That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation

David Bentley Hart
Published by Yale University Press in 2019

My thanks to Benjamin B. DeVan for his review. I have to protest, however, that he has not laid out the continuous philosophical case that the book advances. I can only assume that past experience misled him into conflating my claims with others he had previously encountered, with the result that he missed the larger “narrative arc,” so to speak. Thus he mischaracterizes the text as a whole, and attributes to me several claims in particular that I was careful not to make. As the book’s author, I must bear some of the blame for this, as I could have written the text in a more propositional form if I had wished. But, conversely, DeVan might have attended more closely to what I did in fact say.

So, before proceeding to DeVan’s seven criticisms, let me clarify the book’s structure. For those who might want a fuller précis of the (roughly speaking) six-part case made in That All Shall Be Saved, and a clearer account of how those parts fit together, I would direct them to a series of four short articles I posted recently on the website of Public Orthodoxy (https://publicorthodoxy.org/tag/david-bentley-hart/). These, of course, are not exhaustive treatments of that case, but they do provide a map of its twists and turns. Here, however, I can identify some of the broader themes—which are: 1) The possibility of intelligible analogical language about God in theological usage and the danger of a “contagion of equivocity”; 2) The total analogical disjunction that the idea of an eternal hell necessarily intro- duces into certain indispensable theological predicates and the destruction this necessarily wreaks on doctrinal coherence; 3) The relation between the classical metaphysics of creatio ex nihilo and eschatology, the necessary “moral modal collapse” of the distinction between divine will and divine permission (or between the divine antecedent and consequent wills) at the eschatological horizon that this entails, and the consequent implications regarding the relative goodness of God’s action in creation and, by inevitable logical extension, of God in himself (this part of the book contains an especially important “game-theory” argument that I wish DeVan had wrestled with); 4) The relation between time and eternity, or between history and the Kingdom, or between this age and the next in biblical eschatology, and whether any synthesis other than a universalist one (and especially one that, like Gregory of Nyssa’s, uses 1 Corinthians 15 as a master key) can hold all of the scriptural evidence together in a way that is not self-defeating; 5) The ontological and moral structure of personhood, and the dependency of personal identity—again, both ontological and moral—on an indissoluble coinherence of souls; and 6) The necessary logical structure of rational freedom in relation to divine transcendence, especially as inflected by orthodox Christology, and the implications this has for the “free will defense” of eternal perdition.

Now, then, as for DeVan’s seven criticisms, they are mostly based on misapprehensions. Again, accepting whatever portion of blame rightly accrues to me, I can only try to make the picture clearer:

  1. The book is not a work of research, but an independent philosophical argument,with few references to any secondary sources. Such sources as are quoted directly are named. Readers might want to consult my recent New Testament translation and its critical apparatus (as this book was a supplement thereto). And there are many good books for those curious about the history of universalist theology, by Ilaria Ramelli and others. But a strictly philosophical demonstration of an argument, working its way economically toward a QED, is better without a ponderous carapace of scholia.
  2. DeVan has misstated my argument about culpability. The issue has nothing to do with, say, the length of time involved in committing a sin, except in the obvious sense that all our acts in this life occur within a finite frame of possible situations. The argument concerns the possibility of acting compos mentis and fully freely under conditions that make that impossible, and the disproportion between what must logically be a qualified guilt and an irrevocable or potentially irrevocable retribution (among other things). I cannot repeat the argument here, obviously.
  3. DeVan’s “eternally sinning” defense of eternal hell, alas, is an old but still ad hoc rationalization of something inherently unintelligible. But it is also immaterial, in that it would still fail to hold up against the case the book makes regarding rational freedom in Meditation Four, as well as that regarding rational culpability there and in chapter two, as well as that regarding divine will and permission and the nature of God’s creative will in Meditation One. In the end, as the book shows, such eternally repeated sin could never actually be a truly free choice of the finite intellect and will against God, and so the God who emerges from such an argument remains an omnipotent monster of amoral power, unworthy of love, worship, or credence.
  4. DeVan also misstates the book’s claims regarding personal relations. Here he has clearly superimposed some other argument over mine. My point concerns what constitutes us as persons, not simply what memories we hold dear. Putting aside the vast difference between reconciling ourselves to the temporal misfortunes of others and reconciling ourselves to their eternal torment, the issue is not the question of whether we can be happy in heaven in the absence of certain other persons; to me, that would be an inane and degrading sort of problem to broach, since it would be more self-concerned than moral in nature. And it is off the mark. A heroin addict is happy when high, no matter what his circumambient conditions, and no doubt God could preserve us in an opiate ecstasy forever if he so chose. The issue is at what price that happiness is to be purchased. More precisely, the issue is whether we can actually be saved as the persons we are—or as persons at all—under the terms of a final division of eschatological destinies between eternal beatitude and eternal misery. We cannot, for reasons found in the book.
  5. DeVan could have taken more pains, I think, to understand the careful logical and phenomenological account of free rational will in Meditation Four. His objection here does not actually address my deconstruction of the “free-will defense” of hell there; and he repeats complaints whose internal contradictions I believe my argument exposes. This is, I grant, the “philosophically thickest” part of the book, and so DeVan’s failure to take it all in on first reading is hardly unique to him; but I recommend that readers consult the first of the Public Orthodoxy pieces mentioned above.
  6. DeVan’s questions regarding scripture are in fact mostly answered in the book and in the critical apparatus of my translation of the New Testament (to which, again, the book is a supplement). I will add here that no truly good New Testament scholar believes that either Jesus or Paul advanced a picture of eternal torment like that of later Christian teaching. To anyone with an adequate knowledge of late antique Judaism and of the original Greek of the text, this is not even a subject of real debate. On the whole, the consensus of the best textual scholars is that the New Testament has, for the most part, two kinds of language about the last judgment: one that seems to portend the final destruction of the wicked at the threshold of the restored creation of the Age to Come and another that seems to promise universal salvation. The question is: Which can better explain the other? The former would seem to reduce the latter to vacuous hyperbole and false hope. The latter, however, can conceivably explain the former in terms of a harsh purification that destroys the sinful self for the sake of the resurrection of the redeemed creature. And surely 1 Corinthians 15 is the master key for deciding which is which (in tandem with a great many other passages). I recommend reading Gregory of Nyssa’s On the Soul and Resurrection. I also recommend an article by Dimitris J. Kyrtatas from 2009 called “The Origins of Christian Hell” for a judicious treatment of the textual issues (Numen 56, 282-297). I would also note that the eschatological vision my book proposes, to my mind, holds together extremely well with the New Testament texts.
  7. I have no patience for this complaint. DeVan thinks arguments like mine put souls at risk. But I, quite to the contrary, believe the idea of a hell of eternal torment to be unscriptural, logically incoherent, depraved, psychologically destructive, and morally corrosive. And I believe also that far more have been driven away from real faith by the absurd doctrine of eternal torment than have ever been coerced into earnest belief. I do not think that people can be persuaded to love God by teaching them that God is an omnipotent brute of obscene, irrational cruelty. As far as I am concerned, my book demonstrates beyond any reasonable doubt the self-evident falsehood and evil of the teaching of eternal torment. Simply said, there is no possible world in which the received Christian teaching of a hell of eternal torment could ever be true. If, therefore, I believed that Christianity did indeed require such a teaching, I would conclude only that it is a false religion, to which no one should adhere. For myself, I worry for the spiritual and mental health of all those many Christians down the centuries who have been deceived into this hideous blasphemy against the love of God poured out in Christ.

As I say, I am willing to accept some part of the blame for those aspects of my argument that DeVan found obscure. That said, the fact remains that his review has not yet really engaged that argument. For readers genuinely curious about my argument, I can only point toward the book itself and invite them to read it for themselves, carefully. It is very different, in its full contours, from other universalist arguments one can find in print. To DeVan, I can extend my thanks again for his efforts, but I also will say that, had he paid closer attention to what was genuinely original in the book, the concerns he has voiced here would have been allayed; in their place, he would have found an entirely different and perhaps graver set of concerns to provoke him.

Cite this article
David Bentley Hart, “That All Shall Be Saved—A Response to Benjamin B. DeVan”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 50:1 , 97-100

David Bentley Hart

University of Notre Dame
David Bentley Hart is the author of several books, including In the Aftermath: Provocations and Laments and The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth.

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