by Thomas Talbott, Ph.D.
The Limits of Possible Free Choice
According to David Bentley Hart:
[T]he keener consciences among believers have always recognized that the Christian story of creation, redemption, and cosmic restoration . . . is a claim about the revelation of God’s nature as a goodness that truly is infinite love, essentially and irreducibly. Hence, the only defense of the infernalist position that is logically and morally worthy of being either taken seriously or refuted scrupulously is the argument from free will: that hell exists simply because, in order for a creature to be able to love God freely, there must be some real alternative to God open to that creature’s power of choice, and that hell therefore is a state the apostate soul has chosen for itself in perfect freedom, and that the permanence of hell is testament only to how absolute this freedom is. This argument too is wrong in every respect, but [unlike the Augustinian and Reformed understanding of limited election] not contemptibly so. (That All Shall Be Saved, p. 171)
This brings us back to Hart’s question, first mentioned in Part II of this review: “Could such a refusal of God’s love be sustained eternally,” he asks, “while still being truly free?” Even the idea of someone rejecting the true God temporarily is problematic because, as Hart also points out, “you cannot reject God except defectively, by having failed to recognize him as the primordial of all your deepest longings” (p. 185). For how could we possibly reject the Creator and Father of our souls without also rejecting ourselves, oppose his will for our lives without opposing, schizophrenically perhaps, our own will for our lives? If God is our loving Creator, then he wills for us exactly what, at the most fundamental level, we want for ourselves; he wills that we should experience supreme happiness, that our deepest yearnings should be satisfied, and that all of our spiritual needs should be met. So if that is true, if God wills for us the very thing we really want for ourselves, whether we know it or not, how then are we to understand human disobedience and opposition to God?
Hart’s short answer is that “sin [always] requires some degree of ignorance” (p. 36); and even though Christians sometime seem suspicious of the Socratic idea that the essence of virtue is a certain kind of knowledge, insight, and clarity of vision, we find ample support for such an idea in the Bible itself. Did not Jesus declare from the Cross, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing”? (Luke 23:34—NRSV). I understand that this well-known prayer from the Cross is omitted from many of the best manuscripts. But even if one should doubt, as I do not, that it nonetheless represents a reliable tradition, Peter expressed a similar attitude when he charged an audience with killing “the Author of life”: “I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers” (Acts 3:17—NRSV). The clear implication here is that those who crucified the Lord had no idea that they were acting wrongly and may even have presumed that they were doing the right thing; in that respect, they were no different from those who drowned Anabaptists in Zurich, or those who burned Servetus at the stake in Geneva, or those who hanged young women as witches in Salem, Massachusetts. Or consider, finally, the example of Paul. Whether or not he actually wrote (in his own hand) the letter known as 1 Timothy, the self-description attributed to him there—namely, that he had been “the foremost” or “the worst” of sinners (see 1 Tim. 1:15 & 17)—surely did reflect accurately the converted Paul’s understanding of his former life. He clearly numbered himself, in other words, among those whose sincere efforts at cultivating a more virtuous character had contributed to, or at least had revealed, even deeper character flaws. They had revealed, in particular, the heart of a religious terrorist who was, prior to his conversion on the road to Damascus, “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.” If his actions were less destructive on the whole than were those of a Hitler or a Stalin, this is only because he did not have 20th Century technology or the power of a modern state at his fingertips. But despite all of this, Paul went wrong, so we read in the text, precisely because he had “acted ignorantly in unbelief” (see 1 Tim. 1:13).
According to the Christian faith, of course, Paul received on the road to Damascus a special revelation from the risen Lord himself, and that revelation also shattered some of his most destructive illusions, corrected a lot of his misinformation, and imparted clarity of vision to him. In doing so, it immediately transformed this religious terrorist into an apostle of Jesus Christ. But because he never saw himself as having rejected, so it appears, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, his motives may never have included a desire to separate himself from his Creator altogether. So perhaps not just anyone would have responded to the revelation Paul received in exactly the same way that he did; perhaps the delusions of some are so deeply entrenched that they would merely have hardened themselves further in the face of a similar revelation. Still, insofar as someone has in mind a caricature of God or a faulty conception of any kind, such a person’s perceived rejection of God could hardly qualify as a rejection of the true God himself. And that is but one reason why I seriously doubt that even a temporary rejection of the true God is logically possible.
Accordingly, if the idea of someone rejecting the true God, however temporarily, is already incoherent, the idea of someone freely rejecting him forever is simply riddled with incoherence. Hart complains (see p. 79), even as I do, that Christian philosophers have too often allowed free choice to figure into their abstract calculations no differently than an utterly random event or chance occurrence would. Relying upon a seriously incomplete analysis of freedom, they have typically proceeded as if there are no limits of any kind to the range of possible free choices. They have typically specified, that is, a single necessary condition of moral freedom, namely, that a choice is free in the libertarian sense only if it is not causally determined by factors outside the choosing agent’s control, and they have then seemed content to leave it at that—as if there were no other necessary conditions of free choice, which there surely are. For not just any uncaused event, or just any agent-caused choice, or just any randomly generated selection between alternatives will qualify as a free choice of the relevant kind. At the very least, moral freedom also requires a minimal degree of rationality on the part of the choosing agent, including an ability to learn from experience, an ability to discern reasons for acting, and a capacity for moral improvement. With good reason, therefore, do we exclude small children, the severely brain-damaged, paranoid schizophrenics, and even dogs from the class of free moral agents. For however causally undetermined some of their behaviors might be, they all lack some part of the rationality required to qualify as free moral agents.
The obvious question at this point is where to draw the line, and that question may have no clear answer because both moral freedom and moral responsibility probably come in degrees, even as rationality does. All that is required for our present purposes, however, is some idea of when an action falls well below the relevant threshold. If someone does something without any intelligible motive for doing it and in the presence of the strongest possible motive for not doing it, then this person, whether acting compulsively or simply irrationally, has not acted freely. As an illustration, we might suppose that a young boy should irrationally and inexplicably thrust his hand into a fire and hold it there, all the while screaming his lungs out. Would we regard such an irrational and inexplicable act as free? Clearly not. The rationality condition thus limits the range of possible free choice, and one must at least raise the question, therefore, of whether someone’s continuing to embrace a hellish condition forever would eventually become too irrational to qualify as an instance of acting freely. If so, then no one could freely embrace a hellish condition forever. As Hart points out:
Those who argue for the infernalist position from the principle of the soul’s power to reject God freely . . . recognize, correctly, that this act of rejection can be a perpetual state freely assumed by the soul only if that soul is free in perpetuity . . . And so this notion—that a soul fully aware of who God is, and of how he alone could fulfill and beatify a rational nature, and suffering all the most extreme torments consequent upon turning from God and subjecting itself to an unnatural severance from the Good, could freely elect forever, successively, and continuously to dwell in misery—makes a mockery of the most basic logic of the very idea of created freedom. (p. 192)
For such reasons as these, God has no need to control our individual choices in order to checkmate each of us in the end; he need only permit us to experience the very condition of separation that we sometimes confusedly choose for ourselves. Suppose we think of the outer darkness as the logical limit, short of annihilation, of possible separation from every implicit experience of God. When Paul quoted the poet Epimenides of Crete in order to make the point that “in him [God] we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), this seems to imply that God is not only our moral and spiritual environment, but our physical environment as well. And if that is true, then our experience of the physical order itself qualifies as an implicit experience of God; hence, a separation from every implicit experience of God would be analogous to a soul suspended alone in sheer nothingness without even a physical order to experience. It would be a condition, in other words, in which no good of any kind would be available (unless one regards bare existence as a good of some kind); it would be a condition in which no desire, no ambition, and no yearning, however misguided, could ever be satisfied. If you add to that the loneliness and terror of such isolation in the outer darkness, it seems obvious that no one who retains enough rationality to choose freely could continue freely choosing such a condition forever—not when the alternative is the bliss of union with God. As George MacDonald put it in his great sermon “The Consuming Fire“: “Imagination cannot mislead us into too much horror of being without God—that one living death.” Here is why:
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 [or the individual withdraws from God] 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 . . . with no inbreathing of joy, with nothing [including the faintest experience of love] to make life good, then will he listen in agony for the faintest sound of life from the closed door . . .
Accordingly, no matter how tenaciously some sinners might pursue a life apart from God and resist his loving purpose for their lives, God has, as a sort of last resort, a sure-fire way of shattering the illusions that make their rebellion possible in the first place. To do so, he need only honor their own choices and permit them to experience the very life they have confusedly chosen for themselves. When, as a last resort, God allows a sinner to live without even an implicit experience of the divine nature, the resulting horror will at last shatter any illusion that some perceived good is achievable apart from God. Or to put it another way: if their own experience in the outer darkness were not to shatter their illusions in the end, then they would have become too delusional and too irrational even to qualify as free moral agents; and even if they should become too irrational to choose freely, God could still rescue them from such irrationality, that is, illuminate their hearts in a way that would cause them to repent voluntarily. That would hardly interfere with some nonexistent freedom, and this also illustrates the fatal flaw in free will theodicies of hell.