By the Reverend Dan Tatarnic
It was one of those November mornings when the thought of being in bed was more desirable than driving into Hamilton. My dark morning commute was interrupted by a belly-roll laugh. There’s something satisfying, very good for the soul, when you happen upon one of those little things that make your day. And growing up on Late Night with David Letterman, this digital sign made my top ten: “Hell Rental: Affordable Rates”. Kudos, they obviously noticed the mistake; and by the end of the day, on my drive home, they were offering affordable rental rates on their church hall.
Hell isn’t something I spend a lot of time fussing over, though Martha is fairly certain I’m headed there. And I have to admit, I appeal to damnation often, a place I’ve condemned many a person! Maybe I’m just getting older and bitter, fair enough. But here’s the thing. As funny as it might sound in the modern world, the doctrine of Hell is making a comeback; and why not? Who, watching news feeds recently hasn’t hoped that an infernal punishment is not awaiting a few (or the many)? Be honest, now!
Hell isn’t something I’ve contemplated deeply. It might seem an anachronistic subject in the modern world. But that hasn’t stopped David Bentley Hart from writing a compelling book on hell: That All Shall be Saved: Heaven, Hell & Universal Salvation. Hart’s book resonates with Hans Urs von Balthasar’s controversial essay, “Dare we Hope that All Men be Saved”.
Hart’s book is about Hell and the reality of Hell. But it is more than that. It is, at its best, a book about the human person, made in the image of God (theological anthropology). Subsequently, it’s a reminder of where life begins, and where life is destined in the end. It’s a book about God’s limitless mercy and redemptive creativity, the controversial topic which Hart argues is the lens through which all creation will be interpreted. That is the promise of universal salvation; in the end of life is the beginning, “God will be all in all”.
A forewarning, Hart’s isn’t a book for the fainthearted. And it’s a book that I’d recommend reading on one’s knees, which is exactly what Hart wants the reader to do. By dividing the book into a series of meditations it is a model of classical theology — spiritual discipline grounded in study and prayer. By the end of the last chapter, he has demolished the infernalist doctrine of eternal damnation, and has defended (successfully?) Christian universalism as the only rational position one could concede, as a person of faith.
Hart is a modern orthodox apologist: rigorous in his employment of scripture, and tradition. He leaves no room for mediocrity. The Christian God is no ‘god’ worthy of devotion if God simply allows a loophole to exist, wherein a soul or even a minute aspect of creation remains unredeemed: “the loss of even one would leave the body of the Logos incomplete, and God’s purpose in creation unaccomplished.” A god unable to accomplish their own plan of salvation is no god at all, and certainly not the Christian God, “Once [evil] has been exhausted, when every shadow of wickedness — all chaos, duplicity, and violence — has been outstripped by the infinity of God’s splendor, beauty, radiance, and delight, God’s glory will shine in each creature like the sun in an immaculate mirror.”
If you’re willing to engage with theology on your knees, Hart’s book is worth the effort; if you’re looking for rental space, look elsewhere.