That All Shall Be Saved

Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
David Bentley Hart
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , September
     2019.
     232 pages.
     $26.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780300246223.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation, David Bentley Hart’s brilliant and impassioned argument for universal salvation (the doctrine of the ultimate reconciliation of all things with God), begins and ends with a stout-hearted declaration that he expects his views to be roundly rejected by the majority of his readers. These passages have an odd ring to them, and suggest a great deal about Hart’s presumed audience. After all, outside the ranks of theologically conservative Christian writers, the doctrine of universal salvation already enjoys a widespread appeal, and the idea of an eternal hell of infinite torment arouses just as much moral horror in most of us as it does in Hart.

This is true not only of people who define themselves as secular, but of many progressive Christians, as well. The majority of mainline Protestant churches have long since abandoned in practice the doctrine of eternal damnation (what Hart terms “infernalist orthodoxy”), when they have not also come to doubt the reality of personal immortality in any form. Therefore, if Hart contends that most Christians will find his conclusions untenable, he is presumptively excluding liberal Christians from his definition of the term. He is free to do so, of course, but having made this decision he should not be surprised if he is left with more fire-and-brimstone heavy interpretations of the creed.

Hart contends, with some tongue-in-cheek confessional chauvinism, that Western Christendom has proven especially inhospitable to universalism, compared with its Eastern alternative. Yet he neglects to mention the largest single organized effort to promote a Christian theology of universal reconciliation—the Universalist Church of America, which was far from a product of Eastern Orthodoxy. It is odd that in a rundown of universalist thinkers, he finds time for Scottish fantasy author and theologian George MacDonald, but not the 19th-century Universalist Church preachers in the United States who more systematically enunciated universal reconciliation as a doctrine.

Hart’s exclusion of liberal Christianity, including permutations like Universalism, which were widely condemned as heretical a century ago, perhaps stems from an understandable impulse to preserve as much theological orthodoxy as possible, without having to topple the whole edifice for the sake of removing the brick of eternal damnation. The Universalist Church’s later evolution into non-theistic humanism and ultimately the post-Christian denomination of Unitarian Universalism, suggests it is perhaps difficult to excise one traditional doctrine of orthodoxy without yielding the others.

However, Hart cannot escape these difficulties by neglecting the heritage of liberal Christian thought, which has dealt at length with precisely the questions he addresses in this book. The two chief “infernalist” arguments with which Hart contends are much the same ones the 19th-century Universalists battled in their controversies with the orthodox: (1) the claim that having the option to choose eternal damnation by one’s own volition is necessary to the dignity of rational creatures, which Hart dubs the “free will argument”; and (2) the argument from divine sovereignty, which holds that the majesty and completeness of God’s power is shown as much in the absolute damnation of some “vessels of wrath” as in the election of other undeserving mortals to a state of grace.

As Hart notes, the free will argument is by far the more prevalent of the two today. It comports somewhat better with the humanitarian impulses of liberal society, seeking as it does (however implausibly) to make eternal damnation into a sort of goodwill gesture God grants to its victims. Hart’s argument against this line of reasoning is persuasive and substantially original. He contends that the notion of a rational being “choosing” sin with perfect freedom is incompatible with the way these terms are defined in Christian theology. Sin, Hart argues, is understood to be a condition of bondage and ignorance, which in itself prevents the soul from realizing true freedom. Once God has truly liberated a soul, therefore, the soul is compelled to seek unity with God.

Where Hart runs into difficulties similar to those heterodox Christians encountered in the past, however—and which ultimately pushed many Universalists into non-theism—is the fact that the doctrine of eternal damnation is not the only plank of orthodoxy that rests on these two arguments. This becomes particularly apparent when Hart confronts the problem of evil.

Hart is committed to a classical metaphysical tradition that insists God is the essence of reality itself. Evil, in that case, is merely the absence of good. It has no existence in itself and is simply the term we use for a departure from reality in its fullest sense. Therefore, God is not the author of evil, and as God progressively accomplishes the work of salvation, all things— including the entire human community—will eventually be subsumed in one all-encompassing state of “Being.”

Accepting this line of argument requires a familiarity and comfort with metaphysical concepts that are largely out of step with the post-Kantian philosophic tradition (as Hart is proudly aware). If one is not prepared to treat existence as a predicate, for instance, and is enough of a logical positivist at heart to fear that using “Being” as a substantive is more a trick of language than an example of proper reasoning, one is not likely to follow Hart far down this path.

Even if one is willing to adopt Hart’s ontological framework, however, one still encounters the problem that, if God is truly all-sufficing, and if creation involves departures from “reality” or “the good”—even ones that will eventually be rectified—how could creating the world have been an act of divine charity? Most proposed answers to this question depend on some version of either the free will or divine sovereignty arguments that Hart has already rejected. If Hart is correct that sin is not essential to the concept of a free will (if it is, indeed, contrary to it), why would God create us with the capacity—indeed, the proclivity—to sin?

Those who follow Hart’s logic to the extent of agreeing that no God of love could create an everlasting torture-chamber, in short, may also soon wish to absolve that same God of the crime of the creation.

Even those who do not share Hart’s theistic views, however, will nonetheless delight in his extraordinary rhetorical gifts, as well as the intensity of his conviction. It is a sublime triumph of the Christian ethic that its commitments can ultimately be used to subvert some of the religion’s own traditional cosmological doctrines. That All Shall Be Saved is a beautiful and thrilling example of such a conscience at work.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joshua Leach is Policy Analyst for the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.

Date of Review: 
May 15, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David Bentley Hart is an Eastern Orthodox scholar of religion, and a philosopher, writer, and cultural commentator.

Comments

Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.