1 Timothy and Universal Salvation

In a controversial essay, American Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart made an argument for universal salvation in large part on the basis of the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. Several New Testament passages serve as epigraphs for this essay, including 1 Timothy 2:4 and 4:10. Hart’s essay, however, is strictly theological and contains no exegesis of any of the NT passages. Hart’s recent translation of the New Testament (Yale University Press,2017), while offering some defense of his universalist readings of other NT passages, provides few, if any, insights into his interpretation of these verses in 1 Timothy. This paper will provide an exegetical assessment of universalist interpretations of 1 Timothy, approaching the text from three angles. We will examine interpretations of these verses among patristic writers, especially those espousing universal salvation (such as Origen and Gregory of Nyssa) and those explicitly rejecting it (Augustine). We will then consider the historical contexts of 1 Timothy in Jewish apocalyptic traditions. Finally, we will examine the crucial verses within the context of 1 Timothy as a whole. In response to interpreters who oppose universalist readings of 1 Timothy 2:4 and 4:10 on the basis of other passages in the letter, this section will argue that 1 Timothy need not be interpreted as indicating that eschatological judgment entails endless, unceasing torment. The working hypothesis of this paper is that while 1 Timothy 2:4 alone by no means implies universal salvation, 4:10 can legitimately be interpreted as suggesting a version of universal salvation.