by Chris Green, Ph.D.
Nicholas Loudovikos ends his remarkable essay—“Hell and Heaven, Nature and Person”—with this remarkable paragraph, which I want to quote at length and then tease apart for brief comment/critique:
Hell, then, is the denial of the Eucharist, the tragic freedom of absolute narcissism, that is, the supreme self-torture of a freely chosen enmity against love. As the boundary of heaven, it is lit dimly by its light, and this minimal gleam of rationality that is shed on it besieges the abyss of its irrationality with the compassion of the saints of God; but the battle against this hardened self-deification is indescribably frightening and also inauspicious.
The rest is known to God alone…. (IJOT 5.1 : 32)
As I said, remarkable. But also remarkably problematic, at least if I understand him rightly. Leaving aside for a moment the opening statement, I want to focus on this phrase: “the tragic freedom of absolute narcissism …” What is meant by these terms: “absolute narcissism,” “supreme self-torture”? Absolute over against what? Supreme in relation to whom? The answer, obviously, is God. In my judgment, this notion is the sickness that diseases all “free will” accounts of salvation and damnation. Speaking of our freedom as absolute and supreme means (a) that freedom-from-God is itself the greatest good God can give us and/or (b) that our freedom is ultimately self-grounded and our destiny self- determined.
I’ll return to those lines of thought in a moment, but for now I want to consider this second phrase, “As the boundary of heaven, [hell] is …” This strikes me as more or less straightforwardly dualistic. Are heaven (good) and hell (evil) mutually-defining? Does God really need evil and the punishment of evil to be recognizable as good? Surely not. That would violate the church’s understanding of God’s holy otherness and self-sufficiency, would it not? I would argue that this truth is axiomatic: God does not need anything but God to be the God God is for us.
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Loudovikos seems to believe that freedom is the greatest good God can give us (at least until we freely give ourselves to God so that we are capable of receiving other, better gifts). And no doubt he would also hold that God desires to give us those better gifts. Indeed, it’s that very desire that animates “the compassion of the saints of God” which Loudovikos describes as assailing the irrationality of the damned. Of course, the saints’ compassion is nothing other than God’s own compassion: they are interceding just because they are perfectly at-one-ed with God in Christ. But that means if they fail, God has failed. And that leaves me in conflict. Is that really what the gospel promises? Are we bound by the Scriptures and the church’s teaching to say that God, in the end, does not get done what God purposes to do?
Of course, many people (like Loudovikos, and perhaps most famously C. S. Lewis) are prepared to say that God’s desire to save ultimately ends in disappointment. But then we have to ask why God fails—and our response has to be dogmatically adequate. It seems there are only one or two possible answers, neither of which satisfies me. Either God fails because there are some ones or some things that God just cannot ultimately bring into alignment with his will for them. And/or God fails because the good that is our freedom, our “choice,” is so precious that evil (or at least the repudiation and punishment of evil) must be allowed to exist as a boundary condition for that good.
In either case, humans are believed to be self-grounded and self-determined. And that means that when all is said and done, God can only do what we allow God to do. In the end, God is at our mercy and we crucify him afresh. Just so, we are, as Loudovikos says, self-deified.
One of my students put it to me this way: “the Spirit leads us to repentance, but the decision is ours alone to believe, repent and receive. Not even God can do that for us!” But what kind of theological sense does this make? Arguably, God could create humans so that they are absolutely free from all influence, creaturely or divine. But, as I’ve already said, that would mean freedom-from-God is the highest good God gives—and that seems to me outright at odds with the gospel. How could faith, hope, and love remain if ultimately we are self-grounded and self-determining? After all, we have not determined our own beginning—I have no voice in whether or not I exist, and whether or not I exist as this one within these basic conditions of existence. How, then, can we rightly determine our own end? To say that I could in fact be self-determined would be an admission of belief in “salvation by works,” would it not? It would nullify the gospel, which promises me not freedom-from-God but participation in God’s own life.
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I do agree with Georges Florovsky: “union with God, which is the essence of salvation, presupposes and requires the determination of will” (“The Last Things and the Last Events,” Collected Works, III:263). But to understand that statement rightly we need a non-competitive account of divine and human freedom. We need to understand human being and agency not as a limit to God—created by and as God’s act of self-limitation—but as existing within God’s freedom and because of it, in absolute dependence on God’s supremacy. We need a way of saying that God wills our free response and that our response is truly free just because God wills it. As creatures we are not and cannot be ultimately self-grounded or self-determined. We can no more deify ourselves than we can create the world. We are grounded in the one who (in a way fitted to the divine life) freely makes it so that we can (in a way fitted to creaturely existence) freely participate in the determination that is purposed for us. So, if damnation cannot in the end be overcome, it must be because God wills such an end, and that very willing is what makes it so that the damned freely choose not to be saved. If damnation is not so willed by God, then the damned must at some point freely turn from their sins to the salvation given in Christ as God’s will for them. Either way, I would say that this should be taken as axiomatic: I am free to make of myself nothing more or less than what God frees me to make of myself.
This is difficult for many of us to track because we are locked into imagining two, and only two, alternatives: either we are “free”—by which we mean we are totally uninfluenced by any external force—or we are “predestined”—by which we mean we are absolutely controlled by some external force. But these are not the right alternatives to consider. First, because God is not in any sense an external force, one agent among other agents, acting upon us from “outside” with coercive power. Second, because we are creatures, and so we find our freedom—our fulfillment, our happiness—not in total uninfluencedness but in perfect transparency to God as the ground of our being, the one from whom, through whom, and to whom all things exist. On this Augustine was exactly right: God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves, the presence that is always-already relating to us and just in this way bringing us into being as the relating creatures we are. This means that God’s own power cannot be in any sense coercive. To paraphrase Bulgakov, God does not cause; God creates. God’s influence is never controlling. It does not limit our creaturely freedom: it generates it! And precisely because our freedom is so generated, we are most fully freely ourselves when we are most completely resting in dependence on God.
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I hope no one dismisses what I’ve said as sheerly “Augustinian.” It seems to me a careful reading of Maximus’ Christology and theology of creation leads to this same end. I agree with Lossky’s summation:
God created man like an animal who has received the order to become God,” says a deep saying of St. Basil, reported by St. Gregory of Nazianzus. To execute this order, one must be able to refuse it. God becomes powerless before human freedom; He cannot violate it since it flows from His own omnipotence. Certainly man was created by the will of God alone; be he cannot be deified by it alone. A single will for creation, but two for deification. A single will to raise up the image, but two to make the image into a likeness. The love of God for man is so great that it cannot constrain; for there is no love without respect. Divine will always will submit itself to gropings, to detours, even to revolts of human will to bring it to a free consent: of such is divine providence, and the classical image of the pedagogue must seem feeble indeed to anyone who has felt God as a beggar of love waiting at the soul’s door without ever daring to force it. (Orthodox Theology, p. 73).
All I would add is that these two wills do not operate in the same way, or on the same “plane.” Creaturely will is no less dependent on the divine will in deification than in creation. It is simply differently dependent, a difference made possible because through faith it is coming closer to its purposed end. Yes, God is “powerless” before our freedom. God never forces the door. But the weakness of God is more powerful than all creaturely power, and when I’ve opened the door to the beggar who calls to me from outside I’ll know immediately that it is only God’s own grace that has made my hospitality possible.
Finally, then, sin, not damnation, is the denial of the Eucharist. Damnation would be what happens if that denial were willed by God as an identity for the deniers. But the Eucharist reveals that God does not identify anyone in this way. All are invited to the Table to give thanks together just because the one whose body and blood is given and received has once-for-all been given over to death for our sakes. He has once-for-all poured himself out for the life of his friends and his enemies alike. He has once-for-all offered himself to the Father through the Spirit so that we might share in his death and just in that way share also in his new-creation life. We may deny him, but he remains faithful. And it is that very faithfulness that calls all things into existence in the first place, holding them in being and ordering them to their end in God.
Dr Chris Green is Associate Professor of Theology at Pentecostal Seminary in Cleveland, Tennessee.