David Bentley Hart’s Lonely, Last Stand for Christian Universalism

For those not already acquainted with him, David Bentley Hart of the University of Notre Dame is widely regarded as one of the two most influential academic theologians in the English-speaking world today (along with John Milbank of Nottingham University). Hart’s output is prodigious, and his range of intellectual interests—in the literature of various languages—is staggering. His published PhD dissertation, The Beauty of the Infinite (2004), caused reviewers to regard him, young as he was, as a leading Christian theologian.

Though Hart no longer has possession of his personal library of some 20,000 volumes, he seems to have read most of it and not to have forgotten much. Had he been born earlier, he’s the sort of scholar who might have sat beside C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and the other Inklings at The Eagle and Child pub in Oxford, and not only have grasped their exchanges on English literature, Western history, world mythology, and Christian theology, but also have taught them a thing or two. Those who think this must be hyperbole should examine the essays contained in three recent collections: A Splendid Wickedness and Other Essays (2016), The Hidden and the Manifest (2017), and The Dream-Child’s Progress (2017). These and other volumes by Hart I gladly commend.

Yet Hart’s new book, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation, on my view, doesn’t merit the same commendation, and lacks the argumentative acuity and literary beauty of the earlier works. Film buffs might call it the “Godfather III” of Hart’s oeuvre—not quite up to snuff. Even the master sometimes misses. Adding to the disappointment for me, and I’m sure for many other readers, is that Hart is no longer countering unbelief—as in Atheist Delusions (2010)—but is now in all-out war with fellow Christians believers who hold to traditional views on heaven and hell.

The title states the thesis: all creatures who have sinned against God will finally be saved. And Hart maintains his thesis not as a possible or probable claim, but as indubitably certain. He has no patience for “hopeful universalism”—a view often attributed to Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar, that remains open to salvation for all but asserts that the matter can’t be definitely affirmed or known in advance. Hart’s book might be a signal that universalist tentativeness is now out, while assertiveness is in.

My own debate with Hart on the question of universal salvation stretches back to fall 2014, when Hart joined the department of theological studies at Saint Louis University, where I teach, and where Hart spent a year as a visiting professor. Our early exchanges foreshadowed the later arguments in his new book, and of my own work of last year, The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism (Baker Academic, 2018). I should forewarn readers that his book and mine are wholly different. His work is a personal statement of 214 pages, without footnotes or source citations, and with minimal reference to the complex historical debates over universalism. My work runs to 1,325 pages, cites more than 3,000 sources, and contains some 3,500 footnotes. Douglas Farrow of McGill University suggests that those interested in universalism should read both books. I hope so.

Though Hart often wields the whip of intellectual controversy, I received no tongue-lashing during my time with him, but I was present when he took a younger Thomist philosopher at our university to the woodshed. I then became aware that notions of divine sovereignty—Thomistic or Calvinistic—are anathema to Hart. He sparred in a local pub with one of my own PhD advisees regarding the biblical command for the destruction of the Canaanites. My student interpreted these passages as referring to historical events, while Hart clearly did not; he understood the texts symbolically.

In spring 2015 I went off to teach at Birmingham University in England, while David remained in St. Louis, and he and I debated universalism with heightened fervor by email exchange. At that time I remarked to Hart, as an Orthodox theologian, that the overwhelming majority (perhaps 10-to-1) of the early Christian authors—Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Coptic—were not universalists. In an email response, David wrote that he was more concerned with truth itself than with precedent or authority—though he believed that at least some authorities supported his views. He added that if an eternal hell were a necessary part of Christian teaching, then for him this would mean that Christianity itself would be self-evidently false. What was to become one of the central arguments in That All Shall Be Saved became evident to me then. Biblical exegesis is of course a pivotal aspect of the universalist debate, and Hart’s The New Testament: A Translation (2017) is an integral part of his argument for universalism, as he indicates in the new book (3).

In what follows, I will examine Hart’s rhetoric or style of reasoning, his arguments or substance of reasoning, and his exegesis or biblical foundation for reasoning. At the end I will consider the question of practicing or living out one’s eschatology.

Hart’s Rhetoric

One cannot consider Hart’s arguments for Christian universalism apart from the ethos and pathos of his prose. Willis Jenkins speaks of Hart’s “adjectival petulance,” while Douglas Farrow calls him “an intellectual pugilist who floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee.” For better and for worse, Hart’s verbal pyrotechnics are as obvious as a bomb blast in a reading room. In That All Shall Be Saved, he claims that his intellectual opponents and their views are “viciously vindictive” (11), “exquisitely malicious” (11), “specious reasoning” (12), “inherently incredible” (12), “morally obtuse” (12), “ostentatiously absurd” (18), “extravagant absurdities” (18–19), and reflective of “[an] intoxicating atmosphere of corroborating nonsense” (19). This list is by no means complete. These are merely the first few insults; in total the book contains no less than 118 derogatory denotations of his opponents, their theological views, their God, and their understanding of hell.

That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation

That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation

Yale University Press (2019). 232 pp.
Yale University Press (2019). 232 pp.

Farrow calls Hart’s language the sort of “copious trash talk normally reserved for pre-fight hype,” that “all but exhausts the world’s stock of insults.” One strains to think of another theological work of the past or present that so concentrates its venom. The golden frog of the Colombian rainforest measures little more than a centimeter, but contains enough poison to kill 10 people. Hart’s volume too is dainty yet deadly. Was that Hart’s purpose in writing—not to disprove his adversaries, but to dispose of them?

The extraordinary profusion of put-downs in That All Shall Be Saved is not without significance. Yet the significance is not, I think, what Hart’s fans and followers might think it is. It’s not an indication that victory is at hand for the universalist cause. Hart’s vituperative verbiage deflects readers’ attention away from his line of logic and toward the colorful epithets themselves—and so fails to advance Hart’s own position. The hyperbolic language is a sign of weakness, not strength. This book feels desperate. In these pages Hart seems to be a cornered man—a literary fellow and word-weaver who lashes out in the only way he knows. Someone secure in his intellectual position and confident in his argument doesn’t need to interject a hundred or more insulting phrases into his writing. People do that when they sense they’re just about to lose their case, and Hart admits as much in the introduction: “I know that I cannot reasonably expect to persuade anyone of anything,” though “I intend to play it to the end” (4).

This book feels desperate. In these pages Hart seems to be a cornered man—a literary fellow and word-weaver who lashes out in the only way he knows.

These pages breathe an atmosphere of weary resignation. Hart depicts himself as a lonely battler for the truth of universalism—which hardly seems to be the case, given that many academic theologians today share his views. Here’s another oddity: the total absence of joy in this book. Someone who is genuinely convinced that everyone is finally saved (including the misguided Calvinists!) should show happiness and peace at the prospect of heaven for all. If Hart’s argument is truly correct, then he should be gladly anticipating his final vindication—before God and before all humanity. But this book exudes bitterness and rancor, so much so that one wonders whether the author is convinced by his own arguments.

A clue to the deeper significance of Hart’s book lies in the stark alternatives he sets up in his conclusion: either universalism or unbelief. In the final paragraph he writes:

I have been asked more than once in the last few years 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. (208)

In its unbounded rage against historic Christian teaching, Hart’s book reads mostly like a “new atheist” book by Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. As for the atheist authors, so too for Hart, the “God” preached and taught by the church through the centuries is “inventively sadistic” (23), “theatrically grotesque” (23), a “heartlessly capricious gamester” (45–46), and so a “monstrous deity” (167).

That All Shall Be Saved could thus be read as a “new atheist” argument—but with a universalist happy ending tacked on at the end of the cosmic narrative to escape the otherwise-compelling conclusion that the Christian God does not exist. The universalist eschaton is Hart’s deus ex machina—in a literal sense—inasmuch as the world as Hart sees it today doesn’t show much evidence that there is any loving God who cares for us. Hart’s back is to the wall and he battles fiercely, because he’s fighting for a kind of theological Alamo—a last stand, as he conceives it, for Christian theism, or at least for a faith that makes sense to him.

Hart’s Arguments

Once the verbal clouds and smoke of battle have scattered, what arguments for universalism remain visible in Hart’s book?

That All Shall Be Saved offers three major lines of argument for universalism. I will refer to these as the “responsible Creator argument” (that divine creation itself implies universal salvation), the “choosing good argument” (that the creaturely will can never fully or finally reject the goodness that God is), and the “human solidarity argument” (that all human beings are united and so must all be saved or else not saved at all).

1. Responsible Creator Argument

Hart first publicly presented his first argument in 2015, in a lecture at Notre Dame on “God, Creation, and Evil.” Essentially he argues that God, in creating the world, from that moment onward became fully responsible for any and all evil in the cosmos if it were to remain as a final outcome. “The salvation of all,” Hart writes, is “a claim that follows more or less ineluctably from any truly coherent contemplation of what it means to see God as the free creator of all things ex nihilo” (66–67).

Although there are “innumerable forms of ‘secondary causality,’” Hart insists that “none of these can exceed or escape the one end toward which the first cause directs all things (69). For “as God’s act of creation is free . . . all contingent ends are intentionally enfolded within his decision” (69–70). Hart adds that “all causes are logically reducible to their first cause. This is no more than a logical truism” (70). These claims are eyebrow-raising, and several decisive objections spring to mind. Lest there be any doubt regarding Hart’s position, consider this statement: “Insofar as we are able freely to will anything at all, therefore, it is precisely because he [i.e., God] is making us to do so” (183; italics in the original).

That All Shall Be Saved could be read as a ‘new atheist’ argument—but with a universalist happy ending tacked on at the end of the cosmic narrative to escape the otherwise compelling conclusion that the Christian God does not exist.

If creaturely action is always “enfolded within his [God’s] decision,” and God is “making us to do” as we do, then we might legitimately ask: Why does evil exist at all? In seeking to explain how evil is finally overcome, Hart generates a new and perhaps insuperable problem regarding the origination of evil. Or is Hart’s God evil as well as good—sometimes intending and accomplishing good, and sometimes intending and accomplishing evil? That may not be the conclusion Hart wishes, but it’s a possible implication of his reasoning. Hart’s “responsible Creator argument” proves too much, for if God is morally responsible for eschatological outcomes, then why is God not also responsible for historical evils? And if creaturely choices are all dissolved into divine decisions, then God becomes the doer of every evil deed (for there is no other doer), and a universalist happy ending would not then absolve God of all the evil that had occurred along the Yellow Brick Road to the eschaton.

Hart’s argument reminds me a shocking passage where Martin Luther wrote that God gives strength to the hand of the murderer as he plunges in the murderous knife. Hart’s affirmation of overriding divine agency is ironic, since it now aligns him with the strictest of Thomists and the fiercest of Calvinists. Hart is of Augustine’s party, yet knew it not. (Perhaps apologies are now in order?) Moreover, That All Shall Be Saved contradicts Hart’s earlier work The Doors of the Sea, which divided divine from creaturely causality, depicted the cosmos as seething with destructive powers, and doubted if present experience shows evidence of a loving God. There Hart rejected the idea “that every finite contingency is solely and unambiguously the effect of a single will working through all things,” and instead posited “other, secondary, subsidiary but free agencies” (Doors, 30; cf. 89–91).

Hart has swung from a God-who-does-little (i.e., between creation and eschaton) to a God-who-does-everything, and so one wonders if the author has arrived at a settled view.

2. Choosing Good Argument

The second major argument in Hart’s That All Shall be Saved—which I call the “choosing good argument”—is the flip side of the “responsible Creator argument.”

Because the human will is “enfolded within his [i.e., God’s] decision” (70), it also follows that “evil . . . can never form the original or ultimate purpose of the will” (175), and “no rational will could ever be fixed forever in the embrace of evil” (165). Consequently, “not only is an eternal free rejection of God unlikely; it is a logically vacuous idea” (178). Hart’s reasoning appears to be an attempt to win the argument over universalism by prescriptive definition, that is, by defining the terms of the debate in such a way that his own preferred conclusion follows necessarily.

In effect Hart asserts that “sinful” choices can never be “free” choices. Since “free yet sinful choices” don’t exist, the sinful choices that human beings make are all unfree, and therefore human beings aren’t responsible for them. From Hart’s definitions of terms, one might deny that human beings are ever guilty of anything. It’s not surprising, therefore, that everyone is finally saved, since there are no “sinners” in the specific sense of “people freely and hence culpably choosing evil.” Because there are no “sinners,” there is nothing for anyone to be saved from. But how is this consistent with human moral agency and responsibility? Farrow observes that Hart’s “man is not so much man as God-writ-small.” Farrow contrasts his own view with Hart’s: “Man is a creature made to love God freely. He is not just another way of God’s loving himself.”

3. Human Solidarity Argument

Hart’s third attempt at proving universal salvation—the “human solidarity argument”—fares no better. This argument is based on a non-literal account of God’s creation of humanity in the writings of the early church author Gregory of Nyssa. Hart writes:

From eternity, says Gregory, God has conceived of humanity under the form of an ideal “Human Being” . . . a creature shaped entirely after the divine likeness, neither male nor female, possessed of divine virtues: purity, love, impassibility, happiness, wisdom, freedom, and immorality. (139)

Moreover, “this primordial ‘ideal’ Human Being comprises—indeed, is identical with—the entire pleroma [i.e., fullness] of all human beings in every age, from first to last” (139). Because every human being who will every live is part of this “‘ideal’ Human Being,” this means that “either all persons must be saved, or none can be” (155).

Readers may be scratching their heads. Just who or what is this capital-H, capital-B “Human Being” that is “neither male nor female”? The only human beings one finds in Genesis (or elsewhere in the Bible) are individual men and women, and not a composite, all-inclusive, mega-hominid that blends male and female identities (such as one finds in Plato’s myth of the androgyne). With due respect to Gregory—a key architect of trinitarian doctrine—his account of creation launches into a speculative ozone-layer defined by Greek philosophy and not by the biblical text. For Gregory, the biblical “Adam” was not an individual human but a corporate Humanness (which Jewish Kabbalah later called Adam Kadmon, a mystical “tree of souls” from which individuals break off like twigs). God created Humanity, and Humanity must be rescued. Universal salvation is built into Gregory’s account of creation.

Think of it like this: When your loaf of bread gets moldy, you can cut off the bad part and save some of it; yet if your milk sours, you must discard it all. For Hart, humanity is not like the moldy bread that might be saved in part, but like the milk that is either wholly unspoiled or spoiled. Yet note how this teaching differs from the biblical thought-world, wherein individual human beings encounter God and make individual decisions to believe or to disbelieve, to rebel or to obey.

Another disturbing feature of Hart’s argument is his attribution of a quasi-divine “impassibility” to “Human Being,” which makes it sound as though he embraces an esoteric idea of humanity, that we might parodically summarize thus: “In the beginning was Humanity, and Humanity was with God, and Humanity was (almost) God.” Such speculative teaching is far from the simplicity of the gospel (2 Cor. 11:3), and we might recall Farrow’s comment that Hart’s “man is not so much man as God-writ-small.” The “human solidarity” argument proves only this—that if one starts with a non-biblical account of beginnings (i.e., primal Humanity), then one will conclude with a non-biblical account of endings (i.e., universal salvation).

When weighed in the balance, Hart’s three major arguments show the weakness of his case for universalism. (For a cultural rather than theological critique of universalism, see my forthcoming First Things essay, “A Kinder God and a Gentler Apocalypse,” to appear later in 2019.)

Hart’s Exegesis

As noted already, Hart’s New Testament translation is part of his universalist project. Writing in The New York Review of Books, Garry Wills judged that Hart “labors to oust hell from the text of the Bible,” and identified evidence to support this conclusion. Instead of referring to hell’s fire as “eternal,” he translates aiōnios as “of the Age” (aiōn) (Matt. 18:8; 25:41). Among scholars, there is a general consensus that aiōnios occasionally means “age-long,” but Hart’s translation is woodenly and foolishly rigid on this point. As a result, the translation of aiōnios in non-­hell contexts often proves puzzling.

Here is a familiar verse in Hart’s unfamiliar translation: “For God so loved the cosmos as to give the Son, the only one, so that everyone having faith in him might not perish, but have life of the Age” (John. 3:16; emph. mine). What? Consider too Hart’s retranslation of the promise to Jesus Christ that “you are a priest forever” (Heb. 5:6; 7:17), as “you are a priest unto the Age.” What could this mean? That Christ’s priestly service has a term limit? When Jesus separates the damned from the saved (Matt. 25:46), he says that “these will go to the chastening of that Age, but the just to the life of that Age.” Hart’s interpretation of aiōnios thus carries a hidden price tag: not only the threats of punishment, but the promises of blessedness, might have an expiration date attached. They are both “of that Age.” At least Hart is consistent: heaven could be just as temporary as hell is.

To uphold universal salvation, Hart is ready to call into question not only the endless duration of heaven, but also the authority of Scripture and the cognitive content of divine revelation.

In Hart’s translation, Gehenna is no longer “hell,” but “Hinnom’s Vale of fire” (Matt. 5:22). In his words of warning about Gehenna, Jesus was thus curiously fixated on a certain garbage dump outside Jerusalem. A non-earthly or transcendent place of punishment seems to be ruled out by the translator’s word choices. Proorizein, ordinarily “to predestine,” Hart translates as “to mark out in advance” (Eph. 1:5, 11), perhaps to avoid the connotations of the usual English translation. Hart renders diabolos not as “the Devil” but as “the Slanderer,” which circumscribes Satan’s role more narrowly than the New Testament does. Jude 6 employs an unambiguous word for unending punishment (aidios), but Hart—in a rare passage where he addresses the issue of the fallen angels—notes that this text applies to demons and not to humans. So we ask: Are the fallen angels punished forever? And, if so, what becomes of Hart’s argument that not even one creature could possibly be punished forever? In an online response, Hart says he rejects Wills’s suggestion that there is “some pattern in these [translational] choices.” Yet Hart is not the first author who fails to notice something in his texts that his readers can readily see.

In That All Shall Be Saved, Hart evades the force of biblical passages that undercut his universalism by arguing that none of “the New Testament’s eschatological language . . . should be received as anything other than an intentionally heterogenous phantasmagory, meant as much to disorient as to instruct.” He adds that “the more closely one looks at the wild mélange of images . . . the more the picture dissolves into evocation, atmosphere, and poetry” (119). Here Hart’s reasoning is self-negating, for if the biblical authors offer nothing but evocative phraseology and symbolism, then neither the universalist nor the particularist can assert anything definite about life beyond death on the basis of Scripture. To uphold universal salvation, Hart is ready to call into question not only the endless duration of heaven (see above), but also the authority of Scripture and the cognitive content of divine revelation.

Like other universalist exegetes, Hart’s biblical outlook includes blind spots. Like other Origenists, he holds to a persuasive rather than coercive model for God’s overcoming of evil. Yet Exodus and Revelation show that evil does not always yield to gentle suasion, but sometimes must be defeated by superior power. Pharaoh is not finally persuaded but crushed by Yahweh’s might. So, too, the Beast, the Devil, and the False Prophet are not dissuaded from evil but are seized and cast into the lake of fire. In all such cases, the exertion of God’s power to defeat evil is a good and not an evil thing. The heavenly saints cry “Alleluia!” when the monstrous wickedness of Babylon is finally and fully brought to an end (Rev. 19:1–5).

On Living Out One’s Eschatology

Hart rarely shows a pastoral touch in his writing. His account of universal salvation is speculative, abstract, detached—the kind of book that a religious intellectual writes without bothering about its effect on lay Christians or on everyday life. In marked contrast, biblical teachings on eschatology blend future expectation with missional urgency, spiritual exhortation, and calls for self-denying discipline.

When Jesus spoke on the Mount of Olives (Matt. 24), he combined discussion of the end times with a call to “keep watch” and a warning regarding the unfaithful servant caught off guard by the master’s return (Matt. 24:42–51). This chapter links Jesus’s return not only to the theme of moral and spiritual preparation but also to the theme of evangelism: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached to the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (v. 14). Likewise, the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Matt. 25:1–13) stresses the need to be prepared for Jesus’s return. When the apostles ask Jesus after the resurrection whether he will “restore the kingdom,” he directs them to evangelize, once again linking his return to the present-day mission of the church (Acts 1:6–8).

Revelation represents God’s people as the “bride” to be joined to Christ as the “bridegroom.” It tells us that “his bride has made herself ready” with “fine linen, bright and clean,” which is “the righteous acts of God’s holy people” (Rev. 19:7–8). First John connects eschatological hope with spiritual purification: “But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure” (1 John 3:2–3). In light of the world’s coming dissolution, 2 Peter exclaims, “You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming” (3:11–12). And Paul’s letter to Titus connects our “blessed hope” (2:13) with a summons “to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age” (2:12).

It’s exceedingly hard to see how the biblical call to self-denial, godly living, and toilsome evangelism can flourish on the basis of a universalist theology.

These passages suggest the need and appropriateness of evaluating eschatological teachings in terms of their practical effects. And it’s exceedingly hard to see how the biblical call to self-denial, godly living, and toilsome evangelism can flourish on the basis of a universalist theology. Who would need to work at being alert or prepared if final salvation for all were already known in advance? Earlier Christian universalists—including Origen himself—acknowledged the problem and suggested that universalism should be kept secret from the masses and disseminated among only a few mature believers. Hart doesn’t seem to admit there is any problem.

So even if universalism were biblically supported (as it is not), and even if sound theological or philosophical arguments made it believable (as they do not), then universalism could still not become the official, public teaching of the Christian church without undermining the church’s own moral, spiritual, and missional foundation. The one clear-cut historical case we have of a large-scale embrace of this doctrine—the Universalist Church, that was once the sixth-largest denomination in the United States—illustrates the point. This denomination declined in size and theologically devolved into a unitarian denial of Jesus’s divinity, and then merged with another declining religious body to become the UU—the Unitarian-Universalist Association, which eventually removed the word “God” from its doctrinal basis, so as not to offend the sincere agnostics who might want to belong. Those proposing universalist doctrine for the church today should be forewarned by this history. Imagine a farmer who seeks to rid his field of pests, and so sprays a chemical—reputedly a powerful and effective pesticide. Within weeks, the crops themselves are shriveling up. That’s universalism: in the name of updating and improving the church’s teaching, it kills the church itself along with its teaching.

Universalism in the future, as in the past, will show itself as the self-negating, faith-undermining, church-neutering doctrine that it is. This theological species is heading toward extinction.

Belief in universal salvation will, in all likelihood, remain in the future, as in the past, a private conviction nurtured among a deracinated intellectual elite, situated more on the fringes than in the center of the church’s life. The faithful en masse will not embrace this teaching. Jesus’s sheep know his voice, and a stranger’s voice they will not follow (John 10:5, 27). Universalism in the future, as in the past, will show itself as the self-negating, faith-undermining, church-neutering doctrine that it is. This theological species is heading toward extinction.

A 19th-century black spiritual compared Christian salvation to riding a train:

The gospel train is coming;
I hear it just at hand.
I hear the car wheels moving,
And rumbling thro’ the land.
Get on board, children,
For there’s room for many a more.

A 20th-century adaptation extended the train analogy:

When you get down to the station,
And the train’s about to leave,
You be sure to have a ticket,
If you really do believe.

So pass me the guitar, and you all grab the banjo, washtub bass, washboard, spoons, jug, fiddle, harmonica, and kazoo, and we’ll start the hootenanny. But it’s not Hart’s glory train that will be carrying the faithful to the pearly gates. Instead it’s the train that requires a “ticket,” with passengers who “really do believe.”