David Bentley Hart – That All Shall Be Saved

I’ve just read the recently released book length essay by David Bentley Hart concerning Universal Salvation – “That All Shall Be Saved”. I was pleasantly surprised to be struck with some insights regarding theodicy and the mystery of evil, which now seem completely obvious to me despite being elusive up to this point. Here they are in dot point form

  1. Contrary to popular educated Christian opinion, evil does have an identifiable reality and substance and essence; evil is not merely an illusion. The experience of pain is the essence and substance of evil. In this way, evil is a real and true component of the fabric of reality – and we are all intimately familiar with it – even if it is understood to be a privation and purely negative, parasitical phenomenon. For example when someone is tortured, both the act and the outcome are evil (although even in the case of a torture the intention is good, as in the case of torturing someone to obtain information which would prevent a destructive act of terrorism).
  2. God does not sovereignly determine evil acts and outcomes. He merely sovereignly permits them. The one single thing that God sovereignly determines is the glorious eschaton and a creation which is constructed in such a way that it infallibly arrives at this eschaton – this is the essence of predestination. The intermediate details are almost entirely determined by us and our autonomous agency (ie, free will) – putting aside direct and divine miraculous intervention.
  3. God does not control all things, but he does create all things. Everything that happens happens because God sustains it in existence and creates it – including our autonomous “free” choices. However God is not a puppet master; nothing is caused by God in the same sense that a puppeteer pulls strings to animate his puppet, or in the same sense that I cause a billiard ball to move by striking it. (For more on this point, search for “Double Agency” and “Synergism” and “The Causal Joint”)
  4. Evil is not part of God’s plan and God’s original design had no evil in it. If it were up to God, there would be no evil. God neither desired nor ordained the Holocaust, he merely permitted it. The holocaust is not an integral component of God’s plan, and he still would bring about the glorious apokatastasis even if the holocaust had never happened.
  5. Our freedom means that the possibility of evil is necessary, but the actuality of evil is not essential. In other words rapes, murders, tsunamis and genocides are not crucial components of God’s plan to bring us to the eschaton, even though rapes, murders and tsunamis are accounted for in that plan. In other words, God has built contingencies into evil, such that it always rubber-bands back to good, in both a temporary and ultimate sense, but his plan does not require evil in order for him to achieve his purposes.
  6. God does not play dice; he knew all possible outcomes of his act of creation before he created – to speak analogically – and yet he went ahead and created anyway. He arranged creation such that everything works together to bring about the glorious eschaton, regardless of whether evil occurs or not. This implies that regardless of how much or how little evil we commit, all things are predestined to the happy ending of the eschaton. To put it in a catchy sound bite, freedom pertains to history while sovereignty pertains to eschatology.
  7. It will not do to complain that the one true gospel of universal salvation renders all action meaningless, “so we may as well eat, drink, have sex and be merry, because it will all be ok in the end anyway regardless of how we behave”. This attitude is completely delusional. Evil is not a step towards the eschaton, it is always a step away from it. For this reason, so long as we remain in our sins, the eschaton is prevented from being actualised. You can’t “sin and still be saved”: So long as you go on sinning, the promised eschaton is prevented from being realised. However, God has created reality in such a way that eventually everyone will infallibly be enlightened as to the truth of things and cease from sinning.
  8. There are two relevant conceptions of Hell to entertain.
    • The first is where someone else holds us in the flames against our will (for example in the case of rape or torture) for sadistic ends. For example the Calvinist god (ie, Satan) wants to demonstrate his attributes and glory, so he damns people to hell and derives selfish glory from their tortures and takes sadistic pleasure in their pain, and all the while they are screaming for mercy and trying to escape. In this first conception, we are in Hell because someone has abducted us and carried us there and held us against our will. To escape from this damnation, some third party has to come and defeat the monstrous prison master and trample the gates of Hell, allowing everyone to escape to freedom. (cf, early “ransom” theories of atonement)
    • The second conception of Hell is where no one is actively holding us in the flames but our very own selves. In this second conception, to remain in the fire could only be due to slavery to ignorance and insanity. However unlike the first conception of Hell, in this conception we do retain our agency and autonomy and dignity, despite being enslaved to the powers of darkness and delusion. Under this second schema we retain the ability to make mistakes and learn from them, and as the ages go by it is inevitable that we will eventually make all the possible mistakes and learn all the possible lessons, and therefore eventually arrive at a state of being wherein we always make the right choices; it is only at this point that we truly can be said to be “free”, “liberated” and “saved”. In this second conception, the process of salvation is less of a “prisonbreak” and more of an education.
  9. People always seek God in everything that they do, it’s just that sometimes (often) they do it in entirely the wrong way. Even the sadistic rapist is not primarily trying to inflict harm on his victim; he is merely seeking pleasure, which is itself a good thing, but unfortunately in this case the pleasure is coming at the expense of the pain of a second person, and this pain is an evil thing. As such, the ultimate sin is to seek retribution: “You hurt me, so I will hurt you”, which only leads to “I hurt you, so you are going to hurt me” and this continues in a vicious circle forever, condemning all of us to an everlasting Hell. The only way to break free from this samsaric cycle of vengeance inflicted and vengeance suffered is to adopt an attitude of mercy, grace and true justice, which involves striving for love and unconditional forgiveness, rather than clinging on to a disordered desire for revenge and “justice”.
  10. It should be recognised that even the desire for revenge and retributive “justice” is in actual fact a desire for God, but it is a fundamentally disordered desire because it has conflated seeking heaven for oneself with inflicting Hell on someone else, and this will in actual fact only serve to perpetuate the current situation – which is a seemingly endless circle of evil, pain and suffering; something of a massa damnata. Retributive justice can only serve to postpone the glorious apokatastasis that we all ultimately crave. However at the point where everyone understands that always and unconditionally seeking the good for the other is the key to true happiness – rather than seeking revenge – the eschaton will have finally been inaugurated. Cue the second coming. Cue the final resurrection. Cue the glorification of Satan and his demons. God is finally all in all, and the glory is infinite and the rejoicing never ends. All are in love and love is in all, and all the evils we had suffered were worth enduring after all. Thanks be to God

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