by Tom Belt
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.