The title of Zachary Manis’s book Sinners in the Presence of a Loving God succinctly summarizes his constructive proposal. He calls it the divine presence model: “the eternal suffering of hell is not the result of any divine act that aims to inflict it, but rather the way that a sinful creature necessarily experiences the unmitigated presence of a holy God” (p. 249).
The incarnate Son of God suddenly reveals himself to his creation in the fullness of his glory. The veil between divinity and world is lifted, and all of humanity is given to see the living God face to face in his transfigured flesh. At this moment there is no longer time to make a decision for Christ, for the parousial revelation reveals to each soul the eschatological decision they have already and definitively made, expressed in each person’s immediate response to the glorious, overwhelming presence: love and joy for the the blessed; hatred, terror, and anguish for the damned. The redeemed welcome the Lord with hearts filled with overbrimming gladness; the reprobate find the divine presence an intolerable agony. The glory of God surrounds all, intends all, penetrates all—but with different subjective results. All hinges upon one’s spiritual condition. If love and faith indwell the soul, then Christ is recognized as a loving, all-forgiving Savior; if hate and despair, as a wrathful tyrant.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall see God” (Matt 5:3)
But if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! (Matt 6:23)
There is no place to flee, no cave in which to hide. There is now only God revealed in brilliant glory, breathtaking beauty, awesome majesty. There is now only heaven. Yet not all will find heaven heavenly, so perhaps we need to restate: there is now only heaven and hell—and God is both. “Heaven and hell,” Manis explains, “are not two ‘places’ to which the saved and damned are consigned, respectively, but rather two radically different ways that different creatures will experience the same reality of divine omnipresence once the barrier of divine hiddenness is finally and fully removed” (p. 249). The return of Christ is simultaneously revelation and judgment. The existential truth of each soul is laid bare, to themselves and the world:
The judgment that is rendered by Christ is not like that of an earthly judge, who freely renders a verdict and decides upon a punishment to which the condemned will be sentenced. Christ’s judgment is not a decision about a person’s guilt or innocence; it is not something that is made true by declaration. The final judgment is, rather, a pronouncement of the existing truth about each individual (“I judge only as I hear”). It is a revealing of what is already the case, as recorded in a person’s own conscience. (p. 371)
All will share in the parousial vision of Christ, but only those reborn in the Spirit will share in it as God intends, as joyous ecstasy. “For all others,” Manis notes, “it is an experience of wrath, an experience of ‘burning,’ an event which causes unrepentant sinners to suffer intensely, without end or relief” (p. 357). God, we might say, will be to us either heaven or heaven-experienced-differently. But why does the parousial unveiling of the Lord in glory not generate the conversion of the damned? Why must it be that “the possibility of repentance for the unrighteous is forever lost, along with the possibility of performing other actions or forming other beliefs, desires, and attitudes that are essential to the salvific process” (p. 332)? Manis offers the following speculative thoughts (pp. 333-334):
- Perhaps the manifestation of the divine presence induces an intensity of pain that makes a genuinely free repentance impossible.
- Perhaps the torment is so great it renders them incapable of loving and trusting God.
- Perhaps the damned are so overwhelmed with their own agony that they cannot direct their thoughts to repentance.
- Perhaps the divine presence inflames the vice in their soul that it becomes even more deeply entrenched and “exacerbates their existing state of self-deception.”
I’m not sure about speculation #4. If the divine manifestation reveals to each soul their existential truth, this would seem to exclude the ability to self-deceive. Or perhaps the self-deception mechanism clicks in immediately upon encountering the truth.
Orthodox Christians will recognize that Manis is presenting (in Protestant idiom) the view of heaven and hell commonly taught in their parishes and popularized by Alexandre Kalomiros’ tract The River of Fire. Kalomiros describes the typical last judgment icon:
In the icon of the Last Judgment we see Our Lord Jesus Christ seated on a throne. On His right we see His friends, the blessed men and women who lived by His love. On His left we see His enemies, all those who passed their life hating Him, even if they appeared to be pious and reverent. And there, in the midst of the two, springing from Christ’s throne, we see a river of fire coming toward us. What is this river of fire? Is it an instrument of torture? Is it an energy of vengeance coming out from God in order to vanquish His enemies? No, nothing of the sort. This river of fire is the river which “came out from Eden to water the paradise” of old (Gen. 2:10). It is the river of the grace of God which irrigated God’s saints from the beginning. In a word, it is the out-pouring of God’s love for His creatures. Love is fire. Anyone who loves knows this. God is Love, so God is Fire. And fire consumes all those who are not fire themselves, and renders bright and shining all those who are fire themselves (Heb. 12:29) … Paradise and hell are one and the same River of God, a loving fire which embraces and covers all with the same beneficial will, without any difference or discrimination. The same vivifying water is life eternal for the faithful and death eternal for the infidels; for the first it is their element of life, for the second it is the instrument of their eternal suffocation; paradise for the one is hell for the other.
Manis has drunk deeply from the Orthodox well. He is the first non-Orthodox thinker to bring the contemporary Eastern view into substantive conversation with Western reflection on hell.
The divine presence model stands between the retributive and choice models discussed in our previous article and draws from both. Like the choice model, it rejects retributive punishment as incompatible with the absolute love of God. God always comes to his children in unconditional love and limitless mercy, eternally intending the unmerited gift of communion. On the other hand, the divine presence model shares with the traditional model the elements of judgment and penalty:
On this [divine presence] model, God’s aim is always toward restoration, and His intention is the salvation of every person, but the damned experience the culminating act of God’s salvific work in history—the revealing of Christ in glory in the echaton—as a retributive punishment, instead. In reclaiming the retributive elements, however, there is at least a worry that the problem of justice is reintroduced. The suffering of the damned is not self-chosen, or even entirely self-inflicted, on this model; there is clearly a sense in which the damned are subjected to the presence of God, against their will, and likewise for the suffering it causes them. Insofar as this suffering is without end, it is infinite, and thus disproportionate to the earthly wrongdoing that precedes it. I submit, however, that for the divine presence model, this disproportion is not a problem of justice, insofar as the suffering of the damned is not intended by God at all, and a fortiori not intended as a punishment, retributive or otherwise … Hell has a retributive function on the divine presence model, but not a retributive intent. (p. 290)
It’s important that we grasp the point Manis is making. He believes that an adequate understanding of eternal perdition “must account for recurring biblical themes such as final judgment, the wrath of God, the destruction of the wicked, divine vengeance, and so on” (p. 285)—all of which are arguably attenuated, if not missing, in the free-will models. As we have seen, Manis finds the choice model unacceptable because the wicked are given the option of choosing their infernal destiny; it is not imposed upon them against their will. They are allowed to choose maximal separation from God (outer darkness). Maximal separation, of course, brings maximal suffering, yet it is a suffering freely embraced by the lost. In the Orthodox and Manisian view, on the other hand, the uncreated light shines upon all without exception. Instead of uttermost distance, there is uttermost nearness. Think of it as being brought against one’s will into a magnificent concert hall and forced to listen to opera—no breaks, no intermissions, no sound-cancelling headphones. (Okay, if you love opera, God bless you—choose another form of music that you hate, maybe rap or Barry Manilow.) Welcome to divine presence hell.
How then is the suffering of the damned not retributive punishment? Because God does not directly intend their suffering, argues Manis:
The elements of the retribution thesis that generate the most severe difficulties for the view of hell that incorporate it are (i) that retribution is hell’s intended purpose and (ii) that hell is a punishment that God freely selects for the damned. What the divine presence model demonstrates is that, as strange as it might initially seem, it is possible that hell functions as a punishment (or something much like it) without its having this as its intended purpose; likewise, it is possible that hell is a state that God imposes upon the damned without its being the case that God chooses this state for the damned. (p. 285)
While it is certainly the case that the reprobate will find God’s parousial self-manifestation an eternal torment, he does not intend it as an expression of his justice. He intends only love and salvation:
What God intends, in exposing all to His presence, is not the suffering of any creature, but rather a state of perfect and everlasting joy for every person. Insofar as we are beings made for communion with God, made to exist everlastingly in His presence in a state of perfect love and worship, the divine intention of the eschaton is the fulfillment of the highest good of every human being. God foresees that this will not in fact be the experience of every individual, but He fully intends this outcome for everyone—that is to say, He wills that all would be saved. (p. 286)
Here is the critical claim upon which the Manisian project stands or falls, and so we must ask: Is it metaphysically and morally coherent?
I’ll address the moral concern first. Six years ago I wrote an article titled “Hell and the Torturous Vision of Christ.” In it I averred: “If the eternal sufferings of the damned are not a divinely-appointed form of retributive punishment, then God is guilty of unjustly inflicting—or at least unjustly permitting, sustaining, and preserving—interminable pain and torment.” I stand by this judgment.
Imagine yourself being tied to the ground. Your head is fixed so that you must always look straight up. Your eyelids are sewn open. The sun is at its noonday position, with nary a cloud to be seen. You are exposed to the solar light in all of its brilliant, scorching, unrelenting radiance. Your skin quickly moves from first-degree to third-degree to fifth-degree burns, yet somehow the nerve endings are not damaged. But this is not the worst of it. The light explodes in your brain, burning into your consciousness and soul. Its intensity overwhelms every thought. Under normal circumstances you would quickly go blind, but your eyes are miraculously restored every second. There is no escape, no relief. There is only the burning, consuming, blinding but never-blinding rays of the sun, an engulfing river of fire. You scream in agony … for all eternity.
This torturous vision of Christ exceeds anything that we find in the Inferno. In the traditional construal of damnation we are told that the sufferings of hell are an expression of the divine justice, but in the divine presence model they are the unintended consequences of God’s mercy and love. Let’s call it collateral damage. A general orders that a nuclear weapon be dropped on a military installation in order to destroy the enemy’s remaining capacity to wage war. The explosion also kills 100,000 civilians. The general did not intend these casualties; he intended only the destruction of the installation, even though he foresaw and accepted the consequent civilian deaths. Likewise, for the divine presence model: the Creator comes in love to bless, heal, save, transfigure, in the process also bringing intolerable agony to the depraved (regrettable, no doubt, but what’s a God to do?). He foreknows the impact his self-manifestation will have on the incorrigibly impenitent, but in his wisdom and love he chooses and accepts the (unintended) consequences. Could there be a a more horrific example of the principle of double effect? Can we continue to believe that God wills the good of the lost? Nor is the horror minimized by the observation that the level of pain will vary from reprobate to reprobate, depending on the corruption of one’s spiritual condition. The only question that matters, I submit, is this: Is the torment deserved?
Years ago I came across the following statement by St Bonaventure in his Breviloquim: “God cannot permit any misery to exist in us except as a punishment of sin.” This helped me to understand the traditional Latin claim that the condition of suffering into which we are born must accord with the divine justice and therefore must somehow be deserved. If it were not “deserved,” then God would not—indeed could not—permit it to exist in his world. For purpose of context, here is the wider citation:
The first Principle acts by His own power, by His own law, and for Himself as an end. He must then be utterly good and righteous, and hence utterly kind and just. That is why all the ways of the Lord are mercy and truth, meaning justice. If God had created man wretched from the very beginning, that would have been neither kind nor just, for He would have imposed great miseries upon His handiwork in the absence of sin. Nor would divine Providence have governed us with kindness and justice had it afflicted us or permitted us to be afflicted with these same miseries in the absence of sin. Now, it is absolutely certain that the first Principle is utterly righteous and merciful both in creating and governing. It follows, then, by necessity that in the beginning He created mankind free from any sin or misery; and it also follows that, in governing mankind, He cannot permit any misery to exist in us except as a punishment of sin. But it is also absolutely certain that we are burdened from the time of our birth with the penalty of countless miseries: hence it is just as certain that, by natural birth, we are all children of wrath, deprived of the righteousness of original justice. That privation is called original sin. (Brev. III.5.3)
I direct attention to the underlying theological-moral principle animating Bonaventure’s reflections: God is good and therefore antecedently wills a world free from suffering. If suffering exists in our world, then it does so only as a just punishment and retribution for sin and is therefore consequently willed by God. I know this raises all sorts of theodicial concerns, but in this article I am only interested in its ramifications for the Eschaton. The whole point of the last judgment is that God makes all things right: evil is definitively dealt with; the just order of creation is restored. We may worry how Bonaventure’s maxim “God cannot permit any misery to exist in us except as a punishment of sin” works in our fallen world, with its almost infinite variety of horrific sufferings (how can Auschwitz be deemed a punishment of sin?); but it must work perfectly in the Final Future. In the Kingdom of the risen Christ, there cannot be, must not be, suffering except that which is demanded by justice, not justice conceived as a standard external to God but as identical to the divine essence. And given that correction is no longer possible, the only kind of punishment left is retribution. The river of fire brings weal and woe.
St John of Damascus distinguishes between the antecedent and consequent willing of God:
One should also bear in mind that God antecedently wills all to be saved and to attain to His kingdom. For He did not form us to be chastised, but, because He is good, that we might share in His goodness. Yet, because He is just, He does wish to punish sinners. So, the first is called antecedent will and approval, and it has Him as its cause; the second is called consequent will and permission, and it has ourselves as its cause. This last is twofold: that which is by dispensation and for our instruction and salvation, and that which is abandonment to absolute chastisement. (On the Orthodox Faith II.29)
The choice of the word “abandonment” indicates John’s reluctance to ascribe responsibility for eternal damnation to the good Creator. God did not intend hell when he created the cosmos (antecedent will); but he appropriately, rightly, necessarily abandons to perdition those who have proven themselves irredeemable (consequent will). “He does wish to punish sinners.” John does not explicitly qualify God’s absolute abandonment as retributive, but he does describe it as a just act. The lost deserve their fate—this is the critical point. God hands them over to their self-chosen fate. He permits them to suffer the consequences of their impenitence (note the similarity to the choice model). Whereas Bonaventure prefers the active voice, John prefers the passive, but when speaking of God’s eschatological acts, this is a difference without a difference. In the final judgment whatever happens, God wills (with the proviso that God does not will evil); whatever God wills, God intends. There are no accidents or unintended side-effects. The divine will is perfectly executed, perfectly accomplished. If God abandons the damned to the intrinsic consequences of their sinful lives, thereby confirming their freely chosen rebellion, then that is his act of retribution. If God returns in glory, knowing that his presence necessarily entails the eternal torture of the degenerate, then that is his purposed punishment.
I do not find the Damascene’s analysis fully satisfactory, for reasons that will hopefully become clear below; but both Bonaventure (certainly) and John (less certainly) would have found Manis’s assertion of an unintended eschatological suffering that is not retributive punishment unconvincing. One way or another, God must deal with sinners, if not by their redemption (apokatastasis) or eradication (annihilation) then by their punishment (retribution). The model of divine presence hopes to minimize God’s responsibility for the torturous vision of Christ, yet it only succeeds in compromising the divine love. A love that causes undeserved final misery is neither truly divine nor properly eschatological.
But is it metaphysically coherent to speak of anything happening in the Kingdom that is not directly and approvingly willed by God? Or to put it differently, can there be eschatological double effect? Here I am wading into territories beyond my competence, but I will venture a negative judgment. We can entertain eschatological double effect only if we believe that God is constrained by finite reality and human freedom. That God permits evil within the devastation we must concede, even if we cannot comprehend how or why this can be. By catholic consensus, God does not will evil. Evil is absolute privation and therefore nothing to be willed. Its presence in the good creation is a surd. Analytic philosophers have sought to justify the presence of evil (at least that evil committed by human beings) by according to human willing a measure of metaphysical autonomy. The Creator, they tell us, is causally uninvolved with the free acts of his creatures. It’s as if rational agency exists in a divinity-free zone. But if God is the transcendent source and origin of being, upholding all creaturely reality in existence at every moment, then the free-will theodicy fails. It’s not as if God creates a stage upon which human beings then exercise their autonomy. God is the author and ground of our freedom. Everything that happens—including our thoughts, intentions, decisions, actions—happen because God wills it to happen in his perpetual bestowing of existence. He does not first make beings and then subsequently act upon them. That would misdescribe the Creator-creature relationship. From out of nothing, God creates—and is creating—finite beings in one eternal doing. He is the singer who carries the song of the cosmos on the breath of his Spirit. For humanity this means that God brings us into existence freely choosing and freely acting—at every moment. Brian Davies puts the matter in proper perspective:
God is the Creator, the source of existence (and continued and total existence) of everything other than himself. If God is this, however, then my making a choice has to be something that God is making to be. If everything that exists owes its existence to God, then God must be the source of my free actions, not someone who merely observes them, permits them, or somehow merely supports (what could that mean?) a context in which they are caused by me and not by God. To think otherwise, it seems to me, can only stem from the conviction that God is really an item in the universe, something able to distance itself from its fellows so as to let them act independently of its causality. Yet God … is not an item in the universe. As making the world to be, his causality extends to everything that exists, and free choices are as real as anything else in the world. If you think Mount Everest needs God to account for its being as opposed to not being (for as long as it is), then you ought to think that all human choices need God to account for them being (and therefore being what they are) as opposed to not being. There can be no such thing as a creaturely reality which is not produced or creatively made to be by God. (The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil, p. 122)
Divine (primary) causality, therefore, cannot compete or interfere with creaturely (secondary) causality. The difference between the two is too radical to make that kind of difference. (This is the important metaphysical truth that the Damascene could not see. The theological world would need to await the arrival of St Thomas Aquinas.) The desire to get God off the hook for evil and suffering is understandable, but to posit an either/or competition between divine and creaturely agency is ultimately misguided. It cannot be reconciled with the creatio ex nihilo. God acts in our free actions. If he didn’t, they would not be. Nor does the divine making of the cosmos entail the kind of determinism or coercion which many fear, for the transcendent Deity is not a being alongside or external to beings. God is the infinite outpouring of being and therefore transcends our libertarian and compatibilist formulations (see Brian Shanley, “Divine Causation” and “Beyond Libertarianism”). For these reasons, and others I am not yet able to articulate, I deem Manis’s assertion that God does not intend the punishment of the damned metaphysically implausible. In the New Creation, God will be all in all.
The divine presence model ultimately resolves into a variant of the retributive model. If at this point you are wondering, “Maybe the good God is a universalist after all,” then know we are on the same page. I’m afraid that is not an option presently available to Dr Manis.