Will All Be Saved? David Bentley Hart on Universal Salvation

That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation By David Bentley Hart. Yale University Press, 2019.

Few topics are more likely to cause a stir among Christians than universal salvation, or apokatastasis—the view that no person will ultimately experience eternal estrangement from God. The universalist view, to be sure, has not been consistently considered heresy on the level of, say, denying the Trinity or the hypostatic union in Christ. But it is difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile with the authoritative teaching of most Christian churches, and the concept of hell as “eternal conscious torment” has undoubtedly been a part of the Christian theological fabric for centuries. From the perspective of the broader Church catholic, the burden of proof is probably on any challenger wishing to disrupt that consensus.

Not that such disruption has not been attempted. In 2011, then-prominent evangelical pastor Rob Bell published Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, which argued (somewhat elliptically) that any hell could not be eternal. So controversial was the book that it led John Piper to tweet out the now-infamous reply “Farewell, Rob Bell”: The boundaries of mainstream American Christianity were evidently fixed, and Bell had overstepped them.

Now, with his new book, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation, Eastern Orthodox theologian and general polymath David Bentley Hart has stepped into the ring. From the start, Hart is quite open about the challenges faced by his project, admitting in the book’s first pages that he expects to convince few readers. And indeed, the thesis he puts forth is excessively audacious: “[I]f Christianity is any way true, Christians dare not doubt the salvation of all…[A]ny understanding of what God accomplished in Christ that does not include the assurance of a final apokatastasis in which all things created are redeemed and joined to God is ultimately entirely incoherent and unworthy of rational faith.”

To be sure, Hart’s prose has always been bombastic, and that tendency reaches new heights here. Over and over (and over), readers are told of the sheer “moral hideousness” of the “infernalist” position that hell indeed entails eternal torment. Such rhetoric may have its place when directed against real enemies of the church (as in Hart’s Atheist Delusions), but it is no substitute for careful argument.

If that sort of polemic were all That All Shall Be Saved had to offer, it would be a slog indeed. Fortunately, unlike Love Wins, the core of Hart’s argument is more than simply an appeal to moral intuition. His new volume finds him doing what he does best: theological metaphysics. The substance of the book is a series of four interconnected meditations on creation ex nihilo, the concept of judgment in Scripture, the meaning of personhood, and the nature of freedom. (Since this is a Hart volume, there are also plenty of amusing asides on topics as diverse as analytic philosophy, preterism, and The Brothers Karamazov.)

In the first meditation, Hart contends that God, as the omnipresent Creator and Sustainer of all things, is the pure Good and there can, therefore, be no evil in him. The evil that human beings encounter (in good Platonic fashion) is the absence or deformation of some good or another; there is no such thing as “absolute evil.” Nor is there anything “outside of God,” in the metaphysical sense, since all things ultimately come from Him. This means, on Hart’s account, that creatures cannot be eternally severed from God, since God is always their sustaining source, without whom they could not exist at all. All must be reunited with Him at the end of time.

Bombastic rhetoric may have its place when directed against real enemies of the church (as in Hart’s Atheist Delusions), but it is no substitute for careful argument.

While that general metaphysical thesis serves as the book’s conceptual backbone, Hart’s argument draws on plenty of other resources. In the second meditation, Hart surveys a range of eschatological New Testament passages (most of which will be familiar to anyone who has ever argued about the atonement) and contends they are best construed as promises of God’s final and ultimate victory over evil—no exceptions. In the third, he argues that purely individualized concepts of salvation or damnation must be replaced by a more collective perspective on redemption, since persons are always constituted in part by their relations to other persons. And finally, Hart critiques the “libertarian” view of free will as a perfectly neutral choice between two alternatives: in this case, between God and “evil.” According to Hart, since the human will is always oriented toward some good or another—and since all good things are ultimately rooted in God—it is impossible for human beings to fully and truly reject Him. One may revere an occluded or distorted expression of God’s goodness, but his doing so is not an absolute turning away from Him.

As should be clear, That All Shall Be Saved is far-reaching in its scope and provocative in its conclusions. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Hart’s conclusions, his arguments for many of the premises—which largely involve the exposition of traditional Christian metaphysical concepts—are always powerful and evocative. In particular, his treatment of free will and the “act of choosing” stands out as one of the best recent discussions of the subject: as Hart explains, all humans are the products of parents and histories and forces beyond our own devising (and, ultimately, of God), so there is really no such thing as a choice made free of external influence. That is, individuals are never truly “self-possessed” when they make decisions—they necessarily affect, and are affected by, other people. That recognition has devastating consequences for a host of positions presupposed in late modern liberalism, but Hart (perhaps wisely) leaves the reader to draw them out.

Furthermore, Hart successfully avoids the obnoxious anthropocentrism of many popular arguments about universal salvation. Here, there are no crude appeals to readers’ self-interest—“What if you’re not saved? Why would God do that to you? You know that you try to be a good person!”—to be found. Rather, Hart’s argument is relentlessly theocentric, oriented toward God’s saving work, His purposes, and His essential nature (and not in the crypto-Marcionite fashion of Rob Bell, Andy Stanley, Peter Enns, and others who tend to juxtapose the loving “Jesus” against a malevolent Old Testament “God”). This, more than anything else, differentiates That All Shall Be Saved from books making similar arguments. No one can accuse Hart of collapsing God into a figure of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism or a projection of the collective human id.

That said, Hart’s book offers unsatisfying answers to some of the questions it raises. Notably, perhaps the greatest challenge for Hart’s project is its comparatively thin account of creation’s present plight—what Catholic theologian Paul Griffiths memorably terms “the devastation.” Early on, Hart affirms what might be labeled a “Christus Victor” model of the atonement—in his words, “a relentless tale of rescue, conducted by a God who requires no tribute to win his forgiveness or love”—and this is perfectly fine as far as it goes, but it leaves out any explanation of why rescue is required in the first place.

Why, after all, would God not simply create a world where all things were always already were united to Him in perfect harmony? Surely, He could do so—especially since He is the primary source of all things, as Hart never fails to remind us. Hart appears to take something of a mysterian line on this point, but the question is certainly not an unintelligible one.

The straightforward answer is that human beings, endowed with the power of secondary causality, may choose to act in ways that contravene God’s good order (and, at present, routinely do so)—and that there is some distinct good that will eventually emerge from the present devastation. This approach, however, undermines Hart’s case for universal salvation, because it simply transplants the essential problem (persistent evil) from the eschaton into the present. God is eternal and outside of time; if Hart’s premise—that if God does not succeed in perfectly abolishing evil at the end of time, His redemption will remain impermissibly incomplete—is sound, why is it any less problematic that evil, or, better, “disordered love,” lingers in the world at this moment? What about redemption requires that it occur progressively rather than instantaneously? With this question, much of Hart’s case for universalism, which turns on his objection to the coexistence of God with persistent human rebellion, seems undercut.

“For Hart, ironically, tradition is a complicated thing, and That All Shall Be Saved deploys it idiosyncratically.”

In theory, this is not an insurmountable objection, and given his critique of typical “free will” arguments in his fourth meditation, Hart presumably has a response. But he does not argue for it. Augustine’s doctrine of inherited original sin comes in for plenty of criticism here (not all of it undeserved—Augustine’s unfamiliarity with the original Greek text likely impacted his conclusions), but at least that model has real explanatory force; readers in search of alternatives to the classic Augustinian/magisterial Protestant characterization of sin as a pervasive corruption will have to look elsewhere.

That characterization, for better or worse, extends across hundreds of years of Christian tradition and has informed how most branches of the faith conceive of final judgment. In particular, both streams of magisterial Protestantism—which share the Augustinian view of sin as alienation from God, not merely misunderstanding of the Good—have historically affirmed the reality of an eternal hell. The Belgic Confession, part of the Reformed tradition’s Three Forms of Unity, speaks of God electing some and “leaving others in the fall and perdition wherein they have involved themselves.” And the Defense of the Augsburg Confession—a constituent of the Book of Concord, which confessional Lutherans accept as authoritative—provides that “at the consummation of the world Christ . . . shall condemn the ungodly to be punished with the devil without end.” To be sure, there have always been dissenters from the consensus view, as Oliver Crisp chronicles in Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology. Most famously, Karl Barth argued for reframing the doctrine of election as God’s choice of all humanity in Christ. But by and large, the broad mainstream of magisterial Protestantism has held the traditional view.

But for Hart, ironically, tradition is a complicated thing, and That All Shall Be Saved deploys it idiosyncratically. Hart’s pattern of engagement with theological tradition generally parallels Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s approach to constitutional law. Both prioritize, above all else, recovery of the original meanings of their disciplines’ ur-texts—the New Testament for Hart, and the Constitution for Thomas. Both strongly reject any temptation to update the meanings of texts in light of the “needs” of contemporary culture. And crucially, both are willing to go much further than their ideological allies in recapturing the original textual meaning, even if it calls for relitigating issues previously believed settled.

By contrast, strict Thomists like Edward Feser or thoroughgoing Reformed thinkers like Herman Bavinck approach the theological task rather like Justice Antonin Scalia approached the law. Their arguments are shaped by certain confessional strictures that go (in some sense) beyond the original text to affirm particular interpretations as dogmatic. As a result, the Catholic magisterium and the Protestant confessions exert a sort of stare decisis effect on subsequent theological controversies—that is, they require that disputes be resolved in light of the tradition’s precedential force.

It’s clear that Hart feels little obligation to work within the dogmatic boundaries fixed by others…at least, most of the time (one can’t help noticing that his Trinitarian Christology is Nicene through-and-through; Arianism isn’t on the table as a live option). But as Alasdair MacIntyre is keen to note, there is no such thing as tradition-independent rationality, and to the extent Hart writes from within the Christian tradition, more engagement with the majority perspective would have strengthened his argument. In particular, one can’t help wishing Hart had wrestled with the 1,376-page gorilla in the room, Michael McClymond’s recent The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism, which argues for precisely the opposite of Hart’s thesis on the basis of history and tradition. Moreover, some significant topics that regularly recur in these conversations—such as evangelism—are avoided completely (although Hart does suggest, in an interesting coda, that perhaps it would be better if universal salvation was not a doctrine widely discussed in the church, given its potential to trigger dissolute behavior by the faithful).

“Hart seeks to demonstrate that Christians must embrace universal salvation as a logical extension of Christian metaphysics. But the problem of evil — in particular, contemporaneous evil within a world created by a God who is outside time — thwarts that ambition.”

Hart’s treatment of tradition may be inconsistent, but if his goal is simply to show that universal salvation—in some sense—was reconcilable with the broad tradition of post-Nicene thought, he succeeds. Though the Western tradition has largely rejected belief in universal salvation, Hart argues—primarily by way of thinkers like Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor—that universal salvation has always been a viable option in Eastern Orthodoxy, and that this eschatological vision is rooted in premises shared by both East and West. And indeed, my own Lutheran tradition has been comfortable with theological aporias—difficulties that result when, on the basis of Scripture, one may have good reasons to accept certain premises that (at least on their face) cannot be easily harmonized. The precise character of God’s eternal victory over evil is one such aporia: the Scriptures teach that God will “make all things new,” but also that in Gehenna “the fire does not go out.” Some have argued that, in the deep time of the eschaton. the unrighteous will indeed be “made godly” and restored to communion after an aeon of suffering. But this hypothesis can never, to my mind, go beyond the level of pure hope on the parts of its adherents. And it can never obviate the need to earnestly pray for the salvation of one’s neighbors.

In any case, though, Hart’s goal is more ambitious than simply a broadening of the conversation: Hart seeks to demonstrate that Christians must embrace universal salvation as a logical extension of Christian metaphysics. But the problem of evil—in particular, contemporaneous evil within a world created by a God who is outside time—thwarts that ambition. The philosophical force of Hart’s argument is found in its premise that for God to be God, His plans must always be realized. But what, then, does the Fall mean on such an account? As McClymond argues, approaches like Hart’s tend to recast the struggle against evil as merely a matter of gnostic ascent from ignorance to knowledge, and while Hart never goes quite that far, it is unclear why such a critique would not apply. To this extent, Hart’s argument falls well short of his lofty aims.

Still, as the works of Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and others attest, universal salvation will likely remain a subject of interest to serious theologians, and Hart has at least delivered a lively, accessible, and philosophically rigorous exposition of the concept. We can also be grateful that some of his biblical arguments cannot help but drive the reader toward deeper engagement with Scriptural texts often left under-examined (when 1 Timothy 4:10 speaks of “the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe,” what does that stray word especially mean?).

If nothing else, the book is an intellectually stimulating read from one of the theological world’s best living writers. As a work that interrogates a complex topic while treating the broad Christian tradition—its Scriptures, its history, and its philosophical underpinnings—with a seriousness that is not often to be found among those diverging from the church’s historic teaching, it deserves serious engagement by Christian readers, even if they must part ways with Hart’s conclusions.

John Ehrett is executive editor of Conciliar Post, an online publication dedicated to cultivating meaningful dialogue across Christian traditions. He is a graduate of Yale Law School and Patrick Henry College, and is currently pursuing an M.A.R. degree at the Institute of Lutheran Theology.


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