by Matthew Joss Graduate Student of St. Mary’s College Logos Institute, University of St. Andrews
That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation, by David Bentley Hart (Yale, 232 pp. £20.00)
In his new book, That All Shall Be Saved, David Bentley Hart lays out his case for universalism and against an eternal hell. His purpose was “to give a complete account… simply as a courtesy to those who have taken the time to respond” (5). This is important, because the book was written primarily to present rather than to persuade. While he does hope to provide “an occasion for honest reflection” (ibid), he does not hold out much hope for changing minds. This leads to Hart feeling free to argue “in as unconstrained a manner as possible” (4). This lack of constraint is felt throughout the whole volume—its voice is frequently one of raucous self-certainty.
After an affirmation of universalism’s ancient pedigree, particularly in the eastern church (an affirmation stated often but cited rarely), the book pivots, not to scripture or philosophy, but to stories from his youth. Far from being a trivial ice-breaker, this history plays a foundational role; it forms a rhetorical argument that Hell (of the eternal torment kind) is self-evidently wrong. The pronouncement that the natural ‘moral imagination’ condemns Hell forms a golden thread of the book, perhaps the backbone of the whole work. Hart grasps the reader by the collar and shakes him out of his dogmatic slumbers. A person capable of believing in a good God and an eternal Hell, of “believing all of this to be a paradox concealing a deeper, wholly coherent truth, rather than a gross contradiction – has probably suffered such chronic intellectual and moral malformation that he or she is no longer able to recognize certain very plain truths” (21).
The ‘very plain truth’ is that ‘good’ and ‘eternal Hell’ are directly opposed and lead to equivocal God-talk. Using words such as ‘justice,’ ‘love,’ ‘good,’ etc., all while affirming ‘Hell,’ is either straightforwardly contradictory or else alters the meaning so completely as to render the words useless. This forms the second golden thread tracing its way through the work.
After the introductory section comes four meditations. The first centers on the contention that ex nihilo creation renders Hell impossible. This argument depends on a classical metaphysic where being and good are convertible with evil being a privation of the good. Because evil is the absence of good, it is not a thing that can be directly created. To this Hart adds what he calls an ‘intellectualist’ view of freewill (35-36). On this view, the intellect perceives what is good, and the will is the appetite, the motivator, that moves one toward that good. Moral evil exists when the will desires something (say adulterous relations), that while good in itself (sex), is the absence of a greater good (fidelity). This means it is impossible to will evil directly (as it is the mere absence of good), but only indirectly. These concepts form bedrock for Hart’s argument.
They are relevant here because Hell is a privation of a good. Man is made for union with God and hell is, by definition, a lack of union with God. This would mean that to will someone to Hell would be for God to will evil. But this is impossible. God has no lack of knowledge, belief, fortitude, power or any other human excuse for choosing the evil of an inferior good, and so cannot will evil at all. Since God cannot will evil, He cannot will Hell.
In the second meditation Hart begins his survey of the biblical evidence. Its most striking feature is the seven sequential pages of verses, written in both Greek and Hart’s own translation. While noting its limitations, the irony of Hart employing this strategy is palpable in view of his earlier comments, “plucking individual verses like posies here and there from the text is no way to gain a proper view of the entire landscape” (88-89).
This is not to say his discussion of scripture is limited to merely listing scriptures. He describes his hermeneutical method: obvious doctrinal statements (generally from the epistles) should be privileged over the figurative language of the Gospels and Revelation (93-94). There is an extended section dealing with the translation of aionios, which is quite helpful, although its actual application to texts is limited. He concludes, “The texts of the gospels simply make no obvious claim about a place or state of endless suffering” (118).
The third meditation deals theological anthropology. It approvingly surveys Gregory of Nyssa’s view of man as the universal Human Being. The totality of humanity together makes up the Human Being, in an analogous way to a substance. The application to Hell is then straightforward. Just as a single human being cannot reside in two different places at once, so the Human Being cannot reside in both Heaven and Hell. Hart develops this idea as the interconnectedness of all humans. Each person is constituted by his experience and memory of other persons. This creates a problem—in the afterlife God must either remove the connection and memory of damned from the blessed, or he does not. If he does, the blessed one becomes a different person. Why so? Part of what constituted him, his personal connections, have been removed and so he has a different personal constitution. If God does not remove the connection, then either the blessed must approve (or be unmoved) by the damned’s plight or else be saddened by it. The first is immoral; the second would be a blight in the bliss of heaven. The conclusion -hell is impossible without recreating all the saints in heaven – a proposition no one accepts.
The fourth meditation presents the argument that it is impossible for a free-willed creature to deny God forever. For if willing is simply being drawn to the good, and God is the Good, then all wills are drawn to God. In fact, to be fully free is for the will to be most fully drawn to the Good. So, the freest creatures are those who are drawn most completely to the Good, to God. It is only those who are not free, who are limited in knowing the good, who do not pursue it. Hence, only those who are not free deny God. But punishment is meted out according to freedom (a forced or ignorant act is not a culpable one). Since all humans who sin are not fully free, they cannot merit full (i.e. eternal) punishment. Therefore, hell must be temporal, and humans are inexorably drawn toward God as they gain more knowledge.
That All Shall Be Saved is a difficult book to evaluate. Insofar as Hart’s main goal was to present his perspective, the book must be considered a success—required reading for any wanting to know his thoughts. However, it is quite uneven in its presentation of opposing views. If one is looking for an introduction to the topic, or an even-handed discussion of the two sides, one should probably look elsewhere. Admittedly, these were not goals of Hart’s, however, their lack seriously damages the success of his secondary purpose, to “provide champions of the dominant view an occasion for honest reflection and scrupulous cerebration and serious analysis” (5). At times, the tone is condescending and abrasive, opponents’ views caricatured, conclusions exaggerated, etc. While making for an entertaining read, none of these are conducive to inspiring self-evaluation—rather more to self-righteousness. While Hart had low suasive expectations, his chosen rhetorical strategy will perhaps be most effective at inciting a deepening chasm and passionate resistance rather than converting ‘infernalists.’
Nonetheless, Hart has successfully thrown down the gauntlet, a challenge that will need to be met by defenders of the majority view.