Doomed, Doomed . . . Doomed to Happiness

David Bentley Hart controversially asserts that human beings are doomed to everlasting happiness—yet should the claim be controversial? Christianity has long taught that the human being, created by the divine Word in the image of the Word, exists in dynamic orientation to its transcendent Creator. In all things and at all times, God is the Goodness, Beauty and Truth we desire and seek. As St Augustine memorably states: “Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are rest­less till they find rest in Thee.”1 We cannot help but to crave communion with our Creator. This is how we have been made; this is who we are by nature and grace. We were not created in a neutral state in relation to divinity, as if it were possible for us to generate abiding happiness on our own terms. Our freedom is not a mode of indifference. The human being is nothing less than insatiable thirst for the divine, an inspirited ever-seeking for the One who is our completion and fulfillment. In the words of St Maximus the Confessor:

God, who created all nature with wisdom and secretly planted in each intelligent being knowledge of Himself as its first power, like a munificent Lord gave also to us men a natural desire and longing for Him, combining it in a natural way with the power of our intelligence.2

God has created humanity for union with himself. Apart from him we cannot find happiness. He is the power and fulfillment of our searchings, the origin and end of all our desires. Every finite good we seek betokens the transcendent Good to which we are ordered. We desire goodness and beauty because of our desire for God; we seek to know truth because of our appetite for God. “Even in desiring to flee God,” remarks Hart, “we are desiring God as the ‘good end’ we seek in godlessness.”3 Simultaneously the plenitude of being and immanent ground of existence, the infinite Creator is our supreme beatitude and there­fore our final cause and consummation. Henri de Lubac once asked Maurice Blondel: “How can a conscious spirit be anything other than an absolute desire for God?” Exactly.

Given that we are created by God for union with God, Hart’s assertion that humanity is destined to eternal bliss makes perfect sense. God will have his way with us, one way or another, not by force or coercion but by the appetition he has placed in our hearts. The following passage summarizes Hart’s fundamental thesis:

The more one is in one’s right mind—the more, that is, that one is conscious of God as the Goodness that fulfills all beings, and the more one recognizes that one’s own nature can have its true completion and joy nowhere but in him, and the more one is unfettered by distorting misperceptions, deranged passions, and the encumbrances of past mistakes—the more inevitable is one’s surrender to God. Liberated from all ignorance, emancipated from all the adverse conditions of this life, the rational soul could freely will only its own union with God, and thereby its own supreme beatitude. We are, as it were, doomed to happiness, so long as our natures follow their healthiest impulses unhindered; we cannot not will the satisfaction of our beings in our true final end, a transcendent Good lying behind and beyond all the proximate ends we might be moved to pursue. This is no constraint upon the freedom of the will, coherently conceived; it is simply the consequence of possessing a nature produced by and for the transcendent Good: a nature whose proper end has been fashioned in harmony with a supernatural purpose. God has made us for himself, as Augustine would say, and our hearts are restless till they rest in him. A rational nature seeks a rational end: Truth, which is God himself. The irresistibility of God for any soul that has truly been set free is no more a constraint placed upon its liberty than is the irresistible attraction of a flowing spring of fresh water in a desert place to a man who is dying of thirst; to choose not to drink in that circum­stance would be not an act of freedom on his part, but only a manifestation of the delusions that enslave him and force him to inflict violence upon himself, contrary to his nature. A woman who chooses to run into a burn­ing building not to save another’s life, but only because she can imagine no greater joy than burning to death, may be exercising a kind of “liberty,” but in the end she is captive to a far profounder poverty of rational freedom.4

The essential point is plain enough. The desire for God is intrinsic to human nature. In our fallen exis­tence, we do not experience this desire in its purity and perfection. It can be temporarily forgotten; it can be perverted and corrupted and twisted from its proper goal; but ulti­mately it can be neither extinguished nor eradicated. If it could be, we would cease to be human. As theologian Stephen J. Duffy puts it:

In the concrete nature of fallen humanity there is an interior, absolute desire of the Kingdom that correlates with the universal salvific divine will. This determination is an existential. It is prior to all personal options and persists through all possible acceptances or rejections of one’s end. What­ever one does, one remains interiorly ordered to absolute communion with God.5

Once we grasp the truth of humanity’s primordial desire for the Good, the traditional claim that human beings might freely give themselves over to everlasting misery becomes increasingly problematic. Surely the burden of proof rests upon the defenders of hell.

In 2015 David Bentley Hart delivered a now much-discussed lecture at the University of Notre Dame titled “God, Creation, and Evil.” When I watched the video of the lecture, this statement jumped out at me:

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.6

It was a quiet eureka moment. Everything fell into place. Of course, I said to myself, how could it be otherwise? That God is the Good whom all human beings seek I had been taught by my parish priest when I entered the Episcopal Church decades ago. I later came to hope that the grace of God might be irresistible. I likened it to falling in love. Does the lover choose to fall in love? Certainly not in the way one chooses to order bacon rather than sausage for breakfast. All lovers know the existen­tial difference. Falling in love comes as astonishment and revelation. “Here is the person I have been looking for. Here is the one who completes me.” The choice is embedded in the recognition. To be in the presence of one’s beloved is perfect joy; to be joined to him or her in coital union, rapture. Lovers find each other enthralling. They see each other with the eyes of divinity: “You are altogether beautiful; there is no flaw in you” (Song of Songs 4:7). They are drawn togeth­er, as if by some kind of magnetic force. Frequently they will invoke the language of slavery, even madness, when speaking of their mutual attraction—yet it is a slavery of utter freedom and an insanity of delight and wonder. They are filled with an intensity of life they have never before known. Their one joy is to give them­selves to each other and become one flesh, one mind, one soul.

My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.7

Beyond all doubt lovers know they will adore and cherish each other forever. They cannot imagine a future apart from their beloved. They exchange solemn vows and promises.

Ye are Blood of my Blood, and Bone of my Bone.
I give ye my Body, that we two might be One.
I give ye my Spirit, `til our Life shall be done.

Their bond tran­scends the limits and hardships of time.

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.8

Surely this must be what it will be like when we see God face to face. All doubts and hesitations will vanish; all obstinacy and egoism forever banished. Here is the true happiness I have been searching for all my life, though I knew it not. Here is the abundant life that conquers death. Even the ecstasy of lovers will be infinitely eclipsed.

“Falling in love, being in love”—a door, I propose, through which we might enter to better grasp Hart’s vision of apokatastasis and human freedom. The Holy Scriptures, after all, contain the Song of Songs, one of the most beautiful love poems in all of literature. The beloved sings of the wound of love:

Bring me into the house of wine,
Set love in order upon me.
Strengthen me with perfumes,
Encompass me with applies,
for I have been wounded by love.
(Song 2:4-5)

“I have been wounded by love”—all lovers have experienced this rending. The arrow that pierces the heart cannot be removed; the wound it brings cannot be healed. Once struck the beloved cries out for union with her lover. Only through the most profound joining can the pain be assuaged and wholeness restored. As it is between human lovers, so it is between God and the soul. St Gregory of Nyssa comments:

After she has said these things, she praises the accurate archer because he has directed his arrow straight at her, for she says, I have been wounded by love. By these words she signifies the arrow that lies deep in her heart. But the archer who discharges the arrow is love. From Holy Scripture, however, we have learned that God is love (cf. 1 John 4:8, 16), and he discharges his own chosen arrow (cf. Isa 49:2)—the Only Begotten God—at those who are being saved, having smeared over the triple point of the barb with the Spirit of life (the barb is faith), so that, in the person in whom it is planted, it may introduce the archer together with the arrow, as the Lord says: “I and my Father will come and make our dwelling with him” (John 14:23). See, then, the soul that has been exalted through the divine ascents sees in herself the sweet arrow of love by which she is wounded and makes boast of such a blow by saying, I have been wounded by love.9

Commenting on Song 3:1-8, Gregory writes:

God comes into the soul, and correspondingly the soul is brought into God. For she says, “My beloved is mine, and I am his. He does his pasturing among the lilies and transfers human life from the realm of shadowy images to the truth of that which is.” You see to what a height she has climbed, this soul that, in accordance with the prophetic word, is going “from strength to strength” (Ps 83:8): she seems to attain the hope of the very highest good. For what is higher than to be in the One who is the object of desire and to receive the object of desire within oneself? But in this situation too she bewails the fact that she is needy for the Good. As one who does not yet have what is present to her desire, she is perplexed and dissatisfied, and she broadcasts this perplexity of her soul in her story, describing in her account how she found the one she sought.10

Charles Williams speaks of romantic love as a foretaste of heaven: when we fall in love, “a sudden apprehension of the Good takes place.”11 At their best and purest, human lovers mirror our encounter with the divine. To know the Good is to desire the Good; to experience Love is to surrender to Love. The metaphysics of the Good may be difficult to grasp, but we know some­thing about the irresistibility of the One who is Love, if not by direct experience then through literature and art.

We return to the featured sentences. Hart has incorporated them in That All Shall Be Saved, with minor changes:

But to me it seems impossible to speak of freedom in any meaningful sense at all unless one begins from the assumption that, for a rational spirit, to see the good and know it truly is to desire it insatiably and to obey it uncondi­tion­­ally, while not to desire it is not to have known it truly, and so never to have been free to choose it.12

Note the addition of the response of obedience. The vision of the Good immediately engenders the obedience of love. The will of the lover freely conforms itself to the will of the beloved. But perhaps we need to reverse the roles. In the biblical narrative, God is the Lover who has in Christ made us the objects of his love. By grace he takes the initiative. “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). And this love arouses within the soul a reciprocal love for the divine lover. “For when God loves,” writes St Bernard of Clairvaux, “he desires only to be loved in return. His love’s only purpose is to be loved, as he knows that all who love him are made happy by their love of him.”13

Sinners most especially know that it is only by the ravishment of God that they may attain the liberty of the blessed. John Donne knew this well:

Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.14

But does this not sound like some kind of determinism? Here is Hart’s answer:

For those who worry that this all amounts to a kind of metaphysical determinism of the will, I may not be able to provide perfect comfort. Of course it is a kind of determinism, but only at the transcendental level, and only because rational volition must be determinate to be anything at all. Rational will is by nature the capacity for intentional action, and so must exist as a clear relation between (in Aristotelian terms) the “origin of motion” within it and the “end” that prompts that motion—between, that is, its efficient and final causes. Freedom is a relation to reality, which means liberty from delusion. This divine determinism toward the transcendent Good, then, is precisely what freedom is for a rational nature. Even God could not create a rational being not oriented toward the Good, any more than he could create a reality in which 2 + 2 = 5. That is not to deny that, within the embrace of this relation between the will’s origin and its end in the Good (what, again, Maximus the Confessor calls our “natural will”), there is considerable room for delibera­tive liberty with regard to differing finite options (what Maximus calls the “gnomic will”), and considerable room in which to stray from the ideal path. But, even so, if a rational creature—one whose mind is entirely unimpaired and who has the capacity truly to know the substance and the consequences of the choice confronting him or her—is allowed, without coercion from any force extrinsic to his or her nature, to make a choice between a union with God in bliss that will utterly fulfill his or her nature in its deepest yearnings and a separation from God that will result in endless suffering and the total absence of his or her nature’s satisfaction, only one truly free choice is possible. A fool might thrust his hand into the flame; only a lunatic would not then immediately withdraw it. To say that the only sane and therefore free natural end of the will is the Good is no more problematic than to say that the only sane and therefore free natural end of the intellect is Truth. Rational spirit could no more will evil on the grounds that it is truly evil than the intellect could believe something on the grounds that it is certainly false. So, yes, there is an original and ultimate divine determinism of the creature’s intellect and will, and for just this reason there is such a thing as true freedom in the created realm. As on the cross (John 12:32), so in the whole of being: God frees souls by dragging them to himself.15

Hart bites the bullet. Yes, humanity is determined to the Good, but we must not think of this determinism as a form of violence or coercion. It does not constrict our freedom but creates and establishes it. Apart from this innate relation of reason to the Good, the True, and the Beautiful—in other words, God—we would not will anything at all. Volition is intrin­sically teleological and intentional. We act to attain a specific end we deem good. Consider how we actually make choices. Invariably we have our reasons:

At the same time, rationality must by definition be intentionality: the mind’s awareness, that is, of a purpose it seeks or an end it wishes to achieve or a meaning it wishes to affirm. Rational freedom, in its every action, must be teleological in structure: one must know the end one is choosing, and why. Any act of the mind or will done without a reason, conversely, would be by definition irrational and therefore a symptom of bondage to something outside of or lower than the rational will. It is not even very sensible to ask, then, whether a free will might not “spontane­ously” posit an end for itself out of the sheer exuberance of its power to choose, and then pursue that end out of pure unreasoning perversity. Absolute spontaneity would be an unfree act, a mere brute event beyond the control of mind and desire, while merely partial spontaneity would still be guided by some kind of purpose. If you wish to prove this to yourself, you need only attempt freely to posit an end for yourself without rationale. Then again, do not bother, since you would not actually be acting without rationale; you would instead be pursuing the conscious purpose of following my suggestion that you try to act spontane­ously. Anything you might willfully choose to do for the purpose of doing something arbitrary would not, in fact, be arbitrary. And you will find also that even that supposedly arbitrary act, if you conceived of it before doing it, was not really arbitrary after all, but rather corresponded to some concrete intention that you knowingly chose, and for some specific reason, out of a strictly limited range of possible options. This too you can prove to yourself. You would not, for instance, simply in order to try to prove me wrong, leap off the top of a high building. Or, rather, if you did, the rest of us would immediately recognize your action as a feat of lunacy, and therefore not truly free. You cannot actually force yourself to behave “irrationally” except in an ultimately rational way. And to seek to find a first moment of perfect mindless impulse in any free act is to pursue a hopeless descent back along an infinite regress.16

All of this is easy enough to grasp upon phenomenological analysis. I eat the apple because I am hungry. I get in the car because I want to go downtown. I study the ant farm because I wish to understand how they organize their societal life. I give $5 to a homeless person because I wish to assist him in his or her need. Rational action is teleological.

But what, or who, awakens the will to act in the first place? If we stay within the Christian reading of the Song of Songs, then there can be only one answer: Jesus Christ, the eternal Word of God, who has created us in dynamic orientation to the transcendentals of being and thus to himself. Christ is “the transcendental horizon of reality that animates every single stirring of reason and desire, the always more remote end present within every more imme­diate end. Insofar as we are able freely to will anything at all, therefore, it is precisely be­cause he is making us to do so: as at once the source of all action and intentionality in rational natures and also the transcendental object of rational desire that elicits every act of mind and will toward any purposes whatsoever.”17 In the depths of the human soul, he acts upon our mind and will as ultimate source and final cause. Because we are enveloped by the Good, we are moved to pursue finite goods for ourselves and the welfare of others; because we are encompassed by the Truth, we desire to understand stars and quasars, mole­cules and neutrinos, bats and cuttlefish; because we are enfolded in the Beautiful, we seek out the delights of Beethoven’s 5th symphony, the starry nights of Vincent Van Gogh, and the poetry of John Keats and William Butler Yeats. In all our actions we intend the the one Lover in whom we live and move and have our being.

I know what many readers are thinking:  I can still say no to God, can’t I? I can still choose eternity in hell, right? But can you, could you, and most importantly, why do you want to? There’s something deep in Adamic man that resists the the notion that the grace of God is ultimately irresistible. We resist it because it seems to violate human freedom and takes our final destiny out of our hands. Consider Gerhard Forde’s answer to the question “But you don’t mean that grace is irresistible, do you?”

Another tricky question. But again the answer can only, in the end, be yes. “Yes, I find it to be so, don’t you?” Remember it is grace we are talking about, not force. Absolute and unconditional grace has by very definition to be irresistible, one would think. Did you ever meet someone with irresistible grace? All that means is that you are utterly and completely captivated and so cannot finally “resist.” Certainly God’s whole purpose in coming was to make grace irresistible, was it not? Do we not hope that in the end all ene­mies will be overcome, all opposition stilled, grace completely triumphant and God all in all? How can that be if grace is not finally irresistible?18

The irresistibility of grace brings us back to Hart’s key claim that humanity possesses by its creation a natural desire for God. Every particle of our being cries out for the Good, Beauty, and Truth that is our Creator.

As a hart longs
for flowing streams,
so longs my soul
for thee, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
(Ps 42:1-2)

Every human being is divinely ordered to God under the aspects of the transcendentals of Being—the the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. We hunger and thirst for union with him, for only in him can we enjoy supreme and overflowing happiness. Divinity is inscribed in the ontological depths of human nature. In the words of Dumitru Staniloae:

Man, without being himself infinite, not only is fit, but is also thirsty for the infinite and precisely for this reason is also capable of, and longs for, God, the true and only infinite (homo capax divini—man capable of the divine). He has a capacity and is thirsty for the infinite not in the sense that he is in a state to win it, to absorb it in his nature—because then human nature itself would become infinite—but in the sense that he can and must be nourished spiritually from the infinite, and infinitely. He seeks and is able to live in a continual communication with it, in a sharing with it.19

Created in the image of God, we are incomplete without God. Of course, no one is truly without God. As divine Creator, he acts in the ontological depths of every person. He is more intimate to us than we are to ourselves. Yet we suffer from an existential inquietude that evidences our brokenness and alienation. Despite the counsel of the Church’s ascetics and spiritual teachers, we continue to seek our fulfillment in the relative goods and de­lights of the cosmos, with predictable results. We remain dissatisfied, unsettled, restless and discon­tent. Once we obtain that which we think will fill the hole in our hearts, we find that we need something else, someone else. And so the quest continues, ad infinitum. We are inescapably drawn to fullness of life. Contrary to the Latin theorists of the natura pura, human beings have not been given two ends, natural and supernatural.20 There is only one telos and beatitude for mankind—eternal life in the perichoretic Love that is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Orthodox Church calls this theosis. Hart elaborates:

Above all, a Christian is more or less obliged to believe that there is such a thing as an intrinsic nature in rational spirits: We are created, that is to say, according to a divine design, after the divine image, oriented toward a divine purpose, and thus are fulfilled in ourselves only insofar as we can achieve the perfection of our natures in union with God. There alone our true happiness lies. This inevitably places Christian thought in the classical moral and meta­physical tradition that assumes that true freedom consists in the realization of a complex nature in its own proper good (the “intellec­tualist” model of freedom, as I have called it above). Freedom is a being’s power to flourish as what it naturally is, to become ever more fully what it is. The freedom of an oak seed is its uninterrupted growth into an oak tree. The freedom of a rational spirit is its consummation in union with God.21

God, and God alone, is the true happiness of the human being. He is our absolute good and the consummation of all desire. Under the present fallen condition of ignorance, delusion, and disordered passions, we only apprehend the Good partially and defectively through the prism of finite goods. We therefore often find ourselves choosing lesser goods over greater goods, apparent goods instead of real goods—the Church calls this sin—but if we were ever presented with a full and perfect apprehension of the Good—the Latin Church calls this the beatific vision—free from igno­rance, delusion, and disordered passions, we would necessarily embrace the Good as our own, for we would recognize it as the true and final happiness for which we yearn. Or to put it differently, we would know that the happi­ness that we will for ourselves and the happiness that God wills for us are identical. Hence the Hartian maxim: to see the Good is to insatiably desire the Good. In the unmediated presence of the infinite and transcendent Creator, the will cannot help but to desire and possess him. There is no longer a “choosing” between different possible happinesses: there is only the eternal bliss of the one God who is Holy Trinity. Choosing him is no choice at all. St Thomas Aquinas explains:

Man does not choose of necessity. And this is because that which is possible not to be, is not of necessity. Now the reason why it is possible not to choose, or to choose, may be gathered from a twofold power in man. For man can will and not will, act and not act; again, he can will this or that, and do this or that. The reason of this is seated in the very power of the reason. For the will can tend to whatever the reason can apprehend as good. Now the reason can apprehend as good, not only this, viz. “to will” or “to act,” but also this, viz. “not to will” or “not to act.” Again, in all particular goods, the reason can consider an aspect of some good, and the lack of some good, which has the aspect of evil: and in this respect, it can apprehend any single one of such goods as to be chosen or to be avoided. The perfect good alone, which is Happiness, cannot be apprehended by the reason as an evil, or as lacking in any way. Consequently man wills Happiness of neces­sity, nor can he will not to be happy, or to be unhappy. Now since choice is not of the end, but of the means . . . ; it is not of the perfect good, which is Happiness, but of other particular goods. Therefore man chooses not of necessity, but freely.22

In this sense, but only in this sense, we are eschatologically doomed to happiness.

If we still balk at our transcendental determination to the Good, perhaps the reason lies in our defective understanding of who and what God is and therefore what authentic freedom must mean. If we think of Deity as a being among beings, then it might appear that we can ultimately choose other gods and other goods instead of him. Why not Baal instead of the LORD? Why not wealth and power instead of the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ? But once God is properly understood as the infinite plenitude and actuality of Being, then he cannot be understood as just one option among many. He is not a discrete object that we can simply choose, as one might choose cake instead of a chocolate sundae. He does not stand alongside other beings and other possible goods. He is Truth itself, Goodness itself, Beauty itself. He is the wellspring of delight and joy. To be free is to flourish in communion with him. We are not free because we have multiple choices available to us; we become free when we choose well, thereby achieving the happiness for which we are divinely destined. This choosing well in turn requires that we “ever more clearly see the ‘sun of the Good’ (to employ the lovely Platonic metaphor), and to see more clearly we must continue to choose well; and the more we are emanci­pated from illusion and caprice, and the more our will is informed by and responds to the Good, the more perfect our vision becomes, and the less there is really to choose.”23 The impossibility of a free and final rejection of God becomes even clearer when we recall the teleological structure of human activity:

Neither, though, can God be merely one option among others, for the very simple reason that he is not just another object alongside the willing agent or alongside other objects of desire, but is rather the sole ultimate content of all rational longing. Being himself the source and end of the real, God can never be for the will simply one plausible terminus of desire in competition with another; he could never confront the intellect simply as a relative and eval­uative good, from which one might reasonably turn to some other. He remains forever the encompassing final object that motivates and makes actual every choice, the Good that makes the will free in the first place. Even an act of apostasy, then, traced back to its most primordial impulse, is moti­vated by the desire for God. Even the satanist can embrace evil only insofar as he thinks it will satisfy a desire for what is most agreeable to his own nature. He is in error in the choice he makes, and is culpable to the degree that he abets the error willingly; but it is also then the case that, to the degree he knows the Good in itself, he cannot but desire it rationally. However the “gnomic” faculty may wander, the “natural” will animating it seeks only one ultimate end. You can reject a glass of wine absolutely; you can even reject evil in its (insubstantial) totality without any remainder of intentionality. Neither of these things possesses more than a finite allure in itself. But you cannot reject God except defectively, by having failed to rec­og­nize him as the primordial object of all your deepest longings, the very source of their activity. We cannot choose between him and some other end in an absolute sense; we can choose only between better or worse approach­es to his transcendence. As I have said, to reject God is still, however obscurely and uncomprehendingly, to seek God.

This means also that God could never be, for the rational will, merely some extrinsic causality intruding upon the will’s autonomy, or some irresistible heteronomous power overwhelming the feebler powers of the creature. He is freedom as such, the fiery energy that liberates the flame from the wood. He is the very power of agency. He is the Good that makes the rational will exist. He is the eternal infinite source of all knowledge and all truth, of all love and delight in the object of love, who enlivens and acts within every created act. As an infinite and transcendental end, God’s goodness may be indeterminate as regards proximate ends, and that very indeterminacy may be what allows for deliberative determinations. There may be conflicts and confusions, mistakes and perversities in the great middle distance of life; as Duns Scotus says, we frequently must deliberate between which aspect of the Good to pursue, whether to be guided in any moment by our affectio iustitiae (our sense of what is just) or the affectio commodi (our sense of what is suitable or convenient); but the encircling horizon never alters, and the Sun of the Good never sets. No soul can relent in its deepest motives from the will’s constant and consuming preoccupation with God. If this were not so, and if reason had no natural, ontological, and necessary relation to God as the final rationale in all desire and agency, then God would himself be something separate from the Good as such, and from rationality as such, and could attract the rational will merely in the manner of a predilection. But then he would not actually be God in any meaningful sense. In truth, he gives his creatures freedom always by making them freely seek him as the ultimate end in all else that intentional consciousness seeks.24

Human beings desire happiness and act toward this end, no matter how perverted and twisted the desire has become. The belief that we may reject God absolutely assumes an absolute—but ontologically impossible—divorce between God and Goodness and therefore between God and happiness. From his very different analytic philosophy perspective, Thomas Talbott has come to a similar conclusion:

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 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.25

God wills our good, and our good is God. He has created us with an insatiable hunger for him, to the end that we might become adopted sons of the God and Father of Jesus Christ. This natural desire for communion with the Holy Trinity is the secret of the universalist hope. John Kronen and Eric Reitan state the argument:

Rational creatures, by definition, can choose based on reasons—that is, they are motivated to act not merely by instinct or appetite, but by the recogni­tion that certain apprehended truths (rea­son) entail that a course of action is good to do. Saying that rational creatures are ordered to the good means two things: first, when they directly and clearly encounter the perfect good in unclouded experience, they will recog­nize it as the perfect good; and second, the perfect good (which, by defini­tion, is the stan­dard according to which all oth­er goods are mea­sured) would, un­der conditions of imme­di­ate and unclouded apprehen­sion, present itself as overrid­ingly wor­thy of love. Crea­tures’ subjective values will thus spontaneously fall into har­mony with the objective good, with all choices reflecting this proper valuation.

Put another way, immediate awareness of the per­fect good will so sing to the natural inclina­tions of the soul that love for the good will swamp all poten­tially contrary affective states. One would have every reason to con­form one’s will to the per­fect good and no reason not to. This latter point gains further strength from the Christian notion that what is prudentially good for rational creatures (what promotes their welfare) does not ulti­mately conflict with what is morally good—both are realized through union with God. Unclouded apprehen­sion of the perfect good will thus harmonize prudential motives such that every rational creature presented with a clear vision of God would have every reason to love God and no reason to reject Him.

From all of this it follows that God could guarantee uniform salvation-inducing motives in rational creatures simply by presenting an unclouded vision of Himself. God’s doing this certainly seems metaphysically possible, and hence within God’s power; and if (as Aquinas maintained) free acts are not random but motivated, it follows that any rational creature presented with the vision of God will freely but inevitably respond affirmatively to the promise of loving union.26

The key to the above argument is the ability of the omnipotent Creator to bring every rational creature to an “unclouded apprehension” of God as perfect goodness. Does God have the power to bring this about? If he does, can he wield it without violating the libertarian freedom of human beings? Exponents of the free will defense of hell seem to think this impossible, even for an omnipotent Deity. Any attempt by God to effect a happy eschatological ending will inevitably violate human free will. We must be free to damn ourselves. Hart finds this a curious line of reasoning that ultimately collapses into a mythological construal of divinity. Properly understood, divine causality does not and cannot compete with creaturely causality. God is not a being among beings. Creator and creature do not operate on the same metaphysical plane:

The suggestion, then, that God—properly understood—could not assure that a person freely will one thing rather than another is simply false. Inasmuch as he acts upon the mind and will both as their final cause and also as the deepest source of their movements, he is already intrinsic to the very struc­ture of reason and desire within the soul. He is not merely some external agency who would have to exercise coercion or external compulsion of a creature’s intentions to bring them to the end he decrees. If he were, then the entire Christian doctrine of providence—the vital teaching that God can so order all conditions, circumstances, and contingencies among created things as to bring about everything he wills for his crea­tures while still not in any way violating the autonomy of secondary causality—would be a logical contradiction. God, in his omnipotence and omniscience, is wholly capable of determining the result of all secondary causes, including free will, while not acting as yet another discrete cause among them. In one sense, naturally, this is merely a function of the coincidence in his nature of omniscience and omni­potence. Knowing not only all the events that constitute each individual life, but also all of an agent’s inner motives and predispositions and desires—all thoughts, impulses, hopes, preferences, yearnings, and aversions—and so knowing what choice any given soul will make when confronted with certain options and situated among certain circumambient forces, God can (if noth­ing else) so arrange the shape of reality that all beings, one way or another, come at the last upon the right path by way of their own freedom, in this life or the next. . . . God, being infinitely resourceful and infinitely knowledgeable, can weave the whole of time into a perfectly coherent continuity whose ultimate result is that all circumstances and forces conduce to the union of every creature with himself, and can do this precisely by confronting every rational nature with possibilities he knows they will realize through their own free volitions. It is true that he might accomplish this by imposing limited conditions of choice upon every life; but the conditions of choice are always limited anyway, and deliberative freedom is always capable of only a finite set of possible determinations.27

Now we see through a glass darkly, but when we are brought face to face before him and see him in the glory of his Goodness, Beauty, and Truth, how can we not love him?28


[1] Augustine, Confessions I.1.

[2] Maximus, Various Texts on Theology, the Divine Economy and Virtue and Vice 5.100.

[3] Eclectic Orthodoxy (4 May 2015):

[4] David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation (2019), pp. 40-41.

[5] Stephen J. Duffy, The Graced Horizon (1992), p. 23.

[6] David Bentley Hart, “God, Creation, and Evil,” The Hidden and the Manifest (2017), p. 345.

[7] Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, sc. 2.

[8] William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116.

[9] Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on the Song of Songs, Hom. 4;  trans. Richard A. Norris, Jr. (2013).

[10] Ibid., Hom. 6.

[11] Charles Williams, “The Theology of Romantic Love,” Outlines of Romantic Theology 1990, p. 109.

[12] Hart, pp. 79-80; emphasis mine.

[13] Quoted in David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God (2014), p. 276.

[14] John Donne, Holy Sonnet 14.

[15] Hart, TASBS, pp. 178-179.

[16] Ibid., pp. 173-174.

[17] Ibid., p. 184.

[18] Gerhard Forde, Theology is for Proclamation (1990), pp. 169-170.

[19] Dumitru Staniloae, Orthodox Spirituality (2003), p. 78.

[20] For a helpful introduction to the natura pura debate in Catholic theology, see Edward T. Oakes, A Theology of Grace in Six Controversies, chap. 1. The notion of a human nature not oriented to theosis is alien to Orthodox theology. Hart decidededly rejects the hypothesis of the natura pura, both in TASBS and in his more recent book You Are Gods: On Nature and Supernature (2022).

[21] TASBS, p. 172.

[22] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae  I.II.13. On Aquinas’ understanding of human freedom and divine agency, see Servais Pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics, chap. 16, esp. pp. 394-398.

[23] Hart, TASBS, p. 173.

[24] Ibid., pp. 184-186). For a fuller discussion by Hart of divine transcendence and causality, see his essay “Impassibility as Transcendence,” The Hidden and the Manifest, pp. 167-190. This essay is an indispensable companion piece to That All Shall Be Saved.

[25] Thomas Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God (2014), 2nd ed., p. 172.

[26] John Kronen and Eric Reitan, God’s Final Victory (2013), p. 136.

[27] Hart, TASBS, pp. 183-184.

[28] This blog post is a compilation and revision of three articles published on Eclectic Orthodoxy in March 2020.

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63 Responses to Doomed, Doomed . . . Doomed to Happiness

  1. EAGF says:

    To imagine that all human beings should be happy should be controversial! Truly there is something very strangely wrong with us.


    • TJF says:

      To play devil’s advocate, it is easy to see this when thinking of people you love. Not so easy when you think of people who have committed great evil like John Wayne Gacy or Hitler.


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Are the wicked outside of God’s salvific love? Did not Jesus die for the ungodly?


        • TJF says:

          I am a universalist. So I think yes God will save all. I’m just saying emotionally it is understandable that happiness for all is controversial. Do you think Jews that were in concentration camps relish the thought of Hitler in absolute bliss, even a changed Hitler? That isn’t the first thought that comes to mind. I do believe he will be saved but I’m saying the emotional impulse to not immediately relish that thought is totally relatable. I think that’s part of why ECT is so popular. Not just because we are evil minded and because of power, people also want justice. I agree that ECT is far from just, but mind you I’m talking about impulses and reactions not rationality.

          Liked by 2 people

          • brian says:

            To be honest, what drives my own ardor for apokatastasis is conviction regarding what is the most beautiful and just action of a loving and perfect Father. What are the implications of creatio ex nihilo in regards to God’s responsibility for His Creation? What kind of God simply is love? And I have a great sadness for the suffering earth, for the innocent creatures that are often unlamented by those primarily concerned for the security of their individual souls. Human beings are harder to love. Perfected humanity is a Pleroma, something very different from nominalist individuals. The latter shall be utterly lovable, names of God; but gushing compassion for the vile? No, I don’t feel that. It is obedience to the gospel, not sentimental weeping that commands love for the unlovely. The Spirit draws one into the action of the Cross that brings renewal, not some psychologically derived emotion, though one may be gifted that as well.

            Liked by 3 people

  2. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    A couple weeks ago a Dominican philosopher on Twitter claimed that the possibility of eternal damnation is necessary for genuine personhood. This morning Jonathan Prejean advanced a similar argument on my Eclectic Orthodoxy Facebook page. I thought I’d share it with the brethren to invite your thoughtful critical responses:

    The problem with this is that there’s no metaphysics of individuation or person. Determination to the good is absolutely the case; Christ wins in the end. But Hart’s entire position denies that persons are self-determining. The choice of evil as evil may be impossible as such, but the self-determining *character* of that choice, what it means about our judgment of how we see ourselves, is not. That is what distinguishes us from Christ, not that He has not chosen sin but that His eternal character as Word of God is incapable of sin by His eternal mode of self-willing. Our gift, and our curse, as finite creatures called from nonbeing is that we have this mysterious existence that is self-defining in being or nonbeing. That which gives us potential infinity gives us the negation of the same in our irreducible individuality. The problem with Hart’s person is not that the person is determined but rather the person is determined in a way that makes him not a person at all. He does not choose his own character.

    Does the achievement of human personhood require the possibility of eternal rejection of God? What are your thoughts?


    • Fr. Barnabas says:

      But my personhood is a derivative of God’s Personhood. It isn’t as if personhood is some thing created outside of the Holy Trinity. Personhood is iconic of the Persons of the Holy Trinity and They/He knows Himself in Communion.

      I can’t see this idea of “freedom” to be my own person as anything other than a denial of the Holy Trinity. Personhood is meaningless, i.e. not personhood, outside of communion. That’s an individual, and individual and person are antonyms.

      Just so me thoughts off the top of my head.

      Liked by 6 people

    • Tom says:

      It depends on what one takes ‘self-determining’ to mean. If it means that becoming persons requires our capacity to determine ourselves irrevocably as a final ‘No’ to God, then I agree with Hart that no such determination is possible. But to deny that the liberty required to become ‘persons’ requires so absolute a capacity to reject God is not to say God simply waves a magic wand and finally ‘determines’ the exercise of our will to get the win he wants, when he wants it. On the contrary, one may be free to misrelate to God all one wants, as long as one wants, but one will always misrelate ‘in God’, in the always infinitely wider possibility of God.

      I could be wrong, but I still read Hart as arguing that there’s no ‘terminus ad quem’ at which point God says, ‘Enough already. I’m saving you and that’s that’. What God determines is himself as an irrevocable end of created desire and agency. God is always on the menu, so to speak. A crude analogy perhaps. But this doesn’t mean we don’t also have to self-determine in that precarious sense that makes possible our becoming true persons to begin with.

      I only say this about Hart because of his response a few years back (, first comment in the comments) where he admits to there being a ‘libertarian’ exercise of the will *within* the wider scope of the will’s antecedent teleological grounding (‘grounding’, not ‘determination of exercise’ – there’s a difference that Jonathan doesn’t see).


    • danaames says:

      I am neither a philosopher nor a philosopher’s son… but it seems to me that healthy psychological differentiation is not the same thing as being able to say “no” to God forever. They may have some kind of correspondence, but not on an eternal plane.

      I think of our first parents, whom the Fathers regarded as immature. Immature, yet-to-differentiate persons are still persons, following on from what Fr Barnabas wrote. Our first parents said “no”, but to the wrong “actor” – they should have said “no” to the tempter, rather than to God. This is what the Eve figure in Lewis’ Perelandra does, and does not fall. Our situation is different; it really does no good to speculate about what would have happened had our first parents not eaten that fruit. But the reality for us is that the fall isn’t the last word. God pursues us.

      And I’m wondering about this simply from the perspective of having raised children. Our children say “no” to us quite insistently at certain periods of their lives. If we’ve loved them decently well, if not perfectly, when they come out the other side of those periods – even when they are old enough to grapple with what our foibles and insecurities have meant in terms of problems in their own lives – healthily individuated children, who are healthy in other areas of their lives as well, won’t reject us forever, especially if we have pursued good relationships with them to the best of our ability. This has been my own experience, and observed of others. Anecdotal, I know. At the same time, human parents aren’t Love and Goodness the way God is.

      I may not understand the argument. At the same time, there’s something about it that is “off”.


      Liked by 1 person

    • Chavo says:

      Persons are not self-defined or self-determining. That is nonsensical. They are defined by their universal human nature that is created in the image of God. Their actions are determined by their will, which is intrinsic to that universal human nature.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      Personhood requires the possibility of rejection of God, since we can’t really be people without being able to choose and create our own history and life as something we have made ourselves. *Eternal* rejection of God as a piece of utter finality, however, by the author’s own argument would take away a person’s personhood, because if they successfully *eternally* rejected God so as to be unable to return to God they would then cease to be able to choose good or bad or define themselves in the very way the author admits is required for personhood.
      The author confuses “eternally” with “indefinitely”: we can reject God indefinitely because God will never run out of patience and force us, but not eternally, because eventually we will, if nothing else, run out of ways to be wrong.


    • DBH says:

      Notice how circular this is. We’ve already established that the choice of evil is not free, so that cannot be what makes one a person. Rather, it is Christ’s absolute willing of the good that makes him a person in the fullest sense. To choose evil is individuation in the most malign sense: destruction of the communion in the good together that makes us fully personal.

      One tires of these fellows grasping at ever weaker arguments to defend an indefensible position.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Robert Fortuin says:

        Yes – Chalcedonean and Constantinople 3 (St Maximus pray for us!) Christology is not adequately brought to bear on the issue – it is human nature in its fullest and truest which is assumed by Christ. This ought to settle the case. But alas, and which makes me conclude that post-lapsarian human nature is (incorrectly I would argue) understood as – essentially, in substance – marred, defective, lacking, and so forth, such that a super imposed “supernature” is thought to be the required locus of salvation, theosis, beatitude.

        Liked by 1 person

        • David says:

          Hi Robert. No time no type! Hope you and everyone here is doing well.

          So I think appeals to the perfection of Christ’s human nature certainly show that God would never deliberately ‘offer us the choice’ of sin (eternal or otherwise) – as though deliberative liberty was valuable in and of itself or essential to human nature. The ‘capacity’ to commit individual sins is foreign to human nature – I agree we know this because Jesus’ human nature did not have this capacity, even in principle – and therefore is not something that is necessary for God to rubberstamp our humanity

          Nevertheless it does seem that humanity was created with at least the *possibility* of fallenness – a possibility which, somehow, was realised. So although the possibility of individual sins may not be essential to human nature, it does nevertheless seem that at least the possibility of fallenness is an essential feature of reality (otherwise God wouldn’t have created us with this possibility). But this possibility appears to only apply to ‘regular’ humans, not Jesus – yes Jesus is subject to falleness in the sense of living within the limitations of fallen world, but nevertheless it was never even theoretically possible that his will could have been fallen.

          So if there is at least one instance of a possibility (a fallen will) that is necessitated in the creation of all humans *except* for Jesus – couldn’t one argue that the possibility of choosing hell is necessitated in the same way? This could agree that the possibility of choosing eternal hell was not part of human nature per se (in the sense that it would not be present in the ‘truest and fullest’ expression of that nature as seen in eschatologically-healed saints and the earthly Jesus) but nevertheless hold that this possibility is unavoidably present for all souls (bar Jesus) before they confirm themselves in the good and become ‘fully’ human at the eschaton – just as the possibility of a fallen will was unavoidably present for all souls (bar Jesus).

          (I of course would never dream of arguing for this position as I affirm the validity of all the usual universalist arguments – in particular noting that the natural will is transcendentally orientated towards God, and such an orientation implies that our gnomic will will eventually be brought into alignment with this natural will – it’s just that I’m struggling to see how appeals to the fulness of Jesus’ human nature are absolutely definitive on this matter)


          • David says:

            Just to be absolutely clear, when I talk about a possibility being necessitated, I don’t mean that such possibilities are necessarily converted into actuality – I just mean that it is necessary that these exist as possibilities – i.e. it was necessary that humans (other than Jesus) had the possibility of possessing a fallen will, but this possibility was only contingently actualised via the Fall.


          • Robert Fortuin says:

            Hello David, doing well thank you kindly.

            Great question and to get right to the crux of it, here are my hasty thoughts: I am convinced that appeals to the humanity of Jesus are quite definitive, namely for this simple reason – it is absolutely natural for humans to be like Jesus! We were created to be, and I believe we will be, like Him – human beings in the fullest sense, reflecting in full and in truth the beauty of his image. “Be ye perfect” – this is our natural vocation. Vocation, aspiration – these denote process, we are moving from potential to actual; but even still, and this is the point, this actualization is according to our nature – we are becoming what God has called us to become. We are not becoming something different – super human if you will – but rather we will become fully human.

            One may express this another way: evil is always not-natural, contrary to nature, unnatural. Or, perhaps more precisely, evil is lacking essence, without a nature.

            Human nature has not changed, as Dr Hart surmises:

            If our nature were not already wholly contained within the divine, and the divine not already innate in us, then the incarnation of the Son would have to be an extrinsic juxtaposition of natures “reconciled” with one another, either by a kind of miraculous occasionalism or else by way of a real change in both natures. (YAG pg 18, italics mine)

            I like to understand the gnomic as a particular mode of the human will, a mode such that the will can be used against or according to its rational nature, but with a distinction made between the will and that which the will actualizes. Commonplace jurisprudence holds that a rational agent cannot be absolved from guilt by way of claims to a fallen nature, present compos mentis claims of a “fallen will” does not lessen culpability (it speaks rather of willful misuse). The change as I see it, when we become more as God has called us to become, is not in overcoming our nature, removal of a fallen nature, or by adding a super nature, but when we become less capable of using deliberation against the good because we will know even as we are known.

            So in any case I do not think then that the gnomic will, the difference between our present mode of willing and Jesus mode of willing, can be formulated as an essential difference such that a real change in nature is necessary.


          • David says:

            Thanks Robert. I certainly agree that Jesus is absolutely natural! And that human perfection does not require a change of nature nor some superaddition to nature – rather it’s just acting in perfect accordance with our nature.

            Maybe I’m guilty of reading something into your point that isn’t there? I suppose I was thinking primarily of the argument DBH makes in That All Shall Be Saved, pages 187, in which he (rightly) rejects the argument that “the liberty to reject God absolutely, and to turn with finality toward evil, is a necessary and precious element of human nature, apart from which one would not be a true moral agent.”

            I would agree that it’s indeed not necessary to count as a true moral agent and, as such, is not something precious that God would actively choose to maintain in existence in order to ‘honour our natures’ or what have you. Nevertheless it does seem that the *possibility* of fallenness is intrinsically necessary to all humans except Jesus. And if we can accept that there are such possibilities present in humanity as a whole but not in Jesus, I don’t see how we can rule out that the possibility of choosing hell might be another such possibility.

            There are other good reasons to rule it out – the natural will cannot stray forever, and God would be a moral monster if he consented to the possibility of an eternal evil like hell or annihilation – but I suspect I’m still not fully understanding the Christological point.


          • Robert Fortuin says:

            David, I have no problem with the possible, nor even with the inevitable. It is an incontrovertible fact of life. But I do insist that this possibility is normative only temporarily, that it denotes a permission by ekonomia which is, as it turns out in the light of the Incarnation, not essential to human nature. (And so, my insistence on the importance of a properly developed and sound Christology.) Our departure from God has also become, is now, our way of returning to Him. In the final analysis however the possibility of sin is always a detour, a departure, an aberration from the straight path, never the originally intended, never the normative in the absolute and final sense.

            The key phrase in the cited TASB passage is “to reject God absolutely” – is this not the very point of the free-will argument, that hell is locked from the inside, that God is helpless, absolutely, and indefinitely (“with finality”), against the insistence of human free will as an exercise of a “necessary and precious element of human nature”? So, yes, I agree and affirm with you that the possibility of sin and consequently the possibility of hell is a real possibility and even an inevitability – but not in the absolute sense. I deny that the possible is the natural, as that which is according-to-one’s-nature. The “failing of the mark” of sin is always a departure from our natural telos, a departure from the rational, from what makes the human truly human (again, I surmise we can know this only through Christology). Do we have the possibility to do so? Yes. Is it necessary for the possible to become actual, for sin to be actualized, to be fully and truly human? I think not. But we did and do make that possibility an actuality. Is this also the way (the “epekstatic process of becoming” if you will) to life for us? Yes, but temporarily by divine ekonomia: the gnomic finds its rest at the last in the only one real and truthful choice before it.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            David, I remember someone (I no longer recall who) suggesting that God wanted to put before every human being an _absolute_ choice (between him and hell), even though he never intended to allow those who chose hell to actually suffer the consequences of their infernalist choice. At the time I objected that would make God guilty of lying. I still think my objection stands. But it should be noted that some of the ancient universalists suggested something similar, invoking the example of Jonah. God declared absolutely that he would destroy Nineveh, but then changed his mind when the people of Nineveh prayed for his mercy in sackcloth and ashes.


          • TJF says:

            I remember in Jordan Daniel Wood’s class last year on Maximus talking about that. Maximus said God do destroy them and also saved them as well. Destroyed the evil and saved the divine spark as it were.

            Liked by 1 person

          • David says:

            Thanks Robert. This is a really interesting reflection. To clarify, I am absolutely not trying to argue that fallenness was necessary, or that it is part of human nature, or anything of the sort. I agree with everything you say.

            All I’m saying is that God creates the world knowing the fallenness of humanity as a contingent *possibility* – while conversely God creates the world knowing that the fallenness of Jesus is an *impossibility*.

            Now some appear to argue that hell is not as a possibility for us *because* it was never a possibility for Jesus – it can’t have been part of human nature because Jesus possessed a full human nature which didn’t lack anything essential to it.

            I’m suggesting this argument may not work because – if it were a valid argument – on my reading it would also imply that we could not even be fallen. Which of course must be false, because we are in fact fallen.

            Basically, if the argument “Jesus’ human nature is perfect and so cannot commit the eternal sin of consenting to hell, therefore neither can we” is valid – then why wouldn’t the argument “Jesus’ human nature is perfect and so cannot fall, therefore neither can we”. I’m suggesting we may need to reject the former argument for the same reasons we reject the latter.

            Just to clarify again, I affirm absolutely that we cannot ‘choose’ hell, and we can prove this by the sort of arguments DBH and others provide re: the inevitability of the return of the natural will, the goodness of God, etc. I’m just not yet persuaded by the specific argument which appeals to Jesus’ nature.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Robert Fortuin says:

            Yes, agreed David, and thank you for pushing us onward. Notice how I use Christology – it is not to say that sin, hell etc. in our present state is not possible, but rather that human nature in its teleological perfection, according to its nature, according to its logos does not require the lapsarian choice. Sin and hell may be our present path by which we can be transformed but this is by permission only, never an essential feature of what it means to be truly human. The misuse of our gnomic will is always an abnormality, an aberration, a departure from ourselves. What I conclude is that we must refrain from using our present condition to formulate the terms of our telos, of what it means to be human. I posit that only in consideration of the Incarnation as affirmed by the Fathers in conciliarity, the God-man Jesus as the express image of the Father is the revelation of the logos of human nature (the true and full nature of what it is to be human), and as such what it means to be human is manifestly made known. We would not know but by way of Christology; and so we invoke incarnational Christology to inform our understanding of what it means to be human. And what do we gather? Well, among other things that for the final and completed flourishment of the human person sin, hell, death, evil, deliberation etc. will not endure but cease and will be no more and be shown for what it truly is – utter non-being. Furthermore, we cannot formulate human nature as such that its present condition denotes salvation entails human nature’s destruction – but rather that salvation is the creative completion of human nature, of person: at the last adam will be truly created. I think this is important to note as in many popular conceptions “fallen human nature” is such that only its complete replacement (purportedly by a redeemed and miraculous supernature) are the terms of salvation, its telos. In contrast, I surmise (and I think in agreement with patristics, particularly of the Greek extraction) that the human person is transformed via epekstasis, a “stretching out” toward perfection – every human soul without exception, regardless of particulars but by reason of being God’s creature, is on this transformative path.


          • TJF: Which “Jordan Daniel Wood’s class” are you referring to? Does he teach in a college somewhere? I’d be curious to get caught up with his material


          • TJF says:

            He gave a class last summer that was promoted on this blog. It was a zoom class on his book that is coming out about St. Maximus. He is a patristics scholar and I think is especially knowledgeable about St. Maximus.


    • The comments don’t seem to be responsive, and in case it is because the points aren’t clear enough, I am going to make them more explicit:
      1. What defines personhood is the ability to self-determine one’s character by actions.
      2. Self-determination of one’s character is more virtuous than external determination of one’s character. In that respect, God is completely self-determined; creatures have a finite image of this capacity.
      3. The mode of self-determined character for creatures is the gnomic will, which God neither has nor needs.
      4. The opportunity to define one’s character is not unlimited but finite for finite beings, but as potentially infinite beings, the *consequences* of that determination of character is potentially infinite. The tragedy of the death of infants and unborn children is that they will never have the opportunity to self-determine their own character.
      5. Freedom is not found in this or that action, as libertarian freedom supposes. It is this ultimate capacity for self-determination irrespective of one’s nature, including in one’s relation to others, as opposed to being purely conditioned by experience in the natural will. The latter can certainly be a good thing, as shown by unbaptized infants and, to a lesser extent, beloved pets who come very near to human personhood. But it is the critical capacity to determine one’s character that is the highest drama and truest exercise of personhood, and it is that which logically entails the possibility of rejection in order to allow it to be exercised. If no such opportunity is provided, then even those with capacity for freedom have not actually exercised it. This is not an inherently *bad* thing, but it is superior to do so than not to do so.

      Fr. Kimel suggests that my position is that the “achievement of human personhood” requires the possibility of eternal rejection of God. A person is a person whether that person exercises the capacity for self-determination or not. But that capacity for self-determination is a gift of personhood, and it is superior (although possibly not better for the individual) that it be exercised.

      I hope to be able to reply to other comments in more detail, but the theme seems to be that because God is always infinitely present, whatever choices we make about our character must be impermanent. But that doesn’t follow: as finite beings, we aren’t capable of God’s infinite self-determination. We are in His image in that respect precisely in that we can make permanent self-determinations of character in our own finite mode.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Thank you, Jonathan, for sharing your position in such detail. I’m hoping you will receive solid responses from those more competent than I. In the meantime, I will ponder your posting and hopefully I’ll have some constructive to say in response.


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Three immediate thoughts, Jonathan.

        First, your position elides the moral critique of eternal perdition as advanced by all universalists. It simply accepts the view that the everlasting damnation of one or more persons must be morally legitimate because … well, that’s unclear to me. Based on what you have written, perhaps you might argue that this was the only way for the good God to create real persons of virtue. The damned are simply the collateral damage of the soul-making project. But this hypothetical response does not touch the universalist critique, which is grounded on the fundamental apprehension that in Jesus Christ God has revealed himself as absolute love and goodness. To put it most simply, a God of absolute love would not have created a world that entails the everlasting torment of human beings, no matter how evil. Hell can never be a good.

        Second, your construal of freedom and personhood is one that any theist might advance. I don’t see anything peculiarly Christian about it. That in itself should give one pause. Specifically, what is the relation between being created in the divine Image and personhood? Does it make a difference? Does your presentation obtain even if God is simply God and not Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Does it obtain even if there is no God?

        Third, I do not believe you have offered a good reason to reject the universalist claim, articulated by Hart, Talbott, and Konstan/Reitan in the article, that God can always find a way to reach and save the impenitent, precisely because he has created them in his Image with an inherent desire for the Good. This, I suggest, is the critical weakness in your position. In this world we are not given to see and apprehend the Good in its perfect glory and beauty—hence the inevitability of bad choices and sin, particularly in a fallen world of mortality, evil and demonic influence.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for the comments, Fr. Kimel. This is helpful to highlighting the fundamental disconnection on human (and spiritual) nature, of which the possibility of hell is only a consequence. It is interesting that you would find it difficult to see the Judaic elements in the response, since it seems apparent to me that the single defining characteristic of the Jewish religion is that human beings relate to their Creator by freely chosen love. That is the difference between Judeo-Christian religion and every other pagan philosophy and man-made religion. Chosen virtue is superior to conditioned virtue, and chosen love is the highest good of all. It is that capacity that defines the apex of personhood, the truest fulfillment of purpose. That is why faith *formed in love* is the exclusive path to reach this end.

        The pagan concept of love and the Good and the Judeo-Christian concept are fundamentally opposed to one another. This idea that the good is an irresistible compulsion, the Hartian maxim “for a rational spirit, to see the good and know it truly is to desire it insatiably and to obey it uncondi­tion­­ally, while not to desire it is not to have known it truly, and so never to have been free to choose it” is pure paganism. No finite individual is rational in this sense; that is why faith, hope, and love are supernatural virtues. It is true that we don’t *know* the good except by how we relate to the good, but it is not the “unclouded apprehension,” in Kronen’s and Reitan’s idiom, that produces love. On the contrary, love, freely chosen love, is what allows it in the fullest sense. It is this non-rational (but not irrational) faculty of the rational will in finite beings, to set our own personal priorities among goods for ourselves and what they mean to us, that defines the exercise of personal freedom. To say that non-determined choice is not authentic human freedom is to accept the pagan concept of free choice, not the Judeo-Christian concept.

        Now can grace be irresistible? Most assuredly, it can. But that defeats the purpose of having had exercised personal choice in the matter, so there is no reason to think that God would override the gnomic will that people had created for themselves. Rather, as Margaret Turek explains in her book Atonement, it is actually the integration of one’s past experience as sin-bearer that defines the true nature of atonement in Judaism and Christianity. We can certainly hope and pray (and I do) that grace is ultimately *unresisted* in all human beings, but we have no reason to think that God operates by *irresistible* grace in the sense of being incompatible with the gnomic will.

        The reason that we know hell is a possibility is that Satan and his demons exist. That means there are rational, spiritual beings in a loveless marriage with God. Whether there are any humans there is an open question, but that is why the hope for universal salvation is a hope and not a certainty of pagan rationalism.


        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Jonathan, correct me if I’m wrong, but it appears to me that you have fully embraced a voluntarist understanding of the will and then defined it as the one and only Christian understanding. Voluntarism, of course, enjoys a long history in the theological tradition, but it cannot be accorded the status of de fide doctrine, either in the East or the West. The intellectualist understanding of the will also enjoys an equally long, if not longer, history in the tradition. Given that I lack the competence to engage you on the philosophical issues involved in the voluntarism versus intellectualism debate, I’ll shall summon others who do have that competence. (Brian Moore and Robert Fortuin, are you free to discuss the matter with Jonathan?)

          Let me ask you this question: Do you believe it is possible for the human being to choose evil for the sake of evil? Your comment leads me to believe that you do. If you do, you do realize that Thomas Aquinas would disagree with you, right? Indeed, many Augustinians and Banezian Thomists would concede that if God had wanted to save all through their free choice, he could have done so. Why he did not do so, is another question, for which the Banezian does not have an compelling answer, for the only possible answer lies in the inscrutability of divine predestination.

          Where I want to engage your comment is on what you did not say. You avoided what I deem the most important universalist objection to eternal perdition–namely, its horrific immorality. I won’t repeat what I wrote in my previous comment (above), but simply refer you and readers to it. A God of absolute love would never have created a world of voluntaristic self-chosen love if it meant that some, many, or most persons would end up condemned to everlasting suffering in hell. In this model of perdition, the damned are the necessary collateral damage of God’s free creation of human beings with the potential to become real persons. Or as David Hart pointedly states, the damned are the sacrificial victims that make possible the bliss the of the blessed: “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?”


          • Let’s see if I can do better at communicating the point, Fr. Kimel.

            1. At least in the divine context, voluntarism versus nominalism was a false dichotomy created by the condemnation of Aristotelean philosophy in 1277. In terms of human operation, I’m a synergist, which is why I think that the will operates through reasons (i.e., it is rational), but it is not reducible to or determined by reasons. In other words, the will makes decisions but is not necessitated by them. That is why it’s possible to make a decision for a bad reason based on bad judgment, but that is not the same thing as making a decision for no reason on a whim, which is how the “liberty of spontaneity” often gets characterized. This would be better understood as intentionality than rationality, the world perceived as objects of the mind. So we can’t make decisions without reasons being presented to the will, and such reasons are necessarily goods, but our judgments to pursue them are non-rational in the sense of not being dictated by any of them. Those choices, the self-determination of the character, is the apex of personhood, in the image of God’s own self-determination. That is likewise the capacity that can be misused.

            2. On that reading, no one can choose evil for the sake of evil, because they are choosing from *among* known goods presented by the intellect. But that self-determined judgment about those goods is what prevents them from being necessitated by the goods presented. We aren’t capable of knowing all things as a whole or of absolute self-determination, so there is a possibility for that deliberative judgment created in our mind to be different from the natural purpose that God had in mind, since we must create our own character through a process of deliberation and choice. That is the Banezian concept of sufficient grace, which is offered to everyone universally and which fails only by free rejection. That is nothing other than the dogma of the Second Council of Orange: our faults are solely our own; our goods are nothing but God’s. It is true that God can positively save anyone through free *choice*, but that doesn’t imply that anyone can be saved through freely chosen *character*. Individual character is legitimately a mystery, so we have no idea what God’s motives are in making that choice, but the Banezian doctrine of sufficient grace affirms that such choices are made based on an inner dialogue between every human being and God, not by a cosmic puppeteer.

            3. As to Dr. Hart’s question “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?,” again, this disregards that each person is his own end. The price is paid for their own existence as individuals, not for the sake of others. To redeem Satan would be to take away his authority to be who he chooses to be. He might be the same individual, but he would not be the same person. The person who would be saved in that case wouldn’t be Lucifer; that person would be destroyed and a new saved person created in his stead. The end of the person as salvation is actually secondary and ulterior to the person in himself as end, and that is why, when presented with a choice between annihilating the person or allowing the person not to be saved through his own free choice, God chooses the latter.


          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Jonathan, we’ve run out of space, so I’m going to start a new thread in response to your above comment.


        • Tom says:

          Jonathan: This idea that the good is an irresistible compulsion, the Hartian maxim ‘for a rational spirit, to see the good and know it truly is to desire it insatiably and to obey it unconditionally, while not to desire it is not to have known it truly, and so never to have been free to choose it’ is pure paganism.


          Hi Jonathan.

          You utterly misunderstand Hart’s point. “Compulsion” is not a word he uses to describe the attraction which divine beauty exercises within spiritual beings. Nobody is suggesting God kicks the furniture over and announces, “Enough already! You’re going to love me whether you want to or not, dammit” and waves a magic wand that essentially determines the will so that God gets what he wants and wins. That’s nonsense. I don’t see that compulsion in Hart’s eschatology. The irresistibility of God to human transcendental desire is like the irresistibility of the finest cuisine to eating worms. Might some ‘on occasion’ (given hunger, ignorance, abusive upbringing, etc) prefer the latter to the former? Sure. Taco Bell is proof. But not once sanity has been restored to the broken minds of those who were subjected to Taco Bell. One’s taste for the transcendent is never finally satisfied except by God. In that sense it’s irresistible.

          Nor is it “compulsion” to say that the will, created and sustained by God, is not capable of final foreclose upon itself. Manoussakis argues a version of eternal hell that tries to say that the claim that comes to us in the divine gift of being presents itself as an either/or choice which we must make. So far so good. But he adds that given the infinite nature of the divine offer and its infinite claim upon us, the choice (for or against) is implicated in that infinity. Equally (infinitely) consequential futures, he argues, must lay on both sides of the process by which the Self determines itself relative to God. Final refusal is thus convertible ‘in consequence’ with acceptance and surrender. Hence, an eternal hell must be a real possibility, or else union with God isn’t possible either.

          But this is false. The loving union God desires may be in (and on the other side of) a precarious, risky, surrender of ourselves to him. But this does not mean such agency must also entail the possibility of final, irrevocable foreclosure of itself upon all possibility of union with God. Should we have consequence? Obviously. Just and measured (there has to be a proper relationship between ‘mens rea’ and ‘actus reus’, right?).

          But God has no opposite, no contrary or negating state of being that could be equal in weight and consequence to union with God. Even if there was an eternal hell as some suppose, it would infinitely fail to be a state of being equal in consequence to union with God, and so justice would still never be served. God as end is without compare, without alternative equal in consequence. To be our end, freely chosen without “compulsion,” God needn’t guarantee us a contradictory end equal in consequence to him.

          Don’t get me wrong. I’m a libertarian (not a believer in absolute voluntarism, but a sane, proper card-caring libertarian). The gnomic will has its place, and in the providence of God makes its way, even if incrementally, toward its final rest in God. As one yields freely, one is changed in some degree or other into the beauty one chooses to the measure of one’s understanding and perceptions. And the more one surrenders, the more one sees. The more one sees, the more one becomes. But one ‘chooses’ one’s way into the sort of ‘seeing’ that glorifies and perfects. But none of this requires an eternal hell to ground the integrity of the agency by which we make our way to God.


          Liked by 4 people

          • Tom says:

            “The irresistibility of God to human transcendental desire is like the irresistibility of the finest cuisine to eating worms.”

            To clarify, it’s like the irresistibility of the finest cuisine to a hungry person compared to eating worms. It’s resistible ‘on occasion’ – obviously – since our world is full of people resisting God every day. But it’s not ‘finally’ resistible in any irrevocable foreclosure of desire for its proper end, and even when we do on occasion succeed in ‘resisting’ the truth, beauty, and goodness which are God, we do so for reasons that, deliberatively speaking, encircle us within that same transcendental attraction, as if in a cul-de-sac. Run from God all we will, we run ‘in God’, never finally escaping the gift and invitation of love.

            Liked by 1 person

          • My most recent response to Fr. Kimel is probably helpful in this regard, but what you’re describing isn’t the offer of love on behalf of God. Manoussakis is right; if God withholds His infinity from us, then He isn’t presenting Himself truly as a lover to be chosen voluntarily by our consent. And that is the purpose of the gnomic will: so that we can choose between God and ourselves, both good things in themselves, by free choice, without necessity of being determined by our natural end. Some, like infants and unborn children, may never make that choice, but that is the highest degree of personhood. If we misuse that highest choice, it has the most dire consequences.


          • Tom says:

            I haven’t said ‘God withholds his infinity’ from us. You’re the one suggesting that can become the case with spiritual beings. I insist on the contrary that God offers it, and offers it infinitely, and that no negating consequence of rejecting God can be equally or proportionately infinite to God. Nor is there ‘determination’ by God of our choice for or against him. There is only determination by God of what constitutes our proper final telos, and God wouldn’t be God if he wasn’t that telos, or if he was one among several optional teloi.


          • Tom says:


            A last quite thought. Then I’m done.

            Take Gregory of Nyssa’s development of Origen’s view of the Xan life as unceasing advance. Gregory’s insight is well known, right? The knowledge of God can never reach a terminus. Our perfection in Christ and participation in God’s infinity is the unending ‘epektasis’ of the person in relation. When we talk about God offering his infinitude, Gregory’s insight is all I mean. Not a static point of arrival but the unending expansion of exploration and adventure into God.

            If, as you suggest, for such an infinite participation of God to be truly on offer it must also be the case that (a) we be able to freely reconcile ourselves to this offer (no disagreement from me here), and that (b) this free determination of ourselves with respect to God have as the consequence of finally refusing God a proportionately infinite negation of being.

            But no version of an irrevocable hell can fulfill this requirement. What God creates may unceasingly advance or progress into him; God alone is infinite. But there can by definition be no negation of being ‘proportionately consequential’ in infinitude to our unending participation in the infinite God. An infinitely fragmenting ‘being’? Out of the question. Being isn’t infinite. It can only endure permanently through participation in the infinite God. Nobody (Manoussakis included) has managed to argue the meaningfulness and structure of an infinitely progressive, devolving, negation.

            The thing you’re requiring as the necessary alternative to God’s offer of infinite participation in him is in fact not possible. No version of an eternal hell could be that, and if it can’t be that, then the balance between proportionately consequential alternatives you require doesn’t exist.

            But none of this does anything to undermine the sense in which creaturely choice must have its own integrity, including just consequence. But those must be measured by the capacities and understanding of the chooser (mens rea / actus reus). They could never in themselves rise in capacity or understanding to reject God with infinite clarity and intentionality.


          • Tom says:

            I mean “quick” thought on that post. Dang.


  3. Did God create a sovereignty that He is, in the final analysis, impotent to heal even if it takes numerous aions to do so? I can’t conclude anything about God, if that is what He did, other than He is a sadist. Freedom to cooperate with our created nature as image of God is on the same line as choosing not to open my mouth under water or stick my hand in the fire. Our freedom is a creation within all created boundaries of the universe. No rational or sane choices in life consciously choose my suffering or annilalation, just as one cannot expect to stay afloat with mouth wide open.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Fr. Barnabas says:

    Father, this is spot on. Of course, I need to reread it several times to get the most out of it. But I came to the same conclusion about Hart’s writings some time ago. But, not being confident in my ability to communicate this, I hesitated to say much about it.

    Your gift here is what I needed to put language to what I was thinking. Thank you.

    Christ is risen.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. knudgeknudge says:

    Just a small point but is this a typo:
    ‘As a hart longs
    for flowing streams,’

    Isn’t it ‘deer’?


  6. Tom says:

    Doomed to happiness.

    A bit of poetic appreciation helps, but to believe in eternal conscious torment is already to have seared the poetic imagination to some degree.

    It’s not ‘happiness’ itself that is a ‘doom’, but the inevitable journey and painful realizations which we must suffer en route. I don’t mind. I once did, but not any more. For all the suffering of the ages ‘will not be worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed in us [all]’.


  7. naturalbornk says:

    I find the concept of Universalism utterly pointless so long as bigger theological issues like the apparently very soon parousia which we are still waiting on. Details below.

    The first words presented as being spoken by Jesus in the first chapter of the earliest gospel are:

    “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in this good news.”
    (Mark 1:15)

    The writer of gMark does not depict Jesus explaining what he means and expects his audience to understand – here Jesus is proclaiming that the expected end time had come, that the kingship of God was close and that those who believed this and repented would join the righteous when the imminent apocalypse arrived. Far from being a prophet of doom, Jesus is depicted proclaiming this imminent event as “good news” – the relief from oppression, both human and demonic, was almost here. And this succinct summary is effectively the whole of his message in this and in the other two synoptic gospels (gMatt and gLuke); the word “gospel” literally means “[the] good news”.

    One of the key elements of this message was its urgency and immediacy; in these earliest texts Jesus is not depicted as proclaiming that this world-changing event will happen some time in the distant future, but that it was happening soon. Very soon, in fact. This is something that the synoptic gospels generally emphasise repeatedly:

    “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”
    (Mark 9:1; cf. Matt 16:28 and Luke 9:27)

    Later, after predicting the fall of the Temple, detailing the End Times tribulations and the subsequent arrival of God’s cosmic intervention, Jesus is depicted repeating:

    “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.”
    (Mark 13:30)

    And the writer of gMatt also emphasises the imminence of the coming apocalypse in a reported saying that seems to be even more urgent:

    “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”
    (Matt 10:23)

    This Matt 10:23 saying may reflect an insistence by the historical Jesus that the apocalypse was coming any day, with the “this generation” sayings noted above reflecting a later reaction to the fact that decades had passed without the “kingship” arriving. But all of these reported sayings reflect an emphasis in urgency and imminence; as do many other elements in the synoptics. When we turn to the parables that Jesus is depicted telling in the synoptic gospels, once again we find that not only is the coming apocalypse their central theme, but its imminence is repeatedly emphasised. For example:

    “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
    (Luke 12:39-40, cf. Matt 24:48-50)

    Likewise, Luke 12:45-46 (cf. Matt 24:48-50) has a servant misbehaving and carousing while his master is away and warns “the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and put him with the unfaithful” (v. 46). Similarly, the parable of the bridesmaids ends with the warning:

    “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
    (Matt 25:13)

    Then there is a similar exhortation in Luke 12:36:

    “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.”

    This emphasis on the imminence of the coming apocalypse is, again, not unique to the reported teaching of Jesus. We find it in other, earlier Jewish prophetic and apocalyptic works. For example:

    For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. (Habakkuk 2:3)

    I am bringing my righteousness near, it is not far away; and my salvation will not be delayed. (Isa 46:13)

    The age is hurrying swiftly to its end … judgement is now drawing near. (4 Ezra 4:26, 8:61)

    The advent of the times is very short … the end which the Most High prepared is near. (2 Bar 85:10, 82:20)

    Of course, nothing in the Judaism of this period was uniform and there are other traditions that do imply the kingship of God is a more distant eventuality or are far more ambiguous about when it will come about. But in the synoptic gospels, and most clearly in gMark and gMatt, the emphasis is very much on urgency and the imminence of the coming transformation of the cosmos.

    So did the Apostles believe the Apocalypse was imminent? If so, how would you reconcile this alleged failed apocalyptic prophecy? Any insight would be greatly appreciated.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Welcome to Eclectic Orthodoxy, naturalbornk. I approved your comment because I didn’t want to be inhospitable, but as you note, it is irrelevant to the question of universalism and the issues discussed in the article. I understand why you believe that the delay of the parousia is more important than the question of universalism, as it raises the question, “Is the catholic faith true?” If we conclude that it is not, then this blog becomes irrelevant. For me personally, I do not believe that the delay of the parousia is a defeater for the Christian faith, given the resurrection of Jesus and the Pentecostal bestowal of the Spirit, which together must be understood as eschatological event and the inauguration of the New Creation. “I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus declared. In him the Kingdom has come. Now THAT is a difficult claim to believe, yet it must be true if the gospel is true. If it’s not, then our faith is in vain and we Christians are a people to be pitied, as the Apostle writes in 1 Cor 15.

      Liked by 3 people

  8. brian says:

    The Iron Knuckle and TJF: Jordan Daniel Wood has a book on Maximus, The Whole Mystery of Christ, coming out in the Fall. A while back, UND Press was offering a discount. You might want to look into it.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. brian says:


    I shall attempt a reply, though so many theological and metaphysical assumptions are entailed that I fear these sorts of exercises are rather futile. I would say that David Hart’s main argument in You Are Gods remains cogent and therefore I dispute the starting assumptions of your argument. It simply isn’t true that personhood in its flourishing reality is distinct from a teleology that culminates in theosis. You can stipulate a lesser, imperfect state of affairs as exemplary of personhood, and it is true that the gift of personhood perdures even when the capacity for action and communicative expression is limited, but that does not equate to the metaphysical essence of person. Indeed, I think the archetype of Person is irreducibly Trinitarian and that it is only through participation in Christ that one begins to attain what God intends by personal being. As a result of this presupposition, I conclude that it is mistaken to identify gnomic will with human freedom. Indeed, again Hart has drawn attention to this, Christ is fully human without ever possessing or requiring a gnomic will. The natural will is the elemental, necessary dynamism of human act that realizes freedom. You appear to imagine the natural will the lesser capacity. This is not so.

    It follows that Christ’s self-determination is not a result of gnomic deliberation. I assume that Christ shows us what human being actually is and that sinful human being is therefore not normative even if it is what we all know and experience. Here is a fundamental question: Is the choice between Good and evil necessary for freedom to be freedom? This is, indeed, the frequent refrain of modern thought regarding liberty. I wrote a dissertation on Dostoevsky years ago and I remember reading a pair of critics who insisted that freedom in eternity must entail the perpetual capacity to choose evil if freedom were to be genuine. However, the opposite is the case. The more one attains genuine freedom, the more the false and lesser choices presented by gnomic deliberation drop away. Freedom is ultimately identical to love and is obedient to love’s prerogative. It is also prayer and the Cross and ecstatic joy, none of which appear synonymous to a purely philosophical register.

    This is analogous to the modern preference for the possible. From a finite perspective, when one chooses one path, others are necessarily eliminated. I cannot reasonably become an architect and a professional baseball player, but even if I was that rare talent capable of diverse excellence, I could not also be a virtuoso pianist and heart surgeon, etc. More mundane, when I choose the peach cobbler, I forego the chocolate cake. Yet for God, aseity is a plenitude of perfection. William Desmond speaks of a pluperfect perfection, for the God embraces a Cusan coincidence of opposites, plenitude without satiation, something like creaturely becoming that is not reliant on unfulfilled potency. Now, all that is a roundabout way of saying that finite choice between this and that does not indicate the freedom of God; further, Creation is not a choice of possible worlds, God does not select from a plethora of possibles in order to create. On the contrary, Creation always intends unique singularites, even if finite intellect cannot comprehend the uniqueness in what often appears fungible commodity lacking irreplaceable identity.

    “So what?” you say. “Finite creatures are precisely not God.” Yes, but revelation is not bound by the univocal certitudes of linear time. The Origin is actually not distinct from the eschaton. The truth of creatures is eschatological. It is only as drawn into Divine Life that one encounters the fullness of reality. Otherwise, one judges on the basis of an incomplete Creation. And none of this is extrinsic . . . indeed, the radical transcendence of the Biblical God is what founds the deepest intimacy. God does not marionette his creatures, but neither does He abandon them to the limits of fallen time and gnomic failure. Maybe you think God risked his beloved, so that if it ended badly, there was nothing to be done. If a child was killed in the womb, a young person destroyed by a malicious bullet, all the random or vicious cruelty of this world means the incipient person just loses out. The person God desired turns out less than God intended – or one is so penurious as to surmise from history that God was happy for the unfortunate to achieve or not achieve “just so.” But again, that is entirely wrongheaded. God’s Creation is infinitely rich, infinitely creative, not at all limited to the frugal economy of a fallen world. In the ages of God’s loving generosity, all souls attain perfection, and that is the implication of Gregory of Nyssa’s epektasis.

    In short, you have taken the conditions of finite being in a Fallen world as demonstrative of what true freedom is, what nature is, and of what person is for creatures. In reality, it is only from the eschatological that one can make definitive pronouncements. Everything else is provisional and nothing like a comprehensive disclosure of the least nature.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Where’s the “super like” button?


    • I don’t believe either St. Maximus or St. Gregory believed that damnation was something that would be overcome in the eschaton. Marta Przyszychowska has an excellent article, “Three States after Death according to Gregory of Nyssa,” that gives a recent scholarly assessment, but that opinion of Maximus had already been around for many years prior to more recent revisionism (and more recent scholarship seems to think that Gregory of Nyssa doesn’t belong with Origen either). In any case, it’s certainly a subject of scholarly debate, as even the postmortem salvation advocates admit, so it’s not a case where I haven’t read works by Ramelli et al. I’m just theologically (and even historically) unconvinced, as I imagine you are by the contrary position. So let’s assume that either interpretation is viable for now.

      In any case, sin doesn’t result from gnomic failure. It actually results from the opportunity to exercise gnomic choice, which isn’t a failure. It was a successful exercise of the gnomic faculty to choose a direction that one oughtn’t have chosen. But that is the only way that one could have freely chosen one’s orientation meaningfully. In the case of relationship with God, that is the free choice to love God or to love self instead of God. There are going to be some, such as infants and unborn children, who never have this opportunity, which doesn’t mean that they are any less persons but that they will not relate to God in the same way that those who freely choose to do so will have done. I agree that God can make that free choice meaningfully possible irrespective of the vagaries of fallen world that you describe; that is exactly what happened with the angels in sempiternity, and we know that many of them fell given that opportunity. Leave aside all of the bad things that can happen here; there’s no reason to think that men can’t fairly be given a final choice if angels can.


      • Robert Fortuin says:

        Jonathan P: “And that is the purpose of the gnomic will: so that we can choose between God and ourselves, both good things in themselves, by free choice, without necessity of being determined by our natural end. Some, like infants and unborn children, may never make that choice, but that is the highest degree of personhood.”

        Jonathan P: “….sin doesn’t result from gnomic failure. It actually results from the opportunity to exercise gnomic choice, which isn’t a failure. It was a successful exercise of the gnomic faculty to choose a direction that one oughtn’t have chosen. But that is the only way that one could have freely chosen one’s orientation meaningfully.”

        Jonathan that is a most peculiar, idiosyncratic and novel understanding of the gnomic will. I don’t know anyone who understands St Maximus that way. For St Maximus the gnomic will is a deviation from willing according to one’s nature; only when the gnomic has been healed to its natural condition only then the human flourishes to fully human. The gnomic will, humanity’s current abnormal condition, is most certainly not the highest degree of personhood.

        Neither can sin be said to be a proper orientation – it may be a choice, but it always irrational, a slip into non-being away from personhood, and as such not a telos. The brute will of voluntaristic phenomenological schemes, willing apart from logos, is wholly incompatible with the logoi as taught by St Maximus.

        Liked by 1 person

        • At least as far as I can tell from people like Farrell, Bathrellos, and Cooper, St. Maximus is in that context talking about the gnomic will in the sense that it has been formed in a way out of alignment with the divine will. When the gnomic will is perfectly united to the divine logoi, it ceases to be a separate “thing” in that sense, so St. Maximus simply refers to it as the divine virtue itself, but it is the will habituated to virtue, which is just the gnomic will under a different name. The reason that we have a will is to exercise it, which produces virtue in those habits. Yes, it is true that it is not natural for the gnomic will to be misaligned in this way, so that we develop bad habits. But it is also the mechanism by which we develop good habits, i.e., virtues.

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          • brian says:

            As has been pointed out to you numerous times now, Jonathan, the gnomic will is a provisional quality of Fallen being. It is not the necessary prerequisite for human freedom or loving relation. Christ exhibits the latter to perfection without a gnomic will. The natural will is the basis for genuine liberty. One speaks of the gnomic will because humanity develops from a fallen condition. Consistent with your misconception is the notion that only freedom of choice manifests genuine liberty and authentic loving relations. Theosis is the ultimate truth of the cosmos. Liberty is the plenitude of being, the perfected “it is good” of Creation as God intends. In that state, the choice associated with gnomic deliberation is zero, yet liberty is perfected. None of that entails forgetting that our existential condition indeed manifests virtue as habitas, and growth from ignorance to knowledge where the gnomic will is involved.


  10. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Jonathan, I begin with your third point. I trust others will address the specifics of your philosophy of freedom. While I find philosophical discussions interesting, I lack the competence to offer anything more than opinion. But more importantly, I do not believe that philosophical speculation on freedom can or should be be decisive. As one of my seminary professors was fond of saying, “Interesting, if true.” I suspect that our prior commitments to either eternal damnation or apokatastasis will determine our formulations of freedom. For me, therefore, it is your third point that is of evangelical and theological interest.

    You quote Hart (“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?”) but miss his point. He is simply restating the moral objection to eternal perdition in a provocative way.

    To wit, if everything you say regarding the necessity of free choice to the formation of character is true, and if it is true that our character determines our final destiny, then the damned are a form of collateral damage. It’s as if God creates a cosmic game board for the making of persons (of if you prefer, the making of virtuous persons). Humans are brought into being ex nihilo and presented with the challenge “Become persons or be eternally damned.” Some are successful, many are not. We can try to excuse God by insisting that the damned are responsible for their final fate, but the fact remains that God freely chose to create this specific person-making game, all the while knowing that some, many, most would fail. Remember: he didn’t have to make this specific game. He might have chosen not to create any universe at all, without any diminishment of his Trinitarian happiness and glory. Ultimately, therefore, God himself is responsible for the eschatological outcome of eternal damnation. The end is enfolded in the beginning. The damnation of one or many is but the inevitable cost of creating the game. God takes the risk and accepts the results. You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. If the making of virtuous persons entails the possibility (or should we say probability?) that some or many will become evil people deserving of everlasting punishment, so be it. The end justifies the means. Some play the game well, develop a virtuous character and are rewarded with everlasting bliss. Hooray for them! As for the rest . . . well, every game has its losers. It’s a shame, but what’s a God to do? Donald Trump once remarked, “I don’t like losers.” Apparently our Creator doesn’t either.

    In this sense (but only in this sense), the damned are the “redeemers of the blessed.” The game necessarily entails their existence.

    The dilemma becomes worse when we remember that the post-lapsarian character formation playing field is hardly even. We are born into an existence of disordered desire, ignorance, violence, and death. We are doomed to failure, apart from grace. You can call that grace “sufficient” if you like. A commitment to perdition requires that assertion. But let’s be honest, sufficient grace doesn’t seem to be impressively sufficient. The line to enter into hell is so very long. As the Jansenists are reported to have prayed, “Lord, deliver us from sufficient grace.”

    But I digress. The decisive issue before us is the moral abomination of hell! You apparently believe that the everlasting punishment of the reprobate cannot be abominable, cannot be evil and unconscionable, must be morally acceptable because … well, because why? Because the damned have chosen to become damnable creatures? Now however we judge the relation between our actions and personal formation (there is no philosophical consensus), and however we answer the question whether any rational being would rationally choose an infernal existence, one fact remains: nobody has freely chosen to be part of the game. Each of us are thrust into it without our permission. And who, I ask, would freely choose to play if they knew beforehand the conditions of the playing field, the obstacles to victory, and the ultimate consequence of failure? The real question is: Would a God of absolute love have freely created this game knowing that he would not or could not save all?

    You then write that Hart’s quoted comment cannot be correct: “this disregards that each person is his own end. The price is paid for their own existence as individuals, not for the sake of others.” Here I point you to Brian Moore’s comment above: “It simply isn’t true that personhood in its flourishing reality is distinct from a teleology that culminates in theosis.” None of us are our own end. Our reality as radically contingent beings makes that quite impossible. We are literally nothing, sustained in an existence that is not our own. That is the whole point of Henri de Lubac’s critique of natura pura and his insistence that we are created with a natural desire for, and dynamic orientation toward, God. We are given one, and only one telos–namely, communion with our Creator (theosis). It is this telos that awakens us to our journey toward true personhood and beatitude in Christ. To think of ourselves as our own end is precisely sin and damnation. This is the Satanic temptation that seduced Adam and Eve to their spiritual destruction.

    You continue: “To redeem Satan would be to take away his authority to be who he chooses to be. He might be the same individual, but he would not be the same person.” But Satan is not a person! He failed the divinely-given project to become a person. He may be a damned individual, but he does not qualify as person in any sense of the word. He is but a shadow of the person he might have become. I grant that if God were to save him at the Last Day (may it be so!), he would cease to be the individual named Satan and become the person God originally intended him to be in Jesus Christ. Lucifer would be reborn in his place, restored, liberated, glorified. Why think this would not be a good thing, indeed the best possible thing, to happen to him, to happen to any of us? That is what salvation by grace means–to be rescued from our excecrable existence as isolated beings to become free persons in the Spirit, which is the only freedom worth talking about. We are free not because we can make choices–making choices is what freedom looks like in our fallen existence–we are only truly free when we have finally and definitively “chosen” that life in which we can no longer choose any other life but life with the Father through the Son in the Spirit. This is the freedom and slavery of love.

    Throughout the reflections you have shared with us, you have never mentioned the most important thing of all: namely, that God eternally wills our final good and flourishment. He is the good shepherd who abandons the flock to find and restore the one lost sheep. He will not be satisfied with anything less than the salvation of all his children, no matter how vicious they have made themselves. I infer that you do not believe this, and that is the essential point of disagreement between us. We can argue all day and night about what freedom means and how it is integral to our character formation, but none of that matters if we cannot agree that in Jesus Christ the Triune God has revealed himself as absolute and unconditional love. Quite frankly, Jonathan, I do not hear one speck of gospel in what you have written. You have given us a Creator who arbitrarily creates rational beings, places them in a person-making game and abandons them to their failure, condemning them to eternal torment, all in the name of character formation. But this is not the God I believe in. I believe in a God who not only forgives our sins but delivers us from our vicious character, both in this life and the next–which is just a way of saying, I believe in a God who raises the dead!


  11. Thank you for the extensive response, Fr. Kimel. I likewise am no philosopher except in the sense that any truth-seeking is philosophical in some kind. But in terms of the technical categories, such as the libertarian/compatibilist or voluntarist/ intellectualist dichotomies, I don’t find them particularly helpful. It is only the moral intuition that I am trying to convey. The best philosopher for my point of view is Bonnie Raitt:
    “I can’t make you love me if you don’t
    You can’t make your heart feel something it won’t
    Here in the dark, in these final hours
    I will lay down my heart and I’ll feel the power
    But you won’t, no you won’t
    ‘Cause I can’t make you love me, if you don’t”

    There is no shortage of absolute and unconditional love here, no thing left undone. She has given everything and held back nothing, and still. That is the nature of true love. One cannot determine the object of love but must leave room for that free choice. It is no different with God; Omnipotence Himself cannot break this unbreakable law of love. That is why marriage is defined fundamentally by free consent, in the image of our ultimate choice. Nothing else will do. One must choose to love, even if the ramifications of that choice extend far beyond what one knows. That is the leap of faith working in love. “Save us from sufficient grace” means nothing less than “save us from the opportunity to love freely,” because that is all sufficient grace is.

    Teleology, in the philosophical sense that equates love with the impersonal determination of another to some good, is loveless. Love is a greater power than teleology, and the law of love means that we can never be saved *from* ourselves but only *by* ourselves, by our love. Metaphysically, the choice to love self in preference to God is a choice of nothing, but it is still a real choice. That is the paradox and mystery of evil; it exists by choosing not to love. Likewise, it is not that we are not persons unless we love, but that to be a person means that the only salvation *is* love.

    It is likewise why damnation must be eternal. Anything else would be the failure of God to give His all in the relationship, to put everything on the line. Hell is not something that God does but something that God has already done by making Himself an object of love. He has given everything; His love is so ardent that it leaves nothing behind. It is utterly selfless; He needs nothing but offers everything. If we choose not to love in the face of being given everything, then damnation is the nature of the choice. Morally, He would be a liar to offer Himself as a lover if He was not.

    Satan did not fail to be a person. Rather, as a person, he chose not to be a lover, and God could not make him to be one if given a choice. If there is no respect for Satan’s free consent, either given or withheld, then where is the love?


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thanks, Jonathan, for the exchange. I think we’ve taken it as far as we can go. Be sure to buy my book when it comes out this Fall! 😎


  12. Tom says:

    Too much to catch up on. I’ve not been able to follow this convo as I would wish.

    But I will step out, as a universalist, into the crossfire and risk getting shot from my own side on this point.

    Jonathan, I don’t know all the ins and outs of your position re: the gnomic or deliberative capacity of the will, but I will say that it’s been my view for some time (and I stand alone among my UR friends here on this) that this capacity (the gnomic/deliberative exercise of agency) is God-given in its origin, not a result of any fall whatsoever, but by definition a pre-requisite of any sinful departure from God, and is not in itself evil or fallen but is (again, this is my own view) the necessary term in which finite created will must (given that finitude) make their way responsibly to final union with God. I see no way for spiritual creatures to move from origin to end in God but via the gnomic/deliberative (risky, precarious, but necessary) exercise of the will.

    I also think (and I asked DBH about this some time ago and he concurred) that the gnomic will, properly habituated and come to rest in the natural will, nevertheless endures, so that the divine will terminates (is how it was said back when I asked him) in a scope of equally beautiful choices and each individual would then resolve the transition from possible to actual through the individual exercise of will. I have no problem with this.

    So I’m probably with you, Jonathan, on the essential ‘en route’ necessity of the gnomic will as God-given and original but still provisional in the sense that God intends through its proper use to grow in conformity and virtue to God. I don’t have any issues with you here. My point is that none of this makes eternal conscious torment possible or necessary. It does not follow from the necessity of such gnomic agency (as you and I agree upon) that we be capable of irrevocably severing ourselves from all possibility of movement toward God as our end. Nor does the integrity of the choice for the infinite God require a proportionately infinite negative consequence (eternal conscious torment). Yes, there must proper and just consequences. Obviously. But ‘just’ must by definition involve the capacities and knowledge of creatures. It is not the case that the integrity of any responsibly free movement toward the infinite God requires a proportionately infinite contraction into negation.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Tom says:

      “…provisional in the sense that God intends through its proper use to grow in conformity and virtue to God.”

      I mean God intends US to grow, etc.


  13. Appreciate the exchange, Fr. Kimel, and I hope you won’t mind if I continue it with those who are still game for it.

    brian said:
    “As has been pointed out to you numerous times now, Jonathan, the gnomic will is a provisional quality of Fallen being. It is not the necessary prerequisite for human freedom or loving relation. Christ exhibits the latter to perfection without a gnomic will. The natural will is the basis for genuine liberty. One speaks of the gnomic will because humanity develops from a fallen condition. Consistent with your misconception is the notion that only freedom of choice manifests genuine liberty and authentic loving relations. Theosis is the ultimate truth of the cosmos. Liberty is the plenitude of being, the perfected “it is good” of Creation as God intends. In that state, the choice associated with gnomic deliberation is zero, yet liberty is perfected. None of that entails forgetting that our existential condition indeed manifests virtue as habitas, and growth from ignorance to knowledge where the gnomic will is involved.”

    Correct, and the part you are missing is what Tom points out. Unlike Christ, we have to be saved (or not) through the gnomic will. This is why saved infants are understood by St. Gregory of Nyssa to be a third kind, different from either those saved voluntarily or damned voluntarily. So while we may no longer be able to exercise the gnomic will in the afterlife, we are still (at least most of us) persons, who have exercised the gnomic will to develop habits, vices or virtues. Our gnomic capacity is what gives us the possibility of failure, but it is also our only way out, and as you said, we don’t have it anymore. Like the demons, there’s no hope for postmortem salvation, because our metaphysical condition doesn’t allow it.

    If the question is “why punish people who can never change?,” the answer is that it is punishment only by analogy, since it is self-inflicted by the person’s own habitual disposition.


    • TJF says:

      “There’s no hope for postmortem salvation because our metaphysical condition doesn’t allow it.”

      It is this exact sentiment that is the object of the attack of Hart’s first meditation in TASBS and that you haven’t answered and indeed cannot answer for. A God who would willingly create such a debased condition for His creatures would be evil and therefore not God. The God I know (through a mirror dimly, admittedly,) always leaves room for salvation. There is no point in which our metaphysical condition disallows salvation. If your philosophical system leads to this conclusion, then the only proper response is to reject that system and embrace the gospel that raises fisherman to higher knowledge of the divine than orators, that would raise people from the dead.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Jonathan, I invite you to read this article by philosopher Thomas Talbott: Free Will Theodicies of Hell. Talbott’s analysis of freedom puts to you two questions (1) At what point does a choice cease to be a free choice? (2) Is it coherent to speak of someone as freely embracing eternal damnation?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Robert Fortuin says:

        Excellent choice. And Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved as well, particularly chapter 4, although it should be read in context, don’t skip the first chapters.


    • brian says:

      “None of that entails forgetting that our existential condition indeed manifests virtue as habitas, and growth from ignorance to knowledge where the gnomic will is involved.”

      Jonathan, I did try to anticipate your objection in the preceding quote which is an acknowledgement that our existential condition unavoidably involves the gnomic will. Apparently you did not get that. Tom and I have hashed over these matters for years. Whatever our differences, his view of the eschaton strangely aligns with my own and does not entail the consequences you presume. It should be evident to you and to everyone by now that entrenched positions are being reiterated over and over. There is no persuasion happening here. What is it you think is accomplished by continued repetition? Your notions of what constitutes a person, the nature of freedom, the metaphysics of creation, etc. are not dogmatically necessary, though you appear to believe they are self-evident. Folks who think the gospel and apokatastasis are identical are just as aware of the scriptures as those who believe otherwise. So exegetical differences are involved – one might conclude from the logic of revelation, from the nature of creatio ex nihilo and Triune Plenitude and divine simplicity and the metaphysics of love that the gospel is the comprehensive renewal of the entirety of creation. Then individual scriptures that appear discordant are interpreted in the light of a global hermeneutic. The context of audience and historical moment is taken into consideration, mystical, anagogic depths are articulated in ways that transcend a merely literalist approach. None of that may convince you. So be it, yet the interpretive tradition you tilt against is not answered by ignoring its claims or simply repeating the catechism of a contrasting theology.


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