Author: David Bentley Hart
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publishing Date: September 24, 2019
Pages: 232 (Hardcover)
As shown in part one of this article, Hart’s argument is forceful, analytically clear, and compelling, in that it begins where theology should properly begin: with God. With acuity and vigor, Hart replaces preoccupations about the sacrosanctity of the human will with a preoccupation about God’s agency in the world. To this end, his book will be one which promises to reset the conversation around universal salvation in a way which is both theologically orderly, Scripturally attuned, and historically informed.
I offer this commendation of Hart’s work not as a commendation of his conclusions, for four reasons which remain unanswered, and to my mind, must be accounted for. First, Hart, as an Orthodox theologian, draws from across the Christian tradition, but in an idiosyncratic way. Treating Origen and Isaac of Ninevah as paramount authorities while setting aside Augustine, Calvin, and Aquinas as muddled reeks of, ironically, a kind of Protestant judgment about sources which should invite further discussion about what sources should count within this discussion of ultimate things such as salvation. Likewise, his readings of Calvin and Thomas, vacillate between astute and dubious; scholars of Calvin will undoubtedly take issue with his characterization of Calvin’s work on atonement, election, and the nature of God. Casting followers of Calvin and Thomas as “infernalists” does some work conceptually, but obscures other points.
Secondly, to argue for universal salvation as the theologically obvious conclusion, in contrast to von Balthasar and Barth among others who have named it a “hope,” is to treat the theological reflections of centuries—and the theological traditions of which they are bearers—as having developed outside of the wisdom of God. For if God is the one who guides the church into all truth, how is it that the church got this one so desperately wrong for so long? One could argue that these traditions—both Thomist and Reformed—were right insofar as they confessed a Hell, but wrong about its nature, and this would be in keeping with a number of things about which Christians have altered their thinking on. But to name this all as “degrading nonsense—an absolute midden of misconceptions, fragments of scriptural language wrenched out of context, errors of translation, logical contradictions and (I suspect) one or two emotional pathologies” (25) is, to be kind, a preposterous judgment upon two major traditions within Christianity. But how fortunate for all of us that after two millennia of such squalid errors that David Bentley Hart appears in such a world-historical fashion to sort all of this out!
But these are relatively superficial reasons to not take Hart seriously, that his argumentation is selective in its authorities or that it is dismissive in tone toward his opponents. Hart’s self-assuredness (which has always been present in his writing, but become much more pronounced in recent work) makes for a sigh-inducing read most of the book, but it would be foolish for the tone of his prose to be the reason for the reader to dismiss his arguments.
Two more serious objections are in order, then. The first major objection is, in rendering such a high view of God’s designs on creation, that human acts of moral judgment are made trivial and even meaningless. For if there is nothing of any eternal significance at stake in moral judgment, what is moral purgation in view of the prospect of ultimately being in the beatitude of God? On this point, Hart has no real answer apart from the eschatological judgments of God, which are generous in scope, and the argument that a human will cannot ultimately will that which is evil. While both of these arguments are true, the ultimate horizon within which created horizons of judgment occur threaten not only to make temporal judgements about good and evil meaningless, but to introduce the notion that God not only overrides human judgments, but perhaps wills for them to be meaningless in light of God’s eternal designs. It would be one thing to be surprised by this in the eschaton, and indeed to rejoice that one’s tormenters will be welcomed into the kingdom of God as well. But preaching this not just in hope, but as knowledge now, may bring as much despair to the meek and the abused as relief to the abusers.
If concerns about Hart’s minimization—and perhaps negation—of the gravity of moral judgments are raised, there is a corresponding concern that his account pays too much attention to the human, while simultaneously downplaying human agency. In advancing an argument about human universal salvation, and how the loss of one human is an impossibility in view of divine agency, Hart leaves to the side whether this salvation of humanity is purchased by God at the cost of all non-human salvation. What I mean by this is that the material logic of the argument assumes a central focus upon humanity and humanity’s eternal flourishing, but against the backdrop of a nearly inert creation, one in which death occurs by the teeming billions. I am reminded here of Annie Dillard’s graphic depiction of the myriad deaths of bullfrog eggs and of mosquito larvae which occur in the most idyllic of settings, the mass deaths which are assumed to be simply par for the course and no reason for our consciences to be upended.
Here, I am not asking of whether “all dogs go to heaven”, redeemed by the love of their owners, but whether all of what God has created is subject to the same logic which Hart displays, or only humans. For if the destiny of all that which God has created is to be restored, reclaimed, and renewed, it would seem to follow that the works of God—from the separation of darkness and light (and according to Augustine, the angels of light and darkness) to the beasts of the field to the intimacies of the ocean floor would be a part of God’s redemptive work as well. In inquiring into the destiny of humanity, the non-human world remains unspoken here. To be sure, I think Hart’s argument surrounding the priority of the divine intent for creation would necessarily include a rehabilitation of all creation, from the plankton on up to the celestial beings (including Origen’s speculations about the devil himself). But an accounting of the ways in which animal life and death are the necessary precursor for the lives of humans seems to structure death into God’s creation as a necessity for redemption to occur in ways which Hart specifically wants to avoid. For if non-human creation only exists as the necessary sacrifice for human salvation, we are right back to the place Hart wants to avoid: some existing as eternally damned for the sake of the elect with respect to salvation.
All things considered, Hart has written another provocative work which should rightly be taken up, read, debated, and prayed through. There is much to commend in his arguments, most notably the idea that the human designs toward self-destruction will be overthrown in the end. Hell is not everything, and Hart has rightly (I think) destabilized theologies which would trade so heavily on its threat. But my concern is that in emphasizing so strongly the creative design of God, the value of temporal life, both human and non-human, becomes obscured and perhaps negated. It may well be that Hart is correct, and that the posture of hoping for universal salvation, as exhibited famously by the 20th century Catholic Hans Urs von Balthasar, is too tepid. And, it may be that this ethicist wrongly puts too much weight upon human agency in view of the great mercies of God, and that the gravity of moral judgment itself will be overthrown. There are enough tragedies in the world that I would welcome being wrong on such an audacious claim as Hart’s.