September 28, 2020

Rob Grayson reviews “That All Shall Be Saved”

I’ve begun to wade into David Bentley Hart’s strident but powerfully argued book, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation. But I’m not ready to write my response yet. I have been reading other reviews, however, and thought I would share one of them today.

Rob Grayson has written for us before, and he blogs regularly at Faith Meets World. I appreciate Rob allowing us to re-post this review.

• • •

Book review: That All Shall Be Saved by David Bentley Hart
by Rob Grayson

In the years-long process of reconfiguring my theology from rigid, evangelical dogmatism to something much richer, deeper, truer and more life-giving, one of the last changes I publicly acknowledged was the abandonment of the idea of a hell of eternal torment. (The piece I wrote when I finally, publicly let go of that abhorrent notion is here.) If I left it late to publicly nail my colours to the mast on the question of hell, it was partly because I hadn’t spent much time and effort digging into the topic, and partly because the existence of a hellish alternative to paradise is such a foundational component of evangelical dogma that I was wary of the backlash such a public disavowal might provoke. (In the event, it didn’t provoke much of a backlash at all – probably because anyone who might have called for my burning at the stake either simply didn’t notice or had already written me off as a heretic long before.)

I say all of that to say this: had David Bentley Hart’s new book That All Shall Be Saved been available for me to read a decade or so ago, I would probably have dispensed with the abhorrent notion of a hell of eternal torment much sooner than I did – and, having read the book, I would have been able to do so with a fair amount of confidence.

For those not familiar with David Bentley Hart, he is an Eastern Orthodox scholar of religion and a prolific writer, philosopher and cultural commentator. The “Eastern Orthodox” part of those credentials is important, because it means Hart’s theology and philosophy is rooted in the thought and writings of the Church Fathers, relatively untainted by later layers of (mis)interpretation and obfuscation.

In a nutshell, what Hart has tried to do in this book is to set out, once and for all, a convincing case against the notion that there is a hell of eternal torment for which unrepentant sinners are bound. (I say “once and for all” because Hart himself says he intends his exposition on the matter in this book to be “more or less the last”.) And, like my friend Brad Jersak, who is orders of magnitude more learned than I (you can read Brad’s review here), I conclude that Hart’s argument is convincing almost to the point of being irrefutable. At this point, I can’t imagine a more convincing case for the non-existence – or, more accurately, the utter theological and philosophical incongruity – of hell ever being published.

Hart’s case against hell is basically two-pronged. The first prong is essentially theological: the idea of a hell of eternal torment simply cannot be reconciled with the foundational principle that God is good and loving – at least, not without doing violence to the meaning of the words good and loving to the point where they are emptied of any real meaning. Part and parcel of this prong is the argument that, however grievous in scope and malice a person’s sins might be (think Hitler or Stalin), eternal torment could only ever be an entirely disproportionate response – not to mention a wholly ineffectual one, since its end could only ever be retributive rather than restorative.

The second prong of Hart’s argument is essentially philosophical in nature. He notes that the least repugnant, most meritorious argument for a hell of eternal torment rests on the idea that God has created humans with free will, and that, having done so, if a human should exercise that God-given free will for the purpose of forever rejecting God and choosing instead to be eternally consigned to hellfire and damnation, well then, who are we – and who is God – to argue? Having clearly articulated this free-will-based pro-hell argument, Hart goes on to demolish it with ease. Aside from the fact that our free will is, in reality, not so free after all, his main contention is that no moral agent who is even moderately free could or would eternally choose unending suffering over unending bliss. To do so would not only be illogical, it would be a violation of the very impulse that underlies and motivates our every decision and action – namely, the quest for the Good.

Of course, Hart deploys these arguments in much greater detail and depth than I have done here – and, I dare say, with immeasurably greater force. Indeed, his style is never less than forceful, and at times he could fairly be accused of being acerbic and even dismissively high-minded. But his prose is also marked by passages of exquisite, soul-stirring beauty, never more so than in those passages where he invites us to consider and imagine the eternal hope he believes God offers to every member of the human family.

A word of caution: Hart’s work is not and never will be “light reading”. If you’ve read him before, you’ll know that he can easily toss out ten words you’ve never come across without  breaking a sweat. Also, in his philosophical argumentation he tends to assume a certain basic level of familiarity with classical metaphysics that many readers less erudite than him (which, let’s face it, means the vast majority of us) will not possess. Let me reassure you, though: as long as you’re not expecting a light bedtime read, you shouldn’t let these words of caution put you off. After all, previously unknown and/or arcane words can easily be looked up in a dictionary, and in any event are rarely so vital to the case being made that their basic meaning cannot be at least roughly inferred from the context. And, in all of the book’s 214 pages, only in one short passage a few pages long did I find myself somewhat out of my philosophical depth and wishing I had a better grasp of classical philosophy and metaphysics. In the end, books that dumb everything down so that they can be absorbed with very little effort might be easy to read, but they are rarely edifying or even interesting; by contrast, reading a book that assumes you’re intelligent and inquiring, and that forces you to contend and wrestle rather than simply swallowing and acquiescing, is intellectually and spiritually a far more rewarding experience.

I began this review by referring to the process of my theological reconfiguration, so it seems fitting to conclude it in a similar vein.

Way back in 2008, I made my first foray into the writings of one Nicholas Thomas (N.T.) Wright when I read his book Surprised by Hope. I wasn’t particularly looking for answers to specific questions: I’d stumbled across Wright’s name on the interwebs and was simply looking to sate my growing theological appetite. The whole book is well worth reading, but one chapter in particular forever changed my theological trajectory: in a few short pages, Wright casually and comprehensively demolished the notion of the “rapture” – a cherished evangelical doctrine according to which, at Christ’s second coming, the faithful will be taken up to heaven while the unbelieving are left to suffer years of tribulation on an increasingly hellish earth. The effect was immediate and startling: if a doctrine I had so long taken for granted, and which was considered almost unquestionable in the evangelical circles in which I had moved, could be done away with so easily and so convincingly, which other of my precious evangelical certainties might prove to have been built on less than robust foundations? So began a journey of questioning and study that would end up overhauling and revitalising every aspect of my theology, from my doctrine of God and my Christology to my understanding of atonement, sin, repentance, salvation, and so on.

Beyond that first venture into Wright’s voluminous output (which I continue to explore), only one other theological book have I read that I have found so arresting and compelling. That book is, of course, That All Shall Be Saved. It is a book that has the potential to stop you in your theological tracks and reorient you in a fuller, more hope-filled, more inclusive direction. Of course, having read it, you may choose to disagree with Hart’s conclusions; but you will not be able to do so without serious thought and effort, and you will never again be able to dismiss the non-existence of hell as either heretical or theologically incoherent.

[That All Shall Be Saved is published by Yale University Press. I was kindly provided with a review copy by the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review.]

Comments

  1. “Behold, I make all things new”

  2. David Cornwell says

    Thanks so much for this review. I read the book shortly after publication and I consider it one of the most refreshing and restorative exercises of study of my lifetime. It isn’t an easy read. He uses the word “meditation” in several chapter headings and in so doing revamped my understanding of the word!

    I noticed that Rob Grayson mentions also the writings of Brad Jersak. About the same time I read this book, I also somehow found out about Brad. He has written on a more popular level about the subject of hell entitled “Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell, and the New Jerusalem.”

    I’m busy for part of this day but hope to find time to follow the comments and hope to comment more.

    And thanks to Rob for this excellent review.

    • Bizarrely I recently came across Brad’s writings too, & am currently reading (& learning from) A More Christlike God. I wish I’d had it 20 years ago, & could have let the beliefs & teachings of the Church Fathers act as a corrective for many of the harsher later teachings of the church such as calvinism etc. It would have spared me a lot of trouble to have found that well worn path.

    • Hi David,

      So glad you also discovered Brad’s work. Her Gates Will Never Be Shut should be required reading for anyone serious about grappling with what one teacher/preacher often calls “afterlife issues”.

  3. Does he at any point deal with C S Lewis’ argument that he’ll is not so much God’s choice as it is the choice of the person who refuses to come to God in any way shape or form?

    • I can’t remember whether he addresses that argument specifically as raised by C. S. Lewis (I think probably not). But Lewis was hardly the first to articulate it, and Hart more than adequately addresses it in the book. (Don’t ask me to summarise specifically how he addresses it, though; it’s a while since I read the book, and I don’t have time right now to rummage through it. Suffice to say the thrust of his argument is as laid down in my paragraph beginning “The second prong…”)

      • “his main contention is that no moral agent who is even moderately free could or would eternally choose unending suffering over unending bliss. To do so would not only be illogical, it would be a violation of the very impulse that underlies and motivates our every decision and action – namely, the quest for the Good.”

        I may be a rapidly aging cynic, but I have no trouble imagining that there are indeed people who would make that exact choice – out of Pride. And even such staunch agnostics as Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle had no troubles with sketching out examples of that very dynamic in their novel “Inferno” (which is explicitly based on Lewis’ theology by their own admission).

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Actually, Jerry Pournelle was Catholic.
          I don’t know how practicing.
          Met him a few times during my early years in SF litfandom in the late Seventies. He was a regular at LASFS; you knew when he was there because he had a really loud voice. Very loud and outgoing, whereas Larry Niven was much more quiet and reserved.

        • This is the Faust trope of selling your soul to the devil for some worldly–and therefore temporary–benefit. Then there is Fred Clark’s favorite passage from Huckberry Finn, where Huck concedes that protecting Jim is a sin for which he will go to Hell, but concludes that he will pay that price. How well these literary ideas correspond to the real world is another matter, of course.

          • “Then there is Fred Clark’s favorite passage from Huckberry Finn, where Huck concedes that protecting Jim is a sin for which he will go to Hell, but concludes that he will pay that price.”

            love this . . . it re-configures what love means as a way of ‘self-giving’ that is sacrificial

        • Iain Lovejoy says

          Hart’s argument is less that no-one would ever make that choice, and more that no-one could never make that choice eternally when fully informed. Essentially we do very easily and again and again make stupid choices because of pride, fear etc but, so the argument goes, we must inevitably eventually realise how foolish we are being, even if only through exhausting every possible way to be wrong. The difference with an “infernalist” (as Hart calls them) is that, for the universalist, Christ continues to pursue the damned and persuade them to repentance and acceptance of rescue even in the depths of hell.

    • David Cornwell says

      I think he first attests to the idea of free will, then goes after the concept as to whether the will is actually as free as we like to think of it. For instance, how free is the will of a person who lives just a short period of time under atrocious conditions? How can that person arrive at any idea of God that comes close to the truth. A person who has been the subject of years of sexual abuse as a child is limited in free will. His/her idea of God isn’t going to be one that reflects the truth of Jesus, but the idea of his/her own father.

      I can think of many other scenarios common in life that place a limit on one’s truly free will when it comes to responding to the love of God.

  4. “Part and parcel of this prong is the argument that, however grievous in scope and malice a person’s sins might be (think Hitler or Stalin), eternal torment could only ever be an entirely disproportionate response – not to mention a wholly ineffectual one, since its end could only ever be retributive rather than restorative.”

    Jesus came to restore wholeness to all of creation, no to punish creation.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      It has not been the idea of “disproportionate” about ECT that bothers me, in a love|justice framing, because the quantification of Evil is something that as always bothered me — how does one determine a “proportionate” punishment? Particularly for sins which will ripple through the entire lives of others, if not generations of others. “proportionate” punishment is a juvenile concept IMNSHO; it is an idea that will be immediately discarded by a serious mind. As a justification for ECT punishment is not really “Theology”, it is an echo of a culture that endorses retribution.

      It is the “ineffectual” part that completely trips me up about ECT. Just: WHY? What’s the point? Unless, perhaps, someone who suffered in Life#1 derives necessary pleasure in Life#2 by observing the suffering of the punished in their Life#2… an idea that has a myriad of issues within a love|justice framing.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Unless, perhaps, someone who suffered in Life#1 derives necessary pleasure in Life#2 by observing the suffering of the punished in their Life#2… an idea that has a myriad of issues within a love|justice framing.

        The formal name for this is “The Abominable Fancy” — how a great Pleasure of Heaven is to watch the lost suffer in Hell. (An Ultimate Revenge Fantasy, Catered Superbowl Suites and all.)

        And it’s more common than you think.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          > And it’s more common than you think.

          I’m sure its common.

          Yet, it is not “Theology”. It’s just another kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy [ and like most fantasies – it is narcissistic and morally gross ]

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            American Fundagelicals have a Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation. I’m coming to believe that is a factor — how much of a factor, I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure it’s in play.

            For the past couple years, it has struck me that the Fundagelical Gospel contains a lot of selfishness. MY Personal Salvation, MY Personal LORD and Savior, Individual (never group) Fire Insurance. And narcissism is the high end of the Selfishness spectrum; such a selfish take on the Gospel would pre-dispose Fundies towards egotism (“I’m SAVED, You’re NOT!”) and narcissism..

            For instance, Pious Piper’s God is a God whose only purpose is to Glorify Himself (no matter who’s the collateral damage). So Self-Glorification means becoming like God Himself.. Easy to syncretize with Randian Objectivism (a philosophy of Utter Selfishness) or fanboy over Donald Trump’s egotism when your Gospel already drifts in that direction.

      • On a personal level, before I was a parent I had trouble with the apparent contradiction of how God could absolutely love his children while simultaneously being thoroughly pissed at them. Then I had kids and it quickly became abundantly clear. I have no trouble with the idea of sinners in the hands of an angry God. The idea that this is a terminal condition? That is a big problem.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          > I have no trouble with the idea of sinners in the hands of an angry God.

          Agree, 100%. Sometimes people need to get their butts kicked.

          > The idea that this is a terminal condition? That is a big problem.

          Same, serves no purpose.

        • I have no trouble with the idea of sinners in the hands of an angry God. The idea that this is a terminal condition? That is a big problem.

          Agree. I can even imagine myself as one of those sinners in the angry hands — but not forever, please.

  5. A few random thoughts on a cold overcast DC morning,

    1. Hart can sneer in print better than anybody.

    2.Several of what are now considered the core doctrines of the Church were developed over time and are either barely developed or are non-existent in the New Testament. Seems to me all this discussion ultimately stretches back to one’s entire view of tradition. Eternal conscious torment as a doctrine reaches back very far in the tradition. I guess what I’m saying here is to carefully consider pulling on a thread lest the entire garment begin to unravel.

    3. Carrots and sticks is a very effective promotional technique. If you abandon the sticks will the carrots be enough?

    4, “The ‘Eastern Orthodox’ part of those credentials is important, because it means Hart’s theology and philosophy is rooted in the thought and writings of the Church Fathers, relatively untainted by later layers of (mis)interpretation and obfuscation.” So we are constantly being reminded by our EO friends. This trope of maintaining an older, “purer” faith is amusing because of course this is precisely what I was taught growing up as a hardcore fundamentalist in the American South. Of course none of these claims bear any serious historical scrutiny.

    5. FYI, New Testament scholar, and devil in many a pantheon, Bart Ehrman is gong to come out with a book in March claiming that the view of the historical Jesus was a form of annihilationism. His is a historical critical textual point of view rather than a theological one but it is more grist for the mill in this ongoing debate.

    6′ I can’t help but wonder what form the pushback from the Fire and Brimstone crowd will take?

    I hope no one will misconstrue my comments. I take this subject very seriously because it was precisely the doctrine of eternal conscious torment that drove me out of evangelicalism.

    • David Cornwell says

      The idea of an older and purer faith is rooted partly in the idea of their better understanding in many cases of the Greek language. Latin replaced Greek in biblical translation and in theology as the Church became Westernized. Augustine’s understanding of Greek was poor and probably contributed to some of his atrocious theology. And much of his theology became basic to Luther, Calvin, and others, especially as related to eternal punishment.

      Erasmus translated the Vulgate and was a much better Greek scholar than many others of his time.

      Erasmus also challenged Luther on the idea of free will. The debate became of a contentious dividing line with Luther answering Erasmus, then a longer reply from Erasmus. Both were reformers but had different ideas about how to go about it.

      • David Cornwell says

        Sorry if I threw Erasmus into the debate without providing more context. He has been on my mind recently and is the main focus of my present reading.

    • David Cornwell says

      “Bart Ehrman is gong to come out with a book in March claiming that the view of the historical Jesus was a form of annihilationism. ”

      Is this an escalation or rehash of the stale ideas of the Jesus Seminar? They seem to me to be group of children rebelling against the fundamentalism of their parents’ churches. Their arguments seem shallow but do have an appeal I suppose.

      • No, Ehrman was a vocal critic of the Jesus Seminar. The truth is that very few scholars in the field took the JS seriously. It was pretty much a media thing.

        • The Jesus Seminar gets dredged up pretty much the same way Bishop Spong does. In both cases it is not because they are relevant today, even stipulating that they ever were. They are bogeymen to frighten the faithful and keep them in line.

          • Spong was almost a living parody of the “heretical liberal Episcopalian”.

            • He was my bishop for a number of years. I never was happy with his theological positions, or the inflated sense of his own importance that came across in his expression of them. Met the man once or twice when he was my bishop, and then again a few years later after he had retired. On the latter occasion, I spoke with him briefly, and though I can’t remember what I said to or asked him, I can remember his reply: “I keep turning up, like a bad penny.”

            • When he was making official pronouncement for the diocese on social and theological matters, he spoke in the royal we.

            • Headless Unicorn Guy says

              I believe the term is “He was a Cartoon of Himself.”

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            They are bogeymen to frighten the faithful and keep them in line.

            LIke SOCIALISM! and HOMOSEXUALS!
            They’re Here! They’re There! They’re Everywhere!
            Who will Save us from them?

            “They will call upon the Strong Man.
            And the Strong Man will come.”
            — line from some Seventies Spiritual Warfare novel

      • David Cornwell says

        Sorry, I read your statement again and my question about the Jesus Seminar sounds pretty dumb. I don’t know what I was thinking.

    • “Carrots and sticks is a very effective promotional technique. If you abandon the sticks will the carrots be enough?” St. Paul was quite emphatic that carrots should be enough, and that the sticks never really worked in the first place (Romans 6 & 7).

    • “3. Carrots and sticks is a very effective promotional technique. If you abandon the sticks will the carrots be enough?”

      What are we promoting here? If it is good behavior, it is far from obvious that the technique is effective. Many people within Christendom behave poorly, and many people outside it behave well. It is possible that the averages favor Christendom, but I want to see the footnotes.

      Or are we talking about getting butts in pews? The reasoning seems plausible, if immoral, but again I’m not sure it plays out this way in practice. History has shown that some combination of legal or social mandate raises attendance far more than do threats of eternal damnation.

    • –> “I guess what I’m saying here is to carefully consider pulling on a thread lest the entire garment begin to unravel.”

      Maybe that’s the point; it needs unraveling.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      2. I guess what I’m saying here is to carefully consider pulling on a thread lest the entire garment begin to unravel.

      Which is a very weak intellectual justification. That fallacy even has a name. If someone has questions this response isn’t going to offer them any comfort.

      3. Carrots and sticks is a very effective promotional technique.

      Is it? Most evidense is to the contrary. Sticks are notoriously ineffective.

      5. FYI, New Testament scholar, and devil in many a pantheon, Bart Ehrman is gong to come out with a book in March claiming that the view of the historical Jesus was a form of annihilationism.

      I fail to see the relevance.

      6. I can’t help but wonder what form the pushback from the Fire and Brimstone crowd will take?

      My take, since the whole Rob Bell thing, is that they’ve moved on. I doubt much if anything will happen. They’ve also got lots of other fights right now.

      > I hope no one will misconstrue my comments. I take this subject very
      > seriously because it was precisely the doctrine of eternal conscious
      > torment that drove me out of evangelicalism.

      No problem; we’re all just here to discuss.

      • As far as “pulling the thread”, well I’m an IT guy and I can tell you from experience that’s it’s a mistake to think that you can expect to make a single change to a system and not expect the entire system to be impacted. I’m not saying don’t pull the thread. Just be aware a landslide starts with a single pebble.

        Perhaps “carrots and sticks” is an ineffective strategy but fear of hell certainly worked on me and my friends.

        You fail to see the relevance in a thread about the Christian doctrine of eternal torment that one of the top New Testament scholars in the US believes that Jesus actually taught annihilationism? Well at the very least it will provide some intellectual justification for those who wish to question the doctrine of Hell.

        I don’t think James White (for example) and that hardcore Calvinist wing of the party have moved on.

        What really did the whole thing in for me was the idea of shouting hosannas for all eternity while billions of people were being tortured. Could you ever really be content knowing that? Would you really want to spend eternity with people who could?

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          > Perhaps “carrots and sticks” is an ineffective strategy but fear of hell certainly worked on
          > me and my friends.

          Maybe. Different people are different.

          I was in “youth ministry” for years; I didn’t see any evidence it worked, at least not on lots of people. The community I was in was a constant scandal of particularly sexual ‘misconduct’. Fear doesn’t create Purity.

          > one of the top New Testament scholars in the US believes that Jesus actually taught annihilationism?

          I think that people who want to make leap connections between teachers and/or beliefs will do so. I don’t see how it bears on the analysis of a particular text.

          > Could you ever really be content knowing that?

          Nope.

          > Would you really want to spend eternity with people who could?

          Nope.

          I did not grow up in Evangelicalism, I entered it as a young adult, from an intellectually diverse context. That – of course – impacts how I experienced Evangelicalism. I never for a moment believed the majority of their Revelations / After-Life / Dispensational what-not; I always – – – and incorrectly!!! – – – viewed that as a weird cultural thing which for the most part i was happy to ignore. Eventually I came to realize the centrality of those strange beliefs, particularly in the wackiness that ensued after 9/11/

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          I’m an IT guy and I can tell you from experience that’s it’s a mistake to think that you can expect to make a single change to a system and not expect the entire system to be impacted.

          I’m also an IT guy. And I just got off a four-day panic party with Whack-a-Mole bugs popping up everywhere; for ever bug I patched, two more popped up like Whack-a-Mole. Some revealed when the first bug wasn’t there to hide it, some created by a fix in one place breaking it somewhere else. Last night I was right on the edge of a complete breakdown.

    • Stephen,

      1. Agreed…

      2. Yes, this is true, but Ramelli shows that apokatastasis was very early. Heck, if you just pick up Irenaeus of Lyon, mid-2nd century already, it’s there. I’m not a patristics scholar by any stretch of the imagination, but in all the very early postscriptural Christian Greek writings that I’ve read (in translation, alas, not in original), ECT just doesn’t appear.

      3. The “carrot” is not simply eventual unending bliss in “fluffy-cloud Heaven”. In EO, there’s a huge focus on what the Incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ mean for us right now in this life. The goodness of God becomes breathtaking. It’s enough. When I came to see it, it became enough for me in a way that I never, ever knew in a lifetime in church, both Catholic and Protestant/Evangelical. It brings tears to my eyes as I write about it.

      4. Just because Evangelicalism’s claims to follow the thread back to the early Church aren’t tenable doesn’t mean that Orthodox (and Catholic, to a point) claims aren’t either. Evangelicals pretty much ignore, and if they even know who they are, despise the Church Fathers, whether Latin or Greek, for being “Catholic” as in Roman Catholic. If you start reading the Greek Fathers, even in translation, you begin to see a consensus about core doctrinal issues. It’s pretty easy to tell the difference between what they take as doctrine and what they put forth as opinion. In Evangelicalism, whatever anybody writes, from Luther on, that is considered “learned” or even “guided by the Holy Spirit”, is pretty much automatically regarded as Doctrine. Many of those points are wildly contradictory (though they are generally supported by proof-texting) and this is the source of “doctrinal differences” that split groups of Christians. One of the reasons I went East is that the core of Doctrine is actually fairly restricted, and one can actually follow the threads of those doctrinal points as ***interpretation*** of Scripture back through the centuries to those early Greek Fathers. It’s a claim that can actually stand up to historical investigation.

      5. Poor Bart, I feel so bad for him. What he was told about the Bible as he was growing up in church (***INTERPRETATION***!!!) was the seedbed that led him to a place where he envisions death for everything. Lord, have mercy on him and on all of us.

      6. Well, you can read some of the Orthodox infernalist pushback, along with some remarks by Hart, at Fr Aiden Kimel’s blog Eclectic Orthodoxy in the Archives, in the immediate weeks following the book’s publication.

      Dana

      • In reverse order –

        I would like to read Hart’s Orthodox critics. I read Hart’s The Experience of God because it was recommended to me by a couple of friends, one a believer, one not. I was not a big fan unfortunately. It was a third longer than it needed to be and it boiled down to defense of the old argument from contingency.

        Sorry I need to clarify. Annihilationism is the doctrine that the unrighteous dead are destroyed rather than eternally tortured. The fires of Hell consume. Ehrman believes this was the New Testament view. Not ECT.

        We can debate history and tradition but what I am criticizing really is the “we’re right, everybody else is wrong” attitude which one finds somewhere in all creeds. You find many of these doctrines in the church fathers because they were developing them. Ehrman’s point and I think he’s right is that little of it goes back to Jesus.

        • Sure. Ehrman’s not wrong about *everything* 🙂

          Yes, I know what Annihilationism is. And as such, it is death and nothingness, and stands in contradistinction to God as Creator and Life-Giver. Christ did not die so that anyone would no longer have the opportunity to turn to God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. That’s ALL. And will he not bring to pass what he desires?

          Hop on over to the archives at Fr Aidan’s blog.

          Dana

    • The carrot and stick thing will not likely be of much if any effect once people grow out of the orange phase (Spiral Dynamics). However, church institutions rarely help in moving people out of orange.

  6. Burro (Mule) says

    This blog eats everything, and it looks like I’m not the only one.

  7. Burro (Mule) says

    DBH’s universalism has become somewhat controversial in the vanishingly small world of Orthodox theology. It is surprising to me that Evangelical theologians have taken up his standard in a way that does not correspond to his standing in his own communion.

    DBH uses some salty language against his [Orthodox fundamentalist] critics, none of which would be out of place in your standard Greek parish council meeting. However, that is not the crux of thoughtful Orthodox objection to his brand of Universalism. The problem is the salvation of evil spirits and the atemporality of their milieu. Because of the limitations of our imagination, we imagine the departed humans experiencing their environment in a succession of moments as we do. This is almost certainly not the case. It is time that allows us to repent, to change our courses to align with His.

    Because of my damnable self-obsession I don’t remember who told me, but when I asked about the possible salvation of the wicked spirits, I was told this:

    ‘satan and the wicked spirits do not inhabit time as we do. satan’s choice, if he can be said to have made one, encompassed all moments in the single moment he made that decision. So it is with our departed loved ones. Once they leave the precincts of time, they continue forever on the course they had mapped out when they left. The friction of time has been removed, and they are like a runner who hits a patch of ice.’

    (Orthodox writers never use the capital ‘S’ for satan)

    ‘That is the reason why it is so necessary for us who continue to inhabit time to pray for them, to repent on their behalf, and to do works of mercy in their names, especially for our forebears, an expression of whom we ourselves are. This has the effect of colliding with them and changing their course.’

    Now the idea of Hitler and Stalin in ‘heaven’ appeals to me, but it has to be admitted that in order for that to be possible, each of their individual victims, as well as those who loved them, would have to forgive them. That is a tall order indeed.

    • David Cornwell says

      “Now the idea of Hitler and Stalin in ‘heaven’ appeals to me, but it has to be admitted that in order for that to be possible, each of their individual victims, as well as those who loved them, would have to forgive them. That is a tall order indeed.”

      A tall order, yes. But in the context of judgment when we all bow before Christ, proclaiming Christ as Lord and King of all, His love will become a refining fire.

      • Burro (Mule) says

        The forgiveness would be not for the benefit of Happy Adolf and Uncle Joe, actually, but for their victims. To see those two smiling and yucking it up in the hereafter after what they did to your families and friends would give a new edge to ECT that liquid fire couldn’t touch.

        • Iain Lovejoy says

          Which is why, I suppose, that any given length of *temporary* conscious torment most universalists, myself included, are basically cool with. A genuinely repentant Stalin or Hitler, who has undoubtedly suffered proportionately for his crimes is much less of an ask to forgive.

    • “(Orthodox writers never use the capital ‘S’ for satan)”

      I am intrigued by this practice. The only other context where I have seen this misinterpretation of English orthography is in the kink community of dominants and submissives.

      • Then it should be expressed as “the satan”. This from an old English teacher. Everybody consider your knuckles rapped.

      • Dale Cockayne says

        I’ve not read David Bentley Hart and in all honesty I am unlikely to. I have read Brad Jersak’s excellent book “Her Gates Shall Never Shut” and found that enough to convince me of what my own soul was saying.
        I’m occasionally accused of being a hectic, but usually the ones that hold to a more “traditional”Pentecostal view of literalism, and inerrancy… and dare I say it, the “us v them” (bad guys burn, good guys glow) form of the carrot and the stick evangelism simply ignore or avoid me. I’m good with that.
        I think the key issue is that those who seek the character of God through the life of Christ cannot equate the Father revealed by Jesus with the designer of an eternal torture chamber. It goes against everything Jesus ever preached about dealing with our “enemies”… but those that seek certainty, “justice”, concrete right and wrong, good and bad, in or out structures will hold to what gives them that security.
        Intellectual argument or debate is a wonderful learning process for those with open minds and hearts, but if those two elements are missing then the whole circus is simply a plethora of clowns.
        All that said, my main challenge is not the proving of a point re Hell… but living with the relational responses to those who disagree with me ? There’s little point preaching that God is truly restorative if I can’t display it.
        And that’s where my arguments end and my testimony has to begin.

    • “It is surprising to me that Evangelical theologians have taken up his standard in a way that does not correspond to his standing in his own communion.”

      Intellectual respectability within Evangelical Protestantism. Catholic and mainline authors are inherently tainted, but no one has ever accused Eastern Orthodoxy of being a bunch of lefties like the mainlines, nor do any Evangelicals have a lingering suspicion that the Oecumencal Patriarch is really the Antichrist.

      • David Cornwell says

        “lingering suspicion that the Oecumencal Patriarch is really the Antichrist.”

        Yeah, but what’s behind those beards?

    • Mule,

      my understanding is that there is the opinion among at least some of the Fathers that judgment and purification will happen all in the same moment, either right after our death or on the return of Christ. So time doesn’t have to be involved in that scenario.

      There’s so much about the post-death state and experience we aren’t given as dogma, because it is not part of the Liturgical life of the Church. One reason I think that is so is that keeping people halted in front of the doors of that knowledge pretty much forces us to be more humble, because those details have not been revealed to us and just maybe we will turn our thoughts to our own sins, rather than those of others. It also keeps a lot of weird theology from developing. Not that we don’t have some weirdness 🙂 but that the weirdness is on the fringe and is opinion, not at the core as doctrine. Lots of priests hold and teach to ECT, as C.S. Lewis thought of it and also like Evangelicals (and Catholics) do, but that is actually not the doctrine of Orthodoxy, because it simply doesn’t show up in our Liturgical life. It’s only a month until Lent; as you read your Great Canon of St Anthony of Crete, try to find it.

      I’ve been in Hart’s corner (and Gregory of Nyssa’s and Isaac the Syrian’s) since before I came into the Church. One reason I went East is that Orthodoxy holds open the theological space regarding post-death happenings. Along with the kind of things Ramelli’s points out in her patristic studies, that space allows me to have, as Fr Aiden Kimel puts it, an unconquerable hope – in a God who is Truly Good and loves/is the best friend to mankind (philanthropos).

      Dana

  8. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Problem is ECT Eternal Hell is useful.
    Very useful.
    Keeps the pewpeons in line.

    “Fear will keep the outer systems in line. Fear of this battle station.”
    — Grand Moff Tarkin, aboard Death Star, Star Wars

  9. “If you’ve read him before, you’ll know that he can easily toss out ten words you’ve never come across without breaking a sweat.” That’s an understatement.. LOL!

    I”ve got this book queued up and hope to get to it next week.

    Thanks, for the review, Rob! I don’t think I can remember one of your reviews that I didn’t concur with.

    Paz y amor!

  10. This book has been taunting me from the bookshelves for months and has now jumped to the top of my to-read list. Acerbic, sneering, and dismissively high minded sound like the proper stance for deconstructing a doctrine that has done so much harm over the centuries. I’m particularly intrigued by his handling of free will because after over 20 years of working with people on a psychotherapeutic basis, it seems the only God that could consign an eternal fate of torture to those whose will is constructed and shaped by of layers and layers of crucially protective schema—which is essentially, all of us—would be a monster not worthy of worship.

    • David Cornwell says

      ” it seems the only God that could consign an eternal fate of torture to those whose will is constructed and shaped by of layers and layers of crucially protective schema—which is essentially, all of us—would be a monster not worthy of worship.”

      Yes. Free will is mostly an abstract construct twisted into a legal basis for retribution. It gets the accusers off the hook and the offenders behind the lock.

    • +1

    • Interesting comment. I agree. It there are so many barriers within ourselves and in the world that distract from seeing Christ for Who He is: Our Savior. I find it difficult to believe God would let His creatures so easily “choose” eternal torment after all He went through for us.

      It is a Mystery.

      Jesus Saves.

    • Ellen, I think you’ll find much to commend in the book.

  11. His point about retributive vs. restorative justice is very interesting. Is retributive justice (i.e. hurting someone to punish them for something they’ve done) a purely human invention, or is it something God is okay with? There are clearly passages of the Bible that seem to support it – for example, the death penalty is by definition retributive. But do those passages represent God’s ideal for society, or God’s accommodation of fallen humanity?

    Personally, based on the example of Jesus I believe that God’s intentions toward us are always restorative rather than retributive. And I see the mindset of retributive justice as a sinful temptation that we should avoid, not as something compatible with Christian morality. But I can also see why someone else, reading parts of the Bible other than the Gospels, might reach different conclusions.

    • Burro (Mule) says

      I always remember CS Lewis’ warning that ‘restorative’ justice was far worse than retributive, because the person administering it was always doing so ‘for your own good’, and was thus not amenable to considerations of humanity. After all, it just wouldn’t do to interrupt the treatment when we’re so close to success now, would it?

      And also because it is so open-ended.

      One of the reasons I am in favor of reparations for slavery is precisely because it is retributive. 🙂 🙂 🙂

      • You might be using the terms differently than I would use them. By my definition, if the point of reparations is to remedy a pattern of inherited inequality, then it is restoration rather than retribution. And, the point of reparations would not be to punish racists for their racism, but to reduce the abiding consequences of past and present structural sin.

        Restorative justice just means looking at a wrong that has happened and focusing on how to heal both the brokenness caused by that wrong and the brokenness that led to its being committed in the first place. And yes, in some ways it is “far worse” than retributive justice because instead of just demanding that a sinner should suffer, it demands that a sinner should repent and be transformed into a different sort of person – which is much harder, so hard that it cannot be done without both God’s help and human faith and courage.

        To use your reparations example: it would be much easier for a white person to say, “let me just write a reparations check that absolves me of the need to examine and deal with my privilege,” than for someone to actually do the hard work of self-examination and repentance. Someone who just wrote the check without undergoing that transformation might satisfy an earthly concept of justice, but from God’s perspective they would not have changed or improved in any meaningful way.

      • Whatever one may think of Lewis’ argument on this issue, he was talking about restorative justice as administered by imperfect and sinful human beings and institutions, not by God. World of difference.

  12. It’s given me great pleasure, and hope, to follow universalism debate over the last 10 years. But Hart has been the one to make me laugh out loud along the way like none other.

    If DBH wets your whistle, consider looking up different works by Robin Parry (very accessible, evangelical approach) as well as Illaria Ramelli (uber-scholar, only accessible in bite-size nuggets. But her work on the church fathers and apokatastasis is second-to-none). There are others who fill in the gaps in different ways with different approaches.

    My unique take, which I haven’t found in any other writer thus far: demons matter.

    I’ve learned a thing or two about what is often called “deliverance” ministry, and have participated or led in a number of healing prayer gatherings where demonic oppression was a core issue. Without launching into an entire apologetic about the reality and relevance of that kind of ministry (including abuses), this is how it has influenced me about the current topic. I admit, this is completely anecdotal, perhaps unique to my own experience, but here is my synopsis anyways:

    Hell is real, and necessary, and we should be thankful for it. But humans made in the image of God are not its intention.

    Have fun with that one 🙂

  13. Burro (Mule) says

    With a price tag of $370, Dr. Ramelli’s treatment of the issue is going to be restricted to the specialists.

    Interesting, though, that she views Eriugena as “the last of the Fathers”.

    The malice of the demons is overlooked by nearly everyone except the Orthodox and the Pentecostals

    • Would you believe that someone GAVE me a copy of that book? That’s how I learned about her.

      Thankfully, she has recent accessible treatments as well. Search “A Larger Hope.”

      • There are also a few videos floating around with interviews of Ramelli. Also enlightening and, in my opinion, quite accessible.

        She also suffers in her own kind of hell – she has severe spinal problems and is in constant pain, which is part of the reason why she has not published a lot of book-length treatments – although she has published numerous academic papers. R. Parry is among her interviewers, and the whole time she spent talking to him she was lying in a “zero-gravity” kind of recliner.

        Dana

    • I’ve gotten heavily into Origen as of late. I have Elizabeth Clark’s book on the First Origenist Controversy on the way even as we chat so enjoyably.

      Burro do you really believe that demons exist?

      • Burro (Mule) says

        I don’t know if ‘believe’ is the right word to use for direct sensory experience. Whether it is the correct interpretation of the data is left as an exercise for the unconvinced.

        • Well the writers of the New Testament certainly believed.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          “Direct sensory experience” in what way.

          I have had one-and-a-half experiences in my life where the most plausible explanation is a hostile non-physical. The 1/2 is also explainable as a bizarre dream, but my 1980 “Fullerton Freakout” (for which I was fully awake) is most easily explained as me walking into an occult crossfire where at least one of the shooters didn’t have physical form.

  14. In this present life, entering into deeper communion with God always goes hand in hand with deeper openness and vulnerability and self-knowledge – God desires “truth in the innermost parts,” and so any walls that we put up to hide from ourselves inevitably hide God as well. Intimacy with God means allowing infected wounds that have scabbed over without healing – whether those wounds were caused by our own sin or someone else’s – to break open again so God can disinfect and heal them. Looking back we may be able to rejoice in that journey deeper into God’s presence, but looking forward while it’s still ahead of us, it can seem daunting, even impossible.

    What if heaven simply means being in God’s presence without any recourse to our usual devices for denying or evading that presence? If so, then the parts of the Bible that talk about hell as a sort of torture, and the parts that talk about heaven and the joy of the redeemed, could actually be describing the same thing from two different vantage points. But it wouldn’t be torture in the retributive sense – being made to suffer in order to pay a price. Rather, the suffering and the healing would be one and the same thing, and their goal would be restoration.

    • Burro (Mule) says

      If you believe that, welcome to Orthodoxy.

      • Burro (Mule) says

        The controversy in Orthodoxy is whether or not there are those who have sufficiently dehumanized themselves to the point where they are just a collection of impulses, fetishes, advertising slogans, prejudices, diabolisms, and resentments with no integrating human substratum underneath that can be healed.

        For a light-hearted treatment of this see Rex Mottram’s conversion to Catholicism in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited For a more serious treatment, Charles Williams’ Descent Into Hell.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          The controversy in Orthodoxy is whether or not there are those who have sufficiently dehumanized themselves to the point where they are just a collection of impulses, fetishes, advertising slogans, prejudices, diabolisms, and resentments with no integrating human substratum underneath that can be healed.

          Like the dialogue in Lewis’s The Great Divorce about whether a grumbling woman has “become a grumble” with no humanity left? Or “The Tragedian” in the same story who passes the point of no return and “his mask becomes his face” with nothing inside?

          There’s an analogous scene in one of Seabury Quinn’s 1920s-vintage “Jules DeGrandin mysteries”, where a lustful kinky woman was described by DeGrandin as “becoming an appetite animating a body”. (The woman in question is a recently-dead ghost/spirit coming back to torment her ex out of jealousy, and “materializes” in the final showdown as a horrifying harpy, i.e. what she really was without her pretty body to mask it.)

      • 🙂

        D.

    • God is with our true self, and saves only that self. Counterfeits are burned. I expect to be heavily salted with fire.

    • Christiane says

      good, thoughtful comment, Michael Z . . . the idea of God ‘healing’ our wounds . . . I can see that, yes, and it sure throws a monkey-wrench into the frantic evangelical pointing to hell to scare people into submission to their ways as some kind of ‘salvation’ . . . . so negative, so judgmental, so much the proud pharisee but I can’t buy into ‘their ways’ . . . some people’s wounds are way too deep for that kind of shallow treatment

      it occurred to me that maybe Christians are at a disadvantage when they are feeling daunted by the ‘culture(s)’ of this world, and that maybe it might be worthwhile to pursue some idea of Christianity as a ‘transcendent’ force in this world and that people who followed Christ might be more able to be of service if they did two seemingly paradoxical things at the SAME TIME:

      First, that Christians went forward out into ‘this world’ as if they had just gone through Pentecost and were somewhat fearless and intent on serving others in Christ’s Name, coming from a position of positive encouragement and strength and GOOD WILL

      AND,

      Secondly, that Christians remained internally calmed and at peace so that ‘this world’ was not so ‘fearful’ and ‘offensive’ to them that they lost track of who they were as being sent out ‘to serve’ and not to judge’
      and that Christians did not feel so easily ‘slighted’ and could carry within themselves the peace of Christ that leads to a calm spirit of equanimity . . . not so much ‘re-acting’ as ‘acting’ positively to instead ‘come along side’ troubled people and take time to patiently listen to them . . . it is said that ‘God is present in the listening’ and it is His Presence that Christians want to carry with them out into the world

      in short, I don’t think Christians SHOULD feel so ‘threatened’ and ‘offended’ as some have portray themselves to be;
      but instead ‘go forth’ with good will in order to serve others in ways that ‘point to Christ’ and be something of a calm voice in the midst of the chaos that is ‘this world’ with all of its wounded. . . . and then for Christians to USE the forces that are needed in order to serve troubled people: patience, kindness, etc. (the fruit of the Holy Spirit)

      I doubt such Christians would need to use ‘manipulative’ or ‘controlling’ tactics or attempting to shame a troubled person, but to instead use some form, in some way, whatever is best at the time, of HUMILITY in service . . . as One Who showed how it is done when He knelt and washed the feet of those He was serving and dried them gently with a towel . . . .

      yeah, I wonder if we know anything better to do than how Christ modeled for us Himself when He was here among us, with the heart of a Shepherd, He looked out on the multitudes of ‘harassed and helpless people’ and felt for them an age-old Kindness ?

  15. On the restorative/retributive scale…

    What could be more retributive OR restorative than someone who is a violent, defiant victimizer in his earthly life having to behold the gaze of Jesus, and instantaneously coming into full self-awareness of his sin, crime, legacy, guilt. While those eyes also communicate hopefulness, disappointment, eternal purpose, forgiveness…

    This is why I enjoy investigating these discussions without the stress that I used to have about them. Jesus holds the keys of Death and Hades, and that is enough.

    • Burro (Mule) says

      “Daddy, why don’t the icons smile?”

      “Why, honey? How do they make you feel?”

      “Sometimes they look like I’ve hurt their feelings and that makes me sad. Sometimes they look like they know what I’ve done that’s wrong, and that makes me a little scared. Sometimes they look like they’re not worried about what’s happening, and that makes me feel good.”

  16. –> “This is why I enjoy investigating these discussions without the stress that I used to have about them. Jesus holds the keys of Death and Hades, and that is enough.”

    Amen, and same here.

    • And what’s also quite freeing is when I hear people fret now about “Oh, I hope they were saved before they died” (like I’ve heard for Kobe Bryant and his daughter) I can just sort of relax and think, “Jesus saves.”

      • That has helped me in the last few days. Kobe hit me hard.

        FWIW, it was said that Kobe and Gigi attended Mass before they got into the helicopter.

  17. senecagriggs says

    The theologians of Internetmonk have declared hell passe? Hmmm

    __________

    On the other hand, I wonder how many years before the book goes O.O.P. [ out of print ]

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Ever wondered what a lot of preachers would preach about (or Christians would ever do) without a doctrine of Eternal Hell? It’s become so intrinsic…

  18. When the discussion of hell comes up other than being part of the discussion , I do not care what it is, I am not going there due to my savior Jesus Christ. To be simple about it hell cannot be a positive place to be and certainly if you can avoid it you would want to which is why God sent Jesus. I am sure my concept of hell is Dante’s Inferno and all the pictures of hell from famous paintings. Watching slides of my neighbors 1980 trip to Grand Canyon might be considered hell by some and they would be right. In any event personally I do not care other than hell cannot be better than being with God.

  19. there is for some in Christianity the sense that death is a barrier beyond which there is no mercy from God

    I think this might come from an old Roman custom “”Murum aries attigit”,
    when a Roman army attacked the enemy, if the enemy did not surrender first, there was this saying ‘the ram has touched the wall’, meaning ‘after the battering ram touches the fortress wall, then there will be no mercy for anyone within the fortress . . . only death

    I suppose the Catholics eased this a bit with the concepts of ‘Purgatory’ and ‘a place of peace and light for unbaptized infants’ . . . . but fundamentalist-evangelicals went full-steam ahead with the fear-mongering that if people didn’t ‘go their way’, the door would close to ‘salvation’ at the moment of death . . . no chance for mercy after that point

    so ‘fear’ became a way to ‘weaponize’ the Gospel . . . to call the unreached ‘the LOST’ . . . . to put pressure on those who didn’t convert right away, instead of using patience and ‘planting a seed’ for someone else to water and someone else to harvest . . . .

    fundamentalism became hard-core sales tactics complete with ‘this may be your final chance to be ‘saved’ ‘
    pressure and fear . . . laid on with much talk of HELL and burning and suffering for all eternity

    some good news that was/is . . .

    better the idea of Our Lord, the Physician, who comes with healing in His Hands and announces ‘shalom’ . . . ‘peace be with you’

  20. Rob, thanks for the review, and especially for the time and thought you’ve invested in this subject.

    Tom C.

  21. Rob, I’d heard of the book, and have read three previous Hart books. But I wasn’t going to read this one because Hell is so far behind me — why bother? However, you have convinced me to read it, if only for the prose and the Hart-experience. Well done!