Maybe you go to church every Sunday. Or maybe (like me) you go every-so-often when your workload allows it and you find a church that looks interesting or beautiful. Perhaps church is somewhere you’ve never gone, somewhere you go on Christmas or Easter, or a place you used to go but now can’t stay far enough away from. Maybe you’ve wondered if Christians have ever given a thought to who they’re actually worshiping. I know I have.

David Bentley Hart, an Orthodox theologian from Maryland, takes up this issue in his book That All Shall Be Saved. What kind of God would create a good world filled with good creatures, knowing that most people would end up separated from his love forever?

Not a good one, Hart answers. “If he is not the Savior of all,” he writes, “the Kingdom is only a dream, and creation something considerably worse than a nightmare.” 

It might sound bold, but that’s a pretty tame statement for Hart. As he lays out a few main arguments for universal salvation, Hart insists that he must be right. There can be no alternative to the conclusions he’s reached. Everyone who thinks otherwise is either an idiot, a monster, or (most commonly) a victim to the manipulative Christian teaching passed down from St. Augustine. At best, Hart’s rhetoric is emotionally charged; at worst, downright browbeating. 

But honestly, who can blame him? He calls the doctrine of hell (which he labels “infernalism”) the most reasonable objection to Christianity, and thus the biggest barrier to a person’s happiness in Christ. Worse yet, the traditional view of hell has no good foundation. Hart argues that it all began with Augustine’s inability to read the Greek New Testament.

Recognizing that his book won’t be able to reverse the centuries of the Church’s damage, Hart nonetheless traces his reasoning back to where tradition started to get things wrong. If only St. Paul and Gregory of Nyssa had been a little more popular than Augustine. All souls, these writers insist, must eventually be redeemed by God, even if they resist him to their very last breath. 

But what about justice? What about free choice? Hart anticipates these questions. We all know the story of how God created the world out of nothing. And everything he made is good—a perfect God can’t make anything bad. 

And before he even began creating, God also knew how everything would end. He knew Adam would sin, he knew humanity would reject Christ…and according to traditional teaching, God knew that he would sentence some, maybe most, of his people to an eternity without him. 

And God caused this. In creating the world, he brought about this destiny of eternal unhappiness. And if this were true, it would be a tragedy. A good God couldn’t create persons for an eternity void of the only love that could give them a moment’s rest.

The tragedy wouldn’t even end there, with the question of why God created the world in the first place. Hart forces his readers to consider the lucky few that find their way into heaven. What about the parent or sibling or friend whose loved one didn’t make it in? Will they simply not care about those in hell anymore—or will God make them forget all about them? 

Hart bashes the first possibility for its mere repugnance before going on to argue that this indifference toward souls in hell isn’t possible without a degree of indifference toward all humans. Using a murderer in prison as an example, he asks how we can stop caring about the murderer without ceasing to care about those that love him, and those that love them, and so on. And what is heaven if it’s a place where we don’t love? 

And as for the idea that God could just make us all blissfully ignorant? Hart asks who we’d even be in heaven at that point. Our identity as parent or sibling or friend is part of who we are. Our memories are part of what makes us individuals. We are people communally, and who and what we love is essential to who we are. To lose others means to lose part of ourselves. 

So what now? God saves everyone whether they like it or not? Didn’t he give us free will? Of course he did. But, Hart argues—and this might be unfamiliar to many in the church (as it was to me)—hell could never be a truly free choice. When we choose something, it’s because we want it. We think it’s good. If we choose to reject God, then we think there’s something else that’s better. But what could be better than God?

If we could really know who God is, Hart argues, and nothing kept us from choosing him, we would always choose him. If we reject God, we don’t understand who he is. How could God damn someone to hell for an ignorance he could have prevented? 

Maybe you agree with all this, or at least think it makes a little bit of sense. But what about the Bible verses that talk about eternal punishment? Are we supposed to pour centuries of Church teaching down the drain? I think Hart might say yes, and there’s so much more he has to say on the matter that I don’t have time to talk about here. 

But I’ll leave you with one note that seemed particularly relevant to me as I was reading his book. Christians often say that God is just too great to be comprehended. His justice is a divine mystery. We just have to trust that he is Good, and that, therefore, Hell is good.

Hart’s not buying this copout answer. Can we comprehend the mysteries of God? No. But are we really supposed to believe that we have no idea what “goodness” means as an attribute of God? If that’s true, then the words we use to describe him (words like “loving” or “gracious” or “good”) are totally meaningless, and we really don’t have any idea what we’re worshiping. 

While maybe we can’t understand everything God does, or why he allows bad things to happen, surely we have to trust that our idea of goodness comes to us from him, and that it at least reflects the goodness that is God. On page 81, Hart quotes John Stuart Mill, who says it as well as anyone could: “To say that God’s goodness may be different in kind from man’s goodness, what is it but saying, with a slight change of phraseology, that God may possibly not be good?”