Review of David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019), pp. 232
St. Augustine of Hippo, in Book XXI of The City of God, chides “tender-hearted” but misguided Christians for believing not only that God intends salvation for all human beings, but will actually follow through on that promise. For Augustine, this is a serious mistake. It erases the significance of the free choices of an individual’s will, which are essential to being human, and which God foresees from eternity but does not determine. If human beings, as free rational agents, choose the corrupt earthly city over the heavenly one, God is within God’s rights to proclaim “thy will be done,” and, since the offense is against the infinite and eternal God, the punishment for this freely-chosen sin is worthy of a proportionally infinite and eternal duration. Hence for Augustine all those “tender-hearted” Christians who refuse to believe in the reality of eternal punishment therefore refuse to take human choice and human perfidy seriously. Their pity is at best misplaced, at worst heretical.
Augustine and the other early Church Fathers, Eastern and Western alike, are rightly understood as the founders of Christian orthodoxy. Their councils pondered the Trinitarian nature of God, and the Divine-Human nature of Jesus Christ, then condensed them into the Apostles and Nicene Creeds, and presented their reflections to future generations of Christians as a kind of package-deal. If you want to be orthodox in your beliefs, and the faith-practices that go along with them, you need to accept the whole package. In Augustine’s view and those of many Church Fathers, this requires believing in the reality of eternal punishment as a necessary correlate of free human choice, insofar as that choice is a rejection of God and God’s law. Without a hell corresponding to a heaven, the idea of the atonement — of Christ taking human form as a substitute for the rest of humanity, infected as it is by Original Sin — is made incoherent. If this seems heartless and cruel to you, the problem is yours, not God’s.
It is unsurprising, then, that Christians who cannot accept the idea of eternal damnation tend to shy away from creedal orthodoxy, rejecting Trinitarianism, as did the Unitarians, or rejecting Chalcedonian definitions of Jesus Christ as the God-man, as did Schleiermacher and assorted Hegelian and post-Hegelian theologians. It would seem that, if you are “tender-hearted” enough to loathe the idea of eternal torture for the reprobate in endless Dantean fires (or endless Sartrean psy-wars), you would also need to reject full-strength creedal orthodoxy as well.
This has its own drawbacks. Downplaying Nicaean and Chalcedonian theology tends to reduce Christianity, in both theory and practice, to moralistic earnestness and bland therapeutic “niceness.” If Harnack was right in affirming that the essence of Christianity is the “Brotherhood Of Man under the Fatherhood Of God” (sometimes known by the satirical acronym “BOMFOG”) it becomes hard to differentiate Christianity from any other kind of vaguely theistic humanism. To paraphrase a Unitarian friend’s sectarian complaints: while there’s nothing exactly wrong with BOMFOG, if the Church is only a social-justice organization that occasionally employs fuzzy theistic rhetoric to underscore socio-political talking-points, why stick around? Why shouldn’t one just leave and join MoveOn or the DSA? Why bother with the theology and the ritual? It just diverts one from time better spent organizing a political movement or caring for one’s neighbor.
The chief merit of David Bentley Hart’s excellent and courageous book, That All Shall Be Saved, is that his brief against what he dubs “infernalism” avoids all variants of BOMFOG. It makes a compelling case that the doctrine of universal salvation (apokatástasis in Greek) is not only entirely consistent with Trinitarian orthodoxy but that it is on more solidly orthodox ground than its infernalist rivals. That All Shall Be Saved is a short book, but its thesis could be expressed with even greater concision. The guiding idea of the book is that the notion that the transgressions of any finite creature could merit infinite and everlasting punishment is prima facie absurd, not to mention unspeakably cruel, made even crazier by the fact that this punishment is administered by the God who is Goodness as such.
Something of this absurdity was captured in a performance by George Carlin, the renowned Catholic theologian malgré lui, when he (sarcastically) observed that
“Religion has actually convinced people that there’s an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever ’til the end of time!
But He loves you. . .”
Were the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of Sts. Peter and Paul and John the Divine, even remotely like Carlin’s “invisible man”, he would be worthy not of worship but contempt, as a sadist and monster beyond measure. But as Jesus testified, God is not like this; thus Hart insists “infernalism” is to be rejected, root-and-branch, as both an absurdity and an obscenity.
Part of the problem with infernalism, for Hart, is that many of its advocates unwittingly (or explicitly) take God to be something like an “invisible man”, albeit an all-powerful and all-knowing one, capable of being wronged as an individual and therefore having the right to exact a measure of just redress against whoever wronged him. But the Christian God is not an almighty invisible man, like Zeus or Odin. God is not a being, an existent individual thing in which certain properties, such as power, goodness, and knowledge, inhere.
Hart is an advocate of “classical theism”, a theological and philosophical position that, along with early Church fathers like St. Gregory of Nyssa and Medieval scholastics like St. Thomas Aquinas, understands God as esse subsistens, subsistent being or “being-itself” where there is no distinction between essence (what something is) and existence (that something is). For classical theists, God is whatever or whomever one appeals to as an answer to the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” That is to say, God is the necessary creator of the world ex nihilo, and for this to be possible God cannot be straightforwardly like anything created and contingent — any finite being whose essence and existence are distinct, whose attributes could have been other than they are. The “transcendentals,” the Divine Attributes of Goodness, Beauty, Being, and Truth, are what God is rather than what God has.
This is not the case with beings such as Zeus or Odin, or other gods of polytheism. Zeus’ power is a contingent fact about Zeus: he could have been otherwise, and his power, however great, is finite. Zeus, therefore, can be wronged in the same manner as a mortal, and expect justice and revenge in the same way. But the Christian God is not finite, not an individual existent thing with an essence. “God is good” is not a straightforward, univocal statement describing an individual (i.e., something finite): it is at best an analogical statement about God, and a somewhat misleading way of saying “God is God’s own goodness”, or “God is Goodness itself”, Goodness per se and not per accidens. When Christians say “God is Love” they mean what they say, and not “God is some invisible-guy-in-the-sky who just happens to be very, very loving.” But if they really mean it, it is baffling when, at the same time, they hold to the doctrine of the eternal fires of hell. Carlin was right, if somewhat obtuse or glib about it: if you believe God is an invisible man who designs an everlasting hell for miscreants, it’s nothing short of crazy to insist that “He loves you” in the same breath.
God, for classical theists like Hart, is both the archē (origin) and telos (final end or goal) of all creation. As telos, God is the Good at which all beings ultimately aim, whether they know it or not, whether they acknowledge it or not, even whether they deny it or not. The Christian narrative is one of a promise, made flesh in the person of Christ, that all things will be redeemed and glorified at the end of days, that God is the consummation of all things. It is hard indeed to square this grand, unifying story with the dualism of heaven and hell insisted upon by infernalists. This isn’t to suggest, however, that they did not try.
Hart’s thumbnail sketch of the history of infernalism is peppered with the views of many giants of Christian theology, most of them self-identified classical theists, who should have known better. Augustine comes in for some of Hart’s sharpest criticism. Augustine, saddled with bad Latin translations of the New Testament’s original Greek, misunderstands St. Paul’s “vessels of wrath” episode in Romans 9–11 as a brief for Divine foreknowledge of an everlasting break between the saved and the damned, each of which inhabit two distinct civitates, whose eternal division is a sign of God’s limited yet justifiable grace. But, argues Hart, this misses Paul’s point entirely:
Aboriginal guilt, predestination ante praevisa merita, the eternal damnation of unbaptized infants, the real existence of “vessels of wrath,” and so on — all of these odious and incoherent dogmatic leitmotifs, so to speak, and others equally nasty, have been ascribed to Paul. And yet each and every one of them not only is incompatible with the guiding themes of Paul’s proclamation of Christ’s triumph and of God’s purpose in election, but is something like their perfect inversion. . . This is all fairly odd, really. Paul’s argument in those chapters is not difficult to follow, at least so long as one does not begin from defective premises. What preoccupies him from beginning to end is the agonizing mystery that (so he believes) the Messiah of Israel has come and yet so few of the children of the house of Israel have accepted the fact, even while so many from outside the covenant have. . . Paul is simply restating that quandary in its bleakest possible form, at the very brink of despair. He does not stop there, however, because he knows that this cannot be the correct answer. It is so obviously preposterous, in fact, that a wholly different solution must be sought, one that makes sense and that will not require the surrender either of Paul’s reason or of his confidence in God’s righteousness. Hence, contrary to his own warnings, Paul does indeed continue to question God’s justice; and he spends the next two chapters unambiguously rejecting the provisional answer (the “vessels of wrath” hypothesis) altogether, so as to reach a completely different — and far more glorious — conclusion. And, again, his reasoning is based entirely upon the language of election in Jewish scripture.
Augustine’s misreading of Paul, reinforced perhaps by some residual Manichaeism, forces him to concoct a bizarre traducianism of original sin, where the sin of Adam is literally passed down from one’s parents. Original sin is damnable in itself (although it is hard to see why), and since God’s grace is not merited by anyone, what appears to be an arbitrary “double predestination” is actually a sign of omni-benevolence, something thoroughly within God’s rights to enact. For Hart, this is neither mysterious nor paradoxical: it is an absurdity, because it is antithetical to any consistent idea of human freedom.
Hart considers the “free-will defense” of infernalism to be the most serious one, unlike, say, the idea advanced by Thomas Aquinas that God necessarily sends the damned to hell because it amplifies his mercy to the saved and testifies to God’s infinite glory. But advocates of the “free-will defense” (henceforth FWD) bank upon an odd idea of freedom. On the one hand, freedom is the product of a rationally self-determining subject: an intentional and voluntary choice based on the pursuit of an end deemed good. On the other hand, the FWD needs to make conceptual for such a free choice to be fully intentional but for the sake of evil, either as a means or as an end. But if, as both Plato and Aristotle (not to mention Augustine and Thomas) persuasively argued, human intentional action is oriented toward an end or goal or telos, that telos has to be construed as a good if the action is to be intelligible at all. (As Alasdair MacIntyre put it in After Virtue and elsewhere, “intelligible action” is a more basic concept than “action” per se.) If each proximate good is good in relation to a higher good that justifies it (e.g. eating is good because it promotes health, health is good because it provides longevity etc.), each step indicates a summum bonum in virtue of which lesser goods are good and the goods that they are. And for adherents of the Abrahamic religions, that highest Good is what God is.
So, for Hart, any true intentional action is ultimately directed toward a highest Good. Without this, one’s status as free, rational, and self-determining is nonsense. But the FWD does not acknowledge the not-particularly-deep contradiction here. One can freely choose the bad out of ignorance, or out of weakness, as Aristotle acknowledged; one can even choose the bad out of a perversity of will, as both Augustine and Kant maintained. But even a perverse or corrupt will still chooses in light of what it takes to be the Good — it does not choose evil for its own sake, but because it perversely takes it as Good. Milton’s Lucifer stated this well: “Evil, be thou my Good.” And if this is so, no finite action could possibly count as the total rejection of the Good, which is what God is, hence a rejection that merits eternal torture. Free action not directed toward a good, whether or not that object actually is good or not, is not free action at all. The total rejection of the good as a goal is nonsense. Nothing human beings do it “total”, complete in itself, not hedged about by frailty and the incomplete assent of the will. Even the worst, cruelist, mendacious human beings, the authors of the most heinous crimes and bearers of the most barbarous sentiments, are necessarily enfolded in an effort to pursue the Good. This does not make them any less evil, but it does make their evil finite, and therefore not beyond redemption. Thus the FWD collapses under the weight of its own faulty logic.
Hart laments that it would have been far better had Christianity followed the lead of St. Gregory of Nyssa on the economy of salvation and Christ’s victory over sin than St. Augustine and his heirs — St. Anselm, St. Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin. (Hart, himself Eastern Orthodox, often seems to engage in special pleading for the Eastern Fathers by taking potshots at the Western Fathers. He is generally fair in his criticisms though, even if they are occasionally somewhat haughty.) Gregory’s Christology centers on the Incarnate Logos, the pre-existent Son as a transcendence-in-immanence in all creation, the kosmos which he ushers into a New Creation, the Kingdom of God, at the end of days. In painting this theological picture Gregory does not indulge in any kind of BOMFOGgery: sin, and the tendency of human beings to fall into it even with the best intentions, remains an undeniable feature of the drama of salvation. But it is, in the end and in toto, a happy drama of salvation and transformation, rather than a tragedy where the saved are forced to look upon the damned without flinching or feeling a tug of compassion.
Gregory’s economy of salvation is consistent with a view that takes seriously the understanding of God as Love itself, a picture that sits uneasily with double predestination and total, irredeemable depravity. For Hart, infernalism is logically incoherent, but that is not the worst one can say about it. That would be its inhumanity. If salvation means anything, it means the restoration of our humanity, for all humanity, through the Cross and Resurrection. Infernalism cannot be squared with this: it conflicts with it at every important point.
I find Hart’s argument on the whole to be persuasive, but allow me to make two points. First, while his teleological and Good-directed account of free human action is basically sound, it does not allow for the possibility that “the Good” can be an internally complex, “family resemblance” concept, rather than a euphemism for a self-subsistent God. Hart’s understanding of God as The Good is more Platonic or Neoplatonic than Aristotelian. Aristotle did agree with Plato and Plotinus on the rational structure of action as Good-oriented. But for Aristotle “The Good” lacks the kind of specificity that can guide practical wisdom or sound practical judgment (phronēsis). There is no “Good” by and in itself, as opposed to “good for a specific kind of being.” To exercise phronēsis, one needs to appeal to “the Good for human beings,” which for Aristotle is flourishing or eudaimonia, and to comprehend what that is one needs to enumerate the internal and external goods that constitute the final, ultimate good of flourishing — the moral and intellectual excellences or aretai. For Aristotle, the good human, the person of excellence, seeks flourishing rather than God: Aristotle’s God may be perfect-thought-thinking-its-perfect-self, but if so it is nothing central to the good humans seek, not to mention a person worthy of worship — God simply keeps nature in motion. Aristotle’s philosophy avoids the theological implications of Hart’s.
Hart’s theology of action, where every end pursued is a tacit search for God in whom our hearts can reast, seems to flow inferentially from his teleological philosophy of action. But this will not convince any atheist or agnostic, even or especially if they are Aristotelians, that they invariably seek God whether they realize it or not, and that their failure to realize it is a failure in rational coherence. I don’t know if this was Hart’s intention or not, but if it was, I do not think he has made an airtight case.
Second, I am not persuaded that Hart has covered all the bases in his account of human evildoing as a sign of disordered and disordering will — as perversity, as negativity. In this he runs into the same sort of difficulties Kant encountered in his animadversions on “radical evil” in Religion Within the Bounds of Reason Alone. Kant de-theologizes original sin and re-describes it as “radical evil”, a propensity toward evil that is baked into the human condition and which is manifested in human tendencies toward culpable ignorance, weakness of will, and the abrogation of duty for selfish ends. What Kant denies is the possibility of a diabolical will, the willing of evil for its own sake, evil that is more than merely radical and in no sense “banal” but extraordinary.
Kant’s brief against diabolical evil in Religion was sparse, arbitrary, and unconvincing. I am not sure how Hart’s theological account of evil would parse this issue and improve on Kant’s aporiae. Literature — Shakespeare in particular — is filled with entirely believable characters that seem to truck in what Coleridge called “motiveless malignancy”: Iago springs to mind, and Richard III “determined to prove a villain.” They exist to reject existence as such, they just want to watch the world burn — and themselves with it. It may be the case that Hart is right about sincere, self-aware, and enthusiastic nihilists like them, that they are at worst contorting evil into their own personal, diabolical good, like Milton’s Satan. But I find it hard to fit such souls into Hart’s typology of finite sinners who pitifully don’t recognize that it was God they were looking for all along.
The philosopher Agnes Heller once claimed that what motivates philosophical reflection into ethics and morality is the truth that “Good People exist — How is that possible?” A corollary might be “Truly diabolical people also exist — how is that possible?” Hart’s anti-infernalism goes a long way toward answering that question, but it remains at best a beginning.