David Bentley Hart wrote a book on Universalism, That All Shall Be Saved. I won’t attempt a full review, critique, or summary of his main arguments, as you can find those elsewhere (see Myles Wentz and Douglas Farrow). That is far beyond the scope of this piece. I’ll skip comment on his handling of Scripture for others, even though that’s a foundationally critical place to engage the argument. I’ll also mostly leave to the side his characterizations of other theological traditions, tone, etc. except to say that it’s much as one would expect from Hart except to the nth degree. The first thirty pages or so are something of a tour-de-force in well-poisoning and rhetorical posturing.
Instead, I want to point out a couple of issues with the book that I don’t think are entirely resolved; a couple of lacunae in the argument, especially in relation to some of his earlier positions regarding God and evil. Perhaps they are not insurmountable, but so far as I can see they lead to some very troubling consequences for folks buying into his program.
Whence the Fall?
We begin with a problem that stems from one of his central arguments. I already rehearsed the heart of it on Twitter (as one does), but essentially I’m curious what the issue of the angelic fall does to his argument against the freewill defense of hell.
I’m summarizing and butchering terribly here, but Hart basically argues that the libertarian conception of freedom often invoked by the free-will defenders of hell is impossible and incoherent. No will is that radically, spontaneously “free.” The will is ordered toward ends, specifically the chief end of the Good, who is God. True freedom is the realization of our nature and end, ergo, union with God. Even the bad we will, we will confusedly, thinking it a good, and so forth; nobody wills the bad as the bad for themselves and so on. Furthermore, it is incoherent to see that sort of deliberative power to reject God and turn towards evil with finality as necessary to the concept of freedom when looking at Christ, who certainly had no capacity or potential to reject God and yet was fully human and perfectly free. Not only that, God’s relation to human wills as the transcendent one, interior to all reality, the Primary Cause to all secondary causes, is not like one agent among others, but is rather the One who can actually move wills without violating their freedom and so forth. Great. So far, so Augustinian/Thomist (and, dare I say, Reformed?).
From there the basic logic then is, given all that, “who, in the face of the presence of God, his glory, his love, his goodness, etc. is going to resist that Good forever? How can those wills not eventually be purified, transformed, and turned to reconciliation and repentance? Who can imagine a will resisting that transformative presence of God forever? Keeping your eyes closed to the blazing glory for eternity?”
Here’s where my initial question arises: in a number of places, Hart makes a big deal about the place of demons, the rebellious powers, the Archons, or fallen angels in his account of what it is Christ came to defeat (TASBS, 205). Indeed, he very explicitly pins much of the blame for why the work is such a messy, horrible place on these powers who exercise of a “sphere of created autonomy” against the Kingdom of God and his will, even if only for a time (The Doors of the Sea, 62, 65).
The question that arises is what do we make of their freedom? On the assumption that as finite creatures Archons/powers/fallen angels have the same sort of will that Hart argues is the only sort of will that makes sense for rational agents to have, how did they fall? How did they turn from the Good that they presumably were beholding, maybe not directly, but more clearly in the heavens than humans on the earth? For humans, Hart likes Ireneaus’ suggestion that we’re dealing with an initial child-like immaturity that rendered them susceptible to temptation and deceit by the Tempter. And that’s fine. But does something like that hold true for the unfallen angels who presumably were not in the same position as our first parents? Who fell with a presumably greater knowledge of God as well as un-tempted from without, as it were?
I know the force of Hart’s claim for us is largely eschatological–that in the end, even if it takes ages, folks will see the glory and be transformed–but given the force with which he argues for the unthinkability of ultimate rejection and the way our wills work, it really does end up making any sort of fall or defection for creatures such as the angels unthinkable and insane.
We’re left, then, with a couple of other options. Maybe God created them wicked? Or he willingly-knowingly-given-his-omnipotence-and-omniscience-permitted/ordained their fall? It seems like one of those follows despite Hart’s rejection of those options, or something like the freedom Hart is rejecting is not as illogical as all that.
Of course, someone might suggest he can appeal to the irrationality of the Fall as some sort of surd, the mystery of evil. But that doesn’t seem to close the lacunae here, because that would fall right into the hands of his infernalist opponents. If you’re willing to admit the surd of the irrationality of sin and the defection from the Good on the front end, does that not admit the possibility of unending recalcitrance on the back end?
Now, I get that the Fall is a natural limit case for any theology, and that this probably not insuperable, but it seems to present an analogy for the kind of choice that Hart thinks is unthinkable. A lacunae in his approach to the big story of Christianity that raises other questions in its train.
The Risk of Freedom and Theodicy
Turning to one of those questions, as I already suggested, reading this work by Hart pointed me back to the issues involved in his earlier anti-theodicy theodicy, The Doors of the Sea. In that work he goes about trying to do two things: answer atheistic skeptics of the goodness of God in the face of evil as well as correct what he considers to be defective attempts to defend God’s honor.
He famously (at least among his fans who quote him relentlessly on this point) invokes Ivan’s argument in The Brothers Karamazov, against any sort of explanation, justification, or defense of God’s dealings that would make the tortured suffering of an innocent child a necessary ingredient in the totalizing, absolute harmony of the cosmos and the ultimate plan of all things to unveil the fullness of God’s glory in either a deist, semi-Hegelian, or even Calvinist form.
This involves recognizing that much evil is simply unredeemed, damned, not intended for good or as a component of some necessary good. God permitted it, sure, but does not purpose or cause directly or indirectly the evil of the world. Much is of it is utterly pointless and totally irredeemable. You can take comfort looking about at various tragedies in this life and tell yourself, “God had no specific reason for that to happen. It just did.”
And so the Powers and an appeal to their realm of created freedom are an important component of the portrait. This is because Hart especially wants to reject any option that sees God’s sovereignty either as a direct or total cause of the tragic eventualities of history in the fallen world. In their disobedience, humans have handed over rule of the world, in a sense, to the powers who are a serious, partial cause of the injustice of history. Indeed, created freedom as a whole figures quite prominently as his non-explanation explanation of evil:
“As soon as one sheds the burden of the desire for a total explanation — as soon as one has come to see the history of suffering as a contingency and an absurdity, in which grace is ever at work but upon with it does not depend, and has come also to see the promised end of all things not as the dialectical residue of a great cosmic and moral process, but as something far more glorious than the pitiable resources of fallen time could ever yield–one is confronted with only this bare choice: either one embraces the mystery of created freedom and accepts that the union of free spiritual creatures with the God of love is a thing so wonderful that the power of creation to enslave itself to death must be permitted by God: or one judges that not even such rational freedom is worth the risk of a cosmic fall and the terrible injustice of the consequences that follow from it. But, then, since there can be not context in which such a judgment can be meaningfully made, no perspective from which a finite Euclidean mind can weigh eschatological glory in the balance against earthly suffering, the rejection of God on these grounds cannot really be a rational decision, but only moral pathos.” (69)
The thing that has always been curious to me with this is the way Hart rages at theodicies of another sort, he basically ends up affirming some sort of freewill theodicy because the union of souls is worth the risk. The “union of free spiritual creatures with the God of love is a thing so wonderful” that to the eye of faith, it’s basically worth all the carnage, all the death, all the destruction, the abuse and tears of Ivan’s little girl, because the gift of being and the ultimate gift of being in communion with God outweighs it, despite however much Hart says we shouldn’t let this affirmation degenerate into a banal confidence in God’s great plan.
A few things are worth noting here. First, this doesn’t sit well with his rejection of the freewill defense of hell. There the moral pathos overwhelms that judgment that the risk is worth the beauty. And that’s not totally inconsistent. In one it is the calculus of eschatological glory v. earthly suffering and not final, eschatological glory v. final, eschatological suffering. Indeed, he works through the calculus and says as much (82-87). Even still, it’s not just that he judges the damnation of a single soul weightier in the balance than, say, Stalin’s wide-scale butchery, the massacre at My Lai, the killing fields of Cambodia, or the slave trade. It’s that in his telling in the 4th Meditation of TASBS, the mystery of created freedom becomes quite a bit less mysterious and not quite as glorious a gift so as to raise questions about it’s earlier justification of even earthly suffering.
Indeed, given what Hart says in TASBS, the “risk” he appeals to in TDOTS essentially evaporates. In critiquing the free will defense for hell, he very forcefully argues for God’s ability to providentially order every eventuality such that he could move all wills freely to choose him, or really, just about anything, given the coincidence of omnipotence and omniscience. Relatedly, earlier Hart presses the point of God’s power to the point of rejection the distinction between antecedent and consequent will in God to get God off the hook (TASBS, 82). If creation ex nihilo and the doctrine of eternal damnation are true, the evil of damnation is folded within even his positive intentions for creation, since “[u]nder the canopy of God’s omnipotence and omniscience, the consequent is already wholly virtually present in the antecedent.”
My point here is that under this “canopy of God’s omnipotence and omniscience”, this supremely efficacious providence, this will that can work interior to all other wills without violating such wills, the “risk” involved in the mystery of created freedom is essentially eliminated, along with the coherence or purchase of that defense. The suffering that followed only did so by God’s knowing-and-able-to-do-something-about-it-but-didn’t will from all eternity. Not only that, a God with that sort of power and that sort of relationship to the universe is one eminently capable of preventing a fall and bringing free creatures into unity with himself without the pain, suffering, and consequences of brought about by either human freedom, or that of the powers.
A Pointless Deal with the Devil?
In this way we begin to see that a freewill defense or theodicy such as Hart gives us in TDOTS does not really get us much further (if at all) than, say, someone appealing to a mysterious, meticulous, inscrutable plan for the whole. At this point, I’ll just repeat myself and note that when it comes to evil, unless you’re working with a tiny, little mythological Zeus-god—the Triune Creator of heaven and earth could stop each and every act of evil should he desire it. Either God’s permission is willing or coerced. Assuming it’s not coerced, if he doesn’t stop an act of evil, he either has a good enough reason or purpose for it occurring or he does not.
On this point even the Arminian (or Hartian) and the Calvinist is agreed. It’s only that the Arminian typically appeals to a general good reason or purpose (free will or freely chosen love) and that the Calvinist some more meticulous, specific (though probably/possibly unknown) providential purposes. If you appeal to the mystery of free will which is necessary for love, moral choice, and so forth, you’re still saying God had a good enough reason for evil and even that specific evil. It’s just happens to be a very, very generic one. The untimely death of your wife and child have no particular purposes in God’s economy. They are just collateral damage in a marvelous, but thankfully quite broad and general plan.
At which point, though, you have to begin to push further back into and beyond the act of creation. Unless you’re an Open Theist or a Process Theist, you still have to face the fact that God freely created this world with a perfect knowledge of every nook and cranny of sin, evil, and the goods connected to them that would unfold. God willed to create this world and derivatively these evils exist as a part of his providential order for a reason. And so they are knowingly connected, included within the purchase price of that good by a God powerful enough to have stopped it or ordered things differently, even if they were ultimately unnecessary to it. Even Hart’s universalist portrait, where God can say, “All’s well that ends well,” the final beatitude and glory of God being all in all, every soul, comes with the same price tag.
Perhaps Hart could have recourse to some sort of felix culpa defense of evil? Only with evil and sin do we get Christ and his marvelous, redemptive victory over evil. Indeed, in some places I thought I saw hints of it. But overall it would not fit with his rejection of the notion that God might have any need of sin and death to manifest his glory (TDOTS, 74).
Similarly, that rejection would seem to rule out the notion that perhaps only on this particular schema of history, with all of its bloodshed and horror, could God bring into union with himself every single created soul. Or even that the Lord wanted these souls, who could only be the particular persons-in-relation-who they are after being forged in the fires of history, to be the body of Christ. For again, that would seem to make evil necessary to the revelation of God’s glory.
And so, if we are to believe Hart’s earlier statements about the gratuity of evil, then these instances (really, aeons) of unnecessary, unredeemed, and pointless suffering constitute their own form of horror within the Christian story Hart is telling. By Hart’s own standards it seems another “secret compromise with evil,” only in this case, there was no point in making the bargain at all.
Soli Deo Gloria