The smell of chicken thighs browning in a cast iron skillet with olive oil and garlic, onions, and peppers sautéing next to them, reminds me every time of my grandmother. Every old guy who walks out of church on Sunday morning smelling of Old Spice recalls my grandpa. My handwriting, down to the same black felt tip pen, is his. The small of my wife’s back feels to my hand as much me as my eyes when I rub them. I can’t imagine the world other than seeing it as I’ve learned to see it from her. And if we’ve done even a partial job of parenting, then one day our boys will say the same about us.
One of the people in my constellation of memories is the theologian David Bentley Hart. My first theology teacher at the University of Virginia, he opened up to me a breadth and depth of Christian thinking that flummoxed me, captivated my imagination as a new Christian, and fortuitously set me on a different path than the one I had anticipated. Because I know his public reputation among some readers and critics is contrary, I should note that I have, over the years, found David Bentley Hart to be a warm, winsome, compassionate, and thoughtful mentor. He has been unfailing in following up to inquire about my health. He often ribs me good-naturedly about the deficiences of National League baseball and how my Washington Nationals would scarcely be more than a bottom feeding team in the AL. The passion of his prose and the ferocity of his humor stem from an authentic zeal for the good and the beautiful. He can be uncompromising with sloppy thinking because theology isn’t merely an academic abstraction but can and often does have monstrous consequences for how we conceive of God and our neighbors, especially the poor and the vulnerable.
The person I am is literally inconceivable apart from him. He is a good example of how none of us are persons in isolation from others.
We are who we’ve loved.
From this incontrovertible axiom follows an equally incontestable assertion:
Hell for some would be hell for all.
If who I am is constituted by the memories given to me by those I’ve loved, then what would it mean for me to be in heaven were they in hell? Heaven would be a torment to me, or if their memory blotted out from me, to spare me the pain of their damnable suffering, then the part of they constituted would likewise be erased. To believe in an eternal hell for some is likewise to believe that the host of heaven have been, in decisive ways, hollowed out, as much shadows of their former selves as CS Lewis famously sketched the souls in Hell.
Such a hell would require of heaven an eternal lobotomy.
David Bentley Hart puts it better than me:
“[There is] an incoherence deeply fixed at the heart of almost all Christian traditions: that is, the idea that the omnipotent God of love, who creates the world from nothing, either imposes or tolerates the eternal torment of the damned.
It is not merely peculiarity of personal temperament that prompts Tertullian to speak of the saved relishing the delightful spectacle of the destruction of the reprobate, or Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas to assert that the vision of the torments of the damned will increase the beatitude of the redeemed (as any trace of pity would darken the joys of heaven), or Luther to insist that the saved will rejoice to see their loved ones roasting in hell.
All of them were simply following the only poor thread of logic they had to guide them 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.
Of course, the logical deficiencies of such language are obvious: After all, what is a person other than a whole history of associations, loves, memories, attachments, and affinities? Who are we, other than all the others who have made us who we are, and to whom we belong as much as they to us?
We are those others.
To say that the sufferings of the damned will either be clouded from the eyes of the blessed or, worse, increase the pitiless bliss of heaven is also to say that no persons can possibly be saved: for, if the memories of others are removed, or lost, or one’s knowledge of their misery is converted into indifference or, God forbid, into greater beatitude, what then remains of one in one’s last bliss?
Some other being altogether, surely: a spiritual anonymity, a vapid spark of pure intellection, the residue of a soul reduced to no one.
But not a person—not the person who was.”