by Paul J. Griffiths
Among the criteria that theologians use to determine what to say next and how to say it – to know how to go on in theology, that is – is appeal to convenientia.1 Fittingness, that is, or suitability, or appropriateness, or even affinity. If a conversation is begun, a question asked, a statement made, a doubt expressed, then the response should be suitable (convenient) – it should fit, and by fitting should permit the conversation to continue rather than to shut down. What fits, of course, depends not only on what’s just been said, but on the context within which and the purposes for which it’s been said. And, almost always, more responses than one will be convenient enough, just as, almost always, some won’t be fitting at all. Those latter are conversation-stoppers.
Suppose the context to be the broad territory of Christian theology and the question to be: Who among us is saved? Leaving aside difficulties about the question’s terms (Who are we? What is salvation? Is the tense of ‘is’ the ahistorical present? &c &c), there are only three families of answer: all; some; none. These may be modalized (possibly some; necessarily all; &c &c), transposed into the attitudinal order (I hope all; I’m sure some; maybe all; &c &c), and, I suppose, set to music or tapdanced into the ground. But the triad, all-some-none, provides the terroir, the shape and depth and texture of the theological soil that gives flavor to theological conversations about these matters. (That flavor tends to be rough on the tongue, more frappato than merlot; it’s often leavened with retsina-like anathemas and bitter, vinegary curses. Sadly.)
The question, Who among us is saved? (let’s call it WS hereinafter), has not, among Christians, yielded deep and broad agreement about which answers are most appropriate to Christian theology. There are fervent (perfervid, even) propounders of only a few, I’m sure, as there also are of necessarily all, I congratulate myself on knowing, and well, I hope most, and (of course) anyone who thinks ‘all’ is a heretic – &c &c. David Hart, I take it, in his splendid, if gloomily polemical book from 2019, That All Shall Be Saved, is a proponent of all, modalized necessitarianly (necessarily all) and coupled with certitude in the order of knowing (I’m quite, quite, sure that necessarily all) and something approaching contempt in the polemical order (if you don’t think what I think about this then you’re a gangrened wound on Christ’s beautiful body).
I share some of all this with him, and am grateful for his book; but I should like in these few remarks to try something a little more temperate, a little more responsive to the thought that when there’s long-lived, deep-going, and widespread disagreement among Christians about which among the possible answers to WS are most fitting – most radiant of convenientia – there are likely to be reasons for, or at least causes of, that state of affairs nested deep in the tradition’s bedstraw. And that in turn means that while one’s opponents may be wrong, they’re unlikely all fools, and almost certainly not all wicked. David sometimes writes as though he thinks his opponents both. There are advantages to that. Not least among them is the clarification of differences, which old-fashioned Marxists used to commend as a benison to thought (though not usually under just that description). But still, I’d like to try something different, something more modest, something more tolerant of skeptical not-knowing.
Under four heads.
First. All Christians should agree, and, Deo gratias, they do, that answers to WS that deploy none positively exhibit no convenientia at all. It’s not possible that none are saved, and we – we Christians, that is; that’ll be the only ‘we’ in play now – should all say so under the sign not of hope but of certitude. There’s Mary. There are the saints. QED.
Second. All Christians should incorporate the following into their lives of prayer and into the fabric of their thinking (should they do any; thinking isn’t required of Christians; it’s a leisure activity for the wealthy) about the faith they claim and profess: If any are not saved, I among all human creatures am the most likely not to be. We’ve all already incorporated into our prayer and our thought that among sinners we are the first, the principal, the most thoroughgoing, the greatest (if you haven’t, then go to it); the extension I’m advocating of this attitude into the terroir of WS has something approaching maximal convenientia.
Third. All Christians ought agree, and it’s to say the least unfortunate that they don’t, that the possibly all answer to WS has a high degree of convenientia with the terroir. It grows naturally out of the soil and flourishes there. We can, therefore, indeed we should, assert it with a high degree of confidence; and attitudinally we should hope, pantingly, that all isn’t just possible, but actual. The truth about possibly all is that it’s vastly more fitting than any of the answers to WS that rule it out. The two principal marks of this fittingness, and they’re strong, oh yes, are: that prayer for the salvation of all is inscribed deeply into the text of the liturgy; and that we have no litany of the damned to parallel that of the saved. We know none of their names, and those who think we do (Dante, I’m looking at you) move, just by so thinking, very far, very far indeed, outside orthodoxy’s grammar. That we pray for something, and that the tradition has shied, with respect to the putative damned, from naming any of them in such a way as to make our prayer impossible, speaks strongly for confidence in possibly all. Christians who don’t share this thought and this attitude typically don’t because they think there’s one thing or another, or some large basket of things, in the tradition’s authoritative sources that requires possibly all‘s most frequent competitor, which is its contradictory, not possibly all, as an answer to WS. They’re wrong about this, though I won’t argue it here.2 Possibly all just does better, much better, with the tradition’s complexity than its contradictory.
Fourth. What I wrote in the preceding paragraph is already enough to make possibly all more fitting to Christianity than its contradictory. But there’s more. Possibly all has another advantage over its principal competitor, which is both decisive and under-canvassed. It is that possibly all is logically equivalent to possibly not all (not, of course, to not possibly all) as an answer to WS. Possibly all requires of us hope that all might turn out to be the case. Possibly not all requires of us fear and lament that not all might turn out to be the case (or already is the case). This is an instance of the flourishing I mentioned in the preceding paragraph: this tree grows very well in Christian soil. Just one proposition, because of its Janus-face, provides encouragement and ground for the two principal threads in properly Christian attitudes toward the future, short and long: I mean hope and lament. That is a gift of simple logic, selon les lumières naturelles, and that there are such gifts is itself something to rejoice and delight us. All and necessarily all (David, maybe that’s you?) don’t get close: unalloyed hope only. Only some and necessarily only some also don’t get close: unalloyed lament only. Possibly all and possibly not all positively glow with convenientia by contrast.
Those four heads, so far as I can see, encapsulate Christian grammar in re WS. First, we rule out, energetically and decisively, all variants of the none answers. Second, we inculcate in ourselves a strong sense that if anyone is damned, it’s us. That gives a strong personal sense of the seriousness of the question, acts as a check to presumption, and is, anyway, true. Third, we affirm possibly all with confidence, and hope for all. And fourth we affirm possibly not all with equal confidence (the confidence must be equal because the proposition’s the same), and tremble, lamentingly, at not all. There you have it.
But I don’t want to end there. Grammar’s all very well, but the clear air of abstraction is a little chilly sometimes. Let me put some skin back on the skull by giving a very slightly fuller sketch of what damnation, if it occurs, must be like; and, following that, of how universal salvation, if it obtains, would come about. I affirm both, fully, as Landschaftskizzen,3 though not as anything more.
First damnation. If possibly not all, how could anyone avoid salvation and what would it be like to succeed at that? Evil is privation, absence, lack; sin, at heart and in essence, is always the grasp after lack, sometimes so understood by the sinner and sometimes not. The effect of sin upon the sinner is always damage, which means diminution, initiation of a return to the nihil from which the sinner that each of us is has come. Success at sin’s project, then, is perfect re-embrace of that absence, which is non-existence: not to be here, not to be anywhere. If damnation is final and indefectible separation from the LORD’s love, this is its heart. Self-inflicted non-existence also has vastly more convenientia to Christianity than the misconstrued pictures of endless lakes of fire and bodily tortures with which the tradition is littered. Hell will retrospectively be seen to have been purgatory by those who leave it for the LORD’s embrace; and by those who leave it for the cold kiss of the void they seek it will not be seen at all because they will then be nothing and nowhere. That, and only that, is a fitting picture of damnation; I see it and tremble. I am more likely than anyone else to end in that way. The LORD who brought us into being without our consent does not bring us to salvation without our consent. We can withold it (that’s the only thing we’re able to do by ourselves) and in that way frustrate the LORD’s purposes, as we know because we are sinners and sin is already a frustration of the LORD’s purposes. And there are only bad Aristotelean-metaphysical reasons for denying that the LORD might let us damage ourselves enough that we become not (you can read the bad reasons in Thomas Aquinas, among many others). Again, I see this, and I lament the vision. I hope that it is not so, but I see that it is possible.
And now salvation for all.4
The LORD created Eve & Adam without flaw
Beautiful, righteous, healthy, strong,
Capable of love, eager for beatitude,
But also of the causeless, baseless, opaquely empty rejection of love —
Balanced there, in paradise, they fell.
And everything was damaged.
The world, their offspring,
They became subject to death
Beset by pain
Desperate for nothing.
The LORD grieved.
And from that grief came a remedy
Israel and Church
For healing & blessing
But still we suffer & die & kill & maim
Still we are devastated & devastate
Still we turn from what is toward what is not.
While the LORD cajoles
And works gracefully
On us and on everything
And by the end, at the end
All, even those close to their end,
To their extinction
Even the fallen angels
Turn to the tassels of Abraham’s shawl
And to the fingers of the outstretched hand of the risen Jesus
And say yes, yes, oh yes,
And are raised up from purgatory’s pit
To what always was and always is
The LORD’s welcoming kiss, eager for ours
And our return of it.
I see that, too, and I hope for it. Our task, it seems to me, is to keep both in view, both the horrors of self-extinction and the delights of universal salvation. Our task is not, here below, to resolve the tension. Possibly all. Which is also possibly not all. Which is hope and lament combined. Which is the Christian life.
Paul J. Griffiths
Silvermine, North Carolina
Eve of the Immaculate Conception
 These remarks exist for two reasons: Al Kimel asked me for them, and I’m happy to oblige; I’ve for a while wanted to make public my gratitude to David Hart for That All Shall Be Saved.
 For Catholics worried about the magisterium on WS I commend attention to the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar (though I do wish the man hadn’t a name that provokes the class hatred of a working-class Englishman), Trent Pomplun, Gavin D’Costa, Justin Coyle, and Ty Monroe. Google will find the sources for you in less time than it’d take me to keyboard them; and the living among them (the last four, so far as I know, at this time of writing) might be kind enough to respond to personal requests for instruction in how to interpret the magisterium. And as to the first: whether he’s enjoying the beatific vision or being purgatorially purified, you might try asking him in prayer, too. Who knows what he’d say now?
 Wittgenstein, Philosophische Untersuchungen, preface. This is what LW calls the remarks of PI: all illuminating; all partial; none complete; all tentative; to be taken together.
 What follows is a free gloss on Pascal’s lyrical Écrits sur la grâce §11 (ed. Le Guern, pp. 287-288). Pascal appears in David’s book as a villain, and I agree that he is fundamentally mistaken about some aspects of WS. But there are resources in him for theologizing WS that we ought not sneeze at, as the sketch to follow may show.
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Paul Griffiths is an American Catholic theologian who held professorial positions at US universities from 1983-2018, including the University of Notre Dame, the University of Chicago, and Duke University. He is now retired and lives in the mountains of western North Carolina, where he reads and writes in the mornings and does as little as possible the rest of the time.