Will everybody reach heaven? Are fights over hell about to grab some more headlines?

Chances are churches frequented by your readers and listeners rarely if ever offer sermons about hell and damnation these days. And yet this rather unpleasant topic is eternally (so to speak) fascinating, and may be about to grab some headlines. That’s due to Eastern Orthodox lay theologian David Bentley Hart's acerbic Sep. 24 release from Yale University Press “That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, & Universal Salvation.”

Sample sentences: “No one, logically speaking, could merit eternal punishment.”

Also this: “If Christianity is in any way true, Christians dare not doubt the salvation of all,”

Yes, Hart is a Hitler-in-heaven sort of guy (see page 38), and your sources will have interesting responses. Lest Hart seem a rank heretic, the Very Rev. John Behr of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary blurbs that this book presents “the promise that, in the end, all will indeed be saved, and exposing the inadequacy — above all moral — of claims to the contrary.”

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Heretofore Hart was better known for ridiculing non-belief, as in “Atheist Delusions.” The prolific author has held a succession of university appointments, most recently as a University of Notre Dame fellow. Catholic theologian Paul Griffiths (in the news when he resigned over Duke University’s “diversity” policy) proclaims Hart “the most eminent” theologian in the English-speaking world.

Terms Hart applies to centuries of traditional orthodox and Orthodox doctrines on hell and damnation include “absurd,” “ludicrous,” “nonsensical,” “incoherent,” “horrid,” “degrading,” “loathsome,” “diseased,” “perverse,” “cruel,” “wicked” and “morally repugnant.” He is mainly offended by the idea that punishment is everlasting, on grounds that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. Hart is open to some sort of cleansing to make sorry souls fit for heaven, but doesn’t spell out any version of Western Catholicism’s Purgatory.

“All” is a far cry from the sentimental optimism about humanity preached by officially Universalist churches. Hart argues that the Christian God is not truly God if those he brands “infernalists” are correct. The familiar challenge is how everlasting torment of any person meshes with belief that God is loving.

What about human will and repenatance? Hart adds the less common claim that defiant rejection of God throughout all eternity cannot be “logically possible for any rational being."

The heart of Hart is the contention that the few New Testament verses usually cited on this could refer to “limited term” punishment, while 23 other passages raise hopes that all will be saved. He relies on Bible interpretations by ancient Eastern theologians, especially the 4th Century’s Origen and St. Gregory of Nyassa. He castigates that era’s great Catholic voice, St. Augustine, for “the single most tragically consequential case of linguistic incompetence in Christian history,” based upon the “defective” Latin translation of the Bible. (Speaking of scripture, Yale also published Hart’s recent, idiosyncratic translation of the New Testament, also well worth a sidebar on scholars’ reactions.)

Publicity contact for Hart: Robert Pranzatelli: 203–432-0972 and robert.pranzatelli@yale.edu.

Meanwhile -- religion writers note -- there’s a related dustup in the news right now linked to the Christian claims of exclusivity per Jesus’ teaching that “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

Last week’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in America assembly approved a significant inter-religions relations policy (.pdf here) after handily defeating a bid to remove a soft section that says e.g. the status of believers in other religions “is beyond our knowledge, and even our calling” so “we do not need answers.”

(The ELCA’s own news release slid past this issue, covered by juicyecumenism.com, a reminder that reporters always need to consult varied sources.)

Even conservative Christians are not cut-and-dried on this. The Catholic Church’s Catechism teaches the “baptism of desire,” so a person ignorant of Christian teaching who “seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it can be saved,” through means known only to God.

Or consider noted speaker and author Josh McDowell, whose evangelical credentials are unassailable. In “A Ready Defense,” he says the God of Scripture does not wish any to perish (2 Peter 3:9) and will be a righteous judge (Acts 17:31), so it’s reasonable that “no one will be condemned for not ever hearing of Jesus Christ,” although (as in Catholicism) we don’t know the particulars.

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