It takes a certain kind of man, in our militantly casual age, to go by all three of your names. Certainly, from the beginning of the theologian David Bentley Hart’s public career – he began to appear in First Things regularly in the early 2000s, around the time that his first book, The Beauty of the Infinite (2003), was published – he has been exactly that kind of man, writing about theology, literature, politics, and whatever else he chooses with staggering erudition, a massive range of reference, and an overweening confidence.
In his new book, That All Shall Be Saved, Hart argues that if Christianity is true at all, it means – must mean – that everybody will ultimately, finally, after some period in a purgative Hell, reach Heaven. He avoids the standard arguments for this position (“You’re being narrow-minded”; “How could a good God torture people?”), though they hover in the background. Mostly, he focuses on the issue of whether theological language means anything or not.
A good God?
Traditionally, if a theologian believes in an eternal Hell, they make one of several terminological moves. Theologians who bite the bullet of predestination, and say that, yes, God has created some people for the express purpose of torturing them forever to his greater glory, find themselves redefining “goodness,” since this is not an obviously good thing to do. They say, in effect, that God’s “goodness” is so much more gooderer than our goodness that we just can’t recognize it as good. If this is true, says Hart, we should give up speaking of God and goodness at all. (If you, like me, have ever sat up at night worrying that God has chosen you to be one of the “vessels of wrath” that Paul conjectures about in Romans 9 – and this is a Reformed publication, so some of you definitely have – you should really read Hart’s discussion of that passage, at least.)
Hart then turns to the term “will,” a term leaned-upon by those theologians who want to affirm eternal damnation without raising the spectre of double-barrel predestination. God respects us so fully, runs the argument, as to give us the chance to choose damnation. Hart asks whether it is really even a good use of terms like “will” and “freedom” to say that a person could knowingly do so. He uses a very old idea of “freedom” to make this argument. Moderns think of “freedom” as having nothing to choose between eating a healthy lunch, freebasing cocaine, or dressing up as Kermit the Frog and playing the kazoo. Ancients had their problems, but they did not conceive of freedom in this virtually nihilistic way. They defined freedom precisely as the absence of the kinds of weird compulsions and self-destructive drives that cause us to do dumb stuff. In this definition, freedom is, to the extent we attain it, a casting-off of the inner weight that drags us out of God’s good will; it conduces to Heaven.
Saved through fire
Finally, he argues about “redemption” and “salvation.” There is no way that the God of the New Testament would ever be satisfied with a redemptive act that only got some people, and, anyway, we have too much of others in us for some of us to be saved and others to be damned. Insofar as we recognize the ways others constitute what we call “myself,” the soul in Heaven is also always a little bit in Hell insofar as Grandpa (for example) is in Hell. God has to save and harmonize the fullness of the creation that God intended – all the people who were and all the people who ought to have been, and all of them as the people they ought to have been – to save any part of it. None of this, it should be said, precludes for Hart a temporary, purgative Hell after death, a place where, basically, you go and think very hard about what you did until your whole self rebels against it. I suspect, in that sense only, Hart would mostly agree with the theologian Curtis Mayfield, who said that if there’s a Hell below, we’re all going to go. We are saved only through fire.
The book has put people off. In part that’s just because this is an incredibly vindictive time, as an era based on accounting, on the strict value judgments of the market, can’t help but be vindictive. There is no branch of modern Christianity that escapes this vindictiveness. It’s there in conservative evangelicalism, militant Calvinism, mean Thomism, right-leaning Eastern Orthodoxy. It’s also there in the sort of effortfully progressive churches that use the word “accountable” a lot, and who proclaim salvation most of all for those sinners whose sins they are simultaneously in the process of defining out of the word “sin.” (Left-liberal Christians who publicly criticize a black man for hugging the racist cop who murdered his brother – as happened earlier this year – are not ready for the redemption of all things.)
In part, however, the book has put people off because Hart is brashly arrogant, in a way that combines badly with the knowing pomp of his style. (The book has a paragraph about the imprisoning Hell of the ego that feels like one of the most deeply felt things he’s ever written.) Where other thinkers tiptoe around the possibility of universal salvation, Hart shouts it as a near-certainty. I don’t share some critics’ concern that such a belief will lead to moral license among Christians, since fear or despair, in my experience, can wreck a soul as thoroughly as complacency does. And I distrust the instinct among so many theologians to defend an eternal Hell as zealously as though it were an ill-smelling but essential family pet. The more of our energy we put in to such arguments, the more we form ourselves as people who need someone to go there. But the combination of Hart’s argument and his style has made it far too easy to see him as a sort of impious Prometheus, rushing in to God’s secret places with a slide rule. Perhaps this is intentional; in any case, it feels like a bad move. I say feel because, rightly or wrongly, that is the primal level on which such a posture offends us.
As for Hart’s vision, I think it sounds awesome. I also think it’s a bit of a conceptual shell game, but only in the way that every system of thought is one. The reality is that this life doesn’t make sense, and we use our philosophical terminology to shuffle around the part that doesn’t make sense, hiding it here or there. No system of thought that I have encountered successfully explains the simultaneous deep goodness of good, and the deep badness of bad. And this, I think, leads us to another, subtler reason that Hart’s book has presented a kind of stumbling block.
The kinds of Christianity that Hart is arguing against either relocate evil to somewhere within God’s nature and rechristens it “goodness” – as when Augustine reinterprets the unbaptized babies screaming in Hell forever as an aspect of God’s glory – or they give evil a real, consequential role to play in our salvation. Hell is real and we play a role in avoiding it, or God has allowed sin to exist so that we can better appreciate Heaven when we get there, or something. Thus the whole nightmare of human history has really mattered; the existence of evil at least did the souls of the blessed some good. But if my salvation was always, eventually in the cards, evil really had no place. Without eternal winners and losers, we’re forced to conclude that suffering is just suffering. It has no role to play; it’s not Part of the Scheme. It just sucks. It’s empty, forever. And living with that knowledge is, well, a kind of Hell; and thus this book of radiant hope has left so many with a bitter aftertaste.