David Bentley Hart’s recent opinion piece, “The obscenity of belief in an eternal hell” at “ABC Religion & Ethics,” should be mandatory reading for anyone who clings to the traditional doctrine of hell as proposed throughout too much of Christian tradition.

Hart’s piece needs to be read in its entirety here: https://ab.co/3usrHDM. But, in case his 6,296 words seem too steep a mountain to climb, I have excerpted a few of what seem to me some of the most salient paragraphs below.

David Bentley Hart writes:

Even if the received Christian view of hell were that of an exclusive preserve for only the very worst of souls — Adolf Hitler, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, Pol Pot — the sheer brutal banality of the idea of everlasting torment would still be morally unintelligible. As it happens, of course, the received view throughout most of Christian history has actually been that hell is the final destination not merely of the monsters among us, but of all sorts of lesser miscreants: the profligate, the wanton, the unbaptised, the unbelieving, the unelect … the unlucky. But this hardly matters. No matter how exclusive we imagine the criteria for membership in the society of the damned to be, nothing can make the idea morally coherent. Choose just one soul, the most depraved you can conceive, and imagine him or her alone subjected to truly eternal suffering, and then try also to make yourself believe that this wretch’s unabating misery, age upon age, is an acceptable price to pay for the existence of the world, for the great drama of creation and redemption, and for the ultimate felicity and glory of God’s Kingdom. If your conscience is a healthy one, you will find it impossible to do so. Or so I would have thought.

A belief does not merit unconditional reverence just because it is old or because its proponents claim a divine authority for it that they cannot prove; neither should it be immune to being challenged in terms commensurate to the scandal it poses. And the belief that a God of infinite intellect, justice, love, and power would condemn rational beings to a state of endless suffering, 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 entertained, and the most irrational and spiritually corrosive picture of existence possible. 

In truth, the notion of eternal torment it is so unquestionably, resplendently warped and irrational that every defence of it ever made, throughout the whole of Christian history, has been a bad one. We may deceive ourselves that we have heard good arguments in its favour, but only because we have already made the existential decision to believe in hell’s eternity no matter what — or, really, because that decision was made for us before we were old enough to think for ourselves. 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. If, however, one can make oneself retract that initial surrender to the abysmally ludicrous, 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. Every one of them is an exercise in self-delusion, self-hypnosis, pacification of the conscience, stupefaction of the moral intelligence — and nothing else.

were the dominant tradition true, all of existence would be a kind of horror story, like a tale of guests at a party at a splendid estate enjoying themselves in perfect ease of mind while far below, down in the deepest basement of the house, there lies a torture-chamber filled with victims who cannot escape and whose cries never reach the rooms overhead. 

The irresoluble contradiction at the very core of the now dominant understanding of Christian confession is that the faith commands us to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind and our neighbours as ourselves, while also enjoining us to believe in the reality of an eternal hell; we cannot possibly do both of these things at once. I say this not just because I think it emotionally impossible fully to love a God capable of consigning any creature to everlasting suffering (though in fact I do think this). I say it, rather, because absolute love of neighbour and a perfectly convinced belief in hell are antithetical to one another in principle, and because all our language of Christian love is rendered vacuous to the precise degree that we truly believe in eternal perdition. Love my neighbour all I may, if I believe hell is real and also eternal I cannot love him as myself. My conviction that there is such a hell to which one of us might go while the other enters into the Kingdom of God means that I must be willing to abandon him — indeed, abandon everyone — to a fate of total misery while yet continuing to assume that, having done so, I shall be able to enjoy perfect eternal bliss. I must already proleptically, without the least hesitation or regret, have surrendered him to endless pain. I must — must — preserve a place in my heart, and that the deepest and most enduring part, where I have already turned away from him with a callous self-interest so vast as to be indistinguishable from utter malevolence.… Can we truly love any person (let alone love that person as ourselves) if we are obliged, as the price and proof of our faith, to contemplate that person consigned to eternal suffering while we ourselves possess imperturbable, unclouded, unconditional, and everlasting happiness? 


David Bentley Hart is an Eastern Orthodox scholar of religion, and a philosopher, writer, and cultural commentator. His books include Atheist Delusions The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable EnemiesThe Experience of GodThe New Testament: A TranslationThat All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal SalvationTheological TerritoriesRoland in Moonlight, and, with Patrick Robert Hart, a children’s novel, The Mystery of Castle MacGorilla. This article is an edited version of the “Afterword” to the forthcoming Greek translation of That All Shall Be Saved.