Moviegoers of a certain age will vividly remember the torture scene in the classic movie Dirty Harry. Inspector Harry Callahan tracks down the psychopath Scorpio who has kidnapped a teenager and threatened to kill her if a ransom of $200,000 is not paid. Harry shoots him in the leg and then proceeds to torture him until he gives up her location. Tragically, the girl is already dead when the police find her.
Is Harry’s torture of Scorpio morally justified?
I’m confident that readers of Eclectic Orthodoxy agree that the excruciation of a fellow human being is gravely wrong, even apart from specific Christian concerns. As philosopher Seamus Miller writes: “Given that torture involves both the infliction of extreme physical suffering and the substantial curtailment of the victim’s autonomy, torture is a very great evil indeed.”1 The prohibition of torture becomes emphatically stronger, though, when the belief that every human being is made in the divine image is added to the discussion. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity” (§2297). In his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, Pope John Paul II identifies torture as belonging to those acts “which are by their nature ‘incapable of being ordered’ to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image” (§80). Torture is a blasphemous act of violence against God himself.
What about those circumstances when torture is deemed necessary to extract information in order to prevent the deaths of dozens, hundreds, thousands, even millions of human beings? If you were a fan of the popular television show 24, you know that Jack Bauer had no qualms torturing known terrorists to stop biochemical and nuclear attacks. Each season we were invited into a ticking bomb scenario. As much as we were revolted by the use of torture to acquire the necessary information to prevent these attacks, were we not secretly (and perhaps not so secretly) grateful that Jack was willing to use all means necessary to save American lives? During a debate between Republican presidential candidates in 2007, Britt Hume asked Rep. Tom Tancredo a hypothetical question about the use of torture in the interrogation of a terrorist who is privy to a planned suicide bomber attack. Tancredo replied: “I’m looking for Jack Bauer at that point, let me tell you.”
Do the ends justify the means? Is Spock right when he opines in The Wrath of Khan: “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”? When does the greater good justify the employment of intrinsically evil violence?
The above questions came to mind this past week while reading Mats Wahlberg’s just-published critique of David Bentley Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved.2 Wahlberg notes that Catholic theologians typically justify hell by appeal to the greater good. Hart’s rejection of greater good defenses therefore poses a serious challenge. Wahlberg accurately summarizes Hart’s principal objection:
Since God creates ex nihilo, his act of creating is ‘infinitely free’, ‘constrained by neither necessity nor ignorance’, according to Hart. This means that the final outcome of God’s creativity—the world in its eschatological state—will fully reveal his moral nature. The eschaton will display who God truly is, since he is responsible for whatever the world will ultimately contain. Any remainder of evil and suffering would be ‘something God has directly caused, as an entailment freely assumed in his act of creating, and so an expression of who he freely is’. But if this is the case, and if a remainder of evil is left in the end, then God cannot be Goodness Itself but at best imperfectly good. Since God is Goodness Itself, however, we can be certain that creation in its final state will not contain any evil and suffering, which means that there is no such thing as an endless hell.3
The eschatological consummation of the cosmos puts God and his purposes on full and glorious display. It is toward this final end everything has been moving, and that end is nothing less than the one true God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The author of the cosmic story is no longer hidden. His theophany in and as his creation is now complete. All is deified in Christ; all is made new. The words of St Maximus the Confessor are fulfilled:
And by this beautiful exchange, it renders God man by reason of the divinization of man, and man God by reason of the Incarnation of God. For the Logos of God (and God) wills always and in all things to accomplish the mystery of His embodiment.4
Theophany is realized as Christophany; cosmos becomes the body of the eternal Word. The character of the Holy Trinity as absolute love is now perfectly revealed and manifested. As the Apostle Paul prophesied, when God has brought all things to fulfillment, he will be “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28). The great Origen elaborates:
I reckon that this expression, where God is said to be “all in all,” also means that that he is all in all in each individual person. And he will be all in each individual in such a way that everything which the rational mind, when cleansed from all the dregs of the vices and utterly swept clean of every cloud of wickedness, can sense or understand or think will be all God; it will no longer sense anything else apart from God; it will think God, see God, hold God; God will be the mode and measure of its every movement; and thus God will be all to it; for there will no longer be any distinction between good and evil, since evil nowhere exists (for God, to whom evil approaches, is all things to it), nor will one, who is always in the good and to whom God is all, desire any longer to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When, then, the end has been renewed to the beginning and the departure of things joined to their entrance, that condition will be restored which rational beings then had, when they did not need to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, so that to them, with all perception of wickedness having been removed and having been cleansed, to be sound and pure, he who is alone the one good God himself becomes all, and he himself becomes all not in a few things or in many, but in all, when indeed there is nowhere death, no where the sting of death, no where any evil; then, truly, God will be all in all.5
St Gregory of Nyssa concurs:
For evil must be altogether removed in every way from being, and, as we have said before, that which does not really exist must cease to exist at all. Since evil does not exist by its nature outside of free choice, when all choice is in God, evil will suffer a complete annihilation because no receptacle remains for it. . . .
He who becomes all will also be “all in all.” In this the apostle seems to me to teach the complete annihilation of evil. If God will be in everything which exists, evil obviously will not be among the things that exist; for if one should suppose that evil existed, how would it remain true that God is “in all”? If evil is excluded, not all things are included. But He who will be “in all” will not be in what does not exist.6
For this Christ came into the world, not to secure the sequestering and restraint of the agents of wickedness, but their redemption through cross and resurrection. This is what eschaton means and must mean—the absolute triumph of love and therefore the utter annihilation of evil. Nor will it suffice, declares Hart, to invoke the classic distinction between that which is divinely willed and that which is permitted, for if permitted evil is eternalized in the eschaton, then it necessarily becomes revelatory of the divine nature, thereby compromising, indeed contradicting, God’s infinite goodness and omnipotent love. Precisely at this eschatological point, the divine permission becomes divine ordination.
Of modern advocates of universal restoration, none have written more forcefully upon the evangelical necessity of the defeat and obliteration of evil than the Irish theologian Thomas Allin. It drives his reflections on apokatastasis. He begins his preface to the second edition of his book Christ Triumphant with this paragraph:
The question of questions to which an answer is attempted in the following pages, is essentially this: can evil triumph finally over good? If we answer affirmatively with the popular creed, we are practically falling into dualism; if we reply negatively, we are teaching universalism. Such are the issues really involved. The more often and the more clearly this is stated as the turning point of the entire controversy about the larger hope, the better for those who write, and for those who read. The Calvinist settled this question by, in fact, affirming that if evil triumphs it is because God so orders (i.e., because God decrees to evil an eternal existence); thus saving or trying to save God’s omnipotence, but at no less a cost than that of blackening his character, nay, of virtually making him a partner in evil. But the popular creed saves neither the omnipotence of God, nor yet preserves his character. Sin, the one thing most utterly hateful in his sight, he tolerates forever and ever, poisoning and defiling his works, and defying his power—satisfied, if in this brief life he cannot have obedience and righteousness—satisfied with endless disobedience and sin hereafter! He appears before all creation as trying to dislodge sin, only to fail; as sending his Divine Son to save all men in order that he may return rejected, baffled, vanquished. And so the curtain falls on the great drama of creation and redemption, presenting such a picture as this—a baffled Savior, a victorious devil, a ruined creation, sin triumphant—and so to continue forever—a heaven wholly base, a hell wholly miserable.7
In his 2005 classic The Doors of the Sea, Hart invokes the above-mentioned distinction between God’s primary or antecedent will and his providential or permissive will.8 This distinction is crucial to all philosophical attempts to reconcile the divine goodness of God and the presence of evil and suffering in the world: the Creator does not directly will evil and suffering; he permits it until the world’s consummation in Christ. This is the critical difference, says Hart, between providence and determinism:
What then, one might well ask, is divine providence? Certainly all Christians must affirm God’s transcendent governance of everything, even fallen history and fallen nature, and must believe that by that governance he will defeat evil and bring the final good of all things out of the darkness of “this age”: It makes a considerable difference, however—nothing less than our understanding of the nature of God is at stake—whether one says that God has eternally willed the history of sin and death, and all that comes to pass therein, as the proper or necessary means of achieving his ends, or whether one says instead that God has willed his good in creatures from eternity and will bring it to pass, despite their rebellion, by so ordering all things toward his goodness that even evil (which he does not cause) becomes an occasion of the operations of grace. And it is only the latter view than can accurately be called a doctrine of “providence” in the properly theological sense; the former view is mere determinism.9
Note the important qualification: God allows evil, but only to redeem it. Every act of wickedness, every calamity, every sin “becomes an occasion of the operations of grace” and the right ordering of the world toward his goodness. Our history of death is not desired by God—he does not need evil to accomplish his deification of humanity—but it is “nevertheless constrained by providence to serve his transcendent purpose.”10 Hart continues:
When all is said and done, however, not only is the distinction neither illogical nor slight; it is an absolute necessity if—setting aside, as we should, all other judgments as suppositious, stochastic, and secondary—we are to be guided by the full character of what is revealed of God in Christ. For, after all, if it is from Christ that we are to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil, and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless, and miraculous enmity: sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are part of the eternal work or purposes of God.11
God wills the good and only the good, but for the greater good he temporarily permits evil. What is this greater good? Hart’s answer: the preservation of our freedom within fallen history. Even so, our sinful actions occur within God’s providential rule and will ultimately redound to his glory and the salvation of all sinners. God will be all in all.
But once we turn our attention to the Last Judgment and God’s transfiguration of the cosmos, the dual wills distinction becomes inutile. If the eschaton means anything, it means the victory of God’s antecedent will to redeem evil and effect the salvation of all:
For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim 2:3-4, KJV)
For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, Who will have all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim 2:3-4, Douay-Rheims)
And this brings us to Hart’s critical insight: to employ the dual wills distinction in defense of eternal damnation logically entails the collapse of the antecedent into the consequent. The distinction is necessary when speaking of God’s permission of evil within historical time, but this permission assumes that he will ultimately put the world to rights. In other words, it presupposes the perfect consummation of divine love. But if hell is a final eschatological reality, as the infernalist tradition claims, then God never unconditionally intended the salvation of all human beings. From the beginning, he only intended the justification of those who fulfill specific conditions. Love is reduced to a perverted form of justice:
This is not a complicated issue, it seems to me: The eternal perdition—the eternal suffering—of any soul would be an abominable tragedy, and therefore a profound natural evil; this much is stated quite clearly by scripture, in asserting that God “intends all human beings to be saved and to come to a full knowledge of truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). A natural evil, however, becomes a moral evil precisely to the degree that it is the positive intention, even if only conditionally, of a rational will. God could not, then, directly intend a soul’s ultimate destruction, or even intend that a soul bring about its own destruction, without positively willing the evil end as an evil end; such a result could not possibly be comprised within the ends purposed by a truly good will (in any sense of the word “good” intelligible to us). Yet, if both the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo and that of eternal damnation are true, that very evil is indeed already comprised within the positive intentions and dispositions of God. No refuge is offered here by some specious distinction between God’s antecedent and consequent wills—between, that is, his universal will for creation apart from the fall and his particular will regarding each creature in consequence of the fall. Under the canopy of God’s omnipotence and omniscience, the consequent is already wholly virtually present in the antecedent. Nor, for the same reason, does it help here to draw a distinction between evils that are positively willed and evils that are providentially permitted for the sake of some greater good. A greater good is by definition a conditional and therefore relative good; its conditions are already and inalienably part of its positive content. Moreover, in this case, the evil by which this putative good has been accomplished must be accounted an eternally present condition within that good, since an endless punishment is—at least for the soul that experiences it—an end intended in itself. This evil, then, must remain forever the “other side” of whatever good it might help to bring about. So, while we may no doubt hope that some limited good will emerge from the cosmic drama, one that is somehow preponderant over the evil, limited it must forever remain; at such an unspeakable and irrecuperable cost, it can be at best only a tragically ambiguous good. This is the price of creation, it would seem. God, on this view, has “made a bargain” with a natural evil. He has willed the tragedy, not just as a transient dissonance within creation’s goodness, leading ultimately to a soul’s correction, but as that irreducible quantum of eternal loss that, however small in relation to the whole, still reduces all else to a merely relative value.12
Forgive the long paragraph, but I fear that the cogency of Hart’s argument has been missed by most of his critics. As we shall see, it has been missed by Wahlberg. But first I want to quote another long passage from one of Hart’s Public Orthodoxy articles:
If God creates the world from nothingness, under no compulsion and with no motive but the overflow of his own infinite goodness, it is only in the finished reality of all things that the full nature of God’s activity will be revealed. What will be disclosed, moreover, cannot be only the nature of creation, but must necessarily touch upon the divine nature as well. If it is true that creation in no sense adds to, qualifies, or “perfects” God—if, that is, the God who creates from nothing is always already the infinite God who neither requires nor is susceptible to any process of becoming—nothing proper to creation is beyond his power and intention. Inasmuch as creation is not a process of theogony, by which God forges himself in the fires of the finite, it is a genuine theophany, and its final state—intended as it is in the very act of creating—must reveal something of who God is in himself. . . .
It is a logical truism that all secondary causes in creation are reducible to their first cause. This is not a formula of determinism. It merely means that nothing can appear within the “consequents” of God’s creative act that is not, at least as a potential result, implicit in their primordial antecedent. So, even if God allows only for the mere possibility of an ultimately unredeemed natural evil in creation, this means that, in the very act of creation, he accepted this reality—or this real possibility—as an acceptable price for the ends he desired. In acting freely, all the possibilities that the agent knowingly accepts are positively willed as acceptable conditions of the end the agent seeks to achieve. If I freely and knowingly choose a course of action that may involve the death of my child, knowing that that death will then be an ineradicable detail of the pattern of what I bring about, morally I have willed his death within the total calculus of my final intentions, as a cost freely accepted, even if in the end his death never actually comes about. One cannot positively will the whole without positively willing all the necessary parts of the whole (whether those parts exist in only potential or in fully actual states). And so, if God does indeed tolerate that final unredeemed natural evil as the price of his creation, he not only thereby reduces the “goodness” of his creative act to a merely relative goodness; he also converts that natural evil into a moral evil, one wholly enfolded within the total calculus of his own venture in creating, and thereby reveals himself to be not God, the Good as such, but only a god who is (at most) relatively good.13
If in the final future some human beings are eternally damned, then this necessarily belongs to God’s original will for his creation. Both eschatologically and protologically, God wills this doom. Perdition is not an unfortunate and unanticipated outcome; it was intended all along. The divine Creator reveals himself as the Lord of heaven and hell. I cannot help thinking of the words of the Lady Galadriel, as she contemplates taking to herself the One Ring: “All shall love me and despair!”
Wahlberg seeks to refute Hart’s argument by reminding us that God, despite his omnipotence, is himself bound to metaphysical necessities:
In response to this argument, it should first be pointed out that God’s act of creating is not, as Hart seems to say, totally unconstrained by any kind of necessity. True, there are no external constraints on God when he creates, but there are internal constraints in the form of broadly logical or metaphysical necessities in virtue of which God can be forced (so to speak) to choose between realizing a certain good or avoiding a certain evil. These constraints exist in virtue of God’s intellect and power and cannot be changed by the divine will. For example, if God wants a biological ecosystem to exist, he must accept that organisms perish. He cannot by his will change the fact that an ecosystem by nature entails destruction. So even though creation is an expression of who God is, it is not entirely an expression of ‘who God freely is’ if this is taken to imply a willful divine control over metaphysical necessities.
Given the fact that God does not control the broadly logical compatibility or incompatibility between various goods and evils—no more than he ‘controls’ what the laws of logic or mathematics are—how can Hart rule out the possibility that there is some immense good that is incompatible with universal salvation, and that God reasonably wills more than he wills universal salvation? The answer is, of course, that he cannot. At most, Hart can argue that it does not matter how great any suggested ‘greater’ good is, since it would in any case be morally bad (and hence impossible) for God to purchase it at the expense of the final loss, or even the possible loss, of a single soul. It follows from this that God is morally bound to prevent such loss at any cost, and hence to forfeit any good—however great—that conflicts with universal salvation.14
Has Wahlberg refuted Hart’s argument? I do not think so. It is no doubt the the case that the creation of any finite cosmos entails either/or necessities. A divine choice must inevitably be made in the realization of specific goods and the avoidance of specific evils. In creating a cosmos filled with beings of determinate natures governed by specific metaphysical and logical principles, God freely binds himself to respect its limitations and consequences. I am not a scientist and cannot provide a sample list of the choices God must have made in bringing about our universe. Wahlberg lists one: if God desires a biological ecosystem, he must accept that organisms perish. Dr Tom Belt15 lists another: if God desires a temporal, material universe, he must accept entropy and decay. Hart lists a third: if God desires a free, intentional, and rational spiritual being that moves from a state of nonexistence to a state of historical life, ending in an endless journey into deification, then he must accept that he cannot create a perfectly sinless, deified being right off the bat.16 Okay, each sound plausible, and I’m sure readers can come up with many more. Nonetheless, I still want to insist that God has freely created the world from out of nothing.17 He was not “compelled” to create it—that would deny the doctrine of the creatio ex nihilo—nor was he constrained by any realities or powers outside of himself. Hence there can be no necessities, external or internal, that can prevent him from accomplishing his deifying will for his creation. In willing the world, God wills his own goodness. Hart puts it this way:
Here my particular concern is the general principle that the doctrine of creation constitutes an assertion regarding the eternal identity of God. The doctrine in itself is, after all, chiefly an affirmation of God’s absolute dispositive liberty in all his acts—the absence, that is, of any external restraint upon or necessity behind every action of his will. And, while one must avoid the pathetic anthropomorphism of imagining God’s resolve to create as an arbitrary choice made after deliberation among options, one must still affirm that it is free, that creation can add nothing to God, that God’s being is not dependent on the world’s, and that the only “necessity” present in the divine act of creation is the impossibility of any hindrance being placed upon God’s expression of his own goodness in making the world. Yet, for just this reason, the moral destiny of creation and the moral nature of God are absolutely inseparable. As the transcendent Good beyond all beings, God is also the transcendental end that makes every single action of any rational nature possible. Moreover, the end toward which he acts must be his own goodness; for he is himself the beginning and end of all things. This is not to deny that, in addition to the “primary causality” of God’s act of creation, there are innumerable forms of “secondary causality” operative within the created order; but none of these can exceed or escape the one end toward which the first cause directs all things. And this eternal teleology that ultimately governs every action in creation, viewed from the vantage of history, takes the form of a cosmic eschatology. Seen as an eternal act of God, creation’s term is the divine nature for which all things were made; seen from within the orientation of time, its term is the “final judgment” that brings all things to their true conclusion.18
In any case, Hart and Wahlberg seem to be in agreement on the above (though I suspect that Hart, as well as Paul Griffiths, might want to invite Wahlberg to consider the possibility of a primordial cosmic fall and its impact upon the structures and processes of the universe). Now consider the Wahlberg’s key sentences: “How can Hart rule out the possibility that there is some immense good that is incompatible with universal salvation, and that God reasonably wills more than he wills universal salvation? The answer is, of course, that he cannot.” Again Hart has an easy response, noted by Wahlberg: the God who is Goodness only wills the good. He never wills evil, he conquers it. The eschatological punishment of the wicked, with its attendant misery and anguish, can never be a “good” that he decrees; nor would the good God eternally will, even by way of “permission,” that which is intrinsically evil for the sake of an ostensibly greater good. Dr Belt further expounds:
Hart agrees that just as there are logical constraints on what we can suppose God does (he can’t make 2+2=5) or natural constraints (he can’t create spiritual beings already perfected from the get-go), there are also moral constraints. If God is said to be Truth, Beauty, Goodness, Justice, etc., he can’t fail to will himself as the highest good of sentient beings, nor fail to infinitely and unconditionally love those he creates, nor fail to pursue their highest good in him, etc.). For Hart these moral constraints rule out our imagining God capable of freely creating sentient creatures who either will or even might fail to find their end in him. To do so knowingly and freely is not to be the Good as such. This I think is the point of debate: Can the divine act of knowingly and freely imposing even the risk of irrevocable suffering or loss upon another be a perfectly loving thing to do? Hart says no. Wahlberg says yes. But for Hart I imagine, Wahlberg is the one attributing to God the moral equivalent of saying God can make 2+2 = 5 or the creation of an entropy-free ecosystem. Hence the moral absurdity of Wahlberg’s position.
Wahlberg’s appeal to a greater good that somehow justifies the evil of interminable retributive punishment (old school) or the evil of eternally maintaining the damned in a condition of irredeemable suffering (new school) is irrelevant. All that matters is the eternalizing of evil, thereby denying the New Testament promise that God will be all in all. Hidden under Wahlberg’s approach is an implicit voluntarism (the exaltation of the divine will above the divine intellect) that effectively asserts that God can make evil good. But what is this but the positing of a Deity who is beyond good and evil?
Wahlberg then goes on to ask how Hart can claim to know that the very existence of rational creatures is not incompatible with universal salvation? Perhaps it’s impossible, he conjectures, for God to create a universe peopled with rational beings where at least one (let’s call him Adolf Hitler) will not definitively reject God. In all possible worlds, there will always be one or more persons who will be annihilated at the Final Judgment. (Here Wahlberg echoes the transworld damnation thesis advanced by William Lane Craig. Curiously he introduces the possibility of annihilation at this point, knowing full well that Hart rejects annihilationism almost as fiercely as he rejects damnation and for the same reasons.) Wahlberg doesn’t say that this is likely, only that we cannot know that this isn’t the truth of things. God is therefore faced with two mutually exclusive choices:
- To create a world that permits the annihilation/damnation of one person.
- To not create the universe at all.
That Hart’s universalism entails door #2 is absurd, declares the Swedish theologian:
Since it is morally impossible, according to Hart, for God to allow a single soul to perish, or possibly perish, for any reason, it follows that God is morally bound to choose option 2, and hence to abstain from creating any rational creatures. This would strike most people as an absurd conclusion, but more importantly it would probably even strike Hitler as an absurd conclusion. It seems very likely that he, like most people, would prefer to be created and exist for a limited time rather than not being created at all. So even if we look at the matter from the perspective of the soul who, as we here assume, has to ‘pay the price’ for God’s act of creating, we must conclude that there is something wrong with Hart’s reasoning. Clearly, there is a rather modest greater good that could outweigh the evil of the possible annihilation of a soul and hence could—by any reasonable standard—justify God’s permission of it, namely the good of the previous existence of the soul in question.19
Wahlberg’s retreat to annihilationism simply muddies the waters, however, as he virtually admits by acknowledging that Hart’s argument gains some measure of cogency if we were to substitute eternal damnation for annihilation in option #1. Ask instead: Would any rational person prefer unbearable endless torment over nonexistence? Yet still Wahlberg believes that option #1 is superior to option #2:
Is Hart right to hold (as his view commits him to) that God must rather abstain from creating anything at all than permitting that Hitler ends up in hell? In this case, there is no knock-down argument against Hart’s view. I suspect, however, that most people would say that the non-creation of the world, or the non-creation of all the rational creatures that now exist, including the Virgin Mary and Christ’s humanity, is too steep a price to pay in order to save Hitler from hell. Hart might disagree, but if he does, he has nothing but a possibly idiosyncratic intuition to lean on.20
Universalists, of course, will reject Wahlberg’s characterization of Hart’s moral judgment on this question as idiosyncratic, and so would, I suggest, the Lord Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary. Did not Jesus command us to pray for our enemies? Did he not die for the ungodly? Does not the Theotokos pray unceasingly for sinners? Against Wahlberg’s own intuition, I submit the testimony of St Silouan the Athonite and his conversation with a fellow monk, as handed down to us by St Sophrony of Essex:
I remember a conversation between [St Silouan] and a certain hermit, who declared with evident satisfaction, “God will punish all atheists. They will burn in everlasting fire.”
Obviously upset, The Staretz said:
“Tell me, supposing you went to paradise and there looked down and saw somebody burning in hell-fire—would you feel happy?”
“It can’t be helped. It would be their own fault,” said the hermit.
The Staretz answered him with a sorrowful countenance:
“Love could not bear that,” he said. “We must pray for all.”21
“Love could not bear that!” Clearly we are confronted here with two irreconcilable apprehensions of the character of the God and Father of Jesus Christ. Every infernalist needs to search their conscience and ask themselves: Is God absolute love in the eternal communion of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? If he is, would he ever contemplate condemning even just one of his children to eternal torment for the sake of some greater good?
In any case, Hart has an easy (and perhaps tad flippant) answer to Wahlberg’s dilemma. The dilemma assumes the premise that we cannot know whether it is possible for God to create a world in which he can reconcile all sinners to himself. Perhaps the creation of rational and free creatures must always result in the eternal damnation of at least one person. But this is false. How do we know that? Because God created this world. He would not have done so if he lacked the power and resources to accomplish his universal salvific will.
If Hart stands his ground and insists that no greater good can justify perdition under any conceivable circumstances, he must affirm that it would be better for God to abstain from creating any rational beings at all rather than letting Hitler (and only Hitler) perish. This I take to be a reductio ad absurdum of Hart’s position.22
Wahlberg rejects as absurd Hart’s contention that even if only one person were to be damned the doctrine of eternal perdition would still be morally abhorrent. Yet Jesus shared with us a parable that rebuts Wahlberg’s judgment: the Parable of the Lost Sheep. The good shepherd leaves his flock unattended (thus risking their dispersal) in order to search out the one lost sheep, and he does not stop his searching until he finds it and restores it to the flock. The one is just as important to God as the many. God’s passionate love intends every human being, even the obdurately impenitent.
This raises an interesting question: Does hell become more palatable if only a few, perhaps even one, are damned, rather than many? Allin addresses this question with his typical rhetorical forcefulness:
The objections to the popular creed are in no way really lightened by our belief as to the relative numbers of the lost and the saved. The real difficulty consists in the infliction of any such penalty, and not in the number who are doomed to it. Nor need we forget how inconceivably vast must be that number, on the most lenient hypothesis. Take the lowest estimate; and when you remember the innumerable myriads of our race who have passed away, those now living, and those yet unborn, it becomes clear that the number of the lost must be something in its vastness defying all calculation; and of these, all, be it remembered, children of the great Parent; all made in his image; all redeemed by the lifeblood of his Son; and all shut up for ever and ever (words of whose awful meaning no man has, or can have, the very faintest conception) in blackness of darkness, in despair, and in the company of devils.23
Whether few or many, it doesn’t matter. The problem is the injustice and horror of hell itself.
I’m sure that many who began reading this article were wondering why I spent the opening paragraphs on the rectitude of torture, even when inflicted for the greater good. I hope my reasons have become clear. By Christian moral discernment, all torture is intrinsically sinful. This judgment does not change even when we are confronted with the possible deaths of thousands or millions. Yet we feel it should make a difference—hence our gratitude for the Dirty Harrys and Jack Bauers of the world. Surely it is better that one person be subjected to torture and possible death than that many should be murdered. Perhaps here we are confronted with a genuine moral dilemma. I don’t know. I just hope I will never find myself in the position to have to make such a decision between two such evils.
The doctrine of everlasting perdition puts the eternal Creator in a similar moral quandary, but one of his own making. The proponents of hell would have us believe one of two things: either eternal punishment is good, or it is an evil justified by a greater good. If the former, no greater good argument is necessary. If the latter, then God finds himself guilty of committing an intrinsically evil act when he could have easily avoided the situation by not creating the world. It doesn’t matter what the greater good may be. If God had not created the world, his glory and bliss would not have been diminished by one iota. As the infinite plenitude of Being, the world does not add anything to God. Nor would anyone else have reason to complain, since there would be no anyones. The noncreation of the world does not make a difference to beings never brought into being.
What else, I ask, is eternal punishment but a form of torture?24 This is clearest in retributive models of hell, which have been long dominant in Western theology since Tertullian and St Augustine. In this model, God is judge, jury, and agent of punishment. “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt 25:41). Until fairly recently, the Latin Church believed that God punished the damned with corporeal fire, “of the same species as the fire we have,” as St Thomas Aquinas writes.25 Modern theologians, on the other hand, have sought to reduce God’s responsibility for the sufferings of the reprobate. The damned are tormented by their conscience and the ruined existence they have brought upon themselves. Sin is its own penalty. In this model, God is reduced to a passive spectator at the Last Judgment, merely confirming the infernal condition of the lost. The wicked damn themselves. Yet does this second model succeed in absolving God of responsibility? Don’t get confused by the smoke and mirrors. In most construals of perdition, God freely creates the world with perfect foreknowledge that hell will be populated. But even if he doesn’t have perfect foreknowledge, he nevertheless accepts the risk of damnation in his decision to create the world. As the poet Stéphane Mallarmé reminds us, “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard” (“A throw of the dice will never abolish the hazard”). No matter the outcome of the roll, the cost of the wager has already been surrendered.26
I know that proponents of the greater good will continue to insist that the good achieved—according to a calculus known only to the Almighty—outweighs the evil of endless torture. And torture it most certainly is, for it serves no redemptive purpose. At least Jack Bauer’s torturing of terrorists was of limited duration and resulted in the saving of lives; but the agonies of hell are unlimited in duration and do not result in the rehabilitation of the condemned. Whatever alleged greater good may have been achieved by “permitting” the possibility of eternal damnation—whether it be the gift of libertarian freedom, personal autonomy, or something else—can it be be morally justified? And if this is too abstract and impersonal, let us instead ask yet again: Would the Father of Jesus Christ ever subject his children to everlasting conscious torment?
I close with the words of St Isaac the Syrian, one of the great mystics and ascetics of the Church:
It is not the way of the compassionate Maker to create rational beings in order to deliver them over mercilessly to unending affliction in punishment for things of which He knew even before they were fashioned, aware how they would turn out when He created them—and whom nonetheless He created.27
Our God will never sacrifice even one person to the maw of Tartarus. Love could not bear that!
 Seamus Miller, “Torture,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
 Mats Wahlberg, “The Problem of Hell: A Thomistic Critique of David Bentley Hart’s Necessitarian Universalism,” Modern Theology (9 September 2022). I have restricted my critique of Wahlberg to his general discussion the greater good, though his response to Hart is more wide-ranging and includes his own proposal, “The Thomistic Autonomy Defense.”
 Ibid., p. 3.
 Maximus, Amb 7.22; trans. Jordan Daniel Wood.
 Origen, On First Principles 3:6.3.
 Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and Resurrection 7.
 Thomas Allin, Christ Triumphant (2015, annotated ed.), p. xlviii.
 Classically formulated by St John of Damascus: see “St John of Damascus and the Providence of God.”
 David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea (2005), p. 82. St Thomas Aquinas writes: “God loves a thing more if it is a greater good. Consequently, He wills the presence of a greater good more than He wills the absence of a lesser evil (for even the absence of an evil is a certain good). So, in order that certain greater goods may be had, He permits certain persons to fall even into the evils of sin, which, taken as a class, are most hateful, even though one of them may be more hateful to Him than another. Consequently, to cure a man of one sin, God sometimes permits him to fall into another” (De Veritate 5.5.3).
 Ibid., p. 83.
 Ibid., pp. 86-87.
 Hart, That All Shall Be Saved (2019), pp. 81-83.
 David Bentley Hart, “What God Wills and What God Permits,” Public Orthodoxy (5 May 2020).
 Wahlberg, p. 4.
 Tom Belt was granted an honorary doctorate in Universalist Theology by the Eclectic Orthodoxy University on 22 September 2022.
 See David Bentley Hart, “If God is Going to Deify Everyone Anyway, Why Not Deify Everyone Immediately?”
 The question of mathematical numbers and other abstract entities (abstracta) pose an interesting problem at this point. The large majority of Christian theologians reject all views that posit a realm independent of God to which even God himself must submit. Wahlberg tells us that for Thomist and classical theist philosophers, “logic and mathematics are determined by God’s nature (p. 4, n. 14). Jordan Daniel Woods tells me that St Maximus the Confessor offers another solution for this problem. Analytic philosopher Hugh McCann controversially argues that God is the absolute Creator of abstracta, including logical and mathematical truth: Creation and the Sovereignty of God (2012), pp. 196-212.
 Hart, TASBS, p. 69.
 Ibid., p. 5.
 Ibid., pp. 5-6.
 St Sophrony, Saint Silouan the Athonite, 1st ed. (1999), p. 48.
 Wahlberg, p. 6.
 Allin, p. 6.
 I know that some may object to my description of the sufferings of hell as a form of torture, suggesting that these sufferings may well be tolerable. Jerry Walls is perhaps best well known for this mitigation of the intensity of the torment of the damned. I’m afraid, though, that I cannot take such proposals seriously. They can be reconciled neither with Scripture nor the tradition, both theological and iconological (pictorial). The mitigation of perditional suffering is but a very modern attempt to escape from the horror of the traditional teaching.
 Thomas Aquinas, ST Suppl. 6.
 Hart, TASBS, pp. 85-86.
 Isaac the Syrian, The Second Part II.39.6. See Sebastian Brock, “St Isaac the Syrian and his Understanding of Universal Salvation and of ‘The Mystery of Gehenna (Hell)’.”
(Revised: 22 September 2022)