David Bentley Hart’s is an unusual voice in contemporary theology. Though he has university theological training (a doctorate from the University of Virginia) and is generally well respected in the theological guild, he does not write in a typical academic style. He pronounces more widely and more confidently than current standards of scholarly specialization and caution encourage, and he does not bother with footnotes, or even give the names of contemporaries with whom he is in debate.
That All Shall Be Saved is not, then, an academic monograph. It is also not a textbook, nor an edifying piece of pastoral or spiritual writing. What it is, most fundamentally, is a polemic—a scathing, vigorous, eloquent attack on those who hold that that there is such a thing as eternal damnation
Hart aligns himself with what has mostly been the minority position in the history of Christianity (though possibly not in the first few centuries): belief in universal salvation. He draws particularly on the vision of Gregory of Nyssa, the fourth-century theologian and bishop of Cappadocia best known for his role in shaping the doctrine of the Trinity. In Nyssa’s theology, what we find in the Bible is not a story that ends in a division into two camps, the saved and the damned, heaven and hell, but a story that ends in the fulfilment of what God has always envisioned: all of humanity—and indeed all rational creatures—drawn, in union with each other in Christ, into the glory that was always intended. There is still a place for hell in the vision Hart offers us, but no eternal place for it. It is possible to reject God’s love, to alienate oneself from God, but that sinful capacity to refuse God is finite, and can never be the last word.
However, most of Hart's energies do not go into setting out and and defending this positive vision of the final victory of God and the salvation of all, but rather into attacking the alternative. The “infernalists,” as he calls those committed to belief in the eternity of hell, take a position that is unnecessary, unbiblical, incoherent, and above all, he insists again and again, morally repugnant.
We are so used to assuming that eternal damnation is part of the Christian package, he maintains, that we dramatically misread the New Testament texts. Not only do we dismiss or interpret away all those passages that seem clearly to point to universal salvation (Hart lines up twenty-three of them at one stage in his argument), but we also fail to notice the kind of language Jesus used in relation to judgment. “I am quite sure,” he writes, “that, had Jesus wished to impart a precise and literal picture of the Age to come, he could have done so. But in fact the more closely one looks at the wild mélange of images he employed…the more the picture dissolves into evocation, atmosphere, and poetry.” Hart points readers to his own recently published translation of the New Testament, which in its unusual literal fidelity to the Greek restores the original ambiguities of some key texts.
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