Difficulties

Winslow Homer, The Gulf Stream, 1899 (Source)
  1. Why does God create so many souls that He has no intention of saving?
    1.a. Take the massa damnata of St. Augustine. What is the point of creating a human soul – ostensibly out of infinite, perfect love – and not saving it?
    1.a.i. The argument that God allows us to be damned to preserve our free will is meaningless in the face of the basic anthropology of the Christian tradition, which holds salvation itself to be an unmerited and supernatural grace. Man cannot save himself, and in the state of sin, rightly deserves damnation. But why bother creating so much life – so many unique and irreplaceable souls – if you intend to preserve the vast majority of these souls in everlasting torment without any reciprocal knowledge or love?
    1.a.i.1. There can be no softening of this point. The very clear implication of the New Testament, and even of the Old Testament, is that the vast majority of mankind is hellbound, or at least cut off from God. This was a fairly normal view until quite recently in Christian history, and is not unique to Catholics, Protestants, or Orthodox.
    1.a.i.2. God could conceivably create souls simply to damn them. After all, as St. Paul says, “Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump, to make one vessel unto honor, and another unto dishonor?” (Romans 9:21). But is this the act of a God who is Love, to fashion a sentient entity for the express purpose of eternal torture – just to manifest His own quality of justice in perpetuity?
    1.a.ii. In the Christian East, there is still not a satisfactory answer here. Even should we accept the theology of St. Maximus the Confessor (and later, Bl. John Duns Scotus) that mankind’s purpose is to become deified, and thus that the Incarnation would have happened for our glorification even without original sin, this position does nothing to explain why the vast majority of the human race should be committed to hellfire. It does nothing to explain why almost everyone who has ever lived (including most so-called Christians) should face an eternity of unimaginable and unmitigated torment at the physical, emotional, and spiritual levels.
    1.a.ii.1. It is a dogma of the faith that at the Last Judgment, all the dead will be raised bodily – some to everlasting life, others to everlasting punishment. Hell’s torments are therefore not merely spiritual, but physical. St. Thomas Aquinas declares that the fires of hell will be corporeal. (ST Suppl. III. Q. 97, Art. 5).
    1.b. Let’s move beyond the human. Why does God bother to create so much life that’s wasted? There are sentient, ensouled beings that serve no human purpose.
    1.b.i. It is not enough to suggest that animals exist to serve man, per Genesis 1-3.
    1.b.i.1. Does a leopard eating a gazelle, hundreds of miles from human settlement, serve mankind? Does a whale locked in the deadly embrace of a squid contribute at all towards man’s dominion or salvation or even his punishment? Multiply this factor by billions – for we must include the insects, as well as most wild animals that have ever lived. Why create this life if it is all a waste?
    1.b.i.1.a. Doesn’t this massive wastage imply that there is no spiritual or even metaphysical point to animal life on its own terms?
    1.b.ii. If we mere humans love our domestic animals in an imperfect way, and yet we still are saddened at the thought that they are lost forever at their death, what would God’s perfect love for His creatures look like? Why should we follow the Thomists and declare their souls extinct upon death?
    1.b.iii. Does this position of extinction not reduce God to an imperfect creator, one who makes far, far more sentient beings than He has any intention of preserving – thus trivializing His love of so many creatures to virtual non-existence?
    1.b.iii.a. It would be possible to object here that animals and humans do not have the same kind of souls – more on this at 4.b.i.-4.b.ii.2.b.
    1.b.iii.b. Put another way – doesn’t this picture of God’s relationship with non-human, sentient creatures make Him appear wasteful to the point of active cruelty? Doesn’t this picture give us an image of a fundamentally frivolous creator cruelly indifferent to, not just the temporal suffering, but the very existence of His living creations?
    1.b.iii.c. Isn’t this implication drawn yet more forcefully in the case of damned humans?
    1.c. Can God – who is infinite, perfect, loving, and Being-in-Itself – have any true and lasting foes?
  2. In 1 Corinthians, we read that “Love is patient, love is kind” (1 Cor. 13:1). If God is Love, then it follows that God is patient. Does Christian soteriology suggest as much?
    2.a. In what sense is God patient? In His terms, or ours?
    2.a.i. Can an eternal, infinite Being be described as “patient” if He condemns a soul to equally eternal torment on the basis of choices made – or even graces which He Himself withholds – in the course of some seven or so decades?
    2.a.i.1. Surely there are some crimes that deserve far greater punishment than we mortals can imagine. But wouldn’t eternal damnation, which afflicts both body and soul, be necessarily disproportionate to any crime committed by any human subject?
    2.a.i.2. Quite apart from such serious crimes – sexual assault, child abuse, genocide, serial killing, war rape, etc. – that could reasonably merit eternal damnation, let’s consider lesser offenses that Western Christianity has historically considered damnable.
    2.a.i.2.a. Should a soul who dies suddenly and impenitently after masturbating be damned?
    2.a.i.2.b. Should a soul who dies without reconciling to the Church, after sincerely losing his faith as the victim of spiritual abuse, be damned?
    2.a.i.2.c. Should a soul who, having heard about Christianity but having rejected it due to the poor example of its ministers, and who dies in another religion, be damned?
    2.a.i.2.d. Should a soul who, beset by serious mental illness or unthinkable distress, commits suicide, be damned?
    2.a.i.2.d.i Traditional Catholic teaching, and even much traditional Protestantism, would answer in the affirmative to all these abstract questions, while refraining from any declaration prejudicial to God’s actual judgment in the case of particular souls.
    2.a.i.2.d.i.1. Is this religion reasonable where it should be reasonable?
    2.a.i.2.d.i.2. Is it humane?
    2.a.i.2.d.i.3. What conclusions must we draw about a religion that needs to ignore, change, or trim its own moral teachings in order to provide human consolation to the grieving?
    2.a.i.2.d.i.3.a. Do our conclusions become more grievous when the religion that does so claims to be a unique revelation safeguarded by the preservative quality of the Divine dwelling in its teaching authority, or in the unchanging deposit of its doctrine, or in the infallibility of its Scriptures?
    2.a.i.2.e. Is a soul in hell glorifying to God in itself? If not, then what is the point of its existence in the first place?
    2.a.i.2.e.i. St. Thomas alleges that the Saints in Heaven will be able to peer down into Hell, without pity, so as to rejoice in the just punishment they witness. (ST Suppl. III. Q. 94. Art. 1-3).
    2.a.i.2.e.i.1. Does this image of the saints preserve into beatitude the cardinal virtue of the Christian life, namely, charity?
    2.a.i.2.e.i.2. What kind of glory does God need or want or gain from the eternal, penal torture of a finite being? Or, indeed, of the eternal torture of many such beings?
  3. Are eternal damnation, eternal salvation, and temporary purgation the only options for the human soul after death?
    3.a. If the philosophical basis for this claim is an anthropology that defines man as the union of a single discreet body and a single discreet soul, as in ST I. Q.75. Art. 4, then what happens to our soteriology if we redefine the human subject?
    3.a.i. For instance, why shouldn’t we accept that, instead of our particular material embodiment – which is manifestly mutable, corruptible, and gross – our true self is an indestructible, immaterial, subtle spirit?
    3.b. Why shouldn’t a soul return to another mortal body after death?
    3.b.i. Wouldn’t reincarnation, which thus extends a soul’s spiritual journey through multiple lifetimes, be more consistent with the patience of an infinite and perfectly loving Being?
  4. How are we to understand the basic relationship of God and creation?
    4.a. Is there a complete distinction between creator and creature? If so, what does this say about God?
    4.a.i. Wouldn’t the fact that God is Being Itself rule out the possibility of a complete distinction between creator and creature?
    4.b. If God is Being Itself, then of necessity, all discreet entities that exist must subsist in Him. He must also subsist in Them, albeit in a radically different fashion.
    4.b.i. What kinds of entities exist, according to the classical Christian system?
    4.b.i.1. God is not an entity among entities, but rather the very Being (ens) in which they “live and move and have [their] being.” (Acts 17:28).
    4.b.i.2. Angels and Demons are intellectual and rational spirits without matter.
    4.b.i.3. Humans are intellectual and rational spirits who are embodied.
    4.b.i.3.a. Is this definition capable of distinction between the genus (Human) and the species (Individual subject)? That is, can we preserve this definition while accounting for the objection raised at 3.a.i?
    4.b.i.3.a.i. If man, being “made in the image and likeness of God” (Gen. 1:27) shares his rational intellect with the Angels, in what sense – if any – is this image and likeness shared with the Angels? Put another way, is it really distinctive of the human race?
    4.b.i.2. Animals have sensitive and embodied souls, but these souls lack intellect and rationality.
    4.b.i.3. Plants have vegetative souls but lack reason or sensitive animation.
    4.b.i.4. The rest of existence consists of inanimate matter without spirit or sentience.
    4.b.ii. Is this system compelling?
    4.b.ii.1. Doesn’t this system take distinctions among creatures as its organizing principle, rather than distinctions within the manifold relationship of creator and creature?
    4.b.ii.2. Wouldn’t a better metaphysical system divide categories of entities by virtue of the way that they relate to the very ground of Being as such?
    4.b.ii.2.a. Isn’t the chief ontological distinction between independent (divine) and dependent (creaturely) being?
    4.b.ii.2.a.i. Doesn’t this division preserve both difference and the essential unity of Being?
    4.b.ii.2.b. Isn’t the second ontological distinction between pure soul (God), ensouled dependent beings, and non-ensouled dependent beings?
    4.b.iii. Sophiology has opened up again in our time the question of a “world soul,” but no Christian denomination has authoritatively taught this as doctrine. The question must be laid aside for now.
    4.b.iv. Following Sinistrari and mindful of the times, we must acknowledge the possibility of other intelligent beings, whether on other planets or in other, subtler dimensions. But barring proof, we must lay aside this question as well.
    4.c. If God, the ground of Being, is in all entities, is He in the souls of the damned?
    4.c.i. If the souls of the damned continue to exist for eternity, is God not there, at least in their preservation?
    4.c.ii. Is it reasonable to think that God would subject Himself to everlasting torture?
    4.c.ii.1. Wouldn’t this portion of damned eternal existence, already seen to be much larger than saved eternal existence in its human aspect, be of necessity less perfect than an eternal existence which is wholly saved, wholly glorified, wholly assumed to the Divine Nature?
  5. Why must there only be one Incarnation?
    5.a. Assuming God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, why should He only come personally once into material existence?
    5.a.i. It may be said that any God who had to come in numerous incarnations would thereby demonstrate His insufficiency in accomplishing His mission the first time. For an omnipotent Being can accomplish His ends without failure.
    5.a.i.1. But this objection assumes that God would only come if compelled in some way by creatures; however, we cannot compel God in any way.
    5.a.i.2. Any divine incarnation would thus, of necessity, be completely gratuitous. So couldn’t God conceivably incarnate as many times as He wishes, for His own purposes?
    5.a.ii. It may be said that God incarnates to affirm the essential goodness of matter, as in the refrain of Genesis 1.
    5.a.ii.1. However, this objection only suggests one good reason that God incarnates; it does not prove that there can only be one incarnation.
    5.a.ii.2. Moreover, although this reason occasionally appears in popular discourse, no one really believes that the point of any incarnation was to show the essential goodness of matter, which would, at best, be an auxiliary effect and not the telos thereof.
    5.a.iii. It may be said that God incarnates only once so as to manifest Himself as He is, once and for all.
    5.a.iii.1. This objection fails, however, insofar as it does not consider that God can present Himself in any way He wishes; there is nothing but (ostensibly) our own fallen nature that caused God to become human and not angelic. Why shouldn’t He appear in other material guises, if He wishes?
    5.a.iii.2. Furthermore, the Scriptures are full of theophanies that do not require incarnation. Thus, self-manifestation cannot be an argument for the singularity of the incarnation, as it is not a sufficient reason for it in the first place.
    5.a.iii.3. God, as an infinite Being, may have capacities and attributes not best expressed in human form. So if God really wanted to manifest Himself in incarnation, would it not follow that He may choose to incarnate in forms other than the strictly human? Perhaps, for instance, as an angel, a being subtler and thus nobler than mankind?
    5.a.iv. It may be argued that God can only incarnate once because He has chosen a singular people and one line of covenants by which to save the world and glorify His Name; consequently, the whole body of the elect are one in His single body, which He first had to assume, and that once for all.
    5.a.iv.1. This is the best argument for the singularity of the Incarnation, as is another like it – that it is more fitting to the Divine Majesty to have one mother, and not many.
    5.a.iv.1.a. Though this objection does not account for a possible incarnation that does not emerge from biological processes.
    5.a.iv.2. Moreover, this argument raises again some of the metaphysical and soteriological issues at 4.c-4.c.ii. above. For at the deepest level of reality, both the elect and the damned are one in their ontological position vis-à-vis absolute being.
  6. What is the point of grace if it does not sanctify?
    6.a. If grace is not efficacious enough to actually turn the heart towards God and away from evil, then what good is it?
    6.a.i. Put another way, why is it that a soul who receives the sacraments regularly, believes the creeds and doctrines of the Church, attempts to live in charity, and has a regular prayer life makes no progress in any of his cardinal temptations or sins?
    6.a.i.1. What are we to make of a religion whose priests, receiving the grace of the sacraments (and even God Himself) every day, nevertheless show no signs of growth in holiness?
    6.a.i.2. What are we to make of a religion where even the local proximity of God Himself in the Blessed Sacrament is not enough to banish the most horrific of vices?
    6.a.i.3. What are we to make of a religion whose visible head, allegedly supported by special graces, acquiesces to the cover-up of the most wicked of crimes?
    6.a.i.4. What are we to make of a religion that, taking all of the above, nevertheless claims that God Himself sustains it with supernatural graces, including (especially) the graces of sanctification and of an abiding Real Presence in the Church?
    6.b. Would any of this tension exist in a religion that made no such claims, or at least tempered them?
    6.c. It could be said that Providence removes, restrains, or hides grace as God sees fit. But what is the point of a visible church if not to dispense grace in dependable ways?
  7. In considering God, shouldn’t our rule be to favor what is most fitting to the Divine Majesty?
    7.a. Is Christianity?

6 thoughts on “Difficulties

  1. Hi, thanks for writing this. There’s lots of stuff to discuss and think about, and I can see this comes from a very sincere struggle, some of which I’ve felt too.

    Right now, I only wanted to ask about point 5: has the Church officially condemned the teaching that it is possible for God to incarnate multiple times? Timothy Pawl defends the possibility and notes that St. Thomas did as well, and Andrew Davison has outlined some doctrinally robust ways of talking about multiple incarnations with reference to extraterrestial life, although I think he’s Anglican so has different baggage around it.

    So a possible answer to all of (5) is simply to say that multiple incarnations are possible, but we currently don’t *know* of any and must therefore provisionally trust in the efficacy of this Incarnation out of faith in God’s Providence. I’m not sure what the impact of this would be for some of the questions in (1) and (4), but it’s a start.

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  2. 1.a.i.1 is the source of all your difficulty. there is no such clear implication for eternal damnation in scripture. mostly the result of bad latin translations from the original greek, such as that St Augustine was limited to. Judaism has no tradition of eternal torment, vis old testament. and the surprising number of greek church fathers who were universalists/hopeful universalists (prob enough to match, in raw numbers, those who believed in eternal damnation–see ramelli) is enough proof that the new testament has no such “clear implication” either. the fathers read the new testament in greek, in the socio-cultural context of its writers. they could not have misunderstood the teaching of their masters.

    Altough it is correct to say that Chrisitianity is unfit of divine majesty if one takes its teaching to be eternal damnation. without the ugly idea of eternal damnation however, no religion can match its beauty. i personally take the view of some–permissible to Catholics–that hell itself is eternal, but our true selves do not remain their forever. what is left is a personification of the parasite, the disease from adam, which enslaves us to Death and thereby to sin. this view seems to harmonize reason and scripture the most tome. and without reason, scripture is worthless fideism.

    Although if someone were to convince me that Catholicism required me to hold to eternal damnation of our true selves, or Christianity, i would abandon them without a second thought

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  3. You mentioned Sophiology, which you’ve talked about in other posts on here. I’ve been trying to understand it, and have struggled in finding a decent definition for the sort you and Michael Martin hold to, either for Sophiology or the concept of Sophia itself. What definition do you think best reflects how you look at it?

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  4. I think these are issues that most intellectually inclined people of faith struggle with, certainly I struggle with many. But they aren’t all on the same level, I think. Being of beings talk is of recent vintage, as is talk of ‘grounds’ for being, whereas hell is a dogma. And Aristotelian categories and philosophy are not dogma, even if some dogmas have taken terminology form it, such as the ‘matter’ and ‘form’ in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. If the uphevals following vatican II teach anything, it is that not all that is taught by catholic theologians or even the magisterium, is necessarily dogma. We seem to be in a process of discernment regarding the boarders of what can be held and what must be.

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  5. I’m not sure if this post actually went through as it hasn’t appeared: I’ll try again!

    1.a.i.1 is where your difficulty lies. Yes, the massa damnata view was “a fairly normal view until quite recently in Christian history, and is not unique to Catholics, Protestants, or Orthodox.” But not everything that fits those criteria is part of the deposit of faith. (One doesn’t have to be a modernist – I am certainly not one – to think that views on slavery which were “fairly normal until quite recently in Christian history” are in fact incorrect, and were never part of the deposit of faith proper even if they were part of the small-t Christian tradition you describe).

    That Pope Benedict XVI takes a very different view on salvation in sections 45-47 of his encyclical Spe Salvi (he speculates that the “great majority” of humanity will be saved after going through purgatory) suggests that this is a permissible view for Catholic to hold, and not contrary to the Tradition.

    I also think Pope Benedict’s position – in an encyclical no less – casts doubt on any claim that the massa damnata view is the “clear” implication of scripture. As with Jonah and the Ninevites, God may threaten some dire consequence without it coming to pass (God’s stated intention to destroy Nineveh did not have an explicit ‘unless’ clause). Given the strong theoretical difficulties with the massa damnata view which you have identified, and the fact that denying it is not heretical (unless Pope Benedict is a heretic!), it seems to me that there are good orthodox reasons to abandon it, or at least be much less convinced of its truth, despite the strong support it receives from the small-t tradition. There’s a lot more to say of course!

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