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.
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Good review(s). Of course Hart’s selective reading cannot really be criticized for claims that those outside Orthodox are wrong in the main since he has no need to grant that Calvin for example is “within the Church”; a better critique for Hart would be by reference to all the Orthodox saints and theologians who do affirm late development we call “hell”, since he must accept on his own commitments that the Orthodox Church is dogmatically correct.
Then again I am not aware of any dogmas that contradict his position so perhaps this objection falls for that reason.
The great historian and friend of CS Lewis, Herbert Butterfield, warned us to be suspicious of official history. That can be popular history, not just history written by the state. Official history in the US is driven by atheism and socialism because most professional historians are atheists and socialists. They have re-written US history to favor their ideologies. David Barton is doing an excellent job of telling the true history of the US. How can you tell? The gold standard in history is the use of original sources. Barton specializes in that. Most professional historians refuse to look at original sources.
Hart’s analysis of punishment reminds me of the one about the Trinity. Many people can’t understand it and call it impossible math, so they reject it and Christianity. Others can’t comprehend how God could be good and kill most of humanity in the flood or command the Israelis to kill all the men, women and children in Canaan. Hart and other suffer from what the great economist FA Hayek described as false reason, or rationalism. He wrote about economics but it applies to religion as well. In false reason, a person insists that nothing can be true unless he can personally comprehend exhaustively. But if Hart could understand God exhaustively then Hart would be god and not god.
By definition, humans cannot understand everything about God. Hayek made that clear in another book in which he wrote that for one entity to understand another the first must be more complex. Since humans cannot be more complex than humans, we’ll never understand ourselves completely. But it’s impossible for humans with our minimal complexity to understand God who is vastly greater in complexity. Grasping this reality means that there will be somethings, like the Trinity, that we can’t understand and take God at his word. Hart refuses to humble himself and allow God to be more complex than himself.
Sound hermeneutics (applying the principles of hermeneutics as distilled by Aristotle and Aquinas) applied to the Bible makes it clear that God will punish some people for eternity. That doesn’t square with Hart’s definition of a good god. I’m sorry, but God is right and Hart is wrong even if neither of us can understand why.
Saying that you can’t fully understand the Trinity is not even close to the same as saying God is love = infinite sadistic torture.
If you’re Eastern Orthodox, focusing on St Isaac the Syrian, Origen, St Maximus the Confessor, and St Gregory of Nyssa – and mostly ignoring the West – is reasonably fair. DBH is not cherrypicking. St Augustine and his theological heirs (Calvinists, Jansenists, and so on) don’t really fit in the Eastern tradition. And yes, I know St Augustine is one of our saints from the undivided church. And yes, I know in the past we deeply appreciated St Thomas Aquinas. But neither Augustine nor St Thomas are really part of our Weltanschauung. No, really.
I avoided using the trite phrase “Orthodox phronema.” I hate that phrase. But perhaps it applies as well.
Could you give an example of Hart’s “false rationality”? Hart’s logic is to look at God as the Good rather than to focus strictly on His sovereignty. The Thomists and Reformed group have famously used God’s sovereignty and His eternal nature to erect and maintain the edifices of hell. Hart makes it clear where earlier theologians went wrong and he deftly traces everything back to Augustine’s inability to read Greek. Hart also spends ample length on interpreting scripture, not through a theological or doctrinal lens, but from a second temple understanding of scripture. It’s not about “God being right” and Hart being wrong, so I don’t even know why you went there other than that you have not read the book.
P.S. You lost me at Hayek, but I responded anyway. Actually, your mention of Hayek reminded me of a ploy that one of my brighter colleagues in the Humanities graduate program used when he had not read the assigned text: quote a pithy line from Marx and wax eloquent on it until your five minutes are up.
There are none saved where nothing to be saved from, and yet this book saves mankind from the New Testament and forgets the first caution, for “I will be who I will be” and “I am who I am”
“Only comport yourselves in a manner dignifying the beatitudes of Christ…
in no manner dreading your enemies. For this is a sign of destruction for them but of salvation for you.
I get to where Hart got by a more simple and direct path, focused on Jesus’ dying prayer to his Heavenly Father (Abba). When Jesus prayed that his executioners be forgiven because they knew not what they were doing, I believe that his petition was intended to encompass all of humanity, which suffers universally from ignorance about ultimate things. Further believing that Abba granted his Son’s final prayer, I infer that eternal torment in hell for anyone was rendered, at that point, a foreclosed possibility, if it ever were one at all.