Against Universalism

Someone sent me the following question via Curious Cat:

What is your view of David Bentley Hart’s argument for a form of universalism in his article God, Creation and Evil (and a lecture of which is available on YouTube)? Relatedly, how can a will teologically oriented to the Good and to the Truth fail to “choose”the Good/Truth/God, for example, in the case of the angels pre-Fall and humans after death?

I want to respond at greater length than is possible through Curious Cat.  I think the whole framework of Hart’s argument is wrong. The difficult question is not “how can God allow anyone not to go to Heaven,” but rather: “how can God elevate any human being so high as to bring them into Heaven, giving them a share of the Divine Life.”

Imagine a fairy-tale: The crown prince of a great kingdom— handsome, brilliantly talented in every way, kind and good hearted and all the rest of it— decides to marry a poor commoner, a lowly scullery maid. The astonishing thing about the story is the great transformation of the poor maid: from lowly station, she is elevated to being the crown-princess of the whole kingdom. A wonderful turn of good fortune for her. It would be a strange reader of the tale who would then say: “What about all the other girls in the kingdom? Why don’t they get to marry the Prince? That isn’t fair!” It’s not a question of fairness it is a question of love, which chooses (“elects”) the beloved to elevate her above anything due to her in justice.

The case of the elect who are the Bride of Christ is similar, only much, much more astonishing. For the scullery maid to marry the Prince is, after all, still proportionate to her nature. She is a woman; the prince is a man. Moreover, she has attractions that she does not owe to the prince, and which he finds in her, for which he loves her. But there is no proportion at all between human nature and the Beatific Vision. To be taken up into the unspeakable happiness of the Divine Life itself, to be united by immediate vision to the infinite plenitude of being and goodness— “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man…” And of course, the Bride of Christ has no attraction of her own that could cause the love of her Bridegroom. All her attractions are in fact an effect of the love that the Bridegroom has for her:

And passing by thee, I saw that thou wast trodden under foot in thy own blood. and I said to thee when thou wast in thy blood: Live… and thou didst increase and grow great, and advancedst, and camest to woman’s ornament: thy breasts were fashioned, and thy hair grew: and thou wast naked, and full of confusion. And I passed by thee, and saw thee: and behold thy time was the time of lovers: and I spread my garment over thee, and covered thy ignominy. And I swore to thee, and I entered into a covenant with thee, saith the Lord God: and thou becamest mine.

The grace of God is a totally gratuitous, merciful, and astonishing gift. Even if only one human being were invited into the Beatific Vision it would be an astonishing act of un-anticipatable generosity. And yet, it is a whole people, a great crowd of saints chosen from every nation and race, especially from the most poor and downtrodden, who are formed into the Church, who is His Bride. That is what should astonish us. Not that the rest of humanity is like the guests in Luke 14, who prefer not to go to the wedding.

Hart says that he gets his view from the Greek Fathers, but it seems to me that the real root of his upside-down framework is the erroneous theology of grace propagated by Western theologians of the last century: the so-called nouvelle-theologie. Henri De Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and others thought that human beings have a natural desire for the Beatific Vision. They rejected the idea that there could have been a “pure nature,” that is, that God could have created human beings with a purely natural end. From the beginning, the objection was that they destroyed the gratuity of grace. Since, if God created them with a natural desire for a supernatural good, it would not be fair if He then did not give them the possibility of attaining that good. They strenuously denied that their position did in anyway reduce the gratuity of grace. But why then do they often come to conclusions that one would expect if elevation to divine life were a matter of justice, rather than totally merciful love of election? De Lubac and Balthasar never went as far as David Bentley Hart toward universalism, but Balthasar does think one can hope that no actual human being goes to hell.

They are quite wrong. God could have created man with in a purely natural state, and never elevated him to a supernatural end. Man would still have all the reason in the world for praising God for the great goodness that he gives them in nature. And for the “return” to God of rational creatures through natural contemplation. In that case the highest destiny of man would be that of the noble pagans that Dante describes in the ante-chamber of hell— who walk about in peace and tranquillity, untroubled by sadness, and contemplate the good, the true, and the beautiful.

But God’s goodness and mercy is so great and surprising, that he calls man to a higher happiness— a supernatural happiness so far above His nature that no-one could have thought of it by looking merely at what man is. It is true, man had an “obediential potency” to such elevation— meaning he had spiritual faculties capable of knowledge and love. But the elevation of those faculties in the Beatific Vision is in no-way something that those faculties could strive towards unaided.

But what does man do, when God creates him with this end? He immediately rejects this gift through sin, losing it apparently forever. And what does God do? He sends His eternal Son to become a man, to take on the form of a slave, in order to save a great multitude out of the massa damnata of the humanity that rejected Him. This is the “Divine Comedy” an absurd superabundance of totally gratuitous mercy and love.

The Second part of your question is indeed related: “how can a will teologically oriented to the Good and to the Truth fail to choose the Good/Truth/God.” The reason is precisely that the good that God offers is so far above nature that it requires a certain self-transcendence to choose it. As St Thomas Explains:

When a secondary end is not included under the order of the principal end, there results a sin of the will, whose object is the good and the end. Now, every will naturally wishes what is a proper good for the volitional agent, namely, perfect being itself, and it cannot will the contrary of this. So, in the case of a volitional agent whose proper good is the ultimate end, no sin of the will can occur, for the ultimate end is not included under the order of another end; instead, all other ends are contained under its order. Now, this kind of volitional agent is God, Whose being is the highest goodness, which is the ultimate end. Hence, in God there can be no sin of the will. But in any other kind of volitional agent, whose proper good must be included under the order of another good, it is possible for sin of the will to occur, if it be considered in its own nature. Indeed, although natural inclination of the will is present in every volitional agent to will and to love its own perfection so that it cannot will the contrary of this, yet it is not so naturally implanted in the agent to so order its perfection to another end, that it cannot fail in regard to it, for the higher end is not proper to its nature, but to a higher nature. It is left, then, to the agent’s choice, to order his own proper perfection to a higher end. (Summa contra gentiles III, 109)

That is, it is precisely because the good of everlasting life is so high above created nature that it can be rejected:

And he sent his servant at the hour of supper to say to them that were invited, that they should come, for now all things are ready. And they began all at once to make excuse. The first said to him: I have bought a farm, and I must needs go out and see it: I pray thee, hold me excused. And another said: I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to try them: I pray thee, hold me excused. And another said: I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.


12 thoughts on “Against Universalism

  1. I don’t think this captures the thoughts of Hart, Balthasar, or DeLubac very well. In some ways it’s more a caricature, and sometimes simply incorrect (i.e., that they argued God “could not” have created humanity with a “pure nature”, as opposed to simply “did not”) There’s been a lot of debate resurrected over the past several years on this nature/grace dispute, whether in the Thomist, Nova et Vetera, or Communio. And as you know, it’s a quote from St. Thomas which says that man has a natural desire for supernatural beatitude. I disagree with Hart’s universalism, but I also disagree with this frame he’s placed in. He owned Feingold in his debate on this issue at SLU.


  2. It was a rather rough sketch. I’m writing something more in depth. But I don’t think it’s unfair. Even if De Lubac in some passages seems to concede that God could have created man with a purely natural end, the rest of his argument runs against that grudging admission. I’ve read the Healy article, which is quite good. Thanks for the Braine one.


    • The Braine one is perhaps the best treatment of De Lubac and Feingold on the topic. He addresses these points. Really excellent. I think you’ll come away with a different opinion, and a less narrow reading of St. Thomas.


      • In other words, I don’t think you need to draw De Lubac and Balthasar into the dispute with Hart. I do think Hart draws quite a bit on the greek fathers for his views, and you’re sort of waging a proxy war against Hart that doesn’t help address his particular argument and its orthodox context.


  3. If I may note: this does not begin to address the argument Hart actually made. Maybe when the book comes out next year you’ll be better able to follow it. But arguing with a caricature is no help.

    But indeed Hart does deny that God could create a rational spirit with a wholly natural end. As he should, since the idea is absurd. Rational spirit is nothing but the hunger for God’s supernatural infinity.


    • I agree that rational spirit is hunger for God’s infinity. But God’s infinity is not in itself “supernatural”. We are not talking about nature in the crude, modern sense here. What is “supernatural” is for a rational spirit to attain to the immediate vision of God. It is natural to a rational spirit to attain to God indirectly, through creatures. The immediate attainment of God is *super*-natural because it exceeds the natural power of created spirit. God could indeed have created rational creatures who were destined to attain to him only through their natural powers. He did not in fact do so, but the fact that he could have destroys Hart’s argument, precisely because it flips the burden of proof. The question is not “how could God allow any creature to be finally lost?” But rather “how could God save any creature in this totally unexpectedly gratuitous way?”


  4. Though one could hold to the pure nature hypothesis and follow Maritain’s hope. J.Maritain surmised that the damned, including the devils, would eventually repent through the intercession of the saints reaching Limbo in natural beatitude.


  5. Pingback: On Hell: Clarity Is Mercy in an Age of “Dare We Hope” - OnePeterFive

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