Struggling With Apocatastasis


Here’s an excellent post from the excellent Leah Libresco, my Patheos co-blogger who is much smarter than me, on the tension inherent in the idea of Universal Salvation (everyone goes to Heaven), or Apocatastasis, and the idea of human freedom. You can’t have Universal Salvation and human freedom, a typical argument goes, and God wants us to be free; if God just puts everyone in Heaven by fiat, the freedom of those who would rebel is negated.

Leah tries to square that circle by inviting us to look at salvation history not so much through the lens of judgement as through the lens of education. If we are educated to know and love Christ, we can embrace him without giving up our freedom. (EDIT: To be clear, Leah is not actually affirming Universalism in her post, just elaborating on a mechanism by which it could be made to work.)


This is fair enough as far as it goes. But as someone who has frequently toyed with Universalism, and has ultimately let go of affirming (but not let go of hoping for it), it’s not enough.

First of all, I think Leah will see that as far as affirming human freedom goes, viewing all of salvation history through the lens of education is also, well, rather infantilizing for humans. Of course we are all children of God and we cannot and should not ever stop learning from Him. And of course, education is a lifelong process. But the relationship between student and master is meaningless, indeed even perverse, if that relationship does not, at some point, come up to the end of that apprenticeship–and the student either standing or falling on his own.

But more importantly, I think Leah is looking at human freedom only through the lens of choice. Freedom is about free choice, and a truly free choice is a perfectly (or, at least, sufficiently) informed choice, and if we are not sufficiently informed, can we be held accountable for those choices? And if we are sufficiently informed in the next life, will we not make the right choice? I think this is very true as far as it goes. “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” I think we will hear that sentence a lot in the Final Judgement. And Catholic moral theology does take it into account; a sin cannot be mortal unless it is undertaken with full knowledge and conscience; “invincible ignorance” is very invincible indeed. As our understanding of the human psyche grows, we see how high the bar for true, unrepentant mortal sin is. But is saying that enough to say that all will be saved? Is there no (unrepentant) sin that can qualify as mortal? Again, it’s hard not to see that as infantilizing.

A good example of this might be suicide. The Church used to refuse, at least at some times, Christian burial to those who committed suicide. The thinking was that if your last living act is a taking of a life, i.e. a murder, then you die in mortal sin and you are damned (although it is documented that this was never a universal view in the Church). Now with our understanding of psychology, we understand that many who commit suicide are not in fact responsible for their action; that suicide very often arises as a result of mental illness and that the one who takes his life is not responsible for the action. This might even be true of most suicides. Can we nonetheless affirm that all suicides are like this? That no person who commits suicide ever willfully chooses to do so? It seems to me that you can’t say so without an impoverished view of human nature and/or playing a sterile definitional game (anyone who commits suicide is by definition insane).

More to the point, I think there is another dimension of freedom which is not so easily captured by the lens of choice, which is having your actions carry consequences. Forgive me for jumping on my hobby horses all the time, but one key component of Montessori education is that children must use breakable objects. Glasses in Montessori classrooms are made of, well, glass, not plastic. So that if a child drops it and breaks it she sees and experiences, in the most concrete way, that her actions have consequences. And then the child has to clean it up. Montessori (and Montessori, remember, is applied Catholic anthropology) is all about education to freedom, and part of that freedom is recognizing that actions have consequences. Think of a toddler with an unbreakable plastic sippy cup. The toddler drops the cup, which bounces off the floor harmlessly. The nearby parent, a bit harried, reflexively sighs, maybe hisses a reproach to the child, picks up the sippy cup and shoves it back in the child’s hands. At no point in that sequence was the child in control of anything. The child is being taught that her actions have no consequences–the sippy cup was dropped and then magically reappeared in her hand; she is told not to drop things but there are no (intrinsic) negative consequences if she does–and she is reproached for behaving in the way that she is clearly expected to, i.e. irresponsibly (in the most literal sense: without responsibility). NB: I have done the thing I am criticizing here many times; nobody is perfect.

Having our actions carry consequences is a deep, deep need of the human soul. It is part of our Imago Dei: God is the one whose actions always have consequences. He merely speaks the Universe into existence. The Myth of Sisyphus is so powerful precisely because of this. That may be the ultimate form of torture: a realm where our actions have no consequences.

If there’s one thing the Bible says about this world, it’s that it is really really important. The world is not an illusion to be transcended, nor is it a prison to be escaped from. The Heavenly Jerusalem will not be some other reality, but this reality, albeit healed and divinized. And not only that, but men have a key role in bringing about the Heavenly Jerusalem and in building it in anticipation of the great Revelation. Adam’s task–the one at which he fails, sending the entire drama of existence as we know it into motion–is to tend the garden, i.e. divinize the world. According to the Talmud, and I see no reason for Catholic Tradition not to agree, God purposefully created the Universe with “holes” in it–holes meant to be filled by humans. Riffing off this, Vladimir Volkoff beautifully wrote that God created the Universe, from all eternity, with a hole in the “shape” of Beethoven’s 9th, and Beethoven’s vocation as an artist was to sense the hole, and the shape of the hole, and build something that would fit just right–and, of course, all of us have a similar vocation. Here’s the point–you want actions to have consequences? Every human action, according to the Bible, has eschatological consequence. Jesus’ glorious body, His Heavenly Body, has wounds.

To say that all–not most, but all–who die having willfully and knowledgeably and unrepentantly committed very grave sins and refused God’s grace will nonetheless receive it in the afterlife is ultimately to say that our actions here in this world have no consequences. There is literally nothing you can do to separate yourself from God’s grace. I am reminded of that generalization of Murphy’s Law that doesn’t just say “What can go wrong, will” but “Everything that can happen, will.” Is the only thing that can’t happen is for someone to willfully, knowledgeably, unrepentantly, both in mind and action, refuse God’s grace? I am highly sympathetic to the idea that most sin is really victimization, disease, unfree choice due to corruption rather than active rebellion. But the idea that this is true of all sin is, ultimately infantilizes human nature to a degree that just doesn’t jibe with what I take to be Catholic Tradition and Biblical witness, and orthodox Christian anthropology more generally.

Which brings to mind the following, uncomfortable question: if so, what’s the point? Of all existence.

I don’t mean that in a small way, I mean that in a big way. And I mean it in particular in relation to human suffering. To me, the only possible explanation for human suffering that makes sense is the necessity of human freedom. That God makes His creatures free and therefore evil is injected into the Universe. If this human freedom is not radical (in the etymological sense: down to the root), if it does not have eschatological significance, then, quite simply, I don’t see how there is a point to the whole drama of human existence as Biblical Tradition relates; God could have just skipped the whole thing.

Let me put it this way. There was a piece a while ago on the Huffington Post by a guy whose pitch was “I’m a Christian and I’m an abortionist.” Nevermind the actual author of the piece. I just don’t think that someone who (a) identifies as a Christian and views that identity as important; (b) is an abortionist; (c) never repents; can be saved. That person would be someone whose entire adult life would be a long middle finger to God. Can most abortionists be saved? (Gulp.) Maybe. For many of them, there can be invincible ignorance, although invincible ignorance is not the same as denial, and I think it is very hard (impossible?) to do that work day in and day out and not realize that you are killing human beings. But for someone who identifies as a Christian? Again, I am not talking about the actual author of the piece, it is impossible for me to judge, just drawing a theoretical case from it. But in this case I think what we would have is someone who willfully chooses separation from God.

I write here as one who has great sympathy for Universalism. As Hans Urs von Balthasar writes, there is a strong rational basis for hoping that all will be saved. I do believe that the bar for true, unrepentant mortal sin is very high indeed, and God’s mercy astonishing. I am also an “anti-anti-Universalist”; there is clearly a very, very unhealthy tendency among some Christians to crave for the existence of Hell, to crave for the eternal suffering of demonized Others, that comes out in response to many Universalist or quasi-Universalist arguments. The idea that there is a truly astonishing breadth and depth to God’s grace is an important one, and a one that needs to be contemplated more.

But I think that ultimately Leah’s argument fails to get at the true measure of human freedom as I believe it is described in the Bible and as I understand Catholic Tradition to describe it.

Francesco Botticini – The Assumption of the Virgin” by Francesco Botticini – Unknown. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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