by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.
In his recent blog post “The Morality of Gehenna,” Father Lawrence Farley defends the compatibility of traditional notions of hell with the Goodness of the Christian God. His voice is certainly not inhumane. He recognizes that hell is “not tolerable,” yet he remains convinced that Scripture and tradition require that, in fact, one must tolerate it. In the course of his apologia for the “sad truth,” he makes frequent application to C. S. Lewis’ works, as well as adverting to an important article by David Bentley Hart, “God, Creation, and Evil,” as an example of a counter-argument that “simply underestimates the power of evil.” Fr Lawrence classifies the disagreement as a conflict in which “the philosopher smacks up against the exegete.” The relationship between faith and reason is illuminated by discernment, intellect, and lived experience. The idea that philosophy is ultimately trivial and superseded by theology and revelation is not self-evident. At minimum, one should recognize that faith does not eradicate the life of the mind and the need for thought. Rather, faith casts a greater light upon reality and poses new questions for philosophy. Scripture and tradition do not close down inquiry. Dogma properly understood advances the mind into greater wonder and sometimes into deeper perplexity. It is unjust to simply pull a quote out of context, dismiss it out of hand, and then to act as if an argument has been rendered toothless. However, it may be no such dodgy sleight of hand was intended. Indeed, what I surmise is that a complacent satisfaction with a particular notion of tradition has caused one to make a show of opposing what is assumed to be already defeated by the consensus of patristic opinion. In that case, of course, the rendering plausible of infernalist views is less a withstanding of inquiry than an exercise in justification to those who at heart feel no need to actually do so. Since I am not convinced that Dr. Hart’s argument has been actually understood, I will give a rough recapitulation of some key elements in the hopes of making the central claims and the real putting into question of traditional assumptions more vividly evident.
One should pay attention to several key concepts, among them a discussion of divine freedom, human liberty, and the nature of personhood, as well as the requirements of language necessary for any kind of divine revelation to become meaningfully possible at all. All of these are germane and to attempt to give a just assessment of the argument with little or no care to properly represent them is either dishonest or demonstrative of a lack of comprehension. The central assertion asks us to carefully ponder the logical import of creatio ex nihilo. It may help first to quickly glance at a few alternate conceptions. Hegel posits, for instance, an indeterminate Absolute at the origin. What does this mean? Hegel’s “God” needs the world, for it is through all the drama and tragedy of time that the Absolute comes to determinate knowledge of itself. In short, the “divine” as Hegel understands it requires the world for self-realization. Such a God would not be supremely free with regards to creation. Some outside Necessity impels the act of creation. Plato’s Demiurge works to make the cosmos as beautiful as possible. Hence, the Demiurge has a kind of ethical imperative to model a recalcitrant material to be good. Still, the Demiurge is not creating “from nothing.” The Demiurge must make do with starting stuff that contains within it the seeds of defatigation and resistance to the Good. Or consider Aristotle’s serene God—thought thinking itself. Such an Absolute in its beauty and self-sufficiency acts as a perfect exemplar that all of reality imperfectly models. But such a divine is far from Yahweh pining for His faithless people. What happens in the sublunary world does not touch its enclosed contemplation of self.
Now here is where the uniqueness of the Triune God and creatio ex nihilo involve a very different and singular story. This first aspect has become a commonplace in theology, though it is always worth reflecting upon. The God of Christian revelation is not a solitude of completion like Aristotle’s Absolute. Indeed, beyond the simplicity of Jewish monotheism and the later rejection of paradox in Islamic theology, the Triune God contains within Himself community, drama, relation. The act of Being, hidden within the apophatic reserve of the East—or as Aquinas has it, the coincidence of essence and existence—is a dynamic, flourishing plenitude that is anything but merely serene self-contemplation or an inert completion of surfeit. The very short version is that only the Christian God is love. Unlike Hegel’s deity whose origin is incomplete, indeterminate, needy for worldly action in order to develop into a mature fullness, the God of the Gospel is infinitely determinate, infinitely rich in uncircumscribable Being. This Absolute most assuredly does not need the world as a necessary ingredient in coming to perfection. It is because of this plenitude at the origin that God is supremely free. God does not need created being in order to discover an Other. He does not need creation in order to be admired. He does not need creation in order to display a capacity to love. In no way or fashion is God compelled to create—and one must emphasize that this is uniquely true of the God of Jesus Christ.
If Trinity properly negates any sense of erotic need in the Christian God, creatio ex nihilo radically separates Biblical creation from any notion of a Demiurgic dependency upon already existing material. As Hart puts it: “there is no element of the ‘irrational’; something purely spontaneous, or organic, or even mechanical, beyond the power of God’s rational freedom.” In plain language, one might forgive Plato’s Demiurge for evil due to faulty building material that was beyond help. A God who creates from nothing cannot be so easily absolved of complicity in evil. So, if one could construe Hegel’s dialectic as a modern theogony, a birth of a god, Hart advances that the Christian story is the cosmos as theophany, an icon of divine beauty. Note that Hart has purposed to place side-by-side the theophanic and the genuine weight of evil. The very tired and common apologia, of course, is that much evil is the result of the abuse of creaturely freedom, but this, really, does not “get God off the hook.” It might work for a Demiurge, but not for the supremely free Christian God. There is something sly and evasive in the traditional theodicy. A nature called into being from nothing, with all its potencies, for good and evil, remains a mystery that ought, properly, to baffle the sensitive soul. It is ironic that Job’s courageous inquiry, supposedly abashing the doctrinal certitudes of Job’s counselors, has, with time, been taken over by tradition and made to serve the very complacency of Job’s friends. Hart will have none of that. He returns us to stark perplexities that faith should not prematurely vanquish by acknowledgement of human sin and the monstrous in the depths of the human soul:
Thus every evil that time comprises, natural or moral—a worthless distinction, really, since human nature is a natural phenomenon—is an arraignment of God’s goodness: every death of a child, every chance calamity, every act of malice; everything diseased, thwarted, pitiless, purposeless or cruel, and, until the end of all things, no answer has been given.
Equivocity is inalienable from our experience: our path is irreducibly both wonder and anguish. All of this brings into question the assertion that creation is a theophany. The dark perversities, the cruelties, the mass horrors and singular, savage sorrows mirror misery, death, and despair. And such fragile lives engender narrow, defensive postures, tyranny and a mob mentality that seeks power and redress through aggregation, manipulation into abstract simplicities, the harnessing of rage for political gain. Such deformations include as well as the imbecilic crudities, the vulgar satisfactions and coarse heehaws at the expense of delicacy, tact, a courtly festivity that joys in the elemental, yet dances with finesse, grace, wise equilibrium. What manner of theophany is this? There are certain creatures pulled up from the opaque ocean deeps, made to gawk in monstrous nakedness before the gaze of fascinated horror. One puzzles as to what of God is revealed in such a signature. The sage path of love is both compassion and patience. And here, the simple answer is that the iconic beauty of the cosmic theophany may be discovered in hints, in moments of charity, and hope, of artistic insight and garden delights, but the fullness of theophanic glory awaits the eschaton, when all things are made new. This eschatological fulfillment whereby the Sabbath rest explodes into the celebratory Eighth Day is surmised in Hart’s reflections. I place together some of the relevant quotes into a single exposition:
The Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is not merely a cosmological or metaphysical claim, but also an eschatological claim about the world’s relation to God, and hence a moral claim about the nature of God himself . . . protology and eschatology are a single science . . . No matter how great the autonomy one grants the realm of secondary causes two things are certain. First, as God’s act of creation is free, constrained by neither necessity nor ignorance, all contingent ends are intentionally enfolded within his decision. . . . It would be impious, I suppose, to suggest that, in his final judgment of creatures, God will judge himself; but one must hold that by that judgment God truly will disclose himself (which, of course, is to say the same thing, in a more hushed and reverential voice).
Another probative objection to traditional infernalist views is rooted in the conception of personhood integral to its espousal. This cannot properly be articulated in a pithy manner, so I will only make a brief gesture. The kernel of the matter is sketched by Hart:
After all, what is a person other than a whole history of associations, loves, memories, attachments, and affinities? Who are we, other than all the others who have made us who we are, and to whom we belong as much as they to us? We are those others. To say that the sufferings of the damned will either be clouded from the eyes of the blessed or, worse, increase the pitiless bliss of heaven is also to say that no persons can possibly be saved: for, if the memories of others are removed, or lost, or one’s knowledge of their misery is converted into indifference or, God forbid, into greater beatitude, what remains of one in one’s last bliss? Some other being altogether, surely: a spiritual anonymity, a vapid spark of pure intellection, the residue of a soul reduced to no one.
Curiously, this sounds remarkably like Lewis’ discussion of personless remains in the The Great Divorce. Indeed, it begins to look like the Heaven of infernalists is precisely the Hell of Lewis’ allegorical fable. The definitive point, however, is that such a position is metaphysically incoherent. To return to the metaphysics of personhood, one might peruse Norris Clarke’s Person and Being, a brief but compelling demonstration that relationality is not adventitious or an associative dimension added onto an initially atomized and separate identity. Even more astute meditations upon the depth dimension of the created person are discoverable in the profound work of William Desmond. James E. Loder’s The Logic of the Spirit closely follows human development, showing how fear is intrinsic ingredient to ego formation constructed in fragility and deep, preconceptual awareness that we come from nothing: a conatus is already postured towards the other as potentially hostile and untrustworthy, even though the personal call to being is engendered by loving hospitality. Hans Urs von Balthasar famously focused on the importance of the mother’s smile in concretely calling the infant into personal being. This human dimension, however, is merely a participation in an eternal grounding. One must ponder what William Desmond calls the passio essendi, the intimacy of our origin called into being by the eternal agapeic God, to recover a prior root lost to our determinate, conceptual awareness. If one further infers from the analogy of being that Triune God is the archetype of all personhood, one should acknowledge that our personhood is not a pure given, but a task in which we grow into a love that is identical with flourishing personhood. Such a personhood, modeled after divine reality, suffers no detached, isolated selfhood. The modern conception, begun in the doubt and fear of the Cartesian cogito renders an individualism of rights and “free expression” indistinguishable from nihilism. Without the originating call to singular being from God, the modern individual only languishes in a false liberty that leads into a void. But just as a unique teleology is given from the origin, so is the community of being that is imperfectly realized in our temporal sojourns. The refusal of a Triune model of personhood by modern notions of the Self is matched by a truncated sense of community. Modern, nominalist Christians lack a bountiful, cosmic dimension to their imagination. Their eschatology pales in breadth of generosity next to Hindu or Buddhist conceptions that at least envision a whole without remainder in their spiritual conceptions of the Good, however deficient they may be in other respects.
What is perhaps most innovative in Hart’s critique, however, is the exposure of the hidden soteriology of the infernalist postion. If the whole of creation is founded on the real possibility of the damned, then the presence of the damned, real or merely countenanced as genuine possibility, becomes the secret engine at the heart of the enterprise:
. . . let us say God created simply on the chance that humanity might sin, and that a certain number of incorrigibly wicked souls might plunge themselves into Tartarus forever; this still means that, morally, he has 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 . . . for what is hazarded has already been surrendered entirely.
And this cost, more than a vindication of God’s justice, provokes a monstrous overturning of Christology; “for the redeemed, each of whom might just as well have been denied efficacious grace had God so pleased, who is that wretch who endures God’s final wrath, forever and ever, other than the surrogate, their redeemer, the one who suffers in their stead—their Christ?” Audacious, certainly, but not easy to dismiss. One surmises that the morally repugnant implications of such a celestial bliss will be denied by advocates for the traditional hell. Whether they can do so reasonably is another matter. The infernalist tradition spans the historical range of much of ecclesial history—I think it is begging the question to say that it was always dominant or the first interpretive teaching. One might determine that a proper reading of Paul contradicts such a notion. Regardless, a focus on Reformation soteriology is not meant to separate out Protestantism. Reformed thinking merely offers a particularly pure working out of a certain logic of modern freedom. The freedom ascribed to God in the wake of voluntarist and nominalist conceptions in the early modern period bequeathed an inscrutable and capricious God. The spirit of the Reformation imbibed the regnant philosophical conceptions of the day and then read them into Scripture. Far from a Triune God of agapeic love, one is given a sovereignty whereby murder or torture might be decreed the good should the Absolute power declare it so. Make no mistake; this is what is entailed when the Reformed tradition “elevates divine sovereignty to the status of the absolute theological value.” A nihilism comes to infect all language about God. One is “still dogmatically obliged” to ascribe to God biblical predicates such as “good,” “just,” “merciful,” “wise,” and “truthful”; “but transparently, all have been rendered equivocal by the doctrines that surround them; and this equivocity is necessarily contagious; it reduces all theological language to vacuity, for none of it can now be trusted.” As Hart also points out, one may posit as large a gap between finite creatures and the infinite God as one will, but distance that would stretch the analogy of being to a breaking point would destroy our capacity to understand and speak about the Good at all. One is left with the bare worship of power in which case there is little to distinguish love of God from respect for the devils. Orthodox apophaticism and mystical awareness of an overabundant light experienced as conceptual darkness should not be elided with early modern proclivities. Acknowledgement of apophatic mystery cannot undercut meaningful language without turning revelation into a faux enchantment that belies a genuine revelation of God.
In order to discuss human liberty, Father Lawrence notes that “there is no reason to think that eternity is as linear as time, or that it is like time as we experience it,” but he then goes on to make a positive assertion that seems to forget the limited purchase we actually possess on the nature of eternity. Father Lawrence asserts, and surely with some biblical warrant, that “time and eternity are related to one another as the foundation is to the house built on it.” What exactly this means, however, and how it will ultimately work out remains beyond comfortable conjecture. Analogies are helpful, but imperfect. One must take care to note where analogies fail, as well as where they are genuinely suggestive. For instance, the notion of a small error at the beginning projected out over a large span of time has a rough appeal and no doubt it can apply in some ways to human experience. It has significant limitations. Eternity is not a lot or even an infinite amount of time. Drawing a univocal parallel between an action begun in time to an “eternal” conclusion involves a lot of surmise that is not in any way justified by experience or reason. Further, a human being is not, for instance, an inanimate projectile that is determined by its initial flight path. It is a common surmise that time “sets” without capacity for alteration a mode of being that will simply be “confirmed” in eternity. The fact that a common tradition thinks this way does not in any way prove its metaphysical certitude. Indeed, it is quite possible, as Sergius Bulgakov surmised, that growth and development is part of human post-mortem experience. If the latter is possible, again, the analogy fails.
Yet this is first and foremost not a question of what humans can or cannot do, but about who God is, what He is like. Notice that Hart’s discussion of human will is conditioned by a prior understanding of God’s loving providence.
No one can freely will the evil as evil; one can take the evil for the good, but that does not alter the prior transcendental orientation that wakens all desire. To see the good truly is to desire it insatiably; not to desire it is not to have known it, and so never to have been free to choose it. It makes no more sense to say that God allows creatures to damn themselves than to say a father might reasonably allow his deranged child to thrust her face into a fire out of tender respect for her moral autonomy. And the argument becomes quite insufferable when one considers the personal conditions—ignorance, mortality, defectibility of intellect and will—under which each soul enters the world, and the circumstances—the suffering of all creatures, even the most innocent and delightful of them—with which that world confronts the soul.
The equation of protology with eschatology founds a genuine understanding of human freedom. Just as it is a category mistake to consider the Being of God somehow in competition with the creaturely being that would vanish into nothingness without constant divine solicitude, the freedom that men and women aim at is not a zero sum game in which finite liberty fights against a tyrannical divine heteronomy. The human will is constituted in its origins precisely as desire for the Good. It’s confusions and malevolent failures never touch a peaceful, generous, patient giving that marks the agapeic plenitude of the Origin. And if God’s freedom is manifest in a perfect eschatological realization of the cosmos he desires, then ultimately this is why one cannot simply dismiss Hart’s view of human freedom as hopelessly naïve.
Though on the surface the doctrine of election is overtly about unmerited grace, hiddenly, the elect in infernalist theology often treat the grace given to them as a personal property either through a secret merit that allows them to tolerate its absence in others or simply as a lucky draw that one shouldn’t overly question. There is no significant meditation upon just those mitigating factors to human liberty specified by Hart. The most charitable way to conceive the majority opinion of the Church on this matter is to see it as similar to the attachment to Ptolemy’s geocentric conceptions. While I have little sympathy for Galileo and some awareness of the complexity and ambiguities of the history comprising the debate over heliocentrism—Galileo’s import was covertly more anthropocentric and he marshaled in the disastrous distinction of primary and secondary qualities, the whole modern mathesis that gave us a cold, mechanical universe and love reduced to subjective, emotive ephemera—one can see the fusion of the old astronomy, ancient worldviews remaindered in the Scripture, and the Gospel witness as a false and unnecessary alloy. Likewise, the conviction that the Gospel stands or falls by attachment to traditional ideas of hell is false. A more open and charitable spirit would not seek justification for a split between the redeemed and the damned. There would be more thought in line with a recent quote given in a dialogue between the Catholic, Martin Mosebach, and his Muslim friend, the author Navid Kermani: “If people cannot be with Christ in good faith, the fault lies with Christians who have not portrayed Christianity convincingly enough.”
When Father Lawrence accentuates the asymmetry between the metaphysical reality of transfigured and redeemed reality and the nullity of hell and residual remains, what he thinks he is doing is emphasizing the vacuity of what is putatively a source of grievous pity. If one imagines the division of sheep and goats, wheat and tares as intrapersonal, the basic gesture is unobjectionable. We all have sins and predilections or capacities for darkness for which death is the only cure. But to imagine that a lost soul becomes less and less a source of rational grief because less and less a personal presence is at bottom an aspiration to assuage what is otherwise an obvious, perhaps intractable anguish for those who feel compelled to defend a traditional understanding of hell. I revere C. S. Lewis and prize his imaginative works, including The Great Divorce, but I believe Lewis has not fully worked through the logic of creation from nothing. Even if one posits the reduction to virtual inanity and near zero as a person—and it is not self-evident that this is an actual metaphysical possibility—Hart’s proposal remains unaddressed and one suspects, not truly thought. Either God creates in the liberty of agape love, with assurance grounded in his radically unencumbered will to achieve a true, theophanic cosmos—his risk is always already caught up in a prior determination to make good all wounds and secure the flourishing good of all creation—or creation is a gamble that accepts provisional allowance for eternal loss. The latter would not impugn the goodness of a Demiurge, for the Demiurge is not omnipotent and not fully free. To argue, as is often done, that risk of perdition is the price required in order for God to create creatures capable of liberty and love utterly fails to see the moral seriousness of creatio ex nihilo. The question is, would a truly good God create a world where such a cost was possible? Hart’s argument claims that Goodness would be irredeemably impugned; a fully powerful Good would only countenance a creation that was truly and fully Good and such a creation must not have or avail itself of the possibility of a remainder of unhealed loss. Those who claim that following Hart’s argument involves imposing on revelation a purely philosophical constraint fail to recognize that the logic of the argument derives from revelation. It would never have been possible to a philosopher lacking awareness of the gospel. Hence, a philosophical reflection upon the deep consequences and implications of revelation is itself part of the wondering vocation of theology itself.