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

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

David Bentley Hart
New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2019. 222 pp., hardcover, $26.

The conventional Christian doctrine of eternal damnation is one of the foulest, most absurd, and most damaging ideas ever foisted on the human race. To define it, theologians must go through contortions that would be hilarious if they had not caused so much grief.

In this book, the American theologian David Bentley Hart takes on this idea of eternal damnation, which he calls “infernalism.” Advancing a universalist position, he does not dismiss the idea of hell entirely, but he does reject the dogma that God will visit infinite punishment for offenses that, at most, occupy a few decades of a life. “The only hell that could possibly exist is the one of which Christian contemplatives speak: the hatred within each of us that turns the love of others—of God and neighbor—into torment,” he writes.

Hart attacks the belief in an eternal hell on several fronts. In the first place, he explores the expression “eternal fire” found in Matthew 18:8 and 25:41. The Greek here is to pur to aiōnion, and the word of interest is aiōnion. It is derived from the noun aiōn (the origin of our word eon: Hart transliterates it as aeon), about which he writes, “Through the whole of ancient . . . Greek literature, an ‘aeon’ was most properly an ‘age,’ which  is simply to say a ‘substantial period of time’ or an ‘extended interval.’” The adjective did not “have the intrinsic meaning of ‘eternal.’ . . . Generally it had a much vaguer connotation.” The fourth-century church father John Chrysostom “once even used the word aiōnios to describe the reign of Satan over this world precisely in order to emphasize its transience.” An aiōn, then, was a very long and indeterminate time, but it did not mean eternity.

Hart cites many verses from the New Testament that back up his assertion that all shall be saved, such as 1 Corinthians 15:22: “For just as in Adam all die, so also in the Anointed [Christ] all will be given life.”  Most strikingly, he discusses the teachings of the fourth-century church father Gregory of Nyssa: “God shall be all in all, argues Gregory in a treatise on infants who die prematurely . . . by joining each particular person, each unique inflection of the plērōma’s beauty, to himself.” (Plērōma means fullness in a theological sense.) Indeed, Hart says, the doctrine of eventual universal redemption was very likely more common in early Christianity than the doctrine of eternal damnation.

Hart’s treatment of infernalism is vitriolic: “Christianity’s chief distinction among theistic creeds is that it alone openly enjoins its adherents to be morally superior to the God they worship.” Who of us, after all, would decree perpetual torture for anyone? Even the worst monsters of history committed only a finite number of crimes, however large that may be. But conventional Christians must believe that their God will do this—while believing at the same time that he is all-loving.

Where, then, did this idea come from? Hart notes that in early Christianity “it was still generally assumed that there were mysteries of the faith that should be reserved only for the very few, the Christian intellectual elite, pnevmatikoi, ‘spiritual persons’ (a term even used by Paul), while the faith of the more common variety of believers should be nourished only with simpler, coarser, more infantile versions of doctrine.” The pnevmatikoi, he suggests, knew that in the end all will be saved. “For the less learned, less refined, less philosophical Christians, it was widely believed, the prospect of hellfire was always the best possible means of promoting good behavior.” Hence the Christian elite could “indulge in an act of holy duplicity.”

We know how it turned out. Bad doctrine drives out good. Eventually every Christian was required to believe in infernalism under threat of eternal damnation for themselves.

It is a sign of the degeneracy of current Christian theology that Hart says he is “writing a book that I expect will convince nearly no one . . . I find it even more unsettling to have written a book that I believe ought never to have needed to be written in the first place.”

Strictly speaking, I cannot say that Hart’s book convinced me, because I agreed with his central thesis before I read a word of it. But he must know the current theological milieu well enough to foresee the obliviousness and obstinacy with which his arguments will be received.

It is always perilous to cross-compare different teachings, but we can easily transpose this universalism with classic Theosophy. The latter does not speak of a Fall or of sin in the Christian sense, but it does speak of each individual monad in an almost endless journey through cycles of manifestation and reintegration in ways that broadly resemble Christian universalism.

Hart is deservedly one of today’s foremost theologians. His translation of the New Testament, also issued by Yale University Press, may be the most intellectually honest version ever done. Publishing That All Shall Be Saved, which he describes as a “companion” to that New Testament, may be the greatest act of theological courage yet seen in this millennium.

Richard Smoley