David Bentley Hart recently presented a paper at an Institute for Church Life conference on the topic “God, Creation, and Evil.” His paper focused specifically on eternal damnation in light of creation ex nihilo. The presentation can be listened to in its entirety here.
I was moved by Hart’s argument contra eternal damnation, which he makes from approximately 18:00 to 22:00 in the recording. I have had similar thoughts, and have made similar arguments, though not as elegantly as Hart does here. Although I am not a strong universalist like Hart, I do find this specific argument persuasive and worthy of consideration. Here it is transcribed:
Who are we other than all the others who have made us who we are and to whom we belong as much as they to us. We are those others. To say that the sufferings of the damned will either be clouded from the eyes of the blessed, or worse, increase the pitiless bliss of heaven is also to say that no persons can possibly be saved. For if the memories of others are removed or lost, or one’s knowledge of their misery converted into indifference or, God forbid, into greater beatitude, what then remains of one in one’s last bliss? Some other being altogether, surely a spiritual anonymity, a vapid spark of pure intellection, the residue of a soul reduced to no one, but not a person, not the person who was.
But it’s not the logic of the claims that bother me; it is their moral hideousness… Currently, the most popular way of defending the notion of an eternal torment is an appeal to creaturely freedom and to God’s respect for its dignity, but there could scarcely be a poorer argument, whether it’s made crudely… by William Lane Craig or elegantly by Eleonore Stump, it is going to fail. It wouldn’t if we could construct a metaphysics or phenomenology of the will’s liberty that was purely voluntarist, purely spontaneous, though even then we would have to explain how an absolutely libertarian act, obedient to no rationale whatsoever would be distinguishable from sheer chance or mindless organic or mechanical impulse, and so any more free than an earthquake or embolism. But on any cogent account, free will is a power inherently purposive, teleological, primordially oriented towards the good and shaped by that transcendental appetite to the degree that a soul can recognize the good for what it is. No one can freely will the evil as evil. One can take the evil for the good. but that doesn’t alter the prior transcendental orientation that wakens all desire. To see the good truly is to desire it insatiably; not to desire it is not to have known it and so never having been free to choose it. It makes no more sense to say that God allows creatures to damn themselves out of his love for them, or his respect for their freedom, than to say that a father might reasonably allow his deranged child to thrust her face into a fire out of a tender regard for her moral autonomy.
And the argument becomes quite insufferable when one considers the personal conditions – ignorance, mortality, defectibility of intellect and will – under which each soul enters the world and the circumstances, the suffering of all creatures, even the most innocent and delightful among them, with which that world confronts the soul.