What God Wills and What God Permits

by David Bentley Hart

Pantocrator, Bible of St. Louis

In my previous installment of this report, I addressed the final phase of the argument put forward in That All Shall Be Saved, which concerns the nature of rational freedom and the question of whether the idea of a hell of eternal torment can plausibly be defended as an expression of the free will of creatures. In reaching the answer to that question—“No,” to be precise—I asserted it as a given that “God cannot positively will evil precisely because he is infinitely free.” But I gave no indication the precise significance of that claim within the context of the book’s larger argument. So now I want to retreat to the beginning of my promised “itinerary” of that argument. Normally I would be unwilling to recapitulate a case I felt I had already made with sufficient clarity; and obviously I cannot condense the book’s logic into a few paragraphs. But on this occasion a sufficient number of misconceptions have taken root around the book, and I think I should try to clear some of the undergrowth away if I can. 

There are two questions that define the path the book’s reasoning takes, and every step along the way falls between them: First, can the God who either imposes or permits a state of perpetual conscious torment for rational creatures really be not only good, but (as reason and faith alike say he must be) Goodness in itself? And, second, could finite creatures possessed of real freedom (as opposed to a mere voluntarist power of spontaneous movement toward any end whatsoever) actually freely reject God eternally and, by the exercise of that liberty, merit perpetual torment?  And, again, the answer to both questions is “No.” Other questions of equal import are also addressed, but these two dominant questions give the argument its shape. That said, the argument unfolds by way of roughly half a dozen major themes, which must be held together if one is to make sense of the book as a whole.

The first of these, and one that subtends the whole of the text, is the question of analogy. If theological language is to have any intelligible content, there must be some analogical continuity between the language we use both in regard to creatures and in regard to God. After all, Christ himself insisted on the rule of analogy, when for instance he enjoined his disciples to understand God’s universal fatherhood by comparison to their own experience of paternal love and concern for their children. This is in no way to deny the apophatic limits that prevent our words and concepts from granting us the ability to comprehend God. But the logic of apophaticism still requires that our words retain some kind of consistency of meaning in passing from the creaturely realm of reference to the divine, even if in the latter case the full truth of our words infinitely surpasses the little we are able to understand.

If, though, our theological claims oblige us to use words in such a way that their creaturely and divine meanings become clearly antithetical to one another, then at once those predicates become equivocal and so meaningless. As soon as this happens, a contagion of equivocity is inaugurated, one that must ultimately render all Christian language both semantically and syntactically vacuous. This is important to emphasize at the outset because, as the book’s argument unfolds, one persistent temptation for some readers will be to beat a sudden retreat to an inflexible insistence on absolute inscrutable divine sovereignty as the only valid divine predicate, and to the consequent claim that we must not presume to judge God’s actions in terms of good and evil as we understand them. A devout dialectical strategy, no doubt, but a self-defeating one.

For one thing, there is the metaphysical catachresis of introducing an element of arbitrariness into God’s acts (a discussion for another time). For another, to argue thus is simply to surrender to that aforementioned contagion of equivocity. To claim, for instance, that the whole drama of election and dereliction is undertaken by God as a display of his glory is simply to evacuate “glory” of any moral content.  At that point, faith is a pure epistemological nihilism, neither conceptually nor morally distinguishable from faithlessness. We are no longer even be able to adduce “reasons” for believing anything.

A second theme follows from this: that is, the impossibility of finding a concept of “justice” (or “mercy” or “love” or “goodness”) that can successfully span that analogical interval between the divine and the creaturely if the premise of an eternal hell is accepted. On the one hand, the concept of justice entails a sane proportionality between any punishment and the culpability of the one punished. On the other hand, we are instructed by tradition to believe that the sort of finite offenses of which creatures are capable—hindered though they be by the obvious limits of their mental competency, intentionality, or power—justly merit an eternal and absolute punishment. The issue here is not some presumptuous attempt to hold God accountable by our standards; it is the recognition that the very notion of justice becomes incorrigibly equivocal if we are asked to accept the now standard account of damnation. And none of the traditional attempts to surmount this problem are credible.

At this point, however, the book’s argument has not yet truly begun. At most, a question has been posed.

The book’s third theme may really be several distinct themes knitted together by logical interdependency, and so it requires particularly careful exposition. Stated most simply, it is this: given the metaphysics and logic of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, any distinction between what God wills and what God permits necessarily collapses at creation’s eschatological horizon; so too any distinction between God’s antecedent and consequent wills. Thus there are three cardinal tenets of Christian tradition that—if the teaching of eternal damnation be accepted—cannot all be true simultaneously: that God freely created all things out of nothingness; that God is the Good itself; and that it is certain or at least possible that some rational creatures will endure eternal loss of God. 

If God creates the world from nothingness, under no compulsion and with no motive but the overflow of his own infinite goodness, it is only in the finished reality of all things that the full nature of God’s activity will be revealed. What will be disclosed, moreover, cannot be only the nature of creation, but must necessarily touch upon the divine nature as well. If it is true that creation in no sense adds to, qualifies, or “perfects” God—if, that is, the God who creates from nothing is always already the infinite God who neither requires nor is susceptible to any process of becoming—nothing proper to creation is beyond his power and intention. Inasmuch as creation is not a process of theogony, by which God forges himself in the fires of the finite, it is a genuine theophany, and its final state—intended as it is in the very act of creating—must reveal something of who God is in himself.

Call this point “Theme 3)a”: While it is true that creation does not modify or qualify God, much less determine what he is in himself, and true also that creation is instead entirely determined by him, for just this reason—creation’s total dependency upon God’s will—the final reality of creation will reveal God for who he is in himself. Any intentional act that is not conditional upon some prior or more ultimate necessity is a revelation of the moral identity of the intending agent. If I happen to kill someone because, in willing some other goal, I end up doing so contre coeur, that fact does not disclose much about who I truly am. If I kill someone because I freely choose to do so, as a necessary part of an ultimate design that I was never bound to realize by any condition other than my own desire to bring it to pass, then that fact tells everything about me.

Remember, both according to any logical evaluation of the natural good of rational agents and according to the language of scripture (Matthew 18:14; 1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9; etc.), the eternal loss of a living spirit is at the very least a natural evil, contrary to the will of God. And a natural evil becomes also a moral evil to the very degree that it is directly intended by a willing agent. And yet, given the metaphysics of creatio ex nihilo, there is no logical room here for making a moral distinction between what God directly intends in creation and what he merely allows to happen. Call this “Theme 3)b”: at that final limit, will and permission necessarily become indistinguishable.

It is a logical truism that all secondary causes in creation are reducible to their first cause. This is not a formula of determinism. It merely means that nothing can appear within the “consequents” of God’s creative act that is not, at least as a potential result, implicit in their primordial antecedent. So, even if God allows only for the mere possibility of an ultimately unredeemed natural evil in creation, this means that, in the very act of creation, he accepted this reality—or this real possibility—as an acceptable price for the ends he desired. In acting freely, all the possibilities that the agent knowingly accepts are positively willed as acceptable conditions of the end the agent seeks to achieve. If I freely and knowingly choose a course of action that may involve the death of my child, knowing that that death will then be an ineradicable detail of the pattern of what I bring about, morally I have willed his death within the total calculus of my final intentions, as a cost freely accepted, even if in the end his death never actually comes about. One cannot positively will the whole without positively willing all the necessary parts of the whole (whether those parts exist in only potential or in fully actual states).  And so, if God does indeed tolerate that final unredeemed natural evil as the price of his creation, he not only thereby reduces the “goodness” of his creative act to a merely relative goodness; he also converts that natural evil into a moral evil, one wholly enfolded within the total calculus of his own venture in creating, and thereby reveals himself to be not God, the Good as such, but only a god who is (at most) relatively good.

This also means, incidentally—call this “Theme 3)c”—that in such a final state of things the damned would in some very real sense be the saviors of the elect, or at least their redeemers: sacrificial victims whose eternal suffering is the cost accepted by God for the felicity of the blessed. For, whether the damned are predetermined to their reprobation or merely carried there by the unpredictable forces of chance, they—far more so than Christ—are the true lambs slain from the foundation of the world, the ransom eternally ordained by God and the blood eternally spilled so that the Kingdom may be established. They are what God is willing, either by decree or permission, to forfeit. After all, if this is how the game must be played in order for anyone to win at it, the losing lot might just as well have fallen to the redeemed.

This, however, seems a good place to pause. I shall resume the itinerary in the next installment.

David Bentley Hart is an Orthodox theologian, cultural commentator, and author. His book That All Shall Be Saved was published in 2019 by Yale University Press