It’s been four months since David Bentley Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved was published, and the internet is now littered with reviews (ten available on this blog). As one might expect, the responses have varied dramatically, from the enthusiastically approbative to the churlishly deprecative. The latter have been the most fun to read. Although the negative reviewers do not always agree in their evaluation of the book’s arguments, they do agree on one point: David is a rhetorically mean person. Michael McClymond was so impressed by the offensive tone of the book that he took the time (God bless him) to count up the insults: “in total the book contains no less than 118 derogatory denotations of his opponents, their theological views, their God, and their understanding of hell.” For a small 209 page book, that’s not too shabby. “One strains to think of another theological work of the past or present that so concentrates its venom.” (Actually, I didn’t have to strain very hard to come up with far more egregious examples. St Athanasius’ Contra Arianos immediately came to mind, as well as any number of works by Tertullian and Martin Luther.) Douglas Farrow, invoking the trope of a boxing match, writes that Hart’s arguments are interlaced with the kind of “copious trash talk normally reserved for pre-fight hype. Our pugilist all but exhausts the world’s stock of insults, leaving his critics little to work with.” The judgment of Benjamin Guyer is even more severe:
Hart believes that he is defending the logic of divine love, but if so, one suspects that the deity could have found a mouthpiece less infatuated with its own capacity for embittered vitriol. Tracking with the likes of Martin Luther and John Calvin, Hart has appointed invective his handmaiden. His defiant egotism renders his volume a tedious read.
Lastly, the book is written with such vitriol it barely refrains from profanity. That All Shall Be Saved reads more like a series of blog posts than a book. The author comes across as a tragic figure, struggling with bipolar disorder or some sort of serious mental illness.
One may describe reading the book’s torturous 200 pages of streaming insults and schoolyard “arguments” as a form of intellectual masochism.
Whatever was really going on in Hart’s mind when he wrote the book, the character he plays is a bitter man who probably could not get along with anyone for eternity.
One who reads the book cannot help but feel sorry for its author. There is something very wrong with the man and he needs emotional support.
After surveying these and other reviews of the same ilk, one might conclude that That All Shall Be Saved is little more than a nasty diatribe. That would be a serious error. The reviewers have grossly misrepresented the nature and intent of the book’s polemic. Make no mistake. Hart’s polemic is fierce, trenchant, acerbic, impassioned—but it is directed not against individuals (though Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin each have their visits to the woodshed) but against a life-destroying distortion of the gospel. If eternal perdition is a moral and theological abomination, then it demands righteous denunciation. As Jason Micheli writes in his Christian Century review: “As much as the prophets, Hart thunders against the corrosive effects of Christianities rendered cruel through their incoherence.”
It is not my intention in this article to defend all of David’s rhetorical choices. In my small circle of theological friends, we have long bemoaned (while guiltily delighting in) his apodictic and combative style and have worried that it needlessly detracts from the substance of his thought. But, we finally concluded, David is David. To demand that he become a polite academic would effectively silence him. Like it or not, approve of it or not, David will always be a pugnacious controversialist and practitioner of the “Chicago way.”
Orthodox Christians thoroughly enjoyed David’s polemic when he took on heathen and heretics in Atheist Delusions and his articles in First Things. How wonderful, we said to each other, that we finally have on our side a brilliant thinker who can obliterate our enemies with a single twelve-letter word. Even those who found David’s rhetorical style distasteful could not but admire the depth and sophistication of his metaphysical reflections. Almost single-handedly he forced us to reconsider the viability of Neoplatonic philosophy as medium for theological expression. Yet with the publication of That All Shall Be Saved, it appears, in the minds of many, that he has crossed an unforgiveable, yet indiscernible, line.
Last summer I read and re-read That All Shall Be Saved in preparation for my September pre-review. When all the ad hominem reviews started coming in, I was confused. Had we read the same book? Was it as vicious and venomous as the reviewers were asserting? I did not think so. So I decided to read it yet a third time. What I found was what I found on the first reading—a passionate proclamation of the absolute love of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. This love, Hart vehemently declares, is incompatible with the traditional assertion of everlasting damnation. The two cannot be reconciled. How did we ever persuade ourselves they could be? A truly loving and omnipotent God would never, could never, create a world in which a portion of his beloved humanity would be eschatologically condemned to interminable torment. Love would never tolerate, much less intend, the actualization of such a horrific fate. Here is the moral core of That All Shall Be Saved. The God and Father of Jesus Christ is absolute goodness and wills only our good. He has freely brought us into existence, purposing in Christ our participation in the bliss and joy of his trinitarian life. But what of the damned? Can an immortal life of unrelievable misery be judged a gift? Hart thinks not:
A gift that is at once wholly irresistible and a source of unrelieved suffering on the part of its recipient is not a gift at all, even in the most tenuously analogous sense; and, speaking for myself, I cannot see how existence as such is truly a divine gift if it has been entirely severed from free and rational participation in the goodness of things. Being itself is the Good itself, no doubt. But, for creatures who exist only by finite participation in the gift of existence, only well-being is being-as-gift in a true and meaningful sense. (p. 20)
The above should be obvious, yet for many it is not. It’s as if the advocates of everlasting hell have never themselves experienced severe and prolonged suffering or never known anyone who found life so unbearable that suicide became their only option.
How is it that so many Christians do not see that the traditional doctrine of hell strikingly violates their foundational belief in a God who loves absolutely, infinitely, unconditionally, without qualification or reserve? David offers this provocative suggestion: in their heart of hearts, most do not believe what they believe:
I am convinced that practically no one who holds firmly to the majority tradition regarding the doctrine of hell ultimately does so for any reason other than an obstinate, if largely unconscious resolve to do so, prompted by the unshakable conviction that faith absolutely requires it. (p. 29)
Consider the example of a respected philosopher of Thomist persuasion, devoted husband and father of five children, who, as Hart puts it, “believes that he believes the dominant doctrine of hell, and can provide very forceful and seemingly cogent arguments in its defense” (p. 29). Yet does he really believe in hell? The life he actually lives suggests otherwise:
I cannot take the claims of this Catholic philosopher entirely seriously from any angle, for the simple reason that his actions so resplendently belie what he professes to believe. If he truly thought that our situation in this world were as horribly perilous as he claims, and that every mortal soul labored under the shadow of so dreadful a doom, and that the stakes were so high and the odds so poor for everyone—a mere three score and ten years to get it right if we are fortunate, and then an eternity of agony in which to rue the consequences if we get it wrong—he would never dare to bring a child into this world, let alone five children; nor would he be able to rest even for a moment, because he would be driven ceaselessly around the world in a desperate frenzy of evangelism, seeking to save as many souls from the eternal fire as possible. I think of him as a remarkably compassionate person, you see, and so his more or less sedentary and distractedly scholarly style of life to my mind speaks volumes, even libraries. If he were really absolutely convinced of the things he thinks he is convinced of, but still continued to go his merry recreant’s way along the path of happy fatherhood and professional contentment, he would have to be a moral monster. But I do not think that he is a monster. So I have to think instead that, in his heart of hearts, at a level of calm conviction so deeply hidden beneath veils of childhood indoctrination that he is all but unaware of its existence, he keeps and treasures the certainty that in the end—in the words of Dame Julian of Norwich (1342-1416)—“All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” And I believe that at that same level he also knows that nothing can be ultimately well if the happy final state of things for any of us has been purchased at the cost—or even only at the risk—of anyone else’s eternal misery. (pp. 30-31)
Here David is describing a dilemma discussed in the philosophical literature on hell—the doxastic problem. How should our belief in eternal perdition impact our lives, and what does it mean if it doesn’t inform them in the ways that we would expect? The bringing of new life into the world is an event of great joy for parents. Not for a moment do we believe that we have begotten our children unto unimaginable suffering. Of course we don’t. We could not live that way. If we believed that their damnation was a genuine, perhaps likely, possibility, we would take all measures to prevent their conception (antinatalism, anyone?). Nor do our pastors warn us of the danger—quite the contrary. They encourage us to procreate and assure us that it is one of God’s great blessings. Clearly something is amiss, yet we take no notice. One reviewer, John Panteleimon Manoussakis, notes Hart’s reasoning and dismisses it with a tu quoque wave of the hand:
But he [DBH] who makes this argument is also a “Christian thinker” whose quaint routine of professional engagements remains, as far as I can tell, unaffected and undisturbed, not by the remote potential of a future pain awaiting his fellow human beings (for he doesn’t believe in it) but by the very real and actual suffering that millions of other humans undergo presently. If life for Hart himself is not disrupted by the endless suffering afflicting others in the here and now, why does he scorn others for their alleged indifference to an eternal damnation that might or (as we hope) might not happen eschatologically?
I find Manoussakis’s interpretation of the devout philosopher story curious. Not only does David not scorn the philosopher, but he attributes to him an inextinguishable hope that the man’s infernalist convictions belie. That’s not an insult but a compliment. As far as Manoussakis trying to turn the moral tables upon Hart … argumentum ad hominem tu quoque is a logical fallacy and unfair to boot.
David’s attribution of blindness and self-deception to the advocates of hell allows him to speak harshly of the infernalist teaching, without attributing moral guilt to its teachers (“Lord, forgive them, for they know not what they teach”), yet I suspect that many readers have found this tack offensive. “How dare Hart tell me that I do not believe what I believe. I affirm eternal damnation because the Father of Jesus has revealed this truth through his Scriptures and the one holy catholic and apostolic Church.” In other words, they believe that rejection of apokatastasis represents infallible dogma and is therefore an essential, indisputable element of Christian doctrine. To doubt it is to doubt the entire edifice of faith. It’s all or nothing, and we cannot bear nothing. If the Church has gotten hell wrong, how can we trust her witness to the atoning death of Christ and his defeat of death in his resurrection? Our existence as Christian believers is thus called into radical, and intolerable, question. Hell, therefore, must be defended, even if it mischaracterizes the Creator, introduces profound incoherence into the gospel proclamation, and causes incalculable personal damage. Here, I submit, lies the driving force of the ad hominem reviews of That All Shall Be Saved. The dogma of everlasting perdition, precisely as dogma, inhibits its adherents from fairly considering the merits of David’s arguments. The stakes are too high. It’s far easier to attack his rhetoric and person; more strategic to discredit him right from the start. Heretics deserve neither a hearing nor our civility.