Some scholarly works appear on the scene with such force that the intellectual landscape suffers a violent rearrangement. Well-trod paths suddenly drop off into precipitate fall, and travelers must now find new roads to reach the most recognizable landmarks—that is, if these still be accessible at all. David Hart’s new book on universal salvation is such a book. With his customary wit, vast learning, and incisive clarity, Hart guides readers through the major issues in both historical and contemporary debates about the final fate of God’s creatures. Questions of Scriptural exegesis, the metaphysics of human freedom, the nature of personhood, and the relationship between faith and reason receive sustained and careful discussion. The conclusion, as the book’s title suggests, is that universal salvation is either endemic to the Christian story or that story is metaphysically and—perhaps more importantly to Hart—morally incoherent.
Let me begin by acknowledging my agreement with the book’s conclusion. It is from this place of affinity that I offer some reflections and questions which Hart’s meditations provoked in me as I read them. As I am certain that other readers, both critical and sympathetic, will have much to say on the metaphysical arguments Hart proposes for universalism, I focus my comments (rather brief) on the moral side of the Christian story the book’s argument interrogates, especially in its First Meditation. The question is simple: if any sinner’s final destiny comprise eternal torments, can God be Justice or Love? Although the word is curiously absent from Hart’s book, the matter is clearly one of theodicy. In which final state of affairs, hell or universalism, can Wisdom be said to be “justified in all her ways”? This line of reasoning will be intelligible only to believers who accept the centrality of reason in a mature faith; for those who deny any analogy between our moral categories and God’s revealed actions and character, there is simply no question of theodicy to be asked. In Hart’s argument, the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo—namely, the teaching that from His infinite plenitude, and not from any lack or need, God freely creates all things with a destiny of union with Him—entails the ultimate accomplishment of God’s purpose in creation. Should any part of creation fail to reach its eternally determined goal, therefore, God, in light of divine foreknowledge of this fate, would stand guilty of damning a creature precisely in the act of bringing the creature to be. The distinctions between elective and permissive predestination vanish instantaneously when we shift our perspective to this highest, divine, plane; God either predestines to salvation or damnation, but in the act of creation he predestines all the same. And predestination to anything other than salvation is not the work of the God Who is Love.
To my mind, this argument proves the most significant of the book. Self-transcending human intellect, participating as it does in God’s very Logos, cannot but seek after the whole, cannot resist asking further questions until it reaches the limit of its horizon: the moral intelligibility of the act of creation itself. Only universal salvation grants intelligibility to the act. (And to foreclose immediately a possible objection: the act of bringing into this world of suffering any human child does not fall under the same moral stricture because God, unlike us, happens to be infinitely resourceful and thus capable of carrying to completion the good work He has begun). If grace perfects nature, then revelation should crown reason. But to deny the question of creation’s moral intelligibility, by appeals to humility or apophaticism, as Hart ably demonstrates, is simply to forfeit reason altogether and to flee into fideism. Sarah Coakley has remarked, in quite another context, that one learns much about a theologian by noting at what point the “paradox card” gets played; much the same can be said about apophaticism, often a more pious version of the same.
Once reason has “come to itself” and questioned the coherence of the doctrine, it becomes clearer to see it in all its moral absurdity and troubling subversion of orthodox theology. This remains true even in its tamest and well-intentioned form, that of the “free will” defense for hell. In reality, a deity who could bring His children into the world with the knowledge that their destiny will be one of untold, even if “freely elected,” suffering, demonstrates his love not for the child but only for naked volition, for the mere possibility of willing the Good. But then the image in which we are made, the image Wisdom loves and by which She rejoices in the sons of men, is not the concrete Image of the Eternal Son, whose very form is Love; disturbingly, the Divine Image reflected in us is instead simply choice itself. Thus we discover our theology transmogrified into a Schellingian fantasy of the Urgrund forming the background for God’s personality to affirm itself in willing the Good. It is unsurprising that a defense of hell predicated on God’s respect for human freedom should bottom out in divine voluntarism, just as more strict double-predestinarian accounts tend to do. Perhaps there is no way for a defense of eternal torments to avoid reducing God to a “finite being, in whom possibility exceeds actuality and the irrational exceeds the rational” (Hart, 49).
The moral horror of the doctrine of hell is so immense as to beggar rational belief. Why has this doctrine held sway for so much of the Christian tradition? Hart sprinkles diverse answers to this question throughout the text, but they boil down to two: bad exegesis and diseased psychology. I leave to the side the first of these in order to focus on the second. It might be objected that Hart engages in uncharitable arguments ad hominem in his speculations on the psychological states conducive to a belief in eternal torments, but this critique would only hold if the book consisted solely of such psychological conjectures. It doesn’t. And this allows us to understand these parenthetical asides within the structure of Hart’s broader arguments for the incoherence of eternal torments. Consider his argument in the Fourth Meditation that the Good is the primordial and transcendent principle of the intelligibility of human action, just as the True is the same for the intelligiiblity of any belief. No one believes something under the aspect of falsehood. Believers can only believe in hell, therefore, under the guise of truth that it is good to be faithful to Scripture or tradition, or even worse, that it is good for God to eternally torment sinners; self-hatred motivated by a warped, although sadly traditional, understanding of original sin finds in the doctrine of hell fuel for its endless fire. (On this point Hart’s concerns resonate strongly with Dorothee Soelle’s observations on Christian self-alienation, as articulated in her master work Suffering)
The revolt against eternal torments by a consciousness liberated by a genuine vision of the Gospel is so great that only psychological disease—on the part of ordinary believers—or political expediency—on the part of hierarchical ecclesiastical power—can explain the doctrine’s persistence throughout history. Yet Hart often writes as if belief in this doctrine he so abhors is not only understandable but even in some sense excusable. Here is another performance of the book’s more philosophical arguments for the injustice of eternal torments, whereby Hart shows the impossibility of absolute libertarian freedom—all guilt in this fallen world of history is by definition qualified guilt. Hart repeatedly emphasizes the lack of culpability on the part of many proponents of hell, due to the extenuating circumstances of centuries of exegesis, tradition, and poor philosophy which conspired to grant the doctrine the feeble amount of intelligiiblity is contains. Even John Calvin, Hart’s perennial bête noire, gets a pass. Taken together, these psychological throwaways peppered throughout the book assist in Hart’s goal of unmasking the multifarious means by which we avoid rational authenticity to moral reason’s questions, questions which would render the doctrine of hell transparent to moral judgment by the very values of the Gospel.
This concern with distinguishing fideism from authentic faith structures the entirety of Hart’s argument, as we have seen. Yet perhaps it would be simpler to say that Hart’s goal in these meditations is to make possible again for believers to call God Father. The doctrine of hell precludes this appellation, as well as the filial feeling it nurtures in hearts tender enough to pronounce it. As Hart notes early on in the book, Father is the primary analogy Jesus recommends to his disciples in order to understand God; it is, in fact, the first word of the Lord’s Prayer in Greek. This picture of God immediately precludes certain doctrines, such as double-predestination or eternal conscious torments. This argument, it should be noted, is no shortcut for avoiding the hard-work of metaphysical and biblical argumentation, ample amounts of which are available in That All Shall Be Saved. It is rather to say that theology exists in the service of the ordinary believer who looks to heaven and attempts that most terrifying and meaningful of human activities: prayer. To which God does the believer pray: to the Heavenly Autocrat who has ordained the world so a select number perish for the sake of His glory, to the Heavenly Sufferer who, despite his best efforts, failed to save every creature, or to the Heavenly Father who has destined the salvation or all? If any doctrine should prevent prayer to the Heavenly Father, that teaching should accordingly fall under Christian suspicion, if not outright censure.
Yet the reader might wonder whether Hart’s argument here does not prove too much. How far, in fact, can Christ’s analogy go? Let us take an example from Dostoevsky on which Hart has written so brilliantly and so movingly, Ivan’s plaintive meditation in the chapter “Rebellion” from The Brothers Karamazov. Can anyone conceive of telling Ivan’s little girl—trapped in the outhouse, beating her breast and crying out to “dear God”—that this God is her Father, and that, though she begs for bread, he is not in fact at that very moment stoning her? In his earlier book the Doors of the Sea (in a significant sense the prequel to this book and its necessary complement), Hart addresses precisely this point:
For somehow the most vital and urgent thing to know about the God revealed in the Gospels is that (for instance) the tears of that little girl suffering in the dark of whom Ivan speaks are not a reflection of the divine will or a necessary moment in the dialectical unfolding of history—according to God’s ‘great plan’—toward the ‘kingdom’ that awaits it as a kind of immanent cosmic telos. God may permit evil to have a history of its own so as not to despoil creatures of their destiny of free union with him in love, but he is not the sole and irresistible agency shaping that history according to eternal arbitrary decrees” (87).
Distinctions between primary and secondary causation are well and good, and I do not deny their necessity and usefulness. It is indeed morally noxious to claim that God directly wills evil. Yet God’s permissive willing of evil, only in a perpetual eschatological state, is precisely what Hart considers damning for the traditional doctrine of hell. Appeals to the modal disjunction between infinite and finite suffering will inevitably come into play here, but it is unclear that this truly circumvents the problem, for why would it be morally permissible for God to allow even the temporary suffering of innocents?
Some might respond by noting that perhaps there are no innocents—all stand under the sign of original sin, and in that sense all suffering is merited, and if cooperated with in a grace-filled fashion, even meritorious. Any reader of Hart (or anyone with even a momentary acquaintance with a newborn child) will know this is not a viable option. Other Christian thinkers sensitive to this question, such as the 20th century Orthodox theologian Sergius Bulgakov, have tried to rehabilitate Origen’s account of pre-existence so as to absolve God and to make sense contemporary sense of the doctrine of original sin in our post-Darwin world. As Bulgakov explicates it—in explicit dependence on a central tenet of universalist logic—God works only through persuasion; that is to say, God as eternal Freedom speaks to our freedom. And this means that God does not foist any suffering upon us without our consent. Our current state is not our first, and that our particular place in the historical drama was chosen by us in the world before this one, in the “time” outside of time of meta-history, as our particular penance. To consent to come into being proves identical with consenting to being the particular person I am. It would be illuminating to know where Hart stands on this question of pre-existence, as much of his writing on the fallen nature of our existence as we know it seems incompatible with the eschatological picture of God’s goodness that revelation depicts. But Bulgakov’s account, in addition to being an almost absolutely rationalizing theodicy, faces troubles of its own: is penance possible if one does not remember having assumed the penance, apart from a vague “anamnesis” identified with our sense of our own sinfulness? How, in that case, does the view differ substantially from that which considers all our suffering to be due punishment for Adam’s original sin—which we also cannot remember, and in which we did not personally participate?
Others, rejecting pre-existence and taking a line closer to that of some contemporary Thomists, hold that God cannot bring into being free, embodied creatures like us, without the necessary process of evolutionary history as we have it. That history, as we well know, is riddled with suffering and death. The evolutionary mutations which made the emergence of homo sapien possible also generate diseases such as Tay-Sachs and Harlequin-Type Ichthiosys. In such a scheme, finintude proves identical with sin, with creation and fall simply two sides of the same coin. Aeons of animal suffering and death, combined with millennia of human genetic disease, constitute the price God is willing to pay to allow the moral drama of free creatures to play itself out. Given Hart’s allergy to Thomist theology in general, it is unlikely he would find this explanation compelling, but the reader wonders all the same: how can we avoid implicating God in evil if God upholds the entire process of world history at every moment?
And this is all without mentioning the suffering inflicted precisely by the human freedom purchased by God at so high an evolutionary cost; Ivan’s little girl serves as a sufficient example of the realities God will countenance in order to ensure the destiny of “free union with him in love.” Much like the specious distinction between double-predestination and “irresistible dereliction,” any discrimination between evils directly willed by God and those only permitted by Him looks suspect in the light of God’s eternal foreknowledge. All causes, after all, reduce to their first cause, and that first cause is God. From the perspective of eternity, “before” the creative act, God foreknows every discrete evil and every moment of suffering; he knows, before he pulls the trigger, that creation will mean the Holocaust. And yet He pulls the trigger anyway. It may be—and this is likely the only answer that can be given—that the “sufferings of the present time are not to be compared with the glory that awaits us.” There is no doubt that the joy of the visio Dei, shared together by all of Christ’s redeemed humanity (which is to say, all humanity), will overcome and transform every memory of unjust suffering. But in this perspective, it is difficult not to avoid the conclusion that we have arrived, by a circuitous route, back precisely where Hart wanted us not to go: a theodicy in which suffering is a necessary—because foreknown—moment in God’s ultimate plan for the particular history which is ours. Lest I be accused of confusing antecedent and consequent necessity, I repeat once again the point of this entire excursus: if God is morally evil for permitting eternal suffering, even if not directly or antecedently willed, why would God not be morally evil for permitting temporal suffering of the most horrendous and egregious kind? For in any picture we choose, given universalism, God still decides it is worth the price of our suffering to “doom us to happiness” (That All Shall Be Saved, 41). Ivan’s complaints appear unanswered, even with apocatastasis as the only theodicy.
This is a troubling conclusion. Universalism promises to safeguard the Fatherhood of heaven, to allow God’s child to pray in confidence. The doctrine cultivates in the believer a certain mood of faith, of serene confidence drawn from knowledge of God’s positive eschatological verdict. Perhaps then in the universalist framework this becomes the unique content of a sojourning faith: that despite all appearances, God is good, and that it is the heart of Christ revealed on the cross that must interpret every moment of divine abandonment, every cry of every innocent child. No Christian, in any case, thinks that character of God can be read off the face of the fallen world. On this score, Hart agrees with philosopher Brian Davies that our profound ignorance of the causes and consequences of earthly events prevents us from passing judgment on God at any particular moment. Yet would an eschatological disclosure render our earthly suffering finally comprehensible? If God could provide a morally sufficient reason for divine inaction in the face of horrendous evil, would it not further inculpate God, especially given the reality of God’s miraculous intervention in the course of salvation history? The scandal of particularity so central to Christianity makes itself felt with particular acuity at this moment, when we recognize that God is present to us at ever moment in the spectacle of our suffering. But to deny that there exist any morally sufficient reasons for our concrete suffering (as I suspect Hart might) would not obviate the problem, for as we have already noted, divine foreknowledge of the fall and the resultant world of misery functionally renders all suffering a necessary moment in the divine plan. Universalism’s mood thus subtly transforms into a marked ambivalence towards the silent and spectating God.
But perhaps this heavenly silence is a constitutive element in God’s kenosis, his cosmic self-emptying which facilitates creaturely reality and freedom. This constant cosmic kenosis complements and provides the condition for the possibility of the concrete kenosis of God’s incarnation, the arena in which God himself can suffer divine abandonment in the flesh. This is how Sergius Bulgakov interprets it: “God is love, but the world is full of malice, struggle and hatred. The world is full of the immeasurable suffering of creatures. Groans and wails are borne to heaven, but heaven remains mute and without answer. Such is the kenosis of the Father’s love.” Can this be called love, however, which submits creatures to suffering at the hands of others, even if this same love shall save them in the end? Absent divine revelation, those suffering must remain ignorant of the Father’s character. Hart captures this problem with a strikingly memorable image. “Anyone who plays the game of life in life’s house knows that the invisible figure hidden in impenetrable shadows on the far side of the baize table not only never shows his hand, but never lets us see the stakes of the wager, and in fact never tells us the rules” (180). Indeed, he cannot show his hand, for if he did, the game would immediately end. There results a semi-tragic, semi-comical picture: God, despite his best intentions, cannot spare us the evils he, as the perfect Good, necessarily abhors. One recalls here Nietzsche’s acrid critique of theological justifications for divine hiddenness (assuming the doctrine of eternal torments, but nonetheless applicable here): “Must [God] not then endure almost the torments of Hell to have to see his creatures suffer so... for the sake of knowledge of him, and not be able to help and counsel them, except in the manner of a deaf and dumb man making all kinds of ambiguous signs...?” In such a scenario, the “dear God” Ivan’s little girl prays to suffers as much as his creature—perhaps more so. It is difficult not to agree with Nietzsche here that a believer would feel immense pity for this “suffering god.” Shall we therefore expect, as philosopher Marilyn McCord Adams suggested, a divine Thank You at the end of days for how we have endured our lot here on earth? So severe a kenosis none but a process theologian could perhaps accept, and that David Hart definitively is not.
That All Shall Be Saved constitutes an intervention of the highest order in an ecclesial and cultural moment when the logic of eternal damnation appears ever more incomprehensible, both inside and outside the Church. Secularization in the Western world proceeds apace, and there is no coincidence in the fact that this movement runs parallel with the immense global suffering of the last century. The human heart seeks not only practical solutions to suffering (though certainly no less than these) but also an explanation for our existential lot. The moral coherence of the Christian story turns, then, on the question of universal salvation, but only because in the final analysis the question of God’s presence and goodness reaches its sharpest articulation in the most extreme depths of human suffering. Hart’s book, the complement of decades of work on the question of theodicy, draws battle lines: can universal salvation remain merely another theologoumenon alongside the doctrine of eternal torments, or must the traditional picture of hell be supplanted as universalism assumes a more central place in Christian proclamation? But if Hart’s arguments prove convincing—and they largely do—how can we avoid the conclusion that God is responsible for human suffering, and how will the child of God continue to pray to our Father in heaven? The Spirit within us groans with our spirit, crying “Abba Father” to the Savior of all; we would pray along with Him, if grace allow it.