David Bentley Hart appears fond of childhood anecdotes. His take on Quentin Tarantino’s latest film reflects on how he heard of Shannon Tate’s murder as a child, and his new book, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell and Universal Salvation starts with his recollection of a literary passage he read, and then a sermon he heard, as a teen that reinforced his opposition to the idea of “eternal conscious torment” (which I shall refer to, henceforth, as ECT). So, it seems appropriate for me to begin in the same manner.
As a child I grew up in a small rural area. In such environments, Seventh-day Adventist pastors must often care for multiple churches, requiring them to rotate which one they preach at week to week, and falling out of favor with a single influential member of a small congregation can mean summary exile by the local conference to another rural area in another state. Consequently, I heard many speakers talk from the church pulpit on Sabbaths when we were between pastors, or when ours was speaking in another county.
In the SDA church in Paris, Tennessee, one of our regular speakers was a kindly, white-haired man we all knew as Elder Thurmond. Though generally soft-spoken, Elder Thurmond’s voice boomed when he felt strongly enough about a topic, and on more than one occasion he gave us his variation of Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” He asked us to imagine ourselves covered in fire, which would never be extinguished and which would never consume us. He asked — no, commanded — us to imagine this fire searing every molecule of our bodies for billions upon billions of years, never ceasing and never declining in its intensity.
Unlike Edwards, though, Elder Thurmond did not use such imagery for the purpose of terrorizing his audience into submission before God. Elder Thurmond’s sermons used this imagery to punctuate his belief that hell is an event, not an eternal state, and that the idea of eternal fire is not only unbiblical, and would not only be inconsistent with a God of love, it would be a moral abomination. I remember hearing this oration more than once, because each time Elder Thurmond punctuated it with the quote, attributed to Robert Ingersoll: “If that is God, I hate Him.”
Seventh-day Adventists are not opposed to using fear as an evangelistic tool, or as a means of keeping their congregations in the pews. Not only are the last days an ever-present theme, but SDAs have an arsenal of rumors and newsletters, all insinuating the imminence of persecution, that only those spiritually prepared will endure it, and only those who endure it will achieve salvation. Missing out on salvation, however, has a different set of stakes in this telling: the lake of fire that greets those who do not submit to God’s plan results in consumption and a final slumber, not an eternal torment. In Ellen White’s description of final events, she is told by an angel:
[The damned] are now consumed root and branch. They have died an everlasting death. They are never to have a resurrection, and God will have a clean universe.
When asked why anyone has to burn in the lake of fire, the answer is usually that God gave each person a choice, and would not inflict His eternal companionship, much less eternal dominion, on rebellious subjects who refuse to submit. David Bentley Hart is of a different view. Fresh off his “pitilessly literal” The New Testament: A Translation, Hart’s new book, a philosophical and theological case for universal salvation, builds off his previous work; indeed, he considers them companions. One of the highlights of his New Testament was his deconstruction of the idea of eternal hell as something found in the Bible: Hart showed that such references, since translated as “hell,” referred to the “Vale of Hinnom” — the cursed valley where corrupt kings of Judah sacrificed children to idols — or to “Hades” / “Sheol,” the abode of the dead, or in one instance to “Tartarus,” where it is suggested fallen angels and evil spirits are restrained until the day of judgment. The entire concept of an eternal lake of fire awaiting sinners, however, exists nowhere in the text.
Yet, to the majority of Christendom, this vision of hell is not only clearly laid out in scripture, their conception of justice seemingly requires it. As such, Hart’s new book dedicates most of its pages to attacks on the idea of ECT, the logic underpinning it, and its intellectual tradition. Hart reserves special scorn for John Calvin, stating that Calvin's view of predestination and hell is based on "a notoriously confused reading of scripture, one whose history goes... back to the late Augustine — a towering genius whose inability to read Greek and consequent reliance on defective Latin translations turned out to be the single most tragically consequential case of linguistic incompetence in Christian history." Of Calvin’s view, that some souls are predestined for heaven and others for eternity in hell, merely as a demonstration of God’s sovereignty over all creation, he writes: "If that were Christianity, it would be too psychologically diseased a creed to take seriously at all, and its adherents would deserve only a somewhat acerbic pity, not respect."
If there were an afterlife in which denizens were both conscious and aware of what people today are saying about them, that passage leaves one imagining Augustine covering his face and trying not to draw attention to himself and Calvin headed for the afterlife’s burn ward.
And it is Hart’s deconstruction of ECT, and numerous juicy prose passages such as these, that make this book recommended reading for SDAs. Hart shares the moral abhorrence of ECT that has animated SDAs from Sister White to Elder Thurmond, and his legendary pen is in fine form throughout: “God has no need of the world,” Hart writes in his first of four “meditations” that make up the book, “he creates it not because he is dependent upon it, but because its dependency on him is a fitting expression of the bounty of his goodness.” Along the way he invokes lesser-known church fathers such as Gregory of Nyssa and Isaac of Ninevah in support of his view, and introduces concepts in Greek that contemporary believers who have not been to seminary may be unaware of. One example is aionios —the root of our present-day “aeon” — and how the mislabeling of this term as an indefinite (or infinite) period of time led to a misunderstanding of the extent of God’s judgment, when it typically meant a lifetime and at times referred to something much shorter.
His positive case for universalism, though, is a harder sell. In Hart’s telling, hell may exist, but with a redemptive purpose. Hart uses the example of (and you had to know this was coming) Hitler, and asks readers whether the eternal torment of this most hated of human beings is a prerequisite for justice. “…I for one do not object in the least to Hitler being purged of his sins and saved, over however many aeons of inconceivably painful purification in hell that might take, but I do most definitely object to Hitler fixed forever in his sins serving as my redeemer in some shadow eternity of perpetual torment, offering up his screams of agony as the price of my hope for salvation.”
He then suggests that universal redemption is necessary for the perfection of all of God’s creation: “If God is the good creator of all, he must also be the savior of all, without fail, who brings to himself all he has made, including all rational wills… If he is not the savior of all, the Kingdom is only a dream, and creation something considerably worse than a nightmare.”
Which leads to my, and I suspect most SDAs’, disagreement with Hart. ECT is, frankly, an easy target; that the majority of Christians have endorsed this concept, perhaps without fully considering its implications, does not make it less so. In this respect the atheists have been ahead of the curve: Isaac Asimov once called ECT the “drooling dream of a sadist” and Bertrand Russell said that no person “who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment.” That most Christians have failed to grapple with its logical implications for their view of a loving creator is to the faith’s continued shame. Even conservative Protestants of a rigorous philosophical background such as William Lane Craig can only offer unconvincing word games about how the damned in hell are undergoing “everlasting experience” but not “everlasting life” because they are spiritually if not physically dead (as if that were any consolation for the tormented soul who did not believe in God while on Earth, much less that soul’s loved ones in heaven).
Hart, however, devotes little time to refuting annihilationism — less than a page, in fact. Though he notes that the view is in greater conformity with scripture than ECT, it “would still not constitute the total victory promised in the fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians.” That Hart would feel less compelled to address our objections to his theories is perhaps understandable; we are a distinct minority, and among mainstream Christian denominations, when even highly regarded theologians such as John Stott demonstrate that they are open to the idea, the reaction is rage or perhaps a condescending sorrow.
Our objection to universalism, however, is a serious one. It speaks to the heart of who God is, what His love means, and why He gave us free will. In Hart’s telling the results of what Adventists call the Great Controversy is not, well, controversial. All living creatures may pay a price for their misdeeds on earth, but eventually all will be exposed to and convinced by the goodness of God and accept Him, achieving salvation. “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… the transfiguring glory of infinite love.”
As I read these passages of Hart’s, however, a quote from Christopher Hitchens echoed in my mind:
I do not envy believers their faith. I am relieved to think that the whole story is a sinister fairy tale; life would be miserable if what the faithful affirmed was actually the case… there may be people who wish to live their lives under a cradle-to-grave divine supervision; a permanent surveillance and monitoring. But I cannot imagine anything more horrible or grotesque.
Obviously I disagree with Hitchens’ assessment of our Creator, but I don’t doubt the sincerity behind it. It also illustrates the heart of the disagreement between annihilationists and universalists.
A superficial reading of the latter invites the charge of excessive leniency, in which God is not only merciful, but such a bleeding heart that He is unwilling to deny salvation even to those guilty of the most grievous of transgressions against their fellow man. However, the deeper one looks into universalism, the more the opposite appears true: God, under universal reconciliation, is something like the dictator Hitchens imagined, unwilling to let individuals of such obstinate independence depart into a final peace. For a soul who believed as Hitch did but whose sins were no viler than the human mean, this amounts to torturing that soul until it relents to God’s “love” and His “mercy.”
This is not the only objection, though, to Hart’s argument. True embrace of universalism would necessitate a major reorientation of the Christian life, which Hart does not address (and is perhaps unconcerned with). Yet it is one surely of import to faith communities: prayer, church attendance, evangelism, and even belief itself would lack the urgency such believers accord to these trappings of a life of faith. Churches could function as charities; as unique forms of political activism that urge people to turn away from injustices against their fellow man that might result in longer redemptive periods in the afterlife. They may also exist as variations on the temples of Eastern tradition, in which believers meditate on what Hart calls “the beauty of the infinite.” Is this what Hart has mind?
A better question: Is this the Bible’s vision of the church? Were the faith communities of the New Testament operating under the assumption of salvation for all? Seems doubtful; the Apostle Paul endured prison, beatings, stoning, and other sorts of persecution to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He chose a path that rejected release from prison and led to his execution so that he could spread this word. All the while, he wrote agonized letters to the churches warning of the choices that could tear the church apart and turn people away from their faith. Did he do so that more people could achieve “being, consciousness, bliss?” Or was he concerned of the nonbelievers, and of his church family, missing out on salvation? Hart does demonstrate that Paul believed God “intended” for all to be saved through His son, but not that God allowed for no other possibilities.
David Bentley Hart writes passionately of a perfect God of love, and that a cosmos featuring eternal anguish for non-believers would fall nightmarishly short of that ideal. I, and I suspect most readers of this publication, agree. Our nightmares are not the only ones that count, however; a God who essentially predestines His creations to understand free will, and then be denied it, would be a terror of a different sort.
Rob York is a production editor at The South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. A graduate of Southern Adventist University in 2002, he has spent more than a decade in journalism in the United States and South Korea. He holds a master’s degree in Asian Studies from the University of Hawaii, where he is also a PhD candidate in history.
Book cover image courtesy of Yale University Press.
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