Does Anyone Really Reject God?

Kyle has written another post on hell, this one dealing with what he says, with at least some degree of accuracy, is the historically common belief among Catholics that many people will go to hell while few will be saved. (Personally, I have no opinion on the question of what ratio of people will go to heaven and hell, and other than warning people away from the one and towards the other, I can’t really think why one would have much of a position on the matter.)

It seems to me that there are two main points which Kyle martials to his cause. His first is that if many are damned, then God’s will has been frustrated, and unless we are prepared to think God a failure, we can’t think that many are damned:

If you say, as much of Christianity does, that God created the universe and specifically human beings–creatures made in his image and likeness–for the purpose of participation in the love life that is God, and you also say that most people will refuse this destiny, then logically you’re led to say that, overall, creation won’t achieve its purpose. Overall, it is a failure. Overall, the purpose for which God created goes unrealized. Overall, God’s desire and will are not done. This would seem to make God, as Creator, something of a failure, even if you can, through some dexterous theodicy, get God off the hook for the damning decisions of his hellbound creatures.

This is, as I recall, a complaint that many of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation (or Revolt, if you prefer) were big on. If we allow that God created each of us with the purpose of knowing, loving and serving Him and being united with Him forever in heaven, and if we also allow that in sin we may reject God and separate ourselves eternally for Him, then by this line of thinking man may defy the will of God and frustrate His providence, and God is thus not all powerful. The most extreme solution for this is to claim that God actually intends some people to be damned (predestination) and that He crated them for this purpose. Thus, God’s will is never violated since He wanted those souls damned anyway.

Kyle, of course, being a less dour fellow, is taking things in the opposite direction: God doesn’t want us to be damned, and we can’t believe that God’s will isn’t accomplished, so obviously none (or few) go to hell. It seems to me that either course essentially assumes that God doesn’t will humans to really have free will. If we believe that God really wills us to have free will, then it by no means follows that if people use that free will to reject God that His creation is a “failure”.

The second point Kyle makes relates to whether anyone ever really chooses to reject God:

From my own place, the doctrine that many are doomed to fire and brimstone and endless replays of One Direction hits just makes no sense. My own senses lead me to deny the observation of Fr. Longenecker that “every verifiable bit of evidence from history and yesterday’s newspaper reveal the total depravity of many men’s hearts and their spitting hatred of all that is beautiful, good and true.” I can’t think of one person who, in total depravity and rightness of mind, hates all that is beautiful, good, and true. Not one. Even the worst of sinners are motivated by something they value. That many people’s hearts are totally depraved and hateful of every swell thing just doesn’t correspond to reality.

This, it seems to me, is the more key question. Kyle wrote similarly here a little while back:

I know people who sin, of course, and do so knowing it’s wrong, but none of them mean to put themselves above God or in opposition to him, as if that’s their motivation. Either they justify it or presume God’s mercy, in which case they would seem to have a lack of full knowledge, or they have fallen due in part to their weakness, which would suggest a lack of full consent. You’re describing moral sin in such a way that very few people are really guilty of it. That sounds nice, but it doesn’t sound like what the church says, certainly not the traditional idea that few will be saved and many will be damned.

Once again I’m reminded of a someone more dour version of the same concern: one of my friends I used to debate religious issues with as the teenager was always insisting that no act was really good because no one was ever totally motivated by “the good” and not by other more practical or selfish concerns. It seems to me that Kyle is, in a somewhat similar manner, arguing that no act is ever a total rejection of God because we always act with some other object in mind as well, in addition to the knowledge (assuming we have that knowledge) that we are acting contrary to God’s will.

There’s a sense in which I would agree with this.  During this life, no rejection of God is total, since we still have the chance to repent.  Our experience of God in this life is not direct and total, and our rejection of Him in this life is, likewise, not yet total.  That is why (contra one of Dante’s innovations) we cannot be damned until the individual judgment, after death.

However, we do reject God often — sometimes more gravely than others, sometimes more knowingly than others.  We do this whenever we put our own will above God’s and choose to do what we want rather than what we know to be God’s will, what we know to be good.

As Kyle points out, we invariably do this with some sort of proximate good in mind.  Our goal is not simply to offend God or to reject good, but to achieve something or other that we think of as a good — that is, “a good” in the sense of some thing which we desire.  Even if I do something out of sheer orneriness (say, someone I dislike asks me to do A, and so I choose to refuse to do A simply to defy that person) I am still seeking a good of sorts in that I’m seeking some (perhaps illusory) sense of satisfaction in commanding my own actions. 

The thing to keep in mind, however, is that when we set our own will above God’s and seek “goods” other than that which is good, we reject God even if that is not our sole object.  If I defraud Kyle, I may at a certain level do so in order to achieve the “good” of absconding with the riches produced by his philosophical blockbuster, but at the same I am choosing to put my will (to take what I want) above God’s will (which tells me “Thou shalt not steal.”) 

If I make a life of defrauding people, I build for myself a warped understanding of the good.  The more I live by that warped conception of the good, the more I train myself to reject the true good which is God’s will.   

This is the sense in which people often describe all sin as being at root idolatry.  Even if I tell myself “I’m just weak” or “I’m counting on God’s mercy” or “I don’t agree with God on this one”, when I form a habit of choosing my will over God’s will, I form a habit of rejecting God and putting myself in isolation from Him. 

I think it’s not a bad image to look on the individual judgment in terms of a final choice to either embrace or reject God, however it’s important to see that decision in the right terms.  This is not a simple question of “would you like everlasting happiness or unhappiness?” in which every person would obviously have the same answer.  After all, we know that Lucifer, one of the chief among God’s angels, rejected God utterly.  Why?  Did he simply get fed up with happiness and decide he wanted to suffer instead?  No.  To the soul which refuses to embrace God’s will, union with God is no happiness.  Isolation may be suffering, but it is a suffering chosen because to the rebellious will union with God is suffering too.  When we build the habit of putting our own wills above God’s, as we wrap those decisions in price or self-definition, we turn ourselves into the sort of people who would find it very painful to embrace God’s will totally.  Perhaps I simply have a much darker view of humanity than Kyle, but I find it quite believable that someone would rather reject God than reject all the actions and beliefs which he holds in opposition to God.  Sometimes people even state things in exactly those terms.

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  1. St Thomas distinguishes between the antecedent and consequent will of God.

    “Whatever God wills absolutely, is done (otherwise He would not be omnipotent), although what He wills antecedently (or only conditionally) may not be done,” for in this instance God permits the opposite evil for the sake of a greater good; thus He wills antecedently that all the fruits of the earth come to maturity, but He permits that many actually do not reach this maturity [ST Ia, q. 19, a. 6 ad I]

    It is similar in the matter of the salvation of men. St. Thomas goes on to explain this in the same article (ad I ): On consequent or unconditional will. “The will is compared to things according as they are in themselves; but in themselves they are individual. Hence we will something absolutely inasmuch as we will it considering all its individuating circumstances; this is to will consequently.” Thus whatever God (omnipotent) wills absolutely is done; although what He wills antecedently may not be done.

    Antecedently God wills a thing according as it is good in itself, for example, that all men be saved, that all His commands be ever fulfilled; but at the same time He permits to some extent the opposite evil for the sake of a greater good, and thus “what He wills only antecedently or conditionally is not done.” Hence it is said in psalm 134:6: “Whatsoever the Lord pleased He hath done, in heaven, in earth.” And the Council of Toucy (PL, CXXVI, 123) adds: “For nothing is done in heaven or on earth, except what God either graciously does Himself or permits to be done, in His justice.”

    But those who observe His commandments are better than others and would not keep them in fact, had not God from eternity efficaciously decreed that they should observe these precepts. Thus, these good servants of God are more beloved and assisted by Him than others, although God does not command the impossible of the others. Furthermore, this very resistance to sufficient grace is an evil which would not occur, here and now, without the divine permission, and nonresistance itself is a good which would not come about here and now except for divine consequent will.

  2. I have a hard time understanding how as catholics we could be painted as judgementers of the damned. With our belief in purgation, where else can we be made perfect for the delight of our Lord? My time/process may be painful, but I trust and hope in His glorious justice and my eventual full entry into His realm.

  3. If you say, as much of Christianity does, that God created the universe and specifically human beings–creatures made in his image and likeness–for the purpose of participation in the love life that is God, and you also say that most people will refuse this destiny, then logically you’re led to say that, overall, creation won’t achieve its purpose. Overall, it is a failure. Overall, the purpose for which God created goes unrealized. Overall, God’s desire and will are not done. This would seem to make God, as Creator, something of a failure, even if you can, through some dexterous theodicy, get God off the hook for the damning decisions of his hellbound creatures.

    So what would be an acceptable batting average? His record with the angels is “a third part”.
    And why did God go out of His way to make things even more difficult for us? When Satan and his angels rebelled why not imprison them in Hell permanently rather than leave them free to tempt us?
    As parents we would not leave our kids free to play in a mine field where some lunatic is encouraging them to dance a jig.

    As for “natural law written on men’s hearts” — um, no.
    Reason and common sense would seem to tell us that a baby with Tay-Sachs, condemned to a short life full of pain should be aborted; that a train about to run over 10 people should be diverted so that it will kill 2 people. There seems to be an instinctive bias toward consequentialst bias morality while “natural” law requires a lot of study.

    Last, God sees a bit capricious granting extra graces to some for their salvation while ignoring others. Recall Theresa the Little Flower’s constant prayers for a condemned prisoner who finally repented.

    I know I’m may be cutting close to blasphemy here, but I’m sure these questions have been asked before.

    Last question: having rejected God, would the sould in Hell even desire to be in Heaven?

  4. Thomas Collins

    The followers of St Augustine, whom the Church has called “the doctor of Grace,” maintain that in the state of innocence, that is to say on the day of the Creation, God had had both a general and a conditional will to save all men provided they desired it, through the sufficient grace He would give them for their salvation, but which would not unfailingly lead them to persevere in good.

    But that Adam, having through his own free will misused this grace and rebelled against God through a pure and simple movement of his will and with no prompting from God (which would be a hateful thought), and having corrupted and injected the mass of mankind with the result that they are rightly the object of God’s anger and indignation, they make plain that God has divided that body of mankind, all equally culpable and which deserve damnation, into that part that He wanted to save through an absolute will based on his mercy alone, entirely pure and gratuitous, and thus, leaving the other part in the state of damnation in which it was, and in which He could justly have left the whole mass.

    God’s will for the salvation of his elect cannot be frustrated. St Thomas says in Ia, q. 20, a. 3: “Since the love of God is the cause of the goodness of things, no one would be better than another if God did not will a greater good to one than to another.” Likewise, in article 4 of the same question and also in Ia, q. 23, a. 4: “In God, love precedes election.” Thus, Scripture says: “I will have mercy on whom I will, and I will be merciful to whom it shall please Me” (Exod. 33:19); and “For who distinguisheth thee? Or what hast thou that thou hast not received?” (I Cor. 4:7.)

  5. i have not heard of a catholic teaching wherein the church teaches that there is some mechanism provided in creation whereby a soul that is unrepentant and defiant of God at the point the soul leaves the body (physical death) is able to reverse that defiance and repentant later. am i missing something. did Jesus teach us about be able to reverse our rejection of God after our deaths?

  6. There is a sin against the Holy Spirit, that of final impenitence, which will not be forgiven in this world or the next. We cannot irrefutably identify any human person who committed this sin, not even Judas.

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