Heaven, Hell and Universal Salvation
by David Bentley Hart
Yale University Press, 2019. 222 pages.
Review written December 26, 2019, from my own copy purchased via Amazon.com
My cousin Keith mentioned on Facebook that this book was coming out, a book on the same topic as Rob Bell’s Love Wins. He mentioned it with concern, but it gave me great delight, and I ordered the book on Amazon. It makes a nice addition to my collection of books supporting universalism.
This one takes a very academic perspective. The book is written in academic language, and I’m ashamed to admit that some of the language went right over my head. He also takes a primarily philosophical approach, arguing about the nature of God and goodness and free will. (No wonder my cousin knew of this author – my cousin is a professor of philosophy.)
One thing I love about this book is that there’s not a trace of wishy-washiness in his opinions. Now, when I first started reading about universalism, I’m glad I encountered writers with more humility, more willing to concede they might be mistaken. But the more I’ve read, the more universalism seems to make everything make sense, and for me at this point, it feels refreshing to read an author who’s sure about what he’s teaching. Here’s how he puts it in the Introduction:
If Christianity taken as a whole is indeed an entirely coherent and credible system of belief, then the universalist understanding of its message is the only one possible. And, quite imprudently, I say that without the least hesitation or qualification.
And he adds to that in the end of the book:
To say that, on the one hand, God is infinitely good, perfectly just, and inexhaustibly loving, and that, on the other, he has created a world under such terms as oblige him either to impose, or to permit the imposition of, eternal misery on finite rational beings, is simply to embrace a complete contradiction. And, no matter how ingenious the rhetorical tricks one devises to convince oneself that the claim is in fact logically coherent, morally elevating, and spiritually enlivening, the contradiction remains unresolved. All becomes mystery, but only in the sense that it requires a very mysterious ability to believe impossible things.
The book begins by looking at the question of an eternal hell, and then four meditations looking at four questions: “Who is God?” “What Is Judgment?” “What Is a Person?” and “What Is Freedom?”
In the section on the question of an eternal hell, he says that he is okay with the view that suffering in hell is essentially self-imposed.
A hardened heart is already its own punishment; the refusal to love or be loved makes the love of others – or even just their presence – a source of suffering and a goad to wrath. At the very least, this is a psychological fact that just about any of us can confirm from experience.
His problem with the common teaching on hell is strictly with the idea that hell is never-ending.
Once one has had time to think about it for a little while, one should notice that, when all is said and done, this very rational and psychologically plausible understanding of hell still in no significant way improves the larger picture of God as creator and redeemer – at least, not if one insists upon adding the qualification “eternal” or “final” to the condition of self-imposed misery that it describes. At that point, we find that our two questions remain as gallingly unaddressed as ever: the secondary question of whether this defiant rejection of God for all of eternity is really logically possible for any rational being; and the primary question of whether the God who creates a reality in which the eternal suffering of any being is possible – even if it should be a self-induced suffering – can in fact be the infinitely good God of love that Christianity says he is.
David Bentley Hart goes into great detail looking at these questions. He gives a preview of where he’s going:
One argument that I shall make in this book is that the very notion that a rational agent in full possession of his or her faculties could, in any meaningful sense, freely reject God absolutely and forever is a logically incoherent one. Another is that, for this and other reasons, a final state of eternal torment could be neither a just sentence pronounced upon nor a just fate suffered by a finite being, no matter how depraved that being might have become. Still another is that, even if that fate were in some purely abstract sense “just,” the God who would permit it to become anyone’s actual fate could never be perfectly good – or, rather, as Christian metaphysical tradition obliges us to phrase it, could never be absolute Goodness as such – but could be at most only a relative calculable good in relation to other relative calculable goods. And yet another is that the traditional doctrine of hell’s perpetuity renders other aspects of the tradition, such as orthodox Christology or the eschatological claims of the Apostle Paul, ultimately meaningless. If all of this seems obscure, which at this point it should, I hope it will have become clear by the end of the book.
By this time, you understand what I mean when I say this book is primarily philosophical and written in academic language. This book isn’t for every reader, but if these quotations make you wonder or want to argue, you know where to find more.
Now, please don’t think that his arguments are merely philosophical and apart from Scripture. No, as with every book on universalism, an important part of his argument is the assertion that our modern day infernalist view of eternal hell comes from mistranslations of Greek and Hebrew Scripture.
This author has already published his own translation of the New Testament. So that either means that he has a thorough knowledge of the Greek language used or it means that he’s translating to please himself. Since his conclusions match what so many other authors have told me about the meaning of significant Greek words, and since he looks at the historical use of key terms outside the Bible, including their use by Plato as well as by the early church fathers, I’m going with the view that he’s got a thorough knowledge of the Greek.
He covers the writings of the New Testament most closely in his meditation “What Is Judgment?” Here’s a little bit from that section:
There is a general sense among most Christians that the notion of an eternal hell is explicitly and unremittingly advanced in the New Testament; and yet, when we go looking for it in the actual pages of the text, it proves remarkably elusive. The whole idea is, for instance, entirely absent from the Pauline corpus, as even the thinnest shadow of a hint. Nor is it anywhere patently present in any of the other epistolary texts. There is one verse in the gospels, Matthew 25:46, that – at least, as traditionally understood – offers what seems the strongest evidence for the idea (though even there, as I shall explain below, the wording leaves room for considerable doubt regarding its true significance); and then there are perhaps a couple of verses from Revelation (though, as ever when dealing with that particular book, caveat lector). Beyond that, nothing is clear. What in fact the New Testament provides us with are a number of fragmentary and fantastic images that can be taken in any number of ways, arranged according to our prejudices and expectations, and declared literal or figural or hyperbolic as our desires dictate. True, Jesus speaks of a final judgment, and uses many metaphors to describe the unhappy lot of the condemned. Many of these are metaphors of destruction, like the annihilation of chaff or brambles in ovens, or the final death of body and soul in the Valley of Hinnom (Gehenna). Others are metaphors of exclusion, like the sealed doors of wedding feasts. A few, a very few, are images of imprisonment and torture; but, even then, in the relevant verses, those punishments are depicted as having only a limited term (Matthew 5:36; 18:34; Luke 12:47-48, 59). Nowhere is there any description of a kingdom of perpetual cruelty presided over by Satan, as though he were a kind of chthonian god.
On the other hand, however, there are a remarkable number of passages in the New Testament, several of them from Paul’s writings, that appear instead to promise a final salvation of all persons and all things, and in the most unqualified terms. I imagine some or most of these latter could be explained away as rhetorical exaggeration; but then, presumably, the same could be said of those verses that appear to presage an everlasting division between the redeemed and the reprobate. To me it is surpassingly strange that, down the centuries, most Christians have come to believe that one class of claims – all of which are allegorical, pictorial, vague, and metaphorical in form – must be regarded as providing the “literal” content of the New Testament’s teaching regarding the world to come, while another class – all of which are invariably straightforward doctrinal statements – must be regarded as mere hyperbole.
But this book especially stands out in tackling head-on the argument that God has to respect mankind’s “free will” and allow people to choose eternity away from God. Even C. S. Lewis had this view. But is someone who acts irrationally truly free?
A choice made without rationale is a contradiction in terms. At the same time, any movement of the will prompted by an entirely perverse rationale would be, by definition, wholly irrational – insane, that is to say – and therefore no more truly free than a psychotic episode. The more one is in one’s right mind – the more, that is, that one is conscious of God as the Goodness that fulfills all beings, and the more one recognizes that one’s own nature can have its true completion and joy nowhere but in him, and the more one is unfettered by distorting misperceptions, deranged passions, and the encumbrances of past mistakes – the more inevitable is one’s surrender to God. Liberated from all ignorance, emancipated from all adverse conditions of this life, the rational soul could freely will only its own union with God, and thereby its own supreme beatitude. We are, as it were, doomed to happiness, so long as our natures follow their healthiest impulses unhindered; we cannot not will the satisfaction of our beings in our true final end, a transcendent Good lying behind and beyond all the proximate ends we might be moved to pursue. This is no constraint upon the freedom of the will, coherently conceived; it is simply the consequence of possessing a nature produced by and for the transcendent Good: a nature whose proper end has been fashioned in harmony with a supernatural purpose. God has made us for himself, as Augustine would say, and our hearts are restless till they rest in him. A rational nature seeks a rational end: Truth, which is God himself. The irresistibility of God for any soul that has truly been set free is no more a constraint placed upon its liberty than is the irresistible attraction of a flowing spring of fresh water in a desert place to a man who is dying of thirst; to choose not to drink in that circumstance would be not an act of freedom on his part, but only a manifestation of the delusions that enslave him and force him to inflict violence upon himself, contrary to his nature. A woman who chooses to run into a burning building not to save another’s life, but only because she can imagine no greater joy than burning to death, may be exercising a kind of “liberty,” but in the end she is captive to a far profounder poverty of rational freedom.
He’s also very clear about the injustice of applying eternal punishment to finite creatures.
None of this should need saying, to be honest. We should all already know that whenever the terms “justice” and “eternal punishment” are set side by side as if they were logically compatible, the boundaries of the rational have been violated. If we were not so stupefied by the hoary and venerable myth that eternal damnation is an essential element of the original Christian message (which, not to spoil later plot developments here, it is not), we would not even waste our time on so preposterous a conjunction. From the perspective of Christian belief, the very notion of a punishment that is not intended ultimately to be remedial is morally dubious (and, I submit, anyone who doubts this has never understood Christian teaching at all); but, even if one believes that Christianity makes room for the condign imposition of purely retributive punishments, it remains the case that a retribution consisting in unending suffering, imposed as recompense for the actions of a finite intellect and will, must be by any sound definition disproportionate, unjust, and at the last nothing more than an expression of sheer pointless cruelty.
So that gives you the idea. There’s much more in this book. I hope there are people out there who are intrigued by this (to me) refreshing logic. Here’s where the author leaves us at the end of the meditation on freedom:
Freedom consists in the soul’s journey through this interior world of constantly shifting conditions and perspectives, toward the only home that can ultimately liberate the wanderer from the exile of sin and illusion. And God, as the transcendent end that draws every rational will into actuality, never ceases setting every soul free, ever and again, until it finds that home. To the inevitable God, every soul is bound by its freedom. In the end, if God is God and spirit is spirit, and if there really is an inextinguishable rational freedom in every soul, evil itself must disappear in every intellect and will, and hell must be no more. Only then will God, both as the end of history and as that eternal source and end of beings who transcends history, be all in all. For God, as scripture says, is a consuming fire, and he must finally consume everything.
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