America on the Brink   /   Fall 2020   /    Book Reviews

A Divine Comedy

A magnificent philippic against the doctrine of eternal damnation.

Eugene McCarraher

“The saintly throng in the shape of a rose” (detail), c.1868, by Gustave Doré (1832– 1883), from The Vision of Purgatory and Paradise by Dante Alighieri; Photo-Stock Israel/Alamy Stock Photo.

God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.
—W.H. Auden, “For the Time Being”

When I was a callow Catholic boy, I believed that unrepentant sinners would roast in everlasting fire—and then I met Sister Mary Richards, my eighth-grade religion teacher and the object of a serious adolescent crush. Her blithe, mellifluous voice conferred the sweetest of imprimaturs on even the most rigorous tenets of the catechism. Alas, one day Sister Mary devoted the hour to explaining hell, and I couldn’t help but notice the incongruity between the bane of eternal punishment and its messenger—a dissonance that, I now suspect, Sister Mary herself must have heard. “Of course,” she said, concluding the lesson, “we’re not required to believe that anyone is actually suffering there in hell.”

Sister Mary was one of the misericordia whom Augustine had rebuked in his day, those “merciful-hearted” souls who lack the intestinal fortitude to accept the relegation of their unredeemed brothers and sisters to irreversible judgment and agony. For the gloomy Gus of patristic theology, the misericordia are also deluded. What looks to them like the ugliness of perdition is really an infernally sublime proclamation of God’s immeasurable love and justice. We all know the directive inscribed on the archway of hell in Dante’s Inferno—“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”—but we forget the rest of the inscription: “Justice moved my Maker on high / Divine Power made me / Wisdom Supreme, and Primal Love.”

To comprehend how this alchemy of despair is a token of “Primal Love,” most Christians throughout the centuries have appealed to the “inscrutability” of God: The Almighty is too impenetrable for our finite and sin-addled minds to fathom, and so the brutalities inflicted on the damned—which, being eternal, have no seriously retributive or rehabilitative effect—are repulsive only to our imperfectly cleansed and sanctified perception. The magisterium of apology for hell—from Thomas Aquinas to Martin Luther—has assured us that, once we partake of the Beatific Vision and its purification of consciousness, what appears to us now as a monstrosity will then be revealed as a loving resplendence, the sight of which, from the gallery of heaven, will add to the celestial pleasures of the saved.

At one point in his magnificent philippic against the doctrine of eternal damnation, David Bentley Hart takes a moment to dwell on such hapless and truculent fidelity. “The sheer enormity of the idea of a hell of eternal torment,” he writes, “forces the mind toward absurdities and atrocities”—the most atrocious absurdity being that God could impose so utterly pointless a torment. Hart concedes that we can swoon before the artistry and grandeur of Dante’s vision, and, after performing the moral and intellectual gymnastics perfected by Augustine and Aquinas, reconcile its “exotic savageries” with belief in an unconditionally loving Creator. But the Inferno’s roster of miseries reflects the malevolence of Dante, not the justice of Wisdom Supreme or the tender comeliness of Primal Love. The Inferno’s “inventively sadistic” chastisements are not the well-deserved wages of sin, but rather the furies of envy repressed in the psychopathology of the poet, sadism disguised in a fraudulent raiment of justice, rectitude, and divinity. If Hart is right, the Inferno may be a theological epic, but it’s also a hardcore canonical text in the pornography of sado-moralism.

Since his debut—The Beauty of the Infinite (2004), a gorgeously voluminous defense of the classical Christian conception of beauty—Hart has become the Anglophone world’s most learned, prolific, versatile, and prominent theologian. Like the “radical orthodoxy” associated with John Milbank, Stanley Hauerwas, and an array of other British and American theologians, Hart’s project of rejuvenation has been no narrowly theological or academic exercise. In addition to work in theology and philosophy and a controversial but highly acclaimed “transliteration” of the Christian scriptures, The New Testament: A Translation (2017), he has published several volumes of cultural criticism—for instance, The Doors of the Sea (2005), a ferocious attack on theodicy in the wake of the previous year’s tsunami—as well as a collection of stories (The Devil and Pierre Gernet, 2011) and, last year, a children’s book, The Mystery of Castle MacGorilla.

Hart has also been, at times, an acerbic and pugnacious defender of the faith. His hellacious assault on hell and his avowal of belief in universal salvation will, I trust, only further enrage the champions of what he dubs “the infernalist orthodoxy.” But in his utterly indisputable view, the arguments for eternal damnation are too awful, irrational, and even boring to deserve the affectation of civility: Why the hell bother with hell?

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