Author: David Bentley Hart
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publishing Date: September 24, 2019
Pages: 232 (Hardcover)
When David Bentley Hart burst on the scene in 2004 with The Beauty of the Infinite, two things became immediately clear: this was a scholar who was erudite as he was pugnacious. Where much published theology traded in clear verbiage and discrete boundaries, Hart doubled down on opacity and wide-ranging references, causing seasoned academics to reach for both their thesauruses and to expand their library wishlists. And where the default language for much academic theology was that of irenicism, Hart found no trouble reaching for the well-placed jab at his theological opponents. These twin themes continued to expand through his translation of the New Testament, his prolific public commentary, and now, in his newest offering, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation. Simultaneously wide-sweeping and combative, Hart has one intent with this volume: laying to rest any sense that the message of the Scripture—and not just one reading of Scripture—is that of God’s universal reconciliation of all humanity.
There are a variety of ways of framing this question, and oceans of ink have been spilled talking past one another on this question, but Hart’s primary question focusing his exploration is this:
whether the God who creates a reality in which the eternal suffering of any being is possible—even if it should be a self-induced suffering—can in fact be the infinitely good God of love that Christianity says he is (17).
The framing of the book in this way is important, because it shifts the question away from moral agency, the analytical justice of God’s behavior, and biblical hermeneutics of the afterlife, and toward one singular question: the nature of God as the creator of all that is. These more popular foci of universalist debates (human agency, the nature of justice, biblical hermeneutics, etc.) are dealt with along the way, but the central focus is on the nature of the God who creates, and if God creating is compatible with Hell as eternal punishment. By way of previewing his argument, Hart writes:
not will the satisfaction of our beings in our true final end, a transcendent Good lying behind and beyond all the proximate ends we might be moved to pursue (41).
Appeals for Hell which rest upon the intrinsic value of human choice (34) are set aside multiple times in the book, in favor of his core thesis: the value and capacities of the creature—even for their own destruction—do not rise to the level of ultimate importance, in that these choices exist within a world which is created by a God who has no desire or capacity for the destruction of the creation upheld and ordered by God. Hell is, for Hart, (if it exists in some metaphysical form) ultimately a purgative fire, which appears as cold medicine to those ill-equipped for the glories of eternity, a purgative fire which will be ultimately in service to the salvation and redemption of all humanity.
The book unfolds in four basic meditations, with two main targets in view, collectively labeled the “infernalists”: Thomists and Reformed Christians. In different ways (and Hart addresses their arguments throughout the book), these two varieties of Christians, though different in many respects, join together in this way: an eternal Hell is compatible with the nature of the Triune God as creator and sustainer of all things. There are a number of intertwining threads of argument throughout the book’s chapters, such that the arguments surrounding human agency appear throughout in varied form, as do the arguments surrounding the justice of not having eternal perdition. Readers interested in these particular arguments can find plenty of places to dig in, but the structure of the four meditations frames Hart’s approach to the question of whether Hell is compatible with a God who creates all things.
The first meditation (“Who is God? The Moral Meaning of Creation ex Nihilo”) establishes the proper starting point of these conversations for Hart—the compatibility of a God who creates and sustains out of nothing with a Hell which exists eternally as a site of torment and punishment. Those seeking to hold out “hope” for universalism, such as von Balthasar, are chastised for their half-heartedness, contrasted with the clear-eyed universalism of Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor, and Isaac of Ninevah. For Hart, to say that God creates all that is with an eternally punitive Hell structured into it is to make two mistakes: 1) any evil committed by humans is ultimately to participate in an act simultaneously disavowed and yet created by God, and 2) God establishes death and Hell as things which display some aspect of God’s essential being in both form and substance. Infernalists defend Hell’s punitive eternality, Hart contends, for any number of reasons: deference to Scriptural language, uncritical examination of the metaphysics of such a position, a high reverence for the role of human autonomy, or perhaps (uncharitably) psychological pathology. Whatever virtue there may be in defending Hell because of the value of human agency is, for Hart, beside the point: if God has created in such a way that an eternally punishing Hell is structured into creation, God is ultimately the God who has either created death as necessary and thus not the God revealed in the Scriptures.
If God’s actions follow from God’s nature, then creation exists ex nihilo and not as a bargain between God and death. Objections rooted in the dignity of the human choice, or death as a wager placed within creation for some greater good are dealt with in blistering fashion, but to be clear: everything is at stake in this starting point for Hart. If creation ex nihilo is true, and if God is not the author of death, then it follows for Hart that the design of creation (brought forth purely by divine agency) has only one possible end: to be sustained, reconciled and redeemed in total. The eternal perdition of one human is not an acceptable cost for the sustaining of creation, even if that person is Hitler himself, for the loss of one member of the human community is to reestablish death as a necessary component of the created order and not an intrusion upon God’s good creation.
The second meditation (“What Is Judgment? A Reflection on Biblical Eschatology”) looks more directly at the biblical material surrounding the afterlife. Drawing on his translation work of the New Testament, Hart argues for punishment as at best a temporal condition, ordered toward the purgation and rectitude of creation. Assumptions of Hell’s eternality, he says, are simply unwarranted, for the “proximate horizon of historical judgment” in which good and evil are separated exists within a broader horizon of God’s reconciliation of creation (109). The details of the Greek will be debated by New Testament scholars, but central to his proposal is that in their interpretative history, the assumption of Hell as an eternally existing age is a later assumption of Latin Christianity.
Having dealt with the deep structure of theological reflection—God and the Scriptures about God—he turns in the third meditation (“What is a Person? A Reflection on the Divine Image”) to objections about the divine intent for universal salvation with respect to human choices about good and evil. Hart’s arguments here are not so much that humans do not actually choose what is holy or evil, but that the guilt incurred by these choices is not of eternal magnitude. This is not to say that evil doesn’t corrode the soul or the world, but that the guilt incurred by these acts—in a shot against Augustine and Calvin—does not damn the soul for eternity. The will given to humans is not of a libertine quality, with divine sanction and eternal gravity given to our choices whatever they may be; the will for Hart always seeks a proximate good, however obscured and broken, and in doing so, participates in some way in the good which is God. Because evil is not eternal, it can only ever have the end of being exhausted and ending, while the creation that is of God—intended as good and sustained by God—endures.
Drawing here, as in the Second Meditation, on the eschatological language of Jesus’ parables, Hart makes the radical case that “there is no way in which persons can be saved as persons except in and with all other persons” (146). To be a person is to be a person in communion with others, meaning that the salvation and restoration of humanity must be total and complete, leaving none behind, however elongated the purgative process may be.
These arguments extend in the Fourth Meditation (What is Freedom? A Reflection on the Rational Will), in which the question of the role of the will in interrogated. Central to these reflections is whether a person’s willing of an evil thing is either a valid desire to be respected by God. But again, what constitutes a good will is measured not against the capacity of a person to will, but what counts as a good will relative to God’s creation as intended by God. To quote Hart:
Freedom is a being’s power to flourish as what it naturally is, to become ever more fully what it is…the freedom of a rational spirit is its consummation in union with God. Freedom is never then the mere “negative liberty” of indeterminate openness to everything… (172).
This is not to say that choices do not have consequences, but that choices—if they are evil—are not the things which are ultimately sought even in evil. The freedom which is given to the creature in creation is not defined by the choosing of an evil object, but defined by the good which is manifested wrongly in the object. Thus, it makes no sense to say that someone chooses damnation, but rather, we seek something good in corrupted form, meaning that all of our longings—even those of a Hitler—are ultimately in pursuit of the good we cannot not seek by virtue of our created nature. What is true about us and our choices, Hart argues, is our correspondence to God’s good within creation, for whatever is in us and our choices which coheres to evil will ultimately not last, for evil is in the end, nothing.
What makes Hart’s argument so convincing is that he begins where theology should begin: with God. Yet, there are some objections, some questions he leaves unanswered, which shall be addressed in the second part of this article.