David Bentley Hart’s End of History

11 10 2019

When thinking of the problem of Hell, I recall one of the only sermons that I remember from my time in the Society of St. Pius X seminary. It was an anniversary Mass of one of the priests where he began stating that the one thing that motivated him to be a priest was the idea of Hell and that people go there. This was one of the only instances when Hell even entered into my religious considerations. As a teenage hanger-on at my mother’s Legion of Mary praesidium, I remember being recounted the vision of Hell shown to the children at Fatima in connection to that apparition’s message of penance. As with many modern people, Hell is sort of always in the background but never at the forefront of what I think concerning the meaning of human life. But for many, such as that priest, it is very much front and center of who they are as followers of Christ.

Many good reviews have been written of David Bentley Hart’s new controversial book, That All Shall Be Saved. My reflection here won’t be particularly thorough and it won’t cover any ground that has been traversed elsewhere. For those who are not paying attention to the controversy, this is Hart’s comprehensive and last defense of his universalist position, namely, that no one is damned to Hell for all eternity. According to the author, this book is not meant to be an apologia to convince the other majority side that the idea that God “tortures souls” for all eternity is morally abhorrent and alien to the original sense of the Gospel. Hart’s book is more of a provocation than anything else, a drawing of a line in the sand against the heretical “infernalists”.

My first question in approaching this book is “Why now?” After decades, if not a couple of centuries, of historical criticism and theological liberalism, why throw down the gauntlet concerning the topic of eternal damnation? Let’s be clear, a large (if shrinking) part of Christianity denies the eternity of Hell if not its existence altogether. The progressive theology professor has been denying it for decades. Hart, however, is different. He cut his teeth fighting the emergent New Atheists of last decade on philosophical grounds. He is Eastern Orthodox, supposedly one of the “good guys” in terms of confessions fighting the ideological Culture War. Many could interpret his turn against defined theological orthodoxy as a “betrayal” of sorts, but none of the ideas are new nor, I would argue, are they exclusive to Hart himself.

Even thoughtful “orthodox” Christians have not shown a very enthusiastic appreciation of Hell in the last half century or so. Those who still uphold the doctrine continuously whittle away at the numbers of people who go there. As I have brought up recently, the Catholic Church is very reluctant to cast once “hopeless” people into Hell, at least on the pastoral level. Unbaptized infants, victims of suicide, and people who die in irregular situations are almost never denied a church burial at this point. Mercy is always presumed for those who cross the Church’s path, whereas previously, some would be denied Last Rites for seemingly minor infractions (the example of Moliere jumps immediately to mind). For those condemning Hart for losing his nerve in accepting the entire Gospel, warts and all, I would argue that, in this case, the entire modern Church lost it quite a while ago. We may have to believe in Hell, but nobody is particularly proud of it.

The reason for this is due to the hegemony of the new secular religion, Humanism, and a wider exposure to other beliefs. One family friend told me that, when she first came from Mexico in the 1960’s, she would make the Sign of the Cross passing any church without knowing that these were not Catholic churches. As a girl, she simply had no idea that any church other than the Catholic Church existed. A Catholic man I know around the same time period had a Presbyterian neighbor who died.  There was a debate within the family whether they should attend the funeral (apparently it was forbidden to even attend the funeral of a non-Catholic). One of the older sisters of the family stated that it would be monstrous if they didn’t go. I am pretty sure that the family stayed divided on the question, even though within ten years the whole discussion would be remembered as an unfortunate anachronism.

That is all to say that it was much easier for those in the past to consign others to Hell, precisely because they were viewed as “Other”. In 2019, we aren’t supposed to regard anyone as “Other”, but this was far from being the case previously. The previous world of the believer was quite small and uniform. Everyone had at least theoretical access to the one true path of salvation, and whether people took it or not was something for which they were truly culpable. Salvation was merely a matter of following social norms (for better or worse) and whether you died in a drunken brawl or in an accident in the field, you’re being in the state of grace was ostensibly under your control. If there were “Turks” and “savages” who you never met who were predestined to Hell from all eternity, what did it matter? They were subhuman monsters anyway who wanted to kill you and rape your daughters, so whatever happened to them in the afterlife was a just judgment as far as you were concerned.

Hart’s defense of universalism can only be considered under this light. Hart’s readers will mostly live in comfortable First World conditions with a functional police force and pluralist civil society. The habitat in which the doctrine of Hell emerged and developed has long passed away. In a global society, we are acutely aware of the numerous beliefs, points of views, ways of life, and history (this above all) that contextualizes every facet of our lives. And we have grown to care very much of what others who believe differently think about us. This is where the idea of condemning non-believers and sinners for all eternity feels embarrassing. Even the really nice Baptist grocer? Even my Episcopalian soccer teammate? Even my thrice-divorced doctor who doesn’t seem to go to church at all? All of them go to a Hell of eternal torment because of highly variable and contingent sets of circumstances out of their control?

This is at the heart of Hart’s unforgiving rhetoric in his book towards the “infernalists”. We no longer live in Tertullian’s or Dante’s world where we can look gleefully upon our enemies writhing in unquenchable flames and think that they are receiving their just comeuppance. It’s simply “not done”, no lady or gentleman (or their contemporary “woke” counterpart) would deign to sink so low. I can’t help but think that Hart’s Episcopalian upbringing enters into all of this. Had he been raised in, for instance, a Catholic barrio having to fight off three separate bullies just to get home (no idea why that example came to mind), maybe he would be far more hesitant to condemn the ideas of Christians through the centuries who concluded that, yes, there are people who are indeed that bad.

I dwell so much on the sociological elements because these are the most neglected points in these conversations. I will transition here to the actual philosophical and theological arguments presented in Hart’s book. Overall, I call this a provocation because it chooses not to address at all any of the counterarguments. There is no close reading of the obvious Scriptural passages that seem to indicate eternal damnation (e.g. “it would have been better had he never been born”) and he dismisses the entire Book of Revelation as an impossibly opaque cipher that probably only has to do with the contemporary politics of first century Palestine occupied by Rome. So much for that then. But like others, I will reduce (simplify?) the arguments into two:

  1. If we find the idea of God condemning people to Hell for all eternity as being unjust, this means we are “better than God,” which is ridiculous.
  2. Humans can only will their ultimate good by definition. Therefore, they cannot will their own eternal torment.

The only thing worth commenting on the first argument is that Hart vigorously shoots down the trope that “God’s ways are infinitely above our ways and therefore inscrutable”.  Hart rightfully calls this a lazy argument, and absurd on its face. Even if by faint analogy, we have to have some idea of the Good as it exists in God. Black isn’t white just because God says so, there has to be some participation of our idea of Good in God who is the Good by definition. The goodness of God can’t be a totally alien to our idea of goodness, otherwise the whole idea of goodness is meaningless. Since I would never condemn a person to eternal Hell because I find the idea repulsive, God thinks likewise. I have little to say of this because I have never been a tortured or scrupulous believer either way. I have never understood the angst of a Kierkegaard reflecting on Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. At the very most, I have thought to myself, “Glad that’s not me” (on either side of the blade). I have never been moved by circumstances to have to beg God for the meaning of it all, contra rationem.

The more compelling premise is the second, centering on human free will. This whole discussion reminded me of the rabbit hole I went down the middle of last decade concerning Henri de Lubac’s book Surnaturel. This was the theological controversy that culminated in de Lubac’s silencing and the indirect condemnation of his work in Pius XII’s encyclical, Humani Generis. Briefly (and sloppily), I will summarize the argument as stating that de Lubac thought that the idea of a “pure nature” was a decadent Baroque creation and that humans only had one end, and that was God Himself. In the idea of “pure nature,” a supernatural element simply does not enter. The end of the dog is to be a dog (operatio esse sequitur): it eats, sleeps, mates, and defends (Jai  Srila Prabhupada!) and does nothing else. And in doing / being dog, it achieves its ultimate happiness. What is the end of man, and how does he achieve happiness? If you say man’s end is God, you sort of demand that man must achieve the divine to be happy and to be a perfect creation, otherwise, man is ipso facto defective (and so is the Creator?). And where does grace factor in here?  This question entered into Catholic consciousness through the realm of the limbus infantium: the place where unbaptized infants go in which they do not suffer but don’t achieve the Beatific Vision either. The state of unbaptized infants was said to be that of a “natural happiness”.

The idea of “pure nature” was obliterated with Vatican II, and some would say rightly so. A notable example of the new theological position can be seen in John Paul II’s Redemptor Hominis, where he writes:

…Christ, the Redeemer of the world, is the one who penetrated in a unique unrepeatable way into the mystery of man and entered his “heart”. Rightly therefore does the Second Vatican Council teach: “The truth is that only in the mystery of the Incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a type of him who was to come (Rom 5:14), Christ the Lord. Christ the new Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of his love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling”. And the Council continues: “He who is the ‘image of the invisible God’ (Col 1:15), is himself the perfect man who has restored in the children of Adam that likeness to God which had been disfigured ever since the first sin. Human nature, by the very fact that is was assumed, not absorbed, in him, has been raised in us also to a dignity beyond compare. For, by his Incarnation, he, the son of God, in a certain way united himself with each man.

How can that which was united to God (as the New Theology indicates) end up choosing to reject God anyway? Defenders of the eternal Hell doctrine would have recourse to an argument from free will. They would indicate that God cannot violate the integrity of human choice. In order to be truly free, and thus in the image of God, humans must be able to choose God freely or reject Him. Otherwise, they would have no freedom at all: they’d simply be robots programmed by God toward a predetermined end. A person is not really able to love if he cannot choose to reject love. Thus, the failure to miss the mark of eternal happiness is the prerequisite for the existence of that happiness.

Hart dismisses this reasoning stating that this view of human freedom is faulty and nonsensical. For him, God isn’t really a choice. According to Hart, God is not an object among others, even if a particularly appealing object. You don’t choose God like you choose having a sandwich or sushi for lunch. God is Goodness itself, and every good that one chooses in any given circumstance is God, even if only a faint vestige of God. Invoking what I said about de Lubac above, our natural will is a movement toward God by definition. Hart is even so bold as to say that apostasy is seeking God, rejecting God is seeking God, etc. The only sensible will would seek God, otherwise it’s not a will at all. It would be just a random algorithm that determines outcomes on the basis of absurdly contingent factors. If Pius XII’s Vatican feared de Lubac’s rejection of pure nature because it would mean that God owed Himself to His creatures, thereby negating grace, Hart agrees and doubles down. God does owe Himself to His Creation, otherwise He wouldn’t be God, or Pure Goodness.

I should clarify that Hart doesn’t reject Hell entirely, but merely the idea of an eternal Hell. It’s fine for Hart if, after the course of our life on Earth, some would need to be cast into some rather unpleasant circumstances in order to turn toward God definitively. And it’s perfectly understandable if this would have to be for a very long period of time. And here is where I have a problem with Hart’s system, especially from a Christian perspective. I am no academic or expert on the topic, but the one thing that has defined Christianity in my lifelong study of it is eschatological urgency. That Jesus hasn’t returned and restored all things yet is a pressing problem for me when I think about the Christian message. It’s only in the context of eschatological urgency that the modern idea of history makes sense. That is, things have happened how they happened because they had to be that way and no other. Human actions lock us into a fate that is irrevocable and that leads to the universal defeat of evil and the restoration of the good. There is a gravity of human action in Christian time that defines the Western ethos: a kiss in a garden, thirty pieces of silver cast on the ground, the washing of hands, a last breath of a naked man on a cross…

Unlike in Eastern Dharmic religions, in Christianity, there are no do-overs. History proceeds in a line and not in a circle. In contrast to the vertiginous unending flow of Hindu yugas, the Christian person has eighty years (if they’re lucky) to choose the good and reject evil. Every second counts. Here good deeds in a life lived badly are a source of shame and not consolation: you knew the good yet you chose evil anyway, and now you have to live forever with your choice. The problem with Hart’s proposed system of universal salvation is that it chooses the worst of all worlds on one level. Our actions this side of death are more or less meaningless unless we choose correctly: there is an ominous “to be continued” flashed at the end credits of our earthly lives. Whether we choose God or not then has nothing to do with what happens here, even if in our current human experience, that’s all we know. We can speak of nothing else. Unless I am missing something, Christian time is relatively short and even minuscule compared to its Eastern counterparts. I cite here the early modern Vaishnava text, the Caitanya-caritamrta, this time concerning the punishment for killing a cow:

Cow-killers are condemned to rot in hellish life for as many thousands of years as there are hairs on the body of the cow.

I am not sure if any Christian system could grant human existence in time (prior to the restoration of all things) to be measured in the trillions of years, but perhaps it is still possible. In spite of asserting the final triumph over evil, Hart fails to address why many (most?) people continue to choose evil in the first place, and why it would take more than one lifetime (perhaps much more) to get everyone on board the Ark of Salvation.

Hart asks at the end of the book whether certain people need the idea of eternal torment in Hell to behave, and I will extend that to ask why anyone should bother thinking of God at all if we achieve Him no matter what we do. Again, in many Asian religions, Hell is being thrown into an eternal vortex of karma and even good deeds can’t get us out it. We repeat pleasure and suffering indefinitely until we are delivered from the cycle altogether. In the Christian reality, where there is a restoration of all things at the end of the world, why shouldn’t someone defer suffering until after the end of their earthly life if the results will be the same regardless? Human beings prefer immediate returns as opposed to delayed returns. If I don’t save food or money today but will starve tomorrow, I have some incentive to delay gratification now. If I arrive at the same outcome regardless, I have no incentive at all to delay gratification today, even if I might have to endure temporary suffering before arriving at the final pleasant state. I might choose to spend money now and eat only cheap ramen noodles for the last week of the month, only to get paid at the end of the month anyway. I would still be making a rational decision in that case. Hart’s universal salvation has neither the urgency of irrevocable choice of traditional Christianity, nor the unending cycle of karma of its Eastern counterparts that is a Hell unto itself. The only incentive to do the difficult in Hart’s cosmos would be an injunction that, “it’s nice to be nice” (a very Anglo-Saxon sentiment), or perhaps some vague saccharine idea of devotion or pure love of God (which, let’s be honest, will convince almost no one).

That’s not necessarily a strike against Hart’s system per se. I suppose it’s fine if he wants to act like a cosmic Santa Claus, giving the best possible reality to his readers. And maybe his temporary Hell (Catholics call it “purgatory”) would have obscene torments that we should try to save people from. But if eternal suffering is unacceptable, why is any other sort of suffering acceptable? Why is one thousand or one trillion years of Hell perfectly compassionate, but eternal Hell is a bridge too far? What are we even talking about at that point? For me, a year is still a long time. Does this conversation really matter? Maybe we are trying to avoid a slippery slope by evading the question of the first year freshman college student in Philosophy 101: If God is just, why do we suffer? And if this question is ridiculous, what’s the point of objecting to an eternal Hell? Eternal Hell just seems uncouth, I suppose.

I will close (thankfully!) with the other significant objection to Hell that Hart posits, and that is, if God is to be “all in all”, it makes no sense that there is a nook in the transfigured cosmos that continues to be the realm of His enemies, like a fly in the ointment. I see the point he’s trying to make here, and I have believed it myself at times, but I don’t think that the orthodox Christian perspective offers any real solution here. Even if there is a “restoration” of all things and a return of the cosmos to God, the question will always be, “But was it worth it?” Was it worth the mother seeing her infant slain before her, was it worth the theft, the hatred, and the betrayal it all took to get there, even if everyone does indeed “get there”? It could be argued that one is also just kicking the can down the road, and Hart is implying that “God’s ways are not our ways, etc,” echoing an argument he has already dismissed. Whether Hart and his fellow universalists draw the line here or elsewhere remains to be seen. I still conclude that, at some point, one must surrender to the Divine, in perfect trust that goodness will prevail, even if we don’t currently understand how.


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5 responses

3 11 2019
G. Ben Wigner

To be honest this is as misleading as many of the less sensible attempts to critique the book. The supposed scriptural passages on hell that aren’t dealt with in the book aren’t dealt with because they don’t exist. But Hart gives a correct characterization of all of Jesus’s hard sayings in three categories. You can see which sayings fit where: disposal and destruction (Gehenna, frnaces), exclusion (wedding parties), imprisonment and torture (debtors’s prison). He talks about Paul in First Corinthians 3. And on Revelation he actually gives a more than sufficient treatment, pointing out that there aren’t any clear infernalist passages and that the way the book ends clearly fits into the model of two eschatological horizons that he finds in First Corinthians 15 and in Gregory Nyssen and Origen.

The cosmic Santa Claus line is ridiculous.

I see DBH has replied graciously. I guess it’s nice that you didn’t spend your time complaining that he used such frank language when the idea in question was proposed by the infallible Aquinas, and things like that. So maybe he’s grateful for that. But this is still too superficial.

3 11 2019
Stephen Martin

Choosing God, particularly the God of Christianity, is not a choice between suffering and not suffering. We’ve already been born into suffering. We’ve had no choice. Welcome to terra ferma.
Choosing Christ’s God is about “seeing” and “realizing” the intrinsic nature of God despite the suffering we experience. And, it is not a matter of free choice or we would not be in this predicament to begin with! To imagine what comes after death is built on our experiences having come into this troubled world. The Christian has a window into the great beyond not dependent upon our experiences yet does not deny them.
Our revelation with growing realization is a privileged one. Seeing the goodness of God and understanding, (through the incarnation, death, burial and resurrection as correctly read through Paul’s post ascension apostleship), that come what may, God is Love. Whatever God allows of evil can not ultimately oppose His intentions and divine character. All of creation will be reconciled to Him, and, on account of Him ONLY, not our finite personal choices.

3 11 2019
DBH

Thanks for a thoughtful critique. You have missed some crucial steps in the argument, however, and so the logical structure of much of it, but you have understood others very well. If you have time, look at the first three meditations again, and you’ll see that the questions you ask of the text are in fact answered. I would direct you to some of my more academic writing on pure nature, but the best bits aren’t in published form yet.

Anyway, thanks again for writing a serious reflection. I’ve generally been getting only dull screeds from the opposition. And I don’t mind being accused of Episcopalianism. But, just so you know, I’ve spent some time in dark corners of reality too—even some where the kids don’t have to wear blue blazers, gray trousers, and red ties when they go to church.

3 11 2019
Iain Lovejoy

You have for some reason entirely ignored Hart’s most important argument, and one he deals with at length in the book. He (following Gregory of Nyssa) points out that unless everyone is saved, no-one can be. If my father, my child, my friend or my neighbour is suffering eternally in hell, how can I be in perfect joy in heaven? Is being perfected in heaven the abandonment of love of neighbour, so I don’t care about others being in torment, or will I be lobotomised so I no longer remember them: I am with God in idiot bliss with half my mind and memories taken away? Does God lie to the blessed and conceal from them what he is doing to their fellow human beings in hell?
Hart’s central thesis is not some theological or Biblical point, or logical argument, but that an eternal Hell makes God a moral monster and anyone who thinks it good one also. It’s difficult to see how if you have read the book you didn’t notice this, so why have you simply ignored this in the review?

3 11 2019
dianelos

Do you really believe that when faced with two alternatives choosing the path that is much longer and much more painful is “rational”?

And do you really think that salvation is about “arriving at a final pleasant state” and something akin to “get paid at the end of the month”?

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