Full Transcript of “Ep. 113 David Bentley Hart responds to Alan W. Gomes critique of That All Shall Be Saved” from David Artman’s Grace Saves All

Transcriber’s note: Thank you for the permission from both David Artman (with the Grace Saves All podcast) as well as his guest David Bentley Hart to transcribe this episode in full and to post it here. This podcast episode 113 is a delightful listen, and I recommend that you find it on your favorite podcast platform. Learn more about David Artman’s book as well as this and many other wonderful interviews here at Grace Saves All. And you can follow David Bentley Hart here at his Leaves in the Wind newsletter. This interview was posted on March 20, 2023 a little over three years after the review by Alan W. Gomes in Credo magazine on December 2, 2019 (in the same year that Hart’s book That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation was released).

Artman is an astonishingly precise, dogged, and patient interviewer. Hart’s sleep deprivation that he notes several times was apparently in connection to the loss of his good friend Tom McLeish (who Hart has written about here). This combination of Artman’s tenacity and specificity with Hart’s exhaustion resulted in some wild content, but I found it refreshingly direct and to the point.

My own childhood, with extraordinarily loving parents, was within this same Calvanist tradition that is the focus of this often passionate conversation. My wife and I both lost our mothers in recent years to cancer, but my dear father and father-in-law are both still ordained and a faithful pastor and ruling elder (respectively) within the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. All of my eight younger siblings and their beautiful families remain within this broad tradition as well. So this conversation is not an easy one for me to hear or to consider. However, having been blessed myself by Hart’s writings on this and many other topics, I am confident that there is something helpful about the bluntness that Hart employs.

Artman: Before we get started on this episode, a brief note. Dr. Hart wanted me to let everyone know that he has been suffering from some insomnia brought on by the recent death of a friend. He felt he was not at his sharpest in this interview, and so we should keep this in mind, as well, keeping in mind Dr. Hart and his friend.

And now the interview. We welcome back David Bentley Hart to respond to Alan Gomes’s review of That All Shall Be Saved, which appeared in Credo magazine in December 2019. My thanks to podcast listener Andrew Thomas for his role in initiating this interview by submitting a question to me about whether Dr. Hart had ever responded to Gomes’s critique. I reached out to Dr. Hart, and he agreed to respond. So welcome again, David Bentley Hart to the Gray Saves All podcast.

Hart: Hello. Thanks for having me.

Artman: Well, Dr. Hart, before we get to Gomes’s critique of That All Shall Be Saved, I believe a bit of background on Gomes is appropriate. Alan W. Gomes is professor of systematic and historical theology at Talbot School of Theology at Biola University in La Mirada, California. He’s the author of Forty Questions about Heaven and Hell published in 2018. He also, in 2014, edited an updated edition of the well-known Reformed theologian W. G. T. Shedd’s Dogmatic Theology. Gomes, in his Forty Questions about Heaven and Hell, makes it clear that he takes a Reformed—or what I think of as a Calvinistic—theological position on the doctrine of election. Although he is in agreement with W. G. T. Shedd’s understanding that, on the side of reparation, the efficient cause of perdition is the self-determination of the human will. Since Gomes does not make his own background clear in his critique of That All Shall Be Saved, let me share five brief quotes from Gomes’s Forty Questions about Heaven and Hell which will help set the stage for our conversation today:

  1. If grace means anything, it must include a lack of obligation to extend it. Fairness or justice, on the other hand, has reference only to what is owed—that is, to “wages … due” (Rom. 4:4) and not to what is offered graciously and to the undeserving.
  2. The wicked will suffer the natural consequences of rejecting God and his goodness toward them. They will experience the pain of complete abandonment, remorse unmingled with comfort, and the relentless torments of their own consciences, which will burn forever but never finally consume them. This cup they will drink to the full, experiencing unmitigated pain in body and soul.
  3. Those who reject God thereby choose hell, which is separation from God. What God is guilty of, so to speak, is respecting the free will of creatures that he created in his own image by allowing them to exercise their choice to reject him. God thus acknowledges the worth of human creatures by continuing to uphold their existence and by allowing them to choose their own path.
  4. Once sinners have terminally hardened themselves against all offers to repent, God no longer yearns for their salvation but has given them up to their own desires, because of their persistent unwillingness to acknowledge him (Rom. 1:28). These have ceased to be objects of pity but have made themselves purely objects of wrath. Therefore, the fitting emotion toward such individuals is no longer sorrow for their lack of repentance but only pure indignation and wrath for their final, total, and irrevocable spurning of grace. This remaining emotion toward such individuals finds its expression in their punishment and their punishment alone.
  5. Once individuals have hardened themselves beyond any possibility of salvation, we should (and eventually shall) then rejoice in their punishment, for in this God sets matters aright in his moral universe.

So, Dr. Hart, before we get to Gomes’s critique of your theological position, how do you assess the kind of calvinistic or Reformed position he is advocating?

Hart: Deeply evil, deeply depraved, deeply psychotic, and something one can only come to believe through chronic spiritual, moral, and mental abuse, and being raised in an evil tradition of thought. I would withhold my rhetoric, but, as we’ll see, rhetoric is going to be an issue shortly. I think that those quotes you gave me—especially quotes two, four, and five—are indications of a person whose god is, most certainly, morally the inferior of Satan and who wishes us to be as evil as he is. And asking us to rejoice—what’s amazing about that, of course, is how utterly backwards the other quotes are. I mean, this is really fatuous reasoning. If grace means anything, it must include a lack of obligation to extend it, fairness or justice… He’s arguing therefore, that what we have to understand about grace, what makes it gracious, is the degree to which it’s withheld, is the degree to which it’s exclusive, where, of course, that’s exactly the opposite of Paul’s arguments.

Of course, grace isn’t really a theological principle in Paul. That’s a mistake. But when he talks about grace or when scripture in general talks about mercy triumphing over judgment, the whole point is that strict justice is what would limit the range of God’s mercy and love. It’s in fact his grace that extends it beyond its natural limits, as we would conceive them, to take in everyone, as in Romans 11, all are bound in disobedience that all may be shown mercy. It’s amazing that one could actually read the New Testament, repeatedly I imagine, and come up with this utterly inverted understanding of the very heart of the New Testament’s reasoning.

Oh, and the issue about freedom. Obviously, I answer that more than plenteously in meditation four of That All Shall Be Saved. And if that doesn’t convince Dr. Gomes, I would also recommend reading Thomas Talbott’s book. Again, I’m horrible with titles. Perhaps you…

Artman: The Inescapable Love of God.

Hart: Yeah, The Inescapable Love of God. But yeah, I mean, those five quotes together are a tragic confection of genuine moral misformation and genuine philosophical confusion allied to an utterly incompetent reading of the scriptures. I mean, it’s shocking, but then again, I actually have to thank you. I didn’t realize this critique goes back to 2019 when you sent it to me. It was not, it didn’t impress me. Let me put it as, …I mean, it’s not the work of a trained philosopher or anything, clearly either.

The mistakes are rather legion, but I’m really more worried about the state of mind of someone raised in this tradition. I was beginning to think I wouldn’t come across any real attacks by hard and fast Calvinists, because most of the Reformed people they’ve responded to have been Barthian, and they’re already halfway to universalism anyway. Whereas this is the real thing, and it just shows you what a deeply tragic thing it is that this twisted version of Christianity took root early in the fifth century and then metastasized into the 16th century by being allied to this monstrous view of a God of absolute sovereignty—this despotic, vicious, cruel, evil picture of God. And then this tradition teaches this to children. I mean, I can’t think of a more horrific wickedness, to be honest, than to teach this vision of things to children.

Artman: Well, I think I appreciate it that Gomes puts forward just how harsh the Reformed tradition really is. I mean, he doesn’t try to make it, he doesn’t try to sugarcoat it.

Hart: On the one hand, I compliment him for his honesty and his candor, because even a lot of people in the Reformed tradition now try to give a more emollient—although he’s already in a sense violating Reformed tradition by taking this free will [line]. They all try to introduce the free will defense of hell. Of course, that’s the most logically incoherent of all. It’s based on a freedom that could not possibly exist and a choice that could not possibly be made. But we would use up our entire hour here if I were to rehearse that argument. We’ve gone over it many, many times, not only in the book, but online, and I would direct people to the Public Orthodoxy articles, the four articles called “Interim Report” from a few years ago. I believe the first of them deals with just this issue. And again, Thomas Talbott’s book, I think, is more than adequate to show that this is a defense of the doctrine that doesn’t work. So if Gomes wants to be true to his tradition, he should be as consistent as Calvin and simply recognize that his god is beyond good and evil altogether, in fact—and which means he’s evil.

Artman: Well, the harshness of Calvinism can make other traditions seem almost nice in contrast, but I think you point out well that all anti-universalist Christian theologies must recognize that, since God is the first cause of all that is, then all moral consequences in creation inevitably flow back to God, which means that any ultimately unsaved remainder in creation correspondingly subtracts from the goodness of God. So you note in That All Shall Be Saved:

Predestination, in fact, need not be invoked here at all. Brush the issue entirely aside. Let us suppose instead that rational creatures possess real autonomy of almost godlike scope, and that no one goes to hell save by his or her own Promethean industry and ingenuity: When we then look at God’s decision to create from that angle, we find, curiously enough, that absolutely nothing changes.

Hart: Yeah. …Of course Gomes misread meditation one [“Who Is God?”] in a way that one or two other critics have like John Panteleimon Manoussakis—failing to note that there’s a kind of unique modal claim that goes with talking about God as omnipotent, omniscient, the creator of all things ex nihilo and how one judges that uniquely from the eschatological horizon and what I call the, the “moral modal collapse” of the difference between antecedent and consequent wills or primary secondary intention and all that.

Again, we can’t rehearse it all, but it is true that with Calvinism, you get—and not just Calvinism—this is the late Augustine, the Augustine of the retractions and of Jansenism, and to be honest, when you put away the equivocation and specious reasoning, of Thomas Aquinas—but those predestinarian systems, it’s obvious, the moral insanity of the picture, the way that we’ve made ourselves believe something. But even when you subtract the idea of predestination, the sheer stochastic possibility of the eternal suffering of irrational nature is encompassed in God’s decision, in God’s will to create, and therefore does indeed, as you say, in each instance, subtract from the goodness of God and reduce that goodness to a mere relative goodness, which means a relative evil as well.

Artman: Well, let’s get on to what I take to be the main critiques Gomes makes in his December 19, 2019 article entitled “Shall All Be Saved?, A Review of David Bentley Hart’s Case for Universal Salvation”. The first problem, according to Gomes, is your style. He writes:

Unfortunately, the book is also highly supercilious and oddly pugilistic, dripping with bile and laden with polemically evocative language and unadorned insult. Beginning with the prejudicial moniker “infernalists” to describe his opponents, Hart heaps opprobrium upon them, questioning their moral integrity, mental stability, and intelligence. He characterizes his opponents with such choice descriptions as “moral idiocy”; “collective derangement”; “chronic intellectual and moral malformation”; exhibition of “emotional pathologies”; and “moral imbecility,” to name but a few such expressions.

Well since your tone is a common critique, what I did was I took examples from your use of these phrases, and…

Hart: When he says “a few such expressions”, that’s a dishonest—in fact, that entire catalog is dishonest. I know you’re going to go over it in a second, but of course that all, there are no other expressions in the book that are of comparable ferocity, and the ones that he quotes are not aimed at persons in an opprobrious way. So, I mean, he does begin with a gross misrepresentation, but I mean, I’ll let you handle it, but then there are two things that I’ll want to say about that.

Artman: Okay. Well, let’s start with that moniker “infernalist”, which you used about 30 or so times in That All Shall Be Saved. Here’s one example:

Even many otherwise competent philosophers have, under the impulse of faith, convinced themselves and others of the solvency of arguments that, viewed dispassionately, scarcely rise to the level of pious gibberish. It has always all been a mirage. So, if one can make oneself retract that initial surrender to the abysmally ludicrous, even for only a moment, one will discover that all apologetics for the infernalist orthodoxy consist in claims that no truly rational person should take seriously.

So that’s an example of you’re using that term infernalist.

Hart: Sorry, but that’s a straightforward evaluation of the arguments that holds no one as such, as an individual, responsible and points the finger at all of us when we use specious reasoning. But there is nothing in that language that is excessive, and there’s nothing particularly inappropriate about the term infernalism because quite a few people use it of themselves when they speak of their view. I mean, this has just become part of the standard vocabulary in this debate. It long predates my book.

Artman: All right, here’s a couple of quotes that have to do with moral idiocy.

The most effective technique for subduing the moral imagination is to teach it to mistake the contradictory for the paradoxical, and thereby to accept incoherence as profundity, or moral idiocy as spiritual subtlety.

What about that one?

Hart: Again, there’s nothing harsh in that. That’s not aimed at anyone. …I do not apologize for calling the infernalist doctrine morally idiotic, but that is not, again, if you look at the structure of that sentence, I’m making a claim about the way in which traditions of thought, and we as individuals as well, teach ourselves to see what is really an obvious moral idiocy as morally palatable. We do that. And again, there’s absolutely nothing excessive in my rhetoric there unless the reader is seized by a pang of conscience and begins directing the rhetoric at himself and thereby mistakes it as a form of personal abuse, but I’m totally unapologetic, and I’m using the language necessary to stress the quality of the doctrine itself.

Artman: All right, here’s another example of the moral idiocy phrase:

For one broad, venerable stream of tradition, God on the basis of this imputation (of inherited guilt) consigns the vast majority of the race to perpetual torment, including infants who die unbaptized—though one later, intenerating redaction of the tale says that at least the youngest of these children, though forever denied the supernatural bliss of the vision of God, will nonetheless be granted the homely natural beatitude of the infants’ limbo, the limbus infantium which mitigates but does not dispel the doctrine’s moral idiocy.

Hart: Right. It is a doctrine that is morally idiotic. I don’t understand the problem here. There is no other way of saying it. I find it amazing that someone could propound ideas as foul as the ones that you started this interview with, and then expect the response to be apologetic, restrained—that the language should be—what?—diplomatic? Well, his language wasn’t. He’s talking, what was it he said? That we will rejoice in the infinite sufferings without hindrance, without mitigation. We will rejoice in that. I mean, I’m sorry, but that rhetoric is deeply offensive, though, saying that a doctrine is moral idiocy is, again, a perfectly justified and rational evaluation of a moral claim. I also believe that say, you know, defenses of capital punishment are moral idiocy. I see no reason why anyone should be asked to find some less candid, more insincere, way of stating what is just a straightforward and honest moral evaluation of a moral claim. If he finds this insulting, again, I’m just going to say that I think there’s a certain little Freudian mechanism of displacement going on. He’s taking it as an assault, as an insult, principally because at some level in his own psychology, he’s aware that he is guilty of moral idiocy but has made himself believe that it’s not what it is.

Artman: All right, let’s go on to your phrase that he takes exception to: collective derangement. You use that one time in That All Shall be Saved. You write:

In the end, with sufficient practice, one really can, like the White Queen, learn to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast. Not that I am accusing anyone of consciously or cynically seeking to manipulate the minds of faithful Christians. The conspiracy, so to speak, is an entirely open one, an unpremeditated corporate labor of communal self-deception, requiring us all to do our parts to sustain one another in our collective derangement. I regard the entire process as the unintentional effect of a long tradition of error, one in which a series of bad interpretations of scripture produced various corruptions of theological reasoning, which were themselves then preserved as immemorial revealed truths and, at the last, rendered impregnable to all critique by the indurated mental habits of generations—all despite the logical and conceptual incongruities that this required believers to ignore within their beliefs. So I really do take all parties at their words.

Hart: I see. And can you see anything problematic about that way of phrasing it?

Artman: Well, I thought it was in a gracious way of saying that you are not accusing anyone of consciously or cynically seeking to manipulate the minds of faithful Christians. So you’re not attributing some dark reason or rationale for people doing this. You’re saying that they’re just the products of this long tradition.

Hart: Yeah, I mean, to me, I thought that was quite obvious. I think that there’s a fundamental, either, dishonesty in him taking these phrases out of context to try to create the impression that the book is much more vicious than it is, and that it’s vicious about individuals rather than about evil ideas, and it’s either dishonest, or again, it’s psychologically inflected by some sense of uneasy conscience on his part, that he’s deflecting by turning the finger of self accusation towards me instead and making it seem as if I’m his accuser. He can read this anyway he wants, but so far I’ve yet to see any problem with any of this rhetoric. It is simply a straightforward assessment of the situation in which we all together over centuries have made ourselves accept something that we know at a deep level, I think is morally incoherent. And I, as yet, am entirely uncertain exactly what problem with any of this rhetoric one sees unless one believes that one’s entitled to kid gloves in every possible situation, and that it is incumbent upon one’s critics to always pretend to respect ideas, whether they’re respectable or not.

Artman: The next phrase that he takes exception to is “chronic, intellectual and moral malformation.” And that appears one time in That All Shall Be Saved:

And what could be more absurd than the claim that God’s ways so exceed comprehension that we dare not presume even to distinguish benevolence from malevolence in the divine in as much as either can result in the same endless, excruciating despair. Here, the Doss believer is simply commanded to nod in acquiescence, quietly and submissively to feel moved as a strange and stirring obscurity, and to accept that if only he or she could sound the depths of this mystery, its essence would somehow be revealed as infinite beauty and love, a rational person capable of that ascent. However, of believing all of this to be a paradox, concealing a deeper holy, coherent truth, rather than a gross contradiction has probably suffered such a chronic intellectual and moral malformation that he or she is no longer able to recognize certain very plain truths, such as the truth that he or she has been taught to approve of divine deeds that, or they reduce to a human scale of action, would immediately be recognizable as expressions of unalloyed spite.

Hart: Yeah. Again, yeah, I see it as essentially dishonest of him to have taken those words out of their context, because, in context, it’s a perfectly rational and totally unmalicious statement.

Artman: All right, “emotional pathology”, one quote. Referring to the Western tradition’s insistence on such things as penal substitutionary atonement theory, original sin, total depravity, inherited guilt, limited election to salvation, you wrote in That All Shall Be Saved:

Happily, all of that is degrading nonsense—an absolute midden of misconceptions, fragments of scriptural language wrenched out of context, errors of translation, logical contradictions, and (I suspect) one or two emotional pathologies. It came as a great consolation to me when I was still very young to discover that, in the first three or four centuries of the Christian era, none of these notions had yet taken root, in either the East or the West, and that for the most part the Eastern Christian world had remained innocent of the worst of them up until the present day, and furthermore that the New Testament, read in light of the proper tradition, turned out to contain nothing remotely like them.

Hart: Yes, I’m sorry, I think it’s obvious that, when you read even Augustine or Tertullian or Pascal or Cornelius Jansen, you’re going to find that there are certain emotional pathologies, probably, involved in their ability to believe these things. Again, a pathology is not to say that someone is evil. It’s not to say somebody is stupid. It’s simply to say that there are reasons why some people are able to suppress their moral intelligence more successfully than other persons are. And that is part of the history of this doctrine, whether you like it or not. It is a repellent and degrading doctrine, and we’ve had to teach ourselves to believe that we believe that it can be affirmed without violation of conscience or reason, but it cannot be. So those of us who have a few emotional problems find it easier at times to accept morally repugnant ideas because we’ve been wounded and the world comes to us as a much darker and painful place than it is for others among us. Therefore, our moral expectations of reality have been damaged. That’s all part of the condition of being born in a world bound to death and sin. It’s something to be pitied, but it’s not something to be ignored, and it can be named without malice.

Artman: Alright. You used the phrase “moral imbecility” twice in That All Shall Be Saved. The first one is:

I recently read an Evangelical apologist for the infernalist orthodoxies argue that it is morally correct for the saved to cease from pity for the damned simply because such pity is fruitless, just as it is forgivable to avert one’s eyes from a frightful accident on the roads from which one cannot rescue the victims, and to cease to think about it entirely. This, it should be needless to say, is nothing more than a counsel of moral imbecility.

Hart: Right. And that’s exactly what it is. That’s what moral imbecility is. It’s not caring about the suffering of others. That is, in fact, at one time, it’s rather antiquated now, but that was actually the psychological definition of that sort of sociopathy. It was called “moral imbecility”. Now it’s called “depraved indifference” legally and “sociopathy” psychologically, but that’s what it means. It’s counseling us not to care. This was in fact William Lane Craig, I believe, counseling us not to care. That’s a very odd way to deal with the counsels of conscience if you actually believe in the goodness of God.

Artman: Okay? Here’s another quote that involves moral imbecility:

One sees this spitefulness well before Augustine’s time in an earlier North African father, Tertullian, promising that one day Christians would not be persecuted, and indeed would be able instead to rejoice in the spectacle of the destruction of the wicked. Somehow, though, it is a more chilling thing when one sees it attenuated to the bloodless blandness of Thomas’s formulation, in a form so demure and tepidly dispassionate as to make crystal clear just how thoroughly an indurated moral imbecility can come to seem like simple common sense, even for a brilliant thinker.

Hart: Right? And that’s true. That’s a psychological truth. That’s an intellectual truth that we can condition ourselves to mistake moral imbecility for something morally palatable. That’s an essential argument of the book. There is nothing harsh in those expressions. They’re merely candid. They are merely objectively accurate. Nothing is aimed abusively at anyone. If you notice, not a single one of the quotes you read out there arraigns or accuses any particular individual or group of individuals?

Artman: Well, would it be fair to say that your strategy in the book is to be openly provocative without the intention of being personally desultory.

Hart: Desultory? Do you mean derisory or derisive? I’m always desultory. But yeah, I’ll let you look that up.

Now let me actually be a bit harsher, since that’s what’s apparently expected. Notice how the burden for rhetorical restraint falls repeatedly upon the critic of the idea of eternal conscious torment. Whereas, on the other side, as you’ll see from Gomes’s own words, no such expectation is reserved for those who are promulgating what I regard as a morally diseased idea. If I honestly believe something is morally evil, what am I supposed to say? That it’s problematic? That it’s counterintuitive? How long has this doctrine, this form of teaching, this way of seeing things gotten by on the hesitations, on the reticence of its critics, on their fear of speaking openly about just how hideous this form of theology is?

I have seen critiques of universalism over the years, many times, I thought were quite solvent. They’re also quite ineffectual because the rhetorical restraint was so preposterously exaggerated out of fear of offending against honest believers who are merely adhering to an ancient orthodoxy and, after all, the testimony of tradition was on their side—[those] who have withheld the appropriate language with such, to be honest, indecent decency that no one is ever really forced to think seriously about just how foul this teaching is.

I mean, you went through basically the Synod of Dort when you were telling me what Gomes himself affirms. From any angle, any angle of scrupulous moral probity, only a psychotic religion could teach such things. And again, I want to point out that this is taught to children. It is monstrous, it is evil to teach children such things. It warps, twists, and sears the conscience. And the only excuse someone like Gomes has is that he himself was subject to that abuse earlier in life, and so he’s just passing the evil on from generation to generation. That’s why I talked as I did about collective derangement. Although, obviously this went completely over his head, he didn’t seem to understand what I was saying.

No one person can be singled out as guilty in this regard. I mean, even the late Augustine, who’s the father of the worst possible distortion of Paul’s theology—the one that gets picked up and, in having gone through the period of voluntarism and so on and so forth, reaches its absolute extreme expressions in the 16th and 17th centuries, both in the Catholic and Protestant worlds (by the way, I’m not even blaming a tradition here)—even [Augustine] was the victim, as I say, of certain emotional pathologies, which are clear. Even as much as I love Augustine, you don’t have to read deep in the Confessions to realize that there is a somewhat neurotic personality there, one that is given to extremes of guilt and a sense of unworthiness to the point where a childhood theft of a pear, for him, could have all the significance of the kind of sin that leads to eternal torment. He was not a fully healthy personality. He was a genius, and like many geniuses, he had problems.

But, you know, I don’t know what else to say. That is just clearly the case. And to be honest, if I were being really, really candid (which I’m not, in a sense, in the book, because I do avoid aiming this at anyone in particular), I would say to Dr. Gomes, he is a moral idiot. Yes, he has made himself or been made into one. He should think about that. He should seek to be healed. He should seek to be liberated from the moral idiocy that’s been inscribed in his soul by a cruel, evil, irrational, and diseased tradition. And he should—rather than complaining about the rhetorics of those who have the temerity to call evil, evil—he should be down on his knees begging forgiveness of every child who comes into this world, whose innocence he has slandered as being stained with indelible original guilt and whose goodness as creatures of God he has denied by suggesting that—not only can they be subjected to eternal torment by the just dereliction, in the sense, of God—but that God will rejoice in it and feel towards them nothing but wrath and that we too will rejoice in their suffering. What a sickening set of ideas. He should be apologizing for the rhetoric he uses because it is so unnatural, so cruel, so, so wicked.

As you can tell, I’m a bit sleep deprived here. But you know, I’m not going to apologize. All I’ve done in the book is state clearly things that should be stated clearly.

Artman: Well, let’s go on to the second problem that Gomes has with you. It’s your disregard for tradition. According to Gomes:

For Hart, the tradition’s “morally repugnant” rejection of apokatastasis is of a piece with its embrace of other “degrading nonsense,” such as penal substitution (fueled, at least in part, by “one or two emotional pathologies”) and the “repellant,” conscience-corrupting, “dreadful, irrational, and morally horrid” doctrine of original sin.

Hart levels his lance at all branches of the Christian tradition, especially the…

Hart: Original guilt. He’s a bit confused there. He doesn’t seem to know that in the Eastern Christian world the notion of original guilt has always been abominated. I say nothing there that’s, I mean, that’s nothing compared to the rhetoric used by Patriarch Photios or any number of other Eastern Christian theologians over the centuries.

Artman: [Continuing with his quote from Gomes…]

Hart levels his lance at all branches of the Christian tradition, especially the Roman Catholic and Protestant West, but even against the East (albeit in sotto voce and with certain duly noted exceptions). To put the matter baldly, “The God in whom the majority of Christians throughout history have professed belief appears to be evil (at least, judging by the dreadful things they habitually say about him).”

Hart: Yes, that’s the argument. We must reason. We must reason well. And if we believe that something is true simply because of its authority as a traditional doctrine, even if we think it to be evil, then we commit a contradiction for obvious reasons, because we have no reason to believe in the authority of tradition, except based on prior rationales. We have made the rational decision to believe that this tradition actually has authority. It has no manifest authority otherwise. So if then, our reason recognizes its obvious irrationality, then faith in its authority is irrational, and frankly is nothing other than epistemic nihilism. It’s not faith in any meaningful sense. It’s, in fact, in many ways, rather deplorable.

Artman: When I was growing up, I did not go to church, but I grew up around Christian fundamentalists who were very adamant that they held no tradition, that they just went by the Bible. But then I often noticed that the Christian tradition became invoked in the name of what I thought was a terrifying supreme being, who in foreknowledge creates children burdened by inherited guilt, pours his wrath on his own son, and then eternally, consciously torments all who fail in this life to rightly connect to his wrath-bearing son, making that wrath fall on them eternally—all of this supposedly done in pure love. And if you questioned it, not only were you told, well, that’s what the Bible says, but you were also told that the church over the centuries, that your tradition, came to affirm all of this, so that, if you doubt, if you go against any of this, you’re doubting scripture and tradition.

Hart: Yeah, of course, it’s neither scriptural nor is it universal tradition. Many of the elements of the version of Christianity you just described, obviously are not found in every denomination, every confession. But even so, yeah, I mean, that’s the argument. And it’s simply a way of thinking, who are you going to believe, your irrational intellect or my arbitrary claims about the nature of God? And they’re not arbitrary now because supposedly they’re grounded in what? Looks to me like, if it can’t be reconciled with any rational or rational moral intuitions, then it would seem to be simply a tradition of arbitrary claims in an ever expanding echo chamber. That’s really not worth taking seriously. If you cannot judge the tradition, if there is—to be honest—if your capacity for moral reasoning and rationality is that debile, is that weak, that you can’t make judgements on something as obvious as this, then you have no business believing anything at all you, because you simply don’t have the rational warrant to believe in scripture, in tradition, or in anything else.

Artman: All right. The third problem Gomes raises is the way you elevate your own private moral intuition and reason over and above the greater importance of scripture and tradition. And he writes:

It’s Hart’s private moral intuitions and reason that secure the outcome of his argument. Hart expresses forcefully his moral and emotional loathing for the “genuinely odious” doctrine of eternal, conscious punishment, regarding it as “the single best argument for doubting the plausibility of the Christian faith” as either “coherent” or “a morally worthy system of devotion.” Hart seems to believe that he has the Bible in his corner. But the biblical witness is not the final court of appeal for Hart nor determinative. If Hart were convinced that the Christian faith requires a belief in eternal conscious punishment, he would jettison Christianity altogether as self-evidently morally wretched before bowing the knee.

Hart: Indeed, that is all true, although it is obviously not basing it on private moral intuitions. I mean, these are pretty universal and recognizable moral judgments. They follow quite rationally from simple principles of proportional justice, the nature of mercy and so on and so forth. But they also follow from the teachings of Christ and from Scripture. You know, I mean, once again Christ allows an analogy between the love of the Father for his creatures, and one’s own experience of one’s paternal love for one’s children. In fact, he commands this as the analogy we should apply to God. The nature of the good is pretty abundantly laid out in the teachings of Christ, of, you know, charity, forgiving. If you want to know the moral intuition that I’m actually taking to be supreme in regard to this, I think it would be the words of Christ on the cross: “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.”

That is a recognition that even their works of evil are not based on the knowing application of their rational freedom. And if they did know, they could not do what they’re doing, but whatever the case, “Father, forgive them.” I mean, I don’t know what on earth Gomes thinks reasoning is, but if you are, you can’t… Setting quite aside the scriptural teaching, of course, everyone reasons based on their moral intuitions. You have to. That’s what reason is. Reason is the way in which you engage, you know, your prudential, your evaluative, your rational faculties in dealing with the transcendental goods: the good, the true, the beautiful, the morally good, the good in every other sense. And to do otherwise is simply to forfeit any claim to being a rational or moral being.

I mean, this is just absurd. Of course, you have to reason from moral intuitions, and again, as I say, Christ commands you to do so. I really, you know, I find arguments of this sort… But of course, that’s so typical of the Reformed tradition, isn’t it? I mean, you take Paul, when he uses a rhetorical device in Romans 9 and says, “Who are you, O man?” And he talks about the vessels of wrath and all that. He’s posing a pretty drastically horrible set of possibilities before the eyes of his readers, isn’t it? But then he goes on to negate them all. That’s the whole point of the argument made in Romans 9 through 11, is that God could have created vessels of wrath and vessels of mercy, and who would you be? You’re just a creature, ah, yet, but then he realizes that God would be unjust, would be untrue to his covenant, would be something less than he says he is in making his covenant with Israel. Therefore, he reasons himself all the way to the opposite conclusion that God’s intention is to show mercy on all. There are no separate vessels of wrath, vessels of mercy. All have been bound in disobedience so that mercy can be shown to all.

And you know, Paul himself is using moral intuitions there. He realizes that he could simply throw his hands in the air and say, “Ah, well, the sovereignty of God being such as it is, how dare I question this?” And then he realizes that then he would be affirming that God is a liar or is evil or is malicious or that he’s imperfect or is something less than the God of Christ. And using his moral intuitions, he then takes the figures of Jacob and Esau and uses them as a kind of template into which to work out the relation between Jews and Gentiles until he arrives finally at this great radiant, glorious, universalist affirmation of chapter 11.

So yeah, I have no idea what Gomes thinks we’re supposed to be doing with the mind that we were given and being created in the image of God. But I would say that if you have to suppress your moral intuitions to the level that you would actually accept the kind of doctrines he believes are incumbent on the Christian, then again, you’re just engaged in epistemic nihilism. Faith is just brute ascent without rationale, and therefore, without sincere engagement of the heart, will, and mind.

Artman: Well, it seems to me that Gomes has elevated scripture and tradition to a kind of static monoliths which somehow obviously…

Hart: Well, there is that, I mean, the fact that obviously—I’m Eastern Orthodox—I mean, from my position, he’s, as a Calvinist, he’s barely even nominally Christian. So many of the doctrines he teaches are abhorrent to Eastern tradition that he would be regarded as the worst of heretics. You know, if you’re going to start throwing tradition and scripture around, well, there is a pretty good and well established 2000 year old Eastern tradition of reading scripture with extraordinary care and scrupulous attention to its contents that has arrived at a set of doctrines in many issues—like inherited guilt and predestination and so forth and so on—absolutely antipathetic to those that Gomes embraces. And, you know, I hardly have to tell you, the most polemical of Eastern Orthodox authors, when talking about these doctrines, waxes far, far more contemptuous than I do.

Artman: Well, what strikes me is how Gomes is telling us to ignore our deepest intuition about love and morality, ironically, in the name of the Bible and tradition. And it’s just amazing to me how often institutionalized forms of things, ultimately, often come to embody the exact opposite of their original moment.

Hart: And I think that’s simply a truth about human institutions in general. They’re structures of power. They just are. One thing I’ve always admired about Catholic claims about the church is that the church has to be thought of as simul casta et meretrix. You know, that, yeah, it’s a pure bride of Christ but also the most impure in many other ways. They just frankly acknowledged the institutional evils again and again, not always when they should have been acknowledged and not always adequately, but nonetheless, there’s an understanding there that the institution is to be distinguished from the truth of the gospel to which it points.

I mean, look, this is an issue that comes up in the book also in the first meditation, this issue of the contagion of equivocity, which I suspect also Gomes didn’t understand. He’s requiring of Christians the embrace of a cognitive dissonance so profound that it cannot help but render all doctrinal language semantically vacuous. It doesn’t mean anything. If what he’s saying about God can be the definition of God’s goodness, love, and mercy, then those words simply have no meaning. We have no analogical grammar by which to make any sense of them. We’re believing in nothing. We’re, again, it’s just nihilism being called faith.

Artman: A fourth problem that Gomes raises is that you have not fully resolved the problem of evil, because even if God does save all, God is still the ultimate source of temporary evil and suffering. And so he writes:

Since God is the source of the ignorance [which leads to sin] and since this ignorance leads to misidentifying the good, and because misidentifying the good eventuates in all of the untold perils, misery, and sufferings of the race from time immemorial, how is God good in light of all of the evils that eventuate from humankind’s wretched plight?

It scarcely removes the difficulty to say that God does not allow this ignorance to reign permanently but eventually removes it. Hart himself rejects an answer that would “make the transient torments of history justifiable in light of God’s everlasting kingdom.” For however long the ignorance endures, God is responsible for allowing it and for all of the suffering that eventuates from it. Recall that God could remove this ignorance at any time at his option through a clear revelation of himself. Why would he not have done so from the start?

Against the Augustinian and Calvinistic doctrine of reprobation, Hart declares that God would himself be morally reprobate if he failed to save individuals when it was well within his power to do so. Very well, then. On this hypothesis, Hart’s God might be less abominable than Calvin’s, since Hart’s God has seen fit to place an expiration date on his wanton cruelty. But this still would not yield for Hart a God who is good, given his own working assumptions.

Hart: Yeah, this is the danger of a man without philosophical training entering into a philosophical debate he doesn’t understand. The book has nothing to do with the problem of evil, and the problem of evil, when it is addressed in that book and where I’ve addressed it elsewhere, is not relevant here. Now, you can bring up evil if you want, as an arraignment of God, but it makes perfectly sound sense to say that a God who creates, out of nothingness, free creatures to be joined to himself in spiritual liberty makes room for the possibility of transient evils to bring about an ultimate good. That is very different from saying that God’s eternal counsels at the eschatological horizon eventuate in a state of reality in which they’re both unresolved evils and torments for those evils.

These are just modally different claims. I’ve gone through this so often, and I do not understand how anyone can read the first meditation and think that the problem of evil is relevant to the argument I’m making there.

So I should note that… Actually give me some time here because the metaphysics of creatio ex nihilo does raise the question, not only of eternal dereliction, but of every evil. That’s true. But the two questions differ radically in modality, and I deal with the issue just on pages 59 to 60 of the book, and I’ve dealt with the issue of the non necessity of evil in other texts, like The Doors of the Sea. And I mean, it’s a good mariological rule that, to try to understand the whole in terms of its parts and to try to understand the parts in light of the whole, are two very different operations of reason. Or if you put it in terms of set theory. Many things can be predicated of a set that can’t be ascribed to the individual contents of a set. So if one’s going to judge the relative goodness or badness of a discreet evil in relation to final purposes that we either can or can’t see, that’s one thing. It’s another thing to judge a supposed total narrative that pretends to describe the whole rationality of all its discrete events. It may very well be that for God to create genuinely free creatures, they have to—from the very first, from the moment of their emergence from nothingness—be free in every sense. And that made come with the peril of many transient evils along the way. But once you make the former judgment regarding discrete evils, that’s never anything more than a conjectural and inductive judgment.

The other judgment concerning the total narrative that gives you the whole rationality, that becomes a judgment that’s a matter of logic. There may logically be such a thing as an evil that’s redeemed in the greater good towards which it leads. Why wouldn’t there be? There is no such thing as an unredeemed evil that does not reduce the good towards which it might lead to a mere relative value. And that’s the point. The modal moral collapse that I talk about is uniquely an eschatological collapse. It cannot be understood except in the light of the end of all things. In the former case, again, dealing with individual evils, it’s possible that evil may be non-necessary in an ultimate sense but necessarily be possible in a provisional sense. But in the latter case, when we’re talking about the total narrative, evil figures, for this majority tradition, as a necessary aspect of the eternal identity of whatever reality it helps to bring about. Okay?

So you know, the truth is I’m not going to go through my long reflections on Ivan Karamazov’s argument in Brothers Karamazov and why I think that his conversation with the devil is more important than say the teachings of Father Zosima for understanding, but all I’m going to say is this. The question of evil that’s raised there and by someone like Gomes is not logically entailed in the question of ultimate, unredeemed suffering. These are two different issues. Ivan’s argument ends with a personal act of evaluation: “I refuse the ticket. It’s not worth the cost.” That may or may not be true, I don’t know, but that’s a different issue. My argument about the modal relationship between creatio ex nihilo and eschatology does not end with a personal act of evaluation. It ends with a Q.E.D. And if he has not understood the argument, then I encourage him to go over it very carefully several times until he finally gets the point, because this argument is not one he’s going to get around with his counterarguments as bad as the ones he’s making.

Artman: Well. So God might very well have to allow enormous amounts of evil in order to ultimately have the context in which souls might be truly imperfectly formed, but it also seems to me that God, in the crucifixion of Christ, descends into and takes upon God’s own self that very evil, which God allows, in order to ultimately defeat that evil and bring healing to all.

Hart: Well, of course, that’s basic Christian teaching, but I also wanna point out that the question he’s asking isn’t even a logical one, because what he’s saying is why didn’t God simply create souls in a state of the beatitude? But then, you see, that’s the creation not, in any given case, not of a free spiritual being that has to grow into its union with God. That’s not a free movement from nothingness into the infinity of God. That’s just a dramatist persona. That’s just somebody who’s been created in a certain state of psychological, spiritual, moral development. That is not a free being. That would indeed thwart the purpose of creation, presumably. The sort of question he’s asking is based on a rather—how can I say it?—childish notion of what beatitude is, what it is to be joined to God. Truly to be joined to God, certainly, is not simply to be created in an artificial state as an automaton. It is indeed to be created. It is indeed to be created from nothingness. It is indeed to move from that essential nothingness into the infinity of God. It is to become.

I can see, in those terms, I mean, I may not, at the end of the day, I mean, I can also see taking Ivan’s perspective and saying: “I just can’t accept this.” You know, and that’s why I say his conversation with the devil in the Brothers Karamazov is interesting because the devil talks also in this way about seeing the final horizon, making his four million mile journey, laying down his resistance to God and glimpsing the truth of things and all at once, saying: “It was worth it.”

The way that I think one should think about this, though, is what’s going on in Paul’s theology in 1 Corinthians 15 when he talks about all creatures praising. It’s ὁμολόγησις, you know, praising God altogether—that being the final state of things. I think what’s going on there is precisely that that is the moment of creation. That’s the accomplished reality when—not just God judging us—but us judging God and finding that he is, in fact, the infinite good and therefore finding it impossible not to praise—freely to praise that goodness. But that final confession is something that has to be won through to. Otherwise, it’s simply the empty noise of, you know, mechanical birds in, you know, Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” [with] beaten gold and gold enameling and all that. I mean, it would just be mechanical music. You know, it’s just a strange way of seeing things to imagine… Anyway, we’re getting off point here.

The simple point (and again, if I weren’t sleep deprived, I would’ve made it and then moved on) is that the problem of evil, the notion that the possibility of evil may or may not conduce to a greater good is not the same thing as the problem of this modal moral collapse, which has to do with the final state of things. If one can’t see the qualitative difference between those two things, then one is just being willfully obtuse.

Artman: All right, Gomes’s fifth critique is that by making God morally responsible for our sin, it eliminates our own responsibility for it. And he writes:

Hart does not wish to eliminate moral responsibility nor guilt for the sins that moral creatures commit. However, on Hart’s reckoning, a creature cannot sin to the degree that he or she knows God as the Good in itself but can sin only to the degree that the creature is ignorant, misidentifying a false good for the true good. Remember that elsewhere he states that even the very act of apostasy is driven by a desire for God, albeit misplaced. Now, this very ignorance is what Hart believes mitigates guilt but does not eliminate entirely; it is only the degree to which the person “abets the error willingly” that forms the morally culpable residue of the sinful action. But on further reflection, it would seem that such ignorance would not merely mitigate guilt but must eliminate altogether not only actual guilt but even the possibility of any guilt.

How are we to account for that guilt-worthy fractional part of the sin that remains—what we might call the genuinely sinful part of the sin? Surely that culpable fractional part, if it is truly sin, must itself have ignorance at its root… So that fractional, culpable part turns out not to be quite so culpable after all. This fractional portion of guilt is in turn mitigated by the degree to which ignorance underlies and informs that part, and so forth, until culpability vanishes altogether.

Hart: Again, I’m going to repeat the caution against persons without much in the way of philosophical training entering into debates of this sort a little bit too audaciously. In one sense, he’s right. I mean, I don’t believe in absolute culpability. I most certainly don’t. I believe that Christ was right both in saying, “Forgive them, they know not what they do”, but also saying that, “If you know the truth, it’s the truth that will set you free.” Which means, until you know the truth of things, you’re not really free. But there’s also just an extraordinary failure here to grasp the difference between qualified and absolute claims. There is no such thing as absolute culpability. I fully grant that, I hold that to be true, but at a lower level of culpability, one can have an epistemological grasp that something is evil and still do it.

True, that’s not absolute in the sense that the desire to do evil would vanish if one were presented with a truly gnoseological grasp of the good—that is an immediate, absolute, direct intuition of the essence of God, the goodness of God. And that is of course, what the free will defense of Hell requires, if it’s to be coherent, the notion that you could truly know God, that you could truly have, not only an intellectual, but a moral and spiritual intuition of God directly and still reject it, which is in fact, you know, clearly an incoherent notion. It makes a nonsense of the very idea of rational freedom for reasons that are laid out in the book and for reasons that Thomas Talbott is very good at. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t, in a qualified and conditional way, have been made aware that what you’re doing is technically, morally wrong and know that what you take to be the greater good is a non-moral good, and to that degree—lacking that immediate grasp of God in his own essence and only knowing the good as mediated through discourse and example and finite symbols of the good good—that to that degree you’re capable of some degree of culpability, some degree of wickedness. Certainly not enough, however, to qualify you for eternal damnation, I would think. But this is just a difference between epistemological and gnoseological acquaintance. It’s like you, before you were a parent, say, did not have the direct acquaintance of your own child, right? Things become progressively impossible for you morally. You might not be a perfect person—you might know that, in an epistemic sense, you might know that you should not be indifferent to the unhappiness of a small child, to a child crying and yet, you know, you’re a less than perfect person. You put the thought out of your mind when someone’s asking you to make a donation for a children’s cancer ward, right?

At some level, you know that what you’re doing is wrong, but you temporize and then you justify it to yourself. Or maybe you’re just not that nice a person. Then, one day, you have a direct, truly gnoseological, encounter with the pure unmitigated goodness and moral demand made upon you by a child, maybe through learning to love your own child. At that point you’ve come nearer to the source, and it becomes much harder for you to be morally idiotic, to return to that term. That doesn’t mean that your earlier failings were entirely devoid of culpability. There’s still something there that needs to be fixed, needs to be purged, needs to be made right, but it does mean that you were not yet capable of absolute culpability because there was also a dimension of spiritual, emotional, and moral ignorance at work. And also, you know, how you were raised, how you were taught to think, how you learned to think from society around you. So, no, that’s just a bad argument. There is such a thing as qualified culpability. What there isn’t is absolute culpability for finite wills and minds.

Artman: All right, a sixth problem Gomes raises is you’re not taking seriously enough the willfulness of sin, writing:

Hart’s view seems to lodge defectibility in the intellect… But this surely does not commend itself to the sin-laden soul, who understands that a weakness of will can lead one to choose what he or she truly knows to be wrong. Nor does this view take seriously biblical statements about wicked individuals who are said to “hate God.” On Hart’s view, hating God is a form of misplaced love for him, and apostatizing from God is a form of seeking him. Hart might do well to bear in mind the words of the prophet, who declares, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil” (Isa. 5:20).

Hart: Oh, I love that quotation. I love that quotation. The funny thing is, I’ll let you finish, but of course, that’s exactly the point I would make to go: “Woe to you who call evil good and good evil.”

Artman: [Continuing to read the quotation from Gomes.]

John 3:19 tells us that people loved darkness rather than light. They do not love it as a misplaced or misunderstood affectation for the good. …they loved and embraced darkness because their wills are corrupt, as shown by their evil behavior. Even when faced with the light—especially when faced with it, in the moral purity of the Son of God himself—they chose darkness. Hart’s mitigation of guilt is not easy to see in Jesus’ words here.

Hart: Aren’t they? I mean, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.”

“The truth will set you free.”

“If I’m lifted up so the world can really see me, I’ll drag everyone to myself.”

Yeah. No one doubts that a malformed will loves the darkness rather than light. It must be freed from that darkness. But what does the gospel of John actually say? The light came into the world, right? The light entered the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not. I mean, it doesn’t claim that those who rejected Christ did so because they fully understood who he was. It claims that they didn’t understand who he was, in part, because they had already rejected God in a different way. But, you know, the notion that now Gomes is going to claim that all of that tells us that absolute moral corruption, radical evil in the Kantian sense, is possible despite what that would say about a God who created us—and created us, presumably, as rational beings whose natural wills can have no possible fulfillment except in the goodness of God himself—is well, to be honest, it’s rather disturbing. I think he’s kind of missing the point.

And again, I deal with this in the fourth meditation. If he doesn’t understand the classical intellectualist model of freedom, I hope that he comes to learn how it works because every other model of freedom is fundamentally incoherent and would make all free choice meaningless anyway. And again, as I said, Thomas Talbott’s quite good on this as well. But simply saying that people, in ignorance, come to love evil. Sure. I mean, you know, this is not an absolute either or. Again, he’s taking the epistemological for the gnoseological. It’s quite possible to know that you’re doing something wicked and love it. It’s not possible for that to be the case, though, if there’s not already something amiss, as if there’s not already some illness, some defect that is not voluntary.

Schopenhauer said we’re free to do what we will. We’re not free to will what we will. Now, what he meant was wish. I mean, to some degree, there is a prior volition in us that is not our choice, and we often yield to it even if it’s, in many cases, when it’s not good. But the notion that somehow you can move from that obvious truth to this idea that it’s possible simply to love the darkness rather than the light when—again and again, you have Christ making it pretty clear that it’s not, that it’s ignorance, that it’s separation from God created by the conditions of a world of darkness that does not understand God—just seems to me, you know, a kind of arbitrary way of reading the language of the scripture there.

I still don’t, you know, to be honest, I don’t know how you get around… The ultimate rejection of God in Christian thought, the ultimate rejection of the goodness of God in the radiance of the image of God in Christ, all the things he’s talking about, is crucifixion, is rejection. And Christ’s own judgment upon what happened there is: “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.” That’s it. He does not condemn anyone from the cross. So I’m not quite sure how else one is to read the story.

Artman: All right. The seventh problem Gomes raises is your overdetermining the infinity and disproportionality of hell. Gomes writes:

Hart: Oh, God.

Artman: [Continuing to read the quote from Gomes.]

Hart’s arguments about the alleged disproportionality between guilt and punishment in the infernalist view do not commend themselves. In some places, Hart’s language appears to impute a kind of infinity to hell that is surely not the case, though in other instances it is not so clear that this is his intention.

Eternity, for the finite creature, is not a different species, duration-wise, from our present frame of reference. Creaturely eternity, as Hart in one place observed (and as I would have expected him to), is not a kind of eternal now as could be proper only for God, lacking succession and complete in itself, as it were. The eternal state is a continuation of time. It is not a different class of sequential existence from our present state in that respect. And it is finite. No matter how far into the future one goes—whether in bliss or eternal torment—the person will only have existed a finite amount of time. The suffering of hell is, and always will be, finite at the point that the agent is experiencing it. And regardless of how long hell lasts, what the agent has not yet experienced, he has not experienced. So to imply that this punishment somehow exists as a completed whole is to miss the mark.

Aside from the question of duration, it is also important to realize that the degree of punishment in hell is not infinite, either. Hart speaks of hell’s “infinite misery,” which could mislead. Indeed, the biblical fact that there are degrees of punishment (e.g., Matt. 10:15) is sufficient in itself to show this to be so.

Hart: You know, that might be the single stupidest argument anyone has made yet about this. I mean, I’ve come across some stupid arguments, but that one may take the laurels. I don’t even know. I hope he was joking when he made that, because that is so cretinous. First of all, just at the level of sheer logic, that would mean that an infinite set isn’t infinite, you know, because it’s actually composed of discrete parts. But yeah, obviously, the word infinite is plurivocal. It can be taken in different ways. We’re not making a mathematical judgment here about a mathematical function, but the claim that eternal suffering exceeds any due verdict on a conditional state of moral and intellectual failure is obvious. But even if we were just talking mathematically and logically, he needs to go back and study set theory, because any endless set is quantitatively infinite.

The fatuous observation that an infinite totality can be viewed always in terms of discrete parts that are themselves finite, is about as profound as denying the existence of an elephant, because the whole elephant can’t be found in a tusk, or its tail, or its ear, or its trunk. Anything that accumulates eternally is infinite. That’s simple logic. But so what? I mean, he knows what I’m saying, that to condemn a rational nature to eternal unhappiness, eternal derivative or successive suffering for the qualified and obviously finite transgressions of which we’re capable in this life, is the very definition of just judgment triumphing over mercy. God, that’s a stupid argument. I don’t know how he thought he was making a good point there. I don’t know. Maybe you have to be raised Calvinist to have the threshold of moral discernment lowered quite to that level. But I’m having a hard time restraining my rhetoric here. So let’s just move on.

Artman: Okay. Problem eight he raises involves the weakness of your biblical case, writing:

Hart’s handling of the biblical text is the weakest part of his case and provides some low hanging fruit for someone attempting to discredit it…

Hart: Wait a minute. Obviously that’s not true. I mean, I’m sorry, but that’s simply a lie. He doesn’t believe that. He’s using that language simply because he, you know, is committed to a different reading of the New Testament. But this is old news. I know you want to go on, but let me just stop right there. I think he knows perfectly well he has to, if he is any kind of New Testament scholar that the case for eternal conscious torment is so weak that there’s scarcely a credible New Testament scholar in the world who would claim that it’s present in the New Testament. Well then again if you’re a New Testament scholar who still adheres to Calvinist theology, then you’re not a good New Testament scholar anyway, because, again, no competent New Testament scholar believes that Calvin or the late Augustine got Paul right. They recognize those readings as wildly anachronistic and as detached from Paul’s actual concerns and as not rooted in Hellenistic Judaism or Second Temple Judaism, complete misunderstandings of his language. So, you know, the quality of his scholarship, I think, would have to be questionable just on those grounds. But anyway, yes, I have to interrupt because that’s simply nonsensical, well not nonsensical, it’s simply a dishonest claim.

Artman: Well, just to finish out his critique about your handling of scriptures:

Really, we have already seen that Scripture is not determinative for Hart anyway…

Hart: This is true.

Artman: [Continuing to read the quote from Gomes.]

…and his embrace of universal salvation has relatively little to do with the Bible once the accounts are settled. Hart contends that there are only “three or four deeply ambiguous verses that seem (and only seem) to threaten eternal torments for the wicked.” First, there is Matthew 25:46, whose “wording leaves considerable doubt regarding its true significance.” And next, we have “perhaps a couple of verses from Revelation,” though when it comes to getting any meaning whatever from that book, “caveat lector.” “Beyond that, nothing is clear.” What Hart does with the book of Revelation is especially striking. He attempts to evade passages that evidently teach eternal conscious punishment simply by evading the entire book. Hart regards it as “a supremely foolish enterprise for anyone to attempt to extract so much as a single clear and unarguable doctrine regarding anything at all from the text.

The comprehensibility of the text in Matthew fares little better when placed in Hart’s hands. It, too, is nearly impenetrable, he tells us. Jesus’ words here should not “be received as anything other than an intentionally heterogeneous phantasmagory, meant as much to disorient as to instruct,” as shown by…

Hart: Wait, wait, wait. Could we, before you get onto Matthew, let’s talk about Revelation and then move on to Matthew. There is no passage in Revelation that seems to teach eternal conscious torment for sinners. I mean, this is old news. He’s mistaking language borrowed from the prophets about total destruction that may or may not be taken in the fully literal sense of total destruction. But even then, you know, these old issues about how the language of destruction is used in the prophets and elsewhere, not actually meaning total destruction.

But you see, this is the issue with Revelation. What I say is correct. It’s an apocalyptic book mostly concerned with intra-historical events. And he not dealing with what I say about the book accurately, which is that when you begin putting it in context and taking it apart, you are dealing with a book that mostly has to do with the overthrow of the Roman Empire and the establishment of a new historical reality in which there will still be nations and people walking outside and the light of the new Jerusalem, and they’re invited to come in. It’s not the sort of eschatological book that it’s often treated as being. It’s not a series of oracles about the last judgment in the final state of all things. That imagery is part of what is most obviously a coded book about the future of Rome. It also seems to be the work of a Jewish Christian who believes the keeping the law was part of the, well, I don’t even want to go into that either. The thing is, the claim that I’m just dismissing the book because to get around versus teach eternal torment is simply false. I don’t think that we understand the book well enough to draw any theology from it. I just don’t. I think there are one or two claims in it that are, you know, interesting theologically in the sense that they’re just moral or spiritual councils, but otherwise, it’s not that kind of book. But I also insist that there is not a single verse in it that legitimately requires us to believe in the notion of eternal torment. Anyway, go on with Matthew, because I know he is going to make a hash of that too.

Artman: He says:

Matthew fares little better when placed in Hart’s hands. It, too, is nearly impenetrable, he tells us. Jesus’ words here should not “be received as anything other than an intentionally heterogeneous phantasmagory, meant as much to disorient as to instruct,” as shown by “the wild mélange of images he employed.”

Hart: Yeah, again it’s nice that he takes these phrases out of their context. He singularly fails to note that I give examples of what I mean of the way in which the imagery that Christ uses is not consistent. And it’s not consistent because he’s not giving us propositions about the final state of all things. Most of the prophetic material in the synoptics, frankly, not just the little apocalypse, has to do with intra-historical events. Some of the language he gives us is about the Gehenna, which is a place where corpses are disposed of. It’s about a place of death, [about] being killed in this world of dying—soul and body—soul just meaning the principle of life. He uses images of ovens and fires destroying things. He uses images of being excluded from a party at night and being outside in the dark complaining about it.

But then he also uses images about being imprisoned and punished for a finite term, for a specific time. And then, once the debt has been discharged, being released. It is clear that these images do not, all together, come together to give us a particular picture of the sort that later took hold of the Christian imagination. He is using prophetic tropes. He’s using Second Temple tropes. He’s using parabolic tropes from the realities of his time, like debtor’s prison. And they do not, they simply do not, when you actually know what they’re saying, especially when you detach them from a certain history of translation, they simply do not give us the picture that someone like Gomes believes in, that he’s talking about damnation to a condition of eternal torment. And I think he’s perfectly aware of that, because you notice, he… denounces me for making these claims. But he doesn’t offer any coherent reading of Christ’s words that in any way refutes what I’m saying.

Artman: Well, a ninth problem that Gomes raises…

Hart: One other thing on this. Before you.. Did you notice, however, that when he talked about my arguments from scripture, did you notice what he isn’t present in his review?

Artman: No.

Hart: Well, I mean, I seem to remember that I provide something like 27 pretty strong statements about universal salvation from the New Testament.

Artman: Yes.

Hart: I don’t simply say that revelation is hard to make sense of or Christ’s imagery is allegorical and symbolic. I actually do make an argument from claims that are made in the text and fairly striking claims at that. Does he bother in his critique to answer any of that?

Artman: Well, in the tenth critique he gives of you. It’s my favorite characterization of your work. He says that “a certain number of these passages contain explicit qualifiers, sometimes omitted in the verses that Hart produces in his orgy of proof texts.”

Hart: Oh, I see.

Artman: So I think those universalist texts were your “orgy of proof texts.”

Hart: I see. Well, then, that’s I mean, of course, as a person who would not use course polemic, I’m sure he didn’t mean to use the word orgy there as a way of giving… And of course you know, how fond people of his background are of proof texts some, it’s rather odd that he should disdain my practice of inducing proof texts. But the funny thing is, no, there aren’t qualifications. Let’s go with that. Let’s go with problem ten, and then we can double back to problem nine. What else does he say about my orgy?

Artman: Yeah. I really enjoyed that part of his critique. Okay. Problem ten that Gomes sees is an oversimplified appeal to the “all passages” says Gomes: “Hart also provides the…”

Hart: Oh yeah, because the word “all” is very ambiguous.

Artman: Right?

Hart also provides, mostly without comment, a catena of citations that revolve around the word “all,” such as that God desires all to be saved, that justification of life came to all, that Jesus is the savior of all men, that in Christ all are made alive, and so forth. However, a certain number of these passages contain explicit qualifiers (sometimes omitted in the verses…

Hart: Not all of the passages, just a certain number of them?

Artman: That’s what he says.

Hart: Okay, go on.

Artman: [Continuing to read from Gomes.]

However, a certain number of these passages contain explicit qualifiers (sometimes omitted in the verses that Hart reproduces in his orgy of proof texts) that show that the reference is not to all humankind without exception but only to those who are in Christ. Such is the case of Romans 5:18-19, which Hart cites but in which he omits verse 17, which applies justification and life specifically to those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness. And again, Hart cites 1 Corinthians 15:22, which says that “in Christ shall all be made alive.” But that this reference is only to believers is clear from verse 23 (which Hart omits), since it identifies the individuals referenced in the previous verse as “those who belong to Christ” at his coming.

Hart: Well, the former one—talking about Romans chapter five—that’s totally backwards. I suppose if you come from the Calvinist tradition, you assume that when it says “those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness”, that means a limited number, and therefore you just take it as given that that’s qualifying the following verses by limiting the “all”. Although, how that works, because it certainly wouldn’t apply to the parallelism of the “all” regarding Adam, but anyway. No, it’s just the opposite.

I don’t see how anyone can intelligently read that without seeing that it’s precisely the opposite that happens. Verse 17 says that those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness, right, will be made alive, basically. And then it tells us who they are. And it turns out that just as all have in Adams suffer… The problem is, it’s a very condensed verse, but basically, as in Adam all have suffered this estrangement from God, in Christ all will be made alive. What’s it in verse 18 or 19? I’m trying to remember. It’s not made alive, is it? I’m, again, falling asleep here. But anyway, he’s got that completely backwards. Any plain reading of the text suggests that it’s verse 17 that’s being given its full and expansive acceptation by verse 18.

As for 1 Corinthians 15:22, he has just a complete misstatement. It doesn’t just say that this reference is only to believers because [of] those who belong to Christ. It says, first—it’s talking about those who will be taken up, so to speak, taken into God—first those who belong to Christ and his coming (meaning those who are still alive) and then those who’ve died in Christ and then comes the end when God will be made all in all, when all things will be subjected to him. This was basically the reading of Saint Gregory of Nyssa. It seems to be clearly the case, but those who belong to Christ at his coming, in Paul’s language, [are] simply the first contingent, so to speak, of those who are joined to the Father in Christ at the end of all things.

Artman: Right. There’s a procession, which has a telos.

Hart: Yeah, that’s just a very strange argument. Anyway, I’m kind of running out of time here, so I better let you go ahead.

Artman: Okay. Let’s go to problem eleven then:

Now, it is true that certain “all” texts do not add such explicit qualifiers. And perhaps one might be excused for concluding in favor of universalism if those were the only texts with which one had to work. But they are not the only texts. Even if such texts would be amenable to a universalist construal in the abstract, we are right to reject this interpretation in light of Scripture’s larger witness. Hart himself tacitly grants the propriety of this procedure in his rejection of annihilationism. He admits that the language of certain texts could, apart from other considerations, teach the annihilation of the wicked. Yet, he emphatically denies that these texts actually teach annihilationism, since that view is false on broader considerations. To Hart, annihilationism…

Hart: Well, by the way, that’s a misstatement. I do not deny that they teach annihilationism. I am perfectly willing to accept that some of them might mean that. I don’t believe there’s a consistent claim about the… For instance, I’m not sure Paul is always, at all times, equally universalist in his thinking. But that goes to the issue of how you read scripture, anyway. But putting that aside, no, he’s not calling on the larger scriptural witness. I am. I would say that it overwhelmingly supports the universalist reading. There are far more universalist claims than he gives.

And the universalist claims, as Gregory of Nyssa demonstrated with such virtuosity, can make sense of the seemingly dissonant claims of annihilation. There are none of eternal hell. That’s a nonsense category… So the question is universalism or annihilation of the wicked. Gregory and Macrina and Origen and Isaac of Nineveh and all are relying on First Corinthians chapter three, of course, but nonetheless, they can show how those verses can be coherently interpreted in light of the universalist majority testimony of scripture. The reverse has never been shown. That is, Augustine the most brilliant, really of, obviously, the most brilliant of the Latin fathers, when he has to explain away the universalist pericopes, has to make incredibly bad arguments suggesting that they don’t say what they say. Gregory never has to do that. So I would say that Gomes has that backwards. The overwhelming, larger scriptural witness is fully on the side of universalism, not the reverse.

Artman: Well, since we are kind of winding down in time here, I think you have responded to the basic critiques that Gomes is raising. I just would note that the debate over the admissibility of Christian universalism is still going strong. There’s another video out where Michael McClymond, in a recent interview, he is asserting that Christian universalism actually has its roots in Carpocra­tian gnostic universalism, which is picked up by…

Hart: [Loud sigh…] First of all, there is no such thing as gnostic universalism. It’s a non category. There is one sentence about Carpocra­tians in Irenaeus, which does not actually say what Michael thinks it says. But Michael’s knowledge of Greek and Latin (that part of Irenaeus exists in both) is, I’m afraid, deficient. He doesn’t understand what the sentence actually says. I’ve written about this. Michael McClymond wrote a big book of something like 47,000 pages or whatever it is, arguing that universalism comes from gnosticism and was unable to provide a single example of whatever he [was arguing].

First of all, I don’t even like the category gnosticism. I think it has been rejected by early church scholars for a good reason. But of these various schools that Irenaeus talks about, none of them is universalist, and had they been, they certainly would not have entered the mainstream from those sources. McClymond does not know what he is talking about, and it’s rather sad that the book—because he could not find evidence for the preposterous claim he was making—the book goes on for thousands of pages compounding the embarrassment. It’s just, I wish he would stop. I know Michael, I think he means, well. He just doesn’t have the languages. He doesn’t have the scholarship, and he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Artman: Well, it seems like the effort is to sort of slander Christian universalism…

Hart: By association… Yes.

Artman: It’s Carpocra­tian. You know, they were a scourge. They were wicked. They were antinomian. They were horrible…

Hart: It’s funny. Of course, as you obviously are already in the process of saying, I’m just interrupting because that’s the way I’m behaving at the moment. You know, it’s quite possible they were evil and they got something, right. I mean, you know. I don’t think they were quite… I don’t think Irenaeus’s picture of the Carpocra­tians, by the way, conforms to what little we do know about them from other sources. But that said, what Irenaeus said, he does not, the sentence in question does not actually claim that the Carpocra­tians believed in universal salvation. What it’s saying is, it uses the word omnes in the Latin that Michael quotes simply in a construction that means that “all those who are saved are saved in this way.” It doesn’t mean “all will be saved.” But it doesn’t matter. As you say, it’s a guilt-by-association, and it’s a rather crude and deplorable way to argue.

Artman: So the Carpocra­tians thought that the way that people were saved was by experiencing everything that there was to experience. So you had to experience everything in order to be saved. And that was the, at least, the outline that we get about them from Irenaeus.

Hart: Right. If that’s true. Yeah. But again, what the verse, what the phrase in Irenaeus says is not what Michael thinks it does. And even if it did, again, that’s pretty thin stuff for claiming that this is some kind of gnostic heresy that corrupted the early church.

Artman: Well, and Irenaeus gets his, the doctrine of the recapitulation in Christ in Ephesians, that’s his, that’s where he draws the universalist kind of implications.

Hart: Well, as it happens, I mean, they’re perfectly good arguments that Irenaeus’s own theology would culminate in a universalism. But that’s a different argument for a different time. Yeah, I know, this is an argument that will never end. And I think I’m finished talking about it. I agreed to this. I didn’t actually realize the review was from 2019, to be honest. So I feel like, you know, maybe I should have dealt with it at the time, but at the end of the day, you know, the other side of this argument is always going to be bad. It’s always going to be something like Michael McClymond trying to impose a sense that, you know, telling us that, well, it’s Carpocra­tian. It’s always going to be something feeble like that because there really are no good arguments for infernalism. There just are none. And there’s no way that one can possibly make it rationally and morally coherent.

And in a sense, I really honestly think, the time is rapidly approaching when, rather than debating these rather pointless things about, oh, well, what did Irenaeus mean? Or how are we going to understand this one verse from scripture that can be taken this way? Or, you know, how are we going to add up the seemingly universalist and the seemingly non-universalist passages? I think there has to come a point when a more robust case is made for just simply the morally self-evident. If the sort of tradition that Gomes or McClymond or others is defending is the Christian position, morally, self-evidently, Christianity is false. I mean, there is no reason to believe it. There could not be any reason to believe it. There is nothing that is of greater weight than the simple moral intelligence that should tell you that torture, the eternal torture, is an act of infinite malice and spite that cannot possibly b comprised in the will of a good, infinite, omnipotent God. And it’s enough, you know? Anyway…

Artman: Well, what’s ironic to me is that people that are, as you say, so sort of baked in this tradition, seem entirely almost unable to even see the moral difficulty of it. It’s like it’s invisible.

Hart: Right. That’s why I believe one just has to keep stating it again and again and again, and it’s asking them why do you believe what you believe? On what grounds? What rational grounds do you have for believing in the authority of scripture, of tradition? If you’re going to tell me that at some level, you believe that at no point your moral intuitions and your moral intelligence are engaged, then your faith is meaningless. If they are engaged, then you have to heed them and listen to them. But it gets to the point where you just have to recognize that you are dealing with what I’ve called, again and again, just epistemological nihilism. It’s not faith, at the end of the day, it’s not interested in finding a rationale. Of course, we tend to think of faith as assent, but assent to what? Why? We assent to things for reasons. And if you ask a person who believes these things to trace his or her reasoning back to its earliest moments, what he or she’s going to find is simple brute indoctrination. [They are] never going to reach a point at which, actually, he or she was rationally convinced of this. Rather, the belief came first as pure irrational indoctrination that then had to be rationalized and always in a defective way, one that was always encumbered by moral contradictions so vast that they cannot possibly be reconciled.

Artman: Well, thank you very much for your time, and I appreciate it.

Hart: Sorry, I wasn’t at my most aphoristic and mercurial today. As I say, these periods of sleep deprivation and insomnia are a chronic problem with me. So I hope I wasn’t too incoherent.

Artman: Okay, well, you are forgiven.

Hart: All right.

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