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Quodlibet 41 - “That we be delivered from eternal damnation”

Monday, February 17, 2020

Quodlibets | We pray in the Roman Canon of the Mass: “command that we be delivered from eternal damnation”. A reader asks: why can’t we have been delivered from eternal damnation ab initio? Why couldn’t the damned simply have never been created?

Question: Why would God create someone knowing they would reject Him and be damned? Could he not simply have refrained from creating that person, without negating the freedom of those who choose Him?

We must approach this variation on a perennial question with a certain reverence, for we are on holy ground: the mysterious interplay of human free will, God’s foreknowledge, and His perfect goodness. Whilst we have to affirm with Tradition that a full resolution is indeed beyond human ken, the apparent paradox is not entirely impenetrable to reason. Before turning to the question itself, I think it’s helpful to begin with some prefatory remarks on predestination, which delimits the doctrinal boundaries within which we can try to gesture towards an answer.

God “desires that everyone be saved” (1 Tim. 2:4) and offers sufficient grace to all in order to make this possible. Moreover, due to His omniscience (or more specifically, foreknowledge) God in His eternity knows who will cooperate with His grace and be numbered among the blessed, and who will obstinately reject it and be damned. The key point to stress is that whilst the elect are said to be predestined to salvation, the damned are not “predestined” to damnation (so-called double predestination, which is taught by some versions of Calvinism). Whilst God’s grace brings about salvation, there is no “antigrace” bringing about damnation. The principal cause of damnation lies in the free will of the human who freely rejects grace, meaning that damnation is said to be within God’s “permissive will”.

So, we come to the original question. Why, then, does God permit damnation? The essence of the answer must be the same as for all statements of the problem of evil, for damnation is possible because sin is possible. With St Augustine we can say that “God judged it better to bring good out of evil than not to permit any evil to exist”. The implication is that true human freedom is a very great good, and a world that exemplifies it is greater than one which lacks it. Indeed, the will can be regarded as the noblest element of human nature, a feature that most splendidly manifests our creation in the image of God. This is not intrinsic, for in itself one can argue that the intellect is objectively greater, but there is a superiority on account of its object, for the will can be united to God in love, but the divine essence remains incomprehensible to a created intellect – even the angels and saints enjoying the beatific vision. A world in which God necessitated the fulfilment of his antecedent universal salvific will would not be compatible with freedom.

The question we are considering makes a more subtle suggestion that grants the necessity of freedom. Is there a meaningful sense in which freedom could be maintained without anyone experiencing damnation? One possibility would be for the damned to be annihilated at their final judgement. However, this would be inimical to God’s goodness for existence is a transcendental and is thus interconvertible with the good: God still loves the damned on account of this goodness. To say God loves the damned is not incompatible with their eternal punishment, for God is simple: all his attributes, love and justice included, are analogically equivalent and identical to his single act of existence. The damned (and, indeed, the blessed) are not deprived of their freedom; their torment is an expression of God’s justice, for punishment is the just response to a will fixed in opposition to the Good itself. St Thomas Aquinas suggests that God shows mercy to the damned “in punishing short of what is deserved”, whilst annihilation is devoid of mercy, “since nothing would remain to which he might show mercy”.

What about the possibility of divine foreknowledge being somehow exploited to prevent the damned ever being created? Well, we must remember that God’s foreknowledge is neither temporal nor causal. God is timeless and exists outside of time: “To God, all moments of time are present in their immediacy” (CCC 600). If we mistakenly try to reason about foreknowledge within time, we get the impression that our future has been predetermined, which is a stronger statement than that it is foreknown. To say God is the first cause of all that exists is not to eliminate human freedom, for the “dignity of causality” with which we are endowed is an effect flowing from God’s creative act. In that case, the only sense in which a world could exist in which humans are free but none are damned is one of logical contingency (the result may just so happen to obtain) and not logical necessity. That such an outcome may be realised, however unlikely it may seem, is not incompatible with Catholic doctrine; it is a suggestion that was popularised by von Balthasar (in a book published in English as “Dare we hope that all men be saved?” But which is more literally translated as “What may we hope for?”) The possibility is opened by the fact that there are no “anticanonisations”: no human individual is known with certainty to be in hell. The Church, therefore, does not despair of the salvation of any individual, but rather prays hopefully for all the dead.

However, that such a happy eventuality is possible must not be overstated. The reality of free will means that the possibility of damnation is equally real, as our Lord makes abundantly clear in the Gospels. Corruptio optimi pessima (the corruption of the best is the worst). The abuse of something as great as freedom is an awful thing. But even the knowledge of that possibility means we must hope for salvation rather than presume it. Through theological hope God expands our hearts, increasing our capacity to receive the divine love, and leading us to love ever more fervently. It is no wonder that it is the mystics who are most capable of grasping the eternal plan of salvation ordained by God’s providential love. The Scriptures testify to a tension between God’s infinite love that reaches out with indefatigable ingenuity to every one of His rational creatures, and His permissive will that so respects the integrity of His creation that He leaves finite creatures free to eternally reject His love. This is a tension not to be slackened with a syllogism, but pulled taut in pondering the mysteries of our redemption, and touched in prayer. “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom. 11:33).

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Br Daniel Benedict Rowlands O.P.

Born in Berkshire, Br Daniel was raised in the Faith in a Benedictine parish. Before entering the novitiate in 2018, he read Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge where he remained to complete a doctorate in Theoretical Physics. His years of study confirmed a love for the contemplative life, but also theological debate with those of different world views. C. S. Lewis, St Augustine, and Pope Benedict XVI were formative influences as an undergraduate, whilst more recently he has enjoyed exploring Dante, the twelfth-century Cistercians, and Eastern spiritual theology. | daniel.rowlands@english.op.org


It was customary in medieval universities twice a year to subject expert theologians to questions of the students’ choosing. The responses to these points of controversy were recorded in collections of so-called Quodlibetales – from the Latin, “ask what you like”. Following in that tradition, the student brothers invite you to put them to the test with your own questions, which you can submit here.

MORE ON: QUODLIBETS

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