In his third meditation in That All Shall Be Saved, David Hart advances an argument that neatly rhymes with his espousal of St Gregory of Nyssa’s corporate understanding of the Incarnation: we are saved not as solitary individuals but only as we are caught up into the fullness of humanity in Jesus Christ; or as Hart puts it: “There is no way in which persons can be saved as persons except in and with all other persons” (p. 146). Comprehending his argument does not depend upon us having a philosophically sophisticated understanding of personhood. We may begin commonsensically. At every level of our existence, from birth to death, we are shaped and defined by our relationships with other persons, who are in turn shaped and defined by their relationships to other persons, going back in time to the origin of our species. Philosophers will unpack our communal personhood in various ways, but the observation seems incontestable. We need only think of feral children, abandoned in the wild and raised by wolves or monkeys. Mowgli may have grown up well and happy in the Disney version of The Jungle Book, thanks to Raksha, Bagheera, and Baloo; but the reality turns out differently in the nonfictional world, especially for children who were abandoned before they acquired the ability to speak sentences and think conceptually. They are inevitably stunted in their intellectual and emotional development. But even this analogy breaks down, given their socialization into an animal family or pack. We cannot even conceive of a John or Mary apart from all the other Johns and Marys, Alvins and Christines, Roberts and Abigails who make up the societies in which they were born and raised.
No man is an island,
entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were.
as well as if a manor of thy friend’s
or of thine own were.
Any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind;
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.
So what does this have to do with eternal damnation? To bring the matter home, imagine upon your death being welcomed into the blessedness of the saints. You immediately look around, searching for your deceased parents and siblings. Your heart is filled with joy as you see them rushing toward you. But one is missing, your older brother George. He was always the problem child of the family, and in his adult life he turned away from God and became a very selfish person. Yet you still have wonderful childhood memories of him. “Where is George?” you ask, and your mother’s eyes fill with tears. She takes you to the viewer that allows you to see the denizens of Tartarus; and there is George, in unbelievable torment and agony. In your heart you still love your brother, and with all your heart you wish you could do something to deliver him from his suffering. Are you still perfectly happy? Be honest. Has not your happiness diminished at least a tiny bit? My guess is that you cannot imagine even transcendent bliss ever rendering you indifferent to your brother’s plight. It’s just not heaven without him. And should you ever reach a point where no longer grieve for your brother, no longer think upon him, are you still the same person?
Now let’s change the scenario. Let’s assume that your parents and siblings and friends and relatives are safe with you in heaven. The man that you see in the underworld viewer is a total stranger. Now that you’ve been perfected in the love of Christ is indifference toward nobodies easier for you? The condemned deserve their misery, the theologians tell us; yet that damned person is somebody’s parent, child, sibling, lover, friend. Surely someone in heaven weeps for him—and if not a parent or sibling, friend or lover, surely the Blessed Virgin Mary grieves for this poor soul. If no one does, are you in heaven or are you in hell?
True, most of us do not spare a thought for the murderer in prison—though, frankly, there is nothing particularly commendable in that dreary emotional fact, nor is it a good guide to how we should expect to see things from the perspective of eternity, free from sin and selfishness—but it is also true that that murderer’s brother, mother, father, sister, child, wife, or friend must think about him, and must suffer grief at the thought of what he has become and the end he has reached. This means, I submit, that our indifference to his fate must also logically be an indifference to their sufferings as well. And it requires little imagination to see how this small, prudent, seemingly rational degree of callousness on our part might be magnified, if carried into the calculus of eternity, into an absolute moral detachment from all other persons. After all, taken to its most extreme logical entailments, our willingness to surrender even the most depraved of souls to a final unrelieved torment is, tacitly, a willingness also to ignore the sufferings of potentially everyone. And, as I have noted above, what one is willing to sacrifice to achieve a certain end, even if only potentially, is a price that, morally speaking, one has already paid, whether or not the actual eventuality of that sacrifice should ever arise. We cannot choose to cease to care for any soul without thereby choosing to cease to care for every soul to which that particular soul is attached by bonds of love or loyalty, and for every other soul attached to each of these, and, if need be, for every soul that has ever been—if that is what it takes to be perfectly, blissfully indifferent to the damned. No soul is who or what it is in isolation; and no soul’s sufferings can be ignored without the sufferings of a potentially limitless number of other souls being ignored as well. And so, it seems, if we allow the possibility that even so much as a single soul might slip away unmourned into everlasting misery, the ethos of heaven turns out to be “every soul for itself”—which is also, curiously enough, precisely the ethos of hell. (pp. 148-149)
Some theologians have speculated that God will remove our memories of the reprobate; others that our beatific ecstasy will be so consuming that we will give them no thought (see “Heavenly Amnesia“). We have all experienced such moments, while watching a thrilling movie, reading an enthralling novel, making love to our soulmate. Yet our existence as persons cannot be so easily divorced from the everlasting sufferings of the damned.
It is not simply that our identities are constituted by our memories—though, of course, they are, and this is crucially important—but also that the personhood of any of us, in its entirety, is created by and sustained within the loves and associations and affinities that shape us. There is no such thing as a person in separation. Personhood as such, in fact, is not a condition possible for an isolated substance. It is an act, not a thing, and it is achieved only in and through a history of relations with others. We are finite beings in a state of becoming, and in us there is nothing that is not action, dynamism, an emergence into a fuller (or a retreat into a more impoverished) existence. And so, as I said in my First Meditation, we are those others who make us. Spiritual personality is not mere individuality, nor is personal love one of its merely accidental conditions or extrinsic circumstances. A person is first and foremost a limitless capacity, a place where the all shows itself with a special inflection. We exist as “the place of the other,” to borrow a phrase from Michel de Certeau. Surely this is the profoundest truth in the doctrine of resurrection. That we must rise from the dead to be saved is a claim not simply about resumed corporeality, whatever that might turn out to be, but more crucially about the fully restored existence of the person as socially, communally, corporately constituted. For Paul, flesh (sarx) and blood (haima), the mortal life of the “psychical body” (soma psychikon), passes away, but not embodiment as such, not the “spiritual body” (soma pnevmatikon), which is surely not merely a local, but a communal condition: Each person is a body within the body of humanity, which exists in its proper nature only as the body of Christ. (p. 153)
We are constituted as persons by our inescapable communion with our fellow human beings, with every human being. No man is an island. Our existence as persons, therefore, resists a final division into the saved and the lost. If some are damned, then surely we are damned with them. This truth leads Hart to this conclusion: “either all persons must be saved, or none can be” (p. 155).
In their book God’s Final Victory, John Kronen and Eric Reitan have formulated a similar argument on behalf of universalism. They title it An Argument from God’s Love for the Blessed (p. 80):
1. Anyone in a state of eternal blessedness possesses both perfect bliss and universal love for all persons.
2. Anyone who possesses universal love for all persons and who is aware that some persons are eternally damned cannot possess perfect bliss.
3. Therefore, anyone who is aware that some persons are eternally damned cannot possess eternal blessedness (1, 2).
4. If anyone is eternally damned, anyone who possesses eternal blessedness would be aware of this.
5. Thus, if anyone is eternally damned, then none possess eternal blessedness (3, 4).
6. God, out of benevolent love for His creatures, confers blessedness at least on those who earnestly repent and seek communion with Him.
7. Therefore, God does not eternally damn anyone (5, 6).
Most Christians will agree that God intends the blessed to enjoy the most supreme and worthwhile form of joy in an eternal communion of love and holiness, and most will agree that they will share in God’s universal love for humanity, including the condemned. I say “most,” because it’s unclear to me where confessors of retributive perdition, particularly hardcore Calvinists and Thomists, fall on the question. But as our two philosophers rightly note: “The prevailing Christian interpretation of divine love is that it is unconditional, encompassing even the damned” (p. 81). The blessed will love not only each other but also the reprobate, just as God does. Neither second-best happiness nor defective charity makes the grade. The optimal eschatological condition will thus include “(a) perfect bliss—that is, happiness that is the best kind of happiness a person can know, untainted by any dissatisfaction; and (b) moral sanctification, including being perfected in love such that the saved love as God does” (p. 81). To love is to will the good of the other, to identify the good of the other as my own good; but what if that good is no longer possible? Will my love then cease? Would I want it to cease?
Perhaps the second premise is the most controversial. Assuming that the redeemed share in God’s universal love for all human beings, then their eschatological happiness will necessarily be diminished if they know that one or more of their brethren are enduring eternal misery. “If we love someone, how could knowledge of their eternal damnation not diminish our happiness?” (p. 81). This must be true even if the condition of perdition is freely chosen. Damnation is, after all, not just an unfortunate outcome: it is the ultimate tragedy, a calamity without end, and thus the worst possible conclusion of human existence. How can love not lament and grieve?
I can imagine myself setting aside the distress caused by the torment of another human being, if I knew that his torment was temporary and reparative; but I cannot imagine being perfectly happy if I knew he or she would suffer interminably. K&R elaborate:
There is a difference between temporary and permanent bad states. Perhaps it is possible for happiness to be undiminished by the former—especially if there is an assurance that the bad state will be redeemed. However, it is something else again to suppose that happiness can be undiminished by the latter, especially if there is no hope of redemption. In the former case, the intentional object of one’s happiness might be the final state that is ultimately realized. Insofar as this state is worthy of unmitigated approval, supreme happiness might be fitting given even passing evils. What is not compatible with supreme happiness is permanent and ultimate tragedy–for in that case the final state is not one towards which an unmitigated positive judgment is fitting. (p. 84)
Kronen & Reitan, like Hart, advance the argument beyond the love of loved ones (parent for child, lover for beloved, friend for friend) to reflect the universal intention and character of the divine charity. The blessed have been perfected in love. “The degree to which they love the damned will exceed the degree to which we love even our dearest and closest friends” (p. 83). There are no strangers, no one who does not qualify as our neighbor. No matter how evil and corrupt, no matter how possessed of hatred for God and the company of heaven, the reprobate remain persons made in the image of God and therefore remain objects of love and concern both for God and the redeemed. The blessed cannot be indifferent to the awful plight of those who inhabit hell, precisely because they love as God loves. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:33-35). Olivier Clément once asked Elder Sophrony what would happen if a person did not open his heart and accept the love of God. The monk answered: “You may be certain that as long as someone is in hell, Christ will remain there with him.” If such is the case for Christ, then surely also the saints; and if also the saints, then we must conclude that God will find a way to restore all humanity to himself in perfect love and beatitude. The vision of the Seer will be fulfilled: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Rev 21:4).
The classic objection to the Argument from God’s Love for the Blessed was advanced by St Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century (ST Suppl. 94). He first asks whether the blessed pity the unhappiness of the damned. No, he replies, the blessed do not pity them. They know that the damned now exist in an irredeemable state and are being punished according to divine justice. Therefore the blessed cannot rationally desire their salvation. Pity is both pointless and impossible:
But in the future state it will be impossible for them to be taken away from their unhappiness: and consequently it will not be possible to pity their sufferings according to right reason. Therefore the blessed in glory will have no pity on the damned.
Thomas then asks whether the blessed rejoice in the punishment of the wicked. He famously answers in the affirmative. They do not rejoice directly, he explains, for love does not revel in the affliction of others; but rather indirectly, for they approve and celebrate the right ordering of divine justice:
A thing may be a matter of rejoicing in two ways. First directly, when one rejoices in a thing as such: and thus the saints will not rejoice in the punishment of the wicked. Secondly, indirectly, by reason namely of something annexed to it: and in this way the saints will rejoice in the punishment of the wicked, by considering therein the order of Divine justice and their own deliverance, which will fill them with joy. And thus the Divine justice and their own deliverance will be the direct cause of the joy of the blessed: while the punishment of the damned will cause it indirectly.
Kronen & Reitan reject Thomas’ argument, largely based on their rejection of the retributive model of damnation and their affirmation of the universality of the divine love (see chap. 6). God does not stop willing the salvation of the lost and therefore neither will the saints. Only a person who does not love could find hell for others sufferable—but then that person would be in hell. If the saints rejoice in the sufferings of the damned, it is in anticipation of their eventual conversion and reconciliation. But should apokatastasis prove impossible, “then this would give the blessed reason to grieve. They would grieve an eternal tragedy, forever saddened by God’s ultimate failure to achieve what is best” (p. 106). Yet the blessed do not grieve; therefore … QED.
The K&R argument might be considered as step one of Hart’s argument. Hart goes beyond it in his elaboration of communally-constituted personhood. We are not monadic substances or solitary individuals. We exist as persons in a solidarity of interdependence and mutuality. Recall Hart’s above-quoted words: “The personhood of any of us, in its entirety, is created by and sustained within the loves and associations and affinities that shape us.” We exist in the other, all others, as they exist in us. Here is the ontological grounding of Torah: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). If eternal damnation is true, the blessed would quite literally cease to exist as the persons they are and become altogether different persons. “We belong, of necessity,” Hart remarks, “to an indissoluble coinherence of souls” (p. 154).
I’d like to give Dr Hart the final, and lovely, word. How might the damned contribute to the beatitude of the redeemed?
by awakening again and yet again a truly substitutionary love within souls whose whole being and delight consists precisely in such love. And, really, if there is any true continuity between the charity we are called to cultivate in this life and the transfiguring love that supposedly unites us to God, then surely there can be no brake upon our desire to include those still outside the company of the redeemed. Such love could find its complete joy only in the joy of completion. Such love, in fact, would not even be able to distinguish between this corporate desire for the salvation of all and the individual soul’s longing for its own salvation. I am not I in myself alone, but only in all others. If, then, anyone is in hell, I too am partly in hell. Happily, however, if the Christian story is true, that love cannot now end in failure or tragedy. The descent into those depths—where we seek out and find those who are lost, and find our own salvation in so doing—is not a lonely act of spiritual heroism, or a futile rebellion of our finite wills against a merciless eternity. For the whole substance of Christian faith is the conviction that another has already and decisively gone down into that abyss for us, to set all the prisoners free, even from the chains of their own hatred and despair; and hence the love that has made all of us who we are, and that will continue throughout eternity to do so, cannot ultimately be rejected by anyone. Thus all shall have their share in—as Gregory says in his great mystical commentary On the Song of Songs—“the redeemed unity of all, united one with another by their convergence upon the One Good.” Only thus will humanity “according to the divine image” come into being, and only thus will God be truly all in all. (pp. 157-158)