Keith Ward’s Religion and Creation (RC) is part of his multi-volume “comparative theology.” Its goal is to develop a contemporary Christian theology in genuine conversation with both modern science and other religious traditions.
The focus of RC is the doctrine of God. Ward argues that recent representative figures from four major religious traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism) all make similar moves in revising the classical understanding of God.* They have qualified the traditional insistence on God’s complete immutability and impassibility with an emphasis on the importance of the spatio-temporal creation to God. The particular moves they make differ, but they agree that the creation makes a difference to God in a way that classical forms of theism generally denied. In some cases, this means affirming that God experiences time, change, and empathy with the sufferings of creatures.
In the book’s final chapter, Ward discusses the Christian doctrine of the Trinity in relation to creation. He suggests that creation of some kind may be necessary for God to realize the capacity for loving what is truly other. As he says elsewhere, it is “a love for what is other than God but can be united to the life of God in fellowship.”
Ward rejects the view, proposed by some theologians, that God can be perfectly loving in Godself because of the love that exists between the three persons of the Trinity. This strongly “social” view of the Trinity sees the godhead as comprising three divine persons or centers of consciousness whose unity consists of their loving fellowship.
According to Ward, some forms of social Trinitarianism border on polytheism, though a “rather cosy and harmonious polytheism” (p. 322). Social Trinitarians have a difficult time accounting for the necessary unity of the three persons, and attempts to do so often look like subordinationism (i.e., by making the Son and Spirit derivative from, and less than, the Father). Or they treat love as a reified, abstract principle that somehow stands “above” the three persons and binds them together.
It’s better, he proposes, to talk about “one ultimate subject which possesses three distinct forms of action and awareness” (p. 323). The problem with social Trinitarianism, he says, is that it tends to veer into speculation about three divine individuals with intra-divine relations apart from any relation to created reality. Trinitiarian thinking should be rooted in the biblical witness, which does not speak of “three divine individuals in continuing conversation” (p. 327). Rather, “belief in the one God of monotheism, who is somehow mediated to [the apostles] through Jesus and intimately present in the power of the Spirit. The idea of the Trinity does not supersede monotheism; it interprets it, in light of a specific set of revelatory events and experiences” (p. 327).
Threefold-ness is a real aspect of God, but it is manifested in relation to creation (p. 329). Theology shouldn’t posit some purely immanent, intra-trinitarian relation of the persons: “intra-Trinitarian being is given to us only in revelation” (p. 329). The basis of trinitarian doctrine is the apostolic experience of Jesus making God present in a new way:
[T]he simple historical source of this doctrine is the apostolic experience of God as loving Father, Jesus as the obedient Son, the Father’s image on earth, and the Spirit as the one who makes Jesus present to every time and place, and unites ll in him. (pp. 330-1)
While the Trinity corresponds to something real in God’s being, we only have access to the “economic” Trinity–that is, the threefold activity of God as we see it in the history of salvation. The economic Trinity is God-in-relation–responding to and affected by the actions of creatures. “This is the responsive aspect of the Divine, which interacts with created beings to check tendencies to disintegration and guide them actively toward perfection” (p. 340).
I’ve always been a bit skeptical of social Trinitarianism, particularly when it’s combined with political theologies which suppose that human communities can and should reflect the intra-Trinitarian life (Kathryn Tanner and Karen Kilby have both powerfully criticized this view). They often seem to rest on just the sort of speculative divine metaphysics Ward is criticizing, and draw what are, to my mind, improper analogies between human communities and the divine “community.” (Obviously there’s a lot more that can be, and has been, said on this topic, both pro and con.)
Even if we reject social Trinitarianism, though, couldn’t we say that God perfectly loves the divine self and would do so even if God had not created a world? Ward would say, however, that God would still have failed to realize the capacity for loving what is genuinely other than God, and that this form of love is a great good. In Ward’s view, it is better to have a universe with creatures who can enter into freely chosen fellowship with God, even if this also creates the possibility of their estrangement. Therefore, he thinks, creation does make a difference to God, enriching the divine life beyond what it would’ve been had God not created.
*The four 20th-century figures Ward focuses on are Abraham Joshua Heschel (Judaism), Karl Barth (Christianity), Mohammad Iqbal (Islam), and Aurobindo Ghose (Hinduism).
Liberal Christian icon Marcus Borg recently joined the blogosphere, and one of his first posts was an attempt to clarify his views on the resurrection of Jesus. Borg has been accused of denying the independent reality of the resurrection, reducing it to a subjective experience the disciples had after the crucifixion. But Borg maintains that he believes in a real resurrection, just not a physical one. Jesus is really alive and manifested himself to his followers following his death, but his body was not raised physically from the tomb.
I’m not sure I find the “physical”/”spiritual” distinction particularly helpful or important. First, it presumes that we have a clear idea of what “matter” is and how it contrasts with “spirit.” Modern physics, if nothing else, has called that kind of Cartesian dichotomy into question. But more fundamentally, the New Testament stories themselves don’t seem particularly interested in answering that question. Even if we take the resurrection stories at face value, we have a Jesus who is both “physical” in the sense of being a tangible presence, who eats with his disciples and shows them the still-present wounds in his body, but who also can appear and disappear at will and whom the disciples don’t immediately recognize as being the same person. The only thing that comes through clearly here is that, for the NT writers, Jesus’ post-resurrection state involved both continuity (he was the same person, the crucified one) and discontinuity (he had been radically transformed and raised to a different state of existence).
Keith Ward has suggested that Jesus’ resurrection involved a transformation of his body (i.e., the tomb was empty) to a “spiritual” state. But “spiritual” here doesn’t mean the opposite of “physical”; rather it means something more like a state of being fully infused with God’s Spirit. Jesus lives in the power and presence of God, but in a form that radically transcends his earthly, pre-resurrection existence. It’s not clear that asking whether this constitutes a “physical” or “spiritual” resurrection is a particularly meaningful question. The point is that the resurrection signifies God’s victory over the forces of sin, alienation, and death and promises a consummation of God’s purposes for creation.
One of the impulses motivating “revisionist” views of the divine nature (process theology, et al.) is not only that they can seem more consonant with modern science, but that they provide a more intimate and relational view of God. Many theologians have argued, in fact, that seeing God in responsive, relational terms such as those offered by process theology is truer to the biblical portrait of God. This view has widespread currency in recent theology. Even theologians with important differences from process theology have accepted that God is in some respects changeable and affected by what happens in the world. These included feminist, liberation, and other “contextual” theologians as well as “neo-trinitarian” thinkers like Jurgen Moltmann and Robert Jenson. Such thinkers tend to emphasize the differences between the biblical God and the Greek-inspired God of classical theism.
In light of this, Cynthia Crysdale and Neil Ormerod (see previous posts here and here) ask “Can a transcendent God be a personal God?” That is, can a God who exists “outside” of time and space and who brings the entire history of creation into being through one timeless divine act also be related to individual human beings in a personal and responsive way?
C&O think the answer is yes:
[C]lassical theism presents us with a God who is infinitely responsive, who has responded so fully and so completely in the one divine act of creation that no further response is possible or needed[.] In the one infinite act of creation, past, present, and future for us , God responds to all our prayers and petitions, answers all our needs, all guided by an infinite divine loving wisdom and wise loving. . . . And while God’s response to us is itself eternal and unchanging, it unfolds for us in the fullness of time. Thus God responds to this prayer in our here and now. And if we do not pray, God does not so respond. Prayer is meaningful, it does change the situation, and God does act in response to our prayers. But this does not amount to some intervention along the lines of stirring an inactive God into action, but is part of the one creative act of God who brings into existence everything that is. (p. 128)
God has, in effect, “already” taken into account every action, intention, prayer, and desire in the history of the universe and responded accordingly in the single, eternal creative act.
But even on this view, there seems to be an aspect of God that is contingent, namely God’s perfect response to the world. For if God had chosen to actualize a different world from among the (presumably) many possible ones, then to the extent that the choices, prayers,etc. of the people in that world were different from ours, God’s response would have to have been different. This seems to imply that God is not wholly unchangeable, at least on the assumption that God’s actualization of other worlds than this one was a genuine possibility.
Maybe C&O would respond that God is nevertheless not dependent on creation because it is God who chooses which possible world to make actual. This certainly distinguishes their position from those forms of process theology that deny creation ex nihilo and appear to give creation an independent ontological status. I agree with C&O in rejecting such a view. But I’m less certain how much daylight there is between their position and the more moderate “dipolar” theism espoused by someone like Christopher Southgate or Keith Ward. Both Southgate and Ward affirm creation ex nihilo and thus God’s ontological ultimacy; but both also argue that there is an aspect of God that is involved in and affected by what happens in the world.
It’s not clear to me that C&O couldn’t accept the modified dipolar theism of Southgate and Ward while still upholding their other positions. In fact, both Southgate and Ward make arguments similar to theirs in relating theism to modern science. Alternatively, C&O could bite the bullet and say that the actual world is the only possible world. God’s creative act would give rise to this world out of necessity, rather than from God’s free choice. This seems to be essentially the view of Schleiermacher, whose views C&O’s arguments echo at several points. While this would salvage divine impassibility, it would seem to mean giving up on genuine contingency in the world. If this is right, it raises the question of whether “classical theism” is as stable a construct as it seems.
These questions aside, I don’t want to suggest that Creator God, Evolving World is a bad book by any means. I found it incredibly stimulating (as these posts might suggest!) and also found a lot to agree with. Plus, at a time when “classical theism” has become something of a bogeyman, it’s refreshing to see it defended and brought into conversation with contemporary issues.
Keith Ward gives a concise overview and defense of metaphysical idealism:
This lecture is essentially a summary of the argument from his 2010 book More Than Matter. The basic claim is that mind or consciousness is a fundamental component or aspect of reality, and it can’t be reduced to or explained exhaustively in material terms. Ward points out that we’re immediately aware of consciousness, while the material world–at least as it appears to us–is something that is in part constructed by our minds. This doesn’t mean that the physical world isn’t real; but it does suggest that there’s something problematic about arguing for the reduction of mind to an aspect of reality that is itself partly mind-constituted. Minds are the only “things-in-themselves” we know first hand. On that basis, Ward says
What idealists maintain is that the ultimate nature of reality itself is mind-like, and that human and other finite minds are the best clues we have to what objective reality is like. The cosmos is not a mindless, unconscious, valueless, purposeless, yet somehow strangely intelligible, mechanism. Such a view is the result of extrapolating a machine-model, very useful in many scientific contexts, to provide the most comprehensive and adequate picture of the real cosmos.
Idealists propose that the human mind provides a better model from which to extrapolate to the cosmos as a whole. That is not because the cosmos looks like a very large human person or because there is some large person hovering just beyond the cosmos. It is because human minds play a creative and constructive role in producing the phenomenal world. They seem to point to a level of reality that is not merely phenomenal or an appearance to consciousness. Human minds generate an idea of reality as mind-like in a way that far transcends human mentality, yet that does include something like consciousness, value, and purpose as essential parts of its nature. (More Than Matter, p. 58)
Ward doesn’t claim to offer a knock-down argument for idealism, but he thinks it’s at least as reasonable as competing views, if not more so. He also points out that some form of idealism is arguably the majority view in the history of philosophy.
Even when I was an atheist, I never found materialism particularly compelling. And studying philosophy–particularly early modern philosophy–only reinforced that. It’s hard to come to grips with the arguments of Descartes, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant and still think that materialism is a straightforward, much less obviously true, understanding of reality.
I enjoyed Keith Ward’s Pascal’s Fire so much (despite disagreement in places) that when I saw his Religion and Human Nature at a used bookseller for five bucks I snatched it up. RHN is part of Ward’s four-part “comparative theology” which also includes volumes on revelation, creation, and community. His methodology is to compare the treatment of these topics in various world religions as well as modern secular naturalism, and then to provide a Christian response, both where it can affirm and must deny aspects of the other views.
RHN contains really interesting and illuminating discussions of competing schools of thought in Hinduism and Buddhism in the earlier chapters, but for the purposes of this post I’m interested in Ward’s re-interpretation of the doctrine of Original Sin in light of modern evolutionary thought.
The basic picture offered us by evolutionary theory conflicts with the traditional Christian view of the fall and original sin at a number of points. Traditional Christian teaching has been that human beings lived in a state of blessedness and innocence until Adam’s sin, and that death and suffering entered the world as a result of sin. Adam and Eve transmitted to their descendents both a propensity or inclination toward sin and the guilt of the first sin (whence one argument for infant baptism).
Evolutionary theory, on the other hand, tells us that suffering and death long predated the existence of human beings, that our tendencies toward lust and aggression are part of our genetic baggage and probably helped our ancestors to survive long enough to propagate the species, and that there was likely no period when humans lived in harmony with each other and their world as depicted in the Garden of Eden story.
One popular way to reconcile these two accounts has been to see the story of Creation and Fall as a “myth,” not in the sense of a fairy tale or falsehood, but in the sense of a story that gives us a profound truth about the human condition. The way life is depicted prior to the Fall in the early chapters of Genesis represents creation not as it was some time in the distant past, but creation as it should be and will be when God’s purposes for it are finally realized. “Fallen” humanity is humanity as it is in this world.
While there is value in such an account, Ward says, it tends to sidestep the question of why a good God would create such inherently flawed creatures, and it even risks locating the source of evil in finite existence as such, rather than in a distortion of what is essentially a good creation. Instead he tries to develop a position that mediates between more literalistic and purely “mythic” ones.
Ward accepts that “Destruction and death are built into the universe as necessary conditions of its progress to new forms of life” (p. 160), but he suggests that it nevertheless is the case that moral evil entered the world at some point. Proto-humans (or whatever we want to call them) may have tendencies toward lust, aggression and greed as part of their constitutive make-up, but at some point it became possible for them to choose to indulge those tendencies at the expense of another:
Thus when humans first came into being, they were already locked into a world in which competition and death were fundamental to their very existence. In this long process of the emergence of consciousness, there was a first moment at which a sentient animal became aware of moral obligation. At some point, animal life emerged from a stage of what Hegel called “dreaming innocence,” at which moral considerations were irrelevant, since animals simply acted in ways natural to their species. At that point, a sentient consciousness discerned, or thought it discerned, an obligation to act in one way rather than another, an obligation which it was free to respond to or ignore. It seems to me plausible to say that it was at that point that truly personal consciousness first began to exist.
Two elements seem to be axiomatic about moral obligation. One is that, if a moral obligation truly exists, then it must be possible to meet it; otherwise it is not an obligation. The other is that it must also be possible to ignore it; otherwise it is not a matter of morality. It therefore seems to me beyond dispute that there must have been a first sin in the history of the planet. There must have been a moment when a conscious being decided to ignore an obligation, when it need not have done so. It is not an antique fable, it is an indisputable fact, that sin entered into the world through the free action of a conscious being which chose to do what it should not and need not have done. (p. 161)
Furthermore, this choosing of evil ruptures what may have been a “tacit” or “thematic” knowledge and awareness of God. “The Fall consisted in the loss of the sense of a felt unity with the sacred root of being, in the inability to co-operate with its gracious guidance, and so in the growth of that sense of solitude and estrangement which becomes the lot of humanity in a state of sin” (p. 162). Once this unity is ruptured, “spiritual death” is the natural outcome.
The ultimate human choice, from a theistic viewpoint, is not so much a choice between good and evil, abstractly conceived, as a choice between relationship with God, as the source of love and power, and a form of self-determination which inevitably leads on to self-regard. (pp. 163-4)
The effects of this choosing of evil reinforce human beings’ already existing drives toward dominating and exploiting others, making it difficult, if not impossible, to not choose sin. And this condition is spread, Ward thinks, because future generations are born among those who’ve already turned away from God, making it even harder for them to choose the good, much less restore the lost unity with the divine. He therefore adopts a view that Original Sin is propagated by social and environmental conditions rather than being passed in some quasi-physical fashion.
The import of the Genesis story is that our world is one in which at a very early stage all humans rejected God. It is that original and massive embracing of desire that has drastically altered the moral situation of all subsequent human descendents. (p. 167)
For anyone born into such a world, the choice of good and evil is no delicately balanced, dispassionately contemplated decision. In a world of greed, hatred, and delusion, one must either be an oppressor, a victim, or a resister. One will be born as a child within one of these groups, and one’s historical responses and learned activities will be shaped accordingly. (pp. 168-9)
Even if someone managed to always make the correct moral decision, she would still not experience the unity in relationship with God that is the real purpose of human life. Instead of experiencing morality as the natural expression of a life lived in friendship with God, we usually experience it as a burdensome obligation and an obstacle to fulfilling our desires, at least where it “pinches.” In our fallen condition our inclinations and our obligations are frequently at variance. To be delivered from our condition requires overcoming our estrangement from God, and the consequent transformation of our desires and inclinations. But this isn’t something we’re capable of pulling off.
James K.A. Smith puts his finger on something that’s worried me about N.T. Wright in his review of Wright’s latest book. Wright sometimes gives the impression that post-New Testament development of Christian theology was a decline and that it’s possible–or desirable–for us to re-inhabit the thought-world of the 1st century (with the help of some judiciously applied knowledge of second-temple Judaism, of course). While understanding the historical context of Jesus’ life and mission is obviously important, Christians have always “translated” the gospel into different cultural idioms. Arguably this process starts in the NT itself: the theological frameworks of the synoptic gospels, John’s gospel, Paul’s letters, the letter to the Hebrews, and Revelation all have their differences. In the post-NT period, this picks up steam with the translation of the Christian gospel into language and concepts borrowed from Hellenistic philosophy, culminating in the debates at Nicaea and Chalcedon.
It’s possible, I suppose, to see all this as a departure from a pristine, “original” gospel. But to do that, you have to explain how we, as 21st-century Christians, are supposed to embrace the worldview (assuming there’s just one worldview) of the NT without qualification. A more promising approach, in my view, is to acknowledge that the gospel is always undergoing a process of reinterpretation and translation, and that this can be done faithfully. The earliest expressions of the faith–while clearly normative in an important sense–aren’t necessarily adequate for all later generations of Christians. For a different, and more positive, take on this process of reinterpreting the gospel through the centuries, I’d recommend Keith Ward’s book Re-thinking Christianity.
Following on the previous post, this video of theologian Keith Ward talking with Robert Wright has a good discussion–mostly at the beginning–of how we might talk about different religions promoting worship of the same God. Ward goes beyond the Western monotheistic faiths and offers reasons for thinking that the ultimate reality of some Eastern religions is not necessarily distinct from the theistic God.
I think we have to respect the fact that there are genuine differences between traditions, and I reject a too-simple pluralism that irons out all the interesting differences among them. At the same time, we often treat some differences as absolute when in fact they may be different aspects, or partial apprehensions, of a single truth. For instance, Christians often contrast the “personal” God of theism with the “impersonal” ultimate reality affirmed in some Indian traditions. But, of course, sophisticated theologians know that God can’t simply be described as a “person” in the same way that an individual human being can–God is personal but also “beyond personality,” to borrow an expression from C.S. Lewis. Likewise, many Indian traditions affirm that the ultimate reality has a personal aspect, or that it relates to humans in a way that is analogous to personal relationships. So what looks at first glance like an irreconcilable difference may turn out to be a set of complementary insights.
Christopher offers a semi-defense of Pelagius (a semi-Pelagian defense?) and calls for a movement of “Advent asceticism” that sees a particular form of communal obedience not as an attempt to earn heaven, but as a response to Heaven as it has come to live among us in the Incarnation. He notes that much Protestant theology, with its focus on a once-for-all transactional account of salvation, has a hard time underwriting this kind of response. Instead, he advocates a “participatory soteriology”:
What this means is not that we save ourselves, or that salvation has not been given once-for-all, but rather in Christ we receive this Life as pure gift and participate in and live out of the Life of this One who is our salvation, our healing, our reharmonization as a leavening society and as a people of and friends of the earth, that is, the whole of creation and every creature.
Somewhat relatedly, I’m reading Keith Ward’s Religion and Human Nature, which is the third volume in his four-volume “comparative theology.” In it, Ward is trying to develop a Christian theology that is open to the insights of other traditions while still remaining a distinctively Christian theology.
An important distinction Ward makes in this volume is between “forensic” and “soterial” models of sin and salvation. In short, for a forensic model, the fundamental human problem is guilt and the solution is remittance of guilt (whether through punishment, satisfaction, or forgiveness). For a soterial model, by contrast, the fundamental problem is the the sickness of the human self: its affections and desires are disordered. The self is turned in on itself, to borrow Luther’s phrase, loving itself in a disordered way. The corresponding solution is healing: we need a re-orientation of our deepest selves toward love of God and neighbor.
Writing about different forms of Hinduism (but in a way that he intends, I think, to apply to Christianity) Ward observes that “a concentration on a forensic notion of desert misses something basic to the religious perception”:
What is missing is the idea…that the goal of human life lies in a relationship of devotion to the supreme Lord. A mechanical and forensic model, concentrating on individual moral success of failure, misses this element of personal relationship that lies at the heart of devotional faith….[A] soterial model…construes the spiritual state of the human self primarily in terms of analogies to disease and health. The healthy soul is one that is in a state of devoted login service to the Lord, that is transfigured by the beauty of the Lord, and empowered by the Lord’s love. The sick soul is one that withers and atrophies because it is incapable either of giving or receiving the love that alone gives life. (p. 53)
A lot of traditional theology, particularly Protestant, has favored the forensic account. Jesus dies on the cross so that our sins can be forgiven. The problem, as Christopher notes, is that Protestantism (particularly Lutheranism) hasn’t always had a good account of what we’re supposed to do after that. The result has all too often been a complacent conformity rather than lives conformed to the image of Christ.
Correspdonding to the forensic and soterial models, Ward distinguishes two understandings of “justification.” The first, which has dominated much Protestant theology, understands it as a kind of declaration of legal innocence. God “imputes” the righteousness of Christ to us, even though in ourselves we remain sinful. Arguing for a different view, Ward suggests understanding it more relationally. Justification is being rightly related to God.
When ‘justification’ is taken to mean, ‘a declaration of legal innocence’, one faces the difficulty that a guilty person has to be declared innocent by God. But, if God is perfectly just, how is this possible? As I have interpreted it, justification means ‘establishing the possibility of being rightly related to God’. How can a person whose deepest motives and dispositions are to cause great harm be rightly related to God? Only if those motivations and dispositions are wholly changed, by an inward turning of the mind, a metanoia. (p. 190).
What is accomplished in the Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection is that God unites humanity to divinity and makes possible this restored relationship. The cross shows both “the suffering that self-regard causes to self, to others, and to God [and] the life of obedient self-giving that God requires” (p. 191). But it is more than that: it is “the historical vehicle of divine power to forgive and heal” (p. 191).
Instead of ‘satisfaction’ and ‘substitution’, it might be better to speak of ‘healing’ and ‘participation’. What God requires of sinners is a transformation of life in penitence and obedient love. This requirement is met by participation in the power of the Spirit, which is luminously expressed in and mediated through the life and self-sacrificial death of Jesus. Jesus’ sacrifice gives particular form to the Spirit’s activity, and founds the community of the new covenant in which the Spirit can transform human lives into the image of cruciform love. (p. 214)
That last point strikes me as key in light of Christopher’s observation that Protestant Christianity often lacks forms of disciplined community that give a paritcular shape to the Christian life. Participation in the Spirit is participation in the particular cruciform shape of Jesus’ humanity. This incorporation into Christ restores our relationship to God and makes possible a re-ordering of our desires. We “put on the mind of Christ,” to use Paul’s phrase, and are renewed in our humanity. This is a gradual process, one that may not be complete until after death. But by being “in Christ” we are empowered to receive a new self, one that is rightly related to God, our neighbor, and the rest of creation.
I’m reading Keith Ward’s More than Matter? and found it interesting to learn that two of Ward’s teachers were the Oxford philosophers Gilbert Ryle and A.J. Ayer. Ryle was famous for characterizing Cartesian dualism as “the ghost in the machine,” and Ayer was the famed proponent of logical positivism. Ward says that he came to believe that neither Ryle’s quasi-behaviorist “ordinary language” philosophy nor Ayer’s logical positivism provided a satisfying explanation of the nature of the human person. (Or, by extension, the nature of reality more generally.) The book goes on to defend a version of idealism–the view, broadly speaking, that mind or spirit is the most fundamental reality upon which everything else depends.
Here’s Ward discussing his move from atheism to Christianity and the celebrity culture surrounding the debates over the new atheism:
…it is a fundamental misunderstanding of the gospel to suppose that, though violence is prohibited in this age, it will be perfectly acceptable in the age to come. The German writer Friedrich Nietzsche called this resentissement, the desire for delayed revenge, the belief that we might have to suffer persecution now, but God will take revenge in the end. The true Christian perception is that the cross of Christ is God’s last word on violence. The divine love will never turn into divine hatred. It will go as far as possible to bring people to divine life, and it will always seek the welfare of every sentient being. And that is the last word.
–Keith Ward, Re-thinking Christianity, pp. 41-42
Interestingly, Ward doesn’t think this rules out the idea of hell, at least in a qualified sense. He says that God cannot force people to embrace the path of love against their will. “[I]t is possible for rational creatures to exclude themselves from love, and therefore from the divine life” (p. 42). As a result, people might find themselves, after death, in a hell of their own making where they experience the consequences of the choices they have made. Nevertheless, he believes that the divine love remains insistent in trying to draw people into repentance, and that such repentance is possible even in hell. “A God of unlimited love would go to any lengths to persuade them to return to the path of eternal life, and to help them on that path” (p. 42).
This sounds similar to the view of hell sketched by C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce–people are in hell because they won’t choose to let go of their sins, their hatreds, the resentments. But they could. Purgatory and hell are not two separate realms (as in Dante); the difference is whether one chooses to leave. Lewis also imaginatively depicts God’s grace trying to draw people back. In his telling this takes the form of redeemed humans–usually people that the damned knew in the earthly life–entreating them to come “higher up and further in.”
Where I’m not sure Ward and Lewis would agree is whether there is, at some point, a moment of decision after which one’s eternal destiny is fixed. Both deny that such a moment occurs before death–in both Lewis and Ward post-mortem repentance is a possibility. But Lewis seems more inclined to think that there is a moment when one decides decisively for or against God. (His book is called The Great Divorce, after all.) Ward, on the other hand, seems more optimistic that the divine love will never give up on the unrepentant and that universal salvation is something to be hoped for.