Review of “That All Shall Be Saved” by David Bentley Hart

Review of “That All Shall Be Saved” by David Bentley Hart September 17, 2020

Review of That All Shall Be Saved by David Bentley Hart

Book Review: Hart's “That All Shall Be Saved” – Orthodox Christian Theology

I don’t think I have ever read a book quite like this one. It’s “one of a kind” (which is really a shortened version of “the only one of its kind”). How so? It’s extremely erudite, even ostentatiously so, challenging to the mind, very harsh towards anyone who disagrees with the author’s central thesis (even insulting them), and very difficult to disagree with. Yet I do disagree with it.

Here is a “taste” of what is common throughout the book: “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 hand, he has created a world under such terms as oblige him either to impose, or to permit imposition of, eternal misery on finite rational beings, is simply to embrace a complete contradiction.” (202-3)

You have to be prepared for this book; it will hit you in the face. The author pulls no punches. He does not feel any shame in shaming those who disagree with him. According to him, they are either irrational or willfully ignorant or something just as bad. Of course, he is writing for and to Christians who have some facility for thinking about these matters (I assume).

So what is the central thesis of the book? It is found (among other places) on page 44: “From the perspective of Christian belief, the very notion of a punishment that is not intended ultimately to be remedial is morally dubious (and, I submit, anyone who doubts this has never understood Christian teaching at all); but, even if one believes that Christianity makes room for the condign imposition of purely retributive punishments, it remains the case that a retribution consisting in unending suffering, imposed as recompense for the actions of a finite intellect and will, must be by any sound definition disproportionate, unjust, and at the last nothing more than an expression of sheer pointless cruelty.”

(Here I have to stop quoting in order to not go over the legal limit. For your information, the book is published by Yale University Press, 2019.)

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

Now, I want you to read this book, so I am not going to “give it all away.” You really need to read the book to be smacked by the author’s rhetoric and logic. I cannot possibly do it justice merely to talking about it. Hart is a master wordsmith. And it seems he enjoys using exquisite rhetoric, marvelous vocabulary, excellent sentences, to cower critics. If you disagree with him, you almost have to be a masochist to read this book. I enjoyed reading it, so maybe I am something of a masochist.

(Did you hear the one about the conversation between the sadist and the masochist? The masochist begged the sadist to hit him and the sadist kept saying “no, no, no.”)

Throughout the book Hart appeals to Gregory of Nyssa, the Cappadocian Father, who advocated the eventual universal reconciliation of all God’s sensible, rational souls (human beings) if not all of God’s creatures (including the devil and his minions). He mentions several other ancient Christians who agreed with what has been called “apokatastasis”—eventual (not immediate upon death) ultimate reconciliation. Hart believes in hell; he just believes it is temporal. In this he agrees with (but never mentions) Jürgen Moltmann. He strongly disagrees with Hans Urs von Balthasar who famously wrote that Christians may hope for the eventual salvation of all souls. Hart considers that hope insufficient. Throughout the book he heaps scorn on those of us who believe it is entirely possible that God will lose some of his creatures because of their undying rejection of his mercy.

Hart comes at his argument from several directions. He spends an entire chapter exegeting biblical passages that the believes not only support but require belief in final, ultimate reconciliation. He argues that western Christianity, especially, went off the rails, so to speak, in several significant ways, with Augustine of Hippo who he blames for “infernalist orthodoxy”—belief in the unending torment of some human beings in hell. He argues that infernalist orthodoxy cannot be reconciled with the goodness of God and that the goodness of God is absolutely necessary to any belief in God who is not “a god” but Goodness Itself.

For me, as a believer in genuine free will as power of contrary choice, the most difficult chapter is “Fourth Meditation: What Is Freedom?” (pp. 159-195) There Hart seems to deny libertarian free will and more than implies that God is by definition the all-determining reality. Even sin and evil must be under God’s control; nothing at all, whatever, can escape God’s absolute and all-encompassing sovereignty. And yet, he scorns Calvinism and Augustinianism. Where is the difference? Hart believes, apparently, that God, being infinite, cannot be an agency competitive with other agencies. Or, to put it otherwise, finite wills cannot compete with God’s infinite will and power. Whatever happens is somehow willed by God. He denies the distinction, which I find very important, between God’s “antecedent will” and God’s “consequent will.”

This chapter is very “deep.” I would like to say “profound,” but I find it confusing. I’m sure Hart would say that is my fault and not his. Perhaps so. It is an exercise in metaphysics in which Hart asserts this non-competitive view of God’s agency and our finite agencies as necessary to a correct view of God because God is “infinite.” I find this more philosophical than biblical and I think it creates great problems for theodicy. But, of course, Hart might just say that the solution to theodicy is ultimate reconciliation (including, I assume, because he’s Eastern Orthodox, ultimate theosis). But what of “in the meantime?” What of all the evil and innocent suffering that goes on in the world now? I don’t think Hart gets God “off the hook,” so to speak, simply by deferring the justice of God to some future and ultimate salvation of all. He criticizes belief in free will as power of contrary choice in much the same way as Jonathan Edwards (O, the irony of it!). It is, allegedly, illogical. I admit it is mysterious, but I do not think it is illogical.

I have to conclude that Hart’s view of free will is compatibilist and that is, for me, anathema. It only raises the problem of theodicy to a fever pitch.

But enough. You need to read the book and wrestle with it and decide what you think. But put on your armor and be prepared to feel insulted—insofar as you do not agree whole heartedly with Hart!

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