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Shall All Be Saved?

A Review of David Bentley Hart's Case for Universal Salvation

T hat All Shall Be Saved is a formidable, densely packed, and often intellectually subtle tome that advocates for the universal salvation of all humankind. David Bentley Hart, an eminent Eastern Orthodox Christian intellectual, writes in a florid style with great force, displaying his rhetorical skills with often poignant turns of phrase and enviable verbal facility.

Unfortunately, the book is also highly supercilious and oddly pugilistic, dripping with bile and laden with polemically evocative language and unadorned insult. Beginning with the prejudicial moniker “infernalists” to describe his opponents, Hart heaps opprobrium upon them, questioning their moral integrity, mental stability, and intelligence. He characterizes his opponents with such choice descriptions as “moral idiocy”; “collective derangement”; “chronic intellectual and moral malformation”; exhibition of “emotional pathologies”; and “moral imbecility,” to name but a few such expressions.[1]

Were I a universalist, I would not be happy to have my position represented, however ably, in a way certain to turn off readers who might find the arrogant tone so off-putting and tedious that they will abandon the book long before its conclusion. But then, a curious feature of the book—or should I say the book’s author—is that he appears unconcerned about winning anyone over to the position, believing that he will not likely convince anyone of anything anyway.[2] Benighted infernalists are beyond hope, it would appear, while right thinking souls such as Hart and his fellow universalists already see the obvious.

Turning from the book’s snark to its substance, Hart treats weighty matters in his defense of universal salvation, drawing upon his unusually wide learning. The book addresses a broad swath of Christian reflection on a host of doctrinal credenda stretching well beyond the narrow issue of apokatastasis. Hart identifies and explores the systemic connections between universalism and such issues as the nature of creaturely freedom; one’s view of the atonement and original sin; the divine attributes of goodness and justice; the role of tradition, reason, one’s moral intuitions, and Scripture in defending Christian epistemic claims; and a host of other themes.

Authority: private moral intuitions and reason

In considering Hart’s view of authority in religious matters, we begin with his view of tradition.

Granting that Hart is Eastern Orthodox, the ease with which he sweeps away the vast majority of the Christian tradition through the centuries as so much moral imbecility, exegetical incompetence, and all around theological ineptitude is truly a stunning irony. The gates of hell have indeed prevailed against the church—at least thus far. In an inversion of Vincent of Lerins’ canon, Hart grants that universal salvation has been championed only infrequently, in a paucity of locations, and by few, at least if one considers the matter with the totality of the Christian tradition in view.[3] For Hart, the tradition’s “morally repugnant”[4] rejection of apokatastasis is of a piece with its embrace of other “degrading nonsense,” such as penal substitution (fueled, at least in part, by “one or two emotional pathologies”[5]) and the “repellant,” conscience-corrupting,[6] “dreadful, irrational, and morally horrid” doctrine of original sin.[7]

Hart levels his lance at all branches of the Christian tradition, especially the Roman Catholic and Protestant West, but even against the East (albeit in sotto voce and with certain duly noted exceptions). To put the matter baldly, “The God in whom the majority of Christians throughout history have professed belief appears to be evil (at least, judging by the dreadful things they habitually say about him).”[8]

Well, then. Hart’s dour view of the tradition is shocking to classic Protestant sensibilities, never mind to Roman Catholics. Its ethos seems more akin to a radical Anabaptist take on the matter, if not to what one finds in certain nineteenth-century American restorationist movements.

So it is certainly not tradition, then, that determines the matter for Hart. Nor, as we shall see momentarily, is it Scripture. Rather, it is Hart’s private moral intuitions and reason that secure the outcome on any of these issues, primarily the former. Hart expresses forcefully his moral and emotional loathing for the “genuinely odious” doctrine of eternal, conscious punishment, regarding it as “the single best argument for doubting the plausibility of the Christian faith” as either “coherent” or “a morally worthy system of devotion.”[9] In the end, it is Hart’s “spontaneously affective reason for rejecting” eternal conscious punishment “that remains paramount” for him.[10] It is certainly not tradition that determines the matter for Hart. Nor is it Scripture. Rather, it is Hart’s private moral intuitions and reason that secure the outcome on any of these issues, primarily the former. Click To Tweet

What, then, of Scripture’s testimony? Hart does include what one might loosely call exegesis at certain points in his argument, which we shall consider briefly and in its proper place. And, to be sure, Hart seems to believe that he has the Bible in his corner. But the biblical witness is not the final court of appeal for Hart nor determinative. If Hart were convinced that the Christian faith requires a belief in eternal conscious punishment, he would jettison Christianity altogether as self-evidently morally wretched before bowing the knee. “I have been asked more than once in the last few years,” he states, “whether, if I were to become convinced that Christian adherence absolutely requires a belief in a hell of eternal torment, this would constitute in my mind proof that Christianity should be dismissed as a self-evidently morally obtuse and logically incoherent faith. And, as it happens, it would.”[11]

Sic transit auctoritas Scripturae [12]

Isolating Hart’s central argument

Despite Hart’s desultory presentation, we may nevertheless fairly identify certain points that constitute his central theses. In a few instances, he himself highlights particular notions as especially significant, whereas other items of critical concern become evident through how pervasively they surface.

According to Hart, the two issues that have especially bothered him over the years are “whether it lies within the power of any finite rational creature freely to reject God, and to do so with eternal finality, and whether a God who could create a world in which the eternal perdition of rational spirits is even a possibility could be not only good, but the transcendent Good as such.” The answer to both questions, Hart declares, is “an unqualified and unyielding no.”[13]

For Hart, “a final state of eternal torment could be neither a just sentence pronounced upon nor a just fate suffered by a finite being, no matter how depraved that being might have become.” And even if one were somehow able to declare such a sentence “just” in the abstract, “the God who would permit it to become anyone’s actual fate could never be perfectly good.”[14]

It is instructive to see how Hart weaves these concerns, and what he believes they entail, throughout his presentation in various ways.

On Hart’s reckoning, the rational creature, in so far as he or she operates with rational lucidity, cannot but choose the good. This is so by a rational and moral necessity. “For a rational spirit, to see the good and know it truly is to desire it insatiably and to obey it unconditionally, while not to desire it is not to have known it truly, and so never to have been free to choose it.”[15]

It is impossible, Hart states, for the rational soul to “will the evil as truly evil in an absolute sense.” Rather, it can only pursue “what it takes to be good for it, however mistaken it may be in this judgment.”[16] “Even an act of apostasy, traced back to its most primordial impulse, is motivated by the desire for God,”[17] whom Hart describes as Goodness itself.

On Hart’s schema, then, the root of the sin problem lies in ignorance. “Sin requires some degree of ignorance, and ignorance is by definition a diverting of the mind and will to an end they would not naturally pursue.”[18] Such delusions enslave the person, contrary to his or her true nature.[19] Hart avers, “We can induce moral ignorance in ourselves through our own wicked actions and motives; but, conversely, those wicked actions and motives are themselves possible only on account of some degree of prior ignorance on our part.”[20]

Now this ignorance, necessarily present in all sin and which makes sin even possible in the first place, mitigates culpability. “Inevitably, 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. No mind that possesses so much as a glimmer of a consciousness of reality is wholly lacking in liberty; but, by the same token, no mind save one possessing absolutely undiminished consciousness of reality is wholly free.”[21]

At the same time, no one is able to choose evil absolutely. “We cannot choose between [God] and some other end in an absolute sense; we can choose only between better or worse approaches to his transcendence. As I have said, to reject God is still, however obscurely and uncomprehendingly, to seek God.”[22] Thus, from the inability to will evil qua evil, and to will it only to the degree that one is enslaved by an ignorance that misperceives evil as in some sense a good, it follows that only relative and not absolute guilt is possible for any rational creature.

Granting, then, the impossibility of absolute guilt, an absolute punishment, such as what the “infernalists” postulate, would be disproportionate and therefore unjust. Guilt, Hart tells us, is apportioned “according to the capacities and knowledge of the transgressor.”[23] And it is simply not the case that any creature, even one who becomes one “of monstrous temperament, cruel, selfish, even murderous” could possibly sin with such “perfect clarity, nor…enjoy complete rational discretion or power of his own deeds or desires” to incur eternal punishment.[24] No one could “ever possess the lucidity of mind it would require to make the kind of choice that, supposedly, one can be damned eternally for making or for failing to make.”[25] Nor would even the angels have such mental competence to damn themselves to perpetual misery.[26]

Hart asks us to contemplate, additionally, the grotesque disproportion of an unending punishment for one’s guilt contracted in the short span of “his or her terrestrial life.”[27] “We certainly cannot properly imagine an eternity of misery erected upon a temporal span that is, by comparison, scarcely more than nothing, and then actually convince ourselves that such a thing is morally possible.”[28]

The solution, then, is for God to remove the misconceptions and ignorance that beset and enslave both human and angelic kind. To the degree that the deranged misconceptions and passions are removed, “the more inevitable one’s surrender to God.”[29] When these are eliminated in toto, sin becomes impossible and submission to God inevitable.

The truest liberty of all, Hart tells us, is to be unable to sin. And this will happen “when one’s nature has been so emancipated from error that nothing can prevent it from reaching and enjoying the only end that can fulfill it: God. Only then is a rational being not a slave to ignorance and delusion.”[30]

God is fully competent to provide the requisite clear and veridical apprehension of himself as good—indeed, as transcendental Goodness itself. But not only can God do it, his goodness requires him to do so. Were he to leave his creatures in the shadows of perpetual ignorance and suffering, he would not be good but a “sadistic monster.”[31]

Now, should one object that freedom of the will precludes the possibility of God securing the creature’s allegiance, Hart simply disagrees. “The suggestion that God—properly understood—could not assure that a person freely will one thing rather than another is simply false.”[32] When God removes the veil in the eschaton and furnishes the creature with an unattenuated revelation of himself as the one, true transcendental good, the rational being will be “dragged” ineluctably to him.[33]

While Hart’s proposal is intriguing, it does generate a number of problems, some quite serious.

The source of ignorance

Granting that ignorance is the lynchpin on which the sin depends, we must ask ourselves some questions about the source of this ignorance.

Hart is clear that this ignorance is aboriginal in the first human pair, apart from their sin, as indeed it must be, considering that a certain amount of ignorance was requisite for their sin in the first place. Hart registers his agreement with those theologians who “tended to ascribe the cause of the fall to the childlike ignorance of unformed souls, not yet mature enough to resist false notions.”[34] At this point it is fair to ask—rhetorically, of course—“Who created them ignorant?” As creatures formed in God’s image, we are endowed with reason and moral intuitions. But these can be and often are flawed and must be subjected to the word of God. Both must bow the knee to Christ’s Lordship. Click To Tweet

Now, since God is the source of the ignorance, and since this ignorance leads to misidentifying the good, and because misidentifying the good eventuates in all of the untold perils, misery, and sufferings of the race from time immemorial, how is God good in light of all of the evils that eventuate from humankind’s wretched plight? It is as if God placed Adam, Eve, and all their progeny in a row boat with a crowbar for an oar and then sent a storm upon them. In such a case whose fault is it if they drown?[35]

It scarcely removes the difficulty to say that God does not allow this ignorance to reign permanently but eventually removes it. Hart himself rejects an answer that would “make the transient torments of history justifiable in light of God’s everlasting kingdom.”[36] For however long the ignorance endures, God is responsible for allowing it and for all of the suffering that eventuates from it. Recall that God could remove this ignorance at any time at his option through a clear revelation of himself. Why would he not have done so from the start?

Against the Augustinian and Calvinistic doctrine of reprobation, Hart declares that God would himself be morally reprobate if he failed to save individuals when it was well within his power to do so. Very well, then. On this hypothesis, Hart’s God might be less abominable than Calvin’s, since Hart’s God has seen fit to place an expiration date on his wanton cruelty. But this still would not yield for Hart a God who is good, given his own working assumptions.

The question of moral responsibility

The flip side of making God morally responsible for our sin is that it eliminates our own responsibility for it.

Hart does not wish to eliminate moral responsibility nor guilt for the sins that moral creatures commit. He does, however, wish to mitigate it to the degree that the creature sins ignorantly. Hart states, “He is in error in the choice he makes, and is culpable to the degree that he abets the error willingly; but it is also then the case that, to the degree he knows the Good in itself, he cannot but desire it rationally.”[37] But we must not lose sight of the fact that “abetting error willingly” is sin (as shown by its admitted culpability). And as for all sin, this sin in turn can only arise as a result of ignorance, which mitigates culpability, ad infinitum. This would seem to pose a conundrum of no little moment for Hart’s position. Let us consider this problem in a bit more detail.

On Hart’s reckoning, a creature cannot sin to the degree that he or she knows God as the Good in itself but can sin only to the degree that the creature is ignorant, misidentifying a false good for the true good. Remember that elsewhere he states that even the very act of apostasy is driven by a desire for God, albeit misplaced. Now, this very ignorance is what Hart believes mitigates guilt but does not eliminate entirely; it is only the degree to which the person “abets the error willingly” that forms the morally culpable residue of the sinful action. But on further reflection, it would seem that such ignorance would not merely mitigate guilt but must eliminate altogether not only actual guilt but even the possibility of any guilt.

How are we to account for that guilt-worthy fractional part of the sin that remains—what we might call the genuinely sinful part of the sin? Surely that culpable fractional part, if it is truly sin, must itself have ignorance at its root. This must be so because the rational creature can only choose what it regards as good; he or she cannot choose evil as evil but only as misidentified good—that is, through ignorance. So that fractional, culpable part turns out not to be quite so culpable after all. This fractional portion of guilt is in turn mitigated by the degree to which ignorance underlies and informs that part, and so forth, until culpability vanishes altogether. Stated another way, in order to have at least some genuine moral responsibility, there would have to be at least some morally culpable residue in an evil act that must consist in the deliberate choice of evil in compos mentis, something Hart rejects as impossible simpliciter.

The willfulness of sin

While no doubt we often do act ignorantly and misidentify the good, this can hardly account for the presence of sin all by itself. As experience attests, we willfully choose sin even when we know better. We often have enough insight into the good, know it to be good, and choose what is wrong with deliberate malice nonetheless.

Hart’s view seems to lodge defectibility in the intellect, urging that a veridical apprehension of God’s goodness would efficaciously counteract this. But this surely does not commend itself to the sin-laden soul, who understands that a weakness of will can lead one to choose what he or she truly knows to be wrong.

Even the Apostle wrestles with this, knowing the good but nevertheless drawn by the sin that indwells him (Rom. 7:15-20). Indeed, the one who knows the right thing to do and does it not, to him it is sin (Jas. 4:17).

Nor does this view take seriously biblical statements about wicked individuals who are said to hate God (Ps. 21:8; 83:2; 139:21). On Hart’s view, hating God is a form of misplaced love for him, and apostatizing from God is a form of seeking him. Hart might do well to bear in mind the words of the prophet, who declares, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil” (Isa. 5:20).

John 3:19 tells us that people loved darkness rather than light. They do not love it as a misplaced or misunderstood affectation for the good. The text does not say that their deeds were evil because they loved the darkness, as might be so if one mistook darkness for light out of ignorance. Rather, they loved and embraced darkness because their wills are corrupt, as shown by their evil behavior. Even when faced with the light—especially when faced with it, in the moral purity of the Son of God himself—they chose darkness. Hart’s mitigation of guilt is not easy to see in Jesus’ words here.

Addressing the charge of disproportionality

Hart’s arguments about the alleged disproportionality between guilt and punishment in the infernalist view do not commend themselves. In some places, Hart’s language appears to impute a kind of infinity to hell that is surely not the case, though in other instances it is not so clear that this is his intention.

For instance, on page 37, he seems to suggest that hell’s eternality is something other than finite. And again, on page 203, he  speaks of hell as an “eternally successive state.” While I do not disagree with this per se, I do wonder if it gives the impression that such eternal succession makes hell somehow infinite, which it most assuredly is not. Some of what he says on pages 52-53 might suggest something along these lines as well. Since I am not sure in all cases how to read him on this matter, I shall avoid attempting to parse Hart too finely on this and simply make the following points.

Eternity, for the finite creature, is not a different species, duration-wise, from our present frame of reference. Creaturely eternity, as Hart in one place observed (and as I would have expected him to), is not a kind of eternal now as could be proper only for God, lacking succession and complete in itself, as it were. The eternal state is a continuation of time. It is not a different class of sequential existence from our present state in that respect. And it is finite. No matter how far into the future one goes—whether in bliss or eternal torment—the person will only have existed a finite amount of time. The suffering of hell is, and always will be, finite at the point that the agent is experiencing it. And regardless of how long hell lasts, what the agent has not yet experienced, he has not experienced.[38] So to imply that this punishment somehow exists as a completed whole is to miss the mark.

Aside from the question of duration, it is also important to realize that the degree of punishment in hell is not infinite, either. Hart speaks of hell’s “infinite misery,”[39] which could mislead. Indeed, the biblical fact that there are degrees of punishment (e.g., Matt. 10:15) is sufficient in itself to show this to be so.

Hart’s biblical case

Hart’s handling of the biblical text is the weakest part of his case and provides some low hanging fruit for someone attempting to discredit it. But really, we have already seen that Scripture is not determinative for Hart anyway, and his embrace of universal salvation has relatively little to do with the Bible once the accounts are settled. Since I have already examined in detail the real center of gravity for his argument, I shall make some limited and mostly generalized observations about Hart’s scriptural case.

Hart contends that there are only “three or four deeply ambiguous verses that seem (and only seem) to threaten eternal torments for the wicked.”[40] First, there is Matthew 25:46, whose “wording leaves considerable doubt regarding its true significance.” And next, we have “perhaps a couple of verses from Revelation,” though when it comes to getting any meaning whatever from that book, “caveat lector.” “Beyond that, nothing is clear.”[41]

What Hart does with the book of Revelation is especially striking. He attempts to evade passages that evidently teach eternal conscious punishment simply by evading the entire book. Hart regards it as “a supremely foolish enterprise for anyone to attempt to extract so much as a single clear and unarguable doctrine regarding anything at all from the text,” despite that “Christians of every confession have been wont to do [so] down the centuries.” The book is an “intricate and impenetrable puzzle, one whose key vanished long ago with the particular local community of Christians who produced it.” (So much for the book’s Johannine authorship.) We cannot “hope to grasp even a shadow of a fragment of its intended message.” “One would have to be something of a lunatic to mistake any of it for a straightforward statement of dogma.”[42]

I cannot but recall Luther’s censure of Erasmus in The Bondage of the Will. Granting the book’s canonical status (I do note that Hart includes it in his own translation of the New Testament), what point would God have had in furnishing his church with a book so utterly incomprehensible that we can make nothing whatever of its message? “Are we not obscure and ambiguous enough,” Luther asks, “without having our obscurity, ambiguity, and darkness augmented for us from heaven?”

The comprehensibility of the text in Matthew fares little better when placed in Hart’s hands. It, too, is nearly impenetrable, he tells us. Jesus’ words here should not “be received as anything other than an intentionally heterogeneous phantasmagory, meant as much to disorient as to instruct,” as shown by “the wild mélange of images he employed.” Far from furnishing a basis for drawing conclusions about eternal destinies, the passage ultimately “dissolves into evocation, atmosphere, and poetry”[43]—mere biblical mood lighting, as it were.

I am not sure quite what to say in response to such a view other than to question whether it needs a response at all. But really, Hart’s view of this specific Dominical teaching, or even of an entire biblical book, turns out to have little ultimate importance anyway, given that he does not believe that we can synthesize doctrine from the Bible at all, never mind from its heterogeneously phantasmagoric sections.[44]

Despite these texts having little if any discernible meaning, Hart nevertheless appears to understand them well enough to demonstrate that they do not mean what the advocates of eternal conscious punishment say they mean. After opining earlier that his infernalist opponents will most likely default to their “shopworn” arguments in defense of the traditional view,[45] Hart himself trots out some thoroughly discredited, long-in-the-tooth arguments based on the idea that the adjectives ‘olam and aiōnios, which appear in these passages, can often refer to a finite and not an eternal duration—a fact readily acknowledged by all adherents of the traditional view. But what is striking is that Hart completely ignores the antithetic parallels that employ these terms, both in Daniel 12:2 and Matthew 25:46. Here, commentators ancient and modern have pointed out that one cannot with any rational consistency limit the duration of punishment for the wicked unless one wishes to limit the duration of bliss for the righteous. Since Moses Stuart in the nineteenth century provided a treatment so definitive and lucid as to foreclose all objections, I would urge those interested in exploring this point simply to consult that work.[46]

I also find noteworthy entire texts that Hart fails to cite. While it would not be fair to expect Hart to counter every text that a so-called infernalist might produce for his or her position, certain of his omissions are curious. One of the more interesting ones, to me at least, is Matthew 26:24 (cf. Mark 13:21). Concerning Judas, Jesus declares that “it would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” Clearly this makes no sense on the logic of Hart’s position, since he believes that Judas will have his place in blessedness with all other rational creatures in the eschaton. But what is especially ironic is that Hart himself grants the infernalist logic quite explicitly in his telling of the tale of Macarius (see the early part of the book’s first chapter). According to this piece of pious lore, which Hart had first read as a boy, a holy man named Macarius encounters a talking skull while out for a desert stroll. On querying the skull, Macarius discovers that he is communicating with one who had served as a pagan high priest during his earthly life. Inquiring of his present condition, the priest describes in lurid detail the torturous condition of himself and his fellow pagans, “suspended above an abyss of fire stretching as far below their feet as the sky had stretched above their heads when they had lived upon earth.” Upon hearing this, “Macarius began to weep, and declared that it would have been better had the unfortunate priest never been born at all.” After discussing some faulty applications and implications drawn from this story by others, Hart states his own conclusion: “For me, the tale’s ultimate lesson [i.e., were a state of eternal torment actually true] would have had to be the one that Macarius himself had uttered: ‘Alas that such a man was ever born!’”[47] Now, one might well dismiss the musings of a character in a piece of holy fiction, but unless Hart thinks that Jesus’ statement on the matter is mere legend, he would do well to believe that the incarnate Word meant what he said and then follow his own logic here. Hart's book serves as a cautionary tale, albeit an eloquent one, of what happens when one abandons Scripture as the principium cognoscendi—the cognitive foundation for doing theology. Click To Tweet

And then we have Hart’s presentation of the loci classici advanced to make the positive case for the universalist cause. Here Hart fares no better. Writers past and present have solidly confuted the universalist take on these passages. Again, one may wish to consult the “shopworn” writings of 19th-century thinkers, such as Archibald Alexander’s Universalism False and Unscriptural, as well as some of the best modern commentators on these texts.[48]

Hart also provides, mostly without comment, a catena of citations that revolve around the word “all,” such as that God desires all to be saved, that justification of life came to all, that Jesus is the savior of all men, that in Christ all are made alive, and so forth.[49] However, a certain number of these passages contain explicit qualifiers (sometimes omitted in the verses that Hart reproduces in his orgy of proof texts) that show that the reference is not to all humankind without exception but only to those who are in Christ. Such is the case of Romans 5:18-19, which Hart cites but in which he omits verse 17, which applies justification and life specifically to those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness. And again, Hart cites 1 Corinthians 15:22, which says that “in Christ shall all be made alive.” But that this reference is only to believers is clear from verse 23 (which Hart omits), since it identifies the individuals referenced in the previous verse as “those who belong to Christ” at his coming.

Now, it is true that certain “all” texts do not add such explicit qualifiers. And perhaps one might be excused for concluding in favor of universalism if those were the only texts with which one had to work. But they are not the only texts. Even if such texts would be amenable to a universalist construal in the abstract, we are right to reject this interpretation in light of Scripture’s larger witness. Hart himself tacitly grants the propriety of this procedure in his rejection of annihilationism. He admits that the language of certain texts could, apart from other considerations, teach the annihilation of the wicked.[50] Yet, he emphatically denies that these texts actually teach annihilationism, since that view is false on broader considerations. To Hart, annihilationism fares scarcely better than the infernalist dogma.

Bowing the knee to Christ’s lordship

David Bentley Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved surely must be classed among the most erudite defenses of universal salvation in recent times. Yet his case is seriously defective.

Hart’s universalism is but a symptom of a much more deeply-rooted problem. His book serves as a cautionary tale, albeit an eloquent one, of what happens when one abandons Scripture as the principium cognoscendi—the cognitive foundation for doing theology. While the book contains numerous failures in its strictly rational arguments, if one had to isolate but one foundational flaw—what the scholastic theologians called the proton pseudos—the rejection of Scripture as the final and determinative norm for doing theology would be it.

As creatures formed in God’s image, we are endowed with reason and moral intuitions. But these can be and often are flawed and must be subjected to the word of God. Both must bow the knee to Christ’s Lordship. The only moral intuitions and reasons that will matter in the end—and at the end of the age—are God’s. And the rational creature will either joyfully submit to them or be dashed against them in perpetual misery.

Let us therefore destroy “every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:3). The stakes are much too high for us to do any less.



[1] See David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell and Universal Salvation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019), 19, 21, 25, 168, 171.

[2] 4. See also 28.

[3] Hart indicts “just about the whole Christian tradition,” i.e., which accepts eternal, conscious punishment, as guilty of equivocity of what it means for God to be good (81).

[4] 199.

[5] 25.

[6] 75.

[7] 131.

[8] 73-74.

[9] 65.

[10] 166-7. In context, he is taking to task Augustine’s view as expressed in The City of God. However, it is also clear from his wording that his opprobrium is not confined merely to Augustine’s construal of the doctrine but to any iteration of it.

[11] 208. See also 200.

[12] “There goes the authority of Scripture.”

[13] 208.

[14] 18.

[15] 79-80.

[16] 36. In context, Hart is reflecting on Maximus the Confessor, with whom he registers agreement on these points.

[17] 185.

[18] 36.

[19] 41.

[20] 42.

[21] 177.

[22] 185.

[23] 132.

[24] 145-6.

[25] 180. See also 146.

[26] 39.

[27] 203-4.

[28] 204-5. See also 38-39, 146, 192.

[29] 41.

[30] 173.

[31] 191-2.

[32] 183.

[33] Hart’s own translation of the New Testament translates John 12:32 thus.

[34] 43

[35] I have repurposed this analogy from another writer who used it to describe the problem with Charles Finney’s attempt to link the root of the sin problem to what Finney called physical depravity.

[36] 83-4.

[37] 185.

[38] I thank my good friend and colleague Doug Geivett for this way of putting the matter.

[39] 44.

[40] 88.

[41] 93.

[42] 106-7.

[43] 119.

[44] “Really, on the whole, Christians rarely pay particularly close attention to what the Bible actually says, for the simple reason that the texts defy synthesis in a canon of exact doctrines, and Christian rely on doctrinal canons” (161).

[45] 4.

[46] Moses Stuart, Exegetical Essays on Several Words Relating to Future Punishment (Andover, MA: Perkins and Marvin, 1830).

[47] Hart, 12.

[48] I deal with some of the key universalist texts, including what some of the best modern commentators say about them, in my 40 Questions About Heaven and Hell (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2018), 297-305.

[49] Hart, 95-102.

[50] E.g., 116.

Image credit: Michael Chevel, The Art of Diplomacy

Alan W. Gomes

Alan W. Gomes is Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Talbot School of Theology (Biola University) in La Mirada, California. Dr. Gomes has published widely both for academic and for popular audiences. His most recent book is 40 Questions About Heaven and Hell (Kregel, 2018), and he is currently writing a book on the atonement. He has contributed, both as an author and as an editor, to numerous dictionary, encyclopedia, and book projects, including his work as the series editor of the acclaimed 15-volume Zondervan Guide to Cults and Religious Movements. He also edited an updated edition of W. G. T. Shedd’s Dogmatic Theology (Presbyterian and Reformed, 2004). His academic work has appeared in numerous journals, including Harvard Theological Review, Reformation and Renaissance Review, and Westminster Theological Journal.  

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