My working principle: once eternal damnation is accepted by an ecclesial community as dogmatically binding, three things happen:
- Holy Scripture and the patristic tradition will be read through the dogma.
- Preaching and theological speculation will be governed by this dogma, sometimes with curious, sometimes with pernicious, results.
- Damnation always trumps gospel.
In this series I will examine three recent reviews of David Bentley Hart’s controversial book That All Shall Be Saved by Roman Catholic theologians: Taylor Patrick O’Neill, Joshua R. Brotherton, and Paul J. Griffith.1 I have chosen these reviews because the Catholic Church teaches eternal damnation as a truth of divine revelation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church succinctly states the doctrine:
The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.” The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs. (§1035)
While it may be theoretically possible for a Catholic theologian to contest the irreformability of the doctrine of eternal damnation2 or to read it in such a way as to leave open the hope for (but not expectation of) universal reconciliation,3 the Latin Church has long affirmed both the de fide authority of the dogma and the construal that hell will be eternally populated. Until the Pope tells everyone otherwise, it’s probably best for an Orthodox blogger like myself to assume this remains the official Catholic position.
I begin with the review by Dr Taylor Patrick O’Neill, published in the Fall 2020 issue of Nova et Vetera.4 Dr O’Neil is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Mount Mercy University. He is a Thomist who stands within the commentarial tradition of Domingo Báñez and Réginald Marie Garrigou-Lagrange and is the author of Grace, Predestination, and the Permission of Sin. O’Neill is active on Twitter and has on several occasions expressed his rejection of universal salvation. The following two tweets, I think, are illuminating:
As a traditional Thomist who affirms predestination, compatibilism, and efficacious grace, O’Neill believes that God possesses the power and freedom to bring all sinners to repentance, faith, and beatific vision. Why then may we not entertain the universalist hope? Because we know by divine revelation, authoritatively defined by the magisterium of the Catholic Church, that the Almighty Creator has willed not to save all. Some, many, or most human beings will suffer—and are suffering—interminable punishment for their sins. Eternal damnation, in other words, is an infallible, de fide doctrine, binding on the conscience of all Catholic Christians. If O’Neill had his druthers, he tells us, he too would affirm universal salvation; but as a theologian faithful to the magisterium, he is compelled to reject it and defend the traditional doctrine of hell. This means, of course, that he must assume a critical stance in his reading of TASBS. The arguments advanced by Hart on behalf of apokatastasis cannot be sound, much less probative: God has spoken otherwise. This is not to say that theologians who affirm eternal perdition (whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant) are incapable of bracketing their dogmatic commitments in order to carefully and fairly assess the merits of the arguments advanced by proponents of universal salvation, and I’m certainly not questioning anybody’s sincerity. I’m just saying they are only human. If the doctrine of everlasting damnation has been divinely revealed, then an attack upon it is an attack upon the gospel and Church the theologian is pledged to defend. It’s hard to be open-minded when confronted with indubitable heresy. That’s the point of infallible dogma—to keep the Church closed-minded, hopefully in a faithful way. But what if the dogma is false?
Now to the review …
O’Neill finds That All Shall Be Saved a frustrating, disappointing work. He objects to the book’s unsupported assertions and its superficial treatment of Scripture and the theological tradition:
Even after completing the work, I am still unsure as to what Hart’s intentions with the book were. It often reads more like a personal journal or the beginnings of a comprehensive work which is still gestating than a work of speculative theology. Hart spends substantial time earlier in the book discussing his own experiences and history. He never directly engages any particular theological text, historical or contemporary. Names and ideas are referenced in passing but never cited. A single contemporary text is mentioned but hardly explored (Brian Davies’ The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil takes that honor). One keeps expecting the rhetorical setup to punch through to a complete argument on the next page, but the blow never lands. There are the beginnings of very interesting ideas here, but the times in which they are argued forcefully or even fleshed out are few and far between. The work concludes with a basic re-hashing of the post-modern trope on the genesis of the doctrine of hell: the Church, especially when it mixed with temporal powers, duplicitously concocted an error to keep the rabble in line. The rhetoric is rich, but there isn’t an ounce of historical evidence to back up the claim. On the very final pages of the book, Hart seems to be alert to the lack of argumentation, saying, “I could go on. I could, if nothing else, spend a few hundred pages more dealing with certain highly technical issues of Christian metaphysical tradition…. But I do not think that it would actually add anything to the essential arguments of these pages” (207–208). It is hard to overstate how frustrating it is to find this statement nestled at the end of over two-hundred pages. Indeed, the debate about the existence of an eternal hell is in so many ways a debate which absolutely must take place upon the metaphysical level. I would like to see this argument in its fullest and most robust form. Instead, all we receive is, frankly, a lot of preaching to the choir with rhetorical flourishes. Hart’s grasp of the English language is probably unmatched by any living theologian, and yet he transgresses the fundamental principle of writing: show, don’t tell.5
In other words, Hart should have written a different book, specifically, a scholarly tome with close analysis of Scripture and the key arguments advanced for eternal perdition over the centuries, accompanied by plenty of footnotes. I sympathize. I too hoped for a different book. I wanted a comprehensive monograph on the gospel as apokatastasis, with robust critique of the biblical and philosophical arguments advanced over the past two millennia in defense of eternal damnation, as well as an in-depth metaphysical analysis of human freedom and its orientation to the Good, with special attention to Plotinus, Origen, St Gregory of Nyssa, St Augustine, St Maximus the Confessor, John Scottus Eriugena, and St Thomas Aquinas. I calculate Hart could have covered all this in only two or three thousand pages. Alas, that is not what he has given us. Yet it seems churlish to complain, and it is most definitely unfair to judge TASBS by criteria the author did not intend to meet. The book has its flaws, and reviewers are right to point them out; but not being the objective, meticulous, dispassionate, non-polemical academic title we think it should be cannot be one of them. (If only Luther had adopted a more Erasmian tone, perhaps we could have avoided all that Reformation unpleasantness.) Reviewers of TASBS need to correctly identify its literary genre—jeremiad and diatribe immediately come to mind—before complaining about its trenchant rhetoric. Even invective has its good purposes, as Jesus and the prophets well knew. Personally I would have preferred a less polemical book,6 but it’s no doubt the case that if Hart had written a polite, amiable treatise it would not be receiving the wide attention it is now enjoying. Nor is there any mystery as to why the book has the form that it does. As stated in the concluding acknowledgements, the first three “meditations” incorporate the public addresses delivered at the Virginia Theological Seminary in 2016. We may assume that their original audiences were composed of seminarians, faculty, and local clergy and laypeople. The result is a volume that more resembles Hart’s popular (footnoteless) work on theodicy, The Doors of the Sea, than the dazzling and erudite comet that burst upon the theological sky sixteen years ago, The Beauty of the Infinite.
So how does O’Neill’s review fare when evaluated by my above-stated working principle? The young professor focuses his attention on meditations three and four and ignores meditation one. I find this curious (and possibly confirmatory of my working principle), given its decisive importance to the book. In this chapter Hart advances four conjoint claims, forming a single argument:
- God has freely created world from out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo).
- The eschaton definitively reveals the divine identity and nature.
- The confession of God as absolute love is irreconcilable with the teaching of eternal damnation.
- Therefore, “Christians dare not doubt the salvation of all.”7
Of these claims O’Neill says nothing. I deem this omission a fatal flaw. I know that book reviewers are constrained by severe word limits, but the creatio ex nihilo argument drives Hart’s reflections in That All Shall Be Saved and therefore must be noted by every reviewer who seeks to inform the reader of its primary thesis.
But before discussing the import of the claims, I wish to identify a weakness of TASBS that only became clear to me in the writing of this article. I now believe that much of the confusion and the misunderstanding engendered by the book might have been avoided if Hart had included an initial meditation devoted to the Holy Trinity as absolute Love, self-revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Those of us who are acquainted with Hart’s writings came to TASBS with his understanding of God and gospel firmly in our minds; hence we readily grasped his assertion that eternal perdition violates the good news brought to the world by Jesus Christ. It’s not that the divine mercy is missing in the book; on the contrary, it underlies every sentence, every syllogism and logical dilemma, every expression of moral outrage and prophetic indictment. It informs Hart’s exposition of human personhood and his analysis of humanity’s unquenchable desire for the Good. The infinite love of God for mankind is the evangelical heart of TASBS, yet somehow many readers appear to have missed it. Some have even finished the book thinking that Hart has presented us with a philosophical construal of divinity and eschatology alien to the Scriptures, as if he had not learned the character of God from Scripture and Eucharist. Consider this sentence from O’Neill’s above-cited tweet: “There’s a rationalism at the heart of this kind of universalism that cannot be ignored.” I disagree. Universalists do not project onto the Godhead their abstract constructions of love. They do not reason to the kenotic love of Jesus Christ offered on behalf of humanity on the cross; they indwell the divinely revealed narrative of this love and then extrapolate to the glorious consummation that love intends and must intend. The incarnate Son, crucified and risen, reveals God the Holy Trinity as absolute, unconditional, all-embracing, triumphant love. Read Origen, read St Gregory of Nyssa and St Isaac the Syrian, read Sergius Bulgakov—and then reread the New Testament and all the texts that intimate and promise universal reconciliation. When the Scriptures are interpreted through a hermeneutic of boundless love and paschal victory, the biblical case for eternal damnation loses its power and cogency. Now reread That All Shall Be Saved. Hart does not reason to Love; he reasons from it.
Back to the missing claims.8 All orthodox Christians confess that God has freely created the cosmos ex nihilo. Hart notes that this doctrine not only has metaphysical but also moral implications:
Perhaps the first theological insight I learned from Gregory of Nyssa is that the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is not merely a cosmological or metaphysical claim, but also an eschatological claim about the world’s relation to God, and for that reason a moral claim about the nature of God in himself. In the end of all things is their beginning, and only from the perspective of the end can one know what they are, why they have been made, and who the God is who has called them forth from nothingness. Anything willingly done is done toward an end; and anything done toward an end is defined by that end.9
God creates the world from the eschaton. The conclusion of the story envelops the beginning; the meaning of the story is revealed in its end. Is God truly good? Can his love triumph over evil and sin? Are we living in a tragedy or a comedy? Let’s skip ahead and see how the story ends, for the ending of this particular story necessarily discloses the character of its author. Protology folds into eschatology. When the last trump sounds and the final judgment is declared, we shall see that God’s antecedent will (“his universal will for creation apart from the fall”) will prove identical to his consequent will (“his particular will regarding each creature in consequence of the fall”).10 “Under the canopy of God’s omnipotence and omniscience,” explains Hart, “the consequent is already wholly virtually present in the antecedent.”11 The final future defines the eternal identity of the Creator. Hart confronts the reader with a discomforting dilemma: if one or more rational beings are condemned to everlasting torment, it is divinely intended and God is revealed as their tormentor; yet this cannot be, if the gospel is true:
God goes forth in all beings and in all beings returns to himself, as even Aquinas (following a long Christian tradition) affirms; but God also does this not as an expression of his dialectical struggle with some recalcitrant exteriority—some external obstacle to be surmounted or some unrealized possibility to be achieved—but rather as the manifestation of an inexhaustible power wholly possessed by the divine in peaceful liberty in eternity. God has no need of the world; he creates it not because he is dependent upon it, but because its dependency on him is a fitting expression of the bounty of his goodness. So all that the doctrine of creation adds to the basic metaphysical picture is the further assurance that in this divine outpouring there is no element of the “irrational”: nothing purely spontaneous, or organic, or even mechanical, beyond the power of God’s rational freedom. This, however, also means that within the story of creation, viewed from its final cause, there can be no residue of the pardonably tragic, no irrecuperable or irreconcilable remainder left behind at the end of the tale; for, if there were, this irreconcilable excess would also be something God has directly caused, as an entailment freely assumed in his act of creating, and so as an expression of who he freely is. This is no more than the simple logic of the absolute.12
Gravamen: if God is absolute love and wills the good and salvation of every human being (1 Tim 2:4), then hell cannot be the eschatological destiny of even one person. To think otherwise shows that we do not understand the meaning of love. Nor do we escape the problem by suggesting that the eternal sufferings of the damned mysteriously contribute to “the greatest manifestation of God’s creative self-revelation.” To take this route is to fall into the abyss of equivocity: “love” is turned inside out and the gospel becomes unpreachable. As St Silouan of Athos replied to a hermit who maintained that the damned deserve their suffering: “Love could not bear that. We must pray for all.”13
O’Neill acknowledges the problem of equivocity and grasps the nettle. We should not be surprised by the strangeness of a love manifested in everlasting retributive punishment. Our heavenly Father is a strange parent, and he is not obliged to save any sinner, much less all sinners:
Hart presents us with the picture of a parent who is saved and yet also aware of a child who is damned. He gestures at it wildly with his words as if to say: “See how strange this looks! Look at how ugly this picture is. It could not possibly be the case.” I admit that it appears strange to me. So do many aspects of the Faith. But strange does not equal contradictory. Since none of us really understand what heaven is, my first takeaway from the image is that I am indeed contemplating a mystery, the reconciliation of which necessarily extends beyond my temporal purview. For Hart, however, the mystery has been cast aside. Either the child is saved or the parent cannot taste heaven. The issue is that the argument is presented as an appeal to the emotions. If one even begins to contemplate how these two truths might be reconciled, one can almost hear Hart already begin to question one’s qualities as a parent. As with many arguments within this text, one has the feeling that Hart is pushing the analogia entis to its breaking point. At times, he seems to push it straight into univocity. We cannot forget that parental imagery is just that: imagery meant to aid but not exhaust our contemplation of the divine. It does not take much theological acumen to see how quickly the metaphor can fail. The human father owes many things to his son by nature, while participation in the divine life of God is radically unowed to man on account of the infinite disparity between natures. We might say that the Father owes the divine life to the begotten Son, but it is in no way owed to the creature qua creature. This is the very definition of grace: supernatural and utterly gratuitous.14
If one is dogmatically committed to everlasting perdition, the analogical rope between divine love and human parental love must be cut. It’s just imagery and metaphor, as O’Neill reminds us. But consider the cost. We immediately lose our moral objection to supralapsarian, or double, predestination:
Hyper-Calvinist: “The Almighty Creator has chosen to damn some of his creatures as vessels of wrath, apart from their merits and demerits.”
Thomist: “But that would be unjust.”
Hyper-Calvinist (smiling): “Who are you to judge the strange, inscrutable justice of God according to your anthropomorphic notions? Has the potter no right over the clay?”
Needless to say, Hart has little sympathy for either Thomism or Calvinism. Both systems reduce theological language to vacuity. He aptly quotes John Stuart Mill: “To say that God’s goodness may be different in kind from man’s goodness, what is it but saying, with a slight change of phraseology, that God may possibly not be good?”
But O’Neill is hardly alone in his avoidance of Hart’s creatio ex nihilo argument advanced in the first meditation. Just about every critical review of That All Shall Be Saved I have read, whether by Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant theologians, has ignored Hart’s powerful moral objection to infernalism, thereby confirming my working principle. Once we embrace eternal damnation as dogma, our minds and hearts inevitably close. Nothing to see here … move along. It does not surprise me that reviewers prefer to focus their attention on Hart’s contestable arguments on personhood (meditation #3) and freedom as realization of our divinely-given orientation to the Good (meditation #4). The case for universal salvation, though, does not rest on arguments such as these. If sound, they provide decisive support for the greater hope; but even if they should be refuted, universalists will continue to proclaim the cosmic victory of the risen Christ. God will be all in all, even if we cannot imagine how he can bring about this glorious outcome.15 The love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit cannot be defeated. Ultimately the debate must be joined on the fundamental Christian confession “God is love” (1 John 4:8).16
I would like to comment on Dr O’Neill’s reflections on the fourth meditation, which is my favorite chapter; but this article is already too long, and the topic is well-above my philosophical pay grade anyway. I would like, though, to issue this challenge to Christian philosophers who, like O’Neil, find Hart’s reasoning on creaturely freedom and humanity’s ordering to the Good flawed and unpersuasive: temporarily bracket your dogmatic commitment to eternal damnation and with all of your intellectual acumen and good will formulate an improved, superior version of the argument, with as cogent rejoinders as you can muster to the usual objections. Think of it as a thought experiment. Then ask yourself this question: “If I were not dogmatically committed to the doctrine of perdition, and therefore to the possibility of irrevocable rejection of God, would I find my elaboration of Hart’s argument intellectually compelling, perhaps even convincing?”17
 I will not be including Orthodox reviews in this series for two reasons: (1) because none have yet been published that are worthy of critical analysis [edit: Andrew Louth’s review is now available], and (2) because I believe that the question of apokatastasis still remains open in Orthodoxy. See the following articles: “Did the Fifth Ecumenical Council Condemn Universal Salvation?,” “Orthodoxy, Dogma, and the Neuralgic Question of Doctrinal Development,” and “Dogma, Damnation, and the Eucatastrophe of the Jesus Story.”
 See Justin Coyle, “May Catholics Endorse Universalism?“; also see Ty Monroe, “Faith, Reason, and Moral Sensibility,” Taylor Nutter, “The Possibility of a Thomistic Universalism,” and R. T. Pomplun, “Heat and Light: David Bentley Hart on the Fires of Hell,” Modern Theology (2020): https://doi.org/10.1111/moth.12650.
 Taylor Patrick O’Neill, Nova et Vetera 18 (Fall 2020): 1399-1403.
 Ibid., pp. 1399-1400.
 As I noted in my article “The Polemics of Perdition.” Also see Jordan Wood, “The Remarkable Unity of Rhetoric and Dialectic in That All Shall Be Saved,” as well as Hart’s own thoughts about his rhetorical style: “In Defense of a Certain Tone of Voice.”
 Hart, p. 66.
 I have attempted a summary of these claims in “The Incoherence of Everlasting Perdition” and “Revealing the God Behind the Curtain.” Since I haven’t heard back from David, I assume they are not too far off the mark.
 Hart, p. 68. Hart first advanced his creatio ex nihilo argument in his 2015 Notre Dame lecture, published in the online journal Radical Orthodoxy (15 September 2015): “God, Creation, and Evil.”
 Hart, p. 82. Also see Hart’s article “What God Wills and What God Permits.”
 Hart, p. 83.
 Ibid., pp. 71-72.
 See Met Kallistos Ware, “The Salvation of the World According to St Silouan.”
 O’Neill, p. 1402. It might be observed that a modern Orthodox theologian could not have written this paragraph, despite the Eastern Church’s emphatic apophatic commitments, so strong is Orthodoxy’s conviction that the Philanthropolos Theos would never, could never inflict interminable retributive punishment upon his children. For the same reason, she has little interest in Latin notions of merit and demerit—they are eschatologically irrelevant. If any suffer everlastingly, it is because they experience the divine glory as an excruciating inferno: see “Divine Presence and the River of Fire.”
 For one imagining of how God might save the impenitent, see George MacDonald’s sermon “The Consuming Fire.”
 I am struck by the similarities between the present universalist controversy and the 16th century Catholic-Protestant controversy on justification by faith apart from works. Both controversies raise the question “What does it mean for God to be love and grace?” As Robert W. Jenson writes: “According to the Reformation insight and discovery, the gospel is a wholly unconditional promise of the human fulfillment of its hearers, made by the narrative of Jesus’ death and resurrection.” One might even say that the greater hope is but the extension of justification by faith unto the cosmos. In both, divine grace triumphs over sin and evil.
 I apologize for the click-bait title. I trust that all my Roman Catholic friends and acquaintances know the deep respect in which I hold Catholicism. If I am picking on Catholic theologians in this series, it’s only because the Latin Church provides the strongest example of how dogma constrains genuine consideration of the arguments advanced on behalf of the greater hope.