Suffering, Theodicy, and Apocatastasis

“What then, one might well ask, is divine providence?” David Bentley Hart poses this ques­tion after pondering upon the evil and suffering of the world in his beautiful little book The Doors of the Sea. Hart compares the orthodox Christian understanding of God to two popu­lar competitors: the watchmaker deity of the Enlightenment, who fashions a cosmic machine designed to promote human flourishing; and the sovereign deity of Calvinism, who wills life and death, goodness and evil, beatitude and suffering, salvation and damnation.

The deistic deity is easy enough to refute. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 need only be remem­bered. In the words of Voltaire:

All is well, you say, and all is necessary. What? The entire universe, but for this infernal abyss engulfing Lisbon, would have been worse off?

50,000 dead, an entire city destroyed. But even that horrific earthquake is dwarfed by the devastatation wrought by the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004: 230,000 killed in a dozen countries. Who needs a watchmaker Creator? Atheism will do just fine, thank you very much.

But the voluntarist divinity of naked power, who determines every historical event in every detail, who directly causes weal and woe—he is not so easily exorcised. He satisfies a deep desire in the human soul for a comprehensive and sufficient explanation for our misery and sorrow. There must be a divine plan, a goal and strategy that justifies the millions of souls lost in modern wars and natural calamities, the countless barbarities of totalitari­anism, capitalism’s rapine and destruction of the environment, the murder of a single child. Deter­minism provides a kind of solace. All of history manifests the inscrutable will of the Creator, majestic and terrifying.

That there is a transcendent providence that will bring God’s good ends out of the darkness of history—in spite of every evil—no Christian can fail to affirm. But providence (as even Voltaire seems to have understood) is not simply a “total sum” or “infinite equation” that leaves nothing behind … There is a point at which an explanation becomes so comprehensive that it ceases to explain anything at all. In the case of a pure determinism, this is always so. To assert that every finite contingency is solely and unambigu­ously the effect of a single will working all things—without any deeper mystery of created freedom—is to assert nothing but that the world is what it is, for any meaningful distinction between the will of God and the simple totality of cosmic eventuality has collapsed. If all that occurs, in the min­utest detail and in the entirety of its design, is only the expression of one infinite volition that makes no real room within its transcendent determi­nations for other, secondary, subsidiary but free agencies (and so for some element of chance and absurdity), then the world is both arbitrary and necessary, both meaningful in every part and meaningless in its totality, an expression of pure power and nothing else. Even if the purpose of such a world is to prepare creatures to know the majesty and justice of God, that majesty and justice are, in a very real sense, fictions of his will, impressed upon creatures by means both good and evil, merciful and cruel, radiant and monstrous—some are created for eternal bliss and others for eternal torment, and all for the sake of the divine drama of perfect and irresistible might. Such a God, at the end of the day, is nothing but will, and so nothing but an infinite event; and the only adoration that such a God can evoke is an almost perfect coincidence of faith and nihilism. (pp. 29-30)

Against the voluntarist deity the Christian faith stands firm. God is not the author of evil; iniquity is not divinely ordained. Suffering, sin, mortality—they are but “cosmic contingen­cies, ontological shadows, intrinsically devoid of substance or purpose” (p. 61). They do not have ultimate meaning. God may make them the occasions of his redemptive grace and incorporate them into his providential ends; but they are not good in themselves. From them the eternal Word came to deliver us.

Hart does not shrink from the dualism intimated by his words. Did not our Lord tell us that his Kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36)? And did not the Apostle Paul warn us that “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Eph 6:12)? The texts may be easily multiplied. Nor should we dismiss them as mere mythol­ogy. How else but in the language of mythology may we speak of the profound intuition

that we exist in the long melancholy aftermath of a primordial catastrophe: that this is a broken and wounded world, that cosmic time is a phantom of true time, that we live in one umbratile interval between creation in its fullness and the nothingness from which it was called, that the universe languishes in bondage to the “powers” and “principalities” of this age, which never cease in their enmity towards the Kingdom of God. (pp. 61-62)

The ascetics and elders of the Church have always known this truth, even if we have forgotten.

The God of the gospel is not the author of sin and death; he is their conqueror. There can be no peace with the enemy and certainly no suggestion that evil and death secretly reside in the heart of the Creator. Our God is uncreated Light and in him darkness is banished; eternal Love and in him evil enjoys not even a sliver of existence. The good news resounds: Christ is risen from the dead, hell is harrowed, the tomb is empty, the Spirit has been poured out on all flesh.

Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation. Our faith is in a God who has come to rescue his creation from the absurdity of sin, the emptiness and waste of death, the forces—whether calculating malevolence or imbecile chance—that shatter living souls; and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. And we are not only permitted but required to believe that cosmic time as we know it, through all the immensity of its geological age and historical epochs, is only a shadow of true time, and this world only a shadow of the fuller, richer, more substantial, more glorious creation that God intends; and to believe also that all of nature is a shattered mirror of divine beauty, still full of light, but riven by darkness. (pp. 101-102)

What then is divine providence? We must distinguish, says Hart, between the view that God has ordained evil and death as necessary to his plan for the cosmos and the view “that God has willed his good in creatures from eternity and will bring it to pass, despite their rebel­lion, by so ordering all things toward his goodness that even evil (which he does not cause) becomes an occasion of the operations of grace” (p. 82). Only the latter is properly described as Christian and orthodox. The difference between the two views may be summed up in the critical distinction between what God wills and what he permits. God wills neither death, evil, damnation. He may temporarily allow human beings to defy him, may tempo­rarily allow them to endure chaos and terrible suffering, but his Kingdom will ultimately triumph:

God has fashioned creatures in his image so that they might be joined in a perfect union with him in the rational freedom of love. For that very rea­son, what God permits, rather than violate the autonomy of the created world, may be in itself contrary to what he wills. But there is no contradic­tion in saying that, in his omniscience, omnipotence, and transcendence of time, God can both allow created freedom its scope and yet so constitute the world that nothing can prevent him from bringing about the beatitude of his Kingdom. Indeed we must say this: as God did not will the fall, and yet always wills all things toward himself, the entire history of sin and death is in an ultimate sense a pure contingency, one that is not as such desired by God, but that is nevertheless constrained by providence to serve his trans­cendent purpose. God does not will evil in the sinner. Neither does he will that the sinner should perish (2 Peter 3:9; Ezek. 33:11). He does not place evil in the heart. He does not desire the convulsive reign of death in nature. But neither will he suffer defeat in these things.

Providence works at the level of what Aquinas would call primary causal­ity: that is, it is so transcendent of the operation of secondary causes—which is to say, finite and contingent causes immanent to the realm of created things—that it can at once create freedom and also assure that no consequence of the misuse of that freedom will prevent him from accom­plishing the good he intends in all things … As God is the source and end of all being, nothing that is can be completely alienated from him; all things exist by virtue of being called from nothingness toward his goodness; every instance of finite becoming or thought or desire subsists in the creature’s “ecstasy” out of nonbeing and into the infinite splendor of God. And it for just this reason that providence does not and cannot in any way betray the true freedom of the creature: every free movement of the will is possible only by virtue of the more primordial longing of all things for the beauty of God (to borrow the language of Maximus the Confessor, our “gnomic will” depends upon our “natural will”), and so every free act—even the act of hating God—arises from and is sustained by a more original love of God. It is impossible to desire anything without implicitly desiring the infinite source of all things. (pp. 83-84)

When I first read The Doors of the Sea many years ago, I did not note the universalist implications of Hart’s presentation. Nor did I note them in his essay “Providence and Causality,” written four years after Doors. In this essay Hart attacks Bañezian Thomism and its doctrine of preterition: God antecedently wills to save all mankind, while conse­quently willing that some be allowed to fall into irredeemable alienation and obduracy. It’s not that God expressly wills the damnation of the damned; rather he quietly refrains from raising them into faith and new life. This passive reprobation is too close to the Calvinist deity that Hart emphatically rejects. If God refuses to supply to some the grace necessary for salvation, then he does not will the salvation of all—but we know this cannot be true. Scripture teaches that God positively wills the salvation of every human being (1 Tim 2:4). We must therefore conclude that “God’s good will and his permission of evil, then, are simply two aspects of a single creative act, one that does not differ in intention from soul to soul” (p. 46). The Creator has given to humanity “a dynamic orientation towards the infinite goodness of God that is the source of all rational life and of all desire within us” (p. 47), yet he also permits the human being, in its divinely-given autonomy, to reject the Good which he himself is:

It is the movement of the natural will towards God, moreover, whose primordial motion allows the gnomic will its liberty and its power to assent to or rejection of God. In the interval between these two movements—both of which are rational—the rational soul becomes who God intends her to be or, through apostasy from her own nature, fabricates a distance between herself and God that is nothing less than the distance of dereliction. For, whatever we do, the desire of our natural will for God will be consumma­ted; it will return to God, whether the gnomic will consents or not, and will be glorified with the glory the Son shares with the Father from eternity. And, if the gnomic will within us has not surrendered to its natural supernatural end, our own glorified nature becomes hell to us, that holy thing we cannot touch. Rejection of God becomes estrangement from ourselves, the Kingdom of God within us becomes our exile, and the transfiguring glory of God within us—through our refusal to submit to love—becomes the unnatural experience of reprobation. God fashions all rational natures for free union with himself, and all of creation as the deathless vessel of his eternal glory. To this end, he wills that the dependent freedom of the creature be joined to his absolute freedom; but an indispen­sable condition of what he wills is the real power of the creature’s deliber­ative will to resist the irresistible work of grace. And God both wills the ultimate good of all things and accomplishes that good, and knows the good and evil acts of his creatures, and reacts to neither. This is the true sublim­ity of divine apatheia: an infinite innocence that wills to the last the glorifi­cation of the creature, in the depths of its nature, and that never ceases to sustain the rational will in its power to seek its end either in God or itself. (pp. 47-48)

I think readers may be excused for reading Hart here as affirming a free-will model of damnation, something along the lines of what the Orthodox popularly speak of as the River of Fire. Yet he stops just short of saying that human beings can create for themselves an everlasting Gehenna from which not even God can rescue them. How could such ever be the case if every human being has been given an insatiable hunger for the Good and if God never ceases to will the redemption of all? Is not an everlasting hell that victory of Satan that Hart has assured us can never occur? As he writes in The Doors of the Sea: “At the heart of the gospel, of course, is an ineradicable triumphalism, a conviction that the will of God cannot ultimately be defeated and that the victory over evil and death has already been won” (p. 66). In 2015 Hart finally connected the apocatastitic dots for all to controversially see:

If God is the good creator of all, he is the savior of all, without fail, who brings to himself all he has made, including all rational wills, and only thus returns to himself in all that goes forth from him. If he is not the savior of all, the Kingdom is only a dream, and creation something considerably worse than a nightmare. But, again, it is not so. God saw that it was good; and, in the ages, so shall we. (“God, Creation and Evil,” pp. 16-17)

Here is the answer, the only existentially satisfying answer, to the evils we commit and the sufferings we endure. As Hart remarks in his forthcoming book, That All Shall Be Saved, the gospel is “a relentless tale of rescue” (p. 27). Apocatastasis is the only theodicy.

In 2016 I published a series on Hugh J. McCann’s understanding of divine sovereignty and creaturely freedom. The commonalities and differences between McCann and Hart are instructive. Both assert a noncompetitive understanding of divine transcendence, thus allowing the Creator to act within the pro­cesses of nature and history. God, as McCann likes to say, is too close to the creature to be seen as an other existing on the same meta­physical plane. Hart would agree. McCann and Hart are also one in their rejection of Molinism. But I suspect that Hart would find McCann’s construal of divinity as drawing too close to the Bañezian Thomism to which he so strongly objects. McCann describes God as the ultimate micromanager (“Are not two spar­rows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will” [Matt 10:29]) and then strains to explain why his position does not fall into determin­ism. Creatures, he states, are the immediate expression of the eternal act of divine creation rather than being a consequence of it. He incisively likens the relationship between Creator and creation as that of author and novel: “The author of the novel never makes her creatures do something; she only makes them doing it. It is the same with us and God. He does not make us act; he makes us acting, so that the freedom that goes with genuine action can still be present” (Creation and the Sovereignty of God, p. 108). McCann thus rejects a model of command-and-causation and distinguishes his construal of double agency from the concur­rence theories of Calvinism and Neo-Thomism (he explicitly mentions Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange), advancing a version of transcendent causality that he believes upholds and grounds genuine human freedom, while also granting the Creator the kind of sovereign control of history that perfect divinity should have. The divine rule is marked by neither violence nor manipulation. “It is true that our destinies are written; but the handwriting is ours” (p. 111). I do not know how Hart would assess McCann’s innovative proposal that at every moment God creates us freely acting (my guess is that he might be sympathetic). On the other hand, he would certainly not be sympathetic to intimations of micromanagement. Hart eschews formulations of an all-embracing “universal teleology” in which history be­comes “a positive determination of God’s will whereby he brings to pass a comprehensive design that, in the absence of any single one of these events, would not have been possible” (Doors, p. 85). It seems to me that some of Hart’s criticisms of Bañez and his fellow Baroque Thomists, advanced in his essay on providence and divine causality, strike home against the position articulated by McCann. Reading McCann’s exposition of divine sovereignty, we are left wondering how God is not in fact the author of sin and calamity—at the very least divin­ity has a lot to answer for. He even speculates that the fall was necessary for the achievement of personal autonomy and genuine friendship with God. This is all quite heterodox. Evil becomes intrinsic to the divine. As Hart writes: “Simply said, if God required evil to accom­plish his good ends—the revelation of his nature to finite minds—then not only would evil possess a real existence over against the good, but God himself would be dependent upon evil: to the point of it constituting a dimension of his identity (even if only as a ‘contrast’)” (“Providence,” p. 49). Yet Hart’s reflections leave us wondering how the omnipotent and wise Creator could have allowed the serpent to enter the Garden to begin with. Does “permission” absolve the sovereign Creator of his respon­sibility for the chaos, tragedies, and horrors of cosmic history?

Every novel is ultimately judged by its conclusion. A bad ending can ruin the story, while a great ending can redeem a mediocre plot. What then of reprobation and hell? Although expressing a measure of sympathy for the universalist hope, McCann takes his stand with the long tradition of the Western Church:

How, then, might God be justified in consigning a sinner to damnation? The answer to this question will depend in part of what the sufferings of the lost consist in. And I think that here it is easy to be misled by the concept of hell as mere retribution: as endless suffering imposed on the sinner in recom­pense for unrepented evils—especially, perhaps, the evil of offending an infinitely magisterial God. The more plausible view is that whatever else their fate may include, the greatest evil sustained by the lost is final and irremediable separation from God. Nothing could be worse than to be cut off from the love and friendship of a Father whose power extends to every detail of the universe, and who invites us to a share in his very life. But if this is the greatest evil of damnation, then no one who ends that way is treated unfairly, for this separation is precisely what one chooses by insisting on a life of rebellion rather than seeking reconciliation with God. Indeed, having once created beings destined to be lost, it is hard to see how a loving God could do anything but honor their choice in the matter. The alternative, after all, would be to undercut the capacity of would-be reprobates to frame their own destinies—perhaps by simply refusing to take No for an answer, and waiting out the millennia it might take for them to change their minds; or, should that fail, by simply overriding their freedom, and placing them in some motivational situation where there is no legitimate alternative but to accept his rule over their lives. Either of these courses would amount to God diminishing his own project of creation, by effectively nullifying the dignity not just of those headed for perdition but of all free agents: those who would reject his friendship would find their capacity for effective decision making destroyed, and those who would join with him would find their choice trivialized. If God were reduced to dealing in this way with those who try to refuse him, then evil would indeed have scored a major victory. Humans may begin as God’s children, but if any are truly to become his friends as well, then he must finally treat all as adults and potential partners—which means honoring their decisions. (p. 129)

I find McCann’s theodicy of hell curious and disap­pointing. Throughout his book McCann distances himself from the free-will defense of suffering, insisting that the relation be­tween divine and creaturely agency cannot be under­stood as a zero-sum game. Yet at the last moment he tells us that the author of the cosmic novel is incapable of saving those who choose perdition over the transcendent Good. God has no choice but to “honor” the definitive decisions of his creatures. Any­thing else would be a form of coercion. Thus is the justice of God re­vealed: “Terrible though the end of the lost may be, therefore, this manifestation of the good that is justice could not exist but for the creation of those destined for unrepen­tance” (p. 131).

“Having once created beings destined to be lost,” “the creation of those destined for unrepen­tance”—McCann’s language is worrisome. Is he intimating divine election to perdition, a Calvinist double predestination? That would be surprising, given his Roman Catholic commitments. But equally as surprising for a Roman Catholic is his cautious approbation of annihilation:

Complete separation from God means, however, being cut off from the sustaining power of his creative will, and in that circumstance no one can survive. Perhaps, then, the end of the damned is simple extinction. Or, there may be a kind of asymptotic movement toward nothingness, as the resources of life and experience accorded us on earth are gradually exhausted while no further support is forthcoming. Either way, there is a sense in which such a fate would be fitting—more fititng, I think, than an everlasting prolongation of existence. For the truth is that, not only by divine ordination but also by their own choice, the lost are not in the end suited for friendship with God. That they should not enjoy it is therefore no more to be mourned than that a stone does not, and once that possibility is foregone their further existence has no obvious point. (p. 132)

Hart would be appalled by McCann’s justification of the morally unjustifiable. If God creates the world knowing that even just one soul will be condemned to everlasting perdition, then the asserted goodness of God has become mere equivocation. Even if, as the open theists claim, he does not actually foresee this one person’s doom, he at least knows that damnation is a genuine possibility. Oh well. As the Royalist general François de Charette nonchalantly remarked when asked about the deaths of so many during the War in the Vendée: “Omlets are not made without breaking eggs.” Now compare Hart’s judgment:

Not to wax too anthropomorphizing here, like some analytic philosopher of religion, but let us say God created simply on the chance that humanity might sin, and that a certain number of incorrigibly wicked souls might plunge themselves into Tartarus forever; this still means that, morally, he has purchased the revelation of his power in creation by the same horren­dous price—even if, in the end, no one at all happens to be damned. The logic is irresistible. God creates. Alea iacta est. But, as Mallarmé says, “un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard“: for what is hazarded has already been surrendered, entirely, no matter how the dice fall; the aleatory venture may be intentionally indeterminate, but the wager is an irrevo­cable intentional decision, wherein every possible cost has already been accepted; the irrecuperable expenditure has been offered even if, happily, it is never actually lost, and so the moral nature of the act is the same in either case. To venture the life of your child for some other end is, morally, already to have killed your child, even if at the last moment Artemis or Heracles or the Angel of the LORD should stay your hand. And so, the revelation of God’s glory in creatures would still always be depen­dent upon that evil, that venture beyond good and evil, even if at the last no one perishes. Creation could never then be called “good” in an uncondi­tional sense; nor God the “Good as such,” no matter what conditional goods he might accomplish in creating. And, here too, the losing lot might just as well have fallen to the blessed, given the stochastic vagaries of existence: acci­dents of birth, congenital qualities of character, natural intellectual endow­ments, native moral aptitudes, material circumstances, personal powers of resolve, impersonal forces of chance, the grim encumbrances of sin and mortality … Once again, who would the damned be but the redeemers of the blessed, the price eternally paid by God for the sake of the Kingdom’s felicity? (“God, Creation, and Evil,” pp. 13-14)

Nor does the calculus dramatically change if one adopts, as does McCann, an annihilationist construal of damnation. The disappeared are the inevitable, but apparently acceptable, collateral damage necessary to create a world.

But such an eventuality would still be an irreducible price exacted, a sacrifice eternally preserved in the economy of God’s Kingdom. The ultimate absence of a certain number of created rational natures would still be a kind of last end inscribed in God’s eternity, a measure of failure or lose forever preserved within the totality of the tale of divine victory. If what is lost is lost finally and absolutely, then whatever remains, however glorious, is the residue of an unresolved and no less ultimate tragedy, and so could constitute only a contingent and relative “happy ending.” Seen in that way, the lost are still the price that God has contracted from everlasting—whether by predestination or mere permission—for the sake of his Kingdom; and so it remains a Kingdom founded upon an original and final sacrificial exclusion. In either case—eternal torment, eternal oblivion—creation and redemption are negotiations with evil, death, and suffering, and so never in an absolute sense God’s good working of all things. (That All Shall Be Saved, p. 87)

The eternal communion of Love that is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit will not be satisfied with anything less than a glorious consummation of the story of creation. Yet how? Hart refrains from speculation upon the eschatological conversion of the impenitent. He is content to affirm that God has made us for himself and will ultimately bring us to the vision of the Good: “We are, as it were, doomed to happiness” (p. 41). But it seems to me that speculation along the lines of Sergius Bulgakov’s proposal of “universal purgatory” or of George MacDonald’s vision of the alienated soul cast into the outer darkness is appropriate and necessary. Thus MacDonald:

If the man resists the burning of God, the consuming fire of Love, a terrible doom awaits him, and its day will come. He shall be cast into the outer darkness who hates the fire of God. What sick dismay shall then seize upon him! For let a man think and care ever so little about God, he does not therefore exist without God. God is here with him, upholding, warming, delighting, teaching him–making life a good thing to him. God gives him himself, though he knows it not. But when God withdraws from a man as far as that can be without the man’s ceasing to be; when the man feels himself abandoned, hanging in a ceaseless vertigo of existence upon the verge of the gulf of his being, without support, without refuge, without aim, without end–for the soul has no weapons wherewith to destroy herself–with no inbreath­ing of joy, with nothing to make life good;–then will he listen in agony for the faintest sound of life from the closed door; then, if the moan of suffering humanity ever reaches the ear of the outcast of darkness, he will be ready to rush into the very heart of the Consuming Fire to know life once more, to change this terror of sick negation, of unspeakable death, for that region of painful hope. (“The Consuming Fire“; also see “The Last Farthing“)

But perhaps, given the logic of transcendence, neither rational nor imaginative explana­tion is possible. Perhaps we may only hope—yet confidently hope—that the absolute Love made known in Jesus Christ will bring all to happy consummation. In faith we confess the trium­phant and glorious apocatastasis that Pascha must entail if God be truly good and evil vanquished. This is sufficient for the present moment.

“Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21:3-4).

(20 February 2017; rev.)

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28 Responses to Suffering, Theodicy, and Apocatastasis

  1. Patrick Halferty says:

    Here is a quote from The Doors of the Sea I keep coming back in my understanding of the God revealed in Christ.

    “We are to be guided by the full character of what is revealed of God in Christ. For, after all, if it is from Christ that we are to learn how God relates Himself to sin, suffering, evil and death; it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless and miraculous enmity: sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these are part of the eternal work or purposes of God. (page 87,

    Liked by 2 people

  2. s. Mihalos says:

    ……all except for Judas whom our Lord said it would have been better if he had not been born?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The one issue that has been popping up for me lately is the relationship between eternal and temporal creation. Much of this has been prompted by discussions on this blog, especially the Dionysus series. If creation is eternal in God, as some claim (which I think is true), then how does this relate to the experience of freedom and evil in temporal creation? I do believe God is absolved of all evil by his impassibility. But is the contingency of evil present in his eternal will to create; and if so, is there a meaningful distinction between foreknowledge and determinism if this is the case? I still tend to the notion that one of the features of creation is a determined indeterminacy that leads to determined ends. This would mean that eternal creation as such can only be understood fully in its protology and eschatology, and temporally speaking we can only exist in the process of being created.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. “Providence … is so transcendent of the operation of secondary causes—which is to say, finite and contingent causes immanent to the realm of created things—that it can at once create freedom and also assure that no consequence of the misuse of that freedom will prevent him from accom­plishing the good he intends in all things”

    That sounds right. God’s providence is really providence. It is not something of the same sort as the control human beings can achieve or think they have achieved, but magnified so as to encompass both the things so large they lay out of human reach and those so small.

    On the question of the sovereignty of God in evil, though, if anyone is interested, what of this?

    (If Eclectic Orthodoxy would prefer me not to link on his site, I will not do so again if he lets me know.)


  5. I honestly don’t understand the conviction that drives you christian sorts to insist that evil is unnecessary. In my understanding, everything that happens – whether by God’s permission or by his ordination – is good through and through. In my understanding, sin and evil are but illusions, and the essence of repentance (μετα νοια – “change your perspective”) consists of being able to see the good in all things, including rapes, suicides and genocides. I do not claim to be able to do this (for that would imply that I have achieved the fullness of theosis and completely share in the omniscience of God), but I have faith that this is the way things are.

    If evil were not necessary, it simply would not be a phenomena deserving of a label. Nothing that God does is unnecessary or accidental. I am personally convinced by daoist dualism: tall is not tall without short, big is not big without small, and good is not good without evil. In order for God to be God, evil has to be everything that is not-God.Therefore, the apokatastasis of all things cannot be as good and glorious as it is, unless it is defined in opposition to a massa damnata of all things. Heaven can’t be truly be heaven unless the warhammer 40000 universe has some sort of reality to it too.

    This sounds like a rant, but it’s actually a question: I need someone to elaborate on why evil is unnecessary. It simply doesn’t make sense to me. I believe that God ordains every rape and murder, and the essence of repentence is being able to see how those rapes and murders weren’t ACTUALLY evil. Admittedly i need to refine the language i’m using, as I’m uncomfortable writing that sentence and it could do with further clarification. But it’s early in the morning and I need to get ready for my studies.

    Love you all ❤


    • One premliminary thought: It’s not so much that evil is “unnecessary”, it’s more that evil has no ontology or existence – it is completely illusory; darkness that completely dispels once the divine lights come on and banish the shadows to reveal the reality that was always there, but shrouded in darkness – and therefore there isn’t really anything there to be “necessary” in the first place.
      Kenosis is when God dims the divine lights, and darkness (evil) floods the creation. We are like small children, scared of the dark. But the reality is that there is nothing in that darkness that we need to be scared of. Theosis is when God turns the lights back on, and reveals that those dark shapes we were so scared of were actually familiar objects of glory the entire time. even the fallen angels will be revealed to have always been our allies.
      Evil is kenosis, God is theosis, suffering is kenosis, bliss is theosis. Ignorance is kenosis, omniscience is theosis. Weakness is kenosis, omnipotence is theosis.


      • Thomas says:

        Kim Jong Un has his defenders too, after all. Though the evils he perpetrates are relatively small in comparison to those you attribute to God.

        Liked by 1 person

        • God created the tsunami that caused so much destruction. It would be hard to argue otherwise. Anything that happens, happens due to Gods creative will. That means that there must be something good about the brutal and terrifying death of so many people. Don’t ask me to tell you what it is; i have no idea what it could be, but I do have faith that even with genocides and gang rapes, there is some good reason why they happen, even if i can’t even begin to imagine what it could be. I trust that the full revelation of God, – when the lights turn back on – will reveal the truth about all things, and we will be able to see the good that was always there the whole time in all things and every event. On this side of the parousia, rapes and genocides (even everlasting damnation) seem unfathomably evil. However when the final revelation comes, I’m sure we will see things as God sees them and the previously perceived evil will simply evaporate when confronted with our omniscience


          • Thomas says:

            You seem to have taken that as a slight towards your view of God. On your theory, of course, Kim Jong Un isn’t really evil (nor is Stalin, Ted Bundy ….). So the comparison shouldn’t be objectionable to you.


    • Grant says:

      This is something that most Christians (outside Calvinism at least officially) will as you say absolutely disagree with. God from the Christian perspective cannot be called the author of sin and evil, as God in Christianity is revealed to be opposed to death, that turn to non-being to nothing that is death is God’s enemy, implacably and utterly His enemy. And it will destroyed as it has no source in Him, does not derive from Him, and is oppositely not His will, nor does it come Him as Creator.

      This is made clear centrally in the Gospels with Christ’s Life and His actions, never does He encounter a sickness, evil, demonic possession that He accounts the work of His Father, nor leaves it because it part of the plan His Father laid out, instead His Father’s purpose and view is clear in the Son (to see the Son is to the see the Father), ever sickness is healed, demons are driven out and made well, people are forgiven and restored, the dead live. This is the coming of God’s Kingdom, and reveals that these things implacably not from God, nor His will for creation that such a state exists (and indeed the Lord chides some who see such outcomes as some dying in a recent tower collapse as either for their sin or God’s intention), all this is revealed to be against God’s will and purpose, to be that which we are being freed and to be ransomed and freed from. At Lazurus’ tomb Jesus weeps, and doesn’t suggest it was for a greater purpose (in terms of His raising him), because no matter what the death itself is nothing but a terrible event against God, no matter that God can work through it, as through all things to bring His ultimate purposes to bare. All is God’s enemy, revealed at it’s greatest depth to be death, there on the Cross, there He judges the world and draws all humanity out of death, and all creation to Himself, destroying death by overcoming it with Life. But there is no suggestion the suffering or death is good in anyway, Judas is not praised indirectly nor any others for causing it, it remains utterly and irredeemably evil in the eyes of God, in overcoming and being raised, Jesus reveals (at least as we Christians see it) the extent to which creation is terribly warped, and that this effect is not from God, not His will and is indeed as St Paul forcefully tells us, His enemy, one which has been defeated and will be destroyed, even as it has now been overcome.

      And nothing in this suggests an compromise with death and sin, and effects of death, there is no baptizing the evil, in the Judaeo-Christian view evil is never to be called good, nor good evil, and death and all it’s evil, all it’s suffering and destruction and devastation is a terrible damage to God’s creation that opposes God, is revealed in Christ to be utterly against God’s will and intentions, and is His enemy, one as Hart says we not only are permitted but as Christians called to hate with a perfect hatred, And one thing we must never do, is call it good, or worse say those lines to many Christians and others say, it’s all part of His plan, from the perspective of the Gospel that is a damnable blasphemy and a lie (I don’t say that in attacking you, but I’m putting it forcefully because that is exactly from the Christian perceptive what this is).

      Repentance in Christianity does not mean changing your perspective to see the good in all things, it is to have true perspective of God and ourselves, and orientate ourselves towards the Truth and towards Life, and away from the things of death. Indeed it is to see the things of death very clearly, and those effects as not being of God at all, that in the Resurrection to see the truth of God’s purpose and of creation, and see ourselves in the defeat of death and freedom from futility that creation subjected to that is founded in Him. That also leads to seeing and understanding and never seeing any hurt, suffering or pain, or damage in the world as God’s intention or will, in fact as with Christ, the opposite, it is to healed and opposed because it opposes God, and keeps creation trapped in futility, as a mother with a troubled pregnancy in birth pangs, be prevented from springing forth and flourishing. Sin may be a illusion as we mistake perception of the God but the effect of the turn to non-being that is death, including it’s effects (suffering, disease, fallen creational order, natural disasters, such as tsunamis, murder, genocides, destructive relationships and so on) is very real, and that which causes those effects is not from God, is against Him, is overcome in Christ, and can never be called good.

      And while it is true at one level to say that all things derive from God as Creator since no matter the freedom given to secondary causes and acts, they are reducible down to their Primary Cause, this being God’s creative act, in which all events and beings, including tsunamis, murders, suffering, Holocaust and rapes are enfolded and part of this dynamic Act. But it’s cructial from Christian perpsective to see these events do not come from God’s direct creative act and will (as no death or suffering comes from God or dirvives from Him) and has nothing to do with God’s positive creative purpose or intent, but has mysyeriously result from God’s positive creative act, that is to call something from nothing to freedom of existence and to come into full agapic life with Him, to share His own Life and Being. And this call from nothing as part of His creative act in that donated existence and freedom in an interconnected unity of beings of creation called towards God which permitted the mistaken apprehension and the move towards non-being as part of result of calling things into being and with that into full freedom and existence. For that full good, death became and is a possibility and a result of this (as yet incomplete) gift, but here that universal restoration becomes a key point, only if creation were left under the slavery and suffering and lacking the full freedom to which God has called them, even some to left in this state, would this be God’s direct will. But His dynamic creative act is that all things will come to full freedom, joy and being without overriding or violating any of these things, and dynamic working through all movements of all interconnected creation towards God in Christ, entering, ordering and working through all free things founded in Him towards the freedom and life that is His will (He comes to give life, and give it abundantly).

      This then leads to what Father Aiden talks of above, because of God’s positive will and creative towards life and existence and freedom towards Him, thus allows the devastation that has happened, and equally confronts this and works through it, centered and founded fully in the Incarnation which draws and overcomes the futility that frustrates and hurts creation, defeating and destroying it, ransoming and drawing all things to the freedom, life and theosis that is God’s creative act. In this way kenosis is in no ways opposed to theosis but is part and parcel of it.

      So from Christian perspective there is a absolute distinction that death is a enemy and effect that God has permitted to arise within His creative act arising from what has occurred from the call to freedom and being (though as yet not having full freedom) as part of this good creative act, for a temporary period but acts through all this to achieve His purposes and ends for all creation in-spite of the futility at the secondary level it has trapped itself into and been enslaved in.

      But though God works through all things, including fallen and evil actions, that doesn’t ever make those things the result of His will and direct creative act, and remains His bitter enemy, opposing Him, but only He can use them as the things that do derive from Him to still bring His purposes. This is because death as something that has no existence in itself, it is an effect that depends on created things, on things existing to be in the first place (and so can never fully succeed no matter what, and is fundamentally sabotaged from the start) and all created beings are founded in God. However, by no means is any evil the result of God’s will or desire, it remains evil when through all things God brings about His purposes, this is because He does so in-spite of that evil and death, no because of it, by overcoming and healing it’s effects, providentially working all things so that they are drawn into, healed and completed in Christ, freeing all despite whatever confused actions and events happen. God never required that evil and death happened to bring His purposes to bear, they in fact oppose them and become something to be overcome and worked through to achieve those ends and purposes, not a means to them, they remain from a Christian perspective utterly evil and alien to God, they remain forever evil.

      And there will never come a time from the Christian perspective when evil is called good, that say the death resulting from a tsunami, either from the one killed in say 2004, or when someone gets rapped, when a Jewish person was gassed, someone dying of cancer, the predatory nature of fallen creation and struggles under futility, that futility itself is anything but futility and death. As seen in Christ, to be destroyed, to people to be healed from, brought out of and restored, what it’s effects try to do are worked through to ultimately frustrated and destroy it, despite it’s insane and mindless destruction, as seen through the Cross, but the evil and destruction it does remains ever a unmitigated tragedy.

      And Christians are called to see and know this, part of our repentance to God is to see the horror and evil of death for what it is, the terrible and dread enemy of God and creation that it is, having nothing to do with Him (for us this is revealed supremely in Christ). And we are called to come away from it, to Him and oppose it with everything we have, and never to join it or call it good. And never will there be a time, and certainly not when it overcome and has vanished, will it or any of it’s effects be called good. Never will rapes or deaths by tsunamis, plagues, murders hurt or genocide be called good, or celebrated as part of a greater plan or purpose. From a Christian perspective that is terribly false and distorted view of creation, one of the very things we are called to repentance from, and the renew our minds with the mind of Christ in relation to it. Evil can never be called good for a Christian, not now and not into the ages to come.


      • Grant says:

        At quick point of clarification, when I say above that that opinion ‘that everything is actually good and according to God’s plan is a damnable blasphemy I mean the attitude itself is such, as it exults death to being from God. And as something of death it both remains of death and will be destroyed with death (the Lord’s salvation causing such distorted views to vanish as all drawn from death’s jaws and are able to see and perceive more clearly). That is the sense I meant damnable, not the persons themselves saying such things (otherwise we are all in allot of trouble 🙂 ), and would make little sense as I am a universalist 🙂 .

        Hi Raina, I’ll take a look at your link and essay 🙂 .


    • Your comment made me think your might appreciate the essay I linked to in the comment right above yours.

      I think it would be interesting to discuss this with you, but I’d rather make my statements in the context of that essay.


  6. TJF says:

    Doesn’t Isaiah 45:7 say that God did create evil? I am philosophically convinced He didn’t, but I don’t know the ancient Hebrew or Greek so can someone explain this to me or refer me to some commentary on this passage, patristic or otherwise which shows that God did not in fact create evil.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      The Hebrew uses the word “rah” which means bad stuff generally rather than “evil” in the specifically ethical sense. It is being used as the opposite of “shalom”, which means peace and wellbeing.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Maximus says:

    I know this isn’t your intent, Fr. Aidan, but I’m becoming more convinced of the free will theodicy, mainly through Maximus’ distinction of gnomic and natural wills (explained here by Hart) and your explanation of McCann’s book. McCann’s line of thought you provide in the following quote, even with its internal paradox, seems indisputable to me:

    “Throughout his book McCann distances himself from the free-will defense of suffering, insisting that the relation between divine and creaturely agency cannot be understood as a zero-sum game. Yet at the last moment he tells us that the author of the cosmic novel is incapable of saving those who choose perdition over the transcendent Good. God has no choice but to “honor” the definitive decisions of his creatures. Anything else would be a form of coercion.”

    Even if we agree that the natural will never changes, how could God ever *guarantee* that the gnomic (deliberative) will of every human being will choose Him, the Good, without coercion? It seems that true Love lives with the tension in the quote above rather than posit a sort of divine determinism in which the Paschal victory will be, indeed must be, appropriated by all people in order to defend God’s goodness.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Hey there, Maximus. Welcome back.

      It’s funny that you should mention that you find yourself becoming even more convinced in the Maximian version of the free-will model of damnation. My recent reading of Zach Manis’s Sinners in the Presence of a Loving God has persuaded me that the free-will model (in all of its incarnations) ultimately merge into a fairly straightforward retributive model and therefore presents insuperable doxastic problems. It may well be that we will never comprehend the “causal joint” between divine and creaturely agency, but we can clearly see the profound moral and existential problems generated by the doctrine of eternal damnation.


      • Maximus says:

        Thanks for the reply, Fr. Aidan. Agreed, it is funny I’m starting to agree more with my own patron saint. 🙂 In response to the article you linked, I also agree that the psychological (doxastic) implications of eternal torment are worthy to consider. One reason leading to my conversion to Orthodoxy was that I found little “fear and trembling” in Protestantism. I knew this was the proper Christian attitude to salvation, but the doctrine of eternal security tends to stifle such a mindset. In turn, I now affirm the mainline Orthodox belief that salvation (at least progressive and final salvation) is by both faith and works, not faith alone.

        Also, I do perceive God as lawgiver; but in this case the Lawgiver gives all the grace necessary, via the Incarnation, to keep His commandments unto salvation. So, I think it may be a false dichotomy to say, doxastically, concerning those persons (Orthodox, in particular) who believe in eternal hell, “salvation is not a gift to be received but a task to be achieved by my doings (ethical, liturgical, ascetical).” We are justified both now (Jam 2) and on the Last Day (Rom 2) by our works, but only in cooperation with the Spirit’s gift of grace. Perhaps you are correct (following Manis) about the free-will model ultimately merging into a retributive model; I’m honestly not sure. But the conditional “if…then” structure of gospel preaching seems to be endemic to an existential outlook of fear and trembling. And it seems to me that outlook is an existential requirement of the Christian life, not an existential problem.


  8. John H says:

    Father Aidan/Maximus,

    McCann does not support the free will defense of hell; in fact he makes it amply clear that the existence of the lost is a manifestation of God’s justice. He is just echoing Augustine and Aquinas on this point.

    Nor would McCann ever subscribe to Zach Manis’s divine presence model of eternal conscious torment. In fact, eternal conscious torment would result in the perpetual existence of suffering and evil, a result that McCann would view as contradicting the eternal sovereignty of a good and loving God. So he opts for Paul Griffith’s solution: eternal damnation is nothing other than decreation. The reprobate will cease to exist because God will at the end of the day honor their choice for nonbeing over eternal well being.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      John, I do not recall McCann advocating the annihilationist option. I would be surprised if he did, given that he was, so I understand, a fairly traditional Catholic. Can you provide some citations to support your interpretation. Thanks.


  9. John H says:

    Hi Father,

    It was in Creation and the Sovereignty of God, near the end of the Chapter where McCann discusses sin. He also indicated in that chapter that he is very sympathetic to universalism.


  10. Ed says:

    On the face of it, the idea that God cannot guarantee that the gnomic will of every human being will choose Him without coercion, seems a reasonable one. Yet I wonder all the same. Doesn’t the doctrine of divine providence mean that God will ultimately achieve HIs purposes for mankind and creation in spite of human rebellion? If so, and if the salvific will of God is universal in scope, does this not imply universal salvation? Does the fact that God can use contingent events to bring about His purposes nullify the contingency of those events? I think not. So, it would seem, at the very least, possible for God to bring about the salvation of every human being without violating the free will of anyone. If it is possible, then, given that God desires this end result, He will ensure that it happens. Is my logic flawed here?


  11. TJF says:

    I have another question.

    If all that occurs, in the min­utest detail and in the entirety of its design, is only the expression of one infinite volition that makes no real room within its transcendent determi­nations for other, secondary, subsidiary but free agencies (and so for some element of chance and absurdity), then the world is both arbitrary and necessary, both meaningful in every part and meaningless in its totality, an expression of pure power and nothing else.

    So will this last for eternity, must God always make room for us to screw up?


  12. John H says:

    Father Aidan,

    Hugh McCann expresses an acceptance of the annihilationist position in the following excerpt:

    Reprobation is, rather, a matter of rejecting God’s forgiveness of one’s sins, and insisting on final separation from him, a separation which, if he loves the sinner, God will finally grant. Complete separation from God means, however, being cut off from the sustaining power of his creative will, and in that circumstance no one can survive. Perhaps, then, the end of the damned is simple extinction. Or, there may be a kind of asymptotic movement towards nothingness, as the resources of life and experience accorded us on earth are gradually exhausted while no further support is forthcoming. Either way, there is a sense in which such a fate would be fitting-more fitting, I think, than an everlasting prolongation of existence. For the truth is that, not only by divine ordination but also by their own choice, the lost are not in the end suited for friendship with God. That they should not enjoy it is therefore no more to be mourned than that a stone does not, and once that possibility is foregone, their further existence has no obvious point.

    McCann, Creation and the Sovereignty of God at page 132

    McCann opts for the “nothingness option” because he views eternal conscious torment as a perpetual prolongation of suffering and sin in the eschaton. Yet I am troubled by McCann’s idea that if God loves the sinner he will finally grant that individual’s wish for eternal separation from Him. If God truly loves and desires the salvation of all, is that even a possible option for God? Wouldn’t God use any and all means necessary to bring all of his children home? In the end both eternal torment and decreation represent defeats of the divine will, as clearly expressed in Scripture, that all shall be saved.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      John, thank you for drawing my attention to this. I don’t know how I missed this. I’m going to have to correct my article!


  13. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Greetings everyone. Thanks to John for pointing out to me that Hugh McCann finally opts for an annihilationist position. I have no idea how I missed this when I wrote my piece three years ago, but am glad to have the opportunity to correct it. I have also added a long quotation from Hart’s new book on the question of annihilation.

    Thanks again, John H!


  14. John H says:

    Your welcome Father. Glad to be of assistance. I just finished reading Creation and the Sovereignty of God and I concur with Zach Manis’s earlier observation that, although McCann is not a universalist, his doctrine of divine sovereignty is ironically one of the best apologies for a strong universalist hope. One cannot consistently maintain that 1) God is love and wills the ultimate good of all creation, 2) that He is supremely sovereign to the extent that everything that occurs in the cosmos, including our free choices, is also willed by Him and, 3)sentient beings exist who will suffer eternal loss and separation from God.

    At one point in his book McCann refers to the traditional conception of the antecedent and consequent wills of God. Thus, while it is true that God wills the salvation of all, it is also unfortunately the case that not all rational beings accept this gratuitous offer of salvation. Therefore, God’s consequent will gives the sinner what he or she chooses in the end. But doesn’t McCann recognize that this very notion compromises the very divine sovereignty that he so eloquently defends throughout the book? How can God be both simple and possess a compound will? Doesn’t the very notion of a consequent will make the Divine will subject to actions and decisions of creatures, thus compromising his immutability, impassibility and eternity? The following quote from a 19th Century Lutheran theologian pithily summarizes the problem that I see with McCann’s view here:

    Those who attribute contrary wills to God weaken the simplicity of the divine essence, for where there are contradictions in the wills, there is no room for the highest and most perfect simplicity. (Gerhard, Johann Loci Theologici Tom. I at Section 131. [Berlin 1863])


  15. Mike H says:

    —-“Thus is the justice of God re­vealed: “Terrible though the end of the lost may be, therefore, this manifestation of the good that is justice could not exist but for the creation of those destined for unrepen­tance” (p. 131).”

    Truly chilling.


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