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That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, hell and universal salvation, by David Bentley Hart 

13 December 2019

Richard Harries reviews an argument for revision of Western eschatology

DAVID BENTLEY HART is an erudite, highly praised theologian, one of whose books won the Michael Ramsey Prize. In the book under review, he argues that it is not enough for Christians to hope that all will be saved: it is essential that they do so if they are going to preach a message with any kind of moral and intellectual credibility. Hart is argumentative, and sometimes testy and defensive; but this should be put aside to consider his deeply felt and persuasive reasoning.

God does not sentence us to eternal hell, but, if we believe in free will, it is always possible for us to turn in on ourselves away from our Creator — in fact, to create our own hell even in the midst of heaven. Although God does not will this, he allows it. We can hope and trust that all will be saved, but we cannot say for certain they will be. That is the normal argument of liberal optimists.

Hart rejects it; for on that scenario God knew from the beginning that some would, through their own choice, end up in intolerable torment, but he still went ahead and created the world. Such a god is a monster who would have to be rejected on moral grounds. The choice is clear. Either all will be saved, or believe in a divine torturer if you will.

Then there is the question of free will. Hart rejects the usual idea of choice, understood as someone standing neutrally before two options, as intellectually incoherent. Instead, he argues that we always act to pursue what we think of as our good. If I see a pane of glass in a derelict house and pick up a brick to throw at it (my example, not his), either this is a totally animal-like reaction that cannot be morally evaluated, or I did it for some reason. When asked why I did it, I say I like the sound of smashing glass: it gives me pleasure. This is a totally mistaken understanding of our good, but it is still an action in pursuit of what in our ignorance we think of as our good.

Our freedom is not an arbitrary choice, but freedom to choose what we think of as our good at the time. God has made us so as to pursue this until our quest culminates in him, our highest good. In this is our freedom, “Freedom is a being’s power to flourish as what it naturally is, to become ever more fully what it is. The freedom of an oak seed in its uninterrupted growth into an oak tree. The freedom of a rational spirit is its consummation in union with God.”

It follows from this that if in the end we are enveloped by Divine goodness, we will respond. Evil is nothing in itself: just a privatio boni, a falling away from the good. Finally, God will be all in all. Of course there is hell in some sense: awareness of the harm done to others which is seen with such painful clarity in the flame of divine love. But this is remedial and purgative, not eternal.

In some Christian writing, one of the pleasures of the blessed has been to see the tortures of the damned. Hart argues that it is not enough just to reject this. This is because we are all bound up together. My choices have been significantly shaped by those who went before me. Moreover, even the most wicked people will have been loved by some — say, their mothers or partners. These people could not bear paradise with the thought of those whom they love languishing for ever in hell. So Hart argues, once again, that either we are all saved or none of us is.

When it comes to the biblical texts, he argues that the images of torment, such as gnashing of teeth, do not refer to a final eschatological state, and the texts that envisage all being saved are numerous and clear. And all means all.

So, how did it all go so wrong? The great St Augustine of Hippo is the culprit here, leading the whole Western tradition astray, giving rulers and churchmen alike tools to terrify people into good behaviour. People should look instead to St Gregory of Nyssa, his great hero.

If Hart is right, as I believe him to be, my own view having been advanced as a result of his arguments, the whole Western tradition needs radically questioning and re-educating.

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford. His latest book, Haunted by Christ: Modern writers and the struggle for faith (SPCK), is now out in paperback.

That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, hell and universal salvation
David Bentley Hart
Yale £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

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