Misreading David Bentley Hart on Universalism [I]

Over time I have developed a sensitivity to people being represented faithfully and accurately, especially if I disagree with them. Our society is becoming dominated by wilful demonisation of anyone we disagree with. Understanding anyone, particularly those with different worldviews to ourselves, requires hard work and the investment of real time and energy. Our goal must be to sympathetically listen; to try to hear what the other person believes on their own terms and without caricature. Only then are we in a position to offer genuine criticism, and to attempt to convince one another. This approach is most desperately lacking in politics, where differences between ‘left’ and ‘right’ almost invariably involves more yelling than reasoning. But good listening is often missing in theology too.

David Bentley Hart is one of the most able and formidable academic theologians of our time. He is Eastern Orthodox but his depth of theological insight and literary abilities have won him a readership far wider than his own confessional circles. Some of his works also have a naturally wide-appeal among, particularly his merciless critiques of modern atheism (particularly Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, 2009).

However, I have heard Hart’s views misrepresented more often than most, partly because his metaphysical framework is so foreign to many of us. Hart’s views are not only distinctly Eastern, but patristic, bringing the fruit of decades of study of early Greek-speaking theologians into conversation with modern and postmodern western thought. The depth of his learning and philosophical sophistication (not to mention his vocabulary) is most fully on display in his published doctoral dissertation The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (2003), which remains, without a doubt, the most difficult book I have ever attempted to read.

Hart’s New Book and its Critics

Hart’s most recent offering is a kind of conclusion to much of his previous work, especially his Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (2013) and his recent highly-unique translation of the New Testament (2017). That All Shall Be Saved (2019) argues what its title states: there is no eternal hell. Eventually all of God’s creatures will assuredly and even necessarily enter eternal bliss. Hart argues very strongly, compellingly, and with enormous confidence that universalism is the only view compatible with Christian theology. Christians must embrace the doctrine of Apocatastasis: the eventual restoration of all things to perfection and fullness.

Hell is a horribly difficult topic. It should be uncomfortable to discuss, and it is natural that people will have strong feelings about it. Hart’s book has already generated debate and will continue to do so. My concern here is that there appears to be an enormous amount of confusion about the basis for Hart’s argument for universalism. Many of Hart’s critics have misunderstood his book, which can only lead to progressively worse caricature and louder yelling from all sides.

Add to that Hart’s own persona. He is, it must be said, not a particularly humble theologian. He is a master of verbal warfare; far more skilled at demolishing an opponent with words than discussing ideas and differences. Plus, Hart despises much of western theology, particularly the Reformed variety. Hart’s recent review of Michael McClymond’s critical history of universalism (The Devil’s Redemption, 2018) is a good example. It combines insightful criticism with snarky dismissals of the entire work through barely restrained ridicule and insufficiently supported assertions that the entire thing is just hopelessly incompetent.

Personally I am not bothered by Hart’s tone in this book, though others are. Regardless, readers should carefully consider the important matters he raises, and seek to understand before responding.

Hart’s Theology in a Nutshell

The central tenets of Hart’s theology are, in fact, simple. I mean that in two senses. First, his main argument is logically straightforward when its central premises are comprehended. Second, his view centers on the metaphysical outworking of the doctrine of divine simplicity.

Hart’s doctrine is based on the metaphysics of a particularly Neoplatonic form of classical theism. This is explored at greater length in his The Experience of God (2013). Let me throw some concepts at you and then show how it basically works.

Divine simplicity means that God is not composed of parts. He is God through-and-through. We might compare the way that water is water through-and-through, except God is not divisible into quantities or into more elemental substances that can be combined to create a compound. God’s essence is infinite and non-composite.

This not only means that God’s Being is one undivided essence, but that all of God’s attributes are ways of describing the same thing. Hart focuses on the five classic transcendental perfections (attributes) of God: being, goodness, truth, beauty, unity [55]. Since they are all ways of referring to God’s undivided Being, these perfections are convertible with one another:

Being = Goodness = Truth = Beauty = Unity

God simply is these things. God doesn’t just have existence (being), nor is he just the biggest being among beings (an infinite being). God is Being itself, the infinite ground of all being. God isn’t just beautiful, but is Beauty itself. And so on…

One important way of holding these thing together is to say that God is Love. At his core, God is only capable of willing goodness, truth, beauty, and unity for those beings which he brings into existence. Thus, according to Hart, God is incapable of inflicting punishment since he only ever lovingly wills good. So much for any notion of an eternal hell.

So far this has all been about the nature of God himself. Now the nature of creation. God is existence itself (Being). That means that all existences in existence get their existence from God. Existence (being) emanates from God. Our created existence is like the illumination given by the light of the sun: it flows from God and is derived from him. Existing means to partially participate in God’s being.

To receive being from God isn’t just bare, meaningless existence. Existence involves sharing in God’s goodness, truth, beauty, and unity. Recall that God’s perfections are convertible: all these attributes are the same thing. Thus, what emanates from God is not simply that I exist, but that I exist as a rational being (truth), who recognises right from wrong (goodness) and the wonder of creation (beauty), and who flourishes in loving community (unity). This is simply what existence means. There is no other kind of existence on offer since this is the nature of God, the source of all being.

We don’t have these attributes in the same way as God. They are ‘perfections’ in God, but not in us. This is where sin and brokenness come in. Unlike God, we are finite and corruptible. On the level of created things (‘secondary causality’) our finitude and imperfect rationality allows for arbitrary, meaningless, and evil things to happen. However at God’s level (‘primary causality’) only goodness flows, which will eventually overcome the opposition of the finite natures it animates and draw them to him.

Crucially, in this metaphysical scheme there is a straightforward analogy between God’s perfections and our human concepts. For example, whilst God’s Truth is infinitely richer and more complete than our idea of truth, they are analogically similar. The two are never contrary. Thus God cannot do anything that would appear untruthful to a rational human being. Likewise, God’s donation of goodness to our natures means that he never acts in a way that a psychologically healthy, rational human being would consider evil, or even less than good. Again, this immediately rules out an eternal hell since most people cringe at the idea.

Here is the reason for so much of Hart’s ranting about the “moral pathology” and “intellectual lunacy” of believing in an eternal hell. His colorful descriptions aren’t just pompous put-downs (well, not entirely), but express the exasperation of his metaphysical expectations about how people work. He firmly believes that anyone who believes that God could send people to an eternal hell is saying that God is less than good, and probably suffers from a moral pathology that must be overcome so that they can reason clearly. We all know what good is (by the very nature of our existence), and hell is clearly not good. Hart’s unwavering assertion that we can know what the good is that God will do is perhaps seen most clearly in his rejection of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s more modest “hopeful universalism” (Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved?”, 1986). If we merely ‘hope’ that God will save all people in the end, Hart argues, this is just another way of saying that God is less than Goodness itself, since we believe he might choose the lesser outcome. We are hoping that God will act better than we suspect he might. Thus our desires testify to a better outcome that, by definition, we are constrained to believe that the Good God will do [66, 103]. (For those with ears to hear: there is an interesting parallel to Anselm’s ontological argument here).

But there is a still deeper point to be made. Creatures naturally seek their own happiness (blessedness, beatitude). Since God is Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and Unity itself, that means that whatever the specific material objects of our desires, at the deepest level we are always really seeking God. The goodness of created things which we desire is always just the refracted light of God’s own Goodness. Given enough time, all of us will inevitably desire our way back to God simply by seeking our own happiness. Eventually even Satan will seek God – this is just what it means to exist.

Eternal souls desire forever. Thus, eventually they will find in God the fullness that their desires seek. Moreover, God is Love and will not bear the eternal punishment of his creatures. Hart believes in hell, just not an eternal hell. He argues that hell is not retributive (punishment) but restorative, burning away our sin by the purging and healing fire of God’s love. However long it takes, even if it takes a billion quintillion years, even the most deformed being will eventually be restored, and God will finally be ‘all in all’ (1 Corinthians 15:28).

There is a lot more in Hart’s book than this metaphysical picture, but this paradigm is the center from which all else flows. Take this away and Hart has no argument. Misunderstand this and you’ve misunderstood the entire book.

My Frustration with Most Reviews of Hart’s Book

Debate cannot achieve anything when we fail to understand one another. It just ends up with each side cheering for their apologist and observing how stupid the other side is.

Douglas Farrow’s review at First Things was mostly a sarcastic summary of the book’s contents, more concerned with Hart’s tone than to his argument. He did raise a few theological questions I wanted to hear explored more deeply, but unfortunately misread Hart as a determinist. Similarly, at Patheos Geoff Holsclaw gave a helpful summary of Hart’s book and its arguments, but claims that Hart’s account is deterministic, an ‘inverted’ form of the kind of deterministic Calvinism that Hart despises. Hart would vomit at the suggestion.

At the Gospel Coalition, Michael McClymond claims that Hart contradicts his earlier book The Doors of the Sea (2003). Hart previously described created causality (‘secondary causes’) as often acting arbitrarily and chaotically, and thus producing terrible events (such as natural disasters) contrary to God’s good desires. But now, observes McClymond, Hart states that ‘all causes are logically reducible to their first cause’ [70] and that ‘insofar as we are able freely to will anything at all… it is precisely because [God] is making us do so’ [183]. But McClymond is mistaken to find a contradiction in Hart’s work here. He (and others) read Hart’s statements as though they all refer to secondary causes, and thus present God’s action in a somewhat mechanistic way, operating on the same level as our actions. In fact, Hart is speaking of the way in which God’s creating act (as primary cause) brings into being creatures that are naturally drawn to him. Being (existence) is necessarily drawn toward truth, beauty, goodness, and unity as naturally as having mass entails being subject to gravity. Thus eventually, inevitably, our desires will lead us to him who is ‘the fullness of Being and the transcendental horizon of reality that animates every single stirring of reason and desire…’ [183]. Beings that will anything cannot help but will after God, however indirectly. There is a kind transcendent determinism here, but only in the sense that being is determined to freedom, and not a determinism of secondary causality [178-9].

Similarly, Hart’s wooden translation of ‘aiōnios’ (‘of the Age’, rather than ‘eternal’) does not threaten the duration of heaven, as McClymond claims. Infinite duration (or something like it) is a necessary metaphysical implication of Hart’s scheme. The beatific vision (deification, union with God’s essence) is participation in the life of God himself. Thus heavenly bliss is as eternal as God’s own eternity.

And so it goes. So many reviews of Hart’s work misunderstand his theology and come across as shallow nitpickings that don’t engage his central claims. This does a great disservice to the conversation, and invites an eloquent (and likely entertaining) tirade from the book’s author in response.

Hart’s views are impressively coherent, and have enormous intellectual and emotional resonance. If I were a philosopher I suspect I would be persuaded.

But I’m not a philosopher. At least, not first and foremost. I’m a Bible-believing Christian. No matter how coherent and compelling a theological scheme is, it can only ever be judged as good as its conformity with Scripture. To that thought we shall return in Part II.