That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation
David Bentley Hart
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019
Throughout my reading of That All Shall Be Saved, my thoughts and reactions have organized themselves in such a way that what follows below will more likely read as a personal reflection on the central themes of David Bentley Hart’s book than as a conventional review.
Perhaps I should more accurately describe Hart’s treatise as revolving around a single theme possessing multiple aspects. To those of heaven, hell, and universal salvation foregrounded in his subtitle we must add sin, human freedom and agency, divine love and forgiveness, and the ineffable mode of interplay among these infinitely unequal—but equally indispensable!—divine and human factors in the ultimate fulfilment of God’s loving plan for His creation from before all ages.
The more reflectional than drily summary or critical character of this “book review” arises from my own struggles from my earliest childhood memories (I turn 65 this July) to make sense of the same terrible, unanswerable questions that also began to trouble Hart at a tender age. This I share with him: neither of us probably remembers a time when the all too tidy binary of heaven and hell—with the superaddition of purgatory and limbo, for those of us receiving a classical pre-Vatican II religious formation—did not weigh heavily on the spiritually sensitive imagination of childhood and remain with us into adulthood.
Where Hart and I differ, and starkly, is that for me these questions remain not only unanswered, but indeed unanswerable, and must continue ever so in this life.
Three sketches from childhood:
1). At the age when a child learns to tie his own shoes (four? five?) my mother grew exasperated by my frequent requests that she tie them for me. “When you do something bad,” she explained to me somberly, “the devil writes your name in his book. When do you something good, your guardian angel writes your name in his book. When you die, they compare books to see which one contains your name more times, and the winner gets to keep you for all eternity. The devil writes your name in his book every time you ask me to tie your shoes for you.” Despite my instinctive incredulity that God would send a child to hell for not tying his own shoes, I took no chances. My long-suffering mother had peace, at least from shoe-tying.
2). Three months before my ninth birthday, my mother gave birth to a full-term baby boy, Paul Edward, who died within the hour after the attending nurses hastened to baptize him in the delivery room sink. Fifty-six years later, those terrible days—the tears pouring down my face when my father came home from the hospital to find me jumping up and down in the middle of the kitchen and shouting WHAT DID SHE HAVE?! WHAT DID SHE HAVE?! and he took me upstairs to lie side by side on the bed as he told me the incomprehensible truth; his face blackened with grief as he stumbled from the car to the gravesite, cradling in his arms a coffin not much bigger than the box in which a doll comes; my mother’s unspeakably broken heart when she finally came home, never having seen her baby, not having attended his burial—those terrible days stay with me as if they had happened only yesterday.
Despite the fact that we subsisted at the lower end of middle class in the wrong part of town, my father spared no expense in providing a tombstone topped with a child angel, both the stone and the angel in white Carrara marble, for the son and brother we never saw but loved immeasurably. The inscription reads: Our Little Angel. Paul Edward SanFilippo. April 11, 1964. My children grew up knowing about Pauly, and now my grandchildren. With both of my parents gone, I pay for the upkeep of my baby brother’s grave. Dear friends plant flowers there every spring.
Across the drive from Pauly’s grave, among the unkempt grass and weeds at the edge of a ravine that drops steeply into a bottomless abyss of tangled briars and brush, stands a haphazard row of rough, handmade crosses tilting this way and that, a forlorn, silent testimony to their own weather-beaten forgottenness down the years. “Mom! What are those?” I cried out one day, noticing them for the first time on one of our visits to the cemetery to see Pauly. “That’s where the unbaptized babies are buried,” she replied, “because they don’t go to heaven.” Everything inside my innocent soul revolted. I almost vomited.
3). For better or for worse, our earthly fathers stand in as a kind of iconic proxy for our heavenly Father. It cannot be otherwise: the vocabulary of divine and human paternity allows for no other psychological possibility than to project our image of our fathers on earth—whether benevolent or malevolent—onto our Father in heaven.
Apart from his entirely uncharacteristic tenderness in that snapshot moment when he told me that Pauly was dead, my father’s physically, verbally, and emotionally brutal treatment of me started in my very earliest memories and lasted intermittently until he died nine years ago. (The physical assaults stopped when I was 14 and finally struck back. After that he never laid a finger on me.) His capacity to fly into a violent rage infinitely out of proportion to how a child, teenager, or even adult could possibly offend him, to mete out a perverted “justice” in a paroxysm of uncontrollable passion, now evokes a bottomless wellspring of compassion in my aging heart as I ponder the unknown demons that must have tormented him. Yet he inflicted on me an incalculably deep wound, both psychological and spiritual, the healing of which remains a lifelong project: psychological, as I struggle endlessly to love my own self after my father convinced me over a lifetime of my unlovability; and spiritual, as I struggle to bring my mind down into my heart, there to unite my intellectual knowledge to my experiential knowledge that God is not like Dad. “Call no man on earth your father” sheds divine illumination on infinitely more than the comparatively silly matter of acceptable and unacceptable clerical honorifics.
These three painful sketches from my early life serve, I hope, to illustrate two points:
First, we who form different conclusions from David Bentley Hart on the question of heaven and hell come by them no less honestly than he professes to have done, through no less a spiritual expenditure of blood, sweat, and tears, with sighs and groans too deep for words as each of us stands the first among sinners in the presence of God. Yet on virtually every single page of his book he treats us to his imagined intellectual superiority on full display (with “And I know Greek!” thrown in with embarrassing puerility as some sort of coup de grâce) and his unremitting mockery of the intelligence, spirituality, and piety of those of us who disagree with him to any degree whatever.
Second—and here I imagine that Hart will concur fully—not only can bad theology create a monstrously false idol in place of the triune God who reveals Himself as infinite love, tenderness, sweetness, compassion, and mercy, but also bad fathering and even the mindless ploy of a wonderful but overworked mother trying to get her little guy to tie his shoes. Years later, Mom and I laughed that she could have ever said such a thing. Yet, on some subconscious spiritual and emotional level, I think that her thoughtlessness that day, while thoroughly lacking in malice, continued for many years to occupy a small place in my conception of a God who both loved me and looked for any opportunity to trip me up. Well into my mid or late 20s, somewhere deep and inaccessible inside me, I remained convinced that, at any moment and without warning, He was out to get me.
In the fallen, sinful conditions of human life, the divine image which we bear but have sullied beyond all recognition, and the divine likeness which we fail every day of our lives to acquire, have the tragically inevitable effect of creating and perpetuating in one another’s sight countless terrifying idols which have no resemblance to the God so great as our God—the God who unceasingly does wonders of love for all the creatures visible and invisible that He has brought from nonexistence into being, and this for no other purpose than to love us and to share His uncreated life, beauty, and joy with us.
An argument which relies so much on bullying tactics is perhaps an argument not worth making. People who have read more Hart than I, or who have heard him speak publicly, or who even know him somewhat personally, all assure me that That All Shall Be Saved accurately reflects his personality and his characteristic mode of argumentation. Certainly, after reading my first ever work by him, I have no interest in reading anything else of his.
This is unfortunate. When I read a Florensky, a Bulgakov, a Lossky, an Evdokimov, a Clément, a Stăniloae, a Yannaras, etc. etc.—with whom I by no means agree on every point—they make me want to pray more, attend church more, try more to be a saint. They make me want to read everything of theirs on which I can lay my hands.
Hart has no such effect on me—in the same way (if most assuredly not to the same degree) that a Farley, a Jacobse, a Trenham, a Parker, a Damick, a Whiteford, etc. etc., have no such effect on me. These priests make me want to scrub with disinfectant and a steel wool pad, and flee as from the plague from anything else bearing their name in the byline.
This is unfortunate because, entirely unlike the afore-named priests, Hart clearly possesses gifts as a thinker and writer. Both in chronicling the perverse paths down which a rigidly doctrinaire Christian infernalism has strayed historically, and in setting forth the case for why we must find these theological perversions utterly repugnant, he acquits himself masterfully. When at length he paraphrases St. Gregory of Nyssa, in more than one place, Hart’s prose nearly soars. It comes close to having the same inward effect on me as that of his predecessors, elders, and betters in modern Orthodox theology.
Interestingly, it was Hart’s fans—appearing with some regularity in my Facebook and Twitter feeds, and also in one or two brief discussions in Orthodoxy in Dialogue’s Facebook group—who convinced me a priori that I would find his book largely unsatisfactory, and this for three reasons.
First, a few of them urged me to read the book for content and to overlook the author’s overweening arrogance (a first in Orthodox theology for me).
Second, most of them that I have encountered online adopt the same haughty tone as Hart in their Aha! and Gotcha! and You don’t know nothing! defense of their newfound Hartian universalism. I must confess to finding it rather cute when some youngster who converted to Orthodoxy only yesterday (or is still a catechumen!) tells me that I do not understand the Orthodox faith…because I disagree with David Bentley Hart?
Third (and here we come finally to Hart’s content), a long lifetime of studying and internalizing Orthodox theology, and of experiencing the theology of the Orthodox Church in her Holy Mysteries, her liturgy, her prayer—however paltry my experience in my sinfulness—leaves me no room to accept a rigidly doctrinaire universalism as any more compatible with Orthodox faith and spirituality than a rigidly doctrinaire infernalism.
In my understanding of the question of heaven and hell from an Orthodox perspective—wherein I make no claims to be indisputably correct!—the content of That All Shall Be Saved suffers from three defects:
First: Hart’s favourite word seems to be “I,” and his second favourite word, “me.” This matters because the mind of David Bentley Hart, on this or any other question, should interest Orthodox Christians far less than the mind of the Church, for “we (not the Holy Apostle Paul, not St. Gregory of Nyssa, not David Bentley Hart, and most certainly not Giacomo Sanfilippo, but we as Church) have the mind of Christ.” Nowhere in Hart’s book do I detect any awareness on his part that the lifelong task of an Orthodox Christian consists in the discernment and acquisition of the mind of the Church, by slow degrees and through an unending intellectual and spiritual ascesis in our quest for perfect love, consubstantiality, and undividedness with one another in communion with the All-Holy Trinity: Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess the consubstantial and undivided Trinity. In a certain very real sense, each Orthodox believer mystically embodies the Church, whole and entire, within his or her very self—but always the Church as we, never as I myself. This makes the ascetical renunciation of our individualistic mind, in pursuit of an ecclesial mind, all the more incumbent on the Orthodox believer.
In fact, were it not for Wikipedia and the bio on the jacket of Hart’s book (with its smugly self-satisfied photo of the author), nothing between the two covers would have indicated to me that he is in fact Orthodox and not just an admirer of certain theological trends within early “Eastern Christianity.”
In this connection it seems significant that, while Hart correctly notes the distinction common to Orthodox theology between the individual and the person, and defines the person as a being in communion with other persons, he fails to take the final step required by Orthodox anthropology and ecclesiology: namely, that the person “in Christ” is not merely a communitarian being, but more precisely an ecclesial being. Thus Hart embarks on his project from start to finish as an unapologetic individualist—notwithstanding that he finds one church father (just one?) who said everything on universal salvation that Hart wants him to have said.
Second: After his trenchant indictment of Western Christianity for its overreliance on St. Augustine, eventuating in successive, ever worse deformations in Catholic and Protestant theology over the next millennium and a half (and at least the West had an excuse, in that Latin churchmen with little or no access to the Greek language of the Eastern fathers had virtually no one but Augustine from the early patristic era), Hart (who “knows Greek!”) adopts—without any trace of self-awareness—an overreliance on St. Gregory of Nyssa to construct the presumptively logically coherent, but traditionally unbalanced eschatology to which he already swears fealty a priori.
(Some postmodernist Orthodox thinkers similarly rely on Gregory, to the near exclusion of anyone or anything else in Holy Tradition, to evacuate binarial gender utterly of all meaning.)
History has shown repeatedly that a near exclusivist fixation on one or another thread in the tapestry of Holy Tradition—including in Scripture itself (which ever occupies, for us Orthodox, its preeminent place within Tradition)—results inevitably in a tendency toward heresy of one degree or another. A particular reading of St. Cyril of Alexandria leads to monophysitism. Arianism, pneumatomachianism, Nestorianism, Origenism, monothelitism, iconoclasm, Lutheranism, Calvinism, Anabaptism, papal infallibleism and supremacism, biblical inerrantism, and virtually every other heresy ever to make landfall in the Christian world, have all been “scripturally based.”
Yet, unlike the witting or unwitting progenitors of all these other isms and asms, Augustine—no less than Cyril—retains his rightful place in the canon of Orthodox saints
It seems beyond dispute—and here, Hart should take especial note—that all the “great heresies” of the conciliar era of the 4th to 8th centuries (and perhaps all the “lesser” heresies, as well) derive from an inability or unwillingness to embrace the essentially antinomical character of Christian doctrine and the corollary attempt to replace it with something more coherent to human logic.
Third: Hart’s framing of the problem of heaven and hell as a question ultimately to be resolved by human logic, together with his apparent repudiation of the essentially antinomical character of Holy Tradition as we have received it from all of our forefathers and foremothers (and not just from one or another handpicked church father), leads him to commit what I see as the following errors: he dismisses out of hand everything within Tradition that proves inconvenient to his postulate; he reduces divine love to little more than a philosophical abstraction—his relentlessly bombastic tone makes one wonder if he has ever experienced drowning in the bottomless ocean of divine love, such as God in His infinite grace and mercy grants even to the very least of His servants (here I am reminded of the most beautiful of St. Silouan the Athonite’s words: How could I do other than seek Thee, for Thou didst first seek and find me…and my soul fell to loving Thee); and, in a supreme twist of irony, in the end he fails even at the level of human logic—or more precisely, at the level of a logically coherent theodicy.
The terrible dilemma to which Christian theodicy attempts to respond—the question of how evil and suffering can exist in a world created by God as very beautiful—cannot be trivialized. Any sentient Christian believer must agonize through this and similar questions as he or she looks around at the endless tally of human, political, martial, economic, and ecological horrors unfolding around us day by day as heaven looks on in deafening silence.
Hart posits the question (and rightly so) over against the notion of an eternal hell: How (I paraphrase) can a God who is not only omnipotent but omniscient, and not only omniscient but prescient, and not only prescient but infinitely loving, create a single human person—let alone a countless multitude of human persons—foreknowing from all eternity that he or she will one day die and enter into a realm of unimaginable, endless torments from which there can never be any escape?
Why stop at an eternal hell? Why would an all-powerful, all-knowing, foreknowing, infinitely loving God create the creators and denizens of the infinite variety of hells on earth from the beginning of human history to the present day? Why did He create Hitler and Stalin and their victims, foreknowing what would happen? Why did He create slave traders and slave owners and the slaves themselves, foreknowing what would happen? Why did He create the “explorers” and colonizers and (the more correctly named) conquistadors and their royal patrons and the peoples that they would subjugate, brutalize, rape, and murder around the planet, foreknowing what would happen? Why does He create babies destined for the physical and emotional trauma of their own abortion, and why does He create their mothers and abortion providers, foreknowing what will happen? Why did He create my baby brother Pauly, so horrifically deformed that his own poor mother and mine was not allowed to see him before or after he died? Why did He create those other babies, whose parents’ Church dictated that they be cast off to the other side of the road from the rest of the cemetery, among the weeds and the briars, never to be remembered again?
Why did He create the human species at all, foreknowing what would happen?
Where was God ten years ago, when a little Pakistani girl was crossing a large field all alone, the only human being in sight for miles around, and a box of pro-US pamphlets was dropped from a military plane and landed, not three inches ahead of her, not three inches behind her, not three inches to her left or to her right, but square on her head and killed her?
During my four years of atheism (2008 to 2012, a story for another time), I raged over these questions against He Who Isn’t.
Returning to Christ and to the Orthodox faith only through an act of divine grace and mercy even to the likes of me, I did not, could not, leave these questions at the door of the church. They continue to torment me every day, and will continue until I draw my last breath in this valley of tears, of people starving on the sidewalks of our finest cities as in the villages of the most underprivileged places on earth, of children beaten by their own parents and children raped by priests, of spattered blood, of mangled corpses, of dead, shattered bones.
And if hell is to be but “temporary” (does Hart actually subscribe to the Roman doctrine of Purgatory without calling it that?), what sort of infinitely loving God tortures human beings for a “little while” after our endlessly tortured life in this hell that Eden has become?
I am sorry. No theodicy, and certainly no “human logic,” possesses or ever can possess the answer to the unanswerable. No theodicy or human logic which glibly dismisses the hypothetical hell that we do not see, without accounting for the real hell that we do see all around us in God’s “very beautiful” world, is worthy of our time.
Be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world, our Saviour reassures us. But human logic, and broken human hearts, look around at the world and scream, It’s not true! What can we do, but strive to hold fast to His words in our weeping hearts, to hold fast to them with what remnants of faith, hope, and love we can muster when everything around us points to the contrary?
Keep your mind in hell, but do not despair.
St. Silouan the Athonite
Two or three years ago, an Anglican colleague in theological studies sat with me at supper in our student residence and asked, “What’s the Orthodox position on universal salvation?” I replied that we hope for the salvation of all—even of the fallen angels—and we pray for the salvation of all, but we cross the line into heresy if we proclaim the inevitable salvation of all. If eternal salvation is guaranteed to all, why liturgically do we pray for our salvation and not just proclaim it? Why do we pray for the dead? Why do we have funerals and not the increasingly popular “celebrations of life,” complete with helium balloons, peppy music, and “eulogies” to make people laugh? Why does the Apostle exhort us to work out our salvation in fear and in trembling?
The possibility of an eternal hell must remain, at least hypothetically, as the tragic corollary of angelic and human freedom, which God respects absolutely as He stands humbly at the door and knocks. (To claim, as Hart seems to do, that God created us free, but not sufficiently free, seems to smell of another heresy altogether. We must believe that, even in our fallen state, we possess by grace all things necessary to collaborate, or not, in the work of our salvation.)
Rigidly doctrinaire universalists and infernalists have this fundamental assumption in common: they’re off the hook, insofar as universalists believe that hell is for no one, and infernalists, that hell is for other people.
At the conclusion of my remarks to my Anglican friend, I said: “I had better hope for universal salvation, I had better pray for universal salvation, because Orthodox spirituality teaches me that, if there is one man left in hell, it will be me.” Then, unexpectedly, I started to cry.
But there’s the nub, isn’t it? It’s not because I need a place for Hitler, or for Stalin, much less for unbaptized babies, that I must hold to the possibility of hell. It’s because I need a place for me.
Do I recommend That All Shall Be Saved? I might, but only with the qualification that it be read in conversation with two other authors and priests, one Orthodox and the other Catholic: Father Pavel Florensky’s much more intellectual, spiritual, humble, nuanced, and traditional “Gehenna” in The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, originally published in 1914 when he was 32 years of age (but written in his 20s); and Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s equally intellectual, spiritual, humble, nuanced—and decidedly less traditional, but utterly fascinating, because he approaches eschatology as a scientist, through the lens of evolutionary science—The Future of Man, a collection of essays written from 1920 to 1952, when he was between 39 and 71 years of age. These remind us that the modern theological interest in eschatology and universal salvation is not new to our generation, but has a respectable genealogy which does not allow David Bentley Hart to have the final word on the matter.
See our Call for Book Summaries and Reviews if you would like to review a book for us or summarize a book that you have written or edited.
Giacomo Sanfilippo is an Orthodox Christian, PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto, founding editor at Orthodoxy in Dialogue, former priest, father of five, and grandfather of two. He holds a BA in Sexuality Studies from York University and an MA in Theology from Regis College/St. Michael’s College, both in Toronto, is an alumnus of the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto, and completed the course requirements for the MDiv earlier in life at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. Follow him on Twitter @GiacoSanfilippo.