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)
Reitan 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.)