That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell and Universal Salvation

  • Jack Heppner, Author
  • Retired Educator

That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell and Universal Salvation (2019), by David Bentley Hart – A Book Review

Much to the chagrin of many conservative Christians leaders, the assault on Hell, defined as conscious, eternal torment (CET), also referred to as “infernalism,” continues unabated in our modern times. The latest strike comes from David Bentley Hart, a convert from Anglicanism to the Eastern Orthodox Church, who is considered by many to be one of the most eminent living Anglophone theologians alive today. His book, That All Shall Be Saved, reflects the influence of Eastern Orthodoxy which never was as deeply invested in hell as CET as the Western Church for whom Dante’s Inferno, written in the 14th century, became informal dogma on the subject.

A central argument Hart returns to frequently is that in the history of the church the doctrine of hell never was central to church dogma until Augustine of Hippo made it so in the fourth century A.D in order to keep people from a profligate lifestyle such as he had indulged in as a youth.

The fly-leaf of the book cover states:

In this momentous book, 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.

Hart takes no prisoners. He states early on that he doesn’t really expect to convert those committed to infernalism so he feels free to be bold and direct with his arguments:

It spares me the effort of feigning tentativeness or moderation or judicious doubt, in the daintily and soberly ceremonious way one is generally expected to do, and allows me instead to advance my claims in as unconstrained manner as possible, to see how far the line of reasoning they embody can be pursued (4).

Of course, the strident tone of Hart’s writing style has brought a lot of criticism from his opponents. But those who have been traumatized by the propagation of hell, a category in which I am included, feel somewhat vindicated by his direct style. In a review of the book, Brad Jersak states:

I sheepishly confess to enjoying Hart’s tart prose and spicy counterpoints to his Calvinist opponents. For so long, I’ve tried (against my nature) to take the high road of the soft answer that turns away wrath…but after nearly two decades of relentless trolling by neo-Reformed dilettantes, it feels nice when a bigger, smarter brother appears on the schoolyard and treats the meanies to a sound pummeling. I said it ‘feels’ nice. I didn’t say nice is a fruit of the Spirit, hence the ‘guilt’ in my ‘guilty pleasure’…Hart shreds them (their arguments) head-on in one shriveling sortie after the other, laying bare why he found their case for infernalism so ludicrous to begin with.

One critique I have is that Hart might have done better to write in a more accessible style. But, on the other hand, perhaps modern would-be theologians have become too used to reading theology in popular prose. Maybe needing a dictionary at hand to expand one’s vocabulary is better than getting the sense of being ‘infantilized,’ in the words of Brad Jersak. Yet I am aware that for some people his almost exotic writing style prevents them from sticking with Hart to the end of the book. That is too bad because the force of Hart’s argument can only be fully grasped by seeing the full picture he paints right to the end.

Space does not allow me to write a full summary of Hart’s case against infernalism. But I will highlight some of his main arguments in abbreviated form:

  • It all really boils down to two main questions: 1.) Is it possible for God to create a world in which eternal misery will be the lot of most human beings? 2.) Is a defiant rejection of God for all eternity really logically possible for any rational being?
  • Hell is virtually absent in Pauline literature and most other epistles, as well as in the writings of early church fathers.
  • Excruciating, eternal punishment for sin committed in a short lifetime is a case of disproportionate logic.
  • God’s mission, when understood rightly, is always to bring release of the captives, not identifying and punishing those who do not respond to God rightly.
  • Punishment, whether in the context of human experience or on a cosmic scale, should always be remedial, or restorative. What purpose does retributive or vindictive punishment serve?
  • The end state of creation reveals as much about the nature and character of the creator as does the beginning.
  • We must go beyond “hopeful inclusiveness,” which some ascribe to, and move toward a more decisive vision of inclusion, period.
  • The notion of inherited guilt is a logical absurdity which ends up making God appear to be evil.
  • The annihilation of the reprobate option must be rejected because then not all things would be reconciled in the end (Col. 1:19).
  • There are many more inclusionary texts in scripture than exclusionary.
  • In most cases the Greek term “aionios” should not be translated as eternal but as an age of limited duration.
  • Freedom is not freedom unless there is perfect knowledge and no illusions at the time the choice is made.

Of course there is much more to the book and serious questers on this subject should read the whole book carefully. While some have already written it off as an exercise in wishful thinking, others like Brad Jersak suggest it has become an “instant” classic. I tend to agree with Jersak.