by Taylor Nutter
It seems prudent to begin this review of That All Shall Be Saved by following Hart in the confession of my own perspective. That perspective, after all, sets the conditions for the conclusions at which I will arrive. Admitting this does not entail that I hold to a relativistic perspectivism akin to that of Nietzsche, but merely that I affirm that we are human beings shaped by specific affects, inclinations, and habitual ways of inhabiting our world. In other words, our predilections guide us in the choice of which questions and data to attend to. Such a perspectivism is not incommensurate with an objectivity that is defined as the absence of those factors which inhibit one’s grasp of the intelligibility of the world.
In the light of this, I must admit that I am an individual who converted to Christianity on the condition that I found it a reasonable and coherent worldview only absent the belief in a final and eternal state of damnation. Prior to my conversion, I was an atheist materialist who conceived of Christianity as a fantasy formation, a super-egoic construction for the sake of coping with the unintelligibility of existence, a social regulatory device which obfuscated the irreducible antinomies of life by choosing to emphasize one side in an act of subconsciously determined amnesia of the other – a choice of the Apollonian over the Dionysian, for instance. In the light of this, hell seemed to me to serve the sole purpose of safeguarding the groundless norms of a parochial way of life. When I did begin to find Christianity compelling, it was because I found reasons to believe in heaven without finding any reasons to believe in hell. Life seems to be full of signposts pointing to union with the divine: for example, the striking strangeness of the human appreciation for the beauty of our world, an appreciation which possesses the same structure of self-transcendence that marks the intelligibility of the emergent processes constituting the nature of our universe. One could say that human consciousness is the beauty of the cosmos become aware of itself as drawn beyond itself. The Christian conception of the teleological orientation of all of reality toward the divine renders the belief in eternal torment an impossibility, especially when considering the particular manner by which that orientation manifests itself in rational creatures. That is, a creature endowed with a will as rational appetite can neither choose evil per se nor persist eternally in the choice of a merely apparent but not real good – a point which is, as we shall see, crucial to Hart’s book. To believe either possibility would render nugatory faith in the transcendent love of God as the only possibility of healing in a world of deep brokenness. If grace cannot or does not heal the self-alienation which causes us to fail to love each other and God, then human history will remain an ineluctably tragic affair – divine love will fail to have the final say. To get at the issue from another angle, the doctrine of grace in which God provides the conditions for some to escape eternal torments but not others proves no more coherent or less absurd an understanding of reality than does the atheism which I had previously espoused. A cosmos partially comprised of creatures who possess the possible ultimate fate of endless suffering due to the arbitrary predestination of an absolutely sovereign divine will is no more intelligible or meaningful than a cosmos bereft of a final end at all, a cosmos in which the vicissitudes of history come to and from nothing for no reason. This is the personal history which has been determinative in my holding universalism to be the only possible true interpretation of the scriptural telling of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It is, so to speak, my jumping off point for the following reflections on Hart’s book.
First, I would like to take up Hart’s claim that infernalists (his appellation for those who believe in a final state of eternal torment) do not actually believe what they purport to believe. I agree both that a true belief in hell would make life in some sense unlivable – who could take the time to enjoy the subtle beauty of everyday life while the eternal fate of souls is at stake? – and that there are, nonetheless, other reasons, beyond the content of the belief itself, that some feel obligated to affirm eternal torments. I disagree with Hart in that I think some of those reasons are good ones – or at least reasons worthy of our sympathy, given that we all, as Hart acknowledges, experience the disorienting confusion of attempting to make sense of our lives. It seems to me that many of those who believe in an eternal hell do so out of other, more fundamental convictions about the nature of the church and the Christian tradition. Again, to be clear, Hart explicitly acknowledges as much even if not quite sympathetically. If one believes that the church is the pillar and foundation of truth and that the Spirit guides her into that truth, then the possibility of the majority position of thousands of years of Christian tradition being mistaken on such a fundamental issue poses not a small problem for those committed to taking that tradition seriously. This concern has been articulated on many occasions through the flippantly sarcastic remark that one must thank God for sending Hart along to correct what most Christians have been wrong about for most of their history. Although the sarcasm may be flippant (as is Hart’s sometimes acerbic rhetoric), the underlying concern is not.
When faced with the question of the layperson’s assent to the many and difficult-to-understand doctrines of the church, Blessed John Henry Newman wrote that such persons assent to the truth of all the doctrines of the church in and through assenting to belief in what the church proposes to be believed. One trusts that ‘the church is who she says she is.’ A mistake of this proportion concerning something so central to the faith – that is, concerning final things – would undermine the meaning of the church and the tradition as the privileged locus of truth guided by divine assistance. However, Newman also granted that assent, whether simple or reflex, follows upon reasons, whether apodictic or otherwise. Even a child has reasons to trust her mother given the right conditions of a healthy family life. A Catholic reads in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that the “teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity” (1035). However, if that same individual is not able to ground that belief in hell in reasons other than the trustworthiness of the church and yet has good reasons to believe in the truth of universalism, then she must somehow decide either to sever some reasons from assent or to assent to reason. If we grant with the 20th Century theologian Bernard Lonergan that the universal structure of judgment (again, whether following upon demonstration or not) involves apprehending both the conditions of something being true and that those conditions hold, then we can only reasonably assent in those instances in which the latter is the case.
Of course, as a rebuttal some might have recourse to the doctrine of original sin and the belief that its effects include the darkening of the intellect. In that case, judgments concerning doctrinal truth come down to which authority one chooses to follow. But then there must be grounds for choosing one authority over another. Or if the movement of the Spirit is taken to be an indication of the veracity of a certain tradition’s interpretation of scripture, then there must be a fundamental set of criteria by which to judge when and where the Spirit in fact moves; for instance, one must be able to say why one believes that the judgments of the fathers of the councils were guided by the Spirit. And if the decision is made to doubt one’s own judgments while holding to the church’s teaching, then one must make the judgment that one must doubt one’s own judgments. It is perfectly reasonable to suspend judgment in those instances that one does not feel informed or unbiased enough to make a judgment, but that too involves reasons. Even doubting reason involves having reasons to doubt. Put bluntly, it is reasons and judgments all the way down. One finds the fundamental norms of sound judgment in the dynamic structure of the human mind, in what is required for the successful completion of the process of inquiry which leads through hypothesis to verification. As Lonergan, following Aquinas, reminds us, our intellects are a created participation in uncreated light, not determined by formal laws but themselves the ground of the discovery of such laws. No logic can define the movement of reason as it ascends from lower to higher viewpoints through further questions spurred on by the innate desire to know which is immanent to human nature.1 It is by this same process that we even come to know God as the ground and source of all truth. This does not mean that reason must gain ascendency over faith, but simply that faith must be reasonable. We must agree with Newman that to inquire into the veracity of something is not yet to hold it by faith. And yet, although we must believe in order to come to understand, reasonable belief itself requires some previous understanding, as Augustine says in Book VIII of De Trinitate. There is a balance to be struck here, as Newman admits in his articulation of the illative sense, between hastiness in making a judgment and lacking the courage to do so.
The exigency of having a reasonable faith is the reason for Hart’s emphasis on analogy throughout this book. As Hart recognizes, if we cannot know what we are saying when we are speaking about God, then both theology and doctrine are truly futile matters. Hart’s arguments rest, therefore, on the dialectical mutual determination of the two sources of revelation: creation and divine self-revelation. Because these both involve the mediation of the finite, analogy provides the key. Analogy arises as a corollary of a metaphysics of participation, the belief that all things are only by participation in the divine being. The fundamental idea is that something of a cause can be known through knowledge of its effects. In the case of the transcendence of the divine, it can be known that God is the transcendent principle of the intelligibility of the world. To use neo-Platonic metaphors, God is that heat itself by which anything is hot, that light itself by which anything is illuminated. There does remain an excess beyond what a created intellect can understand of the divine nature on the basis of the finite, but that excess cannot contradict what is in fact known. The ontologically excessive goodness of the divine cannot entail that somehow divine goodness is completely other than, in the sense of contradictory to, what we know of goodness through our knowledge of the finite as a participation in the divine.
Here it should be noted that Hart explicitly confronts the critique that such a notion of analogy means that we measure the divine by the rule of our judgments rather than vice versa – an incongruity of infinite proportions (60). Some have objected to Hart’s arguments for universalism by appealing to Brian Davies’ claim in The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil that God is not an ethical agent because not a being in the world (56). While it must be granted that Davies is correct, analogy makes this critique null. Central to analogy as a metaphysical doctrine is the conviction that there is no external determination of the divine. We speak of God only by what God has revealed of Godself. As the cosmos exists only by participation in the divine, so is God revealed in every element of it that substantially exists. The latter caveat is included so as to note that evil as privation does not speak of the divine nature. Because creation itself is an act of divine self-revelation, we understand God through our judgments by the ‘measure’ God has given us so long as our judgments conform truly to the contours of reality.
This is the ground of Hart’s argument that the Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo has as its necessary corollary the universal salvation of all. Hart is right to assert that an existence of eternal suffering cannot be considered good in any real sense, that “only well-being is being-as-gift in a true and meaningful sense” (20). At the very least it can (hopefully) be agreed that the good of a creature is defined in terms of its flourishing and that eternal suffering in separation from God is the exact opposite of the flourishing of the human being. It follows that the creation of a being whose final end is foreknown to be an eternal lack of flourishing cannot be judged to be a true good. Hart’s argumentation is irrefutable: in the light of creation ex nihilo, either universalism is true, or God is not good on the basis of the goodness that God has revealed through creation (which can be known by metaphysical investigation) and God’s own self-revelation (the God who became incarnate to seek the one lost sheep out of one hundred). This is not a matter merely of avoiding equivocation. It is a matter of attending to who God is on the basis of what God has revealed about Godself. And the good of the whole cannot be brought in as a justification of the damnation of some. If the good of the whole requires the eternal suffering of some, then it is no whole good at all. The ultimate and endless separation of some creatures from God would make it such that some part of creation had failed to obtain that for which it was made. From the perspective of eternity, a final state of ceaseless darkness does not make light brighter but casts a shadow upon it.
Of course, some might retort that God desires by an antecedent will that all be saved, but does not desire this in the consequent will that justice not be trespassed. Hart points out, however, that the distinction between an antecedent and consequent will does not hold for the divine in its omniscience and omnipotence (82). In knowingly willing that there should exist a creature that will suffer eternally, God wills the consequence of the antecedent. As we have seen that God is not an ethical agent, so double effect reasoning does not hold here. What would it mean for God from eternity to choose to create a world in which the best possible outcome would be tragic and only partially good? If hell is an eternal state, then God wills that there be creatures that suffer eternally, even if only through a permissive will. From the perspective of eternity, however, such permission is damnation. There can be no tension between the love of an antecedent will and the justice of a consequent will. As what is just accords with the nature of a thing, so divine justice is the justice of the love that God is. Put differently, if justice must be defined in terms of the divine being which we know through revelation to be love, then we become the righteousness of God through being united to God, by being united to that source of love which seeks the wholeness of all things through participation in itself. What is just or right, what aligns with the divine will’s motive in love for creation, using the term ‘motive’ analogically, must be the salvation of all.
If this is not the case, then the act of creation was an infinitely sadistic one. Here we do well to follow Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11, on which Hart comments extensively (133-138), in moving from wrath and mercy to mercy alone, from the salvation of a mere remnant to the salvation of all through the providentially guided dialectic of history. Paul’s insistence that the limitless and unconditional love of God is revealed in Jesus Christ must be taken absolutely seriously. While finite reality can give us some understanding of divine goodness, divine love as understood through the incarnation of the Word is another matter entirely. There is a great difference between what Aristotelian ethics requires and the life of Saint Teresa of Calcutta. There is too much suffering in our finite existence to be able to deduce from it that love will have the final word in creation’s story. The conviction that God is love comes to us, or is affirmed in us, through the Spirit’s gifted act of faith as an encounter with transcendent love in the narrative of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. From the suffering and death which constitute necessary elements of the evolution of life on our planet it seems difficult to arrive at the God of life of the Christian tradition. One can perhaps, in response to this, accept the Christian tradition’s notion of creation as broken because of the fall, as does Hart in his other book The Doors of the Sea. Whatever one’s position on this question, Hart is right that finite suffering can be squared with divine goodness only from the perspective of the eternal, so to speak; that is, only from the conviction, grounded in the love in one’s heart that has been formed by the gospel narrative that transcendent love will have the final say, that the eschatological consummation of all things will mean the transformation of suffering and death which will make the beauty and meaning of this life absolute – something I dare say all human hearts long for. None of that, however, can be squared with eternal suffering.
All that I have said thus far necessarily brings up the question of free will. Much of Hart’s book is dedicated to that very question. Some hold that hell is a matter of the human soul’s willed entrapment within itself. Hart agrees, as do I. The fundamental question, however, is whether such an entrapment can be willed eternally by a human being, and whether God could allow it. To find an answer to that question we must first understand the nature of the human will. Such understanding follows only upon an act of attentiveness to one’s own acts of willing, something which Hart invites the reader to undertake. In that attentiveness one finds that nothing is willed except for a reason, and that that reason in every case is the goodness of the thing willed. In other words, the rational creature wills everything under the formal aspect of the good, proving the transcendental orientation of the human will to transcendent good. While Hart makes the claim that a perfect will such as Christ’s could not sin (189), I would like to go in another direction and assert that it is a necessary corollary of the above view of the transcendental orientation of the human will that the will could not help but choose the transcendent good when immediately presented with it. Inasmuch as the good is appetible, the transcendent good is most appetible and cannot not be chosen. Some consider this to be the very problem with this view of the will. In the presence of the transcendent good the human being seems not to be free at all. And that, in turn, seems incommensurate with the Christian belief that human freedom will be brought to its fullest realization in union with the divine. Hart responds to this by defining freedom as a thing’s ability to flourish as what it is (172). In this sense of freedom, something is truly free only when it is free from all that keeps it from flourishing. Addiction may be the starkest and most obvious example of Hart’s point (if also, because of this, one of the most tragic). Hopefully none would fault an addict for not putting their freedom to good use in the choice of what will eventually make for their destruction. We need not add the caveat that the addict does not truly know what she does. Even when acknowledging the harmful effects of substance abuse, someone chooses to use only in the light of its appetibility and, therefore, its relative but not ultimate goodness. As Hart points out, we choose what is apparently but not really good only irrationally when making a false judgment about the goodness of the thing we have chosen. Now, one could still insist that the inability not to choose the transcendent good when immediately presented with it rids the human being of freedom. In response we might invoke Aquinas to the effect that particular operations of the will are contingent and that reason may follow opposite courses in contingent matters (Summa Theologiae I 83.1, co.). This follows from the fact that Aquinas understands contingent causes to be those which are not always causing and do not always produce the same effect. Contingent matters, therefore, are not necessary in the sense that they do not necessitate a single outcome, allowing for differing and even opposite options. It is about these options that the human mind deliberates, and there would be no deliberation if the human will necessarily chooses one option or the other.
It must be admitted that God is not a finite option among others. Still, the human mind does have the choice of acting on the love of God, of following the path to union with God, or not. But there is more to this question then the problem of the opacity of the good in this life. What could freedom, the ability not to choose something, mean when confronted with God as the source of the full realization of our being? We do well here to remember the definition of the will as rational appetite. In its appetitive element, the will is necessarily naturally drawn to and by the highest good. In its rational element, the will could choose a lesser good. However, the choice to turn away from the highest good when immediately confronted with it would be merely an abstract possibility of the will. According to the exercise of its act, the will is necessarily moved by no object. The will is, nonetheless, moved necessarily in the specification of its act by the transcendent good itself (Summa Theologiae I-II 10.2, co.). The capacity of the will to exercise itself in the acts of choice and execution is an active potency. We actively choose this or that thing. The specification of the act of the will by a particular object is the actualization of a passive potency. We are drawn to this or that appetible object. The transcendental orientation of the will is the activity of the will’s being, the entelechy of its nature. That the will is necessarily moved in the specification of its act by the transcendent good itself does not mean that God is the specified object of the will at every moment. Rather the will is transcendentally oriented to the good itself as that under the formality of which anything is chosen. The transcendental orientation of the will toward the good itself is not a specification of the act of the will, but the horizon within which it is specified. A rational appetite cannot rebel against its horizon. According to the active potency that is the exercise of the act of the will, one could turn away from the immediate presence of God. However, one will not do so precisely because the will is necessarily moved as appetite, as passive potency, in the specification of the act of the will by the highest good.
Hart would not agree with me in accepting this abstract capacity of the will to turn away from the highest good, but it does seem pertinent to answering the above-mentioned critique. When presented with the good itself the will cannot help but choose it, even if it does not, in an abstract sense, do so necessarily. This fact alone obviates the possibility of an eternal rejection of union with the divine. Given the most prevalent contemporary conception of hell as a chosen entrapment within oneself, one would have to hold that eternal hell consists of the eternally perpetual choice to turn away from God toward oneself while knowing who God is as the highest good and only possible source of complete flourishing for a rational nature. The impossibility of this is precisely Hart’s point: “Given the dynamism of human nature, given its primordial longing for the Good, given the inherent emptiness of evil, given the finitude of evil’s satisfactions and configurations and resources, no rational nature could freely persist forever in its apostasy from the Good” (191). We turn away from God in this life only on the condition that our orientation to the divine remains obscure to us, both intellectually and appetitively. If our weight is truly our love, as Augustine holds, then even our mistakes in this life consist of blunders along the way to union with the divine, false starts in the attempt to find satisfaction for our most fundamental longings. On the condition of being confronted with the only possible source of the full satisfaction of the yearnings of our heart we would make a decision that is no decision at all. The darkness and confusion of our lives being done away with, we could not help but choose that for which we strove all along without knowing it.
But, as someone who holds that Aquinas is formally correct on questions regarding grace and predestination, I cannot even grant that if such an eternally persistent turning away from God were possible that God would allow it. Aquinas’ doctrine of grace provides a compliment to Hart’s reasoning concerning what we can know about God and salvation based on the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. Analogy entails, on the Thomistic telling of it, that no finite being can act unless God has reduced the potency of that being to act. Because of divine transcendence, God’s causality and the causality immanent to creaturely reality are not competitive, they operate on two different planes, the divine enfolding the creaturely. The operative grace of conversion, for instance, is the act of God turning the human will toward God as final end. This does not mean that at some point we are not transcendentally oriented to God as the good itself, but that our particular orientation according to the specification of the act of the will can be other than God. Cooperative grace, on the other hand, involves God moving us such that we move ourselves in the choice and execution of acts that are means to attaining the end of salvation. This distinction maps on to the two elements of the will, the rational and the appetitive. We must be oriented to God as end before we can choose how to live our lives in the light of that end. The analogy of love is helpful here: we cannot love unless we have first been loved. Studies of addiction, in fact, show that recovery involves the recognition of one’s own worth as being loveable, as being loved. Divine love breaks down the callous barriers of our hearts, transforming our lives by changing our horizons, by opening us up to the possibility of reciprocity in love. Once we have fallen in love, we can then cooperate with that love, making concrete judgments about what it requires of us. But the key here is that we love only on the condition of having first been loved. We know that our fear of the vulnerability leading to intimacy remains in our hearts because of the brokenness of our world, because we have at some point in our lives not been loved as we ought to have been. The only solution to this immanently inescapable cycle of failing to love on the condition of not having been loved – what we call human history – is a transcendent love. This is the point: we cannot be saved except by the divine gift of grace as healing and elevating. We become truly free only on the condition that God has provided the grace necessary for our freedom from sin. What is the same, we choose rightly within this concrete historical order only given that same condition. The questions concerning freedom and predestination are not two but one. If we do not attain salvation, it is ultimately because God has not provided the conditions of our healing and elevation. If God chooses to create a being who will suffer eternally, yet God does not provide the grace that would prevent such suffering, then creation is a truly evil act. Surprisingly, Hart’s conclusions concerning the moral meaning of creation ex nihilo are bolstered by Aquinas’ doctrine of grace.
I will end this review by touching on something that Hart does not explicitly address in his book. How one conceives of the nature of sin determines one’s conception of the Christian salvation narrative and, therefore, how one goes about adjudicating claims in the debate concerning universalism. There seems to me to be two fundamental options: either sin is conceived of as a rebellious pride or as a result of fear born of trauma. If you take the option of rebellious pride, then an eternal self-entrapment, an eternal being-closed-off to divine love is possible. On this conception, the human being could refuse to love no matter how much love beckons. On the other hand, if you take the option of fear born of trauma, then such an eternal refusal to love would be an affront to the healing power of the divine. Again, given the above-mentioned impossible situation that is human history as a cycle consisting of the failure to love on the condition of not having been loved, the only possible solution is the intervention of a transcendent love that breaks the cycle and renders God all in all. If God should choose not to intervene to heal this cycle of brokenness, then God would leave humanity to its own resources, judging humanity for being incapable of persevering in love because of the fear which has entrapped it in and through a history of sin. This is the meaning of grace as capacitating human beings for love and, therefore, union with God as the perfection of human nature. Without that capacitation we would forever meander in confusion, lost and incapable of finding a solution to the question that is our being. And God would forever behold our helplessness, possessing the ability to resolve the problem that humanity has become to itself yet not doing anything about it.
Conceiving of sin as the result of fear rather than pride has both a phenomenological and an explanatory advantage. The intimacy required by love which requires vulnerability is the fundamental desire of the human heart. To seek after the pure opposite of love would be for the human being to seek evil per se – something we have already seen to be impossible. Of course, human beings do refuse to love out of pride, but only out of the desire to be loved, to secure the love of others. That is, we refuse the vulnerability required by love because of the fear of not being loved in return, because of the anger and vindictiveness which comes from others not loving us. We thus seek to gain value in the eyes of others by making ourselves as great as possible. Violence results when we seek to guard a safety that does not consist of openness in love, that entails the exclusion resultant from mimetic rivalry and subsequent scapegoating. Fear, therefore, makes pride intelligible. If pride is taken to be most fundamental to human sin, then it possess no further explanation. Our prideful rebellion against love would be for no reason. Evil is, so it is said, purely unintelligible. But if, instead, fear is taken to be most fundamental, then one can understand the advent of pride in the human soul. Not having been loved, and desiring to be loved, we seek to force others into loving us through prideful actions. Pride is grounded in what Aquinas calls an accidental privative cause – we can understand why we refuse the vulnerability of love in a manner analogous to how we can understand why a limb is broken. Just as we understand a broken arm through the wholeness of a healthy arm, so we understand sin through the fear of not being loved and the concomitant fundamental desire to be loved.
We fell, our limbs are broken. Only God can mend our wounds. What is more, our wounds bind us together. We know that we have participated in the brokenness of our collective humanity. The failure to heal one human allows for that brokenness to continue to define our history. This is, once again, central to Hart’s overall argument: “finite persons are not self-enclosed individual substances; they are dynamic events of relation to what is other than themselves.” (151) On this account, we must accept Gregory of Nyssa’s understanding of the image of God as all of humanity. If love consists of one’s own good being caught up in the good of others, then divine love must entail the full completion of the goodness of all things. Our good is caught up in God’s by God’s own choice. In choosing our good, God chooses God’s own. A single failure in this would be an instance of God failing to be God. Such cannot be the case. All must be saved.
 This and the previous two sentences are greatly indebted to Bernard Lonergan’s cognitional theory as articulated in his text Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (University of Toronto Press, 2013). I want to explicitly grant that the conclusions drawn here from Lonergan’s thought will not be the conclusions made by all those who hold to the truth of Lonergan’s theory of the human mind. I do not speak for all ‘Lonerganians.’
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Taylor Nutter is a doctoral student at the University of Notre Dame in the systematics concentration of theology. His research focuses on postmodern philosophical theology and the relation of theology to the natural sciences. In his free time he enjoys offroading in his Jeep Wrangler.