Hartian Illuminations: Hell, Creatio ex Nihilo, and the Gamble of Creation

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.

Whether interpreted literally or metaphorically, as retributive punishment ordained by perfect Justice or the consequence of creaturely rejection of infinite Love, hell represents the greatest challenge to affirmation of the Goodness of the divine Creator. If God created the cosmos knowing full well that some or many or most of the human beings he brings into being will be everlastingly damned, then how may we declare him “good”? Language at this point has become equivocal. Here lies the gravamen of David Bentley Hart against the traditional doctrine:

The eternal perdition— the eternal suffering—of any soul would be an abominable tragedy, and so a moral evil if even conditionally intended, and could not possibly be comprised within the ends intended by a truly good will (in any sense of the word “good” intelligible to us). Yet, if both the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo and that of eternal damnation are true, that evil is indeed comprised within the intentions and dispositions of God. And, while One may hope that some limited good will emerge from the cosmic drama, somehow preponderant over the evil, at such an unspeakable cost it can be at best a relative and tragically ambiguous good. And what, then, would any damned soul be, as enfolded within the eternal will of God, other than a price settled upon by God with his own power, an oblation willingly exchanged for a finite benefit—the lamb slain from the foundation of the world? And what then is God, inasmuch as the moral nature of any intended final cause must include within its calculus what one is willing to sacrifice to achieve that end; and if the “acceptable” price is the eternal torment of a rational nature, what room remains for any moral analogy comprehensible within finite terms?

The economics of the exchange is really quite monstrous. We can all appreciate, I imagine, the shattering force of Vanya’s terrible question to Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov: If universal harmony and joy could be secured by the torture and murder of a single innocent child, would you accept that price? But let us say that somehow, mysteriously—in, say, Zosima’s sanctity, Alyosha’s kiss, the million-mile march of Vanya’s devil, the callous old woman’s onion—an answer is offered that makes the transient torments of history justifiable in the light of God’s everlasting Kingdom. But eternal torments, final dereliction? Here the price is raised beyond any calculus of relative goods, and into the realm of absolute—of infinite—expenditure. And the arithmetic is fairly inflexible. We need not imagine, in traditional fashion, that the legions of the damned will far outnumber the cozy company of the saved. Let us imagine instead that only one soul will perish eternally, and all others enter into the peace of the Kingdom. Nor need we think of that soul as guiltless, like Vanya’s helpless child, or even as mildly sympathetic. Let it be someone utterly despicable—say, Hitler. Even then, no matter how we understand the fate of that single wretched soul in relation to God’s intentions, no account of the divine decision to create out of nothingness can make its propriety morally intelligible. This is obvious, of course, in predestinarian systems, since from their bleak perspective, manifestly, that poor, ridiculous, but tragically conscious puppet who has been consigned to the abyss exists for no other purpose than the ghastly spectacle of divine sovereignty. But, then, 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 their surrogate, their redeemer, the one who suffers in their stead—their Christ? Compared to that unspeakable offering, that interminable and abominable oblation of infinite misery, what would the cross of Christ be? How would it be diminished for us? And to what? A bad afternoon? A temporary indisposition of the infinite? And what would the mystery of God becoming man in order to effect a merely partial rescue of created order be, as compared to the far deeper mystery of a worthless man becoming the suffering god upon whose perpetual holocaust the entire order of creation finally depends?

But predestination need not be invoked here at all. Let us suppose instead that rational creatures possess real autonomy, and that no one goes to hell save by his or her own industry and ingenuity: when we then look at God’s decision to create from that angle, curiously enough, absolutely nothing changes. Not to wax too anthropomorphizing here, like some analytic philosopher of religion, but 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. The logic is irresistible. God creates. Alea iacta est. But, as Mallarmé says, “un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard“: for what is hazarded has already been surrendered, entirely, no matter how the dice fall; the aleatory venture may be intentionally indeterminate, but the wager is an irrevocable intentional decision, wherein every possible cost has already been accepted; the irrecuperable expenditure has been offered even if, happily, it is never actually lost, and so the moral nature of the act is the same in either case. To venture the life of your child for some other end is, morally, already to have killed your child, even if at the last moment Artemis or Heracles or the Angel of the LORD should stay your hand. And so, the revelation of God’s glory in creatures would still always be dependent upon that evil, that venture beyond good and evil, even if at the last no one perishes. Creation could never then be called “good” in an unconditional sense; nor God the “Good as such,” no matter what conditional goods he might accomplish in creating. And, here too, the losing lot might just as well have fallen to the blessed, given the stochastic vagaries of existence: accidents of birth, congenital qualities of character, natural intellectual endowments, native moral aptitudes, material circumstances, personal powers of resolve, impersonal forces of chance, the grim encumbrances of sin and mortality. … Once again, who would the damned be but the redeemers of the blessed, the price eternally paid by God for the sake of the Kingdom’s felicity? (“God, Creation, and Evil,” pp. 346-348)

“What is hazarded has already been surrendered”–this line jumped out at me when I first listened to the lecture. Are the damned the unavoidable consequence–collateral damage, as it were–of God’s gamble upon creation?

(Go to “Freedom is Freedom for the Good”)

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13 Responses to Hartian Illuminations: Hell, Creatio ex Nihilo, and the Gamble of Creation

  1. Iain Lovejoy says:

    I’m not sure the concept of “hazard” is entirely coherent in the context of God’s final creation, how everything ends up as an eternal destination. For anyone or anything to be finally damned (or saved) is for the process of creation to be at an end, for God to finally say “It is finished”, look upon his creation, pronounce it “good” and rest. For anyone to be left *eternally* in hell would have to be a deliberate decision by God that “right, that’ll do me” and to be satisfied that all is as it should be and no more is required while some are still there. That is not a gamble or a hazard but a deliberate decision by him to give up and finally damn the damned.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ben W. says:

      Both possibilities are discussed in the passage above. The point Hart is making is not that God hazarded something, but that it does not matter whether the damnation of some souls as creation’s price was a firm decision or only a wager, the moral nature of God would be the same in either case, and it would not be a good nature.


  2. The same question, posed in a simpler manner, has vexed me from my youth when I asked my parents why God created Adam and Eve and not some other couple who wouldn’t have sinned, and if there could be no such couple, why create humanity at all given God’s total goodness within his immanent relations? (that last bit is definitely not how I phrased it when I was 10)

    To act analytically I once asked what the moral calculus of God must be like (an anthropomorphism I know). The two principles I could come up with were to 1) increase the good to the greatest possible degree and 2) to limit evil to the greatest possible degree. Finite evils and God’s economic activity can be made sense of by these principles. God can allow evil for the proliferation of goodness because goodness touches upon his nature and thus has an infinite value which can not be undone, even by time. Evil falls outside of that, and at the eschaton will be done away with, thus showing even a massive amount of finite evil cannot detract from the value of a modicum of goodness. Childbirth would be a good analogy or perhaps Sam’s monologue on Mt. Doom. I used to favor the phrase ‘a sea of evils cannot absorb a drop of goodness’.

    Hart, however, seems to point to the further difficulty of explaining an eternal damnation, for God’s choice to create obviously can’t flow from the principles above, since they could only apply to his economic activity, not his immanent activity, which the creation ex nihilo necessarily must flow from. Therefore, for eternal damnation to be just it would have to be either 1) because his damnation was good (which Hart suggests could only be true of Christ’s sacrifice) or 2) because as damned the subject is in a state of complete lack of goodness, which seems to necessitate the loss of his rational nature and, further, his existence itself. Only then would the damned not be ‘collateral damage,’ but it seems questionable how one could damn oneself out of existence, and, further, whether annihilationism is even biblical. In either case, eternal torment seems off the table to me, though I concede it is in principle possible for God’s justice to be preserved even with eternal damnation is some account of the damned not being merely collateral damage is possible, and I concede it is in principle possible such an account is merely not explicable with human reason while remaining true nonetheless.

    I have hope for Hart’s point of view but consider annihilationism a strong viable alternative, as it too seems to avoid making the damned collateral damage. The seeming paradoxical impossibility of willing oneself out of existence prima facie seems wrapped up in the paradoxical but necessary belief in real human freedom, so I don’t think I can ever dismiss it as viable. (though this seems too individualistic to me now. The ‘loss’ of any damned person, even where it just, must also be the loss of a part of what makes another person [who purportedly would not be lost] who they are, insofar as the individual is relationally constituted -hence the importance of resurrection-)

    The line “What is hazarded has already been surrendered” also jumped out at me. The only response must be that God didn’t hazard anything so that anything ‘lost’ would only be finite while the remaining goodness or ends achieved must be transcendentally infinite in value. Insofar as a person is a locus of infinite value there could be no one damned, but insofar as one is free they must also be able to contradict that value. The tragic here seems insoluble, the fall undeniable. Yet Christ undid it, so the tragic death of God does become transfigured into comic absurdity and beauty. Can one put oneself completely out of grace then becomes the question, and insofar as I have to affirm the non-necessity of the fall I think I have to affirm its possibility, leading me again, finally, to affirm the viability of annihilationism in the least, and at most some as yet unintelligible account of eternal conscious damnation.


    • Mario Stratta says:

      I have hope for Hart’s point of view but consider annihilationism a strong viable alternative, as it too seems to avoid making the damned collateral damage.


      I simply reject Hart’s POV, because it amounts to universalism: a mockery (besides being possibly the most poisonous heresy).

      I am not sure how annihilationism would avoid making the damned => annihilated collateral damage. Cane you explain, please?


      • The most poisonous heresy is this idea that there will be people suffering eternal conscious torment in Hell. The majority of people in the church have unfortunately been infected with this notion.

        On the other hand Universalism is glorious and beautiful, the very essence of the gospel


      • Certainly.

        I didn’t mean to say God zapping a person out of existence would avoid making them collateral damage (thus creating the logical problems Hart brings up given creation ex nihilo), but that the individual, in an exercise of his freedom, must be the reason for his annihilation.

        My logic goes like this: If one totally forfeits his goodness by sin, then he would totally forfeit his value. By totally forfeiting his value, his damnation would not be a loss, and thus not collateral damage. Existence is a good so this would require his annihilation.

        I can think of a few objections to this line of reason myself. I mentioned the one about our relational constitution in my other comment. Another might be that the self-willed evacuation of all value is impossible in the same way willing evil for its own sake is impossible. I don’t have solutions to these problems, however, but given the fact of the fall and the fall’s non-necessity, I have to accept it is possible to account for them.

        My reason for that is that sin is its own presupposition, and in effect, the willful belief in the possibility of sin, that is, absurdly aiming for something other than God as the Good as a Promethean act of isolated voluntary self-determination. Described this way the fall resembles the two objections I raised. Since the fall happened, I hold self-annihilationism to be tenable. This would mean God did not timelessly determine some goods would be tragically lost as collateral damage but allowed that some would merely pass out of existence (to no detriment of the ultimate source of all goodness).


      • Ben W. says:

        If universalism is the most poisonous heresy, should we remove Romans 5:18 from the Bible, and cut out all three pastoral epistles?


  3. When I saw the title I thought this post migh touch upon some of the same ground as a post I wrote myself a few weeks ago. I thought it would be an actual theodicy, drawing on the creatio ex nihilo to explain the origins of evil. The reflections where insightful and informative nevertheless.

    If you’re curious to read another Universalists take on it, give this a read:

    I examine the problem of evil from the perspective of the creatio ex nihilo, and the Taoist principle that all things are defined by their negation. I conclude that God does not actually allow evil, and is in actual fact in the process of abolishing it. He will succeed in this effort and bring us to a glorious eschaton in which apokatastasis has been realised


    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      You appear to be solving the problem of evil by postulating dualism. It is an ancient response to the problem, but generally not thought of as a Christian one, and certainly not compatible with ex nihilo.
      It is not, as I understand it, particular compatible with Taoism either, since in Taoism both yin and yang emanate from the single unitary source of the Tao, and neither is good or evil (in a moral sense at least).
      God in the classic Christian concept would parallel the Tao in the Taoist concept, not the yin or yang emanating from it, neither of which being themselves the ultimate origin of things.


      • But have you got any substantial criticisms? Saying “This looks like dualism and dualism is wrong” fails to engage with the actual ideas presented.

        I also never said that I was trying to be true to Taoism, I was merely employing a single Taoist principle to God and the “nihilo” from which he created (All things being defined by their negations).


        • Iain Lovejoy says:

          In dualism neither side in the conflict are the ultimate source of all things, only the first two ancient created beings that source (whatever it is) produced. The ultimate source of all being would be the source of the existence of both the negation / evil and the good being that ultimately defeats it, and the good being a sort of demiurge acting on behalf of God (or on its own initiative) rather than God. You end up having to account for why the ultimate origin of all things produced the negation / evil in the first place, so you are basically back where you started in terms of answering the question.
          (The alternative is to deny there is an ultimate source of existence at all, or to assume it is entirely neutral and indifferent – as Taoism does in understanding the Tao – rather than an all-loving, all-knowing God.)


          • I don’t think you actually read the post. I thought i made it quite clear that evil/nothingness has no existence or substance, and the labels “created/uncreated” simply do not apply to it., as per the church fathers. God alone is the ultimate origin of all things, and he is defined in terms of his negation. The negation has no existence or substance and therefore does not require an “ultimate origin” – it doesn’t “exist”,

            This aint your grandaddy’s dualism.


          • ie. you seem to be taking issue with a strawman


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