Hard Universalism, Grace, and Creaturely Freedom

Alvin Plantinga is famous for developing a “free will” defense of moral evil which argued that God could have a reason for allowing that evil in light of God’s decision to create free persons. Logically speaking, the problem of evil is not a difficult problem to solve. The existence of an all-good God only appears to generate a contradiction alongside the existence of evil if one accepts a dubious assumption: that, if that God exists, he must do everything that he can to eliminate all evil. Once we highlight this assumption, we should see that it is false; God’s Goodness and the existence of evil are compatible with the possibility God plans to bring about something good, in the end, by permitting evil.

Many other famous theologians—Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Anselm, John Damascene, Thomas Aquinas (to name a few)—also appeal to free will in order to account for God’s permission of sin. Plantinga’s intuition, like theirs, was that free creatures have an intrinsic value greater than rocks or chimpanzees on account of the kinds of relationships that rational creatures can enter into. So, that means that God’s wanting a relationship with free creatures of a certain kind—the moral value of what free will enables and which one cannot have without being a free creature—is going to be what counteracts the disvalue of moral evil.

Many have argued, however, that appeal to free will seems unsatisfying for two reasons. The good of free will, and what it enables, might not seem more valuable than the evils it permits. This problem is particularly acute if we admit the possibility of hell. Unlike events that occurred once in time, hell involves moral evil and suffering persisting forever. Further, on traditional theories of grace such as that of Thomas Aquinas, God could have predestined everyone to glory without “violating” their freedom. God predestined the Blessed Virgin or Christ Jesus from before their birth to be perfectly sinless, without thereby eliminating their freedom to do otherwise. More generally, the ability to sin is no part of freedom; one can still do otherwise, without sin, if all your options are good ones. (Otherwise, God and the saints would not be free!)

To be fair to Plantinga, he was not arguing that freedom essentially involves the ability to sin but rather only making a claim about conditions of creaturely freedom. God might not be able to create free creatures without allowing that some would choose sin. And, if we limit this claim to the possibility of sin, Thomas Aquinas agrees that not even God can create a creature incapable by nature of sin (cf. De Veritate, q. 24, a. 7). If God desires to create free creatures, not even God can eliminate the metaphysical possibility that such creatures sin. And Aquinas uses this fact to show why it is that God’s grace is never given in such a way that it is irresistible. God never gives grace in such a way that we are strictly unable to reject it; all of our actions under grace remain contingent acts that could have been otherwise.

Hard Universalism, Grace, and Creaturely Freedom

It may seem at first glance as if Aquinas’s position requires creaturely freedom to be fundamentally morally indifferent or arbitrary, indifferent to willing either good or evil by nature. But Aquinas certainly thinks none of this. Aquinas’s view of creaturely freedom (and its limits) is instead closely connected to the Christian doctrine of grace. Aquinas necessarily rejects a position like “hard universalism”—the view that is necessarily true that “all are saved”—because of what this position requires in order to be true. Universalism might seem an innocent enough view: “Because God is Good,” they say, “He cannot avoid saving all.” The problem with universalism is not in their claim about God’s goodness or that God should do something to respond to sin. The deep errors of these universalists, and the reason that hard universalism is so dangerous for the faith, lie in serious mistakes the view requires concerning God’s nature and its relation to us.

It is quite right to say that the possibility of eternal separation from God is not obviously defeated by telling those in hell: “You chose poorly, but at least it was your choice.” Because freedom is not ultimately valuable if misused, universalists are right that moral evils need to be defeated by what God will bring about because of permitting sin. God permits what happens in sin and its consequences, we know, only because he intends to bring about some greater good that would defeat all evil that occurred in world history. When the Lord’s Day arrives, we should be able to look back on all of our struggles with joy. The orthodox Christian can and should agree with David Bentley Hart that, “the moral destiny of creation and the moral nature of God are absolutely inseparable” (That All Shall Be Saved, 69).

Paradoxically, the “hard universalist” gets it almost right; yet heresies are always only half-truths. What goes wrong lies not in universalism’s claim about God’s being Good, but in what they imply about the way God and human beings relate.

It cannot be necessarily true that everyone will be saved unless either God cannot do otherwise than cause us to share in His life, or human beings cannot do otherwise than love God supernaturally. There are only two possible ways in which God cannot do otherwise than save all people, which correspond to those outlined in my previous essay:

  1. Given who God is, He cannot allow us to reject grace definitively.
  2. Given what human beings are, they cannot reject grace.

David Bentley Hart’s You Are Gods gives a radical picture of the relationship between creation and God’s nature, as the basis for his hard universalist views:

Whatever is not God exists as becoming divine, and as such is God in the mode of what is other than God . . . grace is nothing but the necessary liberation of all creatures for their natural ends. Nature in itself has no real existence and can have none; it is entirely an ontological patiency before the formal causality of supernature, and only as grace can nature possess any actuality at all (xvii–xviii, emphasis mine).

At stake in the dispute about universal salvation are claims about how God in his divine nature relates to human beings. The danger lies in confusion about God’s nature. If it were literally metaphysically impossible for God to create the world and not cause it to share in his own nature; if nature “can have” no real existence if it is not sharing in God’s supernatural life; if we were deserving of being “partakers in the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4) merely given what we are, these claims all imply that we are naturally divine. Here we draw a line: pantheism and various other attempts in Christian history to mix up the divine nature of the Son in creation are the first kinds of deep errors that lie in the background of contemporary universalist arguments as to why God must necessarily save all. Christian tradition has rightly condemned these views on both Scriptural and metaphysical grounds.

Holding that God could not do otherwise than create implies that God had unique reasons to create this world. But God’s reasons are always to exemplify his own goodness in some way. If this world were the only possible world for God to create, there is no other possible way in which God’s being could be exemplified. Yet, God’s being is infinite; something can only adequately exemplify God’s goodness fully if it were divine. The Trinitarian Persons are not distinct from the divine nature, so creation would have to be something that is God-but-not-quite. Hart explicitly concludes that the world is becoming God (YG, 15–16), distinct by reason of its temporal becoming from the Persons of the Trinity (who “are God” eternally).

For theologians like Hart, these implications are central to their views of creation, redemption, universal salvation, and grace.[1] Claims that God cannot but create and raise us to grace imply an essential relationship between God and creation. If God could do nothing other than create or redeem us, given what he is, we would be essentially related to him, which is the basis from which Hart concludes that all must be saved.

All these claims, however, are strictly metaphysical nonsense. There is no such thing as being divine by nature but not quite, just as there is no such thing as God having parts. God is the first cause of all, completely self-sufficient Being, whereas parts compose a whole in virtue of giving that whole existence in some way, as my arm gives me certain powers or possibilities I would not otherwise have. Whatever has parts receives something from the parts. God receives nothing. If something has parts or receives being from another, it simply is not divine in any respect. For similar reasons, it is impossible even to state coherently what it would be for something to be naturally divine but somehow potentially or not quite so. God is that being that exists necessarily, given what he is.

Anything that is not God does not exist necessarily, including anything that exists through God—contingent beings are essentially something that receives being from another, not something that exists necessarily! And there is no “not-quite-divine” middle position between being contingent and necessary. To say something is “potentially divine” is just as meaningless as saying that a contradiction is “potentially” a necessarily true proposition (e.g., 2+2=4). Anyone can see that whatever is God by essence is essentially one (polytheism is necessarily false!); I am not numerically identical to God; therefore, I am not divine. Paul’s reaction in Acts 14:15 to the claim that he and Barnabas were divine was not to praise that theology!

There is also strong theological reason to reject such nonsense visions of God’s nature. If God could not have done otherwise than create and redeem, that means not only that Christ necessarily became incarnate, but that also he would have suffered torture on the Cross as a necessary consequence of his divine nature. So too, all evils in history would be strictly metaphysically necessary. The Cross would reveal that the divine nature, God’s own interior life, requires the existence of evil, essentially involves suffering torture, and that God positively intended as metaphysically necessary all the evils of history from the first sin to the murder of Cain to contemporary barbarities—a frankly monstrous prospect if not even God could have done otherwise than create a world with the Holocaust in it.

And it is theologically a form of Monophysitism to think that the union of divinity and humanity in Christ is itself somehow natural. Christ’s Incarnation, too, is not a natural or “inevitable” fact about either God the Son or mankind that was metaphysically necessary; otherwise, Christ’s incarnation “adds to” his eternal being from the Father, making him to be the person he is (the Son) by relation to the world in addition to his relation to the Father.

“What have we that we have not received?” (1 Cor 4:7) is a philosophical truth about the way in which anything that has being, insofar as it has being, depends on God. The orthodox doctrine is that creatures are metaphysically contingent in everything they are by nature. We are not by nature divine, nor becoming or potentially or sort-of divine. All we have is received. Participation in the divine nature that occurs through grace is not constitutive of what it is to be a human being, but only a free decision on God’s part; “otherwise grace is no more grace” (Rom 11:6). What we are is received, freely, and not given any essential or necessary connection between God’s nature (or any divine Person) and ours; we are metaphysically contingent beings.

This metaphysical truth is what led the Church to condemn the monk Pelagius, who infamously held the view that we do not need God’s help to do good, apart from the “grace” of our creation. By nature, he thought, we have free will such that we can merit our own salvation and love God supernaturally. Pelagius’s view implies that God’s grace is natural to us.

Pelagius was wrong. No free creature is such that, by its nature, it could never make a mistake or commit a moral fault. Free creatures can attain freedom from sin only with God’s help, not by nature. Similarly, loving God supernaturally—as his friends—is not an act we can perform without God’s further help, beyond creating us. Committing a sin and losing God’s grace is metaphysically possible for human beings, even with God’s grace, which is why we still need to hope and pray daily “forgive us our trespasses” even after our baptism.

The Cross and Sin

Options 1 and 2 for the universalist turn out, in the end, to be very similar in confusing the relation between human beings and God. Universalists nevertheless think they can avoid these consequences by arguing that God’s free purposes cannot be achieved if God allows anyone to persist in sin forever: if God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4), then his plan will appear to be thwarted if he allows moral evil to go undefeated and even a single person unsaved.

Nevertheless, this claim too appeals to the same basic principles as Options 1 and 2. What goes wrong is that, while it is true that God is good, God does not owe it to us either to raise us to His life or to prevent us from freely rejecting it. To say otherwise is to imply an essential relationship between us and God. God freely offering us His life from our creation in the Garden would make God arbitrary if He then were to cause, make, or predestine anyone to hell so that they could not do otherwise, for He would undermine His own purposes to offer us salvation as a free gift to us. But this does not entail that God would not be good if He did not give us grace in such a way that nobody can reject it. Even if it is true that humans are naturally able (in a broad sense) to become partakers of God’s nature, this claim does not involve any contradiction with any individual not being an actual partaker of God’s nature. But, if Options 1 and 2 are false, there is no strict contradiction in the view that God might have good reasons to permit us to reject His grace definitively, and so it is not impossible that God has a good plan for allowing even hell.

The universalist is right to imply that God’s decision to permit moral evil could only be in view of the defeat of that evil by greater goods. The universalist is wrong to imply we know that God’s plan would be thwarted by the presence of anyone in hell; the confusion here regards despair or presumption. God’s own reasons are not naturally accessible to us; we cannot deduce what God will do and what goods he could bring about that might be sufficient to defeat the badness obviously involved in hell. We simply can in no way fathom the limits of God’s power or what he might be able to do. Just as it is impossible to prove there is no possible state at the end times that would defeat the badness of any particular evil we encounter in life; we have no way to conclude that God’s plan would necessarily be thwarted by the presence of anyone persisting in sin or the badness of hell. The fact someone cannot imagine what that end state might look like is no objection to its possibility. “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Cor 2:9).

There is necessarily no a priori philosophical response to explain God’s reason for permitting moral evil and tell us about the way in which God will defeat that evil. God’s plan is not available to us in that way. The only way we can know what reason God has for not stopping moral evil, and whether persistence of anyone in hell could possibly be compatible with the goods God aims to achieve, would be if God were to reveal that plan to us. And He has, broadly speaking.

Fathers since Athanasius in On the Incarnation have explained the situation as one where Christ’s sacrifice was the “necessary” solution to the problem of the Fall—necessary in terms of what would constitute that defeat of sin that God had planned for our sake, not necessary in terms of God being by nature unable to do anything but die by torture. Christian revelation is built around the singular claim that God allowed the original sin of Adam and Eve—the entry point for human moral evil—because he intended to redeem humanity gloriously from sin: O felix culpa quae talem et tantum meruit habere redemptorem (“O happy fault that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer”).

God does not act contrary to his purposes in creating humanity and allowing them to lose his grace. He only permitted original sin in view of what he did later to defeat the moral evil and suffering introduced by the Fall. God defeated moral evil in the atonement on the Cross, where this victory culminates in an eschatological future where Christ will be all-in-all and evil will be defeated ultimately (1 Cor 15:28). God’s grace in Christ is then a unique act revealing his goodness, a sacrifice which was valuable precisely because it was Christ’s free gift to us. The Trinity accomplished this merely because God is “gracious and loves mankind.”

If the orthodox Christian story of the Cross is correct, universalists make a mistake in holding that God’s repair of the Fall necessarily cannot involve the possibility of anyone persisting in rejection of God’s grace forever. We know from the story of the Fall that the rupture between God and man would not have healed on its own. The Fall involved the actuality of a sin that lost Adam and his descendants God’s grace, really resulting in a state of spiritual death and personal alienation from God. If Christ had not come, we would “still be in our sins” (1 Cor 15:17).  

The gift of God in the Garden, grace, was given freely and lost freely. To say otherwise would be to impugn the goodness of God for having created creatures in a way that they could not do otherwise than fail. Naturally, God could have prevented original sin from affecting Adam’s descendants, just as he could have prevented it from occurring. But God does not act contrary to his intentions for human nature in allowing humans to suffer original sin, as he is merely allowing them to suffer the natural consequences of their actions, in keeping with his intentions that they naturally exercise free choice in attaining to happiness, natural or supernatural. If my great-grandfather was given an immense gift, and spent all the money, impoverishing his descendants, our situation is deplorable on his account, not because of his benefactor.


Maximus the Confessor was one of the great defenders of the orthodox faith against subtle confusions regarding divinity and humanity in Christ. His eschatology gives us the right way for thinking about God’s permission of evil. Maximus did not entirely reject the mistaken doctrine of Origen and Gregory of Nyssa of universal restoration, or apokatastasis. What God is going to do to defeat evil is not to make us become God by nature, which is impossible, but to make Christ be all-in-all (1 Cor 15:28). Beginning from a firm distinction between grace and nature, Maximus proposed that union with Christ will defeat even the badness of hell.

Since Christ’s Person is divine, union with Christ’s humanity brings all persons into contact with God’s nature through the hypostatic union of natures in one Person. Even as human persons and their nature will remain distinct from his on the Last Day, we will all, even the damned, become sharers in the divine nature insofar as we come into a union with Christ made possible on the basis of God’s Incarnation. For Maximus, universal restoration will be a final state where: “divinization will be present in actuality to all, transforming all human beings unto the divine likeness, in a manner proportionate to each, to the extent that each one is receptive of it.”[2]

On the final day, “[nothing in all creation] shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:31, 39)—and that includes the damned. What God intends to achieve (the free union of all in Christ) is therefore potentially compatible with the persistence of some in hell. But Maximus distinguishes: “Nature does not possess the principles of realities that transcend nature, just as it does not possess the laws of things that are contrary to nature.” Consequently, to the blessed, union with God will allow them to share in “the divine and incomprehensible pleasure of God,” whereas to those who did not preserve grace in their hearts, union with God “[produces] unspeakable pain and suffering.”[3] What God does for all is suited essentially to cause joy and happiness—the fact that God’s action bears suffering for the damned is entirely accidental, a product of their own choices.

What Maximus proposes is that, if free choice is natural to us (which it is), then God’s union with us in Christ necessarily does not abolish whatever concrete human nature we bring with us to the afterlife. God repairs the body and soul of all the dead, as far as is possible without destroying their freely chosen self. Just as God did not remove the possibility of failure when he created Adam and Eve in the Garden, God’s grace does not necessarily bring about our free conversion; God’s plan was always to give grace such that we can reject it, given our free nature.

Thus, if we failed to cooperate with grace here on earth, our union with Christ will produce pain given that we, by nature, are made to find our ultimate happiness in God alone; as the Catechism claims, “the chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs” (CCC §1035). But Maximus also argues that God only allows these kinds of evil in view of what he intends to accomplish. God’s plan, in the end, will bring about greater goods than all the history of evil in the world, including the potential case of anyone persisting in their sin forever.

Would Hell Be Worth It?

It goes often overlooked that, as “hard” universalism is so logically strong, we do not strictly even need to identify any good that would defeat the badness of a single person in hell in order to show that view to be false. To disprove the view that it is impossible for anyone to go to hell, we only need to show that what God achieves by permitting hell could be worth the mere possibility. As long as it is compatible with God’s benevolence to allow us to reject His grace definitively, even if nobody actually ever does, and God can defeat the badness of that mere potentiality of human beings to reject grace, then there is no incoherence in the position of “contingent” universalism; it could be true all shall be saved but it would not be necessarily so. Thus, if God could achieve something to defeat the mere possibility of hell, then it is not necessarily true God must save all or that the possibility conflicts with His goodness. And I see no good reason that there is nothing God could achieve that would not be able to defeat that badness of hell’s mere possibility.

Nevertheless, Maximus does not deny that the final and everlasting state of the damned is painful—“more punishing and terrible than any punishment” (as he puts it in a letter)—and so we should think of the case where God might allow actual damnation. In this case, we know God does not allow this because He hates the damned, but rather that God’s love is still active toward them somehow.[4] And we can see that God still does good for all by bringing them into union with Christ. And that union, the presence of God’s love to them, is good for the damned—indeed, God’s presence to us is among the greatest goods—even if they do not perceive it as such. Their pain is not good in itself, certainly, but the damned (by definition) see the world wrongly—the damned perceive the Good Himself as hateful and painful. But God is doing something good; we should not trust the damned in their perception of whether their state is good for them. To the contrary, we should look at things from the perspective of God and the blessed.

Christ’s resurrected body still bore scars—the mark of the nails and his pierced side. The Fathers hold that his resurrected followers do so as well: “Perhaps in that kingdom we shall see on the bodies of the Martyrs the traces of the wounds which they bore for Christ's name: because it will not be a deformity, but a dignity in them; and a certain kind of beauty will shine in them, in the body, though not of the body” (St. Augustine, City of God XXII). The saints who bear scars are not sad that they bear them; the scars bring joy, dignity, and beauty.

Some, therefore, argue that the situation of the disabled in paradise is similar. Precisely insofar as disabilities might serve to bring scorn or difficulties in life, disabilities can be linked constitutively with spiritual perfection. As the saints’ external scars might constitute signs of triumph, so too disabilities.

The situation of the damned might be analogous. The damned remain spiritually impaired in their relationship with God—in their will. While their sin impedes their flourishing supernaturally, their situation in union with Christ makes them better off than if they lacked it. Theirs is the only kind of union that they can possibly have with Christ, given that this impairment is essential to their personality. But the fact that there could have been something better for them does not mean that their evil is not defeated after they arrive in the eschaton.

The damned are better off in the resurrection precisely because of being in union with Christ, since the damned are closer to now him than to themselves, an eternal scar within the Heart of Jesus. On the true scale of value, the divinization and glorification that the damned undergo is enough to defeat any evil that persists.

From the perspective of the blessed, the presence of the damned need not be a cause for sadness, but for rejoicing. Even if the damned cannot understand it, they are still beloved in the eyes of God and others. As we see in this life, disabilities do not make someone’s life worthless. Unlike the way that the world treats disability, mental illness, or despair as making lives worthless or hopeless, Christians see “Christ in the distressing disguise of the poor,” as Mother Teresa was wont to say.

She liked to tell the story of dreaming that she went to paradise only to be turned away by St. Peter with the words: “There are no slums in heaven!” Her response was that she would go back and bring the slums back with her. Non-coincidentally, she also referred to those in sin as the “spiritually poorest of the poor.” We know taking care of the poor or disabled here below allows the saints to rejoice in the image of Christ in those who suffer (“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me,” Matt 25:40). “The poor you will always have with you” (Matt 26:11) could then be literal truth, the blessed and God caring for the damned in eternity.

We do not yet know whether there will be anyone in hell, but we can know that, if there were, an all-good God can make something good come of it—and that God is still merciful and loving toward those who He might permit to reject His grace. And this is all we can need to show in order to understand the way in which hell is possibly compatible with God’s goodness: that it is possible that there is a situation where God allows hell and all evil is defeated from God's own point of view. Things might not be as bad as we imagine.

Standing on that cliffside, looking out back to Mount Zion, you now hold your beloved close to you, having saved them from casting themselves into the abyss. It is true that the desire your beloved has to throw themselves away is still there. Their pain sits inside and, some scars being so deep, their suffering might never fully go away. Yet, while they are in pain, I know that they can feel me with them. Far from serving as an obstacle to keep us apart, that pain and brokenness is part of what keeps us together. You will never leave or let go as long as your beloved needs you—and you will need each other forever. From my perspective, being forever with someone I love and cannot now lose is cause not for disappointment but rejoicing. You sit, side-by-side, holding onto each other as the Sun rises.

[1] Feser’s diagnosis is that Hart is a pantheist; but I tend to think that Hart’s intended view involves a slightly different problem, akin to Monophysitism. Hart is a devotee of Sergius Bulgakov, whose views on Sophiology were condemned by the Russian Orthodox Church for having similar implications.

[2] Maximus, On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture: The Responses to Thalassios, trans. Maximos Constas (Washington, DC: Catholic University Press, 2018), 59.12.

[3] Maximus, 59.8.

[4] Quoted in Polycarp Sherwood, The Earlier Ambigua (Rome: Herder, 1955), 208–209. 

Featured Image: Odile Redon, The Chariot of Apollo, 1905; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


James Dominic Rooney

Fr. James Dominic Rooney, OP, is a Dominican friar of the Province of St. Albert the Great and an assistant professor in the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Hong Kong Baptist University. His work is primarily in metaphysics, medieval philosophy, Chinese philosophy, and his most recent book is Material Objects in Confucian and Aristotelian Metaphysics.

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