I came across the Kindle version of David Bentley Hart's "That All Shall Be Saved" after reading Hans Urs von Balthasar's celebrated "Dare We Hope: 'That All Men Be Saved'?"—a book that, even by expressing tepid theological optimism for universal salvation, does not cease to draw the ire of certain conservative Catholics. From Balthasar's book it became clear to me that a set of texts exist in the New Testament which appear to suggest that all persons, at the end of time, will indeed be saved (e.g. John 12:32), but Balthasar believed that these texts needed to be read against others that appear to suggest the possibility of eternal hellfire (e.g. Matthew 3:12).
Hart, by contrast, does not offer his readers a reluctant optimism, but makes an unapologetically full-throated and thoroughly logical argument for the eventual salvation of all. He argues that anything less would be inconsistent with God's very identity as the Good subsisting in itself, insisting that the received view—that a hell does exist where human persons and other rational beings are forever tortured—is nothing less than morally repugnant. Indeed: "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."
Hart offers a series of four meditations to advance his point, each presenting a different argument. The first relies upon the moral implications of creatio ex nihilo, the second draws upon Scripture, the third makes an argument on the basis of personhood, and the fourth challenges the view that hell is a necessary possibility incurred by human freedom. Each of his meditations was earth-shattering in its deconstruction of the prevailing theological wisdom, but it was the last that really shook me. In the theological circles that I frequent, the existence of an eternal hell is typically justified on the basis of God's respecting human freedom—on this view, hell is possible because it is the logical consequence of human freedom, which entails the possibility of rejecting God. Thus, given human immortality, there must be some place to which those who have rejected God descend after death. However, as Hart so gloriously points out, this argument is incompatible with another theological/philosophical idea that those in full possession of their rational faculties will choose the good. Someone with perfect information and free of neuroses and other impediments will choose the good, because rationality is inescapably oriented toward goodness—if a person dying of thirst rejected water, we would not say that that person had made a free, rational choice to do so, but rather that the person was insane. The choice to reject God must only be possible in the context in which some impediment exists to either freedom or rationality, and therefore, the choice to reject God utterly can never be free; it must always be the consequence of some imperfection that, in fact, restricts freedom. Our freedom is oriented toward the all-pervading and transcendent Good, toward God himself; no 'free' choice to reject God can logically ever be made, and thus nobody can ever freely choose hell.
I will have to contemplate and process Hart's theological achievement in this volume for some time longer. Not only does he challenge the received opinion, but does so in a way that clearly offers universal salvation as the most complete, most appropriate, most self-evidently correct culmination to God's act of creating. This is a remarkable volume, an arrestingly compelling challenge to the overwheming theological consensus, that any student of theology should read and contemplate deeply.
- Hardcover: 232 pages
- Publisher: Yale University Press; 1 edition (15 November 2019)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0300246226
- ISBN-13: 978-0300246223
- Product Dimensions: 14 x 2.2 x 21 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 395 g
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- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 19,093 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)