The Powers, “the Mystery of Created Freedom”, and Hart’s Pointless Deal with the Devil

that all may be savedDavid 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

Mere Fidelity: The Skeleton’s in God’s Closet

A few months ago I review Joshua Ryan Butler’s new book The Skeletons in God’s Closet. You can read that here.

Well, we decided to have him on an episode of Mere Fidelity to have a chat. That episode is here.

And yes, for those of you who were wondering, this podcast is still a thing. We just needed a new sound editor.

Enjoy!

 

The Skeletons in God’s Closet (TGC Book Review)

skeletonsJoshua Ryan Butler. The Skeletons in God’s Closet: The Mercy of Hell, the Surprise of Judgment, and the Holy of Holy War. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2014. 384 pp. $15.99.

Hell. Judgment. Holy war.

For many critics and struggling Christians, these aspects of biblical teaching represent all that is darkest about religion. They give rise to the questions that haunt them at night and linger in the back of their prayers, causing them to doubt they can pray to a merciful God. They are the secret skeletons in God’s closet that have to be denied, or at least hidden away, if we are still to believe him at all. A loving God cannot condemn people to eternal torment, or exclusively judge those in other religions, or send one nation to invade and conquer another. Many of us simply sense in our gut that either God is not like this or God is not real.

In The Skeletons in God’s Closet: The Mercy of Hell, the Surprise of Judgment, and the Hope of Holy War, Joshua Ryan Butler argues the provocative thesis that these are teachings not skeletons in God’s closet—indeed, they are evidence that he is goodness all the way down to his bones. The pastor of global outreach at Imago Dei Church in Portland, Oregon, Butler writes as one who came to faith in Christ and found hope but was then faced with the shock of a Bible that didn’t fit his initial ideas of love, goodness, and justice. But in the course of looking at the bigger story of Scripture, wrestling with theology, working against global oppression, serving on missions to rescue girls stuck in sex trafficking, and spending time in Native American reservations, he began to find in doctrines like divine judgment both hope and healing for creation’s brokenness and human evil.

Taking these biblical, theological, and practical dimensions and using persuasive, clear, and even poetic arguments, Butler weaves them into one seamless tapestry. His ability to exposit Scripture in light of scholarship and everyday personal and political realities—and to do so with theological depth—allows him to cut through so many damaging and damnable caricatures that hold people back from trusting in the fundamental goodness of God.

So what exactly does Butler say about hell, judgment, and holy war?

You can read the rest of my review at The Gospel Coalition. And really, go buy the book. It’s that good and that important.

Soli Deo Gloria

So Rob Bell Wrote Another Book About God — Some Thoughts Before Actually Reading It

Rob BellA couple of years ago Rob Bell wrote a little book about Heaven, Hell, and all that God stuff. You might have heard of it. If you haven’t, don’t worry about it–he didn’t say anything new. (Or necessarily very good. I’ll be honest, even though I was a Bell fan in college, I was pretty disappointed with that last one.)  In any case, it kicked off a little bit of a crap-storm in the Evangelical world. Well, actually, it was the online theological storm of the century. There were pre-emptive tweets by Evangelical megastars, negative reviews, glowing recommendations, counter-reviews, charges of heresy, charges of heresy-hunting, gangs roaming the internet with clubs watching for signs of dissent or support, refugee camps, and basically all that is unholy in the blogosphere.

At the same time, some good conversations and decent theology got out too.

Now, thankfully this all went down before I had a blog up and running. Given the amount of Facebook conversations I was involved in during that whole imbroglio, I praise God that in his providence that he spared me from my own immaturity. It seems though, that Rob Bell has written another book. It’s about God, or at least, What We Talk About When We Talk About God. Well, here’s the trailer:

Before I read it, or anybody else reads it, or writes a review, or tweets some 140-character gem and the whole blogging world explodes with outrage and applause, I have a few thoughts to offer up to the online world, both within my own Reformedish tribe, as well as those outside it:

1. Calm Down – First things first–calm down. Whoever you are, turn it down a notch. If you’re a Bell fan, slow your roll. No, he’s not going to unveil the secrets of the universe. It’s not revolutionary or visionary. He’s probably just written down something somebody else has written in a printed blog format

with

oddly-spaced lines that

emphasize some

point

that you’ve never heard of because you’re not reading

academically-hip

theological literature

like he

does.

If you’re a Bell critic, especially if you’re Reformed, calm down. Realize that if you really believe the confessions, none of what he writes means God isn’t actually sovereign, won’t take care of his church, or that the whole church will drift into heresy and death because of it. Yes, given the last book, you will probably not like a lot of this one. Yes, many people will read it and agree to propositions about and perceptions of God you find to be unworthy and un-scriptural. Yes, you might have plenty of correcting to do. But once again, this has been the situation of the Church for the last 2,000 years. It will survive one book.

In fact, just take a minute to recover by reading Romans 9 or some of the Institutes. There. Feel better?

Okay, let’s move on.

2. Read First, Shoot Later (Or, Don’t Shoot, Pray Before You Write) – This one’s mostly for critics–read the book before you say anything super-critical about it. Seriously. It doesn’t help to declaim something as full of heresy and beyond the pale if you’ve never read the dang thing. Also, when you do read it, do it with the spirit of generosity, trying your best to love your neighbor as yourself, reading as sympathetically as you’d like to be read. Don’t caricature or misquote, or uncharitably misrepresent. You might still find a whole bunch of stuff you don’t like–stuff that troubles and disturbs you so that you feel the need to correct in print. That’s fine. I believe firmly that any publicly-promulgated doctrine or false teaching needs to be corrected publicly for the health and life the church. Jesus and the apostles hated heresy, so if there is any, by all means, declaim away. That said, remember that it needs to be done in a spirit of love and with the integrity that flows from the Gospel. Our polemics may be passionate, but they should always be principled and never be putrid.  Truth cannot be championed by dishonesty, and especially if you’re a pastor, remember that you’re setting an example for your hearer/readers. The way you react often sets the tone for your people, as well as the watching world. As the old hymn goes, they will know us by our love. Love doesn’t exclude disagreement and confrontation, but it should change the way it goes down. Pray before you hit ‘publish’ on that blog.

3. Try to Understand the Other Team – I hate to call them teams, but yes, in issues like this, realistically the theological spectrum ends up splitting into opposing teams who drive the conversation, with some people trying to occupy the center but usually leaning one way more than the other. I’ll just say that both sides need to strive to understand the other’s concerns. For instance, if you read Love Wins and you didn’t for an instant sympathize with the criticisms that Bell was launching against some traditional doctrines, I’m just going hazard a guess that you’re probably not an effective evangelist, because he was hitting at legitimate (or at least common) theological and cultural concerns. I’m not saying he gave the right answers, but if you can’t understand why those answers resonated with so many in our culture, then you’re not going to be able to thoughtfully and compassionately provide the answers you deem to be the biblical ones with any kind of charity or grace to those without as clear of a theological vision as you. At the other end of things, if you were a Bell fan and you absolutely loved the book, and were unable to see the criticisms as anything more than insecure heresy-hunting conducted by narrow-minded gate-keepers, then I’d hazard a guess that you might be suffering from a sort of reverse-theological boundary keeping, which immediately privileges anything deemed to be “unorthodox” by the Evangelical majority. If you can’t see why more thoughtful, sensitive believers of a more “conservative” bent might have felt attacked or caricatured in that book, you probably won’t be someone who can graciously and thoughtfully correct them on what you deem to be their theological deficiencies.

4. Criticism Is Not Inherently Narrow-minded Oppression – Expanding on that last point, realize that we wouldn’t have half of the New Testament if the apostles like Paul, John, or Peter weren’t passionate about correcting errors both in doctrine and practice. Colossians is an attack on syncretistic theology of a Jewish-Hellenistic sort that threatened to lead the Colossian believers back into a beggarly superstition, trusting in various intermediaries instead of the supremacy of Christ. Galatians combats the Judaizing failure to recognize the eschatological shift in redemptive-history brought about by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection due to nationalistic self-righteousness, which threatened to split the community between Gentiles and Jews. John combats love-denying proto-Gnosticism that, again, tears at community. The list could easily go on. The NT authors pursued public false teaching with passion because they knew that there was a real link-up between sound doctrine and a life-giving love of God in their flocks. The point is, Bell fans need to realize that when he writes a book publicly expounding a theological position that sets itself in direct, or even tacit, opposition to a large portion of the theological populace, criticizing and writing it off, it is not unreasonable to expect some push-back–not because his theology is necessarily heretical. It might not be. But even if it is merely perceived as such, understand that it might be very real, pastoral concern that drives the criticism, not personal animosity or jealousy. Because he’s a teacher, even if he’s just “asking questions”, (there’s a way of “asking questions” that’s really answering them), every public word is held to account. (James 3) My point is, not every criticism is narrow-minded oppression of theological diversity, but might be real pastoral accountability being exercised, even if you think it’s mistaken.

5. Cling to What is Good, Hate What is Evil – Depending on which translation you use, Romans 12:9 might place the “hate what is evil” or the “cling to what is good” first. In this case, as a word to the initially apprehensive, I would say go in with an attitude that seeks to learn or discern whatever good you can from the book before you find the less-than-good. Of course, be like the Bereans and test everything against the scriptures. (Acts 17:11) If you find something in there that doesn’t line up, reject it. That’s a given. Still, it bears repeating that before you go hunting for everything that’s wrong with it, try to find the good you can affirm on the basis of God’s self-revelation in Christ and the scriptures. If for no other reason than to be able to have a fruitful conversation with someone who actually enjoyed the book, you need to be able to affirm the good before you move to critique the bad.

I don’t expect that this is the only thing I’ll say on the whole issue. I might even write one of those critical or, I wish, glowing reviews. (I’d love to love this book.) But for now, before I’ve read a single word, here’s what I’ve got to say. I pray it blesses God’s church, bringing more light than heat.

Soli Deo Gloria