That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation

By David Bentley Hart. Yale University Press. pp. 232. $26

Review by Benjamin M. Guyer

Modern theologians must publish; piety is less often a requirement. David Bentley Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved is a regrettably unflinching reminder that ego, not piety, is the ground of much modern theology.


The book addresses two questions. First is “whether the God who creates a reality in which the eternal suffering of any being is possible — even if it should be a self-induced suffering — can in fact be the infinitely good God of love that Christianity says he is.” The second question is whether the “defiant rejection of God for all eternity is really logically possible for any rational being” (p. 17). Hart offers four meditations that collectively answer both questions in the negative. Despite the subtitle’s reference to “universal salvation,” it is more accurate to describe the book as an argument that hell is temporal, not eternal. In the end, Hart believes that all will be saved.

Hart’s questions are certainly valid. His prose is not. Insults clutter the volume. St. Augustine’s writings are “the single most tragically consequential case of linguistic incompetence in Christian history” (p. 49); Ludwig Wittgenstein, often considered one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, was guilty of believing “utter nonsense” (p. 160); those who disagree with Hart’s reading of the New Testament suffer from “a certain kind of religious psychopathology” (p. 94); an unidentified evangelical is judged guilty of “moral imbecility” (p. 147). 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.

Before discussing Hart’s major points, however, I must offer a categorical rebuke. There is not a single footnote or endnote in the entire book. Hart offers a brief collection of “Bibliographical Notes,” but only two paragraphs name the sources he considers relevant to his work (pp. 212–14). However, academic scholarship depends not upon editorializing but upon the transparency and accountability made possible by a full referential apparatus. Hart’s acolytes will cringe at the following suggestion, but his preference for name-dropping reads much like the posturing of a first-year graduate student. This raises an uncomfortable question: is Hart a scholar or just an intellectual dilettante? Nothing in the work brackets out the possibility of the latter.

The Main Arguments

The book’s first two meditations, which address Hart’s initial question, are about the nature of God. Justice, by definition, is proportional; to use a biblical image, justice may require an eye for an eye, but nothing more. If God is just, and hell involves eternal suffering for sins committed in this life, then how can the finite deeds of finite agents merit such extreme retribution? We are wholly dependent upon what God gives us — in this case, our ability to understand right from wrong and the spiritual truths necessary for Christian salvation. In Hart’s words, the relationship between creature and creator is one of “disproportion.” He explains, “a properly proportional justice for the former [the human person] cannot exceed the scope of the moral capacities with which he has been endowed by the latter [God]” (p. 39). No amount of evil committed by any human being, much less the average person, is dealt with proportionally if hell is eternal: “absolute culpability — eternal culpability — lies forever beyond the capacities of any finite being. So does an eternal free defiance of the Good.” (p. 43; emphasis in the original). Otherwise, God is not just, because God’s judgments have nothing to do with proportionality. And if God is not just, then neither is He good — and if this is the case, then Christianity itself falls apart.

The third and fourth meditations focus on human choice. Turning to the fourth-century Greek Father Gregory of Nyssa, Hart argues that insofar as we are not yet united to God, then we are not yet fully created. If this is the case, then our ability to choose is also stunted. In Hart’s words, “true freedom is contingent upon true knowledge and true sanity of mind. To the very degree that either of these is deficient, freedom is absent. And with freedom goes culpability” (p. 177). Turning then to the 7th-century Byzantine theologian Maximus the Confessor, Hart argues that insofar as Christ was fully united to God, then Christ was both truly free and incapable of sin (pp. 188-189). It is a smart and coherent argument. And then the book ends. Hart leaves much unresolved.

What is the proportion that determines justice? Regrettably, Hart does not say. At its best, That All Shall Be Saved raises some interesting and even valuable questions, but the place of their answers within Christianity is not explored. Hart’s argument against the eternity of hell could just as easily be an argument against its very existence. If our irrationality renders eternal torment unjust, then it also renders judgment itself unjust. If one applies this to society, then there is no place for anything punitive here — and not merely jail (a system in desperate need of reform), but also enforced community service, the ubiquity of cultural taboo, etc. Is the order of heaven so unlike the order of earth? If so, how does Christianity not devolve into Gnostic myth? Either the Apocryphon of John is right and “it is not as Moses said” (e.g., 13:20), or the ways of divine judgment are not and cannot fully be our own. The finite must face its finitude. To borrow from the conclusion of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, some things must be passed over in silence. But Hart refuses the reticence of genuine piety.

Secondary Arguments

A third question, unstated in the introduction, threads the volume. At the beginning of a discussion about biblical passages on hell, Hart asks, “How did some images become mere images in the general Christian imagination while others became exact documentary portraits of some final reality?” (p. 95; emphasis in the original) Hart proposes that passages long interpreted as literal should instead be interpreted as hyperbole, for only then can the same passages be reconciled with Hart’s doctrine of God. It is a fascinating consideration. But who gets to decide? If biblical passages on eternal torment might be figurative, then so might biblical passages on universal salvation, and so might quite a lot of other things, too. Hart’s basic question is perfectly fair, but a more substantive engagement would have offered some sort of criteria for interpretation. Regrettably, we are left only with arguing whether this or that passage is or is not literal. Hart’s exposition is underdeveloped at best.

Another consistent theme is Hart’s dislike of western Christian theology. Those familiar with his earlier work will not be surprised to see John Calvin among his primary targets. But as noted above, Hart complains that Augustine’s writings are “the single most tragically consequential case of linguistic incompetence in Christian history” (p. 49). Curiously, Hart does not explain what Augustine could or should have done. At no point does Hart trace the transmission of Greek theological works to the Latin-speaking Roman west; at no point does he show that Greek texts were amenable to other, better translations into Latin. Translation is a tricky and difficult thing. To borrow from the Italian proverb, “Traduttoretraditore” (“the translator is always a traitor”). It is perfectly acceptable to complain about the transmission and translation of texts, but if we are going to complain as violently as Hart does, we had best back it up with some serious scholarship.

Hart knows the work of Ilaria Ramelli, one of the few authors cited in his non-bibliography. Ramelli is co-author with David Konstan of Terms for Eternity: Aiônios and Aïdios in Classical and Christian Texts (Gorgias Press, 2013). Theirs is a fascinating, dispassionate study of two Greek terms often translated as “eternal.” Beginning with the pre-Socratics, they note that aiônios was generally more ambiguous than aïdios; although the Vulgate translated both terms with the Latin aeternus (eternal), only the latter is rightly rendered thus. Aiônios could mean “eternal” but also simply “a long duration” — that is, one that would eventually end. Hence some of the Greek fathers believed that hell was temporal, even if prolonged. Ramelli and Konstan offer substantive reasons for believing that the Latin translation (upon which all western theology is ultimately built) has lost important nuances. Hart offers nothing remotely close.

And all of this raises a further question that Hart never broaches. Why insult Augustine and other Western theologians when the Greek and Russian churches have been just as quick to accept the doctrine of hell? It would be one thing if the Eastern Orthodox churches had a long tradition of universal salvation, but as in the West, such ideas show up only sporadically in Orthodox theology. Gregory of Nyssa is the star of Hart’s volume, and in an encomium to his beloved saint, Hart enthuses that Gregory “understood the original Greek terms of the Bible better than do most modern Christians” (p. 164). Perhaps this is true, but the upshot is that, like John Foxe and other partisan “historians” of the 16th century, Hart has advanced a self-serving declension narrative in which he positions himself as the restorer of lost apostolic purity.


At no point in this review have I condemned Hart’s considerations as “heretical.” There is not, in my opinion, any difference between his speculations on universal salvation, Dante’s speculations on Purgatory, or any number of Reformed theologians’ speculations on double predestination. Human existence requires grappling with our own finitude. In our attempt at better understanding ourselves, our place in the world, and God, we sometimes come to conclusions at acute variance with one another. The public value of such speculative engagements is, however, unclear to me. I do not offer myself as a standard here, but I sometimes wonder whether more of Christ is present in clumsy prayers than in learned tomes. I have long pondered whether a purgatorial transformation must greet even the most pious of saints as they transition from this life to the next; I have long pondered universalist implications of the same. But there is a fine line between piety and speculation. Perhaps we should ponder it more.

In the end, That All Shall Be Saved is a shallow and tedious read. Hart knows Greek and offers some provocative New Testament readings, but otherwise fails to make his case because he prefers to suffice with name-dropping and a large number of very blunt insults. Yale University Press, perhaps offering a backhanded insult, classifies such work as “theology.” Is it not an indictment of modern theologians that they take such books seriously?

Dr. Benjamin Guyer is a lecturer in the department of history and philosophy at the University of Tennessee at Martin. 


About The Author

Dr. Benjamin Guyer is a lecturer in the department of history and philosophy at the University of Tennessee at Martin. With Dr. Paul Avis, he is the editor of The Lambeth Conference: Theology, History, Polity and Purpose (Bloomsbury, 2017).

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12 Responses

  1. Edward Hara

    My first response to you would be that if you find DBH’s book a “silly book” (Which, having read it, I do not) that you publish a rebuttal, ignoring his proclivity for insult and taking to task what you see are his philsophical, scriptural, and moral errors regarding eternity and the response of God to sinners. What you have done is to merely offer a gratuitous insult as a book title with no grounds of substance.

    As for DBH’s ascerbic evaluations of certain theologians, I would say that they are well overdue, having for the last fifty years of my life been hornswoggled by any number of theological charlatans who have been entitled “Doctor So and So” by their ability not to think or reason, but rather to regurgitate in some new and fascinating fashion, the same tired old erroneous boilerplate that has existed for several years. I find it easy within myself to have a certain contempt for men who can look at Christian history and yet completely ignore it in favor of a brand of Christianity which either fits their own ideas of God or allows them the ability to engage in sinful behavior with a much relaxed conscience. Such examples of of culpable igorance would be the multitude of Christian pastors and othes who, when confronted with the writings of the Early Fathers, somehow either ignore them completely, or strive to find something within them to continue in their self-deception that Christianity was specifically Protestant when it began. This is lunacy of a high order. Unfortunately, many poor folks who are not theologically literate nor particularly deep thinkers are swayed by their theological snake oil and follow them, sometimes, as in the case of Jim Jones, into a place they never dreamed they would go.

    As for “embittered vitriol,” perhaps you have never been negatively influenced by Scripture hucksters in polyesther suits as I have, but having been on the recieving end of patently dishonest theology parading itself as genius, and having suffered from it in my inability to become the kind of Christian I should (i.e. loving, gracious, and kind, as opposed to bitter, judgmental, and vindictive – i.e. American Baptist Fundamentalism, from which I have, Gratias Deo,, been delivered) I find it all too easy to understand the contempt with which DBH holds certain theologians. Augustine’s wretched attempts at Bible translation are one of the causes (certainly there are others as well, including the error of Caesaropapism in the East) of the lamentable schism between East and West and the theology of God as Merciless Condemnator rather than loving Father (i.e. the God of the West).

    In short, bad theology hurts people, and having been hurt by it, I find in DBH a kindred spirit in despizing lazy theologians and inept religious theologies posing as wisdom. It is much the same as the Lambeth Conference has destroyed lives by opening the door to sex as sport rather than part of the Sacrament of Marriage. What short-sighted wisdom decided that the interruption of the procreative process, that which is normative for the sexual act, would be a good thing? Some sixty plus years later, the pronouncements of Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae have proven true. In multiple areas of life, the removal of restrictions on sexual activity, beginning with the Lambeth Conference, has been disasterous – infidelity, the using of women as objects of pleasure, abortion, and a leading to sex as sport, which in turn has led to any and all manner of sexual desire being legitimized. This was bad theology, done by men who were more inflated by the titles they bore than influenced by clear and logical thinking. The espistemelogical end of this “conference” has been the devolution of the Anglican/Episcopal church into a hotbed of radical sexual practices which are condemned by the Bible but approved by that religious body. I think that at the end of time, a great number of adherents to that religion shall find that God is not at all pleased with them.

    Being a rather verbose person myself, there is a great deal more I could write on the subject of wretched religious practice, but in summation, you better hope that DBH is right!

  2. Jason Akers

    “If our irrationality renders eternal torment unjust, then it also renders judgment itself unjust.”

    I think this reasoning is erroneous. It seems you’re overlooking (ignoring? denying?) that there is a clear and obvious distinction beteeen a temporal judgement that seeks a corrective end and an eternal judgement that *neccesarily* cannot seek (or ever result in) a corrective end. Even our vastly imperfect notions and renderings of justice have enough moral intellect to realize that punitive punishment inflicted for no other end but for its own sake is just mere cruelty. Compounded by eternity, it becomes infinitely cruel.

  3. Greg Paul

    It would be really helpful if a single reviewer of this book offered a sustained critique to at least one of Hart’s arguments.

    Instead, complaints about tone, which while warranted say nothing about the argument; complaints about lack of footnotes, though this is clearly not an academic work; complaints about obscure points, Greek to Latin translation issues, which are unpacked elsewhere ad nauseam. I mean its the same formula and its effectively avoiding a serious engagement over and over.

    It’s not just repetitive, it’s depressing.

  4. Rob Stroud

    Disappointing review. I think invective has its place (eg you brood of vipers / whitewashed tombs) and the nonsense that is made of God’s goodness by some eschatological nightmares is one warrant for such. You just don’t deal with his arguments properly—on the justice question (as someone already said) you fail to consider different types of justice. Re-read and pay attention this time. D minus.

  5. David Silva

    Regarding the crucible-proposition of “properly proportional justice”, the theology of sin posits that offense is a function of the offended, not of the offender, that is the smallest sin is an infinite offense against the Infinite God.
    The Analogy here is if a young person smacks in the face –
    his / her older Brother,
    his / her younger Sister,
    his / her Mother,
    his / her Father,
    his / her Teacher,
    his / her neighborhood Policeman,
    The President

    The same action by the same person becomes, by virtue of the station of the trespassed, becomes more grievous and hence merits greater punishment / restitution / retributive Justice.

    Because God is infinitely Glorious, Good, Powerful, and worthy of His Creations’ complete love and adoration, the smallest offense (original sin) is infinitely offending and merits infinite address of Justice (unattainable but for the infinite Propitiation of our Savior and Redeemer the God Man Christ Jesus for the repentant sinner).
    Hence Hell for the unrepentant who has knowledge of The Gospel. Not because of the offender, but because of the Offended.

    But the Author doesn’t consider the Offended in his argument.

    Pax Christi

  6. Ellen Frank

    Mr. Guyer, thank you for this review. THAT ALL SHALL BE SAVED is indeed a silly book–but you did not say the half of it. Three things you might have said in addition: first, the title represents a failure to understand (a failure even to read) 1 Timothy 2:4. To say that God wants everyone to e saved is not the same as saying everyone will be saved. God does not always get what he wants, because people disobey him. (God wanted David Bentley Hart for a disciple–look what he got.) Second, Hart’s arguments are illogical. This is too long to go into here, but I have dissected his “arguments” in writing, if you care to see it. but I have have written. Third, THAT ALL SHALL BE SAVED is heretical. Universalism was anathematized by the Second Council of Nicaea as follows: “If anyone denies the resurrection of the dead, and the judgment, and the merited retribution to everyone, endless torment and endless bliss, let him be anathema.” Hart, being an Orthodox Christian, recognizes the authority of this council.

  7. Ellen Frank

    Dr. Guyer, you are right—THAT ALL SHALL BE SAVED is a very silly book. But it is also worse than silly. First Hart misinterprets 1 Timothy 2:4: to say that God wants all to be saved is not, of course, to say that all WILL be saved. This is so obvious that I must consider Hart’s misinterpretation deliberate. Second, all of what he calls his logical arguments are illogical, in fact flagrantly so. (I am prepared to demonstrate this, but this forum is not the proper place.) Again, I am compelled to believe in deliberation: Hart has a brain and a classical education and is capable of distinguishing between logic and nonsense. In fact, he admits that is real objection to the doctrine of the Last Judgment is based not on logic but on the “moral hideousness” of the orthodox Christians who hold to that doctrine. Mr. Hart, if he is an Orthodox Christian, must hold to that doctrine himself. The Orthodox Church does not allow members of the flock to pick and choose their own doctrines as they please. Finally, the statements made in this book ARE heretical–and I sure Mr. Hart knows it; it is impossible to believe that he says never read the acts of the Second Council of Nicaea (787), one of which is as follows: “If anyone denies the resurrection of the dead, and the judgment, and the merited retribution to everyone, of endless torment and endless bliss, let him be anathema.” THAT ALL SHALL BE SAVED merit’s Mr. Hart excommunication.

  8. Josh Meadows

    This article does nothing to refute the logic that DBH proposes. It merely reveals how thin skinned modern evangelicals are, as for what you continually label “insults” are simply objective facts that modern western evangelicals find appalling for seemingly no other reason than traditions sake. Hart may come off “irreverent” but he makes no claims NOT to be. In fact he frequently acknowledges the fact that he is. Hart does not say Augustine was linguistically incompetent for the sake of insult, he says it because it’s true.


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