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The Dangerous Hart of Universalism

The idea that everyone gets to heaven is firmly entrenched in our national psyche, and has been for quite some time.

"The Last Judgment" (1499-1502) by Luca Signorelli. The right part of the composition is "The Damned Consigned to Hell"; the left part of the composition is "The Blessed Taken into Paradise". [WikiArt.org]

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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About Don Johnson 2 Articles
Don Johnson is an author, speaker, radio show host, and filmmaker. His latest projects include the documentaries Unprotected and Convinced as well as the book How to Talk to a Skeptic. You can find links to all of Don's work at donjohnsonministries.org.

28 Comments

  1. A corollary to universalism is to not accept fear of God as the beginning of wisdom or even one of the gifts of the Holy spirit. To “get right with God” requires us to have a healthy fear of God, and not a white washed awe. After all, wouldn’t it be awesome if everybody got to Heaven no matter what? We have to ask, awesome for who?

  2. Wow. Not a single actual engagement with the book’s argument. Not a single correct description of what universalism means in the book. Just a lot of doctrinaire blather.

    • “[Hart] 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.”

    • The instinct of self-preservation (S-P) is the strongest by far in humans and animals, way more than even sex. In humans it can be switched off by ignorance, sheer stupidity, and perverted imaginations and manipulated images based on emotional, sentimentalist lies. Abandoning our S-P instinct, especially in spiritual matters, gives us the delusion of all delusions, that we are gods so everything HAS to be O.K. The killers of S-P, like David Bentley Hart, Neale Donald Walsch, etc. are then seen as loving, caring, superior authority. No other drug gives a higher high than this, risking mortal danger here and now in time and for all eternity.

      I respond to you as a revert, starting as Catholic long ago, turning then into New Age, Eastern Religions, Universalism, etc. and then converting back to Catholicism. What repulsed me the most about the many other religions and spiritualities I tried (I don’t do anything half-way) was and still is their repulsive obsession to kiss up to our lowly tendencies toward megalomania and self-worship, justifying any and all sin as “doing the best that we can because we are divine just as we are”, a total lie. The people pushing that and other similar lies were some of the worst people I have ever met, after looking behind the “super spiritual” mask.

      At that time, trying to bring my new awareness to them was a total miserable waste of time. I can see the author of this article avoiding the infinite rabbit trails, rabbit holes and the Tar-Baby misery of “actual engagement” with this sticky, repulsive, deceiving, emotional, ego-worshipping “doctrinaire blather”, to use your own words, and setting your transference and self-projection straight. Let Jesus switch your S-P back on, that you may not be, in this life and the next, just another self-deluded, totally unnecessary victim of a totally avoidable disaster, the absolute worst of them all.

    • I was thinking the same thing. I am pretty skeptical of the universalist ideas, but this was a very poor review, and to be honest, led me to buy the book that it was railing against. Whoops!

      • You say: “I was thinking the same thing. I am pretty skeptical of the universalist ideas, but this was a very poor review, and to be honest, led me to buy the book that it was railing against. Whoops!” That sounds no different than a very immature adolescent (whether chronologically teen or adult or old) being told that cocaine is bad for him/her, then the “adolescent” says: “I am skeptical that my friends are really enjoying themselves sniffing lines of cocaine but this Catholic guy just emphasized it’s dangers and railed against it so much that now I feel I must try cocaine myself. Whoops!”

        That’s way beyond blindly rebellious and totally unintelligent, not including a very false attempt at using and abusing others as pawns for self-justification into self-corruption. If your level of responsibility is already so dodgy and so ravenously hungry for excuses, then that tells me that you are already into universalism and you are just putting up an act to entice others to enter into the responsibility-killing dungeon of universalism. Thank you for showing, unwillingly or not, what universalism really is and really brings: the easy dehumanizing of quality humans into evil’s lowly ideological puppets. Not for intelligent REAL Catholics, thank you very much!

    • Typical. And bizarre, if you stop and think about it. I suspect there are two reasons for this: one, reviewers do not understand Harts arguments at a level they can engage meaningfully and (related) they have no meaningful counter arguments.

  3. “Consider: when was the last time you heard a sermon or homily on the real and immanent danger of spending eternity apart from God?”
    ******
    Just last Sunday at Mass in our little church. So I guess we must be blessed.
    🙂

    • Yes, that’s quite unusual. I can count on my thumbs the number of times in the past 40 years I have heard a homily that expressed a heartfelt belief in the danger of spending eternity in misery.

      • mrscracker & Jude, I’m with you all. At my EF mass it is not at all unusual to hear of the danger of possibly spending eternity separated from God. No fluff, no jokes, just bedrock soul-saving doctrine. God bless our respective priests!

  4. I used to respect Hart (and some of his previous books are worth reading still), but find it increasingly hard to do so any longer, given the colossal arrogance and self-regard that has been on display recently, especially in response to critics of his new book. To claim that Universalism – a distinctly minority position in Christian history, and one that seem only to be the hobby-horse of a small group within present-day Orthodoxy – is logically and morally necessary, and that Christianity is morally incoherent without such belief, is just mind-boggling. And then he has the gall to say, “the actual case made by the book has the very great virtue of being formally irrefutable.” Apparently he has discovered the real truth of Christianity after some 2000 years of everyone getting it wrong. Well then, let us all bow down to our new Pope David Hart.

    The colossal arrogance on display in his response to critics, and utter lack of good faith in answering them, is just staggering as well (In any case, he basically accuses them all of simply lacking the intelligence to understand his argument, so they are not really worth responding to).

    If he comes across as so distasteful and arrogant a person on the page, I can only imagine what it must be like to actually spend time with him in reality.

  5. Recently I heard a radio discussion on forgiving those who have injured or abused you. The radio guest insisted that we must forgive unconditionally for our own healing, but we must realize that forgiving is not the same as reconciling. We must forgive, but we may not be able to reconcile, and, in that case, the relationship will remain severed. Going to Heaven requires our reconciliation to God. It is not simply a matter of his forgiving us. We will be drawn into the fellowship of the Holy Trinity. That takes more than one sided forgiveness. This may have nothing to do with Universalism per se, but it plays into the common practice of expecting God’s forgiveness without anticipating the need for reconciliation.

  6. Hey, all you faithless cynics, the only way to solve whether or not salvation is universal is to put it to a vote. Have we ever heard from anybody from yonder except angels and saints, and from here to “there” except saints with visions that are heavenly? Case closed!

    Oh, wait, what? There’s the Abraham detail that at least half of the ballots are lost and missing altogether:

    “Besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, that those who want to pass from here to you are not able, and that none may cross over from there to us” (Luke 16:26).

  7. From The Flight From Hell, by William Doing, Jr.:

    Against this wave of overflowing salvation optimism, however, comes a book with a healthy dose of Christian realism. In seven heavily researched and carefully argued chapters, Ralph Martin’s Will Many Be Saved? accomplishes five things: a) describes how the enthusiasm for universal salvation began, and critiques those encouraging it; b) shows how it is based on a faulty reading of Scripture, Catholic Tradition and especially Vatican II; c) reveals the damage it has done to evangelization and missionary activity; d) lulls people into a false sense of security, minimizing the enormous danger of eternal damnation; and e) proposes a vigorous new pastoral strategy that will reverse these harmful trends.

  8. I’m a little off subject here but I beg your indulgence: When Pope John Paul II died in April of 2005, if memory serves a Priest in Rome announced his passing by saying “20 minutes ago Jesus Christ opened the gates of paradise to Karol Wojtyla.”

    Or did I make that up? I honestly don’t know. It really doesn’t make any difference.

  9. I believe that even the most hardened sinner when he dies has one last chance to repent.

    Recommended reading – Morris West, The Clowns of God.

    The smartest thing the devil ever did was to convince people that he doesn’t exist.

  10. The universalists argue that a loving God could not condemn a soul to hell “forever.” Thus, all will ultimately be saved. But what they fail to address is this: If all will eventually be saved, what is the purpose of life on earth? What kind of loving God would create us to suffer the misery of earthly life FOR NO REASON? Does God just enjoy watching us suffer? Sounds like a masochist to me. (BTW, I am not a universalist. I believe there is an eternally relevant purpose to life.)

  11. I have read the text and the part: “They believed the levies would hold, and everything would be alright”, does not make clear sense for me. I looked for meanings of “levies” and could not find a word that fits well to clarify the message in that sentence. Can somebody help me to understand it. Thanks in advance.

    • Jorge Levies is plural for Levy, the man made barriers to prevent flooding. Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge swept thru some of New Orlean’s levies.

    • The term “levies” is the plural form of “levy”, a tax. The intended word was “levee”, of which the plural is “levees”.

      From Wikipedia:
      A levee, dike, dyke, embankment, floodbank or stopbank is an elongated naturally occurring ridge or artificially constructed fill or wall, which regulates water levels. It is usually earthen and often parallel to the course of a river in its floodplain or along low-lying coastlines.

      The author made the reference because the levees did not hold in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

      From Failure Case Studies
      ASCE Technical Council on Forensic Engineering (TCFE): New Orleans Hurricane Katrina Levee Failures
      :

      The failure of the levees and the flooding of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005, represent the first time in history that an engineering failure has brought about the destruction or near-destruction of a major U.S. city.

  12. For the most comprehensive treatment of the subject–which, although written in a fair balanced manner, grinds Salvation Universalism (SU) into a fine powder–see Ralph Martin’s 2012 book, “Will Many Be Saved?”

    I tell people insisting on SU to read that book, come up with a reasoned refutation and then come see me.

  13. Opiate of the Theologians, by Michael McClymond, for First Things:

    Not until the nineteenth century did any Christian body make universal salvation its official teaching. The first to do so, the Universalist Church, later merged with another to form the Unitarian Universalist Association. Within the mainstream churches, medieval and early-modern universalists led a subterranean, catacomb existence—isolated figures, often concealing their views—while Christendom in all its major branches preached hell no less than heaven. Following Origen’s lead, universalists preserved a covert gospel, withheld from the masses, who needed hellfire to scare them straight, while a tiny cadre of religious intellectuals saw themselves as the only ones fit to know the truth. Dogmatic universalism—the notion that God must save all human beings—was for centuries not a public tradition but an esoteric one.

  14. When heretics and error-peddlers aren’t applauded by the True Catholic Church, they go underground and take the mentality of a cult: us-against-them, we-are-holy-persecuted-victims, our-knowledge-is-superior-and-esoteric, our-teachings-have-ancient-origins, all-of-nature-and-spiritual-traditions-are-on-our-side, hyper-mystical-superiority, etc.

    Universalism is now being recycled as a new-and-improved-hyper-intelligence-tool through David Bentley Hart and all others like him. Hart uses his vast intellectualism and fancy verbiage as a confusion, corruption and destruction tool, with lots of fancy insults against his critics in almost every page. Recycled garbage with hyper-intellectualism, Artificial Intelligence, algorithms, etc. added to it is still just trash.

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  1. False Prophets and False Assurance | Don Johnson Evangelistic Ministries
  2. mid-week apologetics booster (11-14-2019) – 1 Peter 4:12-16

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