How to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Does God intend all people to be saved? The universalism of David Bentley Hart

Read time: 10 minutes

The first thing to say about David Bentley Hart’s book, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, & Universal Salvation is that it takes as its point of departure the “Question of an Eternal Hell”. Immediately here, I think, we have the trouble with universalism. It has been devised as a solution to a theological problem, not a biblical problem.

I want to explore the implications of this by looking at how the theme of salvation is developed in the Pastoral Letters. Hart highlights the inescapable “equivocity”—the incoherence—of traditional theology: we cannot say both that God is perfectly good, just, merciful, wise, etc., and that he subjects people to endless torment in hell. He then introduces a key biblical text:

This is not a complicated issue, it seems to me: The eternal perdition—the eternal suffering—of any soul would be an abominable tragedy, and therefore a profound natural evil; this much is stated quite clearly by scripture, in asserting that God “intends all human beings to be saved and to come to a full knowledge of truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).[fn]David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved (Yale University Press, 2019). I am using a Kindle edition which does not have page numbers, so I won’t bother footnoting every reference.[/fn]

It is clear, however, that Hart has little interest in countering the abomination exegetically. He dismisses the judgment texts as metaphor. He makes the obvious point that we find in the New Testament no “description of a kingdom of perpetual cruelty presided over by Satan”. Then he merely lists a number of passages that “appear instead to promise a final salvation of all persons and all things, and in the most unqualified terms”. He admits that “some or most” of these texts “could be explained away as rhetorical exaggeration”.

Much as I may sympathise with Hart’s theological misgivings, this seems to me a failure to get theological inquiry and biblical interpretation talking to each other—a failure which appears to stem from Hart’s aversion to “biblicism”. I think that the problem of hell needs to be addressed, in the first place, as a matter of biblical interpretation. I think that universalism has misunderstood the function of “salvation” in the New Testament narrative. And I think that if we sort out our thinking on hell and salvation, the theological argument for universal salvation will be found to be redundant.

So let’s have a look, for now, at the supposed letters of Paul to Timothy and Titus.

Salvation and the age to come

The assumption behind universalist arguments is that salvation is a matter of individual concern and that it happens on a personal timeline. The traditional view is that the individual must be saved in the present so that after death he or she may not be consigned to eternal pain but have instead eternal life. The universalist would like to rule out the “consigned to eternal pain” option and have everyone, or nearly everyone, saved—if not after death then as part of a final restoration of creation, on which all personal timelines converge.

The temporal structure of the salvation narrative in the Pastoral Letters—and indeed in the New Testament as a whole—is quite different. People are saved in the present not with reference to what happens at the end of their personal timeline but with reference to a coming day of the Lord.

This is a public and political event—the revelation of Jesus as king to the nations. It is quite different from Hart’s final horizons of “the crucifixion of history” and the “universal restoration of all things”.

To be saved is not to escape eternal conscious torment in hell. It is to escape historical obsolescence.

Paul urges Timothy to “fight the good fight”, etc., “until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Tim. 6:14; cf. 2 Tim. 1:12, 18). Jesus is the one who will execute the judgment that will inaugurate the new age (2 Tim. 4:1). When that day in history comes, he will also reward all those who have “loved his appearing” (4:8) and have faithfully embraced and proclaimed the message about God’s new future. Those who believe seek to live godly lives in the present age, “waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ” (Tit. 2:13).

The salvation of individuals in the present, therefore, is contingent upon the future judgment and transformation of the ancient world. This is a social or political narrative. Those who are saved now will inherit the life of the age to come (Tit. 3:7).

That said, life after death is a matter of great importance for those who have been chosen (tous eklektous) to share in the glory that Jesus has attained through his suffering. Paul is suffering, “bound with chains as a criminal”, but he is confident that those who have died with Christ will live with him in heaven, that those who endure suffering for his sake will reign with him. Why? Because Christ “cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:8-13). When the ancient world is transformed, the persecuted churches will be vindicated, the martyrs will be raised and glorified.

Great is the mystery of piety

A key element in the salvation argument in the Pastorals is the concept of “piety” (eusebeia). Distribution of the eusebeia/sebō word group in the New Testament is quite restricted. Apart from the quotation of Isaiah 29:13 in Matthew 15:9, Mark 7:7 and a couple of occurrences of the verb in Romans and 2 Thessalonians, it is confined to Acts, the Pastorals, and 2 Peter. Eusebeia is a Hellenistic notion; it is civil or public religion; it is not the expression of an inner attitude only. Luke Timothy Johnson says that it “denotes the entire religious response of humans”.[fn]Luke Timothy Johnson, The First and Second Letters to Timothy (Yale University Press, 2001), 232.[/fn]

Peter tells the Jews that the lame beggar at the temple gate was healed by belief in the name of Jesus, not by the power or “piety” (eusebeia) of the disciples (Acts 3:12). The Roman centurion Cornelius was a “pious (eusebēs) and god-fearing man,” who “gave alms generously to the people and prayed continually to God”; he was attended by a “pious (eusebē) soldier” (Acts 10:2, 7). Greek converts to Judaism and God-fearers are described as “pious” (Acts 13:43, 50; 16:14; 17:4, 17). Despite Peter’s protestation, piety oriented towards the living God is a good thing.

Conversely, the countless temples and shrines (sebasmata) in Athens are an expression of the “piety” or “worship” (eusebeite) of the Greeks. Paul’s critique of Greek piety is that they “exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped (esebasthēsan) and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:25). The “man of lawlessness” will exalt himself against “every so-called god or object of worship (sebasma)” (2 Thess. 2:4).

In the Pastorals and 2 Peter the concept is integral to the apostolic teaching. Piety defines how believers should live; but it is also closely associated with the narrative about Jesus.

So on the one hand, believers should pray for kings and those in authority so that they may “lead a quiet and peaceful life in all piety and reverence” (1 Tim. 2:2). They should train themselves for piety; the children and grandchildren of a widow should display piety in their households (1 Tim. 4:7; 5:4; cf. 6:11; Tit. 2:12). Such a piety is an expression of the power of God (2 Tim. 3:5). The author of 2 Peter writes that God, by his divine power, has given what is necessary for “life and piety (eusebeian)”; piety (eusebeian) is an aspect of the practical expression of faith (2 Pet. 1:3, 6-7).

This is why “good works” are so important (1 Tim. 2:10; 5:10, 25; 6:18; Tit. 2:7, 14; 3:8, 14). The churches are learning, in the present age of pagan domination, how to live the radically different life of the age to come, when Jesus will be confessed as Lord by the nations.

Those who are rich in this age should do good works in order to lay for themselves “a good foundation for the future, so that they might take hold of what is really life” (6:17-19). What is envisaged here, I suggest, is not life after death but life after the revelation of Jesus to the world on the day of the Lord. The wealthy are to practice now—as a matter both of prophetic witness and realistic preparation—the radically different social-ethical-religious values that will prevail in the age to come.

On the other hand, the great “mystery of piety” (eusebeias mystērion) confessed by the churches is that Jesus was manifested in the flesh, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was proclaimed among the nations, was believed on in the world, and was taken up on glory (1 Tim. 3:16). Authentic piety accords with “the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ” and with “knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 6:3; Tit. 1:1).

Piety also has eschatological significance. Piety is beneficial in all respects, “having promise of life now and of life to come” (1 Tim. 4:8). Those who wish to “live piously (eusebōs)” in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Tim. 3:12). But they live “piously” (eusebōs) in the present age as they wait “for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Tit. 2:13). The author of 2 Peter writes that the “Lord will rescue the pious (eusebeis) from trials; and until the day of the Lord comes, they should live “in holy conduct and piety (eusebeiais)” (2 Pet. 1:3, 6-7; 2:9; 3:11).

Salvation, therefore, is directed towards a comprehensive human religious response, centred on the worship of the one true God and the confession that Jesus has received the authority to judge and rule, that has to be lived out under real social conditions.

God desires all people to be saved

Salvation in the Pastoral Letters is not directed primarily towards life after death. That is a matter of limited concern for the martyrs, who will be raised in a first resurrection and will reign with Christ at the right hand of God throughout the coming ages of human history.

Rather, salvation presupposes the fact that the God of Israel has fixed a day on which he will judge the ancient pagan world “by a man whom he has appointed” (Acts 17:31). People are saved, whether Jews or Gentiles, with that outcome in view. Therefore, they must renounce the impiety of the age of pagan domination and practice the piety of the age to come. To be saved is not to escape eternal conscious torment in hell. It is to escape historical obsolescence.

The sayings about God desiring all people to be saved must be set in this context.

Believers are learning the “piety”—the full social-religious response to the reality of the one true living God—that will flourish in the age to come. Therefore, they pray for toleration and peace precisely so that they may have the space to develop such a new, countercultural and potentially subversive way of life. This is pleasing to “God our Saviour, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). To be saved is to forsake the pagan gods and to come to know the truth, which is that God is one, and that “there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (2:5). This is the basis for the new religious life, which will sooner or later displace the old pagan eusebeia.

Likewise, the apostles are working hard to implement this programme because they believe that God is “the Saviour of all people, especially of those who believe” (1 Tim. 4:10).

The “saving grace of God has been manifested to all people”, teaching those who wait for the future “manifestation of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ” to reject the “impiety” (asebeian) of pagan society and to live piously (eusebōs), performing good works (Tit. 2:11-14). Hart gets the translation wrong: “For the grace of God has appeared, giving salvation to all human beings….” Salvation is being manifested to people across the pagan, through the preaching of the apostles and the transformed lives of the churches. The option of committing to God’s new future is offered indiscriminately. Whether people accept the offer is another matter.

If there is any real sense in which “all people” will be saved when the day of the Lord comes, it is that the whole pagan world—all the nations and peoples that make up the Greek-Roman oikoumenē—will turn to the one true God to be saved (cf. Is. 45:20-23). The old pagan objects of public worship (sebasmata) will be abandoned, and all people will participate in the new eusebeia, a new pattern of civil social and religious life. This is a salvation of all people within the proper historical and geographical constraints.

Samuel Conner | Wed, 09/11/2019 - 01:16 | Permalink

As a philosophical repudiation of infernalism, I find DBH’s work helpful. I especially like his brief essay on “the Moral Implications of Creatio ex Nihilo”. There is very little Scripture in that one; it’s more about the intelligibility of theological discourse, and especially the language of God’s “goodness.”

Perhaps work of this kind will help audiences accustomed to the long-standing consensus understanding of “wrath” to re-examine that along the lines of your proposals.

James Mercer | Wed, 09/11/2019 - 07:54 | Permalink

Andrew, thanks for this.

I accept that “to be saved is not to escape eternal conscious torment in hell. It is to escape historical obsolescence”. Brilliant.

However, ‘historical obsolescence’ is an all too real and pressing concern for the small rural churches I now find myself pastoring in the midst of the beauty of the Purbeck hills and coast. I know you’ve touched on this elsewhere, but what might the avoidance of historical obsolescence look like, practically, in our corner of conservative, indifferent, Dorset?

Excepting brexit, what does one speak of being ‘saved’ from,  or indeed for, in such a context? 

At risk of implicitly embracing the misplaced focus of the universalist concept of ‘salvation’, nonetheless, funeral ministry is an intricate part of pastoral engagement with the community. When people are looking for comfort and hope, to reply that ‘avoiding historical obselecence’ is the thing doesn’t quite work…

I seek your wisdom in wrestling with the application of the narrativise theological paradigm in a way that makes sense both to me and the community of which I care for and enjoy being a part of.

Thanks for this. It needs closer consideration, but:

1. Does the argument work for other occurrences of thelō in the Pastorals? The point, I would have thought, is not that “verb thelo is stronger in connotation than mere wishing for something,” but that when God desires something it is likely that he will get his way.

1Tim. 1:7 desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.

1Tim. 5:11 But refuse to enroll younger widows, for when their passions draw them away from Christ, they desire to marry…

2Tim. 3:12 Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted…

2. Hart’s argument appears to be supported by Rom. 9:22; 1 Cor. 15:38; Col. 1:27; 1 Pet. 3:17.

3. On the other hand, Hosea 6:6 LXX is a good example of God not getting what he desires: “For I want (thelō) mercy and not sacrifice, and knowledge of God rather than whole burnt offerings.” So God may “want” all people to be saved but be disappointed.

4. My suggestion is that 1 Timothy 2:3-4 has reference to the “salvation” of the nations of the Greek-Roman world rather than to all humanity. YHWH desires or intends that eventually all the peoples of the oikoumenē would abandon the worship of the pagan gods and confess Jesus as Lord. See the final paragraph.