David Bentley Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation is a most excellent book that makes a series of compelling arguments in favor of the eventual salvation of all of humanity and that Hell itself is most certainly temporary, not eternal. The thesis, at first, seems counterintuitive, if only for the fact that most Christians today have been raised to believe that Hell indeed is eternal. Nevertheless, Hart pushes forth, illustrating through scripture, logic, and exegeses from the Church Fathers, most notably St. Gregory of Nyssa, that the entire Christian cosmology could only make sense if universal salvation or apocatastasis were true (pp. 18-19).
Hart argues that many of the traditional justifications of an eternal Hell fail to correspond with the more pressing axioms regarding the nature of God in Christian theology. First, Hart states that the creation from nothing (creatio ex nihilo) necessitates that God is the absolute (the creator), whereas humanity and creation are contingent upon God eternally so. For Hart, pulling from St. Gregory, this claim is not only metaphysical, but necessarily eschatological – that is pertaining to the final end of all things. Hart says, “In the end of all things is their beginning, and only from the perspective of the end can one know what they are, why they have been made, and who the God is who has called them forth from nothingness” (pp. 68). In a certain sense then, humanity is not fully created until it is fully united with God as a whole. This framing indicates for Hart that creation must reflect, in some way, on the identity of God (pp. 69). Beneath this argument then, of course, is the idea that God is goodness (bonitas), justice (iustitia), love (caritas), being (esse), etc. and that since God is the origin of all things and their ground of being, he is necessarily transcendent in every way (otherwise he could not be simple). Since God said that creation was good, it must therefore be true that the intent of creation is for himself, not to add to himself but rather to reflect himself. The failure of any part of creation or any one human to reach this telos or God would impugn God’s will and absolute transcendence. In short, it would mean that God failed to execute his will and also mean that he can be forcibly effected by his own creation, which would undermine the very Christian notion of God (pp. 69-70).
Anticipating that the idea – that God’s will cannot tolerate a soul choosing to eternally damn itself – might bring about accusations of predestinarianism, Hart introduces the distinction between the primary cause and secondary causes. God, who is the primary cause of creation, can simultaneously bring about his intent – that is perfect union of all creation with himself – all the while humans act as secondary causes within their own volition. This volition, Hart argues, however wrong it may choose, is always directed toward the highest good, id est God, because of the very omnipotent and transcendental nature of the primary cause. In short, human volition’s telos constrains it towards a certain end (God) (pp. 70-73). Hart addresses this point further elsewhere, saying that those people, who argue that free will must be completely unrestrained in any way in order to be free, are affirming an incoherent notion of free will. Free will must be constrained towards an end, whatever range of options it might have, because these constraints are what distinguish free will from sheer random acts or impulse. God is the structure and end that frames the human will and consequently allows it its range of choice. Any impediment towards that end then is deemed a form of slavery and a deprivation of freedom (John 8:32;34). In this sense then, true freedom is not so much the ability not to sin (posse non peccare), but rather the inability to sin (non posse peccare). As Hart says, “God, in his omnipotence and omniscience, is wholly capable of determining the result of all secondary causes, including free will, while not acting as yet another discrete cause among them” (pp. 40-42; 79-80; 172-173; 183). And so too, the idea of God respecting the human will to eternally and freely reject God is by definition an oxymoron. For if God is truth and freedom, then any rejection of him is antithetical to freedom and is reflective not of a free will but an enslaved will. In short, God would purposefully have to wish for an individual to eternally reject himself for it to happen and such a wish would in and of itself contradict the very idea of God (pp. 177-178).
Two other forceful arguments Hart brings to the fore are his readings of the scriptures, especially Romans, and what it means to be a person. With regards to scripture, Hart points out that the word aionios (άΐδιος), so often translated into English to mean eternal or forever, is far more plastic in its meaning than many have realized. It could mean an indeterminable amount of time. Hart goes on to list a number of Church Fathers, bishops, and even Neoplatonic philosophers who understood the word in this latter sense up through the fourteenth century. Likewise, the Greek phrase εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων (eis toùs aionas ton aiṓnōn) literally means “unto the ages of ages,” not forever. For Hart then, the usages of these phrases indicate not “how long, but rather of when, or what frame of reality – what realm, that is, within or beyond history” (pp. 123-127). Hart also dismisses the interpretation of Matthew 25:46 as a proclamation of eternal damnation, saying, “We might even find some support for the purgatorial view of the Gehenna from the Greek of Matthew 25:46 (the supposedly conclusive verse on the side of the infernalist orthodoxy), where the word used for the ‘punishment’ of the last day is κόλασις, kolasis – which most properly refers to remedial chastisement – rather than τιμωρία, timoria – which most properly refers to retributive justice” (pp. 116).
According to Hart’s plain reading of Romans, in which he pays careful attention to the conditional voice, Paul proclaims a clear and profound message of universal salvation. Indeed, in his reading of Paul, Jacob and Essau do not represent individuals, but entire groups, namely that of Israel and the church, both of whom are ultimately reconciled with God (pp. 132-138). Hart follows in this exposition of understanding figures as groups in his invocation St. Gregory. For St. Gregory, the first creation story (Genesis 1:1-2:3) represents the final end unto which creation is designed and destined, while the second creation story (Genesis 2:4-25) represents a temporal exposition of the first creation story. In this exegetical view then, Adam is not just an individual or progenitor of all humanity, but rather is representative of humanity in its entirety. In short, salvation and creation is incomplete without the salvation of everyone (pp. 138-144). From this point, Hart argues that interpersonal relations make us who we are and help to create the memories that make up our persons. Personhood is not some static substance, but is an act. And thus, all humans are connected to one another and realize their personhood through mutual interactions. Due to this interconnectedness of humanity then, the eternal damnation of even a single individual would necessarily damn the whole. Somewhere in Heaven there would be fellow humans who loved and made memories with that damned person. They would hurt out of love and pity and therefore be in Hell themselves. One might say that God could erase those memories to install bliss in the so-called saved, but that would be nothing more than the negation of the person in question. It would be the equivalent of replacing one person with another because memories help make a person who they are as a person. There is only one option then, for one to be saved, all must be saved (pp. 144-158).
That All Shall Be Saved is the very definition of the ethos that the best offense is the best defense. Hart meticulously dismantles the case for eternal damnation, while building up the case for universal salvation. Salvation for all is the only coherent framework for Christianity to operate within, lest one falls into contradiction. Some may find Hart’s arguments so counterintuitive that his wit and blunt honesty will strike them as rude and too distracting from the force of those very arguments. They may even invoke Blaise Pascal’s maxim, “Diseur de bons mots, mauvais caractère.” I find their sentiment unfortunate. The topic is large enough to warrant or rather necessitate a wide array of tones. And so hopefully there will be subsequent books on the topic whose tones will suit the critics’ tastes better. Nonetheless, Hart’s book is a blessing to everyone of us, tone and all.
Note: For those who wish to bring up the Second Council of Constantinople (553), I direct you here.