The transcendent, omnipotent and omniscient Deity has freely created a cosmos whose eschatological consummation will be heaven and hell—so traditional theology tells us. He might have created a different cosmos, one in which all rational beings enjoy eternal beatitude (no everlasting damnation); or, if no such cosmoses were available to be actualized (transworld damnation), he might have decided not to create a cosmos at all. Yet here we are. Before us lies the possibility of eternal happiness in Jesus Christ or everlasting misery. Some reading this article will be saved, but some will be damned. Given the divine freedom, the final responsibility for this outcome lies with the Creator himself. God’s responsibility for the suffering of the damned cannot be mitigated by considerations like creaturely freedom (human beings have brought the outcome upon themselves by their voluntary disobedience; human beings have brought the outcome upon themselves by their voluntary refusal to accept God’s love and mercy). God foreknew the eschatological conclusion yet chose to create this specific cosmos regardless. The goodness of God is thus called into inevitable question. Such is the powerful argument advanced by David Bentley Hart in his book That All Shall Be Saved (see the two previous articles in this series).
Numerous Christian philosophers and theologians have advanced apologetic arguments to justify God’s decision to create a cosmos in which he condemns millions of souls (or maybe just one) to everlasting torment. To the frustration of many readers, Hart does not analyze these arguments in the depth they believe they deserve, leaving the extended treatments to others. (If you are one such frustrated reader, I commend to you God’s Final Victory by John Kronen and Eric Reitan.) To consciences formed in the gospel of Christ’s absolute love and unconditional grace all such justifications must ultimately prove sophistical and hollow. The God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of his Son would never tolerate, much less intend, the interminable, irredeemable suffering of his children. Period. Hart formulates the fundamental question: “Would God truly be the Good in an ultimate sense—and his act of creation good in a final sense—if the eternal loss of any soul to endless sorrow were a real possibility?” (pp. 27-28). The question answers itself—yet for many, for whatever reasons, it does not. The answer did not become absolutely crystal clear to me until my son Aaron died. In a moment of fiery revelation, all my objections to apocatastasis were burned away. The God who is Love will not abandon his children.
If Hart’s argument from divine freedom and the creatio ex nihilo is sound, what then is the role of the damned in the story of salvation? Role? What kind of role could they possibly have? Yet if God has created the cosmos with a view to their perdition, then the question is neither insane nor nonsensical. Hart provocatively invites us to think of the damned as collateral damage, the cost of the salvation of the blessed:
What then, we might well ask, does this make of the story of salvation—of its cost? What would any damned soul be, after all, as enfolded within the eternal will of God, other than a price settled upon by God with his own power, an oblation willingly exchanged for a finite benefit—the lamb slain from the foundation of the world? And is hell not then the innermost secret of heaven, its sacrificial heart? And what then is God’s moral nature, inasmuch as the moral character of any intended final cause must include within its calculus what one is willing to sacrifice to achieve that end; and, if the “acceptable” price is the eternal torment of a rational nature, what room remains for any moral analogy comprehensible within finite terms? After all, the economics of the exchange is as monstrous as it is exact. (p. 83; emphasis mine)
For me, this passage is one of the most illuminating and compelling in the book. I remember being particularly struck by it when I read Hart’s essay “God, Creation, and Evil” back in 2015. This was a new thought for me. When the question “What is the cost of our salvation?” is asked, all Christians immediately answer, the death of the Son of God! I had never considered the horrific possibility of the damned as also bearing the cost. Yet how could it be logically otherwise? When God creates the cosmos, he accepts the cost of an eternally populated hell, simultaneously imposing this cost upon the reprobate. We cannot get God off the hook by positing either his ignorance or impotence. Maybe open and process theists can entertain these possibilities but no Christian steeped in the catholic tradition can. God is omniscient and omnipotent. The eschatological end is enfolded within God’s eternal act of creation. It cannot be otherwise.
Nor need we think that the cost is dependent upon numbers. It doesn’t matter whether the damned are many or just a single person. We can even give him a name, say, Adolf Hitler. If any man deserves to burn in hell forever, surely Hitler does. Yet the arithmetic is inflexible, as Hart notes. Whether many or one, “the price is raised beyond any calculus of relative goods, and into the realm of absolute—of infinite—expenditure” (p. 84). We cannot add to or subtract from the infinite. One damnation is one too many.
For what it is worth, I for one do not object in the least to Hitler being purged of his sins and saved, over however many aeons of inconceivably painful purification in hell that might take, but I do most definitely object to Hitler fixed forever in his sins serving as my redeemer in some shadow eternity of perpetual torment, offering up his screams of agony as the price of my hope for salvation. The very thought reduces all the central articles of the Christian faith to cheap trifles. Compared to that unspeakable offering, after all, that interminable and abominable oblation of infinite misery, what would the cross of Christ be? How would it be diminished for us? And to what? A bad afternoon? A vanishingly temporary indisposition of the infinite? And what would the mystery of God becoming a man in order to effect a merely partial rescue of created order truly be, as compared to the far deeper mystery of a worthless man becoming the suffering god upon whose perpetual holocaust the entire order of creation finally depends? A smaller gesture within the greater? A minor, local economy within the totality of the universal? (pp. 84-85)
My guess is that many readers of That All Shall Be Saved have quickly dismissed passages like this as just so much Hartian hyperbole. If so, they have made an unfortunate blunder. Hart is merely describing that which must be the case if the doctrine of eternal punishment is true.
But maybe there is still yet a way of escape from the implacable logic. Let us suppose that God has created human beings with genuine libertarian freedom, that they “possess real autonomy of almost godlike scope, and that no one goes to hell save by his or her own Promethean industry and ingenuity” (p. 85). Yet nothing changes! The logic still obtains:
Let us, that is, say God created simply on the chance that humanity might sin, and on the chance that a certain number of incorrigibly wicked souls might plunge themselves into the fiery abyss forever. This still means that, morally, he has purchased the revelation of his power in creation by the same horrendous price—even if, in the end, no one at all should happen to be damned. The logic is irresistible. God creates. The die is cast. Alea iacta est. But then again, as Mallarme says, “Un coup de des jamais n’abolira le hasard” (A throw of the dice will never abolish the hazard): for what is hazarded has already been surrendered, entirely, no matter how the dice may fall. The outcome of the aleatory venture may be intentionally indeterminate, but the wager itself is an irrevocable intentional decision, wherein every possible cost has already been accepted; the irrecuperable expenditure has been offered even if, happily, it is never actually lost, and so the moral nature of the act is the same in either case. To venture the life of your child for some other end is, morally, already to have killed your child, even if at the last moment Artemis or Heracles or the Angel of the LORD should stay your hand. And so, the revelation of God’s glory in creatures would still always be dependent upon that evil, or that venture beyond good and evil, even if at the last no one should perish. Creation could never then be called “good” in an unconditional sense; nor God the “Good as such,” no matter what conditional goods he might accomplish in creating. And, here too, the losing lot might just as well have fallen to the blessed, given the stochastic vagaries of existence: accidents of birth, congenital qualities of character, natural intellectual endowments, native moral aptitudes, material circumstances, personal powers of resolve, impersonal forces of chance, the grim encumbrances of sin and mortality … The saved might, by this or that small twist of fate or folly, have been the damned, and the damned the saved. Once again, then, who would the damned be but the redeemers of the blessed, the price eternally paid by God for the sake of the Kingdom’s felicity? (pp. 85-86; emphasis mine)
Hell, and therefore God, cannot be justified by appealing to libertarian freedom. This approach reduces the the divine act of creation to a wager—the LORD gambling on the free choices of his creatures. Perhaps he even hopes that all will be saved, all the while anticipating the self-damnation of some. Yet the wager itself, no matter the outcome, testifies against the goodness of God. A loving Father does not put his children at such risk; he does not gamble with their eternal destiny.
Has Hart yet persuaded you that the infinitely good and loving God would not create a cosmos whose consummation will include hell? No? Then ruminate on the above passages and test the rigor of his reasoning.