Is Love a Choice or a Destiny?
David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell & Universal Salvation. Yale University Press: New Haven & London, 2017.
Reviewed by Jack Hoehn | 22 April 2020 |
I had recently seen David Bentley Hart’s translation of the New Testament (The New Testament—A Translation, same publisher and date as this book being reviewed) in a bookstore, and was tempted to add it to the 27 other Bibles on my shelves, or the 36 translations available to me on Biblehub.com. I resisted the temptation, but just a week later young Adventist friends asked me if I had read Hart’s other book, That All Shall be Saved. “Uncle Jack, tell me what you think of it.” Deal.
I found it a very lot to think of. On one level it is a fantastic book for almost all Seventh-day Adventists—traditional, middle of road, liberal, and former—who value and are united on at least one theological opinion: that a God of love is inconsistent with an everlasting burning place of eternal conscious torment and endless punishment. For any kind of Seventh-day Adventist the statement that “All who agree that there is no burning place of eternal punishment for the lost, signify with the uplifted right hand” would have no chance of being voted down.
If, on the other hand, the chair next asked for a vote on another issue: “All who agree that everyone, no matter how wicked they were on earth or in heaven, will eventually be saved in eternal bliss, signify with the uplifted right hand,” the issue would have little or no chance of passing an Adventist congregational muster.
So, since this book has three sub-headings (Heaven, Hell, Universal Salvation) shall we give it a score of 2 out of 3?
David Bentley Hart’s book presents him as an “Eastern Orthodox scholar of religion,” putting him into the huge non-Roman branch of ancient Christianity founded by the Roman Emperor in Byzantium (today’s Istanbul, Turkey). Eastern Orthodox is what Russian, Ukrainian, Greek, Romanian, Bulgarian, Serbian and most other Slavic countries call “the church.” They are not controlled by the Roman Pope, their priests marry, but in many aspects they are ecclesiastical Eastern twins of the Western Roman Catholic church. But unlike Roman Catholicism and Protestantism (many of whose doctrines are Roman Catholic in origin) Eastern Orthodox theology does not demand uniformity of belief in an everlasting hell.
There is no hesitation in Hart’s opinions on the widely held so-called Christian doctrine of eternal hell whose torments are supposedly decreed by an all-powerful God. Yet we are also told we must regard this God as infinitely gracious, inexhaustibly merciful, the source of unending, unlimited love. Bluntly Hart says that the moral intelligibility of the idea of a hell of eternal torment “has never persuaded me of anything, except perhaps the length of specious reasoning to which even very intelligent persons can go when they feel bound by faith to believe something inherently incredible.”
(The Seventh-day Adventist faith has never bound adherents to believe in “a hell of eternal torment,” but there may be some reason to wince under the charge of “specious reasoning” that even some “very intelligent persons” retreat to “when they feel bounded by faith to believe something inherently incredible”—for example that the earth is against all evidence 6,000 years old, that indulging in ketchup could possibly be a sin, or that God carefully checks the time of sundown in your neighborhood twice each week.)
That noted, Adventists surely agree that it is not possible, without some sort of mental or spiritual schizophrenia, to “love an omnipotent and omniscient God who has elected to create a reality in which everlasting torture is (even) a possible final destiny for any of his creatures.”
Hart suggests therefore that even those who profess to support the possibility of a loving God and a just eternal torment can’t really believe in it, even as they argue to defend their doctrine. Hart illustrates with a Catholic philosopher, academic, who defends the Hell doctrine in books and classrooms.
“I cannot take the claims of this… (man) entirely seriously…for the simple reason that his actions so resplendently belie what he professes to believe. If he truly thought that our situation in the world were as horribly perilous as he claims, and that every mortal soul labored under the shadow of so dreadful a doom—merely…” 70 years “to get it right if we are fortunate, and then an eternity of agony in which to rue the consequences if we get it wrong—he would never dare to bring a child into this world, let alone five children…”
Got you, happy father, thy household bewrayeth thee!
“If he were really absolutely convinced of the things he thinks he is convinced of, but still continued to go his merry recreant’s way along the path of happy fatherhood and professional contentment, he would have to be a moral monster. But I do not think that he is a monster. So I have to think instead that, in his heart of hearts, at a level of calm conviction so deeply hidden beneath veils of childhood indoctrination …he keeps and treasures the certainty that in the end…’All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well…’ [yet] nothing can be ultimately well if the happy final state of things for any one of us has been purchased at the cost—or even only at the risk—of anyone else’s eternal misery.”
Hart recognizes Calvin and his Reformed Tradition with their unhidden embrace of Divine arbitrariness in “predestining the derelict to eternal agony,”but taxes them with “invoking ‘divine transcendence’ or ‘divine incomprehensibility’ as a dissembling euphemism for the unresolved logical contradictions in their own systems of belief.”
Behind Calvin and most of the Christian embrace of Hell, he blames St. Augustine. “Augustine—a towering genius whose inability to read Greek and consequent reliance on defective Latin translations turned out to be the single most tragically consequential case of linguistic incompetence in Christian history.”
This sentence not only places the heresy at Augustine’s door, but also reminds that readers cannot escape the fact that David Bentley Hart loves words and uses them prodigiously! A reviewer in The Atlantic magazine noted his “prickly and slightly preening polemical exhibition.” You may need help from Alexa or Siri or Google or the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language. Or you may just need to read some sentences slowly over and over again. Like when he says “to believe solely because one thinks faith demands it, in despite of all the counsels of reason, is actually a form of disbelief… reducing the act of fidelity to God to a brutishly obstinate infidelity to reason (whose substance again, is God himself).” You may have to read that sentence and many more again more slowly. I just had to look up what a “ferruginous” allegory was (a confused mixture). Some words I just guessed and read on.
But I had no difficulty understanding his conclusion on the teaching that God could be both good and sustain an eternal hell of conscious suffering.
“Once one has stripped away all the traditional facile justifications and beguiling rhetoric and pious dogmatisms. What remains…is something quite ridiculous, and quite abominable.” “We should really stop telling such sordid lies about him (God).”
Annihilationist and Cosmic Conflict
Hart approaches a bit more gently one Adventist belief–no eternal torturing hell (he calls them “infernalists”), but a shorter burn-to-ashes hell (he calls us “annihilationists”). I think he could also lump us with the “dualists.” Starting with Zoroaster the mysteries of Genesis 3 have been parsed into the universe known to Adventists as The Great Controversy. With a great God (Yahweh to the Jew, Ahura Mazda to the Persian) in moral combat with a less-great but powerful Opponent (Satan to Adventists).
Hart admits that he has always been able “to beat a judicious retreat from the mystery of evil.” Well, Adventists have not retreated. Our prophetess, in fact, demands we focus on the reality of good and evil in combat. Adventists see ourselves in moral (and perhaps mortal) combat—fighting for our eternal lives. “Freedom of choice” (created conscious of and deciding for either good or evil) is presented as the essential catalyst, the vital value that makes such a cosmic experiment necessary and tolerable.
Our argument is God’s love cannot exist without freedom and Satan or other creatures in rebellion against love are an inevitable possibility of this foundational requirement of love. Real love must be chosen and cannot be decreed.
In response Hart worries that true as far as these statements go, they can devolve towards half-truths and triviality—as if with “a wave of the prestidigitator’s hand and Auschwitz magically vanishes.” I agree that more than one Adventist likes waving the prestidigitator’s hand of a rote quote from Ellen White, or a trite Sabbath School lesson saying the same thing over and over again, as making “Auschwitz magically vanish.” Is all human suffering—the deaths of everyman, everywhere, all the time, some deaths so random and seemingly as inconsequential as the “harvesting of a head of cabbage—simply” the smoke of an endless sacrifice ascending to God in honor of “freedom of choice”?
“Every evil that time comprises, natural or moral… is an arraignment of God’s goodness, every death of a child, ever chance calamity, every act of malice, everything diseased, thwarted, pitiless, purposeless, or cruel; and, until the end of all things, no answer has been given.”
He also won’t let us retreat into a presumed distinction between evils that are caused by God or just permitted by God for the sake of some greater good.
So, Hart remains unconvinced of annihilation. He says the arithmetic on God’s goodness in the face of manifest evil does not change much
“if one gives up on the idea of a hell of eternal torment and poses in its place a final ‘hell’ consisting in the ultimate annihilation of evildoers at the end of days.” He admits this is “much more palatable than the former, and for what it is worth, it also appears to accord somewhat better with the large majority of scriptural metaphors…”
Well, thank you for that. At least our Adventist teaching is better supported by the Bible. He also admits the possibility that “the transient torments of history” might be justifiable or subsumed in the glory of God’s everlasting Kingdom. (I think there is a Bible text for Adventists on this–“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).
All Must Be Saved?
With annihilation markedly superior to infernalism, should we then follow further and deeper into Hart’s beautiful but most challenging and even disruptive suggestion: that God’s goodness, God’s love, God’s justice—God’s character—will still be tarnished even by the annihilation of the wicked? That as Hart will conclude, his conception of a morally unquestionable God of Total Love requires that all creation must be saved—Judas, Nero, Hitler, Dahmer, Epstein, and even those wicked incorrigibles who cut you off on the freeway?
The New Testament scholar does admit that
“Jesus speaks of a final judgment, and uses many metaphors to describe the unhappy lot of the condemned.” “Many of these are metaphors of destruction, like the annihilation of chaff or brambles in ovens, or the final death of body and soul in the Valley of Hinnom. Others are metaphors of exclusion, like the sealed doors of wedding feasts. A few, a very few, are images of imprisonment and torture; but even then in the relevant verses, those punishments are depicted as having only a limited term.”
But against this he marshals eight pages of Biblical universalism:
Some texts are gentle nudges, as in Romans 5:18-19 that whispers “by the obedience of one the many will be rendered righteous.”
Others as unqualified, as 1 Corinthians 15:22: “For just as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be given life.”
And 1 Timothy 2:3-6, “Our savior God, who intends all human beings to be saved and to come to a full knowledge of truth.”
His own translation of Jesus words in John 12:32 is striking when given its idiomatic weight, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will drag everyone to me.”
1 John 2:2, “And he is atonement for our sins, and not only for ours, but for the whole cosmos.”
Hart does not disprove annihilationism. Here he shows a restraint and admits some flexibility not seen at all in his previous unconditional damnation of Eternal Torment Hell.
“We can juxtapose verses of the sort I have just quoted…with other more ominous verses that speak of a future discrimination between the righteous and the reprobate, and of an eschatological exclusion or destruction of the wicked.” If we do so it is possible that “we learn to wait on God in a salutary condition of charity toward all and salubrious fear for ourselves—of a joyous certainty regarding the glorious power of God’s love and a terrible consciousness of the dreadful might of sin. Perhaps this is the right way of balancing things out,” he suggests, but then adds, “but I am inclined to think not.”
Hart’s “inclination” is obviously based on an overwhelming intellect and deep understanding of scriptures. He is a scholar, theologian, cultural commentator, stylist, polemicist. He worships a God of logic with his thorough application of logic. To quote again the Atlantic magazine review of his New Testament, Hart is a “bristling one-man band of Christian literatus.”
So, I am not going to battle his universalist ideas against our Adventist annihilationism to the bitter end. This battle must shift to you and Hart (or perhaps you and God). Read his book, look up the Bible texts, and let him share his reasoning with you. Perhaps he is right: annihilationists like Adventists can come only halfway towards the goodness of God. Perhaps we are doomed by our doctrines to live in vacillation between theoretical admiration of God and actual fear of being overcome by sin. But before we leave it there, let’s review his ideas a little more.
Freedom from Choice?
Hart has a definition of freedom that is perhaps definitive for his suggestions. He does not see freedom as the ability to choose to participate in or abstain from goodness, but as the lack of any hindrance for being good. He sees the Edenic pre-fall freedom from “the necessity to sin” as not the true freedom. He sees true freedom as “the inability to sin.” He reasons a creature made by God for goodness, made in the image and likeness of the 100% good God, is never free of evil, till that creature is no longer able to sin. He sees true freedom as being free of the ability to sin, to participate 100% forever in God’s goodness, no ifs, ands or buts!
Why God created creatures able to say no to his goodness, and how God intends to somehow remove that renunciation of goodness by some sort of eternal finishing factory during or after the end of mortal life, some sort of spiritual purgatory school that will remove our misunderstanding of God’s goodness and free Judas and Nero and Satan from the their mistaken follies of wanting darkness instead of light, is not clear to me after reading this book.
I can see the desired end Hart sees, that God’s goodness must overcome every barrier, that light will conquer the absence of light, that all creation must fulfill the Creator’s design—eternal goodness. But if in the end the blessed state of sentient creatures will be creatures free from the possibility of sinning—then why not skip this painful and hellish in-between and just create us incapable of sinning from the beginning?
Hart discusses some beautiful and deep ideas on who persons are. He suggests that we are not primarily individuals with “the small, miserable, empirical ego that so often struts and frets its hour upon the stage of this world.” That persons are creatures in perpetual relationship, and that it is those relationships that make us who we are. I am only me because of my mother, my father, my siblings, my relatives, my acquaintances, my friendships, my conflicts. If persons are “saved” divorced from these established relationships, then it is no longer “us” who is saved, because we are our relationships. He maintains, “I” cannot be saved unless all those who in relationship to me have made “me” are preserved together with me. “Where in this world, then, or in the world to come, does the web of those associations that make us who we are reach an end? Nowhere, I believe.” Therefore, he reasons, since “we” are everybody we have met, and everybody we could meet, unless all are saved, we can not be “us.”
I agree that I am all I know and have known, but must admit to being less universal. Say I was once a best friend of Jim, but have not chatted with Jim for 50 years. Jim has left deep and beautiful lessons on my life. But am I not still me, if in the afterlife Jim continues to be absent?
Is Jim not himself, if in the afterlife I continue to be absent? Jim helped me be me, and I may have helped Jim be Jim. But our friendships and the people those friendships created may be able to survive intact without requiring perpetual ongoing contact. So I hesitate on accepting that universal salvation is required by the goodness of God.
Must I Decide?
Instead of arguments, now I’ll just testify. My present Adventist life and Christian morality is based neither on fear of eternal torment (infernalism) nor on fear of annihilation. I no longer serve God to purchase blessings. My lifestyle decisions are not down payments on some future bliss. “Going to heaven” is no longer as important to me as is trying to bring some heaven to earth. I am content to be good “for nothing” other than goodness itself.
I am satisfied with the goodness of God in permitting me to enjoy a small wedge of this planet earth. If I never see Eden restored, I am satisfied that I have shared life with a woman who plants Hostas for the winter, Tulips for the spring, and Crocus for the fall. If I never taste fruit of the Tree of Life, I have tasted Fujis, Opals, Sugar-Bees, and Cosmic Crisps. I am happy to have been in a church that supported me in being and doing good and glad that it taught me to be spiritually strong enough to question its faults and protest its sins. I do want to be more like Jesus, and I accept at face value his promised return. But if he did not come again, or if he came and left me behind for a later resurrection–destined to kneel before him and then be annihilated–I still have not the slightest motivation to live different or worse than I live now.
Does the universalist hope of someday sharing eternity with former gangsters, monsters, mutants, persecutors, murderers, kidnappers, mutilators, torturers all made savable excite me? Perhaps it should, but it does not. I am not uncomfortable with a merit-based judgement. I am not uncomfortable with the mercy of an annihilating death of the unsavable.
If Hart is right that God can only be truly good if he does the impossible—that there is some hidden alchemy beyond my comprehension, some divine fires that will only remove the dross of all sins and reveal again the restored godlike in every human, then I am quite prepared to let God have his way.
“Deciding who shall be saved” is actually an exercise in apocalyptic prophecy. We are opining on what we think should or must happen. Hart, although a translator of the New Testament, admits to being unable to make sense of Revelation. Which may be a key to his conclusions on universal salvation.
Universal salvation’s weakness might be that “If what we do now is to make no difference in the end, then all the seriousness of life is done away with.” Hart in fact does have “a Heaven to win and a Hell to shun” but only as increasing the joy and decreasing the pain of getting to the Heaven to which he thinks we are all going. His conception of the absolute goodness of God and the absolute perfection of God’s creative plans requires him to see it all work out as God wished it in the end, the temporary interruption of sin be damned. He sees a restored Heaven repopulated by a chastened and purged Satan and angels. He sees a restored earth with the total of all humanity as the boundless body of Christ, with the sick and diseased parts (unrepentant sinners) not amputated but healed and now whole.
I, on the other hand, see a new Heaven, and a new Earth, as the home of all who choose to be saved blessed, strengthened by our scars and watered by our tears. I see the scars of regret of each parent missing a child, each child missing a parent, each brother missing a sister, each nephew missing an uncle. Each memory of how sweet and pure and promising that child once was, blasted by choices and by “the vagaries of existence: accidents of birth, congenital qualities of character, natural intellectual endowments, native moral aptitudes, material circumstances, personal powers of resolve, impersonal forces of chance, the grim encumbrances of sin and mortality” that have led to a life of sin, corruption, exploitation, cruelty, and degradation.
I see tears over this reality in Heaven. Love and hate, light and darkness, life and death, good and evil are not abstractions but realities. The establishment of the first love/light/life/good must be built on the rejection of the last hate/dark/death/evil. So, I see scars and tears in Heaven—and I accept God’s promise to “wipe away all the tears.” I accept the scars in Christ’s hands, feet, and side and any scars left in my own heart, not as evidence of weakness in God’s plans but as evidence of the overwhelming goodness and total freedom foundational to God’s love.
And yes, I am still going to try and turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, love my enemies, practice generosity, share my extra cloak, vote for immigration, and eat more plants–as imperfectly as I can do those things and I want to avoid annihilation. But regardless, if in the end I am chosen or damned, I really do want to be, even if lost, damned trying to be good, or in the colloquial, damned good.
 I am tempted to recommend to him – Sigve Tonstad, Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academia, 2019) – but I did not find any invitations in his book to dialogue.
 Revelation 21:4.
Jack Hoehn is a frequent contributor to both the print and online versions of Adventist Today. He has served on the Adventist Today Foundation board since 2012. He and his wife, Deanne, live in Walla Walla, Washington. He has a BA in Religion from Pacific Union College, and an MD from Loma Linda University. He was a licensed minister of the Adventist church for 13 years when serving as a missionary physician in Africa.