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?

Focusing almost exclusively on the single issue of incessant punishment, many reviewers have slighted Hart’s larger philosophical ambition: to recover and reaffirm the ontological imagination of early Christianity. In four “meditations” on God and creation, judgment, personhood, and freedom, he aims, he tells us, to “think through certain questions about ‘the last things’” in such a way as to rediscover “the obscure origins of the Christian conception of reality.” If God is what Christians say, and if the cosmos is such as Christians say God made it—thoroughly theophanic and sacramental, revelatory of God’s everlasting, boundless, and indiscriminate love—then no part of it can be irretrievably lost or irreparably contaminated. In other words, if eternal damnation is a fact, then Christian claims about God and the world are not only false, but preposterously, even wickedly false.

The fundamental issue, Hart asserts, is “the essential character of the God Christians think they believe in. If God is Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and infinite Love, then “the moral destiny of creation and the moral nature of God are absolutely inseparable.” For Hart—as for his spiritual and theological hero, Gregory of Nyssa—the destiny or teleology of things will be known only at the apokatastasis, the grand finale of history, the ultimate and complete reconciliation of all created things to God. Creation ex nihilo is an eschatological as well as a cosmological claim; we can only know things and why they have been created from the perspective of their ends, which thus reveals the nature of the God who brought them into existence. Thus, universal salvation is the only possible conclusion to be drawn if Christians take seriously what they profess about God. To believe in eternal damnation is to believe in a God who permits some created things to go unreconciled—who is not, Hart emphasizes, a God of infinite love and goodness who is also Lord of all creation.

But if God and creation are such that any harrowing abyss is simply unthinkable, then we need to reconsider the meaning of judgment. Hart rejects penal substitutionary atonement (the belief that Jesus suffered the punishment owed by humanity for sin) and describes the redemptive narrative of the New Testament as “a relentless tale of rescue, conducted by a God who requires no tribute to win his forgiveness or love.” Despite Jesus’s remarks about “Gehenna” and his stark admonition about the sheep and the goats, or the pandemonial imagery that abounds in the Book of Revelation, judgment, as Hart explains it, has little or nothing to do with “hell.” For one thing, it’s not at all clear that “hell” is historically, let alone morally, tenable; “a discrete concept that quite corresponds to the image of hell” simply cannot be found in the Hebrew scriptures, the Gospels, the Epistles, or the documents of the postapostolic church. For another, there are numerous passages in the New Testament that either suggest or state unequivocally that universal salvation is God’s final judgment on sinful humanity.

Conceding that the New Testament’s images and language about judgment are often unclear and contradictory, Hart follows Gregory in transforming them into a single and ultimately joyous story of human and cosmic healing. In the volume’s most extraordinary and penetrating passages, Hart refashions the relevant texts into two moments (or “eschatological horizons”) in a single narrative of salvation: one that traces the course of human history all the way to its dolorous terrestrial denouement, an apparently insuperable chasm between those who have accepted God’s love and those who haven’t; and another that portends an ecstatic, universal, and amaranthine “Age to come,” when the hearts of even the most obdurate sinners will be cleansed of all willfulness and hatred, and all of the cosmos will witness its final and incorruptible restoration. “One is the verdict on the totality of human history,” as Hart puts it, “the other the final verdict on the eternal purposes of God.” Gesturing toward a “realized” eschatology, Hart avers that this “new Age” is already here in some palpable sense, effecting “a collapse of the distinction…between the life of the Age to come and the life that is made immediately present in the risen Christ.” Indeed, the time of sin and death has died already, “however long it lingers in its own aftermath” as a kind of relic or historical zombie.

The “Age to come” will witness the efflorescence of the human person and her original freedom—another fulfillment that betrays the ontological absurdity of infernalism. Even in nontheological terms, personhood is always an ensemble of relationships: We cannot be who we are without the presence, nurturing or destructive, of other people. And if Christians claim to believe that a person is the image and likeness of a triune God, their faith leads inexorably to the conclusion that “there is no way in which persons can be saved as persons except in and with all other persons.” (We are all in this together, as saccharinely duplicitous as it is to say in the midst of Bourbonesque inequality.) “No soul is who or what it is in isolation,” Hart reminds us; “no soul’s sufferings can be ignored without the sufferings of a potentially limitless number of other souls being ignored as well.” For Hart—as for Gregory—“the indivisible solidarity of humanity” is such that any individual can fully blossom only in that “complete community that is, alone, the true image of God.” Sartre got it exactly wrong: Heaven, not hell, is other people.

After the eschaton, we’ll finally be free, enjoying “the truest liberty of all,” in Hart’s words, that of being “unable to sin.” Recalling Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas, Hart defines freedom as “a being’s power to flourish as what it naturally is.” Thus, he explains, freedom depends on “true knowledge and true sanity”; if these are missing or defective, “freedom is absent.” If sin is or induces a blindness as to our ultimate purpose—“consummation in union with God”—then we cannot be punished eternally for our irremediable inability to see.

Clearly inflected by the patristic and Orthodox traditions’ venerable doctrine of theosis—the fulfillment of our desire for God in the divinization of our humanity—Hart’s is a truly divine comedy of love, a radiant account of our ineluctable exultation. Transcending the juridical banality that grounds the myth of unceasing affliction, the ontological panorama of early Christianity surpassed and abolished the law, subverted all pretensions of virtue and desert, and confronted the strong gods of tribe and empire with a God of promiscuous cosmopolitan ardor. It’s an exhilarating witness of manumission from bondage—exemplified, in our time, by enslavement to the quotidian depravities of money, race, and nation.

At this moment of pandemic turbulence, Hart’s reminder of the limitless and beautiful generosity that resides at the heart of the Gospel forms the basis of any salutary moral and political intervention. It is the most stalwart defenders of the infernalist orthodoxy—evangelical Protestants and “traditionalist” Catholics—who have exhibited a ghastly willingness to sacrifice the weak on the altar of Mammon, vindicating their obeisance to the Market with a macabre and petulant sanctimony. In their politics as in their infernalism, what they conceive as the good can only be secured and legitimized by violence: Capitalism requires tragedy, redemption necessitates hell, and callousness and indifference wear the mask of stoicism. Any alternative to this acquiescence in the mercenary dispensation must start from what we might want to call a political ontology of jubilee: liberation, not only from debt and from the shackles imposed by a spurious freedom, but from the cosmology of scarcity and punishment that makes the manacles seem so natural. Articulated from the vantage point of the comic end of history, such emancipation envisions a new creation whose end was always in its beginning, innocent of any trace of blemish, want, or acrimony, inclined to the spirit of the lilies that grow and flourish without travail—the spirit, that is, of Sister Mary Richard, whose voice I long to hear when we meet once again on the boulevards of heaven.