David Bentley Hart

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

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.”

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.

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More Bible battles: The 'old, old story' is ever new and, thus, ever in the news

More Bible battles: The 'old, old story' is ever new and, thus, ever in the news

Pondering Washington’s new Museum of the Bible for the quasi-Jewish Commentary magazine, Williams College art historian Michael Lewis finds it ideologically inoffensive and is therefore perplexed at how fiercely some despise the place.

How come? He says the very claim “that the Bible is a foundational document of our civilization is, to many, an unwelcome one. And as biblical ignorance grows, the claim grows progressively more unwelcome. The Bible seems to be one of those books that the less people know about it, the less they like it.”

Journalists: The professor is onto something that might merit a think piece.

But in this Memo, The Religion Guy instead insists that the Book of the “old, old story” (per that Gospel hymn) is perpetually new, and therefore news. Book-buyers, Internet blabbers and media consumers (also church and synagogue attendees) can’t get enough of it. So here’s the latest twist on the Bible beat.

Religion writers should check the next issue of Christianity Today as it  surveys “lesser-known translations” of scripture, provoking this theme: In the Bible sweepstakes, why pick this one and not that one? Plus there’s a story peg in a current biblical battle between two titans who translated their own one-man New Testaments from the original Greek into English, as opposed to the usual committee editions. The competitors:  

(1) David Bentley Hart, outspoken Eastern Orthodox thinker currently at Notre Dame’s Institute for Advanced Study, with his sharply provocative “The New Testament: A Translation” (Yale).

(2) Bishop N.T. Wright of Scotland’s University of St. Andrews, favorite New Testament scholar for legions of U.S. Protestants and his fellow Anglicans worldwide. Wright's “The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation” (HarperOne, 2011) caused England’s Church Times to proclaim him “the J.K. Rowling of Christian Publishing.”

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