Why Think that God’s Grace is Insufficient for Apokatastasis?

In his recent blog article “Universalism and our Subpar World?” philosopher Jeff Cook raises the following question:

Why think the purgatorial fires experienced in this life are insufficient for every soul to experience the vile weight of sin and its repugnant fruit? Why think the grace of God experienced in this life daily is insufficient to draw every human soul willing decisively into the arms of Christ?

In fact, the grace of God in this life is quite sufficient for the salvation of all, Cook suggests. “I find the Annihilationist view superior here,” he writes, “for God has foreseen and made a good world with precisely those elements that would draw every human he has actualized into an experience of his redeeming grace.” What about those who reject the forgiveness and mercy that God offers (and Cook doesn’t tell us whether anyone has definitively rejected God)? His reply: it’s their own fault.

The Annihilationist may answer that no one included in this world has been wronged by God having made them or gone without his grace and offers of redemption. Given Christian Theism, God’s Spirit is loose and offering salvation to all people in ways they understand. Death is a clear empirical fact and this is why the hope of resurrection—not latter refinement—is a primary mark of the Christian proclamation. In short, Annihilationism is a superior view because it can claim that the world we experience is fully sufficient for the tasks God has undertaken.

Cook is not presenting a novel argument here, as I’m sure he would acknowledge. C. S. Lewis compellingly advanced the criticism in his wonderful parable The Great Divorce. God does not do anything wrong by permitting his rational creatures to choose definitive separation from him. Likewise, the annihilationist might say, God does not do anything wrong by permitting his rational creatures to choose absolute non-existence (for a sophisticated free-will defense of hell with annihilationist option, see Jonathan Kvanvig, The Problem of Hell).

I’m at a disadvantage at this point, as I have not read Dr Cook’s book Everything New: Reimagining Heaven and Hell and therefore do not know how he understands the Final Judgment and Gehenna. Question for Dr Cook: do the damned choose their annihilation or is it imposed upon them?

Cook does not in his article present an argument for why we should believe that the divine grace in this world is sufficient to bring all to saving faith. He simply asserts it, no doubt constrained by length considerations. But arguments are necessary. Consider, for example, this counter-proposal from Marilyn McCord Adams:

A realistic picture of human agency should recognize the following: (a) We human beings start life ignorant, weak and helpless, psychologically so lacking in a self-concept as to be incapable of choice. (b) We learn to “construct” a picture of the world, ourselves, and other people only with difficulty over a long period of time and under the extensive influence of other non-ideal choosers. (c) Human development is the interactive product of human nature and its environment, and from early on we humans are confronted with problems that we cannot adequately grasp or cope with, and in response to which we mount (without fully conscious calculation) inefficient adaptational strategies. (d) Yet, the human psyche forms habits in such a way that these reactive patterns, based as they are on a child’s inaccurate view of the world and its strategic options, become entrenched in the individual’s personality. (e) Typically, the habits are unconsciously “acted out” for years, causing much suffering to self and others before (if ever) they are recognized and undone through a difficult and painful process of therapy and/or spiritual formation. (f) Having thus begun immature, we arrive at adulthood in a state of impaired freedom, as our childhood adaptational strategies continue to distort our perceptions and behavior. (g) We adults with impaired freedom are responsible for our choices, actions, and even the character molded by our unconscious adaptational strategies, in the sense that we are the agent causes of them. (h) Our assessments of moral responsibility, praise, and blame cannot afford to take this impairment into account, because we are not as humans capable of organizing and regulating ourselves in that fine-tuned a way. And so, except for the most severe cases of impairment, we continue to hold ourselves responsible to one another.

Taking these estimates of human nature to heart, I draw two conclusions: first, that such impaired adult human agency is no more competent to be entrusted with its (individual or collective) eternal destiny than two-year-old agency is to be allowed choices that could result in its death or physical impairment; and second, that the fact that the choices of such impaired agents come between the divine creator of the environment and their infernal outcome no more reduces divine responsibility for the damnation than two-year-old agency reduces the responsibility of the adult caretaker. (“The Problem of Hell” in Readings in the Philosophy of Religion, p. 442)

Is it in fact that case that all are given in this life all the resources they need to make a fully-informed and free choice for God? Adams certainly does not think so. Perhaps in Eden human beings enjoyed all sufficient grace; but since our expulsion from paradise everyone is now born into a condition of brokenness, alienation, ignorance, and disability. So what does it mean to declare the sufficiency of divine grace in this situation?

But even if we grant Cook’s premise of the sufficiency of grace, why does this make the annihilationist position more probable than the universalist position? While annihilationism eliminates the horror of the interminable torment of the damned, it does not eliminate the horror of extinction. We are presented with a picture of God deleting the creatures he has made in his image and for which he became Man and died on a gibbet. When God annihilates someone, is he thinking to himself, “This man deserves it” or “My hands are tied. I’ve done all I could do” or “Thy will be done.” And what of those in heaven who love the reprobate? Perhaps the “Argument from God’s Love for the Blessed” loses some of its force, given that the damned do not suffer eternally; yet it is still difficult for me to imagine enjoying the vision of God without my wife, children, family, and friends. Just ask the survivors of suicide. Just ask the parents who have lost a child. Not only does annihilationism concede the defeat of God’s eternal purposes for his creation, but it definitively seals the grief of those who love the annihilated.

Why think that God would accept anything less than the final reconciliation of every human being?  And if, as our experience of the world seems to attest, that many in this life do reject the offer of divine mercy, why think that the divine Creator does not have a backup plan to implement the victory won on Easter morning? Why think, as Sergius Bulgakov puts it, that “God’s wisdom has stopped impotently before an insuperable boundary set by creaturely freedom,” “that the sacrifice of Golgotha has turned out to be incapable of triumphing over hell” (The Bride of the Lamb, p. 483)?

Why think that God’s grace is insufficient for apokatastasis?

(Go to “The Metaphysics of Actuality”)

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39 Responses to Why Think that God’s Grace is Insufficient for Apokatastasis?

  1. Lazarus says:

    could you please tell me the name of the image at the beginning of the article and the artist?


  2. jeffvcook says:

    You asked, “do the damned choose their annihilation or is it imposed upon them?”

    I’m inclined to say that primary is that they serve sin and not the living God. That choice implies both choosing annihilation (everyone knows death is coming) and it is imposed (God will decisively free creation from bondage to sin. All who clutch to sin as a bride will share sins fate.)

    You wrote, “Cook does not in his article present an argument for why we should believe that the divine grace in this world is sufficient to bring all to saving faith.”

    I imply that if it is not, then the world is insufficient. That’s a small, significant, not overwhelming claim.

    On Adams, I can grant (a), (d), (e), (g) (h). (b) is true but does not assume that God is one of the influencers as well. (c) doesn’t seem relevant, so I can grant it (though many problems are ineffectly addresses, uniting to sin may be effectively addressed by all, reject God’s grace may be decisively chosen by all). On (f), “impaired freedom” is an overstatement that assumes God is not powerful enough to communicate in worthy ways to those with bad habits.

    At the end then I may say Adams is not granting God much power here in speaking to people in ways they understand.

    Worse for the objectioner, Adams argument proves my point: this world is insufficient to draw all into the grace of God.

    But of course, Adams is focused (I would assume) on the Traditional View of Hell. Her arguments here are not as compelling given Annihilationism.

    You wrote,” While annihilationism eliminates the horror of the interminable torment of the damned, it does not eliminate the horror of extinction.”

    Which I would argue is being chosen as the necessary consequence of union with sin.

    You wrote, “We are presented with a picture of God deleting the creatures he has made in his image and for which he became Man and died on a gibbet.”

    This is assuming that they would be able to share his image moving forward. I saw you love CS Lewis. He argues that eventually one can abandon that image through free choices, and that seems right to me.

    You wrote, “it is still difficult for me to imagine enjoying the vision of God without my wife, children, family, and friends. Just ask the survivors of suicide.

    With there will or without it? More work needs done here for the way one embraces universalism.

    You wrote, “Just ask the parents who have lost a child. Not only does annihilationism concede the defeat of God’s eternal purposes for his creation, but it definitively seals the grief of those who love the annihilated. Why think that God would accept anything less than the final reconciliation of every human being?”

    There is an assumption here about “God’s eternal purposes”

    And I will address all these in my next post at McKnight’s blog and would love your thoughts.

    You wrote, “And if, as our experience of the world seems to attest, that many in this life do reject the offer of divine mercy, why think that the divine Creator does not have a backup plan to implement the victory won on Easter morning?”

    The question proves my small significant point: this world is insufficient on Universalism.

    You wrote, “Why think, as Sergius Bulgakov puts it, that “God’s wisdom has stopped impotently before an insuperable boundary set by creaturely freedom,” “that the sacrifice of Golgotha has turned out to be incapable of triumphing over hell””

    Because God respects human freedom.

    If God choose to overwhelm human freedom, that is a step of annihilation, destroying the rebel and creating someone else in their place.

    Good thoughts!!

    Grace and Peace.


    • Steven says:

      Hi Jeff,

      I think you are equivocating on “sufficient.”

      You say that universalism makes this world out to be insufficient for God’s purposes, whereas annihilationism doesn’t. By “sufficient,” you clearly do not mean causally sufficient, as if the world as God has created it, along with the measures he takes for the salvation of sinners, causally guarantees that all are saved—after all, you don’t think all are saved.

      So you must think “sufficient” means something like “sufficient unto salvation, if utilized by the human agent freely.” But it is obvious that the universalist can say the same thing about this world as you do. It is sufficient if sinners utilize the means available; it just so happens that they do not. The only difference is that the universalist says that Gid gives sinners more opportunities in the next world, too.

      So both the universalist and the annihilationist both make the world out to be “sufficient” or “insufficient,” depending on how you read these terms. There is no problem here for only one group, if there is a problem at all.


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Steven, thank you for clarifying the meanings of “sufficient” for the discussion. I find this helpful. I wish I had thought of it first. 🙂


      • Julian says:

        Hi Steven,

        If near-death experiences are possible, then it seems to me that God need not give sinners more opportunities in the next world, yet still guarantee universalism. An NDE for each person in the final moment before death, that lasted until the person repented (assuming that God could squeeze as much time as needed into that final moment), would be “sufficient” in Jeff’s intended meaning of the word.


        • Steven says:

          Maybe, maybe not. In any case, my point is that Jeff’s argument equivocates on “sufficient,” or else it applies equally well to his own position.


          • Julian says:

            Perhaps we could restate Jeff’s meaning of “sufficient” as “the combination of life in this world and God’s grace resulting in a person’s coming to salvation by the time they die.”


    • Could someone give us a definition of what is meant by human freedom? I think that Fr. Kimel and Jeff Cook might be approaching the issue of human freedom and what is meant by it differently.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Welcome, Jeff, to Eclectic Orthodoxy, and thank you for responding to my article. A couple thoughts:

      1) I think that Steven makes an important point above regarding the need to clarify how “sufficient” is being used in your argument. I also suggest that we need to clarify the “sufficiency of the world for salvation” and the “sufficiency of grace for salvation.” Do you see a difference between the two, and if so, how do you formulate this difference?

      Hence we are immediately taken into a discussion of nature and grace and the consequences of the Fall. Is Adamic man capable of finding salvation on his own, relying completely on natural revelation? Is that what you mean by the “sufficiency of the world”? I presume that is not what you mean, but perhaps you can clarify this point for us.

      Speaking for myself, I most certainly do not believe that fallen man, in his own natural capacities, can find salvation. I don’t have a specific theory of original sin. It just needs to be strong enough to refute Pelagianism. ” No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3).

      My guess is that what you are really talking about is the sufficiency of God’s grace for salvation. If so, it may be best to refrain from speaking of the “sufficiency of the world.” I also presume from the way you are speaking that you do not subscribe to an Augustinian notion of efficacious grace.

      Bottomline: it’s impossible to effectively respond to your argument until you provide important clarifications about nature, grace, and original sin.

      2) Your comments indicate that you subscribe to a free-will defense of damnation: “God respects human freedom. If God choose to overwhelm human freedom, that is a step of annihilation, destroying the rebel and creating someone else in their place.”

      There’s nothing new here that I can offer that Thomas Talbott and others have not said far more intelligently than I ever could. Ultimately I think we are confronted here with directly opposed moral intuitions about God and his salvific will for humanity. In your view, God is impotent before the sinner’s rejection and thus has no choice but to abandon him to non-existence. I think this is profoundly wrong, but I do not know how to convince you, and all who subscribe to the free-will defense, otherwise—except perhaps to invite you to read George MacDonald’s Lilith. The Father of Jesus Christ will never consign his creatures to either everlasting torment (traditional view) or nonexistence (conditionalist view). Here the spirits divide.

      What then about human freedom? May I assume that you subscribe to some version of libertarian freedom? Here I invoke Tom Talbott’s discussion of free choice. I trust you will be addressing Tom’s arguments in a future post. But I am becoming increasingly skeptical that the libertarian/compatibilitist arguments shed much light on the question of the relationship between divine agency and human agency. I refer you to David Hart’s comments on the topic, as well as to my own feeble reflections on double agency.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I almost forgot: “There is an assumption here about “God’s eternal purposes.”

      Yes, I assume God’s universal salvific will. Do you disagree, Jeff?


  3. Mike H says:


    Would you consider the sort of “active patience” that one sees in the imagery of, say, the parable of the prodigal son or the parable of the lost sheep to be “coercive” in that they don’t respect human freedom? I’d have to assume that your answer would be no. If not, what would make that sort of active patience become necessarily “coercive” or no longer a manifestation of “respect for human freedom” at a point in the future? Ultimately you seem to imply that it is actually the ABSENCE OF a “time deadline” (the moment of physical death whether one is 6 months old or 60 years old) that would actually be unjust because ANY alternative (even those we cannot conceive of) would represent a lack of respect for human “freedom” and would therefore be coercive. Would you apply this same logic to a 2 month old child?

    2nd, why does God provide an entire life to anyone at all? Is one moment insufficient for God to communicate effectively, but when a string of “insufficient moments” is combined it becomes “sufficient”? No, there must be a lavishness to grace that goes beyond mere “sufficiency”.

    Ultimately I’m having a tough time reconciling with the language of “sufficiency” at all. I do get your point (which seems mostly to be about life being meaningless without the possibility of irrevocable loss) but I’ve never really thought of it in these terms before. It seems to imply a sort of bare minimum level of interest. Does Christ look at the tragedy and pain of the world and say “Not what I had in mind, but this is “sufficient”? The question isn’t really one of sufficiency or not, the question is over the degree to which God REALLY wants to or has any ability whatsoever to save anyone at all.


  4. Julian says:

    Would the sufficiency of this life include NDEs? Howard Storm, for example, claims to have had a near-death experience of hell, which caused him to repent:


    If NDEs are included, then it is possible that every person who has not yet repented is given an NDE of hell in their final moment before death, making their choice clear to them?


  5. Dana Ames says:

    We don’t serve sin. Heb 2.13 says that we are enslaved to the fear of death; the fear of death is what we serve. That manifests as doing whatever we can to preserve our survival (including avoiding anything that would seem to cause our diminishment in any way) even to the detriment/hurt of others; that is sin, which is always relational, not simply a concept, and is intimately connected with death. If sin is not good, neither is death – though Christ through his death and our baptism into it has made death useful for us (see Fr John Behr as he quotes St Maximus).

    I’ve tried to discuss this at Jesus Creed from an Orthodox pov with Jeff; I must not have been clear enough about non-annihilation being a viable horizon. I do admire his tenacity, but it is incomprehensible to me that God would lose any part his creation to the enemy, or even to the human will, in an outcome of non-existence. Jeff can’t seem to accept the possibility that God does not have to override human will for his purposes to be accomplished. To me, it comes down to the character of God, and the sufficiency of the love of God to accomplish what scripture says that God wants/wills: that all should be saved/healed/delivered and come to the knowledge of the truth (which is Christ). I can’t go along with any other “sufficiency”.

    I don’t have the education or the philosophical chops to argue this. I can only point to Christ on the Cross and say, “That’s God,” and trust that in the love that underlies his death and resurrection is the non-coercive power of humility that can redeem everything. I am so glad I am in a Church that allows for this possibility… Non-existence is not good, and therefore can’t be a part of the new creation. If “all things” in St Paul doesn’t mean All Things, then we are existentially screwed, and nothing really matters. That’s only my opinion (though not mine alone) and I don’t know how to form argumentation for it. I just have to stand up for a God who is truly good.



    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      “I don’t have the education or the philosophical chops to argue this. I can only point to Christ on the Cross and say, “That’s God,” and trust that in the love that underlies his death and resurrection is the non-coercive power of humility that can redeem everything.”

      Dana, I have always found your arguments not only thoughtful and well presented but also sometimes compelling. And like you, all I can do is point to Christ and trust in his love. I think that is what some who oppose the universalist hope do not understand. We do not need some kind of metaphysical scheme to justify the hope (though I’m certainly open to proposals). All we need is Christ and his abundant love.


  6. Nope. The Creator creates psychopaths etc fully knowing what they are. Like Leviathan and Behemoth, they may realize as much of his creative purpose as they can in this life, but they cannot repent, they are not saved, and they do die. What then does the Voice in Job’s whirlwind do? So far as we know, he does not send them back here for second chances with better brains. If his glorious creativity is what motivates his peculiar love for sinners, it makes no sense to annihilate these creatures for being what he made them. The only remaining path that optimizes his creativity is to send them down the line to the next station.


  7. Who goes to a serious bar and orders a Shirley Temple? Every option has some pretty good way to help the tenderhearted feel better about the torment of the wicked. For that reason, a contemporary choice between smarter infernalism (eg Stephen Holmes) and smarter universalism (anything here) seems to turn less on ‘how not to feel sorry’ than on ideas about anthropology, cosmology, christology, divine being, eschatology, etc that could change the way you think about your faith and live your life. These ideas are new– fresh theology, a retrieval of tradition, a better grasp of biblical narrative, etc– and so a change of mind could be the honest thing to do.

    So far though, annihilationists just seem to be making very convenient shifts in exegesis. “In the great race to the resort hotel, we used to insist that everyone got there but that some were turned away and bad things happened on the beach. But now we’ve decided to read the same texts to mean that those people die behind the wheel on the way and, well, that’s that! So much better. Instead of the tiresome old moral dissonance– ‘It’s a grand resort hotel; it kicks out guests; but it’s grand; but horrible things happen there; but it’s a gorgeous place…’ –we just have survivor’s guilt now — ‘Yippee, I made it! But why you? Well, I made it! So what, why you? Ain’t it grand? Not for the corpses by the road it’s not; why you?…’ And all we had to do to get the change was to stop fighting the second opinion on the same texts.” Debate about annihilationism seems to be, not so much about emergent ideas that compel rethinking as about shifting boundaries of the institutionally acceptable.


  8. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I cannot remember the details (and have not – yet – tried to find out what is online) but in the De Doctrina Christiana attributed to Milton there is some discussion, or at least positing, of the matter concerning infants, whether their infancy may be no impediment to their salvation and perfection, or whether they may simply be annihilated.

    There seem generally some ktesiological matters about ‘this life’, ‘this world’, and ‘His creation’ worth wrestling with specifically and explicitly. E.g., what difference does the death of the body make to human creatureliness and why? What difference, existence ‘in the body’? (Was Lazarus imperilled by his presumably temporary resurrection? Have others, as variously related, been eternally saved in Lazarus-like situations?)


    • Julian says:

      Hi David,

      It’s difficult to believe that someone who said, “…their angels always behold the face of my Father…,” would let babies be annihilated.

      As to Lazarus-like situations, it seems possible to me that in their final moment before death, God could let each person have a near-death experience of hell similar to this one:



      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        “It is difficult to believe…” Yes, that’s pretty much what I remember thinking when I first read it years ago. I still haven’t tried to look it up again yet, to see how much context or spelling out there is. I suppose it may in part be responding to Catholic thought about Limbo. But also (I suppose) an attempt to engage the (apparent?) concrete reality of undeveloped consciousness, knowledge, etc. Fr. Aidan quotes Dr. Cook, ” Given Christian Theism, God’s Spirit is loose and offering salvation to all people in ways they understand.” Milton seems to be pondering how does or can that work with infants. I have not read Dr. Cook yet and so do not know how he addressed the instances of those who (so far as we can see) have not had a chance for “an experience of his redeeming grace” before death overtakes them. It is interesting both that Milton considers ‘annihilation’ as a possibility in such a situation of lack of opportunity through inability, and that he considers it one of two very different possibilities, and again that he seems undecided about it.

        I am a sort of tertiary and one of the things I have undertaken to do is, pray for the dying. One way and another I think a lot about what “God could let each person have” in articulo mortis, each and all ” in their final moment before death”, in the moment of dying – though I have not especially thought about what you suggest. What will, what can, what does He do, engaging each, then?


  9. tgbelt says:

    From DBH’s recently presented a paper at Notre Dame dealing with the eschatological implications of creation ex nihilo (CEN) and shared why he thinks that doctrine entails the eventual reconciliation of all things:

    …let’s say God created simply ‘on the chance’ that humanity might sin and that a certain number of incorrigibly wicked souls plunge themselves into Tartarus forever, it still means that morally he’s purchased the revelation of his power in creation by the same horrendous price. Even if in the end no one at all happens to be damned, the logic it seems to me is irresistible: God creates alea iacta est [“The die is cast”]. But as Mallarme says, “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hazard,” [“The role of the dice will never erase/abolish the hazard”]. For what is hazarded has already been surrendered entirely no matter how the dice fall. The aleatory venture may be intentionally indeterminate, but the wager is an irrevocable intentional decision wherein every possible cost has already been accepted. The irrecuperable expenditure has been offered even if happily it is never lost and the moral nature of the act is the same in either case…. So the revelation of God’s glory in creatures would still always be dependent on that evil adventure beyond good and evil even if at last no one perishes. Creation then could not be called ‘good’ in an unconditional sense nor God the ‘Good’ as such no matter what conditional goods he might accomplish in creating it.

    I’ve pondered this point for years unable to express it quite so clearly, but the logic seems fairly obvious to me now. If God is self-existent in his love and goodness and thus creates unnecessarily, then Creation’s “final” end(s) constitute its “whole moral truth” and reveal God’s own character. It could not be the case that God would risk the final loss of even one soul as an acceptable risk opposite the enteral beatitude of every other soul. No creation at all is an infinitely preferable state than one irrevocably lost soul opposite the beatitude of all others–given God’s essential self-sufficient existence and freedom from creation. If risking “final” loss (either through final annihilation or eternal conscious torment–both share the same morality given CEN) were somehow the metaphysical price-tag of creating rational beings free enough to enjoy divine beatitude, God simply would not have created. That kind of creation would be a metaphysical impossibility. That fact that we are here—that God did create—means he did not risk final loss in doing so.


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  11. Tom Talbott says:

    An excellent discussion, Father Kimel. Steven seems to have nailed the equivocation between being causally sufficient (or even, I would add, being a sufficient condition in some non-causal sense), on the one hand, and being sufficient in the sense of simply being enough, on the other. But as you point out (and newenglandsun likewise suggests), the dispute between Christian universalists and many annihilationists finally comes down to the issue of human freedom.

    Now I have a growing conviction that no one should speak of human freedom as if this concept were self-explanatory. In my entry on universalism for the Oxford Handbook of Eschatology, I thus wrote: “Free-will theists have too often allowed free choice to figure into their abstract calculations no differently than an utterly random event or chance occurrence would. Relying upon a seriously incomplete analysis of freedom, they have typically proceeded as if there are no limits of any kind to the range of possible free choices. They have typically specified a single necessary condition of moral freedom, namely, that a choice is free in the libertarian sense only if it is not causally determined, and they have then seemed content to leave it at that—as if there were no other necessary conditions of free choice, which there surely are. For not just any uncaused event, or just any agent-caused choice, or just any randomly generated selection between alternatives will qualify as a free choice of the relevant kind” (p. 452).

    My point here was that an appeal to free will in constructing a theodicy of any kind requires a much more complete analysis of human freedom than any Christian infernalist, to borrow your own instructive expression, or any annihilationist has provided to date. It is simply not enough, in other words, to identify a single necessary condition of freedom, such as that of being causally undetermined, and then to argue that some imagined choice or series of choices is consistent with that single condition. For until one examines all the necessary conditions of free choice, given an adequate analysis of it, or at least specifies a non-trivial sufficient condition, one can hardly pontificate that some theologically controversial choice, such as an imagined choice to reject God’s all-pervasive grace, might coherently qualify as a genuinely free choice.

    Accordingly, I would put two closely related questions to anyone who would appeal to human freedom in defense of the thesis that universalism is at least possibly false, as so many suppose it is. First, would you concede that not just any randomly generated selection between alternatives will qualify as a free choice of the relevant kind? And if so, what additional conditions would you cite as being essential to the idea of moral freedom? Once these questions are answered satisfactorily, philosophical arguments against the idea of universal reconciliation tend to melt away, I believe, like wax before a flame.


    • tgbelt says:

      Hi TomT,

      Always wonderful to hear you. Hope you’re well. It seems whenever we bump into each other it’s over the question of agency/the will. So regular in fact I’m tempted to abandon my view in favor of determinism! (But only tempted.)

      I’m a libertarian (sticking my neck out) and a universalist. I agree libertarian accounts of choosing irrevocably to reject God are nonsensical. Libertarian choice needn’t entail any such power. And your criticism (and DHB’s and others who say similar things) of the “libertarian” exercise of the will points out what is, I agree, equally nonsensical (e.g., the idea that there are no limits of any kind to the range of possible free choices). However, these objectionable claims aren’t essentially ‘libertarian’. Honestly, I can’t think of a single proponent of libertarian free will who thinks there are “no limits of any kind” or who even talks “as if” there are no limits of any kind. Quite the opposite, as least as I meet the view, libertarian philosophers (even granting their differences) generally make it clear that a libertarian choice is not absolutely unconstrained autonomy facing a limitless array of options.

      Nor do libertarians generally suppose there are “no other necessary conditions” to such choice. Surely there are, as you point out. But those conditions, whatever they are, don’t reduce persons (and their choices) to being mere effects of causes antecedent to the choice. Even if we are secondary causes (since our existence is contingent), we remain final arbiters (so to speak) in the determining of our choices.

      But I want to hear your point too. I agree than in general analytic philosophers (libertarians and non-libertarians) all seem to approach these questions far too clinically and abstractly. That said, the essential libertarian claim may not be the only relevant thing to say about agency, but surely it says something relevant. It may lack the full explanation we desire, but that’s true of every theory of choice already. We’re are bailing some water on this issue.



      • tgbelt says:

        In other words, libertarianism doesn’t preclude all being eventually reconciled to Christ. Nor does it entail either annihilationism or irrevocable conscious torment on account of God’s “respecting our freedom.” It may be that we are libertarianly free AND incapable of irrevocably foreclosing upon ourselves all possibility of perceiving and turning—step by step—toward ever-freer being in Christ. So long as the possibility is not within our capacity to foreclose (it just is the ground of our being), annihilation and eternal conscious torment are both equally impossible eschatologies.


    • jeffvcook says:

      Hey friends,

      This argument is not about human freedom. Its about the world prior to death apparently lacking what’s necessary for a universal salvific experience.

      However, this article posted today is my take on this issue and freedom; I’d *love* your thoughts:


      Much love, Jeff


  12. tgbelt says:


    Let me say that like you I’ve struggled with the question of the relevance of this life if it’s followed after death by further opportunities—until we get it right. What’s this life for if it fails so obviously to secure for each human being closure to his/her destiny? If the course of choices that determine one’s destiny can continue portmortem, why bother with a premortem context at all? Just begin and end things in a seamless history uninterrupted by something as dramatic as death. That seems to be your worry.

    Couple of thoughts.

    1) We might consider whether what we’re calling distinct pre- and postmortem contexts are in fact two distinct venues operating under competing rules of engagement. Death has the effect of inclining us to see things in these terms, but perhaps that’s not the case. Perhaps things are a lot more seamless than death allows us to perceive. It would depend on how one views morality and death.

    2) Universalists aren’t the only ones who have to account for the relevance of premortem lifetimes that fail to secure final closure. It’s not like annihilationists or proponents of the traditional view have a neat way to keep pre- and postmortem existences tidily separate with all the destiny-determining choices on the premortem side and all the destiny on the postmortem side. Annihilationists just like universalists live in a world where the vagaries of existence, infant mortality, inherited incapacities of reason, and a host of other factors reduce many to lives to what cannot be said to settle one’s destiny. One may argue God admits directly into heaven infants who die and the congenitally incompetent who live long lives so that their destiny ends up being settled at death. But this entirely begs the question of the relevance and appropriateness of this life just as much as it supposedly does for universalists who believe opportunities persist postmortem. After all, if God can get deceased infants and the mentally incompetent into full union with himself essentially by divine fiat, why bother with seventy-odd years of clear-minded, responsible choices?

    In short, there is no neat way to divide pre- and postmortem into halves of our existence which are exclusively destiny-determining (on the one hand) and destiny inheriting (on the other).



  13. Two themes from biblical scholarship and a corollary complicate my reception of a certain style of argument.

    (1) Following Tom Wright on ‘life after life after death’ as I do, I expect The Beginning to be some spicy, meaty, multilayered eschatological lasagna that has nothing to do with our late modern celery and spritzer water with a slice of lime intuitions about freedom, fairness, etc and everything to do with how well it fits all that has gone before. The appeal of universalism for me– not alas for Tom Wright– is that it makes the best Act V narrative sense of both the canon and the untidy world that i know. It’s main rival is not infernalism or annihilationism but simply the Bible’s rich textual openness on eschatology.

    (2) Taking seriously Doug Campbell and several others on the apocalyptic milieu from which our religion came, I find the notion that Jesus is continuing the cosmos’s gradual liberation from bondage to rebellious powers compelling. But commonsense free will has no meaning in that scenario. People are disoriented from God because they have not yet been liberated; people are oriented to God because he has liberated them and that’s the natural response to it. Whether they phenomenologically think that they are free as this happens, and whether God cares what they think are, for me, entirely off camera. So are similar Buddhist questions on the veridicality of their perceived selfhood. We do not choose to be born; we do not choose to be conscious; we do not choose to die; we will not choose to be saved; we will not care about all that amid the marriage of heaven to earth and the consummation of all things.


  14. Marc says:

    Thanks for another very interesting discussion Fr. Aidan. It seems to me that when we discuss human freedom to choose eternal life or eternal death, we are overlooking the elephant in the room. That elephant would be the fallen spirit beings, Satan and the demons, and what effect they have on the freedom of human will. I am a firm believer in annihilation in regards to Satan and the demons, and I am hopeful for the universal salvation of human beings. Is it not possible that the annihilation of Satan and the demons in the lake of fire prepared for them, not human beings, could ultimately be a major factor leading to the repentance and salvation of all people?


    • Marc, that may indeed be the most apostolic way of thinking a universalist thought– the Son of Man of Daniel 7 has begun the messianic age, first redeeming Israel as its faithful representative on the cross, then liberating the nations from the rebels against God in his resurrection, and finally sending the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to rule his disciples and defend them from the enemy. The apostolic writings do not analyze the causal preconditions for the faith of individuals; rather, whenever such faith appears, they situate it in the cosmic drama they see unfolding according to scripture. Richard B Hays reminds us that Paul characteristically speaks of God, not as ‘forgiving’ sins, but as ‘reieasing’ persons from the power of sin. Tellingly, the ancient church exorcised demons from catechumens throughout the catechumenate and right up to the moment of their baptism and chrismation.

      The tricky part, both for the apostles and for us, is understanding how implicit salvation for humanity as a whole is related to this explicit salvation in the Church. The question goes back to the relevant prophecies (eg Micah, Zephaniah), which were read by some as implying that all the nations would be saved as they were, but would live by the wisdom of Israel (cf Paul), and others as implying that the nations would effectively become Jews subject to a king ruling from Zion (cf opponents of Paul). In this prophetic horizon, nations rather than individuals seem to be the objects of concern.


      • Marc says:

        Bowman, Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the unseen spiritual warfare. Our Lord’s trampling down death by death on the Cross led to the Harrowing of Hades and the first resurrection into the Church in Heaven at the Ascension. The sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost led to the first resurrections into the Church on the earth. Because death is the power of sin, being released from the fear of death through the first resurrection, causes the power of sin to be disrupted. Satan and the demons will no longer cause sin when they are annihilated. The process of salvation still begins with the exorcising of demons from the catechumens and continues with the participation in the Mysteries of the Church. Upon entry into the Church in Heaven, the first resurrection is confirmed and exemption from the second death is realized.

        Outside the Church there is no salvation. The largest manifestation of the Church currently exist in the spiritual realm. The Harrowing of Hades and an understanding of the particular judgment that flows from it, strongly supports the probability that most people who enter the spiritual realm on the broad road to destruction, do indeed repent and experience the first resurrection into the Church in Heaven. In the age to come, we will maintain our family and national identities while also becoming Jews in the Israel of the Church. God, our King, will rule the new creation from New Jerusalem, the new Zion.


  15. Tom Talbott says:

    Hi Tom B,

    Good to hear from you, as always, and thanks for your comments. It looks to me as if you and I are in almost perfect agreement with respect to our overall perspective. Like you, I am both a libertarian (of sorts) with respect to human freedom and a universalist in the matter of Christian eschatology; more specifically, I hold that moral freedom (or even rational belief, for that matter) could never exist in a fully deterministic universe, where every event has a sufficient cause. In such a universe, after all, every choice we make today (as well as every belief we hold today) would be an unavoidable consequence of sufficient causes that already existed in the distant past long before we were even born, and we both agree, I presume, that genuine freedom is incompatible with any such determinism as that.

    Accordingly, it was not my intention in my previous post to argue against an essentially libertarian understanding of human freedom. But an appeal to such freedom in an effort to justify a doctrine of eternal separation from God inevitably rests, I claim, on a seriously incomplete analysis of it. We see this clearly when someone supposes that an utterly irrational decision to separate oneself from God forever might nonetheless qualify as a free decision for which one is indeed morally responsible. It is as if there are no limits of any kind to the range of possible free choice—in which case freedom is indistinguishable from sheer chance or randomness.

    Now I certainly agree that most libertarian philosophers want to distinguish a free choice from sheer chance or a random selection between alternatives. But until the proponents of an eternal separation from God make some effort actually to spell out the difference with some relevant necessary conditions and to take these into account in their abstract calculations, they are simply in no position to know where the limits of possible freedom lie. Neither are they in a position to postulate even the possibility that some may freely separate themselves from God forever.

    Anyway, thanks again for your comments. I strongly suspect that you and I have no substantive disagreement in these matters. Am I right about that?



  16. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I think of the Father to the Son in Book III of Milton’s Paradise Lost about the Fall of man (and of some of he angels):

    he had of mee
    All he could have; I made him just and right,
    Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.
    Such I created all th’ Ethereal Powers
    And Spirits, both them who stood & them who faild;
    Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell.

    As far as I can see, the harmatological question is a proto-harmatological question, and the proto-harmatological question is a ktesiological question. Can a conscious creature fall without having been necessarily determined to do so? Apparently so. To borrow Tom Talbott’s words, “to separate oneself from God” at all, and especially initially, is presumably in some weighty sense(s) a distinctly “irrational decision”. Is it “an utterly irrational decision”? Could it be a ‘spuriously rational decision’? And as such in some sense a ‘mixedly rational and irrational decision’? If a conscious (rational) creature can effect this undeterminedly, what then? What are the limits of concrete continuation or persistence in this? And what are the effects on the creature of such effecting and then of such continuing? What possibilities of practical solipsizing, de-personalizing, of what is in fact persisting ” to separate oneself from God” though it may for the agent have become practically “indistinguishable from sheer chance or randomness”?

    That is not to say God cannot or will not or shall not ‘unmake such (self-)unmaking’, though I think it may, perhaps, with people like C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams, be to ask about it. What are they limits of ‘continuity in effected separation from God’?


    • tgbelt says:

      David: To borrow Tom Talbott’s words, “to separate oneself from God” at all, and especially initially, is presumably in some weighty sense(s) a distinctly “irrational decision”. Is it “an utterly irrational decision”? Could it be a ‘spuriously rational decision’? And as such in some sense a ‘mixedly rational and irrational decision’?

      TomB: Just a thought. Gen. 3 presents Eve as thinking/pondering rather rationally about her choice: “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.” Ultimately speaking (i.e., in light of the whole truth about God and creation) her choice is irrational, and it would be impossible. But it’s not irrational so far as Eve’s limited perspective goes. That is, within our finite perspectives we may have reasons that to us justify poor decisions; our light is partial but sufficient to enable us to responsibly do rightly or, equally responsibly, do wrongly. We’re culpable precisely because our choices are not irrational.

      One might think of laying this out along a continuum of our ‘epistemic distance’. Perspective (or knowledge) isn’t absolutely binary—i.e., either perfectly perceiving the truth or being absolutely ignorant. One can find oneself somewhere in between—with reasons enough to do rightly and reasons enough to do wrongly. Thus we have sufficient rational space for responsible self-determination. Was Eve’s choice irrational? From ‘a’ perspective (say, God’s, or that of particular saints we might suggest), yes. But from another sufficiently rational perspective (her’s), she rationally justified her choice within the limitations of her knowledge and context.

      And so it must be with us, I think. We have to be sufficiently informed to make responsible choices (right or wrong) about the Good. It’s a mistake to just say “All misrelation to the Good is absolutely irrational” and use this as an argument for universalism. We can get rational but responsibly free minds to final reconciliation while holding evil choices to be sufficiently rational. The more we choose rightly within that epistemic distance, over time the distance closes, our reason gradually awakens to greater vision of the Good. But our ‘will’ (among other things) is part this. As we choose rightly when we might have reasonably chosen wrongly, our perspective on the right grows, our reason is further enlightened, the epistemic distance closes, and we realize greater freedom. Ultimately the good we chose is the good we irrevocably become, because our perspective is unalterably fixed by a vision of God.


  17. AR says:

    Um… what if the purpose of this world is not to get everyone to Heaven, but to get everyone born? To get everyone into existence? Because that’s kind of what it seems like to me. I mean, if it ends too soon, there’s lots of people that never exist. It’s like, God has to get everyone onto the boat first and then he can deal with getting everyone to the other side.


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