Is Free Will the Curse?

The Grand Inquisitor: with related chapters from The Brothers Karamazov (Hackett Classics)

In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor”, the inquisitor blames Christ for the mess humans are in because God chose to give free will to humans and humans are not capable of making right decisions and thus because of God are doomed to hell.   The inquisitor accuses Christ of failing to take over human free will and by allowing us to choose love – or not—leaves humans with no real hope of attaining heaven because we seem incapable of using free will for the good.  Free will for the Inquisitor is a curse that God imposed on humans and so God is to blame for human sinfulness.  David Bentley Hart in That All Shall Be Saved sees the issue very differently.  This is the 4th post in a blog series reflecting on Hart’s book.  The previous post is An Eternal Hell?

For Hart, “Freedom is a being’s power to flourish as what it naturally is, to become ever more fully what it is”   (That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location 2386-2386).   What is also true is that all humans grow up in the world of the fall, and therefore never are fully free, but rather are tainted by all the effects that sin has on the world.  For God to hold us fully accountable for our choices would require that each of us really starts life in a fully potential position where we are not yet influenced by the world.  Since none of us can have that perfect potential, we are at a disadvantage from the moment we are conceived.   Hart believes God takes that into account when God judges us.   God does not hold against us what we cannot control or what we inherited, and recognizes that none of us is perfectly free.  God’s patience with us and mercy toward us is thus perfectly just.  God’s mercy is based both in God’s perfect love and God’s perfect justice.

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It is our imperfect condition which makes it impossible for us to fully and freely reject God.  Our understanding of God and our experience of God is already colored and distorted by our experience of the fallen world.  So we never reject God as God is, but always our image of God, which is distorted by our experience of the sinful world.  St Paul appeals to ignorance and unbelief in 1 Timothy 1:13 to explain why he rejected Christ – his understanding was incomplete and God did not hold this against him.  The same is true when Christ dying on the cross forgives his murderers because they didn’t know what they were doing.  St Paul in 1 Cor 2:8 says the rulers killed the King of Glory exactly because they didn’t understand who He was. He really is providing a defense for them that they are not guilty of deicide (though some Orthodox hymns say otherwise ignoring Christ’s forgiveness of them in the Gospel).

You can reject a glass of wine absolutely; you can even reject evil in its (insubstantial) totality without any remainder of intentionality. Neither of these things possesses more than a finite allure in itself. But you cannot reject God except defectively, by having failed to recognize him as the primordial object of all your deepest longings, the very source of their activity. We cannot choose between him and some other end in an absolute sense; we can choose only between better or worse approaches to his transcendence.  (Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location 2562-2565)

Hart feels this in itself makes an eternal hell as punishment for unbelievers as an injustice.  He believes if we really knew God, we would not reject God.  What we reject is our false ideas about God.   We can only attain a perfect understanding of God when we are able to set aside the effects of the fall on ourselves.   St. Peter Damaskos says:

“We are punished for our lack of repentance, and not because we had to struggle against temptation; otherwise most of us could not receive forgiveness until we had attained total dispassion. But as St John Klimakos again observes, ‘It is not possible for all to achieve dispassion, yet all can be saved and reconciled with God’”  (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 30139-43).  [St. John Climacus  (d. 649AD) wrote: “That all should attain to complete detachment is impossible.  But it is not impossible that all should be saved and reconciled to God ” (The Roots of Christian Mysticism, p 304). 

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Everyone could attain salvation, but what we cannot attain is that perfect state in which we could completely, freely choose to accept or reject God.  We are  born into the world of the fall, so our thinking is distorted by sin from the moment we are born.  God is just and so does not hold that against us but rather recognizes we are never free of the effects of the fall, of sin and evil.

There is another issue which Hart raises and that is our ideas about God treat God as one among many things in the universe rather than as the source of all things.

…certain modern Anglophone Christian philosophers, formed in the analytic tradition, to abandon the metaphysics of classical theism that Christian intellectual tradition has unanimously presumed from its early centuries, in favor of a frankly mythological picture of God: God conceived, that is, not as Being itself—the source and end of all reality, in which all things live and move and have their being (Acts 17:28)—but merely as one more being alongside all the beings who are, grander and older and more powerful than all the rest, but still merely a thing or a discrete entity. (Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location 2506-2510)

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Because God is being itself, we can never fully separate ourselves from God or completely reject God.  A belief that we have such power to reject God is based in a false idea of God to begin with.   It is not as if we can leave God’s presence or enter into God’s presence.  All we can do is make ourselves more or less aware of our relationship to the Creator.   We all live and move and have our being in God (Acts 17:28) – this is the very world in which we live, the atmosphere we breathe.   This is why even the old division between Jew and Gentile, between those who keep Torah and those who don’t fails to grasp what the human dilemma is.

Paul’s Adam as first human, who introduced universal sin and death, supports his contention that Jew and gentile are on the same footing and in need of the same Savior.  …  The resurrection of Christ showed that the real problem was Adam and the universal problem of the reigning power of sin and its nefarious partner, death. These were at work long before the law (Rom. 5:12–14), and so Christ’s resurrection—death’s reversal—was clearly a solution to a much deeper problem than the law. To say that the law is neither the real problem nor the solution is in effect saying that Israel’s story is not God’s sole focus. The main drama began with the first Adam and ended with the last Adam. That is why being a Jew or gentile is no longer the primary distinction among humans, but rather being or not being “in Christ” is. The heart of Jewish identity is therefore marginalized, and the God of Israel and his salvation are denationalized. Jews and gentiles share the same plight, and Jesus came to solve it. And all of this stems from Paul’s rereading of his Scripture in light of the central and prior conviction that God raised Jesus from the dead.   (Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam, What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins, Kindle Loc. 3055-56, 3066-73)

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All humans suffer from the same plight of growing up in a fallen world which distorts our experience or lack of experience of God.   Christ comes to heal that which is lacking in all of us.  Christ comes to unite all of us to God so that we will lacking nothing in our lives and God will become all in all (Ephesians 1:23).  Hart asks rhetorically,

Could there then be a final state of things in which God is all in all while yet there existed rational creatures whose inward worlds consisted in an eternal rejection of and rebellion against God as the sole and consuming and fulfilling end of the rational will’s most essential nature?   (Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location 2673-2675)

Hart does not think that is possible for it represents a contradiction in terms.  If the end of all things is God in all then how could there be an eternal hell in which God is absent?  How could anyone be someplace where God is not if God is all in all?    This can only happen if in fact God’s goal for creation is never fulfilled – and that for the omnipotent God is not possible.

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The existence of an eternal hell of torment for sinners, raises a question:  Is hell good or evil?  On the one hand, if hell is evil and accursed, then we should avoid it.  If it is evil, God could not have created it for God is not the source of evil.  So, if it is evil, it has no real existence but exists only in some parasitical form coming into existence only as the good creation was corrupted, and therefore itself is temporary, not eternal.  If God didn’t create it, then it has no eternal value.  If it is accursed, it will be done away with when Christ comes in His kingdom.    On the other hand, if hell is good because it is created by God, then to be sent there by God is to do God’s will.   One will not be punished for doing God’s will.   It will have some benefit and good value to it.  It will bring about God’s will, and God will fill it with Himself as well and make it a place where God is encountered and we are united to God.

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The notion of an eternal hell calls into question a basic idea in theology which Orthodoxy has treated as absolute and non-negotiable: God is love.  Everything God does is love.  Everything Christ did as the incarnate God, a human person, is for our salvation.  Everything including judgment!  These two aspects of dogmatic theology question whether God would from all eternity have planned an eternal hell or whether, rather, God’s eternal plan always is the same: love.  God’s plan is God’s action toward creation, not God’s reaction to creation.  Death, Hades, hell, all come into being only as part of creation (and the fallen world) – they are not eternal but serve a purpose of purging everyone from sin.  They too will accomplish their purpose.  God’s plan from the beginning has never changed – to unite all that God created to divinity, to share God’s love and life with all God creates.   As God heals creation and makes all things new and becomes all in all, those things which are not part of God’s eternal plan will disappear.   God’s plan will be realized.

Next: Salvation

2 thoughts on “Is Free Will the Curse?

  1. Pingback: An Eternal Hell? – Fraternized

  2. Pingback: Salvation – Fraternized

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