Can we realistically hope that, in the end, God will restore everything, and that all will be saved? This hope, usually called ‘universalism’, seems to be gaining ground steadily in evangelical circles. A new book on the subject tackles it head-on, and concludes we have every good reason—biblical and otherwise—to embrace it. The book is
That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell and Universal Salvation by David Bentley Hart (Yale University Press, 2019).
It takes its title from 1 Timothy 2:3-4, which reads: ‘Our Saviour God…intends that all human beings shall be saved and come to a full knowledge of the truth.’ Yes, your Bible version might have ‘wants’ instead of ‘intends that’, but either is a legitimate translation of the underlying Greek word.
The book comes in three parts. Part 1 is The Question of An Eternal Hell. It faces all aspects of the topic and concludes that the classic view of hell is ‘inherently incredible’ and is certainly not forced upon us by Scripture. Part 2 consists of four extended meditations under the heading Apokatastasis (that’s the Greek word translated ‘restoration of all things’ in Acts 3:21). These give a detailed examination of the reasons—biblical, logical and philosophical—pointing to the inevitable conclusion (in the author’s view) that all will indeed be saved. Part 3, What May Be Believed, pulls it all together by way of summary, and drives the message home.
The author is not suggesting that all will come to salvation this side of death, but gives reasons for believing that, post-mortem, God’s love will draw to him even those who departed this life spurning him. He has a sound grasp of church history and is thus well able to show that, down the centuries, many churches and Christian scholars and leaders have believed that.
In line with the seriousness of the subject, this is not a light read. The author is verbose, rarely using five words when twenty-five will do. But in spite of that, his reasoning is razor-sharp and his line of argument clear. He is familiar with every argument against his position, including the ones you yourself are probably turning over right now, and he deals robustly with them all. You should hear him out.
In the wake of earlier books on this subject, particularly Gregory Macdonald’s The Evangelical Universalist (2006) and Rob Bell’s Love Wins (2011), this new one is a forceful wave guaranteed to send the tide of evangelical opinion still further up the beach of universalism. Deep down, if we’re honest, we all want it to be true.
[Hart lists the following as New Testament passages pointing clearly to universal salvation, noting that the list is by no means exhaustive: Romans 5:18-19; 1 Corinthians 15:22; 2 Corinthians 5:14; Romans 11:32; 1 Timothy 2:3-6; Titus 2:11; 2 Corinthians 5:29; Ephesians 1:9-10; Colossians 1:27-28; John 12:32; Hebrews 2:9; John 17:2; John 4:42; John 12:47; 1 John 4:14; 2 Peter 3:9; Matthew 18:14; Philippians 2:9-11; Colossians 1:19-20; 1 John 2:2; John 3:17; Luke 16:16; 1 Timothy 4:10.]
Here is a selection of quotations with page numbers.
[In the church’s first 500 years] They believed in hell, though not in its eternity; to them, hell was the fire of purification described by the Apostle Paul in the third chapter of 1 Corinthians, the healing assault of unyielding divine love upon obdurate souls, one that will save even those who in this life prove unworthy of heaven by burning away every last vestige of their wicked deeds. (1)
Some will claim that universalism clearly contradicts the explicit language of scripture (it does not). (3)
The very notion that a rational agent in full possession of his or her faculties could, in any meaningful sense, freely reject God absolutely and forever is a logically incoherent one. And a final state of eternal torment could be neither a just sentence pronounced upon nor a just fate suffered by a finite being, no matter how depraved that being might have become. (18)
Christians have been trained at a very deep level of their thinking to believe that the idea of an eternal hell is a clear and unambiguous element of their faith, and that therefore the idea must make perfect moral sense. (18)
[We have] been taught to approve of divine deeds that, were they reduced to a human scale of action, would immediately be recognizable as expressions of unalloyed spite. (21)
I am convinced that practically no one who holds firmly to the majority tradition regarding the doctrine of hell ultimately does so for any reason other than an obstinate, if largely unconscious, resolve to do so, prompted by the unshakable conviction that faith absolutely requires it. (28)
I still insist that most putative believers in an eternal hell do not really believe in it at all, but rather merely believe in their belief in it. (29)
The most popular defense of the infernalist orthodoxy today is also, touchingly enough, the most tenderhearted: the argument, that is, from the 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. (33)
The better the rational will knows the Good for what it is—the more, that is, that the will is freed from those forces that distort reason and lead the soul toward improper ends—the more it will long for and seek after the true Good in itself; and, conversely, the more rationally it seeks the Good, the freer it is. (36)
We should all already know that whenever the terms “justice” and “eternal punishment” are set side by side as if they were logically compatible, the boundaries of the rational have been violated. (43)
Another, even feebler attempt to make sense of eternal retribution is the traditional claim that a soul cannot alter its orientation after death. (45)
If there really is an eternal hell for finite spirits, then it has to be the case that God condemns the damned to endless misery not on account of any sane proportion between what they are capable of meriting and how he chooses to requite them for their sins, but solely as a demonstration of his power to do as he wishes. (47)
A father who punishes his child for any purpose other than that child’s correction and moral improvement, and who even then fails to do so only reluctantly, is a poor father. One who brutally beats his child, or wantonly inflicts needless pain of any kind upon his child, is a contemptible monster. And one who surrenders his child to fate, even if that fate should consist in the entirely “just” consequences of his child’s own choices and actions, is an altogether unnatural father—not a father at all, really, except in the most trivial biological sense. (54)
It is not God we are trying to judge when we voice our moral alarm at the idea of an eternal hell, but only the stories we are accustomed to telling about him. (55)
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. (62)
I have always found what became the traditional majority Christian view of hell—that is, a conscious state of perpetual torment—a genuinely odious idea, both morally and emotionally, and still think it the single best argument for doubting the plausibility of the Christian faith as a coherent body of doctrine or as a morally worthy system of devotion. (65)
If Christianity is in any way true, Christians dare not doubt the salvation of all, and that any understanding of what God accomplished in Christ that does not include the assurance of a final apokatastasis in which all things created are redeemed and joined to God is ultimately entirely incoherent and unworthy of rational faith. (66)
All comes from God, and so evil cannot be a “thing” that comes from anywhere. Evil is, in every case, merely the defect whereby a substantial good is lost, belied, or resisted. (70)
Paul dared to ask, in the tortured, conditional voice of the ninth chapter of Romans, whether there might be vessels of wrath stored up solely for destruction only because he trusted that there are not: because he believed instead that all are bound in disobedience, but only so that God might finally show mercy to all (Romans 11:32). (73)
Many Christians down the centuries have had to reconcile their consciences to the repellent notion that all humans are at conception already guilty of a transgression that condemns them, justly, to eternal separation from God and eternal suffering, and that, in this doctrine’s extreme form, every newborn infant belongs to a massa damnata, hateful in God’s eyes from the first moment of existence. Really, no one should need to be told that this is a wicked claim. (75)
The very notion of an “inherited guilt” is a logical absurdity, rather on the order of a “square circle.” (75)
The most civilized apologists for the “infernalist” orthodoxies these days tend to prefer to defend their position by an appeal to creaturely freedom and to God’s respect for its dignity. There could scarcely be a poorer argument; whether made crudely or elegantly, it invariably fails, because it depends upon an incoherent model of freedom. (79)
“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34): not seeing the Good, says God to God, they did not freely choose evil, and must be pardoned. (80)
It makes no more sense to say that God allows creatures to damn themselves out of his love for them or out of his respect for their freedom than to say a father might reasonably allow his deranged child to thrust her face into a fire out of a tender regard for her moral autonomy. (80)
…those three or four deeply ambiguous verses that seem (and only seem) to threaten eternal torments for the wicked. (88)
There is a general sense among most Christians that the notion of an eternal hell is explicitly and unremittingly advanced in the New Testament; and yet, when we go looking for it in the actual pages of the text, it proves remarkably elusive. (93)
If one can be swayed simply by the brute force of arithmetic, it seems worth noting that, among the apparently most explicit statements on the last things, the universalist statements are by far the more numerous. (101)
I prefer a much older, more expansive, perhaps overly systematic approach to the seemingly contrary eschatological expectations unfolded in the New Testament—an approach, that is, like Gregory of Nyssa’s or Origen’s, according to which the two sides of the New Testament’s eschatological language represent not two antithetical possibilities tantalizingly or menacingly dangled before us, posed one against the other as challenges to faith and discernment, but rather two different moments within a seamless narrative, two distinct eschatological horizons, one enclosed within the other. In this way of seeing the matter, one set of images marks the furthest limit of the immanent course of history, and the division therein—right at the threshold between this age and the “Age to come” (‘olam ha-ba, in Hebrew)—between those who have surrendered to God’s love and those who have not; and the other set refers to that final horizon of all horizons, “beyond all ages,” where even those who have traveled as far from God as it is possible to go, through every possible self-imposed hell, will at the last find themselves in the home to which they are called from everlasting, their hearts purged of every last residue of hatred and pride. Each horizon is, of course, absolute within its own sphere: one is the final verdict on the totality of human history, the other the final verdict on the eternal purposes of God… This way of seeing the matter certainly seems, at any rate, to make particularly cogent sense of the grand eschatological vision of 1 Corinthians 15. (103)
Though Paul speaks on more than one occasion of the judgment to come, it seems worth noting that the only picture he actually provides of that final reckoning is the one found in 1 Corinthians 3:11–15, the last two verses of which identify only two classes of the judged: those saved in and through their works, and those saved by way of the fiery destruction of their works. (105)
True, the book of Revelation does contain a few especially piquant pictures of final perdition, if that is what one chooses to cling to as something apparently solid and buoyant amid the whelming floods of all that hallucinatory imagery; but, even then, the damnation those passages describe chiefly falls upon patently allegorical figures like “Hades” (Death personified) or “the Beast” (Rome “brutified”), which hardly seems to allow for much in the way of doctrinal exactitude. (107)
If one chooses to read Revelation entirely as a picture of the final judgment of all creation, and of the great last assize of all souls, one must then also account for the seeming paradox of a prophesied final judgment—one that includes a final discrimination between the saved and the damned—that will nevertheless be succeeded by a new Age in which the gates of the restored Jerusalem will be thrown open, and precisely those who have been left outside the walls and putatively excluded forever from the Kingdom will be invited to wash their garments, enter the city, and drink from the waters of life. (108)
We might even find some support for the purgatorial view of the Gehenna from the Greek of Matthew 25:46 (the supposedly conclusive verse on the side of the infernalist orthodoxy), where the word used for the “punishment” of the last day is κόλασις, kolasis—which most properly refers to remedial chastisement—rather than τιμωρία, timōria—which most properly refers to retributive justice. (116)
It is hard, I know, to convince most Christians that the picture of hell with which they were raised is not lavishly on display in the pages of scripture. (118)
There is, it turns out, no final division between the elect and the derelict here [Romans 9-11] at all, but rather the precise opposite: the final embrace of all parties in the single and inventively universal grace of election. This is why Esau and Jacob provide so apt a typology for Paul’s argument. Esau, we must remember, is not finally rejected in the story of the two brothers; he and Jacob are reconciled, to the increase of both, precisely as a consequence of their temporary estrangement. (136)
[Re Romans 9-11] For the time being, true, a part of Israel is hardened, but this will remain the case only until the “full entirety” (πλήρωμα, plērōma) of the gentiles enter in. The unbelievers among the children of Israel may have been allowed to stumble, but God will never allow them to fall. And so, if their failure now brings enrichment to the world, how much more will they provide when their own “full entirety” (plērōma) enter in? Temporarily excluded (like Esau) for the sake of “the world’s reconciliation,” they too will at the last be restored to God’s grace; and this will be nothing less than a “resurrection from the dead” (11:11–12, 15). This, then, is the radiant answer dispelling the shadows of Paul’s grim “what if” in the ninth chapter of Romans, its clarion negative. It turns out that there is no final illustrative division between vessels of wrath and vessels of mercy; that was a grotesque, all-too-human thought that can now be chased away for good. God’s wisdom far surpasses ours, and his love can accomplish all that it intends. (136)
This is perhaps the most depressing paradox ever to have arisen in the whole Christian theological tradition: that Paul’s great attempt to demonstrate that God’s election is not some arbitrary act of predilective exclusion, but instead a providential means for bringing about the unrestricted inclusion of all persons, has been employed for centuries to advance what is quite literally the very teaching that he went to such great lengths explicitly to reject. (138)
It would be possible for us to be saved as individuals only if it were possible for us to be persons as individuals; and we know we cannot be. And this, in itself, creates any number of problems for the majority view of heaven and hell. (144)
On the whole, Christians rarely pay particularly close attention to what the Bible actually says, for the simple reason that the texts defy synthesis in a canon of exact doctrines, and yet most Christians rely on doctrinal canons… But the Bible is not a system. A very great deal of theological tradition consists therefore in explaining away those aspects of scripture that contradict the finely wrought structure of this or that orthodoxy. (161)
How many modern Evangelicals think of salvation as something one receives by “accepting Jesus” as one’s “personal lord and savior,” even though such language is wholly absent from the New Testament, and even though all the real scriptural language of salvation is about a corporate condition of sacramental, moral, and spiritual union with the “body of Christ”? (162)
If the story really does end as Augustine and countless others over the centuries have claimed it must, with most—or, at any rate, very many … or, really, any—beings consigned to eternal torment, and if this story then also entails that God freely and needlessly created the world knowing that this would be the result, then Christianity has no “evangel”—no “good news”—to impart. (166)
The idea of a punishment that does not serve an ameliorative purpose—as, by definition, eternal punishment cannot—should be a scandal to any sane conscience. Endless torture, never eventuating in the reform or moral improvement of the soul that endures it, is in itself an infinite banality. A lesson that requires an eternity to impart is a lesson that can never be learned. (168)
If a rational creature—one whose mind is entirely unimpaired and who has the capacity truly to know the substance and the consequences of the choice confronting him or her—is allowed, without coercion from any force extrinsic to his or her nature, to make a choice between a union with God in bliss that will utterly fulfill his or her nature in its deepest yearnings and a separation from God that will result in endless suffering and the total absence of his or her nature’s satisfaction, only one truly free choice is possible. A fool might thrust his hand into the flame; only a lunatic would not then immediately withdraw it. (179)
If human nature required the real capacity freely to reject God, then Christ could not have been fully human. (189)
Evil has no power to hold us, and we have no power to cling to evil; shadows cannot bind us, and we in turn cannot lay hold on them. In the end, God must be all in all. (193)
God’s final victory as described in scripture, will consist not merely in his assumption of perfect supremacy “over all,” but also in his ultimately being “all in all.” Could there then be a final state of things in which God is all in all while yet there existed rational creatures whose inward worlds consisted in an eternal rejection of and rebellion against God as the sole and consuming and fulfilling end of the rational will’s most essential nature? (193)
Over the years, I have dutifully explored all the arguments for hell’s eternity from Christian antiquity to the present, philosophical and theological, and I continue to find them all manifestly absurd. (202)
I honestly, perhaps guilelessly believe that the doctrine of eternal hell is prima facie nonsensical, for the simple reason that it cannot even be stated in Christian theological terms without a descent into equivocity so precipitous and total that nothing but edifying gibberish remains. To say that, on the one hand, God is infinitely good, perfectly just, and inexhaustibly loving, and that, on the other, he has created a world under such terms as oblige him either to impose, or to permit the imposition of, eternal misery on finite rational beings, is simply to embrace a complete contradiction. (202)
Can we imagine—logically, I mean, not merely intuitively—that someone still in torment after a trillion ages, or then a trillion trillion, or then a trillion vigintillion, is in any meaningful sense the same agent who contracted some measurable quantity of personal guilt in that tiny, ever more vanishingly insubstantial gleam of an instant that constituted his or her terrestrial life? And can we do this even while realizing that, at that point, his or her sufferings have in a sense only just begun, and in fact will always have only just begun? What extraordinary violence we must do both to our reason and to our moral intelligence (not to mention simple good taste) to make this horrid notion seem palatable to ourselves, and all because we have somehow, foolishly, allowed ourselves to be convinced that this is what we must believe. (204)
The two exceedingly simple—almost childish—questions that have persistently bothered me down the years, whenever I have tried to make sense of the doctrine of a hell of eternal torment, are whether it lies within the power of any finite rational creature freely to reject God, and to do so with eternal finality, and whether a God who could create a world in which the eternal perdition of rational spirits is even a possibility could be not only good, but the transcendent Good as such. And, for the reasons I have given above, I believe that the answer to both questions must be an unqualified and unyielding no. (208)