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.
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, “Traduttore, traditore” (“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.