I begin with a problem for those who believe in the Christian God. If God is both perfectly good and able to do anything logically possible, then why are some people lost?
On one hand, an omnipotent God seems perfectly able to save all souls. For consider: he is the ultimate reason why anything exists. Nothing is standing over and against him that could present an obstacle to him. And nothing exists beside or other than himself except insofar as he is already willing that it does so. God must then create that which stands over and against him in absolutely all its reality – even all its possibility. This point is quite important. Whatever possibility God is faced with, must be a possibility grounded in his very being. It must get its possibility from him. If a thing can be either this way or that way, that very fact cannot exist independently of the divine mind and will.
To suppose otherwise is to imply that God is not the ultimate source of all created being. It would be to suppose that God is like us: confronted with facts and possibilities and abstracta which he has to deal with and work around.
Therefore for a creature to be even possibly lost would require God to already be actively and intentionally intending that very possibility in the first place. But would a perfectly good God ever intend such a possible outcome – the irremediable, eternal suffering of a rational being who itself was capable of infinite happiness ?
Many believe that God does not create in order to enhance his own life. They say that his life is maximally perfect with or without creation and that he does not depend on us. God, then, on this view, creates only to bestow goodness on what he makes. But to eternally torment or totally annihilate what is made is not good in any meaningful or intelligible sense to the thing made. In fact, if there is such a thing as doing evil to something, or even of only failing to do good to it, what else could that be but positively inflicting the worst imaginable suffering on a feeling, sentient being for eternity? Or, if there is such a thing as failing to do good to some being, what else could that be but ceasing to grant it existence, after you have once made it, and made it to desire above all things its perpetual existence and union with its maker?
Let me put the same point differently. If we can still call such an act good – intentionally creating a conscious being in order for it to suffer for eternity or to annihilate it – then we are left with no conceivable manner whereby to differentiate a good act from a bad act. But in this case we may as well not even use the word “good” when describing God. For it carries no particular meaning and can be interchanged indistinguishably with its opposite, or with anything at all.
Let us hone back in on the problem. If God is able to save all and if he is willing, why are any lost? How can we affirm both of these truths about God as Christianity wants to – his absolute power and his universal love? How do we avoid concluding that God is neither helpless to save nor that he positively wills to lose some of the creatures he has made?
My opinion on this matter is this. I do not believe it is possible to affirm a view of God in which he is all powerful and perfectly good and also hold that even a single being of his creation that is able to be saved will be ultimately lost, whether this means everlasting torment or annihilation. My aim henceforth is to show why this is so.
God’s creative act is either intentional, or it is not. If it is not, then God creating is more like an instance of something happening to him, a situation that he finds himself with – a spontaneous spin-off, a sort of divinely subconscious eruption – than the deliberate act of a Creator who purposefully brings about some thing. But according to Christianity, God is the supreme being and first cause. He is the ultimate source of all reality and the final ground or reason for everything. Therefore absolutely speaking nothing can “happen to” him, for he does not stand in a position such that something outside him can offer him any resistance. Even if we suppose that God intends, say, to create beings who themselves can freely resist him – say if we suppose that God has limited his own omnipotence such that he is able to suffer the defeat of his desires – even still, these very possible resistances that free creatures could present to him, these possibilities only exist because he has freely chosen that they do. If a man can worship God or rebel against him, and if the worshiping would be good for the man and please God, and the rebelling would be bad for the man and grieve God, even still, this very situation, if God is the ultimate ground of all reality and possibility, must itself originate in God. He is not like we, who find possibilities and their consequences presented to us. If any possibilities are there, they must be there from his direct and absolute intention. From these observations it follows that God’s creative act cannot involve anything that is outside his control. Therefore if God creates he must do so intentionally.
It is evident then that Christianity drives us to conclude that God deliberately and freely creates with a particular purpose in mind. Denying any part of that seems to me if not impossible at least unreasonable in the sense that the consequences lead down paths that ultimately deny the nature of God.
(It is true that God’s purpose in creation cannot be to increase his own being. For this implies that God somehow at one point stood in either need or possibility of being further fulfilled. God may eternally and necessarily create the world: but this act of creation would not be a move to increase God. It would simply be the timeless and eternal act of God, being who he is.)
Now let us ask: where lies the good in what God makes? That is, what is it about creation that makes it good, both for God, and for the creation? The good of what God makes lies precisely in the fact that the object made experiences or is directed towards some fulfillment or end. Or, to use a scholastic term, the good of an object made consists in some “perfection” of that thing. This is just what it means to give good to or be good towards something. It is contradictory to claim that God creates to bestow goodness on things while also maintaining that those very things are created in order to be objects of torture or destruction, for their end is something no one would call good. No one would call a rational creature’s eternal torment or destruction any kind of “perfection” of that creature. In fact, if such a thing were good, and if such an ending were a perfection, how could such a state be differentiated from, say, the joy of heaven?
If our words and concepts are to have any meaning, to either experience or be directed towards either final annihilation or everlasting torment is for something to fall short of goodness: in fact it is for it to experience the worst fate imaginable: to fall short of goodness to the most maximal degree. What conceivable state is bad if not that of a thinking being who necessarily desires happiness and who is necessarily restless and frustrated until he attains it and of such a being not attaining such and end and never being able to? Indeed, for it to know that it never shall be able to, but yet that it has to live on, eternally, knowing that it cannot help but desire with all its being that which it never shall achieve?
What is horrible if not a creature existing in a kind of never ending state of spiritual starvation? Or even if the creature is annihilated, how could it not be evil to create a being who necessarily desires life and union with the infinite Good and then, after a period of suffering, is denied that union, and knows it has been denied it, and knows that the very object of necessary desire that it was intentionally created to want is something it will never obtain?
Consider: if a rational creature desires God, that desire is implanted in it by God. Otherwise we have a fact which God did not intend. But indeed God must intend every being to desire him, for that is just what creation is: bringing into being a soul who naturally and necessarily desires union with God. Therefore any hunger in the creature for happiness must exist because God has purposefully made a hungry creature in the first place. Yet can we believe that a good God would make such a being either a) knowing that it is able to filled but in fact will starve forever; b) able so to satisfy its hunger that was intentionally created but choosing not so to satisfy it? I ask, brothers and sisters, is it possible God could do such a thing and we still call him “good” from any reason other than sheer terror that we may suffer such a fate ourselves?
But if this cannot be reconciled, then it follows that God’s creative act cannot actually entail such a state of affairs, even as a possibility, because God would then be creating for a reason contradictory to the only reason he has to create in the first place: to pour out goodness on what he makes and directs what he makes towards some good end.
I know that some claim that God somehow still does good towards lost creatures because, although he does not will their ultimate happiness (which is a good), he still wills their existence as such, as particular existing things. And this sort of existential blessing – the grace of sheer existence – is itself a good. Therefore, they argue, God grants goodness even to the reprobate. For he need not create them and give them being at all. Consider for instance Aquinas, who said the following in a rebuttal to an objection stating that if God damned some he did not in fact love them: “God loves sinners insofar as they are existing natures; for they have existence and have it from Him. Insofar as they are sinners, they have no existence at all, but fall short of it; and this in them is not from God. Hence under this aspect they are hated by Him.” (ST q. 20 a. 3, r. 4)
Now think carefully about this reply. On this view of sin and evil as privation, what God is “hating” is actually something that doesn’t even exist. Look at what he says. “insofar as they are sinners, they have no existence at all.” God has, in other words, at least on this view, a positive stance – one of hatred – towards that which in these creatures does not exist. But how could that be? I find the notion unintelligible. Does he mean that insofar as sinners exist, they are good; but insofar as they are sinning, they do not exist and are not good? If so, how could their sinning (which is somehow an act that nevertheless does not exist) be hated? How could it be some-thing that they are eternally punished for? How could even omnipotence hate or punish a non-entity?
And if this difficulty wasn’t enough, there is another that closely follows, which is this. In what sense does God will goodness to sinners, if even their existence in Hell is something that they will hate and wish they could forfeit? The tradition has often asserted that the damned loathe their existence and wish it would end but know that it never will. In fact it is this very realization that constitutes part of their punishment. They ought to know what they could have had, but lost. But how could such a final state be possibly “good” for the being that is in it?
And this, by the way, doesn’t even take into account that these very creatures that are being tormented are ones whose free wills are moved to their final destiny by God and cannot desire or perform any act which God has not eternally decreed that they should desire or perform in the first place. What you really have on this scheme is a being – God – who purposefully creates other beings with particular moral actualities and tendencies and then eternally torments (or annihilates) them for the very things that he has created in them in the first place. If all acts of being come from God, then all acts of creatures must come from him. But if this is so all acts of sin must come from him. Either that or sin is not an act, and creatures are not punished for the acts that they do. Is then God punishing sinners for acting how he has caused them to act? Or does the sin somehow come from the creature, but the act come from God? And if so then what is God punishing? A non-act? A “failure to act”? And is this non-act or failure something the creature can avoid, without God preventing it? If not, is God not punishing a creature for doing that which he cannot but do: that which, supposing God does not grant him a good act of will, is to the creature impossible? If a creature cannot help but fail to act, then he sins because he is finite, and cannot help but sinning, and cannot do anything but sin, unless God prevents what is otherwise impossible to avoid. But then God is punishing a creature for doing that which they cannot help but do.
If this is really what God is doing, then how is it meaningful to say he is “good” towards the lost?
I find no possible way to maintain that a) God bestows goodness on all; and b) that God eternally torments some creatures. Logically, that is, these claims appear to me contradictory. Therefore at least one of them must be false. However, while Christianity is necessarily committed to God’s goodness a), it is not so committed to a particular state of the wicked in the next life b). In fact, nothing from the existence of an all perfect first cause entails that some rational beings must either suffer eternally or be ultimately destroyed. Nor is there obviously any metaphysical impossibility according to Christianity that God could save all creatures. Of course, one could maintain that God “has” to damn some if to suppose otherwise implies a contradiction. But does it? It is not obvious that it does. It would at least need to be argued.
Aquinas thought that God creates some to be lost because the very lostness of these souls displays a better universe as a whole. He put it like this: “the perfection of the universe requires (his wording) the manifestation of many grades of being, and that some things sometimes can, and do, fail.” This sense of the “requiring” of damnation appears again in his article on predestination when he explains why God damns some. He says:
“The reason for the predestination of some, and reprobation of others, must be sought for in the goodness of God. Thus He is said to have made all things through His goodness, so that the divine goodness might be represented in things. Now it is necessary that God’s goodness, which in itself is one and undivided, should be manifested in many ways in His creation; because creatures in themselves cannot attain to the simplicity of God. Thus it is that for the completion of the universe there are required different grades of being; some of which hold a high and some a low place in the universe. That this multiformity of grades may be preserved in things, God allows some evils, lest many good things should never happen, as was said above. Let us then consider the whole of the human race, as we consider the whole universe. God wills to manifest His goodness in men; in respect to those whom He predestines, by means of His mercy, as sparing them; and in respect of others, whom he reprobates, by means of His justice, in punishing them. This is the reason why God elects some and rejects others…Yet why He chooses some for glory, and reprobates others, has no reason, except the divine will… why this particular part of matter is under this particular form, and that under another, depends upon the simple will of God; as from the simple will of the artificer it depends that this stone is in part of the wall, and that in another; although the plan requires that some stones should be in this place, and some in that place.”**
Evidently then if God creates a universe some have to be damned in order for the creation to have the most order and beauty and reflection of God’s attributes.
But who makes or grounds such a requirement? God? Does this mean then that God cannot create a universe where all are saved? Is that a logical impossibility for Aquinas’ God? I can well imagine, if he thought that the Scriptures taught universal salvation, that Aquinas could have used his metaphysical system to easily argue for it.
But let us suppose that God in fact, if he chooses to create, cannot but create something that fully displays his attributes. Let us suppose that no matter what God makes, it is logically impossible for him to make something that, so to speak, lacks the mark of his goodness embedded in the whole. If God decides to paint a cosmic picture, then that cosmic picture must be a perfectly proportionate representation of the artist himself. Let us suppose that. But even then, why does God need to eternally torment others or annihilate them in order to show his goodness most fully? Even if Aquinas is right, that somehow a finite universe “must” have things that sometimes can, and do, fail, it nowise follows that this failure need be eternal conscious torment or annihilation. A single failure, however faint and of any kind, could suffice for Aquinas’ metaphysical requirement.
Also, where does one draw the line here? Can God create a universe in which all souls are lost? If we say no, then we are appealing to some sort of absolute metaphysical impossibility that even God is not able to bring about. Therefore there must be some limit to the evil and suffering that exist in his creation. Therefore there is some sort of standard or limit to what God can possibly do. But if that’s the case, why, then, not say that it is impossible for God to actually create anything to be ultimately lost? Where is the limit of suffering drawn? And how, if there is such a limit, is it not reached and exceeded by the neverending suffering of even one creature? Is there more suffering in a universe where many beings suffer eternally, and does this surpass God’s standard of what he can and cannot create, than if only one or two or a handful of creatures suffer neverendingly? How is God measuring this? Is “this soul” worth more than “that one”? Or if all “these souls” suffered would it be a worse universe than if “all those” did?
On the other hand, if there is no such limit to suffering, and if God can indeed make a universe in which all souls are damned and suffer eternally, how could we really call such a being good? If it is even possible to the nature of God to do such a thing, then does not the nature of the good as such actually contain the potential to do that which no rational being could ever regard as good? Augustine appeals to the harmony of the universe in order to justify the existence of evil. But that appeal presupposes that there is some standard of harmony such that, if it was not met, would be something unfitting, and therefore impossible, for a good God to bring about. A symphony with a measured spaces of silence here and there, and a painting with dark colors in certain spots, are harmonious. But a symphony of nothing but shrieks and silences or a painting simply of all black – could a good God produce such things? If no, then there is some standard, grounded no doubt in God’s nature, that not even God can violate. But if yes, then how does the word “good” not become the mere arbitrary label slapped on to whatever the most powerful being – the omnipotent “it” – happens to do?
What is more, if such really were God, and if he really were capable of such things as creating a universe where all souls suffer forever, and if we still ought to worship him, why ought it even to bother us that he could do such a thing? We ought to love God no matter not only what he does, but no matter what he is capable of doing! But then we would be bound to worship that which can be its own opposite. We would be bound to worship a being, not because it is good, but simply because it is what it is and does what it does.
And what, I ask, would be the point in such a worship? It could not be for a love of the good as such: for what we deem as good may or may not be thought or willed as good by such a being. It could only then be for mere terrified flattery. We would worship because we were afraid, if we did not worship him, he would do to us what he does to some poor unfortunate souls who do not worship as he commands. And yet see how irrational this is. It presupposes that such a being who we are worshiping is good enough to keep his promise to reward those who do as he says. But a being who is capable of creating a universe of billions of loving and thinking creatures and then intentionally torturing them forever when he could have just as easily saved them and given them eternal bliss is not a being worthy of trust. Any comfort we had in worshiping him would really be unfounded: for no creature, even the most devout worshiper of its sheer indifferent power as such, would really be safer or better off than any other. Because for all we know, this “god” would have chosen to torture those most devout to him, simply because he chose to.
The difficulty, which is altogether practical, comes to this. The doctrine of never ending torment creates an unlivable, self-refuting world-view. Consider: the only God that is even possibly trustworthy is one that intends to save all people. If God could potentially mean to damn or annihilate one person, then he may damn or annihilate any person, ourselves included. But it is not psychologically possible to trust a being who really could, out of his own pleasure, positively intend to inflict eternal torture on one’s own self. We could give lip service to such a being, but it would only be because we somehow thought that that would give us less a chance of actually being tormented by that being. We could not obey it because we actually “trusted” it.
I do not believe it can be rationally held before the mind for long – or perhaps really held at all – that some souls are destined for eternal ruin. To go on living one must, if he acknowledges the idea at all, immediately cease to think about it, especially if one thinks of himself or someone he loves. The moment it steps into consciousness it must immediately be buried; if it is found lying out around the normal furniture of the mind, it must straight way be put back in the cupboard labeled “do not open – ever.” To keep the reality of Hell positively rationally entertained, along with its actual consequences regarding who may end up there and what that entails, creates either the coldest and most callous heart or the most angst and terror saturated brain.
And yet how odd that this should be so. If God is truth and light, how can something that comes from his hand be so unspeakably horrible to contemplate? The more we know God and his works, the more must we – the more we ought to – delight in them. Yet then why do we loathe and shrink from this idea, this fate which, compared to the short span of life on this earth, eternally awaits so many souls, and which will one day be all the meaning they can ever know forever and ever? Why, if such a doctrine is true, are we told not to dwell on it? It is an eternal verity of God and his glorious universe! Why think of passing temporal things, if such eternal things be true? But if it bothers us that such things are true, why is that?
The truth is that if eternal torment is real, and if God has purposefully chosen to destroy or torment some people, then, for all we know, such a destiny may in fact await us or our family or our loved ones or all of the above. No sign could possibly secure an actual conviction that one was not chosen to be lost. There would always be some doubt – because there would always be some real possibility, since God is capable of doing such a thing – that, in the end, one would fall away. For again God is under no obligation to grant Heaven to any created soul. He is under no obligation, even if he has granted many temporary graces to creatures in this life, to give a final persevering grace, to any. Why then think that he has? Because we feel or have felt secure in our belief? Yet that very security itself comes from the arbitrary will of God which has in fact chosen not only to damn some, but to damn some who thought they were really saved. Indeed the very sufferings of Hell, on traditional views, require an infinite intensity and also that the damned know what it is that they are being deprived of. This would mean that God causes some (all?) damned souls to experience transient temporal goods and desires and then revokes such things, with the very revoking itself being part of their eternal punishment. All this God positively desires and wills, or it could not come to pass. Thus even temporary graces in this life would be signs of damnation just as much as signs of salvation, and so would offer no true comfort to any soul.
At what point is a view of God simply unbelievable because of its moral unworthiness? Is there such a point? If we conclude that there isn’t, then anything may be true of God. He may delight in punishing those who trust in him and his version of Heaven may be our version of Hell. If anything may be true of God, what good is there in trying to learn about him, since in the end, what we really all mean by “good” may actually be a vacuous term – or at least something totally other than what God really is? To learn something involves separating the true from the false. But if anything may be true of God, how could such a process proceed?
Let us candidly inquire: is the universe better, more beautiful, more glorious, more metaphysically “good” or richer in being, granting that some souls are either eternally tormented or annihilated forever? I cannot honestly answer that question in the affirmative. Yet logically speaking, if such a fate is real, I should actually be able to. I should be able to enjoy and appreciate Hell’s existence if God wills it to exist since it is a particular expression of his good creative act, which itself cannot but be good. If then my emotions do not line up with this picture of reality, there must be some defect in my emotions. For there cannot possibly be some defect in God’s creative intention and plan. It must then really be a good thing to wish eternal torment or annihilation on created souls, indeed even to delight in these realities. That is why one day the saved, since they are perfectly united to God, will actually be brought to enjoy the conscious and bodily torment of the lost, or at least their final extinction. Or so it is argued by those who hold to such views.
Turn for a moment to our intuitive notions of beauty and goodness. Ask any person which created universe is better: one where some are lost or one where all are saved. Nearly all people will say that a universe in which all are reconciled to God and none are lost is intuitively better than one in which some suffer eternal torture or annihilation. Tell a child, for instance, that God is powerful enough to save everyone. And then watch the child ask why God then does not do so. Then tell the child that it is because it is better that there be some lost souls, than if all were saved.
What possible answer can one give to this most basic and burning question, so easy that a child can form it, that would satisfy its pure and curious mind: if God can save all souls, why doesn’t he?
In fact this feeling of dissatisfaction is so prominent that many who believe in eternal torment will tell you when they set out to defend it that they wish it wasn’t true. But how could that really be? How could we really believe in an all perfect and good God and simultaneously wish something were not true about his creation that he is purposefully bringing about? If the universe comes from the hand of an infinitely good and perfect and beautiful God, it must be infinitely better than we can imagine it, not worse. To think that the universe springs from an all good God and also to affirm that it contains a never ending Hell, and to wish that it did not, would be like wishing to improve an already perfect painting. If the painting really is perfect, our wishing it to be different is simply a failure to appreciate it. That is, our wish is in fact our failure – not a failure in the painting. But nearly all those who believe in Hell speak about it as if it were a tragedy. Yet here they are being inconsistent: in fact they are secretly rebelling against the express purpose and delight of God.
If we are capable of really knowing and loving God, at rock bottom our emotions and feelings toward goodness must be in sync with God’s own. If they aren’t, then we could never know God: we could never relate to him. We would be staring at a painting that we could not but help think was hideous all the while knowing that we should – even though we couldn’t – find it beautiful. But if God really is perfect goodness and still really requires that some be damned because that is a better state of affairs than otherwise, then our current emotions are not only mistaken about human existence but immoral. It would be wrong of us to desire counter to what God desires: we ought then to work on correcting our desires. We ought to try to see the beauty and goodness of the damned and of eternal torment or extinction. But is this even psychologically possible? And would it not dehumanize us, to try to become people who positively delighted in imagining that some of the people we interact with on a daily basis will one day be writhing in the most intense agony a divine mind can imagine forever? Or, even if we didn’t imagine that, would it be spiritually healthy to become the type of people who were “okay” with the fact that some (or many?) of our neighbors and loved ones would simply cease to exist and never reach their full potential? Their lostness and eventual ruin – the destruction of that most precious and glorious potentiality that lay in the heart of every creature – would eventually be something that we got over. Therefore, since it will in eternity become a negligible, inconsequential, indifferent fact, why ought we to love such people now?
How could such an intuitive notion of the dignity of each person, a person who bears in himself the infinite good of the image of God, be so completely mistaken by us today, indeed even by saints and martyrs, who died sometimes for their enemies? If we really are made in God’s image – if we really are the imago dei – to think of that image as something that we will delight in seeing corrupted – whether that means tormented eternally or erased from existence – seems wicked and blasphemous. It is akin to delighting in seeing a Bible being burned or Christ himself being crucified.
Does not believing in such a doctrine of eternal hell entail a sort of reverse sanctification? If in this life we are to grow in our love of neighbor and enemy, and if we are to advance spiritually by treating others the way we would like to be treated and by considering their well being as if it were our own, then how could we in the next life go from that to positively enjoying our neighbor’s torment or destruction? Thinking “I am so glad that that didn’t happen to me” is an attitude more characteristic of a lost soul itself than a sanctified one, a soul following Christ who himself taught “greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” If the saved are happy at the torment of the lost then such an emotional posture is self interested and has no concern for the well being of its neighbor or friends. But what then is the use in us trying to become less self-interested and more concerned for others now? The logic is stepping on its own toes: before death we are to love other people that deserve hatred and even prefer their happiness to our own so that we can grow into better people who after death now actually hate those people and do not care about their happiness?
If it is morally better to wish their damnation, then would it not follow, if we are going to be really moral and align ourselves with God’s will, that we should hate the lost now? “But right now they can possibly be saved. In the next life their wills are fixed and they cannot be.”
But how can they possibly be saved, if God has already passed them by and not predestined them to eternal life? Can that man – I say, pointing to Judas – be saved, if God has not predestined him to be? (I am speaking here to those who believe God unconditionally elects some and not others.) If yes, then God’s predestination can fail and God does not cause all goodness and being, and the normal view of predestination is false. But if no, then it is not possible – it never was possible, so long as that man Judas was alive and walking around on earth – for him to be saved, since God from all eternity ordained his final ruin.
Yet perhaps more importantly is this point, which lies at the root of the one above: why should their wills be fixed after death? Who decided this metaphysical law, and why?
Even if one holds that the saved hate the lost because they truly deserve hatred and have nothing at all lovable in them, we still have two problems. There is a) the metaphysical problem of how a being with absolutely no goodness at all could even exist (i.e. it seems metaphysically impossible for an absolutely evil being to exist;) and b) even if this could occur, that would require us to view humanity right now as absolutely evil and justly deserving damnation. For otherwise, why would such beings go to Hell, if they were to die right now, unless, right now, they really did deserve it? What is it about death that makes the soul go from being “able” to be saved to now being “unable”? The soul is either right now deserving of eternal Hell, or it is not. If it is not, then why would it be, if we suppose it were to die the next instant? Does God change the soul to be that way? But why would he do that, if he loved them and is himself the one ultimately responsible for all the metaphysical possibilities that the soul is subject to? On the other hand, if it is deserving of eternal Hell right now, then why ought we to love such people and wish and work for their happiness?
If the appropriate moral posture toward mankind is that they all right now deserve – that is, justly deserve in the metaphysical sense – eternal Hell, it would actually be immoral and unjust to love our enemies and neighbors in the present life as Christianity teaches us. For in the present life they truly deserve to be tormented forever.
It also seems irrational and contrary to God’s own purposes that he would draw the line at death such that once a person dies the will is no longer free to choose the good. For if a line exists at all – if, that is, there is a frontier which, once crossed, there results an obstinate and ultimately solidified evilness of will – then that very line must exist by God’s own will and appointment. It is not as if some created “rule” or “law” exists outside of God’s own creative action such that he must respect the fact that, once creatures die, their wills are irrevocably hardened. But then that very phenomenon – that very line – must exist only because God willed it to. But if he willed good to creatures – or if in fact he desired their own good, which is the same thing – then it would be irrational for God to create such a frontier in the first place. It would be to contradict his original intention. To think of God acting like that we would have to picture him like someone who designed a thing for a particular end but in his very design set up of his own choosing an obstacle that could purposefully impede that end.
Some try to avoid this dilemma by appealing to free will and claiming that God does the best he can for the lost: he loves them infinitely and has not the slightest drop of hatred towards them. But then you’re left with a universe that manifests an eternal tragedy – in fact the worst tragedy imaginable: the missing out of a soul on the purpose of its existence and creation. And the more perfectly such a soul is loved, say by God and by the saved who both love infinitely and perfectly, the more intolerable this tragedy would be. This theological picture, however, is itself intolerable according to Christianity, because God as omnipotent cannot possibly suffer such a defeat. Nor can his purposes by stymied by any resistance or obstacle out there “over and against him.” To suppose that the universe – or even a single soul – is capable of suffering an eternal tragedy and irremediable ruin is to suppose that an omnipotent and all good God has made something which has that outcome as a fundamental possibility. But why think such a thing? Why think God would create something that could even possibly become the absolute antithesis of what he is intending to create? To suppose this is again to suppose that somehow God is faced against himself some sort of unchosen set of options whereby he is resigned to bring something about, to choose, as it were, between flawed or in some respects evil options. As if God thought: “I wish I could create free creatures who all eventually freely came to eternal happiness, but, alas, I cannot do such a thing.” But where would such an “alas” come from? Is God unhappy with his own power, or is his imagination not strong enough to produce an idea which pleases him?
There is another argument against traditional notions of everlasting punishment which I call the best possible world-type argument. I have sort of already alluded to it. It goes like this. I am not suggesting that creatures by their very creatureliness deserve eternal life. But if God so chooses to do so, it seems a contradiction to say that he will not do so perfectly, for God can do nothing imperfectly, since his essence, which admits of no degree, is perfect goodness. Imagine it in artistic terms. A man does not necessarily have to draw a circle. But, supposing the man is perfectly capable and intelligent and good, when he in fact does draw a circle, he cannot but draw a perfect one. To suppose the circle was otherwise would be to suppose an imperfection in either the skill or intention of the man. In the same way, God’s act of creation, supposing in fact he does create, must be that which is fitting of a perfectly good, wise, loving being.
Now, to suppose that a good and omnipotent God creates a universe in which some are lost presupposes not only a defect in the thing made but also defect in the very making of the thing itself. It supposes not only an imperfect circle but an imperfect drawer of the circle. For if God intends to save all in his creating, but doesn’t, his creating is defective since it does not achieve the end towards which he is working. On the other hand, if God does not intend to save all in his creating, then his creating is also defective in that it could be better than it is: it could intend to give more goodness to the lost in uniting them to God. That is, this very same creation supposed, could have in it more goodness and fullness of being (metaphysically) than if the lost were saved. One could deny this by supposing that that there is as much goodness in a universe of some saved and some lost as a universe in which all are saved. But, I would ask, why is this so? Any reason you give entails that somehow the saved enjoy more their salvation because there are lost souls. Otherwise, if the saved enjoyed their salvation the same whether or not some were lost, then obviously the difference in the two universes would be the happiness of the lost. But if those lost were saved, there would be more goodness and happiness in such a universe. On the other hand, if the saved enjoy their salvation more because there are lost souls, why is this? Do they somehow love God more because some souls suffer eternally and they know this? Do they love God more because they see that God could have punished them just as much, but, for no reason other than an arbitrary choice – a choice which could have come about by the flip of a coin – he chose to save them? How does the suffering help them enjoy their beatitude? Not to mention that some of those who are suffering may be those to whom, in their earthly life, they loved more than their own very selves. And yet why did they love them so dearly if not because God was working such love in their hearts towards them? And now is God, in the next life, going to either revoke such love (and why then was it given to begin with) or turn it into something totally alien to what it became, it may be after years of growth and forging in the furnace of life? And furthermore, where does such a line stop? If a soul can more enjoy its salvation because it sees other souls suffering, why not say that there may be only a single soul in heaven, and it is the most gloriously fulfilled soul in part due to the fact that it perceives billions upon billions of other souls suffering, and it was the one lucky enough in all the universe to be saved? Tell me why we cannot have a universe in which all souls are lost but one, so that the one could that much more appreciate his own salvation? And tell me how many lost souls does it take to even out the happiness gained by a saved soul contemplating their misery and enjoying the fact that it is not his own soul who is suffering?
Suppose one holds that the lost somehow maximize the happiness of the saved such that a universe with lost souls contains more goodness than a universe without lost souls, because the saved souls in the first universe are happier. But if a soul’s happiness results from its union with God, how could it gain additional happiness from the mere misery of a fellow creature? Is the suffering of some other soul somehow a sprinkle on top of the beatific cake? “But they can appreciate their salvation more knowing that God could have passed them by: by knowing that we deserved Hell and did not suffer it, our love is inflamed the more!” If we truly did deserve to suffer eternally, the more just and true we were, and the more perfectly we are conformed and united to the Just and True one, the more we will see the injustice in our being brought out from such a state. Such a salvation would be as unjust as God lifting a lost soul in Hell out of the fire and placing it in Heaven right then.
Perhaps the philosophers are right who suggest that there is no single best possible world. Perhaps there are an infinite number of “equally best” possible worlds, and it simply falls to God’s free will to actualize a particular one. Yet even so, none of those possible worlds, it seems, could be ones where souls are either eternally suffering or annihilated forever, for those souls themselves are ones to whom God is not acting perfectly good towards. If God creates a soul to intentionally deprive it of eternal life, in the ontological sense God is not really creating that soul for a coherent telos, since he is wishing either its destruction or torment. And as such these worlds are one a perfectly good act of creation could never bring about, for it fails in some way to be as good as it could be. And God could always have made the exact same universe where the souls were suffering, and brought them into everlasting life. Far from decreasing the blessed joy of those already in heaven, would it not rather increase it?
“But God can do whatever he wants: he can create any universe he wants!” No doubt he can. But can he want whatever we can imagine in our low, mean, selfish brains? If so, then God can conceivably create a universe in which all are lost. But again, would anyone really say that there is no difference to God whether he creates a universe where all are lost or where none are? And if it really did make no difference to him, how can his creating be really “good” if it can accomplish either one thing – universal salvation – or its opposite – universal damnation?
Many will say that God is under no obligation to any creature – that’s just what it means for him to be God, to be independent of creation and able to be perfectly fulfilled with or without it, and to be indifferent to whatever occurs in it. But let us think carefully about this. Is it really correct to say that God if he creates is under no obligation to save? Is God really, granting that he decides to create, under no obligation, even to his own act of creating, to draw anyone to himself? Yet if that is so – if God really has no obligation even to his own nature to create a certain way if he does create – then God could have created a universe in which all creatures were lost and his creative act would have been just as perfect as one where all were saved. Are we really forced to hold a theology which entails this? No doubt God, in the abstract, in himself and apart from creation, has no obligation at all. But God on the supposition of creation is a different matter. That means he has freely taken on the project of creating and thus directing rational, feeling people, towards some end. In fact towards himself – the only good in the universe. It is only under such a free act on God’s part that we ought to talk about his “obligations.”
I shall not say that God has to create. Yet, supposing that he does create, this creation carries with it, given God’s own nature, several things that God cannot do. Scripture says he cannot lie. But neither can God – who is Love and Goodness itself – hate what he has made. Again God need not bring a creature into being. But, if he does, that creature is eternally and irrevocably a divine project, destined for a glorious and all loving completion. Otherwise, God does not care for or love that creature.
Consider God’s action towards creatures. It must be unified and its effect must be all encompassing. Such a unity is easily upheld so long as we think that he always acts out of perfect, infinite love, which is his nature and essence, and that all are redeemed. For on this scheme God loves all with a single kind of love and a single act. But once we start to speak of God’s love and “justice” as things that are juxtaposed or rub against each other we lose the unity of the divine act of creation. God’s action becomes conflicted: he has differing ends and goals in mind. In short, positing these two differing divine wills in the same being amounts to positing two different Gods; or two different creative acts of God. His creative will becomes the place where seemingly contradictory acts mutually come together in some single act we cannot but think of as unintelligible and schizophrenic. But if God is simply unintelligible to us, there is no difference in supposing he is absurd or even non-existent, since the mind knows the same about each: nothing.
To believe that God has intentionally created some for Heaven and others for Hell results in a metaphysical dualism insofar as God’s actions toward the saved and the lost reveal mutually exclusive desires and actions of his own relation to creation and his own essential being. There is on this scheme a sort of division of the divine essence. God loves the saved such that he gives them the one infinite good that they need to be satisfied: himself. He creates in them a desire for happiness and then meets that desire by uniting them to it. He invites them into his own Trinitarian love – and so loves them infinitely. Thus God’s enjoyment of his own Triune existence somehow encompasses and involves these saved souls as being called up into it and glorying in it. They share in the divine act of God loving himself.
God does not, however, act the same way toward the lost. He creates in them a desire but does not unite them with himself in such a way where that desire is fulfilled. He does not love them with nor are they partakers in his own Trinitarian love. They are, as it were, left outside, to spiritually starve for that which they will not have and which God will never give them. They are not taken up into God’s life. (Yet how could something be created by God and not take up into his essential life, which is simply himself?) Thus we have two different loving acts of God, although only one can be intelligibly called love at all.
The question to ask is: by what act does God love the lost? Is it the same as God’s own Trinitarian act of infinite and perfect love – that is the very same act whereby he loves himself? If it is not then you divide God’s single act of existence into two acts and make him something essentially other than Triune love. All classical theology would reject such a notion, for it holds to the unity and supremacy of the first cause whose essence just is a single act of to-be.
Is it possible God could acts towards an object of his action any way other than the way in which he acts essentially and necessarily in himself lovingly? To suppose so seems to me a contradiction and proposes a metaphysical absurdity. It entails that God – who just is an act of love – could still be God, and yet fail to be such a thing. Again, I am not saying that God has to create. But if he does, doesn’t his creative act itself have to be, since he is essentially an act of love, itself love? Must creation not incorporate that which God makes as his own essential loving act of being? If God freely chooses to be good towards creatures, the only good he is able to give is the only good he knows – in fact the only good that really exists or even could exist – the good of himself, of the Trinity.
Before ending I want to say something about the Bible. I grant that the strongest weapon in the arsenal of those who believe in eternal damnation or annihilation is the Christian Scriptures. In fact, if some things weren’t (supposedly) found in the Bible I can’t imagine anyone would, on their own, believe them to be true. Yet if we do think God creates some to be lost because that’s what Scripture says but we cannot imagine or even suggest how that can be good, then we really cannot logically think that God’s creative act regarding the lost is something good. No matter what we say we believe, what we are actually doing is smuggling in the idea of we-don’t-know-what and thinking of it when we say the word “good.” We are really just meaning “God does what he does.” (This is true, you will note, of Satan as well as of God.) And after that we slap on “For all I can see, it is not good. But I suppose that’s just the way it is. The Bible says so.”
I have some sympathy with this claim. There is, however, a strong rebuttal to it, not often realized. It goes like this. Before anyone says that the Christian Scriptures force us to hold that God wills the damnation of some (a claim which, as a matter of fact, not all Christians agree with) I would remind that person that it is only the goodness of God which makes worshiping Him praiseworthy or even rational. For if God is not good – or better yet is not what we mean by that word – then there is no reason to think that we are any better off trusting in anything he says, whether it is in a supposed sacred book or not. It makes no sense even to believe in the Scriptures if in doing so we destroy all possible ethical connection to the source of the Scriptures. That’s like saying that we’ve got to believe in the owner’s manual when it tells us to throw the thing we are trying to fix into an incinerator. However we interpret the Bible, if that method results in us burning our bridge back to a Good God, we must simply abandon it. For the existence of a bridge itself is more necessary to reach our destination than any particular tool (however useful) which helps us cross it.
And yet we need not, perhaps, even go this far. Before it comes to simply resigning ourselves to an unknown being that we call God which the Bible seems to unavoidably but unfortunately point us towards, have we really exhausted all our options? Have we really given a fair hearing to the thinkers who have claimed that the owners manual, when read aright, does not actually teach that we should toss the device into the fire? After all, there are some thinkers, oftentimes more ancient and connected to the original source, by the way, who have taught other things. There are some – one could argue that the number is a bit larger than once supposed – who taught and believed in a doctrine called apokatastasis.
Ultimately, my point is simply this. One can believe in a good God whether they’ve read the Bible or not. But one cannot believe in a good God if their notion of good is really “not good.” One also cannot simply appeal to some Scriptural texts to prove that some will be lost and have that settle the matter. One must also necessarily appeal to a conception of God. For if one’s ultimate conception of God is that he is unknowable or he is the type of being who may, for all we know, intentionally torture us forever to make a more perfectly symmetrical universe, then it doesn’t matter what a book says about such a being. Even if such a book did reveal the truth, if God is that type of being, believing the truth would offer us no advantage.
We can either understand God in some way and can speak truly about him, or we cannot. If we cannot, then there is no use talking about him. If we can, we must answer the question on whether or not he is good. And if he is good, we must answer what that means. It cannot mean he creates to satisfy a need, for then he is dependent and not God. But if he creates for no need then he must create to give goodness to others. But if he does that, then he cannot intentionally damn anyone or destroy them. But if he cannot do that, then all will be saved.
I know others will disagree with the conclusions reached here. But I would invite them to ask themselves why. Logically speaking, where would they disagree with me? Is God unable to save all creatures? And if so, why? Or is he unwilling? And if so, why?
*There are many more instances of this. See for example: STq. 23 a. 5 r. 3; q. 49 a. 2 I answer that; q. 47 a. 2 I answer that.
**Interestingly Aquinas seemed to hold that there could be inequality among rational species without this necessarily involving punishment. When discussing the innocence in the garden he says: “The cause of inequality could be on the part of God; not indeed that He would punish some and reward others, but that He would exalt some above others; so that the beauty of order would the more shine forth among men. Inequality might also arise on the part of nature as above described, without any defect of nature.”