There are many reasons to resonate with David Bentley Hart’s “That All Shall Be Saved”, undeniably the best published argument for Christian universalism in recent years. Even if you’re not a fan of this idea that God saves everyone (but do ask yourself what’s so ‘repugnant’ about that) this book serves up a great dish of writing. Hart doesn’t have a problem with modesty or shyness when it comes to making his points so it can be both refreshing yet (delightfully) disturbing to read someone run roughshod over what 99.99% of Christians believe (haha).
Okay, so what do I like about this book? At least 4–5 things:
a) His contrast of ‘pro-hell’ verses practically all of which are metaphorical or consists of imagery over against the ‘pro-universalist’ passages all of which are straight-fwd doctrinal statements, and how Christians give full credence to the former but explain away the latter (eg, read Rom 5:18–19, 11:32, 1 Cor 5:14, 15:22, 1 Tim 2:3–6, Titus 2:11, 2 Cor 5:19, Eph 1:9–10, etc and ask why we immediately bracket the ‘ALL’ in those verses, and why don’t we let these passages ‘control’ those which talk about damnation? see p. 94–102 for a full listing of the verses)
b) Hart’s exegetical remarks about the Greek word “aionis” (and other words used by Christ when talking about damnation’s duration) and how we can’t take for granted that it means “eternal” or “everlasting”, as opposed to “a substantial period of time” or an “extended interval”, how some of the early Fathers recognised this ambiguity and so refrained from drawing conclusions about everlasting judgment; instead, it could be the case that when Christ talks about eternal judgement or the like, He meant judgment, cleansing and purgation within and throughout THIS age (which could be substantial but not infinite), p.121–129.
Long and short, due to poor Bible translations, readers have been duped to associate judgment with never-ending durations.
c) His reminder that many early Christian thinkers (who were ‘closer’ to the original understandings of the relevant Scriptural texts) were explicit universalists, eg. Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Isaac of Nineveh, Maximus the Confessor, so maybe we moderns shouldn’t be so smug in rejecting the doctrine?
d) His notion that bad choices may not be truly be free ones (“If you were to leap off the top of a high building, the rest of us would recognise your action as a feat of lunacy, and therefore not truly free,” p. 174), thus problematizing the idea that hell exists because people can freely choose it
Finally, Hart also rejects the idea that a God of love will allow the eternal conscious torment of billions of souls on account of their finite guilt (“Can we imagine that someone still in torment after a trillion ages, or then a trillion trillion, or then a trillion vigintillion, is in any meaningful sense the same agent who contracted some measurably quantity of personal guilt in that tiny, ever more vanishingly insubstantial gleam of an instant that constituted his or her terrestrial life?”, p.203–204). I also can’t argue with his denunciation of double predestination and any idea that God needs to damn ppl to eternity to show off His power and glory as immoral (no this book isn’t going to go down well with proud Calvinists especially — surprise surprise)
So am I convinced, and have I become a universalist? No. Or not yet.
First, I gotta say I am convinced that even if I DID believe that God will save everyone, I shouldn’t be thought of as some doctrinal rogue and that my views should be respected.
Having said that, and whilst I salute Hart for his mini-majestrial defense of universalism, I think his views aren’t as air-tight as he believes.
1. Hart freely admits he’s a determinist and that God can ‘make’ individuals do whatever He wants them to do; hence, his rejection of the Freewill Defence for the existence of hell (and, I assume, evil).
This sort of compatibilism not only sounds like much speculative philosophical bogus but, most critically, it goes against a lot of the Bible. Simply glance at the prophetic books, at the Gospels, and ask yourself why God and His Son and prophets are practically CRYING and SCREAMING at the people to repent if, oh, God could just snap His fingers and voila everyone becomes Mother Teresa and Desmond Tutu clones.
Clearly, the freedom to commit evil and go against what God wants is a Biblical axiom, and if so then Hart needs to explain why God, who is able to override human freedom unproblematically, doesn’t do so more often but why, so Hart argues, He will do so eventually. He sorta hints at an answer involving two “ages”, this age and the age to come, but his argument that God is able to achieve whatever outcome He desires ‘traps’ him in the same quandary as the average determinist — so why isn’t the world a much better place if God can just make it so?
2. Hart’s main arguments for universalism, as with most universalists, hang on his views of what a loving and good God will accept and how the existence of hell ‘impacts’ God’s essence and goals. Here is where I suspect he makes the same mistakes as the key opponents he disses i.e. the Calvinists.
Both of them start from extra-Biblical first principles which, like railroad tracks, simply guarantee the conclusion one leads to. Eg, if I start out with this idea that God has decided everything from eternity (independently of what people will do) and no creaturely will can thwart the will of God, then this logically rules out almost every theology except double-predestination.
Likewise, Hart’s position that nothing can vary from God’s desired purposes and every creature’s true freedom is logically fulfilled ONLY when it obeys and knows God will — as night follows day — lead to the conclusion that ultimately and eventually everyone will worship God.
Just like how double predestination seems pre-built inside Calvinist axioms, universalism appears to inevitably derived from Hart’s starting points. That the Bible may give a different picture that contradicts this neat and systematic way of thinking bothers neither Hart nor, of course, RC Sproul.
So Hart believes that if even one soul is annihilated, that would constitute an abberation in the perfect ways and intentions of God — therefore annihilationism can’t be true. My own take is, uh, I beg to differ. If the Bible states that God’s goodness and power and what-not have no issues “co-existing” with the judgment of wicked-ass people (and if such judgment means that somehow they will never be near Him ever again), then I’m gonna go with Scripture — too bad for philosophy.
(Note: One of NT Wright’s critique of the theological school of Radical Orthodoxy is that they “don’t know what to do with the Bible”. In this vein, it’s cute that John Milbank, the top proponent of RO, endorsed Hart’s book whilst Hart’s views may also suffer the same flaws as RO)
Okay, I’ve blabbed enough. Check out the book if this topic interests you or, uh, if you find yourself thinking a lot about infernal affairs lately (and I don’t mean the Andy Lau show).
Burk, D., Stackhouse Jr, J. G., Parry, R., Walls, J., & Gundry, S. N. (2016). Four Views on Hell. Zondervan Academic — believe it or not, this is the second(!) version of “4 views of Hell”; the first book (with Walvoord, Pinnock et al) is below. Kinda shows you how popular this topic is! haha
Lau, A. (2015). Raising Hell: A Survey of Christian Doctrines on the Fate of the Damned. https://www.slideshare.net/alwynlau/hell-5-views — wanna know my preferred position on this topic? go to slide #52
McClymond, M. (2019). David Bentley Hart’s Lonely, Last Stand for Christian Universalism. The Gospel Coalition. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/shall-saved-universal-christian-universalism-david-bentley-hart/ — McClymond’s is probably the strongest critique of Hart’s book; I can’t help but feel that it’s getting personal between this two
Walls, J. L. (1992). Hell: the logic of damnation. University of Notre Dame Press.— I can’t remember much of this book, all I know is that it was a good read. Walls (and, it appears, folks like Greg Boyd and DB Hart himself) also subscribes to some version of Purgatory, key verses being Romans 14:10 and 2 Cor 5:10
Walvoord, J. F., Hayes, Z. J., & Pinnock, C. H. (2010). Four Views on Hell. Zondervan Academic. — one of Pinnock’s many contributions to the multi-views series