If one has never questioned infernalism (the belief that some or many will experience eternal torturous punishment in a future after-life), David Bentley Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven Hell and Universal Salvation is probably too large a pill to swallow. On the other hand, those who have never questioned infernalism are probably not the target audience of the book, which is part of the problem and Hart’s opening point; “I know I cannot reasonably expect to persuade anyone of anything, except perhaps of my sincerity” (p. 4). Those who follow the argument will simply agree that it “successfully expresses their views,” while those who disagree will either dismiss his argument out of hand or presume to leverage the same old tired counter-arguments. “The whole endeavor may turn out to be pointless” (p. 4). The feeling of futility may be peculiarly irksome as the gravity of eternal torturous punishment pulls every other doctrine into its orbit, even and most especially the doctrine of God. If God is eternally angry (in spite of the Biblical teaching that he is not), if eternal torture of finite humans is part of his plan and necessary to his ends, and if it is by this means that God demonstrates his sovereignty, one might become suspicious, Hart argues, that Satan has taken the place of God and that worship of one or the other is an arbitrary choice.
The problem is, if one pulls out the infernalist thread, then atonement theory, anthropology, and doctrine of God, in the common Western understanding will also unravel. Hart’s hard-hitting volume raises the question, given “the sheer enormity of the idea of a hell of eternal torment” and the “absurdities and atrocities” it entails (p. 78), whether we are still dealing with the same God and faith as that of the New Testament? Given the “moral hideousness” (p. 79) of infernalism, given that like God one will be required in eternity, according to Tertullian, to learn to relish “the delightful spectacle of the destruction of the reprobate,” given that, according to Martin Luther, “the saved will rejoice to see their [former] loved ones roasting in hell” and that according to Thomas Aquinas “the vision of the torments of the damned will increase the beatitude of the redeemed (as any trace of pity would darken the joys of heaven)” (p. 78), given all this (and more) do we still have to do with the religion of love of the New Testament? Hart does not put the question exactly like that, but this gets at the enormity of the shift for which he is arguing. In short, eternal hell distorts the character of God, changes the nature of salvation, puts human will at the center of eternity, creates a feeling of elitism, diminishes the value of the vast majority of humanity, and shifts the focus of the New Testament and the work of Christ away from salvation from sin and death to salvation from eternal torturous existence.
Several pages of the book are given over to simply listing those New Testament passages which seem to describe an unqualified universality. The opening epigraph sums up the idea of some 25 passages Hart deals with: “Our savior God. . . intends that all human beings shall be saved and come to a full knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:3-4, Hart’s rendering). Hart’s translation of the New Testament, which he considers the required starting point (he sees the book as a companion to his translation), at a minimum, “restores certain ambiguities” (p. 3) read by the early Church as entailing universal salvation. The evidence indicates, “that the universalist faction was at its most numerous at least as a relative ratio of believers, in the church’s first half millennium” (p. 1). This did not rule out belief in hell, rather; “to them hell was the fire of purification described by the Apostle Paul in the third chapter of I Corinthians” (p. 1). Hart maintains, “There have been Christian universalists . . .since the earliest centuries of the faith” but the theological influence of Augustine has given rise to two millennia of misunderstanding in the West (“if only he had died twenty years earlier,” Hart laments elsewhere).
A significant part of the book is spent refuting the notion that the integrity of free will requires belief in infernalism. Hell allows some to be in eternal rebellion while others use their free will to choose God. In either case, the main thing is the integrity of human will (unblighted by coercion or by circumstance). Hart’s point is that this entails a faulty view of free will. Is free will total freedom from any constraint, any authority, any tradition, so that nothing constrains? What would total lack of constraint look like, presuming it a possibility? We might describe someone who jumps off a bridge or who runs into a burning building for the sheer fun of it as exercising their unconstrained freedom. Maybe the individual wants to feel the freedom of flying off the bridge or maybe they want to experience the exhilaration of being burnt alive. This person may be exercising a kind of liberty, but it seems they are slaves to delusion, that they are experiencing a poverty of rational freedom. Pure choice, free of purpose, and free of a goal is simply “brute fact” and has nothing to do with free will.
Our choices (or will) are always exercised on the basis of some rationale and this reason depends upon circumstance. In the Bible, humanity is depicted as deluded, held captive by a lie, enslaved to sin. This means understanding and knowledge are bent by circumstance and will is deluded by sinful contingencies and capacities. Sin is a marring of reason, an obscuring of the truth, and a perversion of reason. Jesus tells us the truth will set us free, so that freedom requires truth. To imagine that free will is at work in the state of sin is to misunderstand both the nature of free will and sin, as well as salvation
Salvation is the exposure of the delusion and the displacement of a lie with the truth so that one puts on her right mind by having the mind of Christ. The more one is in her right mind, the more she is conscious of God as Goodness that fulfills all beings. The more she recognizes that human nature can have its true completion and joy only in him, to that degree she throws off the fetters of distorted perception and is freed from deranged passions. Seeing the good in God is simultaneously a reshaping of the will, so that rightly understanding and rightly willing are synonymous with total freedom. Liberated from crippling ignorance and emancipated from the impoverished condition of sin, the rational soul can freely will only one thing – its own union with God. Seeing the good, the true, the beautiful in God, draws us inevitably toward God. As John depicts it, “When I am lifted up, I will drag all men to myself” (John 12:32). God’s will is being enacted in creation, in history, in all of our lives culminating in universal worship: “Every knee shall bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:10-11).
The compelling necessity of the light is not a constraint on freedom, as demonstrated in the truly human one. The “integrity of Christ’s humanity entails that he possesses a full and intact human will, and that this will is in no wise diminished or impaired by being ‘operated’ . . . by a divine hypostasis whose will is simply God’s own willing” (p. 189). True freedom in no way necessarily entails the possible choice of rejecting God, as Christ could not have been fully human. This lack of choice is no constraint upon the freedom of the will. It is simply the consequence of possessing a nature produced by and for the transcendent Good; a nature whose proper end has been fashioned in harmony with a supernatural purpose. God has made us for himself, as Augustine would say, and our hearts are restless till they rest in him.
Hart’s dogmatic universalism raises the question of focus (is it, like infernalism, weighted heavily toward the future) and balance (where is justice to be found), which I will address next week.