Before resuming my “itinerary” of the argument of That All Shall Be Saved, one additional point seems worth stressing. Though in the last installment the issue was raised of whether God intends or permits evil, the book’s argument has nothing to do with the traditional problems of rational theodicy. The question is not “Why does God permit evil if he is both omniscient and omnipotent?” or “Why is the possibility of evil necessary for creation?” or even “Is this the best of all possible worlds?” All of those are perfectly interesting queries in their proper place (or so I hear); but that place is not this book.
It is a good mereological rule that to try to understand the whole in terms of its parts and to try to understand the parts in light of the whole are two very different operations of reason (induction and deduction, to be precise). It is one thing to attempt to judge the relative goodness or badness of a discrete evil in relation to some final purposes we cannot see, but another thing altogether to judge the goodness or badness of a supposedly total narrative that pretends to describe the whole rationality of all its discrete events. The former judgment can never be more than conjectural; the latter is a matter of logic. There may logically be such a thing as an evil that is redeemed in the greater good toward which it leads; there is no such thing as an unredeemed evil that does not reduce any good end toward which it might lead to a mere relative value. In the former case, it is logically possible that evil may be non-necessary in the ultimate sense, but a real possibility in a provisional sense—though even then only as a privation that will ultimately be effaced from the “total picture.”
In my previous installment of this report, I addressed the final phase of the argument put forward in That All Shall Be Saved, which concerns the nature of rational freedom and the question of whether the idea of a hell of eternal torment can plausibly be defended as an expression of the free will of creatures. In reaching the answer to that question—“No,” to be precise—I asserted it as a given that “God cannot positively will evil precisely because he is infinitely free.” But I gave no indication the precise significance of that claim within the context of the book’s larger argument. So now I want to retreat to the beginning of my promised “itinerary” of that argument. Normally I would be unwilling to recapitulate a case I felt I had already made with sufficient clarity; and obviously I cannot condense the book’s logic into a few paragraphs. But on this occasion a sufficient number of misconceptions have taken root around the book, and I think I should try to clear some of the undergrowth away if I can.
There are two questions that define the path the book’s reasoning takes, and every step along the way falls between them: First, can the God who either imposes or permits a state of perpetual conscious torment for rational creatures really be not only good, but (as reason and faith alike say he must be) Goodness in itself? And, second, could finite creatures possessed of real freedom (as opposed to a mere voluntarist power of spontaneous movement toward any end whatsoever) actually freely reject God eternally and, by the exercise of that liberty, merit perpetual torment? And, again, the answer to both questions is “No.” Other questions of equal import are also addressed, but these two dominant questions give the argument its shape. That said, the argument unfolds by way of roughly half a dozen major themes, which must be held together if one is to make sense of the book as a whole.
I should explain. I am in the process of preparing a kind of “interim report” on my recent book That All Shall Be Saved, in preparation for a number of public events, and perhaps in anticipation of a second edition of the text. And the editors of Public Orthodoxy have kindly offered me a venue in which to issue installments of that report, in the hope of refining it in the process. A good part of that report will consist in a kind of itinerary of its overarching argument. When writing the book, I had not properly appreciated how deep an emotional attachment some of us have to the idea of a hell of perpetual torment for the derelict and unenlightened. And so I had not imagined that the final product would provoke critiques so dazzlingly unrelated to my actual argument that I would be obliged repeatedly to recapitulate the book’s basic structure. Such, however, has been the case.
In the normal course of things, of course, an itinerary begins at the beginning and ends at the end. But I want to leap ahead. The book is organized around roughly half a dozen themes, the last of which concerns the nature of human freedom and attempts to defend the reality of an eternal hell as a correlate of that freedom. This part of the argument has proved the most difficult for some readers to grasp, and so I want to dilate upon at a somewhat more deliberate pace than the others. Hence it is also the one with which I should like to begin.
People really like Hell. Or at least they really like the idea of Hell. And many are positively gleeful at the notion of some or another of their fellow human beings being tormented forever in its fiery furnaces (that’s right, forever, for eternity, for an expanse of time the human mind cannot fully comprehend). Oddly enough, it is clear that, pious professions aside, even eternal damnation’s most ardent supporters do not believe themselves in line for torments everlasting.
I suppose I always knew this. I grew up in Colorado before Colorado was cool, in a time when the state’s political and cultural life was dominated by Focus on the Family and evangelical megachurches. And I have known plenty of people who believe that unless you are “born again” in a rather specific way, you are damned for all time. None of these people, to be clear, believed that the Orthodox baptism I received as an infant was of any effect and feared (one cannot help but believe honestly) for the state of my immortal soul. And let’s not kid ourselves. Though we Orthodox, in general, might take a slightly less legalistic approach to the question of salvation and damnation, the immense popularity of the idea of aerial toll houses over the past few decades gives proof to the fact that we are just as morbidly obsessed with God’s impending judgement and wrath as your run-of-the-mill televangelist.