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Divine Justice, Sinful Humanity, and Eschatological Judgment: Considering David Bentley Hart’s Argument against Hell: A Review Article

David VanDrunen

That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation, by David Bentley Hart. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2019, 232 pages, $26.00.

Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved is not the kind of book a person can read lightly, or soon forget. In part, this is due to the book’s thesis that all human beings who have ever lived will in fact be saved, and thus that there is no everlasting punishment in hell. But it is also due to the stridency with which Hart argues his case: he claims repeatedly that the traditional Christian doctrine of hell is absurd and repulsive. And it is partly due to the flamboyance of Hart’s writing style and his penchant for insulting those who disagree with him. Many books fail to get their readers’ attention; this is not one of them.

The book is organized simply. Part 1 frames the book’s question and casts doubt on the answers provided by proponents of the traditional doctrine. Part II consists of four “Meditations” in which Hart lays out his arguments for universalism. Part III provides a brief conclusion.

Hart does not advance a single argument that develops linearly through the book. Thus, I will not provide a chapter-by-chapter description of what he claims and then move on to evaluate his case. I think it best, instead, to identify three kinds of argument he uses and to offer some analysis along the way.

The Argument from Intuition

The first kind of argument is one of intuition, or perhaps, disgust. Hart begins Part I by recounting his experience as a fourteen-year-old when he read an old legend about hell and shortly thereafter, by coincidence, heard a sermon that referred to this legend. His initial reaction to the story was “a slight shiver of distaste” (12), and he says he has never really wavered from that intuition. He later describes himself as an “instinctive universalist” (65) and writes: “The whole question of hell is one whose answer should be immediately obvious to a properly functioning moral intelligence” (29).

Technically, I suppose, this is not an “argument.” But it plays a role in Hart’s case. Hart is convinced that the idea of an everlasting hell does not and should not sit well with a normal person. Revulsion is the natural and proper gut-reaction to the traditional doctrine of hell.

I am not so sure that every normal person feels such instinctive revulsion. I suspect that those who have suffered terrible wrongs in this life may have rather different instincts from those of us who enjoy relatively comfortable lives. Nevertheless, Hart has a point. Most serious Christians probably have, on some occasions, been troubled by the thought of an everlasting hell, perhaps when contemplating a loved one who died without professing Christ. Every autumn, I teach a course in which I lecture on hell on the last day of the semester. I never relish getting to this topic. It is my least favorite part of Christian doctrine to teach.

And yet we always need to test our intuitions. Sometimes our gut reactions are profoundly correct, but we sinners dare not trust them. And a moment’s thought reminds us why our gut reactions about hell might be particularly suspect: why wouldn’t a sinner feel revulsion at the claim that sinners deserve everlasting punishment? Wouldn’t a chain-smoker experience “a slight shiver of distaste” upon hearing that cigarettes cause emphysema? Learning that something we love has profoundly bad consequences is never likely to make us comfortable.

Hart would surely not disagree that our instincts need to be tested, and he offers arguments meant to confirm our allegedly normal intuitions. Let us now consider them.

The Metaphysical Argument

What I call Hart’s “metaphysical argument” is the core of his case. As explained below, this argument is much more important to Hart than his argument from Scripture. He spends his greatest effort explaining and defending a metaphysics (i.e., a philosophical theory of existence, causation, the good, and the divine). In this metaphysics, it is simply incredible—that is, not able to be believed—that God would punish anyone in an everlasting hell.

“The actual question,” according to Hart, is whether it is possible to love a God who has made a world in which everlasting hell is even a possibility (12–13). The “primary question” concerns whether the God who could create such a world “can in fact be the infinitely good God of love that Christianity says he is” (17). Hart answers a resounding no to both questions. “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” (3).

One line of his metaphysical argument, found primarily in his First Meditation, concerns the nature of God. Hart argues that if we say God created all things ex nihilo, then at the end of history every created thing must be reconciled to God in perfect blessedness and nothing can be left behind. Were this not the case, evil would be part of God’s intentions and dispositions, in which case God would not be the good as such. It is metaphysically impossible, in other words, to believe in an everlasting hell once we affirm (with traditional Christianity) that God is both the good itself and creator ex nihilo. According to Hart, this also implies that God does not condemn people to hell “solely as a demonstration of his power to do as he wishes,” as proponents of double predestination claim, such as classical Thomists and (most consistently) Calvin (47–48).

A second line of Hart’s metaphysical argument, contained primarily in his Third Meditation, focuses on what it means to be a human person. He appeals especially to the Eastern church father Gregory of Nyssa. Hart concludes that we cannot be saved as persons unless we are saved with all other persons. All must be saved, or no one is saved. Hart appeals to the continuity between our identity in this life and our identity in the life to come. If we have loved people in this world, we cannot simply forget about them in the next world, and thus we cannot be truly blessed if we know that some of them are in hell. In fact, to know that any other human person is in hell would leave us unsatisfied with heaven.

A third and final line of Hart’s metaphysical argument, enshrined especially in his Fourth Meditation concerns the rational will. Hart claims that every rational will must eventually exhaust the possibilities of rebellion against God and choose him as its ultimate good. According to Hart, this answers today’s most popular (and benevolent) argument for an everlasting hell, namely, that God respects the rational freedom of his creatures so much that he allows them to resist him permanently. In such a scenario, everlasting hell is what rational creatures themselves freely choose. For Hart, “there could scarcely be a worse defense” of everlasting hell. “It makes no sense whatsoever” (34).

Why does it make no sense? Hart agrees that God made rational creatures to love him freely, but he denies that rational creatures who are truly free could reject God. People reject God here and now, indeed, but they do so because of ignorance, bad influences, or some other hindrance. There is no true freedom in this life. Mitigating circumstances always exist. And if those who reject God in this life do so without true freedom, then God would be unjust to punish them everlastingly. The punishment would be disproportionate to the wrong. Without unlimited freedom, there is no unlimited guilt. Conversely, a person is only truly free when he chooses well and thus chooses the good for which he was created. Jesus himself was a truly free person and was unable not to choose the good. For Hart, evil is nothing but the privation of the good, and thus has no power or substance to attract the free, rational person. Even if it takes countless ages after their death, all rational persons eventually must recognize God as the good and give up all attraction to evil.

One other aspect of Hart’s metaphysical discussions is worth mentioning. He notes that many Christians, when trying to explain how a perfectly good and omnipotent God could create a universe that contains hell, appeal to the inevitable limitations of human knowledge when contemplating a transcendent and incomprehensible God. Hart dismisses such appeals as “a dissembling euphemism for the unresolved logical contradictions in their own systems of belief” (56). Affirming universalism is the only logically coherent route.

What to make of Hart’s metaphysical claims? One remarkable thing is how utterly confident he is in his conclusions. He says he is just following standard Christian metaphysical ideas, and in a sense this is true. To the extent there is a Christian metaphysics, it must acknowledge God as the good itself, as the omnipotent first cause, and the like. And yet, with very few exceptions, no Christian theologian has thought that these ideas make the reality of everlasting hell impossible. Hart finds allies in Origin (!), Gregory of Nyssa, and a handful of obscure Eastern Orthodox theologians, while defying the diverse host of Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox theologians who have professed the absolute goodness of God while also affirming everlasting hell as a necessary Christian doctrine. If universalism is as perfectly clear and logically compelling as Hart indicates, it is amazing that so very few have recognized it.

How did this happen? Hart suggests that Christians embraced illogical notions and composed bad arguments for hell because this is the sort of thing that happens when people think they have to believe something that’s false and then try to justify it. Hart has his finger on something important here. Christians have indeed felt obligated to believe in an everlasting hell, due to what Scripture teaches and the church confesses about it. This in turn has provoked some Christians to offer intellectual rationales (some better, some worse) seeking to explain how a perfectly good and sovereign God could will such a hell. It has also inspired many Christians to recognize the limits of their finite knowledge and to acknowledge that we may not be able to construct a philosophically comprehensive solution to the problem of evil.

The order of thought is important: Christians have believed in an everlasting hell because of the testimony of divine revelation and then have tried to explain it metaphysically as best as they can. In contrast, Hart believes there is no fully satisfying metaphysical explanation for an everlasting hell, and therefore he rejects the traditional Christian doctrine. For Hart, the metaphysics comes first. The Christian faith he professes depends upon that.

Perhaps that sounds unfair, but Hart confirms such suspicions in the book’s remarkable final paragraph. He notes that people ask him whether he would reject Christianity if he became convinced that Christianity required him to believe in an everlasting hell. Without hesitation, he says yes, that is the case. He will not “assent to a picture of reality that I regard as morally corrupt, contrary to justice, perverse, inexcusably cruel, deeply irrational, and essentially wicked” (208). He concludes by stating: “In the end, we must love the Good” (209). The Good, not the Christian God. He does think he loves the Christian God, but only because this God fits his metaphysical conception of the good.

The Biblical Argument

Hart gives some attention to Scripture, especially in his Second Meditation. As he says, somewhat humorously (at least to me), he is not “so recklessly speculative as to imagine that Christians are allowed to make any theological pronouncements in total abstraction from or contradiction of scripture” (92). He seems to know that he is recklessly speculative, but not that much.

Even so, Hart’s view of biblical authority is rather weak. He does not think “the testimony of the Bible on doctrinal and theological matters must be wholly internally consistent” (92). Later, he says that Scripture is not a “system” of truth. Its texts “defy synthesis in a canon of exact doctrines” (161). How then does one know what parts of Scripture to heed? The answer, apparently, is that he grants “a certain presumptive authority . . . to whatever kind of language the Bible uses most preponderantly” (93).

One notices up front, therefore, that Hart has left himself some significant leeway. Even if some biblical texts teach the existence of an everlasting hell, it would not disprove his case. As long as he has a preponderance of biblical evidence on his side, his claims are secure. But despite this room to maneuver, Hart does not concede a single text to his opponents. Instead, he claims to recover the thought-world of Scripture and early Christianity, which has been “corrupted by centuries of theology written in entirely different spiritual and intellectual environments, and in alien tongues” (2). Readers familiar with the classical liberal theologian Adolf von Harnack (1851–1930) may sense a resemblance between Hart’s quest and Harnack’s program of recovering the kernel of Jesus’s teaching by stripping away the husk of centuries of theological accretions.

Early on, Hart summarizes “the story of salvation” as he understands it, as taught by “the earliest and greatest of the church fathers:” We were all born corrupted, mortal, and in bondage to Satan, although “not guilty and damnable,” and Christ came “to set us free, to buy us out of slavery, to heal us, to restore us to our true estate,” but not to shed his “innocent blood . . . to assuage God’s indignation” (26–27). These are familiar themes in Eastern Orthodox theology. Elsewhere, Hart summarizes his understanding of New Testament eschatology, which he draws especially from Origin and Gregory of Nyssa: The New Testament speaks of both the punishment of the ungodly and the final reconciliation of all, but these are not “two antithetical possibilities tantalizingly or menacingly dangled before us, but rather two different moments within a seamless narrative, two distinct eschatological horizons, one enclosed within the other.” In short, God’s (corrective) punishment of the ungodly occurs within the “immanent course of history” while the reconciliation of all occurs at the “final horizon of all horizons” (102–3). For Hart, the “course of history” continues (at least for many) far beyond death. They may require a long duration of chastisement and persuasion. But in the end, all will be saved. What about texts that seem to describe an everlasting hell? Hart says that all of them use metaphorical images and should not be taken as “exact documentary portraits of some final reality” (94–95).

To make his case, Hart follows a twofold strategy. First, he simply quotes one New Testament text after another that speaks about the salvation of “all” or “the world,” but without actually exegeting the texts (95–102). (Later, he does comment on Romans 9–11 at some length, arguing that Paul clearly teaches universalism and only considers individual election and reprobation as a bleak hypothesis that he rejects [132–38]). He claims that those who qualify any of these “all” texts are explaining away the obvious.

Then, second, Hart discusses a number of New Testament texts that seem to speak about hell or everlasting punishment and explains why they don’t teach this. He basically dismisses evidence from Revelation, which he doesn’t think is a book about eschatology, but rather “a manifesto written in figurative code by a Jewish Christian who believed in keeping the Law of Moses” and who predicted “the inauguration of a new historical epoch in which Rome will have fallen, Jerusalem will have been restored, and the Messiah will have been given power ‘to rule the gentiles with a rod of iron.’” Revelation “is all a religious and political fable” (107–8). Well, so much for that. Hart takes evidence from the Gospels more seriously. But New Testament language about “the fate of the derelict . . . could scarcely be more evocatively vague” (112). The Gospels use various terms commonly translated “hell,” yet we cannot be certain what any of them really meant to convey. And the Greek term usually translated “everlasting” or “eternal” (aiōnios αἰώνιος) probably doesn’t mean either one. To whatever extent Scripture does teach some sort of judgment by fire, it refers only to the purgatorial correction of the wicked, to lead them toward their final reconciliation with God.

It is difficult to believe that Hart’s biblical arguments will persuade many people. He heaps up quotations of texts saying that God will save “all,” but those texts are not news to anybody. As Reformed writers especially have long noted, every affirmation of “all” comes in a context. If we read texts with even a little care, we recognize that “all” often does not mean every person who ever lived, but “all” those in a certain group or class. Just this morning, I happened to be reading Daniel 2. Daniel says that God had given into Nebuchadnezzar’s hand “the children of men, the beasts of the field, and the birds of the heavens, making you rule over them all” (2:38). The Babylonian empire was impressive, but Nebuchadnezzar did not rule over every single person, animal, and bird who ever lived, or even over all those that lived in his own day. We have to read each “all” statement in its own context. Piling up quotations proves nothing. It is interesting that Hart excoriates those who change the meaning of “all” within a single verse, Romans 5:18. Yet he does virtually the same thing with the verse from which he derives his book’s title, 1 Timothy 2:4. Just before Paul states that God desires “all” people to be saved, he commands Christians to pray for “all” people (2:1)—clearly not a command to pray for each and every person who has ever lived. Competent Reformed writers have dealt with all the texts that Hart quotes, and I will say nothing more about them here.

There are a great many other things one might say in response to Hart’s treatment of Scripture. We may grant that aiṓnios (αἰώνιος or the Hebrew olam עוֹלָ֖ם) does not always mean “everlasting,” and yet the biblical writers use the same terms to describe both the blessedness of the righteous and the desolation of the wicked (e.g., Dan. 12:2; Matt. 25:46). Hart’s theory demands the ultimate redemption of Satan, yet Revelation says God will throw him into the lake of fire “for ever and ever” (or, “unto the ages of the ages,” as Hart might prefer, but it hardly changes the meaning) (20:10). And all human beings whose names aren’t written in the book of life will join Satan there (20:15). Are the names of some people who will eventually be saved really absent from the book of life?

And as for texts Hart does not consider at all, we might think of Jesus’s response to the question whether few will be saved: he urges them to enter through the narrow door, since many will seek to do so and be unable, but be cast out of his kingdom (Luke 13:22–30). Jesus also said that it would have been better for Judas not to have been born (Matt.  26:24), which makes no sense if Judas will one day enjoy eschatological blessedness. Or we might think of the urgency of the gospel call. In 2 Corinthians 6:1–2, Paul implores his readers to be reconciled to God because now is the day of salvation. For Hart, the day of salvation will go on for as long as necessary for everyone to repent. But of course, Hart’s vision of repentance through countless ages after death is totally absent from Scripture. For Scripture, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27).

The Justice of God

Despite Hart’s protests, therefore, Christians are obligated to believe in an everlasting hell. But this review does not seem complete without offering a brief word in response to Hart’s metaphysical arguments. I cannot address all of his claims, so I focus on one of the most important: Is God unjust to punish people in an everlasting hell? Another way to put the question is whether sins committed within our present history truly deserve an eschatological penalty.

If they do, our sins must be utterly heinous. A few of Hart’s comments indicate that he doesn’t think this is true of many sins, at least. For instance, he embraces the view that Adam and Eve sinned in “childlike ignorance” (43) and later refers to “the most trivial peccadillo, the pettiest lapse of plain morality” (132). Yet what seems trivial to us is ultimately an offense against God. Hart lambastes the argument that we should measure the seriousness of sin not according to our own finiteness but according to God’s infinite character, but this argument can’t be dismissed so easily. Surely we all recognize that a particular sinful action is more wicked when committed against a person of greater honor (as recognized in Westminster Larger Catechism 151). It is more heinous for a child to insult his parents than to insult his playmates. But to offend God (as all our sins do) is infinitely more heinous, since God’s honor is infinitely greater than that of the most honorable human being. This implies that the just penalty for our sins is literally beyond our ability to measure. And if so, it is difficult to see how everlasting punishment is disproportionate.

We might supplement this argument with another consideration. What if God, from the beginning, held out eschatological blessedness as the goal for his human creation, as Scripture indicates (e.g., Heb 2:5–10) and as so many Reformed and other Christians have believed? Then, too, an everlasting penalty for our first parents’ sin seems fitting. What could be more proportionate to rejecting eschatological blessedness than receiving an eschatological curse?

These are weighty matters. I confess that I sometimes find it hard to affirm the justice of everlasting punishment. But I also trust that when I see the splendor of heavenly glory on the last day, without being blinded by the least sinful inkling, I will understand the gravity of human rebellion in a way I cannot now.

Concluding Reflections

There are many more things to say, but I conclude with three brief remarks. First, readers should understand just how radically Hart condemns the traditional Christian view of hell. This view represents “communal self-deception” (19) and “collective derangement” (19). It is “intrinsically loathsome and degrading” (202) and a “horrid notion” (204). Arguments in support of it are “manifestly absurd,” “prima facie nonsensical,” and “gibberish” (202). It portrays a God of “boundless cruelty” (50) and “unalloyed spite” (21). He is “viciously vindictive” and “monstrous” (166). Toward such a God one feels “a kind of remote, vacuous loathing” (23). Thus, in the name of (a tiny minority stream of) Christianity, Hart launches a scathing critique of traditional Christianity, and in so doing he arms the open opponents of Christianity with all sorts of ammunition to attack the faith.

Second, his critique of everlasting hell entails an equally strong critique of related doctrines, including predestination, original sin (particularly imputation of Adam’s guilt), and substitutionary atonement. Such doctrines are “degrading nonsense” (25), “a sickly parody of the Christianity of the New Testament” (27), “repellant,” and “wicked” (75). Late Augustinian theology rests on “catastrophic misreadings of scripture” and is characterized by “sheer moral wretchedness” (200). Calvinism’s doctrine of limited atonement is “nauseating” (162).

Finally, Hart is an intellectual bully. He not only tries to out-argue people but also taunts and insults them. To mention just two examples, he refers to the “manifest imbecilities” of one particular group of opponents (92) and dismisses a certain writer as one who “periodically insists on perpetrating theology, always with catastrophic results” (149). It is more than a little ironic that someone who attacks the doctrine of hell (in part) in the name of love and compassion can show such arrogance and contempt for fellow professing Christians. I wonder if Yale University Press would publish a book that engaged in such ridicule against a group other than traditional Christians.

David VanDrunen is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and serves as the Robert B. Strimple professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics at Westminster Seminary California. Ordained Servant Online, February 2020.