Published by Yale University Press on September 24, 2019
Note: David C. Ford responds to Michael Plekon’s review here.
It says something about an author or a book when those responding in reviews and critical articles register clear, strong reactions for or against the publication and the writer. David Bentley Hart’s books are profound, challenging, and masterful. But only recently, with his translation of the New Testament and the present volume on apokatastasis or universal salvation, have responses been so vigorous. This is due, in part, to Hart’s style in this book. It is assertive, even to the point of being aggressive, caustic with respect to the perspectives with which he disagrees. Hart dispenses with the usual heavy apparatus of footnotes and bibliography demanded by scholarly work.
The real core of dispute with or celebration of this book, though, has less to do, in the long run, with Hart’s personality or style but with the subject matter. This is not merely learned opinion on this or that theological writer or idea. It is about eternal joy and communion with God and others, or eternal damnation and torture. Such a subject evokes strong feelings and expression—this is no understatement. And it is the case that positions on the question of our eternal fate and state as decided by God have divided believers throughout Christian history.
Those who hold for eternal condemnation and suffering Hart calls “infernalists,” so it is not surprising his critics react to this as if the author had walked into a bar and begun to pick a fight. The author of a recent volume supporting the traditional vision of eternal reward and punishment, while not named, is taken on directly by Hart. But that author is in good company, since Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and Pascal are some of the theological heavyweights taken on and excoriated for their need to defend a God who would allow countless persons to be in torment forever. Hart finds particularly troubling those who further claim that the saved take pleasure in the knowledge of other souls writhing in torment for eternity, some only because they were not baptized or did not know of Christ.
It is telling that those who have come at Hart, at least as aggressively as his case is made, cannot conceal their own agenda and presuppositions, both about how God acts and how human beings act. Their vision of these result in or require a defense of eternal damnation and punishment. I do not pretend to say anything about their personal situations or feelings, only to note their insistence that God’s sovereignty and power must be maintained but also the freedom of the human being to turn from God to evil, thereby choosing—knowingly or not—eternal suffering by such turning.
I believe that Hart’s presentation is accessible, far more so than some other of his writings. Whether one agrees or disagrees, his initial framing of the subject of an eternal hell and the four meditations on apokatastasis are remarkably clear. He begins with what at root is the essential question, who is God—what kind of a God could permit, or worse, plan for all eternity, the torture and suffering of untold numbers of God’s creatures, God’s children, in an everlasting hell of punishment. The other principal argument he makes is that human freedom is not what most who require eternal punishment think it is.
Hart is not alone is asserting his faith that there is universal salvation. He argues that in the early church, there was little evidence of a widespread, common conviction that God’s wrath required the eternal banishment and punishment of human beings. This was Basil the Great’s conclusion, with temporary purification or purgation giving way to the resurrection and salvation of all. He names the teachers who were explicit universalists: Gregory of Nyssa and Makrina his sister; Clement and Origen of Alexandria; the Syrian fathers Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrus, and Isaac of Nineveh; and much later, Kierkegaard and the greatest of Eastern Church theologians in the modern era, Sergius Bulgakov.
Hart also devotes considerable space to a close inspection of the New Testament texts most often cited in the question of eternal punishment or universal resurrection and salvation. This is in his Second Meditation (92–129). Most of the texts, many Pauline, cannot be read as supporting the certainty of eternal punishment, something Hart also treats at length in the notes and his “Concluding Scientific Postscript” in his translation of the New Testament (533–577). Rather, they express the plan of God to redeem and draw all to Godself.
Especially powerful is the Third Meditation’s rooting in the vision of Gregory of Nyssa (190ff), also viewed earlier (141ff). We are not essentially independent moral agents whose choices, if wrong or willfully destructive, will lead us to eternal punishment. We are, created in the image and likeness of God inherently social beings. What happens to one of us affects all of us (146ff). We are shaped by each other, need each other to be the household of God, and are saved with and in others. Personhood is not possible for an isolated individual (153). Though attacked more than his meditation on who God is and must be, Hart’s argument is that no one chooses evil with full reason and awareness, no one could choose endless misery rather than eternal bliss (181).
Hart returns at the conclusion of the last meditation to who God is—the absolute source of all freedom and power and of all knowledge and good, truth, love, and delight. God could not predestine or otherwise decide that some of his creation needs to spend forever in misery. As Bulgakov wondered, with Gregory of Nyssa and other fathers, what kind of ultimate victory would Christ’s resurrection then be? Toward the very end of the book, Hart offers what he understands as the early church’s proclamation, experience, and thus vision of the salvation of all (205).
Response to this book, as noted, is and will be strong. This is also because it is a most forceful confrontation with what is at the very heart of our relationship to God and to each other forever.
Emeritus Professor, Sociology and Religion, The City of New York-Baruch College
St. Gregory Orthodox Church, Wappingers Falls, NY