That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation
By David Bentley Hart Yale University Press, 222pp, £20/$26
Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart denies that hell is everlasting. He does not merely claim that we have grounds for hope for the salvation of all. Nor does he hold that the unsaved will be annihilated rather than suffer perpetually. In Hart’s opinion, those positions are insufficiently merciful. He argues that it is impossible that anyone be damned forever, and certain that all will ultimately be saved.
Hart acknowledges that his position is contrary to traditional Christian teaching. But he holds that the tradition is not just wrong, and not merely too pessimistic, but “manifestly absurd,” “morally horrid”, “abominable”, “loathsome and degrading”, “morally obtuse”, “perverse”, “inexcusably cruel”, “morally corrupt”, “religious psychopathology”, “logically incoherent”, and “essentially wicked”, to cite only the epithets I remember. In fact, Hart claims that if Christianity cannot be reconciled with his universalist position, then we must give up Christianity rather than give up universalism. It’s Hart’s way or the highway.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is heresy. (Hart won’t be offended by such a harsh judgment, even if he disagrees with it. At least he shouldn’t be, given that his book freely indulges the boundless appetite for gratuitous invective and other ad hominem rhetoric for which he is famous.) The possibility of eternal damnation is taught in Scripture, by almost all the Church Fathers, by the Fourth Lateran Council, and by many popes. The Synod of Constantinople of 543 and Pope Vigilius anathematised the dogmatic universalism that Hart defends. The Council of Trent taught that God’s grace can be refused, and rejected the view that a Christian can be certain of his salvation. As a non-Catholic, Hart would not be troubled by some of these facts, but his view is generally considered heterodox even in Eastern Orthodoxy.
The traditional teaching has two sources, one in divine revelation and one in philosophical reasoning. Hart dismisses the traditional interpretation of the scriptural passages that teach the possibility of everlasting punishment. He claims that Christ’s words to this effect are either hyperbole of the kind typical of parables and apocalyptic literature, or have been mistranslated. When Christ speaks of punishment that is “everlasting”, he really means merely that it will last for an age.
But there are several problems with such arguments. The first concerns consistency. If we say that the punishment Christ threatens is not really everlasting, then we also have to say that the reward he promises – in the same breath, and using the same language – is not everlasting either.
Second, if the doctrine of everlasting punishment is as evil and contrary to the Gospel as Hart claims, why did Christ not make it crystal clear that that was not what he was teaching? Why did he not explicitly say that everyone will be saved, if that is what he meant? Why did it take centuries before any Christian even floated the idea? Hart makes Christ more merciful at the cost of making him incompetent.
Third, Hart makes his position unfalsifiable, and thus unverifiable. He never tells us what he would count as evidence that Scripture really does teach everlasting punishment. Whatever evidence might be presented, Hart will dismiss it a priori as either hyperbole or misinterpretation.
On the philosophical side, too, Hart’s book is a mess. A line of argument developed by Aquinas holds that it is impossible for the will to change its basic orientation after the death of the body. The reason is that the intellect’s attention can be pulled away from what it judges to be good and worth pursuing only by the senses and imagination, and these go when the body goes. The view has been spelled out and defended in detail within the Thomist tradition, but Hart has little to say about it other than to dismiss it with a few insults and cursory objections which Thomists have already answered. But to refuse seriously to engage with a view is to fail to refute it.
Hart argues that since rational creatures are made to know and love God, any choice against God is irrational.
From this he infers that no one is culpable for such a choice and thus cannot be damned. But the inference is fallacious. That a choice is irrational does not mean that it is not culpable. Furthermore, if a choice is non-culpable because it is irrational, how can we be culpable for any bad thing that we do (given that bad actions are always contrary to reason)? How can we deserve even finite punishments? And if we can’t, then why do we need a saviour?
Hart holds that all human beings are parts of Christ’s body in such a way that if even one person is damned forever, then Christ’s body is incomplete, and even his obedience to the Father is incomplete. Hart also holds that the individual self is destined to be “reduced to nothing” so that we can be “free of what separates us from God and neighbour.” What is left he compares to the Hindu notion of Atman. But all of this is hard to distinguish from a pantheism that blasphemously deifies human beings.
Certainly it is not Christianity, and Hart comes close to admitting as much. In his earlier book Atheist Delusions, Hart had argued powerfully that Christianity had liberated mankind. Now he argues that Christianity has for centuries enslaved mankind to a monstrous error, and can be redeemed only by taking on board Hart’s personal theology. He tells us that even if his arguments for reconciling Christianity with universalism were to fail, he would opt for the latter rather than the former. He would do so on the authority of his own “conscience”, against which “the authority of a dominant tradition … has no weight whatever.”
After universalism, the second great theme of Hart’s book is how morally and intellectually inferior non-universalists are to himself. He flirts with Gnostic esotericism as a way of explaining why universalism is not to be found in early Christian history. Perhaps, he says, the truth was “reserved for only the very few, the Christian intellectual elite”, while eternal damnation was by a “holy duplicity” taught to “brutish” and “lesser intellects” to keep them well behaved. Hart congratulates himself for the egalitarianism that leads him mercifully to spill the beans in a way his predecessors would not.
What is most striking about all of this is not its heterodoxy, and not the desperation with which it tries to bully the reader into ignoring the overwhelming weight of Christian tradition, but its sheer narcissism. For Hart, at the end of the day it is not scripture, not the Fathers, not the councils, not the creeds, not Holy Tradition, that should determine what Christians believe. It is what David Bentley Hart tells us are the deliverances of his refined sentiments and superior intellect. Even the most pious readers are bound to be less outraged by this poor man than just embarrassed for him.