Good God?
October 2, 2019

There's a revealing moment in the "Second Meditation" of David Bentley Hart's That All Shall Be Saved. He opens the chapter with the comment that Christians must not make "any theological pronouncements in total abstraction from or contradiction of scripture" (92). He concedes "a certain presumptive authority" to the preponderant eschatological language of the Bible (93).

In the next paragraph, he narrows to "the New Testament," and pretty much stays there. He makes a few passing references to Jesus' use of Old Testament prophecy, but his discussion of the Bible is really a discussion of its last fifth.

Hart might defend the decision by pointing out that the Old Testament doesn't have much to say on the topic of his book, eternal punishment. But the Old Testament has a lot to say to one of Hart's main arguments.

His book asks two "almost childish" questions: "whether it lies within the power of any finite rational creature freely to reject God, and to do so with eternal finality, and whether a God who could create a world in which the eternal perdition of rational spirits is even a possibility could be not only good, but the transcendent Good" (209).

The Old Testament is relevant to the second question, about the goodness of God. Hart never provides an explicit description of what counts as good. He appears to believe that our (or his) intuitions are adequate.

But the Old Testament shakes up, sometimes shatters, intuitions. Would a good God destroy most of humanity in a global flood? Would a good God tell Abraham to sacrifice his only son? Would the transcendent Good instruct Israel to carry out herem against the Canaanites? Would a good God bring calamity (Isaiah 45:7)? Would a good God say, "My eye will have no pity and I will not spare" (Ezekiel 5:11; 7:4, 9) to His own people? In short, does Hart think Yahweh is good?

If Hart says Yes, he has to reckon with the apparently not-good things Yahweh does and commands. Then it becomes more difficult to sustain the simple claim that a good God cannot do things we regard as cruel (like herem warfare). If Hart says the Old Testament consists of ancient myths without theological weight, then his claim to honor the Bible is less than convincing.

I'm not suggesting the Old Testament refutes Hart. But it undoubtedly complicates his case.

Ignoring the Old Testament, Hart is able to fill in the content of "the transcendent Good" as he wills. He's right to complain about equivocation that would make "good" mean "evil." But he assumes we already know what "good" means and need no help from revelation - from the Old Testament in particular - to correct us.

Partly for this reason, it's not clear he escapes the charge he worships a moral monster. Hart writes, "To say that, on the one hand, God is infinitely good, perfectly just, and inexhaustibly loving, and that, on the other, he has created a world under such terms as oblige him either to impose, or to permit the imposition of . . . misery on finite rational creatures, is simply to embrace a complete contradiction" (202-3).

The ellipsis in the quotation hides the key word, "eternal." What Hart objects to is everlasting punishment, not severity as such. A good God can, apparently, create a world where he imposes or permits the imposition of temporary misery, including what Hart himself calls the "inconceivably painful purification" (84) of a temporary hell. But He cannot create a world where misery lasts eternally.

Within Hart's framework, there's some sense to this. Following Nyssa, Hart joins creation and eschatology: "In the end of all things is their beginning, and only from the perspective of the end can one know what they are, why they have been made, and who the God is who has called them forth from nothingness" (68). Because God is the free Creator, "the moral destiny of creation and the moral nature of God are absolutely inseparable." God is the "transcendent Good beyond all beings" as well as the "transcendental end that makes every single action of any rational nature possible" (69).

Thus, Hart writes, "every evil that time comprises, natural or moral . . . is an arraignment of God's goodness: every death of a child, every chance calamity, every act of malice, everything diseased, thwarted, pitiless, purposeless, or cruel; and, until the end of all things, no answer has been given." Only in the eschaton will God "truly disclose himself" (73). Final judgment is the vindication of God.

The truth of things is how they come out in the end. So that "eternal" that modifies "misery" is essential to Hart's construct. But many have, of course, questioned whether God's goodness is compatible with the temporal death of an innocent child. Hart thinks the only monstrous deity is one who condemns people to eternal misery.

Vanya Karamazov won't be convinced. He'll want to know, Would a good God create a world in which even temporary apostasy from the good is a possibility, where many or most will have to suffer excruciating purgation before they are fully united to God? Wouldn't a genuinely good God have avoided all this temporal misery too? Wouldn't a God who created a world without the possibility of defection, without the possibility of cruelty, be gooder than the Christian God? Wouldn't such a being be the actual transcendent Good?

Those are fair questions, and Ivan Karamazov won't be the only one to raise them. Without more clarity about what he means by "good," Hart overshoots his target and leaves open the prospect that we'll consider a good God of our imagination morally superior to the God revealed in Scripture.

To download Theopolis Lectures, please enter your email.