by David Bentley Hart
Frankly, Al, I find the question very strange. In part, because its premise is an absolute banality: that life is a kind of contest, played within the arbitrary constraints of the clock, at the end of which one either gets the trophy of salvation or suffers damnation.
But, more to the point, the entire question is rather on the order of asking why God bothered to give a square four sides or wind the capacity to blow. Nothing is what it is except as realizing those inseparable rational relations—“aitiai” or “causae,” to use the classical and mediaeval terms—that make it what it is. Temporal extension, entailing emergence from nothingness and growth into a last end, is simply what it is to be a creature. And the emergence of a free, intentional, rational nature—beginning in nonexistence and ending in an endless journey into deification—is what it is to be a spiritual creature. That passage from nothingness into the infinite, which is always a free movement toward a final cause, is the very structure of such creatures. They could not exist otherwise. Not even God could create a free spiritual being without that real history. God’s act of creation is not the magical conjuration into existence of something that possesses all the attributes of the past without actually possessing a past. Any temporal origin in media res, as it were, would rest upon an established and extrinsically imposed fundamentum inconcussum, a substratum of the unfree, immutably “posited” prior to any free intention. Any “human being” created under such conditions would be a fiction, a dramatis persona, a fictional character summoned into existence in a preordained state of character, and not a living soul.
These are not arbitrary rules that God could change without abolishing the spiritual nature of his creatures. They do not, however, imply that a passage through evil is somehow a necessary phase in the growth of spiritual natures. It merely means that, as spirit must move toward its divine end freely, out of and away from the utter moral and ontological poverty of nonbeing, the possibility of temporary but often tragic divergences from the true path are intrinsic to its nature until such time as that nature has grown into what Gregory of Nyssa calls stability in the Good.
So, again, to ask why God did not create spiritual beings already wholly divinized without any prior history in the ambiguities of sin—or of sin’s possibility—is to pose a question no more interesting or solvent than one of those village atheist’s dilemmas: can God create a square circle, or a rock he is unable to lift? A finite created spirit must have the structure of, precisely, the finite, the created, and spirit. It must have an actual absolute past in nonbeing and an absolute future in the divine infinity, and the continuous successive ordering of its existence out of the former and into the latter is what it is to be a spiritual creature. Every spiritual creature as spirit is a pure act of rational and free intentionality away from the utter poverty of nonbeing and toward infinite union with God. This “temporal” or “diastematic” structure is no less intrinsic to it than is its dynamic synthesis of essence and existence, or of stability and change.
I should end there, but why not up the stakes, just for the sake of mischief? Just to make this whole issue more abstruse than it needs to be, I would recommend here that everyone consider the logic of Bulgakov’s re-Christianization of Fichte. (At least, as I interpret him.)
Finite spirit is, as spirit, always also a self-positing “I,” for both better and worse. And it is only as such an “I” that any free spiritual being could be created by God. That is, God cannot create a free rational creature unless that creature is already free in being created—which is to say, unless that creature has freely consented to its own creation, and unless that consent is truly constitutive of the act of its creation. And so, then, it must also be true that no creature can exist as spirit except by its free acceptance of the invitation to arise from nothingness, and by intending itself in intending its final cause. Spirit exists as an act of assent to the Father and, in that assent, an act of complete acceptance of the gift of being. Though whatever is created must be created in its last end, still spiritual existence is possible only under the conditions of those rational relations (those aitiai) that logically define it. That assent, of course, cannot come “before” a creature exists; but it is necessarily the eternal truth of that creature’s existence, one that—from the perspective of time—is an eschatological reality, but sub specie aeternitatis is the very beginning of days.
I should explain that, I suppose.
When Paul describes (Roman 14:11, Philippians 2:11) creation’s final acclamation of God’s majesty in the Age to Come by borrowing the Septuagint’s version of Isaiah 45:23, where the Hebrew תִּשָּׁבַ֖ע (tiššāḇa‘) is rendered as “ἐξομολογήσεται,” he is also describing the moment in which all of creation is called into being. That act of “grateful praise” or “joyous confession” (ἐξομολόγησις) at the end of days is nothing less than the creature’s original response to the call that, in the beginning of days, draws all things into being out of nothingness. It is the creature’s participation in God’s eternal return to himself within the divine life itself and within his exitus and reditus in creatures. All things are created in their last end, and spiritual creatures possessed of reason and freedom exist only to the degree that they fully assent to and delight in the end that summons them from the night of nothingness. Here, the disproportion and qualitative difference between the eternal and the temporal must be observed with absolute exactitude. The eternal reality of all things is, from the perspective of time, an end to be attained; but, were that end not eternally always so, no finite creature would exist. This is especially so for spiritual creatures, whose very existence as spirit can be nothing other than an insatiable intentionality toward the whole of divine being. The final cause of all things that come into being is the whole reality of the created, in its accomplished and so original plenitude. The spiritual life is nothing more than a constant labor to remember our last end by looking forward our first beginning. The final ἐξομολόγησις of creation is nothing less than its eternal assent to be, its original answer to God’s call, its joyous acceptance of the gift of being, and therefore its full moral and spiritual commitment to existence as a wholly contingent manifestation of the divine life in its absoluteness.
But then, if the free assent of the spiritual creature to and in its own creation is nothing other than that final act of joyous confession and praise that is at once both the culmination of the creature’s temporal nisus and the eternal origin of the creature’s existence, then universalism is not merely entailed, but is in fact a necessary premise for any coherent account of spiritual creation. For, of course, only a “saved” and deified will can, with full rational autonomy, make that confession. No spiritual creature could possibly exist except as “saved,” as a god in God. Moreover, this free confession is, in its eschatological realization, also the corporate free assent to existence on the party of the “Adam” of the first creation, who from the perspective of time exists only at the end, but who sub specie aeternitatis is the eternal creaturely dimension of the divine humanity. And, of course, creation’s ultimate confession can be total only by way of a total unity, since a fully moral affirmation of God’s goodness—and so a full surrender to God—requires that this rational consent not be inhibited by any “regret” over unredeemed spiritual natures. Finite spirits are not monads, but are constituted in and by their communion in the eschatological fullness of the Adam of the first creation, which is a unity of coinherent love.
Anyway, I deal with much of this at greater length in my forthcoming book You Are Gods.