Faith, Reason, and Moral Sensibility: One Catholic’s Reflection on ‘That All Shall Be Saved’

by Ty Monroe, Ph.D.

Chose étonnante cependant que le mystère le plus éloigné de notre connaissance qui est celui de la transmission du péché soit une chose sans laquelle nous ne pouvons avoir aucune connaissance de nous-mêmes.

Car il est sans doute qu’il n’y a rien qui choque plus notre raison que de dire que le péché du premier homme ait rendu coupables ceux qui étant si éloignés de cette source semblent incapables d’y participer. Cet écoulement ne nous paraît pas seulement impossible. Il nous semble même très injuste car qu’y a-t-il de plus contraire aux règles de notre misérable justice que de damner éternellement un enfant incapable de volonté pour un péché où il paraît avoir si peu de part, qu’il est commis six mille ans avant qu’il fût en être. Certain­ement rien ne nous heurte plus rudement que cette doctrine. Et cependant sans ce mystère, le plus incompréhensible de tous, nous sommes incom­préhensibles à nous-mêmes. Le nœud de notre condition prend ses replis et ses tours dans cet abîme. De sorte que l’homme est plus inconcevable sans ce mystère, que ce mystère n’est inconcevable à l’homme. (Blaise Pascal, Pensées, §122 in the current Pleiade edition)1

It is, however, astonishing that the mystery furthest from our knowledge, that of the transmission of sin, should be something without which we can have no knowledge of ourselves.

Without doubt nothing is more shocking to our reason than to say that the sin of the first man has rendered culpable those who are so far from the source that they seem incapable of sharing it. This flow of guilt does not seem merely impossible to us. It seems to us most unjust, for what is more contrary to the rules of our miserable justice than the eternal damnation of a child, incapable of will, for an act in which he seems to have so little part that it was actually committed 6,000 years before he existed? Certainly nothing jolts us more harshly than this doctrine. And yet but for this mystery, the most incompre­hensible of all, we remain incomprehensible to ourselves. The knot of our condition was twisted and turned in that abyss, so that it is harder to conceive of man without this mystery than for man to conceive of it himself. (Fr. 434)2

A reader may take in the words of the brilliant and lyrical seventeenth century polymath Blaise Pascal and feel no twinge of dissonance within his soul. That reader, should he exist, perhaps ought to avoid reading this reflection, if not also the book it treats. In his recent That All Shall Be Saved, David Bentley Hart poses a number of challenges to fellow Chris­tians who possess a faith that seeks understanding. However, the full force of those chal­lenges won’t be felt among those who take the intellectum toward which the assent of fides is ever quaerens to be something merely intellective, in a narrow, post-Enlighten­ment sense. It’s true that there is logical force to a number of Hart’s contentions about the impossibility of an eternal damnation: he wishes to show the rational incoherence of the dualism that’s entailed in an eternally perduring malum or of the implication that the soul can knowingly choose evil for its own sake. Yet because Hart aims all of his logical argu­ments toward a singular end—namely, to render unworthy of worship the eternally-damning God—these arguments will only have a chance of functioning according to his designs if they are perceived as more than merely logical claims or refutations.

One is tempted to say that for Hart’s arguments to pose any threat to his opposition, the ‘heart’ and ‘head’ must be plugged into one another. And in this vein, one might think it oddly appropriate to begin with Pascal, despite his being diametrically opposed to Hart in terms of the final conclusion. It was Pascal, after all, who at least attempted to intervene in his contemporaries’ narrowing of the concept of reason by suggesting that if it were being honest with itself, raison would recognize its own limitations and give ample space to that which extends beyond its normal bounds, whether in terms of first principles, gut-level instincts, or the revealed truths of the faith.3 For Pascal, these aspects of knowledge, experienced more or less by all humans, could serve as a check on reason simply because of the heart’s capacity to know certain things without reason’s (logical) proof. However, the ultimate bailiff of reason was faith aided by grace (among the limited elect), which, he thought, could knock some sense into that overconfident, delinquent faculty by its own assent to certain apparently heinous truths of divine revelation. Hart’s endeavor to correct Christian thinking about the last things is premised on quite a different approach of bringing together heart and head, perhaps even one that resists such a neat distinction. Whatever the case may be, where Pascal finds in the soul’s shock a positive sign of revelation at work, chastening reason, Hart detects a red flag indicating a faith gone awry both morally and rationally. I submit that Hart’s tack is at at least as native to Catholic tradition as Pascal’s, if not more so. And this is not least because the Roman Catholic Church has resisted dogma­tizing these most extreme views since they first rose to the surface in the foment of Augustine’s anti-Pelagian rhetoric.

Of course, in the order of doctrine, Hart’s assured universalism faces an undeniably uphill battle against the dominant Roman tradition.4 Thus, insofar as Hart’s argument is seen as a viable theological proposal, it immediately forces upon us Catholics the question of doctrinal development. And this perhaps in a manner not unlike the striking shift in the Church’s understanding of extra ecclesiam nulla salus over a long period of time.5 As it happens, I do think Hart’s to be more than a merely viable theological proposal; indeed, I have come to see it as an entailment of the Gospel’s logic.6 But I won’t presume myself capable of producing a wholesale reconciliation of Hart’s assured universalism with preceding Roman doctrine or dogma, nor will I here attempt a full blown theory of doctrinal development that can sustain such a change in teaching.

If Catholic teaching were to undergo such development—or even if the Magisterium were simply to make clear that universalism is a viable position for the faithful to hold—this would require first a greater recognition of the consonance between arguments for apoka­tastasis and the preceding tradition, where ‘tradition’ means both magisterial teaching and the views of major theological figures. This consonance may be substantive and/or formal in nature, which is to say that the point of development may carry forward a speci­fic insight of previous teachings or theological opinions or it may proceed by way of familiar reasoning and argumentation. What follows is a reflection upon both kinds of consonance. I begin, then, by considering the place of moral sensibility in Catholic theo­logical reasoning generally. I then treat a few specific features of Hart’s own argument, comparing it to similar instances in the history of Catholic theology in which we see the interplay between logical and ontological argumentation and moral sensibility.

It’s at times amusing how easily interlocutors dismiss an argument like Hart’s as merely sentimental, or, better, uniquely sentimental. It’s also worth noting that when Hart was called “viscerally sentimental” in a recent review,7 moral support for this judgment came from the very luminary whose views inspired the Pascalian position cited above: St. Augustine of Hippo. Do not misinterpret my intention in pointing this out: Augustine is a doctor of the Church, and one to whose broader theological perspective I continue to devote no small amount of time reading, writing, and teaching. But on these questions of election and damnation, honesty demands that we recognize that Augustine’s firm posi­tion that unbaptized infants are eternally damned,8 even if to the mildest of punishments (mitissima poena),9 failed to command widespread acceptance, let alone the approbation of the Magisterium. Why? Why did Abelard and subsequent medieval heirs of Augustine’s salutary teaching on the ubiquity of sin and the universal necessity of grace nonetheless begin to soften the ultimate conclusion about the destiny of so many throngs of babies, in part by beginning to distinguish between inherited sin and inherited guilt (which Augustine did not)? Why else, but that the moral abhorrence of Augustine’s position struck so many viscerally sentimental hearts as inadmissible to their heads? What, then, is the justification for such squeamishness?

While seeking an answer, we must recall that for Augustine, even to pose such a concern was to question divine sovereignty. The wealth of his theological insights and positive impact on Christian theology notwithstanding, his leveraging of Romans 9 and John 3:5 to forestall further scrutiny of our interpretation of Scripture concerning God’s character should appear to us as exactly what it is: a taking refuge in a kind of voluntarism in which no shred of reasoning, as it is recognizable to us, informs divine action.

We need not look as far back as Socrates’ dialogue with Euthyphro for warnings about this kind of stonewalling. Rather, we need only to recall the words of the Pope Emeritus in his 2006 address “Faith, Reason and the University Memories and Reflections.”10 Known better as “The Regensburg Address,” the speech is not often remembered for the pith of its content. Instead, it continues to be cited as a disastrous occasion effecting untold damages to Christian–Muslim relations. I won’t here seek to adjudicate the various assessments of its political effects, though I note that the address’ most frequently quoted lines are very often isolated out of context. In fact, such isolated focus on Benedict’s tack in addressing the unique challenges of Islamic theology has enabled the rest of us—namely, Christian theo­logians—to dodge the full force of Benedict’s provocation. After all, his is an indict­ment of any and every theological vision which fails to be informed rigorously by human rationality, to the point that our conception of God’s very nature becomes shrouded in a veil of mystery which renders unfettered omnipotence the sum total of divine character. And Benedict makes clear that the same temptation to exempt itself from reason’s enriching and chastening force afflicted late modern Christian scholasticism in no small way, too.

I don’t intend to suggest that the Pope Emeritus would himself agree that because theology must face the pressures of rational inquiry, one must also endorse Hart’s conclusion. For Benedict, it seems clear that this must not be the conclusion we reach.11 But Benedict’s warning remains instructive. He reminds us of the necessity of faith’s attention to the pressing concerns of reason but not merely in the order of bare logic. Rather, in order to warn us all of the temptation to countenance tyrannical violence in view of a voluntaristic12 conception of God, Benedict calls upon reason’s moral sensibilities.

As my brief mention above of unbaptized infants suggests, such course correction by way of honed rational-moral insight is apparent within the Catholic tradition itself. More specif­ically (and more importantly), it’s evident within magisterial teaching, as develop­ments under Benedict’s own papacy show.13 While the 1992 Catechism already gestures in this direction, the primary point of reference is the ITC’s 2007 document, which gives explicit rationale for such development:

Being endowed with reason, conscience and freedom, adults are responsible for their own destiny in so far as they accept or reject God’s grace. Infants, however, who do not yet have the use of reason, conscience and freedom, cannot decide for themselves. Parents experience great grief and feelings of guilt when they do not have the moral assurance of the salvation of their children, and people find it increasingly difficult to accept that God is just and merciful if he excludes infants, who have no personal sins, from eternal happiness, whether they are Christian or non-Christian. From a theological point of view, the development of a theology of hope and an ecclesiology of communion, together with a recognition of the greatness of divine mercy, challenge an unduly restrictive view of salvation. In fact, the universal salvific will of God and the correspondingly universal mediation of Christ mean that all theological notions that ultimately call into question the very omnipotence of God, and his mercy in particular, are inadequate. (The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized §2)

The development of an ecclesiology of communion, a theology of hope, an appreciation of divine mercy, together with a renewed concern for the welfare of infants and an ever-increasing awareness that the Holy Spirit works in the lives of all “in a way known to God” (Gaudium et Spes §22), all of these features of our modern age constitute a new context for the examination of our question. This may be a providential moment for its reconsideration. By the grace of the Holy Spirit, the Church in its engagement with the world of our time has gained deeper insights into God’s revelation that can cast new light on our question. (Ibid. §77)

Again, I lack a wholesale account of doctrinal development needed to fully explicate the why and how these statements in light of the preceding tradition. I only note that the idea of development is invoked here and proceeds explicitly by reference to newness of concep­tual and moral insight. This example is sufficient evidence, then, of the general claim that moral sensibilities can serve as grounds for the Church’s adjudicating of theological concerns.14 More specifically, as grounds for this claim, the Commission cautiously invokes providential involvement in the Church’s historical process of knowing better how to speak about God and all things in relation to God. In these ways, it’s also a clear case of the Catholic Church resisting the temptation to relegate a difficult question to the black box of divine omnipo­tence and instead submitting prior theological thinking to rational and moral reappraisal. As in the case of the Church’s developed position on extra ecclesiam nulla salus,15 such reap­praisal is premised upon a broadening of our understanding of the work of grace and a sensitivity to humans’ profound existential limits despite the universal call to faith in Christ during this earthly life. And in a time like ours when explicit and implicit (or functional) sedevacantism is on the rise, it’s worth noting that this develop­ment was one of the pieces of evidence cited in proof of Benedict XVI’s illegitimacy as supreme pontiff.

Catholics thus have good reason to eschew the temptation to think Hart’s own evocation of our moral sensibilities is non-factor in our assessment of the argument. But beyond this general admission of such aspects of his appeal, it’s also important to see how Hart’s argument forces us to recall the ways that our moral sensibilities ought to impact our specific logical and metaphysical views and, conversely, how those rational views can engender certain moral perspectives.

This interplay shouldn’t seem novel to us. As the attentive reader of Augustine’s Confessions will recall, the Bishop spends much of the text’s narratival books cataloguing his erroneous views of God, evil, and the soul in order to expose these ontological errors as obstacles to his embrace of his own moral responsibilities (among other things). Two and half centuries prior, Irenaeus of Lyons’ waged a multi-frontal assault on faulty Scriptural exegesis which ran contrary not only to the regula fidei and logic, but which also was censurable on account of its moral implications. To Irenaeus’ mind, those who peddled elaborate cosmogonies decipherable by the few divided the human community definitively and prohibitively, rather than uniting the children of Adam through the recapitulation of the one Savior. They thus defaced the scriptural narrative of a God immediately present to the world by and univer­sally available through sacramental participation, as one might deface the mosaic of a king and rearrange its tiles to depict instead a fox.16 As he says in rebuke of those opponents, invoking a rather broad web of rational and moral sensibilities: “our thinking, however, is in accord with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist, in turn, is the basis of our thinking.”17 Ours is a long history of more holistic conceptions of reason, whose logical and moral demands have chastened our theological speculation.

“Yes, but Hart…,” the reader bristles. It’s all too much, too far. For one thing, the reader might wonder, did not the aforementioned insights depend also upon the early Christian decision to draw, once and for all, a clear and meaningful distinction between God and all that is not God? And mustn’t this distinction ultimately be what chastens our confidence in wholly grasping God and his ways. Of course there’s truth in this worry. But I think it necessary to keep in mind just how this distinction was understood and applied in the formation of creedal Christian teaching.

In fact, doesn’t the history of theological and even conciliar wrangling show that those who were ultimately victorious, even if at the cost of home and limb and life, were those for whom the radical distinction between God and creation made possible his extravagant and merciful immanence to humanity? Didn’t Sts. Athanasius and Cyril, for example, challenge Arius and Nestorius to say precisely why the latter knew that the transcendent God was beyond the indignity of a cruciform death,18 that the impassible one could not take as his own the depths of our experience by having “suffered impassibly” (πάθοι ἀπαθῶς)?19 That is to say, wasn’t the surprise of orthodoxy in learning that we were wrong to think we knew that the push and pull of reason and of our moral sensibilities could bring us only to this point, and no further? Attendant to the narrative arc of Scripture, the victors in these theological battles would not be satisfied with worshipping a God whose character would fall short of what was plainly revealed on the Cross.

To some it may seem Hart does more than apply this distinction in surprising ways but instead obliterates it, ultimately to the loss of any real sense of justice. But this reading is mistaken. No doubt, he calls into question notions of justice that are beholden to any other principle than God’s merciful desire to correct and save, and rightly so. Yet this is also one of the ways that Hart preserves the Creator-creature distinction by applying it in ways that strike some readers as untenable. In fact, however, he avoids a totalizing account of God wholly subject to our comprehension in every respect. Allow me to elaborate.

Hart first major shot across the bow was a lecture he delivered at Notre Dame in 2015 on the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. He there tendered the claim that the infinite qualitative differ­ence between God and us redounds to God’s transcendence in every way, including his transcendent capacity to bring to full completion in the Good all that has come from him. So the distinction, and so God’s side of things. By contrast, our field of understanding and action is finite. This hardly dissolves our culpability for sinful actions. Hart is, again, atten­tive to the moral demands of the argument and makes clear that the consequences of sin are real and woeful, though his critics often fail to take note. That he thinks those conse­quences are not eternal, however, is due partly to the unfathomable disproportion between any temporal misdeed and an everlasting retribution for such. The claim might seem like a merely sentimental and unjustified conclusion tacked onto otherwise permissible premises. However, it’s precisely the logic of God’s transcendence (and our finitude) that informs Hart’s emphasis on the disproportion between sin and consequence. As eternal creator, God both assesses and responds to our limited sphere of deeds and misdeeds from within his transcendent vantage.20

As we’ve recently been reminded, the standard bearers of the apokatastasis minority report hardly worship a candyman God.21 Their claim is not that sin is merely to be overlooked in the long run; rather, it’s simply the claim that no divine punishment can fail to aim at the correction of the offender. To be honest, I would that Hart spent a bit more time pressing his readers to face this quandary, forcing them to reconcile their non-corrective (i.e. retributive) understanding of eternal punishment with their conception of God more generally.22 If we insist that divine justice requires that at least someone have their feet held to the fire forever in order to prove that God takes sin seriously (or that this is at least possible, in a Baltha­sarian mode), we’re left to make sense of how to square this moral calculation with various planks of typical Catholic metaphysical thinking. That’s to say the ontological underpinning for these moral judgments—a lights-and-shadows theodicy all the way down, in saecula saeculorum—make for a uniquely sticky wicket for a tradition insistent upon eschewing dualism. This is the point Origen made rather straightforwardly:

Nevertheless, no matter how much a person may continue in sin, no matter how much he should hold out under the dominion and authority of death, I do not think that the kingdom of death is therefore of eternal duration in the same way as that of life and righteousness, especially when I hear from the Apostle that the last enemy, death, is going to be destroyed. And in fact, if the duration of the eternity of death is supposed to be the same as that of life, death will no longer be the contrary to life but its equal. For an eternal will not be contrary to an eternal, but identical. Now it is certain that death is contrary to life; therefore it is certain that if life is eternal, death cannot be eternal; whence also the resurrection of the dead necessarily takes place. For when the death of the soul, who is the last enemy, should be destroyed, likewise this common death, which we have said to be like the shadow of the other one, shall necessarily be abolished. (Comm. in Rom. v.7)23

How, then, to understand God as transcendent Goodness if there be an everlasting stalemate with evil? It hardly needs to be said that any hint of dualism has long been the target of Christian reflection. Take the line of questioning further: How to think divine aseity if God be constrained to level wholly retributive (i.e. non-corrective) punishment? What constrains God on this count outside of something integral to his own unchanging character? It will surely be asserted by some that God must remain faithful to a justice internal to his own character and not external, and that it’s possible, for various reasons, for some humans to choose evil for its own sake perpetually or in a way that revokes the very possibility of their choosing otherwise in the future.

In this way, Hart’s opponents make the moral decision to accept a conception of justice whose validity is purchased at the price of a final judgment which is not triumphed by mercy (pace James 2:13).24 And if someone, aside from the crucified Christ, must bear an everlast­ing judgment in order for any of us to be saved, then Hart’s claim stands: this set or individ­ual is as much our Savior as is Christ himself.25 (The penetrating gaze of Girard fixes itself upon us here.) If, on the other hand, the solution is merely for us to check our brains and hearts at the door and ascribe this stalemate to the mysterious permissiveness of divine omnipotence, I wish only point our thoughts back to the previous remarks at the outset about reason, faith, and the moral question of divine voluntarism.

I reiterate: this triumph of mercy need not—indeed cannot—entail an evacuation of the concepts of culpability and so also judgment. If it does, this is because Christianity’s moral calculation already gave up on such a concept of ‘justice’ when it asserted that any soul could be finally released from purgatory freed not by his own condign merit but by the congruous merit gratuitously applied to him though ultimately won by Christ.26 Yes, the profligate mercy of unmerited grace for anyone who is saved coexists lopsidedly alongside at least some sliver of cooperative merit—whether St Thérèse’s twenty-four years of intense devotion or the crucified thief’s terse, last minute profession. So also, then, is whatever purgative punishment endured by any of the saved mercifully disproportional. Hart’s (like Origen’s or Gregory’s) purgative hell simply extends that logic of merciful, corrective judgment to all of God’s punishments. As for its moral calculus, the compar­isons to certain facets of the dominant tradition are noteworthy: while most of Dante’s damned will forever replay the excruciating banality of their evil, largely turned curvatus in se for all eternity, George Macdonald’s or Origen’s, for example, will be purged by the fires of divine love, likely facing also every human victim of their (our?) earthly villainy.27 To the loving parent, the logic couldn’t be more thoroughly just, nor more thoroughly loving; to the sinful child (such as we are), the implications are chilling.

Of course, talk of moral sensibilities puts Hart in line for turnabout: where’s the gut check that curbs our confidence that we could ultimately be the judges of God’s ways? Yet he makes clear that the confidence a universalist has about the everlasting end does not entail a wholesale commensurability of human thinking to divine ways. He affirms that our perspec­tive in the here-and-now remains inadequate to assess the totality of God’s providence, including the permissive divine allowances that are often most difficult for us to stomach from day to day.28 But precisely because of that eternal vantage point—and because of the fundamental distinction between Creator and creature—the moral integrity of God’s very character depends on causing all of these temporally finite pains and tragedies to come to fruition wholly and finally in the Good.29

Absent this shifted perspective on justice in view of the distinction between God and his creatures, I’ve suggested that the majority position on eternal justice is purchased at an incredibly steep price in terms of the doctrine of God, both rationally and morally. Yet opponents are also keen to take final refuge not in doctrine of God proper, but in theolog­ical anthropology. Can’t we see, they query, that it’s we humans who can exercise our option for evil, for sheer privation? This appeal, too, is a profoundly moral argument. But as Hart has pointed out,30 aside from the responsibility God bears as creator of these willing agents ex nihilo, the argument also assumes that creaturehood be premised irreducibly upon a radically libertarian notion of freedom, often called the freedom of indifference in Catholic virtue ethics.

It should be uncontroversial to point out that while the freedom simply to choose, either good or evil, is a necessary feature of creaturely existence prior to the beatific vision, it is in all respects secondary to the freedom of that secure vision. The latter is freedom only to choose the good (non posse peccare) and thus comprises the highest good of creatures who ultimately become partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4). Must it also be purchased through the eternal perdurance of its lesser precondition? Must the entire edifice of the Christian worldview hang on the preservation of this kind of freedom, for its own sake?

Beyond this line of inquiry lie questions about the grammar of sinful action itself. And here, as elsewhere, Hart is all too happy to put the matter starkly: all sin proceeds by way of some degree of ignorance.31 Put differently, it’s the question of whether evil can be willed for its own sake, and not at least in part under some aspect of the good, and more narrowly, whether it can be chosen over the good in full knowledge of the latter. And, once again, the question is rational and moral in nature, and it’s one treated by the pillars of the Catholic tradition. Aquinas, for one, appears to be unequivocal on the second question: “Evil cannot be intended by anyone for its own sake; but it can be intended for the sake of avoiding another evil, or obtaining another good.”32 Augustine is a bit less direct, but a passage such as his famous pear theft scene in Conf. ii subtly delivers the same conclu­sion.33 The claim is an ontologically necessary conclusion for those who are realists about the intrinsic desirability of the Good and about humans as rational agents.

Viewing the problem directly as a question of ignorance, we see a somewhat more mixed message. Aquinas appears willing to classify ignorance as a (though not ‘the’) cause of sin and a cause even present to some degree in sins of malice.35 To be sure, Augustine’s account of the grammar of sinful action post-lapsum entails the (nearly)36 universal inherited effects of ignorance and concomitant concupiscence. However, his analysis of sin’s entrance into the world seems pitched to exclude ignorance. The angels’ only limitation in knowledge, including knowledge of God, is said to be their lack of certain knowledge of their own eternal happiness.37 Augustine’s direct aim here is to increase the culpability of the angels to the utmost, as he will similarly do in his analysis of the humans in the garden. The latters’ sin, in his view (contrary to the overwhelming patristic testimony), was hardly precipitated even in part by any tinge of deception.38 Instead, it proceeded by way of a wholly mysterious ‘deficient’ cause for which no one should seek any explanation.39

The ironic result is that in practice Augustine thus countenances the view that the rational soul can choose evil for its own sake by how he describes sin amid both Satan’s and Adam’s unparalleled knowledge of the good. It’s irony of a rational and moral sort, which is only exacerbated when we consider that among Augustine’s greatest legacies is his persistent reminder that every human heart was created for God and remains restlessly longing for God, wittingly or unwittingly. On this score, as on so many others, both he and Aquinas will continue to shape my own thinking for the rest of my life. But when push comes to shove and Augustine must be forced to reconcile his competing points of emphasis, it’s impossible to deny that his anti-Pelagian reading of Romans 9 does, in fact, require the interpreter check head and heart at the door.40

The fact is, no one has known fully the Good and chosen its opposite, and so no one has fully known the evil which one has chosen in contrast to the Good, and so everyone could admit of greater correction in knowledge and will prior to enjoying the visio Dei. If it weren’t true, the tradition reminds us, the Church would have been wrong in singling out one of the most problematic features of Origen’s otherwise breathtaking speculative vision: the notion that those united to God could at any time fall away on account of satiety or any other means.

What’s the upshot, then? Well, ultimately, we know that for both of the aforementioned pillars of the Catholic tradition, none of these considerations leads to the conclusion that an everlasting punishment is commensurate to sins committed without full knowledge of the good or full knowledge of evil and its consequences. Quite the opposite. But what should the upshot be? Before we get too carried away, the infernalist will here protest that to grant ignorance a pervasive role to sin is (again) to evacuate the notion of justice and genuine culpability. But even aside from the aforementioned challenge to a Cross-less conception of justice, this hardly needs to be the case. We need not succumb to a false dichotomy between ignorance or culpability. While ignorance surely plays a role in every sin, the culpability of the sinner is nonetheless evidenced by the necessity of a corrective punishment.41 Anyone who has cared for children should be able to recognize the subtle distinction here: to the extent that an agent fully comprehends his misdeed, its ill effects, and the loss of goods upon committing it, to that extent the severity (and nature) of the punishment is measured. I would never discipline a newborn infant, and I would never give my three year old the same consequence that I would give my fourteen year old. And I hope I would never intentionally give either of them a consequence ordered toward anything other than the reshaping of their knowledge and love, and so also toward their reconciliation with me. But I can assure you I would never think it reasonable or just to give either of them an everlasting punishment absent any aim of correction. Why would God? Perhaps here we’re getting too viscerally sentimental.

Again, we return to the question not only of divine punishment’s proportionality but also its rationale and so also its moral character. For, if evil is willed without full knowledge of the Good (or even true knowledge of the relative hierarchy of lesser goods and of one’s true happiness in willing rightly), an admixture of ignorance is present in every sinful act. Here lies the decisive issue: the admixture of ignorance leaves open the possibility that more can be done for the sinner to reshape her mistaken apprehension. That “more” is the logic of hell as correction.42 And the God who could do more but instead limits the period of remediation to the temporal span of an earthly life is the God whom Hart wishes to place beyond the rational and moral reach of our devotion.

At the close, I’ll risk special pleading and admit I don’t relish swimming contrary to the dominant current of the tradition. Like many others on both sides of this question, I treasure the tradition, from magisterial teaching to the many timeless insights of thinkers like Aquinas and Augustine. But if treasuring entails never pressing forward toward a deeper—even if unsettling—understanding of that tradition, then I fear our treasuring falls short. In this vein, Hart’s provocation, pompously snide though it certainly is at times, represents a gift to those who love the truth so as to wrestle with it when it appears to have been manifested to us. Such wrestling must proceed by means of a rationality43 that consistently embraces the moral as well as the logical and metaphysical aspects of an argument. And, as I’ve here sought to show, that more holistic approach is by no means foreign to the Catholic tradition, from top to bottom. (Neither is it foreign to the argu­ments of Hart’s own critics.) For this reason, it simply won’t do to dismiss the argument for universal salvation as merely sentimental, or premised upon the idiosyncratic sentiments of one bombastic contemporary or of a small but vocal minority down through the ages. And neither will it make sense to try and neatly draw the line between which arguments admit of moral sensibility and which must instead be adjudicated with bare logic over against our moral instincts in a manner that ultimately smacks of fideism.

For me, to have wrestled with the question is to have received a blessing, if not also simulta­neously a limp. Of course, the blessing isn’t the assurance that I or any of the souls I’ve been lucky enough to love won’t be damned to hell. But it is the assurance that whatever depths to which I may descend, the Truth itself will eventually succeed in overcoming me, for,

Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you. (Ps. 139:7–12)



[1] Cited (in part) in David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019), 130–1.
[2] Trans. A.J. Krailsheimer (New York: Penguin Classics, 2003), emended.
[3] Though, it must be noted, in some ways he unhelpfully conceded the term raison to those who sought to restrict it to the realm of the empirically and syllogistically certain. Thus, rather than push back by broadening the concept of the rational, Pascal seems simply to want to suggest its profound limitations without the help of the intuitions or thoughts of the coeur or of divine revelation.
[4] et I do not believe it contravenes Catholic teaching on a strictly ‘dogmatic’ level, though I leave that stickier question to my fellow reviewer Justin S. Coyle, “May Catholics Endorse Universalism?
[5] The standard account of this teaching’s history is Francis A. Sullivan, SJ, Salvation Outside the Church? (New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1992). While thorough and thus ever helpful, Sullivan’s tack is to defend the continuity of the substance of the 20th century understanding of this dictum with the substance of most previous uses of the dictum in history. While I think it necessary to demonstrate the continuity of any theological development with the preceding tradition, such a demonstration must be honest and meaningful, in part by accounting for a teaching’s newness. Absent any clear account of development more generally, Sullivan pays a high price for continuity. In short, he must claim chalk up the rather negative and narrow practical application of the dictum by earlier theologians and the Magisterium to historical factors concerning the sheer numbers of the unevangelized across the world and concerning the complex epistemic concerns entailed in assent: “These limits of the geographical and psychological horizons of medieval Christians are historical factors which profoundly conditioned their expression of the doctrine of the necessity of the church for salvation” (201). The obviousness of this claim ought not to obscure its lack of import with regard to the question at hand. Excepting Sullivan’s strict yet undefined and unsubstantiated distinction between a teaching’s substance and its historical application, one cannot avoid the plain fact that in many of the uses of the dictum prior to the modern era the clear intention was to pronounce as damned those who knew of the Gospel and yet did not explicitly assent to it (whether Jews, Muslims, or Eastern Christians, let alone Protestants). This usage is rather opposed to the teaching of Vatican II in particular, so it begs the question how usage can so easily be separated from meaning or substance. This is to say nothing of the geographical and psychological factors themselves. On the former count, it did not seem to matter much to Boniface VIII just how many Eastern Christians Unam Sanctam was consigning to eternal damnation. As to the latter, if the Church seems to have acquired a more sensitive awareness of the complexity of assent in a manner that impacted its understanding and application of the dictum, we can hardly deny that this is itself a substantive (and new) idea or set of ideas.
[6] Of course, those who take issue with the prior claim that the eternality of hell (and not merely its existence) is an irreformable datum of Catholic dogma will thus conclude that I fail to meet the criteria of a legitimately Roman Catholic theologian beholden to magisterial teaching. That I would disagree with such detractors on the question of the status of the doctrine (i.e. of hell’s eternality) should not lead any of my readers to think that I reject the existence of hell or that I, as a professor of Catholic theology, presume to teach my students my own theological opinion as Catholic doctrine. Rather, when the issue arises—and it does remarkably often at my students’ behest—I see it as my duty to make it clear to them a) what the dominant tradition says on matter (i.e. that hell is both real and eternal); b) that many of my fellow Catholic theologians take it to be more than just a dominant teaching and instead to be de fide dogma; c) that there nevertheless remains some legitimate debate about “b)”; d) that there has been a minority report on hell’s temporality since the early church; and e) that the rejection of hell’s existence tout court is, to my mind, fully outside the bounds of magisterially-attuned Catholic theological thinking (i.e. that to be a faithful Catholic one must accept the existence of hell). Again, on the question of universalism as a matter of doctrinal development or flux, I refer readers to the review of Hart’s book by Coyle.
[7] Douglas Farrow, “Harrowing Hart on Hell,” First Things, October 2019.
[8] Cf. De pecc. mer. 1.16.21 (CSEL 60, 20f.) ; Sermo 294.3, (PL 38, 1337); Contra Iulianum 5.11.44 (PL 44, 809).
[9] Enchiridion ad Laurentium 93 (PL 40, 275); cf. De pecc. mer. 1.16.21 (CSEL 60, 20f.).
[10] Aula Magna of the University of Regensburg, 12 September 2006.
[11] Cf. Spe Salvi §46.
[12] For those worried that my use of this term is insufficiently technical, I refer to Benedict’s working meaning. He points the finger at Scotus for paving the way for “a voluntarism which, in its later developments, led to the claim that we can only know God’s voluntas ordinata” (“Faith, Reason, and the University”). One wonder why Scotus, rather than Ockham, comes in for stern criticism here, but I am by no means interested in sorting out the Radical Orthodoxy theses in a footnote.
[13] International Theological Commission, The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptised, 2007. Ratzinger’s own preceding interest in the question can be traced to statements of his during his time as head of the CDF. See The Ratzinger Report (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985), 147–8.
[14] The parallels here, too, with the teaching on salvation extra ecclesiam are striking;.
[15] For some of the details of the parallel, see note 5, above.
[16] Adv. Haer. i.8.1
[17] Ibid. iv.18.5: “Nostra autem consonans est sententia Eucharistiae, et Eucharistia rursus confirmat sententiam nostram.”
[18] Cf. Inc. §1.
[19] Ad Reginas De Recta Fide Oratio Altera, 163 (PG 76, 1393B)
[20] Though, I hasten to add that a thoroughly incarnational theology cannot merely be satisfied with this formulation alone. The incarnation shows, but more importantly makes possible, that God acts both from ‘without’ time and history (eternally) and from ‘within’.
[21] Cf. Taylor Ross, “The Severity of Universal Salvation,” Church Life Journal, 4 June 2019.
[22] For a brief mention of this fundamental question, see Saved, 169. Cf. also Gregory of Nyssa, anim. et res: “Not in hatred or revenge for a wicked life, to my thinking, does God bring upon sinners those painful dispensations; He is only claiming and drawing to Himself whatever, to please Him, came into existence. But while He for a noble end is attracting the soul to Himself, the Fountain of all Blessedness, it is the occasion necessarily to the being so attracted of a state of torture. Just as those who refine gold from the dross which it contains not only get this base alloy to melt in the fire, but are obliged to melt the pure gold along with the alloy, and then while this last is being consumed the gold remains, so, while evil is being consumed in the purgatorial fire, the soul that is welded to this evil must inevitably be in the fire too, until the spurious material alloy is consumed and annihilated by this fire […] Then it seems, I said, that it is not punishment chiefly and principally that the Deity, as Judge, afflicts sinners with; but He operates, as your argument has shown, only to get the good separated from the evil and to attract it into the communion of blessedness” (trans. Moore & Wilson, 1892).
[23] Trans. Thomas P. Scheck (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2001), 352.
[24] Is is also difficult not to think of the narrative and parabolic examples of this scriptural principle, including the thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43) and Christ’s story about the generous master and his workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16).
[25] Saved, 84.
[26] Hart’s own words on this count are incisive: “[…] it is God’s will not to repay us according to our merits, but simply to claim for himself those of his creatures who had been lost in slavery to death. I remain convinced that no one, logically speaking, could merit eternal punishment; but I also accept the obverse claim that no one could merit grace. This does not mean, however, that grace must be rare in order to be truly gracious […]” (Saved, 52).
[27] See Origen, De principiis 2.10.4; ET: John Behr, Origen: On First Principles, Vol. 2 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 261; cited by Ross, “Severity.”
[28] Saved, 59.
[29] Cf. Rev. 21:4. Those whose retort is, “Only from their eyes—the eyes of the saved—shall he wipe every tear,” ought to revisit Hart’s reflections on the communal nature of personhood. For my part, the starkest lesson on this front wasn’t Hart’s speculative discussion of this concept, but the frank admission of a student of mine a few semesters ago. Raised in a more or less atheist culture, without warning or prompting he matter-of-factly informed me that he had no desire to entertain Christianity, since even if he were to be granted the chance to go to heaven he couldn’t imagine being happy there without his family forever.
[30] Saved, 172ff.; cf. ibid., 79.
[31] Saved, 34–8.
[32] ST i-ii, q. 78, a. 1, ad 2.
[33] Those inclined to read Conf. ii as underwriting, rather than countering, the view that sinful action can be motivated by the choice of evil for its own sake are encouraged to consider an insightful essay by Scott MacDonald: “Petit Larceny, the Beginning of All Sin: Augustine’s Theft of the Pears,” in Augustine’s Confessions: Critical Essays, ed. William E. Mann (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006).
[34] ST i-ii, q. 76, a. 1.
[35] ibid., q. 78, a. 1, ad 2.
[36] Augustine tables the question of Mary’s bondage to original sin at nat. et gr. 36.42.
[37] civ. xi.11–3.
[38] I’ve not read every patristic exegesis of Gen. 3, but to this point I’ve yet to encounter a patristic interpreter who sidesteps the place of deceit in the etiology of sin as Augustine does.
[39] Augustine is not alone in characterizing the origin of sin this way; Gregory of Nyssa bars the way to a final answer on this question in res. et anim., but his prohibition is not set alongside an equally inscrutable decision on God’s part only to save some from the mystery of iniquity. Rather, the latter mystery is overcome by the certitude of mercifully corrective punishment unto total redemption.
[40] Those still unconvinced of the brutality of Augustine’s mature views need only to refer to the admirably honest assessment of the ITC, quoting Augustine directly: “At the judgement, those who do not enter the Kingdom (Mt 25:34) will be condemned to hell (Mt 25:41). There is no ‘middle ground’ between heaven and hell. ‘There is no middle place left, where you can put babies.’ Anyone “who is not with Christ must be with the devil'” (The Hope, §17; citing Augustine, Sermo 294.3 [PL 38, 1337], De pecc. mer. 1.28.55 [CSEL 60, 54]).
[41] “Not in hatred or revenge for a wicked life, to my thinking, does God bring upon sinners those painful dispensations; He is only claiming and drawing to Himself whatever, to please Him, came into existence. But while He for a noble end is attracting the soul to Himself, the Fountain of all Blessedness, it is the occasion necessarily to the being so attracted of a state of torture” (Gregory of Nyssa, anim. et res.).
[42] We Catholics who, despite the protests by our more confident and ardent opponents, do intend faithfulness to the tradition amid our protesting its dominant strains, must still sort out the dogmatic distinction between hell and purgatory. I am somewhat ambivalent about the speculative solution proffered by Coyle concerning an eternal consignment of our ‘false selves’ to damnation. While I’ve yet no better solution, for starters I am inclined to think of the distinction between hell and purgatory in terms loosely set out by Nyssen. All souls move toward the good. Some (many) move toward it knowingly, though not as single-mindedly and faithfully as others (few, the saints); still others move toward evil under the aspect of the good, but in a manner wholly mistaken and yet also culpable. The soul still moving toward evil will, at some point, comprehend evil for its own sake and so ‘rebound’ toward the Good from which it came. Hell, then, is perhaps the purgation of this latter set, while purgatory is for those who are moving in the right direction but who have not yet arrived. But this, unlike Coyle’s attempt at a speculative solution sidesteps certain dogmatic/doctrinal hurdles, and so would require a more wholesale account of development.
[43] We might ponder how this mode of rational and moral argumentation represents an example of the “broadening [of] our concept of reason and its application” (Pope Benedict XVI, “Faith, Reason, and the University”).

* * *

Ty Monroe is a husband, a father of four, and an assistant professor of theology at Assumption College. His primary research interests include Christology and soteriology, especially (but not exclusively) in the Early Church.

This entry was posted in Book Reviews, David B. Hart and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Faith, Reason, and Moral Sensibility: One Catholic’s Reflection on ‘That All Shall Be Saved’

  1. I know there is Precedent for Universal Salvation among Protestants, Catholics, Greek Orthodox and “Nestorians”. There is one strand of the Church I’m not sure about however and that the Miaphysite communion.

    Given they were founded upon revering Cyril of Alexandria (who definitely taught Endless Torment) and strongly reacting against Nestorianism (Justinian sought to condemn Theodore of Mopuseta for the purpose of appeasing them) I would be surprised if any did support it. But you never know.


    • Logan Polk says:

      As a Coptic believer in Apokatastasis, I can answer that. There are several Oriental Orthodox Saints, who are exclusively venerated by us, who support Apokatastasis or at the very least supported Origen and were his disciples:

      1. St. Didymus the Blind, the teacher of St. Jerome and a disciple of Origen, he defended Origen’s notions of Apokatastasis from detractors.He was one of the only ones who openly taught the idea that even the Devil would be saved in the Apokatastasis rather than destroyed.
      2. St. Evagrius Pontus (venerated mainly by Armenians), a major upholder of Apokatastasis and defender of Origen, he was made a priest by St. Basil the Great
      3. St. Eusebius of Caesara, the first Church Historian, and also a strong supporter of Origen and his admirer, Book 6 of his Church History is almost entirely dedicated to Origen’s life and good works.
      4. St. Clement of Alexandria (My patron Saint if I might add), who was the teacher of Origen. He taught Apokatastasis at several points in his Stromata, one of the most beautiful (and confusing) works ever put down by a Church Father. He was my main entry point into Apokatastasis.
      5. St. Kristos Samra (venerated mainly by Ethiopians) She is known as the first female philosopher of Ethiopia, and was famously known for praying souls out of Hell and at one point asked God to forgive the Devil. God told her He had already forgiven the Devil, and that the Devil needed only to repent openly. When St. Kristos Samra went down to Satan to tell him this, on the wings of St. Michael, Satan tried to drag her into the pits of Hell. When St. Michael saved her and flew out of Hell, 10,000 souls were freed with her.

      There are several more I am probably forgetting, but these are the significant ones. I should also note that while Origen is not considered a Saint by the Coptic Church, he is considered a Church Father and he is given the honorific of “Scholar Origen.” My priest has told me that the only reason Origen has not been canonized is that the Coptic Church fears what canonizing someone most other Christians believe to be a heretic would do to their reputation with the other Churches. I will note as an example of respect Origen has among us, the St. Moses Book Store, one of the largest repositories of Coptic books and run by Coptic monks, sells many of Origen’s works.

      Liked by 4 people

  2. TJF says:

    I am still having a hard time understanding how you can still be culpable at all for anything to any degree under the intellectualist model of freedom. Hart seems to clearly see that with any ignorance or insanity goes freedom, and with freedom goes culpability. Elsewhere (the Doors of the Sea) Hart stresses that the NT teaches that we are in bondage to spiritual powers external and internal and thus not fully culpable. But can someone please show me concretely how such culpability works. Let’s take the example of a murderer. He knows it is wrong, but does it calmly and premeditatedly in order to gain money let’s say. Of course we’d say he wanted the money because he thought it would be better for his life, etc. and essentially boils down to an orientation towards the Good as such. I understand that, but then what exactly is he culpable for at all? For making the wrong choice to murder to get that money? Well, wouldn’t that be due to his insanity or ignorance which isn’t his fault? Is it for even having the evil desire at all? That would seem strange. It does seem to me that intellectualism is the only logical model of freedom, however it does seem to follow logically that under its auspices, no one is culpable at all for anything in any amount. We have to end up blaming God, or the spiritual powers and fallen angels who cause us to do these things (which is still blaming God, just one level removed). Can anyone clear this up for me?


    • brian says:


      The intellectual perception of the good is necessary for freedom to be meaningful, but the will must assent to that Good. Is there a culpable ignorance? I think one sees that every day. The ego rushes headlong towards an imperfect grasp of the Good entailing violence, cruelty, greed, and perversion. The reason why the metaphor of purgatorial fires or some sense of duration possibly lasting aeons before hell is defeated for some is conceptualized in that manner is because resistance as culpable ignorance is not something that simply disappears with a more lucid perception of the Good. There is still a necessary ascesis, a training of the soul to be liberated from habitual deformations. The monstrous remains as penultimate possibility. All this is complicated by the way we tend to think of intellect and reason. For human being, understanding is a function of the entire incarnate creature. We know with the body and imagination, the intellect is a holistic synergism, not a naked angelism. This is one reason why the human thing is the mediator and priesthood of creation. Something about resurrected flesh is involved here and from our fallen temporal perspective, it’s bound to appear to require process and transformation, not a simple “moment” of illumination. Unless one thinks of person as an entirely passive “waif amidst forces” the dignity of decision rests with the unique, even when a broader metaphysical and theological understanding recognizes communal and relational aspects of responsibility. So I don’t think one can properly argue that blame entirely devolves away from the person enmeshed in ignorance without repudiating the honor of sanctity which is both grace and achievement though judgment is complex and requires a spiritual acuity attainable only as a gift of participation in divine life.

      The sticking point for those caught in a libertarian complex is that this seems to allow for the infinite perdurance of rejection of the Good, of madness permitted as unending possibility. The answer is manifold: the unique person is constituted by an inalienable locus of relation, but also the relations, so that part of the healing of eternity is the greater power of holy relations to encourage the weakened soul towards an increasingly full participation in the good. The foundation of all personhood is Christological and Christ’s incarnation embraces all creaturely possibilities so that there is a kenotically hidden nurture even in the depths of hell. This means the creature is never “neutrally” thrown into existence, one is not chained to an “indifferent” freedom, rather there is a hidden gravity towards divine flourishing that Christ enacts on behalf of the whole humanity. This will become increasingly manifest as the discovery and adventure of the Good in etermal life, an opening onto infinite delight that for most begins as emergence from darkness. One could draw out the implications of flesh that reveal the fully flourishing body to include the all of creation incorporating infinite depths and relations from mineral to angelic, though that is a long discussion. The brief point is that decision and thus culpability remains both uniquely personal and yet asymetrically oriented towards the victory of God’s Fatherhood which is the perfect joy of the eighth day. Eschatology does not require the either/or of personal responsitilbity/dignity or universal freedom. The fact that the latter gives pause to modern sensibility is a product of too narrow a conception of person and freedom and a limited imaginary that fails to grasp the ontological momentum already operative as the hidden power of Paschal creativity.

      Liked by 1 person

      • TJF says:


        Thank you for your reply, it was a bit over my head but I’m trying to understand, but I still do not really. If I’m summing you up correctly it seems like you are saying that having perfect knowledge is not good enough, we also need to train our wills as well. But then I would just ask why? Wouldn’t a weak will also be something that we were born with beyond our control that ultimately isn’t our fault? What I’m trying to reconcile is the traditional scriptural and patristric language with this idea. It seems like what you are saying is that this ascesis is akin to training, to become better, which we do see saint Paul saying. But there is also the language of us being objectively culpable for our sins and having to beg God for mercy to forgive us for how bad of servants we are, etc. The two don’t seem to align and I still don’t see how you get around the fact that ultimately, it seems to me at least, the intellectualist model does seem to let us off the hook and imply that God made us or the world this way and He has a lot of explaining to do as to why He didn’t give us clear intellects and strong wills and not surround us with untold horrible suffering, etc. Doesn’t tradition hold that we are responsible ultimately for the fall and everything evil, since God can’t be responsible for it? But He made us this way. Is the only answer, I guess we will see later on?
        I can see how some see the intellectualist view as undercutting the idea that we truly are responsible for our sins, but also throwing it out means we become libertarians or voluntarists which are even more unacceptable. Please forgive me for any misunderstandings on my part.


        • Grant says:

          Brian will likely answer differently but lets think about examples we can relate to now that I think might help in this. Take what is going on now in terms of us coming to terms with ways in which the structures of our current civilizations and their economic imperatives, the consumerism that ‘consumes’ us, which we are realizing in some ways or others are harming others besides ourselves, even with many different people giving different analyzes of what needs to be done, and there is a sense of being uncertain what we should or can do. And similarly becoming increasingly aware of how we harm the world around us, or animal species going extinct around us, failing as stewards almost completely. Again, I’m not getting into the specifics, just the general awareness that is dawning on humanity, we had degrees of ignorance, yet that doesn’t remove the response to see our responsibility, and to move to repent and ask forgiveness (perhaps not in those terms, but a sense of a change of heart, repentance and of taking responsibility and changing course). Or take someone (going for an extreme example) under the grip of say severe schizophrenia ends up killing someone, is cured of that, well now realizing and truly understanding more the truth of things in their perception of things, still need to feel the need to repent, being truly sorry for the terrible thing done in their ignorance, that their broken condition allowed to happen. At some level they are not responsible for their actions (and indeed would not be legally responsible) yet as part of becoming healthy they would still repent of what happened and take responsibility as part of their being made whole. Or you could imagine someone in the grip of a ideological cult or belief, say a follower of a Jim Jones or Charles Manson or a ISIS follower, or Neo-Nazi or so on, who fully committed and seeing everything through that belief system hurts and kills someone believing their are completely in the right. Then events happen that break through that ideological bondage, and they come to realize how twisted and warped their previous understanding of reality and others were, such freedom and understanding their state and the destructive path would involve repentance and taking responsibility and asking forgiveness for what happened, for damaged done, as part of realizing what the Good really was.

          That part of the process of coming to know the Good better, particularly not just intellectually, but emotionally, spiritually and physically in a holistic unity of personhood, is in fully understanding where we have been mistaken and damaged ourselves and others is at the same time in that coming realization to repent, ask forgiveness, take responsibility and redress and reconcile, that it is the very aspect of coming into awareness of and realization of the Good we have mistaken and been ignorant before off. Indeed, true repentance is always this anyway, when someone truly repents is because they truly know, heart, mind, spirit and soul where they went wrong and where the truth of things and the good of things really is to be found and respond to that turning from what they see truly is the destructive path.

          Also in relation to Scriptural images I think that these are picture to be put alongside the picture of unrestrained forgiveness that forgives without any requirements on the other side, and need to be understood within the context of who God is, as well explained by Father Kimel’s post on Herbert McCabe and the Unfathomable Mystery of Divine Forgiveness’ (in which you can read the full article here: ). In which even now, whenever we repent and ask forgiveness of God, or even others or come to change our ways, it is God’s work in us already leading us to a freedom from darkness and an healing and better apprehension of the Good, or as McCabe quoted in that article puts it:

          ‘If we are going to understand anything about the forgiveness of sin we cannot just be content with pictures; we have to think as clearly as we can. … The initiative is always literally with God. When God forgives our sin, he is not changing his mind about us; he is changing our mind about him. He does not change; his mind is never anything but loving; he is love. The forgiveness of sin is God’s creative and re-creative love making the desert bloom again, bringing us back from dry sterility to the rich luxuriant life bursting out all over the place. When God changes your mind in this way, when he pours out on you his Spirit of new life, it is exhilarating, but it is also fairly painful. There is a trauma of rebirth as perhaps there is of birth. The exhilaration and the pain that belong to being reborn is what we call contrition, and this is the forgiveness of sin. Contrition is not anxious guilt about sin; it is the continual recognition in hope that the Spirit has come to me as healing my sin.

          So it is not literally true that because we are sorry God decides to forgive us. That is a perfectly good story, but it is only a story. The literal truth is that we are sorry because God forgives us. Our sorrow for sin just is the forgiveness of God working within us. Contrition and forgiveness are just two names for the same thing, they are the gift of the Holy Spirit; the re-creative transforming act of God in us. God does not forgive us because of anything he finds in us; he forgives us out of his sheer delight, his exuberant joy in making the desert bloom again. (pp. 16-17)’

          This might not answer all your issues (or perhaps it answers none 🙂 ) but I hope it and the article linked might help with conceptualizing some of the issues you are seeing.

          Liked by 3 people

          • TJF says:

            Thank you Grant, Brian, and DBH for helping me to understand this. I will have to chew on your words a bit. This is a difficult topic. I can’t say I fully grasp it yet. Any further suggestions or recommendations on resources would be helpful as well. I appreciate your time and patience with me.

            Liked by 1 person

        • DBH says:

          Do you think that culpability has to be absolute to be real? Or is it possible to be wounded in nature, and therefore drawn towards things you know you ought not to do, but that you still feel will bring you greater satisfaction than not doing them? Surely you are culpable to some degree, but to some degree also a slave to your compulsions. Isn’t this the whole point of John 8: 31-34? And so whatever “punishment” a good God would impose would be just only insofar as its ultimate purpose would be to set you free from the limitations that make you desire to sin.

          Once you accept that only the Good is ontologically real, and that evil is a privatio boni, you are more or less obliged to conclude that absolute culpability is a fantasy. It’s not a concept worth rescuing. Culpability os not a substantial reality in itself; it is a damaged condition in which you are imprisoned.

          Liked by 3 people

          • TJF says:


            I do understand some of what you are saying and do not believe in absolute culpability. I’m just trying to see where the culpability lies then. Is it just related to one’s conscience? So would Raskolnikoff be more culpable for his murder than Ted Bundy for his murders because he felt more remorse? I’m trying to see a concrete example of what our culpability looks like in a real life concrete situation and not just in the abstract. I can’t picture it. It just seems to me that it boils down to ignorance and we aren’t really culpable of anything except, I guess, violating our conscience, but then wouldn’t the impulse to violate one’s conscience be some form of slavery and thus lack culpability too? I am convinced in the main by your book, but am perplexed on this issue. By the way, thank you so much for taking the time to respond to me. Your work has greatly enlightened me. I appreciate you answering my questions and for your patience.

            Liked by 1 person

      • Tom says:

        Brian: There is still a necessary ascesis.

        Tom: I am so glad to hear you say that.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Thomas says:

      Some of the ambiguity lies in what it means to be intrinsically oriented to the good. Sometimes this orientation or drive sounds a little mystified.

      But if we think of it in terms of the structure of willing, it is quite familiar. Willing is asking a certain kind of question, “what shall I do”, “what should be accomplished”, and so on. It is not simply one desire among others. It is an exercise of intelligence asking a question of a certain form.

      The object of this question is different than the object of any desire whatsoever. We have spontaneous desires, but these fall under the category of the good mediately, only insofar as they are potential answers to the question “what should be accomplished”.

      The orientation to the good simply means we naturally ask these kinds of questions. It’s not an occult force or a mysterious supernatural faculty.

      And we don’t ask these questions only in isolation, one at a time. We ask what we should become, what we should make of our lives, whether any of this is ultimately worthwhile, and so on. Insofar as our questions about worthiness and value naturally progress to more comprehensive goods, we are naturally oriented toward that which is the ultimate good.

      Sin occurs when we know what the answer to a question like “What shall I do?” is, but we choose not do it. We lack a good reason for our act of will (which is not to say there aren’t sociological or psychological reasons). We are culpable if and only if we act knowingly without sufficient reason. We need not (and do not) have complete knowledge.

      To the extent we act out of ignorance, we have diminished culpability. In the case of mental illness in particular, this might even reduce our culpability to zero.


      • TJF says:


        “Sin occurs when we know what the answer to a question like “What shall I do?” is, but we choose not do it. We lack a good reason for our act of will (which is not to say there aren’t sociological or psychological reasons). We are culpable if and only if we act knowingly without sufficient reason.”

        But how can we be held accountable for being ignorant, since according to the intellectualist model of freedom, it is logically coherent to to freely do something with full knowledge. What blame do we carry? Dr. Hart says it isn’t absolute, but is it any then?


  3. DBH says:

    Thanks, Ty. It is humbling when someone else makes some of your arguments better than you have done yourself. I’ll forgive the “pompously snide” line. The proper term is “impatient.”

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ty Monroe says:

      Thank you, David. It means a great deal to me that you took the time to read my inordinately long reflection and that you found it to represent some of your arguments faithfully. Thank you also for pressing all of us to face these questions head-on. And if in order to hold our feet to the (consuming) fire it requires a certain amount of impatience—even of the vehement sort—then that’s a small price to pay for a great good.


  4. Dave says:

    TJF, thank you for continuing to press on this issue. It’s a topic that Mike McClymond ridiculed in his critique of Hart’s book here
    It seems to my limited brain that maybe we are using the wrong terminology. Culpable means “deserving blame.” Maybe we need to insert a new word meaning “requiring correction.” Maybe instead of focusing on sinful humanity as being guilty of something deserving blame, we need to restate the issue as sinful humanity requiring correction in the same way that immature children require correction. That seems to be what Dr. Monroe is saying in this article…
    “We need not succumb to a false dichotomy between ignorance or culpability. While ignorance surely plays a role in every sin, the culpability of the sinner is nonetheless evidenced by the necessity of a corrective punishment. Anyone who has cared for children should be able to recognize the subtle distinction here: to the extent that an agent fully comprehends his misdeed, its ill effects, and the loss of goods upon committing it, to that extent the severity (and nature) of the punishment is measured. I would never discipline a newborn infant, and I would never give my three year old the same consequence that I would give my fourteen year old.”
    And please…Brian and Dr. Hart and Dr. Monroe and all the other super intellectuals who comment on this blog, please have pity on those of us less endowed with gray matter. Would there be any harm in using smaller words and less complicated language to convey the truth so that more of us little people could understand. But we love you anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. John H says:

    Dr. Monroe, I must say that I don’t see a significant difference between the construal of hell advanced in the article and Justin Coyle’s understanding. In both cases, the purpose of hell is to burn away the dross that has contaminated the gold of the true self, to use Gregory’s image. And I don’t believe that Dr. Coyle meant to suggest that the false self burns in hell eternally. Once the purpose of hell has been fully accomplished, the destruction of the false self-hell also ceases to exist. But since this death of death will not occur prior to the eshaton, from our perspective Hell appears to be endless and almost final.

    For me, the greatest challenge to belief in the apokatastasis also happens to be the most significant obstacle to belief in the existence of the God of Jesus Christ: the problem of evil. I realize that Dr. Hart’s book is not meant to address the problem of evil, but it is a stumbling block to many who wish to believe in the Gospel. And the problem will not be resolved in cosmic history: Job’s questions remain unanswered this side of the Last Judgment. And so, at the end of the day, I can only remain a hopeful universalist, not because I question the logical coherence of the arguments made in Dr. Hart’s book, but rather the truth of one of its major premises: that God is the Good as such. And the obstacle to belief in a good God is not merely the existence of suffering and evil, but their sheer magnitude and scope, plus the fact that death and entropy seem to have the last word in the cosmos.


  6. Ty Monroe says:

    Apologies to all for my delay in responding, and a sincere thank you for reading this very long piece. It means more to me than you know.

    Dave, thanks for your feedback about my writing style and word choice. As for the issue of culpability, I think you and others (including Dr. Hart) are pointing in a direction that accords with my own dim ideas. In particular, it just seems right to me to say that the big problem is with thinking (even if only implicitly) of some sort of absolute culpability alongside other forms of mitigated culpability. Within that framework, yes, it will always appear that indexing sin to ignorance will result in an evacuation of culpability, not its reframing. Still, I also understand TJF’s concern that it’s difficult to explain this newly framed understanding of culpability: we feel that even a “tantum…quantum” principle (that is, “to the extent that we know better, we’re culpable”) explanation leaves the door open to no culpability whatsoever. Perhaps this is in part because we wonder, won’t we need to say that in the aspects of our knowledge that *are* right, in order to sin we’re choosing evil for its own sake, against our better judgment, voluntaristically/irrationally? I don’t think this is so, and for two reasons, some of them perhaps touched upon in replies by Grant et al. First, because every decision is based on a complex mix of *different* kinds of right knowledge and ignorance about various factors. So, while we might be choosing to do evil on the basis of a (limited) knowledge of the genuine wrongness of that action, it’s coupled with ignorance about a whole host of other things, including the *actual* outcome of that evil for ourselves and others. This is to say nothing of the admixture, in the fallen state, of right and false knowledge about the very same object. But it is also to say that if there’s one bit of ignorance that we all necessarily share (unlike perhaps Augustine’s ostensibly pristine pre-fall angels), it’s ignorance of the true Good which God is, entirely. No one can know this fully and fall, or else pure (Neo-?)Origenism is right on this one point. Thus, there’s always room for correction. This brings up my second point, which is not merely the fact of correction, but its nature. Whatever we must say about how sin is premised upon ignorance—but nonetheless in a manner admitting of culpability—we (the universalists) must also say that while the only legitimate punishment is the kind done with the goal of correction and redemption, the fact that the corrective punishment is *punishment* suggests (or exhibits), in a kind of retrospective way, the fact of culpability. (Once again, Nyssen is very good on this in Anim. et Res. with his imagery of the rope caked with filth being pulled through a constricted hole in order to remove the filth). THIS kind of ignorance-and-culpability mix is surely different than ignorance which is merely, “Oh, I had no clue I wasn’t supposed to drive 50 miles an hour on this stretch of road” kind of ignorance. THAT kind of ignorance we fix with mere awareness, not punishment. So, perhaps what we need is a more subtle grammar of ignorance so as to make possible a more subtle grammar of culpability?

    John, Thanks for your reply re: Dr. Coyle’s. I suppose I may have misread Justin’s position on this… he suggests it’s an “eternal destruction” that avoids trying to figure out the nuances between perpetuus and aionios. So, is this an annihilation of the false self or its ‘ongoing’ damnation? I think perhaps they’re one in the same, and maybe that ends up counting in favor of it as a solution.

    Again, thank you all!


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