I’ve started reading David Bentley Hart’s “That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell and Universal Salvation.” It is a powerful and convincing call to abandon the doctrine of an eternal hell and to return to the belief, widespread in the earliest centuries of Christian history, that God’s punishments were not eternal and that God would eventually save all.
Hart writes that in these earliest traditions, “hell was the fire of purification described by the Apostle Paul in the third chapter of 1 Corinthians, the healing assault of unyielding divine love upon obdurate souls, one that will save even those who in this life prove unworthy of heaven by burning away every last vestige of their wicked deeds.”
Hart writes that later Christian traditions, partly because of faulty Latin translations of the New Testament’s Greek, command us —
to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind and our neighbors as ourselves while also enjoining us to believe in the reality of an eternal hell; [but] we cannot possibly do both of these things at once. I say this not just because I think it emotionally impossible fully to love a God capable of consigning any creature to everlasting suffering (though in fact I do think this). I say it, rather, because absolute love of neighbor and a perfectly convinced belief in hell are antithetical to one another in principle, and because all our language of Christian love is rendered vacuous to the precise degree that we truly believe in eternal perdition. Love my neighbor all I may, if I believed hell is real and also eternal I cannot love him as myself. My conviction that one of us might go to such a hell while the other enters into the Kingdom of God means that I must be willing to abandon him—abandon everyone, in fact—to a fate of total misery while yet continuing to assume that, having done so, I shall be able to enjoy perfect eternal bliss. I must already proleptically, without the least hesitation or regret, have surrendered him to endless pain. I must—must—preserve a place in my heart, and that the deepest and most enduring part, where I have already turned away from him with a callous self-interest so vast as to be indistinguishable from utter malevolence.
That is an introductory passage, and there is much more to the book, particularly philosophical and theological arguments. But here I want to focus on Hart’s argument that the doctrine of eternal hell forces believers into a kind of dilemma, which will almost invariably be solved by self-interest, if I paraphrase Hart correctly.
The argument strikes me as undeniable, in the sense that, however much love I may show my neighbor if my own eternal fate is not threatened, when push comes to shove even the purest human being of the saintliest faith will accept God’s invitation to reside in eternal happiness rather than go to eternal fire and unappealable suffering, even if it means watching others, perhaps fiercely beloved, go to that place. A person of great love or faith may lay down their temporary bodily life to save someone else physically or spiritually, but a believer knows that such a sacrifice is nothing compared to eternity. To trade in your physical life hopefully for eternal joy is one thing. But what believer will refuse an eternal bliss with God, and will not accept God’s judgment (as this doctrine understands it) that others must go to eternal pain? There is no Christian doctrine that teaches that, once physical life is over, I may give my own soul’s place in heaven to some unfortunate soul who had been destined to go the other way. And even if God permitted such an exchange, who, really, would make this sacrifice, knowing that he will be separated from God, and joined to suffering, without appeal and for eternity? Eternity is an unfathomably long thing, the stakes infinitely greater than those involved in one’s temporary life on earth. What creature, no matter how redeemed, would not feel some relief at not being personally selected for that fate?
As I say, Hart’s argument strikes me as undeniable for all these reasons (and others). But all this reminded me that in Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” there is a child who loves a man so much that he is willing to help him even if it means that he himself would go to hell for it.
Huck, an early-adolescent boy, has run away from home. Soon after setting out, he runs into Jim, a runaway slave whom he had known back home. They take a raft down the Mississippi River, and slowly bond. They get to know each other, as they help one another survive. They get separated once by fog, and reunite, and keep floating southwards. Huck begins a long process of reflection when he sees that Jim cries every night for his lost family, contrary to what Huck had been taught, that slaves did not care for family and were not like everyone else.
One time, Huck even helps Jim evade law enforcement officers searching for runaway slaves, by telling them, when they come near, that there is smallpox aboard the raft.
But one day Jim goes missing. Huck learns that Jim has been handed over and sold to a local farmer by some rascals whom he and Jim had befriended. This farmer, Mr. Phelps, intends to send Jim to slaveholders farther south, so Huck begins to wonder whether he should write to Jim’s former owner back in his hometown, an old woman named Miss Watson, and tell her that Jim is here on the Phelps farm, so that she could take possession of him and Jim could at least be with his family and live in familiar surroundings. In this way, a little sympathy runs through Huck, but there is something else that he feels more strongly. He takes the recent capture of Jim as a reminder of everything that he had formerly been taught — that it was a sin for him to have helped a runaway slave, in fact a sin punishable by hell, and that God watches over all and will have His way in the end:
it hit me all of a sudden that here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven, whilst I was stealing a poor old woman’s nigger that hadn’t ever done me no harm, and now was showing me there’s One that’s always on the lookout, and ain’t a-going to allow no such miserable doings to go only just so fur and no further, I most dropped in my tracks I was so scared. Well, I tried the best I could to kinder soften it up somehow for myself by saying I was brung up wicked, and so I warn’t so much to blame; but something inside of me kept saying, “There was the Sunday-school, you could a gone to it; and if you’d a done it they’d a learnt you there that people that acts as I’d been acting about that nigger goes to everlasting fire.”
It made me shiver. And I about made up my mind to pray, and see if I couldn’t try to quit being the kind of a boy I was and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn’t come. Why wouldn’t they? It warn’t no use to try and hide it from Him. Nor from me, neither. I knowed very well why they wouldn’t come. It was because my heart warn’t right; it was because I warn’t square; it was because I was playing double. I was letting on to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing, and go and write to that nigger’s owner and tell where he was; but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can’t pray a lie—I found that out.
So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn’t know what to do. At last I had an idea; and I says, I’ll go and write the letter—and then see if I can pray. Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather right straight off, and my troubles all gone. So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote: ‘Miss Watson, your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville, and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send. Huck Finn.’
I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking—thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ’stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.
It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
“All right, then, I’ll go to hell”—and tore it up.
Huck then resolves to save Jim from slavery, and begins the process of doing so.
So is it true as Hart says, that “absolute love of neighbor and a perfectly convinced belief in hell are antithetical to one another in principle”?
First, it’s important to recognize that though Huck is far from a rule-following, pious sort of boy, he really does believe in literal hell. It’s precisely because he’s a child and not an adult scholar of philosophy and reasoned faith that he holds this simple belief, in fullest fear. He cannot take refuge in the idea that hell might be metaphorical; he simply doesn’t have the temperament or the maturity for that kind of abstract reasoning. He really believes he’s going to eternal hell for helping Jim.
But that’s just the issue here, isn’t it? Huck is not a mature Christian, with a full commitment to the doctrines of his faith. He can defy these teachings because, while they may have sunk into him as part of his culture, he’s never embraced them, or committed to them privately or publicly. He’s an unschooled, shiftless boy with little respect for authority or society, and they have little respect for him. How deeply does he understand this teaching about eternal hell? At his age he may have some fearful idea of the phrase “eternal punishment” but he surely cannot have any adequate understanding that eternity is infinitely longer than human comprehension.
Hart writes: “all our language of Christian love is rendered vacuous to the precise degree that we truly believe in eternal perdition.” He’s describing a kind of pendulum: Christian love weakens on one end, the more belief-in-hell weighs on the other. What he has in mind here, surely, is a convinced, mature Christian, fully dedicated to his doctrines. He has in mind a believer who, as much as the human mind will permit, has appreciated that eternity infinitely dwarfs the longest passage of time that anyone can imagine, and that precisely this suffering without end is what awaits those whom God consigns to it, including yourself, if you embrace what you know and have been taught to be sinful.
Such a believer, if taught that helping runaway slaves was a sin and against God’s command, will not have Huck’s ability to say, “I’ll go to hell.” A committed Christian who believes in the eternity of hell will find it impossible, I believe, to help a runaway slave, if he’s been taught that doing so is a sin that will send him to eternal flames. He might escape his dilemma by questioning whether that teaching about slaves was correct, and if he did that, he could defy the teaching: but in that case he would do so with conviction that he was doing God’s real will and was not sending himself straight to hell.
Huck has not reasoned himself to that point. He shows no signs, at this point, of questioning the larger beliefs about slavery. As a simple child and uncommitted Christian, he is merely surrendering to an emotion he can’t conquer, his affection for Jim. He doesn’t interpret this as doing God’s will. After resolving to help Jim, he interprets this as a backward slide into sin:
I shoved the whole thing out of my head, and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. And for a starter I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.
So the only thing that allows Huck to hold this belief in eternal hell and simultaneously to truly love his neighbor is his personal commitment to wickedness, and a lack of commitment to a church or larger society.
In short, Huck knows of a belief in eternal hell and it has scared him, but he doesn’t have the kind of full commitment and understanding of this doctrine that would, as Hart argues and as I believe, would thwart his impulse to help Jim.
And that should not be a controversial statement, if we look back at American history. Countless committed Christians, respected adults, whether working in law enforcement or other things, and all worshipping in churches, held slaves and sent them back to bondage when necessary, seeking to do what they believed to be God’s will, to avoid sin as they were taught it to be, and to avoid the eternal hell that they believed in.
Mark Twain, in his portrait of Huck Finn, is basically saying that here you can find true love of neighbor, strong enough even to overcome a fear of eternal damnation: in a child, an unformed Christian, if a Christian in any traditionally understood sense. He implies that such a love, overcoming fear of eternal damnation, could hardly be found among those who are fully committed to such doctrines and who have publicly and in full maturity of mind committed to them.
Much more could be said about Hart’s book, but in the context of this blog about classic novels, I wanted mainly to offer this reflection on Huck and Jim.