That All Shall Be Saved by David Bentley Hart

I recently finished David Bentley Hart's book, That All Shall Be Saved. This is a fairly short book that makes a sustained argument for universal salvation within Christianity. He incorporates supporting material from scripture and patristics, but his central arguments are philosophical, albeit working with a number of key assumptions common to the Christian tradition.

For those interested in a more historical approach, Ilaria Ramelli's books on this topic seem to be more in that line- I haven't read them myself but Hart praises her work highly. Another book I have read is Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev's Christ the Conqueror of Hell, which, while not directly about universalism, is focused on Christ's descent into Hades and what exactly that accomplished, quoting a pretty exhaustive array of patristic and hymnographic texts. Metropolitan Hilarion makes it clear that, at least for some parts of the church, universalism was not a fringe idea and in fact made it into some hymns that became standard in the Byzantine church.

Back to Hart's book- I am admittedly biased in favor of its basic premises, but I do think it thoroughly clobbers the key arguments one encounters in Christian apologetics for the doctrine of eternal hell, or what he labels "infernalism." While readily referring to scripture and the fathers for support, he is strongest when simply forcing the bad arguments to unfold to their horrendous conclusions. In terms of patristic support he relies heavily on St Gregory of Nyssa and St Maximus the Confessor; he doesn't write off other fathers but shows that universalism is the necessary conclusion of their most important claims. This is true even of St Augustine whom he spends a lot of time respectfully skewering.

In my view his most important argument centers on the free will defense of hell. Here he takes up St Maximus' distinction between natural and gnomic will and shows that the idea that a rational creature could freely reject God is nonsensical; it also implies, by stating that this "freedom" to reject God is key to being human, that Christ was less than human.

The biggest difficulty that arose to my mind is the question of the Fall and the problem of evil. If a free will naturally turns to God, why does evil pervade the cosmos? Hart really doesn't address this question, apart from a not very satisfying remark on creaturely ignorance. Admittedly it's a huge question and satisfying answers to it might just not exist. My understanding is that his book The Doors of the Sea tries to address this- I guess I'll have to read that one next.
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Comments

  • *NB For those not used to his style, Hart is not what I would consider difficult to read, but he is typically acerbic, dismissive of opponents, and prone to reach for obscure words. I find it hilarious but some people think he's just a pretentious jerk. In any case if you don't like reaching for the dictionary every page or so I recommend getting an e-reader version where you can just highlight obscure words and get an instant definition.
  • RublevRublev Shipmate
    What is the theological basis of the case for universal salvation according to Hart?

    How does he contest what Jesus says about hell in the gospels?

    And what is a gnomic will?
  • Rublev wrote: »
    What is the theological basis of the case for universal salvation according to Hart?

    I'd strongly recommend getting the book yourself. To put it briefly, the goodness and love of God, and the incarnation. He relies heavily on St Gregory of Nyssa.
    How does he contest what Jesus says about hell in the gospels?

    He doesn't contest it. He puts it into context and explores the ambiguity of the language used. He also points out the far greater number of passages teaching universal salvation and asks, why do we ignore or reinterpret all these, in favor of a handful of passages that, according to our interpretation, teach eternal damnation?
    And what is a gnomic will?

    This is a concept introduced by St Maximus the Confessor in his meditations on the incarnation and the divine and human will in Christ. The gnomic will is the deliberative will in rational creatures, a necessary result of their finitude and ignorance. It is this gnomic will that is capable of turning aside from God, by mistaking some lesser or illusory good for the Good. The natural will is always inclined toward God; a truly free will wills according to nature, not like a puppet but the way a thirsty person in the desert will choose fresh water over a mouthful of sand.

    I can't do justice to Hart's presentation. I highly recommend the book.

  • In my view his most important argument centers on the free will defense of hell. Here he takes up St Maximus' distinction between natural and gnomic will and shows that the idea that a rational creature could freely reject God is nonsensical; it also implies, by stating that this "freedom" to reject God is key to being human, that Christ was less than human.

    That depends on whether you think "freedom to reject God" means the ability, or the fact of having done so. If you mean the latter, that only those who succumb to sin are truly free, then of course Christ was less than human. But that seems an odd definition of human, and implies that upon their creation Adam and Eve were not human.
  • Of course it means the ability, but it is still an odd definition of human. It may not imply that Adam and Eve weren't human but it does imply that about Christ, who, to use Augustine's language, is "non posse peccare"- as are the saints in heaven.
  • Martin54Martin54 Shipmate
    If God then transcendence. For everything above a blade of grass. And even then. It's only philosophy that counts. Not history.
  • Of course it means the ability, but it is still an odd definition of human. It may not imply that Adam and Eve weren't human but it does imply that about Christ, who, to use Augustine's language, is "non posse peccare"- as are the saints in heaven.

    Augustine has been wrong about so many other things. What does it mean that Christ says "Not my will, but yours" to the Father? If not that he could have chosen otherwise, i.e. to disobey the Father. Otherwise it would seem a mere tautology.
  • mousethief wrote: »
    Of course it means the ability, but it is still an odd definition of human. It may not imply that Adam and Eve weren't human but it does imply that about Christ, who, to use Augustine's language, is "non posse peccare"- as are the saints in heaven.

    Augustine has been wrong about so many other things. What does it mean that Christ says "Not my will, but yours" to the Father? If not that he could have chosen otherwise, i.e. to disobey the Father. Otherwise it would seem a mere tautology.

    Here Augustine was just expressing a common Christian understanding. As for the agony in the garden... St Maximus the Confessor discusses it far better and more subtly than I can.

  • RublevRublev Shipmate
    @SirPalomides

    I'd agree with Hart's point that a rational agent in order to be truly free must have the power to condemn the self.

    But his claim that no rational agent could reject God absolutely is only his assertion.

    Origen's C3rd views on universal salvation were condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Council of 553.

    Tertullian and Augustine were both non-universalists. Augustine thought that hell was eternal for the wicked. And he came up with the idea of Purgatory.

    'Eon' in Greek was translated as 'eternal' in the Latin Vulgate.

    You can argue both cases from scripture: universalism is suggested by Lam 3: 31-33; 1 Tim 2: 3-4; 4: 10. And it is contested by Luke 13: 23-25; John 3: 36; 2 Thess 1: 8-9.

    Some of Jesus' parables have been interpreted as universalist (the Parables of the Lost and the Workers in the Vineyard). Others are non-universalist (Dives and Lazarus, the Sheep and the Goats, the Wheat and the Tares, the Net).

    The gospel of Wikipedia helpfully states that the question of salvation is an enquiry into the balance of human free will and God's mercy and forgiveness.
  • I would recommend reading Hart’s argument in full.
  • RublevRublev Shipmate
    Why don't you outline the theological basis of his argument? I'm not convinced that he is saying anything very original. Karl Barth has already made a Christological argument for universal salvation.
  • Also if you could give the bare outlines of what Maximos the Confessor says, it would further rather than hinder this conversation.
  • ECraigRECraigR Shipmate
    Rublev wrote: »
    Why don't you outline the theological basis of his argument? I'm not convinced that he is saying anything very original. Karl Barth has already made a Christological argument for universal salvation.

    Universalism isn’t a very original idea. It’s been proposed by several theologians throughout the centuries. Hart just happens to be the most recent champion of the doctrine.

    I also tend to think that it’s a bit burdensome on people to “outline” arguments more than Sir P has already done. The book is pretty cheap, why not just read the source directly? It’s also getting a lot of critical attention, so seems worth the time.
  • Rublev wrote: »
    Origen's C3rd views on universal salvation were condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Council of 553.

    I’m not sure it’s that simple.
  • RublevRublev Shipmate
    I'm intrigued enough to have tracked down the Yale University Press review of this book which summarises his thesis as follows:

    'If God is the good Creator of all, He is the Saviour of all without fail. And if He is not the Saviour of all, the kingdom is only a dream and Creation something worse than a nightmare. But it is not so. There is no such thing as eternal damnation; all will be saved.'

    This seems a rather emotional argument to me.
  • Rublev wrote: »
    I'm intrigued enough to have tracked down the Yale University Press review of this book which summarises his thesis as follows:

    'If God is the good Creator of all, He is the Saviour of all without fail. And if He is not the Saviour of all, the kingdom is only a dream and Creation something worse than a nightmare. But it is not so. There is no such thing as eternal damnation; all will be saved.'

    This seems a rather emotional argument to me.

    Seems more to depend on logic than emotion. Identify the appeal to emotion for me.
  • RublevRublev Shipmate
    In the second sentence.
  • That's flowery language but it's not an appeal to emotion. Indeed it's not much more than restating the first sentence in a flowerly way. As such it's not part of the argument at all. You'll have to do better than that.
  • RublevRublev Shipmate
    If that quote really is a true reflection of his thesis then we can all do better than that.
  • I mean, it’s the blurb. On the publisher’s website. What are you expecting?
  • Hart is reasonably prolific on social-media, so it should be possible to find a number of things he has written on this topic. He also features in this interview here on the topic of his book (there are probably other interviews, but that is the one I'm aware of).
  • RublevRublev Shipmate
    Hart claims that, 'Christianity can be a coherent system of belief if, and only if, it is understood as involving universal salvation.'

    However, belief in hell and eternal punishment are asserted in the Apostles Creed and Athanasian Creed of the early church. So that does not stand up.
  • ECraigR wrote: »
    I also tend to think that it’s a bit burdensome on people to “outline” arguments more than Sir P has already done. The book is pretty cheap, why not just read the source directly? It’s also getting a lot of critical attention, so seems worth the time.
    I very well may read it, but I don’t think that providing more on Hart’s argument is burdensome at all. With the exception of things like the monthly book club threads, it’s what we normally do here if we want people to be able to discuss something—either provide enough for discussion or provide links where can read enough to discuss. (Thanks to @chrisstiles for some links.)

    Rublev wrote: »
    However, belief in hell and eternal punishment are asserted in the Apostles Creed and Athanasian Creed of the early church. So that does not stand up.
    Leaving aside that David Bentley Hart is Eastern Orthodox and the Orthodox do not use the Apostles’ Creed nor, I think, the Athanasian Creed—

    The Apostles’ Creed says Jesus descended into hell and says he will return to judge the living and the dead, but where does it say anything about eternal punishment?

  • Nick Tamen wrote: »
    Leaving aside that David Bentley Hart is Eastern Orthodox and the Orthodox do not use the Apostles’ Creed nor, I think, the Athanasian Creed—

    Both true. We have one creed that is binding, that is repeated every week in worship. We call it "The Symbol of Faith." I have never heard the so-called Athanasian so-called Creed recited in Orthodox worship, preached on in an Orthodox church, or so much as mentioned in Orthodox teachings, workshops, retreats, or discussions.
  • RublevRublev Shipmate
    It's the Athanasian Creed that states both those beliefs. I would personally prefer to believe in universal salvation - but it's not binding upon God or the Church just because I say so. Are the non-universalist parables of Jesus just using figurative language? I think Hart needs to provide a more weighty theological basis for his assertions. If he were to post these flimsy claims on the Ship, they would soon be challenged. Is a good theological argument too much to ask?
  • I like cats.
  • RublevRublev Shipmate
    I once posted a thread on cats. Perhaps you'd like to revive it?
  • Rublev wrote: »
    It's the Athanasian Creed that states both those beliefs.

    And what is the Athanasian Creed? What authority does it have? I argued that its authority in the Orthodox Church, whatever its official status, is nil. What authority does it have in Catholicism? Anglicanism? The Reform tradition?
  • RublevRublev Shipmate
    edited October 22
    Athanasius is the architect of Christian orthodox doctrine. He defined C4th belief in the words of the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds. And they have yet to be superceded by any other theologian.
  • Is this like how Caesar invented the Caesar salad?
  • I know that. It doesn't answer my question. The Athanasian Creed goes a hell of a lot farther than define the Trinity. As you say it is the one of the three ancient statements called "Creeds" that drags in damnation. Damnation is not inherent in the definition of the Trinity, or the doctrine of homoousion. So your statement is pretty much irrelevant for this discussion.

    Also is there even evidence that Athanasius wrote this particular document? The Repository says:
    The reasoning for rejecting Athanasius as the author usually relies on a combination of the following:
    • The creed originally was most likely written in Latin, while Athanasius composed in Greek.
    • Neither Athanasius nor his contemporaries ever mention the Creed.
    • It is not mentioned in any records of the ecumenical councils.
    • It appears to address theological concerns that developed after Athanasius died (including the filioque).
    • It was most widely circulated among Western Christians.

    It is a grossly flawed document and no doctrine can reliably be based on it.
  • RublevRublev Shipmate
    Nobody should have to discuss Athanasius in the middle of the night. By tradition there is a Creed ascribed to his name and it is still an orthodox Creed in the Anglican church. But it is hardly ever used nowadays because it is extremely long and unwieldy.
  • mousethief wrote: »
    Rublev wrote: »
    It's the Athanasian Creed that states both those beliefs.

    And what is the Athanasian Creed? What authority does it have? I argued that its authority in the Orthodox Church, whatever its official status, is nil. What authority does it have in Catholicism? Anglicanism? The Reform tradition?
    It has no formal authority anywhere in the Reformed tradition that I am aware of (bearing in mind that each Reformed church determines what creeds and confessions will have authority in that body). That said, Chapter XI of the Second Helvetic Confession does say:
    THE CREEDS OF FOUR COUNCILS RECEIVED. And, to say many things with a few words, with a sincere heart we believe, and freely confess with open mouth, whatever things are defined from the Holy Scriptures concerning the mystery of the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, and are summed up in the Creeds and decrees of the first four most excellent synods convened at Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon—together with the Creed of blessed Athanasius, and all similar symbols; and we condemn everything contrary to these.
    Likewise, Article 9, which concerns the Trinity, of the Belgic Confession says:
    And so,
    in this matter we willingly accept
    the three ecumenical creeds—
    the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian—
    as well as what the ancient fathers decided
    in agreement with them.
    so it is cited with approval In confessions that do have authority in Reformed churches.

    But I can pretty safely say I’ve rarely if ever heard reference to it in Reformed discourse. I’ve certainly never heard it used liturgically, as I’m told some Anglicans and Lutherans do on Trinity Sunday. My hunch is that context indicates it was cited by the Reformers to demonstrate continuity with the basic Trinitarian and Christological formulations of the pre-Reformation Western Church.

  • I really do think cats are pretty cool.
  • RublevRublev Shipmate
    So do they.
  • ECraigRECraigR Shipmate
    I always find it comical when people claim that leading theological, philosophical, scholarly, etc. whatever minds are lightweight because they disagree with the argument without having read the original source. Really, very rich. Were we all only as brilliant. How can you assess an argument, Rublev, when you haven’t read the book in question?

    As for Nick’s point: arguing someone else’s position is tedious and difficult unless you understand it perfectly and have copious amounts of time. Sir P was just trying to have, I think, a friendly little discussion about a book he recently read. Requiring that he give chapter and verse on this book he just read, after he already gave the broad outlines of the argument, is burdensome. It’s hard enough for graduate students in philosophy and theology to do it; doing that much work for this context seems especially so.
  • Dave WDave W Shipmate
    I really do think cats are pretty cool.
    Out of curiosity, SirPalomides, how did you think this discussion was going to go? Did you think many other people would already have read it?

    Here's a quote from the book that I found in a review on the Amazon page:
    "Can we imagine—logically, I mean, not merely intuitively—that someone still in torment after a trillion ages, or then a trillion trillion, or then a trillion vigintillion, is in any meaningful sense the same agent who contracted some measurable quantity of personal guilt in that tiny, ever more vanishingly insubstantial gleam of an instant that constituted his or her terrestrial life? And can we do this even while realizing that, at that point, his or her sufferings have in a sense only just begun, and in fact will always have only just begun? What extraordinary violence we must do both to our reason and to our moral intelligence."
    That page has some "Look Inside" material, along with an audible sample from the introduction.
  • RublevRublev Shipmate
    @ECraigR

    I think I have made several valiant attempts to elicit the argument. I read the sample chapters for free on the Kindle app and I can't say that they impressed me. I'm not going to pay £15 to download the book unless there is a good reason. And so far that has not been forthcoming. There is plenty of good free theology online.
  • DafydDafyd Shipmate
    I've found everything of Hart's that I've read productive, and I'm generally inclined to favour universalism, at least on the level of what we may hope for.

    But I do think that it's not too much to ask for people to summarise an argument that they want discussed.
    (At least, if you're aiming to discuss Hart's subject ie universalism, rather than his writing style or his career or so on.)
  • RublevRublev Shipmate
    An outline of why this is a worthy argument would be helpful. Alternatively, Sir P or ECraigR can disprove my critique. Or else present a properly substantiated theological argument for universal salvation. I'd like to know why Jesus said so much about hell if there is no such thing.
  • ECraigRECraigR Shipmate
    He already said in the OP why he thought it was interesting. Again, asking for citations and the like is ridiculous, in my opinion. If you don’t believe in universal salvation then good for you.

    I’d disprove your critique, but it just comes down to “this I know for the Bible tells me so,” and I don’t think there’s any need to play that game.

    The book, which is a whole book by a highly regarded theologian, is a properly substantiated theological argument for universal salvation. Being, you know, a book by a properly qualified theologian published by a properly academic press publishing properly edited theological books.
  • Rublev wrote: »
    An outline of why this is a worthy argument would be helpful. Alternatively, Sir P or ECraigR can disprove my critique. Or else present a properly substantiated theological argument for universal salvation. I'd like to know why Jesus said so much about hell if there is no such thing.

    I'd say the question is not whether there is such thing, but whether it is unending.
  • Sir P. wrote:
    For those interested in a more historical approach, Ilaria Ramelli's books on this topic seem to be more in that line- I haven't read them myself but Hart praises her work highly. Another book I have read is Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev's Christ the Conqueror of Hell, which, while not directly about universalism, is focused on Christ's descent into Hades and what exactly that accomplished, quoting a pretty exhaustive array of patristic and hymnographic texts. Metropolitan Hilarion makes it clear that, at least for some parts of the church, universalism was not a fringe idea and in fact made it into some hymns that became standard in the Byzantine church.

    When I was studying, we visited a community which had built a baptistry. Each day, a member of the community went down steps into the water, immersed themselves and walked up steps on the other side while the community prayed and sang. It was intended to symbolise Christ's journey through death into life. I was very impressed by the whole community, but particularly that ceremony, which hit me in the heart.

    I don't enjoy theology much, but some ideas give me a numinous feeling, and Christ opening the life-gate is one of them. Whether Christ opened it so that all may be saved, or all will be saved is beyond my ken.
  • Rublev wrote: »
    An outline of why this is a worthy argument would be helpful. Alternatively, Sir P or ECraigR can disprove my critique. Or else present a properly substantiated theological argument for universal salvation. I'd like to know why Jesus said so much about hell if there is no such thing.

    Gehenna and cognates appears 11 times in the Jesus tradition, which of course is not what Jesus "said," but what the evangelists wrote that he said. Whether 11 counts as "so much" is a point I leave to those interested in quantifying. Claiming something is said a lot is not an argument, it really isn't anything. What is significant is the content of the utterance, not how many times a particular word appears.

    And most of the references are in Matthew, which may tell us a lot about the First Evangelist's beliefs about the significance of hell. Or it may not.
  • RublevRublev Shipmate
    Gehenna was the rubbish dump outside the walls of Jerusalem where fires burned day and night.

    Whether hell is unending or not is a good point. 'Eon' in Greek is an indeterminate period of time or an age. It was translated as eternal in Latin.
  • EnochEnoch Shipmate
    Dave W wrote: »
    ...
    Here's a quote from the book that I found in a review on the Amazon page:
    "Can we imagine—logically, I mean, not merely intuitively—that someone still in torment after a trillion ages, or then a trillion trillion, or then a trillion vigintillion, is in any meaningful sense the same agent who contracted some measurable quantity of personal guilt in that tiny, ever more vanishingly insubstantial gleam of an instant that constituted his or her terrestrial life? And can we do this even while realizing that, at that point, his or her sufferings have in a sense only just begun, and in fact will always have only just begun? What extraordinary violence we must do both to our reason and to our moral intelligence."
    That page has some "Look Inside" material, along with an audible sample from the introduction.
    Thank you for that. I've a number of books already that I ought to read and haven't done. That extract confirms me in my decision not to spend my money to add this one to their number.

    There are words of Jesus that can be quoted in support of both sides of this argument. So, if anyone says, 'my reason and logic tells me that universalism has to be true, and therefore any other theology false', what they are also implying is that they think they are cleverer than God. If he and God disagree, it must be God who is the one that is wrong.

    The extract @Dave W has very kindly quoted also makes it clear that the writer sees the heavenly realm, the kingdom when it is now rather than not yet, as functioning according to the same understanding of time as plays out here, that 'eternity' means the same as 'endless'. His imagination is constrained by our experience thus far.

    This is a weakness under which we all labour, but it's not enough just to use it as a standpoint from which to score debating points. If he really thinks that's a persuasive argument, it demonstrates the limitations of his own theological perceptions. If he doesn't think it's a persuasive argument, he should not be using it.
  • Martin54Martin54 Shipmate
    edited October 22
    Rublev wrote: »
    Gehenna was the rubbish dump outside the walls of Jerusalem where fires burned day and night...

    No it wasn't.
  • RublevRublev Shipmate
    Enlighten me Martin54.
  • Martin54Martin54 Shipmate
    My friend, your friend, everyone's friend Wiki: Gehenna - The traditional explanation that a burning rubbish heap in the Valley of Hinnom south of Jerusalem gave rise to the idea of a fiery Gehenna of judgment is attributed to Rabbi David Kimhi's commentary on Psalm 27:13 (ca. 1200 AD). He maintained that in this loathsome valley fires were kept burning perpetually to consume the filth and cadavers thrown into it. However, Hermann Strack and Paul Billerbeck state that there is neither archaeological nor literary evidence in support of this claim, in either the earlier intertestamental or the later rabbinic sources. Also, Lloyd R. Bailey's "Gehenna: The Topography of Hell" from 1986 holds a similar view.
  • Oh dear. Right up there with the rope tied around the high priest's ankle just in case.
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