Friday, June 30, 2006

Grace to All

As I said in a prior post, most if not all Protestants hold that those who do not put their trust in Christ will suffer eternal torment. I there asked how this could be just given that many have never heard the name of Christ. I'd like now to sketch an Augustinian response to this question. After I'll explain why I think it must be rejected.

What form does that Augustinian response take? (I don't mean to say that this is precisely what Augustine himself says. I'm no exegete and will not pretend that I am. But if what I say deviates from the line followed by Augustine, it is still like that line.) The Augustinian response says first that, in this post-Fall world, all are sinners and all are need in God's mercy. It infers from this that all, if condemned to eternal torment, are justly condemned. But why then are some saved from this fate? God's holds out his mercy to some and not to others and thereby makes a faith that will save them possible. How might he do this? He comes to some as He came to Saul on the road to Damascus. To others He gives pious parents who raise them up in the Faith. But no matter how He makes their faith possible, mercy is His reason, for all are sinners and all deserve damnation. Only by His mercy does God save some from this fate.

Of course we must now ask this of the Augustinian: Why does God choose only some and not others on which to bestow his grace? The answer cannot be that those whom He chooses deserved what was given them. No one deserves such a thing. It is a gift freely bestowed. It is not something in any way owed. Nor can the answer be that God makes mercy possible so that he might thereby increase the amount of good within the world, for if that were His motive He would surely grant the gift of faith to all. A world in which all are saved is surely in total better than a world in which only some are saved. But if our question cannot be answered in either of these two ways, it cannot be answered at all. No other answers present themselves.

(Might we say that a world in which some are saved and some damned is better than a world in which all are saved? Might it be that just punishment is such a great good that any very good world must contain many instances of it? This seems to run counter to the love ethic that is so clearly articulated in the New Testament. God wishes that all will be saved; and the damnation of even a single one is a very great tragedy, is something always to be greatly regretted.)

So then God's reason to bestow His grace upon these but not those is left a mystery.

Before I begin to lay out my objection to this, let me give the Augustinian response to the complaint that God acts unfairly when He bestows His grace upon some but not all. All are inveterate sinners; no one can raise himself out the morass of sin by himself. Rather every man, if left to himself, will sin without cessation. Thus if God damns you, you only get what you deserve; and the fact that some are shown mercy does not change the fact that, if He damns you, you were treated just as you deserve. Put a bit differently: that God shows mercy to one who has sinned sets up no obligation to show mercy to all who have sinned. Rather the mercy God shows is a purely gratuitous act and in no way lessens the guilt of those to whom He shows no mercy.

Let me now turn to my objection to this Augustinian story. It was hinted at above and is really quite simple. It is much better that all be saved than that only some be saved. Indeed of all the goods that are contingent, i.e that could either come to pass or not, it is one of the greatest. (The only greater of which I can think is the Incarnation.) Moreover, all could be saved and yet it not be the case that some greater good would thereby be sacrificed. Thus God, who of necessity acts so as to bring about a very good world, will act so as to insure that all are saved.

I do not pretend to know how this will happen. Perhaps those who are not saved in this world are saved in the next. Perhaps those who are not saved in this life will live another (and another and another . . .) until they are saved. But however it will be done, to let even a single one be damned is contrary to God's essential goodness. Thus all will be saved.

This is one of the elements of my faith, such as it is. Indeed in a way it is the foundation of my faith, its central tenet.

No comments: