March 16, 2020


Against the Infernalists: a review of That All Shall Be Saved by David Bentley Hart ( Karen Kilby, March 16, 2020, Commonweal)

We are so used to assuming that eternal damnation is part of the Christian package, he suggests, that we dramatically misread the New Testament texts. Not only do we dismiss or interpret away all those passages that seem clearly to point to universal salvation (Hart lines up twenty-three of them at one stage in his argument), but we also fail to notice the kind of language Jesus used in relation to judgment. "I am quite sure," he writes, "that, had Jesus wished to impart a precise and literal picture of the Age to come, he could have done so. But in fact the more closely one looks at the wild mélange of images he employed...the more the picture dissolves into evocation, atmosphere, and poetry." Hart points readers to his own recently published translation of the New Testament, which in its unusual literal fidelity to the Greek restores the original ambiguities of some key texts.

We are so used to assuming that eternal damnation is part of the Christian package that we dramatically misread the New Testament texts.
The most intellectually dense strand of the book--and the most difficult for non-specialists to follow--is Hart's argument against the idea that any rational being might permanently choose evil. The density here comes from the fact that Hart is working within a philosophical and theological paradigm that was once mainstream for the Christian tradition but is now unfamiliar to most Christians, even the well-educated, unless they have formal theological training. If one accepts this paradigm, with its assumptions about the relation of intellect and will, about the fundamental ordering of all creatures towards God, and about the nature of evil as privation, then one should find it simply inconceivable, Hart insists, that any human or angel could continue forever to choose against God. The idea is simply incoherent. This is a genuine challenge that needs to be taken up and wrestled with by Thomists and others who work within this classic theological paradigm.

Hart believes that people have not noticed this and other forms of incoherence because "infernalist" belief has darkened the minds of those who hold it, encouraging them to appeal to analogy, mystery, and paradox to cover over nonsense and contradiction. His biggest theme, however, is not intellectual incoherence so much as moral repugnance. It is to this that he turns again and again. The majority view is manifestly "odious" and the acceptance of it morally indefensible. The attempt to believe in eternal damnation has corrupted the moral imagination of Christians, causing it to "bend and lacerate and twist itself" in all kinds of terrible ways.

One explanation for the polemical tone of That All Shall Be Saved lies here: Hart is writing a book that, as he sees it, should not need to be written. The impossibility of a loving God damning anyone to an eternity of torment is so clear to a properly functioning moral instinct that it should not be necessary to go into complex biblical interpretation or philosophical analysis to settle the question. And Hart is constantly trying to remind his readers of this, to break through the resistance to the morally obvious.

And when He returns--this time in His glory, instead of as a mortal--who will say Him nay?

Posted by at March 16, 2020 7:15 PM