Is the freedom to reject God—definitively, irrevocably, everlastingly—authentic freedom? Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Arminian, and all other free-will defenders of eternal perdition must answer yes. To answer otherwise would mean that God permits individuals who live under a serious form of bondage, constraint, or limitation—and are thus incapable of morally responsible action—to injure themselves irreparably. As is commonly stated, God does not damn; the damned damn themselves. Yet the notion that human beings are capable of freely separating themselves from the bliss of the Kingdom and thus freely embracing eternal torment is far more complex than we might initially imagine.
I’d like to come at this by first briefly considering our Lord’s famous parable on the Last Judgment:
Now, whenever the Son of Mankind may be coming in His glory, and all the holy messengers with Him, then shall He be seated on the throne of His glory, and in front of Him shall be gathered all the nations. And He shall be severing them from one another even as a shepherd is severing the sheep from the kids. And He shall be standing the sheep, indeed, at His right, yet the kids at the left. Then shall the King be declaring to those at His right, ‘Hither, blessed of My Father! Enjoy the allotment of the kingdom made ready for you from the disruption of the world. For I hunger and you give Me to eat; I thirst and you give Me drink; a stranger was I and you took Me in; naked and you clothed Me; infirm am I and you visit Me; in jail was I and you come to Me.’ Then the just will be answering Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we perceive Thee hungering and nourish Thee, or thirsting and we give Thee drink? Now when did we perceive Thee a stranger and took Thee in, or naked and we clothed Thee? Now when did we perceive Thee infirm, or in jail, and we came to Thee?’ And, answering, the King shall be declaring to them, ‘Verily, I am saying to you, In as much as you do it to one of these, the least of My brethren, you do it to Me. Then shall He be declaring to those also at His left, ‘Go from Me, you cursed, into the fire eonian, made ready for the Adversary and his messengers. For I hunger and you do not give Me to eat; I thirst and you do not give Me drink; a stranger was I and you did not take Me in; naked and you did not clothe Me; infirm and in jail and you did not visit Me.’ Then shall they also be answering, saying, ‘Lord, when did we perceive you hungering or thirsting, or a stranger, or naked, or infirm, or in jail, and we did not serve you?’ Then shall He be answering them, saying, ‘Verily, I am saying to you, In as much as you do it not to one of these, the least, neither do you it to Me.’ And these shall be coming away into chastening eonian, yet the just into life eonian. (Matt 25:31-46 [CLNT])
Both the sheep and the goats are surprised by the divine verdict. The righteous are unaware that by their service to the poor and needy they had served the Lord, and the reprobate are unaware that they had failed to serve the Lord. The former are rewarded with life eonian and the latter with fire eonian. In the exegetical tradition that eventually became the dominant tradition the sentence delivered upon the wicked is understood as an everlasting punishment. The great 11th century Byzantine commentator, St Theophylact of Ohrid, offers the following interpretation:
He does not give honor or punishment until He has first judged. For He loves mankind and teaches us to do the same as well, not to punish until we have made a careful examination. In this way those who are punished after the judgement will have no cause for complaint. … He sends those on the left into the fire which had been prepared for the devil. For as the demons are without compassion and are cruelly and maliciously disposed towards us, it is fitting that they who are of like mind with them, and who have been cursed by their own deeds, should merit the same punishment. See that God did not prepare the fire for men, nor did He make hell for us, but for the devil; but I make myself liable to hell. … Tremble, then, O man, and understand from this that these men were not punished as fornicators, or robbers, or perpetrators of any other vice, but for not having done good. …
There is another reason that could be mentioned, and that is that the sinner is in darkness even in this life, as he has fallen away from the Sun of Righteousness, but as there is still hope of conversion, this is not yet the “outer” darkness. But when he has died and an examination has been made of the things he has done, then the outer darkness in its turn receives him. For there is no longer any hope of conversion, but he undergoes a complete deprivation of the good things of God. (The Explanation of Blessed Theophylact of the Holy Gospel According to Matthew, pp. 219-221)
Theophylact does not hesitate to speak of the retributive punishment of the wicked: God condemns the impious on the basis of the choices they have made–specifically, their multiple failures to do good. Yet as Thomas Talbott pointedly observes, “those subjected to punishment not only do not choose their punishment; they are surprised to receive it” (“Freedom, Damnation and the Power to Sin with Impunity,” p. 1). The reprobate may have freely chosen to act sinfully during their earthly lives. They may have freely chosen to spend their wealth on themselves and their pleasures than to share generously with the poor. They may have freely chosen to close their doors to the hungry and homeless. They are most certainly guilty of their sins of omission, as well as their sins of commission. But they did not freely choose to be cast into the everlasting fire—that is a consequence that they did not intend, just as any criminal does not freely choose imprisonment. In the parable the Divine Judge proclaims the verdict and imposes eschatological retribution upon the wicked, against their will. Perhaps Theophylact’s commentary on the parable might be interpreted to also say that the reprobate are condemned not only for their sins but also for their characters—they have become vicious people who deserve everlasting punishment—but both Jesus and Byzantine exegete focus their attention on the judgment of deeds. Neither explicitly states that the damned have voluntarily embraced an eternal destiny of separation from the life of God, with all of its attendant torments. That conclusion is something we read into the text, based on a prior understanding of divine retribution and eternal damnation.
Modern advocates of the free-will model of hell eschew the notion of eschatological retributive punishment. The intimation that the God of trinitarian Love eternally subjects any of his creatures to everlasting torment is rightly rejected as abhorrent—despite the contrary testimonies that we find throughout the tradition. C. S. Lewis is often quoted: “I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the gates of hell are locked on the inside” (The Problem of Pain, p. 127).
The free-will model of hell depends on the door being locked from the inside. How then do we understand the choice of the damned to remain damned? What does it mean to freely embrace eternal perdition? Why don’t the reprobate avail themselves of the opportunity for escape? Dumitru Stanilaoe differentiates between two kinds of freedom—freedom for God and freedom against God. True freedom is found in communion with God and other persons. “It is in this communion,” Staniloae states, “that the true and complete good is found. He who has attained this has the true freedom (identical with the true and infinite good) from which he no longer wants to depart and from which he can no longer depart, in the sense of an acquired powerlessness” (The Experience of God, VI:37). But there is also a negative freedom, says Staniloae, “a freedom that is opposed to uniting itself with the absolute good, or that refuses communion with the supreme Person, the source of love who makes complete communion with other persons possible” (VI:37-38). In this negative freedom the person “can never be changed by God in his denial of Him, which he considers as the true freedom. … Thus God does not hinder anyone from remaining eternally in the narrowness of his egoism, a narrowness that he interprets as the true freedom” (VI:38).
But is this negative freedom appropriately described as freedom?