“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.)