Tom Talbott Reviews ‘That All Shall Be Saved’

by Thomas Talbott, Ph.D.

Part I: Some Introductory Remarks

At a time when a good many books have been written, some by academics and others by non-academics, on the topic of Christian universalism, David Bentley Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation stands out in several ways. Its author is, first and foremost, an accomplished classicist and expert in the Greek language, one whose previous publications include an important translation of the New Testament. And one of his purposes in this translation was to restore “certain ambiguities” that, so he believes, are “present in the original texts” but have been lost in later translations. He thus writes, “I am firmly convinced that two millennia of dogmatic tradition have created in the minds of most of us a fundamentally misleading picture of the claims made in Christian scripture” (p. 3). He traces much of that misleading picture, most notably the doctrines of limited election and limited atonement, “back to the late Augustine—a towering genius whose inability to read Greek and consequent reliance on defective Latin translations turned out to be the single most consequential case of linguistic incompetence in Christian history” (p. 49). As this quotation already illustrates, Hart pulls few of his punches in this book; and that very fact, whatever else one might think about it, contributes a lot to the book’s rhetorical power.

Hart relentlessly opposes, secondly, the whole idea of unending punishment and any other conception of a final separation from God; he rejects all such ideas as “manifestly absurd” even when they do not rest upon a morally offensive doctrine of limited election. For even “the gentlest, the most morally delicate, the most judiciously reluctant” conceptions of a final separation from God “all start . . . on the far side of a prior existential decision to accept an obviously ludicrous premise” (p. 202). So just what is this ludicrous premise, according to Hart? It is essentially the premise that divine justice, divine love, and divine goodness are compatible with God’s having created someone whose final fate he always knew would consist of everlasting misery and torment. For how could that even be possible? “If ‘justice’ means anything at all,” Hart protests, “it cannot be that; if ‘love’ means anything at all, it cannot be that; if ‘goodness’ means anything at all, it cannot be that” (p. 203). Hart also notes how glibly some speak of eternal conscious torment without seriously considering what such a destiny would truly mean. “Can we [even] imagine,” he asks, “that someone still in torment after a trillion years, or then a trillion trillion, or then a trillion vigintillion, is in any meaningful sense the same agent who contracted some measurable quantity of personal guilt in that tiny, ever more vanishingly insubstantial gleam of an instant that constituted his or her terrestrial life?” (pp. 203-204).

A third unique feature of this book is the extent to which its author refuses to apologize for the hard-hitting nature of his personal manifesto against the “infernalist orthodoxy,” as he calls it. He thus writes:

Custom dictates and prudence advises that here, in closing, I wax gracefully disingenuous and declare that . . . I entirely understand the views of those that take the opposite side of the argument, and that I fully respect contrary opinions on these matters. . . . [But] 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 that one cannot help but find morally repugnant. . . . I make no apologies whatsoever for rejecting the late Augustinian tradition . . . [and] that tradition’s sheer moral wretchedness as a vision of the gospel . . . I have [also] rejected every version of the infernalist orthodoxy, no matter which Christian tradition may have produced it, and no matter how tenderhearted the reasoning that informs it. To have done otherwise would have been dishonest on my part. (pp. 199-200)

Although he rejects this “infernalist orthodoxy,” sometimes in exceedingly harsh terms, as morally intolerable, biblically untenable, and philosophically confused, Hart nonetheless acknowledges that the book he has written “is at odds with a body of received opinion so invincibly well-established” that he “cannot reasonably expect to persuade anyone of anything,” with the possible exception of persuading some of his own sincerity (p. 4). At the same time, however, he laments having written a book that “ought never have needed to be written in the first place” because “the doctrine of eternal hell is prima facie nonsen­sical” (p. 202). And herein lies an insight into his rhetorical strategy, which will, I suspect, make this book difficult for evangelicals and other self-appointed guardians of orthodoxy simply to ignore. Hart himself describes his effort as “a logical and rhetorical experiment” and explains this in the following way:

There is, at the very least, something liberating about knowing that I have probably lost the rhetorical contest before it has even begun. It spares me the effort of feigning tentativeness or moderation or judicious doubt . . . and allows me instead to advance my claims in as unconstrained a manner as possible . . . [I]f nothing else, this book may provide the champions of the dominant view an occasion for honest reflection and scrupulous cerebration and serious analysis (and a whole host of other bracing intellectual virtues of that sort). (p. 4)

But at this point, I fear, Hart may find himself subjected to an ad hominem argument of the following kind: the criticism that he just regards himself as morally superior to his infernalist opponents. It is a criticism that sort of goes with the territory. After publishing a scathing critique of the Reformed doctrine of reprobation several decades ago, one in which I labeled it “a respectable blasphemy” against God, I understandably received many harsh criticisms in return. The only criticism that touched my heart, however, was exceedingly gentle. It happened when the wife of my best friend in the Reformed church that my wife and I were then attending—a dear woman with some serious physical challenges—hesitantly expressed the worry that I might be regarding myself as more loving than others in the church. That was startling indeed, because I knew without question that others in the church were far more loving in their personal lives than I tend to be in my own. None of us, after all, are fully consistent in our moral lives. So in the end I found myself saying, or at least thinking to myself, things like, “Virtually all Calvinists I have known are far better than the theology they have embraced, even as I am far worse than the theology I have embraced.” But Hart’s own attempt to forestall similar criticisms may be better than my own. “Really,” he asks concerning the infernalist orthodoxy, “could we truly believe it apart from either profound personal fear or profound personal cruelty? Which is why, again, I do not believe that most Christians truly believe what they believe they believe” (p. 204). Some may find such a view counterintuitive, but I do not. For over the course of my own life, I have observed more than a few instances where people have sincerely thought they believed certain things about God only to have some tragic event—such as a husband dying “in unbelief” or a teenage daughter committing suicide—prove that they did not truly believe what they previously had sincerely thought they believed.

In any case, I have found no major theological claim in this book with which to disagree. It would be truly remarkable, of course, were I to agree with every detail of every argument presented therein. But I am prepared to endorse every major theological claim contained in the book, starting with this one, which I take to be the main thesis of the book: “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” (p. 3—my emphasis). Not even many of those who sympathize with the universalist message are so bold as to declare that, given the New Testament understanding of God, the very idea of someone being lost forever represents a logical (or metaphysical) impossibility. Most find it sufficient to endorse a so-called “hopeful universalism,” even as they acknowledge that an eternal hell is at least logically possible. But I disagree with that, even as Hart does; and the reason we both reject even the logical possibility of an eternal hell should emerge in subsequent installments of this review.

(Go to Part 2)

* * *

Dr Thomas Talbott is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Willamette University and author of the celebrated book on the greater hope, The Inescapable Love of God. He is the author of numerous philosophical articles, as well as a piece published on this blog: “How to Read the Bible from a Universalist Perspective.”

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18 Responses to Tom Talbott Reviews ‘That All Shall Be Saved’

  1. Tom,

    First, thank you for this review. I still wait with baited breath for the arrival of That All Shall Be Saved next week. That said, there are a couple of things worth pointing out: 1) I do think that you are correct in noting that we ought to be as charitable as possible to those who either do not or haven’t yet embraced Christian Universalism, they haven’t arrived at their views out of a tacit love for God as much as unfamiliarity with the possibility that what they have been taught is morally incompatible with the God they genuinely love. 2) Given the historical force of the infernalist tradition it is understandable that many fear veering into heresy, perceived or actual depending on the tradition they belong to.

    However, I suspect that Hart is only partially right in how his rhetoric will be received. His jarring insistence that the God in which most Christians claim to believe would appear to be evil in his essay “God, Creation, and Evil” was the final push I needed as I journeyed into embracing Christian Universalism. The boldness of his approach to the topic emancipated me to believe that God is not only as good as I hoped, but Goodness itself. Mind you, I come from the pedigree of ‘flinty Calvinists’ that he so often pillories. But, in the mind of most Calvinists, the strength of rhetoric and the force of conviction is not a thing to be shied away from, it is something to be embraced. I’m sure there will be any number of detractors that howl at the seeming incredulity of Harts claims in the book. To be sure, wagons are circled in defense of orthodoxies that are already under relentless attack in today’s religiously fluid environment – from both within and without of the circle of the Christian tradition.

    Perhaps to some, however, this book along with others, including yours will give some of the most trenchant defenders of eternal torment pause and allow them to ask, “What the hell are we defending?” The howling of organizations like The Gospel Coalition are sure to ensue, however from among their ranks, already wearied by the institutional rot among the leadership and the blatant commercialism that buttresses the movement in general, the possibility that the gospel is actually better than what the Evangelical Industrial Complex is so keen on defending will come as much needed relief to many who concede their leadership. Maybe many will be repelled with Hart’s trenchant criticism of infernalism, but I would be willing to wager that not a few will also be willing to consider, if not be persuaded by his arguments. The stakes in the 21st Century for Christianity in general are so high, if we cannot come to a vision of the love of God in Christ for all that we can in turn share with the world at large we will continue to watch the precipitous decline of confessing Christians. Moreover, if we are to grow, the message of Jesus must answer our deepest human dilemmas. The gospel must be good news or it is an outdated relic that society will continue to grow in unfamiliarity with and contempt toward. All to say, some orthodoxies deserve to die. Tennyson was right:

    Our little systems have their day;
    They have their day and cease to be:
    They are but broken lights of Thee,
    And Thou, O Lord, art more than they.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      “What the hell are we defending?”—I had to chuckle. A great way to phrase the matter, Jed!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Steven says:

      I may have to borrow your phrase “Evangelical Industrial Complex” sometime. That title is itself loaded with sharp-eyed critique!

      Liked by 1 person

      • The EIC is not a term of my invention – I wish I could say it was. The first time I remember it being used was by Carl Trueman (an Orthodox Presbyterian and professor of church history). He has provided some fairly trenchant criticisms of the EIC over the past few years, often riffing off the term “Big Pharma” by calling it “Big Eva”.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Connie says:

      “Our little systems have their day;
      They have their day and cease to be:
      They are but broken lights of Thee,
      And Thou, O Lord, art more than they.”

      Thank you, Jedidiah, for that little verse by Tennyson. I didn’t know he was a universalist. How beautifully it expresses what a Christian Universalist knows in the depths of his heart!

      Like

  2. Jedi Scribe says:

    Reblogged this on Symmetria and commented:
    A very beautiful review of David Bentley Hart’s forthcoming book “That All may be saved”

    This just made my day, thank you Tom, and thank you Fr. Kimmel

    Reblogged on https://theosymmetry.wordpress.com/

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Matthew Hryniewicz says:

    This is the most exciting thing I’ve seen in a while. Talbott and Hart are two of my theological heroes.I can’t wait for the rest of the review.

    🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  4. David Artman says:

    Wow, Thomas Talbott writing about David Bentley Hart. My cup runneth over! Here we have two scholars of the first rank saying with clarity that The vision of Christian Universalism is the only one which fits in the creation of a truly good God. It makes me feel good to be alive.
    My thanks to both of you.
    Sincerely,
    David Artman

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Over on Facebook, a couple of folks have asked me who the artist or iconographer. His name is Nikola Sarić. The icon is titled “The New Creation.” The banner Christ is holding reads “Behold, I make all things new.”

    Liked by 1 person

  6. George Domazetis says:

    The discussion on universalism is fascinating and compelling when formulated in terms of the goodness of God. I am uncertain however, on how we are to view evil perpetuated by us humans. I also wonder if, regarding judgment, if we are not trying to ‘decide for God’ so to speak.

    Like

    • Grant says:

      I would say that evil whether perpetuated by humans, angels, other rational agents (other spiritual beings or possible embodied extraterrestrials), or destructive acts in creation all are ‘natural’ in that sense. They all arise from a fallen creation, and with God in mind, not just His goodness but because He is God, we have to keep in mind the asymmetry between God as infinite Creator, who is Being and beyond Being in which all things participate and have their being and are donated being from, and finite creation. When thinking about rational agents doing evil, or falling from their secondary and contingent existence and the freedom in that, we cannot see those acts as being outside of and alongside God, as if there is you, a being and God just a much more massive and perfect being who designed you and then you do your own thing. No God isn’t a being alongside other beings at all, nor a being alongside creation but is that which creation participates in to exist at all, is in that sense Existence and Reality Himself, and is utterly transcendent of finite creation (in it’s entire space and time existence now and into and beyond when He will be all in all), which He brings into being from nothing, not conditioned or constrained but Himself and His own nature. Any and every action and event are secondary causes to the Primary Cause of God’s creative Act, and are all, whatever secondary freedoms they have part of, in and reducible down to that Primary Cause.

      So, whatever actions that an agent does, indeed how they and all they interact are and have their being is shaped and allowed and brought into being by God, this includes their ability to fall and allowance of evil to be a state of things as part of that creative act, as part of that creative act the agent being evil. God brings them into existence aware of the evil they will be and do, that this is a temporary state of affairs can, keeping in mind God brings all things into being from nothing, completely freely constrained by nothing but His own nature, makes the problem of evil pressing. But the promise within the Gospel is both the revelation that this is against His will and purpose and the unveiling of all things. their healing and freeing and restoring will unveil and allow full understanding of why it was enabled to be for time (why I child is allowed to die tortuously for example, while genocides take place and mass extinctions and so on). But if someone is lost forever, remains dominated and twisted by death forever, if evil is allowed to endure or have a final say in creation (with even one rational agent being lost forever to destruction, they who God willing brought into being, who’s acts whatever their freedom are enfolded in His creative Act and will into being), then they can only have ended lost because that is God’s intention for them from before the foundation of the Cosmos. Whether with hard-line Calvinist determinism, or God so structures creation and His interactions as part of His creative Act that some do not find restoring and saving grace, or it is withheld, the result from the primary standpoint remains the same. God intentions are never thwarted or He is not God, and just a god, powerful maybe but a being like us or a star, and not the Cause and Source and reason for all things that are (and therefore Himself requires a cause and reason to existence beyond Himself to which He is constrained and conditioned by) such as Plato’s Demiurge. In the end if any is lost it is because God intends it to be so that they are lost, their being lost, being twisted by evil would be a purpose that God intends for His objectives for creation, not just a sad unavoidable loss, it would be intended to be, and they would be created to be lost either to eternal torture or absolute destruction forever, that would be their purpose.

      And they would be the ones, not Christ and the Cross that would be the hinge that creation’s redemption would turn on, in would be they, created before the foundations of the Cosmos that would suffering for the rest of the Cosmos, for the salvation of everything else. The would be everyone’s saviour and Christ, and while you might call such as being benevolent to those who ended up among the ‘saved’, you could not it the Good as such, Love as such, without those words losing all meaning. As Calvin says, such a God would only be experienced as love to those He created to be saved, not love in and off Himself, yet such a thing flies in the face of central Christian revelation and is a blasphemy towards God.

      And so, I don’t think it decides for God, rather what God has Himself revealed to us about Himself in Christ to me compels me to reject such horrific doctrines as eternal torment and annihilation as horrible blasphemy against God and His Christ.

      Like

      • George Domazetis says:

        While I agree with the bulk of your comments, I am aware of (shall we call this) conditions that Christ (the Gospel) places on salvation, which are repentance and rebirth, with faith in that Christ died for our sins. This appears to me to add a dimension to the arguments for universalism, in that we may not live under God’s grace if we continue to intentionally sin before God.

        Thus I may argue that universal salvation is offered to all who repent, and since repentance requires a choice by each one of us, it is a condition God has ordained from creation’s beginning and to its end.

        If my comments are correct, we cannot say if some are not damned, but we have faith in Christ and believe all shall repent.

        Like

        • Grant says:

          But it’s not just repentance, again God doesn’t just wind us up and then hopes for the best, He isn’t a being alongside us that competes with our will, He transcends that. He brings all creation into being from nothing, all aspects of it, time and space, beginning, middle, end and beyond. All secondary actions, both our actions and His responses are part of that larger eternal dynamic Act which is logically prior to them and transcends them.

          You cannot put secondary actions and continent causes and beings on the same plane as their Primary cause upon which they are dependent and reducible to. They are no more in compilation then an author is with their characters (less so in fact, as the analogy fails as the author remains a being alongside the being of the book, world and story they bring forth, and are conditioned by the context and contingent reality they find themselves in, and are finite, God is conditioned by nothing but Himself and nothing restrains Him). God forms the very nature and form of our minds, beings and existence, ordains, forms and works through all things. He establishes things in such a way, that even more so in mind of the complex vagaries of existence He can and will ensure His purposes for creation will be achieved, including for everything in creation. Nothing can impede His purposes for anything ultimately no matter their secondary freedom, it is all reducible and dependant on and determined by the prior Primary cause that is God who brings it to be at all in all aspects. No matter a being’s acts God as Creator has infinite freedom, power and ability and Providence to insure they find salvation and bring to bare His purposes for them no matter they real secondary freedom and without violating it.

          It is not just therefore a matter of God offering salvation and then being hopeless as persons refuse. He isn’t a being alongside beings. If any do not find salvation, if God withholds saving grace from them, or His ordination of things and working through things, His grace in creation sees some lost to death and eternal destruction, this before this and their choices is a design He settled on in bringing creation to be. Just as the author can’t be thwarted in bringing to bare the ends for their characters, and achieve their purposes still less God. If any are lost, God determined this from creation itself, they were created to be dammed and destroyed forever, like an author creating a villain. He determined they would be lost and not find salvation.

          This Primary is prior to any secondary actions, and again such a Being cannot be called Good nor Love, but would be seen, if those words have any meaning as wicked to some extent, and certainly not the God revealed in Christ. This this is a moral claim on God’s goodness as secondary causes cannot compete and their nature and ends are determined by their Primary and transcendent cause.

          Like

        • David Farcas says:

          The Gospel is a declaration of what God has done, through Jesus, for us, what we can never do for ourselves. It is not a “how to” manual for getting “saved.” Repentance and new birth (resurrection) are not prerequisites for salvation (healing and making whole) they are the inevitable consequences of what Jesus accomplished at Golgotha thereby ushering in the dawn of the new creation at his resurrection.

          Grace is the unconditional loving kindness of God towards us and all creation. It is the faithfulness of God manifested through Jesus Christ that will ultimately overcome all sin, unbelief and death itself. We can only repent and believe because of the liberating and singular efforts of Jesus Christ to open the way for God becoming All in all.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. I appreciate two things about the comments Tom made:

    1. The description of God as “the God in which most Christians claim to believe would appear to be evil” si something I have been struggling with. No matter how depraved a person here on earth has been, no matter to what degree of evil he/she has plunged himself into headlong and with gusto, the idea of infinite, never-ending torment without either purpose or remedy simply makes God Someone of whom I am deeply afraid. And I am afraid because I know something of the depths of my own depravity, which I am at constant war with to overcome. This is the sad legacy of Western, Roman Courtroom soteriology which posits that once you have “made a decision for Jesus” (or in the case of Roman Catholicism, done all the proper things such as numerous Rosaries, wearing a Scapular, etc) you are set for eternity. Such thinking never gets to the heart of the matter – theosis – or a changed life inwardly. The reality of inward sin and the reticence with which my stubborn soul lets go of its desires makes me fear a God who would perhaps find enough wrong detail to burn me forever. But a Father who would heal me…..that is another thing altogether, and it is indeed Good News.

    2. Tom’s admission that many times, the people who hold to horrid views of God and soteriology are often far more loving and generous Christians than he is. I must sadly second that vote. I am appalled at how easily I pass judgment, along with too often repeated calumies, on others who do not hold to the theologumen that I hold to. May God forgive me and grant me His loving heart for all mankind.

    Like

  8. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Is “matter” an error for “manner’ in the quotation from page 4?

    Like

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