That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell and Universal Salvation
By David Bentley Hart
A review by Dwight A. Moody
The idea of universal salvation has been a minority tradition in Christian theology since the beginning; but it started its modern journey to prominence with Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar, the latter with his book Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? In more recent and popular literature, I note the controversial book, Love Wins by the pastor-turned-celebrity critic Rob Bell.
Hart, in his “Acknowledgements and Bibliographical Notes” lists The Inescapable Love of God by Thomas Talbott and God’s Final Victory by John Kronen and Eric Reitan; he then points to The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis and A Larger Hope? by Ilaria L. E. Ramelli. Which is to say that his stunningly strong attack on the idea of eternal torment rides a wave of intellectual and popular sympathy even if it will prove to be much too academic for the general reader.
Why? I’ll tell you if you can tell me what these words mean: liceity, distillates, encomia, obsequious, indiscerptible, apophaticism, asseveration, ebullition, peregrinations, siccative, plangency, scrying, farraginous, cryptadia, chthonian, condign, divagation, pretermitted, bathos, animadversions, indurated, amphiboly, cautery, empyrean!!
You may be like me and not know the meaning of ANY of those words, but that will not keep you and me from understanding exactly what Hart is saying in this book; namely: most Christians believe in hell as the place of eternal torment for some people (and heaven the place of eternal blessedness for others)—a position Hart describes derisively as “infernalist orthodoxy” (206). He sums up his thinking thus: “To me, this seems like the most decadent theology imaginable, and certainly blasphemous through and through” (51).
Is that unclear? Try this: “Over the years, I have dutifully explored all the arguments for hell’s eternity from Christian antiquity to the present, philosophical and theological, and I continue to find them all manifestly absurd” (202). Or this: “I honestly… believe that the doctrine of eternal hell is … nonsensical, for the simple reason that it cannot even be stated in Christian theological terms without a descent into equivocity so precipitous and total that nothing but edifying gibberish remains” (202).
He makes his case by rejecting the biblical interpretation of Augustine, the theology of Calvin, and the imagination of Dante, all the while lifting to the highest place of honor the thinking of the fourth century scholar Gregory of Nyssa (whose once obscure work has enjoyed a remarkable renaissance since about 1950).
Hart himself is an Eastern Orthodox Christian and thus pre-disposed to pay attention to preachers and theologians often overlooked by the Western Christian tradition (and I mean Roman Catholic and Protestant). But he makes a compelling case for all of us to read more carefully this Gregory, the least known of the famous Cappadocian Fathers (the others being his brother Basil and their friend Gregory of Nazianzus). Cappadocia is a region in north central Asia Minor, or Turkey, as we call it today; once upon a time, it was the center of much Christian life and influence.
Apokatastsis is a Greek word that means ultimate salvation and universal reconciliation. It describes in one word the powerful Christian vision of a future when God will renew all things in heaven and on earth and reconcile the whole human race to itself and its Creator. It is an expansive, comprehensive, even breathtaking version of the gospel, but one that is seldom articulated from pulpits and lecterns.
This is what Hart believes and asserts; and he does so by answering four questions: Who is God? What is judgment? What is a person? and What is freedom? His arguments and appeals are dense and technical and dominated by words I barely understood and concepts buried in Greek metaphysics. Throughout, I was irritated by his constant (and seemingly intentional) use of the masculine pronoun for God and his complete disinterest in how the modern scientific approach to knowledge might reframe many of the questions and much of the answers.
But here is the reason why this book should be read and reread by anybody who wants to THINK about Christian things; and I will use his words to explain why none of the arguments of “infernalist orthodoxy” (the idea of hell as a place of eternal torment) “has ever persuaded me of anything, except perhaps the lengths of specious reasoning to which even very intelligent persons can go when they feel bound by faith to believe something inherently incredible” (12).
Throughout the book, Hart pitilessly rails against “the mind that has been trained most thoroughly [to] fabricate further and more extravagant absurdities, in order to secure the initial offense against reason within a more encompassing and intoxicating atmosphere of corroborating nonsense” (18f).
Let me put in in my own words. When we are presented with an idea (in church or home or school or seminar or book) that violates our moral imagination or rational canvictions we need to have the courage to speak our mind and declare: “This is crazy, and I don’t believe it, and I won’t confess it or preach it.”
Young seminarians need this encouragement and even old church members need to know it is not too late to protest something: “What you are saying contradicts my sense of truth and right, and I reject it.” Or in Hart’s final testimony: “I believe that I am obeying my conscience with a special rigor in rejecting the majority view that there is a hell of eternal torment, since I am fairly sure that it must be a wicked thing to give one’s intellectual assent to something one cannot help but find morally repugnant” (199).
Even with all the obscure words (and that many more I only half understood), I found this book bracing in the extreme—a sturdy assault on an unappealing doctrine using vivid language and wide learning. I like it, and many of you will as well.