God’s Hand & Our Free Will

Original article can be found here.

Written by
Edward A. Hara
Apr 14, 2020
Edward A. Hara

n a rather old (2008) blog site I found yet another argument regarding apokatastasis (the doctrine that God will restore all Creation to its former pre-Fall glory). It is of interest to me because one of the participants is Russian Orthodox Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, Bishop of Vienna and Austria.  The blog was about his discussion of St. Issac of Syria, given at the Catholic Church’s first World Congress on Divine Mercy. What makes this blog even more interesting is the presence of His Grace, Bishop Hilarion, in the comments section to clarify the discussion being held regarding apokatastasis and his comments at the World Council.  For those interested, you may read the comments here.

I wish to take issue with one comment in particular made in this series of statements:

“One further point: I can understand the wish to believe that everyone is saved. I think all of us agree on this: Hell is a dreadful doctrine, and it is very hard to wrap our minds around it.

But IMHO there truly is no way to posit the salvation of all without ruling out free will. And to rule out free will is to deny human dignity. If we are passive robots who will all be saved whether we like it or not, so to speak, then we are not fully, truly human.

IOW, it may seem kinder to veer toward universalism, but I would very respectfully suggest that it really isn’t. There is no true kindness involved in a belief that negates our human dignity (IMHO).”

Step by step, my response to this is:

1. Not only is hell a dreadful doctrine, it casts a dreadful slander upon our loving heavenly Father to believe in some of the forms of hell which are so terribly popular among Catholics.  The lurid tales of Dante’s Inferno, the vivid descriptions of many of the modern Catholic “seers,” the ideas of St. Thomas Aquinas and Tertullian in which they claim that the saved will watch the torments of the damned and not only enjoy them, but they will add to the glory of God, these are all to me a perverse character assassination of the One whom the Bible says is love, as if love would initiate such tortures and keep them going forever for the enjoyment of those in heaven and the fulfilling of some bizarre idea of justice.

It is not only hard to wrap my mind around such a teaching, it is even harder to imagine that love would have anything to do with a punishment that goes far beyond what is required of justice to punish a man for his sins.  As one Orthodox writer, who is a Patristic Universalist, said of such a description of the torments of hell:  “You are not talking about Jesus. You are talking about Zeus!”

2.  The writer goes on to make the statement that God MUST respect our free will, and to not do so is to deny our human dignity.  Since I have a distinct dog in this fight, one that the writer may never have encountered, I feel I must respond to this.

If God had respected my free will, I would still be involved in a panoply of sins so disgusting and heinous that I will not mention them here.  Or I would now be long dead and gone from this world.  Given the severity of my wickedness and the insanity of my actions, I think probably the latter. Think of the Hippie Movement of the 1960’s and imagine every licentious, dirty, and wicked thing that the Movement promoted.  That was me, and that was my “free will choice,” so to speak.  I loved the sins of the flesh, I had declared myself an atheist, and I despised Christians. I wanted nothing at all to do with them or their Jesus.  That was my free will. Go away God! Go away Christians!

So how did I come to the point of repenting and turning to Christ in sorrow for my sins? Did God overtake and remove my free will, eliciting from me a robotic response of repentance which He desired?  Was my will violated in such a manner that I had no choice but to do what I was told?

No, God simply let me “run out my string.”

There is a saying in the Twelve Steps book of AA which says that you cannot make an addict change until he has hit the bottom and is watching his last bubble of air float to the surface. That is exactly what God did with me, allowing me to, of my own “free will,” hit the bottom and realize that all the “fun” I was having was about to kill me. Far from the sense of carnal excitement I felt when I took my first hit of marijuana, my life had become, in four years of unrestrained hedonism,  a joyless tedium racked with sorrow and drug-induced psychosis. I was in deep trouble and I knew it, filled with suicidal thoughts but dreadfully scared of the black void which my atheism said was the ultimate end of man.  Of my own free will, I began an intense search for the garden gate which offered escape from this fool’s paradise into which I had eagerly dashed.  No one had to tell me it was get out or die – and no one was coercing me! I had come to the point that I knew it was the only option left for me.  Yet even then, I could have chosen to shake my fist at God and die.  I took the choice to live and began my search.

The gate out of my individual hell came in the shape of a cross.

Did God in any way violate my free will?  Or did He simply allow me to come to a point where the foolishness, the vanity, and the destructiveness of my choices could no longer be ignored, and the “joys” of unrestrained hedonism were not worth the price I was paying?

Do you see the point I am making?  The only objection that the writer really has is the idea that some come later – much later – than others. Every repentance, every Christian conversion comes about as a result of the awakening of the mind to the reality of God. Repentance – turning from ourselves to God – is the result. If God did not intervene to change our wills – bending them not by coercive force, but by bringing us to see ourselves as we truly are and Himself as the true desire of our hearts – we would never wish anything to do with Him.  Ever.  This is the very issue the Council of Orange dealt with in response to the Pelegian heresy, which says that man, left to himself, can find God.  He cannot.  God must intervene. He is the Prime Mover to whom we respond.

God moves first. Waits for our response. Maybe we do respond. But maybe we are set in our sins and find delight in them. God is patient and continues to move towards us, always moving first and waiting for our free will response.  Some few respond at an early age, even before they are teens.  Many more respond in their teens, twenties, thirties, forties….some on their deathbeds.

Some die unconvinced.

What do they find on the other side? Truth. The presence of Christ strips away every vain thought the soul has of itself and the carnal pleasures of sin. Sergius Bulgakov wrote that even the devil, when stripped of all that he has, will come to see himself as a nothing folding itself in on itself, and will thus come to realize the lie he believed  – that he could exist without relationship to God.

Bulgakov pictured Satan as being bitterly divided between the awareness of his angelic creaturely nature on the one hand and his false pretense to be the ‘prince of this world’ on the other hand. Bulgakov asked ‘Can Satan’s battle with himself become infinite (and in this sense “eternal”), a bad infinity? Or must Satan lose his strength in this battle and at some point lay down his arms in impotence? Bulgakov’s reply was that after Satan’s expulsion from the world his resources were bound to be exhausted by this internal contradiction, the prince of darkness would give in to the power of divine love in the end.

God’s limitless mercy and the sacrifice offered by Christ extend even into the realm of the demonic.

So it will be with the soul.  To see ourselves as nothing, stripped of all false pretense and ego so common in this world, is to come to a point in which the soul will desire, of its free will, to be united to Christ, no matter what in what manner it must suffer to achieve that end.  We were created to be “gods,” to share the divine nature. The alternative is nothingness. Who, of their own free will, would choose that over becoming all that God made us to be, no matter what the cost in purgative and restorative punishment in the fires of God’s love?

Here Origen, like Bulgakov, emphasizes that the torment is caused by the internal conflict between what the soul has become in its revolt against God and what God had made it to be. Bulgakov also followed Origen and Gregory of Nyssa in stressing the purgative and therapeutic rather than the retributive dimension of this type of punishment.

For Bulgakov, the triumph of God’s will meant that in the resurrection rational creatures would no longer be able to choose between good and evil, but only between the different kinds of good. The progress towards evil would become impossible; only  the progress towards greater good, the passing ‘from glory to glory’ (2 Cor 3 18) would remain a possibility. Bulgakov insisted that such a state did not eliminate human freedom. On the contrary, freedom from evil is the greatest possible kind of freedom rational creatures can possess.

“Blessed are they who have not seen, yet have believed.”  Why? Because we will miss the painful fires of God’s chastening love which will purge the sinner of all self-importance, all falsity, all ego, and make us desire – of our own free will – our true Home.

Edward A. Hara is a blogger and writer.  His short story, BOBBY TORRINGTON BULLDOG, was published in St. Anthony Messenger and another story, SONG OF THE SAW-WHET OWL won first prize in the 81st Annual Writer's Digest Writing Contest. He is a recent convert to the belief that God's love is all-encompassing and redemptive beyond anything we can imagine in this world.  He lives  with his wife, Elizabeth, and their sweet but neurotic dog, Daisy, in Fairfax Virginia where he dreams of writing a best seller. He serves as cantor and sometimes altar server at St. Ann's UCC in Manassas Virginia