Arguing over Salvation: A Reading of David Bentley Hart by Colin Petramale

No question holds more weight in the Christian world than that of salvation. Who will be saved? How many people will be saved, and by what criteria? Since completing my theological education, I have encountered other Christians who all but demand answers to these questions. For many who ask, these questions touch home—they are often afraid that a loved one who died outside of the faith is now languishing eternally. Worse yet, the person asking (in an incredible display of magical yet well-intentioned thinking) worries that their very audacity to ask such questions may land them in hell, too.

Such fear to honestly ponder the weightier questions of our faith seems alien to the life of Christ, who once rebuked his Father for abandoning him (Mt. 27:46), and to the Psalmists, who put everything before God (much of which is less flattering than the rose-colored Psalms we sing on Sundays). But no matter how hard we try to keep our fears of eternal torment at bay, they persist. It is hard to get past the image of a punitive God who will punish us for any tiny infraction. And, to boot, there is no better way to start a bitter argument among Christians than bringing up this very topic of a punitive God.

David Bentley Hart, Orthodox scholar of religion and cultural commentator, has caused an uproar in the theological community by releasing his new book, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation. Hart’s basic premise is this: Christianity is a morally, logically, and spiritually coherent system of belief only if all are saved. Hart offers four meditations to support his case. For brevity and clarity, this article will only focus on the most easily accessible of his meditations—that on Scripture and the images of hell and salvation found therein.

Hart bases much of his scriptural meditation on the apostle Paul, who, shocking as this is to many, never mentions hell. Hart writes, “There are a remarkable number of passages in the New Testament, several of them from Paul’s writings, that appear instead to promise a final salvation of all persons and all things, and in the most unqualified terms.” Hart specifically cites 1 Corinthians 15 as the passage some church fathers, like Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, saw as the great key to Scripture—the Scripture through which all others should be understood. This chapter of 1 Corinthians culminates with, “When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28). In other words, and moving past Paul’s famously convoluted prose, God will save all things. Only when God saves all things, according to Hart (and the universalist tradition), can God be “all in all.”

Hart also adds that Paul does write of a purifying fire in 1 Corinthians 3, though Paul gives no indication that this fire is eternal. Rather, and this is very much in line with Eastern Orthodox theology, the purifying fire is God himself. When a soul experiences the love of God, and is not “accustomed” to that love, it is experienced as hell.

In case this sounds esoteric, think of a time in your own life when you disappointed your parents. Seeing the disappointment in their eyes was punishment enough. You knew they would still love you no matter what, yet the guilt you experienced could be very painful. And it was precisely because you knew that your parents still loved you and would not give up on you that the guilt was so painful. As adults, we experience something similar in our relationship with God: our moments of guilt are painful not because God has stopped loving us, but because the arduous work of reconciliation, calming our often-vicious inner critic and mending wounds, is still in front of us.

Hart also examines other eschatological (i.e., the study of the “end times”) language found in the Old and New Testaments. He acknowledges the Scriptures are filled with various metaphors of punishment, though if taken literally, they are inconsistent with one another. The only passage that explicitly speaks of an eternal punishment, Hart writes, is Matthew 25:46. In his 2017 translation of the New Testament, Hart renders the Greek term aionois as “of the age” instead of “eternal.” Almost every other translation of Matthew 25:46 renders aionois as “eternal” or “everlasting.” Hart claims this disparity in translation is because many New Testament scholars are not “classically trained.” In other words, they have only learned to read the Greek of the New Testament, rather than reading other contemporaneous works (Aristotle, Plato, the Church Fathers, etc.). Reading other works in ancient Greek, Hart claims, allows for more ambiguity when translating aionois.

Lest you worry Hart denies the reality of hell, he writes, “For what it is worth, however, I do in fact believe in hell, though only in the sense of a profound and imprisoning misery that we impose upon ourselves by rejecting the love that alone can set us free.” This is reminiscent of Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest of Albuquerque, who writes that we are not punished for our sin, but by our sin. In other words, the infinite love that God is perpetually invites us back into relationship but does not “brood over injury . . . and bears all things” (1 Cor 13: 5, 7). It is we who unfortunately throw out the invitation at times in our lives.

I’m in total agreement with Hart on this point and many more. We not only reject God’s invitation at times, but we also struggle to discern where that invitation even exists in our lives. We are most often putting one foot in front of the other, following God by lantern on a dimly lit path only to find the footprints God has left behind. This is as true for Christians as it is for anyone else.

Despite our lack of clarity in our own journeys, we insist on having these arguments over salvation, and at our own peril. One would hope worshipping the crucified God would be enough to keep any of us from pride, as Dorothy Day would say—especially the kind of pride that assumes we know who is saved and who is not. Yet the argument over salvation itself reveals something deeper than our common search for immortality and justice.

Images of an eternal torment are often projections of the terrible experiences of emptiness we feel here and now. We cannot imagine feeling any differently than we do in the present, so we project that experience onto eternity. Think for a moment of a time when you fell in love, and then of a time when you felt paralyzing despair. Both feelings felt like they would last forever, and yet they did not. Therefore, these (and many other feelings) are misleading.  

This is the noble part of Hart’s work; he tries to get beyond our less-attractive feelings of being wronged and seeking vengeance. Instead of focusing on the interdenominational rancor all too common in the Christian world, he goes back to the sources (in this case, Scripture) to understand them on their own terms. He therefore moves beyond our collective jousting for the righteous position and attempts to answer the question all theologians should ask: What has gotten in the way of love?

From Hart’s perspective, our interpretation of Scripture, our attraction to the negative, and our lack of trust in God’s universal love have all done that—gotten in the way and blurred our vision. And yet Hart’s attempt to convince through Scripture and logic has been powerless among his detractors. It seems those who believe in universal salvation will continue to do so, and those who believe in eternal damnation will become more entrenched in their position.

So then why write a book on salvation, or even a partial review that sees said work as necessary yet ultimately ineffective? I cannot answer for Hart’s intentions, though I believe the mystery of salvation later is really a question about our salvation here and now. Moreover, my frustration with the efficacy of Hart’s book has nothing to do with the idea of universal salvation. It is the mere fact that we as Christians still argue about whether God is faithful to God’s promises.

How many of us silently cry within because of our inability to assuage all the world’s suffering? We care about the environment, yet not about the unborn. We care about the refugee yet not about the widow down the street. Regardless of one’s positions, the basic problem is the same; we have limited compassion, and our lack of compassion hurts others. We can only pray that our innate grace, the Holy Spirit, comes to fulfillment in us. We can only pray that our limited compassion becomes universal.

This is a hard way. It takes a lot of grace to feel and join with the beggar’s plight, for example, instead of indulging ourselves with the self-exonerating sigh as we accelerate quickly past the stoplight. Wouldn’t it be nice if I could do something? Well, yes, it would. In fact, our belief in universal salvation, which is to say, a universally loving God, will follow suit when we seek to ameliorate the suffering of the world, “whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female” (Gal. 3:28).

So we return to the question—can we hope, based on Scripture and some saints and doctors of the church, that all will be saved? Yes. But this is ultimately above our paygrade. Let us instead focus on building the church that Pope Francis speaks of—one that does not seek its own interests, but rather the interests of the poor. A church that seeks to imitate Christ “who emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (Phil 2:7). In a word, Christians should never hold their perceived salvation over others, because it is precisely that attitude that the Scriptures assure us is un-Christian. Let us instead do the quiet, arduous, and illogical work of showing universal mercy here and now, trusting that God will ultimately be all in all.

Colin Petramale is a retreat team member at Holy Family Passionist Retreat Center in West Hartford, Connecticut. He holds his master’s degree in theological studies from the University of Dayton and enjoys coffee, reading, theology, politics, and his two cats named Dorothy Day and Autumn.

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