Eternal damnation—it’s just so damn obvious, right?

I was not surprised by the response but still a tad disappointed. A couple of weeks ago I visited an online Thomist discussion group and proposed the following:

Let’s do a thought experiment: Bracket for the moment your belief in an eternally-populated Hell. Pretend that apokatastasis is still a dogmatically legitimate theologoumenon. How might a Thomist argue for universal salvation based on Aquinas’s understanding of God as the Good?

I believe that this thought experiment could prove illuminating. One might try it not only with Aquinas but with other important theologians and philosophers—Augustine, Dionysius, Maximus, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, Karl Barth, Robert Jenson. But hardly anyone was willing to play. Apparently it is just too obvious that apokatastasis cannot be advanced or defended on a Thomist understanding of God, creation, and divine grace. “God saves whom he will,” one person told me. We don’t even have to think about it. We don’t have to think about what it means for a rational being to be created for the Good. We don’t have to wonder whether it is really possible for a human being to freely, definitively, and irrevocably close himself off to Grace and Love. We don’t have to explore what free will means when God himself is our only happiness. We don’t have ponder on the justice of God creating a world in which he foreknew that a large percentage of human beings would die in a state of mortal sin. It’s all been dogmatically decided.

Nothing to see here. Move along.

In the spirit of my thought experiment, I commend to you this Thomist defense of everlasting damnation. Do you find it persuasive?

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30 Responses to Eternal damnation—it’s just so damn obvious, right?

  1. Jeff McV says:

    I am almost (but not quiet) a Universalist. I think there is about 1% of the human population that has become so evil that, at the Last Judgement, God will simply say to them “Sorry. Can’t use you”, and banish/destroy them.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Jeff, your comment reminds me of the encyclical Spe salvi (promulgated in late 2007), in which Pope Benedict expresses the hope that only a few will be damned. I blogged on Benedict’s hope a couple months later on my old blog, expressing my surprise that Benedict had speculated at all about the number of the damned (“Counting the Saved“). All such speculations are groundless, I suggested. Few or many? How can we know?

      But if we are going to speculate, then we probably should follow the example of the Alexandrian tanner:

      Once the blessed Anthony was praying in his cell. A voice came to him, saying: “Anthony! You have not yet attained the measure of the tanner who lives in Alexandria.” On hearing this, the elder got up early in the morning and hastened to Alexandria. When he came to the tanner, the latter was extremely surprised to see him. The elder said to him: “Tell me of your feats, because it is for this that I have come all the way from the desert.” The tanner answered: “I don’t remember the least good that I could have done at any time; that is why, when I get up early from my bed, before starting with my work, I tell myself: ‘All the inhabitants of this city, from the small to the great, will enter the Kingdom for their virtues, and I alone will go to eternal fire for my sins.’ I repeat the same words in my heart before I go to sleep.” Hearing this, the blessed Anthony replied: “Indeed, my son, you, as a skilled artisan, sitting in your home, have acquired the Kingdom; while I, although I’m spending all my life in the desert, have not gathered the spiritual wisdom, nor reached the state of mind that you have shown with your words.”

      Liked by 1 person

  2. bradjersak says:

    Perhaps we’re so used to knowing the key texts that we assume the opposing views know them too and have discounted them thoughtfully. But this week I had an encounter with someone who was completely convinced of conditionallism, “Because I have studied all the scriptures on the matter and concluded that it is the most biblically sound and persuasive position .” He even argued that some *must* perish and God in fact wills some to perish by only choosing to raise (by irresistible grace) some to life (and God cannot be considered unfair for not raising all since none deserve it anyway). “God is God and does as he wills.” So, I asked, what do you do with “God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to eternal life.”? It was as if he had never heard or read the verse. He had certainly not even addressed it in his thorough study nor was he aware of how the Calvinists normally twist it into “all [the elect]”. Instead of sharing 30 more problem passages that could be problematic, this time I just held his feet to the fire on that one and let it work on him as it had on my young 1989 Calvinist self. “But we have these texts where the wicked are destroyed, perish or are consumed,” he said. Again, I figured (wrongly) that he had considered the obvious: what if the “all are saved” texts simply refer chronologically to after the perishing texts, such that those who perished are part of the ‘all’ who finally receive mercy. He said, “I’ve never thought of it that way.” Never occurred to him. Moral of the story: sometimes I assume those who see ‘the obvious’ have skipped past the obvious and I let them too easily. For the rest, those who’ve done their homework, there’a always Hart.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. brian says:

    In his June 2015 column for First Things, where David Bentley Hart rightly excoriates Edward Feser for the narrowly rationalistic and unbiblical exclusion of the animals from the cosmic regeneration wrought by Christ’s Resurrection, Hart also draws a distinction between Catholic scholars who think and creatively make use of Thomist insight, eg. Maritain, Gilson, W. Norris Clarke and a school largely shaped by deformations associated with Baroque neoscholasticism. The latter defends a “System” of logical concepts utterly bereft of wonder, creativity, existential struggle, delight, love. I feel certain a W. Norris Clarke would have responded generously to such an invitation. I, myself, am Thomistically inspired. I am convinced Aquinas’ fundamental metaphysical understanding is true and full of depths capable of reaching beyond his own conclusions on particular matters. But I am not a doctrinaire Thomist which is, as I think Alasdair MacIntyre validly argued in Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry, a betrayal of the Spirit of Aquinas.

    In any event, all these fellas could do with a good dose of Bulgakov, but they don’t have ears to hear.

    Liked by 2 people

    • “The latter defends a “System” of logical concepts utterly bereft of wonder, creativity, existential struggle, delight, love.”

      Isn’t what matters most whether their arguments are right or wrong, not whether they are full of wonder, delight, etc.?

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      • Robert Fortuin says:

        ‘be ye perfect…’

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      • Grant says:

        A theology and argument that lacks any space for beauty, creativity, wonder, and most of all love, is a system that no matter how good it seems on paper is a denial of the deep reality of life we experience every day, and is inheritably very wrong somewhere, it’s a system essentially trying to the equivalent forcing a 4th dimensional reality to be a 2 dimensional one. It ignores and effectively denies the heart of what reality is, for the sake of a neat system, it might work within itself, but excluding such things or as meaningless ephemera that has no place when getting down to the ‘real work’ of hard thinking and reasoning, has become blind to the true heart of reality, and the wonder of being that begins all inquiry. It fails to describe much that is right at all in the end, since it ends up addressing very little and giving a very distorted picture on reality.

        This is why art of all forms, of prayer and mystical engagement in all it’s forms is so important for serious theological work, those who loss touch with it, end up producing empty system that fail to say anything much about the true of heart of reality, of God.

        And anything that excludes love from it’s heart, seems to close to denial of the essential heart and truth of the Christian revelation and gospel in my opinion, if that doesn’t beat throughout an argument and theological system and conception, with all the associated wonder, mystery and creativity that should flaring from every aspect of it, then what truth is in it. The truth is love, and without it all things are worthless.

        Liked by 3 people

  4. William says:

    This podcast is a typical representation of modern Catholic apologetics on Hell. Their argument is based on the radical nature of creaturely freedom and God’s warnings of love in the Bible not to choose something other than Him, because only in Him can we be truly happy. This is the language of the 1997 Catechism as well. However, modern Catholic apologetics is usually quite terrible at actually wrestling with Catholic tradition. In the case of Hell, traditional Catholicism is terribly close to Calvinism in regards to its views on Predestination, the number of the elect, and the nature of the suffering in Hell. Most modern Catholics take the view of C.S. Lewis on these matters, but Aquinas seems to have taught (and his Baroque commentators definitely taught) that God could save all men, without compromising their freedom, but chooses not to, and “infallibly permits” most men to be finally impenitent, so that He may punish them with retributive, punitive justice in order to manifest the full range of his glory to the elect. That is traditional Catholicism, and these podcasters simply don’t even touch on this. They use the language of C.S. Lewis arguing that God regretfully permits people to cling on to their sins forever, and it is them clinging to their sins that constitutes their torture. Aquinas believed that God actively and punitively burns the souls of the damned. Even though I am a Catholic, and obviously prefer the explanation of this podcast over the traditional explanations, it must be admitted that we are woefully misrepresenting our own tradition in modern apologetics by ignoring it. We must make an account for this development (I think Balthasar tries to in some of his work). And it must be admitted that we ourselves have to be rather “eclectically orthodox” of the tradition in order to come up with a podcast such as this.

    Food for thought anyway.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      You raise a good point, William. Henri Rondet has suggested that since the Jansenist crisis, the Roman Church has been engaged in a process of purging the strong Augustinian dimension from its understanding of grace, which I suppose is why one rarely hears anything about predestination anymore.

      Once one has determined that hell will be populated, then the theological options really boil down to two possibilities: (1) absolute predestination of some to salvation, with God either positively predestinating some to hell or just passing over them (preterition) or (2) sinners freely damning themselves to eternal perdition. Eastern Orthodoxy has claimed the latter as its own, and most RC theologians today seem to be following suit–thus the popularity of C. S. Lewis, as you point out. Does this mean therefore that the Thomist understanding of efficacious grace has been all but eliminated?

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      • William says:

        All but eliminated. The vast majority of practicing Catholics are painfully unaware of the Church’s traditional views on predestination, and when asked on the subject would give a Molinist or Pelagian answer. Even most informed theologians would give the same view. An example of this can be found at the website of one of the most widely known popular level writers, Peter Kreeft. Those who hold to efficacious grace in the Thomist tradition split into a universalist hope (Balthasar) or a Neo-Bañezian hardline view. But the latter is exceedingly small these days, though you can still find some publishing in this vein, Steven Long of Ave Maria University is one of the most vociferous defenders of this school. However, the theological impetus in Catholicism seems to be around a “emerging consensus” found in writers such as Jacques Martian, Francicso Marin-Sola, William Most, and Bernard Lonergan. David Bentley Hart has a great chapter on this in the book “Divine Impassibility and the Mystery of Human Suffering.” Joshua Brotherton has recently written a PhD dissertation on the topic, Reclaiming Balthasar’s Theodramatic Eschatology; check out especially chapter 5, “Towards a Consensus in the De Auxiliis Debate.”

        Liked by 1 person

        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Brotherton also recently published this essay: “Universalism and Predestinarianism.”

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        • Morgan Hunter says:

          I would add that the editor-in-chief of the popular Catholic publication Magnificat is a hardline predestinarian. This fact became unpleasantly apparent when in an article on the repentance of the Good Thief he emphasized that God had His own mysterious reasons for choosing not to save the Bad Thief. I remember feeling that the context of Christ’s unimaginable sacrifice on the Cross was probably the worst possible occasion to bring up His allegedly limited salvific will.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Speaking of predestination, check out the long citation from Tom Torrance on predestination in the Reformed tradition: http://wp.me/p1FSXn-2cF.

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    • “…. but Aquinas seems to have taught (and his Baroque commentators definitely taught) that God could save all men, without compromising their freedom, but chooses not to,…. ”

      Aquinas acknowledged that God could save all men without compromising our freedom? He’s the last person I would have thought to teach that, but there you go, nice to know. The only other published theologians I know who teach that are Bulgakov and Tom Talbott. Cool to be able to add Aquinas to the list (but it would be nice to see some quotes/references to where he taught that)

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  5. Robert Fortuin says:

    ‘Do you find it persuasive?’

    No, and they are at risk of eternal hellfire for asserting that God is unwilling to save. Isn’t that blasphemy?

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  6. Karl says:

    “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” Acts 2:21

    “Not everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” Matthew 7:21

    (Groans. Pulls duvet over himself once again.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lol! Never noticed that one before. I wonder what the apologetic is.

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    • Mike H says:

      Well, one of those is “calling” and the other is just “saying” so you had better hope your own level of urgency and intent is more towards “calling” and to know for sure you had better be doing x,y,z….blah blah blah blah.

      It’ll drive you crazy.

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  7. Iain Lovejoy says:

    This is a personal view as I am not really a theological expert, but probably the least convincing arguments were those trying to justify eternal torment as a proportionate punishment, which in any event seemed to be rapidly abandoned in favour of hell as a freely taken choice (which neatly sidesteps the proportionality requirement anyway).

    Another weakness seemed to me to be trying to argue in support that “mortal” sin required God to act to get us out of it – I couldn’t quite see how this justified God in not doing so acting.

    The strongest argument seemed to me to be that our souls after death are no longer subject to change (which must surely be true at least of souls in heaven) and therefore no-one in hell ever does or can repent. This however was immediately undermined by the passing (and sort of waved away) reference to purgatory in which apparently the dead can be reformed after all, immediately raising the question of why God would deliberately set the souls of some sinners in stone so as to prevent them repenting after death, and of how this promotes rather than undermining free will.

    The 10-second dismissal of annihilationism at the end was by far the weakest: if God doesn’t make mistakes how come he is creating souls that he will ultimately fail to save?

    (P.S. An objection to universalism often raised – although not in the clip – is that it rejects free will by requiring God to force people to repent. There seem to be complicated ways to try and finesse this. I am not sure I understand the necessity to do this: free will assumes at least a remote possibility that a sinner invited to repent will do so – or they would not have free will – given a sufficiently long time to work with the possibility of an event occuring which has a non zero chance of occurring approaches 1, no matter how unlikely it is. In other words, as long as God continues to try and persuade a sinner to repent, and the sinner has not lost their free will and been rendered incapable of doing so, eventually even relying on pure chance God must succeed.)

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Young and Rested says:

    I think that this hits on the first major obstacle in getting someone to reconsider a theological position, namely, that they already ‘know’ that they’re right.

    Early on in the podcast the guest makes the questionable yet common move of asserting that we need to begin with the ‘fact’ of an eternal hell (because such is allegedly the obvious teaching of Jesus) and then find a way to square that with a God of love who is also revealed in the Bible. Within that assertion is also the assumption that the majority position of church tradition cannot be wrong. I can see the allure in taking that approach as a seemingly pious and safe way of proceeding, yet it strikes more as a move made to shut down conversation and dismiss other positions off-hand than one that compels assent.

    On a slightly different note, it sometimes bothers me that the term “hell” is generally used synonymously with “eternal hell.” A universalist could agree wholeheartedly that the existence of hell is a true and obvious teaching of Scripture. Sometimes it gets tiring having to explain that to people.

    I am no expert on Thomism, but I always found Thomistic defenses of eternal hell/damnation to seem incongruous with the Thomistic understandings of God, goodness, rationality, freedom, etc. When I first encountered classical theism on a Thomist blog, I remember thinking that it contained a pretty good system for defending universalism. Now I don’t doubt that I misread some things, but it seemed to me that if human beings are rational creatures (by definition), that rationality as such is directed towards truth and goodness, that it is impossible to will evil qua evil, that God, as the unconditioned ground of being, goodness, truth, etc. is the only ‘place’ where we find the fulfillment of the desire of our nature, and that God desires that each creature reach its proper end, that universalism seemed to be implied. (apologies for the run-on sentence)

    But of course I’m something of a kook because I claim that the Holy Spirit revealed to me the final blessedness of all.

    Liked by 4 people

  9. Note X Note says:

    I must have a warped view that God did save all men, maintaining free will upon the condition man has ears, has heard and believes before his bones recycle.

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  10. Just a thought … I once argued against a universalist paradigm based on the argument of free will. The argument would go something like this: seeing that God has endowed His creatures with freedom of choice, then He would not force those creatures to serve and worship Him. Thus, some will be eternally separated from God based on their choice to do so.

    The above argument seems to miss an important point however. God causes us to exist without our permission. What this would seem to indicate is that free will cannot apply to every parameter of our existence. Secondly the issue of time might need to be considered. It is typically acknowledged that time is a construct and pertains to our present existence. Surely God acts upon what we perceive as time, but God is just as certainly not contained by time. So what is the purpose of time then? Perhaps time is the third dimension to this discussion. If we have the sovereign will of God, and the free will of man, how can this be resolved if human will is at odds with Sovereign will? Again, I think time may be the answer. God could simply wait us out. His infinite patience is certainly stronger than our finite arrogance and pride. If His own perfect nature transforms our finite natures through time to the point that we willingly embrace Him, I cannot see how either free will or Sovereignty are violated.

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    • Young and Rested says:

      I know I’ve already advertised for their book earlier in this comment thread, but your post reminded me once again of God’s Final Victory (sorry, I don’t know how to add links but you can use Fr. Kimel’s link above). They advance essentially the same position in one chapter, calling it the Argument from Infinite Opportunity (AIO). Personally, I find it to be a compelling case for Universalism against many variants of the free will defense of eternal hell.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      Are you in essence saying that given sufficient time everyone will freely repent, simply because they will have exhausted every other available option?

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      • That is a possible scenario. I would perhaps word it like this: given time everyone will freely reconcile to God because His love is irresistible. Like the force of gravity it will eventually pull everything into its natural state of Divine fellowship. I certainly do not buy the Calvinistic line that any beings were created to be disenfranchised. If God’s original intent in creating man was that man would be in fellowship with Him, then it stands to reason that this will eventually be carried out. I think this is unavoidable seeing that if this is God’s will prior to creation, then what other force would have interjected in order to produce a creature designed for damnation? This seems to lend itself to the demiurge of the misguided gnostics. If God desires to create humankind for fellowship with Himself, yet we see that man within time is not yet in that perfect fellowship, then we must assume that time functions in some way that will benefit the creature.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Eric Reitan offers an interesting thought experiment regarding the possibility of eternal salvation, given sufficient time. I summarize his article here: “What are the Odds?.”

      Liked by 1 person

      • I was actually thinking of probability. The thought experiment does seem to illustrate a scenario in which something could be both indeterminate and inevitable. This makes me think that we need to really define the scope and meaning of free-will. If we extrapolate from the thought experiment, then the indeterminate orientation of the pennies at any point would be free will; they could be heads or tails at any point and nothing demands otherwise. The infiniteness of the procedure would embody Sovereignty. While the pennies have the potential to be either heads or tails at any point, the nature of the experiment (which could represent temporality) demands that they will eventually all achieve a singular state. Thus we have at least a model that would rationally give both inevitability and indeterminateness. (Which we could call Sovereignty and free-will). The only point of contention in the scenario is that the pennies must maintain their state once they have achieved it. This would leave us with free-will going in one direction. Which I am not sure is avoidable at any length.

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