David Bentley Hart has published two recent articles as follow-ups to his book That All Shall Be Saved, I will link them here as Part One and Part Two. These articles are packed with precise philosophical and theological language, which I think is necessary, but in this article I want to share how, as a young minister starting my theological education at Moody Bible Institute, I came to wrestle with many of the same issues that Hart addresses in his book and in his follow-up articles.
In my second year at MBI, an idea took hold of me and it hasn’t let go since. I was writing a paper on the nature of salvation, and in it I argued that God would show mercy to those who never heard the gospel preached in a way that would bring them to faith. I focused on young children who died before an “age of reason,” those with severe mental disabilities, young men and women raised in Christian cults, and indigenous people groups who never heard the story of Christ.
I assumed this was a belief that was widely held by students and faculty at the school, in part because of scriptures like John 9:41, Luke 12:48, and 1 Corinthians 3:15. So it came as a shock when I received a failing grade on the paper, and the resulting correspondence with my professor led me to withdraw from the school for several years before returning to finish my degree. But this paper also led me to ask another question, “If the gospel has the power to bring all men and women to faith, which I believe it does, then at what point does God hold someone accountable for rejecting a message, given by a fallible minister, if it does not bring them to faith?”
This question is central to one of Hart’s own arguments regarding the nature of freedom. We often think of freedom as the ability to choose at any moment between a given set of options, but is that the biblical definition of freedom? The scriptures teach that if we continue in sin, we are slaves to sin (Romans 6:20). So even though you have the ability to choose you’re not free. Freedom then, as Hart suggests, is not just the ability to choose but the ability to choose what is right, for the scriptures also teach that it is the truth that sets us free (John 8:32).
In his article Why the Red Pill Doesn’t Wake People to our World’s True Reality Jason Sanford uses the Red Pill symbolism of The Matrix to show the inherent danger of this overly simplistic view of freedom. If a person believes that simply becoming aware of a new reality gives them true freedom then they often fall into a deeper cave. As Sanford points out this cycle can be seen in some of the most violent and oppressive political movements throughout history. It isn’t just that Neo chooses to leave the matrix that results in his transcendence, it is his long journey of discovery and humility that ultimately leads him to the ultimate truth behind his awakening.
This conception of freedom, that it is truth and not just choice which is necessary for freedom, is at odds with what has become the dominant understanding of hell made famous by C.S. Lewis. The “free-will” defense of hell says that it is not God who condemns a person to hell, but instead God will not violate a person’s will if they choose hell for themselves. In response to this perspective Hart states the obvious when he says that no one watching a mad man run unto a burning building, just to feel what it will be like to burn to death, would ever think that was a “sane” or “truly free” decision. We would say that it was a result of the man’s mental illness that caused him to suffer.
So then we must say that either God does condemn men and women who do not come to faith in this life to an eternal hell despite the fact that we know no one would ever truly make that decision of their own free will. Or we say that there is some other explanation for how it is that people can, as the scriptures teach, experience the eternal torments of hell, and maintain that God is perfectly just in condemning them to that end. For a great article on how we can hold these beliefs in tension check out Father Aiden Kimel’s post on how Julian of Norwich struggled with them after her awakening.