Universal Salvation: What are the odds?

There are different kinds and degrees of hope. There is the hope that tomorrow will be a bright and sunny day, given that the weatherman says there’s only a 5% chance of rain. We might call this an almost-certain hope. There was the 3:2 hope that Secretariat would win the 1973 Kentucky Derby. We might call this a confident hope. There is the 50-50 hope of the coin-flipper that the quarter will fall heads instead of tails. Let’s call this a neutral hope. And there is the hope of the Texas Holdem player that he will hit his one-outer on the river and make quads—a truly desperate hope. Our hopes range the gamut of probabilities.

Dare we hope for the salvation of all?—to this question Met Kallistos Ware tenders a cautious yes. God’s love for mankind is unconditional and absolute, but human freedom precludes us from affirming anything stronger than an antinomic hope:

If the strongest argument in favor of universal salvation is the appeal to divine love, and if the strongest argument on the opposite side is the appeal to human freedom, then we are brought back to the dilemma with which we started: how are we to bring into concord the two principles “God is love” and “Human beings are free”? For the time being we cannot do more than hold fast with equal firmness to both principles at once, while admitting that the manner of their ultimate harmonization remains a mystery beyond our present comprehension … Our belief in human freedom means that we have no right to categorically affirm, “All must be saved.” But our faith in God’s love makes us dare to hope that all will be saved. (Kallistos Ware, The Inner Kingdom, pp. 214-215)

What kind of hope is the hope for universal salvation? As formulated by Ware, clearly it is impossible for us to assign a probability to universal salvation and thus impossible for us to know whether we may confidently, moderately, or even desperately hope—indeed, “hope” may be the wrong word in this situation. “Faith is hope anticipated,” Richard John Neuhaus explains, “and hope is faith disposed toward the future.” I hope God will raise me and my fellows from the dead, because I believe that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead and I have faith in him and his promises. But when we address the question of universal salva­tion, we face a different situation. God’s desire to save all appears to be limited by human free choice. As Paul Evdokimov remarks, “God can do all things but force us to love him.” Freedom excludes determination. God may offer the Kingdom, but he neither coerces nor manipulates. Surely at least one person will dig in their heels and definitively and eternally reject God, and if one, then why not a thousand or a million or a billion? How can we speak of hope for universal salvation when all of our experience leads us to expect the damnation of many? Frederica Mathewes-Green offers what most would consider the more rational judgment:

So I don’t think we can assert with any confidence that everyone is going to be saved, and certainly we have not, throughout Christian history, throughout the history of all denominations until recent centuries, and of course in our Orthodox Church. The assumption has always been that some people are going to spend eternity in torment, because that’s what Jesus says, that there will be an outer darkness where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. There’s got to be somebody there making those noises. It’s not like it’s a “Halloween sounds” cassette. Those noises are being generated by someone in agony, and as horrible as it is to think about, that’s where our faith has always come down.

We would seem to be at an impasse. We may dare to hope that all will be saved; but that hope appears to be a hope beyond hope, a hope against hope. Yes, there are many passages in the Scriptures that intimate, even promise, the universality of salvation; but the bound­ary of human freedom remains—and with it looms the horror of everlasting torment. Ware posits two irreconcilable principles—divine love and human freedom—and declares that “the manner of their ultimate harmonization remains a mystery beyond our present comprehen­sion.”

A comprehensive analysis of human freedom is necessary at this point, but I am unpre­pared to offer one. The topic, as they say, is beyond my pay grade. The literature is extensive and intimidating. Contemporary philosophers seem to fall into two camps—compatibilists and libertarians. But there are also hard determinists and radical incompatibilists, both of whom deny free will. And then there are the classically inclined, like David Bentley Hart, who speak of freedom, not in terms of choice, but as union with the good. It’s all very confusing.

It is generally believed that the Orthodox Church is committed to a libertarian under­stand­ing of free will. God does not determine or coerce human actions: the human agent deter­mines his own actions and always remains free to do otherwise. Let us assume for the moment that the libertarian account is true and faithfully represents what Christians should believe. Let’s also assume that some version of the free-will model of hell is true. How might we then understand the possibility, and likelihood, of universal salvation?

Consider the following five statements, with brief commentary:

1) Human beings are created by the Holy Trinity to enjoy eternal fellowship with the Holy Trinity. God is our supreme good, supernatural end, eschatological fulfillment, and true happiness.

Humanity is not created in a neutral stance vis-à-vis its Creator. We are created by God and our ultimate desire is always for God. This, I take it, is what it means to say that humanity is created in the divine image. St Augustine memorably prayed: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

2) To turn away from God is to turn away from our supreme good and thus to turn away from true happiness. By our sin we create our own hell and doom ourselves to ever-increasing anguish.

No universalist worth his salt denies hell. We know too well its misery. We know, and fear, the possibility that in the end we might irrevocably choose self over the Good. God does not damn; we damn ourselves. God simply allows us to experience the terrible consequences of our disbelief and sin.

3) God will not permit us to irrevocably decide against union with him based on either insufficient information or disordered desire.

In the words of Thomas Talbott: “If I am ignorant of, or deceived about, the true consequences of my choices, then I am in no position to embrace those consequences freely; and similarly, if I suffer from an illusion that conceals from me the true nature of God, or the true import of union with God, then I am again in no position to reject God freely” (The Inescapable Love of God, p. 174). Similarly, if I am enslaved to my destructive desires and passions, then I am not in a position to make a free decision. Just as addicts are incapable of making free and responsible decisions until they have secured liberation from the drugs that enslave them, so those who are in bondage to their passions are incapable, to the degree they are so bound, of free decisions and actions—they could not have done otherwise.

4) God never gives up on any sinner; he never withdraws his offer of forgiveness; he never abandons his children to the torment of the outer darkness.

God has not set a time limit on the offer of salvation, nor has he configured the afterlife to render it impossible for sinners to repent and turn to him. God loves every human being with an infinite and absolute love. He truly wills the good and salvation of all (1 Tim 2:4). Like the good shepherd, he searches near and far for the one lost sheep; like the woman who loses one of her ten coins, he turns his house upside down until he finds it (Luke 15). Jesus has and will reconcile all to himself. He will not be without his brethren for whom he died and rose again.

5) When a person surrenders to God in death or in the afterlife, his orientation is definitively stabilized and his eternal bliss confirmed.

After death the redeemed no longer have the freedom to reject God, for their freedom has been fulfilled in the beatific vision. Theologians advance various arguments to explain this truth, but all agree upon it. In heaven, once saved, always saved.

The above statements can, I think, be worked into a valid argument for universal salvation by someone trained in logic and deductive reasoning. No doubt changes should be made and new premises added. The first premise is uncontroversial and widely accepted in the orthodox tradition. The second premise expresses the free-will model of hell that has become dominant in Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and mainline Protestantism. The third premise is rarely considered and therefore probably controversial. The fourth is definitely controversial, as it denies a widely held belief in Catholicism, Protestantism, and a large segment of Orthodoxy; yet the possibility of post-mortem salvation has been affirmed by some Eastern Christians throughout the history of the Church and is supported by the Orthodox practice of praying for the departed. The final premise is uncontroversial and enjoys ecumenical assent. The above premises can no doubt be formulated in better ways. I welcome suggestions. I’m a blogger, dammit, not a theologian.

Assume, for the moment, that all five statements are true. How confident may we be that God will bring all humanity to salvation? The quick, too quick, answer: we don’t know. Every human possesses free will, we continue to insist, and is thus free to make the ultimate Luciferian decision: “Evil, be thou my good.” But why would any rational being make such a decision, with full and immediate knowledge that only God is his true good and happiness and that rejection of the divine offer of salvation must bring only misery? Perhaps a person might delude themselves about this truth for a while, but as the agony and despair intensi­fies, how long can he hold out until the truth crashes down upon him? How long before absolute reality shatters all illusions? How long before his finite resources are exhausted and he hits bottom? Can we seriously entertain the possibility that this person, any person, might everlastingly persist in his hopeless quest for autonomy and independence? What is the gain? What is the rational motive? What are the odds? The example of Satan is ubiqui­tously invoked at this point, yet is it even possible for a person to deliberately choose evil for the sake of evil? Herbert McCabe thinks not:

When we sin it is entirely our choice of something instead of God’s friendship. To come to God’s friendship in Christ is to choose a good, the greatest good and the greatest good for us; and the creative and gracious power of God is in us as we freely make this choice. It is both our free work and God’s work. To do good is to choose the highest good; but to fail to do this, to sin, is not to choose evil. Nobody chooses evil, it cannot be done. When we sin what we do is to choose some trivial good at the expense of choosing God’s friendship. Sin is sin not because of the thing we positively choose: the human satisfaction, the pleasure or the power. It is sin because of what we fail to choose, what we sacrifice for the sake of a minor good. Sin is sin because we have opted not to grow up to our flourishing, our happiness which is life in God’s love and friendship. (God Still Matters, p. 185)

If this is true for ordinary sins committed in this life, how much more so must it be true for the eschatological exercise of one’s fundamental orientation towards God. Talbott main­tains that the notion that a free rational agent might decisively, definitively, irrevocably reject his supreme good is incoherent: “For no one rational enough to qualify as a free moral agent could possibly prefer an objective horror—the outer darkness, for example—to eternal bliss, nor could any such person both experience the horror of separation from God and continue to regard it as a desirable state” (“Towards a Better Understanding of Universalism,” in Universal Salvation?, p. 5). Hart emphatically concurs:

But, on any cogent account, free will is a power inherently purposive, teleological, primordially oriented toward the good, and shaped by that transcendental appetite to the degree that a soul can recognize the good for what it is. No one can freely will the evil as evil; one can take the evil for the good, but that does not alter the prior transcendental orientation that wakens all desire. To see the good truly is to desire it insatiably; not to desire it is not to have known it, and so never to have been free to choose it. (“God, Creation, and Evil,” p. 10)

Yet perhaps the libertarian construal of freedom requires the option of choosing alienation from the Creator and the absolute misery it brings. Despite the revelation given in the afterlife, perhaps a person can still hang on to the delusion that he can bear the isolation and torment. Perhaps, for no good reason at all, a person can still choose a destiny that contra­dicts his intrinsic good and happiness. “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven!” we cry. As absurd and self-destructive as such a decision must be judged, perhaps we cannot declare it impossible. And let us further stipulate that God will honor the individual’s refusal to repent and will allow that person to everlastingly endure all the natural consequences of his decision. If this is so, can we still entertain a reasonable and confident hope of universal salvation? Eric Reitan believes that we can.

The Reitan Maneuver

In his essay “Human Freedom and the Impossibility of Eternal Damnation,” Reitan analyzes the free-will model of hell. Like Talbott, Reitan is skeptical of the proposal that a rational agent might voluntarily choose a destiny of utter misery. Can we, he asks, imagine someone freely choosing an infernal state of being “knowing that doing so will doom them to eternal alienation from everything of value?” (Universal Salvation?, p. 133). Moreover, can we imagine this person enduring the ever-increasing loneliness, despair, and torment for all eternity, never once wondering whether he has chosen wisely? Perhaps he originally chose separation from God under the illusion that it wouldn’t be so bad, that he could still find some measure of happiness; but this is a false belief. There is no happiness divorced from deifying union with God. Is it really possible, Reitan asks, to cling to a false belief forever when it produces only ever-increasing misery? Is it not more likely that the punishments of hell will eventually shatter all illusions and bring one to that point where one can only desperately cry out, “Jesus, help me”?

The doors of hell are locked only from the inside; but according to the libertarian, the damned inexplicably never turn the key. Reitan states the matter this way:

On the progressive view of DH [the doctrine of hell], the doors of hell are locked from the inside—that is, God never withdraws the offer of salvation. Hence, if any are damned eternally it is because they eternally reject God’s offer. It’s not enough to turn God down once. It must be done forever.

We are assuming that, to have libertarian freedom on the matter of our eternal destiny, we must be able to reject God’s offer of salvation even when we know what we are doing and are not in bondage to sin. But this means that it must be possible for us to make a choice that we have no motive to make, and every motive not to make. To say that this is possible is not to say that it is likely. In fact, it seems clear that, however possible it may be for us to act against all our interests, it is very unlikely at any moment that we would actually do so. But in order for someone to be eternally damned, the person must not only make this unlikely choice once. The person must unwaveringly choose to reject God at every moment for the rest of eternity, even though the person sees absolutely no good reason for doing so, has every reason not to do so, and has absolutely no compelling desire to do so. Is that really possible? (p. 136; also see John Kronen and Eric Reitan, God’s Final Victory, chap. 8)

But if we hold to a libertarian understanding of human freedom, then it must indeed be possible for a person to reject God for no good reason whatsoever when he has every compelling reason to surrender to God and experience the absolute Good that is the good he desires for himself. The state of alienation is infinitely inferior to the state of salvation: if the agent goes ahead and chooses it anyway, this must mean either that his decision is grounded on delusion or pathology or that it is purely random and arbitrary.

Reitan advances two responses to this formulation of damnation. First, is libertarian freedom as valuable as it is often claimed?

Libertarian freedom as described does not seem worth having. In fact, as described, I sincerely hope that I lack it. The capacity to eternally act against all of my motives would introduce into my life a potential for profound irrationality that I would rather do without. And if I exercise my libertarian freedom as described above, dooming myself to the outer darkness without reason, I sincerely hope that God would act to stop me—just as I hope a friend would stop me if I decided to leap from a rooftop for no reason. I would not regard the actions of that friend as a violation of any valuable freedom, but would see it as a welcome antidote to arbitrary stupidity. (p. 137)

Yet even if extreme libertarian freedom obtains, Reitan believes that we may still have a guarantee, or at least mathematical certainty, of universal salvation. He proposes this thought experiment:

Imagine a box of pennies, spread out heads-side up. Suppose that the heads-side of each penny is covered with a thin film of superglue, such that if the penny were to flip over in the box it would stick to the bottom and remain heads-side down from thereon out. Imagine that this box is rattled every few seconds. For the sake of argument, let us suppose that there is no chance of the pennies getting stuck to the walls of the box or anything like that. Let us suppose, furthermore, that for any penny that is heads-side up at the same time that the box is rattled, there is exactly a fifty percent chance that after the box is rattled the penny will land heads-side up, and a fifty percent chance that it will land heads-side down. Once a penny lands heads-side down, however, it sticks to the bottom of the box and remains that way, regardless of how much the box is subsequently rattled. Let us imagine, furthermore, that the box is rattled every five seconds indefinitely, stopping only once all the pennies have landed heads-side down and become stuck that way.

In this situation, we would expect that eventually the rattling would stop, because eventually every single penny in the box would become stuck heads-side down. We expect this outcome even though every penny started out heads-side up, and even though at any given time a heads-side-up penny has a fifty percent chance of staying heads-side up. If the rattling continued forever, we would be inclined to say that this outcome is inevitable. (p. 138)

coin_toss_zpsd6eba78b.jpeg~original.jpegReitan argues that the question of libertarian freedom and universal salvation is analogous to the box of pennies. If we assume that God never withdraws the offer of his forgiveness, and if we assume that those who have chosen perdition remain free at any point to choose otherwise, then “there must be some possible world in which the person does accept the offer. Thus, the person who has yet to accept the offer of salvation is like the bad penny: While the person has not yet chosen to be saved, at every moment there is some probabil­ity that the person will so choose” (p. 140). Recall, the damned have every good reason to change their minds and no good reason not to: the funda­mental happiness they desire for themselves is ultimately identical to the happiness that God wills for them.

Given that the opportunities for repentance are infinite, the probability that any one person will hold out against God approaches zero. This is not to say that the probability ever reaches zero; it is still possible to say that it remains theoretically possible for someone to reject God forever. “But,” counters Reitan, “the possible world in which this occurs is so remote that there seems to be no good reason to think that it is actual” (p. 140). Thus we have what Reitan calls a “mathematical certainty” that all will freely embrace the salvation of God given in Jesus Christ.

I confess that I am reluctant to speak of a guarantee of universal salvation, as Reitan does; but Talbott’s and Reitan’s arguments should encourage us in a confident and robust hope for the salvation of every human being. God does not need to force anyone to repent of his sins and embrace heaven. Precisely because we are created for him, all he needs to do is to allow us to experience the hell that we think we want. Suffering, divine grace, and the prayers of the Church will do the rest.

(19 May 2013; rev.)


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41 Responses to Universal Salvation: What are the odds?

  1. stmichael71 says:

    I will start by saying that my position toward universalism is: agnosticism is the right answer. We do not know if all will be saved, and I can see good reasons both ways. More particularly, I think we in principle could not know, even if we had grounds for assigning a high probability to universal salvation.

    That said, I have a problem with the picture of freedom presented. I will summarize what I take to be the claim as follows: the only way someone can sin in a definite and fully-culpable way is if that person is acting on ignorance or some cognitive defect. E.g., a sinner cannot reject God, knowing that God is the ultimate good, unless they have made a mistake in thinking that God is not their ultimate good.. But then, in the next life, God will repair all cognitive mistakes in the sinner, and so the sinner will inevitably choose to love God. Hence, universalism.

    The problem is that this strikes me as compatibilism. It is probably a version of what is sometimes called “reasons” compatibilism. It is also related to Socrates’ claim that all moral error is ignorance. Both of these claims are highly controversial, but I think compatibilism is incompatible with Christianity.

    Nevertheless, I think the easiest way to show there is a problem with this reasons compatibilism is with the fallen angels. Given Christians believe angels had no cognitive defects (and Adam and Eve likely did not either), it should have been impossible, on the reasons-compatibilism theory, for those creatures to sin. But they did. Ergo, reasons compatibilism is false.

    I think a good story can be told as to how sin does not involve a mistake in the way reasons-compatibilism holds, because the mistakes that undergird sins are always culpable ones. But this means there is a serious problem in how they are thinking about always acting on good reasons. Further, I think a good story can be told about how the angels sinned which illuminates how we can sin, consciously and deliberately, to choose something other than God even when we distinctly know God is our ultimate Good. At least one part of that answer is that the “right” knowledge that constitutes beatitude and acts like “superglue” in your example, the Beatific Vision, can only be had *after* one chooses to love God. So we don’t start out at death with such knowledge, and that knowledge cannot be had without moral rectitude.

    I’d say this undercuts the penny example as well. When God “repairs” our intellectual defects in the next life, this should make it LESS likely, not more, that we would change our minds – changing your mind does strike me as a clear product of a cognitive defect. If you already know what you want, and have considered it adequately, then you will not change your mind. It is precisely because God repairs our cognitive defects after death that Aquinas thinks humans will not change their minds after death. The angels are in a similar position. Once an angel makes up their mind (e.g., to sin), I see no good metaphysical way they COULD change their mind.


    • Matthew Hryniewicz says:

      I don’t follow how having intellectual defects repaired would make a person unlikely to change their mind. What if the only reason they made a particular choice or held to a certain view was because of a defect? How would removing that defect then make them more set in their ways? Let’s say I suffer from extreme antisocial personality disorder and so I chronically devalue other people. If that personal defect was removed, why suppose that I would become locked into the mindset of disregarding others, instead of finally being able to see what was truly good and subsequently changing for the better?

      I tend to think that the angels making such an irrational decision seems more like evidence that they do not possess perfect intellects, than evidence that perfect minds cannot change. How exactly could a perfect intellect come to completely invert the good-evil distinction? That seems to be about as pure an example of insanity as I can imagine. Most of what is written about angels seems to me like speculation so I tend to take conclusions about them pretty loosely.


    • brian says:

      I am pressed for time, so I will simply quote something I wrote here last year. Unlikely to alter perspectives, but it does directly address a claim. Faith and Freedom is a text by David Burrell:

      The Eastern distinction between gnomic and natural will assumes a plenitude “beyond choice.” The highest freedom does not entail “indifference” between options, much less the eternity of evil so that good may remain a “genuine choice.” Indeed, attainment of flourishing excellence involves an attunement to the Good, a “musical” virtue that results in the negation of “options” when such are understood to include defatigation into sin or torpor. “To will evil is neither freedom nor a part of freedom,” says Aquinas. The person always aims at the good. The will is useless apart from the intellectual grasp of it. Our knowledge is “practical,” i.e., the good is always encountered in specific circumstances, chosen in terms of the particular existential details of our daily lives. Since in this life, we experience tension between the gnomic and the natural, our imperfect freedom derives from an occluded vision of the Good. (Some Christians resist this basic metaphysical truth of creaturely being, claiming it is a Socratic distortion that confuses ignorance with sin. Just as the spirit of anti-Christ arises with the revelation of Christ, sin is defined as the willful rejection of the authentically perceived good. Yet the word from the Cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” belies such an equation.) As David Bentley Hart acutely recognized “the soul comes to know God only insofar as it looks to Christ and thereby becomes what he is, adorned with his beauty. Revelation is sanctification” (The Hidden and the Manifest, p. 155). We stumble along, for the Father is ever the midnight sun, the overwhelming light that comes to us finite creatures hidden in the guise of darkness. Nonetheless, the Father is known by His Image; revelation is intimately a work of imagination.

      Ah, and here’s the further point: if the fullness of human freedom is beyond choice, then why should one think that divine freedom is in any way determined by libertarian choice? “For Aquinas, freedom consists in response to the orientation of our nature in a concrete practical judgment; and God’s practical knowing of what it is God wills to bring forth, in response to the divine nature, is accounted creation” (Faith and Freedom, p. 109). I want to tie this in with the gift of being and the obscurity of the primal ethos. Part of the reason mankind consistently forgets what ought to be the font of gratitude is that the very richness of the Origin overwhelms determinate knowing. Then what is “greater than” can appear “as nothing;” and evil, of course. Evil brings fear, and sorrow, and bitterness. Life is a burden then, the gift lived out as curse. One grapples with the angel in the night, refusing pat answers to agony. When the sun rises the wrestler limps, seemingly alone, still parched, yet with a promise that “amen” shall one day crown his lips. It is by no means easy to attain vision in this life; although, yes, it is as simple as a child’s laugh. “Wonder is the reverent yes,” says Desmond. Only in the eschaton will we be done with antinomies and contradictions.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Fr Dominic,

      Thank you for your comment. Let’s go down your list, one by one, and see if we can find any illumination.

      1) You comment that your position regarding the universalist hope is one of agnosticism. That is good, though I admit a tad surprising. Most Catholics in the Thomist tradition I have encountered are firmly convinced that the Magisterium has definitively condemned all expressions of the hope, excepting perhaps the antinomic hope of von Balthasar. Everyone seems to be convinced that hell is everlastingly populated. The only question is how many? Hence a substantive discussion about the greater hope is rarely possible. Roma locuta; causa finita est.

      That you are professing agnosticism about the possibility of universal salvation is therefore important. I wish to push you on that, as I am convinced that the gospel itself pushes us in that direction. If the revelation given in Jesus Christ declares to us anything that is truly good and surprising, it is that God is absolute and unconditional Love. This Love has become incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, who has destroyed death and sin by Cross and Resurrection. The risen Son summons us–and by us I mean every human being past, present, and future–into his Kingdom in repentance and faith and the regeneration of his Spirit. We can easily unpack all of this in the teaching of Christ and the New Testament writers, but hopefully that will be unnecessary. Hopefully you and I are in agreement so far.

      If God is absolute and unconditional Love, then he truly desires and wills the eternal salvation of all. As the Apostle declares: “This is a good and acceptable thing before our savior God, who intends all human beings to be saved and to come to a full knowledge of truth” (1 Tim 2:3-4). In scholastic terminology, I suppose we would say that universal salvation belongs to God’s primary and antecedent will. The question then becomes, what are the obstacles to the realization of God’s antecedent will, and are they insurmountable?

      2) You state that the construal of freedom presented in the article is properly described as compatibilism, and even go so far as to claim that “compatibilism is incompatible with Christianity.” This is a strong claim. Given the wide diversity of understandings of freedom that exist in both Catholicism and Orthodoxy, I find it implausible. You would need to spell out compatibilism very carefully and present your case. Tom Talbott and Eric Reitan, whose views I have basically summarized in my piece, would, I think, strongly dissent with your assessment. I refer you to their writings I reference in my piece. (Tom Talbott, if you’re reading this comment, I hope you’ll join in and respond to Fr Dominic’s objections.)

      As it stands, I do not have a horse in this race. Given the divine transcendence, I do not believe that the relationship between divine and human agency can be pigeon-holed in the libertarian and compatibilist categories of modern philosophy. David B. Hart’s writings on this topic have been decisive for me. If you have not already read them, I commend them to you. FWIW, I am also skeptical of attempts to fit Aquinas into the libertarian-compatabilist categories (see, e.g., Brian Shanley, “Beyond Libertarianism and Compatibilism“).

      3) You cite the fallen angels as a counter-example to the reasons-compatibilism of Talbott and Reitan. Given that the angels lacked all cognitive defects (ditto for Adam and Eve), “it should have been impossible, on the reasons-compatibilism theory, for those creatures to sin. But they did. Ergo, reasons compatibilism is false.”

      Let me first concede: the angelic fall, as construed in the Thomist tradition, does pose a problem for the Talbott-Reitan position; but the converse is also true, namely, the reasons-compatibilism of Talbott and Reitan poses a serious problem for the Thomist understanding of angels and their fall from grace. The problem with invoking the angelic fall at this point is twofold: first, we know nothing about the nature of angels; second, we know nothing about the fall of the angels. It’s all speculation–fun speculation, potentially illuminating speculation, but speculation nonetheless. Thomists may be convinced, for example, by Thomas’s arguments on the incorporeality of angels, but Bonaventurians disagree, as do many of the Orthodox. (It just so happens that I recently read Paul Griffith’s book Decreation, in which he devotes a chapter to angelic corporeality. Last October I brought Griffith into conversation with C. S. Lewis: “Angels and the Bodies They May Be.”) Bottomline: the Thomist interpretation of the angelic fall cannot be properly invoked to decide the question before us. Reasons-compatibilism must be decided on its own merits. I also point you back to the Herbert McCabe quotation in my article. McCabe is standing with both feet in the Thomistic tradition with his claim that no one chooses evil for the sake of evil.

      I’m afraid that I find the argument of you last paragraph confusing. This is no doubt my problem, but I hope you’ll restate your argument. By my reading, you seem to be saying that God heals the cognitive defects of every human being in death, thus making it less likely that anyone will change their mind. But that can’t be a correct way of stating the matter, at least not for the reprobate. By traditional understanding, hell is NOT a healing-therapeutic-sanctifying event. If anything, it confirms and stabilizes the individual in his disordered desires and irrationality. The damned are damned because they have died in a state of mortal sin and spiritual death. At that moment their destiny is decided. And that is the point where the battle needs to be joined.

      Fr Aidan

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      • stmichael71 says:

        Fr. Aidan,

        Let me say I just don’t have time to respond to everyone, so I’ll respond to yours.

        I am not a hyper-uber-papalist. The magisterium is not the papacy, even though the papacy is part of God’s plan for His Church, and revelation is not merely papal or magisterial fiat. I would say that I am inclined to think it IS revealed that hell is populated, and I think it is in Scripture, but I know of no place the Catholic magisterium has definitively taught that it is. This is the reason Bathasar’s position is possible for Catholics. I’m also personally convinced hell has occupants also because this is the common view of the Fathers and theologians, so the opinion (while not binding) has a high degree of theological authority. But I think we cannot definitively say, at this point (given state of the debate among theologians), which view is true and so I am willing to concede a principled agnosticism on this question.

        I have made clear what my answer is to your question, “What obstacles could there be to God’s antecedent will?” The answer is: created free will. God’s antecedent will is not convert everyone by force, but to offer love to everyone and to save those who so desire to participate in God’s happiness.

        I do not think my account of angelic sin requires a controversial assumption unique to Thomism. Whatever angels are or how they make decisions, most people agree angels are likely a case of creatures who were not ignorant of God’s goodness, but nevertheless sinned against Him. The case of Adam and Eve or others seem equally plausible. But it seems to me that most of the Fathers and theologians agree that the angels were not mistaken about moral truths. It might also be Scriptural, but I leave that debate for another day. The point was that, if the reasons-compatibilist view was true, then these cases are strictly impossible. Of course, if you don’t believe these cases are possible, I can’t go further without in-depth Scriptural and patristic commentary.

        My point is that universalism stands or falls with some view very much like compatibilism. I think it is very clear doctrinally (magisterium, tradition, Scripture) that humans have free will in the incompatibilist sense. But I will not justify that here. I would only point out that it has nothing to do with a free will of “indifference,” as others have claimed, or with deliberation (e.g., gnomic will), etc.

        It is perhaps easier to focus on why compatibilism is a bad option for Christians: compatibilism would undermine all moral responsibility. Here I am not requiring some special, technical definition of compatibilism. I am relying on the basic idea that, if something necessarily causes you to act a certain way, and that “something” was not in your control, then you are not responsible for that act.

        The explanation you gave of free actions rejects that it is possible for people to sin “just because they chose to.” Instead, it seems ignorance or lack of right intellectual ability is ALWAYS what explains why creatures commit sin. So, sin is *always* a product of a cognitive defect (i.e., an error in fact or a lack of intellectual ability).

        But the view then assumes that the ultimate explanation of cognitive defect cannot be in the creature’s control; otherwise, the creature could “just choose” to sin in virtue of choosing some state of culpable ignorance (as Aquinas thinks is clearly possible). But if every sin is a necessary product of cognitive defect/ignorance, and having this cognitive defect (or not) was not in anyone’s control, than this would entail that every sin is involuntary. Conversely, if every good act is a necessary consequence of truly recognizing the Good, and nobody ever had control over whether they were able to recognize the true Good, then there are no meritorious actions either. Compatibilism vitiates moral responsibility.

        If the ignorance or cognitive defect IS in someone’s control, even indirectly, then the reasons-compatibilist view of freedom will be false. And I reject compatibilism. But then we have no grounds for principled universalism.

        Interpreting Aquinas is tangential to the big issues here, but consider how Aquinas combined the claim that the will was oriented toward the good AND that sin was not merely a defect in the intellect. A mere defect in the intellect makes an action not voluntary; an error is not enough for me to commit a sin. Instead, culpable ignorance (where I did or should or had an opportunity to know better) is what can cause some kinds of sin. But other kinds of sin are not caused by ignorance at all, but by pursuing true goods in the wrong measure; e.g., pride and disordered loves. One can sin in these ways by merely choosing a true good wrongly. These sins, Aquinas thinks, involve no ignorance. These cases, however, make it possible for Aquinas to say someone sinned “just because they chose to do so.” And even when Aquinas thinks ignorance is part of the explanation, ignorance is never the *ultimate* explanation of sin. So I agree with the view that freedom is not indifference to the good. But this does not get you the kind of reasons-compatibilism that is necessary for universalism.

        [I think Shanley is right to criticize Stump’s interpretation of Aquinas, but I think Aquinas is clearly not a compatibilist even when he claims God can efficiently cause human acts. Nevertheless, that’s a tangential discussion so I’ll drop it.]


        • Grant says:

          I’m not sure Adam and Eve necessarily offer the example you wish unless and only if you follow certain theological traditions rather than others (and assume their were real historical people, which personally I tend not too and think the story requires an topological and allegorical reading(s)), take from instant St Irenaeus view that Adam and Eve were not full mature or ready to understand or have the knowledge they sought. So incorrectly pursuing their good (and the Good) lead to death’s power over them, man ruining by incorrect judgement his prospects and the ‘fruit’s (knowledge) too, or more accurately their grasp and understanding of that knowledge (and so are locked from Eden and the Tree of Life (that which is Christ), in the story both eater and eaten become one in their ruination through mistaken misapprehension of the Good. Now they would have to find the true path and the true knowledge they sought another way (the subsequent incarnation of Christ, or equally an incarnation that would necessarily involve the Cross and redemption). Man’s act was one of an immature child ignoring a patient teacher’s loving warning as he rashly sought his and her Good in a disordered way, however in this view neither Adam and Eve are mature people who have full understanding. If they did, they would both grasp and understand they nature of the true path and knowledge they sought and would hardly do something that would deny them what they sought. Again, to know the Good, is to know our Good and understand fully our desires, and why would we act in a manner that would deny us what we wish, or what our desires and beings aim for? Only incomplete, partial and lack of apprehension of what we see and are growing and aim towards gives an account of such actions (as otherwise they would be purely irrational and insane and therefore once again, not free action at all, and certainly not a rational choose upon which it would be immoral to act against).

          So again I don’t think Adam and Eve will give you a clear and uncontested example of what you wish to demonstrate as there is not the clear consensus on early emergent humanity as you assert here. As with angels they are not deciding matter and nor do I think it is in anyway clear that angelic beings, in origin had a clear and pure grasp of God’s nature and goodness, that is speculation, again we know almost nothing about angels, their origins or the nature of their Fall, so such examples are ultimately assertions of a particularly theological position or tradition, nothing more. I personally don’t agree with the view you posit but since neither of us knows, discussion on such examples is fruitless I believe.

          On to the point that if every good act is the necessary consequence of truly recognizing the Good, that there would not be meritorious actions, on one level I would agree with you. There is none that are good only God (who is the Good), our good and meritorious acts, anyone’s at all, any act of love, justice, truth, beauty, compassion and so on, is a manifestation of God, of participation in Him. I’m not agreeing at all with a Calvinist reading here (one of total depravity), they I believe misread this concept badly, but rather all good is of God (as all things are of God and participate in Him), the more truly they participate in Him and understand Him the more truly their true nature and therefore God’s nature shines through. All praise is God’s, it is His love we participate in when we love, when we act in love, however inadvertently it is done, it is the love of the Trinity that comes through at all times. A saint is a saint, not because of their own holiness, they have none, it is the Lord’s holiness that we see in it’s unique way in that saint, and for which the Church recognizes them as such. It is Christ’s Life, the very ongoing Life of Christ that is on display uniquely that saint, and in all, it is Christ and His death and Resurrection, His Incarnation we are baptized into, and it is He we put on and grow in knowledge of. It is the Lord’s holiness we participate in and display. So you quite right, there are not meritorious actions for ourselves, only our ignorance is ours, all meritorious acts, all love, all compassion, all good is of God alone, who is God (as Our Lord said, God alone is good).

          And I remain unconvinced nor can I comprehend how someone can have ignorance or cognitive defect in their control, that is a contradiction in terms to me. You cannot both be ignorant and knowledge of something at the same time, I cannot not know how to ride a bike and yet know at the same time, I cannot both be ignorant of say geometry and yet understand it at the same time (or even know I don’t understand it yet don’t know I understand it). Such is completely incomprehensible to me, it again sounds like complete insanity, and certainly not rational free action or choose, nor something that a personal could be held responsible for. If someone has knowledge and understanding and ignorance and defect is under their control, they would understand the true source, nature and purpose of their desires and would not be ignorant nor have a defect. They would understand the Good better and the true path, purpose and means of their desires and see it clearly, and would achieve their purpose. You cannot be both, you cannot impose ignorance on yourself once you have knowledge, if you understand and be your desire truly you cannot unknow it, as you would acting against your very motives for your original disordered view and know you wouldn’t achieve the desire to which you are now making the disordered choice. This is simply describing irrational, confused and insane thinking, and certainly not someone either having clarity on the Good, or in control of ignorance and defect (they clearly are still ignorant and defective).

          I can’t comment of Aquinas of Thomism much so I leave that to others who understand both the Angelic Doctor and that school of theology better than I.

          But unfortunately, I’m remain as unconvinced of your points against universalism (at least as commonly held here and as put forward by say St Gregory of Nyssa or recently by David Bentley Hart) as you are of the opposite 🙂 .


        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Father Dominic, just a quick note before I head to bed. I hope that you did not take my comment as in any way denigrating your Roman Catholic commitment. If you did, please accept my apology. That was not my intent at all.


          • stmichael71 says:

            Oh, not at all. That was tongue-in-cheek. I was just pointing out I’m not as beholden to certain claims from self-appointed Catholic apologists.

            Liked by 1 person

        • Tom Talbott says:

          Hello stmichael71,

          Thanks for your thoughtful and well written responses. I fully appreciate that you are operating under serious time constraints, as you said, and I am similarly pressed for time right now. So I write this without any expectation that you will have time to carry on more than one correspondence at the same time. Still, I would like to raise a question for your consideration.

          You wrote: “My point is that universalism stands or falls with some view very much like compatibilism.” Because even as a universalist myself I categorically reject compatibilism, including the reasons-responsive compatibilism of John Martin Fischer and Mark Ravizza, I’m wondering (a) whether you would accept a reasons-responsive account of incompatibilist free will and (b) whether you therefore think there are limits of some kind to the range of possible free choice. So here is my question. Is there any point at all, as you see it, at which some imagined choice becomes so irrational that it can no longer qualify as a free choice for which the one making the choice is morally responsible?

          For my own part, by the way, I do not believe that God must control any of our choices in order to guarantee our ultimate redemption in the end. He need only allow us to experience the very condition of separation that we might confusedly choose for ourselves. But that’s a much longer story.

          Thanks again for your contributions to this discussion.


          • stmichael71 says:


            My simple answer to (a) is that I in fact am currently working to develop and defend a reasons-responsive version of incompatibilism. As to (b), I would argue that no reason compels choice of necessity. The only special case, the knowledge which is the Beatific Vision and in virtue of which you cannot but will to love God, can be had only because of having made a prior choice which was incompatibly free (so even the Beatific Vision is not exactly knowledge that compels choice).

            This strikes me as all that is necessary to undermine universalism. If there are always alternative choices about some range of action (regardless of the limited range of choices), and none of those rationally compels choice, then it will be possible to sin even when you have knowledge of the true goods in some possible choice. The only knowledge you could not have is a perfect knowledge of God’s goodness (i.e., Beatific Vision). Yet someone with knowledge of created good will not be choosing a false good when they sin, as if they were mistaken, but would be choosing the true goods (that good which is in fact a participation in God’s goodness) wrongly. This is how I take Aquinas to explain angelic sin. I do not take such sins to be simply irrational, as if one could not contemplate an apparent good reason to do them, although such acts are ultimately irrational, in the sense that the person who wills the true good wrongly can never actually obtain it. But the only way to know that these choices ARE ultimately irrational is to have the Beatific Vision. So, short of the Beatific Vision, such choices can be made by rational creatures; i.e., sins. Thus, there is no way for universalism to get a foothold.

            What you make me think, however, is that the real issue is whether God could give the Beatific Vision to someone opposed to it. Certainly God can convert anyone He wants. But that is not germane. The question is really whether God gives people the Beatific Vision by force, as those people in Hell. I think many universalists basically think this is what happens, if indirectly. But I see no reason to believe it is possible, not least of which because of God’s desire to create free beings. Anything short of the Vision, however, will not lead to anyone necessarily coming to love God in the right way.


          • Tom Talbott says:

            Glad to hear, stmichael71, that you are “currently working to develop and defend a reasons-responsive version of incompatibilism.” Would you agree, then, that a genuinely free choice, which is incompatible with being determined by factors external to the choosing agent, nonetheless requires a minimal degree of rationality? With good reason, it seems, do we typically exclude small children, the severely brain damaged, paranoid schizophrenics, and even dogs from the class of free moral agents.

            Assuming you do agree with this, I would point out that the question I asked in my previous post was not whether “reason compels [some particular] choice of necessity”; it was instead whether there are limits of any kind to the range of possible free choice. Will not the required rationality, in other words, render certain kinds of choices psychologically impossible? So long as I retain enough rationality to qualify as a free moral agent, I cannot freely choose to believe, for example, that the hot fire into which I shove an unprotected arm is causing sensations of intense pleasure rather than sensations of intense pain. For such a choice, if it should be possible at all, would simply be too irrational to qualify as a genuinely free choice.

            Similarly, if we think of the outer darkness as the logical limit (short of annihilation) of possible separation from every implicit experience of God—a soul suspended alone in sheer nothingness, so to speak, without even an environment to experience and without, contrary to the delusions of John Milton’s Satan, anyone to rule over in hell—if we think of it in that way, then I see no way that someone could both experience the outer darkness and freely choose to treat such “total” separation from God as if it were a desirable state. You also suggest, of course, that “the only way to know” that certain “choices ARE ultimately irrational is to have the Beatific Vision.” But the issue here is not whether the one making an utterly irrational choice in fact knows that he or she is doing so; I daresay that few, if any, of those whose choices fall below the necessary threshold of rationality are fully aware of this fact. The issue is instead whether an utterly irrational choice could possibly qualify as a free choice, given a plausible reasons-responsive account of incompatibilist free will.

            It seems to me, at any rate, that the consequences of our sinful choices will inevitably bring each of us to one of two possible intermediate ends: either we will reach a point where we come to see the error of our ways and thus freely choose the path of repentance and submission to God, or, if we continue to follow a path of greater rebellion and further separation from God—the wide road that leads to destruction, as Jesus called it—then we will eventually reach a point where we have separated ourselves from every implicit experience of God and have thus taken up residence in the outer darkness. In the latter case, there would seem to be but two theoretical ways in which our sins might finally defeat forever God’s loving will for our lives. They might, on the one hand, continue to deceive us forever into believing irrationally that the outer darkness is more desirable than submission to God, or they might deceive us into irrationally choosing annihilation as the lesser of two perceived evils. But why suppose, I wonder, that someone subject to either of these utterly irrational deceptions would be rational enough to qualify as a free moral agent?

            Thanks for your further reflections.

            Liked by 2 people

    • Grant says:

      I admit I have to agree with Father Kimel, Brian and Matthew here, and can only echo a bit what they have said. First I would say that I don’t agree that anything can choose other than God, since all things exists only by donation and participation in God, and are orientate towards Him who is Being (and beyond Being) itself. All foundation is the necessary prior to all our nature, and all things were are interconnected with, and from which all desires, consciousness, purposes and intentions arise and to which they and everything is teleological directed towards. All finite existence is founded upon, sustained by, and directed towards the infinite plenitude of Existence that is God, and exists in communion (though impaired and damaged at the moment) in Him and through Him with all things (in Him we live, move and have our being). There is nothing besides God, and no way to make a choose not directed towards God, since it would be to choose nothing (and again, nothing is nothing, it doesn’t exist), such a decision is not comprehensible, we cannot choose or have any thought that doesn’t exist. We make impaired choices much as a man in darkness doesn’t not participating in light and it’s illumination seeks for illumination in darkness and so falls down a hole into an even darker place can find themselves further unable to gain illumination. But that doesn’t change that they are ever after illumination, and what is good as they understand it, I’m afraid choosing other than God in a absolute sense doesn’t make sense to me at all, I don’t see how it is comprehensible at all once we begin to grasp who God is and our creaturely (or any creaturely) relationship to Him.

      I would also just add my agreement that angels don’t provide a good example since as people above have said, we know virtually nothing at all about angels or spiritual beings other than they are in some manner noetic intelligences, and that some are fallen, outside that we know nothing. Even what is in the New Testament and the narratives in the Old only tell us how people have perceived their presence (particularly more so in the New, the Old are in many places not historical accounts and thus more reflect a particularly view of what the spiritual beings are like within then Jewish mythology). We are simply ignorant about their actual nature, and thus anything said about them beyond that they are, and even know some names, and key roles in Church life (for example guardian angels) is speculation, and besides that some are fallen, is also speculation (such as any idea what was involved, or how it happened).

      I do find though with Matthew the notion that someone or any noetic being can make a choice in confusion from a defective and warped understanding of the Good, their good and the true purpose they are reaching for, then get that cleared away, see themselves, others and their desires and purposes clearly, yet someone no longer choose to pursue their aims clearly but now choice against those aims and continue in their previous unfree and confused actions and abandon their aims, growth, purpose and desires they were perusing. I would be like the previous man, now seeing and participating in light and having illumination, and seeing clearly where he wishes to go, but jumps down the hole anyway, thus not only falling down the hole but failing in his intended purpose and desire even when he lacked illumination and perusing it in a misguided and distorted manner. I’m afraid it just doesn’t make any sense, any-more than a being that can see what it wants, yet doesn’t go for it because of no reason or purpose whatsoever, it is as Matthew says, indication not of clear or perfect intelligence, but rather insanity and mental defect (and in the case of humans, one worse than the original defect), they clearly are not thinking clearly and are very much the subject of distorted thinking (and are hardly free).

      And if this is an example of libertarian freedom, it again demonstrates the problems with that concept of freedom, as it positions a freedom of random choices with no real purpose and teleology. It is the freedom of a random number generator, or an earthquake, as I said it would have us subject to random thoughts and purposes, originating randomly from nowhere to no rational purpose. We would be as I said, leaves in the wind, subject to it’s vagaries with no real will or freedom whatsoever, and thus would land us in the same place that hard determinism would have us, half a dozen of one, two dozen of the other. To me, those examples exemplify the problems and complete lack of freedom under and libertarian vision, so that I remain convinced the classical tradition on freedom has the most coherent and cogent view (very well described by Brian above).


  2. TF says:

    I find myself sympathetic to DB Hart, especially in his quip to a question in his latest lecture on universalism. It was something to the effect that it is fairly ridiculous to only have “hope” that all be saved. Because what you are hoping for is that God doesn’t turn out to be a calvinist. I think there is something to be said for intellectual humility, but only insofar as that pertains to everything. I don’t know 100% that Jesus actually rose from the dead, I wasn’t there, but I believe it and I think there are good reasons too. Just like I think there are good reasons for universalism to be true, but I am not omniscient, so if I’m wrong, may God forgive me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Robert says:

      Seems to me that Universal Apokatastasis of human beings (not animals, who while commiting acts God never intended are yet guiltless) predicated upon a defect in free will of humans (as a result of The Fall) together with the overwhelming attractiveness of Divine Grace that renders rejection as unthinkable makes those who firmly believe it at least Neo-Calvinists of some degree. God’s Grace will eventually be one of the 5 tenets for every human being – Irresistable Grace.


  3. I think Kalistare Ware has it right.


  4. Tom Talbott says:

    Thanks, Al, for a wonderful review and discussion of what is at stake in a free will theodicy of hell. Unfortunately, I am too tied up with family matters right now to contribute as much as I would like to this excellent discussion. But I would like to make one suggestion as a minimal contribution to it. Early on in your essay you write, “A comprehensive analysis of human freedom is necessary at this point, but I am unpre¬pared to offer one. The topic, as they say, is beyond my pay grade.” Many others, I suspect, might feel the same way.

    So here is my suggestion. If someone doubts the adequacy of some free will theodicy of hell, this person is in no way obligated to do the relevant homework on behalf of its proponents. Are not its proponents the ones who should provide a reasonably complete analysis of the relevant freedom? I say this because I have yet to encounter any free will theodicy of hell in which its proponents offer even a remotely adequate analysis of so-called libertarian free will. This is not a complaint, by the way, against all libertarians, not even all religious libertarians; it is a complaint only against those libertarians who think that libertarian freedom can explain an eternal hell. Too often a proponent of a free will theodicy of hell might simply announce, “I am using ‘freedom’ in the libertarian sense,” as if that were self-explanatory, or such a proponent might cite a single necessary condition of the relevant freedom, namely that it is incompatible with a certain kind of determinism, as if that were its only necessary condition. Indeed, not even the power to choose otherwise, however necessary some might claim it to be, qualifies as a sufficient condition of choosing freely, as the following paragraph lifted from my own essay “Free Will Theodicies of Hell” illustrates:

    “Suppose, by way of illustration, that a schizophrenic young man should kill his loving mother, believing her to be a sinister space alien who has devoured his real mother; and suppose further that he does so in a context in which he categorically could have chosen otherwise (in part, perhaps, because he worries about possible retaliation from other sinister space aliens). Why should such an irrational choice, even if not causally determined, be any more compatible with genuine moral freedom than a rigorous determinism would be? Either our seriously deluded beliefs, particularly those with destructive consequences in our own lives, are in principle correctable by some degree of powerful evidence against them, or the choices that rest upon them are simply too irrational to qualify as free moral choices.”

    Anyway, if anyone here is interested in my own modified libertarian account of human free will, you can find it at the following URL:




    Liked by 2 people

  5. Jedi Scribe says:

    Thank you for laying out the relevant positions on this matter. It’s only recently I could entertain the universalist position, now I’m all but convinced of it, God bless DBH. I often worry for my friends, many of which are Muslims, nominal Christians and family who do not know Christ. I see them and realize the fact that I know Christ is entirely dependent on Christ. I just “happen” to be interested, I know in another life I probably would have rejected him, I can’t claim any hand in my salvation. To say that these people that I love are to be tortured forever, even if by their own “will” is not good news, who but those in hell would want to see people in hell? And then I don’t think even the damned want that. I don’t see their “will” at work in their rejection, I just see their blindness and Jesus’ prayer that “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they do”. I don’t know if I can stomach the idea that even with the healed sight of the afterlife and resurrection, that they wouldn’t eventually run to Christ.


  6. Greg says:

    We should bear in mind that almost all of this is contextualized in modern categories none of which are present in the earlier Christian traditions; moreover Frederica is wrong: early Christianity (as we all know) was heavily oriented toward universal Salvation, whatever later ideas came to predominate.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Robert says:

      Actually my reply is to the comment of Greg that the early Christians were “heavily oriented toward universal Salvation.”
      Men pray what they believe, and unless I’m mistaken the Liturgy is older than the Canon of the New Testament. The following is from the Liturgy for the Last Judgement:

      The books will be opened and the acts of men will be revealed before the unbearable judgment-seat; and the whole vale of sorrow shall echo with the fearful sound of lamentation, as all the sinners, weeping in vain, are sent by Thy just judgment to everlasting torment. Therefore we beseech Thee, O compassionate and loving Lord: spare us who sing Thy praise, for Thou alone art rich in mercy. (Vespers Sticheron on “Lord, I have cried”, Tone 6)

      I lament and weep when I think of the eternal fire, the outer darkness and the nether world, the dread worm and the gnashing of teeth and the unceasing anguish that shall befall those who have sinned without measure, by their wickedness arousing Thee to anger, O Supreme in love. Among them in my misery I am first: but, O Judge compassionate, in Thy mercy save me. (Vespers Sticheron on “Lord, I have cried”, Tone 6)

      Think, my soul, of the fearful examination before the Judge; in trembling prepare thy defence, lest thou be condemned to the eternal bonds. (Ode 6 of the Matins Canon)

      Deliver me, O Lord, from the gates of hell, from chaos and darkness without light, from the lowest depths of the earth and the unquenchable fire, and from all the other everlasting punishments. (Ode 6 of the Matins Canon)

      When Thou, O God, shalt judge all things, who among us earthborn men shall dare to stand before Thee, for we are all beset by the passions? Then the unquenchable fire and the destroying worm shall seize the condemned and hold them fast for ever. (Ode 7 of the Matins Canon)


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        My apologies, Robert. I just today found this comment today in the spam queue, which I rarely check, as genuine comments rarely get shuttled into it.


  7. Cameron Davis says:

    Along with the failure of free will arguments for eternal damnation, which I believe has been exhaustively dealt with by thinkers like DB Hart, Tom Talbott, Robin Parry and others, I can’t get past (what I perceive to be) the absurdity and evil of eternal torment. To affirm such a reality is necessarily to suppose that God forever sustains a condition which will only ever have torment as its end. Numerous other problems arise from such conviction as well. Having children, for instance, which is perceived by most as a good and joyous occasion, has the potential to end in the worst of tragedies. For such individuals it would have been better if they had never been born, yet God allows these children, in some cases, to survive and continue into their eternal perdition where He will then sustain them in an existence that will only ever be horrendous and tragic.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Matthew Hryniewicz says:

      I think you bring up a good point regarding children that I don’t believe many people think about. Back when I thought ECT was the only option, it hit me one day that nobody ought to have kids because it was taking a horrible gamble. Sure, you might convince them to get “saved” or God might spare them somehow, but if there’s a substantial chance that they end up as eternal kindling, how to you justify that risk? Certainly the mere joys of parenthood aren’t up to the task. Becoming a parent ought to be the most sobering of events under that paradigm.

      On a bit of a tangential note, the particular set of beliefs I grew up with vis-à-vis the fate of those who die as infants (which I presume is fairly mainstream, at least in the Fundamentalist circles I was in) always seemed incongruous with God’s supposed impotence to guarantee anyone’s salvation. I was taught that infants who die go straight to heaven so I wondered why God didn’t allow more babies to die to populate His city. I recall taking it one step further in my young mind and wondering why, given the risk of damnation of letting a child reach the fabled “age of accountability”, would it not be best to kill my own baby and thereby guarantee them eternal bliss? When you couple this with the once-saved-always-saved belief, I could see no major downside; I’m going to heaven even if the killing is a horrific crime because I’m already saved, and the child is going to heaven because of my actions. I’d take whatever comparative slap on the wrist was coming my way to ensure my child had the best possible future. Fortunately this never rose beyond mere mind games because the whole scenario seemed so off-putting that it lead me to doubt the paradigm.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Cameron Davis says:

        “I was taught that infants who die go straight to heaven…”

        Which would make infanticide the best thing one could do for their children.


        • Grant says:

          Or should support abortion without qualification even it would damn themselves as it would save millions from a fate far worse than a temporary death, that would be a terrible but logical response under such a view (thankfully people rarely follow such beliefs to such terrible logical conclusions, particularly now as we don’t use violence and killing against heretics under the justification of saving people from hell as St Augustine argued in one of his less brilliant moments, though he was being terribly consistant with his view of eternal torment).


  8. Thomas says:

    I have to disagree with Reitan here:

    > Libertarian freedom as described does not seem worth having. In fact, as described, I sincerely hope that I lack it. The capacity to eternally act against all of my motives would introduce into my life a potential for profound irrationality that I would rather do without. And if I exercise my libertarian freedom as described above, dooming myself to the outer darkness without reason, I sincerely hope that God would act to stop me—just as I hope a friend would stop me if I decided to leap from a rooftop for no reason.

    If the freedom to do otherwise is essential to personhood, then this amounts to saying that it would be better if no person ever existed than that hell is possible. That’s quite a claim.

    Secondly, the example of a friend stopping one from jumping off a building (like Hart’s example of the father preventing a child from burning themselves) is not on point. My friend might be able to stop me from jumping off a building, but the only way he could prevent me from willing to do so is by rendering me unconscious. On the hypothesis that freedom is an essential property of personhood, it is simply incoherent to say that one person can prevent another person from willing this or that (other than indirectly by e.g., persuasion or by depriving one of consciousness). One cannot, by definition, compel a free choice, any more than one can halve an odd number without remainder. Likewise, not even God can determine a free choice to one or another alternative.

    Sin is seated in the will. Whatever actions might follow from sinful choices might be prevented, and so one might be able to avoid further consequences of sin. But the act of will itself is sufficient for sin to be mortal (assuming one believes sins can be mortal).


    • Ed says:

      I think Hart’s point is that no loving father would simply sit back and watch as his child jumps into the fire. A loving father, recognizing that the act of throwing oneself into the flames, far from being a free act, is an utterly irrational one, would have no qualms about physically preventing it from happening. Similarly, Hart would argue, the God Who is Love itself would not allow his children to utterly destroy themselves. To say otherwise, is to say that human fathers love their children more than does God Himself.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thomas says:


        No-one argues that God has “simply sat back” — the second person of the Trinity became flesh and died. The question is whether human freedom means that God efforts may be persistently rejected.

        The salient distinction here is that one is capable of preventing a physical act, but one is not able to compel a choice, an imminent act of will. (Sin is not so much in what one wills as what one fails to will.) The sinful act of will itself separates one from God, even if the intention is not carried out by physical acts that could be thwarted. That is, whereas the consequence of physical injury does not necessarily accompany the choice to burn oneself (because one may be prevented from acting), the consequence of separation from God follows immediately from sin.

        To suppose that God could inevitably determine the correct choice (thereby thwarting the separation from himself) is simply to deny that human beings are free. But if human beings are free, than God could not determine their choices to be correct, any more than he could make a line have breadth or oxygen have an atomic number of 16.

        Preventing someone from some physical action is not analogous to the irresistible compulsion to will rightly. It is an inapt metaphor. I think there are other, more compelling routes that are suggestive of universal salvation (the natural teleology of the will), but this argument by analogy in my view rests on a mistaken premise.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Matthew Hryniewicz says:

          Can you explain a little further about the conditions you think are necessary for a person to will one thing as opposed to another, and why the freedom to do otherwise should be considered essential to personhood? I honestly do not know how to imagine the will becoming settled on any particular thing without recourse to some sort of calculus of perceived goods. If the will is necessarily oriented towards the good then a perfect apprehension of the good would be compelling to it and I’m not sure that this would represent a violation of freedom or personhood. If the will cannot be compelled then how is it rational?


        • Matthew Hryniewicz says:

          Also, I think that the analogy of preventing someone from following through on their desire to harm themselves is not directly supposed to do the work of assuring that God can reform the will. What it is meant to illustrate is that when someone is behaving so irrationally, it is morally licit (and perhaps compulsory) to keep them from getting what they (mistakenly) want. The argument is essentially that God would never allow persons to damn themselves through the misuse of a distorted/irrational ‘freedom’ and therefore the door to reforming the will must remain open.


          • Thomas says:


            > What it is meant to illustrate is that when someone is behaving so irrationally, it is morally licit (and perhaps compulsory) to keep them from getting what they (mistakenly) want.

            Again, there is a difference between consequences that follows immediately from an act of will (as separation from God follows from the sinful decision) and a consequence that requires, in addition to a decision, further external circumstances or activity (e.g., getting what one wants). I can prevent my son from eating a cookie, but I cannot make him decide to eat vegetables rather than a cookie. Not even God can do that.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Matthew Hryniewicz says:


            Can you explain precisely what it is that determines your son’s desire for the cookie as opposed to the vegetables? What is it that causes his will to settle on that? Please correct my understanding here, but what I hear you saying is that God cannot prevent us from separating from Him (although I’d prefer to say something like ‘turning away from’ because I think separation implies nonexistence) because the very act of willing against God is sinful and results immediately in that ‘separation’. But as I see it, will against God tout court is impossible because we cannot will evil for its own sake. Our will is fundamentally oriented towards the good, which of course is God. If that is the case, then within our every desire is ultimately the desire for God.

            So long as the will is truly rational and has the good as its object, there is a sort of natural gravity towards God as its telos. When we choose that which is opposed to God the consequences of our choice serve as evidence to us that we chose against our own deepest desires. Objectively speaking, to run away from God is to choose increasing misery and discontent which the will cannot seek as it’s ultimate end. So perhaps God cannot determine where the will settles on some particular choice between A and B, but it seems to me that to choose the path of increasing evil is like water trying to run up hill. So if choice A is objectively bad and B objectively good, then God need not interfere with the will in order to guarantee that it eventually settles on vegetables. The will is going to get there ‘on it’s own’ (though of course nothing we do is ever without God). The only ways that we could continue to will A would be if either we are shielded from its consequences, or we are never informed about the truth.

            So I guess that what I’m saying is that I don’t see how the distinction matters at the end of the day.

            Sorry that my replies have been hastily written. To be frank, I’m mostly spitballing here from my desk in between assignments. I’m quite rusty at this whole combox exchange thing so I’m just trying to maintain a conversation. When I get the time I’ll take a more careful look at things to try to pick up on where I’ve misread what you wrote. I hope that I’m coming across in a civil manner because I’m never quite sure. I appreciate the dialog.


        • Ed says:

          Just so you know, I am not arguing either in favour of or against universal salvation. I believe it is possible, since it is God’s desire for mankind, and I pray for it. But I do not claim to know what the final outcome of God’s judgment will be. Having said that I need to clarify what I wrote previously. I think I gave the impression that God, in his love for human beings, would physically compel the human will to finally make the right choice. This is not my view. Nor, do I think, is it the view of David Bentley Hart.
          Humans certainly have free choice. But free choice does not exist in a vacuum. At the basis of all our free choices is something about which we have no choice at all. I refer here to the fact that our nature is drawn towards the universal good and ultimately to God, Who is goodness itself. This is not a compulsion. When our eyes are opened to see the good as good, we are freely drawn towards it. The reason we have freedom of choice is that, on the one hand, we are drawn to the universal good and, on the other hand, we are constantly presented with many diverse and sometimes conflicting goods. It is our basic orientation toward the good that draws us to these many diverse goods. As a result, we are capable of choosing from among these goods and sometimes we choose the lesser good in place of the higher good or we choose a good in a manner that destroys a higher good. This is what we call sin. Given that man’s final end is God Himself, who is the highest good, it follows that God does not have to compel anyone to do anything. All He need do is strip away all illusions so that an individual is able to see what his true good is. He will then be naturally and freely drawn towards it.


    • Cyranorox says:

      If He can renew our spirits, and place a clean heart, a heart of flesh and not stone, within us, He accomplishes that which you here deny. A new heart and spirit, allowing for the poetic usage and the slippage of translation, must alter the intentions, and the will. Therefore, that argument must fail.


  9. Sonya says:

    Perhaps this is a bit of a digression, but I am wondering if we depend too much in our contemplation of the question of free will on the rationality of the mind – the free and careful mental calculation of options in order to choose the best. I listened to an interview with an American philosopher (whose name escapes me at the moment) who believed that in understanding human nature we have made a mistake. We have come to believe that we are thinking creatures who feel, when in reality we are feeling creatures who think, and the majority of our choices are made emotionally instead of rationally. This adds, I think, another dimension to the conversation. God our creator is love. We are made by and for love. We long, each and everyone of us, to be loved. The freedom of choice for (or against) God is perhaps less that of a rational freedom of the mind but more the freedom of the heart to more clearly see/experience and response to that love. Maybe more an issue of a freedom of desire. I remember here the Eastern Church’s understanding of prayer as the mind descending into the heart moving towards God.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Matthew Hryniewicz says:

      Hey Sonya, my quick two cents on this is that perhaps thinking/feeling aren’t dichotomous. Could it be that feeling is the deepest form of thinking; the most intimate kind of knowing? I believe that love is the most rational thing of all, but it cannot be truly known through exercising the mind’s capacity for rational thought.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sonya says:

        Maximus the Confessor talks about salvation in terms of unification of those things now divided. I think that this may be true also of intellect and feeling. But the love of God that we are invited to participate in is more than feeling, isn’t it.

        I don’t have much clarity on this. Only that so much of the discussions of free will seem to focus onesonya the freedom of the intellect to make a rational choice. While I believe rationality is certainly involved, I don’t believe most of us begin to follow Jesus because of cogent arguments. We hunger for love. I think of children who want (and need) more than almost anything else to be loved. I think of the little children who came to Jesus only, one supposes, because here in this man they found love. The basis of the choice they made Christ commended to the rest of us; unless we become like little children…..


        • Grant says:

          I think you are right in that love, desire, appetite and need proceeds pure intellectual choice and thought. We are not Mr Spock of Star Trek (though in the end he subversive of that emotionless ideal himself 😉 ). Almost all choices we make are not based just on intellect at all, and certainly not the most important ones, but rather our desires, feelings, needs and love, for God, for others, for ourselves, all interconnected and unified in Christ, no matter how dimly apprehended, or brokenly lived and expressed.

          Reasoning follows the prompting of love and desire, it can contextualise it and help or hinder it, give us understanding (or just as easily confuse us and make us worse). But pure intellectual apprehension and deliberation never comes first, nor is it last.

          This is true even in seemingly pure intellectual disciplines, where love and desire towards the subject matter or craft are prior and the driver, where intuition brings insight and creative understanding, even here knowing is more like and part of relationship founded in love (and ultimately is as in all things it is directed and participates in the relationship of love with and in God).

          And I agree, I think part of the Union of all things will be our feelings and intellect with each other into love, knowing as we are known in Christ. Only then are we really free, when we live fully in His love.


  10. Sonya says:

    Yes, indeed! This makes me think then of the Eastern Church’s emphasis on addressing the passions, which I am now just beginning to understand. The freedom we need to see love and follow love (Christ) is freedom from the myriad other lesser desires that crowd and inhabit our hearts. It is the freedom of will of the heart.


  11. George Christiansen says:

    I think that, regardless of how you run the numbers, if God’s desire is all men to be saved then the unsaved man has thwarted God, which of course means that God cannot save all.

    So it would seem to me that we must choose between a limit of God’s desire or a limit of God’s ability in order to have an eternal hell for anyone.

    I suppose we could do the mental gymnastics to where we define “good” or “love” in some way that has God wanting the best for everyone and that being actually being hell for some, but, while our view of both is often distorted, the view required to accept those sort of definitions might qualify as sociopaths and therefore make hell the more desirable place after all.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I concur, George. I am persuaded that our primary theological and philosophical commitments pretty much determine where one ends up on the question of apokatastasis vs eternal perdition. If one passionately believes that in Jesus Christ God has revealed himself as absolute and unconditional Love who wills the salvation of all, then one will do one’s darndest to conceive a metaphysics of personhood and freedom that allows God to accomplish that end—either along the line developed by George MacDonald and Thomas Talbott or along the line developed by David Hart and Brian Moore. But if one believes that Bible and dogma teaches that God retributively punishes all who die in a state of mortal sin (traditional Western view) or that a libertarian understanding of human freedom requires the possibility of irrevocable self-damnation (modern free-will defense), then one will commit one’s intellectual resources to providing a full defense of everlasting perdition and demonstrating the impossibility of universal salvation. I doubt that many Christian believers, including philosophers, approach this difficult topic from a neutral stance.

      Liked by 3 people

  12. Elizabeth says:

    ” To see the good truly is to desire it insatiably; not to desire it is not to have known it, and so never to have been free to choose it.” – Hart
    I am hopeful that as we evolve, not only our knowledge of God’s goodness continues to grow but also our capacity to become more conscious in our desire to be transformed in His image and ultimately in our free will to be in a state of unity and harmony with God’s will.


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