St Maximus the Confessor and Apokatastasis

St Maximus the confessor draws a distinction between the “wanting” of God and the “willing” of God. Importantly, this maps directly onto the “wanting” of the soul and the “willing” of the soul. This is very important for understanding how universal Salvation is compatible with the popular understanding of free will.

The Willing and Wanting of God

God wants to save everyone: According to Catholics this is indisputable and fundamental. Because God is love, how could he ever want to damn someone? However, just because God wants something doesn’t mean he wills it. Wanting is a desire, whereas willing is an active manifestation of an intention, aimed at the satisfaction of a desire.

So on the one hand, God loves us all and wants to save us all. However, we abuse our freedom, and therefore God wills to punish us. The analogy of the father and the child helps to make sense of this.

A good father never wants to punish his child. So too, God never wants to punish us. However, the father sometimes feels compelled to punish his child, so as to “teach the child a lesson”. This should be both a corrective and a retributive punishment – which is to say, the punishment should be fitting and in proportion to the crime, but the punishment should also be aimed at educating and correcting the child and encouraging him to return to the right path.

Now, all of us have sinned, and therefore even though God wants to save us all, his will is compelled by his perfection of justice to condemn all mankind to damnation in Hell (Samsara). So there’s two things happening here: there is the Apokatastasis (Universal Salvation), in which both God’s willing and God’s wanting are in perfect harmony, and then there is the Massa Damnata, in which God’s willing is out of sync with God’s wanting: In the Apokatastasis, God both wants and wills all to be saved, and so all are saved. Whereas in the Massa Damnata, God wants to save everyone, and he does not want to punish anyone, but his will is compelled by his perfect justice to punish us all.

The summary with respect to God is that God always wants to save us all, however because all of us sin, he wills to damn us all.

The Willing and Wanting of The Soul

The analysis of willing and wanting with respect to God maps directly onto the willing and wanting of the Soul.

Every soul wants and desires God, and every action that a soul undertakes is aimed at trying to move that soul towards God. However due to our limited perspective, we often make mistakes, due to lack of prayer and mindfulness of what is right and wrong in any given situation. With our will we make choices which we think will satisfy our wanting, but often we are mistaken and our choice has the opposite effect.

In this way, with our wanting, we always seek after God, but with our willing we often fall short of God and find ourselves deeper in the darkness.

Synergism and Predestination

Now, the doctrine of synergism states that there is a perfect harmony between the wanting of the soul and the wanting of God, as well as – startlingly – perfect accord between the willing of the soul and the willing of God. That is to say, the soul always wants God, and God always wants the soul.

However when the willing of the soul is not directed towards that which will truly satisfy it’s wanting, then so too the willing of God will not be in accord with that which truly satisfies his wanting. Both God and the soul always want the soul to move towards God, but sometimes the soul wills to move away from God, and whenever it does this, God accordingly wills to move away from the soul.

In this way when someone sins they have failed to act correctly and have chosen wrongly. The result is an explosion of justice from God in the form of an increase of retributive punishment. And so when we reject God, we are punished, but the key thing is that this is not the punishment of a king towards a slave; it is instead the punishment of a father towards a son.

As such, God’s justice is a merciful justice: it aims at the salvation of the sinner. But God’s justice is also a retributive justice: his punishment always fits the crime.

Lets take things to the extremes: When the soul definitively rejects God (and St Maximus firmly maintains – along with popular catholic tradition – that this is possible), God’s justice responds with definitive rejection of the soul.

According to Paul in his letter to the Romans, all of us have definitively rejected God and we all continue and persist in this rejection. And so all of us have tasted Hell. In a sense, St Augustine was right about the massa damnata: all of us will be damned forever.

But there’s a rubber band effect in play here. It is just because all of us are damned, that all of us will be saved; the punishment of Hell (Samsara) is the very means by which God educates us to be able to make the right choices. Sometimes it takes total damnation of a soul; it requires a soul to hit rock bottom, in order for that soul to finally realise the truth of his situation and repent.

So even if a soul ends up in Hell by means of it’s own mistaken willing, that soul still desires to be in heaven by it’s infallible wanting. Everlasting damnation is the educative means by which God will bring that soul back to heaven.

If a soul ends up in Hell, that soul’s wanting and willing are out of sync. They are willing the wrong things in an attempt to satisfy their wanting. Similarly with God; when a soul ends up in Hell, God does not want the soul to be in hell, but he does will that the soul be in Hell.

In summary, the willing of the soul is directed towards the satisfaction of the wanting of the soul. So too, the willing of God is directed towards the satisfaction of the wanting of God.

The implication of this is that everything God wills, ultimately has the purpose of satisfying his wanting. So if God wills that someone be everlastingly and eternally damned forever and ever, then in a most mysterious way this act of will has the purpose of satisfying God’s want to save that soul. In other words, everlasting and eternal damnation is sometimes exactly what it takes in order for the soul to ultimately get what it wants, and also for God to ultimately get what he wants.

Conclusion – God or Hell: Which is More Eternal?

St Gregory of Nyssa – who was a firm universalist – pondered these ideas, and speculated that for most souls the stay in Hell would be a temporary one, but for some souls (for example perhaps Satan and/or Judas) their damnation will be so complete that their purification will “extend into infinity”.

But he also remembered that “God is infinitely more infinite than infinity and eternally more eternal than eternity”, and so he had the wisdom to ask “What happens after forever?” and his answer was αποκαταστασις; the final and universal rest of all souls in paradise . Those who find themselves stuck in Hell forever will finally begin to repent after a forever has elapsed. For the forever of Hell cannot compare to the forever of God. Hell may very well feel like forever to a soul who is stuck there, but to God, the punishments of Hell do not last even as long as the blink of an eye.

In this way, we have both the massa damnata and the Universal Salvation shown to be compatible with each other. Everyone will be damned for all eternity, and everyone will be saved for all eternity, and the key to understanding how this can be, is St Maximus’ distinction between willing and wanting.

Footnote

Just as the Catholics are correct to insist that “God loves everyone and desires to save all without exception”, so too, the Calvinists are correct to insist that “God is just and actively wills to send sinners to Hell”: When a soul finds itself stuck in the torments of Hell, this is because God wills it, but not because he wants it.

Ethics and the Image of God: Review

Summary

In his article, Pinckaers briefly surveys the idea of the Image of God in Christian theology, with particular focus on what St. Thomas Aquinas had to say on the issue. The crucial point that Pinckaers makes is that in more traditional theology (as exemplified by St. Thomas), the idea of the Image of God is intimately wrapped up with a classical notion of Free Will. Pinckaers briefly touches on the fact that the modern, voluntarist notion of freedom which many have adopted today is fundamentally opposed to this classical understanding which is rooted in the idea that man is the image of God.

Academic Comment

In the classical understanding of the relationship between intellect and will, man is fundamentally oriented towards God in the core of his being. St. Maximus the Confessor calls this fundamental orientation the natural will, and it is this natural will of man with which the image of God is identified. The natural will is permanently fixed on God as it’s object and cannot be moved from its’ orientation towards the good. To put it loosely, the natural will always chooses the best possible option, namely, God.

However the fall wounded mankind by plunging us into a state of ignorance and introducing another will into our being which often comes into conflict with our natural orientation towards God; a will which, due to human ignorance, fluctuates and deliberates between options, assessing which options are better than others, and selecting certain options to the exclusion of others. St. Maximus refers to this will as the gnomic will, or deliberative will, because it is the human faculty whereby we deliberate between alternative courses of action and choose to follow one rather than another. This will can (and often does) make mistakes, by choosing a lesser good rather than the highest good, and this is the essence of sin.

So according to St. Maximus, fallen man has two wills; his natural will, with which he always yearns for God in everything that he does, and his deliberative will, with which he weighs up alternatives and makes a probabilistic decision in an attempt to satisfy his natural will.

Now, both popular Catholic theology and the voluntarist understanding of free will differ from this account in fundamental ways. Firstly, the voluntarist understanding of freedom simply denies that man has a natural will, and reduces the will solely to the gnomic will. In this understanding, man has to decide for himself what the best course of action is, and God merely steers his choices by imposing external commandments and laws upon him, complete with consequences of punishment for failing to observe those laws. Freedom here reduces to what Pinckaers calls freedom of indifference. Freedom is understood essentially to be a will with no external constrains imposed on it, and with such an understanding of freedom, Atheism follows.

On the other hand, while Catholic theology more or less accepts the idea of the natural and gnomic wills (while using the categories of Western scholasticism rather than Eastern theological language to express them), it differs from the classical understanding of freedom because it introduces the idea that a person will not always obey the conclusions of their gnomic will with respect to what the highest good in any given situation is. When this happens, it is called mortal sin.

According to St. Maximus, human beings are created by God in such a way that a person will always follow the best course of action that is presented to her by the deliberations of her gnomic will. The gnomic will may be mistaken in it’s conclusion as to what the best course of action is, and so when the person follows through with this mistaken judgement they would have sinned in doing so. However crucially for St. Maximus, they would not be culpable for this sin, because they were simply doing what they thought was best.

In contrast to this, Latin theology claims that it is possible for a person to ignore the promptings of both their gnomic will and their natural will and so choose a lesser good (ie, sin) with full knowledge that they are doing so. In other words, they have fully assessed the situation, know exactly and totally what the best course of action is, and then nevertheless wilfully refuse to follow that course of action. Catholic theology refers to this as mortal sin.

Eastern Orthodox scholar David Bentley Hart argues in his recent book “That All Shall Be Saved” that this understanding of mortal sin is contradictory, in that if someone has “full knowledge” in a situation, they are essentially rendered totally non potest peccare (ie. totally unable to sin). He argues (in line with St Maximus) that all sin proceeds from ignorance, and to be free from ignorance (ie to possess full knowledge) would make it inevitable that a person would choose the highest good. All of this is according to exactly the same logic by which Catholic Christianity explains that the glorified saints in heaven are unable to sin.

According to this classical understanding (as articulated by Hart and St. Maximus), the essence of freedom is to be liberated from all ignorance, delusion and insanity which act as malign influences over a persons will. A person is only free when God has opened their eyes to see the truth clearly, and once this person can see the truth freely, they are irresistibly drawn to it and are rendered incapable of sin. In other words, true freedom excludes the possibility of sin, and so long as it remains possible for a person to sin, that person is not free in the classical sense.

This classical understanding would appear to contradict with popular Catholicism at a surface reading, in that modern Catholic apologetics makes heavy use of the “free will defence” when attempting to explain that Hell consists of unending and inescapable torment. According to this apologetic, the possibility of Hell is explained by the power of a human will to make the choice to freely reject God. Hart and St. Maximus would say that this is fundamentally incoherent and contradictory, because if a person chooses to dwell in Hell, it would not be a free choice; it would indeed be a choice that the person has truly made via their own agency, but it would be a choice that is enslaved to either insanity or ignorance, and is therefore not free. Either the person does not have full knowledge, in which case their choice of Hell is born of ignorance, or the person does have full knowledge, in which case their choice of Hell is an act of sheer insanity (and most likely influenced by demonic powers); In either case, the choice of Hell is not a free choice.

To conclude on a soteriological and eschatological note: according to the classical understanding of freedom, God is in the business of liberating us from the limitations of our gnomic will, such that we are rendered incapable of sin, and this is the essence of both true freedom and salvation itself. Throughout a lifetime, God slowly annihilates our gnomic will by illuminating our intellects and thereby abolishing our ignorance. In this way our choices and actions become more and more perfectly in line with our natural will, and we are rendered incapable of sin, which is in fact the highest freedom, indeed, the divine freedom of Christ himself.1 It is at this point that the image of God is fully restored to the soul and with it, a truly free will. However so long as we remain under the alien influence of the deliberations of the gnomic will, and the possibility of choosing to sin remains, we are not free. Contrary to popular opinion, the classical understanding of freedom precludes the possibility of sin and so long as sin remains a possibility for a person, that person is enslaved rather than free. Freedom is when the soul is unable to sin, and so long as the soul can sin, it is not free.

Bibliography

Servais Pinckaers, “Ethics and the Image of God,” in The Pinckaers Reader (Catholic University of America Press, 2005): 130-143.

Hart, David Bentley. That All Shall Be Saved. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2019.

1Crucial to the Christology of St. Maximus is the idea that Christ, being fully human, did not possess a gnomic will (otherwise it would have been possible for him to sin, but this is incoherent)