I’ve been reading a review copy of David Bentley Hart’s latest book, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation. I’m prejudiced in favor of it; David was my first theology teacher at UVA. His influence upon me, not long after I became a Christian, has abided and may prove permanent.
If nothing else, DBH’s new book will give Christians permission to return to the New Testament and see, maybe for the first time, that which it names quite clearly: that the God who created all that is ex nihilo as sheer good gratuity, the God who is all and in all, is the God who desires the salvation of all.
“This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” – 1 Timothy 2.3-4
Apparently, to many who worship the God who just is Love, to assert that God desires the salvation of all constitutes a “treacherous absurdity.” It’s a betrayal of the Gospel, I’ve been told in the not so hushed tones of all caps messages, to suppose that the triune God who announced his creative aim in Genesis 1 (“Let us make humankind in our image…”) will not forsake his endeavor until it has reached final consummation, that in the fullness of time humanity will finally bear the full glory of God’s image. Evidently, I take it from these Calvinists in threadbare sheep’s clothing, it’s better to confess that God-with-us may be our Alpha but he is not our End. At least, not for all of us.
It’s amazing to me that those most vested- presumably- in protecting the gravity of sin, the majesty of salvation, and the authority of scripture ignore what scripture itself testifies about it and the nature of the God revealed therein. Spurred by David Bentley Hart, I actually counted them up. The New Testament contains no less than 47 verses which affirm the ‘all-ness’ of God’s salvation compared to the 4 oft-cited but decidedly cryptic verses which may (or as easily may not) suggest eternal torments for the wicked.
47 vs. 4
What was obvious to the ancient Church Fathers, the totality of God’s salvific aim, has become so hidden it now sufficiently smacks of heresy to exile Rob Bell from the pulpit to the Oprah Channel.
A hero of mine, Karl Barth, famously said that as Christians scripture does not permit us to conclude that all will be saved but that as Christians we should hope and pray that all will be saved. Barth’s is a more generous sentiment than I hear from many Christians today, but despite his reticence DBH argues that the logic of the Gospel requires us to say more.
If God desires the salvation of all, he argues rather irrefutably, it is a logical absurdity to assert that the transcendent God will ultimately fail in accomplishing his eschatological will.
The belief in an eternal hell where some are forever excluded from the ‘all-ness’ of salvation echoed by scripture- that is the absurdity which begets still other absurdities like the Calvinist notion that God predestined some to salvation and others to perdition.
Just as God cannot act contrary to his good nature, so too God cannot fail to realize the good he desires. To say, as scripture does, that God desires the salvation of all is to say simultaneously and necessarily, as scripture implies, that all will be saved, that all things will indeed be made new.
Consider the counter:
If not, if we in our sin (or, worse, in our “freedom”) thwart God’s will and desire, casting ourselves into a fiery torment despite God’s sovereign intention, God would not be God. Or, to put it simpler if more baldly, we would be God. Or, still more pernicious, evil, as that which has successfully resisted God’s creative aim though it is no-thing, would be God.
Evil would God.
Thus the belief in an eternal hell betrays the fact that it’s possible for perfect faith to be indistinguishable from perfect nihilism.
It’s clear how offensive the ‘all-ness’ of God’s sovereign saving love can strike the moral ear. For that ‘all-ness’ must include our enemies too.
To suggest instead that even if Christ came for all and died for all only some will be saved better conforms to our calculus of justice, but it is a moral calculus that is not without remainder, for it makes of evil an idol and of (the once transcendent) God a liar.
Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. – Romans 5.18-19
For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all. – Romans 11.32