David Bentley Hart is an Orthodox theologian, famously blunt and given to speaking his highly educated and erudite mind on a wide variety of subjects. Theologically, he is (like most Orthodox) what many Protestants would call “conservative” (in that he aims to conserve the Christian tradition rather than jettison it in favor of culture war fads left or right). But he is also an Easterner (particularly formed by the tradition of people like the great saint Gregory of Nyssa) and therefore also quite capable of embracing what the now-thoroughly-lunatic MAGA antichrist religion (whether Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox in flavor) regards as “radical left” (meaning ordinary patristic Christian) views on social conditions, the abuses of power, and the relationship of rich and poor.
Some years back (2011 to be precise), for instance–before First Things completely went insane and sold its soul to the MAGA cult–he wrote a devastating take on Donald Trump called “A Person You Flee at Parties” which accurately and hilariously compared Donald Trump to a demonic figure and concluded (after a discussion of sundry literary devils) with an anecdote about a conversation he’d had with his friend Ambrose D’Arcangeli:
How then, I asked Ambrose, should one portray the prince of darkness?
After a pensive moment, Ambrose replied, “A merciless real estate developer whose largest projects are all casinos.”
And recalling this exchange brought Donald Trump to mind. You know the fellow: developer, speculator, television personality, hotelier, political dilettante, conspiracy theorist, and grand croupier—the one with that canopy of hennaed hair jutting out over his eyes like a shelf of limestone.
In particular, I recalled how, back in 1993, when Trump decided he wanted to build special limousine parking lots around his Atlantic City casino and hotel, he had used all his influence to get the state of New Jersey to steal the home of an elderly widow named Vera Coking by declaring “eminent domain” over her property, as well as over a nearby pawn shop and a small family-run Italian restaurant.
She had declined to sell, having lived there for thirty-five years. Moreover, the state offered her only one-fourth what she had been offered for the same house some years before, and Trump could then buy it at a bargain rate. The affair involved the poor woman in an exhausting legal battle, which, happily, she won, with the assistance of the Institute for Justice.
How obvious it seems to me now. Cold, grasping, bleak, graceless, and dull; unctuous, sleek, pitiless, and crass; a pallid vulgarian floating through life on clouds of acrid cologne and trailed by a vanguard of fawning divorce lawyers, the devil is probably eerily similar to Donald Trump—though perhaps just a little nicer.
To read the comboxes on this piece is to spelunk through the sedimentary fossil layers chronologically the devolution of the Thing that Used to be Conservative Christianity into the now-depraved and intellectually degenerate Cult of Trump. Comments from First Things readers in 2011 took for granted Hart’s sanity and wisdom in this assessment of this deeply corrupt man. But as the years roll on, the comments come more and more to become defenses of Trump’s depravity and denunciations of Hart.
Needless to say, now that Trump’s career of depravity and corruption is nearing its ignominious end, Hart looks and smells great. MAGA antichrist religion and propaganda organs like First Things? Not so much.
As a fan of Gregory of Nyssa (and a biblical scholar who has done his own translation of the New Testament), Hart has (among other things) taken the position that the Catholic Church’s teaching on Hell is, not to put too fine a point on it, rubbish. He strenuously presses his case in his book, That All May Be Saved and is characteristically cantankerous with a “my way or the highway” approach to those (like me) who think it is legit to hope that all may be saved, but who are hesitant to conclude from the biblical evidence that eternal damnation is simply contemptible, impossible, and a view of God fit only for moral monsters.
Don’t get me wrong. I would be delighted to find Hart right and learn on That Day that God’s overwhelming love has so utterly triumphed that even Hitler, Himmler, or [insert favorite monster here] ultimately succumb to it, repent, and are transformed into penitent and holy saints filled with the life of the Blessed Trinity.
But, well, I lack that kind of confidence and (not knowing the end of the story) I continue to think that the position of human beings in a world where we know neither the future nor the untraceable ways of the mind of God is that the best we can do is hope, not know how the Story ends. And given that Jesus himself sure seems to warn repeatedly about the possibility of being cast into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels, of being burnt up like dead branches from fruitless trees, and of the worm that dieth not and the fire that is not quenched, I don’t feel like a moral monster for heeding such warnings as a real possibility for those who die in impenitent mortal sin, just as I don’t feel antisocial for never taking up smoking like all the Cool Kids at School did, confident that Modern Medicine would keep me from dying of cancer. The warnings about what could happen if I ignored the warnings made me timid about ignoring the warnings.
At the same time, I think the eagerness with which the Greatest Christians of All Time blithely excommunicate Hart as a “heretic” are signs of the pathological arrogance in that subculture. Hart essentially hews to a view of God’s love that comes from one of the greatest saints, theologians, and thinkers in the history of the Church: the aforementioned Gregory of Nyssa. Gregory, just like Hart, found it inconceivable that the love and goodness of God toward his creation could ever fail in any way whatsoever. It therefore followed for him that damnation of any creature could never occur. The idea was not that God, like a senile grandfather, would “let impenitent sinners into Heaven” despite the fact that they remained stubbornly impenitent monsters forever. Rather, it is that somehow, in the mystery of God, even the worst sinner must, sooner or later, surrender his heart to the relentless love of God and become really and truly saintly.
Some will argue that no Real Christian[TM[ can believe that. I reply that St. Gregory of Nyssa is–by the infallible testimony of the Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church–most emphatically a Real Christian. So it seems to me that this opinion is one permissible within the range of Catholic opinion and I certainly will not deny Hart’s right to such a view, though (as I say) I remain reluctant to embrace it as anything more than a Permissible Opinion that is on a spectrum of opinions available to Catholics. (This is, in fact, typical for Catholics on most things, and some Catholic arguments about stuff have, in fact, gone on for centuries.)
What I do not hesitate to agree with Hart about is this:
The damnation of a single human soul is the greatest tragedy in the universe, since it would represent the complete failure of a human life to reach the only thing for which that life ever existed. The idea of delighting in such a loss is sheer horror. I think so much as considering doing so is a matter for the sacrament of confession, much less actually doing it. Aside from the act of deliberately blaspheming God, there is no worse act of speech or mind than to seriously hope for somebody’s damnation.
Of course, I realize that jokes that place people in Hell are endemic. Here is a favorite:
Likewise, I get that the literary uses of Hell are a vital part of our culture. I have no issues with Dante consigning sundry people to Hell, precisely because what he is up to is fiction and fiction of an extraordinarily high purpose, deeply rooted in the Christian tradition. His goal in writing about Hell is to see that nobody goes there by offering us allegories for illustrating the sins that lead there, not to offer wishes or prophecies about people he wants to see damned. And, of course, countless satires have shown us various figures in Hell. Most hellish literature is simply a commentary on earthly matters. Rod Serling loved to play with the idea of damnation and ponder what it would mean and (like most Christian moralists including Dante) rightly understood that sin is its own punishment and not something external to the sinner, tagged on to them like postage stamp by an arbitrary God. That’s all good solid moralistic storytelling, as is all good horror fiction. Not for nothing is the word “monster” etymologically related to “Monstrance” (the piece of furniture used to display the Eucharist) and “demonstrate”. That is what good horror fiction does: demonstrate and display the results of sin and evil. Small wonder then that Stephen King tells us he sees himself standing in the tradition of a long line of Puritan preachers stretching back to Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”. Horror fiction (including tales of Hell and damnation) has the primary purpose of calling us to search and try our ways and turn away from sin.
But, precisely because I do retain a lively awareness that, though I hope for the salvation of all, I have no certitude of it. And therefore even the joking suggestion, much less the sincere wish, that anybody actually be damned is something I regard as, at best, a dalliance with mortal sin and, at worst, one of the gravest sins one can commit with mind and heart. Every time some public figure dies, there is always somebody out there gleefully damning them to Hell.
I don’t think it’s funny. And I think it even worse when those who really do believe in Hell do it. Not that I think human opinions of the deceased can, in the slightest, determine the destiny of the dead, but because I think it does ravaging damage to the soul of the person who wishes damnation on another.
To be sure, there are those in this life who have suffered profound evils and horrors: rape, murder, deportations, torture, and so forth and it is not my business here to tell them to “just get over it”. At the Judgment, the martyrs who forgave their persecutors will still bear witness to the truth of what was done to them and the powerful and impenitent will have to writhe under the scrutiny of the Just One as the child who was gassed at Auschwitz tells the story of what was done to her.
But that is not the position of the sort of person Hart is talking about above. He (and I) are speaking of the comfy Inquisitor, so very casually at ease with damning for all eternity people they hate and dismiss for the most casual of reasons. It is an ugly, ugly distortion of the gospel and I detest it.