Tag Archives: book review

Review: That All Shall Be Saved

by Matthew Joss Graduate Student of St. Mary’s College Logos Institute, University of St. Andrews

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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.

 

Review of Candida R. Moss’s Divine Bodies: Resurrecting Perfection in the New Testament and Early Christianity’

By Ethan Johnson, PhD candidate in New Testament at the University of St. Andrews

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Moss, Candida R. Divine Bodies: Resurrecting Perfection in the New Testament and Early Christianity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019.

Although the resurrection of the dead is a central doctrine in Christianity, there remain numerous questions about the nature of the resurrected body and how it will relate to one’s earthly body. What moment of life will be chosen as the template for the resurrected body? Do identity markers such as gender, race, or disability carry over into the resurrected body? Will the various, individual parts of the resurrected body retain their earthly functions? While Christians have generally engaged Scripture when discussing these questions, there has been less attention given to the ways in which one’s own social and cultural location affects the reading of biblical texts about the resurrection. As a result, Christians can develop images of the resurrected body that are “neither Paul’s nor Luke’s, but wholly and unmistakably our own” (14). In Divine Bodies, Candida Moss invites her readers to take a fresh look at select New Testament passages and explore the ways in which New Testament writers addressed their anxieties about identity, integrity, functionality, and aesthetics in the resurrection.

In the first chapter, Moss considers the relationship between the body and identity, with particular attention to the resurrected body of Jesus in John 20. She contends that Jesus’ wounds should be not be read as open lesions, but as partially healed scars. Her argument relies on the grammar of the Greek eis, the range of meanings available for typos, and Greco-Roman medical writings. After establishing the plausibility of reading Jesus’s wounds as scars, she notes that this reading could help us to see how John’s presentation of Jesus’s body serves to highlight his identification, his honour, and the reality of his resurrection. Moreover, John’s use of scars demonstrates how “imperfections” in the body can be transfigured without being obliterated.

In chapter 2, Moss argues that Mark 9:47–48 insists on “resurrecting deformity” (45). Many scholars have read this passage as a metaphor for the seriousness of sin and have argued that amputation served as a punishment in the ancient world. Challenging punitive readings of this text, Moss argues, based on interaction with a sizable cross-section of Greco-Roman literature, that amputation in the ancient world would more probably be viewed as heroic or therapeutic rather than punitive. Mark may have drawn on this therapeutic sense in order to subvert the notion that able bodies were virtuous bodies.

In chapter 3, Moss tackles questions of functionality in the resurrected body. She begins with Mark 12:19–23 and the assertion that there will be no marriage in heaven, and then examines the ways in which 2nd and 3rd century theologians resolved tensions related to non-functioning genitals. Her study reveals how 2nd and 3rd century philosophical concerns about the suitability of a non-functioning body part in an ideal, resurrected body, affected readings of those texts. While her points are well-taken, I did find it odd to devote so much time to the 2nd century and so little time to the social world of the New Testament writers themselves.

In the fourth chapter, Moss explores the aesthetics of the resurrected body, and highlights ways in which discussions of the idealized heavenly body can reinforce culturally conditioned views of beauty and support social hierarchies. More specifically, Moss examines the white robes of Rev 7 and notes that, while white robes can signify group membership or carry religious meanings, in the ancient world they could also display wealth and privilege. The blood of the Lamb in Rev 7:14 democratizes access to the privileged group by allowing the downtrodden to acquire white robes of status and wealth, but, at the same time, this passage continues to propagate social markers even as it makes them available to a disenfranchised group.

In her conclusion, Moss turns her attention to her modern audience and points out that we also have culturally conditioned concepts of the body, which shape our interpretation of biblical texts. Although modern, western societies have recently shifted towards a more self-consciously “diverse” view of the ideal body, Moss rightly notes how “In our clean, shiny world some forms of embodiment are pushed to the side” (116). In modern visions of resurrection, we find particularly that disability and poverty tend to be excluded. Moss does not attempt to resolve this tension, but by raising it clearly into our view, she helpfully exposes a blind spot in our own thinking.

Moss’s book raises valuable questions and provides insightful interpretations of well-known biblical passages. Her learning is clearly wide and her study is self-reflective. There were, of course, several places where I had minor quibbles with the argument. For example, while I can accept that Mark 9:47–48 presents amputation as therapeutic rather than punitive, it was never quite clear how such a reading would also necessitate it being “literal.” In chapter 4, I was sometimes unsure whether Moss was pointing out how white robes function in Revelation, or making an evaluative statement about whether the author accomplished his rhetorical goal by using that image. At the same time, I appreciated Moss’s work to read against the grain and her commitment to bringing her insights to life for her modern readers. Her warning that we too, for our all our attempts to be inclusive, have our own blind spots and prejudices related to the body, is timely and welcome.