For the past few months my youngest daughter has been studying modern history. As part of the curriculum, she has had to memorize a timeline of important events. Many of these, of course, involve immense tragedies and acts of violence that resulted the death of thousands of people:
- In 1912, the Titanic hit and iceberg and sank on her maiden voyage from England to New York City. 1,517 passengers and crew perished.
- On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, killing 2,335 servicemen and 68 civilians.
- On September 11, 2001, 19 terrorists hijacked four airliners and flew them into the Pentagon, the World Trade Center Towers, and a field in Pennsylvania. The death toll was 2,996.
- In August, 2005, a category five hurricane named Katrina swept ashore in the U.S. Gulf Coast Region and submerged New Orleans. Over 1,500 people died as a result.
As I helped her go over these events, I was struck by the fact that, in each case, many or most of the people who died had a sense of false security about their situation.
The guests who partied or slept on board the Titanic as it steamed toward destruction were confident in the belief that they were sailing aboard the most impressive and safest ocean liner ever built. The American sailors who went about their business on a calm Sunday morning in the middle of the Pacific Ocean couldn’t imagine that death could rain down from those peaceful blue skies. For the men and women who went to work on September 11, 2001, it was just another day at the office. And for many who stayed behind to face Katrina, it was just another chance for a hurricane party. They believed the levees would hold, and everything would be alright.
But everything was not alright. In each case, the people were actually in grave danger. On top of that, in each case there had been warnings issued about that danger! The Titanic received several radio messages from ships ahead of them, warning of the ice fields. The U.S. government has acknowledged that it had gathered intelligence warning of attacks on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, as well as warnings about a terrorist attack by Osama Bin Laden. In New Orleans, the weakness of the levees had been the subject of repeated warnings over the years, and residents were told to evacuate ahead of the storm.
However, those warnings were ignored, either by the authorities who should have passed them on to the general public, or by the public itself. And not only were the warnings ignored, but those who proclaimed them were mocked and ridiculed, often by others in authority. In place of the warnings came messages of comfort and calm. “Everything is fine,” they said, “we are in no danger.”
These stories came to mind again as I recently read David Bentley Hart’s new book That All Shall be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation (Yale University Press, 2019). Hart assures his readers, strongly and without any equivocation, that every single one of them will indeed end up in heaven eventually. Further, he insists, those warnings they have heard about the possibility of spending eternity in hell are all hogwash. His universalist message is that a God of love could never allow such a thing.
Everything, in short, is fine.
This message, as Hart freely admits, stands against almost two thousand years of Christian tradition and consensus on the topic. Within that traditional doctrinal landscape both heaven and hell are real, and there are just two possibilities for each of us: eternity with God or eternity apart from God. At some point in the future, the Church and Scripture tell us, everyone is going to die, or Jesus is going to return. In either case, we are going to stand before the Maker of the universe and it will be revealed how and where we will be spending eternity. As such, all of life is ultimately about being ready—not just for whatever natural disasters or terror attack might come next, but for the next life.
If that traditional view is correct, then, Hart is encouraging and fostering in his readers a dangerous, false assurance of salvation. In doing so, he is like many of the religious leaders in ancient Israel during the time of the prophets. When the people fell into idolatry, God sent messengers to warn them that they were about to face judgment if they didn’t repent. Unfortunately, the people usually didn’t listen. Instead, they followed the religious leaders who assured them that everything was fine.
God was happy with them, those teachers claimed, and, as God’s chosen people, the Israelites would never be defeated; they would be safe from whatever trouble might be ahead (see Jeremiah 5-7, for example, as well as Ezekiel 13). That was false. And when the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom in 722 BC and the Babylonians conquered the southern kingdom in 586 BC, I’m sure that those who had rested in their “secure” position were completely shocked by the sudden and devastating turn of events.
Which brings us to the very serious dangers of universalism.
First, as critics of Hart’s position often and rightly point out, it kills most of the motivation for evangelism. Why should I go to the trouble of trying to convince people to turn from sin and get right with God when they will end up in heaven eventually regardless? As such, a belief in Universalism leads us to ignore our responsibility to proclaim the good news and are in very real danger of being judged for the souls that are lost (cf Eze 33:6).
Secondly, universalism kills most of the motivation for getting yourself ready to face judgment. Why should I sacrifice, love my enemies, pursue virtue, and practice spiritual disciplines in an effort to become holy if I will get to heaven regardless?
This is, I believe, is one of the greatest problems facing America today. As we listen to teachers and preachers who are telling people exactly what our “itching ears want to hear” (2 Tim 4:3), we delude ourselves into thinking we are safe. In reality, we are in grave danger, and if we do not get right with God, we will end up in exile, like the Israelites. But rather than exile from a strip of land next to the Mediterranean, we will be exiled from the presence of God for eternity.
Some might respond that universalism really isn’t a widely held belief in America, and that I am overstating the problem. Hart himself seems to agree with the first part of that statement; in the introduction to the book he paints himself as a lonely and embattled figure, standing against an overwhelming cultural consensus. Were that it were so! I think Hart is, in fact, actually late to this game, and that most people in America are already practical universalists.
Consider: when was the last time you heard a sermon or homily on the real and immanent danger of spending eternity apart from God? How often do your friends, family, and co-workers contemplate or discuss the possibility that they might die, or that Jesus might return at any moment—and so they should be ready to face judgment? If heaven and hell are indeed real, the question of how to get into one and avoid the other is the most important issue in all of our existence. Yet how many of us really spend any time preparing ourselves for eternity, or thinking about it, or talking about it with others? We just don’t seem to care about it very much.
But we have plenty of time for temporal concerns. Living our best life now? Making money? Fighting the culture wars? Winning elections? Yes, yes, and yes again. But making sure we don’t spend eternity separated from the Lord and Giver of life? Almost never.
Why not? Deep down we are apparently confident that, in the end, God is going to let us—along with almost everyone else—into heaven. As such, we can focus on other matters here and how. Jesus is gracious and forgiving, we tell ourselves, therefore we don’t have to obsess about the next life. How else to explain that polls over the past four decades have consistently shown that around 85% of Americans believe in heaven and think they are going there, yet hardly any of them seem to give the subject any sustained focus at all?
Hart’s book is firmly in line with that cultural trend. (That’s the ironic thing about pro-universalism books—they actually cause you to care less and think less about their subject matter.) The idea that everyone gets to heaven is firmly entrenched in our national psyche, and has been for quite some time. Even as Hart sees himself as standing bravely alone, That All Shall Be Saved is essentially indistinguishable in its main points from Rob Bell’s Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, a 2011 New York Times bestseller that got former mega-church pastor Bell plenty of screen time with Oprah and a worldwide theater tour. (“One of the nation’s rock-star-popular young pastors, Rob Bell,” stated a review in USA Today, “has stuck a pitchfork in how Christians talk about damnation.”)
This is hardly counter-cultural iconoclasm. It’s like an actress standing up at the Oscars to take a “brave” stand in support of “same-sex marriage”. That ship sailed long ago.
I am convinced that universalism is the default position for most Americans, at least on a practical, day-to-day level. Sure, many believers still believe in hell and some professional theologians have written excellent and scathing reviews of Hart’s book, as he knew they would. But really, who cares? Almost nobody pays attention to these online arguments. For most Americans, the extent of their interaction with Hart’s book will be running across a cover image on Amazon. They’ll see that the “Translator of the New Testament” (!) and “the most eminent living anglophone theologian” (!!) thinks everyone gets to heaven, nod to themselves, and then continue to chase sex, money, and power just like they always have, further (and falsely) assured that all will be well in the end.
(Editor’s note: This essay has been edited for minor typographical errors.)
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