When God Becomes Jack Bauer: Torture, Hell, and the Greater Good

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:

  1. To create a world that permits the annihilation/damnation of one person.
  2. 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.

Wahlberg continues:

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!


[1] Seamus Miller, “Torture,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[2] 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.”

[3] Ibid., p. 3.

[4] Maximus, Amb 7.22; trans. Jordan Daniel Wood.

[5] Origen, On First Principles 3:6.3.

[6] Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and Resurrection 7.

[7] Thomas Allin, Christ Triumphant (2015, annotated ed.), p. xlviii.

[8] Classically formulated by St John of Damascus: see “St John of Damascus and the Providence of God.”

[9] 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).

[10] Ibid., p. 83.

[11] Ibid., pp. 86-87.

[12] Hart, That All Shall Be Saved (2019), pp. 81-83.

[13] David Bentley Hart, “What God Wills and What God Permits,” Public Orthodoxy (5 May 2020).

[14] Wahlberg, p. 4.

[15] Tom Belt was granted an honorary doctorate in Universalist Theology by the Eclectic Orthodoxy University on 22 September 2022.

[16] See David Bentley Hart, “If God is Going to Deify Everyone Anyway, Why Not Deify Everyone Immediately?

[17] 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.

[18] Hart, TASBS, p. 69.

[19] Ibid., p. 5.

[20] Ibid., pp. 5-6.

[21] St Sophrony, Saint Silouan the Athonite, 1st ed. (1999), p. 48.

[22] Wahlberg, p. 6.

[23] Allin, p. 6.

[24] 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.

[25] Thomas Aquinas, ST Suppl. 6.

[26] Hart, TASBS, pp. 85-86.

[27] 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)

This entry was posted in Book Reviews, David B. Hart, Eschatology. Bookmark the permalink.

54 Responses to When God Becomes Jack Bauer: Torture, Hell, and the Greater Good

  1. Ed H. says:

    Thank you for this essay. Much to ponder. Also a typo: deteminism:

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Tom says:

    A good response Fr Al. I don’t think Wahlberg sees how any notion of a ‘greater good’ fails to makes moral sense of perpetual torment (once ex nihilo is figured into the equation).

    On a related side note, given that Hart is no pacifist, no opponent of the violence of war (or at least ‘the right war’), my guess is he would not in principle have a problem with torture intended solely to extract knowledge certain to save many. I may be wrong on this. Just a hunch. And if David clarifies, that’d be great.

    In some ways I can see how universalism could be used to make torture palatable since one can always reason the suffering inflicted will be ultimately redeemed and both torturer and tortured finally reconciled; i.e., there’s no threat of final loss. One would want to insist such torture was managed very carefully, humanely (?), but I don’t see how it’s obviously unconscionable. We inflict pain against the will of the one who suffers (straight jackets, solitary confinement, even prison itself, etc.) in the general best interest. Why wouldn’t torture (not out of hatred or retribution, but purely as a means of securing the good of the many) be just a more intense version of these?

    It’s been a tough summer so I might not be thinking straight.


  3. Tom says:

    Wahlberg: “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.”

    You respond to all this well, Fr Al. Just to add a thought.

    If God is the greatest good (the Good as such), the summum bonum, it follows that only God can be the final end of a spiritual creatures. But if God deems there to be a ‘good’ which is achievable only through some creatures finding their end in something other than union with God, then that good (whatever it be) is a greater good than the God the summum bonum. For if God is the summum bonum, it follows logically that there can be no ‘greater good’ for spiritual creatures that to find their final rest in union with the summum bonum. Wahlberg HAS to be imagining some ‘greater good’ which is greater than God himself, since he imagines an end that requires some creatures find their final end something other than God.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tom says:

      Lord in Heaven!

      “…final end of a spiritual creatures….” Lose the indefinite article “a.”

      “…that to find their final rest….” Make that “…than to find….”

      “…find their final end something other than God.” Make that “…in something….”

      I will go to typo Hell for sure.

      Liked by 1 person

    • David says:

      I think this is right, but I imagine Wahlberg might try responding that all creatures do in fact find their end in God, it’s just that the manner of appropriating this end will differ depending on on the individual, i.e. the damned simply experience God in a different way.

      I can think of responses to this point – e.g. that risking eternal suffering or annihilation is just evil and so counter to the nature of God, or that the ultimate will of the omnipotent God can never be thwarted – but is there a better response which maintains your objection that belief in an eternal hell necessarily involves smuggling in an end superior to God? I suppose we would say that – even if hell could be conceived of in some sense ‘experiencing’ God – this form of experience could not be the proper end of a creature?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Tom says:

        Thanks David.

        I’m just shooting from the hip here.

        If Wahlberg were to argue that the eternal torment of some constituted their ‘end in God’, he’d have to argue that also that God is perfectly indifferent to the difference between those who find their end in God through union with him (involving participation is God’s beauty, goodness, and beatitude) and those who find their end in God in the torment of eternal anguish. And to do this he’d have to completely divorce God ‘as end’ from the quality and nature of our final experience (the ‘participation which is union with God’ vs ‘estrangement from God’, ‘beatitude’ vs ‘torment’, etc).

        He’d be bound, I think, to concede that God’s being “all in all” is equally realized in both states ‘as end’, and God as the summum bonum would be perfectly indifferent to the difference; i.e., ‘the True, the Good, the Beautiful’ would be indifferent to whether or not creatures find their end in a state of beatified union that was true and good and beautiful (on the one hand) or in the existential negation of these transcendentals (on the other). But in what sense would God even be Truth, Beauty, and Goodness as such if creatures have their ‘end in God’ in the negation of these? Indeed, in what sense would Truth, Beauty, and Goodness even be *transcendentals* if a sentient/spiritual creature were said to find its existential ‘end-in-God’ in the eternal negation of what God is?

        Seems to me that once we say God is Truth, Beauty, and Goodness *as such*, these transcendentals define what it is to find one’s ‘end in God’. Wahlberg would have to deny this. He’d have to divorce the (aesthetic) character of a creature’s final experience from its end in God – for both experiences (beatitude and torment) would equally constitute God as “all in all.”

        Even if one is uncomfortable describing our end in terms of ‘experiencing God’ (which I’m not), one would still have to understand our end in ‘experiential’ terms as such. I mean, to describe heaven vs hell as contrary ‘ends’ is to describe contrary ‘experiences’. In addition, to posit God-as-end as indifferent to our final ‘experience’ is to posit God’s indifference to all the choices we make (however freely) that justly end in this or that kind of final experience. This is to make God indifferent to sin and evil as well. And what would “justly” even mean in this case? I try always to admit I could be wrong, but this seems to be philosophical, theological, moral, and existential suicide.

        I’m rambling on. Sorry. But to finish, I don’t see any way for Wahlberg to affirm that God is not in fact indifferent to the character of our final ‘experience’ (heaven or hell) and still maintain that both experiences constitute a creaturely ‘end’ in which God is “all in all.”



  4. Iainlovejoy says:

    If we are justified in committing violence for the “greater good” then it is because we are not God – we are compelled by outside circumstances beyond our control to pick the lesser evil. There are no such outside circumstances for God.
    As Tom points out, there can be no greater good than all being perfectly united with God and God being all in all, so Wahlberg’s argument boils down to the nonsense that there may be some good greater than the greatest possible good which not achieving the greatest possible good might achieve.
    Slightly modified, Wahlberg’s argument might at least make sense if what
    he was saying that universal salvation itself is inherently logically impossible and so creating anything at all is logically impossible without an eternal hell. It’s difficult to see why this would be the case, though, and as it would mean, effectively, that hell and the devil would be co-creators with God, with whom and by whom the world came into being, it would bear little resemblance to Christianity.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Elizabeth says:

    Perhaps there is a purpose in this principle of opposites and as part of a law of nature like we have darkness and light, birth and death and so on, with evil also being subject to change and to eventually evolve into all goodness.


  6. Calvin says:

    Galadriel’s line is “All shall love me and despair.”

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Geoffrey says:

    I find the following passage intuitively convincing (though not necessarily conclusive). It would be better for my beloved daughter to never exist rather than for Hitler to possibly cease to exist? That strikes me as very wrong. From pages 5 and 6 of Dr. Walhberg’s paper:

    “…God would be facing the following choice:
    1. God creates rational creatures and permits that Hitler (and only Hitler) is possibly
    annihilated in the end.
    2. God does not create any rational creatures at all.

    “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.

    “…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.”

    Liked by 2 people

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Geoffrey, have you read Hart’s full discussion of this problem in TASBS? For an intro to his analysis, see “The Damned Are Suffering for Your Bliss.”

      To appreciate the full power of Hart’s argument, substitute your daughter (heaven forbid!) for Hitler.


      • Geoffrey says:

        Yes, I have closely read “That All Shall Be Saved” several times. For me, Dr. Hart’s most intuitively convincing argument is that of section III of the “Third Meditation: What Is a Person? A Reflection on the Divine Image”. To take the example of my daughter again, it strikes me as very wrong to think that God regards her as in some sense dispensable.


        • DBH says:

          You are accepting Wahlberg’s confused rendering of the argument. The logic of the argument is that it cannot be true that Hitler must suffer in order for your daughter to exist. The story is incoherent. God is not actually faced with such a choice. God is not bound to make your daughter’s existence contingent on an order that includes perdition (in part because perdition cannot be the result of truly free actions.). Wahlberg has created a false dilemma rather than address the actual argument.


    • Tom says:


      Regarding Wahlberg’s options 1 and 2, obviously any Xan universalist would choose option 2. Wahlberg thinks this would strike most people as absurd, but I don’t see how. It strikes me as fairly obvious that ‘no creation of any rational beings at all’ is preferable to ‘a creation in which only Hitler suffers eternally’. There’s no reductio ad absurdum here. God is infinitely free with respect to creating. He is the summon bonum (Truth, Beauty, and Goodness as such). Logically speaking (not through any constraint imposed on him from outside himself) he can desire nothing but himself as the end of every rational nature. He is every creature’s highest good. Walberg asks us to imagine there to be a ‘greater good’ that is achieved through granting creatures the power to foreclose upon themselves the very possibility of knowing God as their highest good and suffering instead perpetual misery and torment as the consequence.

      Pour a single malt Scotch and ponder this proposal long and hard. I hope you find it as absurd as others.

      What is absurd, it seems to me, is to propose (which I think Wahlberg does) that the God who is Truth, Beauty, and Goodness as such should determine something other than himself as the final end of any rational creatures he creates even on the condition that those who find their final end in the perpetual negation of truth, beauty, and goodness should choose that end freely. Even if such a choice were rational (which it is not), no God who is Truth, Beauty, and Goodness could freely expose rational creatures to such a risk.

      God – precisely as Truth, Beauty, and Goodness – determines what is *finally* possible for creatures, and I don’t see how the names Truth, Beauty, and Goodness can be given to that which freely and knowingly brings into being creatures who *may not* find their end in him but in perpetual torment. And supposing that this end is ‘freely chosen’ (Wahlberg’s argument) does nothing to guarantee the beauty and goodness of the One who brings such a possibility freely into being.


      Liked by 1 person

      • Geoffrey says:

        Tom, I find most of Dr. Wahlberg’s paper unconvincing. Pretty much only the part I quoted above do I find persuasive. Please note that, in that quoted passage, Dr. Wahlberg speaks of Hitler as being annihilated (rather than as suffering endless torments). While I certainly agree that it would be better to not create at all rather than admit the possibility of even a single creature suffering endless torments, my intuition is all the other way when it comes to the possibility of annihilation. Shall my daughter never know endless joy because someone (Hitler in this case) might decide to be such a monster that his end is annihilation? A monster gets a veto on everyone else’s Heaven, indeed everyone’s very existence? Intuitively, that strikes me as absurd.

        Further, I think that Hitler himself in this scenario would rather live his 56 years before his extinction than not ever exist at all.


        • Tom says:

          Thanks Geoffrey.

          I could be wrong, but to my mind the same failure applies to final annihilation as applies to perpetual torment.

          It’s not that an annihilated Hitler gets to veto everyone else’s existence. That’s not my worry. I don’t suppose it’s Hart’s, but I’m just guessing. For me the question is, What kind of God we end up with if we suppose God reasons that Hitler’s eternal loss IS an acceptable price to pay for bringing about the beatitude of all others? If God couldn’t (or wouldn’t) create given that condition (the possibility of Hitler’s self-annihilation), it’s not like the rest suffer loss. Hitler isn’t taking anything away from anyone, and God’s ‘not creating’ cannot be a loss of truth, beauty, or goodness objectively since he already is Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.

          So I’m wondering how it’s possibly “absurd” if the God who doesn’t in the slightest need to create, who is the infinite coincidence of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, creates only on the condition that all who come to be also find their end in him? We’re going to say this is absurd? I’m reminding myself that God – not those he creates – is the summum bonum. He – not our existence – is the highest good. So our not-having-been-created (because the loss of one beloved creature was too great a price to pay) can’t be absurd.


  8. Paul Hunter says:

    I have only had a few moments to skim Wahlberg’s article, but it seems weak on two points. First and most obviously, he argues that Hart’s position commits him to saying that God should not create if it means even Hitler will be damned. I don’t see how this can be an effective reductio ad absurdum, since Hart rather explicitly embraces this conclusion. Obviously, Hart does not find it absurd.

    Second, and more importantly, Wahlberg’s central argument – that personal relations are somehow different from a relation to our natural end in that a free personal relationship must be one which we can either accept or reject – is more than a little questionable.
    There is no really compelling phenomenology of the will which would justify such a conclusion and Wahlberg seems to be attempting to smuggle voluntarism into a classical Thomist account of the will. This is special pleading.
    He uses the example of marriage, and rightly says that a forced marriage is not a genuine or free relationship. But to give a counterexample: Let us suppose that a man is madly in love with a woman, who reciprocates his love. Ex hypothesi, there are no moral, personal, medical or legal impediments to the marriage.

    Now, suppose the man abruptly cuts off the engagement for no discernible reason. We would have to conclude either that there is some undisclosed reason why he no longer perceives the marriage as a good (perhaps he has discovered that his intended has a secret passion for collecting original Thomas Kinkade paintings and is unwilling to put her to shame, or something of the like) or that he has lost his mind.
    If the latter, then his decision not to marry is no more an expression of free, rational autonomy than if he were to take up skydiving without a parachute as his new hobby.

    Of course, it would wrong to force this marriage, For one thing, it would mean forcing the woman into a marriage with a mad man. But this has nothing to do with any fine concerns for the man’s personal ‘autonomy’ – as though by making a totally irrational decision he were simply exercising his personal freedom. He is precisely not free.

    In any case, the will cannot be moved – whether we are talking about personal relationships or any other end – except by some perceived good. If a person is incapable of knowing the good for herself, then her decisions are not free. And I cannot see how bringing in the category of ‘personal relations’ changes the basic structure of this act of willing. Unless we are suddenly going to become voluntarists as soon as we introduce a magical and mysterious category of the ‘person.’ Somehow, I doubt DBH would find this line of reasoning compelling…

    It is certainly true that a forced personal relationship, which is against someone’s will, is not a true and free friendship or marriage. But on any account of divine and human agency that has a claim to be called ‘Thomist’ God is not required to force us to do anything. He is quite capable of healing our broken wills. God’s position in relation to us is as though the woman in the analogy I proposed had the infallible ability to heal her mentally deranged beau, thus restoring their freedom, happiness and autonomy (if we must use that word).

    There’s certainly more to say. For example, I would note that the will does seem to function in a somewhat more ‘libertarian’ way when we’re talking about limited goods, e.g., I don’t need much reason for preferring vanilla ice cream to strawberry. But the calculus surely changes when we are talking about the infinite and completely final good of beatitude. I would also argue that there are personal relationships, say that between parents and children, which scripture uses to describe the relationship between God and his creatures and which suggest an even less ‘autonomous’ relationship than marriage. But, it’s possible I’ve misunderstood Wahlberg’s argument, and this is an overly long comment already so I’ll close.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Tom says:

    [15] Tom Belt was granted an honorary doctorate in Universalist Theology by the Eclectic Orthodoxy University on 22 September 2022.

    And I deserve the degree I got. Lol!


    Side note: I now suspect Fr Al is inserting typos into my posts. I see typos now that I swear weren’t there when I last looked.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Ha! Send me a list!


      • Tom says:


        Well, there is a small typo in your reworked version:

        “…nor fail to pursue their highest good in him, etc.).”

        That closing parenthesis and 2nd period don’t belong. There’s no opening parenthesis. It must be leftovers from lunch.


  10. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    For all who have not yet noticed, I have revised the above article in response to criticisms graciously (and privately) offered by Dr Wahlberg.


  11. DBH says:

    Thanks, Al.

    I was not impressed by Wahlberg’s article, to be honest. I know he was doing his best to make the Thomist view on these matters somehow miraculously coincide with a free-will defense of hell, and then make both of those absurd options look rational. He did his best. But it was just another case of someone dealing badly with one part of my book’s argument and failing to unite it to the others. He is especially weak on the issue of freedom; he seems not to grasp that Meditation Four is not about a forced union, but about a liberation of a will that logically cannot be said freely to will any end but God. Maybe I can reject God eternally; but I cannot do so in perfect freedom. Else there is no such thing as rational nature.

    Thus the free will defense is simply nonsensical (on Thomistic grounds). Since Thomas was a predestinarian, it was not an embarrassment to him that none of us is really free to choose or reject God, except as infallibly predetermined (or infallibly permissively destined) to whatever end God elects for us. Thomas never claimed any of us as individuals has the power freely to accept or reject God’s love, except in the specious sense that our acts might not be logically entailed by their immediate secondary causes, even though they are in actual fact inevitable, and even though we can do nothing to save ourselves absent the predilective bestowal efficacious grace. So far Thomas: an evil and arbitrary brute of a god; but, hey, it’s logically consistent. But Wahlberg’s argument is simply incoherent.

    But W. is right about one aspect of my argument: even at the price of one eternally derelict Hitler, God would be a failed creator. A greater good is, by definition, also only a lesser evil; and God cannot will any evil, even a lesser one. And, again, one cannot positively will the whole without positively willing all the parts of the whole. There can be no possible world in which so much as one soul is lost, or God is not God. This is a logical truth for which there is no refutation within the terms provided by Christian language.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I’m not so sure this is everything to be said of St. Thomas’ position. To be sure, he does believe that God selects those he wishes to save, effectively ensuring (though not causing) the reprobate to be damned. Thomas never claimed any of us as individuals has the power freely to accept or reject God’s love, except in the specious sense that our acts might not be logically entailed by their immediate secondary causes, even though they are in actual fact inevitable.

      But I think it’s fairly clear in St. Thomas that God does not determine our choices to one or the other alternative (though this is not the only way he can act upon our wills). God can effectively ensure salvation (and, by neglect, damnation) without determining particular choices. (De Veritate, q. 6, a. 3.)

      If a Thomist were to drop i) the Augustinian commitment that God, for his own inscrutable reasons, draws up the list of the saved and damned, and ii) the notion that the universe as a whole is greater by the diversity between heaven and hell, I would argue one would get to universalism pretty quickly.

      God certainly has the power to save everyone; our free will is no bar. St. Thomas exploits the logic of the infinite with regard to God’s intellect. Were he to argue that God’s love is as boundless as his intellect, Thomist thought would have a clear tendency toward universalism.

      Unfortunately, St. Thomas opinion of God’s love is rather paltry. God “loves” the sinner who he tortures for all eternity, despite the fact the sinner could be saved. “Love” here means the absolute minimum: he maintains the sinner’s existence in order to ensure his endless suffering.

      This is, in my opinion, an unfortunate historical accident. Were we to take St. Thomas’ core principles seriously, and apply them more consistently than Aquinas did, Thomism would have a natural drift toward universalism.

      Liked by 3 people

      • DBH says:

        I happen to agree. I wish more Thomists could see this.

        One clarification: The later Thomist tradition tried to parse the issue of determination in a specious manner, by saying that a soul’s dereliction follows only upon God’s “permission”; but it meant by this an “infallible permissive decree” on God’s part. Supposedly this is not deterministic because it involves no “moral” causation of the sinner’s sin, but only a “physical” (though still irresistible) disposition of the sinner toward his wicked ends, resulting in a “composed” necessity rather than a strict predetermination. It is still the infallible predestination of the creature to hell, of course, but only because God precluded the creature from receiving efficacious grace (which he owes no one), and arranging it “physically” that he would “freely” sin in the way God decided he would. So somehow the Thomistic God remains good (the wretched bastard).

        Manualist Thomism is a psychosis, and like every psychosis its chief evil is a pernicious internal consistency.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Robert F says:

          This “God,” who owes no one — most emphatically including me — grace, is the one that won’t let go its hellish grip of my worst fears, fears forged by an adolescence and young adulthood of taking its threats, as conveyed to me by a Roman Catholic spiritual formation, all too seriously. In my clearest moments, when the fog of that fear lifts a little, I see and know that it is actually Blake’s Nobodaddy.


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Thomas and DBH, I keep getting different answers from different people on the question “Did Aquinas believe that by grace God can infallibly bring sinners to faith?” Consider Denys Turner’s judgment:

        Thomas explains how this gift of initial justification works in dialogical partnership with the free consent of the human will, and only so. For, it is as obvious to him as it is to anyone, friends choose one another, freely on the part of both:

        “Since God acts upon each thing in accordance with its own manner of acting … so therefore [God] causes justification in human beings in harmony with the human condition. It belongs to human beings, then, that they possess by nature freedom of choice. Hence, in a person who has its use there is no action of God productive of justification without the movement of that free choice: rather God infuses the gift of the grace of justification in such a way that at the same time he moves free choice to accept that gift of grace, at any rate in those who are capable of [such free agency].”

        “Now I call you friends,” says Jesus, and it is from this offer of friendship that the whole doctrine of grace evolves, as also the complexity and precision with which Thomas interlaces the elements of irresistibility on the side of grace and freedom of choice on the side of the human. At one point Thomas says that grace does its work “infallibly” but not “coercively,” and he seems to mean that the work of grace cannot fail, because grace does all the work and its efficacy depends on only such conditions obtaining as it effects for itself: for “no pre-condition of God’s infusing the soul with grace is required other than such as God himself brings about.” While it is true, then, that the grace, whether of justification or of sanctification, cannot do its work without the free consent of the human will, that free consent is itself the work of grace. Therefore, because there are no conditions not of grace’s making to impede its work, the action of grace is “infallible.” And yet because the free consent of the human will is precisely what grace does bring about, its action is not “coercive.” As in another context Dante had Piccarda in Paradise say: “en la sua volontade e nostra pace.” It is in the divine will that is our peace, because it is in the divine will that is grace that our free consent to it is itself grounded. The very freedom of our consent to grace is itself the work of the grace it consents to.

        What is your opinion?

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        • DBH says:

          Thomas was not a libertarian. He believed that God can indeed—must indeed—bring sinners infallibly to faith by the gift of grace, which causes creatures freely to assent to his love. He also believed that, absent that grace, the derelict must infallibly be damned. If that sounds paradoxical, recall what freedom is for Aquinas: not spontaneous free will, but rational freedom for the good. Human beings can resist neither grace nor the “infallible permission” that destines them to hell.

          That means that, according to Thomas, God could save everyone, by setting them free for him. He chooses not to do so.


        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          David, how does Aquinas envision this infallible movement to faith? How does God accomplish this, and is it related to his understanding of double agency?


          • DBH says:

            It’s simple enough. Efficacious grace frees the sinner from the constraints of sin, death, and damnation according to God’s predilective will and providence arranges for the exercise of the liberated and sanctified will to find God along the path God decrees. From the derelict he withholds that grace, making it impossible for them freely to seek the good, and permissively decrees (also by providence) which path they will take to hell.

            Everything depends on double agency.

            By Thomas’s logic, God could save every soul without violating their freedom; indeed he could only make sinners truly free by saving them. That’s why Wahlberg’s argument is so silly. Or, rather, that’s one reason.

            The more serious reason is his failure to grasp the moral enormity of founding the good of creation on the perpetual suffering of the damned (which is clearly what Wahlberg’s view entails). It’s impossible to reason with moral obtuseness, but one can pray for its healing.

            Liked by 1 person

        • Denys Turner is not particularly reliable as a historian of Aquinas’ thought; though I don’t think that’s really what he’s aiming for. He’s far too much under the sway of Herbert McCabe. McCabe’s approach is essentially a form of compatibilism similar to a physical compatibilism, only devoid of any causal account.

          McCabe defines freedom as the absence of a created cause which determines human choices, and — voila — God can determine human choices without compromising human freedom.

          This position, attributed by McCabe to Aquinas, is one that St. Thomas vehemently explicitly rejects as heresy. And it runs against countless assertions in St. Thomas’ corpus that God does not determine our choices to one or the other alternative.

          So in this respect, Aquinas is a libertarian, and not a compatibilist. His libertarianism is bounded by the fact that God, as the good, is the necessary ultimate end of the human will. And God can and does act upon our will in other ways than by choice — for our choices are conditioned by internal and external events. So he is not a libertarian if that is identified with ateleological autonomy, which I think is how Dr. Hart is using the term.

          So if God does not determine our individual acts of will, how is predestination certain? St. Thomas offers a proto-statistical account:

          > a single effect may be attained only as the result of the convergence of many contingent causes individually capable of failure … DV Q 6., a. 3.

          To use Aquinas’ example, a species can continue to exist without determining which individuals survive, so long as some individual survives.

          Similarly, God need not determine particular individual choices so long as he can, by affecting the odds over the course of time, bring about the free acceptance of grace.


          • DBH says:

            I think Thomas is clear that providence infallibly knows and chooses which path our freedom or unfreedom will take. It is not a statistical venture. He denies predetermination in the sense that the immediately preceding secondary cause does not necessitate the choice one makes. But he arranges things (physically, in the Mediaeval sense) so that we will definitely choose as he wills we choose.


          • DBH says:

            And I agree that McCabe’s approach is a little more McCabe than Thomas.


          • DBH,

            We should distinguish between two senses in saying that God necessarily brings about a choice. Consider the example of a persistent suitor who proposes three times, and is finally successful. Supposing the suitor’s charms were such that he must eventually succeed, should we say that the decision was necessitated?

            It depends on whether we mean by “the decision” the third occasion, or whether we mean by “the decision” the ultimately acceptance, regardless of its place in the sequence (or in time). In the former sense, we cannot say the outcome was certain; while in the latter sense we can (on the assumption of the ultimate irresistibility of the suitor).

            If the claim is that, for Aquinas, God necessitates particular decisions in the former sense, I would very much like to see the texts where St. Thomas takes this position.

            Not texts that claim that the will is necessarily inclined to the the good, for an inclination is not a decision or choice. I’m speaking of choice specifically, not willing in general.

            Nor the general claim that God causes our decisions, for God is a final and efficient (or, perhaps better, existential) cause, and these do not specify particular decisions any more than they do particular natures.

            Nor, finally, will texts that God moves the will necessarily do. For the will has many other types of acts, and is moved in many ways (and by many things) prior to making a choice.

            It’s easy to produce a series of texts in Aquinas in which he denies that the will is necessitated by prior causes (and, for Aquinas, God is absolutely a prior cause), that God does not determine our individual decisions (but in fact leaves them within our control), that it is heresy to believe our decisions are not coerced but still necessitated, and so on.

            St. Thomas has, in many places and many ways, asserted “man does not have free choice if he is driven with necessity to either good or evil” (DV q. 24, a 12) If it is objected that man necessarily wills the good, one must remember St. Thomas’ distinction between specification and exercise (ST I-II, q. 10, a 2). Thus, we cannot but will what is good in all respects, yet we can (and often do) turn away by failing to exercise the will.

            I’ve written at greater length here, though there I prescinded from the question of grace.


          • DBH says:

            I’m not sure whether you’re trying to disagree with me or not, but you’re not saying anything other than what I have asserted. So excuse me if I am a bit unsure what the issue is.

            I’m still going to say that, when Thomas says our decisions are not necessitated by prior secondary causes, he does not mean that God has not infallibly determined which choices we make. I won’t attribute the idea of praemotio physica to him, but only because it’s redundant. Providence does not leave things to chance. It requires no coercion for God to determine which free choices are freely made. Otherwise God would literally have to respond to our deeds, under the form of a real relation, which is abhorrent to Thomist metaphysics. So it’s not as if you can literally choose otherwise. Those internal and external causes you mention are precisely the physical (rather than moral) conditions of which I spoke above.


          • > I’m not sure whether you’re trying to disagree with me or not …

            I was attempting to clarify your position. I think your position differs from that of McCabe in that McCabe holds that if this morning at 8:00 AM God were to offer his grace to me, and God wills that I accept it, I could not have done otherwise. The fact that I could not do otherwise is not fixed by any created cause, but it is fixed by God’s will.

            McCabe says that, although it is not possible that I choose to reject God’s offer, nevertheless I am free because the impossibility of my doing otherwise arises from an uncreated cause rather than a created cause — and therefore it does not “count” as coercion.

            This, I would argue (as would most contemporary historical scholarship on Aquinas), is not St. Thomas’ mature view. And I find it baffling that it is attributed to him, given he rejects this way of formulating freedom as heresy in the De Malo, and clearly affirms that God does not determine an individual choice to one or the other alternative in quite a few places.

            I had originally read your view as differing from McCabe’s. Given my example above, it is one thing to say that God’s grace will certainty prevail on me at some point, though in each particular case, such as at 8AM this morning, I could have always done otherwise.

            I had thought you held something like this view.

            However, statements like this give me pause: “It requires no coercion for God to determine which free choices are freely made.” This has a more McCabian ring to it.

            So I just want clarify your view. Do you believe St. Thomas holds that God determines the particular choice we make in the offer of grace, such that, at the moment in time we make the choice, we could not have done otherwise?

            If the answer is, as I suspect, that on Aquinas’ we are free to do otherwise at each particular moment, however much God may ensure our final destiny, I would agree with you, but argue this amounts to the proto-statistical view I mentioned earlier.


          • DBH says:

            Again, I believe that, for Thomas, the possibility of having done otherwise is a purely modal–not real–condition. I believe he clearly thought that you “could have done otherwise” in the sense that nothing at the level of secondary causality necessitated what you did. But I do not think he truly believed that it was possible that you could act in any way other than the one providentially appointed for you. I do not think Aquinas ever believed that God “waits upon” our free decisions; rather, he chooses which of our free decisions to create. Otherwise, Thomas’s entire understanding of God being susceptible of no real relation falls apart.

            Mind you, I’m happy to believe otherwise, simply because that would discomfit the bloody manualists. On the other hand, I don’t care enough about Thomas to have any stake in which reading is right. But, on metaphysical grounds, I don’t think the “protocol-statistical” reading can be reconciled with his understanding of the divine nature.

            Liked by 1 person

          • David says:

            This is a fascinating exchange. If you’d forgive me for intruding, I’d love to ask DBH if you could please provide some clarity on what *you* believe (rather than just what Thomas thought!) about this matter.

            I had thought that your view was that – while our ultimate eschatological end is providently appointed – the winding route we contingently happen to take on its way is truly ‘up to us’ and not simply a product of the divine will (i.e. we have a ‘real’ and not merely ‘modal’ autonomy as we travel the path to perfection – so at least some individual sins are genuinely avoidable, even if our final healing from sin is not)

            But at the same time you suggest that, for Aquinas’ account, the idea that ‘[God] chooses which of our free decisions to create.’ is necessary otherwise ‘Thomas’s entire understanding of God being susceptible of no real relation falls apart.’ i.e. God needs to predetermine everything in order to avoid being ‘responsive’ and having real relations.

            But don’t you also believe that God has no real relations (due to divine simplicity)? In which case what is there in your account – as distinct from Aquinas – that allows you to say that our pre-eschatological actions are not exhaustively determined by the divine will despite simplicity?

            p.s. your recent talk with Rain is phenomenal.


          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Thomas, I disagree with your account of Herbert McCabe’s construal of double agency. You seem to believe that it reduces to a form of determinism. He would disagree with you, I think. He presents us, rather, with an antinomy: God causes our free choices by directly communicating to us a participation in his freedom. At no point does McCabe invoke double agency in a deterministic or predestinarian way. Indeed, I’ve often wondered how McCabe understands divine predestination and human freedom.

            I summarize McCabe’s view in my article “Divine Agency and Human Freedom.”


          • Fr. Kimel:

            I have in mind claims such as this from McCabe:

            > What we ask is not whether its act was determined by God or not, but whether it was determined by some other creature. God and Evil, 123-124

            > Although God could certainly prevent sin from occurring without any interference with human freedom, he does not do an evil when he permits evil to happen.

            Aquinas’ view is that it is not enough to say that human freedom is secured by the absence of determining, external finite causes. (And when I say it’s not enough, in his outburst in the De Malo, he calls it heresy to only affirm that much.)

            And he does think there is a sensible question to be asked whether human freedom is compromised by God determining it. His answer is that human beings masters of their own decisions, free to do otherwise.

            Consider ST I-II, q. 10, a. 4, where Aquinas asks: “Whether the will is moved of necessity by the exterior mover which is God?”

            If we are to believe McCabe, Aquinas’ would reject the applicability of the categories of the necessary and the free, since God is not a “determining, external finite cause.” Yet the notion of freedom to do otherwise is precisely the framing of Aquinas’ answer. And Aquinas says — as clearly as one could wish for — that God does not determine choice to one thing or another.

            > As Dionysius says (Div. Nom. iv) “it belongs to Divine providence, not to destroy but to preserve the nature of things.” Wherefore it moves all things in accordance with their conditions; so that from necessary causes through the Divine motion, effects follow of necessity; but from contingent causes, effects follow contingently. Since, therefore, the will is an active principle, not determinate to one thing, but having an indifferent relation to many things, God so moves it, that He does not determine it of necessity to one thing, but its movement remains contingent and not necessary, except in those things to which it is moved naturally.

            (The last point refers, not to choice (electio), but to inclination: one cannot choose unhappiness as such, but one can turn away from choosing happiness.)

            In any case, Aquinas could not be clearer that God does not compromise human freedom not because he defines freedom exclusively in terms of finite, secondary causes, but because he does not think that God’s causation fixes the choices we make.

            So, to sum my objections to McCabe:

            – He attributes a notion of freedom to Aquinas that Aquinas in fact loudly declares heretical
            – He argues that Aquinas rules out of court the question whether human freedom can be compromised by God, when in fact Aquinas both regards the question as legitimate and answers that humans are free from divine determination, except insofar as we are inclined to happiness
            – He seems to attribute to Aquinas the belief that God can determine the human will in God and Evil, at least insofar as he could prevent us from sinning.

            I’m happy to retract the last claim if McCabe somewhere denies that God does not determine our decisions.

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Thomas, your libertarian construal of Aquinas on grace and free will, I think, runs aground on Aquinas’s clear affirmation of absolute predestination. He makes it clear that God eternally chooses both the exact number and personal identities of the elect (ST I.23.7).

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          • What would the contradiction be between i) Aquinas’ repeated affirmations that God does not determine individual choices and ii) Aquinas’ claim that God can, with certainty, draw those he predestines to himself?

            There are, in general, many ways we human beings have to secure an outcome without determining every particular occurrence leading to that outcome. Why would it be different for God?


          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Without efficacious grace, I don’t see how absolute predestination works if one is a libertarian, given that there must always be the freedom to choose differently–unless, of course, one subscribes to Molinism.


      • Since I can’t respond for some reason to you and Fr. Al below I wondered what y’all have made of Origen’s Commentary on Romans (if you’ve read it.). There is this interesting passage as he combats what I believe are the seeds of the predestination debate very early on. There he has this excursus where he talks about how some things are predestined but are never manifested. As if some people are given a special function that never discover it within themselves, and yet some people aren’t explicitly chosen, and yet seemingly become the tools that are used. I don’t know if that adds a weird segue to that conversation, but kind of fits in as well. Grace, as Origen seemed to understand it, was so providently employed that it would fall as rain, and yet, what it does or it doesn’t bring forth seems to be somewhat co-dependent on the agency of the creature to whom it is given. Just a thought.


        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Logan, the reply nesting (where replies are indented) only goes so far deep. It stops because otherwise we’d end up have these narrow columns of three or four word sentences.

          Liked by 1 person

          • It’s all good! I just didn’t know where to put it and wanted to ask. It seems like a position that does genuinely try to straddle the divide and is an intriguing conversation considering Origen’s thoughts in toto. So it’s kind of an interesting idea if nothing else.


  12. Elizabeth says:

    This has made me question about all this (universal) suffering as an inevitable part of life as we know it, and about those deep laws of nature and of the Spirit that we can’t fully understand … all part of the mystery of God, like a delicate dance between Love, letting go and seeking to find the divine (true) nature deep within all. Love always.


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