God-damnation or Self-damnation?


“I am not going to try to prove the doctrine [of hell] tolerable,” writes C. S. Lewis in his book The Problem of Pain. “Let us make no mistake; it is not tolerable. But I think the doctrine can be shown to be moral.” Fr Lawrence Farley agrees. In “The Morality of Gehenna,” he offers an apology for eternal damnation. Making the doctrine “palatable is beyond my power or intention,” he writes, but perhaps it can be shown to be moral and just and thus recon­cil­able with belief in the love of God . . . or perhaps not.

One immediately notes a difference, though, in Fr Lawrence’s construal of eternal dam­na­tion. In his preceding article, “Christian Universalism,” Fr Lawrence claims that Holy Scrip­ture teaches a retributive model of damnation: “God is the judge of all the earth, and his punishing judgment and severity falls upon those who rebel against righteousness.” Jesus’ teaching on Gehenna but represents the eternalization of the divine retribution. Many of the early Church Fathers, ranging from St John Chrysostom to St Augustine, can be cited in support of this interpretation. In “The Morality of Gehenna,” however, Fr Law­rence quietly moves from a retributive model of damnation, in which God is the active agent of punish­ment, to a libertarian-abandonment model, in which God ratifies the fundamental orien­ta­tion of the self-damned and abandons them to the interior conse­quences of their sins. I do not object to this shift (who wouldn’t prefer Lewis’s The Great Divorce, where the damned can take a bus ride to heaven, to Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”?), but I do have to ask: What is its biblical grounding? On what basis do we override the “clear” biblical witness to retributive pun­ish­ment for wrongdoings (a witness so strong, asserts Farley, that we must dismiss univer­sal­ist proposals without further ado) and affirm a view that lacks explicit biblical support? (Might we be seeing a bit of philosophical reasoning at work here?) I’m sure scriptural verses on behalf of the self-damnation model can be cited, just as one can provide them for absolute predestination, annihi­la­tionism, universal salvation; yet Fr Lawrence’s stated methodology requires that the less certain texts be interpreted through the dominant, unambiguous ones. Once again we are brought into the thicket of hermeneutics. Neither biblicism nor patristicism can resolve the challenge.1

The self-damnation model of damnation became the dominant understanding of eternal damna­tion in the second-half of the twentieth century. While one can still find proponents of the retributive model, their numbers are growing fewer. Across the denominational board, Christians have come to believe that eternal retribution is incompatible with the infinitely loving Father as revealed in and by the incarnate Son. George MacDonald’s meditation upon divine justice now seems prophetic : “I believe that justice and mercy are simply one and the same thing; without justice to the full there can be no mercy, and with­out mercy to the full there can be no justice.”2 How then do we justify eternal damnation? By reinterpreting eternal retribution as the creature’s irrevocable act of self-alienation from his Creator. The reprobate chooses perdition. God does not damn; the human being damns himself. The Father eternally offers sinners mercy and forgiveness; but those who exist in the state of perdition irrevocably refuse the offer. In the oft-quoted words of Lewis: “I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”3

But is this free-will construal of eternal damnation rationally coherent? I long thought that it was. The Great Divorce is one of my favorite spiritual books, and I have often used its argu­ments and stories in my preaching and catechesis. Yet the libertarian position has its weak­nesses. Philosopher Thomas Talbott has subjected the free-will model to incisive critique in several peer-reviewed essays, as well as in his book The Inescapable Love of God. His book is essential reading. I would even go so far as to declare that no one should publicly reject the universalist hope until they have first wrestled with and answered his arguments. Talbott’s argumentation is well complemented by the rigorous philosophical analysis of John Kronen and Eric Reitan in God’s Final Victory and David Bentley Hart’s penetrating reflections in That All Shall Be Saved. The latter works can be hard sledding, but Talbott’s writings are wonderfully accessible.

Can you imagine a human being eternally rejecting God?

“Absolutely,” you reply. “I do it all the time.”

Now let’s add misery into the equation. Can you imagine a human being freely choosing everlasting intolerable torment over God?

Now matters become a bit more complicated. Will you not do just about anything to avoid pain and suffering? You might temporarily sacrifice lesser goods in order to acquire what you believe to be a greater good, as a jewel thief might invest a great deal of time, energy, and money preparing for a lucrative heist. You might choose the immediate satisfaction and excitement of an adulterous encounter rather than remaining faithful to your spouse, whom you find boring and unattractive. But what if there’s no payoff, only interminable, ever-increasing torment?

“Yes, I’m forced to admit that doesn’t seem to make much sense. I always prefer happiness to unhappiness. That’s why I choose to sin. I want what I want and I want it now. I don’t want to wait for the future happiness the preacher promises me. I am satisfaction-driven. Even when I am spiteful and seek to injure another, it’s because it gives me some degree of perverted pleasure. So no, I suppose I can’t envision myself rationally and freely choosing the fire of Gehenna.”

Now we come to the critical Christian point: God, and God alone, is our consummate happiness, our supreme Good. We were created by God for God. While we may search for our happiness in temporal goods, while we may confuse apparent goods for genuine goods, while we may be tragically ignorant of the fundamental truth of our ultimate fulfillment, we are always searching for the Good who is our God and will never find abiding happiness and peace except through union with him. Lewis puts it this way:

What Satan put into the heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they ‘could be like Gods’—could set up on their own as if they had created them­selves—be their own masters—invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history—money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery—the long, terrible story of man trying to find something other than God to make Him happy. The reason why it can never succeed is this. God made us: invented us as man made the engine. A car is made to run on gasoline, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bother­ing about religion. God cannot give us a happiness apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.4

Our eternal Father has created us to enjoy him forever in the communion of the Son and Holy Spirit.

Given that God is our transcendent and perfect Good, can you imagine a genuinely informed human being freely choosing utter misery over eternal happiness with him? Can you imagine yourself doing so?

I respectfully suggest you cannot, not really. No doubt you can imagine yourself doing so under conditions of ignorance, delusion, addiction, mental illness and psychopathy, and enslavement to your disordered passions—all of which characterize our fallen existence—but in their absence, I submit, you cannot truly imagine yourself choosing absolute, unabating, unrelievable, intolerable agony, not if you possessed the freedom to choose otherwise. It would make no sense—a choice made for no reason or motive whatsoever. Talbott elaborates:

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. [William Lane] Craig thus speaks of the “stubborn refusal to submit one’s will to that of another.” 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.5

The ultimate good we desire for ourselves and the good God desires for us are identical! When properly formulated and understood, therefore, definitive rejection of God ironically turns out to be the most “selfless” and irrational act conceivable—and that is why it is inconceivable. It would be to deny our deepest and truest self. It requires us to choose privation for privation’s sake, to choose misery for misery’s sake, to choose evil for evil’s sake—yet that is precisely what we cannot rationally do! St Thomas Aquinas plainly states the matter:

I answer that, Man like any other being has naturally an appetite for the good; and so if his appetite incline away to evil, this is due to corruption or disorder in some one of the principles of man: for it is thus that sin occurs in the actions of natural things. Now the principles of human acts are the intellect, and the appetite, both rational (i.e. the will) and sensitive. There­fore even as sin occurs in human acts, sometimes through a defect of the intellect, as when anyone sins through ignorance, and sometimes through a defect in the sensitive appetite, as when anyone sins through passion, so too does it occur through a defect consisting in a disorder of the will. Now the will is out of order when it loves more the lesser good. Again, the conse­quence of loving a thing less is that one chooses to suffer some hurt in its regard, in order to obtain a good that one loves more: as when a man, even knowingly, suffers the loss of a limb, that he may save his life which he loves more. Accordingly when an inordinate will loves some temporal good, e.g. riches or pleasure, more than the order of reason or Divine law, or Divine charity, or some such thing, it follows that it is willing to suffer the loss of some spiritual good, so that it may obtain possession of some tem­poral good. Now evil is merely the privation of some good; and so a man wishes knowingly a spiritual evil, which is evil simply, whereby he is deprived of a spiritual good, in order to possess a temporal good: where­fore he is said to sin through certain malice or on purpose, because he chooses evil knowingly.

Ignorance sometimes excludes the simple knowledge that a particular action is evil, and then man is said to sin through ignorance: sometimes it excludes the knowledge that a particular action is evil at this particular moment, as when he sins through passion: and sometimes it excludes the knowledge that a particular evil is not to be suffered for the sake of possessing a particular good, but not the simple knowledge that it is an evil: it is thus that a man is ignorant, when he sins through certain malice.

Evil cannot be intended by anyone for its own sake; but it can be intended for the sake of avoiding another evil, or obtaining another good, as stated above: and in this case anyone would choose to obtain a good intended for its own sake, without suffering loss of the other good; even as a lustful man would wish to enjoy a pleasure without offending God; but with the two set before him to choose from, he prefers sinning and thereby incurring God’s anger, to being deprived of the pleasure.6

2_1.jpg~original.jpegBut, replies Fr Lawrence, that is precisely what the Devil did! Hence all of this philo­sophical specu­la­tion proves empty. We know of at least one rational being who did the rationally impossible: “In the devil we find an abyss of unreason, a perverse fixity and com­mitment to rebellion, even when it is known to be futile and self-defeating and leads to damnation.” Lucifer was given a direct vision of God at the moment of his creation, and yet he rejected God and became the Satan. How then can anyone posit the inconceivability of self-damna­tion? “The sad truth,” Fr Lawrence concludes, “is that the human person is quite capable of misusing the inherently purposive, teleological, primor­dially oriented toward the good power of the will and perverting it into something entirely different.”

This counter-argument, however, is purely speculative and unconvincing. We know very little about the unholy spirits, beyond the fact that they are our enemy and must be re­nounced; nor has God revealed to us the details of the demonic fall. Of course, that has not stopped theo­lo­gians from speculating about their rebellion, but these speculations are predicated upon prior assent to the dogma of eternal perdition: if we know that the damned have freely chosen damnation, then we will naturally seek a rational explanation. Yet a rational explanation eludes us, so we posit the incomprehensible conundrum of primaeval evil. Once upon a time, the greatest of the archangels knew the goodness of God with crystalline clarity, knew God as his supreme and only Good, knew him as infinite Love and bliss; yet despite this perfect knowledge, he freely rejected eternal joy and instead chose intolerable torment. But all of this is specula­tion, myth, and absurdity. God has not disclosed to us the whys and where­fores of the angelic rebellion. Paradise Lost is not Holy Scripture.7 Perhaps, just perhaps, God gave the angelic spirits an epis­temic distance analogous to that which he provided Adam and Eve for the development of their personhood—just perhaps. In any case, the claim that rational beings can freely reject the Good when apprehended in immediate and comprehensive vision must be deemed implausible if not impossible.

In his essay “God, Creation, and Evil,” David B. Hart discusses free will and argues for the impossibility of a definitive, irreversible decision against God. Man is created in the imago Dei and cannot destroy his transcendental orientation:

But, on any cogent account, free will is a power inherently purposive, teleological, primordially oriented toward the good, and shaped by that transcendental appetite to the degree that a soul can recognize the good for what it is. No one can freely will the evil as evil; one can take the evil for the good, but that does not alter the prior transcendental orientation that wakens all desire. To see the good truly is to desire it insatiably; not to desire it is not to have known it, and so never to have been free to choose it.8

Hart’s argument is not identical to Talbott’s, but both concur that the human being is intrinsically ordered to the Good. In reply to this argument, Fr Lawrence remarks: “Here the philosopher smacks up against the exegete. Philosophical arguments about what the human will is or is not capable of are interesting, but must take an epistemological back­seat to the teaching of Scripture—and the Fathers would agree.” This simply will not do. It is biblicism of the worst kind. Yes, Dr Hart is presenting a sophisticated, reasoned argu­ment, but it is an argument grounded in the Bible and patristic metaphysics. When­ever we exegete Holy Scripture, we are doing philosophy, no matter how rudimentary or unself­con­scious. To think we can cordon ourselves off from metaphysics, even in the simplest interpretive act, is naïve. The only question is whether we are doing good philosophy or bad philosophy.

(29 February 2016; rev.)


[1] For a comparative analysis of the principal models of damnation, with critique of the retributive model, see Jerry Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation, as well as the contri­bu­tions of Jonathan Kvanvig and Thomas Talbott to the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[2] George MacDonald, “Justice,” Unspoken Sermons.

[3] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, chap. 8.

[4] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, chap. 3.

[5] Thomas Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God [2nd ed.], p. 172; emphasis mine.

[6] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I/II.78.

[7] See Talbott’s discussion of Milton’s portrayal of Satan, pp. 173-175; also see my article “Rational Freedom and the Incoherence of Satan.”

[8] David Bentley Hart, “God, Creation, and Evil,” Radical Orthodoxy 3 (September 2015): 10; emphasis mine.

(Go to “Taking the Bus to Hell”)

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22 Responses to God-damnation or Self-damnation?

  1. I think Hart’s critique of the free will argument and his formulation of the transcendental orientation of the will towards God makes an eternal hell UNLIKELY. I don’t think it makes it an absolute impossibility unless it is perhaps combined with his first ex nihilo argument. I’m not sure if this renders hell an absolute impossibility but I’m fairly sure it renders it as INCREDIBLY unlikely.

    It at least seems theoretically possible that people could be morally confused forever and decide to get off of C.S. Lewis’s bus to heaven for all of eternity. Perhaps no matter how many times they decide they’re sick of hell, they can’t go through with the purification of their soul and so they always get off the bus. However, as for why God would CREATE such people that would “choose” to suffer for all of eternity, this seriously calls God’s goodness into question. Especially if ethical intellectualism is one good way (among others) of understanding moral choices (I think it is). Then an eternal hell becomes less about our free will and more about God’s apparently poor providence to make it happen.

    Nevertheless, I think the only thing that renders an eternal hell an absolute impossibility is scripture itself. I have since come around to Hart’s dual eschatological horizons view of the scripture passages, and that’s what I think ultimately renders universal salvation as a promise that God WILL fulfill. I’ve noticed Jersak has come around to basically the same position as well. It’s Hart and Bulgakov’s reading of scripture that moved me from a hopeful universalist position to a promissory universalist position. I rather like that last phrase. “Certain universalist” rubs me the wrong way, even if it is implied.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Counter-Rebel says:

      I’d be insulting my father if I said it’s highly unlikely he would torture me in the basement, but not impossible. Free choices are random (there’s no explanation for why we got A over B, given the same agent-cause in the same conditions), so the agent is not ultimately responsible.

      “Hence, absolute culpability–*eternal* culpability–lies forever beyond the capacities of any finite being. So does any eternal *free* defiance of the Good. We are not blameless, certainly; but then again, that very fact proves that we have never been entirely free not to be blameless–and so neither can we ever be entirely to blame.” -David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, p. 43


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      My question for you, Mark: How does saying that hell is extremely unlikely not end up saying that it’s extremely likely that God is good but in the end he may not be good?


  2. myshkin says:

    “To see the good truly is to desire it insatiably; not to desire it is not to have known it, and so never to have been free to choose it.”

    This line incessantly moves me to wonder and joy. It sums up so much so simply so beautifully. even if i had no inclination whatsoever to see God’s love as omnipotent, this line would tug forcefully at my heart. It speaks to the deepest desire of my heart, and every time you reference it in one of your essays, I take it as a Providential whisper which reminds me that He isn’t too good to be true.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      This sentence jumped out at me and grabbed my heart when I first heard Hart utter it in his Notre Dame lecture.


    • p myshkin says:

      driving home it dawned on me that this statement illuminates and destroys a fear that lurked in my heart and has been a source of great sorrow. it repudiates the fear that the reason i never liked God was because God was unlikable and, even worse, He was impotent to overcome my dislike for Him. with such deftness this statement makes obvious that my fear is unfounded, my dislike is not the final word, for my dislike was properly aimed at a false potentate who is not. this statement says that each of us have a love that has a proper end and that end will be; It will be; and with it’s being All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.


      • JBG says:

        p myshkin: “…my dislike is not the final word, for my dislike was properly aimed at a false potentate who is not.”


        If an individual “rejects God”, then it necessarily follows that their image of God is false. Thus, one can never truly reject the true God but rather only their erroneous characterization of God. Imagine being tortured forever over what is, quite literally, a misapprehension? Yikes.


        • Robert Fortuin says:

          But would this not be the very hell of hells – to not have good cause? One’s reason found to be utterly empty, futile, devoid of truth, based on shadowy deception?
          What kind of truth can deliver from this?


    • Thankyou! What a beautiful comment to share.


  3. JBG says:

    “Given that God is our transcendent and perfect Good, can you imagine a genuinely informed human being freely choosing utter misery over eternal happiness with him? Can you imagine yourself doing so?”

    As the article states, this notion that someone would choose utter misery is self-evidently nonsensical. This is the pinnacle of absurdity.

    The best one can say is that a person rejects God. To be more precise, a person rejects their perception or understanding of God. But it doesn’t follow that they desire and have therefore chosen eternal misery.

    So, if we are honest about it, they have chosen neither God nor eternal misery. Both are against their will. Thus, they will have to forced.

    Umm, but wait. God doesn’t force anyone into their eternal destination against their will, right?


  4. incessable says:

    I’m very much inclined to universalism myself. But I have some doubts. I think of my own mother, and her adultery, and the havoc her adultery wreaked on our family, and her subsequent rejection of my father, her divorcing him, and then marrying the man with whom she committed adultery, to whom she remains married over 20 years later. Is she repentant of her adultery? I don’t think she is. If I press her on the harm she caused us, she caused me, on the wrongfulness of her acts, she will express remorse, but it doesn’t feel genuine – genuine remorse is offered spontaneously, not squeezed out of a person like squeezing blood from a stone. But I understand why she cannot be truly remorseful – it would involve her saying that her current marriage is a mistake that never should have been. Remaining with her partner-in-crime is incompatible with true remorse for her crime; as long as she chooses to remain with him, she is continuing to choose adultery. I hope and pray that one day she might walk away from him, and into true remorse – it would fill my heart with indescribable joy – yet I fear that day might, in this life, remain only in my dreams.

    Maybe at death she will descend to hell, and God will say to her – “you will be allowed out as soon as you truly repent of your adultery”? Would she repent, or would she choose to remain in her adultery forever? I very much hope that she would choose repentance, but cannot be sure of it – the chance seems so remote in this life, would it be any less remote in the next? She does not truly care now about the harm she has done to her own children; why should she care in the next? If she chose to remain in her adultery forever, would that be God’s injustice, or her own? If I said to God – “Lord, make her repent” – what might God say to me? “I can make her repent, but if I make her repent, is she truly repenting?”

    Another, quite different, thought – how will the defenders of eternal damnation react if they die, and then God says to them “all are saved”? I am sure many of them will be “surprised by joy”; many will fall down in repentance, “Lord, forgive my error”. But, maybe some of them will be so attached to the doctrine they say “No, this cannot be true! This is not possible! This is horrible! The real God would never say such a lie! You are not the real God, you are a fake God, the devil pretending to be God!” What if they cling so greatly and so irrevocably to the idea of eternal damnation, that they thereby eternal damn themselves? Could it be that the only people eternally damned are the most devout believers in the idea of eternal damnation, those who love that idea more than God himself? Maybe, God offers universal salvation to all; but a few hate the idea of universal salvation so much they freely choose to reject it for themselves. Maybe, this “ironic” doctrine of eternal damnation (only the most devout believers in eternal damnation will be eternally damned) might less offend universalist sentiments than many others?

    Yet another, again quite different, but also extremely speculative thought: As a father the thought of the eternal damnation of my children pains me greatly. The answers believers in eternal damnation give are deeply unsatisfying – “God will wipe away every tear”? I want nothing to do with any “God” who would wipe away my love for my own children. But, I have long been deeply fascinated with branching parallel universes. What if, for every person who is eternally damned, God creates a branching parallel universe in which that person is eternally saved as well? So, even if my children are damned, they are also saved – rather, they would exist in multiple versions, at least some of which would be saved along with me, others may be damned. Maybe, everyone is both damned and saved simultaneously – as the universes divide again and again, we become countless different versions of ourselves, some of which are saved and some of which are damned. Maybe, whenever anyone dies in final impenitence, God has created another universe-branch in which they lived a little longer and repented instead.

    This seems to have something in common with Justin Coyle’s post on your blog, “May Catholics Endorse Universalism?”, when he says “the dominical division between sheep and goats divides not sets of persons, elect versus reprobate, but rather very selves” – albeit, reading his metaphors with a literalism he likely never intended. Would I still cry at seeing my children damned, if the very same children are standing saved right besides me? Maybe in heaven we are watching our own damnation together. Maybe the one who wipes away my tears at my children’s eternal damnation, will not be God, but my children themselves, the very same children as their eternally saved selves.

    In 2018, there was a horrific case here in Australia of a man who murdered his teenage son and daughter, then killed himself; apparently he did it all so his wife would suffer–and she suffered indeed, her suffering was so immense that she killed herself too, some months later. Would God create a universe-branch in which that father repented of murdering his children? Or one in which he never murdered them to begin with? I would never murder my own children, the thought is so alien to me that I cannot imagine how I could ever wish to do so – but if somehow, impossibly, despite all that, I did it, I hope I would be eternally damned for it. I have often endorsed the universalist argument that no sin, no matter how great, merits infinite punishment – and yet, my own heart says to the thought of murdering my own children, that it would merit all of that and more. The version of me who never murdered my own children would heartily approve of the eternal damnation of the version of me who did (God forbid such a version of me ever exists, whether in this universe, or any other). I think my children – both in their version(s) whom their father never murdered, and in their version(s) whom their father did – would likely concur in that judgement of the non-murderous version of me. Probably, the version of me who did the horrendous deed would concur in it too. Maybe, justice demands that those who murder their own children be eternally damned, and that if some other version of themselves must be saved, it must not be one which repents of their murderous act, but rather one who never committed it to begin with.

    So I suppose I have great sympathy for universalism, I hope it is true, I would even treat it as highly probable. But, I cannot be completely confident that there is no version of the doctrine of “eternal damnation” which might be able to overcome my reasoned and conscientious objections to the idea. Indeed, the thoughts I’ve sketched above – which you may have noticed are not even consistent with each other – suggest to me maybe there are ways to overcome some of those (my own!) universalist objections–even if not through those exact thoughts, then through thoughts along those lines.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Dear incessable,

      Whlle I would be happy to engage your thoughts about universal salvation, the priest in me tells me that I need to speak to your first paragraph and the injuries you suffered because of your mother’s adultery and remarraige. Clearly the wound in your heart has not healed; equally clearly, you have not yet been able to forgive your mother. Yet this is is precisely what you must do–both for yourself and for your mother. Forgiveness is not a transaction–you repent and then, and only then, will I forgive you. It is, rather, an act of grace, a gift given even before repentance. I know (yes, I know all too well) how difficult, painful, impossible unilateral forgiveness can be, yet it is the very heart of our relationship with Christ, who forgives us unconditionally from the cross. This is why the Scriptures tie God’s forgiveness of our sins with our forgiveness of others: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

      How do we begin? If you cannot yet truly forgive your mother, then pray that God will forgive her (he does and has!) and ask him to pour into your heart his forgiveness for her that you might share in it and thus be liberated from all anger and bitterness. You must pray this every day until this liberation is achieved. Do not worry yourself about your Mom’s repentance or lack of repentance for her adultery. That is God’s business, not yours. Your task is to forgive her, totally, completely, unconditionally.

      Begin this work . . . and the logic of universal salvation will become clearer to you.

      Liked by 5 people

      • incessable says:

        Father, thank you for your concern for me. But I must ask, is unilateral forgiveness the Gospel? Christ says in Luke 17:3-4: “If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him.” Christ does not say to forgive the unrepentant; he says to forgive IF they repent. I see a contradiction between your words and the Gospel text.

        Does Christ forgive us unconditionally from the Cross? If by “unconditionally” you mean Christ forgives people before they repent, I’m not convinced that is true; I think, Christ died for all, but one has to choose to accept Christ’s offer of divine forgiveness, and until one chooses to accept it one has not yet been forgiven by Christ, the gift of Christ’s atoning death is offered to all but none receives it until they choose to accept it. Christ died once for all, but to receive the benefits of his saving death each of us has to freely choose to accept them, and until we make that choice, those benefits (Christ’s forgiveness included) are not yet ours. There is nothing in that statement incompatible with universalism: universalism is the claim that, eventually, everyone will accept Christ’s offer (maybe even Satan himself); but, even supposing that is true (and as I said, I very much hope it is true, its truth even seems probable to me), it does not thereby follow that anyone is forgiven before they repent. Similarly, if you think that “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” implies one ought to forgive the unrepentant, I think you are reading an idea into that prayer which wasn’t originally there.

        I’m Catholic, my parents were married in the Catholic Church, to the best of my knowledge neither of them have ever sought an annulment. So, according to Catholic teaching, my parents are still married in God’s eyes, even if secular society considers their marriage to be over. My mother’s adultery is not just something which happened 20+ years ago – it is continuing today. She is still committing the very same adultery with the very same man. Her wrong is not a past incident, it is continuing every day. I do not think we are obliged to forgive anyone for a wrong that, not only are they unrepentant, they are even still busy committing, and are opposed to ceasing. This is not the same as Christ’s example of someone who “sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, ‘I repent'”–that would be if my mother had renounced her adultery, and left the man with whom she is committing it, but then through weakness returned to him; thus far she has never once walked away from him. She hasn’t sinned seven times in a day, she has sinned one time in one continuous sin which hasn’t stopped even after 20 years. Indeed, applying Luke 17:3, it is my duty to rebuke her, and as long as she continues in that sin it is my duty to continue to rebuke her for it.

        I realise the Orthodox Church has a somewhat different view on divorce from the Catholic Church, but I don’t think that really changes things. The Orthodox Church does not automatically recognise secular/civil divorces, unlike the Catholic Church it will grant ecclesiastical divorces (actually, in some rare circumstances, irrelevant to my parents’ case, the Catholic Church does grant divorce/dissolution as opposed to annulment), but there is no automatic right to an ecclesiastical divorce and the criteria are more stringent than under most secular laws. Even supposing my parents were Orthodox not Catholic, they’d still be married in the eyes of God because if they haven’t sought a Catholic annulment, why would they seek an Orthodox ecclesiastical divorce either? And, even if my mother did, I am not sure she would get one. My father, who is the victim of my mother’s adultery, didn’t want to get divorced, and he made some fruitless attempts to fight the divorce in the secular legal system, although of course he didn’t get very far because of the system’s pro-divorce bias. I think, many Orthodox jurisdictions, would have refused my mother an ecclesiastical divorce if she sought one: if an unrepentant adulterer wants a divorce so that they can marry their partner in adultery, and the victim spouse doesn’t want a divorce, I doubt most Orthodox bishops would be sympathetic.

        I don’t hate my mother, for all she has done to me I love her. I hate her sin, I hate her adultery, I hate her shameful mockery of the sacrament of marriage, I hate the evil which she calls “love” and “marriage”, thereby demeaning those words–all of which are ongoing wrongs, not things in the past–but I want her to repent. If I really hated her, I would not desire her repentance. If she came and told me she had left that man and repented of the day she met him and her two plus decades of living with him in sin, I would be overjoyed and gladly forgive; if I truly hated her, I wouldn’t find any joy in her true repentance. And that man, he needs to repent too; no matter what my mother has done to me, she is my blood, the bearer of the womb in which I grew and the breasts at which I was nursed, and I love her as my blood and womb-mother and milk-mother; that man, to my heart he is a stranger, and I wish he would be a stranger, but as a stranger I hope for his repentance and salvation just as I do for that of any other stranger. Maybe, if he had not wronged me so severely, we could have even been friends.

        I suppose one day all will be friends, maybe even Hitler will be genuine friends with the Jewish babies he murdered with poison gas, and serial killers and child molesters will be genuine friends with their victims, but that day if it comes is still rather distant, and if it comes there is a lot of work to do to get there (both in this life, and in the next). I suppose, on that day, he & I will be friends too; but until that day nears, we ought to be strangers, and I wish he would make himself the stranger he ought to be. If he was a good man, he would have done that already; but, alas he is not a good man, if he had been a good man he would not have destroyed two families (he had a wife and children too). But, it is never too late for him to become the good man he ought to be and have been. If I truly hated him, I would not wish for him to become a good man, I would wish only for his utter destruction, for his wickedness to increase and to sink to ever deeper depths.


        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Incessible, you ask if unilateral forgiveness the gospel? Yes, yes, yes–even for Catholics!  😁

          Herbert McCabe and the Unfathomable Mystery of Divine Forgiveness


          • incessable says:

            Thank you for sharing those posts. I would comment on them but it seems you have closed them to new comments, so forgive me if I just reply here:

            You present the following schema: “(1) We sin and God gets angry. (2) We repent and plead for mercy. (3) God forgives.” And you argue that schema is problematic because it involves God changing his attitude towards us, and God can’t change.

            However, I don’t think it involves any change in God. Each of us is composed of temporal slices. God from eternity knows all of our temporal slices simultaneously. God’s attitude may differ towards different temporal slices of ourselves. That doesn’t mean God’s attitude changes: God has always and will always have the same attitude towards each temporal slice of ourselves. All that changes is which temporal slice of ourselves we are experiencing being right now, which is a change in us, not a change in God. God’s attitude of forgiveness is not directed towards all of our temporal slices equally: it is directed at the temporal slices of ourselves which begin at or are subsequent to the moment of repentance. God is angry at the sinner’s sin and rejoicing at the sinner’s repentance, in the very same single eternal moment, even though from the sinner’s perspective many years, even decades, may separate the two. God loves everyone always, and God loves the sinner even in the moment of their sin; but not in the same way that he loves them in their moment of repentance: God loves the sinner-in-the-moment-of-sin in spite of who they are in that moment, God loves the sinner-in-the-moment-of-repentance on account of who they are in that moment.


          • fgsjr2015 says:

            A believer in Christ’s miracles, I sometimes wonder whether the general human need for retributive justice can be intrinsically linked to the same terribly flawed aspect of humankind that enables the most horrible acts of violent cruelty to readily occur on this planet, perhaps not all of which we learn about.

            From my understanding, Judaism’s messiah is reflective of the unambiguously fire-and-brimstone angry-God Almighty of the Torah, Old Testament and Quran. The Judaic messiah is essentially one who will come liberate his people from their enemies, which logically consists of some form of violence, before ruling over every nation on Earth. This left even John the Baptist, who believed in Jesus as the savior, troubled by Jesus’ apparently contradictory version of Messiah, notably his revolutionary teaching of non-violently offering the other cheek as the proper response to being physically assaulted by one’s enemy.

            Maybe Jesus was viciously killed because he did not in the least behave in accordance to corrupted human conduct and expectation — and in particular because he was nowhere near to being the vengeful, wrathful behemoth so many people seemingly wanted or needed their savior to be and therefore believed he’d have to be.

            Perhaps needless to say, I believe that Christ was/is intended in large part to show humankind what Messiah ought to and needs to be; to prove to people that there really was/is hope for the many — especially for young people living in today’s physical, mental and spiritual turmoil — perceiving hopelessness in an otherwise fire-and-brimstone angry-God-condemnation creator. Fundamentally, of course, that definitely includes resurrection.


          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Incessable, I think you are right that my argument in this article, or more accurately Herb McCabe’s argument, may not hold if God’s love is properly described as conditional. McCabe is a Thomist who firmly affirms the sola gratia and God’s universal salvific will. In his view, repentance and faith are the expressions of God coming to us in forgiveness. As he writes: “When God forgives our sin, he is not changing his mind about us; he is changing our mind about him.” But if one does not agree with this Thomist position, the one will not find the argument of my article convincing. But at least a Roman Catholic has to admit, I think, that McCabe is laying out a Catholic view. But since I’m not RC, I will resist the impulse to serve as an arbiter of intra-Catholic disagreements. 🙂


    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      A problem many people have with universal salvation, and with forgiveness, is the feeling that people will be “getting away with it”, the feeling that someone has hurt them, or hurt people, but will never face consequences for their actions and get to enjoy the benefits their sin has brought them.
      George Macdonald, who I think the best writer on universalism and sin I have ever read, points out that universalism in some ways is harder on sin than the keenest advocate for eternal hell. In universalism, no-one ever gets away with anything. God will absolutely never tolerate sin. Not that, as the infernalists would have it, that he will not tolerate sin just going unpunished, but that he will not tolerate the continued existence of sin at all.
      I don’t know what God will do to put right what was done to you. What I think I can say is that if universal reconciliation is true, then God will, somehow, indeed, put it right. You can trust it to God that, in the end, all will be reconciled, and that he won’t let one shred of their sin remain, whether in this life or beyond.
      The promise of universal reconciliation means you don’t actually need them to beg forgiveness, or break up, or suffer, or say or do whatever it is you think you need to see to do so: you can simply forgive, in the certainty that God will, in the end, do himself whatever is needful to make it right, because that, in the end, is what God does.

      Liked by 1 person

    • myshkin says:

      it is good that you have raised this reality. one of the hardest aspects of coming to grips with a universalist position for me was the dawning realization of what that meant for how i had always understood justice. the one who destroyed the innocence of my childhood; what of him? as i face the implications; i have not been very far removed from your own feelings in this matter.
      even at 46 i don’t have the capacity to think of the one who predated in any measured way, so i can’t say i’ve had any coherent narrative thoughts about their damnation, but i know that when i faced the implications of universalism, i realized it meant the predator’s eventual beatitude, and i lost something i’d always identified as a consolation.
      Divine comeuppance for this man had always been a bulwark of justice for me; no matter what my polite correct self may state, but this universalist path has now all of a sudden become a tiny narrow path w/unbelievable cost. I know now that Jesus will see this one who destroyed innocence as a sheep and the Father is going to put his cloak around him and invite him to the banquet, and i blanche at the Kingdom’s cost.
      nothing said here is a corrective to anything you’ve said, it’s just a strand to go with yours. it’s taken a second for me to write this so i’m sure the conversation has already passed me by, but i know what you mean; i’m walking a similar path.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. As you say, thankfully…God in His mercy…we do not have a doctrine on hell. Therefore we have to take what we do hVe based on God. And what He tells is about Himself. He is love. His love endures forever. His Hope endures forever. His mercy endures forever. And that Gods very character is to save. He never changes. And Gods love, hope and mercy are more long lasting than our plain stupidity.


  6. fgsjr2015 says:

    A few decades ago, I learned from two Latter Day Saints missionaries that their church’s doctrine teaches that the biblical ‘lake of fire’ meant for the truly wicked actually represents an eternal spiritual burning of guilt over one’s corporeal misdeeds. Accordingly, I concluded, upon an atrocity-committing monster’s physical death, not only would he (or she) be 100 percent liberated from the anger and hate that blighted his physical life; also, his spirit or consciousness would be forced to exist with the presumably unwanted awareness of the mindbogglingly immense amount of needless suffering he personally had caused.

    I believe that the human soul may be inherently good, on its own; however, trapped within the physical body, notably the corruptible brain, oftentimes the soul’s purity may not be able to shine through. It may be the case that the worst mass-atrocity-committing people throughout history had been thoroughly corrupted by a seriously flawed cerebral structure thus mind. While the heart may be what keeps the soul grounded in this physical world, I believe that it is the brain and any structural or chemical-imbalance flaws within that, unfortunately, essentially defines one’s character/behavior while the soul is confined within the bodily form.

    It may be the case that the worst mass-atrocity-committing people throughout history had been thoroughly corrupted by a seriously flawed cerebral structure thus mind (or state of mind). Though, admittedly, that would be, even if true, no consolation to their countless brutalized victims.

    Or, for example, if a recklessly extreme radio-talk-show host dies and his (or her) spirit/consciousness is finally totally free of the purely cerebrally based agitation and contempt that had blighted so much of his life, he, free of his corrupted corporeal shell, could be left wondering, ‘Why was I so angry, and so much of the time? Oh, the things I said and did! I really hope I didn’t do any significant, permanent damage while I was there’ … (etcetera, etcetera).


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