by David Bentley Hart
In my last posting here, I confessed my bafflement at Edward Feser’s strange assertion that, when discussing the structure of rational freedom in That All Shall Be Saved, I do so in order to deny that human beings are truly culpable for their sins. I could not imagine where he had come up with such a notion. I think, however, I have discovered the source of his error. As I mentioned before, he does not seem actually to have read the book (as he reveals in several places in the review), but he probably did search online for quickly digestible negative critiques of the text, so that he would have something to say. And I think he must have come upon a review by William Matthew Diem called “The Psychological Possibility of Mortal Sin,” which is predicated upon precisely the mistake that Feser repeats. Now, to his credit, Diem’s is a genuine effort to offer a serious criticism of my work; his misunderstanding is not the result, as far as I can tell, of the indolence evident in Feser’s article. That said, I am not certain that Diem read the book either. He does not claim to have done so, and his entire argument seems to be based on a misreading of the first part (of four) of an “interim report” about the book that I published on the Public Orthodoxy site. That would explain, at least, some of his misconstruals of my position.
Whatever the case, his review falls into the familiar pattern: he is yet another critic who is arguing not with the case I (very precisely) make in the book, but with some other, more easily refuted case he has substituted for it. The result is curious. For one thing, he makes several statements that are intended to express some kind of disagreement with my views, but that are in fact entirely consonant with my claims in the book. For instance, he places a great deal of emphasis on the selflessness of the love required of us by God to be the creatures we are called to be, but seems unaware that this is precisely the essence of my book’s Third Meditation, and one of the more crucial steps in the six-part argument that the book advances.
If, however, Diem did read the book, then somehow he has conflated two different issues that are quite distinct in the text, and in the process has completely reversed my claims regarding one of them. He has also failed to grasp that the book is a unified totality and that, even if he were right to some limited degree about the questions he addresses, his own argument would still lead him into traps laid elsewhere in the text (Meditation Three specifically, but also Meditation One and the treatment of predicative equivocity raised in the first two chapters and elsewhere). And then, of course, there are assertions of his own—or at least assumptions—that are clearly false.
But let me be more precise.
As I say, Diem is under the impression that my long account of the structure of rational freedom in the book is an attempt to deny human culpability for sin, and even to deny that anyone possesses the “psychological” capacity for “mortal” sin. But, of course, that is not the issue. Meditation Four is a throughgoing assault—almost wholly negative in form—on the now very popular “free will defense” of eternal perdition, which requires that we think of human beings as possessing an eternally persistent capacity to reject God, attached to a fully rational cognizance both of God as he truly is and of their own natures as they truly are, as well as full rational discretion over their own wills and a freedom to choose that is never, ever abridged. The “free will” defense, after all, is an attempt to exculpate God entirely of any imputation of injustice or spite while yet affirming his (intrinsically unjust and spiteful) willingness to damn some of his creatures to eternal torment.
Of course, I do in fact, in an entirely different portion of the book, address the matter of human culpability. Even then, however, the issue is raised only in the course of asking whether the analogical range of the concept “justice” dissolves into equivocity when we try to make sense of an eternal hell, and whether such equivocity—with regard to this or any other concept—does not quickly become a contagion that corrupts all theological discourse by association. (But that is a matter for another time.) But I clearly affirm the reality of human guilt and grant the justice of certain punishments attendant upon it. True, I do also insist that such culpability is finite, qualified by inescapable conditions within the fallen world, and justly subject only to a penalty proportional to the sinner’s intrinsic powers of intention and discernment. That is a matter of simple, self-evident logic. Justice is a matter of proportion or it is nothing at all.
But, in a larger sense, the issue of culpability is of no deep concern to me, and certainly occupies no central position in my book’s reasoning, because I draw my understanding of Christ’s salvific work from the New Testament. All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory. So what? Like Paul and the author of John’s Gospel (among others), I assume that the Christian claim is that Christ came to save us from slavery to precisely those conditions that make such culpability inevitable. On fact, I don’t know how my perspective could be any more impeccably Pauline. We do what we would not do, and do not do that which we would. And so we ever shall so long as we are bound to this body of death. In the end, guilt is a sickness unto death in which we all languish, one that none of us can avoid, and so we all need to be saved as the culpable and helpless creatures that we are. Such, at least, seems to be Christ’s characterization of his mission: He came to save the cosmos, not to condemn it (John 3:17; 12:47); for “everyone who sins is a slave to sin” (John 8:34), while only “the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32)—free, that is, as only God can make one.
Even in its own terms, I might add, Diem’s argument hardly dispels the question of culpability’s limits. He complains that, when I speak of either freedom or culpability, I seem to assume that the sinner must have a direct knowledge of God in se in order to be fully free with regard to God (which is false, but that is neither here nor there). He argues, by supposed contrast, that it is possible, with sufficient clarity of mind and purity of will, for any of us to reject God by rejecting justice in our dealings with others, even if it is not God as such upon whom our minds are fixed. This is a confusion of issues. First of all—unless he is some sort of pure voluntarist—Diem must acknowledge that, to whatever degree we can freely know and love “justice” or “goodness,” to that degree we must know them for what they are: which is to say, know them as ends that fulfill our own nature and as intrinsic truths that can lead us out of the bondage of selfish desire into the joy of the divine life.
Of course—and who has denied it?—we are culpable for our offenses against goodness, against justice, against love; but that culpability remains, as ever, as much the result of ignorance and malformation as of personal perversity. It remains as much a condition of sickness and ignorance as a feat of desire and will. So, if culpability is the issue, eternal torment is still more than any finite nature, through any transgression, could merit on its own. In fact, it is precisely because persons are not thinking of God when they transgress against justice that we can say with absolute certainty that their minds and wills are in bondage, and that “they know not what they do.” They simply cannot see and love justice with the freedom of a will set free from bondage to death and delusion. I am fairly sure that Christ’s prayer for the forgiveness of those who were crucifying him was not contingent upon any presumed blamelessness on their parts for their actions; but it certainly includes a plea of extenuation based on the limits of their knowledge and intentions.
Mind you, another of Diem’s errors is his curious suggestion that my understanding of the soul’s desire for the Good has something to do with purely personal emotional satisfaction or, as he puts it, “selfishness.” (Again, I doubt he has read the book.) It is precisely the opposite that I argue: that mistaking selfish desire for the true happiness of a rational nature, which can find its true rest only in God, is precisely what imprisons us in a hell of our own making. No less than Thomas Aquinas, when I speak of the natural desire for God’s goodness I am speaking not merely of what momentarily satisfies us as appetent individual egos, but of what truly liberates our nature into its true end in love of God and neighbor, where for the first time we truly find ourselves, precisely by finding that we do not belong to ourselves (again, Diem should have read Meditation Three). And, of course, in saving us for our true end, Christ must often “drag” us to himself (John 12:32), and many of us will ultimately have to be “saved as by fire” (1 Corinthians 3:15).
But here, of course, much depends on the narrative of salvation with which one is working (and I am unapologetically Eastern on this matter, as I believe the Eastern view to be the biblical one as well). What kind of savior does Diem imagine Christ to be, and what does Christ save us from? Diem seems to think that our personal culpability can in itself disqualify us from a salvation that consists (it would seem) in a kind of forensic pardon. I, by contrast, assume that personal culpability, as well as everything else that separates us from God, is all part and parcel of that inescapable condition of spiritual estrangement and “disease” from which Christ came to deliver all of us. Certainly, this is the way Paul speaks. We are all complicit; we are all also fated by inescapable circumstances; and the former reality is never separable from the latter. It is all one state of bondage to sin and death, from which no law can set us free. We have all fallen in “Adam,” and so we shall all be raised up again in Christ (Romans 5:18; 1 Corinthians 15:22).
Really, Diem makes much of this argument for me, precisely in denominating our capacity for “mortal” sin a “psychological possibility.” Yes, precisely. Very good. It is not a purely rational capacity (and so perfectly free), but only a psychological capacity (and so free always in a conditioned and qualified way). The moment one enters the realm of psychology, one enters as well into an infrangible web of causalities, always as much extrinsic to us as intrinsic, from which it is impossible to extricate ourselves. Hence, we have no hope unless God save us from ourselves. I have always thought this the most fascinating aspect of C.S. Lewis’s sole genuine theological masterpiece, The Great Divorce: it so brilliantly and penetratingly depicts the psychological conditions of those who condemn themselves to hell that it inadvertently shows this self-condemnation to be as much a condition of unwilling slavery as of willing perversity—as much adventitiously imposed as internally cultivated. Indeed, the impersonal and personal here are one thoroughly interwoven fabric, a single hell already there before we were born, and from which a God of love alone can set us free.
Diem is correct about one thing, however (albeit in a confused way): I do most definitely think that these causal entanglements in which our personal psychologies subsist qualify, extenuate, and limit out guilt, even if they do not erase it. And I definitely believe that eternal perdition for the qualified spiritual misdeeds of a finite will and reason, however wicked those misdeeds may be, is of its nature self-evidently unjust, and that to deny this requires us to entertain an equivocal disjunction in our understanding of “justice.” The analogical interval between human and divine “justice” thus imagined is too great to be spanned by any word or notion with a continuous range of proper applications. And I consider any claim to the contrary to be only an empty and obviously absurd assertion, prompted by the perceived need to defend the indefensible notion that eternal punishment, without any purpose but retribution, could ever be the work of a good and just God with respect to his own finite creatures. It is a case of bad dogma defeating sound reason. Even this, however, is a subordinate issue within the structure of the book’s argument. The story of salvation found in the New Testament is a tale not about God seeking out the worthy, but rather about God shattering the prison of sin in which all of us languish together, and from which we can be truly set free—”selflessly” set free, that is—only as one (for the last time, I wish Diem had read Meditation Three).
Anyway, I thank Diem for being, so far, one of only two readers who have attempted a serious negative critical engagement with my position. But his critique fails even so, both because it misrepresents my position and because it presumes a narrative of salvation that is clearly inadequate. If it is any comfort, however, I do not expect anyone to do any better. Sometimes, only bad arguments are possible.
Which is, after long delay, the real point I want to make.
I know some find it preposterous and annoying when I say that the argument in That All Shall Be Saved is irrefutable; in my defense, as yet no one has asked me what I really mean when I make the assertion. So let me just say that it is not my claim that my book is a unique work of genius. I do, it is true, think it a very well-wrought text, and I take a certain pride in the subtlety of its design and in the way the different parts of the argument are interlinked, and I cast a cold eye on those who can’t take the time to follow the argument closely. It turns out, of course, that sometimes I can be too subtle for my own good, and I imagine that I will continue to have to elucidate points I had foolishly thought radiantly obvious. But all of that has to do only with technique. Whether I should or not, I take pride in my craftsmanship.
The irrefutability I ascribe to my argument, however, has nothing to do with that. In fact, I don’t think it an especially rare accomplishment to be irrefutable on this point. I think Thomas Talbott’s book on the topic is basically irrefutable. I think the same of the Reitan and Kronen volume on the matter. But I also think the same is true whenever any clever child, hearing of the traditional doctrine of hell, dismisses it as ridiculous or unfair or horrible. The truth is that the very notion is so obviously, resplendently warped and nonsensical that every argument ever made for its truthfulness, throughout the whole of recorded history, has been a bad one. We deceive ourselves that we know of some good arguments in its favor only because we have already made the existential decision to believe in hell’s eternity no matter what—or because, really, that decision was made for us before we were old enough to think for ourselves. If, however, one can find a way to retract that initial surrender to the abysmally ludicrous, one will also discover that all apologetics for the infernalist orthodoxy consist in claims that no truly rational person should take seriously. It is all self-delusion, self-hypnosis, pacification of the conscience, stupefaction of the moral intelligence.
At about the time that Diem’s article appeared, the estimable Thomas Weinandy published a defense of hell’s eternity. He announced upfront that he had not read my book, which was unfortunate, because the arguments he then went on to make were for the most part the most banal possible, and I had dealt with many of them (to my mind, more than adequately) in the book. Tom, though, is not a stupid man. On no other topic would he have been willing to abide arguments as bad as the ones that he himself was making; nor, in any other context, could he have deceived himself that arguments so poor were in fact sound and solvent. By the same token, my old friend Jerry Walls has exerted himself for decades in service to the gospel of eternal perdition, and yet not a single one of his arguments would be taken seriously by a Jerry Walls who had not been brainwashed into believing that the idea of eternal hell is a firm tenet of scriptural orthodoxy, incumbent on him as a believer (as an Evangelical, he acknowledges no other authority). For he too is not a stupid man. And, just as there has never been a truly good argument for the infernalist position, so there can never be a good argument against the case I make in my book, because that argument consists mostly in truths that are perfectly evident when we allow ourselves to think about them without prejudice. I simply draw them together into a kind of harmony. The attacks will continue to come. They will continue to be inept. (The forthcoming issue of Nova et Vetera, for instance, will feature two, one by Taylor O’Neill, the other by Joshua Brotherton; both are sincere, both are confused, and both fail.)
Frankly, all of us are aware of the absurdity of the idea of an eternal hell, and most of us have realized as much at various times in our lives, in moments when, perhaps involuntarily, we have inadvertently allowed our moral imaginations to slip free from their tethers of pious dread. In those instants, the doubts come flowing in like a tidal wave. But then we gain control of our consciences again, drive those doubts away, and try to forget as quickly as possible what our consciences are trying to tell us, lest God overhear them and damn us forever. Still, it’s obvious. There is an argument against the coherence of the doctrine of eternal perdition that is simpler than any other and that is incontrovertibly true and that I think all of us know without realizing we know it. Most infernalists would dismiss it as trivial or impressionistic or sentimental, and yet its logic is devastatingly irresistible to anyone who will set his or her heart to contemplate it. It is this: The irresoluble contradiction at the very core of the now dominant understanding of Christian confession is that the faith commands us to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves while also enjoining us to believe in the reality of an eternal hell; we cannot possibly do both of these things at once. I say this not just because I think it emotionally impossible fully to love a God capable of consigning any creature to everlasting suffering (though in fact I do think this). I say it, rather, because absolute love of neighbor and a perfectly convinced belief in hell are antithetical to one another in principle.
Really, all our language of Christian love is rendered vacuous to the precise degree that we truly believe in eternal perdition. Love my neighbor all I may, if I believe hell is real I cannot love him as myself. My conviction that there is a hell to which one of us might go while the other enters into the Kingdom of God means that I must be willing to abandon him—indeed, abandon everyone—to a fate of total misery while yet continuing to assume that, having done so, I shall be able to enjoy perfect eternal bliss. Indeed, I must proleptically already have abandoned him to endless pain without hesitation or regret. I must—must—preserve a place in my heart, and that the deepest and most enduring part, where I have already turned away from him with a callous self-interest so vast as to be indistinguishable from perfect malevolence.
The very thought tempts one to suppose that Nietzsche was right, and that all of Christianity’s talk of charity and selfless love and compassion is a particularly squalid and pusillanimous charade, dissembling a deep and abiding ressentiment and vengefulness. As I say, the committed infernalist will wave the argument off impatiently. But I think an honest interrogation of our consciences, if we allow ourselves to risk it, tells us that this is a contradiction that cannot be conjured away with yet another exercise in specious reasoning and bad dialectics. Think. Can we truly love any person (let alone love that person as ourselves) if we are obliged, as the price and proof of our faith, to contemplate that person consigned to eternal suffering while we ourselves possess imperturbable, unclouded, unconditional, and everlasting happiness? Only a fool would believe it. But the dominant picture of Christian faith demands that we believe it, and so demands that we become fools. It demands that we ignore the contradiction altogether. It also demands that we become—at some deep and enduring level—resolutely and complacently cruel.