Is A Literal Hell Believable In The 21st Century?

Feb 8th, 2020 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

Philosopher and theologian, David Bentley Hart, currently a professor at the University of Notre Dame, is often provocative and controversial.  A former Anglican, he converted to Eastern Orthodoxy and writes prominently on major doctrinal issues of Christianity.  His most recent book, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell and Universal Salvation, argues for universalism—that ultimately God will save everyone, thereby rejecting any belief in a literal hell.  A number of years ago, Rob Bell made a similar argument; especially that it was inconceivable that a good, righteous God would condemn people to hell as judgment.

The title of Hart’s book states the thesis: all creatures who have sinned against God will finally be saved. And Hart maintains his thesis not as a possible or probable claim, but as “indubitably certain.”  Hart’s book might be a signal that universalist tentativeness is now out, while assertiveness is in.  Following a detailed review by theologian, Matthew McClymond, permit me a summary of Hart’s salient arguments:

  • “David Bentley Hart makes the case that nearly two millennia of dogmatic tradition have misled readers on the crucial matter of universal salvation. On the basis of the earliest Christian writings, theological tradition, scripture, and logic, Hart argues that if God is the good creator of all, he is the savior of all, without fail. And if he is not the savior of all, the kingdom is only a dream, and creation something considerably worse than a nightmare. But it is not so. There is no such thing as eternal damnation; all will be saved. With great rhetorical power, wit, and emotional range, Hart offers a new perspective on one of Christianity’s most important themes.” A clue to the deeper significance of Hart’s book lies in the stark alternatives he sets up in his conclusion: either universalism or   In the final paragraph he writes: “I have been asked more than once in the last few years whether, if I were to become convinced that Christian adherence absolutely requires a belief in a hell of eternal torment, this would constitute in my mind proof that Christianity should be dismissed as a self-evidently morally obtuse and logically incoherent faith. And, as it happens, it would.” (208)
  • McClymond offers a helpful summary of the structure of Hart’s argument: “That All Shall Be Saved offers three major lines of argument for universalism:  The “responsible Creator argument” (that divine creation itself implies universal salvation), the “choosing good argument” (that the creaturely will can never fully or finally reject the goodness that God is), and the “human solidarity argument” (that all human beings are united and so must all be saved or else not saved at all).”
  • “In effect Hart asserts that ‘sinful’ choices can never be free’ choices. Since ‘free yet sinful choices’ don’t exist, the sinful choices that human beings make are all unfree, and therefore human beings aren’t responsible for them. From Hart’s definitions of terms, one might deny that human beings are ever guilty of anything. It’s not surprising; therefore, that everyone is finally saved, since there are no ‘sinners’ in the specific sense of ‘people freely and hence culpably choosing evil.’ Because there are no ‘sinners,’ there is nothing for anyone to be saved from. But how is this consistent with human moral agency and responsibility?”
  • Hart’s third attempt at proving universal salvation—the “human solidarity argument”—fares no better. This argument is based on a non-literal account of God’s creation of humanity in the writings of the early church author Gregory of Nyssa. Hart writes: From eternity, says Gregory, God has conceived of humanity under the form of an ideal “Human Being” . . . a creature shaped entirely after the divine likeness, neither male nor female, possessed of divine virtues: purity, love, impassibility, happiness, wisdom, freedom, and immorality. (139)  Because every human being who will every live is part of this “‘ideal’ Human Being,” this means that “either all persons must be saved, or none can be” (155).
  • McClymond: “Hart rarely shows a pastoral touch in his writing. His account of universal salvation is speculative, abstract, detached—the kind of book that a religious intellectual writes without bothering about its effect on lay Christians or on everyday life. In marked contrast, biblical teachings on eschatology blend future expectation with missional urgency, spiritual exhortation, and calls for self-denying discipline. When Jesus spoke on the Mount of Olives ( 24), he combined discussion of the end times with a call to “keep watch” and a warning regarding the unfaithful servant caught off guard by the master’s return (Matt. 24:42–51). This chapter links Jesus’s return not only to the theme of moral and spiritual preparation but also to the theme of evangelism: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached to the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (v. 14). Likewise, the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Matt. 25:1–13) stresses the need to be prepared for Jesus’s return. When the apostles ask Jesus after the resurrection whether he will “restore the kingdom,” he directs them to evangelize, once again linking his return to the present-day mission of the church (Acts 1:6–8).
  • Revelation represents God’s people as the “bride” to be joined to Christ as the “bridegroom.” It tells us that “his bride has made herself ready” with “fine linen, bright and clean,” which is “the righteous acts of God’s holy people” ( 19:7–8). First John connects eschatological hope with spiritual purification: “But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure” (1 John 3:2–3). In light of the world’s coming dissolution, 2 Peter exclaims, “You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming” (3:11–12). And Paul’s letter to Titus connects our “blessed hope” (2:13) with a summons “to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age” (2:12).

“These passages suggest the need and appropriateness of evaluating eschatological teachings in terms of their practical effects. And it’s exceedingly hard to see how the biblical call to self-denial, godly living, and toilsome evangelism can flourish on the basis of a universalist theology. Who would need to work at being alert or prepared if final salvation for all were already known in advance? Earlier Christian universalists—including Origen himself—acknowledged the problem and suggested that universalism should be kept secret from the masses and disseminated among only a few mature believers. Hart doesn’t seem to admit there is any problem.”

Finally, consider the following traditional claims, answered in Tim Keller’s book, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, against the existence of hell:

  1. A God of judgment simply cannot exist. The argument goes something like this:  Understandably, in the ancient world there was a belief in a transcendent moral order, built into the universe.  But modernity reversed this.  Ultimate reality is not in the realm of the supernatural, but the natural.  Humans are not spiritual beings, per se, only natural beings with disorders, not moral sin against a holy God.  In this modern/Postmodern world, humans have the responsibility to determine right and wrong.  Human control now extends not only to the physical environment, but to the moral one as well.  Our personal autonomy is the highest value in this new order of things.  The idea of a God who holds us accountable for our actions violates that autonomy and our desire for control and power.  The Christian teaching of Hell is offensive to the Postmodern sensibility.
  2. A God of judgment cannot be a God of love. How can a God of love be filled with wrath and anger?  If He is loving and perfect, He should forgive and accept everyone.  But, as a parent, if we see someone harming or ruining our child, we get angry.  Our love produces naturally our anger.  Further, the Bible makes it clear that God’s wrath flows from His love.  He is angry at evil and injustice because it destroys the peace and integrity of His world (e.g., Psalm 145:17-20; Jesus and the moneychangers).  In addition, the Bible makes it clear that, at the end, God will make everything right; He will right all wrongs and settle all accounts.  The concept of divine justice is intended to prevent vengeance, retaliation and senseless blood feuds.  In fact, history demonstrates that when a civilization abandons a belief in God’s justice, greater brutality and violence result (e.g., Nazism and Communism).
  3. A loving God would not allow hell. The stereotypical picture of hell’s judgment goes something like this:  “God gives us time, but if we have not made the right choices by the end of our lives (have not done enough good), He sends us to hell for eternity.  It is too late; you had your chance, now suffer!”  But, the Bible pictures humans as sinners, separated thereby from the presence of God, who is the source of all joy, love, wisdom and good.  Sin separates us from His presence.  Hell, then, is “the trajectory of a soul, living a self-absorbed, self-centered life—forever!” (See Luke 16:24-31). Hell is simply one’s freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into eternity.  If we build our lives on anything but God, personal disintegration, dysfunction and self-destruction result.  In eternity, this goes on forever.

In conclusion, I have always appreciated the writings of C.S. Lewis.  Consider these quotations from his book, The Great Divorce:  Lewis depicts people on a bus headed for Hell, who would rather have their freedom than salvation.  Their delusion is that, if they chose a relationship with God, they would somehow lose their power and freedom, but, in a supreme and tragic irony, their choice has ruined their own potential for greatness.  Hell, writes Lewis, is “the greatest monument to human freedom.”  All God does in the end with people is give them what they most want—freedom from Him.  What could be more fair than that?

Lewis:  “There are only two kinds of people—those who say ‘They will be done’ to God and those to whom God in the end says, ‘Thy will be done.’  All that are in Hell choose it.  Without that self-choice it would not be Hell.  No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.”

 

See Michael McClymond,  “David Bentley Hart’s Lonely, Last Stand for Christian Universalism: A Review of ‘That All Shall Be Saved” (2 October 2019), www.thegospelcoalition.org; Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism.

2 Comments to “Is A Literal Hell Believable In The 21st Century?”

  1. Anita says:

    As always, Dr. Eckman, so much appreciate the clarity with which you write and the urgency you remind us of in living our lives for God. Thank you!

  2. Arlie Rauch says:

    It’s fascinating how that Mr. Hart derives his view from the writings of certain church fathers. Why not from the Bible? If you read the Bible with a receptive attitude, you will come away from it assured that hell exists. In reading through the Bible, I have made a list of the characteristics of hell. There is an abundance of information. If you remove the passages about hell, the Bible you have left is quite ragged.

    Thanks for drawing attention to this topic and presenting it well. It has far-reaching implications, even so far as challenging parents who think everything their child does is wonderful.

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