My working principle: once eternal damnation is accepted by an ecclesial community as dogmatically binding, three things happen:
- Holy Scripture and the patristic tradition will be read through the dogma.
- Preaching and theological speculation will be governed by the dogma, sometimes with curious, sometimes with pernicious, results.
- Damnation always trumps gospel.
We come now to the third Roman Catholic review of That All Shall Be Saved that I will be considering in this series: “Universalism’s Convenientia” by the esteemed theologian Paul J. Griffiths.1 Unlike our two previous reviewers, Dr Griffiths is sympathetic to the greater hope. He believes that the universalist answer to the question “Who among us is saved?” (WS) is the most fitting Christian response:
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. Possibly all just does better, much better, with the tradition’s complexity than its contradictory.1
Yet despite this fittingness, Griffiths is unwilling to embrace the bold confidence of David Bentley Hart and his fellow necessarily all universalists. He believes that the grammar of faith mandates the possibly not all. Hope and lament constitute the oscillating rhythm of the Christian life. Griffiths therefore stands with Balthasar and many others in the subjunctive universalism camp: we may hope that God will save all, but we cannot be certain that he will. The spectre of hell haunts our paschal festivities.
Griffith’s hopeful universalism sprouts from his apprehension of the divine love as revealed in Scripture and his rejection of the traditional assertion of everlasting punishment. The LORD would never, will never inflict irredeemable suffering upon his creatures:
Sin, the averting of sinners by their own actions from the LORD’s loving face, has nothing whatever to do with the LORD. It is an absence, a horror, a grasp at nothing that succeeds in moving the graspers toward what they seek. The LORD has nothing to do with the privation that sinners seek. He cannot. He is the LORD who spoke the beautiful cosmos into being out of nothing, and his causal involvement with attempts to return it to nothing is and must be exactly zero. For the LORD to inflict pain, eternally or temporarily, upon nothing-seekers, would be for him to recognize an absence as a presence, and to respond to it as if it were something. The pain that we suffer is always the result either of the damage to which the fall subjected the cosmos, or of the particular sins we commit in that devastated cosmos. The LORD does not punish us, if that means inflicting pain on us in retribution for the wrongs we have done. The only sense in which he can be said to punish us is that we, because we are damaged and sinful, may find his caress painful. But such pain is epiphenomenal to love, and has the presence of damage (the presence of an absence) as its necessary condition. The LORD, therefore, does not and cannot intend the infliction of pain, and has no causal implication with its occurrence. Pain is, without remainder, the felt component of an absence being reduced by presence. What the LORD does is enter into and pass through that absence by incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection, thus remaking the cosmos away from the absence introduced into it by sin, and toward the harmony of ordered beauty. The doctrine of the harrowing of hell, implicit already in the Apostles’ Creed and one of the earliest scenes to find representation in Christian art, can stand as a symbolic representation of this view: the LORD makes and remakes; he does not unmake, and the infliction of pain as punishment would be to contribute to unmaking. An objector who wishes to defend the necessity of the LORD’s agency in pain-producing punishment for those who attempt to unmake themselves is insufficiently serious about what it means to say that the LORD is creator and redeemer, and therefore all too likely to make of him a local idol engaged in a cosmic battle with dark forces. Better, altogether more Christian, to say that the only thing the LORD does for sinners is remake them (by baptism, by killing the fatted calf to return their substance to them) when and whenever they ask, and that the only thing sinners can do for themselves is unmaking. Necesse est quod anima deo deserta in nihilum cadat [“It is necessary that the soul, deserted by God, fall into nothing”] we might say and since the LORD does not change, remove himself, punish, or condemn to hell, this must occur as a result of the sinner damaging himself sufficiently that the LORD no longer sustains him—and can no longer sustain him without refusing his freedom to seek the end he prefers, even if that end is nothing.2
It is in the nature of the the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to make and remake, to heal and restore, to give life and raise from the dead. God does not mete out misery and torment, not even in the name of justice. “He does not unmake, and the infliction of pain as punishment would be to contribute to unmaking.” Suffering belongs to the realm of the devastation. We suffer because we seek nothingness and death; we suffer because we are damaged and broken, because we lack the abundant life Christ intends for us. As a result, we even find our Lover’s “caress painful.” Griffiths thinks it unthinkable that the God of the gospel would condemn anyone to eternal conscious torment. This is neither who he is nor what he does. The love that is Holy Trinity does not inflict irreparable injury. Suffering belongs to the fallen creation. Were it to perdure indefinitely, then this would mean that the LORD had failed to accomplish the transfiguration of the cosmos. Forever there would remain a portion of his creation not fully redeemed, a realm in which God is not all in all:
What is wrong with the idea that human creatures might exist … as ensouled flesh subsequent to the general resurrection subject to endless torment? The quick answer is that pain is a feature, an artifact, of the fall, and as such belongs properly to the devastation; its occurrence for human creatures is inseparable from the metronomic time that belongs to the devastation, and to say that it can continue after the general resurrection is just to say that the devastation is not fully and finally healed. The enfleshed inhabitants of hell, should there be any, inhabit what remains of the devastation, and their sufferings are therefore the principal sign of the failure of the LORD’s passion to heal that devastation.3
Yet Griffiths concedes that sinners may succeed in their quest for autonomy and independence, thus making it impossible for God to sustain them in existence, except by refusing their freedom to seek the end they prefer. Free will is commonly invoked to justify eternal damnation. God graciously offers himself to all, but also permits his rational creatures to definitively reject his fellowship. What is the final end of this rejection? Griffiths answers: nothingness … ontological obliteration. Whether by defiant rebellion or tenacious flight—both amount to the same action and realize the same goal—the wicked may achieve ultimate separation from their Creator:
It is essential to Christian orthodoxy to claim that we can damage ourselves. This is what the doctrine of sin is about. When we sin, we avert our gaze from God and from the radiant weight of God’s glory that is evident in creation. We turn ourselves away, that is, from what is toward what is not, from the good that is God to the privano boni that is God’s absence, also known as evil. In doing so, we become less than we were, which is to say that we participate less fully in God than we otherwise would have. We are diminished by our sin. This way of describing sin’s nature and effects is both scriptural and philosophical. It assumes and hinges upon a particular, broadly Platonist, understanding of what it is for particulars (me, you, tables, trees) to exist, an understanding that construes the existence of each particular in terms of the participation in God—the plenum, the ipsum esse subsistens (to use Thomist language)—appropriate to its nature. A rational soul’s sin, on this view, damages it by removing it from such participation and taking it toward the nihil, that absence from which it came and which is the only possible direction in which such removal can tend.4
Detachment from the transcendent source of being inevitably leads to nonexistence, just as prolonged starvation leads to physical death. This conclusion, moreover, is not divinely willed in any sense:
It is axiomatic for Christians that if any creature comes to nothing, this is never because the LORD brings it to nothing. The LORD is creator ex nihilo, not the bringer of his creatures ad nihilum. Destructive activity is not what the LORD does; and destruction is not what he effects. Any movement toward nothing, whether on the part of humans or other creatures, is a result of sin and nothing else; and sin is an action of free, rational agents, whether human or angelic or other. From which it follows at once that if any creature finds its novissimum in annihilation, it does so as a result of sin, whether its own or that of others.5
But is it possible for anyone to rationally will definitive separation from the God who is their supreme happiness and fulfillment, absent ignorance, delusion, and disordered desire? Griffiths acknowledges that with most if not all sinful acts, sinners do not intend nothing. They intend a particular created good. This is true even if they know that their action violates the divine law:
The thief or the adulterer or the liar or the blasphemer or the murderer will usually understand herself to be seeking a real good even if she understands her seeking of it to be sinful, and will take her seeking of it to be sinful because of circumstances that make it inappropriate as an object for her to seek now…. This is reasonable enough as far as it goes: sin ordinarily is the grasp for a created good that circumstance makes illicit for the one doing the grasping.6
But deeper analysis and reflection, contends Griffiths, reveals that “the skull beneath the skin of the beautiful but illicit good really is the absence that is the void.”7 Yet the question remains: Would any rational person freely choose extinction, knowing (not just superficially but with one’s whole being) that communion with the Holy Trinity represents the supreme happiness and joy he is seeking? Is the notion of radical evil coherent?8
To grasp at nothing is to become nothing. Such is the logic of self-annihilation:
Sin, like all actions, conforms its agents to the intentional objects of their actions. But sin’s intentional object is unlike that of all other actions. Sinners seek, when they sin, an object that has no existence. The ideal typical sin is an action directed without intermediaries or simulacra toward the nothing from which the sinner came, and since that nothing is in every respect other than the LORD—it is not the LORD himself, and is nothing he has made—it must be pure absence, pure lack. What sin seeks in its pure form is evil unadulterated; and, it has been evident to Christians at least since the fourth century, as an essential and nonnegotiable component of Christian orthodoxy, that evil unadulterated is just and simply nothing at all. In seeking that, sinners seek what is not; and in seeking what is not, they seek their own annihilation.9
Hell exists, we might say, but it is the hell of the self-annihilated, which in turn leads to the odd conclusion that hell is empty! “To be damned, definitively and irreversibly extricated from participation in God, would be to be brought to nothing,” Griffiths explains. “And so it would follow that if hell is populated by the damned, hell would have to be empty because those who have been brought to nothing populate nowhere.”10
Annihilationism enjoys a great moral advantage over all infernalist construals: the horror of everlasting suffering is nowhere to be found. Like the damned, it too is expunged. In his mercy God permits the wicked to experience the inexorable conclusion of their sinful determinations—absolute death. The reprobate return to the nihil from which they were brought forth. They have no place in God’s new creation, thus obviating concerns regarding the justice of perdition. Yet Griffiths’ proposal remains vulnerable to the arguments advanced by Hart in That All Shall Be Saved—specifically, the argument from creatio ex nihilo (meditation one), the argument on human personhood (meditation three), and the argument on the Good and human freedom (meditation four). Unfortunately, Griffiths does not address them in his Eclectic Orthodoxy review, nor does he address Hart’s direct critique of annihilationism.
The free will model of damnation, Hart maintains, presupposes the willingness of God to risk one, many, or most human beings for the blessedness of the saved. It’s as if God has created a magnificent contest of survival, both thrilling and horrifying. The winners are rewarded with eternal glory; the losers punished with everlasting torment. Even if in the end, against all likelihood, all should be saved, one crucial fact stands out: when God freely created the world ex nihilo, he comprehended perdition within the eschatological consummation of the cosmos:
Let us, that is, say God created simply on the chance that humanity might sin, and on the chance that a certain number of incorrigibly wicked souls might plunge themselves into the fiery abyss 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 should happen to be damned. The logic is irresistible. God creates. The die is cast. Alea iacta est. But then again, as Mallarme says, “Un coup de des jamais n’abolira le hasard” (A throw of the dice will never abolish the hazard): for what is hazarded has already been surrendered, entirely, no matter how the dice may fall. The outcome of the aleatory venture may be intentionally indeterminate, but the wager itself 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, or that venture beyond good and evil, even if at the last no one should perish. 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…. Once again, then, who would the damned be but the redeemers of the blessed, the price eternally paid by God for the sake of the Kingdom’s felicity?11
Does anything change if eternal suffering is replaced by annihilation? Not as much as might be hoped. Ontological obliteration simply replaces interminable suffering as the unconscionable price of redemption:
But such an eventuality [i.e., annihilation] would still be an irreducible price exacted, a sacrifice eternally preserved in the economy of God’s Kingdom. The ultimate absence of a certain number of created rational natures would still be a kind of last end inscribed in God’s eternity, a measure of failure or loss forever preserved within the totality of the tale of divine victory. If what is lost is lost finally and absolutely, then whatever remains, however glorious, is the residue of an unresolved and no less ultimate tragedy, and so could constitute only a contingent and relative “happy ending.” Seen in that way, the lost are still the price that God has contracted from everlasting—whether by predestination or mere permission—for the sake of his Kingdom; and so it remains a Kingdom founded upon both an original and a final sacrificial exclusion. In either case—eternal torment, eternal oblivion—creation and redemption are negotiations with evil, death, and suffering, and so never in an absolute sense God’s good working of all things.12
In both the infernalist and annihilationist models, the Kingdom is built on the sacrifice of the lost. The LORD has become Moloch.
Dr Griffiths is clearly sympathetic to the universalist proposal. I cannot help but wonder, though: if apokatastasis is the most fitting conclusion to the story of salvation, why not fully embrace it? Jesus is risen from the dead and emptied hell. How then can the lament of possibly not all be constitutive of Christian life? Pascha enjoys, must enjoy, the final word.
Christ is risen from the dead,
trampling down death by death,
and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!
 Paul J. Griffiths, “Universalism’s Convenientia,” Eclectic Orthodoxy (9 December 2020).
 Paul J. Griffiths, Decreation (2014), pp. 211-212. Also see his essay “Self-Annihilation or Damnation,” Pro Ecclesia XVI (2007): 416-444. For a Catholic critique of Griffiths, see Joshua R. Brotherton, “A Response to Paul Griffiths’s Annihilationist Proposal,” Modern Theology 37 (January 2021): 89-113. For a fascinating dialogue between Griffiths and five scholars, see the 2015 Syndicate Symposium on Decreation.
 Ibid., p. 242.
 Griffiths, “Self-Annihilation,” p. 423.
 Griffiths, Decreation, p. 192.
 Ibid., p. 194.
 “So with all of this in mind, let us now begin to explore what it might mean to say that someone freely rejects God forever. Is there in fact a coherent meaning here? Religious people sometimes speak of God as if he were just another human magistrate who seeks his own glory and requires obedience for its own sake; they even speak as if we might reject the Creator and Father of our souls without rejecting ourselves, oppose his will for our lives without opposing, schizophrenically perhaps, our own will for our lives…. But if God is our loving Creator, then he wills for us exactly what, at the most fundamental level, we want for ourselves; he wills that we should experience supreme happiness, that our deepest yearnings should be satisfied, and that all of our needs should be met. So if that is true, if God wills for us the very thing we really want for ourselves, whether we know it or not, how then are we to understand human disobedience and opposition to God?
“Let us distinguish between two senses in which a person might reject God. If a person refuses to be reconciled to God and the person’s refusal does not rest upon ignorance or misinformation or deception of any kind, then let us say that the person has made a fully informed decision to reject God; but if the person refuses to be reconciled to God and the person’s refusal does rest upon ignorance or deception of some kind, then let us say that the person has made a less than fully informed decision to reject God. Now no one, I take it, would deny the possibility of someone’s making a less than fully informed decision to reject God; it happens all the time…. But what might qualify as a motive for someone’s making a fully informed decision to reject God? Once one has learned, perhaps through bitter experience, that evil is always destructive, always contrary to one’s own interest as well as to the interest of others, and once one sees clearly that God is the ultimate source of human happiness and that rebellion can bring only greater and greater misery into one’s own life as well as into the lives of others, an intelligible motive for such rebellion no longer seems even possible. The strongest conceivable motive would seem to exist, moreover, for uniting with God. So if a fully informed person should reject God nonetheless, then that person … would seem to display the kind of irrationality which is itself incompatible with free choice.” Thomas Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God, pp. 172-173.
 Ibid., p. 193. For a brief comparison of Griffiths and Hart on sin, see Roberto De La Noval, “The Fork in the (Final) Road,” Pro Ecclesia XXV (2016): 317-318.
 Griffiths, “Self-Annihilation,” p. 439.
 Ibid., p. 87.