Hart’s newest release is a strange read for a book published by Yale University Press. The entirety of it is written in the first person. No original research is presented on the topic and it in fact treads the same grounds that Rob Bell’s Love Wins covered a decade ago. It lacks a single footnote (though somewhere near the end Hart manages to cite a sermon by Saint Gregory of Nyssa). Lastly, the book is written with such vitriol it barely refrains from profanity. That All Shall Be Saved reads more like a series of blog posts than a book.
The author comes across as a tragic figure, struggling with bipolar disorder or some sort of serious mental illness. The tone of the book is calm perhaps only at one point, that being where Hart claims the argument put forward is a “logical and rhetorical experiment” (p. 5). This appears to be a rhetorical escape hatch of sorts so that Hart can arbitrarily disown content under the guise he was playing a sort of character, but at the same time maintain his overall argument.
Whatever was really going on in Hart’s mind when he wrote the book, the character he plays is a bitter man who probably could not get along with anyone for eternity. He shows no humility, boasting that, “I cannot alter my views (since they are almost certainly correct)” (p. 108). Like an enraged pundit on the Twitterverse, he accuses what he calls “infernalists” (i.e. those who maintain the orthodox position of eternal damnation) of “one or two emotional pathologies” as the basis of why they believe in eternal damnation (p. 25). If he is an eminent philosopher as he bills himself to be, he ought to know that ad hominem arguments are logically fallacious–an embarrassing “fail” one would not expect from a “philosophical treatise” published by a “scholarly” source.
Sadly, this is not some sort of exception. The childish attacks persist throughout the whole book. Hart attacks “infernalists” as “victims of their own diseased emotional conditions” (p. 29). He calls into question the view of a theological opponent simply because he is an “ordained convert to Eastern Orthodoxy” (Father John Whiteford)–as if being an ordained convert (like Saint Cyprian was) automatically disqualifies someone from making a point. He accuses Tertullian, Aquinas, and Peter Lombard of having “peculiarity of temperament” for teaching that the saved look upon those in Hell with a sense of enjoyment (p. 78). Rev 14:10, Rev 22:14-15, and 2 Clem 17:6 mention that the damned suffer in the presence of God (and those with Him) and they have no reference to heavenly enjoyment being decreased as a result. One must ask Mr. Hart, does Saint John share the same aforementioned temperament? Hart insults so many people in his book, he even insults himself. He describes himself as “insolent” amidst calling everyone else he is flailing rhetorically at as “genuinely odious” (p. 65).
One who reads the book cannot help but feel sorry for its author. There is something very wrong with the man and he needs emotional support. If a student of his were to hand a master’s thesis like this to him at Notre Dame, he would certainly give the student an “F” for its unscholarly tone and argumentation. For a “scholar” to fall so low is indicative of a severe problem in his life–one we must hope and pray he gets help for.
One may describe reading the book’s torturous 200 pages of streaming insults and schoolyard “arguments” as a form of intellectual masochism. Hart’s arguments lack citations. Instead, they are a stream of consciousness pertaining to things he probably once read. He quotes the Bible and then proceeds to cite Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Dante, and other unrelated material; and weaves all of these together into what in his mind is one long, continuous, ingenious thread that is supposed to make sense. However, if one cares to pay attention to his actual arguments, looking past all of the infantile rhetoric, they do not hold up to scrutiny.
For example, he cites Saints Augustine and Basil the Great as commenting that a “large majority” of fellow Christians were universalist. “This may have been hyperbole,” writes Hart, “but then again it may very well have not been” (p. 2). The argument here is another logical fallacy an eminent philosopher should avoid: an argumentum ad populum. If history proves anything, the majority is usually wrong. Across denominational lines, it has never been believed by any group of Christians (let alone the Orthodox) that doctrines are determined by majority vote. For example, 53 percent of Orthodox Christians believe abortion should be legal in all cases. Obviously, the poll did not include residents of Mount Athos or any canonized saints. This is an important, but obvious detail. All denominations have some sort of view that the saints rightly preserve doctrine–not the majority. To a reasonable thinker, the appeal to a majority actually gives one grounds for suspicion of a position, not acceptance.
Hart also makes some weak logical arguments. For example, he argues that (1) a rational being can only choose “the good,” (2) men are rational beings, therefore (3) man must ultimately choose “the good” at some point in eternity. An obvious rejoinder would be that men do not always will to be rational (hence, gnomic willing–we deliberate between good and evil). Therefore, if a man enters a state where he can no longer learn or change, specifically the state of the soul after death (Saint Clement of Rome teaches there is no repentance after death, 2 Clem 8:3), a man according to his own natural capacities is “locked” into a state of not choosing “the good.”
Hart appears to anticipate this and argues that “eternal culpability lies forever beyond the capacities of any finite being” (p. 43). This means, according to Hart, a man cannot be culpable of something infinite if he is finite. However, this does not take into view Whom the finite being wronged. Logically speaking, wronging an infinite being carries an infinite penalty, just like punching the President carries with it a stiffer sentence then punching one’s neighbor. Hart’s logic is not self-evidently true as he claims.
The consistent theological thread that undergirds the logic of Hart’s universalism is a soteriological heresy called “predestinarianism.” In short, predestinarianism is the belief that God could make a man do anything and so, a man’s destiny is solely the result of the whims of an omnipotent God. So, presuming this logic, if God is good then God must save everyone because He can. Hart implicitly concedes this when he writes, “It makes no more sense, then, to say that God allows creatures to damn themselves” (p. 80). From this, Hart reasons (he always reasons), eternal culpability cannot exist because God will not let a man damn himself–He is too nice a god nor would he hold man responsible for something he could not fully realize would have such everlasting consequences.
Hart is in fact talking about two different things. For one, culpability does not logically depend upon knowledge of wrongdoing. One could inadvertently venture into something bad. A child who touches a hot stove does not deserve getting burned as a punishment, though it is certainly the result of the action. Eve was deceived by the serpent and fell into sin. We have no indication she knowingly chose evil.
Second, Hart’s obvious rejoinder (“why wouldn’t a good God prevent the child from touching the stove”) underscores his predestinarian heresy. Hart, in all his reasoning, presumes God will make sure that everyone at some point in eternity chooses “the good” and attains to heaven. For Hart’s view to work, man can never authentically have free will, because choosing freely always leaves open the possibility of choosing wrongly. So, Hart must hold to the contrary–God will not let man choose the wrong thing eternally. However, this appears to contradict a clear teaching of Jesus:
You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life (emphasis added, John 5:39-40).
This view of Hart’s creates all sorts of even more profound theological problems. For one, this means man is not really made in the image of God. God has complete freedom of will and for Hart’s system to work, man’s will must not be independent from God’s. If man cannot choose to reject “the good,” he does not fully have free will. If men do not really have free will, then, by Hart’s blasphemous logic, Jesus Christ was never really human–His divine nature so overshadows His human nature (monophystianism) that He according to His human nature has a free will that is constitutionally different than that of normal men (monothelitism)–Christ would not authentically have a human free will in addition to a divine will.
To the contrary, man must have free will. It is only by being sanctified in Christ, authentically cooperating with God’s grace, consistent with the aforementioned free will, does man attain to heaven. In short, we must freely will to be like God to attain to Theosis. Theosis is not a switch God can simply turn to “on” without man flipping the switch together with God. (Prayers for the dead appear to contradict such a rationalization, but that is outside our purview here.)
Further, heaven cannot exist in such a predestinarian system. If man is some sort of puppet or trained animal, unthinking and unfeeling, he is thereby constitutionally unable to enjoy Heaven or know God. Only free agents can really attain to Godliness. A well behaved dog, or a sock puppet, even when manipulated to do good things, are no closer to Godliness than an inaminate rock. For there to be a good universe created out of nothing, which contains real people who bear the image of God, an eternity for some of those people who turn away from “the good” (i.e. Hell) continually appears logically necessary–not impossible as Hart posits (p. 82).
On another note, the book’s Biblical arguments come across as epistemologically Protestant. They do not refer to the teaching of the saints. Hart writes, “The whole book [of the Bible] is to my mind an intricate and impenetrable puzzle, one whose key vanished long ago along with the particular community of Christians who produced it” (p. 106-107). This sort of digging back into the original sources, parsing Greek terms to find the “truth” in the Scriptures which has apparently (in Hart’s mind) been lost to the saints for centuries, is no different than the approach of the Reformers.
Hart’s Biblical translations have eisegetical universalist slants. For example, he translates 1 Tim 2:4 to state that God “intends [θέλει] all human beings to be saved.” The Greek term can carry the connotation of intent. Of course, no translator has ever rendered the verse as such, nor is that literal Greek term every translated as “intends” elsewhere in the New Testament. N.T. Wright, himself a renown liberal Biblical scholar, views Hart’s translation of the Scriptures as clunky and intentionally biased. The bias in 1 Tim 2:4’s rendering is obvious. “Intent” carries with it the implication that if God does not accomplish what He set out to do, He is not all powerful. Yet, the word “desire” does not carry this implication. I may desire for my son to be happy, but I may also desire his discipline. Saint John of Damascus understood that God has antecedent and permissive wills, which if understood correctly explains how God can will two different things and there is no contradiction. Hart is aware of this and cites Saint John of Damascus on this point (p. 187), but dismisses his argument as some sort of after-the-fact ad hoc theological paradigm created to defend “infernalism” and other “bad stuff” attributed to God.
In such an emotionally charged book with no attempt at impartiality, it is unsurprising that Hart employs gross exaggerations in the process of substantiating his argument. Hart asserts, “The texts of the gospels simply make no obvious claim about a state of endless suffering,” and he adds that nor do “the earliest Christian documents of the post-apostolic church, such as the Didache” (emphasis added, p. 118). Matt 25:46, 2 Thes 1:9, and Rev 20:10 would be clear Scriptural examples against such a notion. Further, even Hart concedes (p. 114-115) that first century Jewish thought taught everlasting damnation. As for the testimony of “the earliest Christian documents,” this would appear to be an artificial criteria as these documents are simply not long enough to go into enough detail to meet Hart’s very specific criteria for “state of endless suffering.” Nevertheless, the following were written within 50 years of the Scriptures and certainly suggest that “infernalism” was the teaching of the early Church:
- The Didache clearly teaches that there are those who are saved and those that “perish” (chap 16).
- 2 Clem 17:5 says the damned’s “worm shall not die, nor their fire be quenched, and they shall be for a spectacle to all flesh” after the day of judgement.
- Polycarp Chap 2 speaks of retributive justice, saying that “blood will God require of those who do not believe in Him.”
- Saint Ignatius wrote that those “becoming defiled [by false teaching] shall go away into everlasting fire, and so shall every one that hearkens [i.e. follows] unto him” (Ephesians, Chap 16).
- The Epistle of Diognetus states the damned “shall be condemned to the eternal fire, which shall afflict those even to the end” (Chap 10).
- It should be noted that “to the end” is a common euphemism for “without end” when there is no known end in sight. See Irenaeus Against Heresies Book V, Chap 16, Par 1 and Saint Victorinus’ Commentary on Revelation, Par 16. Jesus Christ Himself says that, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20). Obviously, the implications is not that Christ will not be with the saved at some point. The opposite is being communicated: Christ will always be with Christians, until the second coming–which He then continues to abide with Christians.
Hart makes factual errors. He repeats the urban legend that universalism “was not” rejected at the fifth ecumenical council (p. 4). During Session 8 (Chap 5:11; p. 123-124, Vol 2, of Price’s translation) the aforementioned council explicitly asserts that “Origen” and his “impious writings” have already been “condemned and anathematized by the holy catholic and apostolic Church” and anathematizes all that agree with him. As we discussed elsewhere, one of the specific documents the council in mind by the council fathers was the 543 synod of Constantinople which in its ninth anathema records:
If anyone says or holds that the punishment of demons and impious human beings is temporary and that it will have an end at some time, and that there will be a restoration of demons and impious human beings, let him be anathema (p. 281 of Price’s translation).
This means, in the eighth session, the fifth ecumenical council gave ecumenical authority to the earlier council in Constantinople in 543 and therein we have an explicit rejection of universalism.*
*This view is somewhat nuanced, what is for sure is that Origen and apokatastasis was n. A document from 553 AD may have been the only one in mind, though this is unlikely. For more details go here.
If this were for whatever reason “unclear” to those who are eminent scholars, thankfully the seventh ecumenical council was even more explicit.
In the sixth session (which is an official response to the Council of Hiera) the following is stated:
Definition 18 [of Hieria]: If any one confess not the resurrection of the dead, the judgment to come, the retribution of each one according to his merits, in the righteous balance of the Lord that neither will there be any end of punishment nor indeed of the kingdom of heaven, that is the full enjoyment of God, for the kingdom of heaven is not meat and drink but righteousness joy and peace in the Holy Ghost, as the divine Apostle teaches, let him be anathema.
Epiphanius [in giving the definitive reply of Nicea II to Hiera] reads: This is the confession of the patrons of our true faith the holy Apostles, the divinely inspired Fathers–this is the confession of the Catholic Church and not of heretics. That which follows, however, their own full of ignorance and absurdity for thus they bluster… (emphasis added, Source, p. 423)
This shows that the second Council of Nicea, in rejecting Hiera, goes through the trouble of actually concurring with Hiera on the never-ending nature of damnation. The council has several explicit condemnations of Origen. Further, the council fathers calls Hell “eternal shame” and “perpetual shame.” Shockingly, they reject apokatastasis by name. One can click here for more details on that subject.
“Christians dare not doubt the salvation of all,” Hart asserts. “[A]ny understanding of what God accomplished in Christ that does not include the assurance of a final apokatastasis…is ultimately incoherent” (p. 66). Sadly, in making this statement, Hart falls under the same anathema endorsed by the fifth ecumenical council that Origen did.
Hart might retreat from his position and assert he takes the more tempered view of apokatastasis of Saint Gregory of Nyssa. (This would be disingenuous given the positive assessment Hart gives of Origen and the salvation of demons on p. 76.) However, he apparently does not understand that the same saint said in no uncertain terms that for Judas “the chastisement in the way of purgation will be extended into infinity.” Hart may view this as a wink and a nod to the ignorant masses, but judging from the book’s selective portrayal of facts, one has no compelling reason to trust his assessment of the saint’s theology.
Elsewhere in the book, Hart uncritically asserts that Saint Issac the Syrian was an Origenist universalist (p. 16), but fails to mention this is a point that is in doubt. Further, he accuses Saint Silouan the Athonite of the same. However, the saint explicitly rejects Origen’s universalism and asserts that “many or few, we do not know” will eternally reject salvation and thereby be damned.
While a book review like this could hardly flesh out the Church’s “infernalist” position, it does not need to. One certainly can question Hart’s book on intellectual and moral grounds. For this reason, the book is a disappointment–not because its position is right or wrong. Rather, it is argued so badly and unconvincingly that only those who already agreed with Hart would get edification from its contents. And, if the point of books is to teach and change (perhaps improve) minds, Hart has failed dramatically in fulfilling the very role a eminent scholar ought to.
Help Grow the Orthodox Church in Cambodia!
Has this article blessed you? Please bless the Moscow Patriarchate’s missionary efforts in Cambodia to bring the Gospel to a people who have not heard it!