I know that some are wondering why I have spent so much blog time featuring discussion of Fr James Dominic Rooney’s article “The Incoherences of Hard Universalism” and why I have now written yet another piece on it. I wonder about that myself. I think I have done so mainly because I am intrigued and challenged by his statement that “universalists hold that it is a necessary truth that all are saved,” with the clear implication that if it’s a necessary truth, then the greater hope is grounded in a deterministic metaphysics. Even God’s freedom, so Rooney argues, is fatally compromised by the universalist doctrine. As a lowly parish priest (retired!), I am not well-versed in the ins and outs of necessary truths. So I grabbed my virtual copy of The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy and found this explanation:
A necessary truth is one that could not have been otherwise. It would have been true under all circumstances. A contingent truth is one that is true, but could have been false. A necessary truth is one that must be true; a contingent truth is one that is true as it happens, or as things are, but that did not have to be true. In Leibniz’s phrase, a necessary truth is true in all possible worlds. If these are all the worlds that accord with the principles of logic, however different they may be otherwise, then the truth is a logically necessary truth. If they cover all the worlds whose metaphysics is possible, then the proposition is metaphysically necessary. If a proposition is only true in all the worlds that are physically possible, then the proposition is true of physical necessity.1
So what kind of necessary truth is the proposition God will save all human beings without exception—logically necessary, metaphysically necessary, or physically necessary? I’m not sure it fits into any of these categories, given that God is the transcendent Creator of necessity. The truth and necessity of the universalist proposition lies in God himself, who is infinite Being, perfect Goodness, and absolute Love. I’m happy to stipulate the following:
In his absolute and unconditional love, the God and Father of Jesus Christ has eternally and immutably determined to bring every human being into the love, bliss, and ecstatic joy of his Kingdom.
Does this proposition qualify as a necessary truth? I suppose it must, as there is no possible world in which God creates human beings where he does not will to save and deify all. Love is its own necessity.
This brings us to Rooney’s central claim:
If it is a necessary truth that all will be saved, something makes it so. The only way it would be impossible for anyone to go to hell is,
1. that God could not do otherwise than cause human beings to love him, or
2. that human beings could not do otherwise than love God.
3. There is no third option.
Rooney informs us that both #1 and #2 are heretical, as each entails the violation and denial of the freedom of the respective agent(s). If either is true, hard universalism is heretical. In this article I will focus on the first claim, as the second has received ample attention by universalist theologians over the past decades.
The Freedom of Divine Aseity
Question: What does “cause” mean in “God could not do otherwise than cause human beings to love him”?
- Does it mean that God unilaterally changes the wills of obdurate sinners, something along the lines of an involuntary lobotomy? All universalists would reject this form of causal invasion.
- Does it mean that God providentially places sinners in situations, perhaps acutely uncomfortable and painful, where conversion becomes compelling, even existentially necessary? St Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ would be an example of such divine causation.
- Does it mean that God heals sinners from their disordered desires and passions, thereby liberating them for a relationship of friendship and love with their Creator?
- Does it mean something along the lines of the Augustinian and Thomist construals of infallible or efficacious grace, whereby God “causes” sinners to freely repent of their sins and turn to him in faith? In that case, Rooney finds himself opposing not just universalists but a longstanding Latin tradition.
As both Jeremiah Carey and Thomas Talbott have noted, Rooney needs to clearly define causality in this context. Until corrected, I will assume that he is thinking of a divine action (or series of actions) that serves as the sufficient condition for the individual’s love of God.
Initial observation: the phrase “could not do otherwise” suggests that Rooney is attributing libertarian freedom of choice to God. To be free God must enjoy the liberty to save or not save sinners in every possible world he might create, just as he must enjoy the same liberty to become or not become incarnate in every world he might create. If God lacks this freedom, then his salvific will is necessitated and determined. As Rooney likes to put it, “Necessitation is not Freedom” (NINF). As we shall see, however, the attribution of libertarian choice to the transcendent Creator is by no means uncontroversial and cannot be said to enjoy philosophical and theological consensus.
Most Christians will immediately balk at the unqualified suggestion that anything determines the life and activities of the Holy Trinity. In his transcendence, aseity, eternality, and simplicity, God is absolute freedom. Even his inner Trinitarian processions, as St Bonaventure puts it, may be described as “natural and voluntary, free and necessary”2—free and voluntary, because God is the infinite plenitude of being; natural and necessary, because God eternally is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For the Seraphic Doctor, the voluntary is the most perfect mode of activity. Unlike St Thomas Aquinas, therefore, he has no problem saying that the Father freely and necessarily wills the begetting of the Son and the spiration of the Spirit.3 Not only may the Trinitarian processions be described as free (and necessary); but every ad extra action of the Trinity “within” his one eternal act of creation is, by metaphysical definition, absolutely free. Nothing compels God to act. He does not acquire greater being and happiness by his creating and doing, nor does he lose being and happiness by not creating and doing. God’s absolute freedom, in other words, is a given.
As a Latin theologian, Rooney is heir to the Augustinian-Thomist tradition that after humanity’s fall into sin and alienation, God remains free to decide whether or not to exercise his salvific will. Humanity does not deserve rescue, only judgment and damnation. If God should subsequently decide to save, it’s pure grace, contingent not necessary.4 Modern Eastern theologians, however, following St Maximus the Confessor, insist otherwise.5 God’s free decision to create includes his decision to save fallen humanity in Jesus Christ. Incarnation logically precedes creation. If humanity had not sinned, the eternal Son would still have embodied himself as a human being in order to divinize all; but given the Adamic Fall, the incarnate Son freely but necessarily embraces his soteriological mission of cross and resurrection, not as a second decision but as a decision made in God’s one eternal act. From the beginning, it’s all grace. In the words of the Apostle Paul:
Christ is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Col 1:15-20)
But given that the majority of Eastern theologians also affirm everlasting perdition, this difference between the traditions would appear to be irrelevant for the present discussion. But perhaps not completely irrelevant. Orthodox universalists like myself believe that God’s eternal determination to reconcile and deify all sinners is intrinsic to God’s eternal decision to create rational beings in the image of his incarnate Son.
So why does the universalist disagree with Rooney’s claim that universal salvation implies the heretical necessitation of God’s salvific will? Perhaps it’s just the word necessitation, which seems to imply that God is compelled to save against his desire and will. We need to be clear: In and because of his aseity, all of God’s ad extra actions are performed in utter freedom. Nothing external or internal coerces him to act. But perhaps Rooney has in mind what philosophers call natural necessity: an agent performs an action by natural necessity when its nature functions as the principle of its action.6 Natural necessity typically obtains when the agent is inanimate or nonrational.
- If it rains hard and long enough, a river will pour over its banks and flood the valley.
- If the wind blows hard enough, a hanging apple will fall from the tree.
- If you touch a lighted match to a dry piece of paper, it will catch fire.
- If it’s hungry, a tiger will seek a lamb to devour.
- If you feed and care for a dog, it will love you. If it doesn’t, there’s something terribly wrong with you.
In all such cases, the being necessarily acts according to its nature; it is not free to do otherwise. Human beings may also be described as acting according to nature if their disordered desires and addictions inhibit their willing according to the sound dictates of reason.
Free action, on the other hand, always involves three elements: knowledge, volition, consent/approval. And so it is with God: he knows what he wants; he wills and approves what he does. He is the absolute and final source of all his decisions. In his divine simplicity, God is his will and therefore is freely willed action. His ad extra activities are intrinsically voluntary, self-determined, non-necessitated—even if he always does what he does in every possible world. Nothing can compel him to will and act; nothing can inhibit him from expressing his nature and achieving his ends. He is incomparably free in his divine aseity and omnipotence. God, we might say, is the ultimate source incompatibilist. He is totally responsible for his actions. Divine freedom does not logically entail the ability to do otherwise and therefore does not require libertarian free choice.7
The Freedom and Necessity of the Good
In his article Rooney takes David Bentley Hart to task for teaching that God’s creation of the world is necessary. Divine freedom necessarily entails the ability to choose between creating or not creating the world. Rooney’s understanding is dependent upon St Thomas Aquinas, among others. Philosopher Katherin Rogers advances an interpretation of St Anselm that challenges Rooney’s Thomistic construal of divine freedom. Like all medieval philosophers, she tells us, Anselm affirms that God’s creation of the world is free and voluntary. He does not need to create in order to fill an ontological lack or defect. However, she goes on to say, Anselm’s understanding of the divine goodness—God always does the best—logically leads to the conclusion the creation of the world was in fact inevitable:
But doesn’t the claim that God’s decision to create is inevitable render the divine act of creation unfree? If freedom must entail indeterminately open options, then a choice that could not be otherwise is not free. But by Anselm’s definition, freedom does not require indeterminate options and in this, I take it, he is in the company of many if not most western philosophers, including Augustine and Thomas. Anselm explicitly rejects the view that freedom is the ability to sin or not, since he wants a definition which can apply univocally to men, angels, and God. But the good angels in their present state cannot sin, and God never could. . . .
God himself is a necessary being. In his perfect being and simplicity, he just is an act, and that act is necessarily perfectly and infinitely good. The question is not, “Does creation involve any necessity?” Obviously it does. The question is whether or not the necessarily perfect divine action inevitably produces one best creation, our world, which is the position I have attributed to Anselm, or might it have ended in some entirely different creation, or no creation at all, as Thomas holds.
Anselm defines freedom as “the ability to keep rightness of will for its own sake” and being able to choose otherwise is not a requirement for this ability. Interestingly, Anselm does conclude that rational creatures, in order to merit praise and blame, must, at some point in their careers as agents, have been able to choose between radically open options. Created agents do need the sort of “morally significant” freedom that involves being able to choose between good and evil. This is the only way in which the creature, which exists entirely per aliud, can make a choice on its own.
In Anselm’s view, in order to be free and praiseworthy a being must be able to choose a se, from itself. But God exists entirely a se, and so, while open options are very important in creaturely free choice, they are completely irrelevant for God. God’s inevitably willing the best due to His wisdom and goodness does not conflict with divine freedom. . . . God’s freedom does not entail options.8
Rogers’ point about options is crucial yet easily overlooked. As soon as the question of divine freedom is raised, we immediately slip into ontic divinity mode. We think of God as a being among beings who must navigate a multitude of choices. And of course his first choice, so we think, was to decide whether to create or not create a finite universe. And then he had to decide what kind of beings he wants to populate within it. And so on and so forth . . . a grand cosmos-building sim game. But what if God is not a being but transcendent, divinely simple actuality? What if God does not choose between alternatives, which would imply that he suffers from passive potentiality, but is the doer and doing, the savior and saving of creation? God is his eternal act of existence—ipsum esse subsistens.9 Or perhaps even better: Deus suus actus amandi est—“God is his act of loving.”
Rogers acknowledges that Anselm does not explicitly affirm the inevitability of divine creation—it wasn’t a burning question at the time he lived—but Anselm had no qualms about affirming the necessity of the Incarnation:
God exists a se, He cannot fail to do what is best, and in Cur deus homo, the conclusion is that, since only a God-man can effect the completion of the work God started with the creation of man, God ‘must’ become Incarnate. God’s act of Incarnation and sacrifice is ‘necessary’ in that He could not will otherwise, and yet it is entirely free by the definition of ‘free will’ that Anselm developed in De libertate arbitrii. . . . Thus we have good reason to take it that Anselm’s point in Cur deus homo that God’s freedom does not require choosing between open options is intended to apply to any divine act, not just to actions relative to a given world. Rather, divine freedom is entirely consistent with God doing the best as an inevitability of His nature.10
Once God decides to create human beings, then, thinks Anselm, he is obligated to his Goodness to become the man Jesus Christ and make atonement for the sins of the world. God always does his best. To do otherwise would be for God to deny himself.
Both Thomas and Anselm affirm that God is free in his act of creation. For Thomas, though, this means God was equally indifferent to the three options before him—to create this world, to create a different world, or not to create any world at all. For this reason God’s creation of the world must be seen as an eruption of pure voluntarist will and therefore arbitrary. No decisive reason can be offered.11 But Anselm comes at the matter from a different starting point:
But perhaps the issue is this: the God of traditional, classical theism is absolutely and necessarily perfect in every way. He cannot possibly be in need of anything. As Aquinas understands choice, one wills a means to an end by necessity only if one cannot achieve one’s end without it. But God does not need anything outside of Himself to make Him perfect, and so there can be no question of His willing creation by necessity. Certainly Anselm does not think that God ‘needs’ creation. He makes the point that the three persons of the Trinity have no need of each other, though their mutual relationships are necessary and could not possibly be otherwise. Anselm is simply starting from other (possibly more Platonic?) assumptions than is Aquinas. God does not see creation as a means to some further end. God’s act of creation is an outward-turning choice, not made from a need to perfect Himself, but simply because He wants the world to be. He loves creation not for what it can do for Him, but for itself. God ‘must’ create, not because creation adds to His perfection, but because it expresses it. True, Anselm apparently believes that God cannot fail to express Himself in creation, but the ‘cannot’ is a function not of some lack or need in God, but of His infinite and immutable goodness.12
I quote the above not to deflect our discussion into another topic, but simply to point out the diversity of understandings of divine freedom and necessity.
So why does the universalist believe that God freely, necessarily, and efficaciously wills the salvation of all? The answer is simple: because God is Love.
God loves the cosmos into being.
He loves every human being into existence.
He loves and will love each unto deification and glory.
In love he became Man in Jesus Christ.
In love he died on the cross for the sins of the world.
In love he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven.
In love he poured out the Spirit on all flesh.
In love he will return in glory to judge the quick and the dead.
In love he will restore all of creation to himself.
In love he will be all in all.
God always acts in Love and Goodness, in every possible world.
God always wills the good; he always does the best.
And the best, the very, very best, is apokatastasis.
Love is its own necessity . . . and its own freedom.
(Revised: 17 January 2023)
 The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed., p. 248.
 Bonaventure, Itinerarium Mentis in Deum, chap. 6. On Bonaventure’s understanding of divinity and necessity, see Zachary Hayes’s “Introduction” to Bonaventure, Disputed Questions on the Mystery of the Trinity (2000), pp. 45-46, 97-100. Hayes writes:
But of all the types [of necessity] which may be distinguished, it is only a completely intrinsic necessity springing from the very nature of the being in question that can be applied to God. It is that type of necessity which Bonaventure calls a necessity of immutability or independence. By it he wishes to say that God is in no way necessitated by anything outside Himself and is in no way dependent on others for His fullness of being. He is fully and completely self-sufficient and completely true to his nature. He can be in no other way than He is. Such an understanding of necessity does not conflict with the freedom of the divine will, as would be the case with the other types of necessity. It is precisely because God is fully self-sufficient in Himself that He can communicate Himself freely to others without any loss or any threat of loss. (p. 98)
 On this point I am indebted to several telephone and online discussions with Jared Goff.
 Let’s put to the side, for the moment, the observation that this understanding of gratuitous (arbitrary?) grace overthrows the fundamental Chritian apprehension of God as absolute love. The gospel is reduced to conditional promise, i.e., law. See “Preaching Good Good Very Good News.”
 See Georges Florovsky, “Cur Deus Homo? The Motive of the Incarnation” Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, Vol. III: Creation and Redemption (1976), pp. 163-170; Bogdan Bucur, “Foreordained From All Eternity,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 62 (2008): 199-215; Artemije Radosavljević, “Deification as the End and Fulfillment of Salvation According to St. Maximos the Confessor.”
 Julie Swanstrom, “Avicenna’s Account of Creation by Divine Voluntary Emanation,” Otrosiglo 1 (2017): 115-116.
 See Tobias Hoffman, “Freedom Without Choice: Medieval Theories of the Essence of Freedom,” in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Ethics (2019), pp. 194–216; and my article “Avicenna and Aquinas: Ruminating Divine Freedom.”
 Katherin Rogers, “Anselm on God’s Perfect Freedom,” The Saint Anselm Journal 1.1 (Fall 2003): 3-4; emphasis mine. In a recent email to me (31 October 2022), philosopher Eric Perl writes: “Philosophically speaking, the notion of a God who ‘might-or-might-not-create,’ and who ‘chooses’ to create in the sense of choosing between alternatives, is anthropomorphic nonsense.” Perl then goes on to say that he seriously doubts that Aquinas is guilty of such a blunder: “If God ‘might not create,’ or ‘might-or-might-not-create,’ then (a) God-creating is different from God-not-creating, (b) there is a real distinction in God between the divine essence and the act-of-creating, (c) that act is an accident in God, and (d) that accident is a real relation of God to the world. Aquinas expressly repudiates (a), (b), (c), and (d). So unless he’s totally inconsistent, he can’t mean that God ‘might-or-might-not-create.’” Also see “Avicenna and Aquinas: Ruminating Divine Freedom and Necessity.”
 I confess I find it virtually impossible to contemplate God in his transcendence and even more so to articulate. How do we think Deity beyond being and his decision to create the cosmos? And of course we can’t. Inevitably we think of him as a being confronted by a variety of choices. Reading Dionysius the Areopagite several years ago, with Eric Perl as my guide, was a real eye-opener for me. See, e.g., my article “Transcending Freedom and Necessity.” Until one has glimpsed the radical difference between Creator and creature, statements like the following will make little sense:
God is not a finite being in whom the distinction of freedom from necessity has any meaning. Perfect freedom is the unhindered realization of a nature in its proper end; and God’s infinite freedom is the eternal fulfillment of the divine nature in the divine life.” (David Bentley Hart, You Are Gods , p. 115)
As such, the One itself just is the ‘making’ of all things: not a thing-which-makes, which would imply a distinction between the One and its act of making and thus treat the One as a being and as having activities distinct from itself, but simply ‘making’ itself, not an ontic producer but rather the production of all things. As Plotinus so often says, the One is not any thing but rather the “power of all things,” . . . the enabling condition in virtue of which they are beings. Thus if we are to speak of the generation of being in terms of ‘will’ or ‘activity’ at all, we must allow no distinction between the One and its will or activity but say that this will or activity just is the One itself. (Eric Perl, Thinking Being , p. 124)
 Katherin Rogers, Anselm on Freedom (2008), pp. 191, 194-195. I am told that Rogers’ interpretation of Anselm is contested on this point.
 “[For Thomas] the decision to create has nothing directly to do with the divine goodness, since it is an arbitrary and radically free act of the divine will.” Kevin Keane, “Why Creation? Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas on God as Creative Good,” Downside Review 95 (April 1975): 101.
 Rogers, Anselm on Freedom, p. 200.