In the years-long process of reconfiguring my theology from rigid, evangelical dogmatism to something much richer, deeper, truer and more life-giving, one of the last changes I publicly acknowledged was the abandonment of the idea of a hell of eternal torment. (The piece I wrote when I finally, publicly let go of that abhorrent notion is here.) If I left it late to publicly nail my colours to the mast on the question of hell, it was partly because I hadn’t spent much time and effort digging into the topic, and partly because the existence of a hellish alternative to paradise is such a foundational component of evangelical dogma that I was wary of the backlash such a public disavowal might provoke. (In the event, it didn’t provoke much of a backlash at all – probably because anyone who might have called for my burning at the stake either simply didn’t notice or had already written me off as a heretic long before.)
I say all of that to say this: had David Bentley Hart’s new book That All Shall Be Saved been available for me to read a decade or so ago, I would probably have dispensed with the abhorrent notion of a hell of eternal torment much sooner than I did – and, having read the book, I would have been able to do so with a fair amount of confidence.
For those not familiar with David Bentley Hart, he is an Eastern Orthodox scholar of religion and a prolific writer, philosopher and cultural commentator. The “Eastern Orthodox” part of those credentials is important, because it means Hart’s theology and philosophy is rooted in the thought and writings of the Church Fathers, relatively untainted by later layers of (mis)interpretation and obfuscation.
In a nutshell, what Hart has tried to do in this book is to set out, once and for all, a convincing case against the notion that there is a hell of eternal torment for which unrepentant sinners are bound. (I say “once and for all” because Hart himself says he intends his exposition on the matter in this book to be “more or less the last”.) And, like my friend Brad Jersak, who is orders of magnitude more learned than I (you can read Brad’s review here), I conclude that Hart’s argument is convincing almost to the point of being irrefutable. At this point, I can’t imagine a more convincing case for the non-existence – or, more accurately, the utter theological and philosophical incongruity – of hell ever being published.
Hart’s case against hell is basically two-pronged. The first prong is essentially theological: the idea of a hell of eternal torment simply cannot be reconciled with the foundational principle that God is good and loving – at least, not without doing violence to the meaning of the words good and loving to the point where they are emptied of any real meaning. Part and parcel of this prong is the argument that, however grievous in scope and malice a person’s sins might be (think Hitler or Stalin), eternal torment could only ever be an entirely disproportionate response – not to mention a wholly ineffectual one, since its end could only ever be retributive rather than restorative.
The second prong of Hart’s argument is essentially philosophical in nature. He notes that the least repugnant, most meritorious argument for a hell of eternal torment rests on the idea that God has created humans with free will, and that, having done so, if a human should exercise that God-given free will for the purpose of forever rejecting God and choosing instead to be eternally consigned to hellfire and damnation, well then, who are we – and who is God – to argue? Having clearly articulated this free-will-based pro-hell argument, Hart goes on to demolish it with ease. Aside from the fact that our free will is, in reality, not so free after all, his main contention is that no moral agent who is even moderately free could or would eternally choose unending suffering over unending bliss. To do so would not only be illogical, it would be a violation of the very impulse that underlies and motivates our every decision and action – namely, the quest for the Good.
Of course, Hart deploys these arguments in much greater detail and depth than I have done here – and, I dare say, with immeasurably greater force. Indeed, his style is never less than forceful, and at times he could fairly be accused of being acerbic and even dismissively high-minded. But his prose is also marked by passages of exquisite, soul-stirring beauty, never more so than in those passages where he invites us to consider and imagine the eternal hope he believes God offers to every member of the human family.
A word of caution: Hart’s work is not and never will be “light reading”. If you’ve read him before, you’ll know that he can easily toss out ten words you’ve never come across without breaking a sweat. Also, in his philosophical argumentation he tends to assume a certain basic level of familiarity with classical metaphysics that many readers less erudite than him (which, let’s face it, means the vast majority of us) will not possess. Let me reassure you, though: as long as you’re not expecting a light bedtime read, you shouldn’t let these words of caution put you off. After all, previously unknown and/or arcane words can easily be looked up in a dictionary, and in any event are rarely so vital to the case being made that their basic meaning cannot be at least roughly inferred from the context. And, in all of the book’s 214 pages, only in one short passage a few pages long did I find myself somewhat out of my philosophical depth and wishing I had a better grasp of classical philosophy and metaphysics. In the end, books that dumb everything down so that they can be absorbed with very little effort might be easy to read, but they are rarely edifying or even interesting; by contrast, reading a book that assumes you’re intelligent and inquiring, and that forces you to contend and wrestle rather than simply swallowing and acquiescing, is intellectually and spiritually a far more rewarding experience.
I began this review by referring to the process of my theological reconfiguration, so it seems fitting to conclude it in a similar vein.
Way back in 2008, I made my first foray into the writings of one Nicholas Thomas (N.T.) Wright when I read his book Surprised by Hope. I wasn’t particularly looking for answers to specific questions: I’d stumbled across Wright’s name on the interwebs and was simply looking to sate my growing theological appetite. The whole book is well worth reading, but one chapter in particular forever changed my theological trajectory: in a few short pages, Wright casually and comprehensively demolished the notion of the “rapture” – a cherished evangelical doctrine according to which, at Christ’s second coming, the faithful will be taken up to heaven while the unbelieving are left to suffer years of tribulation on an increasingly hellish earth. The effect was immediate and startling: if a doctrine I had so long taken for granted, and which was considered almost unquestionable in the evangelical circles in which I had moved, could be done away with so easily and so convincingly, which other of my precious evangelical certainties might prove to have been built on less than robust foundations? So began a journey of questioning and study that would end up overhauling and revitalising every aspect of my theology, from my doctrine of God and my Christology to my understanding of atonement, sin, repentance, salvation, and so on.
Beyond that first venture into Wright’s voluminous output (which I continue to explore), only one other theological book have I read that I have found so arresting and compelling. That book is, of course, That All Shall Be Saved. It is a book that has the potential to stop you in your theological tracks and reorient you in a fuller, more hope-filled, more inclusive direction. Of course, having read it, you may choose to disagree with Hart’s conclusions; but you will not be able to do so without serious thought and effort, and you will never again be able to dismiss the non-existence of hell as either heretical or theologically incoherent.
[That All Shall Be Saved is published by Yale University Press. I was kindly provided with a review copy by the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review.]