Category Archives: Aquinas Theodicy

Aquinas’ conflicting account of God’s love and the reduction of personhood

Aquinas’ theodicy is one you don’t see argued for in the literature today. I don’t know if this is because it is fairly unknown or because it is disagreed with. (It suits best the Calvinistic view that some are damned for the glory of God.)

Here I want to expose what I think an inconsistency in Aquinas’ account of God’s love. This is related to theodicy and the existence of Hell because Aquinas held that the kind of universe God wanted to create requires the existence of the damned, for the universe requires the existence of corruption, failure, and punishment. I have argued elsewhere both a) for the truth that Aquinas did indeed hold this view; and b) its fundamental problem, which is that a “multiplicity of being” and in fact even corruption, failure, and punishment can exist in a universe that does not contain Hell. Indeed, Aquinas gives such an account of how this could be by describing the state of original righteousness of unfallen man, where 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.” (ST I q. 96 a. 3 r. 3)

Anyone interested in a more thorough refutation of classical theology and the existence of Hell can see my post “Apokatastasis: The Only Eschatology Compatible with Classical Theism.”

I want right now, however, to point out another glaring inconsistency in Aquinas as I read him. I wish to argue that Aquinas gives a contradictory or unsatisfactory account of God’s love. And that this account ultimately entails a destruction of personhood.

In the chapter on God’s love (90) in Summa Contra Gentiles, Book 1, Thomas gives us a beautiful definition of what love is:

“For this belongs properly to the nature of love, that the lover will the good of the one he loves. Now, God wills His own good and that of others, as appears from what has been said. This means, therefore, that God loves Himself and other things. Again, for true love it is required that we will someone’s good as his good. For if we will someone’s good only in so far as it leads to the good of another, we love this someone by accident, just as he who wishes to store wine in order to drink it or loves a man so that this man may be useful or enjoyable to him, loves the wine or the man by accident, but essentially he loves himself.”

Now, notice here the idea of loving a thing for its own good, and, in opposition to that, loving a thing insofar as it conduces towards the good of something else. This difference crops up often in moral theology. For example, John Paul II argued that this difference is enough to show us when our actions involve us treating others as genuine people (which is the Christian virtue of love) and when they involve us treating them as objects (and therefore failing to demonstrate Christian love.) Insofar as we consider the good of the person as such we are treating him as a person, as something of infinite value, as a good in himself. Insofar as we consider the good of the person as it benefits us we are treating him as something of inconsequential value or a personless object. As JPII says “A person’s rightful due is to be treated as an object of love, not as an object for use.” (Love and Responsibility.)

At this point the question arises: if God creates some persons for the good of the perfection of the universe, and that perfection requires the punishment of hell, is God really loving the persons he creates for this end as persons?* It seems to me the answer to this is no.

Thomas tries to escape this conclusion by making a distinction in the act of love. The act of love can be considered a) in its vigor of action; and b) in the actual good which is willed for the one who is loved. Aquinas claims that a) describes an act of God, which is identical to his immutable nature and intellect and will, whereby he knows and causes all things. Further, the action of God is measured by his power, which is infinitely intense and unchangeable. Therefore, God’s act of love in this sense cannot be greater or less to any person and so God loves all persons in this way equally. The b) kind of love, however, can be variable according to Thomas. That is, the particular goods that God wills for people can be better or worse. For instance, he can will the gift of intelligence in X amount to person Y, but in X + 1 amount to person Z. And in this sense God can love some things more than others. Now, since God wills some goods more absolutely than others – such as the good of himself, represented by a multiplicity of good in the universe – he also wills the good of some persons more than others. And since God loves the good of the whole universe more than he loves any single person – since the good of the whole is better than the good of a part – God wills that some persons be damned for the perfection of the whole.**

Thomas finally links this logic of love up with the existence of Hell and punishment later on in question 96 when he says,

“However, God is said by similitude to hate some things, and this in a twofold way…The second way arises from the fact that God wills some greater good that cannot be without the loss of some lesser good. And thus He is said to hate, although this is rather to love. For thus, inasmuch as He wills the good of justice or of the order of the universe, which cannot exist without the punishment or corruption of some things, God is said to hate the things whose punishment or corruption He wills. In the words of Malachi (1:3): “I have hated Esau”; and the Psalms (5:7): “You hate all workers of iniquity: You destroy all who speak a lie. The bloody and the deceitful man the Lord will abhor.”

I think Aquinas has not thought carefully enough here, especially if he wants to use this reasoning to justify the existence of Hell. The first obvious thing is that it is not clear how God can be said to love the persons whom he gives these lesser goods to – goods which, actually, are the worst possible fate imaginable to a rational agent. But since I have addressed this trick of linguistics elsewhere (equating eternity in Hell as some sort of “good” that God grants), I will leave it alone for now. I want rather to focus on the following point.

It does not follow that, simply because God wills a greater particular good for one individual (call it good X), God wills that person a greater good absolutely (eternal beatitude, over and against damnation.) God could will different goods to each person, or even different combinations of goods, all of which result in the same metaphysical “amount” of good ultimately. For example, person Y may have good X, and person Z may have good W, and, although good X is greater in the sense that person Z lacks this good, still, person Z has good W, which person Y does not have. This distribution could result in an overall “equally blessed person.” To use a simple example, one person may have more intelligence, but another more beauty.  The person with more intelligence need not have more good absolutely than the person with more beauty. Rather, each has their share of the unlimited participated good of God himself, a good which in its entirety is unable to be communicated to a creature. And yet these participated goods need not be “better” or “worse” than each other.

Interestingly, Aquinas provides this very reasoning in his ST when answering whether God loves a repentant sinner more than an innocent who never sinned. It is worthwhile to read the whole article (ST I, q 20 a 4). However, what I want to highlight is only the following, where he says, “gifts of grace, equal in themselves, are more as conferred on the penitent, who deserved punishment, than as conferred on the innocent, to whom no punishment was due; just as a hundred pounds [marcoe] are a greater gift to a poor man than to a king.”

Notice how the grace given is equal. It is rather the modality of its reception on the creature that makes it appear different. We see here the inner workings of a system suggested above whereby finite goods are equal, yet different, and need not imply any absolute better or worseness.

Yet just in case this may lead someone to suppose that it is just as good to be a sinner as a saint, Aquinas also gives us another metaphysical tool to work with, which is this. We can consider gifts of God on persons as “better” or “worse” from the standpoint of time. That is, we can call one thing better than another by saying “at such and such a time it is better.” In the next reply he says,

“Since God’s will is the cause of goodness in things, the goodness of one who is loved by God is to be reckoned according to the time when some good is to be given to him by divine goodness. According therefore to the time, when there is to be given by the divine will to the predestined sinner a greater good, the sinner is better; although according to some other time he is the worse; because even according to some time he is neither good nor bad.”

Now, considering all the above, we have from Aquinas himself a way to synthesize the universal love of God, which respects the multiplicity of being (which he used to justify hell), but that does not necessarily imply hell’s existence. For God can a) give gifts of love that are neither better nor worse but simply different; or b) he can give better gifts at one time and lesser gifts at another, but he could still give, in the Eschaton, such a combination or summation or coalescing of goods to each person that was equally good.

It seems to me that precisely where Aquinas’ conception of God’s love goes wrong (which is the same place where his justification for Hell’s existence goes wrong) is that he does not conceive of a person as something of infinite value. He sees a person as a thing which can be objectified or destroyed or disregarded for the sake of something higher – some sort of order or gradation or symmetry.

Jacques Maritain, in his Aquinas lecture on the Problem of Evil, said the following.

“As for the universe of nature then, or the universe as a work of creative art we must say – according to the conception, rather pessimistic indeed but serenely so, which St. Thomas gives of nature – we must say that man and angel are parts of the created universe, as as parts of this universe it is normal, it is in the order of things that they are fallible; it is in the order of things that man be involved in sorrow, suffering and death, because by his very essence he is involved in nature which is corporeal, subjected to the change of production and destruction. But at the same time – and here we have the other aspect of the matter – man and angel are both persons, and in that light not parts but real wholes; for the person signifies in itself, wholeness… The sin of a man is the sin of a person, the disaster of a universe and a wounding of God (not as far as God’s being is concerned, but as concerns His love.) The suffering of a man is the suffering of a person, of a whole. Here he is considered no longer as part of the universe, but insofar as he is a person he is considered as a whole, a universe to himself; to suffer that pain as part of the universe in the perspective of nature or of the world taken as God’s work of art, does not do away with the fact that as far as the person is concerned it is an utter anomaly.”

I agree here with Maritain. I do not think that Aquinas dealt adequately with the value of a human person as such. I submit that if persons are wholes or things of infinite value, then Aquinas’ account of God’s love of persons is self-contradictory, as is his justification for the existence of Hell.

*(Thomas very infrequently calls humans “persons” – he is fond rather of the colder term “thing” or “man.”)

**As Aquinas says, “For in the order of effects, the better a thing is, so much the more is it prior in the intention of the agent. But the greatest good in things created is the perfection of the universe, consisting in the order of distinct things; for always the perfection of the whole has precedence of the perfection of the individual parts. Therefore, the diversity of things results from the original intention of the first agent, not from a diversity of merits. SCG II q 44


Aquinas on God ordaining punishment

Short post. I’ve been reading Aquinas’s commentary on John lately (particularly, examining his Christology and Incarnational/Two Nature theory). Anyway, ran across this text of his about God ordaining punishment. I’ve written on this before: in particular Aquinas seemed to hold that God ordains punishment (even eternal, never ending, tormenting punishment) for the “perfecting of the universe.” This to me seems a wicked thing to do, and inconsistent with saying that God loves creatures. Anyway, here is the quote.

Commenting on John 17:11

A Gloss says that a “son of death is one who is predestined to perdition.”[18] It is not customary to say that one is predestined to evil, and so here we should understand predestination in its general meaning of knowledge or orientation. Actually, predestination is always directed to what is good, because it has the double effect of grace and glory; and it is God who directs us to each of these. Two things are involved in reprobation: guilt, and punishment in time. And God ordains a person to only one of these, that is, punishment, and even this is not for its own sake. That the scripture, in which you predicted that he would betray me ‑ “Wicked and deceitful mouths are opened against me” (Ps 109:2) ‑ might be fulfilled.

Aquinas’ Theodicy and the Argument for Different Grades of Being

Since Aquinas believed in omnicausal theism, he believed all things are caused by God. He gets out of saying that God causes evil by holding that evil is a privation of good. I hope to do a more thorough post on this later to point out some of the problems with this theory. Briefly, though, here are my problems with it. For one, the theory is that evil exists when there “should be” a good present. But if God is causing all things, then anything that “should be” exists ultimately because he has intended it to. But how can God intend to create something other than what “should be”? Secondly, all the examples Aquinas gives of explaining how evil can be due entirely to the creature, and not to God, seem to be incoherent. He wants to maintain that God is neither “directly nor indirectly” the cause of evil. And his classic example is the crooked leg that causes the limp. The movement, he claims, is what is good in the movement of the walker, and it is from God. But the crookedness of the leg which causes the limp, is from the leg itself, and is what causes the defect. But the obvious retort to Aquinas in this case is: yes but God created the leg crooked rather than straight. The third problem I see with this theory of privation is that it makes inexplicable what exactly the damned are punished for. Yes, obviously Aquinas would say for their rebellion against God or their sin. But evil is not a positive act on Aquinas’ view. So the damned are punished for a non-act? Are they then punished for a non-entity – for nothing? What about them does God “hate”?  Aquinas says “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) So then God hates something that doesn’t even exist?

Aquinas thought that God had it in his power to create a more perfect universe. It seems this would mean that he did not have to create ANY crooked legs. But he obviously did so, since there is evil in the world. Aquinas then gives, not a necessitating reason on God’s part for creating (for God need not have), but, what the medievals liked to call a “fitting” reason. It is very similar to the Calvinist notion of displaying all of God’s attributes.

Now I’m going to present three passages where Aquinas teaches his “multi-grades of being” theodicy most explicitly.

  1. “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 (Q[22], A[2]). 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.” q. 23 a.  5 r. 3
  2. “the evil which consists in the corruption of some things is reduced to God as the cause. And this appears as regards both natural things and voluntary things. For it was said (Article 1) that some agent inasmuch as it produces by its power a form to which follows corruption and defect, causes by its power that corruption and defect. But it is manifest that the form which God chiefly intends in things created is the good of the order of the universe. Now, the order of the universe requires, as was said above (I:22:2 ad 2; I:48:2), that there should be some things that can, and do sometimes, fail. And thus God, by causing in things the good of the order of the universe, consequently and as it were by accident, causes the corruptions of things, according to 1 Samuel 2:6: “The Lord killeth and maketh alive.” But when we read that “God hath not made death” (Wisdom 1:13), the sense is that God does not will death for its own sake. Nevertheless the order of justice belongs to the order of the universe; and this requires that penalty should be dealt out to sinners.” q. 49 a. 2 I answer that.
  3. “Hence we must say that the distinction and multitude of things come from the intention of the first agent, who is God. For He brought things into being in order that His goodness might be communicated to creatures, and be represented by them; and because His goodness could not be adequately represented by one creature alone, He produced many and diverse creatures, that what was wanting to one in the representation of the divine goodness might be supplied by another. For goodness, which in God is simple and uniform, in creatures is manifold and divided and hence the whole universe together participates the divine goodness more perfectly, and represents it better than any single creature whatever.” q. 47 a. 2 I answer that…and a little further on in body of next article “Therefore, as the divine wisdom is the cause of the distinction of things for the sake of the perfection of the universe, so it is the cause of inequality. For the universe would not be perfect if only one grade of goodness were found in things.”

It seems to me from a straight reading of Aquinas he evidently thought that God created the damned in Hell because he willed to create a world with a variety of grades of being, some of which were sentient creatures who would be punished eternally. In his metaphors of this view he is driven to equate the rational beings in Hell as various “stones” in a house that are placed, say, at the houses’ base. This is done in order to give the house as a whole a certain form which, if it lacked it, would fail to have the perfect form of a house in general. Therefore, he concludes, God’s main goal in creating is not the good of each being in particular, but only the universe’s form “as a whole” which in its own way reflects the whole glory of God. As such, “It is part of the best agent to produce an effect which is best in its entirety; but this does not mean that He makes every part of the whole the best absolutely, but in proportion to the whole.” (For more on this see his commentary on Romans 9, where Aquinas compares the damnation of some to God’s building of a house:

Now, there is nothing wrong, logically, with this theory. An Aristotelian could believe it. But could a Christian, who believes in the universal salvific will of God? Sure Aquinas can say “metaphysically” that God loves every creature, since he wishes it “the good of existence.” But he cannot say that God wishes the ultimate good for every creature, for he positively wishes – before foreseen merits, by the way – that some be damned. And let’s not forget what “damned” means on Aquinas’ theology. It means eternal conscious bodily torment. And what is the reasoning behind his theory? That the “perfection of the universe requires (his word) the manifestation of many grades of being, and that some things sometimes can, and do, fail.” Could Aquinas really with a straight face tell me that a universe with millions of souls in Hell is a better universe than one in which all are joined to God in the beatific vision? Remember, God is omnipotent, and, on his own scheme, it is no more difficult for him to cause someone to be united to him in eternal bliss than to damn someone. In other words it is perfectly possible for God to save every soul. The reason he doesn’t save some is simply because he does not want to. He would rather display a variety of effects, some of which include sentient creatures who suffer eternally in a way worse than finite beings can possible imagine.

Now, I just have to ask, is he serious? Who is better off given the fact that God created this type of universe than one in which all souls are saved? The damned certainly aren’t. Neither is God, since on Aquinas’ view the creation cannot impact the impassible bliss of the purely actual God. What about the elect? Well he thinks so. He thinks that the saved will see the damned and rejoice that they didn’t suffer a similar fate. But do you really think this is likely? Would you like to become the type of person who can see his spouse, say, or his child, suffering eternally in Hell, and think “whew, I’m so glad that’s not me! Oh AND I am glad he is getting what he deserves! He’s actually LUCKY since God’s mercy is even now extending to him, insofar as he is punished less than he could be.”

Aquinas, my friend – really?