Magazine | September 30, 2019, Issue

The Eternal Debate over the Nature of Hell

Detail of The Last Judgment by Jan van Eyck (circa 1390 –1441) (The Metropolitan Museum of Art online collection via Wikimedia Commons)
That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation, by David Bentley Hart (Yale, 232 pp., $26)

Does hell exist? It depends on what you mean by “hell.” David Bentley Hart answers the question in the affirmative but gives the term a definition different from that assumed by “apologists for the ‘infernalist’ orthodoxies,” as he calls his adversaries in the perennial debate over the nature of hell.

What is hell? Who goes there? Do they ever leave? Hart embraces universalism, also known as universal salvation, universal reconciliation, and apokatastasis (Greek for “restoration,” as of all creation in the age to come) — the doctrine, sometimes regarded as merely heterodox, other times as outright heretical, “that all shall be saved,” to quote the title of his lively new book on this burning topic.

Saved from what? From death and damnation. Not spared from their clutches, but delivered from them ultimately.

First, death: Each of us can expect to die and, like Christ, “descend into hell,” in the words of an antiquated but not entirely abandoned translation of the Apostles’ Creed. (In an older sense now all but forgotten, “hell” was a reasonable English equivalent of the original Greek — ta katōtata, the parts below, where the dead dwell. To modern ears, of course, to say that Christ went to hell sounds like blasphemy. It causes confusion and illustrates the outsized role that translation decisions have played in the reception — or, as Hart argues throughout, in the corruption — of doctrine down the centuries.) We can also expect, like Christ, to rise from the dead, although our uncertainty about the precise nature of our glorified, spiritual bodies will persist until we receive them at the general resurrection. Only then will we see the promised new reality face to face.

As for damnation, Hart imagines that most of us, even while on earth, spend too much time in hell, that our subjection to hell’s torments is not confined to kingdom come, that we walk through hell’s gates and then lock ourselves in, and that we are helpless to leave until they’re opened for us from the outside. “I do in fact believe in hell,” he explains,

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. I believe, in fact, that I have on occasion experienced that hell from within its walls; . . . I suspect that most of us, at least past a certain age, have done so. . . . Practically all of us go through life as prisoners of our own egos, which are no more than the shadows cast by our souls, but which are nonetheless quite impossible for us to defeat without assistance and without grace.

That’s a solid meditation at the intersection of psychology and spirituality. The darkness described by Hart is, as he says, familiar to many. He calls it “hell,” but it doesn’t sound much like the lake of fire in the Book of Revelation, does it? If you’re looking for that, or for a live cam on the lake of ice in the ninth circle of Dante’s Inferno, this is not the book for you. It will leave you cold, unless your rage provoked by the author’s ridicule of your beliefs about the Last Things leaves no room in your heart for such milder emotions as disappointment. Make no mistake: David Bentley Hart is an able rhetorician and polemicist.

What a sharp tongue he has:

There are, I admit — unfortunately, I have met some of them — those Christians who are earnestly attached to the idea of an eternal hell not just because they feel they must be, but also because it is what they want to believe. For some of them, in fact, it is practically the best part of the story. It gives them a sense of belonging to a very special club, and they positively relish the prospect of a whole eternity in which to enjoy the impotent envy of all those writhing, resentful souls that have been permanently consigned to an inferior neighborhood outside the gates. That is the sort of prestige that cannot be bought where the common people shop.

Speaking of prestige: By now, in his mid fifties, the itinerant academic and indefatigable essayist (his full curriculum vitae could probably be its own book) has established himself as one of the best theologians writing in English today and as hands down the best writer among contemporary Anglophone theologians. Behold his literary pyrotechnics. I sometimes wonder whether they distract readers from the hard work of sitting down with him and thinking problems through. I suppose that after a point he gets bored with trying to untangle intractable philosophical knots. He’s capable of mischief. If he ends up doodling in the margins, limning the pages with generous applications of sarcasm and color, to relieve the tedium of, say, a necessary excursus on voluntarist theology, do you blame him?

The book has no endnotes. In a section dedicated to “acknowledgments and bibliographic notes,” Hart cites a few major sources, all of them in English. He’s erudite, and it may be that his final product is a symphony composed of the best, and the worst, but in any case the loudest and boldest that has been thought and said about hell, from Jesus himself to Saint Augustine (one of Hart’s bêtes noires) all the way to Thomas Talbott and a whole roster of present-day thinkers on all sides of the universalism controversy, but it’s hard to say. Hart shows his work, so to speak, only in patches. A convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, he’s wont to quote and reference various of the Greek Fathers with enthusiasm. He loves Origen and Gregory of Nyssa especially. When it comes to modern scholars, though, he names names sparingly. Chalk it up to tact, if you like, in recognition of how much of his work is an exercise in intellectual derision and evisceration. The book is published by a university press and is scholarly, but is it scholarship? One thing it’s not is intellectual history.

Call it an essay. It’s an attempt, from several angles, not to deny hell’s existence but to refute a common assumption about the duration of anyone’s residence there. The duration is finite, Hart maintains, and he pours out a cornucopia of arguments to make his case. He has arguments from reason (philosophy), arguments from faith (scripture and patristics), and arguments that can be understood only as members of both categories at once — any gesture toward philosophical reasoning tends to enjoy a benefit of the doubt from conservative Christians if the author is a Church Father in whom some of the authority of sacred tradition has come to be invested.

The most common “infernalist” accounts lean on the notion that eternal damnation is a corollary of human free will, which entails risk. We can choose evil over good. When we do, we must suffer the consequences of our moral error as surely as we must suffer those of playing with fire in a dry forest or of swimming too far from shore during a storm. The moral law is as blind and unforgiving as any law of nature.

Hart rehearses the counterargument that no one is culpable for breaking the moral law if he errs in ignorance or under deception. To someone who chooses evil over good, the evil appears as good or, on the whole, at least better than the alternative. Otherwise he wouldn’t choose the evil. God warned us about the fruit in the garden, but the serpent had a way with words, and we fell under their spell. Our judgment was clouded. We’re mere creatures, after all, limited in our intelligence and willpower. A punishment of infinite duration would be incommensurate with our finite nature and therefore unacceptable to God not only because he’s all-merciful but also because he’s all-just.

Nice chess move. But so what? God may knock the pieces off the board. He’s been known to do that. His ways are not ours. In Genesis, he commands Abraham to kill Isaac, setting a precedent that instills in the mindful believer a respectful wariness, an attitude of fear and trembling before the inscrutable Almighty.

Moreover, God desists from preventing outrages that nature inflicts on human persons and that human persons inflict on one another. To the dulcet theory that the fall of creation is ultimately fortunate because the response it elicits from God is his salvation plan, which, when fully realized, leaves the cosmos more blessed than it would have been had we never lapsed — to that, we might respond, with Hart: No, God is infinitely resourceful. He could have arranged it so that we would enjoy the deepest, richest happiness without having to suffer the slings and arrows of misfortune first.

Why he didn’t is a mystery. It’s at the heart of the theodicy problem, which is the heart of the matter for the universalist. Hart has no patience for the idea that God might be a capricious judge when deciding our eternal destiny, but God is capricious in other matters all the time, at least from our human perspective. An infant notices his mother’s absence but doesn’t know that it’s only momentary. To him it’s the end of the world. He cries out with all his strength, exercising his lungs and vocal cords almost to the breaking point. We smile at him. We call him “dear.” If you bristle at the suggestion that God rightly does the same to us when we wail over our adult afflictions, over massacres or mass shootings or enormities than which none, we feel, could ever be more heinous, fine. Go ahead and bristle.

No philosophical argument for universalism is unanswerable, as far as I can tell. Hart is at his most cogent and engaging when he leaves philosophy for philology and sifts the Greek of the New Testament and Church Fathers. He may be right that “eternal” is not the obvious best translation of every instance of aiōnios, whose primary meaning is something like “age-long.” Hades, the underworld in Greek mythology, and Gehenna, a valley in Jerusalem, are often conflated under the rubric “hell” in translations of the New Testament but perhaps shouldn’t be. The New Testament provides a wealth of vivid images and strong statements, possibly hyperbolic in many cases, that Christians piece together in different configurations to illustrate competing eschatological visions, some of them more layered than others. What has become the default version, in which hell will endure forever as an abscess of unredeemed evil in a cosmos otherwise perfected and glorified, may be flatter than a close reading of the Greek can support.

Granted, belief in the tragedy of eternal damnation is fertile soil. It nourishes much heartfelt Christian devotion. Without it, no Inferno. No Doctor Faustus, either. Those are not sound reasons for rejecting universalism, but they’re strong reasons. A better reason would be that we’re less likely to avoid grave sin if we think that the hell we will go to for punishment will not be forever, although a reading of the Purgatorio might disabuse us of any complacency. Remember that Catholics who appreciate the severity of what is, in effect, hell with a temporal limit offer fervent prayers for the reduction of purgatorial suffering, their own and that of loved ones and even of strangers.

The best reason for rejecting universalism would be that it’s untrue. Is it, though? “We are, as it were, doomed to happiness,” according to Hart. If we are, so be it. Neither his opinion nor yours changes the fact. Consequently, no book on the controversy can be worth fearing or loathing. Here’s one worth reading.

This article appears as “Hell, Yes. Forever? Maybe Not.” in the September 30, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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