Hell and Universal Salvation

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.


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

7 thoughts on “Hell and Universal Salvation”

  1. I recently read a post from a 20 something, five-point Calvinist that insisted that women who have aborted their babies should be given the death penalty for committing murder. This extreme punishment in this life seems quite similar to the extreme punishment of hell in the next. I am not completely sold on the idea of Universalism per se, but I do agree with the notion that hell is not eternal damnation. That doctrine seems to have arisen as a way to scare people into supporting the church. Anyway, it seems that Hyper-Calvinists insist on an angry God that logically leaves no room for a loving God.

    1. Ray, I recently started working on a piece that attempts to get at the picture of God you’re (rightfully) rejecting.

      I really appreciate this piece and wish I didn’t have to wait until next week to get the rest of it. For myself, the problem with Universalism is that it seems to diminish God’s goal of establishment of the Kingdom of God (IMHO, in which we align our will to God’s will [on earth as in heaven] by the renewing of our minds). If the whole thing is about “everyone’s not going to hell,” then why the church and the suffering of the oppressed saints under the powers until that time?

      In my earlier days, I had the simplistic view of “free will” that Paul dismantles here (I got a little lost as to whether Paul was dismantling it or describing Hart’s dismantling, but I think I concluded it’s Paul dismantling it). Free will is not detached from the context of fallen mindsets, assumptions, and worldview–and those things are impairments to it, which requires the apostle Paul’s renewing of the mind. One thing Augustine did get right, I think, was his epistemology: one begins by accepting the worldview of Christ (believing/faith) and then it begins to make sense (that’s transformation of the mind, freedom from slavery to sin, renewal of will, etc.).

      But CS Lewis once said, “Even heaven would be hell for someone who wanted to remain truly autonomous.” And, despite his earlier attempt at defending infernalism (God provides the way out and it is human choice that chooses hell), I think Lewis is right about the notion that a person who would reject Christ would not want to live in his Kingdom eternally. What I can’t get around is that, if one flatly chooses to remain enslaved because one rejects the teaching/values of the Kingdom of God revealed in Jesus, wouldn’t that mean that God would eventually have to overpower the will to achieve that renewal of the mind necessary to participate in the Kingdom pre and post resurrection? And isn’t overpowering the will antithetical to the methodology of the Kingdom (inviting one to share the cross that we might also share in the glory of the resurrection)?

      I’m just stuck on Romans 8 that it is those who share in Christ’s baptism and suffering who look forward to the restoration of the kosmos.

      1. Jason – To say God must “overpower the will” for one to will rightly still misses the point that true freedom is to be what we were created to be – lovers of God. Short of this freedom the will is constrained and overpowered by sin.

        1. I get that the truth is that freedom is to be what we were created to be. However, this “constrained will” may reject that for something else. I don’t believe God overpowers that will, but it seems to me that the Universalist position does.

          I mean, even if you say that God “releases sin’s constraint” of that will,” it seems to me that someone who (with their constrained will) chooses other than the Kingdom is being freed outside of their own will in order to become something they (because of their misunderstanding or constraint) do not will.

          Or, are we saying that they cannot will, meaning that those of us who believe believe because God has given us belief over and against our overpowered / constrained will in order to free our will to be what we were created to be?

          Are we not just having the same old conversation then in fancier terms? What am I missing?

          1. According to Hart, the will cannot be separated from the reason for willing – the rationale and circumstance. There is no such thing as a pure isolated will. Given the right circumstance of being exposed to the reality of God one’s freedom of the will is enacted. I share your concerns as to where this focus might lead but the question is whether these concerns are intrinsic to this position or can they be addressed?

    2. Ray – I tend to agree with Hart that people, often, do not really believe in infernalism. Serious thought for a few minutes exposes its absurdity. At 18 I recognized that a finite capacity resulting in eternal punishment is out of balance.

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