The Problem of Hell and Free Will

by Chris Green, Ph.D.


Nicholas Loudovikos ends his remarkable essay—“Hell and Heaven, Nature and Person”—with this remarkable paragraph, which I want to quote at length and then tease apart for brief comment/critique:

Hell, then, is the denial of the Eucharist, the tragic freedom of absolute narcissism, that is, the supreme self-torture of a freely chosen enmity against love. As the boundary of heaven, it is lit dimly by its light, and this minimal gleam of rationality that is shed on it besieges the abyss of its irrationality with the compassion of the saints of God; but the battle against this hardened self-deification is indescribably frightening and also inauspicious.

The rest is known to God alone…. (IJOT 5.1 [2014]: 32)

As I said, remarkable. But also remarkably problematic, at least if I understand him rightly. Leaving aside for a moment the opening statement, I want to focus on this phrase: “the tragic freedom of absolute narcissism …” What is meant by these terms: “absolute narcissism,” “supreme self-torture”? Absolute over against what? Supreme in relation to whom? The answer, obviously, is God. In my judgment, this notion is the sickness that diseases all “free will” accounts of salvation and damnation. Speaking of our freedom as absolute and supreme means (a) that freedom-from-God is itself the greatest good God can give us and/or (b) that our freedom is ultimately self-grounded and our destiny self- determined.

I’ll return to those lines of thought in a moment, but for now I want to consider this second phrase, “As the boundary of heaven, [hell] is …” This strikes me as more or less straightforwardly dualistic. Are heaven (good) and hell (evil) mutually-defining? Does God really need evil and the punishment of evil to be recognizable as good? Surely not. That would violate the church’s understanding of God’s holy otherness and self-sufficiency, would it not? I would argue that this truth is axiomatic: God does not need anything but God to be the God God is for us.

* * *

Loudovikos seems to believe that freedom is the greatest good God can give us (at least until we freely give ourselves to God so that we are capable of receiving other, better gifts). And no doubt he would also hold that God desires to give us those better gifts. Indeed, it’s that very desire that animates “the compassion of the saints of God,” which Loudovikos describes as assailing the irrationality of the damned. Of course, the saints’ compassion is nothing other than God’s own compassion: they are interceding just because they are perfectly at-one-ed with God in Christ. But that means if they fail, God has failed. And that leaves me in conflict. Is that really what the gospel promises? Are we bound by the Scriptures and the church’s teaching to say that God, in the end, does not get done what God purposes to do?

Of course, many people (like Loudovikos, and perhaps most famously C. S. Lewis) are prepared to say that God’s desire to save ultimately ends in disappointment. But then we have to ask why God fails—and our response has to be dogmatically adequate. It seems there are only one or two possible answers, neither of which satisfies me. Either God fails because there are some ones or some things that God just cannot ultimately bring into alignment with his will for them. And/or God fails because the good that is our freedom, our “choice,” is so precious that evil (or at least the repudiation and punishment of evil) must be allowed to exist as a boundary condition for that good.

In either case, humans are believed to be self-grounded and self-determined. And that means that when all is said and done, God can only do what we allow God to do. In the end, God is at our mercy and we crucify him afresh. Just so, we are, as Loudovikos says, self-deified.

One of my students put it to me this way: “the Spirit leads us to repentance, but the decision is ours alone to believe, repent and receive. Not even God can do that for us!” But what kind of theological sense does this make? Arguably, God could create humans so that they are absolutely free from all influence, creaturely or divine. But, as I’ve already said, that would mean freedom-from-God is the highest good God gives—and that seems to me outright at odds with the gospel. How could faith, hope, and love remain if ultimately we are self-grounded and self-determining? After all, we have not determined our own beginning—I have no voice in whether or not I exist, and whether or not I exist as this one within these basic conditions of existence. How, then, can we rightly determine our own end? To say that I could in fact be self-determined would be an admission of belief in “salvation by works,” would it not? It would nullify the gospel, which promises me not freedom-from-God but participation in God’s own life.

* * *

I do agree with Georges Florovsky: “union with God, which is the essence of salvation, presupposes and requires the determination of will” (“The Last Things and the Last Events,” Collected Works,  III:263). But to understand that statement rightly we need a non-competitive account of divine and human freedom. We need to understand human being and agency not as a limit to God—created by and as God’s act of self-limitation—but as existing within God’s freedom and because of it, in absolute dependence on God’s supremacy. We need a way of saying that God wills our free response and that our response is truly free just because God wills it. As creatures we are not and cannot be ultimately self-grounded or self-determined. We can no more deify ourselves than we can create the world. We are grounded in the one who (in a way fitted to the divine life) freely makes it so that we can (in a way fitted to creaturely existence) freely participate in the determination that is purposed for us. So, if damnation cannot in the end be overcome, it must be because God wills such an end, and that very willing is what makes it so that the damned freely choose not to be saved. If damnation is not so willed by God, then the damned must at some point freely turn from their sins to the salvation given in Christ as God’s will for them. Either way, I would say that this should be taken as axiomatic: I am free to make of myself nothing more or less than what God frees me to make of myself.

This is difficult for many of us to track because we are locked into imagining two, and only two, alternatives: either we are “free”—by which we mean we are totally uninfluenced by any external force—or we are “predestined”—by which we mean we are absolutely controlled by some external force. But these are not the right alternatives to consider. First, because God is not in any sense an external force, one agent among other agents, acting upon us from “outside” with coercive power. Second, because we are creatures, and so we find our freedom—our fulfillment, our happiness—not in total uninfluencedness but in perfect transparency to God as the ground of our being, the one from whom, through whom, and to whom all things exist. On this Augustine was exactly right: God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves, the presence that is always-already relating to us and just in this way bringing us into being as the relating creatures we are. This means that God’s own power cannot be in any sense coercive. To paraphrase Bulgakov, God does not cause; God creates. God’s influence is never controlling. It does not limit our creaturely freedom: it generates it! And precisely because our freedom is so generated, we are most fully freely ourselves when we are most completely resting in dependence on God.

* * *

I hope no one dismisses what I’ve said as sheerly “Augustinian.” It seems to me a careful reading of Maximus’ Christology and theology of creation leads to this same end. I agree with Lossky’s summation:

God created man like an animal who has received the order to become God,” says a deep saying of St. Basil, reported by St. Gregory of Nazianzus. To execute this order, one must be able to refuse it. God becomes powerless before human freedom; He cannot violate it since it flows from His own omnipotence. Certainly man was created by the will of God alone; but he cannot be deified by it alone. A single will for creation, but two for deification. A single will to raise up the image, but two to make the image into a likeness. The love of God for man is so great that it cannot constrain; for there is no love without respect. Divine will always will submit itself to gropings, to detours, even to revolts of human will to bring it to a free consent: of such is divine providence, and the classical image of the pedagogue must seem feeble indeed to anyone who has felt God as a beggar of love waiting at the soul’s door without ever daring to force it. (Orthodox Theology, p. 73).

All I would add is that these two wills do not operate in the same way, or on the same “plane.” Creaturely will is no less dependent on the divine will in deification than in creation. It is simply differently dependent, a difference made possible because through faith it is coming closer to its purposed end. Yes, God is “powerless” before our freedom. God never forces the door. But the weakness of God is more powerful than all creaturely power, and when I’ve opened the door to the beggar who calls to me from outside I’ll know immediately that it is only God’s own grace that has made my hospitality possible.

Finally, then, sin, not damnation, is the denial of the Eucharist. Damnation would be what happens if that denial were willed by God as an identity for the deniers. But the Eucharist reveals that God does not identify anyone in this way. All are invited to the Table to give thanks together just because the one whose body and blood is given and received has once-for-all been given over to death for our sakes. He has once-for-all poured himself out for the life of his friends and his enemies alike. He has once-for-all offered himself to the Father through the Spirit so that we might share in his death and just in that way share also in his new-creation life. We may deny him, but he remains faithful. And it is that very faithfulness that calls all things into existence in the first place, holding them in being and ordering them to their end in God.

Dr Chris Green is Associate Professor of Theology at Pentecostal Seminary in Cleveland, Tennessee.

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54 Responses to The Problem of Hell and Free Will

  1. brian says:

    Dr. Green,

    This is well stated. There is nothing in it that on a first perusal I strongly disagree with. I am constrained by time from a full response, so I will confine myself to a few passing comments. I begin with something that seems to me continually relevant in these discussions. If God creates from nothing, if God is not compelled to create, then God either creates a universe where the freedom of contingent creatures is given in such a manner that a defeat of God’s purposes and eternal damnation is possible — or not. Let us say — this is not a question of whether this concept ultimately bears scrutiny, I do not think it does — but let us grant provisionally the notion that genuine freedom can only be genuine if it allows for the real possibility that some creatures may end up in an eternal state of damnation. As Hart has pointed out, it doesn’t matter if ultimately no creatures end up eternally damned. What matters is if the real possibility is a necessity of creation. Then it would seem logically that the economic cost of creation, the engine that makes the whole enterprise possible is, in fact, the real or potential endless suffering of the damned. Now recall, God is not compelled to created. He does not need creation to be the plenitude of Being, to enact the infinite fullness of Love. So, would a truly good God create gratuitously under the conditions that traditional infernal teaching requires?

    And if not, then freedom must be improperly understood by standard conceptions.

    Now there is no doubt that the Good does not require evil. Evil is not even required, though it is hard for us to think or imagine this, for drama, for novelty, and daring. If, as Balthasar has opined, the eternal life of God is both the fullness of Pure Act and the place of ever renewed dramatic encounter, Goodness by itself is the Source of what makes experience compelling.

    And Father, when I was talking about God beyond Cause, I was thinking of Bulgakov and what Bulgakov is thinking is Cause reduced to efficient causality, which is how moderns think of it. Efficient causality is a force that compels inert objects. When one thinks in those terms, then grace becomes coercive and the good becomes an intrusive heteronomy that intrudes upon the freedom of choice. But such modern libertarian freedom has already made an irrecoverable error for by rejecting all heteronomy, one must reject any notion that freedom must be intrinsically ordered to and guided by the good in order to truly be freedom. Yet the latter is the very signature of reason and knowledge. In the end, modern freedom is depersonalizing and irrational.

    And because it does not think the transcendence of God, it also does not think the kind of Augustinian intimacy Dr. Green refers to. It does not think God’s freedom as enabling creaturely freedom, but as the Good that is open to a hermeneutic that requires a permanent ambiguity. God must always be kenotically hidden for the ultimate revelation of parousia would annul all misapprehension of the Good as a necessarily adversarial Other at odds with one’s own personal freedom. On the contrary, as Bulgakov asserts (Cf. Father’s most recent post) true enlightenment will reveal to the wayward soul that its own most intimate, unique personhood has always been a gift of the agapeic God. In order to love oneself or to love the unique beloved, one must discover each and all in God. We are all seeds carried in the bosom of the Logos.

    I would only add that Christ enacts the nuptial identification that Adam spontaneously anticipates when he sees Eve. “Bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh.” When one is spectacularly in love, the beloved other is felt to be one body. There is a deep, metaphysical level of identification. On the Cross, Christ joins himself to the entire Fallen Cosmos. The intimacy of God to his creature is mysteriously raised by historical act to a nuptial-eucharistic bond that must end in the flourishing of theosis. When one talks of two wills, the first place to look is Gethsemane as Maximus the Confessor understood. Every act of enslavement to sin that thinks of itself as a flight from an alienating authority or confining social demands or whatnot is already met by the hidden presence of Christ. The Spirit is at work, now, kenotically preparing the advent of the Eighth day which is the true advent of freedom.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Chris Green says:

      Thanks, Brian, for these reflections. I agree w/ you (and DBH) on that first point. I encountered it first, in a slightly different form, while reading McDonald’s Unspoken Sermons. And I’ve never gotten over the initial shock!

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  2. Tom says:

    Thank you Chris for this contribution. So glad to see it here. And many thanks to Fr Aidan for hosting such a variety of voices and viewpoints.

    I agree the kind of irrevocable foreclosure upon all possibility of Godward movement that Loudovikos describes is, strictly speaking, inconceivable. That part of what Brian calls the “standard conceptions” is mistaken.

    But what would this site be without one died in the wool libertarian to harass its guests? That’s what Fr Aidan pays me for.

    Ultimately I don’t think construing divine agency and human agency as “non-competitive” (because the former transcends the latter) is at all helpful, or even right, if it means that evils we bring about through our choices unfold in time the timeless will of God. If I were to attempt to make a logically equivalent argument for the non-competitive relationship of moral terms (“love,” “goodness,” “justice”) as they apply to the question of hell as is suggested for providential terms (“create,” “cause,” “sustain,” “choose”), I’d run into objections here (and rightly so).

    For example (and I’m sure DBH will correct me, but this is where I am), Hart objects to construing moral terms as so unlike our standard definitions of those terms as to render an eternal hell morally intelligible. He objects: “In the words of John Stuart Mill, ‘To say that God’s goodness may be different in kind from man’s goodness, what is it but saying, with a slight change of phraseology, that God may possibly not be good?’” But as far as I can see, the logic required to make moral sense of claims about God and the world (a sense Hart insists upon) apply equally to making providential sense of claims about the same.

    That said, I agree we don’t determine our ultimate destiny. To the extent Loudovikos thinks our wills are at liberty to irrevocably foreclose upon themselves in evil, I agree with you that he’s misconstruing free will. My point is that we don’t need to posit a non-competitive understanding of God’s actually creating the evil choices and suffering in the world to disagree with Loudovikos. To the extent God does not will evil and suffering and evil and suffering are features of the actual world, to that extent the world is ‘not’ as God wills (though he wills to sustain it as such). That’s coherent enough without qualifying the ‘will to sustain’ fallen states as transcendentally non-competitive with God’s opposing evil as such. On the contrary, we do choose for ourselves ends that compete with (i.e., that fail to realize) ends God wills for us. We just cannot do so absolutely and irrevocably. Why say anything else?

    A libertarian (I’m the last of a dying breed!) isn’t under any compulsion to construe the libertarian exercise of the will as the highest good or as entailing the capacity to determine our ultimate destiny. We can be grounded in God, transcendentally oriented toward the good, and incapable of foreclosing upon ourselves all possibility of achieve our final end in God (all this) and still be libertarianly free with respect to the kind of choice by which we are able to participate in God. Loudovikos is just wrong about thinking such free will implies power to irrevocably separate ourselves from all possibility of Godward movement.

    Tom

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Tom, I’m afraid do not have any more insight about the problem of occasionalism than I did last January when I wrote “Is God Making it Snow?” What I do not see yet is why you believe that a non-competitive construal of divine agency leads to occasionalism, particularly given that it’s purpose is to allow for a genuine creaturely freedom within the sovereignty of divine providence. It seems to me that a non-competitive construal of divine agency only leads to occasionalism if one thinks of God and creatures as existing on the same ontological plane. As I recall, you own David Burrell’s book Freedom and Creation in Three Traditions. Take a look at chap. 5.

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      • Tom says:

        Thanks Fr Aidan. Actually this week I’ve turned the corner on understanding what’s (helpfully) meant by “non-competitive” here. Brian (thank you Brian) helped answer a couple of my questions offline, so I don’t mind the ‘non-competitive’ description. (Hart actually relates it to his own denial of occassionalism, and that really helped.) Just yesterday and slow read back through DBH’s ‘Providence’ paper and saw some very interesting things in this regard. I’ll share it in an upcoming blog post over at my place.

        Tom

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  3. brian says:

    Tom,

    Non-competitive does not equate to the notion that there is no secondary causality or that somehow as theodicy conceives of it, that evil actions of creatures are taken up as necessary to a predestined plan of God. The whole point of Hart’s Doors of the Sea and David Burrell’s work on Job (as examples) is to contest that particular argument. It is completely wrong then to see human temporal actions as somehow simply the predestined unfolding of eternal decrees.

    The point of non-competitive freedom is much more directed towards the way libertarian freedom normally construes the will and its relation (as a matter of epistemology and metaphysics) to the Good, as well as the way moderns forget the implications of what Desmond calls passio essendi or the nature of agapeic giving as the Source of creation.

    And again, Hart’s objection is to the “theological nihilism” dependent on voluntarist notions of the will and nominalist rejections of analogia entis does not in any way implicate non-competitive freedom. It only seems to do so because you have interpreted the latter as involving God as the actual author of evil — it seems that you can only think non-competitive freedom as Occasionalism.

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    • Tom says:

      I’m looking for clarification, and that helps—I think. 😀

      Brian: It seems that you can only think non-competitive freedom as Occasionalism.

      Tom: Well, what I’m looking for is a reason why somebody taking a non-competitive view of divine and human agency would have for denying occssionalism.

      I guess I don’t see the problem that a non-competitive construal of divine and human agency is supposed to solve or even address. If it’s merely brought in to describe “the way libertarian freedom normally construes the will and its relation to the Good” (i.e., modernist ‘voluntarism’) and to address “the way moderns forget the implications of what Desmond calls passio essendi,” then I can appreciate that. I agree, as a libertarian, the exercise of the will always functions within the wider gift of being grounded in its transcendental teleology. That’s why I can disagree with Loudovikos.

      If all one means by ‘non-competitive’ is the compatibility of human agency with its being grounded in an irrevocable orientation toward the Good, then count me in. It’s precisely this grounding that exposes occassionalism as false.

      I must have misunderstood (which happens!) earlier, because I thought several of you questioned my denial of occassionalism on the grounds that (viz., your ‘questioning’ it was on the grounds that) God’s willing the world was non-competitive. I read you as saying something like this: “Well, look, occassionalism is essentially true in the sense that the world always already is as God wills and creates it to be (in all its evil and suffering), but this is not really a problem because we construe the divine agency as sufficiently inscrutably mysterious, so the standard objections to occassionalism don’t stick.”

      If I’ve misunderstood, my apologies.

      Tom

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      • Tom says:

        Hart’s Ch 2 “Providence and Causality: On Divine Innocence,” p. 36. I can get with that. 😀

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      • brian says:

        Yes, the latter assertions are certainly wrong. I do not have time just now to properly address this Tom, but there appears to be the need for significant clarification.

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        • Tom says:

          Thanks Brian. (The email helped, as did that section of Hart’s paper affirming ‘permission’ as an aspect of divine will.)

          It seems to me that what ‘non-competition’ wants to deny is the idea that the capacity and scope of human free will to say ‘no’ to God must define human being without remainder, i.e., it’s potential competition all the way down because there’s no aspect of human nature and will that are irreducibly oriented toward the good and as such are not open to determination by us. If that’s where the non-competition is aimed, then yes. I totally affirm a non-competitive view of divine and human agency.

          Can’t go back and edit my comments to Chris, but I’d adjust that portion of it.

          Thanks for the clarity!

          Tom

          Liked by 1 person

          • Chris Green says:

            Tom, a few quick points, wh/ I hope clarify what I was trying to say in the post:

            (1) God should not be understood to determine everything that happens in our world, including the evil; quite the opposite, God does not “determine” _anything_ in that sense.

            (2) For me, “non-competition” means quite simply that God’s being-act is not impinged on, curtailed, limited, compromised by human being and agency, and human being and agency are not limited by God’s being-act. Again, just the opposite.

            (3) I think what you’re calling “orientation toward the good” is fairly close to what I mean by the will of God for us, and I’m not sure that we disagree too severely once that’s established.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Tom says:

            Thanks Chris. I’m getting closer to understanding what folks mean by ‘non-competitive’ and how it plays into other claims, so your clarification helps. I totally agree with you that the only way to assert an eternal hell is to posit a freedom so absolute that our capacities (rational and volitional) can no longer consistently be viewed as essentially grounded in and sustained by God. I also agree this implies, as you note, a certain two-storiedness.

            Tom

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      • Robert Fortuin says:

        Hi Tom,

        No, the objection to occassionalism is the rejection of univocal and equivocal theo-logizing. I thought this was made quite clear.

        Analogous predication addresses your objection to both aspects: determinism on the one hand, and the pitfall of the absolute apophatic on the other. So how you come to conclude analogy means ‘the world always already is as God wills… because we construe the divine agency as sufficiently inscrutably mysterious’ seems to indicate we haven’t succeeded in communicating. Perhaps Fr Przywara’s Analogia Entis may be of further help. John Betz also has some good work on this subject. However, you are not going to find in them anything not already covered and explicated by Hart.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Robert Fortuin says:

    Chris, thank you for this piece on this most important and fascinating subject.

    A question for the purposes of clarification – you indicate agreement with Lossky who states that ‘God becomes powerless before human freedom’ – do I understand rightly then your view on freewill is libertarian? I gather this as well from ‘sin, not damnation, is the denial of the Eucharist’. Is your position then that sin endures? But how then is that different from Loudovikos’ position?

    I suppose I am not clear as to the premise furthered.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Chris Green says:

      Robert, thanks for the question. I am saying—or at least trying to say—that God never violates freedom b/c that’s not the kind of act God is. But libertarian arguments, at least the ones I’m concerned with, see God as ultimately at our mercy, finally incapable of doing what we need b/c we just won’t go along w/ it, and I’m denying that as well. As for whether sin endures, I don’t see how it could given who God is. But of course that may be what a sinner would say! 🙂

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      • Robert Fortuin says:

        I fail to see how your position is compatible with Lossky’s quote, or, in other words, how you could be in agreement. Lossky exemplifies the libertarian position.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          I’m going to have to agree with Robert regarding the Lossky citation. Like other free-will theists, Lossky sees only two options—Augustinian predestination (which he firmly rejects) and libertarian freedom (which, in his view, logically requires at least the possibility, if not probability, of damnation). That’s the meaning, I think, of his statement that God is powerless before human freedom. As far as I know, he does not entertain a third, non-competitive option.

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          • Chris Green says:

            Sure, but that particular statement—wh/ is Lossky’s summation of Maximus—can be read either in libertarian or non-competitive ways. I agree with the statement so long as the qualification I make immediately following is kept in mind throughout.

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          • Chris Green says:

            Or, to say it another way, Lossky would obviously not agree with me, but I nonetheless can agree with him—so long as I transpose his account into a non-competitive key.

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          • Chris Green says:

            I do the same thing w/ the Florovsky quote elsewhere in the post; it’s a qualified agreement

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            Fair enough Chris, and certainly not meant to pigeonhole, just wondering how you see the apparent conflicting accounts of eternal damnation and freewill possibly reconciled (and was surprised to see your agreement with Lossky). Lossky, like so many others, takes freewill to be the ultimate Good. This simply cannot be, unless we allow our theological language to be taken over by vacuous equivocity.

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        • Chris Green says:

          For sure. I just want to show that many of the most important concerns represented in the libertarian position are (better) answered in non-competitive accounts.

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            Chris,

            The issue of freewill as the ultimate good, which is your point of criticism against Loudovikos, is not adequately addressed however. I don’t see how an agreement with Lossky, however your condition your agreement, does not defeat and contradict your disagreement with Loudovikos. You can’t have it both ways. The issue of (non)competition is irrelevant. An eternally persisting non-competitive freewill as ultimate good simply shifts the issue to God. God wills freewill to endure, capable of resistance, the ultimate Good has been redefined: theology has been emptied of its semantic and logical content.

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          • Chris Green says:

            hmm… There are nuances here that seem to be collapsing, either b/c I’m not saying what I mean very clearly or I’m not tracking your critique entirely. Maybe Fr K can help.

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          • Chris Green says:

            Just to be as clear as I can: I do not agree w/ that statement from Lossky about God’s “powerlessness” except when it’s read through a non-competitive lens. And if it is so read, then “freedom-from-God” could no longer be considered an ultimate good. Instead, we would have “freedom-in-God”—perfect influencedness, not uninfluencedness. Within the give-and-take of history, God works with our gnomic will, and so appears to be “a beggar,” powerless before my decision. But in truth, that “weakness” is not what it appears to be b/c it is utterly unlike all contingent power whatsoever.

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  5. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Hi, Chris.

    I want to thank you for writing this article for my blog. Clearly you and I are struggling with the same problems.

    I’ve been mulling over your arguments since your first draft crossed my computer. There are one or two (or three) points where I wonder whether you have yet made your case. (I’ll restrict myself to one point per comment.)

    I want to affirm your important insight: for free-will defenders of damnation, “freedom-from-God is itself the greatest good God can give us.” But you point out they also insist that God desires to give us even greater goods—indeed, the Good—once we freely give ourselves to him. So there’s a conflict of some kind here. It seems to me that the distinction you want to make needs further philosophical clarification. What do you mean “freedom-from-God” and in what sense do you think that it is properly described, from the point-of-view of free-will damnation, as the “greatest good”? In what sense is the gift of freedom a greater good than the gift of deification? (There’s never a scholastic philosopher around when one needs one! 🙂 ) We commonly say that God wills the salvation of all, but given that this will is frustrated in some (many? most?) created persons, does it make sense to say that God wills the salvation of all? It seems that the actual situation is God willing radical human freedom and then wishing for our beatitude. (Does God wish?) Does that sound right to you?

    The libertarian effectively presents creation as an experiment. God gives us radical freedom, not only by creating us as free but also by living and dying in the world, but then waits to see how it all settles out. (Thank goodness for the Blessed Virgin. She at least guaranteed that the experiement would not turn out to be a complete bust.) Of course, the traditional theologian would also insist that God eternally foreknows how it all ends, so he is not at all surprised by the fact that apparently some (many? most?) choose, in their freedom, to divorce themselves from him. But God’s “willing” would seem to stop precisely at the point of our freedom. After that it’s a crap-shoot.

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    • brian says:

      Father,

      I think you are asking the right questions here. And in light of the above discussion, the issue again is would a truly good God experiment in that manner? Foreknowledge of the results is completely immaterial to whether or not such an enterprise is consistent with the God of the gospel.

      I’m working through a lot of material on this — started off as a desire to respond to Joshua Brotherton — which it still is at some level — anyway, when it cools off and I have time, I’ll try to make a more developed argument regarding these issues, though one is never going to get beyond some form of interpretive risk, i.e., one cannot utterly close off what I conceive as bad or less good interpretations of the gospel through conceptual clarification.

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    • Chris Green says:

      Thanks, Father, for the questions.

      (A) As best as I can tell, the “freedom” invoked in many if not all “free will” theologies is in fact sheer uninfluencedness, which is why I want to name it explicitly as “freedom-from-God.”

      (B) That said, it seems to me that some if not all of these theologies hold “freedom-from-God” to be the greatest *unconditional* good. If asked, those who hold to “free will” models would say, I think, that there are in fact better goods—but that these goods only come to us *on the condition* that we use the basic unconditional good wisely. At one level, God wills “freedom” for all; at another level, God wills “salvation” for all of those who make the right choice in their freedom.

      But this seems terribly wrong to me, as I hope the original post made clear. First, I do not think that “freedom-from-God” is even possible, much less a good. (If it were possible, it would an evil, not a good.) Second, I do not think that God would will for us a good less than the best—and that means God must will nothing less than a share in God’s own life for us. Third, I do not think that God merely “wishes” (side note: this would the same as saying that God has unrealized potentials, no?), because that would mean that ultimately God wills ineffectively. As you said, if God’s “willing” is limited by our “freedom” then everything’s a crap-shoot. And I do not think for a moment that such a view does justice to the God revealed in Christ, or to the faith that’s been delivered to us, or to the witness of the saints. The gospel is not “I’ve got a lot of good things for those who do the right things with their freedom.”

      (C) As for influences, I’d have to name Rowan Williams, Robert Jenson, David Bentley Hart, and Kathryn Tanner, and through and alongside them: Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus, and Aquinas.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Chris, what books and essays have you found most helpful on non-competitve divine causality and human freedom?

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  7. Mike H says:

    Great essay Dr. Green.

    “But then we have to ask why God fails – and our response has to be dogmatically adequate. It seems that there are only one or two possible answers, neither of which satisfies me. Either God fails because there are some ones or some things that God just cannot ultimately bring into alignment with his will for them. And/or God fails because the good that is our freedom, our “choice”, is so precious that evil (or at least the repudiation and punishment of evil) must be allowed to exist as a boundary condition for that good.”

    Another common response is that God, in the end, wants something else more – a free response. By that criteria there’s no real “failure” at all because “success” is achieved simply by the mere existence of reality as a sort deist experiment/wager involving the free choices of a perpetual cycle of independent creatures (billions in number and not slowing down). The actual content of that choice – in it’s finality – is irrelevant to the success or failure of this reality. Literally every person who ever lived could be subject to “the supreme self-torture of a freely chosen enmity against love” and you could still chalk up a win for “love”.

    I find that to be a terrifying and warped expression of love by any decent human criteria, let alone a divine one.

    Tom Talbott has the best answer I’ve seen to this:

    ”But this did not always prevent a misunderstanding of the following kind: perhaps God might sincerely will the redemption of all sinners, have the power to accomplish his will in this matter, and still have an overriding purpose – such as that of respecting human freedom – that prevents him from exercising his power to redeem a given sinner. The confusion here arises from a failure to appreciate one all-important point: if God has an overriding desire to save all human sinners and also desires to preserve human freedom in this matter, then his redemptive purpose for the world is simply a combination of the two – it is his overriding purpose to bring it about that all of them are reconciled to him freely.”

    The way I read it, Talbott’s answer assumes a non-competitive model of freedom. (I get fuzzy on my terms, but this is NOT compatibilism, correct?)

    I’ll be curious to see exactly how a non-competitive model is fleshed out. It’s one thing to assert such a model, but another for it to make sense in the context of life and in how the gospel is communicated and understood. Our experience of life very much consists of our own will competing with the other wills, so it’s not an easy concept to grasp. And I think that’s why it’s EASY TO treat the ontology of non-competitive freedom as self-contradictory or meaningless philosophical drivel (theodicy concerns being a secondary, but no less important issue).

    Liked by 2 people

    • brian says:

      Mike, your last sentence is a bit confusing . . . but your general posing of relevant questions is always astute.

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      • Mike H says:

        Really my last paragraph is just to say that what could be described as “the drive of the competitive will” defines MUCH of our existence in this world. Having a toddler at home, the inexorable process of her pulling away and learning to assert her independence is impossible to NOT see. Work. Sports. Relationships, whether between individuals or the nations. The animal kingdom & natural world – the competition for scarce resources and the way vegetation will “fight” for sunlight. It can be understood as the interplay of conflicting wills.

        So in my mind it’s very understandable why we default to competitive-willing and why it’s a struggle to see otherwise. A non-competitive model is truly an eschatological one.

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        • Chris Green says:

          I missed this comment before, but yes a non-competitive model is eschatological, cutting against the grain of our everyday “experience” of the world. This is why teaching the doctrine of God faithfully is necessarily basic to our work of speaking the gospel and learning together the way we’re called to live. Theology, rightly given and received, is *transformational*

          Liked by 2 people

    • Chris Green says:

      Mike, thanks for the response. Yes, I think you’re right on — I take the point to be that “freedom” is considered so precious precisely b/c it is believed that God wants/needs us to “choose” to love him so that that love is authentic and not robotic (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that argument in sermons and conversations, in one form or another). As you said, that is “love” only in some perverse sense, not least b/c it makes God needy, and a needy God is literally the worst imaginable possibility.

      As for the bit you quote from Talbott, I think it does read like a non-competitive model of freedom. Only God could freely will that all should reconciled to God and to another freely.” As I hear it, that’s exactly what the Gospel promises.

      As for working out the non-competitive model in “real life,” I find it is absolutely essential when trying to talk faithfully about intercessory prayer and/or suffering. I’ve tried to engage in preaching, as well as in my lectures and my writing. I suppose you’d have to ask other people whether or not what I’ve said has helped or not. 🙂

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    • Chris Green says:

      I wrote a response, Mike, that seems to have been lost. In short, I agree w/ you on both counts: (a) that account of “love” is not at all worthy of the God of the gospel; such a God would be needy, and that’s the worst of all imaginable possibilities; (b) I don’t know how Talbott means it to be heard, but I certainly hear it in a non-competitive key

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      • Mike H says:

        Yeah, I saw it earlier. Appreciate your responses. Father Kimel was kind enough to correct some of the typos in my first comment (per a 2nd comment that I made), and yours may have been part of a string that was removed.

        In any case, I think your comment referenced a connection to intercessory prayer and suffering. I’d be interested to hear how the substance of your essay plays out in aspects of your preaching and teaching. Perhaps a subject for another time.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I’m not sure what happened to Dr Green’s original response to Mike’s first comment. It should be showing up here, but for some reason it’s not. Anyway, here it is again:

      Mike, thanks for the response. Yes, I think you’re right on — I take the point to be that “freedom” is considered so precious precisely b/c it is believed that God wants/needs us to “choose” to love him so that that love is authentic and not robotic (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that argument in sermons and conversations, in one form or another). As you said, that is “love” only in some perverse sense, not least b/c it makes God needy, and a needy God is literally the worst imaginable possibility.

      As for the bit you quote from Talbott, I think it does read like a non-competitive model of freedom. Only God could freely will that all should reconciled to God and to another freely.” As I hear it, that’s exactly what the Gospel promises.

      As for working out the non-competitive model in “real life,” I find it is absolutely essential when trying to talk faithfully about intercessory prayer and/or suffering. I’ve tried to engage in preaching, as well as in my lectures and my writing. I suppose you’d have to ask other people whether or not what I’ve said has helped or not. 🙂

      Like

  8. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Congratulations, Chris. Your article was the most popular piece on my blog for the month of August–and it’s only been up for two days!

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  9. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Chris, you mention in your article that you believe that your view is compatible with that of St Maximus the Confessor. I’m sort’ve surprised none of our readers has challenged you yet on this, as we had a long discussion about St Maximus and eternal damnation back in February. Here’s one of his money quotes on everlasting hell:

    This is eternal being, in which souls celebrate their Sabbath, receiving cessation from all motion. The eight and the first, or rather, the one and perpetual day, is the unalloyed, all-shining presence of God, which comes about after things in motion have come to rest; and, throughout the whole being of those who by their free choice have used the principle of being according to nature, the whole God suitably abides, bestowing on them eternal well-being by giving them a share in Himself, because He alone, properly speaking, is, and is good, and is eternal; but to those who have willfully used the principle of their being contrary to nature, He rightly renders not well-being but eternal ill-being, since well-being is no longer accessible to those who have placed themselves in opposition to it, and they have absolutely no motion after the manifestation of what was sought, by which (manifestation) what is sought is naturally revealed to those who seek it.” [Ambiguum 65: 279-281 (1393A)]

    I was wondering if you could explain why you think Maximus’s understanding of the God/creature relationship permits, or even authorizes, universal salvation.

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    • Chris Green says:

      Fr, a few quick responses, wh/ I’m happy to explicate in more detail later:

      (1) I’m not claiming to be any kind of expert in Maximus. His work is much too challenging to master easily, if indeed it can be mastered at all. I’m just suggesting that my reading of him (shaped as it is by others’ readings) leads me to the conclusion I suggest in the post.

      (2) I am open to the possibility that Maximus was inconsistent in the working out of his own best insights. And I’m also open to the possibility that he has drastic changes of mind over time. So, just b/c he claims the belief that some are eternally damned does not mean that his thought requires us to agree with that claim or even to agree that that claim is truly in line with the flow of Maximus’ mature thought.

      (3) But be that as it may, in the post I am not arguing that Maximus was a “universalist.” I am arguing that his account of the relation of divine freedom and human freedom, w/ I see (a) in his account of Christ’s human will and (b) in his account of creaturely natures as aimed at the good that God is as their Creator, an aiming that is restored by grace of baptism, is non-competitive, and that we don’t have to be “Augustinian” to hold such an account.

      Liked by 1 person

      • brian says:

        I am certainly not an expert on Maximus either. In Cosmic Liturgy, Balthasar notes seeming contradictory statements, but opines that ultimately Maximus implicitly or with a prudential reticence accepts the universalist view.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        “(3) But be that as it may, in the post I am not arguing that Maximus was a “universalist.” I am arguing that his account of the relation of divine freedom and human freedom, w/ I see (a) in his account of Christ’s human will and (b) in his account of creaturely natures as aimed at the good that God is as their Creator, an aiming that is restored by grace of baptism, is non-competitive, and that we don’t have to be “Augustinian” to hold such an account.”

        I’d love to see you elaborate upon this further at some point in the future, Chris.

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        • Chris Green says:

          Following Rowan Williams and Ian McFarland, among others, I take the mature Maximus to say that human beings were created w/ a natural orientation to the good—what Williams describes as a “homing device” for the Logos that is created in every logoi. But of course sin disrupts and disorders that natural orientation. It scrambles the instruments, so to speak, which means that our wills are rendered “gnomic,” and therefore incapable of simply discerning the good which it was meant for. Forced to deliberate, we are left stumbling blindly in the dark. Only grace, the healing of our natures, can save us from this blindness.

          This truth is revealed for us in Christ, whose will was natural, not gnomic. The life of Jesus makes clear that human freedom is realized not in deliberation, not in uninfluenced “free choice,” but in absolute dependence on God. Jesus lived a life of perfect influencedness; he was at every moment radically open to and totally transparent to God as his source and telos, especially in Gethsemane.

          This is the grammar of Maximus’ account of the hypostatic union. He holds that there is a logos integral to each nature, but there is only one tropos. That means that Jesus’ humanity is not violated in any way by his divinity, nor is his divinity somehow violated by his humanity, but both his humanity and his divinity belong in perfect harmony together to the way in which he is related to God both eternally and historically. Here’s the relevant point for our discussion: if the divine and human can be joined together in the one person of the incarnation without dividing that person’s tropos in two, then it must be that the divine and human natures do not compete with each other in any way.

          Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      After I posted my comment, it occurred to me that it might be nifty to recruit three experts to argue for apokatastasis on (1) Maximian grounds, (2) Augustinian grounds, and (3) Thomist grounds–on the assumption that apokatastasis is a legitimate theologoumenon. Call it a thought experiment.

      Any recommendations, anyone?

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  10. brian says:

    Well, I would take the Thomistically inspired perspective. (This is how Norris Clarke described his own philosophizing.)

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  11. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Two brief comments:

    Robert, I still do not understand how the analogy of being can bear the weight that you put upon it regarding universal salvation. The medieval doctors certainly believed in the analogy of being, and they did not feel compelled to confess apokatastasis. Hence I share Chris’s confusion on this point. I hope one day you’ll be able to write an article for the blog on this question and clarify matters for us.

    Chris, regarding non-competitive divine agency, my take is that it opens up for us a way to think beyond the dualism of divine agency vs. human agency. Obviously it does not compel the conclusion of universal salvation–certainly St Thomas Aquinas did not think so–but it might authorize us to affirm the possibility of what the Latin tradition calls efficacious grace. If God does not stand alongside or outside of us on the same metaphysical plane but rather communicates himself to us at the causal root of our being, making us to be in freedom, then does that open up possibilities of interior grace even for those who seek to block grace? How this might be possible must be beyond our comprehension, because we cannot discern what Austin Farrer calls the “causal joint”–if we could, God would be reduced to a being–but we can at least see both the impossibility of the human being ever achieving autonomy in relation to his Creator and the impossibility of limiting the resources of divine grace.

    But that about pushes the limits of my understanding. What do you think?

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    • Chris Green says:

      A few quick responses for now:

      (A) Although I still fall back into the habit from time to time, Jenson has pretty much convinced me that we shouldn’t talk about God’s “agency,” b/c that can apply potentiality. God is simply being-act, and that being-act is non-competitively related to our agency.

      (B) Aquinas represents those who hold to a non-competitive account that assumes that God does not will the salvation of all. God loves all, but not all in the way that ends in their salvation. I, of course, disagree with him on that point even while I agree with him about how God’s being-act relates to our agency.

      (C) I do think the “causal joint” is beyond our capacity to understand, but I still believe we must affirm that it is not the place where God hiddenly *coerces* us. I’d want to argue that God’s will is effective—it does not return void—but it is not, and indeed cannot be, violent in that sense.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        “Although I still fall back into the habit from time to time, Jenson has pretty much convinced me that we shouldn’t talk about God’s “agency,” b/c that can apply potentiality. God is simply being-act, and that being-act is non-competitively related to our agency.”

        How very Thomistic of you, Chris. 😉

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  12. Robert Fortuin says:

    Fr Aidan,

    Briefly put, Analogia Entis as the ontology of creatio ex nihilo, in which God creates freely without compulsion, means that if God creates souls with the knowledge they are destined for eternal damnation, evil is shifted to God in the eternal act of His Being. The nature of the soul’s freewill, compatibilist or otherwise, is simply irrelevant as in any construal the will’s eternal persistence endures (hence its eternal damnation). Man’s will then is the ultimate, absolute Good, and this means a.) God is truly powerless, or b.) God’s will is for souls to be damned for infinity; to wit c.) our theo-logizing has become utterly vacuous drivel, semantically and logically, thoroughly infected with absolute equivocation to such absurdity that ‘powerless’ means ‘powerful’, and ‘good’ means ‘evil’ (or nothing at all). There can only be one ultimate Good, the first and final Cause. I suggest the ultimate Good is the God who truly reveals Himself in Christ, eternally over-flowing agapeic Love, the Lover of Mankind who, according to Paul in Romans 11:32 ‘bound everyone over to disobedience so that He may have mercy on all.’ The analogy of Being persists, we are made in the image of Him, our humanity a true reflection of the Divine. Language too persists, likeness providing meaning in an always greater unlikeness.

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