I have recently been reading a book entitled: That All May Be Saved, Heaven, Hell and Universal Salvation.
It is written by one of the USA’s leading theologians, David Bentley Hart who grew up as an Anglican in the Episcopal Church in America. As an adult he became a member of the Eastern Orthodox tradition.
It is a book that suggests that at some point Christianity went astray when it began to preach and teach the concept of eternal hell and eternal damnation and in doing so created a depiction of God that was distorted and not in keeping with the teaching of Jesus and the New Testament as a whole. These misconceptions which he believes are rooted in a mistranslation of and incorrect reading of Scripture include Roman Catholics and Protestants as well as many in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. And so in the book, David Bentley Hart makes a number of arguments against the idea of Eternal Hell and Eternal Perdition which he believes undermines every other claim that Christians make about God, most especially the central claim that God is love.
David Bentley Hart shares his journey and recounts a story from early Christianity. As a teenager within the Anglican tradition, he encountered the tale of Abba Macarius, a revered hermit known for his life of prayer in the desert. One day, while walking alone in the wilderness, Macarius stumbled upon a human skull. To his amazement, the skull began to speak when he moved it with his staff. The skull identified itself as a pagan high priest who once served the people of the area. It acknowledged Macarius as a holy figure whose prayers could alleviate the suffering of the damned.
Upon hearing this, Macarius inquired about the suffering experienced by the damned. The skull described how they endured being engulfed in flames, packed tightly together day and night, suspended over a fiery abyss that stretched infinitely below them. Additionally, they were unable to make eye contact with one another, condemned to gaze at each other's backs for eternity. Despite their plight, the skull noted that whenever Macarius prayed for them, they briefly glimpsed each other's faces, bringing them immense gratitude as it provided a fleeting relief from their ceaseless torment.
Upon hearing this, Macarius was overcome with sorrow and proclaimed that it would have been better if the unfortunate priest had never existed. He then inquired whether there were others in hell enduring even worse torments. The skull affirmed this, explaining that the suffering endured by him and his fellow pagans was relatively mild because they had never known the true God and thus never had the opportunity to choose to serve Him. The skull described the incomprehensibly more terrible punishments faced by those who had rejected God despite knowing Him. With a sense of dread, Macarius buried the skull and hurried on his way.
David Bentley Hart, first read this story when he was just 14 years old. And, Interestingly, by coincidence, he heard the story again that same week in the sermon when he went to church that Sunday. He said the priest spoke with wonder and awe at how beautiful this story was in portraying the mercy and compassion of Abba Macarius extended even to the souls of the damned and how his prayers could bring momentary relief to their sufferings.
But for David Bentley Hart what really stood out for him was that the mercy and compassion expressed by Macarius’s was far greater than that of God in the story, for the story implied that it was in fact God who had created hell as such a vicious and vindictive form of torture for the apparent sin of not knowing God. And this it seemed to him to be completely unjust and cruel.
As a teenager, he reasoned that if God knows everything and knew beforehand that the high priest would suffer forever, then creating him was surely and act of limitless cruelty on the part of God.
As a result of his distaste for Christian teachings on eternal hell, David Bentley Hart says that in his teenage years he began distance himself from Christianity…
But quite early into his adult years, David Bentley Hart came to see that there were better Christian answers to these questions. He soon came to see that in the first 300-400 years of the existence of the church, the majority of Christians of that period did not believe in the concept of eternal hell, damnation and perdition (meaning utter destruction). The majority of Christians in these centuries believed in what is generally called universal salvation, that God’s saving purposes were universal, and all embracing, excluding none. This was the belief that Divine love is limitless and ultimately inescapable and that in God’s great compassion expressed in Christ, God would save all people from whatever the hellish sufferings they had created for themselves and that therefore, eventually, God would bring all of His lost children home, no matter how far they had strayed. And so these early Christians believed in Love’s final victory over sin and death and hell and that everyone without exception would be saved.
And they held these convictions on the basis of verses of scripture like the following:
1 Corinthians 15:22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. (There are no exceptions there, not ‘some will be made alive’, but ‘all will be made alive’).
Over the next few weeks over this season of Lent, I hope to explore the arguments of David Bentley Hart further as we are invited to wrestle for ourselves whether the dominant inherited Christian framework, with it’s emphasis on Eternal Hell or Eternal Lost-ness accurately portrays the teaching and message of the New Testament, and whether the doctrine of Eternal Hell can stand up to a moral critique. Traditionally, possibly going back to as early as the 1700’s, but certainly back to the early 1800’s, many Non-Subscribing Presbyterians across Ireland had come to reject the idea of eternal hell based on their own sensitivity to the spirit of Christ’s teachings, and in their analysis of Scripture. Thus, these perspectives are not new to the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian tradition. I am simply re-stating a long standing position of many in this denomination.
I end this reflection by reading a selection of verses from Luke’s Gospel, and in doing so I invite you to listen out for the word ‘all’ and it’s equivalents. Teachings on eternal hell suggest that not all will be saved. But these verses suggest the contrary -
And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
“The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it.
For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.