by Chris E. W. Green, Ph.D.
It took everything I have to write this review of That All Shall Be Saved by David Bentley Hart. Not because I didn’t like the book. I did like it, very much in fact. I found Hart’s arguments by and large persuasive, even if at times I was weary with his supercilious tone and too-quick dismissal of others’ views—especially Balthasar’s. As someone who lives with bi-polar disorder, I was especially unsettled by his comments about “diseased emotional conditions” (p. 29).
(As an aside, I have to admit that I worry Hart is at risk of becoming a caricature of himself as a pugilist, and I would hate for that to draw attention away from his theology. On the other hand, however, I have to admit that I very much enjoy Hart’s sense of humor, which has shown up not only in this book, like his other writings, but also in the various interviews he has done since the book has been released. And that is why at least some of what others took to be condescension I took as droll self-deprecation. That is not to say that it was all self-deprecation, however. There was definitely some other-deprecation and self-congratulation happening, too. And that I didn’t enjoy very much. At one point, I found myself wondering if Hart’s tone would change at all if he personally had undergone a change of mind on this issue, and knew from experience how difficult that can be.)
Anyway, as always with Hart, there were magnificent passages, magnificent both in form and content. Like this one:
Hell appears in the shadow of the cross as what has always already been conquered, as what Easter leaves in ruins, to which we may flee from the transfiguring light of God if we so wish, but where we can never finally come to rest—for, being only a shadow, it provides nothing to cling to. (p. 129)
Or this one:
The eschatological discrimination between heaven and hell is the crucifixion of history, while the final universal restoration of all things is the Easter of creation. (p. 104)
And of course there were penetrating insights everywhere—like this one: “for Paul the cross of Christ revealed the law’s wrath against sin, in that it was an eminently legal murder” (p. 25); this one: “the free will defense requires … a mythical sort of God” (p. 182); this one: “I am not even sure it is really possible to distinguish a single soul in isolation as either saint or sinner in any absolute sense” (p. 144); and this one: “We exist as ‘the place for the other,’ to borrow a phrase from Michel de Certeau. Surely this is the profoundest truth in the doctrine of resurrection” (p. 153). These provoked me to set the book aside to think. But perhaps best of all, there were a number of claims and observations, some of them made only in passing—like the one about “casual callousness that is so frequent a concomitant of deep piety” (p. 11)—that made me set the book aside to think prayerfully—as only the best theology can do.
No, it took everything I have to write this review because I made the mistake of reading other reviews. In particular, the abysmal ones. No need to name names. There were, of course, a number of solid, even stellar reviews, which illuminated Hart’s book beautifully. But there were a few that were truly awful—poorly written and even more poorly argued. Many, if not all of these reviewers, obviously failed to grasp Hart’s arguments, either through negligence or incapacity, yet decided to write their reviews anyway. All that was annoying, to be sure, but that is not what bothered me, not really. Perhaps I am being unprofessional, or simply precious. But if I am honest, what really bothered me—left and leaves me sick—was that some of the reviewers seemed more than happy to go on thinking horrific thoughts about God, about the freedom God has given us, and about the evil that has arisen in defiance of God and freedom, thoughts that seem to me obviously unworthy of God and at odds with the gospel.
I do not agree with Hart when he says “the God in whom the majority of Christians throughout history have professed belief appears to be evil” (p. 73). (I would have agreed if he had said the majority of what Christians have professed about damnation appears to be evil, provided the emphasis was on the word “appears.”) Instead, I believe, as Hart himself elsewhere suggests, that what Christians as a rule have believed about hell—or at least what they have believed that they believe—is actually at odds with what they know to be true about God. Perhaps it is nearer the truth, then, to say the majority of Christians believe that God is good—and feel the best they can do is somehow hold this belief in tension with what they have been told is true about hell.
They feel bound to hold this tension because they have been told that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, which means we must never question what we are told about God’s ways. But, as Hart intimates, this way of thinking is stupefying, dehumanizing. We do not find truth by denying the questions that arise, especially not questions about the character of God, but by living with those questions courageously and patiently. We do not find truth by crucifying our intellect, but by yielding our minds and hearts to the crucified one. The ugly fact is, however, that many people are convinced they cannot trust themselves to question what they have been taught, which, of course, they take to be authoritative. And so, instead of losing their minds, they just keep the question close, unasked and unanswered, waiting to be rescued. They are not stupid or faithless; they are confused.
But what some people are willing to say when they are denouncing apocatastasis (whether Hart’s or someone else’s) terrifies me. That is what takes the wind out of me. How can you respond when people are willing to say we cannot really know what it means to say that God is good? Or that eternal conscious torment is exactly what people deserve for not choosing God? Or that God respects our “freedom” so much he freely determines not do everything in his power to save us from sin and death? Or that the doctrine of hell is what grounds faith and animates faithfulness? It is possible to articulate a doctrine of hell, even an infernalist doctrine of hell, without implying that God is cruel, or that our words about God are meaningless, or that our freedom is in fact autonomy.
I want to emphasize the point: Hart does not reject the doctrine of hell. He does not deny the reality of damnation. He simply names the inherent limits of that reality—and the limitlessness of the God who determines those limits. I think, as Hart obviously does, that the doctrine of hell is absolutely necessary, for at least two reasons. First, because it is a way of remaining aware of what we have done and can do to ourselves by resisting grace, by turning from the good. Second, because without it, God’s character is impugned. God cannot fail to do justice for those who were wronged, even as he has mercy on those who did the wrong. Hell, then, is not so much for sinners as it is for those who sinned against sinners, those who took advantage of others’ brokenness or oppressed them in their misery. God damns the abusers, the victimizers, the violators. And he damns them both for their own sake and for the sake of those abused, victimized, and violated. No wrong can go unanswered.
As Origen and Gregory of Nyssa and George MacDonald and Sergei Bulgakov, among many others, including Hart, have said, “hell” is the name for the process in which God separates sinners from their sins, destroying not only those sins but the evil that animates them. Florensky refers to it as a “fiery surgery” (The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, p. 175), in which “every impure thought, every idle word, every evil deed, everything whose source is not God, everything whose roots are not fed by the water of eternal life … [is] torn out of the formed empirical person, out of human selfhood” (p. 173). If this vision is right, then when hell has finished its perfect work, nothing will be left but godliness, or, better, nothing will be left but pure creatureliness, burning with the divine light.
I learned this first from George MacDonald, reading Lilith and then his Unspoken Sermons. Although I had been raised a full-bore infernalist—I heard countless sermons on the torments of hell, each one more graphic and ferocious than the last—reading MacDonald cured me, healed my conscience and my imagination, virtually overnight. In perhaps his most important “unspoken” sermon, “The Consuming Fire,” MacDonald insists, “love loves unto purity … Therefore all that is not beautiful in the beloved, all that comes between and is not of love’s kind, must be destroyed. And our God is a consuming fire.” MacDonald, I realized, had it exactly right: God is heaven and God is hell. Or, said differently, heaven and hell are nothing but relations to God. Hell, in particular, is the way God relates to us so that both we and those we have sinned against are delivered from our sins.
Eriugena insists that “it is not part of God’s justice but wholly alien from it to inflict penalties on what he has made.” Instead, God inflicts penalties, justly, on all that he has not made (On the Division of Natures V.36). That is, sin, not the sinner, evil, not the evildoer, is destroyed. Murder and abuse and rape and despotism and racism and lying, like all evils, are God-damned and forever eradicated. God does not merely “forgive” the rapist and then expect the one who was raped simply to accept that this forgiveness is just. God, somehow, consumes the sin itself, the evil that was done, so that both the victim and the victimizer are made whole.
Hart, of course, says all of this, or assumes it in what he says. But without necessarily finding fault with his book, I want to say more than he said. I want to say that only this doctrine of hell—hell as separation of the sinner from his sin, hell as the eternal eradication of evil and the once-for-all purgation of the created self—can answer the problem of evil. And that problem has to be answered. Personally, I believe that this doctrine of hell as purgative teaches us, better than anything else, that God’s forgiveness is not the triumph of mercy over justice but the triumph of justice in mercy. Jesus promised that those who mourn shall be comforted.
At the sentencing of Amber Guyger, the Dallas police offer who murdered Botham Jean, Brandt, Botham’s younger brother, crossed the courtroom to embrace her, to forgive her, and to encourage her to find Jesus. When the news broke, some were quick to celebrate it: “This is Christianity,” they said. “This is what the world needs.” Others were not so sure. J. Kameron Carter, for one, questioned it, posting this reflection to his Facebook page:
The verdict on the police officer in Dallas of 10 years in prison plus the show of grace and forgiveness by the brother of the murdered victim, just like after the massacre at Emanuel AME, requires that we ask some hard questions: What if “grace” and “forgiveness,” and their compulsory racialized performance in this society, are part of the antiblack world? What if they work in the interest of antiblackness? What if “grace” and “forgiveness” are already racialized? And, what if “grace” and “forgiveness” are part of what we must refuse? I know, these are profane questions. But what if the sacredness of “grace” and “forgiveness” precisely helps keep in place the structures that murder us? Rather than “grace” and “forgivenesses,” I’m increasingly interested in their non-performance because their performance, it seems to me, is part of what’s keeping in place the antiblack world.
Carter is right, I think, to question what we mean by “grace” and “forgiveness,” given how their performance plays in American society. And this, I believe, is the critical point: ultimately, grace, if it is truly grace, must accomplish more than mere forgiveness. Scripture is clear, God offers no amnesty to the wicked: “… yet by no means clearing the guilty” (Ex. 34.7). God insists on a reckoning, a reckoning that comes in the confrontation with the Crucified. And in that confrontation we finally see that God’s embrace of his creation actually makes all wrongs right, transfiguring what we have done and what has been done to us without simply undoing what has happened.
In his review of Hart’s book, Peter Leithart challenges Hart’s understanding of God’s goodness:
Would a good God create a world in which even temporary apostasy from the good is a possibility, where many or most will have to suffer excruciating purgation before they are fully united to God? Wouldn’t a genuinely good God have avoided all this temporal misery too? Wouldn’t a God who created a world without the possibility of defection, without the possibility of cruelty, be gooder than the Christian God? Wouldn’t such a being be the actual transcendent Good?
This may, to some, seem like a good question. Or at least one worth asking. But knowing what Leithart is doing with it, I find it to be a deeply troubling one. I won’t pretend to know how Hart would answer it, but it seems to me that the entire reason we must walk by faith and not by sight is that our experience calls God’s goodness into question. And so, yes, I do think it would have been better if there had been no defection or misery or cruelty. How could I not? My hope is that when God finally fully reveals himself, he will in fact do something about the defection, misery, and cruelty—all that went wrong with his creation. I trust that God is good, and precisely for that reason I cannot imagine accepting these horrors as somehow his work. If Leithart is right about what it means for God to be good, then we are of all people most to be pitied.
As Hart says, history—including our personal histories—must be crucified. Only so can they be resurrected into the life of God. And the eschatological crucifixion and resurrection are nothing if not the reconstitution of reality. In the end, all things are to be made new, which means, I believe, that the defection, misery, and cruelty Leithart describes will be changed, although obviously I cannot imagine how. I believe, even though I have no idea how it will be done, that in the end, our “works,” good and bad, will be re-worked, made by grace into what they naturally were not. We give glory to the one who is able to do “far more than all we can ask or imagine.” Whatever we imagine the end to be, whatever we might ask for it to be—and I know what I would ask for it to be—it will be better. “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard …”
Robert Jenson asks what makes final salvation in fact both final and salvation, and answers, “Precisely that we are set right with each other, that I have the joy of God’s rebuke for my sin against my brothers and sisters, and the joy of seeing the repair of my injuries to them, at my cost” (“The Great Transformation,” in The Last Things, p. 39). That, it seems to me, is what it means to hope Christianly.
I suppose this is for me the bottom line: we cannot justify God’s ways. Theodicy is impossible. But we can celebrate the God whose ways we trust will prove to be justifying. And we can trust that that justification, that rectification, when all is said and done, will include everyone and everything. I cannot imagine what else it would mean for God to be “all in all.” Or what else it would mean that “love never fails.” First God is hell, then he is heaven. And so we sing, “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return? For from him and through him and to him are all things” (Rom. 11.36).
As a postscript, a final word: Some readers of this book are going to be tempted to come away from it thinking about Hart, concerned with whether they like or dislike his tone, whether they agree or disagree with his arguments, whether he is a “great” theologian or not. But we would do better to come away from it thinking about God, asking ourselves whether what we are saying about God is in fact worthy of him and whether what we are saying about hell is worthy of the gospel. If we do that, we will have rightly received the gift Hart has given us, received it, in fact, with all of its faults, as a gift from God.
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Dr Chris Green is Professor of Theology at Southeastern University and the author of The End is Music (an introduction to the theology of Robert W. Jenson) and Surprised by God. Three years ago he contributed an article to Eclectic Orthodoxy: “The Problem of Hell and Free Will.”