Jim Walters: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation
9 June 2021 |
This week’s ATSS conversation is based on Jim’s reading of David Bentley Hart’s book, That All Shall be Saved: Heaven, Hell and Universal Salvation. You can read a more lengthy report on the Hart’s ideas here.
David Bentley Hart argues for an admittedly minority position in this book. But is his interpretation of Christianity within the realm of acceptable doctrine?
In a chapter entitled “Doubting the Answers” Hart makes most of his essential points—though he may be wrong to employ “Answers” in the title, because there is only one answer that Hart recognizes, although it has variations.
The answer that is most often given to the question of, Why a fiery hell?, particularly Why an eternally burning hell?, is clear enough: It’s the argument of “rational freedom of the creature, and from the refusal of God to trespass upon that freedom, for fear of preventing the creature from achieving a true union of love with the divine (though, of course, unspeakable consequences await those who fail to do just this, discriminate between “pure” love and love motivated by fear)” (34-5). Hart proceeds to speak of a “remarkable array of variations” of this answer that change according to different emphases given to one element or another, the argument’s language, the method of exposition given, and the rhetorical gifts of the author.
If Hart had been more thorough in his treatment of hell, he’d likely have indicated that the Hebrew word Sheol means the place of all the dead, the “grave,” or “pit.” “As Ps. 16.10 indicates, there arose a hope in Judaism that the righteous would not be ‘left’ there, and, acc. to Acts 2.27-31, Christ, after passing like all men through death, entered this realm but by His Resurrection, fulfilled Ps. 16.10 in his own person and, becoming ‘the firstfruits of them that slept’, made possible its fulfillment for all who are ‘in Christ’ (1 Cor. 15:20-23, cf. Rom 6:5-9).” The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, “hell” entry.
But even before Hart can articulate the “answer” that he’ll criticize throughout the chapter, he gives his response in the chapter’s first sentence: Hart claims that he can’t even come up with “an intelligible grammar” that can make sense of a “hell of eternal torment.”
As Hart is wont to reason throughout this book, he invokes our contemporary intuition of what makes sense, of what seems logical and morally praiseworthy. So in this he asserts that hell fire’s “logic is intrinsically defective.” This picks up a theme threaded throughout chapter 1: the need to “make real moral sense” of a notion of hell (15), and the value of something making “rational good sense” (18).
As a believer, indeed as a philosophically and scientifically informed theologian, Hart accepts revealed truths from the Bible, but his interpretation of such notions as hell and heaven must make sense in today’s world. So, is it really a surprise that at chapter’s end he confesses what his idea of “eternal hell really means”? “For what it’s worth,” writes Hart, “I do in fact believe in hell, though only in the sense of a profound and imprisoning misery that we impose upon ourselves by rejecting the love that alone can set us free…Practically all of us go through life as prisoners of our own egos…Hence, a secret that we all too often hide from ourselves is that we walk in hell every day… There is, though, another and greater secret too: We also walk in heaven, also every day. This too we can occasionally see, though usually only in rare moments of spiritual wakefulness or imaginative transport.”
And Hart continues: “Redemption then, if there is such a thing, must consist ultimately in a conversion of the heart so complete that one comes to see heaven for what it is—and thus also comes to see, precisely where one formerly had perceived only the fires of hell, the transfiguring glory of infinite love. And ‘love never fails’ (I Cor. 13:8).”
On what basis does Hart so radically re-conceptualize heaven and hell? I suggest that the answer lies in Hart’s thorough integration of what are too often seen as opposites: faith and reason, revelation and nature, supernatural and natural, and, the divine and the human.
One of the most important critiques of Hart is his supposed audacity in “judging the acts of God” according to “some ethical standard applicable to finite creatures” (54). He bridles at this charge, saying the criticism “ simply is not so” 55.
Hart is clear about the profound difference between human beings and Being Itself or God. However, morally speaking, he believes that we can at least begin to speak “analogically” about basic moral values that apply to both to ourselves and to God. And the clearest example is the unrelenting argument of this book: only a “monster” would create finite human beings with limited ability to freely choose, and then consign them to eternal torment for exercising that divinely appropriated contingent choice.
Hart doesn’t pretend to know the ways in which God acts in complex human affairs, but he feels theologically compelled to critically judge the stories we humans tell about God’s interaction with humankind in general. “In fact,” asserts Hart, “it is morally required of us to do so; not to judge is a dereliction of our rational vocation to know and affirm the Good. And here, recall again, we are not assessing God’s acts against some higher standard of ethical action; we are merely measuring the stories we tell about him against his own supposed revealed nature as the transcendent Good” (60). Hart continues: “Because he is the Good itself, God cannot be the author of absolute injustice, absolute evil; such an irrational possibility would be a limitation upon the infinite freedom with which he expresses his nature” (60).
Hart says more about the inseparability of Goodness and God: “So it is no error of reason for a believer to refuse to assent to a supposedly complete narrative of God and creation if that narrative severs every analogical connection between goodness among creatures and the goodness of God. In fact, reason and faith alike forbid such assent; to believe solely because one thinks faith demands it, in spite of all the counsels of reason, is actually a form of disbelief, of faithlessness. Submission to a morally unintelligible narrative of God’s dealings with his creatures would be a kind of epistemic nihilism, reducing the act of fidelity to God to a brutishly obstinate infidelity to reason (whose substance, again, is God himself)” (61). Wow, what a clear confession by Hart of his own commingling of reason and faith, of goodness and God! (Hart hasn’t in this book laid the groundwork for such a union of reason and faith, but he has a basis that we’ve only alluded to thus far, but I’ll be laying it out as clearly as I can within a page or two below.)
Hart gives a glaring example of how God and Goodness have been torturously separated: the reformer John Calvin, in his formulation of double-predestination. “[T]he Calvinist account of predestination is unquestionably the most terrifying and severe expression of the late Augustinian heritage…Calvin makes no effort to deceive either us or himself that there is some deeper kindness in the doctrine he proclaims, hidden from our sinful eyes only by our own depravity. He proclaims that God hates the damned, and in fact created them to be the objects of his hatred….For him, the true unadorned essence of the whole story is nothing more than sheer absolute power exercising itself for power’s sake” (49-50).
Perhaps Hart’s most severe criticism of hell-fire being the just dessert for anyone is that none of us has “absolutely unpremised liberty, obeying no rationale except its own spontaneous volition toward whatever end it might pose for itself…” 40. He contends that “the character of even the very worst among us is in part the product of external contingencies, and somewhere in the history of every soul there are moments when a better way was missed by mischance, or by malign interventions from without, or by disorders of the mind within, rather than by any intentional perversity on the soul’s own part” (39).
Hart cites two examples: Adolph Hitler and Eve. Hitler becomes the Führer for one of two reasons (or a combination): he had bad influences in his upbringing, or he was congenitally wicked. Regardless, “his guilt was a qualified one,” and he was never “wholly free.” Similarly, Adam and Eve were not intrinsically evil, but were merely somewhat naïve and ignorant. “When, therefore, we try to account for the human rejection of God, we can never trace the wanderings of the will back to some primordial moment of perfect liberty, some epistemically pristine instant when a perverse impulse spontaneously arose within an isolated, wholly sane individual will, or within a mind perfectly cognizant of the whole truth of things” (43).
Given our fundamental belief on this matter, Hart’s rejection of hell is welcome news to many of us Adventists who appreciate such an erudite thinker giving such strong backing to a position so many of us have been taught throughout our religious lives.
However, on the other side of the discussion, aren’t many of us unnerved by Hart’s equally unequivocal advocacy of salvation for all—even Hitler?
Jim Walters is a Professor Emeritus of Ethics at Loma Linda University, and one of the founders of Adventist Today.
Gina Jett is an attorney in Boulder Creek, California.
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