Book Review: David Bentley Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved

Peter Munk earned his undergraduate degree in History from the University of Utah and J.D. from Vanderbilt University Law School. He practices law in Atlanta, Georgia, where he lives with his wife and five daughters.

On the night of November 23, 1998, Bill Weise—a Protestant Christian—had an out-of-body experience. Weise found himself in a prison cell. It was hot—very hot. And Weise was joined by two horrifying beasts. One beast flayed Weise’s flesh with its clawed hand, while the other threw him across the cell. The beasts tortured Weise against the droning screams of “billions” of fellow inmates, wailing in agony as demonic creatures subjected them to similar horrific acts. The duration of Weise and every other inhabitant’s suffering? Not a life sentence. Not two life sentences. Not a trillion life sentences. But eternity.

As you have probably guessed, Weise was describing hell—the place where most Christians (albeit not necessarily in such vivid and sadistic detail) think some combination of “bad” people and non-believers go when they die. Weise recounted his experience in a 2006 book, 23 Minutes in Hell. And lest you think Weise is a complete outlier in the Christian community, 23 Minutes in Hell spent three weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list for paperback nonfiction. Weise parlayed his book’s success into a church speaking tour and was able to leave his career to enter the ministry full-time in 2007.[1]

Who Believes in Eternal Hell?

I stumbled across Weise a few years ago when a video of one of his sermons surfaced in my YouTube feed. As a lifelong member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (“Mormon,” going forward), I have prided my faith for not believing in a traditional “hell,” i.e., a really hot place where non-believers go to suffer forever. Infinite punishment for finite indiscretions has always struck me as . . . incongruous. Mormon “hell” (except for those select few “sons of perdition” in “outer darkness”), is just heaven lite—an existence superior to our current state, but far removed from the exaltation that could have been ours through different life choices.[2] Not so bad, given the alternative views out there. Watching the video of Weise, however, which included cutaways to his enraptured audience, made me ponder the magnetic pull that the doctrine of eternal hell has over so much of Christendom.

My question: Why would God the “father,” the “shepherd,” the “hen [who] gathereth her chickens under her wings,” who in the beginning called his works “good,” and became flesh to reconcile humanity, create billions of souls that He knew (because He knows everything) were destined for eternal agony? Can God truly be merciful, kind, or loving if this is truly his agenda?

A solid majority of American Christians do not appear to share my puzzlement. According to a 2014 study from the Pew Research Center, 58 percent of Americans believe in hell.[3] Evangelical Protestants and Historically Black Protestants were tied for the lead at 82 percent. Catholics came in at 63 percent, Mainline Protestants at 60 percent, and Orthodox Christians at 59 percent.[4] These results must be taken with a grain of salt, however (especially in light of this Mormon’s perspective, detailed above), because the study also listed 62 percent of Mormons believing in hell, suggesting no uniform definition of “hell” among survey respondents. It is a near certainty, after all, that Mormons mean something different by “hell” than your average Evangelical Protestant. I assume that most non-Mormon believers in hell mean a very unpleasant place whose inhabitants never leave. Maybe not Weise-level terrifying, but certainly unpleasant.[5]

Universalist in Chief

Enter David Bentley Hart, “an Eastern Orthodox scholar of religion and a philosopher, writer, and cultural commentator,” author of well-known works Atheist Delusions and The Experience of God, and translator of The New Testament.[6] Hart has emerged as a pugnacious defender of theism and Christianity in his battles with atheists, fundamentalists, and, relevant to this post, “infernalists.”

Hart’s 2019 work, That All Shall be Saved (Yale Univ. Press), is a poison-tipped arrow aimed at the heart of belief in eternal hell. Mincing no words, Hart refers to those believing in eternal hell as “infernalists,” and opines “that the doctrine of eternal hell is prima facie nonsensical.” (P. 202.) Some of Hart’s greatest hits attacking the moral and logical problems inherent to an eternal hell include:

  • “And what could be more absurd than the claim that God’s ways so exceed comprehension that we dare not presume even to distinguish benevolence from malevolence in the divine, inasmuch as either can result in the same endless excruciating despair [of an eternal hell].” (P. 21.)
  • Doubting the sincerity of an academic rival’s professed belief in eternal hell because “he would never dare to bring a child into this world, let alone five children; nor would he be able to rest even for a moment, because he would be driven ceaselessly around the world in a desperate frenzy of evangelism, seeking to save as many souls from the eternal fire as possible.” (P. 30.)
  • “Because he is the Good itself, God cannot be the author of absolute injustice, absolute evil; such an irrational possibility would be a limitation upon the infinite freedom with which he expresses his nature.” (P. 60.)
  • Belief in eternal hell fails “for the simple reason that it cannot even be stated in Christian theological terms without a descent into equivocity so precipitous and total that nothing but edifying gibberish remains.” (P. 202.)
  • “Can we imagine, logically, I mean, not merely intuitively—that someone still in torment after a trillion ages, or then a trillion trillion, or then a trillion vigintillion, is in any meaningful sense the same agent who contracted some measureable quantity of personal guilt in that tiny, ever more vanishingly insubstantial gleam of an instant that constituted his or her terrestrial life?” (Pp. 203-204.)

In addition to these moral and logical arguments, Hart draws on his credentials as a translator of the New Testament to argue that eternal hell is “entirely absent from the Pauline corpus,” and not “patently present in any of the other epistolary texts.” (P. 93.) Hart maintains that alleged examples of eternal hell (Matthew 25:46, or verses in Revelation, for example) are “fragmentary and fantastic images that can be taken in any number of ways” and are not representative of the text as a whole. (Id.) While early Christians considered “the story of salvation [] entirely one of rescue” rather than a blood sacrifice to sate an angry God, institutional imperatives overcame this message as the church rose in power through the centuries. (Pp. 27, 206.)[7]

Back to Weise. On his website, Weise attempts to answer the elephant in the room: “How can a loving God send people to hell?” He responds, in relevant part:

God is not sending anyone to hell. It’s not His decision. We have a free will to believe or not to believe. . . . He said He was the only way to Heaven. If a person says they don’t believe His words, then there is a verse for them. Rev.21:8 states, “the . . . unbelieving . . . shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone . . . .” So we can see why Jesus said in Matt.12:37, “For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” Our own words send us to hell.[8]

Hart allows that the “free will” argument is “the only defense of the infernalist position that is logically and morally worthy of being either taken seriously or refuted scrupulously,” but unsurprisingly rejects it. (P. 171.) According to Hart, “the very notion that a rational agent in full possession of his or her faculties could, in any meaningful sense freely reject God absolutely and forever is a logically incoherent one.” (p. 18.) Hart writes:

[T]rue freedom is contingent upon true knowledge and true sanity of mind. To the very degree that either of these is deficient, freedom is absent. And with freedom goes culpability. No mind that possesses so much as a glimmer of a consciousness of reality is wholly lacking in liberty; but, by the same token, no mind save one possessing absolutely undiminished consciousness of reality is wholly free.

(P. 177.) Continuing:

If then there is such a thing as eternal perdition as the result of an eternal refusal of repentance, it must also be the result of an eternal ignorance, and therefore has nothing really to do with freedom at all. So, no: Not only is an eternal free rejection of God unlikely; it is a logically vacuous idea.

(P. 178.) Hart points out that it is difficult to separate the actions of even the most evil among us from their underlying pathologies or personal backgrounds.

A Latter-day Saint Perspective

Devoid of citations, repetitive, unremittingly pugilistic, and dripping with academic arrogance, That All Shall Be Saved is flawed. For example, the reader begins to understand by the end of the book, after another reference to Gregory of Nyssa, that Hart’s authorities for Christian universalism are quite thin. But to his credit, Hart admits as much toward the end of the book when he states that his position is a matter of conscience, majority opinion be damned (not literally, of course).[9]

Flaws notwithstanding, much from That All Shall Be Saved will ring true to Mormon readers. The book also contains important lessons for Mormons to consider.

  1. Universal Salvation Does Not Preclude Punishment for Sin

Mormons are keenly averse to “easy” or “cheap” salvation. (Hence our complicated relationship with grace and works.) Not surprisingly, salvation in Mormonism is ultimately universal, but only after the sinner has paid a price. To paraphrase God in Doctrine & Covenants 19:15-20 (a dangerous business, I know), “you may come out okay in the end, but rebellion won’t be worth it, I promise.” Hart’s conception of the afterlife allows for this, holding that “‘purifying flames’ of the Age to come” are possible, even if they “will at last be extinguished.” (P. 201.) He acknowledges that making this widely known will perhaps lead “a good number of us . . . to think like the mafioso who refuses to turn state’s evidence because he is sure that he can ‘do the time.’” (Id.) So will people be “good for goodness’ sake,” knowing their torment will not be forever? Hart will take the risk for the sake of intellectual honesty and to protect God’s true character. So, it seems, will Mormons.

2. Universal Salvation Conquers Fear

Would I love the God who created billions of humans with full knowledge that most (or for sake of argument, even one!) would languish in an eternal hell? Or would I praise him out of fear of what he might do to me? In April 2017 General Conference, then-President Dieter F. Uchtdorf explained the drawbacks to a “heavy emphasis on the fiery terrors of hell that await the sinner”:

It is true that fear can have a powerful influence over our actions and behavior. But that influence tends to be temporary and shallow. Fear rarely has the power to change our hearts, and it will never transform us into people who love what is right and who want to obey Heavenly Father.

People who are fearful may say and do the right things, but they do not feel the right things. They often feel helpless and resentful, even angry. Over time these feelings lead to mistrust, defiance, even rebellion.

It is the objective and design of eternal hell to be the most fear-inducing thing imaginable. This fear no doubt motivates those who believe (or those who merely accept Pascal’s Wager), but does it have power to compel us to truly love God? We can certainly love God for “rescuing” us and our loved ones from hell, but what about the fact that God was the proximate cause of hell’s existence, and is apparently content to set conditions such that people end up there? Even virtuous people, or people with brutish and short lives filled with poverty and abuse. Is it not easier to love the God who relentlessly pursues even the most rebellious until their stony hearts are changed? At what point does the God whose Son became flesh to save mankind decide to give up attempting to reconcile his creation?

3. Universal Salvation and the Atonement

Universal salvation opens vistas of atonement theory hampered by belief in an eternal hell. Hart describes the message of salvation as

[T]he epic of God descending into the depths of human estrangement to release his creatures from bondage and death, penetrating even into the heart of hades to set the captives free and recall his prodigal children and restore a broken creation.

(P. 25.) He contrasts this with the concept of “a ransom paid to the Father” that has gained currency in western Christianity (P. 25.) According to Hart, early Christians did not “incorporate[] the discordant claim that innocent blood had to be spilled to assuage God’s indignation,” and instead believed in “a relentless tale of rescue, conducted by a God who requires no tribute to win his forgiveness or love.” (Id.)

Mormon atonement theory is imprecise (and varied), but we should contemplate whether the language of penal substitution or “ransom” effectively communicates the depth of Christ’s sacrifice and God’s desire to redeem his creation.

4. The Wages of Universal Salvation

Finally, belief in salvation for all can draw us closer to our fellow man. If salvation is reserved for a select few, with the rest suffering eternal torment, why attempt to form meaningful relationships with those not of our faith who are not ripe for conversion? Won’t we just be disappointed to see our non-believing friends and neighbors burning below while we reside in paradise? Does the idea of eternal hell uplift and make us want to be better? Or does it cause us to retreat into a shell of self-preservation, except insofar as required to do what is necessary to gain sufficient favor with God? For example, if preaching the gospel to someone makes them accountable for non-belief and therefore subject to hellfire, would it not be more merciful to keep that knowledge from them? If we persist in evangelizing them, aren’t we striving to follow the commandments for our own good at the possible expense of our friend’s eternal well-being?

Contrast that with a universal salvation, a corporate salvation, where any Christ-like act, random act of kindness, or personal sacrifice may echo in the eternities as recipients of that kindness—regardless of religion, color, creed, nationality, or ethnicity—struggle toward the rational endpoint of all creation: communion with God and his Son.

Despite its shortcomings, That All Shall Be Saved is a thought-provoking read for those interested in the genesis and implications of an eternal hell. I have no idea what awaits us in the “Age to come,” but I will choose to err on the side of overestimating God’s love for his creation and desire to redeem all mankind. Indeed, in a rapidly changing world, rife with turmoil, existential angst, and uncertainty, a God who seeks to save more than just a few of His children may be the Restoration’s greatest legacy, and greatest opportunity to appeal to twenty-first century seekers.

Going forward, my YouTube feed will include more Hart, and less Weise.


[1] You can get a flavor for Weise’s presentations here, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NHYQk0tkyik (the description of his encounter with the beasts in the cell begins around 4:20), or check out his website, https://soulchoiceministries.org/ (last visited June 6, 2021).

[2] For the record, I am not suggesting that Mormons are true universalists in the sense that everybody winds up in the same place (although I wouldn’t rule that out). Pres. Nelson has recently stressed the reality of eternal consequences. See https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2019/04/46nelson?lang=eng. Then there is that whole issue of the Book of Mormon seemingly teaching eternal hell (e.g., Mosiah 3:25) and specifically condemning universalism. See, e.g.,https://bycommonconsent.com/2016/04/15/nehors-universalism-problem-and-ours-bom2016/ (last visited June 6, 2021). I agree with Terryl Givens’ description of LDS theology as “a quasi-universalist view of salvation.” The Pearl of Greatest Price: Mormonism’s Most Controversial Scripture (Oxford Univ. Press 2019) (hereafter “The Pearl of Greatest Price”), p. 79.

[3] https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/belief-in-hell/ (last visited June 6, 2021).

[4] Seventy-six percent of Muslims, 32 percent of Buddhists, and 28 percent of Hindus believe in hell, but I am limiting my analysis here to belief in hell among Christians.

[5] Case in point, megachurch pastor Rob Bell was met with intense push-back from the evangelical community for his book Love Wins: At the Heart of Life’s Big Questions (Collins 2012), which advocated a capacious salvation. See, e.g., https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/rob-bell-love-wins-review/ (“The theology is heterodox. The history is inaccurate. The impact on souls is devastating. And the use of Scripture is indefensible. Worst of all, Love Wins demeans the cross and misrepresents God’s character.”) (last visited June 6, 2021).

[6] Hart’s The New Testament has been discussed on this blog: https://bycommonconsent.com/2019/03/05/nt-translation-and-mormon-bait/ (last visited June 6, 2021).

[7] Dr. Bart Ehrman, in his recent book Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife (Simon & Schuster 2020), comes to many of the same conclusions. Prof. Megan Henning has done similar work: https://peteenns.com/meghan-henning-does-hell-exist/ (last visited June 6, 2021).

[8] https://soulchoiceministries.org/can-loving-god-send-people-hell/ (last visited June 6, 2021).

[9] Terryl Givens agrees that “[o]nly minor universalist countercurrents dented th[e] consensus viewpoint” of a dualistic heaven and hell in which relatively few are saved. The Pearl of Greatest Price, p. 80.

Comments

  1. lastlemming says:

    You sort of made up for it in your point #1, but I think it is misleading to call the Mormon hell “heaven light.” The Mormon hell is where the unrepentant go to suffer for their own sins. “Heaven light” (better known as the telestial kingdom) is where they will land when the suffering is over. They are not the same place (or, if you prefer, condition).

  2. “Hell” (not the Mormon version). is an evil teaching that produces evil in the world.

  3. Bob Lloyd says:

    I remember skimming the book by Wiese at a Barnes and Noble back in 2007. I’ve also read a few other “hell tourism” books, which are mainly from the experiences of Evangelical fundamentalists. I also discovered that there are many mystics in the Catholic church that would describe their visions of seeing and experiencing an eternal hell. Part of me is glad to know that there is some pushback against these concepts (such as in Hart’s book), but I also am really wondering how we could explain these hellish visions from an Lds perspective. Are they false visions from the adversary? Partial truth being revealed? I don’t know.

  4. Peter L. Munk says:

    Bob Lloyd: I’ve asked myself the same thing. I personally think Wiese sincerely believes his experience. Of course, that doesn’t make it true, just like JS’s vision isn’t true to Wiese. I have no idea if the devil is involved in manufacturing religious experience for some, but our complicated human brain, which thirsts for certainty and confirmation of our own beliefs, likely plays a role as well. Bart Ehrman (an avowed atheist) discusses miraculous events/visions in his book How Christ Became God (if memory serves).

  5. lastlemming says:

    Where I work, we produce economic forecasts. We have decades of experience from which we extrapolate into the future. But the further out we forecast, the less accurate our forecasts become (and the more skeptical people are of their value). And yet here we have Weise extrapolating a 23 minute experience to all eternity and millions of people take him seriously. I’m kinda jealous.

  6. Jacob H. says:

    I really enjoyed Hart’s book. Thanks for the nice engagement with it here ^_^

  7. When I engage in conversation with someone arguing Eternal Hell I bring up Revelation 20:13-14 where death and hell deliver up all of the dead and are then caste out. It spells it out that death and hell will no longer exist. What happens then? The only way they answer is something along the lines of God being too mysterious to understand. Or they ignore the verse and accuse me of being a Universalist, and then describe the problem of Universalism is that with Universalism there’s no point to commandments.
    All of these conversations help reaffirm my testimony of the gospel. The actual gospel of Jesus Christ explains so much.

  8. For me, the most important component of Mormon philosophical cosmology is not heaven/hell doctrine or universalism. Or the 3 degrees of glory. Or the Plan of Happiness (aka Salvation). It’s the concept of eternal progression. And the idea that you can take any knowledge gained during our stay on earth into the afterlife. Whether or not you believe that man/woman can become gods, the idea that there is progression is important to me.

    The Christian doctrine of hell (stick) is used to scare people into behaving. Mormon Christians instead use heaven (carrot) to encourage people to behave. My reaction to all this is: Why can’t people just live their lives ethically because it’s the right thing to do? We shouldn’t need a carrot or a stick.

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