The God who never gives up



If all are not saved, if God creates souls he knows to be destined for eternal misery, is God evil? Well, perhaps one might conclude instead that he is both good and evil, or that he is beyond good and evil altogether, which is to say beyond the supremacy of the Good; but, then again, to stand outside the sovereignty of the Good is in fact to be evil after all, so it all amounts to the same thing. But maybe every analogy ultimately fails. What is not debatable is that, if God does so create, in himself he cannot be the Good as such, and creation cannot be a morally meaningful act: It is, seen from one vantage, an act of predilective love; but, seen from another–logically necessary–vantage, it is an act of prudential malevolence. And so it cannot be true. We are presented by what has become the majority tradition with three fundamental claims, any two of which might be true simultaneously, but never all three: 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. And this, I have to say, is the final moral meaning I find in the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, at least if one truly believes that traditional Christian language about God’s goodness and the theological grammar to which it belongs are not empty: that the God of eternal retribution and pure sovereignty proclaimed by so much of the Christian tradition is not, and cannot possibly be, the God of self-outpouring love revealed in Christ. If God is the good creator of all, he must also be the savior of all, without fail, who brings to himself all he has made, including all rational wills, and only thus returns to himself in all that goes forth from him. — David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, pp. 90-91

I had already come around to a position pretty close to the one David Bentley Hart argues for in his most recent book, though I’m a bit more diffident about my views. (Then again, who isn’t more diffident than Hart?) Nevertheless, I still enjoyed the book, not least because of the moral passion Hart brings to it. And I do think the moral argument is at the heart (ahem) of this book. Sure, he delves into classical theistic metaphysics and the nature of freedom (both divine and creaturely), but at the end of the day this book is really about whether God can be trusted to be good and bring creation to the best imaginable fulfillment. A creation in which even one creature suffered unending torment as the consequence of a finite offense is (necessarily) worse than one in which all creatures are restored. And if God is both good and sovereign, why wouldn’t God be able to bring about the best state of affairs?

One quibble I had is that Hart largely ignores the discussion of universalism in more recent theology. He generally takes the later Augustine, Thomism and Calvinism as his interlocutors, which makes the tradition seem more monolithic on this point than it is. At least since the early modern period, theologians have been questioning the received view of hell. Schleiermacher, the great 19th-century liberal theologian, argued for what we might call “single predestination” and, as Richard Bauckham points out, he had a “deeply felt conviction that the blessedness of the redeemed would be severely marred by their sympathy for the damned.” And several major 20th century theologians–Barth, Rahner, Von Balthasar, Tillich, Kung, and Moltmann, to name a few–either downplayed traditional notions of hell or were outright universalist. The same is true of more recent theology, largely though not exclusively within mainline Protestantism and Catholicism. In addition, feminist, liberation and other theology written from the perspective of marginalized groups has emphasized that humans are quite capable of creating hell on earth and God is the one who delivers from violence and oppression, not the overseer of an eternal torture chamber. This is all somewhat at odds with the way Hart plays Western Christianity off against the Eastern church and the early fathers.

This isn’t to detract from Hart’s arguments, which stand or fall on their own merits. But it suggests that the Western Christian tradition is more hospitable to universalism than he suggests. A recent example is offered by Keith Ward, a theologian-philosopher whose work has influenced me quite a bit:

God does not compel humans to repent, and repentance is required if people are to turn to the path of life. But if God wishes that all should reach repentance, God must make repentance and salvation possible for all, without exception. A God of love would always hold the door of repentance open. In that sense, Hell cannot be God’s final word to any created being. It must be possible even in Hell to repent, and God, the God revealed in Christ, must be present and active to make that a real possibility. (Re-thinking Christianity, p. 43)

This is very similar to Hart’s argument: If God is good, then God will never give up on any created soul. Hell may exist as a kind of purifying state, but it cannot be an unending, sheerly retributive form of punishment. God wills that all shall be saved, and the divine love is inexhaustible in seeking the lost.

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