I begin with a problem for the Classical view of God. If God is both a) perfectly good and b) able to create our free wills acting in any way he pleases without violating them, why are some people lost? Allow me to flesh this dilemma out.
It seems the Classical God is perfectly able to save all souls, for 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. To suppose otherwise is to imply that God is not the ultimate source of all created being. Thus for a creature to be even possibly lost would require God to already be actively and intentionally creating it with that very possibility in the first place. But would a perfectly good God create other rational beings with such a possible outcome – their irremediable ruin – in mind? Remember, the Classical God does not create in order to enhance his own life. His life is maximally perfect with or without creation and he does not depend on us. He creates therefore 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? Let me put the same point differently. If we can still call such an act good – intentionally creating a conscious being in order to torture it for eternity or annihilate it – then we are left with no conceivable alternative 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 referencing God. For it carries no particular meaning and can be interchanged indistinguishably with its opposite.
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 Classical theism 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?
I may as well let the cat out of the bag.
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 some of his creation will be eternally lost, whether this means everlasting torment or annihilation. My aim henceforth is to show why this is so. Allow me to begin.
God either creates necessarily, or he creates freely. If he creates necessarily, he is not God, since he needs creation in order to actualize his own will and being. If he creates freely, then he either creates with some goal in mind, or he does not. If he creates with no goal, then his act of creation is irrational – it lacks reason and wisdom – and is unintelligible to us. Trying to understand God’s reason for creating if he had none would be like trying to understand the dice’s reason for turning up the numbers that they do. They do not mean to land on a seven and a four. They just do.
Or we can look at the same thing this way. 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 on Classical theology, God is fully active or actus purus. Therefore absolutely speaking nothing can “happen to” him. From whence it follows that God’s creative act cannot “happen to him” nor can it be something outside his control. Therefore if he creates he must do so intentionally.
It is evident then that Classical theology 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.
Now, as said before, God’s purpose in creation cannot be to increase his own being. Otherwise this would imply that God, in himself, is not perfectly and maximally fulfilled already. He would ontologically need and depend on the contingent world, in which case his own being would be contingent. Thus, since God is already maximally fulfilled, he must create solely for the good of what he makes. For again there is no other object except the created one which is gaining goodness or being made good in his act of creation.
Now, 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 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 to experience the worst fate imaginable. 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 – of such a being who does not obtain that end? 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?
Simply put, to grant goodness to a creature cannot be equivalent to ceasing to grant or failing to grant goodness, which are precisely what annihilation and eternal torment are instances of. Thus, God’s creative act cannot actually entail such a state of affairs, 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 creatures. 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. 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. God has, in other words, at least on this view, a positive stance – one of hatred – towards nothingness. But how could that be? I find what Aquinas asserts here 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? But 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 it. It 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, as Aquinas maintains? 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. But how could such a 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 the Augustinian/Thomistic/Calvinistic 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. 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? Then what is God punishing? A non-act? And is this non-act something the creature can avoid? If he cannot, 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 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 Classical theism 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 on Classical theism that God could save all creatures. (Remember, on Classical theism God creates free creatures in their very actuality, even in their freely acting.) 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.
Again Aquinas thought that God creates some to be lost because the very lostness of them 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? But we have seen that God’s decision to create meets no unmet needs of his own. This is what allows it to be free. 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.
Thus we have a sort of God needs and the best universe requires irredeemable suffering argument. If God’s nature is such that, if he creates he must create some souls to suffer eternally, then God’s nature is somehow appeased by or desirous of – even if only freely – irremediable loss or never ending torture. God’s essence is somehow more reflected in a world where some pain is not only never redeemed for the individual undergoing it but even prolonged unendingly. But how is such a nature – or its “reflection” – not itself evil, or at least dependent (even if contingently) on evil’s perpetual existence? If we can still call a being good that freely requires and is pleased in bringing about eternal conscious torment, what being could even conceivably qualify as evil in the first place? And going further – how could such a thing be possible on a Trinitarian conception of God? God in himself contains no evil at all. He is pure good: Goodness as such. How then could such a being require in its own creation irredeemable loss? If the Trinity somehow involves in itself a crucifixion and pain, and if that is why the created world, since it is a reflection of God, requires pain, then that same creation, being an image of the Trinity, requires just as much that pain’s redemption and conquering. If the world as a reflection of the Trinity requires suffering and death it also requires a resurrection.
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.
This line of thinking is closely connected to an intuitive goodness and beauty argument. Ask anyone 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. 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?
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, not worse. That would be like really wishing we could improve an already perfect painting. If the painting really is perfect, our failure to appreciate it 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?
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? We have thus an imago dei argument. If we really are made in God’s image, 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.
This thought is tied closely to a sort of reverse sanctification argument. 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 their 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 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 beings that deserve hatred and even prefer their happiness to our own so we can grow into better people who after death now actually hate those beings 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 a) how can they possibly be saved, if God has already passed them by and not predestined them? Can that man – I say, pointing to Judas – be saved, if God has not predestined him? If yes, then God’s predestination can fail and God does not cause all goodness and being, and classical theism 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. And furthermore b) 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 they really did deserve it? But if that is the appropriate moral posture toward mankind it would actually be immoral to love our neighbors in the present life as Christianity teaches us. For in the present life they truly deserve Hell or annihilation.
Again maybe one will reply that we are to love our neighbors while they are still able to be saved in this life, but in the next when they become fixed in their wickedness we are not to love them. But this just begs the question of why they would ever become fixed in such a state to begin with if they are not in that state now. If they don’t deserve Hell now, then why would they after death, unless God changed them such to be that way? And why would he do that if he loved them or is doing good towards them? On the other hand if the lost do deserve Hell now, how can it be moral to presently treat them in the opposite way that they will be treated, say by the perfected saints in Heaven? If they truly deserve Hell now, treating them other than with a pure hatred would be an injustice.
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 hates them not at all. 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 Classical theology, 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.” Therefore this eternal tragedy argument further undermines any sort of universe in which an all loving and powerful God damn or annihilates some of his creatures.
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 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 would impede that end. It would be like imagining a cook who preheated the oven to the perfect temperature, put the dish in to cook it, and then turned the oven up so high it incinerated the food.
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. No one ever suggested that creatures by their very creatureliness deserve eternal life. I have said repeatedly throughout this book that God does not have to create. But if he 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, needless, absolutely fulfilled being.
Now, to suppose an 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 only deny this by supposing that that there is as much goodness in the lost as there is in the saved. But then, what is the difference in the two? And how could one hold it was better to be saved than lost, if each creature reflected a maximal amount of goodness?
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. In the ontological sense he is not really creating them for a coherent telos, since he is wishing either their 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.
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 are, 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. Further, why not push this argument further? Why not have a universe in which all souls are lost but one, so that the one could that much more appreciate his own salvation? 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?
“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 paltry brains? If so, then God can conceivably create a universe in which all are lost. But would anyone really say that there is no difference to God whether he creates a universe where all are lost or where none are?
I maintain that God need not create. Yet, supposing he does create, this creation carries with it, given God’s 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. 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.
Here is another difficulty that arises if some are lost, no less severe though philosophically distinct from all the arguments put above. It is this. The doctrine of eternal Hell creates an unlivable belief system. We have, in other words, a self-refuting worldview argument. The thrust of the point is this: the only God that is even possibly trustworthy is one that intends to save all creatures. If God could potentially mean to damn or annihilate some (or all?), then he may damn or annihilate anyone, 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. (Of course, even our feigned obedience, if we really thought it through, would be futile, since the very being itself is the ultimate cause of all our psychological states and desires and actions anyway. And he could just as easily inspire in us a hatred of himself as of a love. That is, it wouldn’t be ultimately “up to us” whether or not we were saved anyway, since such a being is the ultimate cause – and his will is the ultimate end – of all things.)
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 “keep shut.” 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 delight in them. Yet then why do we loathe and shrink from the idea? Why are we told not to dwell on it? Why do we wish it were not true?
The truth is that if eternal destruction is real, and if God has purposefully chosen some to destroy, 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?
When considering God’s action towards the saved and towards the lost, you have two opposing acts of God: you have an act of creating-with-an-end-to-save and an act of creating-with-an-end-to-damn. You have an act of perfect love of other, and an act of imperfect love of other (or, it seems, of hatred.) You have an act whereby the telos and end and intention of the act is unity with and joy in the divine being; and you have an act whereby the telos and end and intention of the act is annihilation or separation from the divine being. And you have these two acts, which are both done to rational creatures which are objects of the same kind, coming from the same God.
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 essence. 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. His creative will becomes the place where seemingly contradictory acts mutually come together in some essence we cannot but think of as unintelligible. 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 essential being. There is thus a division of the divine essence argument. 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 as it were – and so loves them infinitely. Thus his desire for his own Triune existence somehow encompasses and involves these saved souls. They are called up into it.
God does not, however, act the same way toward the lost. He creates in them a desire but does not unite these beings 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. They are not taken up into God’s Triune life. This, however, results in two different loving acts of God. A Trinitarian one, whereby he is united to and unites to himself the object of his love and calls them in it. And a non Trinitarian one, whereby he lacks such an action, or performs it defectively, and the damned never partake in the love of God’s inner life.
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 being.
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 Trinitarianly? To suppose so seems to me to boarder on contradiction – to propose a metaphysical absurdity. It would seem to entail that God – who just is an act of Trinitarian love – could still be God, and yet fail to be just such an act. I am not saying God has to create. But if he does, doesn’t his creative act itself have to be, since he is essentially such an act, Trinitarian? Must it not incorporate that which he makes into his own essential loving act of being? It does not seem improper to suggest that, 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 – the good of himself, of the Trinity.
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 without 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, really 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 under such a free act on God’s part that we should, I think, consider his “obligations.”
Before ending this essay 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 a good one. 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 profess 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 comes in the form of a God must be good (or at least what we mean by the term) or else believing in the inspiration of Scripture is self refuting argument. 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 on) 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 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 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 shall end with this. I believe in universal salvation because I believe in the Classical concept of God, the only concept of God that makes any sense to me or that seems even possibly true. I was not consciously driven to such a belief by wishfulfillment or any desire to reject what I thought was logical and true. Quite the contrary is the case, actually. I came to believe in the Classical conception of God before I had a particular belief about Heaven or Hell. But as I thought about things it became increasingly obvious that the only way to hold onto Classical and Orthodox theology – that stout theology passed on to us by the greatest Christian and even pagan thinkers – the only way to salvage this was to disbelieve in the final destruction or torment of any rational being. Simply put, the idea that God will bring all souls he creates eventually into union with himself is the only worldview that I see that is coherent and able to be lived out. All others are self contradictory or psychologically unlivable.
I know others will disagree with the conclusions reaching in this essay. But I would invite them to ask themselves why. Logically speaking, where would they disagree with me? Is God unable to save all creatures? If so, why? Or is he unwilling? 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.”