by Shinji Akemi, Ph.D.
Or what man is there of you,
whom if his son ask bread,
will he give him a stone?
Some scholarly works appear on the scene with such force that the intellectual landscape suffers a violent rearrangement. Well-trod paths suddenly drop off into precipitate fall, and travelers must now find new roads to reach the most recognizable landmarks—that is, if these are still accessible at all. David Bentley Hart’s new work on universal salvation is such a book. With his customary wit, vast learning, and incisive clarity, Hart guides readers through the major issues in both historical and contemporary debates about the final fate of God’s creatures. Questions of Scriptural exegesis, the metaphysics of human freedom, the nature of personhood, and the relationship between faith and reason receive sustained and careful discussion. The conclusion, as the book’s title suggests, is that universal salvation is either endemic to the Christian story or that story is metaphysically and—perhaps more importantly to Hart—morally incoherent.
Let me begin by acknowledging my agreement with the book’s conclusion. It is from this place of affinity that I offer some reflections and questions which Hart’s meditations provoked in me as I read them. As I am certain that other readers, both critical and sympathetic, will have much to say on the metaphysical arguments Hart proposes for universalism, I focus my comments on the moral side of the Christian story the book’s argument interrogates, especially in its First Meditation. The question is simple: if any sinner’s final destiny comprises eternal torments, can God in his essence be Justice or Love? Although the word is curiously absent from Hart’s book, the issue is clearly one of theodicy. In which final state of affairs, hell or universalism, can God’s Wisdom be said to be “justified in all her ways”?
This line of reasoning will be intelligible only to believers who accept the centrality of reason in a mature faith. I mean that for those who deny any analogy between our moral categories and God’s revealed actions and character, there is simply no question of the theodicy of creation to be asked. In Hart’s argument, the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo—the teaching that from His infinite plenitude, and not from any lack or need, God freely creates all things with a destiny of union with Him—entails the ultimate accomplishment of God’s purposes in creation. What if any part of creation should fail to reach its eternally determined goal? God, in light of divine foreknowledge of this fate, would therefore stand guilty of damning a creature precisely in the act of bringing the creature to be. The meaningfulness of the distinction between elective and permissive predestination vanishes instantly when we shift our perspective to this highest, divine, plane; God either predestines to salvation or damnation, but in the act of creation he predestines all the same. And predestination to anything other than salvation is not the work of the God Who is Love.
To my mind, this argument stands as the most significant of the book. Confronted with Christian revelation about God’s limitless freedom and love, the self-transcending human intellect—participating as it does in God’s very Logos—cannot but seek after the whole, cannot resist asking further questions until it reaches the limit of its horizon here, namely the moral intelligibility of the act of creation itself. Only universal salvation grants intelligibility to the act. If grace perfects nature, then revelation should crown reason. But as Hart ably shows, to deny the question of creation’s moral intelligibility by appeals to humility or apophaticism is simply to forfeit reason altogether and to flee into fideism. The revelation of God as Love in Christ may surpass the limits of creaturely reason, but it cannot lie below them. Otherwise we create evasive equivocations with respect to what exactly we mean by the Love which commands forgiveness “seventy times seven” but finds a limit to its own; which seeks desperately the last sheep out of the hundred until, well, time unfortunately runs out; which reconciles all things in heaven and on earth to itself—virtually, of course. Granted, to know the character of a person is far more than to possess a journalist’s knowledge of what she might do in the future, and so knowledge of God cannot be reduced to “eschatological voyeurism.”1 But can we really say we know someone if we cannot divine her goals and whether she will do everything in her power to achieve them? And the goal, as Scripture and Christ’s example teach, is nothing less than the salvation of all people (1 Tim. 2:4). God’s power, after all, is unlimited, even by the sinful will; else we should have no doctrine of operative grace. Hart accordingly poses in this book the question of fideism, apophaticism, and universalism in its starkest form: either God is capable of revealing his salvific will to us, and our reason’s openness to God’s self-manifestation makes this reception of eschatological revelation possible, or we have never received in Christ any definitive revelation of God’s heart at all, and we are left instead awaiting another who is to come—although this “other” must remain subject to the same apophatic, and ultimately fideistic, doubts as his predecessors.
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This concern with distinguishing fideism from authentic, reasoned faith structures the entirety of Hart’s argument. Yet perhaps it would be simpler to say that Hart’s goal in these meditations is to spell out the implications of why we Christians call God our Father. The doctrine of hell necessarily precludes this appellation, as well as the filial feeling it nurtures in hearts tender enough to pronounce it. As Hart notes early in the book, Father is the primary image Jesus recommends to his disciples in order to understand God; it is, in fact, the first word of the Lord’s Prayer in Greek. This picture of God immediately rules out certain doctrines with which it is morally incompatible, such as double-predestination or eternal conscious torments. But this argument, it should be noted, is no shortcut for avoiding the hard work of metaphysical and biblical argumentation, ample amounts of which the reader will find in That All Shall Be Saved. It is rather to say that theology exists in the service of the ordinary believer who looks to heaven and attempts that most terrifying and meaningful of human activities, prayer. To which God does the believer pray: to the Heavenly Autocrat who has ordained the world so that a select number perish for the sake of His glory, to the Heavenly Sufferer who, despite his best efforts, failed to save every creature, or to the Heavenly Father who has destined the salvation of all his children? If any doctrine prevents prayer to the Heavenly Father, that teaching should accordingly fall under Christian suspicion, if not outright censure.
Yet the reader senses that Hart’s cogent arguments raise their own, further problems of theodicy. How far, in fact, can Christ’s analogy go? Let us take an example from Dostoevsky, on which Hart has written so brilliantly and so movingly. I mean Ivan’s plaintive meditation in the chapter “Rebellion” from The Brothers Karamazov. Can anyone conceive of telling Ivan’s little girl—trapped in the outhouse, abused by her parents, beating her breast while crying out to “dear God”—that this God is her Father, and that, though she begs for bread, he is not in fact, at that very moment, stoning her? In his earlier book The Doors of the Sea—in a significant sense the prequel to this book and its necessary conclusion—Hart addresses precisely this point:
For somehow the most vital and urgent thing to know about the God revealed in the Gospels is that (for instance) the tears of that little girl suffering in the dark of whom Ivan speaks are not a reflection of the divine will or a necessary moment in the dialectical unfolding of history—according to God’s ‘great plan’—toward the ‘kingdom’ that awaits it as a kind of immanent cosmic telos. God may permit evil to have a history of its own so as not to despoil creatures of their destiny of free union with him in love, but he is not the sole and irresistible agency shaping that history according to eternal arbitrary decrees. (87)
Distinctions between primary and secondary causality are well and good, and I do not deny their necessity and usefulness. It is indeed morally noxious to claim that God directly wills evil. Yet God clearly permits temporary evils, and horrendous ones at that. But it is precisely God’s permissive willing of evil, only in a perpetual eschatological state, that Hart considers damning for the traditional doctrine of hell. One might appeal here to the modal disjunction between infinite and finite suffering, but it is unclear that this truly circumvents the problem, for why would it be morally permissible for the perfectly good God to allow even the temporary and finite suffering of innocents in order to ensure our final, free union with him?
Some might respond by claiming that there are, in fact, no innocents—all stand under the sign of original sin, and in that sense all suffering is merited, and if cooperated with in a grace-filled fashion, even meritorious. The consequences of such a view would be curious: a self-absolution from the work of relieving the suffering of the poor, or a deep skepticism towards the innocence of children à la Augustine in the first book of the Confessions. For obvious reasons, neither is a viable option.
Another, related option is presented by that other titan of early Christian history, Origen of Alexandria. More than most theologians who followed him, Origen was keenly sensitive to the diversity of fates which surround on us on this planet and to the problem of God’s justice which it raises. This concern is intimately related to Origen’s eschatology, for as Ilaria Ramelli has argued at length, theodicy is the heart of Origen’s argument for universal salvation. It is the beating center of his commitment to our pre-existence before this life and its current, grievous conditions of fallen corporeality. In the story of the primordial fall of the logika due to their diverse movements of will, Origen discovered an answer to this problem which was “consistent with the whole principle of righteousness.” But only generally speaking, of course: “for only an ignorant man would demand a special justification for every single case and only a fool would offer to give it” (De Prin. 2.IX.4). Unfortunately, here the problem is the same: all suffering is earned, even if ultimately remedial. Origen balked at diagnosing the primordial sins which procured any particular person his particular earthly fate, but does this reticence not cover over the difficulties in this view? How, for example, can this imposed penance be experienced as non-coercive—for as Origen insists, God works only through persuasion—if one does not remember having ever assumed it?
Others take a line closer to that of some contemporary Thomists, who hold that God cannot bring into being free, embodied creatures like us without the torturous process of evolutionary history, with its leaps in intelligibility and complexity mediated through genetic mutations. But this history, as we well know, is riddled with suffering and death. The same system of evolutionary mutation which made the emergence of homo sapiens possible also generates diseases such as Tay-Sachs and Harlequin-Type Ichthiosys. In such a scheme, finitude proves identical to sin, with creation and fall simply as two sides of the same coin. Aeons of animal suffering and death, combined with millennia of human genetic disease, constitute the price God is willing to pay to allow the moral drama of free creatures to play itself out; the final product’s value alone justifies its inevitable externalities. Given Hart’s allergy to Thomist theology in general, it is unlikely he would find this explanation compelling, but the reader wonders all the same: how can we avoid implicating God in evil if God chose exactly this process of world history to make his love known?
And this is all without mentioning the suffering inflicted by that same human freedom purchased by God at so high an evolutionary cost. Ivan’s little girl must serve here as a sufficient example of the realities God will countenance in order to ensure the destiny of “free union with him in love.” Much like the specious distinction between double-predestination and “irresistible dereliction,” any discrimination between finite evils directly willed by God and those merely permitted by Him looks suspect in the light of God’s eternal foreknowledge. This holds true even when we take into account the New Testament’s pervasive “provisional dualism” to which Hart has rightly drawn our attention. Whether we speak of rebellious heavenly powers or finite human evil resisting God’s salvific will, all causes reduce to their first cause, and that first cause is God. From the perspective of eternity, “before” the creative act, God foreknows every discrete evil and every moment of suffering. He knows, before he pulls the trigger, that creation will mean, among other countless horrors, the Holocaust. And yet He pulls the trigger anyway.
It may be—and this is perhaps the only answer that can be given—that the “sufferings of the present time are not to be compared with the glory that awaits us.” There is no doubt that the joy of the visio Dei, shared together by all of Christ’s redeemed humanity (which is to say, all humanity), will overcome and transform every memory of unjust suffering. But from this perspective, it is difficult not to avoid the conclusion that we have arrived, by a circuitous route, right back where Hart wanted us not to go: a theodicy in which suffering is a necessary—because foreknown—moment in God’s ultimate plan for the particular history which is ours. Lest I be accused of confusing antecedent and consequent necessity, I repeat once again the point of this excursus: if God can be judged morally evil for permitting the possibility eternal suffering, even if not directly or antecedently willed, why would God not also be evil for allowing the possibility of temporal sufferings of the most horrendous and egregious kind, and then, through creating us, for ensuring that this would be the reality for all born into a world already fallen? This is not a matter of rationally refusing God in a fit of Karamazovism, deciding that deification as freedom’s goal is not “worth the risk of a cosmic fall and the terrible injustice of the consequences that follow from it” (Doors of the Sea, 69). It is instead a question of the moral coherence of the Christian story and what it says about God’s character. As Hart himself puts it in this new book:
The logic is irresistible. God creates. The die is cast. Alea iacta est. But then again, as Mallarmé says, “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard” (A throw of the dice will never abolish the hazard): for what is hazarded has already been surrendered, entirely, no matter how the dice may fall. The outcome of the aleatory venture may be intentionally indeterminate, but the wager itself is an irrevocable intentional decision, wherein every possible cost has already been accepted; the irrecuperable expenditure has been offered even if, happily, it is never actually lost, and so the moral nature of the act is the same in either case. To venture the life of your child for some other end is, morally, already to have killed your child, even if at the last moment Artemis or Heracles or the Angel of the LORD should stay your hand. (That All Shall Be Saved, 85-86)
The wager considered here is God’s allowance of the possibility of eternal torments. But it seems that even given universalism, the logic is equally irresistible with respect to temporal evils: God still decides it is worth the price of horrific earthly suffering to “doom us to happiness” (41). Thus, in terms of God’s foreknowledge of the fates of creation, we are predestined for pain. God has condemned all to disobedience so that he might have mercy on all, but it is God who condemns. Ivan’s protests appear unanswered, even with apocatastasis as the only theodicy.
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This is a troubling conclusion. Universalism promises to safeguard the Fatherhood of heaven, to allow God’s child to pray in confidence. The doctrine cultivates in the believer a certain mood of faith, a serene confidence drawn from revelation of God’s positive eschatological verdict. Perhaps then in the universalist framework the following constitutes the unique content of a sojourning Christian faith: that despite all earthly appearances, God is good, and that it is the heart of Christ revealed on the cross that must interpret every moment of divine abandonment, every cry of every innocent child. No Christian, in any case, thinks the character of God can be read off the face of a fallen world. On this score, Hart agrees with Catholic philosopher Brian Davies that our profound ignorance of the causes and consequences of earthly events prevents us from passing judgment on God at any particular moment. Yet would an eschatological disclosure render our earthly misery finally comprehensible? If God could provide a morally sufficient reason for divine inaction in the face of horrendous evil, would it not further inculpate God, especially given the reality of God’s miraculous, discrete interventions in the course of salvation history? The scandal of particularity so central to Christianity makes itself felt with special acuity at this moment, when we recognize that God is present to us at every moment in the spectacle of our suffering. But to deny that there exist any morally sufficient reasons for our concrete suffering (as Hart surely does) would not obviate the problem, for as we have already noted, divine foreknowledge of the fall and the resultant world of misery functionally and morally renders all suffering a necessary moment in the divine plan. Universalism’s celebratory mood thus subtly transforms into a marked ambivalence towards the silent and spectating God.
But perhaps in light of the universal reconciliation and healing to come there is nothing for which God must answer. Pain, after all, is not pathology—a truth psychoanalytic writers on trauma have emphasized in the last decades.3 What is determinative for the earthly well being of those who suffer tremendous pain is a safe context of receptivity, emotional attunement, and understanding so as to facilitate the transformation of initially unbearable affect into a symbolic—usually verbal—expression. Thus great pain can be borne and integrated into a life story which the individual victim can count, on the whole, as a great good to herself.3 The problem, however, is that not nearly enough of us receive that divine consolation which could contextualize and hold our suffering. When “[g]roans and wails are borne to heaven, but heaven remains mute and without answer,”4 the overwhelming character of our pain can become a permanently deformative trauma, making child-like love and trust of God as Father nearly impossible. Theologians may (perhaps must) understand this divine silence in the face of suffering as the necessary kenosis of the Father towards a free creation, but who will authoritatively interpret the cold indifference of horrendous evils to us personally and assure us they mean not divine abandonment but instead the patience of God with creaturely freedom? For victims within the fold of faith, what remains on top of the grief of suffering is the added burden of needing to justify God and His goodness in the face of their trauma, lest their faith should fail; from the perspective of eternity, it is as if God has spilt the milk and then asked us to clean it up. And for victims outside the faith, they must remain ignorant of their Father’s character and thus ignorant too of the meaning of their suffering absent explicit divine revelation (which Hart does not deny, but rightly notes is a rare occurrence). Hart captures just this predicament with a strikingly memorable image. “Anyone who plays the game of life in life’s house knows that the invisible figure hidden in impenetrable shadows on the far side of the baize table not only never shows his hand, but never lets us see the stakes of the wager, and in fact never tells us the rules” (180). Indeed, he cannot show his hand, for if he did, the game would immediately end.
There results a semi-tragic, semi-comical picture: despite his best intentions, God cannot spare us the evils he, as the perfect Good, necessarily abhors. One recalls here Nietzsche’s acrid critique of theological justifications for divine hiddenness: “Must [God] not then endure almost the torments of Hell to have to see his creatures suffer so… for the sake of knowledge of him, and not be able to help and counsel them, except in the manner of a deaf and dumb man making all kinds of ambiguous signs…?”5 In such a scenario, the “dear God” Ivan’s little girl prays to suffers as much as his creature—perhaps more so. It is difficult not to agree with Nietzsche here that a believer must feel immense pity for this “suffering god.” Shall we therefore expect a divine Thank You at the end of days for how we have endured our lot here on earth?6 So severe a kenosis none but a process theologian could perhaps accept, and that David Hart definitely is not.
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That All Shall Be Saved constitutes an intervention of the highest order in an ecclesial and cultural moment when the logic of eternal damnation appears ever more incomprehensible, both inside and outside the Church. Secularization in the Western world proceeds apace, and there is no coincidence in the fact that this movement runs parallel with the immense global suffering of the last century. The human heart seeks not only practical solutions to suffering (though certainly no less than these) but also an explanation for our existential lot. The moral coherence of the Christian story turns, then, on the question of universal salvation, but only because in the final analysis the question of God’s character, presence, and goodness reaches its sharpest articulation in the most extreme depths of human suffering. Hart’s new book, the complement of decades of work on the question of theodicy, draws battle lines: can universal salvation continue as merely another theologoumenon alongside the doctrine of eternal torments, or must the traditional picture of hell be supplanted as universalism assumes a more central place in Christian proclamation? After all, what is at stake in this debate, as Hart cogently argues throughout this work, is the very possibility of coherent speech about, and so also of graspable revelation about, God’s character. But if Hart’s arguments concerning the inseverable moral analogy between us and our Creator prove convincing (and they largely do), how can we avoid the conclusion that the Heavenly Father is responsible, at the most fundamental level, for the innocent suffering of his children? Must we not, in the end, affirm that this God who will save all is not only very good but—in what he is willing to tolerate for the sake of our eventual, eternal glory—also evil? The moral analogy works in both directions, the golden thread pulled so taut we might wish it to snap.
 This nice phrase I borrow from Jennifer Newsome Martin, Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Critical Appropriation of Russian Religious Thought (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2015). ￼
 Robert D. Stolorow, Trauma and Human Existence: Autobiography, Psychoanalysis, and Philosophical Reflections (New York: The Analytic Press, 2007), 10. ￼
 This is Marilyn McCord Adams’ main condition for the vindication of God in the face of horrendous evils. Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1999).
￼ Sergius Bulgakov, trans. Boris Jakim, The Comforter (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 385. ￼
 Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak, trans. R.J. Hollingdale, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp. 89-90. Quoted in Michael J. Murray, “Coercion and the Hiddenness of God.” American Philosophical Quarterly, 30:1 (1993), pp. 27-35. ￼
 Marilyn McCord Adams quotes Julian of Norwich, to whom Jesus speaks in her vision: “Thank you for your suffering, the suffering of your youth!” Marilyn McCord Adams, Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1999), 162-163.
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Shinji Akemi is a pseudonym for a theologian who, for professional-institutional reasons, prefers to maintain his anonymity.