“Thou movest us to delight in praising Thee; for Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee” (Confessions I.1)—perhaps the most famous sentence from one of the most famous prayers (and most certainly the longest) in the catholic tradition. St Augustine’s words have been quoted by preachers ever since they were penned. They point us to the most fundamental truth of our existence—we are created for God and can only find lasting happiness and fulfillment in him. Stephen J. Duffey offers the following commentary:
Grace is a comprehensive ambience for Augustine. No person, event, aspect of his life stood outside the divine intent to bring him to fulfillment. Conversion was not the first entrance of grace into his life, only the compass point from which he could read the presence of grace from the very beginning of his days. Wherever he meets himself, God is there before him. Thus the prayer of gratitude suffuses the Confessions. Grace is inescapable, wholly prevenient. Every movement of his heart, every initiative of his will is preceded by God who calls and sustains his holy restlessness. The relentless undertow in his life was the emptiness God had set within him, which only God could fill up, and the unfathomable Providence of God, which drew him, yet rescued him from being swallowed by the emptiness. In Augustine’s metaphysics of creation the substrate of every creature is the formless void of Genesis. The creature is mutable, defectible, teetering on the brink of nothingness whence it came. In the created spirit, this void is the innate desire for happiness. Attracting us to God yet unable to bring us to God, it leads to dangerous and restless questing. For the created spirit to be complete, this chaos within must be “formed” by the Word and stabilized by the Spirit. Often a dull ache, this inner desire could erupt in sharp pain. It was this experience that grounded Augustine’s understanding of grace. (The Dynamics of Grace, p. 82)
Created in the image of God we are incomplete without God. Of course, no one is truly without God. As divine Creator, God actively exists in the ontological depths of every person. He is more intimate to us than we are to ourselves. Yet we suffer from an existential inquietude that evidences our brokenness and alienation. Imago Dei—we are divinely ordered to participation in the divine life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. How is this reunion with the Creator established? By love, declares Augustine: “You do not see God. Love and you have God. God offers the total divine Self. God cries out to us: Love me and you will have me, yet you could not love me unless you already had me” (Sermon 34).
St Maximus the Confessor would later affirm that God has given to humanity “a natural desire and longing for Him” (Philokalia, II:284). Dumitru Staniloae, deeply influenced by Maximus, speaks of this longing and how it becomes perverted:
The human being has a spiritual basis and therefore a tendency toward the infinite which also is manifested in the passions; but in these passions the tendency is turned from the authentic infinite which is of a spiritual order, toward the world, which only gives an illusion of the infinite. Man, without being himself infinite, not only is fit, but is also thirsty for the infinite and precisely for this reason is also capable of, and longs for, God, the true and only infinite (homo capax divini—man capable of the divine). He has a capacity and is thirsty for the infinite not in the sense that he is in a state to win it, to absorb it in his nature—because then human nature itself would become infinite—but in the sense that he can and must be nourished spiritually from the infinite, and infinitely. He seeks and is able to live in a continual communication with it, in a sharing with it. But man didn’t want to be satisfied with this sharing in the infinite; he wanted to become himself the center of the infinite, or he believed that he is such a center; he let himself be tricked by his nature’s thirst for the infinite. (Orthodox Spirituality, p. 78)
Speaking from the Latin tradition, Duffy describes the contemporary Augustinian-Catholic understanding of the natural desire for God:
In the concrete nature of fallen humanity there is an interior, absolute desire of the Kingdom that correlates with the universal salvific divine will. This determination is an existential. It is prior to all personal options and persists through all possible acceptances or rejections of one’s end. Whatever one does, one remains interiorly ordered to absolute communion with God. Not that one is in a “state of grace,” to use the traditional language. But one is always in a graced order and under the influence of the offer of grace. To some degree this existential determination seeps into consciousness. It is an attraction and all attractions are necessarily consciously experienced in some measure. In this case it is perhaps confusedly experienced as an appreciation of the goods of the Kingdom. More often this attraction will be lived rather than reflected upon. But it can rise to the level of reflection and clear articulation, as in the case of Augustine’s “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless….” (The Graced Horizon, p. 23)
Humanity is created for communion with the living God. We cannot find happiness apart from him who is the immanent ground of our existence and the fulfillment of all our searchings. Deus intimior intimo meo. God is the origin and end of all human desire.
And here, I suggest, is the secret of the universalist hope. No matter how deeply we sink into our sin and egoism, no matter how thick the darkness that surrounds and penetrates our hearts becomes, we remain images of the divine Image. We are created for the Holy Trinity and interiorly ordered to eternal communion with him. The thirst for the beatific vision can never be eradicated from our being. Even the damned continue to thirst for God, even while denying the only One who can slake their thirst. “Those who are tormented in Gehenna are tormented by the invasion of love,” declares St Isaac the Syrian. Constituted by God for theosis, we always stand under his grace and universal salvific will. God yearns for us to repent and enter into deifying communion with him. This is our fundamental truth.
Too often when reflecting on hell and eternal damnation, we think of human beings as created in a neutral relationship to God, perhaps even in a posture of indifference. We forget that we are ontologically oriented to God. We may have profoundly enslaved ourselves to our passions and egoism; but we can never obliterate the fundamental desire of our hearts nor cut ourselves off from our Creator. “Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?” the psalmist sings. “If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there” (Ps 139:7-8).
Thomas Talbott proposes that God can effect the salvation of all people simply by allowing them to suffer the immanent consequences of their sin. Talbott thus sees hell as a mode of purgatory. God does not need to interfere with human freedom; for he has structured human nature in such a way that every departure from the divine will results in interior suffering, dissatisfaction, and misery. All he needs to do is to not shield the damned from the terrible consequences of their sin. As their misery increases it will become increasingly impossible for them to sustain the illusion that they can find genuine beatitude anywhere but in their Creator.
Alcohol addiction serves as an apt analogy. For an alcoholic to begin the way of recovery, he needs to “hit bottom,” as the folks in AA like to say; and he reaches bottom through the process of experiencing the emotional and physical distress caused by his drinking. At some point, he reaches that point where he can no longer convince himself that the benefits of intoxication outweigh the pain and suffering that his drinking has brought upon himself and those he loves.
Those who die enslaved to the passions remain enslaved in the next life. This is their hell. They are sundered from the goods of creation and thus unable to satisfy their disordered desires. Like the addict who is cut off from his drugs when he enters detox, the damned are cut off from anything that might, even momentarily, assuage their cravings. Thus St John of Damascus:
The righteous, by desiring and having God, rejoice forever; but the sinners, by desiring sin and not possessing the objects of sin, are tormented as if eaten by the worm and consumed by fire, with no consolation; for what is suffering if not the absence of that which is desired. According to the intensity of desire, those who desire God rejoice, and those who desire sin are tormented. (Against the Manicheans [PG 94:1573])
Talbott advances a similar understanding of hell, but unlike the Damascene he asserts that every condemned person will eventually hit his bottom; each will reach a point where he can no longer maintain the delusion that selfishness and autonomy will bring happiness. Unbearable suffering breaks us all; it cannot be forever endured. Hence all who die in a state of mortal sin will become open to rediscovery of his natural desire for the Infinite. This tiny window is all the God of Love needs:
Pauline theology provides a clear picture of how the end of reconciliation could be foreordained even though each of us is genuinely free to choose which path we will follow in the present. The picture is this: The more one freely rebels against God in the present, the more miserable and tormented one eventually becomes, and the more miserable and tormented one becomes, the more incentive one has to repent of one’s sin and to give up one’s rebellious attitudes. But more than that, the consequences of sin are themselves a means of revelation; they reveal the true meaning of separation and enable us to see through the very self-deception that makes evil choices possible in the first place. We may think that we can promote our own interest at the expense of others or that our selfish attitudes are compatible with enduring happiness, but we cannot act upon such an illusion, at least not for a long period of time, without shattering it to pieces. So in that sense, all paths have the same destination, the end of reconciliation, but some are longer and windier than others. Because our choice of paths in the present is genuinely free, we are morally responsible for that choice; but because no illusion can endure forever, the end is foreordained. As Paul himself puts it: We are all predestined to be conformed to the image of Christ (see Romans 8:29); that part is a matter of grace, not human will or effort. (The Inescapable Love of God, p. 189)
In my article “Rational Freedom and the Incoherence of Satan,” I raised the question whether we can imagine any lucid, fully informed person freely embracing eternal misery instead of eternal happiness. We are now in a better position to understand the insanity of self-damnation. If God is our absolute Good, then rejection of God is rejection of our own good and thus rejection of ourselves. As Talbott writes:
Religious people sometimes speak of God as if he were just another human magistrate who seeks his own glory and requires obedience for its own sake; they speak as if we might reject the Creator and Father of our souls without rejecting ourselves, oppose his will for our lives without opposing, schizophrenically perhaps, our own will for our lives. … But if God is our loving Creator, then he wills for us exactly what at the most fundamental level, we want for ourselves; he wills that we should experience supreme happiness, that our deepest yearnings should be satisfied, and that all of our needs should be met. (p. 185)
The identity of the absolute good we truly desire and the good our heavenly Father everlastingly wills for us—this is the secret of the universalist hope.