Through Christ and in Christ, by the Spirit, the Father will perfect in love all who come to him in repentance and faith. In Christ the blessed will love as the Father loves, and their love will comprehend all. In Christ the blessed will desire the good of every human being and intend their fulfillment in the infinite God who is the Good. In Christ the blessed will find their joy in the other, in the communion of the Holy Trinity. Yet in its universal reach and salvific intent, the love of the blessed would also seem to entail an irremediable frustration and thus a diminishment of happiness and joy; for if the traditional understanding of heaven is true, then the blessed will love the damned and know they are condemned to torment, without possibility of deliverance. God wills that the blessed should enjoy the maximal bliss of the beatific vision, yet this vision is clouded by the knowledge of perditional suffering and despair. The blessed will love the reprobate yet will be powerless to save them. Whether damnation consists of retributive punishment or self-imposed alienation does not matter. In either case the love of the blessed will be frustrated, their desire thwarted. Hence it would seem that the redeemed must be content with a second-best happiness. That this might be so, however, violates a fundamental intuition of heaven. In Christ we are promised the vision of God. To see him is to experience the ecstasy of love and fullness of joy. It cannot be that perfect charity would entail less than perfect beatitude. We are thus led to the following conclusion: everlasting perdition is a logical impossibility. In a nutshell, this is the Argument from God’s Love for the Blessed, advanced by John Kronen and Eric Reitan in their book God’s Final Victory.
In response to this line of argument, William Lane Craig has conjectured that God will keep the blessed ignorant of the sufferings of the damned, perhaps going so far as to alter their memories of their loved ones who dwell in hell. But surely the Father of Jesus Christ would never build his kingdom on a lie nor shield his children from reality. Even assuming that the blessed forever remained in their state of amnesia, they still would not be enjoying perfect happiness, as Kronen and Reitan explain:
However, can we truly say that they are eternally blessed if they are erroneously happy—eternally living a life of bliss that they would judge inappropriate if they knew the truth? If you are joyously celebrating your child’s college graduation, the truth that your child has actually failed college—even if you are unaware of it—renders the celebration a kind of farce. Craig, in effect, asks us to imagine God presiding over an eternal farce. He asks us to believe that this farcical celebration has the same worth as one that responds to a truth worth celebrating—a highly implausible view. (p. 86)
Not only implausible, I would add, but absurd.
But perhaps there’s another way to think of the blessed as enjoying perfect happiness. Let’s go back to the story of Frank and Sarah Smith in The Great Divorce. Recall how Frank, presented in dual aspect as dwarf and dramatic persona, gradually disappears from the scene during their lengthy conversation. Sarah implores her husband to abandon his false self and walk with her toward the holy mountain. But Frank resists, and with each expression of resistance the dwarf becomes smaller and smaller. Finally there is only the Tragedian:
“Where is Frank,” she said. “And who are you, Sir. I never knew you. Perhaps you had better leave me. Or stay, if you prefer. If it would help you and if it were possible I would go down with you into Hell: but you cannot bring Hell into me.”
“You do not love me,” said the Tragedian in a thin bat-like voice: and he was now very difficult to see.
“I cannot love a lie,” said the Lady. “I cannot love the thing which is not. I am in Love, and out of it I will not go.”
There was no answer. The Tragedian had vanished. The Lady was alone in that woodland place … Presently the Lady got up and began to walk away. The other Bright Spirits came forward to receive her, singing as they came:
“The Happy Trinity is her home: nothing can trouble her joy.” (chap. 13)
In “Hell and the Solidarity of Love” I suggested that the Tragedian’s disappearance expresses Lewis’s belief that the damned lose their personhood and humanity and, in essence, become their sin. Consider this exchange between the narrator and his guide about a disgruntled ghost:
“I am troubled, Sir,” said I, “because that unhappy creature doesn’t seem to me to be the sort of soul that ought to be even in danger of damnation. She’s isn’t wicked: she’s only a silly, garrulous old woman who has got into a habit of grumbling, and one feels that a little kindness, and rest, and change would put her all right.”
“That is what she once was. That is maybe what she still is. If so, she certainly will be cured. But the whole question is whether she is now a grumbler.”
“I should have thought there was no doubt about that!”
“Aye, but ye misunderstand me. The question is whether she is a grumbler, or only a grumble. If there is a real woman—even the least trace of one—still there inside the grumbling, it can be brought to life again. If there’s one wee spark under all those ashes, we’ll blow it till the whole pile is red and clear. But if there’s nothing but ashes we’ll not go on blowing them in our own eyes forever. They must be swept up.”
“But how can there be a grumble without a grumbler?”
“The whole difficulty of understanding Hell is that the thing to be understood is so nearly Nothing. But ye’ll have had experiences … it begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticizing it. And yourself, in a dark hour, may will that mood, embrace it. Ye can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine.” (chap. IX)
Once a person becomes his sin, Lewis suggests, he ceases to be an object of care—there is no person there to love and pity. There are only remains, detritus. Here Lewis anticipates the free-will annihilationism of the Catholic theologian Paul J. Griffiths. In his book Decreation, Griffiths proposes that sin should be understood as a flight from being into nothingness, exemplified in the Lord’s parable of the Prodigal Son, read by St Augustine in Latin translation. At the beginning of the parable the younger son approaches his father and demands the substantia due him. He desires ownership of that which cannot be owned but only freely received as gift from the LORD. “The result,” comments Griffiths, “is loss, and not just the simple loss of an object, but rather a cumulative process of loss, loss piled upon loss—labitur in minus eter minus, ‘[the soul] slips and slides into what is less and less” [De Trinitate 10.5.7]—loss tending exactly toward nothing” (p. 199). The prodigal eventually becomes destitute. He has consumed his substance until there is nothing left. “And this,” explains Griffiths, “is just what it would mean to go out of existence altogether: to be devoid of substantia is to be annihilated” (p. 199).
This, I think, is how Lewis wishes us to understand the indifference of the Lady to the fate of her husband, who disappears first into the Tragedian and then simply is no more. There is no one there left to be loved. Yet another, perhaps equally plausible, reading of her indifference is possible: Sarah is oblivious to the torment of the damned because she is enraptured by the presence of God. The lost are no longer her concern; she can neither hear them nor see them. As long as there was a chance for her husband to repent, she was eager to welcome him into heaven. But once he makes his irrevocable decision to remain in his sin, he becomes invisible to her. The glory of the beatific vision engulfs her awareness of Frank’s infernal sufferings. As Craig puts it: “The experience of being in Christ’s immediate presence will be so overwhelming for the redeemed that they will not think of the damned in hell” (“Knowledge of the Fate of the Damned“). The fate of the reprobate is unfortunate, but the ascent up the mountain is so satisfying and the vision of God so consuming that attention to anything else is rendered moot.
I suspect this is how many Christians think about the sufferings of the damned. We all know what it is like to become so absorbed in a movie or novel, painting or concert that we lose touch with everything else. It’s as if the outside world doesn’t exist. There is only the new reality into which we have been imaginatively or ecstatically transported. At least for a short time, the happenings of the world do not impinge on our consciousness. We forget ourselves. Might the beatific vision be like this—so beautiful and compelling that the sufferings of the damned warrant neither our attention nor compassion?
As soon as the matter is drawn so sharply, we recoil. Surely the blessed can never be indifferent to the torment of the lost. That would imply that theosis had effectively diminished their capacity for love, compassion, and pity, not enhanced it. As Thomas Talbott writes:
It is possible that the beatific vision will drive all knowledge of the lost from the consciousness of the redeemed (without obliterating it altogether) only if it is possible that the beatific vision will make the redeemed less loving and thus more calloused. But it is not possible that the beatific vision should undermine supremely worthwhile happiness, and neither, therefore, is it possible that such a vision should make someone less loving or more calloused. It is not possible, therefore, that the beatific vision will drive all knowledge of the lost from the consciousness of the redeemed. (“Craig on the Possibility of Eternal Salvation“)
But perhaps the infernalists have a counter-argument: if the blessed love as God loves, may this not imply that we share, in a creaturely way, in the divine impassibility? Of course, it might be helpful to first know what “divine impassibility” means. Thomas Weinandy offers the following explanation:
Negatively, God is immutable in the sense that He does not change as do creatures, but He does not change for positive reasons as well. God’s immutability radically affirms and profoundly intensifies the absolute perfection and utter goodness of God, who, as Creator, is the one who truly lives and exists. Because God’s love is unchangeably perfect and so cannot diminish, He is then the eternally living God who is unreservedly dynamic in His goodness, love, and perfection. Similarly, while the divine attribute of impassibility primarily tells us what God is not, it does so for entirely positive reasons. God is impassible in that He does not undergo successive and fluctuating emotional states, nor can the created order alter Him in such a way so as to cause Him to suffer any modification or loss. Nor is God the possessor of negative and sinful passions as are human beings, with their susceptibility to fear, anxiety, dread, greed, lust, or unjust anger. For the Fathers, to deny that God is passible is to deny of Him all such passions that would debilitate or cripple Him as God. Almost all the early Fathers attributed impassibility to God in order to safeguard and enhance His utterly passionate love and all-consuming goodness, that is, the divine fervor and zealous resolve with which He pursues the well-being of His cherished people. Origen, for example, while ardently upholding God’s impassibility, can equally speak of His “passion of love” for fallen humankind. Even God’s anger was not conceived by the Fathers as a separate passion or intermittent emotional state within Himself, but as constitutive of His unchanging perfect goodness and providential care in the face of sin and evil. (“Does God Suffer?“)
Divine impassibility has been vigorously discussed and debated throughout the modern period, and the literature is vast. Many (including K & R) find the doctrine flawed, given the biblical portrayal of a living, acting, and feeling God. I am not presently inclined to dispute the classical doctrine, as it seems to me that its principal function is to maintain the clear distinction between Creator and creature and to prevent the inappropriate projection of creaturely characteristics upon the deity. For purposes of our discussion I will simply affirm the divine impassibility. God is the plenitude of being. He does not act out of insufficiency or need. The joy and happiness shared by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is not diminished by the pain and sufferings of his creatures. At no point can God ever be held hostage to the sin and misery of his creatures. Nor should divine impassibility be seen as in any way compromising the love of God and his commitment to bring his creatures into the life of his kingdom. “God is absolutely impassible,” Weinandy writes, “because He is absolutely passionate in His love.”
Okay, now what? Do the blessed share in the impassibility of God, and if so, in what sense? I do not know how to proceed forward at this point. Kronen and Reitan touch on this question only briefly. Focusing on just one aspect of divine impassibility, let’s assume that God does not have emotions, that he cannot be negatively impacted by the anguish of his creatures (the authors call this the doctrine of impassivity). Does this mean that through their resurrection in Christ by the Spirit human beings also become impassive and unfeeling? K & R are worried by this suggestion:
Our emotional responsiveness—the fact that we are angered by wickedness and grieved by suffering—seems essential to our human nature. While it may be a flaw that we have emotional responses unfitting to the circumstances, this is overcome by rendering our emotions more fitting, not by their elimination. If we cease to feel fear in the state of blessedness, it is because fear does not fit with the security that fellowship with God involves. However, would we have attained blessedness if we did not feel safe in God’s bosom, because we had stopped having feelings altogether? While this might qualify as blessedness for, say, Vulcans, it does not sound like human blessedness. (p. 82)
If we attribute impassivity to the redeemed, state K & R, then “eternal blessedness ceases to be the perfection of our human nature (as Christians have historically believed), and becomes instead the swapping out of our human nature for something else” (pp. 82-83). Would Orthodoxy, with its maximal understanding of theosis, disagree?
Perhaps part of our problem of thinking of the redeemed as having emotions is that in this life emotions can be so erratic and irrational. We forget that they express judgments:
Emotions clearly have a cognitive dimension, even if we do not take emotions as nothing but a species of judgment … Emotions are about something—that is, they have an intentional object, and they involve an evaluation of their object. The intentional object of happiness is the state in which one finds oneself, and the evaluation involved is a positive one. Persons who are happy approve of the state in which they find themselves, and are more or less happy depending on how much they approve and how unmixed their approval is with elements of disapproval. Of course, different people have broader or narrower conceptions of what constitutes their ‘state’, depending on how broadly they incorporate the good of others. However, those who are universally loving would identify with all persons, and so would be supremely happy only if they approved of the state of condition of all. Barring the Thomistic argument [that the blessed rejoice in the punishment of the reprobate] … it seems that anyone possessing perfect love would not approve of a state in which some of God’s beloved creatures are eternally damned. (p. 82)
However we understand the emotional state of the saints in heaven, it does make sense to think of them as being able to assess their condition and express their approval or disapproval. If the traditional doctrine of hell is true, will they not be disappointed that the lost are not sharing in the joy of the kingdom? If so, this would imply that the blessed are compelled to accept the second-best form of supreme happiness. Maybe that’s just the way of things.
Yet let’s not forget one important point: damnation is the ultimate tragedy for a human being, a catastrophe of infinite proportions. We cannot wave the impassibility wand and make the question posed by Kronen and Reitan disappear: “If we love someone, how could knowledge of their eternal damnation not diminish our happiness?” (p. 81). And the more we personalize the question, the more compelling it becomes. Those who truly love another cannot imagine an eternity without them. Those who truly love another will desire the other’s possession of the same happiness which they desire for themselves. They have made their good their own good and must therefore experience the eternal damnation of that other as intolerable. At least that is the apprehension shared by Talbott, Kronen, and Reitan. Yes, the loves and desires that we experience in this life are disordered and twisted; but let’s not go so far as to also deny their goodness and truth. We do not exist as monads. We discover and form our personal identities in community, hopefully a community of love. And the more we truly love, the more important the needs of the other become to us. The beloved becomes constitutive of our being—not in a pathological way but in the mode of personal communion. Detachment from the sufferings of the lost would violate our humanity. And if that still sounds too abstract, then let’s make it as personal as we can. Who do you love? Can you envision yourself blithely accepting their everlasting torment?
The strength of Kronen & Reitan’s Argument from God’s Love for the Blessed is that it accords with the intuition that the saints will feel more, not less. Emotion is purified, healed, transfigured, not obliterated. Does this not result in the problem of emotional blackmail described in The Great Divorce? No, replies the universalist. The sufferings of hell, as terrible as they are—and precisely because they are as terrible as they are—will ultimately shatter all illusions of the damned and convert them to God. The universalist is therefore free to entertain the temporary diminution of the happiness of the blessed.
The infernalist, on the other hand, believing that hell is an eternal, permanent reality, must insist on the immunity of the blessed to all suffering, pain, distress, dissatisfaction. God wills that the saints enjoy supreme and perfect happiness in his trinitarian life. One way or another, therefore, he will see to it that the blessed transcend the torments of the lost. The misery of the damned cannot be allowed to corrupt the joy of heaven. The infernalist is correct to insist that all natural affection and love must be crucified in Christ and raised into new and glorified existence. As Lewis writes, “Every natural love will rise again and live forever in this country: but none will rise again until it has been buried” (chap. XI). Yet at what cost?
(11 September 2013; revised)