- That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation by David Bentley Hart
In this book, “more or less the last” (though I hope not), David Bentley Hart advances a tightly argued case for universalism, “that all shall be saved” (1 Tim. 2:4), not as a hope or an aspiration, but the will of God (as that text asserts), a will that will be inexorably fulfilled. If anyone comes in the sights of this pugnaciously argued book, it is not those who uphold what looks like, from the perspective of history, the dominant tradition of the Church, that there are those who will not be saved but consigned to the eternal fires of hell, nor those who have refined this into the conviction that our ultimate fate is decided by God’s will, which is not (as the pastoral epistle asserts) the salvation of all, but a divided will, consigning some to salvation and others to perdition, and this regardless of the quality of the lives they have lived, but to be traced back to God’s eternal will, “before the foundation of the world”: the doctrine of what is known as gemina praedestinatio, “double (or twin) predestination.”
No, if anyone comes in Hart’s sights it is “the great Hans Urs von Balthasar,” who maintains what is sometimes called “hopeful universalism”—the doctrine that “Christians may be allowed to dare to hope for the salvation of all,” a view with which Hart professes “very small patience” (66). Several times in the course of this short book, Hart makes it clear that he is not advancing some sort of tentative argument, but setting out an argument to which he is absolutely committed, regarding those who disagree with him as illogical, immoral, or both, whose only excuse could be the weight of traditional teaching, as they perceive it. Nor is his argument that this perception of the dominant tradition of the Church (at least the Western Church) is false—that really this is not what the Church has believed. This is really what the Church believed, or thought it believed, but nonetheless such a belief is monstrous. I am not sure what he makes of Ilaria Ramelli’s survey of the tradition of universalism, of apocatastasis, The Christian Doctrine of Apocatastasis: A Critical Assessment from the New Testament to Eriugena (2013), which seeks to argue that apocatastasis—universalism—is not in the least marginal to the Christian tradition, at least in the first millennium, but has some claim to be called the authentic Christian tradition. From his brief reference in an appendix to her work (which now includes a briefer work, covering a longer period, A Larger Hope? Universal Salvation from Christian Beginnings to Julian of Norwich (2019), to be followed by a second volume, taking the story from the Reformation to the nineteenth century), Hart seems warmly to [End Page 232] endorse it, but he is not really interested—at least in this book—in a historical argument about what belongs to Christian tradition.
For readers of the book under review, it is perhaps worth mentioning here that, for all the sense Hart gives of being a David battling against the Goliath of Christian tradition, he is by no means alone on the current theological scene in advancing an argument for universalism. It seems to be more or less an article of faith within “Radical Orthodoxy,” and the rehabilitation of the tradition that stems from Origen, taking in its course such luminaries as St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Isaac of Nineveh (whose high regard for Evagrios places him firmly within the “Origenist” tradition, much better preserved in the Syriac world to which Isaac belonged than among the Greeks), and somewhat later Eriugena (whose lonely star has been rising steadily over the last few decades): this rehabilitation of the so-called Origenist tradition is something well under way. The revision of the Origenist tradition began long ago in the monographs and editions of Origen...