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

Is it Really Bad if God Brings Something Good out of it? C.S. Lewis, Joseph, and Moral Judgments

“Is it really a bad thing if God does something good with it?” You may have heard this kind of question before. Maybe in a discussion after your philosophy 101 class, or a Bible study, or in a coffee shop, the issue of God and evil comes up. How can God still be good and powerful given the amount of evil and suffering we see in the world? Copious amounts of ink have been spilled on the subject and numerous answers have been given. I’m not going to attempt anything so bold as to hazard a definitive answer except to clarify a couple of important points we must keep straight in our thinking about this issue.

Good Enough Reasons and the Problem of Naming Evil

One commonly made point is that it’s possible for God to still be good and powerful and allow all the evil we see in the world, if he has a morally justifiable reason to such as avoiding a greater evil or bringing about an outweighing moral good. For instance, I’m morally justified in allowing my child to suffer pain while getting vaccination shots because it will prevent some later, horrible disease. In fact, at that point, I’m just justified in purposing the pain, because it is outweighed by the good of avoiding the disease.

This is somewhat common-sensical, and leaving aside some issues related to God’s power, you could see the way that the principle could apply to God. God can still be good and powerful, yet allow for some good purpose even if it’s one that only He can understand. (The epistemological issue is an important one, but I’ll deal with that in another post on another day.)

At this point our post title becomes relevant. God is justified in allowing something we think is evil because of the good that comes from it or that evil that it avoids. But, the question actually goes a bit further and says, “Well, in fact, it seems that instance of suffering and evil wasn’t really evil because of the good result that came from it. Maybe it’s just that evil is just a good that is misunderstood?”

Is that right, though?

Natural questions like these make some worry about appealing to some higher “plan.” They fear that it impermissibly justifies evil and makes moral language ambiguous. In other words, if that crime was really part of God’s plan that he used to bring about some greater good, are we allowed to call it evil? Is suffering really bad? If that’s the case, then doesn’t that remove moral responsibility and render us unable and name evil as evil since it is “justified”? To say otherwise is “nihilism.”

In light of this, they would want to say that, in fact, all we can morally say is that there is no “good” reason for much of the evil that we see in the world. All we know is that God hates it, will end it someday, and make everything better.

But that seems troubling as well because if we can’t say that God had a good reason for allowing an evil, that leaves us back where we started with God allowing evil for no good reason at all.

Is there a way forward from this?

C.S. Lewis on Simple Good, Simple Evil, and Complex Good

There are a great many issues to consider here, but C.S. Lewis has a great little passage in his work devoted to the problem of suffering and evil, The Problem of Painthat begins to address the issue. He’s discussing whether Christians should seek suffering because so often it is linked to spiritual growth and moral goodness. In it he says:

I answer that suffering is not good in itself. What is good in any painful experience is, for the sufferer, his submission to the will of God, and, for the spectators, the compassion aroused and the acts of mercy to which it leads. In the fallen and partially redeemed universe we may distinguish (1) The simple good descending from God, (2) The simple evil produced by rebellious creatures, and (3) the exploitation of that evil by God for His redemptive purpose, which produces (4) the complex good to which accepted; suffering and repented sin contribute. Now the fact that God can make complex good out of simple evil does not excuse – though by mercy it may save – those who do the simple evil. And this distinction is central. Offences must come, but woe to those by whom they come; sins do cause grace to abound, but we must not make that an excuse for continuing to sin. The crucifixion itself is the best, as well as the worst, of all historical events, but the role of Judas remains simply evil.

We may apply this first to the problem of other people’s suffering. A merciful man aims at his neighbour’s good and so does “God’s will”, consciously co-operating with “the simple good”. A cruel man oppresses his neighbour, and so does simple evil. But in doing such evil, he is used by God, without his own knowledge or consent, to produce the complex good – so that the first man serves God as a son, and the second as a tool. For you will certainly carry out God’s purpose, however you act, but it makes a difference to you whether you serve like Judas or like John. 

So we see it is possible to speak of simple good, simple evil, God’s redemptive work, and the complex good that follows from God’s redemptive work. It is possible for both God and humans to be at work in one and the same events event–to be able to speaking meaningfully of human evil while still affirming God’s goodness in that particular event. Sounds good Clive, but is it biblical?

Joseph: A Biblical Paradigm

There are a number of events in biblical history which God speaks of as evil on the part of humans, yet part of a broader, good divine plan. The story of Joseph is often used as a paradigm for this way of thinking. In the story, he is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, is wrongfully imprisoned by his Egyptian slave-master, left in jail for many years, but through a providential chain of events is elevated to a position of power in Egypt before a time of great famine. This then enables him years later to provide food for his family that had initially sold him into slavery as well as provide for the entire nation of Egypt. Eventually, from that family, comes the Messiah, the savior of the world.

In an encounter with his brothers years later he realizes that they fear for their lives from him. Even years after forgiving them and treating them well, they still worry that he might be holding a grudge against him for their evil. Joseph calms their fears by assuring them he knows that although they did what they did for evil intentions, God intended for good (Gen. 50:20):

As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.

So, in the one affirmation we see him affirm that being sold into slavery by your own brothers is evil. Being wrongfully imprisoned is evil. At the same time, being in the right place, at the right time to avert disaster for a nation and one’s own family is good. But the humanly-intended evil and the divinely-intended good were being accomplished side by side in the same events! Examples like this could be multiplied over and over again in Scripture, whether in the prophets or the preaching of the early church in Acts. Lewis is on firm, biblical ground here.

Conclusions

So let’s put this together: First, it is not that moral evil or evil events are just good not yet understood. We don’t want to deny the evil of evil, especially of sinful human actions. At the human level, we can say of those things that God condemns them as wicked and they ought not be done. Again, Judas is morally blameworthy and an evil individual for betraying Jesus. God disapproves of his actions. They are really and truly evil.

At the same time, on another level the existence of these evils is morally-justified even if we cannot see the moral justification currently,  with respect to God.  In the case of Judas and the Cross, God used Judas’ wickedness to accomplish his good divine intention. Judas is evil in his action. God is not because he had a good enough reason for allowing this evil to occur.

Admittedly, this is just a thumb-nail sketch of an answer to one of the many questions within a much broader issue. Still, I think can help us keep a couple of points clear that ought not be confused whenever we are trying to think about or discuss the issue of evil and suffering from a biblical perspective.

In all things Soli Deo Gloria.