Book Review: That All Shall Be Saved

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That All Shall Be Saved Book Review

I enjoyed reading this new book from the legendary David Bentley Hart (henceforth DBH), but was overall underwhelmed. Simply put, whilst attempting to tackle a big question, this book has some big problems. I would argue that That All shall be Saved suffers from bombast and over-done rhetoric, consistent misrepresentation of positions and people the author disagrees with, and a surprising lack of breadth and depth.

A key issue, I would argue, is a rather anaemic portrayal of God – which is particularly visible in the strange Christology and almost absent pneumatology of the book. This is echoed, perhaps appropriately, with a very poor theological anthropology – that singularly fails to account for all kinds of people, let alone treat people with the respect that being made in the Image of God should accord one another.

Whilst reading this book I’ve also been reading and enjoying David F. Wells’ God in the Whirlwind, now a few years old, which engages some and more of the issues of this book far more helpfully. Even the Psalm I read this morning (Psalm 131) is a challenge to Hart’s approach:

My heart is not proud, Lord,
    my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
    or things too wonderful for me.
But I have calmed and quieted myself,
    I am like a weaned child with its mother;
    like a weaned child I am content.

Israel, put your hope in the Lord
    both now and forevermore.

Sadly, this book is not the persuasive case for universalism that it sets itself out to be. For more about why I write that, you can read 4,000-ish words of analysis below.


For some more in depth thoughts, do keep reading. Hart’s book is a contemporary and serious approach to the possibility of Universalism, and it would be churlish to simply cast aside his observations and argument solely on the issues of tone and misrepresentation that I’ve identified. Briefly, That All Shall Be Saved takes three parts to make his case that _. Firstly, ‘The Question of an Eternal Hell’. This section, which in my opinion is the weakest, considers the framing of the the question, and what are in DBH’s view the weaknesses of traditional answers. Secondly, ‘Apokatastasis: Four Meditations’. Here DBH sketches the shape of his argument – pondering God, Judgement, Humanity, and Freedom. Finally and thirdly, DBH offers his final remarks ‘What May Be Believed’.

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Firstly, then, DBH’s introductory section. At first reading, this is the weakest part of the book. This is in part because of the bombast of the position he sketches: “if Christianity taken as a whole is indeed an entirely coherent and credible system of belief, then the universalist understanding of its message is the only one possible. And, quite imprudently, I say that without the least hesitation or qualification.” It should not be uncontroversial to respond to that position with reasonable doubt. To claim that a position within the grand bounds of Christian orthodoxy is ‘the only one possible’ is a dangerous thing – though not an unreasonable or unimaginable thing in and of itself. Indeed, it is core to Christianity that Jesus is Lord and others are not, and that God is triune. I would simply observe that DBH is making a claim that the rest of the book doesn’t seem to support. There does seem to be an authorial awareness of this – “I know I cannot reasonably expect to per­suade anyone of anything, except perhaps of my sincerity. The whole endeavor may very well turn out to be pointless in the end“. What is interesting that this humility barely lasts a whole page, let alone a chapter, as DBH writes “this is not the first public exposition of my views, but I intend it to be more or less the last“. It is one thing to say that one has written their final words on something, but it is another to accuse other thinkers of various things (more later) and then say that the argument is circular and repetitive. In which case, why write something at all?

Still on the introduction, it is clear to this reader at least that in writing this book DBH is engaged in some personal emotional work. This is to be expected – good theology is always personal, prayerful, and invested in the world. And the question of salvation, universal or otherwise, is surely a question that should be encountered and engaged with at a deep level. DBH offers a tantalising carrot to the reader, off the back of invoking the great Lewis Carrol concept of believing six impossible things before breakfast:

I have encountered far subtler pictures of perdition and, at tedious length, have mastered all of the more common arguments for the moral intelligibility of the idea of a hell of eternal torment, not to mention a good number of the un­common ones. None of these, however, has ever persuaded me of anything, except perhaps the lengths of specious reason­ ing to which even very intelligent persons can go when they feel bound by faith to believe something inherently incredible. And, to be honest, even if any versions of those arguments did seem plausible to me, they would still fail to move me, since no versions deal adequately with the actual question that to me seems the most obvious and most crucial—at least, if one truly believes that Christianity offers any kind of cogent pic­ture of reality.

It is one thing to raise questions – it is quite another to set up such a storm of rhetoric that reader is meant to be swept along, without ever actually explaining what is going on. Hence, at one point, we read “God, of course, ought not to be measured by the moral imagination of even as great a poet as Dante—or, for that mat­ter, by anyone else’s.” It is rather glaring that DBH does not explicitly exclude himself from this – as he goes on to do pretty much exactly that for just over 200 pages. Some readers of my review may comment that I’m going above and beyond what a review of a book like this should do – in response to that I offer DBH’s own words about those who believe in any alternative to his own view:

In my ex­perience, these kinds of believers can often be found among converts from one version of the faith to what they take to be an older, purer version—say, former Evangelicals who have embraced an especially severe form of traditionalist Catholi­ cism or an especially fideistic kind of Eastern Orthodoxy or an especially siccative brand of orthodox Calvinism. I cannot help but see them as victims of their own diseased emotional con­ ditions; and I have no doubt that, if one were to inquire deeply into their pasts, one would encounter any number of depress­ingly mundane psychological explanations for their heartless­ness. Whatever the case, however, I refuse to believe that they are a particularly numerous or representative faction among believers. I still insist that most putative believers in an eternal hell do not really believe in it at all, but rather merely believe in their belief in it

I think it is fair to say that it is one thing to say that someones’ beliefs are wrong – for instance, I think that a high Roman Catholic Mariology is misguided – but quite another to say that believing such a belief makes someone wrong. I thus think it is quite reasonable to be bemused when a reasonably senior scholar causally dismisses colleagues and other Christians as ’emotionally diseased’, or ‘heartless’. Ironically, this makes much more than necessary of the individual mind, a flaw which is seen elsewhere in this book.

With that in mind, I would briefly note some of the helpful things in this first part of the book. Unfortunately, they are few and far between. DBH rightly observes that talking about theology is complex: “it is not God we are trying to judge when we voice our moral alarm at the idea of an eternal hell, but only the stories we are accustomed to telling about him.” Amen. This is a helpful observation about theology and its practice. Sadly, this is almost immediately followed by a statement that quite literally made me laugh out loud as I read it: “There is little more that needs to be said at this point. I have posed the questions that I have always found the most trou­bling with regard to talk of hell, and I have rejected the answers typically advanced against the doubts I have raised“. Simply put, this first part of the book does nothing of the sort – the questions are raised and then very little is engaged with. To be charitable, DBH does offer a powerful emotional case for the importance of thinking through whether everyone is saved – but there is little more in this first section than that.

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The opening meditation of the second section of That All shall be Saved starts in a more irenic tone but arguably slides back into rhetorical bombast. One slightly grating technique – not least from the perspective of reading, which is what a book should enable – is the random tossing of tangents into the middle of paragraphs. The overall effect of statements such as “(not that I have any desire to enter into that debate here)” is to minimise dissent and subtly demonstrate the superiority of DBH’s position – without substantively demonstrating the reality of that. 75 pages in, however, DBH does at least clarify what he is attempting to argue for:

The position I want to at­tempt to argue, therefore, to see how well it holds together, is far more extreme: to wit, that, if Christianity is in any way true, Christians dare not doubt the salvation of all, and that any understanding of what God accomplished in Christ that does not include the assurance of a final apokatastasis in which all things created are redeemed and joined to God is ultimately entirely incoherent and unworthy of rational faith.

This is an attractive position, and does have the benefit of being interesting, and attempting to be rooted in the goodness of God. DBH is self-aware enough to write that “I would not make it if I did not earnestly believe every alternative view of the matter to be ultimately unsustainable“. And here we start to read a set of very nicely put theological assertions that I, for one, struggled to see as directly relating to the shape of the argument or the substance of his case. For example, “my particular concern is the general principle that the doctrine of creation constitutes an assertion regarding the eternal identity of God” is rightly linked to eschatology, but in a way that I would suggest is overly ‘flat’ and not taking into account the complexity of creation, nor the broader vision of eschatology that we see in the Bible (particularly Revelation and some Old Testament Prophetic literature) and Church tradition.

I did appreciate DBH’s honest appraisal of the Reformed tradition, rightly or wrongly, offering at least a consistent account of the various aspects of God’s character; “Reformed tradition is com­ mendable in this regard for the simple intellectual honesty with which it elevates divine sovereignty to the status of the absolute theological value”, though I would observe that he does not particularly unpack what this sovereignty is like. If God is King, what kind of King is God, and what is God’s Kingdom like? I wonder whether DBH might have benefitted here from unpacking this – rather than merely using the Reformed tradition as a sort of ‘useful idiot’ to ‘demonstrate’ the validity of his case. I found myself wanting to cry out on behalf of a range of theological positions I personally don’t hold – which are simply brushed aside rather than engaged with.

Generally speaking, this first meditation focuses less on God and the doctrine of creation and more on various classic tropes of the conversation around universalism. This is the classic appeal to Hitler: simply put, Hitler was so bad that he at least is in hell, and so hell exists. Bluntly, this is not why theologians before or after Hitler believed in Hell and its reality. DBH writes “For what it is worth, I for one do not object in the least to Hitler being purged of his sins and saved, over however many aeons of inconceivably painful purification in hell that might take, but I do most definitely object to Hitler fixed for­ ever in his sins serving as my redeemer in some shadow eter­ nity of perpetual torment, offering up his screams of agony as the price of my hope for salvation“. Here, I think, DBH is somewhat confused between the radical, shocking nature of God’s love and grace (even Hitler could indeed be saved), and the equally radical, shocking nature of God’s justice and holiness (without Christ, sin has consequences). By appealing again and again to ‘God is love’ without exploring up to this point what that actually means, this first meditation is frustratingly empty.

I noted above that in amongst the rhetoric and unsupported hyperbole are some genuinely very helpful summaries of deep theological ideas. DBH is clearly a fantastic theological communicator! For example, I wholeheartedly agree with the careful and joyful statement that “The New Testament, to a great degree, consists in an eschatological interpretation of Hebrew scripture’s story of creation, finding in Christ, as eternal Logos and risen Lord, the unifying term of beginning and end. For Paul in particular, the marvel of Christ’s lordship is that all walls of division between persons and peoples, and finally between all creatures, have fallen, and that ultimately, when creation is restored by Christ.” We are again in eschatological language – unsurprisingly – but it is not clear what form of eschatology DBH is espousing. There is something hauntingly sad in some of his closing words, that “If he is not the savior of all, the Kingdom is only a dream, and creation some­ thing considerably worse than a nightmare.” Thankfully, I believe, God does not conform to this shadow image, and instead offers something deeper and greater and more glorious than what DBH is sketching.

The second meditation, ‘What is Judgement? A Reflection on Biblical Eschatology’, opens with a robust articulation of what DBH means by ‘biblical‘. It is typically dismissive of some positions, but reassuringly he writes “Neither, however, am I so recklessly speculative as to imagine that Christians are allowed to make any theological pronouncements in total abstraction from or contradiction of scripture.” This is not a position that does not take the Bible seriously – though there are some broad strokes. However, DBH is surely right when he observes that “Nowhere is there any description of a kingdom of perpetual cruelty presided over by Satan, as though he were a kind of chthonian god.” It is important to clarify what is meant by talk of ‘hell’, and a cartoonish caricature that owes more to Milton or Disney than the biblical data is surely something that all Christians should push back against.

DBH goes on, however, to argue that “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.” This is an important argument – yet it is somewhat surprising that, particularly in invoking the Pauline corpus, DBH seems somewhat context/genre blind. Pauls letters are not (technically speaking) general statements about everything, meant to be read by anyone, but rather primarily letters to churches. This is not an uncontroversial point, but DBH seems willing to overlook it in pursuit of his argument. Indeed, when he does comment on what kinds of texts the various parts of the Bible are or aren’t, it is somewhat shocking to read that his view of Revelation:

I suppose one cannot really discuss New Testament escha­tology without considering the book of Revelation. I have to be honest, though: I tend not to think of it as a book about eschatology as such. Admittedly, it is so arcane a text that any absolute pronouncements on its nature or meaning are almost certainly misguided. But, even so, I really do not think one can make sense of it according to any simple division between history and eternity, or between time and time’s ending, despite all its extravagant apocalyptic imagery of a world destroyed and restored.

It is one thing to ignore the context and audience of Paul’s letters, it is quite another to make a claim like this about the book of Revelation. Perhaps Ian Paul should send DBH a copy of his Grove Booklet and recent commentary on Revelation! Revelation is a complex book, but it is a brave scholar indeed to claim that it is not about eschatology, or a form of apocalyptic literature. DBH’s treatment of the gospels, however, seems to me to be rather more balanced. The claims made by DBH, however, are surely debatable:

The texts of the gospels simply make no obvious claim about a place or state of endless suffering; and, again, the complete absence of any such notion in the Pauline corpus (or, for that matter, in John’s gospel, or in the other New Testament epistles, or in the earliest Christian documents of the post­apostolic church, such as the Didache and the writings of the “Apostolic Fathers,” and so forth) makes the very concept nearly as historically sus­pect as it is morally repellant.

DBH is surely right to challenge popular views of hell and the devil – little demons with red forks and horns, for example, but it is one thing to challenge complete fabrication that bears no relation to the biblical text, and quite another to make a claim like that above without substantiation. He sums up his view “My own view, in the end, is that it is absurd to treat any of the New Testament’s eschatological language as contain­ ing, even in nuce, some sort of exact dogmatic definition of the literal conditions of the world to come“. This, surely, is a strange way of writing off the book of Revelation, let alone narrative passages throughout the wider New Testament corpus, and perhaps most importantly Paul’s description of the bodily resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. DBH’s dismissal of John’s distinct theological voice is particularly confusing, given the general consensus among scholars that John is quite an eschatological evangelist! Overall, then, DBH’s second meditation is stronger than the first, but makes some strange moves that I’m not convinced by.

The third meditation is one I was particularly interested in, given my own research, reading and interests: ‘What is a Person? A Reflection on the Divine Image’. This was, however, relatively disappointing. DBH focuses almost exclusively on one text, On the Making of Humanity from one author, Gregory of Nyssa. Whilst a narrow focus is not in of itself a problem, I found it hard to see what it was that Gregory was saying that bore much relationship to his wider argument. DBH fails at any point, in my reading, to establish something that he assumes, namely “a sober consideration of any truly coherent account of what it means to be a person“. It seems particularly strange to mention Genesis 1:26-27 without exploring meaningfully what ‘image’ might mean, particularly given the way that theme is taken up in the New Testament.

A couple of friends kindly pointed out that I originally did not directly engage with DBH’s primary argument in this section – namely that, broadly speaking, no one can be truly saved unless everyone is saved, due to the relational nature of humanity. This argument is based on what I would argue is a relatively flat and uninteresting view of the future – that we will all feel and be the same way that we are now. I wonder if Jesus’ teaching in Luke 16, the complex parable of Lazarus and the Rich man, offers a corrective. Here we have a clear insight – whether allegorical, metaphorical, literal or otherwise – into Jesus’ understanding of the future. Clearly, the rich man is being tormented and Lazarus (and Abraham) are ‘somewhere else’. Simplistically, this story challenges’ DBH’s understanding – instead of acting with what we might call compassion, Abraham is clear and forthright in explaining the reality of what is going on. Perhaps the transformation of the full coming of the Kingdom of God will make things different from how they are now? Certainly, it seems to me that this argument is relatively meaningless when considered in the wider context of the transformation involved in the future, and the specific example of this story from the mouth of Jesus.

In fact, DBH’s exploration of human identity is as brief as it is puzzling. Rightly noting that “There is no such thing as a person in separation“, echoing the relational nature of humanity as imaging God who is in God’s-self an eternal community of relating persons (the Trinity), we then read that “Each per­son is a body within the body of humanity, which exists in its proper nature only as the body of Christ.” This is a fascinating statement that seems to run roughshod over the shape of the biblical narrative – somehow reducing non-Christian humans to some form of subhuman status. It is one thing to say that true humanity is found only in and through Christ, and quite another to insist upon salvation as being necessary to recognise that another person is human. I’ve written briefly about this in relation to another problematic book. There is also the concern, again echoing another book I found a serious problem with, that DBH is painting a picture of humanity that is particularly reliant on human cognition, ‘memory’ and personal identity. It seems that there is a gaping hole in the theological anthropology here – in an attempt to include everyone in redeemed humanity, DBH seems to emphasise only a certain kind of humanity. What kind of vision is this for those of us who love infants, the severely mentally disabled, or the coma patients? This leads, perhaps, on to the final meditation.

The fourth and final meditation is tantalisingly titled, ‘What is Freedom? A Reflection on the Rational Will’. As with previous collections of thoughts – to call these meditations a sustained argument is to somewhat stretch what is written on the page – there are some pertinent and provocatively helpful observations, for example the entirely reasonable idea that “Really, on the whole, Christians rarely pay particularly close attention to what the Bible actually says”. Unfortunately, this is soon contrasted with assertions looking for substantiation and a strange obsession with anthropomorphising theological positions and being disgusted by them, without actually explaining why. Clearly, I don’t understand reality. The most charitable thing I can write about what DBH is doing in this chapter is to observe that he is either wilfully misrepresenting those he disagrees with (by not doing them the courtesy of quoting them at length), or ignoring articulations that challenge his ‘big idea’. Freedom is barely explored, but that problem is put to one side as the reader encounters a hopeful sentence: “So here I want to gather up the half­-statements I have left littering the path behind me to this point, and try to integrate them into a somewhat more continuous pattern of claims.

DBH finally decides to define freedom: “Freedom is a being’s power to flourish as what it naturally is, to become ever more fully what it is. The freedom of an oak seed is its uninterrupted growth into an oak tree. The freedom of a rational spirit is its consummation in union with God.” Whilst attractive, this is an interesting way to articulate it to say the least. It seems to me to be a creature-focused definition – and surely one that most human lives make an unintended mockery of. Then, freedom is redeployed , as DBH writes that “To be fully free is to be joined to that end for which our natures were originally framed, and for which, in the deepest reaches of our souls, we ceaselessly yearn.” This, to me, seems logically inconsistent, at least in terms of how most people talk about freedom, or how Christian theology has generally understood free will. Ironically, perhaps, DBH ends up fashioning a theology that fulfils the role of his Calvinist bogeyman – a God who allows no freed, a God who does not do justice in any meaningful way, in order to justify his own articulation of universalism. The fact that DBH again appeals to the reader reveals a weak anthropology – relying on a certain level of intellectual sophistication to engage with truth and grace is a sobering and dangerous idea.

Here, perhaps, is the strange paradox of this book. In my Christian life I have broadly come across two kinds of Christians. Firstly, and most numerously, those who believe in some form of ‘free will’, and who therefore believe that choice plays a part in the binary destinations of ‘heaven and hell’. Secondly, and less numerously (I would place myself in this camp, and should probably explain that at some point) are those who are classic ‘double Calvinists’, placing the results of the same destination entirely in the hands and will of God. DBH, on the other hand, writes that “God frees souls by dragging them to himself.” The Calvinist would say ‘Amen’, with a caveat of justice, whilst those from the former camp might be puzzled at this seemingly abusive form of love.

To attempt to draw these threads together, then, DBH is not really offering anything new. In fact, it seems to this young reader that there is some serious confusion here. In the closing stage of this fourth and final reflection we come across some rather muddled Christology: “Christians are obliged to regard Jesus as having been a truly free creature during his life among human beings. Whatever powers he may have possessed by virtue of his divine nature, insofar as he was wholly human he must have lacked nothing intrinsic to whatever it is that makes human beings rational agents“. This is later unpacked in a way that is less alarming, but there is a strange undercurrent of frustration with historic orthodox Christology that makes DBH’s writing here rather hard to pin down. There is an interesting interlude on the possibility of an annihilationist perspective being ‘biblical’ in the view of the author – but is ultimately judged as unsatisfying.

The opening words of the final part of this book give us a startling insight into the author’s process: “Custom dictates and prudence advises that here, in closing, I wax gracefully disingenuous and declare that I am uncertain in my conclusions, that I offer them only hesitantly, that I entirely understand the views of those that take the opposite side of the argument, and that I fully respect contrary opinions on these matters. I find, however, whether on account of principle or of pride, that I am simply unable to do this“. I respect the author’s right to hold an opinion, and indeed to write it down – but the minute that something is ‘out there’, it is by definition part of a conversation. It does not seem as though DBH is open to the normal rules of conversation – which is doubly frustrating given the overall underwhelming nature of That All shall be Saved.

To conclude this review, I could note as other reviewers have that DBH is pretty ahistorical (not least in his strange refusal to let his imagined opponents speak for themselves in the form of quotations, if they even exist), as well as pretty abysmal regarding tone and theological anthropology. Another review, which some are seeing as positive, notes that reality is perhaps more complex than DBH admits, and that to focus on Hart would be to miss the point! I would add to this that Hart, whilst entertaining to read, is so ‘out there’ on so many key elements of the things he’s talking about that it would be hard enough to be persuaded even if the book contained a sustained argument. I remind readers again of Hart’s big idea:

The position I want to at­tempt to argue, therefore, to see how well it holds together, is far more extreme: to wit, that, if Christianity is in any way true, Christians dare not doubt the salvation of all, and that any understanding of what God accomplished in Christ that does not include the assurance of a final apokatastasis in which all things created are redeemed and joined to God is ultimately entirely incoherent and unworthy of rational faith.

Bluntly, this idea is neither defended nor evidence, and so based on this book, I am unconvinced.


For a fascinating insight into DBH’s approach, read this post in response to some reviews that he had hosted on Peter Leithart’s blog.

 

 

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