In Defense of a Certain Tone of Voice


by David Bentley Hart

Read part one, two, and three of this four-part series.

Man yelling into megaphone

Having completed—albeit somewhat elliptically—my “itinerary” of the argument of That All Shall Be Saved, I have reserved the final installment of my report for a last, brief, bitter, even somewhat petulant and self-pitying complaint about some of the more belligerent readings the book has inspired. Perhaps I ought not to do so, since the whole point of providing an outline of the text was as an aid principally to the book’s detractors, in the hope of inspiring better informed attacks on it. But, after six months of listening to the clamor of confused readers, I cannot resist. I even feel free to name names.

Normally, I would not bother. One expects hostile reviews when one writes a book on a controversial topic; and this book in particular I knew would provoke and annoy. That was very much part of its purpose: to challenge Christian complacency with regard to the idea of a hell of eternal torment. But, in this case uniquely, a strange pattern has clearly emerged: to wit, none of its truly energetic critics in print has thus far condemned it for any claims actually contained in its pages. I do not mean that they have failed adequately to address its arguments. I mean that, to this point, none has even come close to identifying what those arguments are, let alone confuting them. Some reviews have demonstrated an almost perfect inability to grasp so much as a single thread of its reasoning, however elementary. Probably the most exotic example of this was a somewhat psychedelic tiptoe through the tulips written by J.P. Manoussakis, who apparently wandered over the landscape of the text in a kind of delirium or fugue-state, haphazardly snatching up stray sentences or phrases here and there but without any sense of their context or import (even those with a very long philosophical pedigree, like “rational freedom”), and the result was that he ended up reviewing a book entirely of his own imagining; it was a tour de force of accidental creativity, admittedly—a grand invention by way of continuous misapprehension. But it was also, sadly, quite a sui generis performance. Even though the book’s other antagonists have also tended to avoid its real philosophical, theological, and scriptural proposals and to grapple instead with arguments of their own devising, no one else has produced anything quite so inspired (or delightfully hallucinogenic) as Manoussakis did. Mostly, they have simply tried to distract from the text by loudly complaining that its tone is “ill-tempered” or “abrasive.”

All right, then. There is here perhaps, if nothing else, a vivid reminder of how powerfully our subjective intentionality shapes our perceptions of things. Anyone comparing the book’s favorable notices to the unfavorable could be forgiven for thinking that two entirely different texts were under discussion. This is especially true as regards the matter of “tone.” To one camp, the book’s voice is one of militant compassion, maybe sometimes tinged with indignation; to the other, it is a seething cauldron of venom and spleen wildly heaved in the faces of all those humble innocents who meekly cling to what is, after all, a perfectly inoffensive item of Christian orthodoxy. Now, I have been chivalrously defended on this score by various writers, such as Katherine Kelaidis, Jason Micheli, Alvin Kimel, Jordan Wood, and others. And, obviously, some of the grosser mischaracterizations of the book have simply been cynical strategies for avoiding a real engagement with the challenge it tries to pose.

Even so, I cannot help but find the constant stream of misrepresentations annoying. I have grown especially tired of being arraigned for my allegedly intolerant invective regarding more traditional believers. Again and again, I see myself rebuked for supposedly accusing such believers of moral imbecility or something of the sort, even though not a single sentence in the book actually condemns anyone for anything. Admittedly, I denounce certain ideas I find odious, and in ringingly candid language. But I do so always as a reproach aimed at everyone at once and at no one in particular—at all Christians, Eastern and Western alike, for allowing ourselves to be convinced that we are obliged to believe things about God that we would be ashamed to believe about all but the worst of men.

I suppose I am partly to blame. I unwittingly made it possible for the book’s most bilious critics to tear phrases out of their very specific settings and then to present them as insults flung at the whole of Christianity in general, or at least at all believers in hell. It began, as far as I can tell, with a ponderously “whimsical” piece by Douglas Farrow in First Things, which consisted entirely in roughly a dozen patently false claims about the book’s argument, illustrated with a few orphaned clauses from its pages, followed by two dozen fevered shrieks of frothing rage at all the things I had never actually said. Two pieces by the American religious historian Michael McClymond were of much the same fabric, though marked by even less philosophical sophistication. Similarly, someone called Benjamin Guyer produced a review that, while spectacularly failing to follow so much as a single filament of the book’s case, heaped up a gaudy collection of fragments of the text, rearranged so as to give as false an impression as possible. Perhaps the most comical example of this approach was a column in the Wall Street Journal by the journalist Barton Swaim (whose name makes it reasonable to suppose that he began his existence as a minor character in a Gore Vidal novel). Swaim did not even pretend to address any of the book’s arguments, but he expended enormous energy opportunistically pouncing on every seemingly damning turn of phrase that he could find in it pages, wrenching it violently out of its limited frame of reference, and then falsifying its import.

In all, not a single phrase or clause or sentence adduced from the book’s pages by any one of these authors says, in context, what they make it out to say. Neither does a single claim or characterization or assertion attributed to me by them (regarding, say, Augustine or Wittgenstein or Latin Christianity or anything else) correspond to what I actually wrote. Neither does any of them even vaguely describe any argument I truly make in the book. And I do not exaggerate in saying this.

Well, then, oh my ears and whiskers, how does this happen? And what is one to do? Perhaps I should be pleased. At least, I might flatter myself that, were those critics capable of answering any of the book’s arguments, they would not have needed to use such tactics. But here is where the issue of intentionality comes in. As I say, those who approve of the book see one thing in its pages, while those who hate it profess to find quite another. On the whole, the former strike me as clearly right by any objective measure; but I cannot say with absolute conviction that the latter are simply being dishonest (at least, consciously dishonest). It is possible that each of them, to some degree at least, actually believes that his portrait of the book is accurate. You see, I am beginning to suspect that this particular topic has an almost magical power to provoke all sorts of ungovernable emotional volatilities in certain souls, of the sort that render them unable to absorb what they are reading. It may even have the power to generate false memories. Some readers may really think that they clearly recall the book speaking of believers in hell as “moral cretins” (a phrase appearing nowhere in its pages).

Perhaps, then, the inability of certain critics to follow any of the book’s actual arguments is not just obtuseness (though a bit of that, surely), but instead reflects a temperamental incapacity on their parts for confronting any sustained assault on their own understanding of what they believe. And this, I think, is because (to adopt my language in the book) they do not really believe what they believe they believe. Perhaps there is a great deal of the redoubtable Freudian mechanism of “projection” at work here. Readers who feel that the book impeaches them for some deficiency of moral intelligence are in all likelihood merely subliminally accusing themselves and then reacting to the sting of their own consciences by accusing me of unjustly accusing them. They are aware, at some level they rarely plumb within themselves, that they have reconciled themselves to a belief that they know to be morally unintelligible, but cannot admit it to themselves. They believe they are bound by faith to defend an indefensible picture of reality, one that could not be true, morally or logically, in any possible world. And they are angry at me and my book for making them do something explicitly that they prefer to do only implicitly and subconsciously because, in the deeper fathoms of their consciences and intellects, they know it to be irrational and degrading. And so maybe, in the end, I should feel honored to have been cast in the role of the superego in their fierce little interior psychodramas.

And, as I say, I do in fact—and quite intentionally—use very strong language about certain teachings I find abominable. I will not feign contrition on that score. Nor should I. My characterizations of the teaching of eternal conscious torment are perfectly apt and fair, and they are directed as much at me as at any other Christian.  I know how coarsened our consciences can become when trying to justify to ourselves what we think is required of us by faith and tradition. But, frankly, the burden of proof—and of a certain seemly reticence—falls quite on the other side of the room in this debate. After all, why should anyone feel the need to apologize for denouncing an idea that looks fairly monstrous from any angle, one whose principal use down the centuries has arguably been the psychological abuse and terrorization of children?

Who, after all, is saying something more objectively atrocious, or more aggressively perverse? The person who claims that every newborn infant enters the world justly under the threat of eternal dereliction, and that a good God imposes or permits the imposition of a state of eternal agony on finite, created rational beings as part of the mystery of his love or sovereignty or justice? Or the person who observes that such ideas are cruel and barbarous and depraved? Which of these two should really be, if not ashamed of his or her words, at least hesitant, ambivalent, and even a little penitent in uttering them? And which has a better right to moral indignation at what the other has said? And, really, don’t these questions answer themselves?

A belief does not merit unconditional reverence just because it is old, nor should it be immune to being challenged in terms commensurate to the scandal it seems to pose. And the belief that a God of infinite intellect, justice, love, and power would condemn rational beings to a state of perpetual torment, or would allow them to condemn themselves on account of their own delusion, pain, and anger, is probably worse than merely scandalous. It may be the single most horrid notion the religious imagination has ever conceived, and the most irrational and spiritually corrosive picture of existence possible. And anyone who thinks that such claims are too strong or caustic, while at the same time finding the traditional notion of a hell of everlasting suffering perfectly unobjectionable, needs to consider whether he or she is really thinking clearly about the matter at all. If anything, my rhetoric in the book may have been far, far too mild.

David Bentley Hart is an Orthodox theologian, cultural commentator, and author. His book That All Shall Be Saved was published in 2019 by Yale University Press.