Salvation 2.0: Part 3.1C: David Bentley Hart’s Criticism of the Traditional View

grace5Reader and frequent commenter Nathan wrote,

You seem to hold to this position with more dogmatic certainty than I’ve seen with other issues you’ve addressed on this site. Moreover, you’ve resorted to a flippancy that I find troubling (e.g., “roasting middle schoolers over a spit”). It’s as if the majority of Christians in the history of the church are not only uncharitable, but stupid.


First, if I’ve implied anyone is stupid, I apologize. That is not how I feel. I held to the traditional view for most of my life. I was not stupid. Just mistaken. But as I get older, as more friends and family die, and as my own health worsens, the topic of the afterlife becomes much less abstract and much more vital. I confess that I hold my views with intensity. I do. I’ve been through these questions many times before, and every time I take the topic on, I become more thoroughly convinced.

In addition, I’ve been working on a series responding to David Bentley Hart’s criticism of the traditional view of hell. And as the posts indicate, I’ve also been working through the “eternal fire” passages. And we need to confront these arguments and passages head on. No hiding our eyes. We owe it to ourselves to be brutally honest in assessing the evidence
— and Hart rubs our noses in it.

Let’s start with eternal fire. The Bible says,

(Isa. 66:24 ESV) 24 “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”

(Rev. 20:9-10 ESV) 9 And they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, 10 and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

(Rev. 14:9-11 ESV) 9 And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, 10 he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.”

This language is pretty graphic, too. Really, more graphic than my own — and the traditional view is that these passages apply to damned, being every one over the age of accountability who has not been saved. And they apply forever.

I really do find myself emotionally affected. I mean, I know people who are lost. I’ve known dead people who are lost. It’s very real to me. And I don’t apologize for finding the traditional position deeply upsetting. It should be.

Hart, one of the world’s premier theologians (and Orthodox), has recently pointed out that the Calvinist version of the traditional view has led to some outrageous teaching.

Calvin, in telling us that hell is copiously [heavily] populated with infants not a cubit long, merely reminds us that, within a certain traditional understanding of grace and predestination, the choice to worship God rather than the devil is at most a matter of prudence. So it is that, for many Christians down the years, the rationale of evangelization has been a desperate race to save as many souls as possible from God (think of poor Francis Xavier, dying of exhaustion trying to pluck as many infants as possible from the flames).

Really, Reformed tradition is perhaps to be praised here for the flinty resolve with which it faces its creed’s implications: Calvin had the courage to acknowledge that his account of divine sovereignty necessitates belief in the predestination not only of the saved and the damned, but of the fall itself; and he recognized that the biblical claim that “God is love” must, on his principles, be accounted a definition not of God in himself, but only of God as experienced by the elect (toward the damned, God is in fact hate).

And it is fitting that, among all models of atonement, Reformed theology so securely fastened upon a particularly sanguinary [blood-thirsty] version of “substitution”—though one whose appeasements avail only for a very few, leaving the requirement of an eternal hell for the great many fully to reveal the glory of divine sovereignty.

(Paragraphing added here and throughout to make more readable in this format.)

Whew! Calvinists will doubtlessly take offense at what he says, but it’s hard to argue with his logic. Calvin’s doctrine of original sin and double predestination (both the damned and saved are predestined to their fates) does in fact result in the millions of babies who die before being baptized burning in hell — as a matter of God’s election. Let that sink in.

We Arminians (non-Calvinists) think much more highly of our own tradition, except we teach an “age of accountability” of around 12 (varies with the child) and that a single sin post-age of accountability damns. So Arminian hell is not populated with babies. The youngest will be middle schoolers — some of whom will have committed very few sins. And yet the traditional view applies the above passages to middle schoolers who die without having been saved.

Hart continues,

It is not merely peculiarity of personal temperament that prompts Tertullian to speak of the saved relishing the delightful spectacle of the destruction of the reprobate [damned], or Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas to assert that the vision of the torments of the damned will increase the beatitude [joy] of the redeemed (as any trace of pity would darken the joys of heaven), or Luther to insist that the saved will rejoice to see their loved ones roasting in hell. All of them were simply following the only poor thread of logic they had to guide them out of a labyrinth of impossible contradictions; the sheer enormity of the idea of a hell of eternal torment forces the mind toward absurdities and atrocities.

If the goal is for us to be restored to the image of God, as the NT repeatedly teaches, and if God is pleased to torment middle schoolers for all eternity, then surely we will feel the same way. Luther, Aquinas, and other great theologians of the traditional school so taught because the logic is inescapable.

I’ve been asked how the saved can enjoy heaven knowing that their family and friends are in hell? Well, I respond with Conditionalism. The traditional answer is that we’ll forget our friends and family — meaning, I suppose, that we’ll have a different sense of justice from God himself — which is contrary to the rest of the Bible. I mean, being restored to the image of God is a central NT teaching. If we can’t enjoy heaven while in God’s image, well, that’s a serous problem for the traditional view. And yet few Christians can even imagine that heaven will be joyous if God doesn’t expunge the memory of friends and family burning forever in melted sulfur (which I’ve had fall on my arms, and it sticks to the skin, burns the nostrils with stench and acid, and burns and burns and burns).

Hart notes further that losing our memories means losing ourselves —

Of course, the logical deficiencies of such language are obvious: After all, what is a person other than a whole history of associations, loves, memories, attachments, and affinities? Who are we, other than all the others who have made us who we are, and to whom we belong as much as they to us? We are those others.

To say that the sufferings of the damned will either be clouded from the eyes of the blessed or, worse, increase the pitiless bliss of heaven is also to say that no persons can possibly be saved: for, if the memories of others are removed, or lost, or one’s knowledge of their misery is converted into indifference or, God forbid, into greater beatitude [joy], what then remains of one in one’s last bliss? Some other being altogether, surely: a spiritual anonymity, a vapid spark of pure intellection, the residue of a soul reduced to no one. But not a person—not the person who was.

Hart makes a good point. I really don’t know how traditionalists overcome his logic. If we must lose all memory of our loved ones who don’t make it to heaven, how do we remain who we are?

Moreover, God does not forget, and so how can we be restored to his image and yet be unable to tolerate the knowledge of what God himself is doing to these people?

Some respond that the damned have chosen to worship someone or something other than God and so hell is the afterlife they’ve chosen, their false worship fully realized — separation from God, an all-consuming craving for money or sex, or what have you. But does that change what the scriptures say about punishment? Aren’t they saying that whatever punishment we suffer will be that awful? And while someone may choose to worship money, does that mean that they’ve knowingly chosen to be tormented day and night forever? I don’t think that’s a fair argument (N. T. Wright’s advocacy of that position notwithstanding.)

So, yes, I confess to finding the traditional view more and more intolerable the more I study the question.

In fact, I intensely feel the offense of those who would rather deny Jesus than accept the truth of the traditional view of hell. I disagree, of course, but I understand why many unbelievers choose unbelief when the evangelistic sales pitch begins with, “God will burn you alive for all eternity unless you accept his love.” (Sorry if that sounds sarcastic, but isn’t that how we often sound to our unbelieving friends?

Now, Hart reacts to the problems of the traditional view by advocating for Universal Reconciliation. I find that contrary to scripture. Conditionalism responds just as well to the problems noted by Hart, if not better, and also has much stronger scriptural support from Gen to Rev.

Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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11 Responses to Salvation 2.0: Part 3.1C: David Bentley Hart’s Criticism of the Traditional View

  1. laymond says:

    I understand that the reason for Jesus’ mission to earth was to bring human beings true understanding of their “God”, their creator. The “old testament ” describes a totally different god than does the “new testament” ,new testament simply means a new statement, a new message, not an old message just revised a little. The message was brought by the only man to ever see God, who lived at God’s side, Yes this “man” lived at God’s side before he ever became a man, Jesus as he was named here on earth lived as a spirit at the side of “God the Spirit” and has returned to that position, so pretty sure he knew the “real God”.
    I don’t mean to imply that “The God” of the old Testament, and the God of the new are two different gods, just that the people of the time didn’t know God. as the servant (later known as Jesus) did.
    They knew God through his great power, “Jesus” knew him through his great love. Great power is always feared, Great love is welcomed. The god of grace, and forgiveness, is not the god of jealousy, and revenge described by writers of the old, if he were, then there would be no reason for the new.

  2. Chris says:

    Jay, I also grew up with the concept that people in hell were being tortured by the devil (complete with horns and a pitch fork) and and his demons, which obviously isn’t true either, but it makes for one frightening story. Unfortunately, I think some still hold this view. As someone once said, never let the truth stand in the way of a good story (or in this case a very bad one).

  3. Johnathon says:

    “You seem to hold to this position with more dogmatic certainty than I’ve seen with other issues you’ve addressed on this site. Moreover, you’ve resorted to a flippancy that I find troubling (e.g., “roasting middle schoolers over a spit”). It’s as if the majority of Christians in the history of the church are not only uncharitable, but stupid.”

    I don’t think Jay is presenting this position with “more dogmatic certainty” than he usually does with most other positions. And, I also don’t think he has used any more “flippancy” than he typically does when writing about positions that he does not hold.

  4. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:


    I don’t entirely agree but I largely agree. Mainly, I think we haven’t spent enough time in the Psalms and the Prophets to see how much of the NT is anticipated by the OT. But it is, of course, true that Jesus reveals God much more fully — not just as the God of love, but the God who loves through service, submission, sacrifice and even suffering for us. He incarnates God’s love. That is, he lived a life designed to show more than tell what God’s love is. I imagine you’d agree.

  5. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:


    Thanks. I tend to be certain of everything I teach — or why teach it? Doesn’t mean I won’t listen to what others say. Sometimes, people even cause me to change my mind. (I wasn’t always a Conditionalist. Someone persuaded me I was wrong. In fact, I’ve been wrong about nearly everything I believe today. That’s a lot of being wrong. It makes me cautious. Caution leads me to study — over-study — the hard questions.)

  6. Richard constant says:

    @Nathan. 🙂
    Ok big kid I’m going to try and make response to this but it ain’t going to be traditional.
    I’ll read it two or three times to get the flow of thought.
    And then I’ll try to get the voice activation to work right.
    Blessings I love stuff like this I’m glad you’re all over it

  7. Richard constant says:

    go back and see what I wrote concerning that 12 year old burning in hell.
    Tell me what you think about That one… that’s a start.

  8. Richard constant says:

    I mean we’ve got to get away from, ontological anthropological theology.
    to say it but its just a mess!
    blessings rich

  9. Charles Millson says:

    Hmm. I always thought the idea of hell gets introduced into Jewish thought during the exile along with the concepts of a Satan, heaven, Angels, and demons.

    In other words, and it’s a cultural concept.

    And yes: Jesus uses that cultural concept to speak to the Sadducees about heaven, but my argument falls down there, I admit. Perhaps He is also a product of culture Himself.

    As for Laymond’s dualdeusocity, I was taught much the same.

    But the God of Hosea is so in love with Israel–He’s like a love-struck teen. “I love her–I loathe her…get away from Me–please come back, baby, etc.”

    Meanwhile, Jesus says He came to divide, sword cleave, and spiritually pillage. And He does much of that.

  10. Richard constant says:

    When you take that viewpoint you got to explain the swine running into the ocean,
    you can’t make every text you read.
    Even the higher criticism critics don’t do that.
    I don’t think God is trying to deceive us and I don’t think Jesus is 2 or Luke or anyone else this is just what happened.

    although I could say that God is using a level playing field.
    If you don’t get that one well jay will explain it.
    He he he he
    not a problem right J he said laughing out loud.

  11. Richard constant says:

    did you read what I just said on at 12 year old girl I think I’m right.
    I think tradition has us all messed up here.

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