David Bentley Hart and the Moral Argument Against Hell

by Tom Belt

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I’ll get right to the point. I’m shocked that reviews of David Bentley Hart’s recent That All Shall Be Saved which reject his univer­salism all fail to engage his moral argu­ment. I suspect there is a real will to mis­un­derstand here. On the whole, the level of substantive engagement with his argu­ments has been disappointing. But the moral argument in particular still stands in want of a decent sparring partner. For myself, if this argument was the only thing David wrote (pardon the familiarity, we used to meet in a clandestine Baltimore pub), it would have been enough. Even if one were to neutralize the rest of his argu­ments in the book, the moral argument alone would make the majority view of hell (and its foul accomplice, “annihilationism”) untenable. A few reviewers mention the moral argument in passing. None engage it. Fr Andrew Louth nods in recognition of it but makes no attempt to expose in it any failure of reason or moral sensibility. I’m bewildered by the anemic nature of the reviews.

It’s difficult to address a will to misunderstand, but where there is honest confusion, clarification is worth a try. And since I possess little academic qualification, I feel especially equipped to demonstrate that the moral argument is not a complicated matter, that it can be grasped by simple folk (comme moi), and to implore reviewers to pick up the argument, restate it accurately, and then show us where and how it fails. If it turns out I also have failed to understand Hart’s argument, this is a good place for others to set me straight. To make matters easier for those who have not yet read TASBS, I will be relying on Hart’s seminal essay “God, Creation, and Evil: The Moral Meaning of Creatio ex Nihilo.”

As I understand it, the moral argument runs as follows:

First, distinguish between God’s antecedent and consequent (or permissive) wills, between what God positively wills for creation (the final end for which he creates) and the evil and suffering he permits. In short, the possibility of evil (not its necessity) lies originally within the scope of God-given creaturely powers of choice because such agency is essential as a means to the only sort of spiritual formation that can be a spiritual creature’s movement from origin to end in God. And in this case the possibilities one permits when acting free of necessity and ignorance must reveal the truth of one’s moral character.

Second, note that God creates freely, unnecessarily, gratuitously. Were this not true, the moral argument would fail. This is a crucial aspect of the argument’s success which I’ve yet to see reviewers contemplate with any seriousness. I’m at the bottom of the barrel, friends, and yet I see this clearly.

Lastly, observe that in the consummation of all things, the distinction between ante­ce­dent and permissive wills disappears. The two modes of willing collapse, morally speak­ing. The morality of permission supervenes, in part, upon the risks God freely takes (risks for us, not for God). In the case of an eternal hell, the risk is infinite. Hart on the moral meaning of creation from nothing:

No matter how great the autonomy one grants the realm of secondary causes, two things are certain it seems to me. First, as God’s act of creation is free…all contingent ends are intentionally enfolded within his decision. And second, precisely because God in himself is absolute…his moral ‘venture’ in creating is infinite. For all causes are logically reducible to their first cause, and the rationale, the definition, of the first cause is the final cause that prompts it. And so if that first cause is an infinitely free act, the final end to which it tends is its whole moral truth.

Morally speaking, the distinction between what God wants and what God permits with respect to creation disappears once what is permitted becomes a final end, at which point the true moral nature of God’s free choice to create is revealed. Where all are finally reconciled to God, the disappearance of the distinction reveals a divine identity radically different from that revealed by the final loss and suffering of creatures. How creation comes finally to rest reveals the truth about God’s character.

It is not enough to show that the finally reprobate realize their end by God’s just permis­sion through the abuse of their own God-given powers. The question is rather ‘What of the moral nature of this permission itself?’ It is entirely God’s, given the freedom of God’s choice to create. And what God freely permits, logically speaking, must manifest his character and identity.

One attempt to defend the innocence of God in the face of an eternal hell seeks to ground the just consequence of perpetual suffering in an equally perpetual rejection of God. Fr John Manoussakis’s approach comes to mind. He grants that no single choice to reject God can have infinite consequence. However, many choices made over the course of a lifetime can habituate one in an evil disposition. While no single choice can achieve a state of irrevocable self-alienation, the process of habituation over time can produce this effect. And this disposition to become one’s choices, Manoussakis believes, must be as open to foreclosure as it is to fulfillment. The risks embraced must be proportionate to the joys to be gained. This seems obviously false to me, and I’ve not heard a cogent defense of it, neither from Fr Manoussakis nor Zachary Manis.

Regrettably, nothing is offered here to address the troubling moral questions. How are we to render morally intelligible the free and unnecessary exposure of those God loves to infinite loss and suffering? Can so irrevocable a foreclosure be responsibly and rationally chosen, even gradually over time, when the true nature of such a consequence remains at best ambiguous within such a process of habituation? Would a God of infinite love freely create under such conditions? It’s a rationale for creating under the condition of infinite risk that is needed and which none have offered.

A similar attempt to defend the innocence of God in the face of eternal loss is made by Fr Thomas Joseph White in his 2006 essay “Von Balthasar and Journet on the Universal Possibility of Salvation and the Twofold Will of God.” He explains:

A theology that wishes to consider the question of the possibility of salvation for every human person, and a correspondingly real possibility of eternal loss, must try to keep in balance three theological affirmations. First, God’s grace comes to the aid of each one: There is no selective divine decision to exclude any creature from the possibility of salvation. Second, God is the unique primary cause of the existence, life, and movement of spiritual creatures, whom he sustains in being and governs providentially. Third, “hell” as a definitive state of separation from God has its origins in the spiritual creature insofar as it refuses God’s providential command­ments and grace, incurring the judgment of God. Therefore, this situation (of refusal) is not of God’s own making, but rather of his permission.

Shortly thereafter he continues:

However, to say that we must believe that every human person is offered the possibility of being saved…is not the same as saying that we must hope for the universal salvation of all persons. Nor is it to say that it is incumbent upon us to believe that an infinite divine love should eventually overcome a finite creature’s free refusal of the grace of God…Least of all is it identical with the claim that if the creation is to be a “successful” expression of God’s absolute freedom and infinite love, then all men must be saved.

White also fails to consider the moral question posed by the creatio ex nihilo. He simply assumes that God is innocent of permitting an eternal hell so long as the responsibility for ending up there can be attributed sufficiently to one’s powers of choice. This misses the crucial point. Just responsibility can obtain in the case of transient evils. Parents who have children freely are not to blame for the evil their children commit if those children act with sufficient liberty. But this explanation fails once the possible consequences of their choices include infinite suffering and the parents understand the infinite risk. Hart is on it:

But let us say that somehow, mysteriously—in, say, Zosima’s sanctity, Alyosha’s kiss, the million-mile march of Vanya’s devil, the callous old woman’s onion—an answer is offered that makes the transient torments of history justifiable in the light of God’s everlasting Kingdom. But eternal torments, final dereliction? Here the price is raised beyond any calculus of relative goods, and into the realm of absolute—of infinite—expenditure.

He comments further:

… let us say God created simply on the chance that humanity might sin, and that a certain number of incorrigibly wicked souls might plunge themselves into Tartarus 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 happens to be damned. The logic is irresistible. God creates. Alea iacta est. But, as Mallarmé says, “un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard”: for what is hazarded has already been surrendered, entirely, no matter how the dice fall; the aleatory venture may be intentionally indeterminate, but the wager 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, that venture beyond good and evil, even if at the last no one perishes. 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.

Fr White supposes God’s innocence is secured by a distinction in God between antecedent and consequent wills in which responsibility for loss can be attributed to the lost. But ultimately this distinction vanishes when creatures reach their final end. To be sure, for universalists the distinction between what God positively wills and what he merely permits also disappears in the end. As creation rests in God as its final end, all things transparently express God’s will, and permission expires because it has served its morally justified role as means. But in the case of irrevocable loss and suffering, what is freely and knowingly permitted for the sake of what is desired becomes morally equivalent to what is desired, and freely permitting infinite suffering becomes equivalent to choosing it as such.

As I said above, I hoped to show that Hart’s moral argument is not a complicated matter requiring unusual academic insight and prowess. Its truth is profoundly simple and its clarity transparent to moral and aesthetic sensibility. The infinite God of love who creates with absolute freedom would not (‘could not’ is also fine) risk the eternal loss or suffering of creatures he loves so unconditionally. It is morally inconceivable that he should do so. But God has freely created, and he is the absolute God of love. Ergo, eternal loss and suffering are not among the risks we face.

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49 Responses to David Bentley Hart and the Moral Argument Against Hell

  1. There is something suspect about this universalist reasoning. I am not quite sure the point is being made clearly, but it seems to be, first, that it would be incomprehensible how anyone could rationally choose to go to reject God. But I don’t see how the considerations brought forward are relevant. Most sin is not formally a choice to reject or love God; it is a choice to act well or badly, to act in light of a good in an appropriate way, or to act in light of a false good, or to act in light of a true good in an inappropriate way. Here it seems perfectly reasonable that one can close their minds, by pursuing lesser goods, to the goods that ultimately matter for us. It’s just the possibility of acting objectively badly and becoming a bad person by repeated effort. And I don’t see why that’s incomprehensible (See: http://www.newmanreader.org/works/parochial/volume1/sermon1.html) The problem seems to be thinking that we are not responsible unless we know the full consequences and scope and aim of our actions – but that is gratuitously demanding, as we certainly never have God’s knowledge of our own actions, and we would never be responsible in any choice, including the choice to love God, if we needed that level of knowledge.

    Then there is a related, but logically separate, claim that because God knows (?) that some people are at risk of being damned, then His choice to create is simply to will that some are damned. And this is to show that, if God creates free creatures with the risk that they are damned, God positively will that some be damned. But I don’t see how that’s true unless God foreknows, before He creates a given person, that they will inevitably be damned. If you are a libertarian about freedom, which I take it most classical defenders of this view would be, then it is not true that God foreknows before He chooses to create you what your eternal destiny will be – it would be truly and deeply undetermined whether anyone actually goes to hell. So deciding to create free creatures does not entail knowing that any are destined for eternal unhappiness. Accepting a (logical or metaphysical) possibility is different from accepting a certainty that some particular persons will go to hell, and it seems the argument conflates these distinct senses of possibility.

    Similarly, the claim that, then, “to venture the life of your child for some other end is, morally, already to have killed your child,” seems to imply that God is venturing creating free creatures for some aim other than relationship with them. But I don’t see why the classical Christian needs to say any such thing. God creates creatures with whom He desires a free relationship – that does not imply wagering the life of those creatures for some other aim.

    Finally, I’d point out that there is a powerful ‘tu quoque’ response by the classical Christian. Hart claims “the revelation of God’s glory in creatures would still always be dependent upon that evil…even if at the last no one perishes. Creation could never then be called ‘good’ in an unconditional sense….” But it seems to me that the classical Christian has a much better libertarian response. There is a logical possibility of damnation, but no truth as to what will happen, at God’s moment of choosing to create a free creature. God risks, perhaps, but if there is no truth as to what will happen, God is at least plausibly not choosing to send anyone to hell. The universalist, by contrast, must explain moral evil in this universe as a *necessary* result of God’s choice to create, an integral part of His plan (as apparently DBH does in a forthcoming book). Then it is most certainly true for the universalist, in a much stronger sense, that every instance of moral evil is positively desired and willed as a good in God’s Providence. While no creature suffers forever, it does this at the price of making God the direct author of all evil. Or, as DBH seems to hint, as nobody is really culpable for any action done without full knowledge of God, it would just mean that nobody in history ever really commits any morally evil acts. But, of course, that is contrary to the plain evidence of ordinary life and common sense, let alone Scripture’s imputation of blame/responsibility to persons.

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    • Tom says:

      Fr James: …it seems to be, first, that it would be incomprehensible how anyone could rationally choose to go to reject God.

      Tom: This isn’t part of the moral argument as I understand it. Rather, what is incomprehensible is that God would freely (unnecessarily) and knowingly expose us to (even the possibility of) infinite loss/suffering. What’s it say about God’s character and goodness that he would freely, under no constraint of necessity or ignorance, expose us to such a possibility?

      Fr James: Then there is a related, but logically separate, claim that because God knows (?) that some people are at risk of being damned, then His choice to create is simply to will that some are damned.

      Tom: Morally speaking they’re equivalent. That some are finally and irrevocably damned can still be a consequence we categorize underneath God’s permissive, not his antecedent will. But to freely and unnecessarily risk the infinite suffering of those one loves without measure? What possible rationale for creating could make that risk morally intelligible? We take risks all the time. If we’re wise and benevolent, we freely embark upon ventures which are ‘worth the risk’. But what venture can make risking the eternal/infinite suffering of those God is under no need or compulsion to create ‘worth it’?

      Fr James: There is a logical possibility of damnation, but no truth as to what will happen, at God’s moment of choosing to create a free creature. God risks, perhaps, but if there is no truth as to what will happen, God is at least plausibly not choosing to send anyone to hell.

      Tom: Again, the moral argument can rest its case on the mere possibility of eternal loss.

      Fr James: The universalist, by contrast, must explain moral evil in this universe as a *necessary* result of God’s choice to create, an integral part of His plan (as apparently DBH does in a forthcoming book).

      Tom: I don’t at all see why a universalist must view moral evil as *necessary* to God’s purposes. On the contrary, evil adds nothing finally to creation. Evil’s *possibility* is a necessary part of our beginning and movement, but that itself isn’t especially controversial.

      Fr James: Then it is most certainly true for the universalist, in a much stronger sense, that every instance of moral evil is positively desired and willed as a good in God’s Providence.

      Tom: Ah, I see your point. But no, as I understand the argument, God’s permission of transient evils all committed this side of the eschatological horizon is not by definition morally equivalent to God’s choosing these evils, for the simple reason that the agency that makes such evils possible is itself essential to our eventually finding our way to God as final end, and that end remains possible. It is only permission of final, irrevocable evil (i.e., eternal Hell) which collapses *morally speaking* into positive choice of such evil, because God has permitted the possibility of evil ‘as final end’ in itself and not as ‘means to our end in God’. Different permissions altogether.

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      • jsobertsylvest says:

        Great responses. And, further, while moral evil may have been permitted as a possible means, it was in no way instrumentally necessary.

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    • Fr. Alexis Baldwin says:

      Fr. James,

      Thank you for your response. It’s good to add it to the chorus of priests, theologians, and lay folk who have for years now, been saying similar things and raising similar objections.

      Apparently, you too have joined (it well certainly be labeled as joining) the infernalist club. Well, from one buffoon to another, welcome!

      PS do check out Fr. Laurence Farley’s most recent review of That All Shall be saved. It’s in his blog No Other Foundation.

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    • David says:

      Interesting perspective Fr. Rooney. I’ll give a shorter and less refined argument than Tom in response, if I may.

      If a man chose to have a child – purely out of a desire to have a relationship with that child you understand, no exterior motive whatsoever – yet he knew he lived in some grim area where 50% of children were sadly kidnapped by sadistic maniacs and tortured to death, over a period of years perhaps… well, such a person would either be a fool, or evil. God is neither. So why assume God would be so stupid or cruel as to do the same for billions of souls, only with a punishment infinitely worse?

      This is still more acute when you consider that God is already infinite plenitude, already the Good itself, already perfect bliss. That is, things are just swell – literally perfect, in fact – with no creation at all. Do you really think that adding infinite torture and eternal loss into the mix would be a good thing?

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    • Thomas says:

      > If you are a libertarian about freedom, which I take it most classical defenders of this view would be, then it is not true that God foreknows before He chooses to create you what your eternal destiny will be

      I’m curious who in the classical tradition you take to deny divine foreknowledge of human action in particular or omniscience in general. Divine omniscience and foreknowledge are core contentions of the classical Christian tradition.

      A “classical” defense of eternal hell is in a poor position indeed when its defense is that God is ignorant and time-bound.

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    • DBH says:

      Rooney, my lad,
      Another debater who avoids the book’s actual argument, temporizes by distorting a few phrases in the text, and then ventures arguments already adequately answered and refuted in the book. Once again, the silly suggestion that my argument denies human culpability is proof of how very poorly you have followed the text. Embarrassingly so, in fact.

      Tom,
      As this comment yet again proves, there is never going to be a good answer to the book’s moral argument. There will be only willful failures to get the point. That is because no good answer is possible. (Don’t tell anyone.)

      Dominicans… (Excuse my profanity.)

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    • DBH says:

      Oh, Rooney old man:
      “ The universalist, by contrast, must explain moral evil in this universe as a *necessary* result of God’s choice to create, an integral part of His plan (as apparently DBH does in a forthcoming book). ”

      What in hell are you talking about? What forthcoming book is that? Since I have explicitly rejected that claim for, oh, the last 30 years, by what deranged reasoning do you suppose that I would advance such a claim in some future text?

      Again: Dominicans…

      Liked by 2 people

      • David,

        I cannot speak for what experiences you may have had with Dominicans elsewhere, but I think it is disappointing you read some willful malice into my remarks. Since I recall my conversations with you at SLU with some fondness, I am even somewhat shocked that you take my objections or worries about universalism in general as a personal attack against you in particular. It certainly was not meant to be, and, at least for me, I would think that we should be able to have a discussion of arguments for universalism without bringing motivation or personalities into it. Even if I disagree with you about universalism, I would hope we could pray for each other and that you could consider at least one Dominican as a friendly conversation partner.

        And, in fact, I wasn’t trying to portray your book accurately because my worries were not directed at your book at all, but what was said in Tom’s article. The only place where I referenced your ideas explicitly was in that line about the forthcoming “You Are Gods,” yet I qualified my claim with ‘apparently’ and am willing to abandon any such portrayal of your position, if you disclaim it. I understood the claim that it is metaphysically necessary that a creature having a temporal history, with possibility of consequent falls into evil, to mean that it was God’s choices were constrained such that it was metaphysically necessary that evil possibly exist. As noted, all I am doing here is raising some worries about Tom’s arguments, so I’ll hereafter keep my remarks to what he said.

        On one hand, I think the responses Tom gave above seem to miss my point. Tom claims that the problem is that God would “freely (unnecessarily) and knowingly expose us to (even the possibility of) infinite loss/suffering.” When I pointed out that there are two distinct objects God has in mind when creating a free person, and that God’s decision in a world where creatures have libertarian freedom such that He cannot know what a creature would do prior to their creation, it is hard to see how God’s decision would be as Tom portrayed. The question is being put as if God is creating creatures for some extrinsic end with a probability of them being morally corrupted by forces outside of their control, putting them in dangerous situations through negligence (as the ‘expose us to the possibility of suffering’ seems to indicate), etc. However, on the model I am presenting, the question is not about risk of bad versus good outcomes, because God does not make a decision to create a creature based on what they would do. Instead, His decision to create a given person is in light of the value of that individual as such. If God creates free creatures whose own choices and desires are in their own control, then there are no pre-creational probabilities about what anyone would do (let alone, as one person said, a 50% chance of perdition); God is not exposing them to any ‘risks’ other than the fact that they could choose otherwise. In this way of looking at things, the question would be: is there value in God creating a creature capable of rejecting relationship with Him? I don’t see any good reason to think there isn’t.

        On the other hand, my suggestion that evil has a necessary and positively-willed place in God’s providence, for the universalist, is an entailment of different claims that are made about how God cannot have a merely permissive will. Given that God is choosing only to create people in view of bringing all of them to salvation, all of His choices about how to create them and what their history will be are likewise in His control. Clearly, God would be choosing whatever means are required to come to that end, in some way; if God was not in control of how they act in history, it would be impossible for God to bring about that all are actually saved. Tom claimed that God can have a merely permissive will for a creature’s fall into moral evil, as long as the creature does not choose moral evil as a ‘final end’, but only if these are a ‘means to our end in God’. But the latter is precisely the point: moral evil becomes a justified, metaphysically necessary means for salvation. As Tom said further, “permission expires because it has served its morally justified role as means.” This seems to imply a consequentialist calculus on the part of God – God is morally justified in bringing about or permitting any moral evil, as long as the overall happiness of all outweighs all of the possible moral evil that could occur. Now, putting those claims together, it is not clear why God how we can distinguish God’s merely permitting metaphysically necessary moral evil and a positive choice to utilize it as a means to salvation. Further, it seems difficult to see why God would NOT intend moral evils, if these contributed in some instrumental way to the salvation of all; as was already said, God is morally justified in bringing about any moral evil in human history because these are means to creatures’ end in God. Of course the universalist denies this, but that’s just the objection: it seems entailed by their commitments that God should act in this way.

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        • I apologize, I mentioned DBH’s views twice, not merely once, in the prior post. Again, it is my fault if I made a mistake giving accurate portrayals of his views, but none of that was important in any of my arguments.

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        • Tom says:

          Fr James, what’s necessary to the movement of spiritual creatures from beginning to end in God is a certain capacity (freedom, agency, liberty of will) to choose. In order to freely surrender one’s ‘yes’ to God in/as this movement, one has to be free to say ‘no’. This capacity is the necessary means by which we make our way Godward. That’s the framework within which I work through DBH’s argument. One would frame it a bit differently (as does DBH) for, say, Calvinists or determinists who confront the moral collapse in a slightly different form.

          Even if, as you describe (whether it’s your view or not I couldn’t tell), God doesn’t know how creature’s will finally determine themselves relative to their final end in God (because that determination is in their own control), surely God must know what the final ends are for choosing righty and choosing wrongly. And even if we say our morally significant choices are not under God’s control, what remains under God’s control is his choice to create (and in creating to expose creatures to two possible final ends – eternal bliss or eternal torment). But this is all the moral argument requires – God freely and knowingly creating and so exposing creatures to the possibility of eternal torment. It matters not that which final end creatures choose is “under their control.” What is not under their control is that they are brought into being under such a condition, and it’s this ‘condition’, freely realized by God, which is the object of moral inquiry.

          Fr James: As Tom said further, “permission expires because it has served its morally justified role as means.” This seems to imply a consequentialist calculus on the part of God – God is morally justified in bringing about or permitting any moral evil…

          Tom: “Bringing about” and “permitting” are not the same thing. I don’t think God is evil, so I don’t suppose he is even capable of “bringing about” or willing evil as such. But he can have good reasons for permitting us (finite, ignorant creatures who must learn obedience) a measure of self-determination that includes the possibility of saying ‘no’ to God. However, which evils we can intelligibly suppose a loving and good God would permit is the question, and permitting transient/temporary evils is one thing. Permitting a final, irrevocable state of evil as its own end is entirely different.

          Fr James: …it is not clear…how we can distinguish God’s merely permitting metaphysically necessary moral evil and a positive choice to utilize it as a means to salvation.

          Tom: This is confused. If God is “permitting” something, that something can’t also be “metaphysically necessary.” So I don’t follow what you’re saying.

          Fr James: …as was already said, God is morally justified in bringing about any moral evil in human history because these are means to creatures’ end in God.

          Tom: I nowhere said God is morally justified in bringing about any moral evil in human history because these are a means to creatures’ end in God. Nor is this in any way implied in the sort of permission I suppose God is justified in granting us.

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        • David says:

          “Given that God is choosing only to create people in view of bringing all of them to salvation, all of His choices about how to create them and what their history will be are likewise in His control.”

          This premise is ridiculous. The claim that God is able to determine a final outcome – grounded in the creature’s natural will as necessarily orientated towards the good – does not mean that God also determines every step leading up to that point, or that everything that happens along the way is a necessary means of achieving this final state. God can win a chess match without resorting to determining every move of his opponent.

          So the claim is not that ‘moral evils contribute in instrumental way to the salvation of all’. Sure, the possibility of creatures committing sins for a time might be necessary to their existence as creatures, but that does not mean that all (or any) specific sins are the positive means by which God brings about universal salvation. God brings about universal salvation by being the ultimately irresistable good that all finite wills desire. That is, by being himself.

          “God is not exposing them to any ‘risks’ other than the fact that they could choose otherwise.”
          “is there value in God creating a creature capable of rejecting relationship with Him? I don’t see any good reason to think there isn’t.”

          Ah yes, of course, the possibility of eternal suffering is not a good enough reason not to avoid a particular course of action. The risk of an *infinite evil* is not even worth mentioning, and the value of your existence is so high that it justifies the risk that others might toss themselves in the eternal shredder. Who cares? They had a fair shot at the prize and they blew it.

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        • DBH says:

          Good Fr Rooney,

          You read more malice into my words than I intended. But I admit that I may have lost my ability to be genially abusive as a result of a year of silly critiques, generally written in a screech of hatred.

          The arguments I constantly confront miss the point with almost flawless precision. Since the argument is not that hard to follow, I assume that the cause is more psychological than critical. But I have discovered that it does not matter how often I or anyone else clarifies the case I made in the book. Those who object will not understand it because they must not, and they must not because they have no answer. Not their. fault. There is no answer.

          Anyway, I did not mean to sound mean. So I will simply say, A blessing on your head.

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        • DBH says:

          Oh, but I do genuinely dislike the Dominican order, on three counts: its history of complicity in holy murder, its role in promoting the ghastly theology of Baroque Thomism, and those idiotic gigantic rosaries. Don’t take it personally, though. I dislike all the other clerical orders as well.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Dear Fr Rooney, I’m just finally getting to the comments that have been posted here. I wanted to wait until I had finished my article on Joshua Brotherton’s review of TASBS. As far as I can tell, you haven’t yet comprehended the moral argument against eternal damnation. It’s really as simple as this: if there is an eternally populated hell, then God is a moral monster. There’s just no way to reconcile the divine condemnation to eternal torment with God’s absolute and unconditional Love. One or the other has to go.

      Needless to say, theologians over the centuries have tried various ways to justify the morally unjustifiable. You have mentioned a couple of them in your comment, and I’m happy to discuss them with you. But the key and crucial point I want you to see is that the moral argument against hell rests on a primary apprehension of God as absolute love: he wills the good and salvation of every human being, and that good cannot include everlasting suffering. We know this from our own experience. We know that if a parent truly loves their child, they will never ever abandon that child and will do absolutely everything they can to save them from every calamity, even if they have brought that calamity upon themselves. Of course, as finite beings we face limits in what we can do for our children, but God faces no such limits. Every obstacle he confronts in the realization of our salvation is but an occasion of his grace.

      Do take a look at my recent responses to Patrick O’Neill and Joshua Brotherton. If you’d like to talk further, I’d be happy to do so.

      Fr Aidan

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  2. jsobertsylvest says:

    Good job, Pastor Tom. My shorthand for this argument = DBH’s game theoretic approach. Once I saw it, I could not unsee it!

    Why so many interpret DBH to be, somehow, unwittingly denying the reality of sin remains bewildering to me. Clearly, his stance entails that we can sin habitually, even gravely, even warranting considerably punitive & restorative justice, both purgatively & illuminatively, all ordered toward a unitive end. It’s a matter of proportionality that suggests we can’t ever know enough to sin so gravely as to warrant either eternal conscious torment or annihilation.

    After several days of observing a theodical thread, here at EO, especially as it relates to this moral argument & game theoretic analysis, while the universalist stance is not essentially a theodicy, still, it seems to me to be an indispensable prerequisite to any logical defense, evidential theodicy or revelatory inventory of God’s character.

    Thanks for this compelling essay.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I am not arguing against the Universalist position, not by any means. I am trying to understand this “Moral Argument” and how it works. I fail to see how it could not be met by the following:

    1) The joy or bliss of Heaven is a good in itself and far outweighs in goodness the suffering/deprivation of Hell.

    2) God never gives up on a creature’s salvation, but as God does not override the will of the creature, this does not mean it is impossible for a creature to continually and without end choose hell. Thus, God’s intent in creation is the free choice of Heaven, and His intent remains that way, but His permissive will allows the creature to never “get there” so-to-speak.

    I’m not saying this argument cannot be met and answered, or even that it is much good! I’m simply saying that it seems to me it is not answered by the “Moral Argument” explained in your post above.

    Personally, I find the notion or premise that is unacceptable morally for One to create a being knowing there is the possibility of infinite loss … off-putting. I don’t mean I think there is the possibility of infinite loss. I mean that notion seems to me not to flow smoothly with what it means to be a being or to create. Assuming it is possible for a creature to choose utter loss and unending suffering, why should God not create that creature for the choice of infinite bliss and capable of entering into that infinite bliss? I guess I find the talk of “risks” and “chances” to somehow clash with what I understand of the nature of creation and being.

    I know that I am glad to exist, and to choose eternal bliss, even if it is possible that I could choose unending Hell, if for some reason I wanted to. I don’t have to choose it. Nothing compels me to choose it. I am confident in the grace of God that, whether or not it’s possible for me to choose Hell, I will not be tricked or hoodwinked into doing so. I will not accidentally end up there. Obviously, lacking that confidence in the grace of God, that no one will accidentally end up in Hell, that no one will ever be abandoned to Hell, unable to choose or desire Heaven if that is the creature’s will, the notion of the possibility of Hell would be horrendous. I’m not at all convinced that it is possible for a creature to, knowingly and willfully, out of no accident or ignorance, choose Hell, which would make unending Hell impossible, for all intents and purposes. But this detracts from my original intent of understanding the “Moral Argument” and goes into my own feelings and thoughts about, not even so much this “Moral Argument” as the Universalist/Apokatastasis conclusion.

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    • James Robinson says:

      I’m for sure not qualified to reply here, but I’m curious by what you mean by “no one will accidentally end up in Hell”. That is precisely what most of humanity does according to the majority view in Christendom. We have 70 years if we’re lucky to get it right, the odds are exceedingly stacked against us, and then boom too late.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I mean that, while I’m not willing to say that I am certain that no one will, or at least could end up in hell, I utterly and without hesitancy or revocability reject that majority view, that notion that a human being might end up in Hell without knowing both that he or she is rejecting both goodness and happiness, and that he or she could have the goodness and happiness.

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    • Tom says:

      Raina: I fail to see how it could not be met by the following: (1) The joy or bliss of Heaven is a good in itself and far outweighs in goodness the suffering/deprivation of Hell.

      Tom: Yes, heaven is better than hell. But in what sense do the joys of heaven outweigh the actual suffering of those locked in hell forever? We all take risks we deem worth it based on our character. But what rationale can render morally intelligible God’s risking the ‘eternal suffering’ of anyone? What ‘good’ can any of us experience which makes that sort of suffering ‘worth the risk’? It can’t be our experiencing the joys of heaven which are worth it. Do we really want to say our final joys make their final/irrevocable torment worth it ‘to us’? Nor can we say our joys in heaven make their torments worth it ‘to God’, since God is not improved upon by heaven’s joys. Our joys can’t manufacture in God a satisfaction which makes anyone’s eternal torment a “worthwhile” risk. So, the final risks God freely exposes us to by creating freely are, as Hart says, “the whole moral truth” about God.

      What about finite evils and suffering? God actualizes a world in which those evils are possible. So is he morally responsible (and I use the phrase carefully) for those “possibilities”? Yes, he has to be. Who else is? But we actually can imagine a good ‘we’ experience, in light of which all transient sufferings “will not be worth comparing to” (Rom 8.18); i.e., it’ll all be “worth it.” But only if all creation shares in it together.

      Raina: (2) God never gives up on a creature’s salvation, but as God does not override the will of the creature, this does not mean it is impossible for a creature to continually and without end choose hell.

      Tom: I wanna suggest that it is in fact impossible for any one to succeed finally at “having forever without end” rejected God (or doing anything else “forever” for that matter). Eternity will always lie before us (the wicked included), right? Temporally speaking, then, it’s impossible to finish traversing the whole of eternity. Nobody succeeds at having done anything forever.

      So if God never gives up, all that our abiding liberty to reject God can possibly mean is that God has all eternity to not give up on us – which is good news – and he’s in no rush, and the wicked aren’t going anywhere, and they will never exhaust the possibility of turning in God’s direction.

      The moral argument’s first consequence, though, is to make inconceivable an irrevocable hell or final loss of those God loves. It only indirectly, I think, functions as a positive argument for universalism (alongside other arguments).

      One has to focus like a laser beam on the morality of divine permission in light of creation from nothing.

      Liked by 2 people

      • In what I said about Heaven outweighing hell, perhaps it will make more sense if I put it this way:

        I do not accept the possibility that there is any ‘risk’ that a creature will, more or less, accidentally end up in hell – say, by dying in the ‘state of mortal sin’ as Roman Catholics understand it, to give only one example. I’m just not confident saying that I know for certainty that the ability to choose to freely love cannot come along with the possibility of choosing to forever reject love: but it’s hardly fair to call this a ‘risk’; it would be a free, deliberate, informed choice, not a risk or an accident. Is God really responsible if He offers me infinite bliss, and I know it, and all I have to do is receive it, and I choose not to, choose to reject all I know as good, all that makes me happy, freely and without any coercion, without any accident? I am not talking about a creature choosing what that creature thinks or sees is good, or will make him or her happy, but precisely the opposite – what is known to be both evil and misery?

        I am not saying that I fathom how such a choice is possible, only that I cannot say with certitude that it is immediately obvious to me that it is impossible.

        Liked by 1 person

    • David says:

      “I know that I am glad to exist, and to choose eternal bliss, even if it is possible that I could choose unending Hell, if for some reason I wanted to”

      Raina, you might feel prepared to accept those odds just for yourself – safe in the knowledge that you have no intention of choosing Hell. But do you think that – from a completely non-selfish perspective – you would be just as willing to accept that risk on another’s behalf?

      To put it more directly, do you think Jesus would say “yup, I’m glad I exist, and so be it if the cost of my existence is that some may suffer forever in eternal hell”? Or would he instead give up his life for his friends, preferring even his own non-existence to the possibility that just one of his little children might needlessly suffer forever?

      We must be careful to avoid too utilitarian or mathematical approach in our understanding of the goodness of God’s creation. An infinite good does not ‘make up’ for an infinite evil, and my eternal happiness does not justify another’s eternal suffering. Good and evil do not balance each other out – or if, they did, what you would end up with is something ‘beyond good and evil’, not God’s good creation.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I did not mean that I consider the possibility of my eternal happiness worth the risk of someone else’s eternal loss. I meant that, if that is how I feel, is not possible others feel that way also? I do not see it as the ‘cost of my existence is that others may suffer in hell for ever,’ but as: am I certain that my existence does not imply the possibility that I might be able to choose unending hell if I wanted to? No one’s existence implies the possibility that another might go to hell: but it might (I am uncomfortable saying I know it does not) imply the possibility that that one may choose that. Or, put another way, my non-existence does not make it less possible for Miriam to go to hell: but I will not say that I am certain that Miriam’s existence does not imply that, if Miriam deliberately chooses, she cannot go to hell.

        I can see that this is a difficult conversation to have with miscommunication in a context where many of the Christian religions teach constant fear that any human being may turn off the Way of Life and end up in hell – without a conscious, deliberate, fully-informed decision to choose to do so. You see, I don’t think there is any risk of anyone who does not in some sense want hell ending up there. Of that I am certain. This “Warning! Warning! Be careful! Otherwise you might die in a state of mortal sin!” approach is, I am quite certain, wrong.

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    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      It sounds to me you are right that a temporal, ongoing but endless (rather than unchanging and eternal) hell is not defeated by the moral argument alone, in that it is still necessary to defeat the argument that God embuing his creatures with sufficient free will to achieve his aim of heaven logically and necessarily creates the risk that at least some of his creatures through their own bottomless stubbornness will never in fact achieve it. Or at least, one can argue that under such circumstances (in some kind of utilitarian calculation) God is still morally right to create, in that, despite the risk, creating is still better than not creating at all. (One may also argue ti the contrary on moral grounds – it’s difficultto say.)
      Note that (IIRC) DBH does in fact deal with in his book this idea of a continuous ongoing and perpetual failure to repent as being incoherent and logically impossible, it’s just that, as you say, the moral argument alone is insufficient to refute it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • DBH says:

        No, it’s perfectly sufficient.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Tom says:

        Iain: Note that (IIRC) DBH does in fact deal with in his book this idea of a continuous ongoing and perpetual failure to repent as being incoherent and logically impossible, it’s just that, as you say, the moral argument alone is insufficient to refute it.

        Tom: I also think the argument is sufficient to refute it, Iain, if by “ongoing and perpetual” you mean a fixed disposition that has foreclosed upon all possibility of a change of mind. If you mean anything else, then we’re in a universalist understanding of hell as enduring ‘as long as it takes’, so to speak, but which is always open to Godward movement and so to final reconciliation. God is still the only possible ‘final’ end of our movement.

        Liked by 1 person

      • All right! In that case, we are in agreement on this at least, and I understand. That – an ongoing, continuous failure to repent – is the only notion of hell I might conceivably accept. At least, of this one thing I am certain: God will never abandon or give up on any of His creatures.

        “Love never fails.”

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  4. Marcus says:

    This debate is starting to get somewhat repetitive now, I feel like DBH is sometimes talking to a wall this whole time. People are genually misreading his writings on this, it’s sad

    There is literally more “biblical” evidence that Jesus has been judging our “life records” since 1844 then there is of an Eternal Hell…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tom says:

      I hear ya. I don’t know why it’s so difficult for so many to focus on the specific question, in this case, the morality of God’s permitting the eternal torment or loss of any of the creatures he loves. As soon as this specific question comes into view, the mind becomes distracted by irrelevant debates and side issues that have nothing to do with the question.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Purkinje says:

    Edward Feser made quick work of this moral argument four years ago:

    https://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2017/01/a-hartless-god.html#more

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    • DBH says:

      Well, Ed definitely made quick work of something back then. Not the argument, admittedly, but something.

      Liked by 3 people

    • rephinia says:

      That piece is just embarrassing. It’s so weakly argued and his reading of DBH is so poor that it really damaged his credibility. I can’t even take Feser seriously as an author anymore, and then he wrote a book supporting the death penalty and now he’s just a joke to me.

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  6. myshkin says:

    thanks for taking the time to make this argument ever clearer.
    this argument thrills me. it takes the promise of Sacred Scripture and says I cannot be separated from the love of God, no matter how insistent I am on trying to flee.
    It says Romans 5 and I Corinthians 15 actually mean what they say.
    It says my moral imbecility is not more powerful than Jesus Christ’s love and determination that I should be found.

    Fr. Rooney, I know, right, but I think that’s actually true. I think you hit the nail on the head; I don’t think in the end that any of us will actually choose against Him. Not because He restricts our freedom, but because He sets the parameters that the choice only counts when we are truly free, and when i’m truly free i’ll never choose anything but Him, for my heart is restless and it will have no rest until it finds its peace in Him.

    Providence is something. as i’m reading this my youngest, a 4 year old, and, alas, the last of 6, comes into my home office. I simply knew upon seeing her silly face the fittingness / rightness of the argument you’ve expounded upon. I would instantly choose damnation in her stead, with joy at the chance to do it, but I am a complete moron and loser, so if I, a wretch if ever there was one, would do that, then how far would our heavenly Father go. Instantly it is clear to me that he shan’t take no for an answer. He will pursue us until we finally see that Jesus Christ is all we ever wanted.

    Dr / Mr Hart, I pray for you, and interestingly enough Fr T J White as well, every single day. It’s not enough, but its all I have to offer to thank you for sharing your love. I listen to you in your book and in these articles, and that’s what I see, a man whose come face to face with the One Who Is, and is driven mad with love and would that the whole world know what you know. Thank you.

    Fr. Al, thank you for making this space. thanking you for sharing these words. I’ve moments of wonder and I can’t thank you enough.
    peace

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    • DBH says:

      T.J. is a great guy. I don’t necessarily approve of what he does for a living, but different strokes…

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      • JBG says:

        Myshkin wrote, “that’s what I see, a man whose come face to face with the One Who Is, and is driven mad with love and would that the whole world know what you know.”

        DBH, have you ever been graced with an experience you would call mystical or unitive?

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  7. Pingback: God’s got nothing to do with death or gratuitous evil – PARTICIPATING in the DIVINE DANCE

  8. David Artman says:

    Here are my two cents. I devoted a podcast episode to this question. Thanks for everyone’s input on this great conversation!
    https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/grace-saves-all-christianity-and-universal-salvation/id1534051216?i=1000504824238

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  9. I’ve mentioned it briefly previously, but perhaps the best objections to universal salvation come from outside of christianity. I’m thinking particularly of the Hare Krishnas. Their objection has a certain something to it. Basically “There are infinite souls, and always new souls being born in the unending reality of samsara. As such, there is always someone new to save. The argument seems to be along the lines that if all souls were saved and there was no one left to be saved, God would cease to be a saviour. Now, given any individual soul, that soul is predestined to salvation, however there will never come a point where “all souls” will be saved, because “all souls” is an ever-expanding category; The moment all souls have been saved, another infinity of souls are pulled out of the nihil into samsara; and once those souls have been saved; yet another infinity of souls are creavit ex nihilo and the story continues. Call it a “Gaudiya Vaishnava epektasis” if you will. Every individual soul is predestined to salvation by Krishna/Caitanya’s grace, but it’s impossible to conceive of a “final” state where “all” souls are saved and none remain to be saved, because categories like “final” and “all” simply don’t apply here.

    I find this account of things tantalising and very interesting to be honest, but seeing as I’ve been grounded more in Christianity I lean more towards a Bulgakovian apokatastasis. Still fun to think about, and I’d love to hear a decent rebuttal from DBH. To me, it seems to be an account of things with a lot going for it: Me, My friends and my family are all predestined to salvation, and yet the story of the descent to samsara so as to rescue new souls never ends, because there are always new souls to save. It’s not just me who detects a certain aesthetic pleasure in that way of seeing things right?

    On another note, it would put my soul at rest if DBH would confirm that in the resurrection, my wife will still be my wife. The whole “till death do us part” thing really bugs me in traditional wedding vows, and “eternal marriage” is without a doubt the biggest draw of Mormonism. The notion that my marriage will end in the resurrection brings me no comfort whatsoever. If the argument is true that we are only people (and saved) in relationship with the other important people in our lives, then surely I can’t be saved as me unless I am saved with my wife as my wife. The “till death do us part” section of the catholic vows really leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

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    • footnote: It’s interesting to put everything I wrote there in parallel with the bodhicaryavatara, especially the fantastic final prayer for buddhist-apokatastasis that makes up the final chapter. “Let the rain of flame in the twenty four hells be transformed into a rain of flowers and let the lakes of fire become oceans of honey: So long as suffering abides, I unconditionally promise to also abide, and I vow to conquer and abolish all suffering with boundless mercy, infinite love and overwhelming compassion” or something like that. Beautiful. Anyway, my point is, “infinite jivas” doesn’t seem to pose a problem for shantideva’s prayer for apokatastasis (insofar as “jiva” is even a thing in the mahayana)

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