Against Damnation



I REALIZED WHEN I WAS AROUND EIGHT THAT THE VERY CONCEPT OF HELL IS INSANE AND EVIL, and never looked back. I don’t regard this as an especially precocious perception—many other Christians I have known report a similar experience.

I wrote the above sentences for a version of this review in February, in a different world. I ate at restaurants with friends, rode crowded subways, went to the movies. Now it is early April and I have not been outside in a month. I watch Netflix, Zoom with friends, eat beans from a can. And I listen to black metal, whose refrigerated guitars I find perversely soothing during this crisis. Black metal is, of course, famed for its Satanism, but inverted pentacles, goats’ heads, and paeans to the wolves of hell have always seemed cartoonish. They seem almost quaint now, with real wolves, all too secular, at the door.

Not that everyone agrees. A pastor at Lone Star Baptist Church in Greers Ferry, Arkansas, took to Facebook to defend his decision to hold Palm Sunday services during the pandemic: “Satan’s trying to keep us apart.” So it goes. During the witch trials of 1692, the Salem minister Deodat Lawson warned that Satan may “spread the Contagious Atomes of Epidemical Diseases.”

The Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart is bemused. Nowhere in Christian scripture, he writes in last year’s brief for universal salvation, That All Shall Be Saved, “is there any description of a kingdom of perpetual cruelty presided over by Satan, as though he were a kind of chthonian god.” Hart regards it as a historical tragedy that the early church evolved into an institution of secular power and social domination, too often reinforced by an elaborate mythology of perdition based on the scantest scriptural hints and metaphors. The fear of damnation can serve as a potent means of social control.

Hans Memling, The Last Judgment (detail), ca. 1467–73, triptych, oil on panel, this panel 88 1⁄4 × 28 3⁄4". National Museum Gdańsk
Hans Memling, The Last Judgment (detail), ca. 1467–73, triptych, oil on panel, this panel 88 1⁄4 × 28 3⁄4″. National Museum Gdańsk

But the Good News is better, and more subversive, than has often been supposed. Hart’s “pitilessly literal” translation of the New Testament, published by Yale in 2017, ruffled stoles by omitting certain words entirely, “hell” chief among them. In the New York Review of Books, Garry Wills accused Hart of laboring “to oust hell from the text of the Bible.” For Hart, this is like saying the original cut of Star Wars “ousts” George Lucas’s later revisions.

At least since the Edict of Thessalonica in the fourth century, there has been a Christianity of the state, of slaveholders, of power and profit. And there has been a Christian countertradition on the side of the oppressed, the exploited, the enslaved. To name only my favorite exemplars, the Cappadocian father Gregory of Nyssa, almost alone in antiquity, condemned the institution of slavery as anti-Christian; Thomas Müntzer led a doomed peasant revolt against German princes who were supported by Martin Luther; and John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave. “Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference,” wrote Frederick Douglass in an afterword added to his famed Narrative, explaining his attacks on the institution of “Christian slavery.”

But the Christianity of this land hearkens not to the Douglasses of the world. Late last year several prominent evangelical Christians—including Billy Graham’s son Franklin—rebuked the flagship evangelical journal Christianity Today (founded by Graham père) for its rather mild editorial urging the removal of a certain authoritarian moron from office. I am not sure which passages of the Gospels counsel the detention of children in cages, but I can think of several that unambiguously champion the poor, the sick, immigrants, and prisoners. No true Scotsman and all that, but there does come a time when someone must point out that the putative Scotsman hails from Tulsa.

Thus Hart’s interventions are most welcome. A member of the Democratic Socialists of America, hardly a radical leftist, Hart is nevertheless on the side of the angels. In recent years, he has thrown the traditionally minded into a tizzy, principally via two arguments: that hell is not eternal—that all shall be saved—and that an honest adherence to the Gospel of Jesus Christ would require Christians to be “communists,” in the strict sense given by the Acts of the Apostles (“omnia sunt communia”—a favorite verse of Müntzer’s).

As Hart expounds in That All Shall Be Saved, it is impossible to wrest a coherent doctrine of hell from Jesus’s and Paul’s scattered and figurative references to a final judgment, or from Revelation’s fevered phantasmagoria. As the biblically literate know, since the Wycliffe Bible, which appeared in the fourteenth century, the words that English translators of the New Testament have rendered as “hell” are “Hades,” the familiar realm of the dead, and “Gehenna.” This last is the Greek form of “Ge-Hinnom,” the Valley of Hinnom, which is a real place near Jerusalem. This valley had long been associated with child sacrifice and evil gods and perhaps served as a charnel pit for burning carrion. Readers of the New Testament wishing to extrapolate the conventional picture of hell have very little to go on:

Certainly no one now can say with confidence precisely what Jesus’s understanding of the Gehenna’s fire was . . . what duration he might have assigned to those subjected to it, or even how metaphorically he intended such imagery to be taken. It is obvious that metaphor was his natural idiom as a teacher, and that he employed the prophetic and apocalyptic tropes of his time in a manner more poetic than precise.

Hart traverses this ground in order to construct a daedal and extremely learned defense of the doctrine of apocatastasis (the word means “restoration”), which is as old as Christianity itself, though it has always been a minority position. It is the belief that all souls—even Old Scratch himself—will ultimately be reconciled to God through Christ. Its proponents in the early church include Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, two of the subtlest minds in the history of Christian thought. Though they arrive at universalism by very different routes, a touchstone for both is 1 Corinthians 15, in which Paul writes that at the end of days God will be “all in all.” For these early Christians, as for Hart, the first preachers of universal salvation in the Christian tradition were Jesus and Paul. On this view, there is no eternal perdition. If hell exists, it is a state of temporary purgation. Gregory insisted that this would not be “a harsh means of correction,” as the “thoughtless” speak of it, but “a healing remedy provided by God, to restore his own creation to its original grace.”

Hart’s most fundamental claim is simply that if God is love, as the First Epistle of John tells us, if God is the Good as such, he cannot also preside over the eternal suffering of his creatures, no matter how few might, in the end, be truly damned. None of them asked to be created, and it would be a cruel despot indeed who summoned beings into Being only to torture them forever because they, with their famously limited faculties and accidents of circumstance, could not manage to work out the truth of existence within their allotted threescore and ten. “Souls just out of their graves having to answer for lives most of them never understood in the first place,” as the eponymous heroine of Marilynne Robinson’s deeply humane novel Lila reflects. It is, it can only be, a manifest injustice. “Can we imagine,” Hart asks,

that someone still in torment after a trillion ages, or then a trillion trillion, or then a trillion vigintillion, is in any meaningful sense the same agent who contracted some measurable quantity of personal guilt in that tiny, ever more vanishingly insubstantial gleam of an instant that constituted his or her terrestrial life?

Of course, this objection has already occurred to, well, everyone. A host of theologians have tied themselves into knots attempting to answer it, usually by arguing that we, with our famously limited faculties, are in no position to dispute with God. Karl Barth’s characteristically ingenious response was to affirm that we mustn’t complain that “God put a creaturely being on this frontier, a being unlike Himself in that it was subject to temptation.” But there is for Barth a very specific reason that we can’t complain of our fragile creatureliness, which is that God has also placed himself, in the person of his son, in the same situation. (From which it follows that the only human being predestined to divine rejection was Jesus Christ.)

But Hart (who sneakily bites Barth’s idiom) is on firmer ground in his insistence that not only can we complain, we must—to do so is simply “to draw obvious conclusions from what Christian tradition claims are revealed truths about God.” The usual hand-waving about God’s exceeding our comprehension, so that we are mistaken to perceive a contradiction in his being both the Good itself and the author of eternal perdition, falls apart on not only logical but theological grounds. “If the traditional Christian philosophical claims about God [i.e., that he is infinite benevolence and Goodness as such] are true, we are permitted to arrive at all sorts of analogical conclusions regarding how God might act, so long as our frame of reference is correct”—otherwise the analogia entis (the analogical correspondence between creation and God) simply crumbles.

And predestination, that pillar of Reformed theology, doesn’t enter the picture. Hart reserves his most damning rhetoric for Reformed arguments about humanity’s exposure to destruction. Would that every Christian might read Hart’s elegant exegesis of Paul’s notoriously complex language of election in Romans 9–11, often read as justifying a division of humanity into called and rejected. Unlike the Augustinian tradition’s tortured interpretations of this epistle, Hart’s reading allows Paul’s promise that God will “have mercy on all” to mean what it plainly says. Hart is similarly attentive to 1 Timothy 4, where Paul (more likely a later author writing in Paul’s name) calls Jesus “the Savior of all human beings, especially those who have faith”—all human beings, and what could that “especially” mean if only believers are saved?

I lack space to address all of Hart’s arguments for universal salvation. For me, and I suspect for many of this magazine’s readers, his book is hardly of pressing doctrinal concern anyway. But a lot of folks sure do like them some hellfire. The editors of First Things, an influential conservative Christian journal, ran no fewer than three attacks on That All Shall Be Saved, the last one accusing Hart of having committed “theological fraud.” It would be unchristian to suggest that this enthusiastic response might be related to Hart’s having broken with the journal, to which he used to contribute a frequently delectable column, because he “could not remain on good terms with a collection of editors who had embraced the politics of the alt-right.”

It’s fair to say that precisely what drives those editors crazy is what makes Hart essential reading for anyone, of any faith or none, who laments the rightward drift of American Christianity, which can sometimes seem a parody of the Gospel as lurid as any Jack Chick tract. Hart’s profound immersion in the Greek of the New Testament has convinced him that its message is one of social as well as spiritual emancipation. “Down the centuries,” Hart writes in an essay collected in Theological Territories, “Christian culture has largely ignored the social provocation of the early church’s organization,” which cultivated a “seditious . . . attitude toward the inviolable sanctity of property.” And, paraphrasing John Chrysostom: “All we possess actually belongs to everyone, and no Christian should ever utter the words yours and mine.” Though many theologians and clergymen assure the faithful that Christian scripture condemns only the abuse of wealth, “not a single verse . . . confirms this claim”; on the contrary, “the New Testament’s condemnations of private wealth are fairly unremitting and remarkably stark.” James 5:1: “Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you.”

Theological Territories is a fine salmagundi that touches on most of Hart’s bêtes noires—the idiocy of New Atheism, the incoherence of scientific naturalism, the monstrosity of capital punishment, the sheer wrongheadedness of a hundred other things, such as capitalism and bad stagings of Wagner. The man is a gadfly, bless him. He imagines hurling a “prelate . . . swathed in the sumptuous clericals of bygone epochs . . . down a very long flight of granite stairs.” The greatest Christian thinkers of the last century are “Maurice Blondel, Henri de Lubac, Erich Przywara, Sergei Bulgakov,” not Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Edward Schillebeeckx. (I realize this may not seem provocative—imagine the sort of Twitter geek who gets all het up about Neutral Milk Hotel’s absence from some list, but in the context of theology.) After Edward Feser, a Catholic proponent of the death penalty, accuses Hart of wanting to “empty the jails” (the horror!), Hart responds that “the earliest Christians, as it happened . . . apparently refrained from all prosecution. In many ways, the early church was so uncompromising and radical in its rejections of the old order that its ethos may very well have verged on a kind of anarchism.”

Throughout these books, as in his New Testament, Hart seeks to recover something of this freshness of the Gospel. How strange it must have been in that dawn to hear that an executed criminal was God, that he had been resurrected, and that in dying and overcoming death he had delivered all of humanity from death’s kingdom. How different from that later world wherein to express a hint of doubt about this astonishing news could get you murdered by the state. Hart slyly celebrates the modern spirit that in recent centuries has

separated faith in Christ once more from the institutions and instruments of worldly power. Would that the separation were already complete. It may be that the last vestiges of Christendom will have to vanish entirely from human hearts before the long echo of Christ’s voice will become audible again in all its purity.

Hell is a vestige of Christendom, not of the Christianity of Christ. In the fourth century Gregory assured Christians that “No being created by God will fall outside the Kingdom of God.” Universalism as such leaves open the logical possibility of hell as a kind of cosmic rehab center for recalcitrant sinners. But Hart rejects this hell no less than that of eternal perdition or, in gentler versions, the ultimate annihilation of lost souls. “As it happens, I do believe that the only hell that could possibly exist is the one of which those Christian contemplatives speak: the hatred within each of us that turns the love of others—of God and neighbor—into torment.” These words resonate even more now, alas, than they did when I first read them.

Hell is empty, and all the devils are right here.

Michael Robbins is the author of the poetry collections Alien vs. Predator (2012) and Walkman (forthcoming, both Penguin) and the essay collection Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music (Simon & Schuster, 2017). He is an assistant professor of English at Montclair State University.