David Bentley Hart on Wishing People into Hell

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.


29 Responses

  1. Dear Mr Shea,

    I’m relatively new to your blog, but have been enjoying it thoroughly! I wanted to thank you especially for your kind treatment in this article about apokatastasis/universalism.

    I used to be one of those people whom Dr Hart spoke about in the passage you quoted. But I have come gradually- over the course of several years and through various spiritual crisis- to embrace a confidence in apokatastasis in line with that of St Gregory of Nyssa. There are few Catholic voices out there (at least that I’ve heard) that are humble enough to concede this belief is permissible for Catholics, and I truly appreciate your candor and humility in discussing it as well as your own reluctance to accept it.

    (One might be thinking I’m only appreciative because you are publicly justifying my right to believe what I want to believe; but what I want more than my own justification is an openness and willingness among serious Catholics to engage in this doctrine, since it constitutes a tradition which has a long, and at times prevalent, standing in the Church, and one especially which posits a view of God which I believe is much more worthy of being described both as “Supreme Being” and “Father.”)

    I am sure you keep quite busy based on the wide range of topics you write about. But I would like to suggest for your consideration in prayer an idea I have been meditating upon for a while: perhaps the reality of the salvation of all and of an endless hell (which some- or even all-good may experience in various ways and times) are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps apokatastasis and endless hell are actually doctrines that are mutually enriching, that complete or perfect one another. Perhaps there is a sense in which everyone experiences an endless hell in some manner, and perhaps it is the way in which God as a loving Father deals with that within us which is irreformable- like a spiritual cancer that cannot be cured but must be excised and separated forever for the health of the patient. Perhaps warnings about hell may be not only consonant with universalism, but might even add greater depth and nuance to it. Perhaps, for instance, in preaching of hell/gehenna, Jesus was saying something to the effect of, “Even if God will find a way to save you in the end, why wait and make Him force your hand after death when you could be willingly cooperating with Him here and now?”

    Or perhaps I’m a crackpot! But the fact remains: the number of serious Catholics who are willing to entertain the theological feasibility of apokatastasis and the moral permissibility of a Catholic accepting it- and saying so publicly!- are very few. Your witness in this regard is a breath of fresh air! Thank you!

    In Christ,
    Brent Potteiger

      1. Thanks also for your witness! I used to struggle with witnessing, but- perhaps ironically- it was through embracing a view that is often seen as heretical (apokatastasis) that I began to face my fears and proclaim the good news (though the way I do proclamation, it’s got all the eloquence of a dying goose!).

        If you’re interested, I started a YouTube channel several months ago on which I post videos about a few topics, but mostly apokatastasis. My videos are EXTREMELY amateur- I am a poor speaker and an even poorer editor. But I see so little engagement of apokatastasis from a Catholic perspective I could hardly bear to remain silent. As a friend of mine often says, “Somebody’s got to do the hard jobs.” I guess I’m that “somebody,” though I’d rather it be someone with at least a little more oratorical finesse!

        The channel is called Caritas Quaerens- a search should bring it up as I think it’s currently the only channel of that name.

        (By the way, I’m not inviting you for personal gain. I make no money off the channel. I just REALLy want to get more serious Catholics engaged with apokatastasis. I believe there are many Catholics who are secretly universalists, and I think there is much good that could come to the Church through sincere, open dialogue and fellowship about this doctrine.)

  2. Hi Mark, you owe it to yourself to read That All Shall Be Saved. Hart may not convince you, but he will help answer some of your questions. (And it’s a blessedly shirt book, though a bit demanding at points.) Also, the appendix to his NT translation is a gold mine—a detailed look at what the Greek terms are that get (mis)translated as eternal, how Gregory and others integrate the fire/worm texts with the Universalistic ones (like Rom 5.18-19).

    1. Indeed: the translation is fascinating, enlightening, thought-provoking: but the introduction, appendix, and notes are pure gold.

  3. I stopped believing in an eternal hell when I became a parent. Hell would be like God aborting his children continuously and without end. To think that this is compatible with God’s nature is a frightful way of thinking and believing. No wonder Christians have committed so much violence in the name of God.

    1. Anna Lisa,

      Thanks for sharing that! I can relate now- but it took me about 15 years of fatherhood to acquire enough common sense to get to the same conclusion you did! Unfortunately, for much of that time, “in my younger and more vulnerable years” of rad traddery, I believe I inflicted spiritual abuse on my children by threatening them with hell, Jonathan Edwards style, and calling it catechesis. (Please pray for healing for me and my children!)

      On my YouTube channel, Caritas Quaerens, I recently posted a short video about the idea of parenting and hell. If you’re interested, here’s the link: https://youtu.be/VZjh5RdMgNs?si=i0eXWjUcmi1vik4a

      (I don’t get any money from my channel. Just thought you might find the content relevant.)

      1. Thanks Brent, I’ll check it out. I should have stated “being a parent, forced me to look at things differently.” But it’s not like it happened overnight,it was a process. –So my oldest four still chide me a bit over my formerly zealous ways. My fourth was a bit of a stinker in his mid teens. We laugh a little about how my very conservative Dad put a “What will Hell be like?” pamphlet on his nightstand, to try to curb his sass.

        Also, having more miscarriages than I can count helped me to see that God’s mercy could never be limited by all the rules we try to box God up with.

        Interestingly enough, of my last four kids, who had the concept of hell explained to them as the sin we invite into our hearts,–two of them–who are more zealously conservative then we trained them to be–still savor the idea that there might be a hell to torture the people they don’t like. But they are coming around.The sixth who argues the most strenuously with me about hell just spearheaded a pro-life club on his college campus. He’s a good guy, and a diamond in the rough. He took our advice not to call it the “Pro Life Club” and named it the “Nurturing Love Club”. He’s open to the idea that all might be saved. I told him that when you allow yourself to believe that, it makes you see everybody in an absolutely new light.

    2. “Hell would be like God aborting his children continuously and without end. “

      Intentional abortion is an active act of the will. Such a thing would indeed be incompatible with God’s nature.

      That is distinct from a permissive act of the will, like a father letting his prodigal son take his share in the inheritance and run off to destroy his own life.

      The Bible assures us that God welcomes the prodigal son back joyously if he is willing to return, but the Bible never in any way implies that God will drag us kicking and screaming into heaven against our will. Rather, Jesus repeatedly warns us about the danger of hell (eg – Matthew 5, 7, 25). In that context, it seems bold to propose that everyone actually could be saved, although I think Mark’s language is fair when he speculates about how it could be:

      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.

      But suppose we don’t surrender our hearts? If we truly have free will, we don’t have to accept God. We can choose our sins instead, and if we spend our whole lives reinforcing for ourselves the desire for things that do not conform to God’s will, would we actually choose to give up those things we dedicated our lives to?

      1. Can you imagine what you would think of our God, if you were an alien sent to examine our traditional Catholic artwork? At least an abortion (or any torture session) has a beginning a middle and an end.

        Anna Lisa

  4. Reminds me why it used to be considered a horrible thing to tell someone to “go to Hell,” or even to say “damn it!” – not a notion that is so prevalent anymore, though.

  5. I know it may be a strange question, but if you have someone who hurt you in a dire way, that effects your ability to live every day, and they are continuing to do it as well, and you were to say to them “your actions are putting you at risk of going to Hell” and you were to pray daily that this person not go to Hell and that they change their ways and what their doing to you, is this sinful thinking or right thinking? I’m torn between thinking it’s sinful to even imply they could go to Hell for what they did/are doing, and thinking it’s right to hope and pray they don’t go to Hell for what they did and trying to prevent them from doing so. It just seems like many would call it judgment to even say a person wronged you, let alone that they could go to Hell for it.

    1. It is certainly not sinful to tell somebody they hurt you, nor to warn them that they risk the wrath of God if what they did was obviously gravely evil and done with malice. There’s a difference between warning in charity and wishing for hell. Jesus, after all, tells us we have a duty to warn our brother if he sins: see Matthew 18:15-17

  6. Mark, I haven’t read Hart’s book yet (I’ve been trying to get through The Beauty of the Infinite for 15 years — maybe after I finally finish that!) but I have read Balthasar’s “Dare we hope…?” I’m sure you have as well. Would you be so kind as to compare their arguments? How do they contrast, conflict, or mutually enrich? Many thanks, Michael

    1. Basically, Von B says we can *hope* that hell will be empty since we do not know the end of the story. Hart essentially thinks this is wussy and non-commital and finds various ways to say that if you believe in hell you are an idiot, a moral monster, or both. I’m more Team Balthasar, given my (admittedly imperfect) grasp of the gospels. I respect both position, but I lack Hart’s certitude.

  7. I suggest another way of looking at it.

    You can believe that its technically possible for someone to spend an eternity in the state of separation from God that we label as “Hell”, since being in such state is a function of free will and we’re talking about the free will of eternal beings. Theoretically, it may come to pass that a particular soul may decide to never reconcile with God.

    But we know for certain that not a single soul has actually spent an eternity in hell; however long its been since souls capable of existing in the afterlife first came into existence, it certainly has not been an eternity. So, the concept of an eternal Hell should be only that: conceptual.

    1. You are presupposing that “eternity” is just a really long time. I strongly doubt that is a given in the Tradition. The relationship of time and eternity is a huge question. The former may not map on to the latter at all.

      1. @Mark Shea:

        I’m not implying that “eternity” is just a really long time, but that it is time with out end. However, in this context, such a thing can only be used to describe a potential, not actuality. Otherwise, we’re just playing semantics and bending the meanings of the words “time” and “eternity” far beyond their commonly accepted usage, to the point where they mean something else entirely.

  8. It it my hope of salvation for even the worst sinner that led me to add the Fatima prayer to my personal and public recitations of the Rosary. “Lead ALL souls to heaven,” the prayer goes.

  9. 3vil – From what I’ve read of things by Catholic philosophers, I didn’t think eternity is time at all. Dunno.

    1. The point I’m trying to make, is that I think it makes more sense to be speculative of the eternal nature of Hell than the other way around. After all, we don’t know of anybody who’s served the full sentence. Someone might, but no one hasn’t so far.

      On a different note, I’m inclined to think that if there is such thing as an afterlife, then there really is no real distinction between Heaven and Hell and that its all in the eye of the beholder.

      After all, what would be Hell for a bigot, if not to live in a society that showed love, respect and acceptance of the people they looked down on? And what would be Heaven for the oppressed, if not simply to be able to live in a society where the oppressors no longer had the power to hurt them in any way?

      Just a thought.

      1. I understand, but isn’t talking about “so far” – or even using the perfect “has served” – presupposing that eternity is, in some sense, about time? As I said, I’m no philosopher and don’t know what could be meant by eternity not being a matter of time.

      2. @John Thayer Jensen:

        When we say that something is eternal, we mean that it can persist throughout time indefinitely. Time is the measuring stick through which “eternity” is determined. Outside of that context, the concept of “eternity” is meaningless, or it means something different in its entirety.

  10. Yes – but what I thought was that by meaning “persisting through time” for eternal we at least do not mean what … well, what? God? the Bible? the Church? – means by eternal.

    1. Then what does “eternity” mean and why everybody else here object to, or at least desire against, the idea of an eternal Hell? That it lasts forever? That its torment without end? That once somebody gets locked in, they can never get out? All these characteristics are rooted within the context of the passage of time; you take that away and they make no sense.

      1. I don’t know what eternity means. I wasn’t trying to argue any position, only that I had heard from people who seemed to think they ought to know – well, articles by theologians and philosophers – that eternity was not a matter of endless time. I was only saying what I had heard – not trying to make some position. For what I know, eternity *could* mean just endless time.

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