David Bentley Hart on Why the Free Will Argument for Eternal Damnation Fails.

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.

Source

Advertisements

34 thoughts on “David Bentley Hart on Why the Free Will Argument for Eternal Damnation Fails.

  1. We should always remember that we don’t have to produce an argument for eternal damnation; we only need produce an argument that the earliest Christians _believed in_ eternal damnation (and that they were mistaken) — which is far less daunting task.

    And we also have to remember that this is the God who placed humans in the garden in the first place, precisely in the midst of the temptation that would have eternal consequences… much like the father who “allow[s] his deranged child to thrust her face into a fire out of a tender regard for her moral autonomy.” In fact, I’m sure somewhere on the planet a father _is_ allowing his child to put their face in a fire without stopping him/her (or other unspeakable evils); and God’s nowhere in sight to stop it.

    If we prefer to highlight God’s more active role in evil, however, we need only remember that this is the same God who once drowned every human on the planet minus 8, and who once commanded that child sacrifice by made to him; so he doesn’t exactly have the moral high-ground in the first place.

    Like

    • Hi SF,

      Thank you for your comment.

      To whom are you referring to when you say the “earliest Christians”? There were certainly early Christians (pre-Nicaea) who were universalists.

      As for the rest of your points, they really only work if you are addressing a biblical literalist. David Bentley Hart does not believe the Adam and Eve story, the Noah story, or the Abraham and Isaac stories are 100% accurate historical accounts, and, in my opinion, anyone who emphasizes the historicity of the stories rather than the mythical, pedagogical and typological aspects of the story is really missing out. That isn’t to say that there isn’t some historical accuracy or parallel to these stories, but that the historical accuracy isn’t the most important aspect of these accounts.

      Be careful when assuming that the person to whom you speak understands “God” the same way that you do. For further reading, you might consider this article:

      https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2014/02/11/creation-and-evolution/

      Like

      • I should have specified “some of the earliest Christians.” (Man, WordPress needs an edit button.) But I’m including some NT authors within this group.

        And you miss the point. The issue is not one of historicity; the same point (more or less) stands even if these ahistorical narratives are merely illustrating the nature of God in some figurative way.

        And if you can imagine a Biblical author putting words in God’s mouth wherein he demanded child sacrifice be made to him, then you can imagine a Biblical author putting words in Jesus’ mouth where he predicts eternal torment for the unrighteous.

        Like

      • Forgive me for missing your point. I am sure that you understand that intention can be lost in so few words.

        Like

      • No worries! I mean, my comment _was_ worded so as to suggest that these were actual historical events that happened.

        One problem, though, is that most of the earliest Christians often didn’t have the hindsight of non-literal interpretation, for many major things. (Even Origen famously defended a literal flood and literal ark, arguing that the ark was bigger than we think.)

        (That being said, I remember quoting Augustine in a comment on one of your earlier posts, wherein he proclaims that anything that casts God or Biblical authors in a negative light must obviously be purely figurative. But this is ad hoc apologetics at its absolute worst. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the earliest Christians swayed back and forth between literal and non-literal interpretations as it suited them ideologically.)

        Like

      • “Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the earliest Christians swayed back and forth between literal and non-literal interpretations as it suited them ideologically.”

        The reality is more likely that there were literalists and allegorists simultaneously, rather than one single group that moved back and forth. It seems that throughout the history of Judaism and Christianity there have been multiple schools of thought. I see no reason that this wouldn’t be the case in early Christianity.

        “But this is ad hoc apologetics at its absolute worst.”

        Well, if one begins from the supposition that God is absolutely good, then it would logically follow that anything that paints him otherwise is to be rejected 🙂

        Like

  2. Thanks for the post!

    This all leaves me with one question, though: Why, according to Hart’s logic, would God have ever allowed humanity to fall in the first place? Wouldn’t the Fall be an instance — albeit to an incomparably lesser degree — of basically the same kind of “respect for moral autonomy” that Hart identifies as equivalent to fathers allowing their deranged children to burn themselves?

    Like

    • Hi HMVP,

      Thank you for the comment. I won’t speak for Hart, but I do know that he accepts that he accepts biological evolution, and that the earth is billions of years old, so he might read the Adam and Eve account allegorically.

      If you really want to know the answer, perhaps you can track him down and ask him yourself. Just be sure you come back to share his reply with us 🙂

      Like

      • Again, why does it matter if it’s not hyper-literal? It’s pointing at _some_ reality; and in this sense it’s little different.

        Like

      • You might have to explain a bit more. To me, there is potentially all the difference in the world between positing that Adam, Eve, and their fall were historical realities, as opposed to, say, seeing the Adam and Eve account as a typological story about humanity as a whole, or the transition from innocent to sinner experienced by every human that has ever lived.

        Like

  3. Thank you for posting this. I’m rather torn on the question—though thankfully it doesn’t alter how we should properly treat each out one way or the other. I do find Hart’s appeal compelling; but I’m a little loath to conclude that so much of the Church has been wrong for so long. I’m also suspicious that the argument seems to be gaining traction at a time when the broader (non-Christian and increasingly anti-Christian) culture is so opposed to the concept of judgment and so confused about the meaning of justice. OTOH, certainly no one could accuse DBH of being a captive to the zeitgeist.

    Like

    • Hello Susannah,

      Thank you for your comment. I too am torn on this issue because, on the one hand, I find universalist arguments themselves most compelling, but it is very difficult to justify a strong universalist position in light of the Church’s tradition, though there have certainly been many Orthodox saints who at least hoped for the salvation of all. Hopefully, Hart will provide a more thorough account of why he is a universalist. He has already said quite a bit on this matter over on Fr. Kimel’s blog. See the comments on this article: https://afkimel.wordpress.com/essential-readings-on-universalism/

      The temptation to see universalism as part of the liberal Christian movement is a strong one, and I am sure there are liberal Christian universalists. However, there are also many who are otherwise theologically conservative who are sympathetic to universalism, such as Hart himself and Fr. Stephen Freeman.

      At the end of the day, we should assess ideas and claims upon their own merits, and not reject them simply on the basis on who it is that is espousing them.

      Like

    • I prefer Barth’s formulation that one cannot make Universalism a matter of doctrine, but that it would be impious not to hope for it. And the list of things “so much of the Church has been wrong about for so long” is a very long one (and it’s not necessarily a progressive trajectory).

      Like

      • Thanks for the comment, Boyd.

        Barth’s sentiment is also shared by several Church Fathers and many modern Catholic and Orthodox voices.

        Like

    • Susannah,

      You may be interested in Ilaria Ramelli’s recent work in the field of patristic universalism. Like Hart, Ramelli began primarily as a scholar of Christian patristics (the writings of the church mothers and fathers). She has recently argued that most of the earliest church fathers were in fact universalists. She makes a case that even St. Augustine was a universalist during his younger days, and only abandoned it because he could not read biblical Greek. (The Latin Bible, as many of our English Bibles also do, crudely translate “aionios” as “eternal.” The only problem is, the word does not always mean eternal, as in Romans 16:25-27 fragment.) She also suggests that Athanasius, who worked much with the Trinity, also held to universalism. Then of course, there has always been Origen and the Cappadocians to work with.

      You may be encouraged by her work. (I have been.) In the meantime, here’s a link to her interview with Robin A. Parry, author of “The Evangelical Universalist” and contributor to a recent Four Views on Hell edition.

      Sincerely,
      ~ Christopher

      Like

  4. First, I disagree with his position and also being so bold with his universalism position.

    I acknowledge that there is evidence in revelation for both the eternity of the damned and universal salvation. But one must have to admit that the evidence for the eternity of the damned is much stronger, clear the latter, not to mention how much of interpretation that is required for the latter.

    This is why we have to be extremely careful with such subtle issue. This is not the only reason, the most important one is that our position on the issue directly relates to the salvation of others. Once universal salvation is adapted, the necessity of evangelism is subsequently taken away. One may argue evangelism should not only be about saving people from eternal damnation, but he or she cannot just separate this from the inherent purpose of evangelism.

    Eternal damnation must remain as a real possibility to human freedom or human freedom must be based on the possibility of eternal damnation. This does not mean that he can will evil for evil sake, but it does mean that man may determine his relationship with good, and that his determination of this relationship rests on no limit.

    I cannot believe that being such influential smart theologian, Hart would trust himself too much as if he has solved such problem. The wisdom to perceive the subtlety and consequences is not difficult to obtain.

    Like

    • Hi, PrayingforChina.

      Thank you for your comment.

      I don’t know how much of Hart you have read, but he rejects a few of your major statements.

      For instance, he rejects the notion that eternal damnation is unambiguously taught in scripture. While certain translation versions might clearly propose this idea, Hart would argue that such translations are inaccurate, as would scholars such as Thomas Talbott, David Konstan, and Ilaria Ramelli.

      “Once universal salvation is adapted, the necessity of evangelism is subsequently taken away.”

      Actually, a few revelations show this to be a fairly weak argument. First, most universalists don’t reject hell- they reject its permanence. I think the prospect of suffering in hell for any amount of time is a good deterrent. Second, missionaries from one of the most successful evangelizing religions in the world, Mormonism, make no mention of hell when they make attempts to convert others, yet they convert far more people than most other religions in the world. In my experience, frear-based evangelism is far less effective than evangelism that focuses on the reality that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.” Regardless of whether anyone will suffer hell eternally, it is a stretch to posit that damnation is the inherent purpose of evangelization.

      Like

  5. “No one can freely will the evil as evil. One can take the evil for the good.”

    Has he ever heard of schadenfreude or guilty pleasures?

    I know I am missing something because I doubt any claim by DBH could ne so easily refuted by the likes of me (I mean that with no sarcasm, the man is a genius even when I don’t agree with him) so there is somethingI am not getting here.

    Like

    • Hi Joshuajames78,

      Thank you for your comment. You question can be approached from a few different angles. What Hart is saying seems to relate to Romans 7:15-19 where St. Paul says:

      15 I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17 So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.

      Hart isn’t saying that we don’t do bad things, or experience evil pleasures. He is arguing that we aren’t actually choosing these things freely, at least not in a libertarian sense. Thus according to Hart’s argument, when one “chooses” to do some evil action, they are doing so from defect. Perhaps the action is more the result of a controlling addiction, insanity, or ignorance about what the best choice actually is.

      The main questions here are what is freedom and what motivates my decisions? I can only speak for myself, but when I “choose” to do something it is because I see it as, at least in some sense, a good. Fr. Stephen Freeman is worth reading on these subjects:

      https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2015/07/10/the-voice-of-the-natural-will/

      https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2015/06/23/the-right-choice/

      Like

      • Thanks so much for your thoughtful reply, Cameron. I look forward to reading those. As a kind of a throw away comment, my initial reaction to this reasoning (and I dont use that word in a pejorative, sarcastic way) is that it asteikes me as a kind of recerse Calvinism wherein I can only be held accountable for my good choices.

        I suppose that partly reveals why I am somewhat reticent (but still open) to this line of argument, not because I have some kind of air-tight case against it but because this seems like we are trying to reason out Free Will and determinism and their implications on Salvation.

        In the end, it seems that anytime we try to do this we end up trying to solve a mystery which, by definition, is beyond our ability as creatures to comprehend. There is always a tension in Mystery between at least two truths that are both necessary but also incompatible within our reasoning; the Incarnation is a classic example of this.

        So my reluctance here is not due to my own reasonable objections but simply my experience that I have never seen a perspective regarding free will (be it the acceptepance or rejection thereof) that hasn’t had its own internal inconsistencies. The weakness,I think, is not the inconsistent nature (from from it!) but the unwillingness to recognize that any Mystery worth believing can’t avoid but being inconsistent to rational human beings. In other words, while paradox is not proof of correctness, the lack thereof is proof that it is not Mystery.

        I hope that rambling made some sense!

        Thanks again for the response and links. God bless you!

        Josh

        Liked by 1 person

      • Free will is a complicated subject, and there isn’t one sole view of what free will is. For instance, if you ask a dozen different philosophers to define free will, you might get 12 distinct answers.

        In short, it isn’t a choice between either the most voluntaristic form of libertarian free will or the most deterministic form of determinism. There are many gradations in between.

        In the end, I agree with you that this is a complicated matter. One of the most difficult things for us to do is accurately assess our motives.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Here are a couple responses:

      “It presupposes precisely what is in question, because it presupposes that God Himself (whose happiness the saints come to share in heaven) cannot be happy if any persons are damned. And this presupposes a process conception of God, namely, that He can lose His perfect happiness, and that His happiness is not intrinsic to Him and essential to Him, but contingent. And this implies that either the one we are referring to as ‘God’ is not God, or that there is no God.”

      I don’t see how your conclusion follows from what Hart said. He is focused on human beings and how knowledge of the damned would affect their experiences. How the damned affect God is a completely different subject, given that God, as you said, is not contingent and passionate as are humans.

      “… Hart’s objection to free will in his argument for universalism.”

      I think this characterization of Hart’s argument ignores the nuances and complexities present in the “free will” conversation. Hart is certainly arguing against certain notions of free will, but I believe it would be erroneous to accuse him of rejecting all conceptions of free will.

      “… Notice that so far he has given no reason or argument against libertarian free will…”

      Keep in mind that this argument made up only like 3 minutes of a 40 minute presentation, given at a conference where I am sure Hart had limited time available. Hart’s objective was not to argue against libertarian free will, but to discuss the topic of his paper, “God, Creation, and Evil.”

      “Hart’s dilemma presupposes that there is not a third position in which free agents directed to the good are (in that particular epistemic condition) neither determined by the good nor reducible to the ontological equivalent of “sheer chance” or “mindless organic or mechanical impulse.””

      Hart’s argument is open to the third position that you have put forward. My guess is that he would argue, though, that the person in such a category, is more or less constrained depending on how strongly they are persuaded towards the good. I wonder if you are overlooking some of the finer points implied by Hart’s argument. For instance, within the third position you have posited it might be asked whether it solves the dilemma put forward by Hart given that it leaves open the possibility that a person’s choice could still very well be determined by other factors rather than being the result of the actor’s will alone. Until this problem is worked out, I think Hart’s case stands.

      “The deranged child is not morally responsible for her actions, because she does not know what she is doing. But the sinner is responsible for his actions, and knows the good he should do but freely chooses not to do it.”

      This would certainly be true if you had adequately made your case for libertarian free will. I am unconvinced, but I will let other readers decide what they think. Hart’s very point is that one who sins against God is not doing so freely, just as the Romans who crucified Christ were unaware of what they were doing. There are many gradations between true freedom and derangement.

      “The ignorance and mortality with which we come into the world, as well as the defectibility of our intellect and will, and the suffering of even the most innocent and delightful of creatures, is fully compatible with our having libertarian free will.”

      I would like to further explore your conception of libertarian free will.

      Like

  6. Cameron,

    “How the damned affect God is a completely different subject, ” not according to the Catholic tradition, because, as I mentioned in my comment, the bliss of the saints is a sharing in God’s own happiness.

    “I believe it would be erroneous to accuse him of rejecting all conceptions of free will.” Sure. Fortunately, I made no such accusation.

    “Keep in mind that this argument made up only like 3 minutes of a 40 minute presentation …” I understand and agree. My reply is only to what he did say in what you excerpted.

    “Hart’s argument is open to the third position that you have put forward.” No, it is not. Otherwise, his argument wouldn’t take the form of a dilemma. Your characterization of the third position reduces it to one of the two horns of the dilemma. And again, that just begs the question against the libertarian position.

    “This would certainly be true if you had adequately made your case for libertarian free will.” I’m not making a case for the libertarian position. I’m only showing how Hart’s argument against the libertarian position fails, in this case by presupposing precisely what is in question, in the analogy he uses.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

    Like

    • “not according to the Catholic tradition, because, as I mentioned in my comment, the bliss of the saints is a sharing in God’s own happiness.”

      Does Hart imply that he himself adheres to what you call “…the Catholic tradition”? Furthermore, I don’t even see how granting this proves your point. Just because the saints might in someway share in God’s happiness does not mean they would be affected in the same way by the suffering of the damned. In order for what you say to be true, the saints would not only have to share in God’s happiness, but experience, in totality, God’s happiness just as God experiences it.

      “Sure. Fortunately, I made no such accusation.”

      You said: “… Hart’s objection to free will in his argument for universalism.” Does this not imply that you are accusing Hart of, not simply rejecting a type of free will, but rejecting free will generally? If not, I apologize.

      “No, it is not. Otherwise, his argument wouldn’t take the form of a dilemma.”

      I guess I just don’t see the dilemma you see. He has in mind a very specific notion of free will that can be deduced from the rest of his presentation that in no way rules out third ways, as you propose.

      Thank you for your comment. God be with you.

      Like

  7. Cameron,

    Does Hart imply that he himself adheres to what you call “…the Catholic tradition”?

    No, he doesn’t. I wasn’t claiming that he does. But he is trying to argue that no one goes to hell. Therefore, in order to do that, his argument needs to not leave open the possibility that *under the Catholic tradition* some people do go to hell. Otherwise the conclusion of his argument will be true only under a particular tradition or subset of traditions, not including the Catholic tradition. In other words, if the premises of his argument depend on the Catholic tradition being false in order to make his argument go through, then his argument will not have shown that no one is in hell, but only that *if the Catholic tradition is false* then no one is in hell.

    Just because the saints might in someway share in God’s happiness does not mean they would be affected in the same way. In order for what you say to be true, the saints would not only have to share in God’s happiness, but experience God’s happiness just as God experiences it.

    First, consider this a fortiori argument. If, for moral reasons, it is impossible for the saints to be truly happy knowing of the sufferings of the damned, then a fortiori those same moral reasons do not allow God to be truly happy knowing of the sufferings of the damned. Conversely, if God’s perfect goodness does not disallow His being truly happy even with knowledge of the suffering of the damned, a fortiori the goodness of God shared in by the saints does not disallow their being truly happy even with knowledge of the suffering of the damned. Second, in the Catholic tradition the saints do share in God’s very own happiness, according to the measure of their charity. And there is no sorrow or misery possible for anyone sharing in God’s happiness, regardless of the measure in which they share in it.

    You said: “… Hart’s objection to free will in his argument for universalism.” Does this not imply that you are accusing Hart of, not simply rejecting a type of free will, but rejecting free will generally?

    No, I wasn’t as specific as I could be. I’m well aware that Hart affirms freedom in what (in the Catholic tradition) is called acquired freedom or moral liberty. I was referring to what (in the Catholic tradition) is called natural freedom, or libertarian freedom. That’s the sort of freedom Hart denies.

    I guess I just don’t see the dilemma you see. He has in mind a very specific notion of free will that can be deduced from the rest of his presentation that in no way rules out third ways, as you propose.

    The dilemma is a common one in philosophical criticisms of libertarian free will, and it is obvious that Hart is using it. It goes like this. Either the operation of the will is indistinguishable from something purely spontaneous, “sheer chance,” irrational, and stochastic, OR to see the good truly is to desire it insatiably and choose it necessarily. Hart uses precisely this dilemma to claim that all arguments appealing to libertarian free will (as a justification for hell) must fail. They must fail, according to Hart, precisely because every choice must fall under one of those two horns. The sheer chance horn makes persons to be not responsible for their immoral choices, and thus fails to justify their going to hell. The “seeing the good truly” horn makes it impossible for them to choose evil, and thus also fails to justify their going to hell. Either way, therefore, the libertarian appeal fails to justify there being persons in hell. That’s Hart’s argument. And the problem with that argument, as I explained at my comment on CTC, is that from the libertarian point of view, Hart’s dilemma is a false dilemma. Culpable evil choices are not reducible to sheer chance as their explanation; they do not reduce. The cause of the sin is the agent freely and culpably, even while knowing it to be wrong, choosing that sin. In the libertarian paradigm it is possible to know the right thing to do, and culpably choose not to do the right thing; it is also possible to know something to be wrong, and still freely choose to do it. That’s why (in the libertarian paradigm) Hart’s dilemma is a false dilemma. And that’s why his argument begs the question, i.e. presupposes precisely what is in question between himself and the defender of libertarian free will, namely, that there is no third alternative to the two horns in the dilemma he proposes.

    “Thank you for your comment. God be with you.

    And you as well! Thanks for hosting this discussion, and for sincerely engaging my comments.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

    Like

    • Thank you again for your input. It is a shame that more of these conversations cannot be had in person. I believe that, due to the difficulties and limits of online communication, we often end up talking past one another.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s