Universal Salvation: Love Is Its Own Necessity

I know that some are wondering why I have spent so much blog time featuring discussion of Fr James Dominic Rooney’s article “The Incoherences of Hard Universalism” and why I have now written yet another piece on it. I wonder about that myself. I think I have done so mainly because I am intrigued and challenged by his statement that “universalists hold that it is a necessary truth that all are saved,” with the clear implication that if it’s a necessary truth, then the greater hope is grounded in a deterministic metaphysics. Even God’s freedom, so Rooney argues, is fatally compromised by the universalist doctrine. As a lowly parish priest (retired!), I am not well-versed in the ins and outs of necessary truths. So I grabbed my virtual copy of The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy and found this explanation:

A necessary truth is one that could not have been otherwise. It would have been true under all circumstances. A contingent truth is one that is true, but could have been false. A necessary truth is one that must be true; a contingent truth is one that is true as it happens, or as things are, but that did not have to be true. In Leibniz’s phrase, a necessary truth is true in all possible worlds. If these are all the worlds that accord with the principles of logic, however different they may be otherwise, then the truth is a logically necessary truth. If they cover all the worlds whose metaphysics is possible, then the proposition is metaphysically necessary. If a proposition is only true in all the worlds that are physically possible, then the proposition is true of physical necessity.1

So what kind of necessary truth is the proposition God will save all human beings without exception—logically necessary, metaphysically necessary, or physically necessary? I’m not sure it fits into any of these categories, given that God is their transcendent Creator. The truth and necessity of the universalist proposition lies in God himself, who is infinite Being, perfect Goodness, and absolute Love. I’m happy to stipulate the following:

In his absolute and unconditional love, the God and Father of Jesus Christ has eternally and immutably determined to bring every human being into the love, bliss, and ecstatic joy of his Kingdom.

Does this proposition qualify as a necessary truth? I suppose it must, as there is no possible world in which God creates human beings where he does not will to save and deify all. Love is its own necessity.

This brings us to Rooney’s central claim:

If it is a necessary truth that all will be saved, something makes it so. The only way it would be impossible for anyone to go to hell is,

1. that God could not do otherwise than cause human beings to love him, or

2. that human beings could not do otherwise than love God.

3. There is no third option.

Rooney informs us that both #1 and #2 are heretical, as each entails the violation and denial of the freedom of the respective agent(s). If either is true, hard universalism is heretical. In this article I will focus on the first claim, as the second has received ample attention by universalist theologians over the past decades.

The Freedom of Divine Aseity

Question: What does “cause” mean in “God could not do otherwise than cause human beings to love him”?

  • Does it mean that God unilaterally changes the wills of obdurate sinners, something along the lines of an involuntary lobotomy? All universalists would reject this form of causal invasion.
  • Does it mean that God providentially places sinners in situations, perhaps acutely uncomfortable and painful, where conversion becomes compelling, even existentially necessary? St Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ would be an example of such divine causation.
  • Does it mean that God heals sinners from their disordered desires and passions, thereby liberating them for a relationship of friendship and love with their Creator?
  • Does it mean something along the lines of the Augustinian and Thomist construals of infallible or efficacious grace, whereby God “causes” sinners to freely repent of their sins and turn to him in faith? In that case, Rooney finds himself opposing not just universalists but a longstanding Latin tradition.

As both Jeremiah Carey and Thomas Talbott have noted, Rooney needs to clearly define causality in this context. Until corrected, I will assume that he is thinking of a divine action (or series of actions) that serves as the sufficient condition for the individual’s love of God.

Initial observation: the phrase “could not do otherwise” suggests that Rooney is attributing libertarian freedom of choice to God. To be free God must enjoy the liberty to save or not save sinners in every possible world he might create, just as he must enjoy the same liberty to become or not become incarnate in every world he might create. If God lacks this freedom, then his salvific will is necessitated and determined. As Rooney likes to put it, “Necessitation is not Freedom” (NINF). As we shall see, however, the attribution of libertarian choice to the transcendent Creator is by no means uncontroversial and cannot be said to enjoy philosophical and theological consensus.

Most Christians will immediately balk at the unqualified suggestion that anything determines the life and activities of the Holy Trinity. In his transcendence, aseity, eternality, and simplicity, God is absolute freedom. Even his inner Trinitarian processions, as St Bonaventure puts it, may be described as “natural and voluntary, free and necessary”2—free and voluntary, because God is the infinite plenitude of being; natural and necessary, because God eternally is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For the Seraphic Doctor, the voluntary is the most perfect mode of activity. Unlike St Thomas Aquinas, therefore, he has no problem saying that the Father freely and necessarily wills the begetting of the Son and the spiration of the Spirit.3

As a Latin theologian, Rooney is heir to the Augustinian-Thomist tradition that after humanity’s fall into sin and alienation, God remains free to decide whether or not to exercise his salvific will. Humanity does not deserve rescue, only judgment and damnation. If God should subsequently decide to save, it’s pure grace, contingent not necessary. Eastern theologians, however, following St Maximus the Confessor, insist otherwise.4 God’s free decision to create includes his decision to save fallen humanity in Jesus Christ. Incarnation logically precedes creation. If humanity had not sinned, the eternal Son would still have embodied himself as a human being in order to divinize all; but given the Adamic Fall, the incarnate Son freely but necessarily embraces his soteriological mission of cross and resurrection, not as a second decision but as a decision made in God’s one eternal act. From the beginning, it’s all grace. In the words of the Apostle Paul:

Christ is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Col 1:15-20)

But given that the majority of Eastern theologians affirm everlasting perdition, this difference between the traditions would appear to be irrelevant for the present discussion. But perhaps not completely irrelevant. Orthodox universalists like myself believe that God’s eternal determination to reconcile and deify all sinners is intrinsic to God’s eternal decision to create rational beings in the image of his incarnate Son.

So why does the universalist disagree with Rooney’s claim that universal salvation implies the heretical necessitation of God’s salvific will? Perhaps it’s just the word necessitation, which seems to imply that God is compelled to save against his desire and will. Rooney, I’m sure, does not intend that anthropomorphic connotation, yet it’s difficult to avoid. We need to be clear: In and because of his aseity, all of God’s ad extra actions are performed in utter freedom. Nothing external or internal forces him to act. But perhaps Rooney has in mind what philosophers call natural necessity: an agent performs an action by natural necessity when its nature functions as the principle of its action.5 Natural necessity typically obtains when the agent is inanimate or nonrational.

  • If it rains hard and long enough, a river will pour over its banks and flood the valley.
  • If the wind blows hard enough, a hanging apple will fall from the tree.
  • If you touch a lighted match to a dry piece of paper, it will catch fire.
  • If it’s hungry, a tiger will seek a lamb to devour.
  • If you feed and care for a dog, it will love you. If it doesn’t, there’s something terribly wrong with you.

In all such cases, the being necessarily acts according to its nature; it is not free to do otherwise. Human beings may also be described as acting according to nature if their disordered desires and addictions inhibit their willing according to the sound dictates of reason.

Free action, on the other hand, always involves three elements: knowledge, volition, consent and approval. And so it is with God: he knows what he wants; he wills and approves what he does. He is the absolute and final source of all his decisions. His ad extra actions are intrinsically voluntary, self-determined, non-necessitated—even if he always does what he does in every possible world. Nothing can compel him to will and act; nothing can inhibit him from expressing his nature and achieving his ends. He is incomparably free in his divine aseity and omnipotence. God, we might say, is the ultimate source incompatibilist. He is totally responsible for his actions. Divine freedom does not logically entail the ability to do otherwise and therefore does not require libertarian free choice.6

The Freedom and Necessity of the Good

In his article Rooney takes David Bentley Hart to task for teaching that God’s creation of the world is necessary. Divine freedom necessarily entails the ability to choose between creating or not creating the world. Rooney’s understanding is dependent upon St Thomas Aquinas, among others. Philosopher Katherin Rogers advances an interpretation of St Anselm that challenges Rooney’s Thomistic construal of divine freedom. Like all medieval philosophers, she tells us, Anselm affirms that God’s creation of the world is free and voluntary. He does not need to create in order to fill an ontological lack or defect. However, she goes on to say, Anselm’s understanding of the divine goodness—God always does the best—logically leads to the conclusion the creation of the world was in fact inevitable:

But doesn’t the claim that God’s decision to create is inevitable render the divine act of creation unfree? If freedom must entail indeterminately open options, then a choice that could not be otherwise is not free. But by Anselm’s definition, freedom does not require indeterminate options and in this, I take it, he is in the company of many if not most western philosophers, including Augustine and Thomas. Anselm explicitly rejects the view that freedom is the ability to sin or not, since he wants a definition which can apply univocally to men, angels, and God. But the good angels in their present state cannot sin, and God never could. . . .

God himself is a necessary being. In his perfect being and simplicity, he just is an act, and that act is necessarily perfectly and infinitely good. The question is not, “Does creation involve any necessity?” Obviously it does. The question is whether or not the necessarily perfect divine action inevitably produces one best creation, our world, which is the position I have attributed to Anselm, or might it have ended in some entirely different creation, or no creation at all, as Thomas holds.

Anselm defines freedom as “the ability to keep rightness of will for its own sake” and being able to choose otherwise is not a requirement for this ability. Interestingly, Anselm does conclude that rational creatures, in order to merit praise and blame, must, at some point in their careers as agents, have been able to choose between radically open options. Created agents do need the sort of “morally significant” freedom that involves being able to choose between good and evil. This is the only way in which the creature, which exists entirely per aliud, can make a choice on its own.

In Anselm’s view, in order to be free and praiseworthy a being must be able to choose a se, from itself. But God exists entirely a se, and so, while open options are very important in creaturely free choice, they are completely irrelevant for God. God’s inevitably willing the best due to His wisdom and goodness does not conflict with divine freedom. . . . God’s freedom does not entail options.7

Rogers’ point about options is crucial yet easily overlooked. As soon as the question of divine freedom is raised, we immediately slip into ontic divinity mode. We think of God as a being among beings who must everyday navigate a multitude of choices. And of course his first choice was to decide whether to create or not create a finite universe. And then he had to decide what kind of beings he wants to populate within it. And so on and so forth . . . a grand cosmos-building sim game. But what if God is not a being but transcendent actuality? What if God does not choose between alternatives, but is the doer and doing, the savior and saving of creation? God is his act of existence—ipsum esse subsistens. Or perhaps even better: Deus suus actus amandi est.

Rogers acknowledges that Anselm does not explicitly affirm the inevitability of divine creation—it wasn’t a burning question at the time he lived—but Anselm had no qualms about affirming the necessity of the Incarnation:

God exists a se, He cannot fail to do what is best, and in Cur deus homo, the conclusion is that, since only a God-man can effect the completion of the work God started with the creation of man, God ‘must’ become Incarnate. God’s act of Incarnation and sacrifice is ‘necessary’ in that He could not will otherwise, and yet it is entirely free by the definition of ‘free will’ that Anselm developed in De libertate arbitrii. . . . Thus we have good reason to take it that Anselm’s point in Cur deus homo that God’s freedom does not require choosing between open options is intended to apply to any divine act, not just to actions relative to a given world. Rather, divine freedom is entirely consistent with God doing the best as an inevitability of His nature.9

Once God decides to create human beings, then, thinks Anselm, he is obligated to his Goodness to become the man Jesus Christ and make atonement for the sins of the world. God always does his best. To do otherwise would be for God to deny himself.

Both Thomas and Anselm affirm that God is free in his act of creation. For Thomas, though, this means God was equally indifferent to the three options before him—to create this world,  to create a different world, or not to create any world at all. For this reason God’s creation of the world must be seen as an eruption of pure voluntarist will and therefore arbitrary. No decisive reason can be offered.10 But Anselm comes at the matter from a different starting point:

But perhaps the issue is this: the God of traditional, classical theism is absolutely and necessarily perfect in every way. He cannot possibly be in need of anything. As Aquinas understands choice, one wills a means to an end by necessity only if one cannot achieve one’s end without it. But God does not need anything outside of Himself to make Him perfect, and so there can be no question of His willing creation by necessity. Certainly Anselm does not think that God ‘needs’ creation. He makes the point that the three persons of the Trinity have no need of each other, though their mutual relationships are necessary and could not possibly be otherwise. Anselm is simply starting from other (possibly more Platonic?) assumptions than is Aquinas. God does not see creation as a means to some further end. God’s act of creation is an outward-turning choice, not made from a need to perfect Himself, but simply because He wants the world to be. He loves creation not for what it can do for Him, but for itself. God ‘must’ create, not because creation adds to His perfection, but because it expresses it. True, Anselm apparently believes that God cannot fail to express Himself in creation, but the ‘cannot’ is a function not of some lack or need in God, but of His infinite and immutable goodness.11

I quote the above not to deflect our discussion into another topic, but simply to point out the diversity of understandings of divine freedom and necessity.

So why does the universalist believe that God freely, necessarily, and efficaciously wills the salvation of all? The answer is simple: because God is Love.

God loves the cosmos into being.
He loves every human being into existence.
He loves and will love each unto deification and glory.

In love he became Man in Jesus Christ.
In love he died on the cross for the sins of the world.
In love he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven.
In love he poured out the Spirit on all flesh.
In love he will return in glory to judge the quick and the dead.
In love he will restore all of creation to himself.
In love he will be all in all.

God always acts in Love and Goodness, in every possible world.
God always wills the good; he always does the best.
And the best, the very, very best, is apokatastasis.

Love is its own necessity . . . and its own freedom.



[1] The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed., p. 248.

[2] Bonaventure, Itinerarium Mentis in Deum, chap. 6. On Bonaventure’s understanding of divinity and necessity, see Zachary Hayes’s “Introduction” to Bonaventure, Disputed Questions on the Mystery of the Trinity (2000), pp. 45-46, 97-100. Hayes writes:

But of all the types [of necessity] which may be distinguished, it is only a completely intrinsic necessity springing from the very nature of the being in question that can be applied to God. It is that type of necessity which Bonaventure calls a necessity of immutability or independence. By it he wishes to say that God is in no way necessitated by anything outside Himself and is in no way dependent on others for His fullness of being. He is fully and completely self-sufficient and completely true to his nature. He can be in no other way than He is. Such an understanding of necessity does not conflict with the freedom of the divine will, as would be the case with the other types of necessity. It is precisely because God is fully self-sufficient in Himself that He can communicate Himself freely to others without any loss or any threat of loss. (p. 98)

[3] On this point I am indebted to several telephone and online discussions with Jared Goff.

[4] See Georges Florovsky, “Cur Deus Homo? The Motive of the IncarnationCollected Works of Georges Florovsky, Vol. III: Creation and Redemption (1976), pp. 163-170; Bogdan Bucur, “Foreordained From All Eternity,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 62 (2008): 199-215; Artemije Radosavljević, “Deification as the End and Fulfillment of Salvation According to St. Maximos the Confessor.”

[5] Julie Swanstrom, “Avicenna’s Account of Creation by Divine Voluntary Emanation,” Otrosiglo 1 (2017): 115-116.

[6] See Tobias Hoffman, “Freedom Without Choice: Medieval Theories of the Essence of Freedom,” in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Ethics (2019), pp. 194–216; and my article “Avicenna and Aquinas: Ruminating Divine Freedom.”

[7] Katherin Rogers, “Anselm on God’s Perfect Freedom,” The Saint Anselm Journal 1.1 (Fall 2003): 3-4; emphasis mine.

[8] I confess I find it virtually impossible to contemplate God in his transcendence and even more so to articulate. How do we think Deity beyond being and his decision to create the cosmos? And of course we can’t. Inevitably we think of him as a being confronted by a variety of choices. Reading Dionysius the Areopagite several years ago, with Eric Perl as my guide, was a real eye-opener for me. See, e.g., my article “Transcending Freedom and Necessity.” Until one has glimpsed the radical difference between Creator and creature, statements like the following will make little sense:

God is not a finite being in whom the distinction of freedom from necessity has any meaning. Perfect freedom is the unhindered realization of a nature in its proper end; and God’s infinite freedom is the eternal fulfillment of the divine nature in the divine life.” (David Bentley Hart, You Are Gods [2022], p. 115)

As such, the One itself just is the ‘making’ of all things: not a thing-which-makes, which would imply a distinction between the One and its act of making and thus treat the One as a being and as having activities distinct from itself, but simply ‘making’ itself, not an ontic producer but rather the production of all things. As Plotinus so often says, the One is not any thing but rather the “power of all things,” . . . the enabling condition in virtue of which they are beings. Thus if we are to speak of the generation of being in terms of ‘will’ or ‘activity’ at all, we must allow no distinction between the One and its will or activity but say that this will or activity just is the One itself. (Eric Perl, Thinking Being [2014], p. 124)

[9] Katherin Rogers, Anselm on Freedom (2008), pp. 191, 194-195.

[10] “[For Thomas] the decision to create has nothing directly to do with the divine goodness, since it is an arbitrary and radically free act of the divine will.” Kevin Keane, “Why Creation? Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas on God as Creative Good,” Downside Review 95 (April 1975): 101.

[11] Rogers, Anselm on Freedom, p. 200.

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St Augustine on the ‘Last Things’ and Human Destiny: Is Eschatological Universalism Possible?

by Fr. Robert Deinhammer, S.J.

In this essay, I am going to outline some basic aspects of Augustinian eschatology and identify its problems. What is the ultimate destiny of the human race according to St. Augustine? Was Augustine right in rejecting all forms of eschatological universalism? What are the alternatives? My main thesis is that Augustine’s approach does not consider God’s universal saving will and that his view of original sin with its consequential theory of retributive punishment is problematic. In my view, a particular version of eschatological universalism could be an acceptable position for Catholic theology.

Firstly, I shall outline the main lines of Augustine’s view on the ‘last things’ and human destiny, that is to say, Augustine’s eschatology. Secondly, I shall critically discuss it and propose an alternative eschatological model. Thirdly, I shall end by giving a brief conclusion.

Augustine on the ‘Last Things’ and Human Destiny

St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) is one of the most influential theologians in the history of the Latin Church. His eschatology is intertwined with his theology of history, his theology of grace including the doctrine of original sin, and is, of course, dependent on his philosophical-theological presuppositions in general. In the following lines, I am going to outline some basic aspects of Augustine’s eschatology as found in his late major work De Civitate Dei (= DCD), written between 413 and 427.1

Despite his Neoplatonism and due to his increasing familiarity with Holy Scripture, Augustine discovers the importance of a historic understanding of the world and favours a linear model of history. His view is dramatic in the sense that he conceives human history as integrated in the wider context of an eschatological drama, in which history is the temporal playing out of God’s justice and in which both beginning and (eternal) end are fixed.2 Due to original sin, in which all human beings have sinned in Adam (cf. Rom 5:12) and participate in his fall, the whole of humanity has turned away from God and has become a massa damnata, a ‘lump’ that justly deserves the punishment of eternal damnation (see DCD XIII, 14; XIV, 3 and 13; XXI, 12).3 Nevertheless, God has chosen or predestined by means of a free and utterly unmerited grace a small minority of this ‘lump’ in order to grant them salvation and participation in His own eternal life. For Augustine, the number of the elected is very small so that God can show what in fact all deserve and enforce His Divine justice (see DCD XXI, 12). God’s elected belong to the ‘city of God’ (the visible Church has a special relation to it) and are able to lead a life of faith, charity and worship. But the vast majority belongs to the ‘city of Man’ and is trapped in an unfree, self-centred and sinful existence. In this life, however, no one can be sure whether he or she is in fact chosen by God (see, for instance, DCD XIV, 28; XX, 9 and 27). Human history is ambiguous and one cannot foresee its ending; however, there will be an eschatological separation of the two cities, namely a collective judgement and transformation of the world at the end of time (see DCD XX, 21 and 28).

The souls of the dead await the resurrection of their bodies as the dividing line between time and eternity. God’s elected will share in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and be fully ‘conformed to the image of the Son’ (Rom 8:29), which means a complete deification by adoption.4 For Augustine, there is an identity between the bodies on earth and the risen bodies; however, the risen body is a ‘spiritual body’ (see DCD XXII, 21). The eternal beatitude of the saints, which exceeds all our greatest imaginations, consists in praising God and their beatific vision of God:

God will be so known by us, and shall be so much before us, that we shall see Him by the spirit in ourselves, in one another, in Himself, in the new heavens and the new earth, in every created thing which shall then exist; and also by the body we shall see Him in every body which the keen vision of the eye of the spiritual body shall reach. (DCD XXII, 29)

Hence, the ultimate goal of the city of God with its comparatively few inhabitants and the transformed world is the ‘perpetual Sabbath’, an eternal state beyond temporal succession in perfect communion with God: ‘There we shall rest and see, see and love, love and praise. This is what shall be in the end without end’ (DCD XXII, 30).

The overwhelming majority of the human race, the non-elect, will not be so lucky. There will also be a resurrection of their bodies, however, a resurrection in order to judge – Jesus Christ is the judge – and punish them (including those who die in infancy) with everlasting damnation, a resurrection to the second death. Augustine conceives hell as a retributive punishment by God, and for him, hell is eternal because original sin is such a horrendous offence against God. Eternal punishment in hell is an expression of God’s justice (see DCD XXI, 12).5 The bodies of the damned will be endlessly tortured by burning in hellfire but, by a miracle of their Creator, without being consumed by its flames (see DCD XXI, 2; 3; 4; 9), although the degree of torment is proportionate to the extent of personal sin, ‘whether this result be accomplished by a variation in the temperature of the fire itself, graduated according to every one’s merit, or whether it be that the heat remains the same, but that all do not feel it with equal intensity of torment’ (DCD XXI, 16).

Augustine addresses objections against his view of hell as an eternal punishment and defends his anti-universalist eschatology, for instance, in DCD XXI, 17 to 27. His arguments are very much based on a certain interpretation of the relevant bible passages: time-limited and purifying suffering in hell would contradict Holy Scripture (e.g. Mt 25:41-46; Rev 20:10; 2 Pet 2:4) and undermine the eternal blessedness of the saints in heaven. ‘Wherefore, as the eternal life of the saints shall be endless, so too the eternal punishment of those who are doomed to it shall have no end’ (DCD XXI, 23).

Critical Discussion and a Possible Alternative

Augustine’s eschatology, with its implicit theory of double predestination, was never fully accepted by the Catholic Church, who emphasized and emphasizes the role of free will and the idea of a co-operation with grace in the process of salvation. Where could one identify problems in Augustine’s approach? In the given context, I would like to focus on two aspects.6

Firstly, Augustine denies the universality of God’s saving will. From a Catholic point of view, God does not want the salvation of only a small minority of human beings. He intends the salvation of all. To be sure, the Catholic Church is God’s instrument of salvation in communicating His uncreated grace, i.e. the Holy Spirit, to the world; however, the Church teaches that all people can be saved, no matter whether they are Christians or not.7 Augustine’s exegesis of the relevant bible passages seems to be debatable, especially if one asks the important but rarely posed question: What is the possible content of Divine revelation? God does not reveal information about created states of affairs or future events but reveals His presence in the sense that he gives a share in His own Trinitarian life. Whether many or some people will end up in hell is no possible content of revelation, hence, no object of faith, if one conceives revelation strictly as God’s self-communication in Jesus Christ. All articles of faith explain but this basic mystery and can be reduced to it.8 On this view, Holy Scripture is not the word of God in an arbitrary or biblicistic sense but only insofar as it can be consistently understood as God’s word when faced with God’s utter transcendence and absoluteness (see below).

Secondly, Augustine’s view of original sin and its consequential theory of hell as a retributive punishment seems to be problematic. Is the traditional historic understanding of Adam’s fall and the Augustinian view of original sin convincing? Be that as it may, most people are not, according to Augustine, in a state of grace; hence, they are not really free to perform good works. Sin is not an expression of true freedom; it is rather slavery and paralysis. But then the notion of hell as retributive punishment becomes problematic, for retributive punishment presupposes freedom and responsibility. Furthermore, the idea of inherited personal guilt seems to be contradictory. Additionally, one could ask whether any sin that a finite being commits in a situation of ambiguity and (relative) ignorance deserves an infinite punishment as a just retribution.9 And wouldn’t it be possible to say that real justice requires not so much punishment but rather reconciliation and restoration? At any rate, human beings have a strong tendency towards revenge, and sometimes they project this tendency on God. St. Augustine was not free from human flaws.

But is eschatological universalism an acceptable option for Catholic theology? A non-universalist eschatology was, more or less, taken for granted up to the paradigm shift from eschatological pessimism to optimism in the 20th Century.10 Nowadays, the main argument in favour of the possibility of eternal hell goes like this: God respects our free will and does not force us into heaven, hence, the possibility of hell is an implication of human freedom.11 This view does not imply that one has to believe that many or some human beings will, in fact, end up in hell. Thus, universalism – with regard to human beings – is at least possible. Is this view convincing? God’s grace and love has to be revealed to us by the word, coming from Jesus, the incarnate Son, since it cannot be identified by natural reason. Without Jesus Christ and his message we would not know that we are from the outset created into the Triune Life, i.e. into the eternal love between the Father and the Son, which is the Holy Spirit.12 However, there is no ‘neutral freedom’ vis-á-vis God’s grace, which is offered and communicated in His word, i.e. the Christian message. One can only recognise God’s grace by embracing the Christian message in an act of faith. Outside of faith, one cannot recognise the truth of the Christian message; that is to say, one is able to reject the Christian message by becoming arbitrary, but it is not possible to reject it in fully knowing that it is in fact God’s word, i.e. God’s self- communication in a human word.13

Original sin is primarily an ontological reality (although it unfolds massive moral consequences): due to the fact that the relation between the created world and God is completely unilateral,14 no created quality, and no human act, since even our freest acts are created, can grant communion with God who ‘dwells in unapproachable light’ (cf. 1 Tim 6:16). Communion with God and participating in His eternal life is but possible in this way: God relates to the world with the same love in which He relates to His Son from all eternity. He does not become dependent on the world by His love for it and His love for the world is of divine nature, unchanging, unconditional and eternal. Being loved by God in this way is the deepest reality of the whole world and of every single human being; however, this deepest reality is supernatural and accessible only by faith in the word of God.

Seen from this perspective, the threats of hell in the New Testament, which cannot be denied, mean that, outside of the Holy Spirit, God is absent for all eternity and that every attempt to reach salvation by idolising created realities, i.e. by sinning, is ultimately hopeless. Seen from outside of faith, there are no grounds for any hope. But God’s absence is overcome by Jesus Christ in the sense that He reveals God’s presence and love for faith. By faith, man is liberated from the power of fear for oneself and empowered to cooperate with God’s grace in performing truly good works. The Christian faith is the beginning of our eternal life already here and now. And only within this faith can we have hope that God’s mercy will be the final word for all human beings: God will separate the sinner from his or her sin, although we cannot know the mechanism: ‘For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all’ (Rom 11:32).


In this essay, I have outlined some basic aspects of Augustinian eschatology. My main thesis has been that Augustine’s approach does not consider God’s universal saving will and that his view of original sin with its consequential theory of retributive punishment is problematic. In my view, a particular version of eschatological universalism could be an acceptable position for Catholic theology.



1 See, for instance, The City of God; further references to this work are provided in parenthesis in the text.

2 See Rüdiger Bittner, ‘Augustine’s Philosophy of History’, in The Augustinian Tradition, ed. by Gareth B. Matthews (Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press, 1999), pp. 345-360 (p. 348)

3 Cf. J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 5th edn (London: A&C Black, 1977), pp. 361-366

4 David Vincent Meconi, The One Christ: St. Augustine’s Theology of Deification (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2015), argues, against the mainstream interpretation, that deification plays a central role in Augustine’s theology: Augustine talks at times ‘about becoming divinely adopted sons and daughters, while at other times he will present the goal of Christianity as “becoming gods”, or becoming a member of the whole Christ (Christus totus), or even as becoming Christ himself’ (p. xii).

5 Cf., for instance, Darrin S. Snyder Belousek, Atonement, Justice and Peace: The Message of the Cross and the Mission of the Church (Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2012), pp. 41-45.

6 For a critical discussion of the ‘problem of hell’ in general (and also regarding the Augustinian view) see, for instance, C. P. Ragland, ‘Hell’, in Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, and Thomas Talbott, ‘Heaven and Hell in Christian Thought’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (both accessed 18/1/2016).

7 See, for instance, DH 4140 (Heinrich Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum definitionum et declarationum de rebus fidei et morum, ed. by Peter Hünermann, 43th edn [Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder, 2010]).

8 See Robert Deinhammer, ‘Reductio in Unum Mysterium: Fundamentaltheologische Erwägungen im Kontext ignatianischer Spiritualität’, Theologie und Glaube, 101 (2011), 539-561 (pp. 545-552).

9 See Marilyn Adams, ‘The Problem of Hell: A Problem of Evil for Christians’, in A Reasoned Faith, ed. by Eleonore Stump (Ithaca/New York: Cornell University Press, 1993), pp. 301-327 (p. 313).

10 Cf. Avery Cardinal Dulles, ‘The Population of Hell’, in Avery Cardinal Dulles, Church and Society: The Laurence J. McGinley Lectures, 1988-2007 (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), pp. 387-400.

11 See, for instance, Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (London: Catholic Trust Society, 2006), pp. 70.

12 See for this approach and the consequential eschatological insights: Peter Knauer, Der Glaube kommt vom Hören: Ökumenische Fundamentaltheologie, 7th edn. (Norderstedt: BoD, 2015), especially pp. 167-184.

13 John Finnis, ‘Hell and Hope’, in John Finnis, The Collected Essays of John Finnis: Vol. V: Religion and Public Reasons (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 368-379, does not sufficiently realise that there is no ‘neutral freedom’ with regard to God’s grace in the above sense. He neither poses the question regarding the possible content of supernatural revelation.

14 See, for instance, St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I q13 a7.

* * *

The Rev. Dr. Dr. Robert Deinhammer, S.J. (born 1977) is an Austrian Jesuit and currently living in Innsbruck. He has been working at the Universities of Salzburg and Innsbruck. His academic working fields are normative ethics and philosophy of religion. He considers himself as a catholic universalist.

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The Christ, the Fall, and Echoes of Eden

It begins with the Fall and the introduc­tion of death and corrup­tion into the good world God has made. The ancient story is inscribed upon our hearts. Tempted by Satan, Adam and Eve partake of the forbidden fruit, plunge into a state of shame, alienation, and mortality, and are expelled from paradise. Cardinal Newman famously articulated the Christian intuition: “If there is a God, since there is a God, the human race is implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity. It is out of joint with the purposes of its Creator. This is a fact, a fact as true as the fact of its existence.”1 For our purposes, the precise nature of the original sin, as well as the mechanics of its transmission, is of only secondary import. What is critical is the impossibility of return, both for Adam and Eve and for us. Our eyes have been opened. We have lost our innocence and are trapped in a world of violence, wickedness, and sin. The way to the tree of life is barred by cherubim and flaming sword. The Fall is thus presented as historical event, one which might be dated on a timeline, if we possessed sufficient data. After the Edenic debacle, God launches his plan of salvation, beginning with the call of Abraham and the making of covenant; continuing with Israel and Torah, prophets, priests, and kings; culminating in the death and resurrection of the eternal Son and the outpouring of the Spirit. It’s all quite linear, moving from one day to the next under the providential governance of the Creator.

The traditional construal makes perfectly good sense and has well served the Church, but it has its problems. First of all, it seems to contradict what we might call the “plain” reading of the Old Testament. The biblical writers are, of course, well acquainted with the horror of death—how could they not be?—but they do not explain it by appeal to the original sin of the Edenic couple. Adam and Eve are presented as mortal beings who were given the opportu­nity to attain immortality yet by disobedience failed. Even so, the biblical writers appear to view death as a normal occurrence. As Fr John Behr notes:

Mortality, in fact, seems to be regarded as natural in the Old Testament. There are a couple of exceptions to the normal mortality of humans—Enoch (Gen 5.24) and Elijah (2 Kgs 2)—but they are the exceptions which prove the rule. In the Old Testament, death is not ubiquitously seen as a curse or a punishment for sin. In fact, the death of figures such as Abraham, whose lives are of significance for the unfolding of the narrative, are described in blessed terms: he “breathed his last and died in good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people” (Gen 25.8). Such a death, surrounded by children and their children, and completed with a proper burial, is seen as natural and right, a completion and fulfillment, and, indeed, even grants the perpetuity of the deceased’s name: “The days of a good life are numbered, but a good name endures forever” (Sir 41.13).2

Death as a metaphysical surd and enemy seems to be largely missing in the Old Testament. Men and women are mortal. Death is the natural conclusion of an existence that is hard and full of sorrow:

The years of our life are threescore and ten,
or even by reason of strength fourscore;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away. (Ps 90:10)

Death is also metaphorically identified as a power that challenges and threatens man: “The cords of death encompassed me,” bemoans the psalmist, “the torrents of perdition assailed me” (Ps 18:4). Perhaps the closest we come to Christian sensibility is found in the Wisdom of Solomon: “For God created man for incorruption, and made him in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his party experience it” (Wis 2:23-24).

Even more embarrassing to traditional catechesis is the Old Testament presentation of covenantal righteousness and obedience. The commandments are delivered to Israel with the understanding that they are the way of life and therefore doable. In the words of Moses:

And now, O Israel, give heed to the statutes and the ordinances which I teach you, and do them; that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land which the Lord, the God of your fathers, gives you. (Dt 4:1)

And again:

For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?” But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. (Dt 30:11-14)

The Psalmists frequently rejoice in the gift and blessings of Torah:

The Lord is my portion;
I promise to keep thy words.
I entreat thy favor with all my heart;
be gracious to me according to thy promise.
When I think of thy ways,
I turn my feet to thy testimonies;
I hasten and do not delay
to keep thy commandments.
Though the cords of the wicked ensnare me,
I do not forget thy law.
At midnight I rise to praise thee,
because of thy righteous ordinances.
I am a companion of all who fear thee,
of those who keep thy precepts.
The earth, O Lord, is full of thy steadfast love;
teach me thy statutes! (Ps 119:57-64)

And when the people sin, God has generously provided the way of repentance and sacrifice. Jewish scholars have long told us that the conception of YHWH as a deity who imposes unfulfillable commandments in order to teach his people the depth of their sinfulness is a figment of Christian imagination. As the great Jewish scholar Claude Montefiore wrote back at the turn of the 20th century:

God to the Rabbis is certainly both Lawgiver and Judge, and even the Pauline Christian recognizes that there is such a thing as justice and judgment both in this world and in the next. But how can you call that Lawgiver stern and cruel who gives the laws for the benefit of his creatures, and who is ceaseless in his love for them, who pities them in their sorrows, and on the smallest pretext of repentance hastens to forgive them their sins?3

All of this changes, however, when we come to the New Testament. Whereas St Paul could look back on his pre-Christian existence as one of sinlessness before the Law (Phil 3:6), as a Christian he had come to see that God had “consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all” (Rom 11:32). How did Paul get from there to here? He met his Savior on the road to Damascus!


If the customary Christian understanding of “the Fall” (or at least some version of it) is not there in Genesis, or the Old Testament more generally, it certainly is there in the New Testament, in particular in the letters of the apostle Paul. But it is important here to acknowledge that what the apostle says about Adam’s sin is based on his prior conviction that Christ is the savior of all. When Paul was persecuting the Church, he did not think that he stood in need of the Savior that they proclaimed: “as to zeal, a persecutor of the Church, as to righteousness under the Law, blameless” (Phil 3.6). At this point, Paul was not waiting for a savior to deliver him from bondage to sin and death; at most the disciples were hoping for a political messiah, one who would restore the kingdom to Israel (cf. Lk 24.21; Acts 1.6). But then Christ confronted his persecutor in such a manner that, when his eyes were opened, he realized that God had acted in Christ to save the whole world, and so the only conclusion he could draw was that the world stood in need of salvation!4

We only look for an answer when we are confronted with a quandary. But in the Apostle’s case it was the other way round. As a zealous persecutor of the Jesus sect, Rabbi Saul knew that Torah had been given to the Jews as the way of life and sanctity. He did not need the gospel the apostate Christians were proclaiming. He was not an Augustine or Luther. He does not appear to have been afflicted with an introspective and anxious conscience. But then the risen Lord revealed himself to Saul. His life and beliefs were turned upside-down. If God had indeed raised the Nazarene from the dead, ahead of the general resurrection and against all expectation, then Paul had to understand why. The Apostle had been introduced to the solution; he now needed to identify the existential problem:

Put another way, the solution comes first, and then we begin to understand where the problem lies. Christ is . . . the first principle or hypothesis for all Christian theology. In the light of God’s action in Christ, the apostle Paul draws the typological parallel: “As sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, so death spread to all men because all men sinned” (Rom 5.12). While different theories have been advanced as to how death and sin spread to all human beings, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, it must never be forgotten that the basis for this claim is Christ’s work of salvation.5

Sin is no longer understood as a violation of Torah (or at least not simply as such) but more deeply as existence “‘in Adam’ rather than ‘in Christ,’ and the whole human race ‘in Adam,’ without Christ, can be described in St Augustine’s phrase as ‘one mass of sin,’ without implying a pessimistic view of humanity: it is the precondition of needing Christ, who comes to ‘call the righteous, but the sinners’ (Mt 9.13).”6 Those who have read E. P. Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism will immediately recognize the thesis: Paul does not begin with an analysis of the human condition and then proceed to offer Jesus as its solution. He begins with the crucified and risen Jesus and then apprehends all of reality through him. As Sanders puts it, Paul’s assessment of the plight of humanity is a “reflex of his soteriology.”7

Orthodox readers will be surprised by Behr’s openness to a Latin reading of Romans 5:12 (Vulgate: “Wherefore as by one man sin entered into this world and by sin death: and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned”). Over the past many decades Orthodox apologists have stridently advanced their interpretation of eph ho (“because” rather than “in whom”) as a point of church-dividing difference, as if early Latin translators could not possibly have had plausible reasons for their reading. Behr thinks too much has been made of a single phrase: “Reading eph o as meaning ‘because of death,’ makes the pronoun play too many roles: it cannot, together with the preposition, be a contraction, meaning ‘because,’ and also refer back to ‘death,’ to say that ‘because of death all men have sinned.’ The verse simply says that death has still spread to all because all have sinned.”8 I will leave the exegetical debate to those who know their Koine Greek. Behr is not endorsing an Augustinian doctrine of corporate guilt. He is, rather, exhorting us to read the entirety of Scripture through the Crucified:

A properly theological cosmology and ‘history of salvation—the economy or the plan of salvation—begins with the Passion of Christ, and from this vantage point looks backwards and forwards to see everything in this light.9

By the death and resurrec­tion of Christ, we now know that which we could not other­wise have known: death is the enemy of mankind. In Adam we are its prisoners, dead in our sins and trespasses; but in Christ we are now victorious, raised unto eternal life.

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs
Bestowing life!

The question of the Fall raises multiple difficulties for moderns. Given all that we know both about the universe (cosmology) and the development of life on our planet (evolu­tionary biology), how do we properly interpret the catholic claim that God is not the author of death? Why do reptiles and animals suffer and die when they appeared in history so much earlier than man? Lions eat lambs, sheep eat clover and forbs—they would not thrive if they did not. The good of one is achieved at the expense of an other. Life con­sumes life. Behr does not address questions like this, and I imagine he might well remind us that the Fall is neither a historical nor scientific claim. We confess the ancestral sin in faith as a truth of divine revelation. Only through the cross do we see the obscenity of death; only through Pascha do we apprehend death as a metaphysical catastrophe that should not be.

But the myth of a lost paradise haunts our dreams. As J. R. R. Tolkien wrote to his son Christopher:

Certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy earth. We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of “exile.”

Echoes of Eden reverber­ate throughout the stories of Scripture. St Maximus the Confessor provides the necessary demythologization: at the “very instant” Adam was created, he subjected himself to sensible things, thus corrupting his natural desire of God.10 The fall of man was instantaneous with his creation. In Behr’s words: “There never was a ‘time,’ for Maxi­mus, in which human beings did not stand in need of Christ.”11 This positing of humanity’s embrace of autonomy at the moment of its creation, as Fr Panteleimon Manoussakis elaborates, “allows him [Maximus] to avoid the problems of a (historical) time of perfection, while distinguishing between creation as created and creation as fallen, or put differently, between creation as being and creation as the theater of human action.”12 This distinction does not solve the aporia of evil, but perhaps it allows us to refocus our attention on Pascha as the foundation of theology. The end is given in the beginning; protology becomes eschatology. Manoussakis continues:

The story of the Garden of Eden is not descriptive but rather proleptic: it lets an echo of the end be heard in the beginning, as often in music one hears at the beginning of a composition a theme that will be developed only at the finale. It is, after all, for the sake of that end that the beginning begins. ‘For he who is initiated in the ineffable power of the resurrection has come to know the purpose for which God first established everything’ [Maximus, CT 1.66].13

Myth is gathered into the absolute truth that is the final future. Jesus is risen. The dream of paradise has been realized in the Mystery of Holy Eucharist. At the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy, the faithful sing:

We have seen the true light!
We have received the heavenly Spirit!
We have found the true Faith!
Worshipping the undivided Trinity,
who has saved us.

(18 April 2017; rev.)



[1] John Henry Newman, Apologia pro Vita Sua, chap. 5; emphasis mine.

[2] John Behr, The Mystery of Christ (2006), p. 81.

[3] Claude Montefiore, “Rabbinic Judaism and the Epistles of St Paul,” Jewish Quarterly Review 13 (January 1901): 19.

[4] Behr, pp. 83-84.

[5] Ibid., p. 83.

[6] Ibid., pp. 84-85.

[7] E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977), p. 510.

[8] Behr, p. 112, n. 6.

[9] Ibid., p. 178.

[10] Maximus, Q. Thal. 61.85.

[11] Behr, pp. 78-79.

[12] Panteleimon Manoussakis, “St. Augustine and St. Maximus the Confessor between the Beginning and the End,” Studia Patristica 15 (2017): 8-9.

[13] Ibid., p. 9.

(Return to first article)

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“What words can adequately describe God’s gifts?”

What words can adequately describe God’s gifts? They are so numerous that they defy enumeration. They are so great that any one of them demands our total gratitude in response.

Yet even though we cannot speak of it worthily, there is one gift which no thoughtful man can pass over in silence. God fashioned man in his own image and likeness; he gave him knowledge of himself; he endowed him with the ability to think which raised him above all living creatures; he permitted him to delight in the unimaginable beauties of paradise, and gave him dominion over everything upon earth.

Then, when man was deceived by the serpent and fell into sin, which led to death and to all the sufferings associated with death, God still did not forsake him. He first gave man the law to help him; he set angels over him to guard him; he sent the prophets to denounce vice and to teach virtue; he restrained man’s evil impulses by warnings and roused his desire for virtue by promises. Frequently, by way of warning, God showed him the respective ends of virtue and of vice in the lives of other men. Moreover, when man continued in disobedience even after he had done all this, God did not desert him. No, we were not abandoned by the goodness of the Lord. Even the insult we offered to our Benefactor by despising his gifts did not destroy his love for us. On the contrary, although we were dead, our Lord Jesus Christ restored us to life again, and in a way even more amazing than the fact itself, for his state was divine, yet he did not cling to his equality with God, but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave.

He bore our infirmities and endured our sorrows. He was wounded for our sake so that by his wounds we might be healed. He redeemed us from the curse by becoming a curse for our sake, and he submitted to the most ignominious death in order to exalt us to the life of glory. Nor was he content merely to summon us back from death to life; he also bestowed on us the dignity of his own divine nature and prepared for us a place of eternal rest where there will be joy so intense as to surpass all human imagination.

How, then, shall we repay the Lord for all his goodness to us? He is so good that he asks no recompense except our love: that is the only payment he desires. To confess my personal feelings, when I reflect on all these blessings I am overcome by a kind of dread and numbness at the very possibility of ceasing to love God and of bringing shame upon Christ because of my lack of recollection and my preoccupation with trivialities.

St Basil the Great

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James Dominic Rooney’s Critique of Universalism

by Thomas Talbott, Ph.D.

In an article entitled “The Incoherencies of Hard Universalism,” recently published in Church Life Journal (18 October 2022), James Dominic Rooney argues that universalism is a serious heresy that Christians should clearly reject. He begins his article by men­tion­ing the controversy over whether the Second Council of Constantinople (more generally known as the Fifth Ecumenical Council of the Christian Church in 553) really did condemn univer­sal­ism along with other doctrines, such as the pre-existence of the soul. But con­cern­ing that controversy, he suggests that even if “universalism might not have been condemned by that council,” this would constitute “nothing more than an interesting historical tidbit for orthodox Christians.” I tend to agree with him here. For the con­tro­versy over whether St. Paul himself delivered a universalist message and was therefore a heretic, given Rooney’s view that such a message is itself heretical, seems to me far more pertinent and far more important than the controversy over the rulings of a single council. So if I may be forgiven an extraneous remark here at the outset, I have yet to see a single cogent argument against the claim that St. Paul was himself a universalist.1

My principle concern here, however, is with Rooney’s philosophical case against hard universalism, as he calls it, which he identifies as the view that “it is not possible for anyone to end up in hell for eternity.” And when he speaks of someone ending “up in hell for eternity,” he has in mind, I presume, someone’s going to hell and then remaining there for an unending period of time. I emphasize this point because of several imprecisions in his basic argument against universalism, which runs as follows:

If it is a necessary truth that all will be saved, something makes it so. The only way it would be impossible for anyone to go to hell is,

1. that God could not do otherwise than cause human beings to love him or

2. that human beings could not do otherwise than love God.

3. There is no third option.

Note first the apparent assumption in the first two sentences of this quotation that if “it is a necessary truth that all will [eventually] be saved,” then “it would be impossible for anyone to go to hell.” But as it stands, that is a simple non sequitur. If hell itself, however else we might understand its nature, serves a corrective purpose in the divine scheme of things or even serves as a means of bringing sinners back to Christ, as many Christian universalists believe it does, then it hardly follows that no sinners will ever go there. So the claim that no one will remain in hell forever must obviously be distinguished from the claim that no one will ever go there in the first place.

The Second Option

Consider next the second option that Rooney offers above: the option “that human beings could not do otherwise than love God.” Is this supposed to imply that newborn babies come into their earthly lives already loving God? If so, then no universalist should concede the relevance of such an absurdity as that; and if this second option does not carry such an absurd implication, then how are we to understand it? Again, it is certainly true that we humans normally emerge and mature into adults in a context of considerable ambiguity, ignorance, and misperception. So any implication that we “could not do otherwise than love God” during our earthly lives would likewise be both absurd and clearly irrelevant to the claim that God will save everyone in the end. So again, just how are we to understand this second option? Because Rooney offers nary a clue concerning a more precise formu­la­tion of it, one that avoids the obviously absurd implications just mentioned, I shall here propose, as an alternative to his second option, what I take to be the sober truth of this matter.

But first some preliminary thoughts by way of preparation. Few Christians would reject the idea that the perfected saints in heaven have indeed reached a point where they could not do otherwise than obey the will of God and, similarly, “could not do otherwise than love God.” They have achieved, after all, a full clarity of vision concerning who God is, why he is the ultimate source of human happiness, and why acting otherwise in such matters would be utterly irrational and stupid. So is it Rooney’s view that the perfected saints in heaven no longer obey God freely? If so, then many of those who worry about heresy, as I do not, will no doubt regard him as a heretic; and if not, then acting freely in a specific situation does not always require that one could have acted otherwise in that very same situation. As for those on either side of the grave who are not yet perfected saints in heaven, the more controversial issue, I suppose, is whether there could be a guarantee of some kind that they will eventually become such? My own conviction that there is indeed such a guarantee rests upon two assumptions: first, that moral freedom requires a mini­mal degree of rationality, and second, that, for this very reason, the idea of a free and fully informed decision to reject God and his love for us represents a metaphysical impossibility.

With respect to the first assumption, an obvious question arises. Just how should we under­stand the minimal degree of rationality that moral freedom requires? Although people use such terms as “freedom” and “free will” in a variety of different ways, virtually everyone seems to agree that we should exclude lower animals, newborn babies, the severely brain damaged, the seriously demented, and perhaps even paranoid schizo­phrenics from the precise kind of freedom that moral responsibility requires. That’s because the relevant freedom requires an ability to reflect upon and to evaluate one’s own actions, to draw inferences with some degree of accuracy from one’s own experience and from the conse­quences of one’s actions, and to learn important lessons, as the evidence continues to pile up, concerning the conditions of one’s own happiness. But as with borderline cases in general, it is probably impossible to say exactly when a maturing child, let us say, becomes rational enough to advance above the relevant threshold or when someone suffering from age-related dementia sinks below that threshold. In the case of a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, for example, there need be no exact instant at which her ever-diminishing rationality removes the last shred of her remaining freedom; it is enough that at some point she has clearly lost the ability to make minimally rational judgments and has therefore lost the ability to act freely.

So that brings us to my second assumption above. Are there cogent reasons for believing that a free and fully informed decision to reject God forever represents a metaphysical impos­si­bil­ity? Of course there are. Even C. S. Lewis, despite his own defense of a free-will theodicy of hell, once offered support for this assumption, perhaps unknowingly, when he wrote concerning the divine nature that “union with that Nature is bliss and separation from it [an objective] horror.”2 Suppose, then, that we think of the outer darkness as a biblical image of separation from the divine nature as far as this is possible short of annihilation; suppose further that we think of such separation from every implicit experience of God as something akin to a soul suspended alone in sheer nothingness, without even a physical order to experience. If that would be an objective horror, as Lewis insisted, then it would explain why no minimally rational person could both experience this objective horror and continue to embrace it freely. It would also explains how God could shatter all of the illusions and self-deceptions that might make a life apart from God seem desirable and how he could do so without in any way interfering with our freedom to separate ourselves from him. For it is precisely when we exercise that very freedom and when God permits us to experience the very life we have confusedly chosen for ourselves that we begin to experience, and finally to discover, its horrific nature. Just as no one (with a normal nervous system) who is rational enough to qualify as a free moral agent could both shove an unprotected arm into a hot fire and retain an illusion that this fire causes sensations of intense pleasure, neither could such a person both experience the outer darkness and retain forever the illusion that some other imagined condition, such as submission to God, would be even worse than this.

In any case, here is a revision of Rooney’s second option, the truth of which I am prepared to defend:

2* No one who experiences the bliss of union with the divine nature can “do otherwise than love God,” and no one who freely refuses the offer of such a union and then experiences the full horror of being separated from the divine nature as far as this is possible short of one’s own annihilation can continue to embrace that separation freely.

Part of the issue here is whether there are limits of any kind to the range of possible free choice. Although Rooney seems to identify moral freedom with the power to act otherwise, as we have seen, it is easy enough to imagine cases where someone has such a power and yet remains too irrational to qualify as being morally responsible for his or her actions. Suppose, by way of illustration, that a schizophrenic young man should kill his loving mother, believ­ing her to be a sinister space alien who has devoured his real mother, and suppose further that he does so in a context in which he categorically could have chosen otherwise (in part, perhaps, because he worries about possible retaliation from other sinister space aliens). Why should such an irrational choice, even if not causally deter­mined, be any more compatible with genuine moral freedom than a rigorous determinism would be? Either our seriously deluded beliefs, particularly those with destructive consequences in our own lives, are in principle correctable by some degree of powerful evidence against them, or the choices that rest upon them are simply too irrational to qualify as free moral choices.

Similar remarks apply to the view of Lewis, with which Rooney concurs, that “the doors of hell are locked on the inside.” Given the traditional view of hell as an externally imposed punishment for sin, one that includes everlasting conscious torment, we can at least make coherent sense of why no one would ever exit from a hell of that kind; it would simply not be permitted. But Lewis imagines hell to be a freely embraced condition rather than an externally imposed punishment; that is the whole point of declaring that “the doors of hell are locked on the inside.” And that also raises again the obvious question of how someone who is rational enough to qualify as a free moral agent could both experience the sheer horror of separation from the divine nature (or the misery of hell, if you prefer) and continue freely to embrace it forever.

The First Option

According to Rooney’s first option, as he originally formulated it, “God could not do other­wise than cause human beings to love him.” As Jeremiah Carey points out in a previous response to Rooney on this blog, the term “cause” is simply too vague in the present context and clearly needs further clarification. But I shall concentrate here on the expression “could not do otherwise” and the role it plays in Rooney’s understanding of divine freedom. “What is necessary” for divine freedom, Rooney insists, “is that God could have done otherwise”—in other words, that “God is free of necessity in what he chooses to do.” Rooney thus contends that “what it is to be free (for both God and humans) is that one’s actions are not necessary” in that one acts freely only when one could have acted otherwise.

So is this an adequate understanding of divine freedom? Not in my opinion. Set aside the great questions (that occupy so much of Rooney’s attention) concerning the possibility that God might not have created anything at all or might not have entered into his own creation by way of an Incarnation. Is it not a necessary truth, according to traditional Christian theology (not to mention Titus 1:2), that God never lies? And is it not likewise a necessary truth that God never chooses to break a promise? If these are indeed logical necessities, it looks as if, according to Rooney, God never speaks the truth freely and never keeps his promises freely. In his dispute with David Bentley Hart, Rooney thus writes: “Being free [always?] involves being such that one can act on other reasons; necessitation looks strictly incompatible with [divine] freedom for that reason.” But again, isn’t that just obviously false, given a Christian understanding of the divine perfections? For even if God could have acted on “other reasons” and have refrained from making any promises at all, there are surely no possible reasons upon which he might conceivably act for the purpose of breaking a promise. Neither are there any possible reasons upon which he might conceivably act for the purpose of issuing certain kinds of commands. To give just one example, it is logically impossible, surely, that a God whose very essence is perfect love should issue a command that we torture babies for our own sadistic pleasure. So given such a logical impossibility as that, does it not follow, given Rooney’s conception of divine freedom, that God is not really free in this matter? Like Hart, I would argue instead that God’s freedom consists simply in his being true to himself, whether or not he could have done otherwise with respect to some specific action; and in a similar vein, C. S. Lewis, whom Rooney appears to revere, once put it this way:

Whatever human freedom means, Divine freedom cannot mean inde­ter­mi­nacy between alternatives and choice of one of them. Perfect goodness can never debate about the end to be attained, and perfect wisdom cannot debate over the means most suited to achieve it. The freedom of God consists in the fact that no cause other than Himself produces His acts and no external obstacle impedes them—that His own goodness is the root from which they all grow and His own omnipotence is the air in which they all flower.3

Now against this understanding of divine freedom, which Lewis appears to share with Hart, Rooney argues as follows:

What is necessary [for divine freedom] is that God could have done otherwise . . . If God were required to act only on the “best” reasons available to him, as Hart implies, God would be dependent on those reasons. Necessitating God’s choices is problematic because it implies that God’s goodness is dependent on creation or what he does. But God’s goodness is not dependent on creation.

I must confess that these remarks make no sense to me at all. If it is a logical (or meta­phys­ical) necessity that God keeps whatever promises he makes, then it is also a logical necessity that his reasons for keeping a given promise (assuming he makes one) will always outweigh whatever reasons may exist for breaking it. But how on earth does that make God’s goodness dependent on the very reasons for which his own moral perfection is responsible?—and how on earth does it make his goodness “dependent on creation”? What, in other words, is the relevant conception of dependence here? According to the traditional doctrine of divine aseity, neither God’s necessary existence nor his essential goodness is causally dependent upon (or a causal effect of) anything that happens in his creation; all relations of causal dependence go in the opposite direction. But whatever one might otherwise think of this doctrine, in no way is it inconsistent with there being a host of logical (or metaphysical) necessities and impossibilities, grounded in God’s self-sufficiency and essential perfections, concerning how he would providentially care for any created loved ones, if there should be any. When Rooney declares, “Necessitating God’s choices is problematic because it implies that God’s goodness is dependent on creation or what he does,” he therefore owes us something more than a bald assertion at this point. For as any perfect being theist would insist, he has it exactly backwards here. It is precisely the necessity of God’s goodness that actually determines some of his actions in creation—that he never breaks a promise, for example—so that his actions in relation to his creation are themselves dependent upon the nature of his goodness, not vice versa.

Rooney also owes us some additional clarity on his own understanding of such concepts as that of freedom, free choice, and free will. In the first sentence of the above quotation as well as elsewhere, he at least appears, once again, to identify doing something freely with a power to act otherwise. He then declares, “Universalism would not be true without denying either human freedom in salvation or divine freedom in creation or redemption.” But so what? All I ask for at this point is a bit of clarity from Rooney concerning his own use of the term “freedom” and its implications. If he wants to use this term in such a way that one acts freely only when, at the time of acting, one also has a power to act otherwise, then I will gladly accept this as a stipulation. For we are all free to stipulate a specific meaning for some technical term we are using, although we must also be clear about its implications. One implication of Rooney’s apparent stipulation is this: if a young mother, filled with love for her newborn baby, finds it utterly unthinkable (and therefore psycho­log­ically impossible) to abandon her baby and not to take care for it, then she does not take care of her baby freely in the above stipulated sense. But again I ask, “So what?” There are many other conceptions of freedom—including libertarian conceptions, I might add4—according to which our young mother does indeed take care of her baby freely. So to repeat the point, all we need here is a bit of clarity concerning the meaning and the implications of the basic terms we are using.

It seems likely, moreover, that neither God nor we humans typically make our most important decisions in a context in which we could have acted otherwise. As an illustration that takes us back to the issue of human freedom, consider how C. S. Lewis described his own conversion to Christianity when he wrote:

I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England . . . a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape. The words compelle intrare, compel them to come in, have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood, they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy. . . . His compulsion is our liberation.5

Does this not sound more like Hart’s conception of human freedom than it does Rooney’s conception of it? Consider how carefully Lewis chose his words in the larger context leading up to the above quotation. He observed first that “before God closed in on me, I was in fact offered what now appears a moment of wholly free choice.” But lest this remark should be misunderstood, he immediately added the following clarification: “I say, ‘I chose,’ yet it did not really seem possible to do the opposite [or to do otherwise]. . . . You could argue that I was not a free agent, but I am more inclined to think that this came nearer to being a perfectly free act than most that I have ever done. Necessity may not [always] be the opposite of freedom . . .” So here Lewis explicitly contradicts Rooney’s apparent assumption that necessity always is the opposite of freedom, and he thus illustrates the usefulness of a more subtle account of freedom, one that does not simply identify freedom with the power to do otherwise. And as I have already suggested in the previous section, a more subtle account should include these two ideas: first, that moral freedom requires that one has surpassed a certain threshold of rationality, and, second, that an utterly irrational choice cannot possibly qualify as a choice for which one is morally responsible.

The Inclusive Nature of Love

Now finally, Rooney interprets one of Hart’s arguments against an everlasting hell, perhaps the most persuasive one of them all in my opinion, as follows:

[T]here can be no eternal or perfect happiness if even one person is lost to damnation. In sum, ‘true spiritual love could never abide the sight of souls suffering in hell’ . . . Hart’s point is simply that the existence of [an ever­lasting] hell would make it impossible for anyone, let alone God, to be eternally happy. True love of others could not co-exist with even the possibility that anyone could be damned [with no further hope of salvation].

A point that Rooney fails to clarify here concerns the way in which love—that is, love in the sense of willing the very best for another—ties the interests of people together. We see this most clearly, perhaps, in the case of our own family and close friends, where we may find it somewhat easier to obey the second of the great commandments (see Matt. 22:39). For according to this commandment, we are to love others even as we love ourselves. If I truly love my own daughter and love her even as I love myself, then her interests and my own are so tightly interwoven as to be logically inseparable: any good that befalls her is then a good that befalls me, and any evil that befalls her is likewise an evil that befalls me. Or as Jesus himself once expressed a similar point: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it [i.e., performed acts of kindness] to one of the least of these my brethren [or loved ones], you did it to me . . . [and] as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me” (Matt. 25:40 & 45).

So is my claim here that any temporary harm or hardship that befalls one of my own loved ones would inevitably undermine my own happiness? Of course not! I would at least hope that I could experience directly many instances of temporary harm and hardship without losing a more basic sense of serenity. But even if I should fail in this regard, many of the saints among us would not; and the real issue comes down to whether one can sincerely believe that all will be well in the end. So let us now suppose that I should discover that some version of the doctrine of everlasting conscious torment should actually be true and that my own daughter was destined for such an end. Even if such a supposition expresses a logical impossibility, as I believe it does, we can at least imagine it being true. Suppose, then, that I should discover, to my horror, that my daughter had indeed come to such a terrible end. Even if I were to discover that, by her own will, she had made herself intolerably evil, I would still experience this as a terrible tragedy and an unacceptable loss, one for which no compensation is even conceivable. Is it any wonder, then, that Paul could say concerning his unbelieving kin whom he loved so dearly, “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people” (Romans 9:3)? From the perspective of his love, in other words, Paul’s own damnation would be no worse an evil, and no greater threat to his own happiness, than the eternal damnation of his loved ones would be.

I have no doubt, by the way, that God could, if he chose to do so, wipe all knowledge of such tragedies from our minds, although I doubt he could do so effectively without destroying a lot more of our minds than we might imagine. But blissful ignorance is a far cry from the most worthwhile forms of happiness, and it has, in any case, no relevance at all to God’s own happiness. So does God’s love for us likewise tie his interests together with our own? If it does—and I see no way it could fail to do so—then God’s own happiness surely is logically inconsistent with certain kinds of things happening to us. Or, to put it another way, God’s own happiness could not possibly be consistent with just anything we might imagine happening in his creation. Nor does it follow that actual events in the creation causally determine God’s happiness or could otherwise threaten it. Accordingly, a bit of clarity on this matter is essential to a proper evaluation of the following objection that Rooney raises against Hart: “Now, strictly speaking, we know it must be false in at least one instance that every person’s happiness depends on every other. God’s happiness exists in communion with that of the other Trinitarian persons; God’s happiness does not depend on his creatures.”

So just how should we understand Rooney’s claim here? Is he claiming that God’s eternal happiness is logically consistent with just anything that someone might imagine happening to his creatures? Suppose that a religious alien from Alpha Centauri should declare that all Christians, including Rooney, will burn eternally in hell for their blasphemy in accepting the Christian faith; and suppose further that our alien “friend” should then remind us that God’s own happiness does not depend causally on anything that actually happens in his creation. This might seem like a neat trick if it could fool some into believing, contrary to numerous biblical texts, that God cares nothing about what actually happens to his creatures. But that would also be sheer confusion. For once again, it is precisely God’s eternal happiness together with his essential goodness that determines the very nature of his providential control over his creation. And this explains, in particular, why God would never permit irreparable harm—that is, harm that not even omnipotence could repair at some future time—to befall one of his own loved ones. It also explains why certain conceptions of hell, including that of our imagined alien, would be logically inconsistent with God’s own happiness and essential goodness.

We thus confront a choice between two very different explanations concerning why nothing in creation could ever threaten God’s own happiness. We might imagine, first of all, that God should be utterly indifferent and couldn’t care less about the ultimate fate of created per­sons. But of course indifference is just the opposite of any genuine love for another. So even though I would never attribute to Rooney, without clearer evidence, the view that God is utterly indifferent concerning the ultimate fate of human beings, I would like to understand better his remark concerning communion within the divine Trinity. For this remark could easily be interpreted as implying that God’s happiness is logically consistent with just anything we might imagine happening outside the sphere of that special communion. Anyway, an alternative explanation of why nothing in creation could ever threaten God’s own happiness does not reject the idea that he cares deeply about the ultimate fate of those whom he has loved into existence in the first place. A Christian universalist may thus hold that the God “who desires everyone to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4) and “is not willing that any should perish but [wills instead] that all should come to repent­ance” (2 Peter 3:9) never has the slightest doubt concerning his ability to satisfy his own will or desire in this matter. For has he not already arranged things so that “one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people” (Rom. 5:18b)?

Finally, against any suggestion that communion within the Trinity could render God indifferent to the fate of those others whom he has loved into existence, I would argue that the truth is just the opposite of that. The following analogy is no doubt flawed in many ways, but it nonetheless points in the direction of an important truth. Suppose that a young married couple have an absolutely fulfilling love relationship with each other, and suppose further that their relationship would remain altogether fulfilling even if they never have children together. They enjoy hiking together in the mountains, joking around with each other and their friends, and just being in each other’s presence. Still, if they do have a child together and continue to love that child with all their heart, then their happiness cannot remain consistent with just anything that might happen to that child. Similarly, even if God’s happiness is consistent with his choosing not to create anything at all, his decision to create additional persons to love automatically changes the situation he faces in this respect: his supreme happiness is no longer consistent with just anything we might imagine happening in his creation. Yes, there is an important disanalogy in the present context between our example of loving parents and the Trinitarian God of Christianity. For however loving a pair of human parents may be, they will have far less control over the ultimate fate of their child than an omnipotent and omniscient God would have over the ultimate fate of his creation. But that merely underscores the point that, unlike a pair of human parents, God’s own happiness is never vulnerable to conditions over which he has no control at all.


Perhaps I can do no better, by way of a conclusion, than to reproduce a paragraph from a section entitled “The Essential Role of Human Freedom in Universal Reconciliation” from my book The Inescapable Love of God (pp. 123-124):

Essential to the whole [redemptive] process, then, is that we exercise our moral freedom—not that we choose rightly rather than wrongly, but that we choose freely one way or the other. We can choose today to live selfishly or unselfishly, faithfully or unfaithfully, obediently or disobediently. But our choices, especially the bad ones, will also have unintended and unforeseen consequences in our lives; as the proverb says, “The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps” (Prov. 16:9). A man who commits robbery may set off a chain of events that, contrary to his own intention, lands him in jail; and a woman who enters into an adulterous affair may discover that, even though her husband remains oblivious to it, the affair has a host of unforeseen and destructive consequences in her life. In fact, our bad choices almost never get us what we really want; that is part of what makes them bad and also one reason why God is able to bring redemptive goods out of them. When we make a mess of our lives and our misery becomes more and more unbearable, the hell we thereby create for ourselves will in the end resolve the very ambiguity and shatter the very illusions that made the bad choices possible in the first place. That is how God works with us as created rational agents. He permits us to choose freely in the ambiguous contexts in which we first emerge as self-aware beings, and he then requires us to learn from experience the hard lessons we sometimes need to learn. So in that way, the consequences of our free choices, both the good ones and the bad ones, are a source of revelation; they reveal sooner or later—in the next life, if not in this one—both the horror of separation from God and the bliss of union with him. And that is why the end is foreordained: all paths finally lead to the same destination, the end of reconciliation, though some are longer, windier, and a lot more painful than others.


[1] I defend this claim in a presentation I made at the Door Standing Open Conference in Providence, Rhode Island, on April 28, 2018. The presentation was entitled “How to Read the Bible from a Universalist Perspective,” and it is available at the following URL: http://www.willamette.edu/~ttalbott/Reading%20the%20Bible.pdf

[2] C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955), p. 232.

[3] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1944), p. 23.

[4] See, for example, my explanation of the source libertarian view in my book Understanding the Free Will Controversy: Thinking through a Philosophical Quagmire (Eugene, OR; Cascade Books, 2022), pp. 15-17.

[5] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, pp. 228-229.

* * *

Thomas Talbott is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. He is best known for his advocacy of trinitarian universalism. Due to his book The Inescapable Love of God and other works, he is one of the most prominent Protestant voices today supporting the doctrine of universal salvation. The 2003 book Universal Salvation?: The Current Debate presents Talbott’s “rigorous defense of universalism” together with responses from various fields theologians, philosophers, church historians and other religious scholars supporting or opposing Talbott’s universalism. Talbott contributed the chapter on “Universalism” for The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology. A list of his peer-reviewed articles can be found on his webpage. This past summer Wipf & Stock published his book Understanding the Free-Will Controversy. Over the years Dr Talbott has contributed several articles to Eclectic Orthodoxy, including “Free Will Theodicies of Hell,” and a four-part review of That All Shall Be Saved.

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God Creates the World from the Cross

“Since he who saves already existed, it was necessary that he who would be saved should come into existence, that the One who saves should not exist in vain.”1

This quotation from the great second-century bishop and theologian St Irenaeus of Lyons immediately jumped out at me as I was reading the meaty third chapter of Fr John Behr’s The Mystery of Christ. I had to read it multiple times just to make sure I had understood it rightly. Even after checking other translations of the Against Heresies, I’m still not sure if I do. First I turned to the translation of Robert Grant:

Since he who would save pre-existed, what would be saved had to come into existence, so that the saving one would not be in vain.

The punch of the sentence has been muted. “He who saves” (present tense) has become “he who would save” (future tense). Grant’s rendering almost makes Irenaeus sound like a scholastic theologian who has clearly distinguished in his mind the formal distinction between the immanent and economic Trinities—and that can’t be right. Irenaeus is just too early. Then I checked with two patristic scholars. They both preferred Behr’s translation over Grant’s. I found further confirmation in John Saward’s translation:

Since the Savior existed already, the one to be saved had to be brought into existence, so that the Savior should not be in vain.

The old Ante-Nicene Fathers translation renders the verse as follows:

For inasmuch as He had a pre-existence as a saving Being, it was necessary that what might be saved should also be called into existence, in order that the Being who saves should not exist in vain.

For the curious, here’s the Latin text:

Cum enim praeexisteret salvans, opportebat et quod salvaretur fieri, uti non vacuum sit salvans.

As you have already guessed, the punch of the sentence comes in the main clause: “it was necessary that he who would be saved should come into existence, that the One who saves should not exist in vain.” Irenaeus seems to be saying that God created the world in order to save it, as if evil and sin were somehow intrinsic to the world. Needless to say, that would be a contentious thing for any catholic bishop to say. It would contradict two critical orthodox convictions:

  • God freely chose to create the universe.
  • God is not the author of evil.

My first inclination is to jump in and immediately clarify what Irenaeus surely must have meant. Matthew Steenberg (now Bishop Irenei) offers precisely such a clarification in his book Irenaeus on Creation. Commenting on the sentence in question, he writes:

This is perhaps among the more controversial of Irenaeus’ statements on God’s nature, as it is susceptible to charges of necessitarianism in the divine essence and represents a manifestation of circular logic at which most first-year students of philosophy would balk. Such criticisms ought seriously to be addressed. But Irenaeus’ primary point is not that God was restrained by his nature to create the cosmos and humanity (for he points out elsewhere that God as God can, ultimately, do or not do whatever he likes), but that God’s good nature leads naturally to the creation of a universe in which such goodness can be fully expressed. Irenaeus employs the language of necessity to describe that which he believes is so fundamental to God’s free nature that it could not express itself in any other manner than that described—and, paramountly, that which the nature of the incarnate Christ discloses as the necessary background to his own recapitulative work.2

Sounds right, proper, and orthodox to me; but it does reduce the impact of Irenaeus’ statement, as if the saint were simply guilty of a poor choice of words. “Nothing to see here, move along.” So before retreating into clarification, let’s ask whether something else might be going on here with Irenaeus. Behr thinks there is:

In Adam, the Word sketched out in advance what would be revealed and established in the Son of God, Christ himself. The description of Adam as a ‘type’ implies the prior existence of the one of whom he is a type. As such, the one who was to come exists before Adam; it was by him and for him that Adam came into existence, and, furthermore, as he exists as the Saviour, Adam came into existence to be saved by him. Thus, though only appearing at the end, this one is, nevertheless, the true beginning.

This is a remarkable statement and for our modern theological sensibilities perhaps rather jarring. Yet it is entirely consequential and coherent, and a position held right through to the end of the Byzantine era. It highlights the fact, as we have been emphasizing, that Irenaeus theologizes strictly from within the economy, from what can in fact be known and spoken about, with the right hermeneutic, of God’s activity and revelation in Christ. He resists any attempt to seek a higher perspective to speak about God prior to and independent from creation, a standpoint that would have to be supra-human and, indeed, above God himself; to attempt to speak from such a perspective would, for Irenaeus, be not only presumptuous but also groundless. Yet, since the starting point for Christian theology is the work of God in Christ, understood through the opening of the Scriptures, the Christ who is now known to be the one to whom God said ‘Let us make the human being’ is already known to be the Saviour, to ‘pre-exist’ as Saviour, and so Adam’s relation to his maker is always already that of being saved by the Saviour. We are here far removed from the debate between Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus about whether the Word would have become incarnate had Adam not fallen, a debate that has all too frequently set the parameters for interpreting Irenaeus. We are also far removed from any attempt to think of creation and salvation as being respectively, in rather crude terms, ‘Plan A’, followed by the ‘Fall’, which is then rectified by ‘Plan B’. Starting with Christ, Irenaeus would rather see creation and salvation, with carefully defined nuances considered below, as being not two moments within one economy, but rather as coextensive, as the one economy: God’s continuously creative work throughout the economy, resulting in the end in the one who is in the image and likeness of God, is salvation. And, as such, Irenaeus can even say that it was necessary for Adam to come into existence, not implying any lack or need in God himself, but simply as a consequence of the fact that the starting point for all theology is Jesus Christ, the Saviour.3

Irenaeus reflects upon Jesus Christ from within the economia of salvation. He does not come to Scripture as a detached academic but as a believer in Christ who lives within the world of eucharist and gospel. Of course, all orthodox theologians do so, in one way or another; but few have ever concluded that because Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world, therefore God had to bring humanity into existence; otherwise there would be no need for a Savior. Because Jesus, therefore Adam. Redemption intrinsically belongs to divine creation. The logic turns our heads upside down—but before we dismiss it, let’s recall a couple of verses from Scripture:

And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. (Rev 13:8)

Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son: In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins: Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist. (Col 1:13-17)

“Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” (Jn 8:58)

How is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world when the crucifixion took place in A.D. 33? How can St Paul say that the world is created through and by the man Jesus? What does the Son of God mean when he declares that he existed before his birth, before Abraham . . . before Adam?

“The mystery of the Cross,” writes Fr Georges Florovsky, “begins in eternity, ‘in the sanctuary of the Holy Trinity, unapproachable for creatures.'”

When Irenaeus reads Genesis 2, he sees first not Adam but the Nazarene, in whose image Adam was made. It’s as if time itself begins with the Crucified and flows and backwards and forwards from him. The eternal Father speaks the world into being from the cross. Those who are acquainted with the eschatological theology of Robert W. Jenson will not be shocked. Throughout his distin­guished career, Jenson insisted that the Trinity must be interpreted through the Logos ensarkos: “Our divine savior is not an extra metaphysical entity, whether the unincar­nate Logos of the Antiochenes or ‘the Christ’ of the more feeble sorts of modern theology. He is Mary’s child, the hanged man of Golgotha.”4 Behr would agree and astonishingly suggests that the creation of the universe is properly dated on the day of our Lord’s crucifixion!

We can only speak of creation as having been brought into being by and for its savior Jesus Christ, and its whole history as having been providentially by him, from the moment that he is revealed within its history, as the Passion. Theologically speaking, creation and its history begins with the Passion of Christ and from this “once for all” work looks backwards and forwards to see everything in this light, making everything new. Christian cosmology, elaborated as it must be from the perspective of the Cross, sees the Cross as impregnated in the very structure of creation: stat crux dum volvitur orbis—the Cross stands, while the earth revolves. The power of God revealed in and through the Cross brought creation into being and sustains it in existence . . . Just as the date of the Passion in antiquity was considered to be 25 March (which . . . was the basis for calculating the date of his nativity, nine months later), so also in antiquity 25 March was considered to be the very date of creation, the Creation which revolves around the axis of the eternal, immovable Cross. As paradoxical as it might sound, one can say, theologically, that creation and salvation were effected simultaneously on that day, 25 March, A.D 33, when Christ gave himself for the life of the world.5

“Since he who saves already existed, it was necessary that he who would be saved should come into existence, that the One who saves should not exist in vain”—has any catholic theologian said anything more metaphysically revolutionary than this?

(9 April 2017; rev.)


[1] Irenaeus, Against Heresies III.22.3.

[2] Matthew Steenberg, Irenaeus on Creation (2008), p. 32.

[3] John Behr, Irenaeus of Lyons (2015), pp. 146-147.

[4] Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology (2001), I:145; also see his journal article “Once More the Logos Asarkos“; cf. Douglas Farrow, “St. Irenaeus of Lyons.”

[5] Behr, The Mystery of Christ (2006), pp. 90-91.

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Reading the Scriptures with the Risen Christ

How was it that the disciples came to know Jesus as Lord, Son of God, incarnate Word? They did not acquire this knowledge by merely accompanying him on his travels around Galilee—the gospels make this point clearly enough. Nor did they come to this knowledge by seeing Jesus nailed to a cross by the Romans. If anything, his death marked him as but one more failed Messiah. Nor did they acquire this knowledge by the discovery of the empty tomb on Easter morning: an empty tomb can be explained in various ways. The New Testament offers one explanation for the paschal faith of the disciples: the risen Jesus appeared to them on Easter Sunday and the weeks thereafter.1 Yet even these encounters could be mysterious, enigmatic, puzzling. Matthew reports the story of Jesus’ manifesta­tion in Galilee: “And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted” (Matt 28:17). Something else was needed to bring full conviction.

Recall the story of St Cleopas and his unnamed companion (St Luke?). As they were walking to Emmaus, a stranger takes up with them. He proceeds to exposit the Scriptures and demonstrate how the sacred writings foretold of the Messiah’s suffering, death, and vindication. Even then they did not recognize him. The two compan­ions prevail upon the stranger to stay for supper. He offers the blessing and breaks the bread. At that moment their eyes are opened. They recognize him as  Jesus, raised from death by the Father in accordance with the Scriptures. The risen Lord then disappears from their sight. In amazement Cleopas and his companion cry out, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32). Fr John Behr elaborates:

Rather, the disciples came to recognize the Lord as the one whose Passion is spoken of by the scriptures and encountered him in the breaking of bread. It is these two complementary ways, the engagement with the scriptures and sharing in the Lord’s meal, “proclaiming his death until he comes” (1 Cor 11.26), that Paul specifies he had received (from the Lord himself in the case of the eucharistic meal) and then handed down, or “traditioned,” to later generations (cf. 1 Cor 11.23, 15.3). These constitute, as it were, the matrix and sustenance of the Christian tradition. From this vantage point, we can now look back to the Cross, the last publicly visible image (the tomb, after all, was empty and seen only by a few, and the risen Christ disappears from our sight when he is recognized), as the sign of victory, as we await the return of the Lord; as the apostle Paul said, he would preach nothing else but Christ and him crucified. The images throughout the early Christian period depicting the Crucifixion constitute, such as that in the Rabbula Gospels, consistently depict the crucified Christ with an upright body and eyes wide open, not because of an inability to depict a dead corpse, but precisely because the crucified one is the triumphant Lord: the Cross itself is taken simultaneously as a reference to the Crucifixion and to the risen Christ. The Christ that Christians are concerned with is always the crucified and exalted one, the one who has now entered into his glory.2

The disciples did not become convinced that Jesus had been raised from death by just reading the sacred writings. The confession of the Crucified as Son and Lord is dependent upon the fresh interpretation of the Scriptures generated by the mysterious events of Pascha. The appearances of the risen Lord precede the paschal interpre­tation. Yet as the Emmaus story suggests, the appearances and apostolic hermeneutic are inseparably intertwined, as we would expect for such a dramatic paradigm shift. “All data are theory-laden,” N. R. Hanson declared back in the late ’50s. Ian Barbour later rephrased the dictum: “There are no bare uninterpreted data.” Philosophers debate the validity of Hanson’s thesis, but it certainly seems to obtain when evaluating the formula­tion of the Church’s resurrection faith. What we believe informs what we see; what we see informs what we believe.

The crucifixion should have demonstrated the falsity of Jesus’ messianic claims. As the Emmaus travelers told Jesus: “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). But then something remarkable happens. The disciples re-group and begin proclaiming Jesus of Nazareth as Lord and Savior:

The disciples did not simply come to understand Christ in light of the Passion. Rather, only when turned again (or were turned by the risen Christ) to the scriptures (meaning what we now call the “Old Testament”) did they begin to see there all sorts of references to Christ, and specifically to the necessity that he should suffer before entering his glory (cf. Lk 24.27), which they then used in their proclamation of Christ. In other words, they were not used merely as a narrative of the past, but rather as a thesaurus, a teasing of imagery, for entering into the mystery of Christ, the starting point for which is the historical event of the Passion. In this it is not so much scripture that is being exegeted, but rather Christ who is being interpreted by recourse of the scriptures. Not that they denied that God had been at work in the past, but their account of this “salvation history” is one which is told from the perspective of their encounter with the risen Lord, seeing him as providentially arranging the whole economy, the plan of salvation,” such that it culminates in him.3

The entirety of the Bible is about the crucified Nazarene. He is found on every page, if one has eyes to see and ears to hear. Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea symbolizes the paschal victory of the glorified Jesus over the powers of sin, evil and death. When Moses in the wilderness strikes the rock and water gushes out, that rock, the Apostle Paul says, was Christ himself, our eucharistic drink (1 Cor 10:4). The story of Jonah in the stomach of the whale typologically witnesses to Jesus’ stay in the tomb. If we wish to read the Scriptures rightly, we must walk with Jesus and allow him to teach us: “And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).


Consider the story of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. Philip finds him sitting in his chariot reading the hymn of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53. The eunuch does not ask the question “we would ask today—‘What is the meaning of this passage?’—as if the ‘meaning’ were located in the text itself, and so in the past, and our task is to uncover it, what the text ‘meant,’ and then perhaps to find ‘meaning’ for ourselves in the present by some kind of analogy. Instead the eunuch asked, ‘About whom does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ (Acts 8.34).”4 Philip explains to him that the prophecy refers to Jesus of Nazareth and has been fulfilled in his passion. “‘Meaning’ resides in the person of whom the text speaks, and our task is to know this person by understanding how the text speaks of him.”5 The words point us to the Word, and the Word interprets the words. As Christ states in the Gospel of John: “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me” (John 5:39). Only by understanding that Jesus is the true text of Scripture can we “understand why for the authors of the writings of the New Testament, and those whose work resulted in these writings being collected together, the expression ‘the Word of God’ did not refer to scripture, as it is often assumed today, but to Jesus Christ himself and the gospel proclaiming him, the crucified and exalted one, as Lord.”6 Jesus is the Word made flesh. The exegetical task of preacher and theologian, writes Behr, is not “to retrieve the original, pristine and pure, meaning of the authors of scripture by removing the obscuring sediment of later theological reflection.”7 If such historical meaning exists and can be recovered, it is of only secondary interest to the Church. Historical critics come to the biblical text as historical artifact. Their investigation is focused on the past. I do not question the necessity and worth of their scholarship; but their methods preclude encounter with the living Christ. The Church lives from the future, and she has her own hermeneutic. As Behr has frequently remarked, “If you aren’t reading the Bible allegorically, you’re not reading it as Scripture.”8 The task of the Church is to proclaim Christ crucified and declare the good news of his resurrection. Behr quotes an illuminating passage from St Irenaeus:

If anyone, therefore, reads the Scriptures this way, he will find in them the Word concerning Christ, and a foreshadowing of the new calling. For Christ is the “treasure which was hidden in the field” [Matt 13:44], that is, in this world—for “the field is the world” [Matt 13:38]—[a treasure] hidden in the Scriptures, for he was indicated by means of types and parables, which could not be understood by men prior to the consummation of those things which had been predicted, that is, the advent of the Lord. And therefore it was said to Daniel the prophet, “Shut up the words, and seal the book, until the time of the consummation, until many learn and knowledge abounds. For, when the dispersion shall be accomplished, they shall know all these things” [Dan 12:4, 7]. And Jeremiah also says, “In the last days they shall understand these things” [Jer 23:20]. For every prophecy, before its fulfillment, is nothing but an enigma and ambiguity to men; but when the time has arrived, and the prediction has come to pass, then it has an exact exposition (ἐξήγησις). And for this reason, when at this present time the Law is read by the Jews, it is like a myth, for they do not possess the explanation (ἐξήγησις) of all things which pertain to the human advent of the Son of God; but when it is read by Christians, it is a treasure, hid in a field, but brought to light by the cross of Christ, and explained, both enriching the understanding of men, and showing forth the wisdom of God, and making known his dispensations with regard to man, and prefiguring the kingdom of Christ, and preaching in anticipation the good news of the inheritance of the holy Jerusalem, and proclaiming beforehand that the man who loves God shall advance so far as even to see God, and hear his Word, and be glorified, from hearing his speech, to such an extent, that others will not be able to behold his glorious countenance [cf. 2 Cor 3:7], as was said by Daniel, “Those who understand shall shine as the brightness of the firmament, and many of the righteous as the stars for ever and ever” [Dan 12:3]. In this manner, then, I have shown it to be, if anyone read the Scriptures.9

Christ is hidden in the Old Testament. Apart from noetic apprehension of the risen One, it remains a closed book, a collection of disjointed myths, stories, prophesies and commandments. But once the Messiah is raised from the dead and the Spirit is poured out, the Old Testament becomes luminous testimony to the Kingdom proleptically present in the Eucharist of the Church. In the words of Andrew Greeley: “Christ turned the world upside down; and when the world was viewed from such a remarkable perspective, it suddenly made sense.”10


Contemporary theology and biblical studies, with its privileging of the historical-critical method, inevitably finds the apostolic hermeneutic an embarrassment. Neither the Apostles nor the Church Fathers treated the biblical writings as documents whose meaning lies exclusively in the text itself. If they had, there would have been neither gospel nor Church. The crucified and risen Jesus, and he alone, is the canon of faith.

Decades ago I attended a conference at Princeton Seminary. The conference was dedicated to the theme of biblical authority and interpretation. Among the distinguished speakers, two in particular caught my attention—the renowned New Testament scholar Jack Dean Kingsbury and the great theologian-provocateur Stanley Hauerwas. At one point in his lecture, Hauerwas announced that if God were ever to put him in charge of the seminaries in the country, his first order of business would be to fire en masse all the biblical scholars. I remember looking over at Kingsbury, sitting not too far away from me. He did not look pleased. Hauerwas would later write a little book, Unleashing the Scripture, in which he vigorously attacks the Protestant principle of sola scriptura and the privileging of the historical-critical method in the Church. He takes up the claim of Stanley Fish that texts do not have meaning in themselves but only emerge as texts through the interpretive process. Needless to say, Hauerwas does not think very highly of the principle of sola scriptura: “When sola scriptura is used to underwrite the distinction between text and interpre­ta­tion, then it seems clear to me that sola scriptura is a heresy rather than a help in the Church. When this distinction persists, sola scriptura becomes the seedbed of funda­ment­alism, as well as biblical criticism. It assumes that the text of the Scripture makes sense separate from a Church that gives it sense.”11 I suspect Fr John might agree.

(29 March 2017; rev.)


[1] See N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (2003).

[2] John Behr, The Mystery of Christ (2006), pp. 27-28.

[3] Ibid., p. 17.

[4] Ibid., pp. 49-50.

[5] Ibid., p. 50.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., p. 47.

[8] See John Behr, “Reading Scripture,” Public Orthodoxy (12 December 2017), and “Lifting the Veil: Reading Scripture in the Orthodox Tradition,” Sobornost 38 (2016): 74-90.

[9] Irenaeus, Against the Heresies 4.26.1.

[10] Andrew Greeley, The Great Mysteries (2003), p. 16.

[11] Stanley Hauerwas, Unleashing the Scripture (1993), p. 27.


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Returning to the Paschal Christ: The Pre-Post-Modernity of John Behr


In his book The Mystery of Christ, Fr John Behr advances a two-pronged attack on modern theology:

  • It treats dogmas as finished formulae, which can then be employed by the theologian without regard to “the way in which they were first learned and from the exegetical practice, the manner of using scripture, in and through which they were articulated.”1
  • It then proceeds, with dogmatic formulae firmly in place, to tell the story of salvation in historical, linear fashion, beginning with creation and the history of Israel and culmi­nat­ing in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, followed by Pentecost and the life of the Church.

At this point I’m thinking, yep, that’s me. Nobody but us moderns here.

Unfortunately, Behr presents few examples of the theologians whose methodology he wishes to critique, nor does he acknowledge those who have already challenged theology’s captivity to the Enlightenment. I deem this a weakness. I dislike generalizations and am skeptical of metanarratives. If you’re going to talk about modernity, then at least give me a footnote or two. But I quibble. It’s hard to disagree with Behr’s claim that systematic theology has taken on a dogmatic and philosophical life of its own, though I note that this happened centuries before Descartes and Hume; and it’s hard to disagree with his claim that much of the theology done during the past century has been driven by what really, truly, objectively happened way back in the days of yesteryear. This is certainly true for biblical studies. Behr vigorously contests this historicist commitment. The theology of the Church is first and foremost confession of faith:

It is a stubborn fact, or at least is presented this way in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, that the one born of Mary was not known by the disciples to be the Son of God until after the Passion, his crucifixion and resurrection (the apparent exception, Peter’s confession in Mt 16, in fact proves the point, and the Gospel of John takes this reflection further, as we will see). Thus, to speak of the “Incarnation,” to say that the one born of the Virgin is the Son of God, is an interpretation made only in the light of the Passion. It is a confession about the crucified and exalted Lord, whose birth is then described in terms drawn from the account of his death (the corres­pon­dence between the tomb and the womb that delighted early Christians and is celebrated in liturgical texts and iconography); it is not a neutral statement that could be verified by an uninvolved bystander as part of an objective history, an account of things “as they actually happened,” in the manner of nineteenth-century historiography. Although popular imagination is still enthralled by the idea of “what really happened,” it is generally recognized today that there is no such thing as uninterpreted history. Failing to appreciate the confessional nature of theological assertions gives much modern theology a character that can only be described as an odd mixture of metaphysics and mythology.2

“An odd mixture of metaphysics and mythology”—I imagine that Protestant critics might well throw this comment right back at Behr and his fellow Orthodox. After all, we have thoroughly assimilated into our liturgies the stories of the Theotokos from the Proto­evan­gel­ium of James and typically treat them as historical report. But that is by the by.

The assertion of the confessional nature of theology forces us, says Behr, to take seriously the ways the early Church lived out their faith in worship, prayer, and the interpretation of the Scriptures:

It is sometimes said that for antiquity truth is what is, for enlightened modernity it is what was, and for postmodernity it is that which will have been. The historicizing approach of modernity places the truth of Jesus Christ firmly in the past—how he was born and what he did and said—and subject his truth to our criteria of historicity, which are ultimately no more than a matter of what we find plausible (as is evidenced by the “Jesus Seminar”). For antiquity, on the other hand, the truth of Christ is eternal, or better, timeless: the crucified and risen Lord is the one whom scripture has always spoken. Yet, as the disciples come to recognize him, as the subject of scripture and in the breaking of bread, he disappears from their sight (Lk 24.31). The Christ of Christian faith, revealed concretely in and through the apostolic proclamation of the crucified and risen Lord in accordance with scripture, is an eschatological figure, the Coming One.3

Christian theology properly begins with the gospel proclamation of Jesus Christ, crucified, risen, and returning in glory.

(23 March 2017; rev.)


[1] John Behr, The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death (2006), p. 15.

[2] Ibid., p. 16.

[3] Ibid., p. 17.

(Go to “Reading the Scriptures”)

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