Cliff's Edge

Pernicious Enough

Pernicious Enough

I’m a big but cautious fan of Greek Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart,whose recent book, That All May Be Saved, reveals just how unbiblical and pernicious the doctrine of eternal torment really is. Our rejection of this standard element of many Christian creeds, as well as our acceptance of annihilationism, are, of course, staple Seventh-day Adventist beliefs. After reading Hart, however, I was appalled as never before at the power of tradition to deceive Christians into believing the most horrific things about God, and to defend the indefensible: infinite torment for finite sin.

Unfortunately, Hart’s refutation of eternal torment was built in part on universalism, the doctrine that even the most vile and unrepentant will ultimately enjoy the blessings of eternal salvation. Though not as unrepresentative of God as a doctrine of eternal torment in hell, universalism is pernicious enough.

According to Hart, any final apokatastasis (restoration) that does not include the salvation of everyone “in which all things created are redeemed and joined to God”1 would mean that God had failed to achieve His divine and perfect will.  God, Hart writes, “is the beginning and end of all things,”2 and any end in which “all things,” even the most vile and nasty among us, are not fully restored is a belief “ultimately entirely incoherent and unworthy of rational faith.”3 An apokatastasis worthy of God, Hart claims, must include the salvation of all human beings.

But what about demonic beings? In The Doors of the Sea (2011),Hart acknowledges  “the mutinous authority of angelic and demonic ‘powers,’”4 and then quotes texts that refer to them. Given his eschatology, “in which all things created” must be restored, why his abjectsilence in That All May Be Saved about Satan and his cohort, these “mutinous powers,” being redeemed as part of the apokatastasis?  Was this simply an oversight? Did he ignore what didn’t fit his point? Or are we to assume that the “everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” Matt. 5:41) is a purgatory by which God prepares them for the eternal company of those whom they devilishly tormented through the millennia?

This belief in purging leads to the core problem of universalism. “I for one,” Hart tells us, “do not object in the least to Hitler being purged of his sins and saved, over however many aeons of inconceivably painful purification in hell that might take.”5

Is this purgatory? Whether or not he could call it by that name, “many aeons of inconceivably painful purification in hell,” though better than eternal torment, still presents a miserable picture of God’s redeeming process. Will Hitler, whose cruelties are still being calculated, have the company of millions (billions?) of others until all these millions (billions?) have also been purged of their sin through an “inconceivably painful purification in hell” and make it into glory?

“For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” (Matt. 16:26). It will profit him aplenty, apparently, for in Hart’s universe this loss of “his own soul” is only a hiatus followed forever by paradise. You can gain the whole world using the vilest and most wicked means, and still enjoy eternal salvation. Why take up your cross daily when you get the same reward as some poor soul who, taking up his cross—you burned at the stake? 

The time frame of purification in Hart’s hell/purgatory, whether two days or many aeons, is a meaningless distinction. Hart rejects infinite punishment for finite sins, and rightly so. But in advance of an infinite and eternal reward, his finite and temporal purification, no matter how “inconceivably painful,” presents a moral calculus that doesn’t add up to anything remotely just. The Auschwitz guard who threw children alive into fire will, after some temporal refining, enjoy the same paradise with those children? 

The answer, of course, is the biblical teaching of annihilationism. Hart admits that this teaching “appears to accord somewhat better with the large majority of scriptural metaphors, the dominical metaphors in particular, for final damnation.”6 It accords better, of course, because that is what the Bible teaches.

For reasons unknown, Hart adds that “the very notion of a punishment that is not intended ultimately to be remedial is morally dubious.”7  Considering all the evil out there, all the unpunished evil out there—what is morally dubious is for a just God not to administer just and retributive punishment. 

And that’s what annihilationism is—just and retributive punishment. But it is “everlasting destruction” (2 Thess. 1:9; see also John 3:16; Rom. 9:22; Acts 8:20; Matt. 7:13; Phil. 3:19; 2 Peter 2:6). The lost are destroyed, not tormented, forever. (A biblical study of words like “everlasting” “eternal” “unquenchable” and “forever” show that in certain contexts they mean until something is finished, completed, done).

No one who has ever lived asked to be born, especially not into a fallen world. That is why, thanks to the gospel, everyone has been predestined to salvation in Christ, chosen in Him “before time began” (2 Tim. 1:9; see also Titus 1:2). Only their own choices keep them out of God’s presence. God says, in essence,I am offering you the opportunity for the eternal life in paradise you were supposed to have. Or you can go back to the nothingness from which you first arose.

And God’s justice, goodness, and fairness will be universally acknowledged in the context of this final, retributive judgment. Before it comes, the redeemed will reign with Christ as priests (Rev. 20:6) and as judges (Rev. 20:4)—even of angels (1 Cor. 6:3). We will “know” even as we are “known,” no longer looking “through a glass darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12), and we will see that the Lord did all that He could to save the lost.  And when He has revealed to us “the counsels of the hearts” (1 Cor. 4:4), we will be satisfied. “Even so, Lord God Almighty, true and righteous are Your judgments” (Rev. 16:7). At the name of Jesus, “every knee shall bow” and every tongue confess to God (Rom. 14: 11; Phil. 2:10). Among those confessing and bending their knees will be Satan and his angels.

Hart’s argument that anything but full restoration remains unworthy of God is refuted by Jesus’ words to Thomas: “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side” (John 20:27). The resurrected Christ, scars and all, in His glorified body—”this same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven” (Acts 1:11)—is the same Jesus, “a lamb as though it had been slain” (Rev. 5:6), who will reign for eternity, scars and all. Scars hardly symbolize perfection. Now, though, these tokens of His humiliation, the scars, signify what it cost God to save us. Those scars will eternally testify to God’s love and glory.

By showing how evil infinite torment is, Hart did Christianity a great favor. By positing a solution through universalism, however, he has undone some of the good he previously accomplished.

1 Hart, David Bentley. That All Shall Be Saved (p. 44). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

2 Ibid. p. 69

3 Ibid. p. 66

4 David Bentley Hart. The Doors of the SeaWhere Was God in the Tsu
 (Kindle Locations 541-542). Kindle Edition.

5 Op. cit. 1.  p. 84.

6 Ibid. p. 87.

7 Ibid. p. 44. 

Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Bible Study Guide. His latest book is Risen: Finding Hope in the Empty Tomb.