In this series of “illuminations,” I quote passages from David Bentley Hart’s collection of essays The Hidden and the Manifest that I have found particularly instructive. I hope they will generate good discussion.
Back in mid-May 2015 David Hart visited Eclectic Orthodoxy and publicly confirmed what many of his readers suspected–namely, he believes that God will ultimately reconcile all human beings to himself. David would probably insist that he’s been pretty clear about this all along, beginning with his first major work, The Beauty of the Infinite. If one combs through his writings, one will find multiple statements that seem to imply apokatastasis, yet always with a measure of reserve. In his comments on this blog, David removed all doubt. The word quickly got out and Eclectic Orthodoxy lit up like a Christmas tree. Six weeks later he presented a provocative lecture at a conference at the University of Notre Dame. In this lecture he raises important questions about God’s responsibility for evil and suffering:
The first theological insight I learned from Gregory of Nyssa—and I suspect the last to which I shall cling when all others fall away—is that 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 in himself. In the end of all things is their beginning, and only from the perspective of the end can one know what they are, why they have been made, and who the God is who has called them forth from nothingness. And in Gregory’s thought, with an integrity found only also in Origen and Maximus, protology and eschatology are a single science, a single revelation disclosed in the God-man. … For him, clearly, one can say that the cosmos has been truly created only when it reaches its consummation in “the union of all things with the first good,” and that humanity has truly been created only when all human beings, united in the living body of Christ, become at last that “Godlike thing” that is “humankind according to the image.
My topic, though, is not Gregory’s theology, but only the principle that the doctrine of creation constitutes an assertion regarding the eternal identity of God. It is chiefly an affirmation of God’s absolute dispositive liberty in all his acts: the absence of any external restraint upon or necessity behind every decision of his will. And, while one must avoid the pathetic anthropomorphism of imagining God’s decision to create as an arbitrary choice made after deliberation among options, one must still affirm that it is free, that creation can add nothing to God, that God’s being is not dependent on the world’s, and that the only necessity in the divine act of creation is the impossibility of any hindrance upon God’s expression of his goodness. Yet, paradoxically perhaps, this means that the moral destiny of creation and the moral nature of God are absolutely inseparable. For, as the transcendent Good beyond all beings, he is the transcendental end of any action of any rational nature; and then, obviously, the end toward which God acts must be his own goodness: he who is the beginning and end of all things. And this eternal teleology, viewed from the vantage of history, is a cosmic eschatology. As an eternal act, creation’s term is the divine nature; within the orientation of time, its term is a “final judgment.” 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. And, second, precisely because God in himself is absolute, “absolved” of every pathos of the contingent, his moral “venture” in creating is infinite. For all causes are logically reducible to their first cause; this is no more than a logical truism, and it does not matter whether one construes the relation between primary and secondary causality as one of total determinism or utter indeterminacy, for in either case all “consequents” are—either as actualities or merely as possibilities—contingent upon their primordial “antecedent,” apart from which could not exist. Moreover, the rationale—the definition—of a first cause is the final cause that prompts it; and so if that first cause is an infinitely free act emerging from an infinite wisdom, all those consequents are intentionally entailed—again, either as actualities or as possibilities—within that first act; and so the final end to which that act tends is its whole moral truth. The traditional ontological definition of evil as a privatio boni is not merely a logically necessary metaphysical axiom about the transcendental structure of being, but also an assertion that when we say “God is good” we are speaking of him not only relative to his creation, but (however apophatically) as he is in himself; for in every sense being is act, and God—in his simplicity and infinite freedom—is what he does.
Between the ontology of creatio ex nihilo and that of emanation, after all, there really is no metaphysical difference—unless by the latter we mean a kind of gross material efflux of the divine substance into lesser substances (but of course no one, except perhaps John Milton, ever believed in such a thing). In either case, all that exists comes from one divine source, and subsists by the grace of impartation and the labor of participation: an economy of donation and dependency, supereminence and individuation, actuality and potentiality. God goes forth in all beings and in all beings returns to himself—as, moreover, an expression not of God’s dialectical struggle with some recalcitrant exteriority, but of an inexhaustible power wholly possessed by the divine in peaceful liberty. All the doctrine of creation adds is an assurance that in this divine outpouring there is no element of the “irrational”: something purely spontaneous, or organic, or even mechanical, beyond the power of God’s rational freedom. But then it also means that within the story of creation, viewed from its final cause, there can be no residue of the pardonably tragic, no irrecuperable or irreconcilable remainder left at the end of the tale; for, if there were, this too God would have done, as a price freely assumed in creating. … Precisely because God does not determine himself in creation—because there is no dialectical necessity binding him to time or chaos, no need to forge his identity in the fires of history—in creating he reveals himself truly. 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. Precisely because creation is not a theogony, all of it is theophany. It would be impious, I suppose, to suggest that, in his final divine 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). (“God, Creation, and Evil,” pp. 339-341)
If God is eternal and omniscient, and if he has created the world ex nihilo in absolute freedom, is he not then ultimately responsible for all contingencies and outcomes? And what about hell?