David Bentley Hart: 4 Meditations on Apokatastasis
5: The limited conditions of choice
David Bentley Hart’s book, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation, sets forth a powerful, passionate argument against the traditional Christian doctrine of eternal conscious punishment — that sinners wind up forever in hell — and for the belief that all shall be saved.
Thus far we have considered the concept of apokatastasis and the implications for eschatology that arise from believing that God is the good creator of all. Then we talked about some of the biblical material that Hart uses to support his case. Last time we reflected upon the nature and destiny of human beings, created in the image of God.
In our final post, we consider David Bentley Hart’s fourth meditation on the topic of “free choice.” As most of you may know, one of the most common defenses of the view that sinners will suffer eternal punishment consists of an appeal to human free will. If people choose not to respond in faith to the good news of salvation in Christ, they face an eternal destiny separated from God in the fires of hell. As it is said, “God doesn’t send people to hell, they freely choose to go there.”
Hart finds he cannot tolerate this position. After an extended rant against the very idea of hell and eternal punishment and those theologies which have developed and promulgate these teachings, he focuses in on the free will defense.
Hence, the only defense of the infernalist position that is logically and morally worthy of being either taken seriously or refuted scrupulously is the argument from free will: that hell exists simply because, in order for a creature to be able to love God freely, there must be some real alternative to God open to that creature’s power of choice, and that hell therefore is a state the apostate soul has chosen for itself in perfect freedom, and that the permanency of hell is testament only to how absolute that freedom is. This argument too is wrong in every way, but not contemptibly so. Logically it cannot be true; but morally it can be held without doing irreparable harm to one’s understanding of goodness or of God, and so without requiring the mind to make a secret compromise with evil (explicitly, at least). (p. 171)
Why does David Bentley Hart say that this argument is “wrong in every way” and cannot be logically true?
- “Freedom is a being’s power to flourish as what it naturally is, to become ever more fully what it is. The freedom of an oak seed is its uninterrupted growth into an oak tree. The freedom of a rational spirit is its consummation in union with God. Freedom is never then the mere “negative liberty” of indeterminate openness to everything; if rational liberty consisted in simple indeterminacy of the will, then no fruitful distinction could be made between personal agency and pure impersonal impulse or pure chance.” (p. 172)
- “[I]nevitably, true freedom is contingent upon true knowledge and true sanity of mind. To the very degree that either of these is deficient, freedom is absent. And with freedom goes culpability. No mind that possesses so much as a glimmer of a consciousness of reality is wholly lacking in liberty; but, by the same token, no mind save one possessing absolutely undiminished consciousness of reality is wholly free. (p. 177)
- “So, for anyone to be free, there must be a real correspondence between his or her mind and the structure of reality, and a rational cognizance on his or her part of what constitutes either the fulfilment or the ruin of a human soul. Where this rational cognizance is absent in a soul, there can be only aimlessness in the will, the indeterminacy of the unmoored victim of circumstance, which is the worst imaginable slavery to the accidental and the mindless. If then there is such a thing as eternal perdition as the result of an eternal refusal of repentance, it must also be the result of an eternal ignorance, and therefore has nothing really to do with freedom at all. So, no: Not only is an eternal free rejection of God unlikely; it is a logically vacuous idea.” (p. 178)
- “Nothing in our existence is so clear and obvious and undeniable that any of us can ever possess the lucidity of mind it would require to make the kind of choice that, supposedly, one can be damned eternally for making or for failing to make.” (p. 180)
If we lived like gods above the sphere of the fixed stars, and saw all things in their eternal aspects in the light of the “Good beyond beings,” then perhaps it would be meaningful to speak of our capacity freely to affirm or freely to reject the God who made us in any absolute sense. As it is, we have never known such powers, and never could in this life. What little we can know may guide us, and what little we can do may earn us some small reward or penalty; but heaven and hell, according to the received views, are absolute destinies, and we have in this life no capacity for the absolute. To me, the question of whether a soul could freely and eternally reject God—whether a rational nature could in unhindered freedom of intellect and will elect endless misery rather than eternal bliss—is not even worth the trouble of asking. Quite apart from the logical issues involved, it is a question that has no meaning in the world we actually inhabit. (pp. 180-181)