David Bentley Hart has faced the moral implications of the eternality of hell, found them wanting, and proposed that in the end, all shall be saved. At the heart of his argument lies, from his point of view, the moral hideousness of hell.
Jason Micheli explains Hart’s moral vision well when recounting Hart’s experience of reading an article that detailed the death of a family:
The article highlighted a Sri Lankan father, who, in spite of his frantic efforts, which included swimming in the roiling sea with his wife and mother-in-law on his back, was unable to prevent his wife or any of his four children from being swept to their deaths. The father recounted the names of his four children and then, overcome with grief, sobbed to the reporter that “my wife and children must have thought, ‘Father is here . . . he will save us’ but I couldn’t do it.”
Hart wonders: If you had the chance to speak to this father in the moment of his deepest grief, what should you say? Hart argues that only a moral cretin would have approached that father with abstract theological explanation: “Sir, your children’s deaths are a part of God’s eternal but mysterious counsels” or “Your children’s deaths, tragic as they may seem, in the larger sense serve God’s complex design for creation” or “It’s all part of God’s plan.”
This moral sensibility fills the pages of That All Shall Be Saved. Hart at once denounces the teaching of eternal conscious torment while affirming that in the end (even after a sojourn in hell) everyone shall be saved.
Is he right?
I am friends with at least two people who have been influenced by Hart’s book (and I know of many others). What strikes me is that Hart’s book has launched at the perfect time in terms of the cultural zeitgeist. Everyone wants a more inclusive culture, and many desire non-punitive correction (except for those who breach #metoo level crime).
The reason why Hart’s work has begun to reach so many is that Hart is, in fact, an intelligent person who gives confidence to the unconfident. He not only hopes that all shall be saved like von Balthasar, but he positively affirms that all shall be saved. The gusto, the prose, the moral indignation that Hart offers—serve to galvanize a whole contingent of hopeful universalists into, well, more than hopeful universalists.
This is why I think evangelicals should attempt an in-depth response—or at least a somewhat in-depth response. A full response would require a book-length treatment. Still, Hart asks a central question of the Christian faith (who shall be saved?) while facing headlong the reality of hell. He is putting words to what many Christians have wondered in their minds for years.
So I do think more of us need to engage with his argument because the stakes are high. If you haven’t met protestant universalists, you may soon. They may not tell you that they are since many are still working through the theological implications, but they exist and in some numbers. Granted, they tend to be the theologically inclined among church members.
And yet, generally speaking, the theologically inclined inhabit teaching positions (small groups, etc.). And each small group leader influences, say, eight people. And so the influence chain expands all the way down.
So I think it is worthwhile to spend some time working out the argument of Hart, finding the truth of the matter, and answering the question, “Is he right?” In the end, I do not think Hart’s argument requires that all shall be saved, nor am I convinced that the existence of an eternal hell entails the moral repugnance of God or Christianity!
To explain why I am not convinced, I will briefly reflect on the four meditations of Hart. In each meditation, I will summarize some basic premises of the argument to give a sense of what he says. Then I will offer some criticism and some constructive theological proposals to make sense of the doctrine of hell. Obviously, I do so in very brief and incomplete ways. As noted, a full response would require a book. I offer this response merely as an incomplete guide to grasping and responding to Hart’s argument.
With that said, Scripture provides few details on the specifics of hell and many details on heaven. There is a reason for that. The reason is that God created us for himself, and heaven means a return to God in Christ by the Spirit. We are meant to be heavenly minded, and so God-inspired Scripture points us to himself, not to hell. So I do not expect to say very much about hell other than to say it is the end of those who do not place their trust in Jesus Christ.
Meditation 1: Who is God?
In his first meditation, Hart argues that God is absolutely free. So when he creates the world, nothing can hinder his goodness in creation. “Yet, for just this reason, the moral destiny of creation and the moral nature of God are absolutely inseparable” (69). So when God creates the universe, he does so with a particular end in mind (or else why would he create the world?). Given who God is, he must know all possibilities and actualities in creation (70). Evil then would be a privation of God’s good creation and purposes.
Yet this good purpose of creation runs into a problem when we consider that many people will suffer damnation. Hart explains, “Yet, if both the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo and that of eternal damnation are true, that very evil is indeed already comprised within the positive intentions and dispositions of God” (82).
So, for Hart, if hell exists in all its eternality and horridness, then it seems to follow that God at least had this possibility in mind when he created the universe as a possible end (89). If so, is there a sense in which God is evil, even if he created and allowed such evil to happen (90)? Yet God, as Hart rightly notes, saw that everything was good at creation (Gen 1:31). For this reason, he surmises that all must have a good and so salvific end by returning back to God who is both the first and final cause of all things (69; 91).
Hart’s first meditation focuses on the nature of God who is Good, and therefore who only does good. If he created everything for himself, then it stands to reason that no rational creature could have any other intended end except to return to God who is good. So hell as an endless, eternal reality cannot exist—Hart argues. Note: he does not deny hell’s existence—just the eternal nature of it.
Meditation 2: What is judgment?
Meditation 2 is much simpler to understand. First, Hart lists a number of biblical passages that seem to say or suggest that all shall be saved (e.g., 1 Tim 4:10). Second, he sees hell and redemption as two phases or parts, with “one enclosed within the other” (103). Hence, hell in this scheme precedes final redemption. Lastly, he engages with the word “eternal” in the New Testament, which he argues means something like “age” rather than eternity.
Meditation 3: What is a Person?
In this meditation, Hart argues that persons are dynamic inflections of the whole of humanity in God’s image. Following Gregory of Nyssa’s interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 as well as 1 Corinthians 15, he affirms “the concrete solidarity of all persons in that complete community that is, alone, the true image of God” (143).
Before he develops the argument further, Hart spends time exploring the meaning of Romans 9–11, concluding that Romans 11:32 provides a sort of key to understand the whole argument: God has wrath on all people in order to have mercy on all (137). Paul’s earlier discussion in Romans 9 about God’s election to salvation and wrath, then, functions as hypotheticals which Paul later ties together in Romans 11—or so goes Hart’s interpretation.
This clears the way for Hart’s discussion on humans created in the image of God and whose destiny involves their return to unity with God (1 Cor 15:23–24, 28). When they do return, they return as full humans whose loves and affinities come to complete with them.
This is why, Hart argues, the existence of hell and loved ones there would cause grief to those in heaven; even if the memory of loved ones in perdition is erased, then the person redeemed would not be one with a continuous identify from this life to the next because our personality is made up our relationships (153). Persons “require others in order to possess all the necessary and constitutive modalities of true personal existence for ourselves” (154). In fact, Hart argues further that persons in God’s image dynamically image the one God and so belong to a corporate identity (155; here he relies on Gregory of Nyssa’s exegesis of Genesis 1). Thus, Hart averts “that all persons must be saved, or none can be” (155).
By way of summary, we can cite Hart when he writes, “I am not I in myself alone, but only in all others. If, then, anyone is in hell, I too am partly in hell” (157).
Meditation 4: What Is Freedom?
In this last meditation, Hart argues (or retrieves) a classical understanding of the will. Any rational creature has a natural will whose source and end is God, Goodness. Hence, free will actually means having less choice than more (having the inability to sin). The deliberation between good and evil (the gnomic will) actually follows from the entrance of sin into the world and really does not represent a good faculty (it is perhaps a neutral one). The more we know the Good, who is God, the less we sin, the more unable to sin we become. Hence, true freedom is to see God clearly and so align our natural will with him who is Goodness.
For Hart then, the idea of hell or even the free will defense of hell does not make much sense. He believes that 1 Corinthians 15 will necessarily be true of all people, specifically that God will be “all in all.” But if God is good, and those in hell are evil or choice evil, then God is not in them. There is a perpetual place where God is not—and there is an impossible notion that someone would so deny their true good that they would choose everlasting pain over their own Good, which is God.
Further, he does not believe a rational creature could in fact reject God when that creature wills perfectly: “[C]ould finite creatures possessed of real freedom (as opposed to a mere voluntarist power of spontaneous movement toward any end whatsoever) actually freely reject God eternally and, by the exercise of that liberty, merit perpetual torment?” (source).
More could be said here, and I admit that I find this argument less compelling than Hart’s others. Perhaps we could just say that God created humans to desire him as their good. If God in fact shares of his goodness across the whole creation, the idea that he would predestinate to hell, allow hell to exist, or allow individuals to choose death seems impossible to Hart for logical reasons and because Paul says “God will be all in all” (here I am partly summarizing Hart in my words, although I suspect he would not disagree with how I have summed up things.).
While only a short article, I have tried to outline Hart’s arguments in ways that he might at least nod to as agreeable to his thought. Obviously, the nuance and detail that he provides cannot be repeated here since that would mean pasting the whole book and having the same intellect as Hart. I admit I do not have the latter. Despite that, I plan to provide, according to my ability, four reflections on the four meditations of Hart.
I remain unconvinced of his arguments, although not of all his premises. Pointedly, God is Good. Our natural wills want to find satiation in God (although sin prevents this apart from grace), and I do think persons are most human when they image God together as the body of Christ.
Saying all of that, I want to propose a number reflections that end up revolving around one main idea: theological humility as the first and premier gift of God, to borrow language from Maximos the Confessor, which drives me to say very little about what I do not know (hell) and very much about what I do know (who God has revealed himself to be: Good, Just, etc.).
1. Who is God? One Who Gifts Us Theological humility
First, I agree that God is transcendent, that analogical truth provides the only possible kind of truth that we can know and say of God. If God is good, and we are created to be very good, then it follows that our notions of goodness in fact share in God’s notions of goodness. So if hell seems entirely evil to us, then something here is amiss.
But one premise here I think bears further weight: God is transcendent. And not only that, but his creation is so immense that we barely understand who thrones, principalities, and powers are despite their being central to the church’s mission and battle (see Ephesians, for example).
On this matter, I submit myself to perhaps the greatest theologian who ever lived—Maximos the Confessor. In his twelfth letter, he wrote, “Humility [is] the grand and premier gift of God, the fruit of true philosophy that mortifies the passions and senses.”
I confess that hell exists according to God’s just administration of the universe. It follows that free agents should and ought to have the choice to follow God or not; it follows that due to human sin, God did not need to redeem the world in the way in which he did—by the humility of the incarnation. Yet he did out of great love. That is a main way in which we can know he is Love through this powerful act.
It does not follow, however, that my finite analogical knowledge of goodness and justice properly can account for all the facts. I do not know it all. I know very little about hearts. I know next to nothing about hell except what Scripture says. Scripture does not want us to meditate on hell but on things above as Paul tells us. And therefore, I do not and I think it morally irresponsible to think long on things below except when it moves us upward.
For me, theological humility means that God transcends me in every way possible—that is, he is not a being among beings; He is Being above all categories. He is not a thing in creation. He is not a part of it. My finite graspings at justice and goodness are true, but are like chaff when compared to the majesty of God’s mind. And so I find it entirely rational to affirm God’s goodness in Christ for us without being able to articulate the cosmic implications of the reality of hell from God’s point of view—having all knowledge and seeing all possibility.
I can only affirm what Scripture reveals—that is very little.
2. What is judgment? Judgment is the just administration of God’s justice
Does hell precede heaven as a final purgative place in which sinners can learn their way to Christ? That seems to be close to Hart’s view. He does not deny hell’s existence but sees it as enclosed in God’s final movement toward redemption. Hell is not a final end because that would be a non-end (evil merely privates good). Good is the real end of all things, avers Hart.
He’s right in so far as he claims that God is our proper end. But sin and death may so strangle our ability to do right that we in fact choose freely to fall into non-being, that is, away from goodness. If that is hell, and to some degree it has to be, then hell may be the positive experience of God’s justice mixed with the privative force of subsisting evil which lacks goodness, that is, God himself as the good end of all things.
My point here is not to say I know for sure these things, but simply to say that it’s hard to destroy the reality of unending hell when we know so little about it. It would be odd for hell to be a place in which God was not; since he must be there due to his immensity. But God as simple reveals himself to us according to our composite plurality. We see him often through one lens such as mercy or justice, not because he lacks one or the other at a certain time, but because of our limited capacity.
In hell, God could be experienced through his justice while still being Love all the way down. How? Well, I cannot even suggest an analogical model for understanding this because I know next to nothing about hell but much about God who is Love. That is how scripture and revelation work. And I am content to remain in my lowliness of understanding since I (and Hart!) have insufficient knowledge and ability to criticize hell’s nature because of our finite and limited capacity; and because of how little God has revealed about it beyond its existence and that it is unpleasant.
3. What is a Person?
I have very little to say negatively here since what Hart says is quite sane. I do have to wonder why he privileges Gregory of Nyssa’s interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 since it seems to be a possible but not necessary interpretation of Genesis 1. Nyssa basically sees Genesis 1 to narrate a sort of first or eternal notion of human creation in God’s image which would imply a return to a sort of community of oneness before God. Perhaps.
It is obvious that persons relate to one another and become fully who they are in relationships. There is no isolated individual, absolutely separate from all. But I am not sure his argument here requires a universal salvation, especially given the following arguments from scripture which I find to be highly suspect
The Bible does speak of hell, and it points to people residing there in unending torment. Neither Hart’s pastiche of citations of Scripture in Greek nor his brief explanations do full justice to the argument for eternal hell. As far as I know, “eternal” does mean something like Hart argues. The Greek word (e.g., aionios) along with its Hebrew equivalent (olam = age) means something like age. The point here is that the final age is one in which the sheep and goats are separated or sifted. That age ends or culminates the prior ages, and so in this sense it has no end or is everlasting. Or at the very least we can say that Scripture provides no alternative; it does not claim that hell merely encloses itself in a larger redemptive arc. If that is true, revelation does not tell us this.
Hart’s exegesis of Romans 9–11, while interesting, seems to ignore that Romans 11:25–32 specifically defines God’s mercy on all as his mercy on the gentiles and not just Israel. The sense of “all” here requires the sense of all peoples and no longer just Israel. I doubt the second conclusion that all individuals will be saved really follows from this passage. It at least would be surprising given that Paul preaches the saving Gospel which not everyone accepts.
It is important here to again employ Maximos’s words that humility is the gift of God, especially when it comes to theology. I do not know what hell is since it contains fire that does not illumine darkness; darkness that does not receive light from fire; and worms that do not burn nor die. These pictures that Scripture provides tell us that the fire is not our fire, the darkness is not our darkness, nor the worms our worms. They act nothing like our versions do. So what are they? Well, they picture the final end of judgment apart from God’s grace. Hell is terrible. I just know very little about it, and I plan to keep it that way.
God does know much about it. And he is good and just. In Christ, he proved it without a shadow of a doubt. So whatever he does, it follows that it must be good and just. I cannot defend every aspect of hell at least with great vigour simply because I know very little about it. I know much more about heaven and our final end in God. That I could write volumes on. Hell, not so much. And I am okay with that.
Hell exists because Scripture affirms it. I feel no compulsion to defend hell in all its particulars because we simply know very little about it. We do know much about God, however. So I will stick with defending him and affirm his revelation of hell.
4. What is Freedom?
True freedom is choosing what is best and so it means limiting our options of choice because our natural will finds its satisfaction in goodness, which is God who is the source and end of all created beings. In Hart’s own words, “What, after all, makes any choice free? Principally, a telos.” That purpose involves pursuing what seems good, and what seems good has its final end in God. So when someone enters hell, it would be an odd argument to make that they continue to choose to stay there due to their love of sin and hate of God. Once there, Hart believes, no rational creature would choose their own pain over God.
While Hart makes this argument, he does not seem to warrant the possibility that in hell no ability to grow towards the good will continue. Let the one who hates, hate still more. Part of what makes hell, well, hell seems to be the race to destructive sin: “Let the one who does wrong continue to do wrong; let the vile person continue to be vile; let the one who does right continue to do right; and let the holy person continue to be holy” (Rev 22:11 NIV).
The sinfulness of sin, even if it subsists as a privation of God’s original and perfect gift of being, seems to lead to a further and further insult to the image of God by the love of sin and so hate of God. While Revelation 22:11 is somewhat ambiguous and it does not directly tie itself to hell, it at least provides a sort of paradigm for understanding how someone may possibly exist in a state of deprivation and so ever-descending into nothingness. People become avatars of their old-selves in their time of judgment.
In the above, I tried to summarize Hart’s argument, albeit in simple and brief ways. And then I shared some of my reflections on the meditations of Hart. At the end of the day, I agree with many of Hart’s premises because they are basic to Christianity (God is good, evil is not a substantive thing, etc.). Yet I find his conclusion not only surprising but simply wrong.
Revelation too clearly sets out before us a doctrine of hell as the destination of those who reject God in Christ. That said, I recognize that Scripture tells us just enough about hell that we fear it (Matt 10:28) but not enough about it so that we can meditate on its inner-logic. Yes, Hart has presented a lexical and contextual argument in his second meditation that aims to show us that the nature of hell in Scripture is less clear than we sometimes think it is. Well, it is not meant to be.
Yet it is fearful and real as Jesus said, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28). Whatever hell is precisely, it is fearful and bad and the destiny of those who do not believe in Christ.
Here is an article that spends much time working through the argument of Hart.
Disclaimer: The publisher provided me with a review copy of the above work.