David Bentley Hart on heaven and hell

Read time: 8 minutes

I’ve done a couple of posts so far critically reviewing aspects of David Bentley Hart’s magniloquent anti-infernalist treatise That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, & Universal Salvation. My interest has been mainly in his use of the biblical material; I am not convinced that the theological arguments against hell and for universal salvation need to be made. The first post addresses the claim that God intends that all people will be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:4). The second looks at Hart’s argument for two eschatological horizons—a final verdict on human history followed by the full restoration of creation.

In this third post I want to consider the arguments in the Second Meditation about heaven and hell and the language of Gehenna in particular, which I think illustrate very well how theology can ruin good interpretation.

But, says Hart, we “cannot really discuss New Testament eschatology without considering the book of Revelation.” So we’ll start there.

A meaningfully impenetrable book

Hart thinks that Revelation is pretty much beyond comprehension—“an intricate and impenetrable puzzle, one whose key vanished long ago.” Still, he quite confidently holds that the book is not about the end of time but is prophecy about the ‘inauguration of a new historical epoch in which Rome will have fallen, Jerusalem will have been restored, and the Messiah will have been given power “to rule the gentiles with a rod of iron.”’ He notes, in particular, that there will be kings and nations in the new epoch (Rev. 21:24-26). At most, the text carries “hints and adumbrations of a larger set of eschatological expectations.”

I do not share his pessimism about penetrating the esoteric and cryptic language, which seems to have more to do with his dislike of dogmatism than with the impotence of exegesis to make sense of the fairly conventional apocalyptic language. But the general point is correct: The book of Revelation is about the predicted rule of Christ over the nations and how that new historical reality will come about.

The suggestion is made that the final judgment of Revelation 20:11-15 corresponds to the first of Hart’s two eschatological horizons, the verdict on all human history; the description of the new Jerusalem in the midst of the nations corresponds to the second horizon of universal restoration.

I have argued that the second vision of the new Jerusalem in Revelation 21:9-22:5 belongs to the period of Christ’s reign over the nations, who will bring tribute to the true God and be healed by the waters that flow from his throne. In any case, not everyone is saved: in this vision the unclean and detestable are not destroyed in the lake of fire, which is the second death, but are barred from entry into the city (Rev. 21:27; 22:3). Not all things have been restored.

But Revelation is too obscure. Much better, Hart says, to inquire into “the eschatological language used by Christ in the gospels.”

Jesus and Jeremiah

Hart thinks that those who take the view that a great deal of the apocalyptic language in the Gospels refers principally to the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple “enjoy an almost unassailable hermeneutical advantage over all other interpreters.” Jesus’ prophecies are literally “jeremiads”; he speaks with the dour voice of Jeremiah. So here is someone else who agrees with me that Gehenna is a symbol for the judgment of God against Jerusalem in history. Hart writes:

And just as Jeremiah… invoked the language of divine judgment and of “the Gehenna” to prophesy the imminent destruction of Jerusalem, followed by its divine restoration and preservation “unto the Age”…, so also Jesus warns in the gospels of a ruin every bit as imminent and as terrible as the one Jeremiah foresaw, also succeeded by a mysterious restoration.

But, alas, this is not the whole story. Jesus speaks about the historical event “using the cosmic and apocalyptic imagery of transcendent judgment,” but the language invokes a “wider eschatological grammar.” Jesus spoke not only about impending tribulation for Israel, Hart thinks; he also spoke of how “the whole of history and the totality of human life stand in light of God’s eternity and God’s justice.”


Heaven and hell

Hart maintains that scripture does not teach two antithetical final transcendent destinations. On the one hand, nothing is said about a “heaven of redeemed souls.” What we get at the end is a restored creation and a new Jerusalem on the earth. On the other, there is no “hell,” despite popular enthusiasm for the term. There is Hades, which is the “realm of the dead.” There is one mention of Tartarus, which is where the fallen angels are confined (2 Pet. 2:4). And there is the Gehenna or the Valley of Hinnom, which by the time of Jesus had become “a name for a place of judgment, punishment, and purification (usually after death).”

First, I don’t understand why Hart is so sure that the New Testament has nothing to say about a heaven of redeemed souls. It seems quite clear to me that participation with Christ in his heavenly reign throughout the ages was promised to those who might lose their lives for his sake during the coming periods of tribulation, the birth pangs of the new age. True, the final end envisaged is a restored creation, but in the meantime Jesus is not alone in heaven.

Death for rebellious Israel was not the doorway to eternal punishment. Death—the destruction of war and siege—was the punishment of the age, marking the transition between this age and the age to come.

Secondly, I don’t understand why Hart then thinks that we cannot say with confidence “precisely what Jesus’s understanding of the Gehenna’s fire was…, or what duration he might have assigned to those subjected to it, or even how metaphorically he intended such imagery to be taken.” Having highlighted the relevance of Jeremiah’s prophecies about the bodies of the dead being thrown over the walls of the besieged city and Isaiah’s imagery of unburied burning corpses, why does he then proceed on the assumption that Jesus was speaking of something that would happen usually after death? Death for rebellious Israel was not the doorway to eternal punishment. Death—the destruction of war and siege—was the punishment of the age, marking the transition between this age and the age to come.

It is important to say at this point that Jesus appears not to have used the language of Gehenna in the same way as the rabbinic schools of his time. Hart thinks that Jesus shared something of the rabbinical idea that Gehenna was for some at least a place of short term “purgatorial regeneration.”

This perhaps merits a separate post, but the rabbis speak in much more general terms about the judgment that will determine who will share in the life of the age to come (e.g., Tosefta Sanhedrin 12:11-13:4). For the most part the wicked among both Israel and the heathen will go to Sheol, but the Shammaites believed (referring to Zech. 13:9) that some—probably some Jews—would go down to Gehenna (perhaps synonymous with Sheol) and then be brought back and healed. Where Jesus differs is in his much narrower focus on the destruction of Jerusalem as the decisive judgment on Israel. In this respect, he is an apocalyptic prophet, much closer to Jeremiah than to the rabbis.

Anyway, there’s no case for universalism here, and what comes next is all rather unnecessary.

Limited purification

Hart leans toward the view that the language of “fire” in the Gospels refers to purification rather than annihilation. In support of this possibility he points to sayings about people being punished until they have repaid what they owe (Matt. 5:26; 18:34; Lk. 12:59): “there are those metaphors used by Jesus that seem to imply that the punishments of the world to come will be of only limited duration.”

The first point to make is that Jesus’ teaching is addressed to Israel. The Sermon on the Mount has an eschatological transformation in view, when the meek will inherit the land (Matt. 5:5). It ends with the prospect of a flood and a storm that will sweep away Israel’s house (Matt. 7:24-27).

The sayings about judgment presuppose this outcome, and mention of the judgment of Gehenna is nearby (Matt. 5:22, 29-30).

Jesus’ warns his followers to dissociate themselves from the many in Israel who are on a broad road leading to destruction, who will pay the last penny for their unrighteousness (Matt. 5:26). When God deals with Israel as a king settles his accounts with his servants, the wicked, unforgiving servant will be held accountable for the whole debt (Matt. 18:23-35). This has nothing to do with post mortem purification.

Hart is probably right to say that salt in Mark 9:50 is an “image of purification and preservation.” Interpretation of the somewhat unconnected sayings here is difficult, but I think it must have something to do with the effect of the presence of the righteous community of the disciples in Israel during the period leading up to and culminating in the fall of Jerusalem.

Finally, since kolasis is used in Hellenistic Jewish texts for the “punishment” of torture and execution (eg., 2 Macc. 4:38; 4 Macc. 8:9), Hart’s contention that in Matthew 25:46 the word connotes “remedial chastisement” seems weak. Jesus is describing a judgment of the nations on the basis of how they treated his disciples. Those who failed to attend to their needs will be punished at the parousia by exclusion from the life of the age to come; there is no suggestion that after a period of purification they will be allowed in.

So if there is no reason to think that Jesus taught a post mortem punishment of people, there is no warrant for this tenuous argument about purification. Conversely, if Jesus only taught that recalcitrant Israel faced the destruction of Jerusalem and exclusion from the age that would come after the age of second temple Judaism, the sayings about punishment are quite easily understood.

In the end, thankfully, Hart comes back to the recognition that there was a powerful social and political dimension to Jesus’ language:

He was a prophet of Israel who, like so many of the prophets of Israel before him, employed the ferocious imagery of a final divine reckoning for creation to denounce the injustices and follies of his age; and, as he was a first-century Jew, the language he used necessarily included much of the terrifying apocalyptic imagery and mythical topographies of Jewish intertestamental literature and early rabbinic teaching.

That’s more like it. So why all the fuss about a “wider eschatological grammar”?

Mark Rossi | Mon, 03/06/2023 - 17:30 | Permalink

I think it’s so fun watching people like you and Hart arguing about shadows and hints, long-dead languages from long-dead people trying to figure out which inevitable apocalypse postponed they want to hope for… We don’t really know what “the rabbis” were debating in Jesus’s time—we just have some writings which, as you note, aren’t uniform, and then we have Jesus’s words in Greek and which also aren’t uniform. It’s a mess, but you’re both confident you’ve figured it out until the next confident he’s figured it out Christian lectures us on the significance of life and death… meanwhile the dead remain dust and life goes on!