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Different Kinds of Moral Monsters: Responding to Hart’s Caricature of Catholics

Recently, I read an article in which the author quoted David Bentley Hart’s perspective on the significance of believing in the existence of hell, that is, a place of eternal punishment for those who die estranged from God, without sanctifying grace. Hart concludes that either people do not really believe what they say they do or, if they believe it, they become moral monsters as a result. Let’s allow him to unfold his argument (if such it can be called):

I am quite sure, for instance, that a certain kind of soberly orthodox Christian thinker with which I am very familiar—say, a Catholic philosopher at a fine university, a devoted husband and father of five children—fervently believes that he believes the dominant doctrine of hell, and can provide very forceful and seemingly cogent arguments in its defense; I simply think he is deceiving himself. Then again, I may be the one who is deceived. My own, probably shameful prejudice—at least, most of the time—is that the whole question of hell is one whose answer should be immediately obvious to a properly functioning moral intelligence…

I cannot take the claims of this Catholic philosopher entirely seriously from any angle, for the simple reason that his actions so resplendently belie what he professes to believe. If he truly thought that our situation in this world were as horribly perilous as he claims, and that every mortal soul labored under the shadow of so dreadful a doom, and that the stakes were so high and the odds so poor for everyone—a mere three score and ten years to get it right if we are fortunate, and then an eternity of agony in which to rue the consequences if we get it wrong—he would never dare to bring a child into this world, let alone five children; nor would he be able to rest even for a moment, because he would be driven ceaselessly around the world in a desperate frenzy of evangelism, seeking to save as many souls from the eternal fire as possible. 

I think of him as a remarkably compassionate person, you see, and so his more or less sedentary and distractedly scholarly style of life to my mind speaks volumes, even libraries. If he were really absolutely convinced of the things he thinks he is convinced of, but still continued to go his merry recreant’s way along the path of happy fatherhood and professional contentment, he would have to be a moral monster. But I do not think that he is a monster. So I have to think instead that, in his heart of hearts, at a level of calm conviction so deeply hidden beneath veils of childhood indoctrination that he is all but unaware of its existence, he keeps and treasures the certainty that in the end—in the words of Dame Julian of Norwich (1342–1416)—“All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” And I believe that at that same level he also knows that nothing can be ultimately well if the happy final state of things for any of us has been purchased at the cost—or even only at the risk—of anyone else’s eternal misery.[1]

This line of thinking feeds right into the popular and “safer” Catholic version espoused by Bishop Barron following Hans Urs von Balthasar: hell might be a reality for fallen angels, but we can dare to hope that it will be empty of human souls.

Let’s back up for a moment.

Human life is a high-stakes drama. Every tradition, philosophical or religious, has recognized this truth. When a man is born, we wonder (I mean, if we have any depth in our thoughts at all): Will he be good or evil? Will his life be happy or unhappy? Will he fulfill his human potential or waste it (or even worse)? But saying “we may hope, in the end, that everyone will be happy!” is tantamount to saying “we may hope that life is not a high-stakes drama.” We may hope that, in spite of all appearances—in spite of the abuse of free will, in spite of the moral evil of sin—everyone’s story will have a happy ending. This is to cancel out the drama of human existence and to make our moral journey rather meaningless. I want to expand on these points to show how it is not the traditional Christian view but rather Hart’s that turns out to be absurd and monstrous.

Socrates knew that a human being could be either happy or wretched. Aristotle knew that great happiness is possible, embodied in the magnanimous man, but there is also a fate worse than death, namely to become a vicious man. They seemed to be spelling out more clearly what most people have known, namely that every human born runs the risk of turning out less than human, and yet there is a divine spark in man that makes it possible for any given human born to turn out seemingly more than human.

Christianity dramatizes the situation even further: every human can be happier than Aristotle could have imagined or more wretched than he would have guessed—although the general ancient view of the afterlife was closer to Christianity’s hell than its view of happiness was to Christianity’s heaven. With Christianity, we still have a high-stakes drama, but the stakes are even higher.

With the Balthasarian “dare we hope,” we keep the more surprising part of Christianity, namely divinization, and we hope to drop the less surprising part, namely that life after death can be miserable. If the “hope” turns out to be true, then life will be not only less dramatic than Christianity supposes, but not dramatic at all: despite all appearances, every human being is going to be happier than any philosopher or sage could have imagined possible.

Our hope would therefore be that there are, after all, no stakes. If, when we have a child, we gamble on this hope, there is no gamble because the casino is rigged. The only drama left to us is there purely for show, inasmuch as God has hidden from us whether the hope is actually true so that we, deceived into thinking something is at stake, will behave ourselves.

Hart’s rhetorically effective blast against the Catholic professor loses steam when we cast our minds back over history. To begin with, having children while believing in hell is what almost all Christians have done for two thousand years, and it beggars belief to say that almost all Christians have been moral monsters. To think to themselves, “I could not possibly bring children into this world!,” they would also have to say to themselves, “I am myself in an intolerable situation.” But why would they think that? For a Christian, attaining heaven is a fairly simple matter, even if many do not avail themselves of the means Christ has provided.[2] Would they think the situation intolerable because there is a risk of suffering great evil? This seems to be the counsel of a coward.

(It might be noted, in passing, that anyone who ran around feverishly all the time trying to convince his neighbors that they were under threat of punishment would thereby, first, earn only a reputation as a madman and therefore rarely if ever be listened to, and second, would sin by neglecting his other duties in life, such as earning a living to support his family. Indeed, by living a well-ordered Christian life, he makes himself far more capable of leading others to Christ than by joining the ranks of sandwich-board street preachers.[3] The order of charity requires that I love God first; my own soul second—I cannot sin in order to save someone else from sin; the souls of others third, according to their proximity of nature or institution to me; their bodies fourth; and my body last.[4])

All that said, Hart’s view has this much truth: the human mind is not able to put itself into the situation of God, the universal judge, and see hell as something to be willed. The idea that God would create any human being knowing that this human being will pervert its volition and suffer eternal torment should make us shudder, because we are not God. If someone is incapable of feeling horror at the very existence of hell, or even gloats over its reality, that person may well have something morally monstrous about him, because he is either pretending to be more than human or falling beneath what is human—either exalting himself to be a God he is not, or debased below the level of compassion.

Note, then, that the objection to hell in this case takes the form of: “If were God, I would not do thus-and-such” (with the implicit corollary: “If God were me, then He would run the universe differently”). It is hardly necessary to point out that this is the grossest anthropomorphism. It presumes to see with the infinite mind of God, to know what infinite holiness means and requires, and to stand in a position of judgment over what He intended to say or ought to have said in His revelation to us.

And yet… there is more than one way to be a moral monster. The startling monster is the one who delights in the torment of others. A more banal monster, who is yet a monster, is one who can abide all the injustices of the evil with no sense that these injustices cry out for vengeance. It is in fact monstrous to think that Stalin and Mother Teresa will one day sit down together and the difference between their lives will have amounted to nothing “in the end.”

Another monster is the one who thinks it not only unsurprising but perhaps inevitable that a human being, a creature made from nothing, should attain to the happiness proper to the eternally blessed God, infinitely beyond His creation. Here is a monstrous arrogance that hides itself behind compassion or fairness: divinization is owed to the image of God, regardless, as if we are dealing with a mechanical process and not real persons living lives proper to them, and capable of entering into—or retreating from—the lives of other persons. The radicalness of intelligent consciousness and freedom, by which a finite person stands toward God as one who may love or hate Him as a man may love or hate his neighbor, is absorbed into the unvarying but unconscious doxology of whales and wildflowers and thereby canceled out.[5] How this seeming elevation of man that is, in reality, a dehumanization and a trivialization of theosis makes a sloppy hash of the New Testament—of the coming of God into our fallen world on a mission of salvation—is not difficult to see.

A last kind of monstrosity is the most subtle. It is found in works that cast about in Scripture and Church Fathers for bits and pieces of evidence to make universalism sound credible and the traditional view sound implausible, nay, psychopathic.[6] By inflicting on readers rhetorically effective but theologically vacuous arguments, such campaigning for universalism weakens the full impact of the drama of the Gospel, which precisely consists in the radical choice for or against God, for or against Christ, for or against His Kingdom.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov 9:10), and, though perfect love casts out fear (1 Jn 4:18), there will be neither wisdom nor love without the salutary knowledge that sin is contrary to the holiness of God and, unrepented, must exclude one from His kingdom—without the humbling knowledge that only faith in Christ and love of Him can save us from our sins.


[1] David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2021).

[2] I want to emphasize this point: it is possible to believe both that the way heaven has been opened to us by Christ in such a way that we may have a high degree of confidence in attaining it (hope in heaven is, after all, one of the three theological virtues infused in baptism), and that the way is narrow and hard for sinful creatures like ourselves who choose not to avail themselves of the means of salvation He has provided. The difficulty of the path has not prevented countless Christians over twenty centuries from seeking those means of salvation, living and dying with their aid. The Book of Revelation presents us with a vision of innumerable saved souls, yet also of damned souls. There is nothing in the tradition that makes either of these aspects (the innumerable saved, the truly damned) difficult to believe.

[3] I do not deny for a moment that today’s Christians, and especially Catholics, tend to be far too indifferent to the eternal fate of their neighbors and even of themselves. This is a sign of lukewarmness and the chilling of charity about which Christ warned. The great missionaries of the past did leave everything behind in order to devote their entire lives to preaching the Gospel so that souls could be saved and not lost in sin. Their example, usually one of celibate or consecrated men and women who have given up all other ties to fit themselves for the work, is admirable and worthy of imitation. Our failure to missionize in this manner points not to the falsehood of our creed but to our weak faith and cold charity.

[4] See Summa theologiae, II-II, Question 26.

[5] Indeed, the praise given to God by the subrational and mute creation is offered by man on their behalf: see my article “‘Preach the Gospel to Every Creature’: The Benedicite,” New Liturgical Movement, December 17, 2018.

[6] It is very interesting to note that St. Basil the Great, whom Hart quotes as a representative of the non- or anti-universalist position, makes just this case: “Although such things have been set down by Scripture [on never-ending punishment], here too it’s the Devil’s artifice to make it so that the many, like men who have been induced to forget these and like words and statements of the Lord, sign on to the view that there is an end to the punishment—doing so with even greater daring than when they sin. After all, if at some future point there will be an end of everlasting punishment, then surely everlasting life, too, will have an end. But if, in the case of life, we do not allow this to be thought, what sort of reason could there be for gratuitously assigning an end to the everlasting punishment? For the attribute of ‘everlasting’ (aiōnios) is applied equally in the case of each. For ‘these will go,’ he says, ‘into everlasting punishment, and the righteous, into everlasting life.’” The foregoing passage is cited by Michael Pakaluk here; Hart’s subsequent response does not question the witness of the Cappadocian on this point, but doubles down on a preference for Gregory of Nyssa. Considering that this saint espoused a view in which the human person was created neither male nor female but “fell” into sexuality and that saved humanity will be without sex-identity, I feel no compunction parting with other strange views of his. This only illustrates the bankruptcy of Eastern Orthodoxy and its claim to be “of the Church Fathers” without a universal Magisterium (as I discuss at length here). The reality is that the Fathers themselves disagree on certain points, and thus one cannot be faithful to the Fathers without an adjudicating Magisterium to resolve these tensions, as the Fathers themselves possessed in the Ecumenical Councils.

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