New Wine in an Old Wineskin: David Bentley Hart’s Universalism

Can the God who freely creates a world in which some rational creatures come to experience a state of eternal suffering be the Christian God of absolute and infinite goodness? Can rational creatures who possess true freedom actually choose to rebel against God for eternity and, thus, merit eternal damnation? In his book That All Shall Be Saved, Eastern Orthodox philosopher David Bentley Hart responds to these two questions with a resounding “no.” For Hart, eternal torment can never be just. A rational agent could never freely reject God forever, and furthermore, a God who would permit a being to undergo eternal torment, even if that torment is self-imposed, could never be the perfectly good God of Christianity. For Hart, the traditional doctrine of hell creates incoherent equivocations between benevolence and malevolence at the core of the Christian worldview and, as such, should be rejected for universalism.

Hart’s bold challenge to the traditional doctrine of hell cuts to the central eschatological vision proclaimed by the majority of Christians throughout the existence of the church. If Hart is correct, then the accepted eschatology of Christian orthodoxy must be rejected and redefined by a universalist scheme. In this paper, I will argue that Hart is not correct and that the elements of classical Christian theology used by Hart to defend his position do not necessitate universalism. To do so, I will trace and respond to Hart’s argument as he develops his responses to the two questions posed above through the four main sections of his book That All Shall Be Saved. The structure of this paper is based on Hart’s four “meditations,” or main sections, in That All Shall Be Saved. The arguments within each section will be outlined and critiqued in turn, showing how Hart’s argument stretches across his entire book and how his argument consistently crumbles upon close inspection. After dealing with the main arguments from Hart, the paper will end with a summary and a few concluding remarks on how Hart exploits classical Christian theology in his defense of universalism.

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