology with the present state of biological and social anthropology, see Ingold and Palsson 2013 and especially Fuentes 2013: 42–58.)
Finally, does this model, or the others considered, offer an account of not only those who commit offences but also the victims of those offences? If negative events are removed from the identity of the perpetrator, does it not mean that there also has to be compensation for the victim of that act as well? Sometimes the classical approach has been accused of being ‘offender centred’ instead of ‘victim centred’ (cf. the discussion by Etzelmüller 2001: 327–328). A possible solution would have to take into account that the distinction of offender and victim is also a relational state of affairs.
The Barthian doctrine of election and the notion of a selective judgment of personal biographies both offer positive ways to escape forms of strict eschatological dualism. The view that there is a strict disjunction between a twofold eschatological outcome (including the model of annihilation) and universal salvation depends on the fact that particular ‘human becomings’ are seen as individuals instead of as relational persons. In other words, this notion presupposes an individualistic concept of created personhood, which does not align with a proper understanding of humans as images of the triune (relational) God. One alternative would need to make the appropriate classification of what is actually to be judged (human beings as individuals, human beings as particular persons in relation, relations between persons, sets of human beings, human beings as life-stories, sequences of life-stories, etc.). Furthermore, the focus would need to shift away from the outcome of the last judgment and conceive judgment in a relational and dynamic way, i.e. as a relational process with a specific aim. In so doing, the argument could be progressed into a fruitful conception of God’s gracious last judgment. Outlining this alternative conception will be the focus of the following section.