The Universalism of David Bentley Hart

 

Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart is by far one of the most interesting and provocative theological writers of our time. Devoting a considerable portion of his writings to engagement with unbelief, Hart has written books on the problem of evil, aesthetics, the revolutionary social effects of Christianity, and the concept of God in the world’s great theistic traditions. He has also written numerous articles on various topics, ranging from book reviews to comments on pornography and ecumenical dialogue with Roman Catholicism. Hart has even dabbled in writing fiction, believe it or not. He is prolific, brilliant, and eclectic. One popular Christian writer in America, Peter Enns, called him a “walking thesaurus.” (I sometimes think it might be more appropriate to call a thesaurus a “stationary Hart.”) I think that it would be difficult to overstate Hart’s influence on contemporary theology.

Because David Hart is eclectic and provocative, it is not surprising to me that he unabashedly favors universalist eschatology. He argues that belief in eternal Hell is a moral absurdity, and its acceptance in mainstream Christian theology a tragedy.

On the first score (favoring universalism), Hart is actually not terribly revolutionary. Christianity’s first major philosophical theologian, Origen of Alexandria (circa 185-254 A.D.), posited that Hell might be a remedial punishment instead of an everlasting abode. At least one bonafide Christian saint, Gregory of Nyssa (circa 335-394 A.D.), explicitly advocated for Origen’s view. (According to some, including Hans Urs von Balthasar, it is possible that St Maximus the Confessor also held to this remedial understanding of Hell. However, to be fair, Balthasar’s claim has been disputed.) It would seem, then, that Hell has disturbed the Christian conscience since some of the earliest days of theological speculation. And Origen and St Gregory of Nyssa are not minor figures, either. St Gregory Nazienzen, a major theological figure and friend of St Gregory of Nyssa, wrote very positively of Origen, and the Second Council of Nicea called St Gregory of Nyssa the “father of fathers.” Although their stance might have been a minority position, their erudition defies a casual dismissal of their views.

However, despite the precedence for Hart’s universalism in the thinking of certain major Christian theologians, his claim that the notion of eternal Hell is a moral contagion that threatens to destroy the analogy between divine and human goodness even on the level of semantics strikes me as questionable. Hart criticizes St Augustine for believing in everlasting Hell, but I think it would be exaggerating to say that Augustine’s belief in Hell was predicated upon a morally defective understanding of God. It might be that, contrary to Hart’s assertions, the idea of eternal Hell is actually morally coherent, and that theologians as prolific as Augustine and Aquinas (in the West) and John Chrysostom and John Damascene (in the East) believed in eternal Hell not because they were morally deficient, but because they were morally in tune with the utter seriousness of sin and the lengths of human depravity.

In contrast to this possibility, Hart is somehow more comfortable concluding that the majority of Christian thinkers throughout history would have gotten such a central question completely wrong than that his own thinking on the subject might be mistaken. As a compliment to Hart’s intelligence, I will grant that he might be thinking rationally here. Maybe eternal Hell — even if conditionally imposed — really is an intolerable moral evil in its own right, and somehow most Christians have simply not had the intellect or the resources to discover that incontrovertible truth. Perhaps Origen and St Gregory really did figure out the eschatological mystery of Scripture, and the rest of us simply need to get on board with them.

Yet, I confess that I am dubious of all this. Hart might indeed have the moral vision and wisdom to judge that which is appropriate for God to do in response to the sin of rational wills (whether angelic or human), and that God’s response “cannot possibility be” eternal Hell. Surely all of us should at least hope that Hart is correct. Shall we wish everlasting punishment on even the most depraved human beings, and if we did so, would we be portraying really the God of love? However, speaking for myself, I do not think that I have the wisdom or moral vision to discern the eternal will of God, and so I do not think that I can embrace the universalism of Hart. What I can do is admire Hart’s optimism and his faith in the power of eternal love — that is, the power of God, who in His very being is love (1 John 4:8, 4:16).

In conclusion, I truly hope that Hart is correct; however, I do not feel confident saying that he is correct. I pray for the salvation of all, but I do not presume upon it.

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