Condemned to Salvation: Considering Universalism with David Bentley Hart

On "That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation" by David Bentley Hart.

By Ed SimonFebruary 15, 2020

Condemned to Salvation: Considering Universalism with David Bentley Hart

That All Shall Be Saved by David Bentley Hart. Yale University Press. 232 pages.

SOMEWHERE BETWEEN nothing and eternity, I once found myself with an incredible hangover, while I shakily meandered through the mausoleums and tombstones of London’s Bunhill Fields, Islington’s early modern cemetery for religious nonconformists. Pathos encourages me to recount that I’d drunk my mind the night before with Augustinian pear cider, but in reality, I recall it was nothing more than a baker’s dozen of Sam Adams, quaffed in a spirit of homesickness and irreconcilable original sin, imbibed across a handful of pubs near the Barbican. Now, the morning after (there is always a morning after) I stumbled among the gray-slate graves and memorials of the dissenter’s field, intending to distract my headache and nausea with some literary tourism. So in Bunhill I saw the grave of that divine Quaker George Fox, and the modest white obelisk of Daniel Defoe dreaming of Robinson Crusoe within the black earth; of the great hymnodist Isaac Watts humming “Joy to the World” while in immortality, and of Susanna Wesley, mother of the founder of Methodism. And there, toward the back of the graveyard near a street lined with townhomes and steepled churches, there was a monument guarded with iron railings to a man who would understand my current jittery predicament well — John Bunyan.

Not that I know of Bunyan to have been a prodigious drinker, but he was a Calvinist, a Baptist, and a sinner. Reflecting on his own morally dismal state in his 1666 classic of Puritan spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, Bunyan writes that he was “tossed betwixt the Devil and my own ignorance and so perplexed […] that I could not tell what to do.” He would eventually have a conversion experience that would make him take leave of games and sport, bell-ringing and Morris dancing. As so many other nonconformists, especially as Restoration heralded the return of High Church liturgy and theology, Bunyan would become a committed Calvinist, and as such adhered entirely to the intricate psychological torture-device system which is that theology.

Since the 1619 Synod of Dort codified the theology of John Calvin, those who adhere to him have been defined by five points often remembered with the ironically flowery mnemonic of “TULIP.” While most branches of Western Christianity hold to some conception of original sin as formulated by Augustine, Calvinists emphasize to an extreme degree how humanity is marked indelibly by Total depravity, the Unconditional election of a small segment of people who will be saved, the Limited atonement whereby Christ’s sacrifice was only for some people (and a small group at that), the Irresistible grace whereby God’s saving power can’t be denied by those who are elect, and the Perseverance of the saints, so that once someone is elect nothing they do can challenge that salvation. Bunyan writes that he had a vision of the elect, seeing a “narrow gap, like a little doorway in the Wall, through which I attempted to pass. Now the passage being very strait and narrow […] I was well nigh quite beat out, by striving to get in.” That about sums up Calvinism’s emotional tenor.

For the Calvinist, nothing we do merits our salvation; it is only through the infinite charity of God that very few of us are granted the grace that will ensure heaven. Calvin’s logic about God’s sovereignty and humanity’s predestination is a cold machine, but not without its own cracked (if cruel) beauty. Theologian David Bentley Hart, with a begrudging respect for the author of The Institutes of Christian Religion, whom he otherwise (justifiably) dismisses, notes that Calvin had built something that was “grand and grim and somehow gorgeous.” Hart sees the odious elegance in Calvin’s Institutes, where it is “unquestionably the most terrifying and severe expression of the late Augustinian heritage,” but it still evidences a “perfect candor […] a quality I sometimes almost admire” where it is “at least bracing in its consistency.” Calvinism is the theological equivalent of a neutron bomb; an idea that you can’t help but admire in its parsimonious elegance, despite its almost complete malevolence.

In Bunhill Fields, my thoughts were rather grand and grim as well, the inverted sublimity of hangover, which somehow always feels like damnation. Better to focus on the material in front of you when you’re in such a state, and in front of me I had the grave of the author of Pilgrim’s Progress and Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. Belying the modesty of his sect, Bunyan was entombed behind a mausoleum of white granite, scenes depicting his character Christian Pilgrim chiseled along the side, and a full-length sculpture of the author in repose placed on top. Always more of a sucker for Bunyan’s ham-handed but strangely moving allegories than maybe anyone else living in our current century, I dutifully snapped a selfie next to his tomb, and scurried on to find a British breakfast (and maybe a few pints of hair-of-the-dog) to sop up the mess in my stomach. If I was troubled by perdition, beyond that which I already felt, I have no memory, though Bunyan anxiously felt the prickly heat of hellfire his whole life. In Grace Abounding, he remembers some spectral voice asking him, “Wilt thou leave thy sins, and go to Heaven? Or have they sin, and go to Hell?” And Bunyan’s sins were bell-ringing — what luck do drunks have?

As it is, luck might not have anything to do with it, because if you’re a Christian (I only am in the most nebulous of “post-Christian” ways) you should be convinced after reading Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation that hell is at most a temporary predicament, perhaps more intense than a hangover, but with an ending all the same. Eternal damnation is a contradiction, Hart argues, as any punishment that never ends can’t be said to be rehabilitative. More importantly, no crime — even the most monstrous — merits infinite damnation since they’re committed by finite creatures. Kicking down the wall that separates hell from purgatory, and then those walls that separate everything from everything else, Hart implores that the traditional doctrines of eternal damnation are “morally corrupt, contrary to justice, perverse, inexcusably cruel, deeply irrational, and essentially wicked,” not just when believed by Calvinists, but by anyone. His argument, by recourse to scripture, tradition, and logic is that belief in hell is an “absolute midden of misconceptions, fragments of scriptural language wrenched out of context, errors of translation, logical contradiction, and (I suspect) one or two emotional pathologies.” That such a claim comes from perhaps one of the most respected of Anglophone Christian theologians, and one who couldn’t necessarily be categorized among the radical camp, makes the arguments of That All Shall Be Saved even more worth listening to.

Hart doesn’t go in for that overly analogical, metaphorical, radical theology — he’s not content to say something like “God is a transcendent sign through which we express the nothingness of existence.” For him, God is real (though he’d take pains to emphasize God is not an entity in the way that you or I are). Which is why his contention that hell isn’t real is something that any conventional Christian would do well to listen to, and that merits the attention of the rest of us unconventional (non-)Christians as well. In the delicacy and delights of an argument well made, and well stated, Hart provides template for how to do theology humanely. Even more remarkable than his prodigious scholarly output is Hart’s status as a prose writer — he’s good. Not just good, but funny. Such a point would rarely bear repeating were this a conventional book review of a mass-market trade paperback, but it’s notable in a consideration of a scholarly theological treatise released by Yale University Press. By contrast to dour, determinist Calvinism, Hart’s theology is empathetic and fully human. Calvin freed God by putting man in fetters. Hart, however, endeavors to turn Calvin on his head. Calvinism argues that, as finite beings, none of us merits grace, and Hart assents to the truth of that claim. But that being true, Hart argues, implies that nothing merits eternal damnation either. The substance which occupies the in-between place is what we call grace, and it’s a gas that can drift into any corner, no matter how remote.

Hart’s belief in universal salvation, what Augustine slurred as being counted among the “merciful-hearted,” has a venerable history within Christianity. While no doubt many conservative detractors of That All Shall Be Saved will condemn it as liberal, eisegetical, wishful thinking, Hart makes a case that universalism goes back to the Apostolic Age. His position is bolstered by history, scripture, and logic. Broadly speaking, “universalists” include any Christians who hold to a doctrine of universal reconciliation, which is the belief that no sin is too great, no heresy so egregious, no blasphemy too offensive, no act so noxious that the overwhelming power of God’s infinite love won’t burn away such indiscretion so as to allow for the redemption of every suffering soul.

Some Fathers of the Church, most famously Origen, preached that there would be a final Apocatastasis, an unveiling whereby even the most degraded of beings such as Lucifer would be reconciled to the Lord. Anathema to your average viewer of The 700 Club, for whom consigning those with which you don’t agree to eternal hellfire is its own morbid delight, but Hart emphasizes that the hell-hypothesis is simply born from “profound misreadings of the language of Christian scripture, abetted by absolutely abysmal historical forgetfulness.” Christians from Jonathan Edwards to Blaise Pascal may have simultaneously quivered in fear and delight at the idea of hell, but Hart argues that they’ve got little historical precedent and even less scriptural for their position. He confidently asserts that “if Christianity taken as a whole is indeed an entirely coherent and credible system of belief, then the universalist understanding of its message is the only one possible.”

No doubt some of you are reaching for your biblical concordance right now — doesn’t it say something about a lake of fire somewhere in there? While it’s true that the New Testament does speak of perdition, Hart emphasizes how often those passages, whether in the gospels or in books such as Revelation, should be understood in the cultural context of first-century Hellenized Judaism. There is scant evidence, etymologically speaking, that the most terrifying passages describing torments after death should be read as literal, nor that they should imply an eternal punishment. Hart makes clear that during the apostolic age, early Christians would have inherited (or co-developed) an understanding of the afterlife from Judaism, whereby the punitive nature of hell is always understood as temporary, as an issue of retributive justice and eventual reconciliation. Part of the confusion, he claims, comes from the reductionism of the Anglo-Saxon word “hell” as applied to a variety or realms spoken of in the Bible, from Sheol to Gehenna.

Furthermore, the New Testament itself repeatedly makes clear, in its most literal passages, that hell is to be seen as a universally temporary state. Hart has a wise disdain for the neurotic proof-texting that so obsesses evangelical Christians with their biblical Pope of Paper, but for those looking for justification of universalism in the New Testament there is ample evidence, from 1 Timothy 2:4 (“our savior God, intends all human beings to be saved”) to Titus 2:11 (“the grace of God has appeared, giving salvation to all human beings”) and 2 Corinthians 5:19 (“God was in the Anointed reconciling the cosmos to himself, not accounting their trespasses to them, and placing in us the word of reconciliation”). It must be said that all of these passages are fairly straightforward — they convey assertions of fact — unlike the psychedelic madness of Revelation, whereby we’re quite at home with interpreting a dragon who has seven heads and 10 horns as being allegorical, but the idea of hell mentioned there simply must be literal for some reason.

As a layperson, I can’t help but be moved by Hart’s argument from history. For if Western Christendom has its hellish tiers of Dante and the infernalist arguments of Augustine, then there is an older tradition, exemplified by the Eastern Orthodox and embodied in figures like Origen, St. Clement, and especially Gregory of Nyssa. Even those inheritors of hell in the Latin West have had their attractions to the doctrine: Protestant Universalists born from the radical Reformation who were fellow-travelers to Unitarians and Transcendentalists in 19th-century America, and the great 20th-century Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, who counted himself an “optimistic universalist” in that he hoped such a belief was true, a position that both detractors and advocates have detected in Pope Francis.

Separate from scripture or tradition, Hart builds his universalist argument from cosmology rather than anthropology (using those terms in the theological sense). He doesn’t claim that eternal hell doesn’t exist because humans are particularly good, but rather because God couldn’t possibly be that bad. For Hart, an infinite loving God simply has no choice but to save everyone — it’s implicit in the definition of who God is. If this seems like a type of cheery predestination, you’re not wrong. Hart writes that for “those who worry that this all amounts to a kind of metaphysical determinism of the will, I may not be able to provide perfect comfort. Of course, it is a kind of determinism.” An honesty that does God credit in this; anyone who has ever taught about TULIP Calvinism inevitably gets asked: “If God arbitrarily decides who is elect or not, and nothing we do merits our grace, why wouldn’t He choose to save everyone?” Indeed, why wouldn’t He? Call such upside-down Calvinism the doctrine of “Sinners in the Hands of a Pretty Chill God.” Hart’s claim makes implicit sense though: “Because he is the Good itself, God cannot be the author of absolute injustice, absolute evil; such an irrational possibility would be a limitation upon the infinite freedom with which he expresses his nature.”

If the cosmology of salvation is sophisticated in That All Shall Be Saved, his anthropology is no less so. Examining the ways in which thinkers from Thomas Aquinas to the medieval scholastic Peter Lombard have addressed the manner in which the saved in heaven react to their loved ones who are damned in hell, Hart elucidates sadistic claims that rival the idea of perdition itself in their cosmic cruelty. Both Lombard and Aquinas argued that the righteous broach no errors in God, and thus it would be impossible for them to feel compassion toward those in hell. In fact, they positively glory at the punishments the damned incurred, regardless of, maybe especially if, those burning are their own loved ones. That this is monstrous should be obvious.

Hart argues that belief in hell is not just sadistic, but also nonsensical, for the simple reason that the individual, atomistic human soul is a fiction. Contra both simplistic secular Cartesianism and reductionist Christian traditionalism, Hart understands that the soul is a complex, multifaceted thing, and that one person can’t be so easily cordoned off from another. He writes of “certain obvious truths about the fragility, dependency, and exigency of all that makes us who are what we are.” Arguing that it’s impossible to fully separate the cause and effect of good and evil, to fully extricate the ways in which our loves and complications connect us to both the presumably damned and hopefully saved, Hart writes that personhood “is an act, not a thing, and it is achieved only in and through a history of relations with others.” There are, it must be emphasized, certain political ramifications to such a profound claim.

One could imagine a doctrinaire theological infernalist in the mold of a scholastic Margaret Thatcher intoning that “There is no such thing as ecclesia.” Needless to say, Hart’s generous anthropology positions him as somebody affirming the very opposite, for in his universalist enthusiasms and his evocation of the interdependent nature of not just the collective Church Militant, but indeed of every woman and man who has ever lived, there is a distinct political theology at work. Call it “soteriological socialism” if you like, but Hart’s theology is radical. Using language that could just as easily be commandeered for Medicare For All, Hart argues, “Grace universally given is still grace. A gift made to everyone is no less a gift, and a gift that is intrinsically precious need not be rare to be an act of the highest generosity.”

If Hart is the Bernie Sanders of salvation, that shouldn’t have been surprising to me. In our review of Hart’s New Testament, I described the theologian as a “thinker often characterized as ‘conservative,’” and I supposed that those square quotes were me hedging my bets. A failure of political imagination on my part, to preclude any possibility of an Orthodox convert who teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame, and writes for a magazine like First Things to be anything other than a proxy Republican. Unfair because Hart is positively politically radical. In a September 2018 Facebook post, Hart issued a political clarification that he has “no interest in or sympathy for — in fact, am temperamentally averse and morally hostile to — any forms of political conservatism: neo-conservatism, palaeo-conservatism, ‘lost-cause’ conservatism, monarcho-conservatism, theo-conservatism, or any other.” In that same post, he writes, “I have never belonged to any political party except the Democratic Socialists of America.”

That there is a connection between Hart’s politics and his theology would seem undeniable; his universalism could be described as “Heaven for the 99 percent.” As he makes clear in his New Testament translation, Christ’s “condemnations were aimed principally at the rich and powerful, and they expressed his rage against those who exploited and oppressed and ignored the weak, the poor, the ill, the imprisoned.” That All Shall Be Saved doesn’t as explicitly draw out the political ramifications of this doesn’t mean that those ramifications aren’t there. In the infernalist position, which adheres to a belief in eternal hell, Hart sees echoes of the hierarchical, oppressive, authoritarian cultures that shaped the West’s mythopoeic legacy, explaining that the

moral intelligibility of hell exercised a more immediate logical appeal in the days when the heathen cult of class still held sway over the better part of humanity’s moral imagination, and when men and women were accustomed to servile cringing before the arbitrary whims of potentates.

Even today, that species of idolatry, which dares to superimpose the inequity of our economics, society, and culture onto the cosmic order, holds a certain attraction to a particular type of person, such chasms between the damned and the elect give those who dare to count themselves among the later a “sense of belonging to a very small and select company, a very special club and they positively relish the prospect of a whole eternity in which to enjoy the impotent envy of all those writhing […] souls that have been permanently consigned to an inferior neighborhood.”

By contrast, Hart offers his soteriological socialism, a corrective to the dogmas of hell and a missive for #OccupyHeaven.

Devotee of Orthodoxy that he is, Hart has no use for debased Augustinian original sin, and yet I can’t help but think that observation confirms something malignant about the human spirit. Alan Jacobs notes in his Original Sin: A Cultural History that “[a]ny moderately perceptive and reasonably honest observer of humanity has to acknowledge that we are remarkably prone to doing bad things — and, more disturbingly, things we acknowledge to be wrong.” Hart’s ethics, by contrast, has a certain cheeriness, and, as a result, That All Shall Be Saved sometimes feels a bit facile concerning evil. “Evil is, in every case, merely the defect whereby a substantial good is lost, belied, or resisted,” Hart writes, echoing the Augustinian contention that evil is simply the absence of good. But this intuitively doesn’t feel quite right to me, more an issue of cosmic account keeping that fails to acknowledge the visceral presence of evil as a force in its own right.

Theodicy is a notoriously pesky issue, or at least it is if you adhere to the existence of an omnibenevolent and omniscient creator (whether or not part of His creation includes a hell). Surveying the infernalist logic of hell, Hart concludes that the “God in whom the majority of Christians throughout history have professed belief appears to be evil,” and that if this is “one’s religion, then one is simply a diabolist who has gotten the names in the story confused.” But just to play deity’s advocate here, perhaps that’s precisely the state of things. What Hart has demonstrated is not necessarily that hell doesn’t exist, only that, if it does, that means that Christianity is necessarily untrue. Maybe the issue isn’t reconciling God to evil by abandoning hell, but rather by discarding the doctrine of omnibenevolence.

Writing of Calvin’s dark god, Hart reflects that it’s the “most decadent theology imaginable, and certainly blasphemous.” But maybe Calvinism’s fatal error is simply in not being upfront about such divine evil. It’s not as if there isn’t scriptural precedent for that view as well, after all, it is in Isaiah 45:7 that the Lord says, “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil.” No need to square the moral circle in explaining how evil things are actually good, or that God is above good and evil; perhaps it’s an issue of simply admitting that God Himself is sometimes evil. A theology as Lovecraftian as it is Calvinist, and one which Hart roundly rejects, writing that “[God] does not flit capriciously between isolated expressions of his true nature and isolated departures from it.” To that I counter with the rejoinder croaked out by Tom Waits in Heartattack and Vine: “There ain’t no devil, that’s just God when he’s drunk.”

That gets to what is most powerful in Hart’s analysis, the ways in which he’s able to remove hell from ghostly superstitions into a fully fledged theo-psychology of human suffering. Hart contends that hell is when the “hatred within each of us that turns the love of others — of God and neighbor — into torment” and that strikes me as undeniably true as original sin. In our pettiness and jealousy, our addictions and hungers, our egotism and rage, have we not occasionally broached the walls of hell and counted ourselves numbered among its inhabitants? But as the promise of Apocatastasis holds, this too shall pass. Hart writes that “a secret that we all too often hide from ourselves is that we walk in hell every day[.] […] We also walk in heaven, also every day,” and a truer statement about final things has never been written.

What That All Shall Be Saved demands of us is that we take Christianity as its radical word, that we imagine the infinite burning power of God’s love being so much that all sin shall be evaporated, all inequity scorched away. Hell has always been a psychic method to obscure the subversive import of Christ’s command that we should love everyone as we love ourselves. Without the crutch of hell, we must contend with what that revolutionary egalitarianism means. It is to believe that every human being is so divine, every spirit so precious, that neither crime nor sin can sully it forever; it is to hold that God so loved the world that he would prepare a place for even the worst of us at His table. Imagine that: heaven populated by the worst people you can imagine, every species of malignant narcissistic sociopath, every cankered soul and calloused spirit. A heaven with subjects like Adolf Hitler, Charles Manson, Donald Trump, all of their deficiencies and malevolencies scourged away by the cleansing flames of a temporary hell. I must confess that I find it almost impossible to imagine. Yet David Bentley Hart’s Christianity compels and challenges us to try, and it is all the more beautiful for that.


Ed Simon is a staff writer at The Millions and an editor at Berfrois. His latest book is Furnace of This World; or 36 Observations about Goodness, available from Zero Books.

LARB Contributor

Ed Simon is the editor of Belt Magazine, a staff writer for Lit Hub, and an emeritus staff writer at The Millions. He is a frequent contributor at several different sites including The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, Aeon, Jacobin, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Killing the Buddha, Salon, The Public Domain Review, Atlas Obscura, JSTOR Daily, and Newsweek. He is also the author of several books, including Devil’s Contract: The History of the Faustian Bargain, which will be released in July 2024. He holds a PhD in English from Lehigh University and an MA in literary and cultural studies from Carnegie Mellon University.


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