Book Reviews

That All Shall Be Saved

David Bentley Hart
Review by
Jordan Daniel Wood
February 23, 2020

I had resolved to avoid, at all costs, making the substance of my reflection on David Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved about its rhetoric. Rhetoric features prominently among the main concerns of the book’s alacritous critics, whose reviews read mostly like a culled catalog of naughty words combined with implicit and explicit allegations of guilt by association (with nineteenth-century Unitarians, Moltmann, Rob Bell, Satan, and so forth). And so, having read the book three times, I wanted to ignore these diversions. But then I came to suspect that the gross caricatures of Hart’s rhetoric throughout the book betray a more fundamen­tal misunderstanding of his actual viewpoint and its supporting arguments which, predict­ably, have gone mostly undiscussed.

And yes, that is my position regarding his rhetoric. I don’t find Hart’s rhetorical or polemical tone particularly menacing or overweening. That judgment, I confess, might well be the result of immersing myself in scripture, where Jesus calls Pharisees “sons of hell” and Paul wishes aloud that his opponents would castrate themselves and John revels in the vision of the Whore of Babylon’s fatal demise; and in the Church fathers, who so frequently depict their interlocutors as “godless atheists” and attribute their error to “moral and intellectual stupidity” (to quote a passage of Cyril’s I read just a few days ago). Maybe I’ve become alto­gether tone-deaf to razor-sharp rhetoric. Nevertheless, I shall argue that Hart’s universalism entails exactly the rhe­torical stance he adopts in the book, and that, conversely, correctly appreciating the rhetorical performance aids comprehen­sion of the fundamental dialectic he employs in defense and explication of apokatastasis.

Hart’s thesis is as plain as it is bold: “If Christianity taken as a whole is indeed an entirely coherent and credible system of belief, then the universalist understanding of its message is the only one possible” (3). His is no half-spoken, Balthasarian “hopeful universalism,” for which Hart has “very small patience,” especially “when it seems like a strategy for crediting oneself with a tenderheartedness that one might nevertheless be willing to doubt in God” (103). Balthasar asked if we might dare to hope for universal salvation. Hart contends that “Christians dare not doubt the salvation of all” (66). Not that Hart pretends this radical thesis ever enjoyed some sort of majority status in Christian tradition, contrary to the claims of certain critics. He knows he represents the underdogs of Christian history, and that his case might “serve merely as a kind of negative probation of the tradition—the plaintiff’s brief dutifully submitted by an advocatus diaboli, on behalf of an eccentric minority position, in full anticipation that the final verdict will go to the other” (5; cf. 187, 199, passim). He knows that even among churchly sympathizers universalism “was never, as a rule, encouraged in any general way by those in authority in the church” (201). Any insinuation that Hart seeks to dupe the reader into thinking universalism was ever anything more than an underground current in Christian tradition is dishonest and should be dismissed out of hand as fraudulent.

I will proceed through three phases, then a finale. First I portray the rhetor­ical stance Hart occupies throughout the book, which, once again, I hope will burn away a few more straw­men. I’ll then distill what I take to be Hart’s two basic dialectical theses and the way they imply one another—that rational freedom is only truly free when it possesses full knowl­edge of its own origin and end, God; and that God’s infinite goodness is revealed just to the degree he does not create any rational creature who will perpetually fail to attain to true knowledge and thus true freedom. Here again, I hope to clarify a few misunderstand­ings and mispri­sions about these arguments. Attending carefully to the dialectic should manifest the profound unity of Hart’s dialectical theses with his rhetorical stance, and indeed uncover just what sort of position universalism is and is not. My final remarks countenance the unique necessity of the universalist’s rhetorical and dialectical unity. That unity shows the rhetoric involved is not a matter of arrogance, but of faith. Or, to put it frankly, Hart’s universalism is a pious (and childlike) rebellion against every species of theological and religious nihilism.


Hart never accuses any individual person of anything. Nowhere in this book will you read that x or y person “is a moral cretin,” to employ a favorite fabrication of the detractors. Not that Hart shrinks from excoriating specific doctrines or theological views. The doctrine of infants’ limbo, for example, “mitigates but does not dispel” the “moral idiocy” of the idea that unbaptized babies will not attain the beatific vision (76). Or the Evangelical apolo­gist’s urging that we should cease to pity the damned because such pity is fruitless “is nothing more than a counsel of moral imbecility” (147). But the apologist himself is not simply an imbecile. Hart never links the genesis of his opponents’ views, however heinous or incoher­ent he takes these to be, to the bare fact that they are mere morons or willful idiots. That includes every type of infernalist, too. And that, I think, is because he’s committed to the absolutely fundamental (and traditional) conviction that error, lies, and even enmity are always nursed by ignorance.

When Hart does characterize the actual persons who propagate the views he judges illogical or morally repulsive, he does so in the very terms he uses to characterize the whole of fallen humanity: as at least partial victims of circumstance, of error and prior falsehoods, misun­der­standings, ignorance, delusion, as well as the crippling sense of external and lamentable constraint. Right from the start he recognizes that most infernalists, “even very intelligent persons,” tender arguments for understanding hell as the eternal conscious torment of the damned because “they feel bound by faith” to do so (12; cf. 28, 35, 43–4). Nor does he place the blame solely upon the shoulders of this or that scheming group or individual: “The conspiracy, so to speak, is an entirely open one, an unpremeditated corporate labor of communal self- deception, requiring us all to do our parts to sustain one another in our collective derangement.” Hence he regards

the entire process as the unintentional effect of a long tradition of error, one in which a series of bad interpretations of scripture produced various corruptions of theological reasoning, which were themselves then preserved as immemorial revealed truths and, at the last, rendered impregnable to all critique by the indurated mental habits of generations. (19, my emphasis)

When Thomas followed Lombard in affirming that heavenly bliss is amplified by the sight of the damned, he was “the victim not only of a defective narrative, but also of the rigor of his own mind.” Thomas, after all, was unquestionably “a brilliant thinker,” but raw capac­ity and sincere piety offer no invincible defense against ignorance and error; genius can even aid these latter (168). More, Hart even evinces a form of empathy for that great spectral nimbus hovering about the Reformed tradition: “I do not hold Calvin himself necessarily account­able for this, since in this matter he was the product of centuries of bad scriptural interpre­tations and even worse theological reasoning” (51). If Calvin is to be distinguished by anything, it’s the rigor and candor with which he makes plain what lay latent in previous tradition (80–1). Tertullian, Lombard, Aquinas, Luther, indeed all purveyors of the majority view receive the same partial exculpation: “None of these good pious souls was doing anything other than following the only poor thread of logic he had to guide him out of a labyrinth of impossible contradictions; the sheer enormity of the idea of a hell of eternal torment forces the mind toward absurdities and atrocities” (78).

Hart, then, to the degree that he does assume a rhetor­ical stance toward his individual interlocutors, addresses them as (understandably) self-deceived, in opposition to their own most basic desires and intuitions of the truth. Infernalists “do not really believe in it at all, but rather merely believe in their belief in it” (29; cf. 204). That’s to say, infernalists are not yet explicitly aware that their putative outlook contradicts “the deepest moral prompt­ings of their souls,” as Hart puts it. And he knows that this judgment will be met with his opponents’ reproach “for presuming to know what they really believe better than they themselves do” (31). Yet his presumption about their deepest held convictions—that “we refuse to know that we know” that the mere possibility of eternal conscious torment for even one freely created rational creature stands as “a complete contradiction” to the simultaneous confession that God is the Good itself (202–3)—is, I maintain, an ineluctable issue of the very dialectic native to his arguments for universal salvation. It is no patronizing piece of polemic.

A necessary corollary of Hart’s rhetorical stance that infernalists do not fundamentally believe what they think they must is that Hart himself cannot but disbelieve what he knows he cannot. “I certainly cannot believe what I find intrinsically unbelievable” (202). There is a palpable inevitability in truly seeing universalism and seeing it as true, you might say. Unless one sees the truth as truth for oneself, a doctrine or belief, however venerable or obligatory or cherished it may initially appear, might just as well be an error believed in good faith—but an error nonetheless. If, though, seeing heaven’s truth entails the inability to see it otherwise, and if universalism is a truth of heaven we can perceive at all, then seeing it as the truth will seem to us like “a conversion of the heart” whereby one “comes to see, pre­cisely where one formerly had perceived only the fires of hell, the transfiguring glory of infinite love. And ‘love never fails’ (1 Corinthians 13:8)” (62).


Just here rhetoric fades into dialectic. We have not yet considered Hart’s rhetorical form as a performance of his dialectic. That requires tracing his arguments for universalism. I do so now. Hart actually makes several arguments—philosophical (about the interrela­tionality of persons, for instance), theological, christological, exegetical, and so on. I consolidate these into two dialectical theses. These correspond to the two basic questions which frame the entire book:

  • Does it really lie within the power of a rational creature freely and finally to reject God?
  • Can we call God “good” (or the Good) in any intelligible sense if he freely wills to create a world which includes the possibility that one rational being will fail to embrace God and thus be reduced to a state of unending conscious torment?

Hart’s theses are meant to answer both with “an unyielding no” (27–8, 208). Let me state them succinctly and in my own terms:

  • Perfect rational freedom requires an ultimate object of desire and total knowledge of that object, God; without the former it’s not “rational,” without the latter it’s not “free.”
  • Divine freedom and goodness require that God would never create rational creatures he would or could not truly liberate.

Both, of course, are logical arguments based upon what Christians say of God as the sole origin and end of all creation. The first thesis provides a philosophical account of freedom derived largely from the classical metaphysics of rational freedom and its natural orienta­tion toward the transcendentals (the Good, the True, the Beautiful, the One), which are convert­ible with one another and are God himself. The second thesis offers the inverse inflected by theodicy. By “theodicy” I do not mean that Hart’s universalism promises an explanatory solvent for particular tragedies or provides a determinate justification for any particular evil. I mean rather that it seeks to preserve the rational and moral integrity of predicating infinite goodness (and mercy and justice and love) of God, which, Hart insists, infernalism neces­sarily threatens. In this sense Hart’s second thesis invokes theodicy’s more basic acceptation, whether, that is, God is just, reliable, trustworthy, morally coherent enough for me to recognize and to believe in. And, in fact, Hart is crystal clear throughout the text that it is the second issue, that of our moral picture of God, that constitutes his “primary” and “chief” concern in these matters (12–13, 17, 47, 52, 79, passim). I’ll return to that point after examining each thesis more attentively.

1. Rational freedom. Hart knows that the most popular infernalist defense today is to claim that rational creatures must possess the “ability” to reject God in perpetuity or else they are not truly free. Freedom, they say, must not be coerced, must only ever choose and act towards its end out of its own spontaneity. God himself cannot guarantee a rational soul’s final outcome without thereby rendering that soul unfree. Perhaps, then, hell, if it contain any soul, is itself contained in and in some sense created by that very soul—its hatred, enmity, ignorance, rage, rebellion. So perhaps, as in Dante, “every fallen soul can become fully what it has chosen to be” (22–3). Hart confesses that he himself was “briefly content with this way of seeing things” (17), and that, though this view is quite wrong, it is not “contemptibly so.” It does not inflict “irreparable harm to one’s understanding of goodness or of God, and so without requiring the mind to make a secret compromise with evil (explicitly, at least)” (171).

Notice that the free will defense of infernalism involves a claim about what must finally be the case for rational freedom. Infernalists sometimes rest their case on the very pedestrian observation that, obviously, we experience the fact that rational creatures can and do refuse God everyday. Surely, the argument runs, at least some number of rational creatures might do so without end, falling progressively into themselves, into an ossified state of obstinate rejection of all that is good and holy. This view might even appear decked in the form of self-deprecating piety. I can imagine all God’s creatures basking in eternal bliss except me. I alone will suffer perdition’s relentless torture. The pious version strikes me as particularly odd, since, of course, it still appears eminently preoccupied with oneself. When we deal with primordial origins and final ends, the universalist would surely retort, why fixate on yourself as if your current condition of ignorance and hostility yields the deepest insight into God’s own goodness and ingenuity? Why imbue your current weaknesses with final significance? And do you not sense that God, at least, would suffer tragedy at even your eternal loss? Here we begin to sense that Thomists and Augustinians alike indulge an unwarranted epistemic optimism, a supreme confidence in their ability to derive what’s final from what’s provi­sional; it’s just that Thomists prefer happier infer­ences, Augustinians grimmer ones. On the whole, though, the crucial thing is to realize that the free will defense amounts to an extrapolation from what is provi­sional to what is supposedly final. Hart’s treatment of the nature of rational freedom, then, merely meets the infernalists on the very ground they themselves have staked.

For Hart (and many before him), if a choice or act lacks a determinate end, it is indistin­guishable from “a pure brute event” or a “sort of spasmodic ebullition, emptily lurching toward—or, really, just lurching aimlessly in the direction of—one chance object or another, without any true purpose” (40, 174). A rational act differs naturally from impersonal forces, obeisance to nature’s laws, or aleatoric events exactly to the extent that it necessarily involves a determinate end and the accompanying desire to actualize that end. Of course the end might be mistaken, morally wrong, a sheer delusion. But error still means intending an end, though one that is not true. Error itself makes sense only as an end-making act. Despite some odd proposals from a few wistful Neo-Jansenists, there really is no sense in calling something a rational act that lacks any determinate end, still less sense in thinking such a happening rises to the level of moral culpability. No one is blameworthy for obeying gravity or suffering an embolism.

I said a rational act must contain a determinate end and the desire to actualize that end. Rationality always involves the will, and it always involves willing something as good for the agent willing. This is an ancient and venerable insight. Even the murderer, as Augustine notes (Conf II), acts under the delusion that killing will bring something good for him—the satisfaction of revenge, the vindication of (vigilante) justice, or some more sadistic pleasure which, as pleasure, the murderer still desires as a relative and appealing good. None of this, as Hart notes (41), serves to exonerate all malefactors of whatever degree. Actually, the situation appears in many ways far more desperate. These insights into rational action mean that when we do evil, we do so (assuming we’re not simply insane) with enough knowledge of what is good to be culpable and with enough ignorance of the Good to be enslaved to our own delusions. We are slaves to sin (Rom 6.15–23), not masters of it. Every creature is “subjected” to vanity (Rom 8.20), not gods of it. We are not Dr. Frankenstein’s monster; we are the ancient dragon’s playthings (Rev 12.17).

But “the truth will make you free” (Jn 8.32). And that is absolutely so in the case of the ultimate object of truth and love, God. For God is the very origin and end of every rational will. He alone, as Truth itself, perfects the intellect. He alone, as Beauty and Love itself, perfects the will. True freedom, as opposed to the modern libertine conception of freedom as sheer spontaneity and indeterminacy (which not even Kant would abide, really), is exactly the freedom to become what and who one truly is, without impediment. And who can be what they truly are apart from union with God, one’s very origin and end? So Hart:

We are free not because we can choose, but only when we have chosen well. And to choose well we must ever more clearly see the ‘sun of the Good’ (to employ the lovely Platonic metaphor), and to see more clearly we must continue to choose well; and the more we are emancipated from illusion and caprice, and the more our will is informed by and responds to the Good, the more perfect our vision becomes, and the less there is really to choose. (172–3)

Or, as Maximus elaborates the same point, commenting explicitly on God as our “beginning and end” (Rev 20.6):

For from God come both our general power of motion (for He is our beginning), and the particular way that we move toward Him (for He is our end). If an intellective being is moved intellectively, that is, in a manner appropriate to itself, then it will necessarily become a knowing intellect. But if it knows, it surely loves that which it knows; and if it loves, it certainly suffers ecstasy toward it as an object of love. If it suffers this ecstasy, it obviously urges itself onward, and if it urges itself onward, it surely intensifies and greatly accelerates its motion. And if its motion is intensified in this way, it will not cease until it is wholly present in the whole beloved, and wholly encompassed by it, willingly receiving the whole saving circumscription by its own choice, so that it might be wholly qualified by the whole circumscriber, and, being wholly circumscribed, will no longer be able to wish to be known from its own qualities, but rather from those of the circumscriber, in the same way that air is thoroughly permeated by light, or iron in a forge is completely penetrated by the fire, or anything else of this sort. (Amb 7.10)

If we can know God as he is and yet refuse him to his face, then he is not the origin and end of our rational will. Conversely, if we do not yet desire him as he is, it is because we do not yet know him as he truly is, namely as our own ultimate object of desire. That is why Maximus states plainly that “evil, then … is ignorance of the benevolent Cause of beings,” which scripture represents as the Tree of Disobedience whose fruit introduces the “mixed knowledge” of good and evil (QThal 1.2.16); and this mixed knowledge inculcates illicit self-love; and this self-love subjects us to the vanity of ever vacillating between pleasure and pain, all of which stems from “ignorance, which is their primary cause” (QThal 1.2.21).

In fact for Maximus, as he argues at length (Amb 42), to deny that our perfect freedom and desire lies only, ultimately, and naturally in God himself severs us so completely from God as our origin and end that we become, unwittingly perhaps, either Manicheans or … Origenists! If we can possess full knowledge of God while our will remains unmoved to love him unto ecstasy, then this lends credence to the putatively Origenist idea that we might grow tired of God, as if the unfathomable plenitude of his beauty and love and joy were not quite enough to sate us. We might, then, lapse again and again upon (re)union with God. Or if, having fallen once from our first love, and having then undertaken the torturous odyssey of return to God, who is our “homeland,” we are then rendered some­how indissolubly united to God, our true and stable desire—in this case God on his own appears unable to accomplish what an excursion into the netherlands of tragedy and sin and ignorance—evil—proved able to secure, that is, everlasting bliss in the embrace of God. On this account, Maximus perceives, really we owe our eternal reward to two fundamental principles, God and evil, since only through the work of both were we made whole without threat of further dissolution.

One might object that this renders our freedom vacuous because it determines our end in advance, as it were. Hart retorts that only a determined end can make us truly free, since, of course, “rational volition must be determinate to be anything at all.” Otherwise it’s just a chance event. “Freedom is a relation to reality,” he writes, “which means liberty from delusion” (178). Thus our fallen condition is more profoundly dire than the view that simply extends our current rebellion-in-ignorance ad infinitum. On Hart’s view, we are enslaved with shackles of ironclad links, for we cannot be truly free unless we are liberated from ignorance, and yet we must come to desire what we do not yet know so that we might be truly free.

[I]t seems to me impossible to speak of freedom in any meaningful sense at all unless one begins from the assumption that, for a rational spirit, to see the good and know it truly is to desire it insatiably and to obey it uncondi­tionally, while not to desire it is not to have known it truly, and so never to have been free to choose it. (79–80)

And if the rebellious rational soul never truly knows what it rejects under a veil of decep­tion, and thus was never truly free fully to know what it rejects—how could anyone think it just that such a soul would be damned to eternal conscious torment in perpetuity? “Hence, absolute culpability—eternal culpability—lies forever beyond the capacities of any finite being. So does an eternal free defiance of the Good. We are not blameless, certainly; but then again, that very fact proves that we have never been entirely free not to be blameless—and so neither can we be ever entirely to blame” (43).

2. Divine freedom and goodness. The first dialectical thesis leads inexorably to the second. If God is the origin and end of rational creatures—including their freedom—then no rational creature could or would refuse God without doing so ignorantly. And so if a creature does in fact perpetually reject God unto final and everlasting torment, then God would have freely elected to create a being from nothing that God knew (and thus willed) would be damned, afflicted by an ignorance God himself would never undertake, or is powerless, to rectify. But would or could an infinitely resourceful, omnipotent, good, just, merciful God create such a world?

All of us, we are told, have been born damnable in God’s eyes, already condemned to hell, and justly so. And yet God, out of God’s love, races to rescue (some of) us from God’s wrath, because God would otherwise be technically obliged to visit that wrath upon us, if lovingly, on account of that ancient trespass that bound us helplessly and damnably to sin before we ever existed; at the same time, however, God also lovingly fails or declines to rescue many of us, because he lovingly grants us the capacity freely to love, even if he lovingly withholds the conditions that would allow us to recognize him as the proper object of our love… (and so on). In the end, somehow, justice is served, love is vindicated, God is good; of that we can be sure. Happily, all of that is degrading nonsense—an absolute midden of misconceptions, fragments of scriptural language wrenched out of context, errors of translation, logical contradictions, and (I suspect) one or two emotional pathologies. (24–5)

It is nonsense, Hart argues, because the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo makes God’s act of creation a supremely moral act. Precisely “because God and creation are ontologically distinct from one another,” he writes, “they are morally indiscerptible” (68). Creation does not complete the divine nature, as if God had to undergo a process to become God. God doesn’t need the world as an instrumental means to become what he is. The world, then, is nothing but the sheer expression of divine goodness and freedom. The one thing creation ex nihilo adds to the metaphysics of emanation, Hart notes, is “the further assurance that in this divine outpouring there is no element of the ‘irrational’: nothing purely spontaneous, or organic, or even mechanical, beyond the power of God’s rational freedom” (71–2). And if creation’s sole rationale is God’s own rational freedom, then all the possibilities and especially the final actuality of creation manifests the very character of God: “Precisely because creation is not theogony, all of it is theophany” (73). The end reveals the beginning; both are God’s freely elected self-manifestation. Nothing but God made God make the world. It is a product of his pure will, and what God wills reveals what God is like, who God is.

If matters prove otherwise, then I, at least, cannot see how John could have presumed to know from Christ that “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 Jn 1.5). The bottomless abyss of the divine will would render any of God’s actual desires merely partial manifestations of the vast and dark sea of infinite possibility that remains ever dark to our gaze—except, apparently, not dark enough that many still presume to know that God has not done all he could have done. But we can set that point aside for the moment. Hart’s immedi­ate point is simple enough: even if God created a world on only the unlikely possibility that one of his beloved rational creatures might languish in eternal fire, then God’s act, as a perfectly moral and free act, has already accepted the relative goodness or justice or value of willing such a possibility at all. “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard,” as Hart quotes Mallarmé. Whatever God could possibly permit reveals something eternally present in God himself.

This is an easy thing to grasp. Suppose someone tells me that my father might have mur­dered an innocent old man for twenty dollars, and I say: “Well, maybe. I’d like to wait and review the evidence before I judge.” That very hesitation is already a moral judgment about my father’s character. What must I think of him to think him capable of such a thing, even if I don’t presume to know he actually did it? Rather, because I know my father, I would say to this person straightaway: “No he didn’t.” And no one, I take it, would consider such confi­dence evidence of blameworthy presumption on my part; it would be a necessary result of my absolute confidence in the sort of man my father is. Who would dare to blame me for this? If, of course, it turned out that my father did murder an innocent person, my response would be: “I suppose I never really knew him.”

That, I think, is really the nature of Hart’s second thesis. Given all we know of God, particularly in and through Christ, if it somehow turns out that God did create a world that included even the slight possibility that he freely create a person in full knowledge of that person’s tragic end in everlasting misery, and for a rebellion that is itself always circum­scribed by ignorance, then all we can really say is: “I suppose I never really knew him.” We call him just, good, merciful, love, light, possessive of a power that means “with God nothing is impossible” (Lk 1.37; Matt 19.26). And indeed we certainly know that he wills the salvation of all (1 Tim 2.3–6; 2 Pet 3.9). So if, in the end, we see that God did not accomplish this will, or did not will the kind of world within which his will would be accomplished (which is to say that he didn’t consequently will what he antecedently willed—a contradiction and nonsense), and yet freely willed to create a world that would deny his own will—then perhaps the gloomy depths of moral irrationality really do constitute the deepest truth of God our Father. I guess we just never knew him, and so never spoke sensibly of him at all.

Hart’s deliberations in these pages are not far, therefore, from the kind of thinking he’s been doing for years. The Beauty of the Infinite asked whether Christianity’s evangel of peace can proclaim a God who is truth itself and beauty itself without succumbing blissful to the specter of ontological violence. Atheist Delusions and The Experience of God defended the coherence of classical conceptions of God by challenging atheist critics to appreciate those conceptions on their own cogent terms. The Doors of the Sea probed and found wanting many blithe responses Christians utter before unspeakable tragedy, and sought to retain Christian credibility only by renouncing all such claims to rationalize history’s surds. In these and other works Hart has always played the relentless examiner of the Christian picture of God and world, and he did so with the sort of confidence anyone laying claim to know the truth should have—with the conviction, I mean, that such exposure to dialectical fire will only prove the faith still purer, if, that is, it is indeed the truth. It really should not shock us, then, that he regards “the traditional majority view of hell” to be “the single best argument for doubting the plausibility of the Christian faith as a coherent body of doctrine or as a morally worthy system of devotion” (65). One might not get all the fuss, or perhaps one has made existential peace with the prospect that God has the prerogative to be(come?) precisely the contrary to whatever one conceives as “good” in an intelligible sense. But it still seems odd to fault Hart for taking the Christian faith too seriously when it claims to reveal not just some fun facts about God, but very God in the flesh.

Before terminating this section, I should pause to say what Hart’s dialectical argument is not. It is an argument about final outcomes and primordial origins (these are the same—God), not insight into any particular case as particular (60). It’s an argument that all shall be saved, not how that will unfold. Surely the latter is where the true mystery lies. And, really, perhaps that is one way to characterize the fundamental divide in these matters: infernalists perceive divine mystery in the possibility that divine wisdom and power, looming as far above our ken as the heavens above the sea, might freely will a world that it knows cannot accomplish the divine will; but universalists perceive the mystery in the fact that divine wisdom and power, which has assumed for us definite form in Jesus Christ crucified, will somehow accomplish the divine will to save all and so become “all in all” (1 Cor 15.28). Paul, after all, was never thrust into rapturous ecstasy before the brute “beyond” of divine trans­cendence, as if the grandest mystery of Christ amounts merely to the injunction that we dare not judge him according to the “justice” or “wisdom” he in fact became (1 Cor 1.30; 2 Cor 5.21). And Paul doesn’t think much of the Athenian altar to the “unknown God” except to make that God known (Acts 17.16-34). What does elicit Paul’s utter astonishment and praise and marvel and wonder and worship is his coming to see that “God has shut up all in diso­bedience that he might have mercy upon all“—”Oh the depths of the wisdom and knowledge of God!” (Rom 11.32-3). I tell you a mystery: Christ our God will save all; he alone knows how to penetrate to the core of the most obdurate heart. But do not ask me how![1]


Hart’s two dialectical theses unite to form a single substantive argument. If God himself is a rational creature’s ultimate object of desire and truth (thesis 1), and yet that creature might in ignorance forever repel God, then this would mean God freely created that beloved being without the conditions for its own liberation; it would mean, that is, that we could no longer sensibly distinguish God’s act of creating this creature from his act of damning it—a notion which evacuates the very idea of divine goodness of any intelligible content (thesis 2). If we are truly free, we know the Truth; if we do not know the Truth, we are not yet truly free. Thus “true freedom is contingent upon true knowledge and true sanity of mind. To the very degree that either of these is deficient, freedom is absent. And with freedom goes culpability” (177, my emphasis).

At length I circle back to my own basic thesis that Hart’s dialectic implies his rhetoric. If Hart is correct that God is the Good whom we desire even as we desire wrongly and in error, then no error—including the error of infernalism—merits complete culpability. The infernal­ist is deceived about God to the extent that he or she fails to see that God will save all. And yet this too is a misjudgment made in ignorance. It is an error, in Hart’s view, and so it is irrational, morally moronic, and the rest. It impugns the very nature of God, so what else could it be? Do we not recall that one of the commonest reasons many Fathers rejected certain literal interpretations of scripture, and opted instead for spiritual or mystical readings, is because the literal rendering would be “unworthy of God”? So Hart’s rhetorical stance issues necessarily from his dialectical argument, just as necessarily as denying and ridiculing the possibility that God commanded literal genocide in Joshua was for Origen and Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus and even Augustine (at times) required by our assurance of God’s goodness, mercy, justice, and love.

If I’m right about the rhetoric-dialectic unity autochthonous to Hart’s universalism, then two observations follow.

First, universalism is not a calculative speculation. It is a claim about God’s very being, and indeed a claim that God’s very being is our own deepest and most proper desire. The very logic of universalism demands that it make the most absolute claims, or else it isn’t true at all. Its denial, then, given its truth, can only be held under a veil of ignorance, a necessary symptom of the inability to see something essential to God. This is not some cheap or condescending rhetorical trick. Nor is it a mundane point, as if I mean merely that any error is necessarily an unintentional one, so that immediately consequent upon seeing the truth one renounces one’s prior ignorance. No, I mean rather that if a truth is of God’s very essence, misapprehending or doubting or denying it cannot, under the univer­salist logic of rational freedom Hart defends, be anything other than an epiphenomenon of ignorance, an unintentional or gnomic wavering of transcendental conviction, a betrayal of one’s own most deep down desire and knowledge of the true God—our delight, our all, our truth, our irresistibly gorgeous love.

Second, universalism, then, inexorably dares to claim that its truth is the very truth every rational creature believes, even as that creature thinks it does not believe it. Willing in error is still itself a sign that one wills God as one’s own ultimate transcendental object and horizon. And choosing to believe the infernalist picture of God is a willing in error. It is therefore not entirely culpable, which is why Hart could never attribute the infernalist’s belief in their belief, as he puts it, to the infernalist’s very person. Hart’s contention throughout the book, which also unifies his rhetoric and dialectic, is that what has become for him an explicit conviction and matter of conscience about the God who creates nothing that he will not save is in fact everyone’s truest and deepest conviction. That, I think, is why he concludes the book with these precise words:

As I say, for me it is a matter of conscience, which is after all only a name for the natural will’s aboriginal and constant orientation toward the Good when that orientation expresses itself in our conscious motives…. Nor do I believe that this is arrogance on my part. For me, the option of such assent simply does not lie open. It is not even conceivable…. We may revere tradition or respect the sincerity of those who tells us all those venerable tales that we are asked to accept on faith. But there is only one path to true freedom, and so to God. In the end, we must love the Good. (208–9)

What profound audacity to presume a correspondence between one’s own eschatological vision and the visio dei! And yet I’ve often heard infernalists make this retort: How could the Church have been in error about this for so long? Leave aside the convenient appeal to “the Church,” whose exact referent almost always eludes. Notice instead how the riposte expresses exasperation, disbelief, even, that God might permit opacity on so grave a matter, and permit it at length. Has it occurred to these protesters that this disbelief is precisely the universalist’s own, though admittedly the latter’s opens upon a far grander scale and about far graver matters? How, after all, could God permit the opacity of devastated creation to prevent so many and for so long from coming to a knowledge of the truth—God’s very self? And to allow—nay, to positively and intentionally summon forth the very conditions for the possibility of—an opacity which misleads and induces ignor­ance, an ignorance that incurs the most drastic and final and horrifying consequences imaginable to the human soul! So many are loathe to entertain the possibility that “the tradition” might have been wrong or unclear on significant matters, only then not to bat an eye at the possibility—indeed the likelihood—that God has providentially permitted a considerable number of human lives to pass under the thick cloud of finitude, sin, trauma, tragedy, loss, pathology, miscalculation, misperception, malformation, miseducation, and a host of other mostly unwanted con­straints that have veiled their own heart’s true desire from them for an eternity of conscious torment and perpetual vanity. God, it seems, would never abide his pilgrim Church to trouble my certainty about such matters; he apparently has little problem allowing the mass of humanity to err unto perdition. And, even more apparently, he certainly cannot brook disbelief about the latter belief, even if that disbelief proves inspired by saints within that same pilgrim Church.

And so it seems that, in the end, the infernalist too presumes a rather tight correspon­dence between his or her own eschatological view and the very truth God is: infernalism com­mends God’s sovereign prerogative to call forth creatures from which he has every right to withhold the conditions of their own liberation from ignorance—prevenient and efficacious grace, say. Thus an ardent universalism can seem to them only as a sort of rebellion against God. Infernalists, then, are so profoundly certain of their view that they come to regard those who oppose them as evidence of their view’s veracity. They too dare to wed rhetoric and dialectic. Only they do so against their own deeper and diviner instincts.


[1] This is just how Michel Corbin, SJ, concludes his marvelous (and neglected) work, La grâce de la liberté: Augustin et Anselme (Paris: Cerf, 2012), 359–60. He doesn’t think Paul’s discussion of election and universal salvation in Romans 9–11 yields a “dialectique que l’homme puisse maîtriser,” but it does offer “cette assurance” that Paul’s conclusion in Rom 11.32 is the world’s destiny. In fact, I recommend reading Corbin’s interpretation of Romans 9–11 (in a final chapter called, “La restauration universelle,” 319–60) alongside Hart’s (133–8), since they arrive at the same conclusions.


Jordan Daniel Wood
Jordan Daniel Wood is a Catholic scholar and theologian. He is a visiting assistant professor of theology at Providence College, and he specializes in Maximus the Confessor.