The Doors of the Sea: A Review

David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?

In the long history of Christianity, theodicy is comparatively young. Different generations find different doctrines more troublesome. Once, pagan philosophers looked askance at Christianity’s affirmation of the body and material creation; the idea that base physical matter could be brought into union with the Absolute was repugnant to them. Today, Christianity must contend with a different set of assumptions. The Enlightenment taught us to think of the cosmos as a vast machine; if it is so, and if it is designed and maintained by God, why doesn’t it always bring about goodness and justice, but often chaos and evil? The problem of human suffering tends to provoke a negative response to the theist’s portrait of reality. Its prominence as an object is probably due to the fact that it provokes a moral and visceral rather than merely intellectual reaction. It is a problem that cannot go unaddressed.

The Doors of the Sea is a short book (just over a hundred pages) expanded from an article written by David Bentley Hart in 2004 for the Wall Street Journal. Hart was prompted, as usual, by observations about the ongoing debate between Christians and atheists and serious deficiencies in the understanding of both sides. In The Doors of the Sea, he starts by reviewing the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, and the impression it made in the press. Some nontheist journalists, he noted, insensitively used this tragedy as an opportunity to bash the Christian belief in a good God; simultaneously, some Christians offered untimely (and, Hart believes, misguided) remarks about all suffering being permitted as a part of God’s perfect plan.

Hart finds neither position satisfactory. The prominent nontheist critiques he quotes do not begin to understand either philosophical theism or Christian theology, he remarks, but they cannot be simply dismissed. Beneath the false dilemmas they pose, between divine goodness and divine omnipotence, they point to a real moral horror at evil and desire for justice that Christianity itself inculcated into western civilization. These feelings are legitimate and deserve a better and more coherent response from Christians than they normally receive.

Hence, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (2005)

Hart speaks primarily to Christians, and I suspect this book is more likely to be controversial among Christian readers than his philosophical works. Christians who might be convinced that their metaphysics of God has been erroneous or deficient, when shown the classical Christian tradition, might balk when their theology is challenged on similar terms. And Hart could be construed as taking broad aim at Western theology in general, and Calvinism in particular.

For Hart rejects, as will be seen, any theodicy that emphasizes God’s great plan for history and finds a place for evil and suffering within his will. This, he believes, is not only of little comfort to the profoundly suffering, but it ultimately implicates God for evil in some way. Instead, Hart insists, the existence of evil and suffering in general must be attributed wholly to creaturely free will, which was instituted not to enable the fall, which God did not desire, but to allow creatures to unite their wills to God. This plan will be accomplished despite, and not because of, evil and death. These things are ultimately meaningless; God does not ordain them, he is their implacable foe, and he comes to save the world from them.

Previously, I have read and reviewed D. B. Hart’s books Atheist Delusions (on Christian history) and The Experience of God (on classical theism). I find Hart fresh and intellectually stimulating, and so far I have not regretted any of the time I’ve taken to investigate and re-articulate his arguments. This is probably the first squarely theological work of Hart’s I’ve picked up, and though short and comparatively noncomplex in its argument and structure, I found it just as valuably thought-provoking as his other books.

Theodicy is one area in which I am grateful to be better instructed. None of the theodicies of my acquaintance I have found entirely satisfying; provisionally, I have concluded that the reasons God allows suffering and evil comprise a mystery that cannot be answered until we are capable of viewing it from the other side of history. Hart does not actually contradict any pre-existing commitments of mine; whether or not I fully agree with his own position, I will discuss at the other end of the review.

Hart begins the first part of his book, “Universal Harmony,” with the polemical deist Voltaire’s assault on “bland metaphysical optimism” à la Alexander Pope. Voltaire’s long poem about the 1755 Lisbon earthquake throws the tremendous suffering it caused into the face of anyone who believes that all is well, because everything happens according to the eternal laws of God. Voltaire targets those who might claim that suffering has an indispensable place in the order of the universe that works all to the best good.

Voltaire’s attack, Hart reminds us, was not actually on God as such, but on a peculiarly 18th century understanding of God that proved morally unacceptable. And this should cause us to reflect, which God exactly is the subject of recent atheist indignation at the suffering of the universe? Not the local deities or spirits of the Indian Ocean. Nor the God of the Bhagavad Gita, a terrible and beautiful reality from whom all creation and destruction issue forth. Attacks on the character or existence of such a God due to the reality of evil would be meaningless.

No, this God to which these atheists object is a shadow, a distorted version of the Christian God, preserved in the cultural memory of atheism. Worse, this picture of God often seems to be validated by the confused statements of some Christians about him; nevertheless, Hart suggests that the atheist instinct against an all-determining omnipotence in the context of evil is in fact very Christian, and so should be taken seriously by Christians.

Hart returns to his original article in the Wall Street Journal, and some of the responses to it by Christians. He read an article by a Calvinist claiming that the tsunami was a direct expression of God’s will, which we dare not judge. Another Calvinist argued, just as dismally, that disasters and suffering are necessary to reveal aspects of God’s character that might otherwise remain hidden. One Catholic explained that suffering is a glorious privilege for Christians that results in greater beatitude, while another expressed assurance that God only apportions suffering to those proportionately guilty of sin.

All these answers, however, Hart finds misguided. They share the assumption that the randomness of suffering is an illusion, that every bit of it is accounted for in some transcendent divine plan that will bring perfect good out of it. Some variety of this understanding and basic theodicy is held by many Christians. Yet Hart would beg to differ.

Hart cites several reasons why this conception and the theodicies based upon it are badly mistaken, and continues to expand upon them throughout the book:

  1. Insofar as it anchors every contingency to a single will, it approaches theological determinism, leaving little room for the mystery of created freedom. God is then pure will, beyond good and evil, and the world is his theatre. This is a believer’s variety of nihilism.
  2. Insofar as it excuses the existence of suffering as part of a “righting of accounts” and contributing mysteriously to some final harmony, it asks us to believe that God has ordained an undeniably unjust apportionment of suffering to accomplish this end (infants perish in infancy and murderers die of old age, innocent animals starve, etc.). Christ himself militates against the idea that suffering is meted out in proportion to sinfulness in Luke 13. And if all are equally guilty and deserving of suffering due to original sin (which Hart rejects in any case), there is no point to this “recompense” to begin with, and it is equally nonsensical.
  3. It obscures central features of New Testament language, which proclaims God the provider of a liberal, free, and gratuitous grace; posits a cosmic spiritual warfare in which God is faced against the forces of evil and chaos; and declines to promise any final reconciliation with death, which is itself destined for destruction. The New Testament itself leaves no room for “metaphysical optimism.”

No, Hart says. Suffering and death, in themselves, have no ultimate purpose in the will of God, and this truth should be liberating.

Prior to arguing this position at length in the second part of his book, “Divine Victory,” Hart discusses another literary example of disillusionment with God due to suffering: Ivan Karamazov in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoyevsky was a devout Christian, but his sympathetic portrayal of anger towards God, through the rebel-agnostic character Ivan, has been hailed by believers and nonbelievers alike (I have seen it cited in philosophy textbooks). Dostoyevsky took what he believed was the most difficult argument against God’s goodness, the suffering of children, stepped into it, and phrased the objection as strongly as possible. This, Hart believes, has justly become the most enduring and poignant expression of discontent with divine will.

For the charges are serious, and Dostoyevsky is unblinking in his presentation of them. Evil is everywhere, arising from men in all places and at all times. Where does it come from? More importantly, supposing that all is set right in the end and all wrongs are forgiven, is that really worth the torture of children? How can a finite rational mind be expected to maintain its moral integrity and yet forgive God for allowing such horrors, of allowing parents to beat their five-year-old daughter, fill her mouth with excrement, and lock her in an outhouse for a winter’s night? Even if God saves her in the end, and in the glorious restoration to come the girl is able to forgive her persecutors, Ivan regards a restoration on such terms as totally unpalatable.

Hart will return to Ivan Karamazov, and the answer he believes Dostoyevsky hints at in the rest of the novel. For now he turns to the project of proposing a better and wiser theology of suffering than that of the metaphysical optimist.

What is nature? is the question with which he opens this second part of his book. We moderns are accustomed to thinking of it as a morally neutral reality consisting of proverbially unfeeling material forces. Most of us do not regard it as brimming with intelligences, fairies and gods and the like. Nature as such is not the sort of thing that can be the object of our hate or love, only utility and, occasionally, intimidation. Nature “is sheer fact” (47).

Though it is true to some extent that Christianity “desacralized” nature by driving out the pagan’s gods and spirits, early Christianity was far from denying the existence of supernatural/preternatural agencies apart from the One. Spiritual intelligences, angels and demons and the like, did exist and play some role in governing creation; moreover, to these Christians, all creation was itself “alive” in some sense, driven by yearning for God and linked to him and to the entire supernatural realm, and not, as in the modern perception, a closed causal continuum.

Natural theology came to the fore in response to the modern worldview, searching for evidence of a craftsman God in this closed system of nature. Nevertheless, to what sort of God does nature testify, when the whole system, though beautiful, is driven by biological death and brutal competition? Christianity’s God is, again, not the creative-destructive fountainhead of the Bhagavad Gita, to whom nature would seem more perfectly to correspond; the Christian God is love, goodness itself, source of an order of grace foreign to nature’s perpetual struggle.

A classical Christian view of nature holds no illusions about pristine paradises. Rather, Christians admit the reign of death, but see beneath it, glimmering through nature, a deeper order. This is the mystery of God dwelling in all things. It can only be seen, as Father Zosima declared in The Brothers Karamazov, when one is filled with an universal love. Only then, and in that sense, can nature be enjoyed as paradise.

[T]he Christian should see two realities at once, one world (as it were) within another: one the world as we all know it, in its beauty and terror, grandeur and dreariness, delight and anguish; and the other the world in its first and ultimate truth, not simply “nature” but “creation,” an endless sea of glory, radiant with the beauty of God in every part, innocent of all violence. To see in this way is to rejoice and mourn at once, to regard the world as a mirror of infinite beauty, but as glimpsed through the veil of death; it is to see creation in chains, but beautiful as in the beginning of days. (60-61)

These mirror the two senses in the New Testament of “world.” The New Testament tells us both that Christ came to save the languishing world out of love for it, and that the world is a hostile order, captained by Satan, in which we must not participate. The scriptures describe a natural order “in the long melancholy aftermath of a primordial catastrophe” (61-62). Creation groans under bondage to powers engaged in spiritual warfare with the Kingdom of God. Man, creation’s priest, participates in this war as a rational creature. He cannot thwart God’s ultimate plan, but he can defy or resist it, and has. The struggle is real, as is the assured victory of Christ, and not a “dramatic fiction, for our edification or his glory” (63).

Evil, then, is the enemy, serving no purpose of God’s; grace works in it but does not require it. It is not ordained by God, “chosen” as part of the best possible world, but actively opposed by him until the day when the victory of the cross becomes the final victory of the Kingdom. In the meantime, suffering is unambiguously an absurdity, occasioned by abuse of created freedom intended to bring man into glorious union with God. Ivan’s objection loses some ground.

But it does not disappear. Ivan could of course say that not even created freedom is worth all the suffering. This is not something a human mind is capable of weighing, so it lacks rational force. But the “moral pathos” remains. Suffering is still just as real, and a good God (if he exists) still permits it.

To explain why God cannot possibly will the existence of evil, Hart shifts to a discussion of the nature of God, starting with his infinite freedom. Freedom is commonly understood as an ability to choose between options, well or poorly according to the condition of the will. True freedom, however, is the ability to attain to the full potential latent in one’s nature; choosing less than the perfect good is an entrance into bondage, abdication of freedom. God is absolute act, and his freedom transcends arbitrary choice, such that no limitation can be placed on the eternal realization of his own perfection.

That the God of the gospels is infinitely free is a necessary metaphysical position for the Christian, as is the assurance that evil is the privation of good, possessing no positive existence in itself. It is a tendency toward nothingness, “a kind of ontological wasting disease” (73) born in the will. Evil can have no part in God’s purposes for his creation; it is not a “thing” which can by its existence benefit us or God. Otherwise, God must require the assistance of evil to manifest his glory (he is not infinitely free), or else he is pleased to bless it with existence simply to demonstrate his sovereignty (he is not infinitely good).

The doctrine of God’s impassibility is linked to his infinite freedom. As he is fully and always himself without change, he is incapable of being moved by anything external to himself. Thus emotions and suffering alike cannot apply to him, save insofar as Christ in his humanity did become passible and experience these things. But even here, we cannot think that Christ’s human passibility added to or improved God’s capacity, say, to love us. God does not require passions in order to love us, for genuine love is not in its essence a reaction, emotional or otherwise. His love for us is infinite, disinterested, and unprovoked; that is part of its greatness. If God needs evil and suffering to fulfill his own goodness and love, he is not free to be either goodness or love as such.

Goodness in no way requires evil. That is why we should not treat the redemptive aspects of suffering as an explanation for suffering in general. Suffering with Christ in love is redemptive and beautiful, Hart agrees. But the cross, even placed in the heart of death and suffering, is not an affirmation of these things as such but their overthrow. Death is neither an ally of God nor a power to rival his goodness. Christ took death upon himself not to use it to accomplish some end otherwise unachievable, but to conquer it and shatter its power from within by the infinite force of divine love. Christ is the true rebel against an unjust world order; Ivan Karamazov’s disgust is placed on the wrong object.

In summary, God, being infinitely free, cannot for his own sake and purposes need the mere degradation of created existence that is evil. Moreover, as he is perfectly impassible and infinitely loving, he does not need to experience suffering. Therefore, any effort to reconcile evil and the good and perfect will of God is doomed to failure, because God can have no use for it, and it contradicts his very nature.

Then how can evil be? What is the meaning of God’s providence if the order of the world is fallen and God has no part in it? God will defeat evil and bring good out of darkness, all agree….

It makes a considerable difference, however–nothing less than our understanding of the nature of God is at stake–whether one says that God has eternally willed the history of sin and death, and all that comes to pass therein, as the proper or necessary means of achieving his ends, or whether one says instead that God has willed his good in creatures from eternity and will bring it to pass, despite their rebellion, by so ordering all things toward his goodness that even evil (which he does not cause) becomes an occasion of the operations of grace. (82)

God did not will the fall, but it cannot in any way break or hinder him, and that is providence. God’s transcendent primary causality is such that it can create freedom (secondary causality) and yet assure that no abuse thereof can prevent him from accomplishing his good purposes. For no rational being, though it exercise its inherent capacity to act outside God’s will and violate its own nature, can exist apart from God and his irresistible love. Hell is nothing other than the refusal of the soul to yield itself to love, to realize the vocation built into its nature. That God in Christ has preserved in us the dignity of the divine image and created freedom while rescuing us from the distortions of our fallen will is “the highest work of providential grace” (85). Providence makes everything an occasion for grace; it does not ordain everything.

This is controversial, Hart admits. Calvin denied that it was coherent to distinguish between God’s permission and his will, and certain interpreters of Romans 9 take it to mean that God does play a determining role in his creatures’ wills for good or evil. Hart, however, believes that this perspective is ultimately incompatible with the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

Hart also admits, on the other hand, that Ivan Karamazov may still regard himself unanswered. Ivan may consider that no greater good afforded by rational existence is worth the suffering unleashed on the world, regardless of God’s fundamental enmity toward evil. Yet this is a judgment he should be shy in making, for it is almost to assert that it were better for the profoundly suffering child not to exist. The hope of Christianity is that being is good, and existence is the first gift of God, the prelude to union with God, the greatest gift. If Ivan is incapable of seeing the intrinsic goodness of being, no argument can persuade him to see value in the sufferer’s existence transcendent of the temporal reality of suffering. You believe, or do not.

Nevertheless, Hart affirms Ivan’s argument insofar as it batters to pieces any theology that fails to distinguish between primary and secondary causality and thus tarnishes God’s goodness for the sake of his sovereignty. Such attempts to secure the transcendent freedom of God ultimately confuse his operations with those of creation, and implicate him in the existence of evil. To Hart, such theological determinism even smacks of pantheism, a denial that there has been any true creation with real liberty like to God’s own. Such a God is all will, and all is his will, and his sovereignty is not glorious but tautological and banal. Against such a God, Ivan Karamazov’s voice is well raised.

In conclusion, Hart reflects that The Doors of the Sea is simply intended to redirect the attention of quarreling theists and nontheists to the gospel account of God’s relationship to the fallen world. Not all Christians, he adds, will think his portrait is accurate. Some may think he is showing sympathy for Gnosticism. Gnostics shared with New Testament Christians an awareness of the powers of darkness and the “god of this world” that is lost on many modern Christians. However, Gnosticism, besides being philosophically incoherent (as Hart regards it), fails to recognize that beneath the reigning order of evil, there is a world that is the good creation of God and that Christ came to save.

Likewise, those excessively committed to the metaphor of God as author of history, in whose work no jot or tittle is out of place, will not be satisfied by Hart’s account. Nevertheless, Hart begs them to consider that the little comfort and sense of intelligibility they might gain from regarding each bit of suffering as indispensable to the divine plan comes at the price of regarding God as bound to evil means. The senselessness of a child’s excruciating death becomes an eternal necessity for goodness to manifest. This is not genuine mystery, but blasphemy. It is ultimately worthless for comfort and just as worthless as an explanation.

If any comfort is to be gleaned from the Gospels, it is the truth that God is death’s enemy and conqueror, and the things of death are not the things of God. The disease that is evil will be wiped away in time to reveal a hidden glory, a goodness that has never been totally corrupted, and a purified cosmos will unite with its Creator and be made anew. This, Hart explains, is a faith free from the bland optimism which demands that even evil take on some positive spin; it is hope in a God who destroys death, wipes away tears, and makes all things new.

The Doors of the Sea is a concise book packed with insights, as should be evident from the length at which I was forced to “summarize” such a short volume, leaving out as little of the skeleton of his argument as possible and providing at least minimal explanation. As mentioned above, I did not have any strong leanings on theodicy prior to reading this book. If pushed, I might have affirmed things Hart would disagree with or find inadequate, for instance that a partial answer is found in the redemptive value of suffering and the ultimate plan of God for restoration. Having read this book, I am mostly persuaded that suffering and evil of themselves add nothing to either the glory of God or the destination of the blessed. As Gregory of Nyssa wrote, only light can glorify light.

His viewpoint that evil is allowed for the sake of creaturely freedom is one I have usually been instinctively uncomfortable with. It has always seemed more an “excuse for God” than a developed argument. Nevertheless, Hart has deepened and improved my perception of it. Moreover, the interpretation of sovereignty Hart attacks I have also long found disconcerting, for the very fact that I can’t seem to get around the way it implicates God for evil. In general, then, I find his argument compelling.

And there are some aspects of the theology he espouses that I find very attractive and helpful, and that make a lot of sense to me. The picture of Christ as death’s enemy and death’s conquerer is truly scriptural and much neglected, and with more than a little bearing on theodicy. Even more illuminating to me was his description of the two worlds or kingdoms that we witness commingled in nature. That we must distinguish between two senses of “world” in the New Testament is obvious to any careful reader. But I found his thorough discussion of captive creation on the one hand, full of the glory of God, and the reigning order of death on the other, extremely helpful conceptually.

The crucial issue of created freedom and the nature of the fall is one that I would have liked Hart to discuss more, though it might have doubled the size of his book. It seems to me this issue, together with the nature of omnipotence, would be the primary point from which objections could emanate. How is it, if God does not will evil, that he has let the order of this world fall so completely into its hands? Hart does indicate it is all contained in the mystery of created freedom and the mass defection of human beings and angels, but I wish he had taken more time to explore its implications.

This, indeed, seems to me where Hart’s explanation, and especially his antagonism toward speaking of God as having a plan for evil, as has its limitations. Though Hart has effectively argued that evil is permitted, not ordained, and that there is a real difference, that permission will still trouble some. Presumably, Hart accepts that God can and does on occasion miraculously intervene to prevent evil, whether or not this violates created free will. If God can intervene, though, why not more frequently? Why does he delay in finally sweeping the world of evil if it serves no intrinsic purpose? Why, in other words, does such a staunch enemy of evil permit so many (apparently preventable) particular evils in time? Here, it seems, we must fall back on the mysterious plan of God, which chooses in most cases to work gratuitous good out of evil rather than restrain that evil. Why here and not there is a question we can never answer; regardless, we must think of all particular evils in light of the final overthrow of all evil.

There are a few other matters worthy of note, mostly areas where Hart is silent or does not offer a fully developed argument. The issue of the atonement is not directly addressed, but there are clear implications. Christus Victor becomes focal, while penal substitution (never much liked in Eastern Orthodox theology) is almost assuredly excluded. The latter makes little sense if suffering and death are altogether outside the will of God; the doctrine that Christ died to fulfill some cosmic necessity for violence becomes absurd. Arguably, other patristic notions of the Passion as peace offering or ransom to death also take a hit, but it seems to me that these might still be formulated compatibly, whereas penal substitution is almost beyond recovery.

I also wonder whether Hart’s emphasis on the everpresence and abundance of spiritual or supernatural intelligences might be regarded by some as an overemphasis. The excesses of certain portions of the charismatic movement come to mind. But Hart, properly understood, is not teaching us to look for demons behind every tree and in every flat tire. Rather, he is urging us to see nature and the current order of the world as bound up in invisible spiritual realities. The natural forces of death and destruction are not unlinked to the cosmic rebellion that infects the world of intelligences; these forces have been “converted” to chaos by the fall of governing rational wills.

I think, finally, that those who found Hart’s description of the divinity of classical theism in The Experience of God too impersonal and abstract will find The Doors of the Sea at least a little mollifying. The latter book, while continuing to assert the philosophical underpinnings of classical theism, emphasizes his love, goodness, and grace as described by Christianity, and uses Christian assurance of these attributes to demolish any picture of a distant, ambiguous sovereign who sends us salvation with one hand and suffering with the other.

The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami presents a fresh, thoughtful, and compelling contrast to a common willingness to link all suffering to the mysterious providence of God. Hart makes by far the best case I’ve yet read for seeing the will of God, not as a comprehensive all-determining program, but as an ultimately irresistible force of creation and union in love that overcomes rather than works by means of evil. He starts with the moral sentiment that fears to attribute evil to the will of God, but proceeds to justify it by reason. Perhaps he places too much stock in free will as an explanation; perhaps he understands the will of God in too limited a sense to satisfy some. But he reminds us that the God who works all things for good invaded the kingdom of death to destroy it, to bring life and healing. If we forget that, we are left with a shadow, a terrible will that implacable drives the wheel of suffering to the end of time. But ours is a God whose Word suffered on that wheel that he might wrench it apart, and turn anguish into joy.

A Theological Addendum (on Calvinism)

Generally speaking, Hart aims to be ecumenical in speaking for Christianity, or at least faithful to its orthodox theological tradition east and west. That said, occasionally, especially near the end of the book, Hart is willing to point fingers and not mince words. He calls limited atonement a heresy that warps “certain streams of traditional Reformed thought” (89), and he decries as opposed to the gospel the position that God does not desire the salvation of all. He is more than mildly disapproving of Calvin’s belief that God eternally preordains salvation and damnation alike the better to show his glory.

However, he says, if he has especially picked on Calvinists, it is because Calvinist critics “of a particularly rigorist persuasion” (94) were those most callous in their response to the tsunami and most loud in their objections to any hinting that God is not the immediate cause of such evils. Calvinism, he recognizes, is about a great deal more than predestinarianism, but it is also his natural opponent in this particular question, being so much opposed (in its classical and exaggerated forms) to his own perspective.

If a “five-point” Calvinist managed to find places of agreement with Hart and persisted through to these explicit denunciations, I am genuinely curious what the response would be. Calvinists are stereotypically agog at the “dread sovereignty” which, though not to be blamed for evil, nevertheless ordains that evil’s movements fit precisely into a perfect plan. Arguably, this is the centerpiece of the whole Calvinist system, holding every piece together. Hart’s alternative interpretation of sovereignty must seem radical, if not heretical.

I suspect a Calvinist would turn Hart’s language back on him and assert that the distinction between primary and secondary causation exculpates God, but his primary causation necessarily has a decisive (if indirect) influence on secondary causation. But I suspect equally that Hart would regard the distinction on such terms as semantic and just as implicatory–the only real difference is that God can’t be blamed for what falls in the second category. Perhaps, too, a Calvinist might accuse Hart of semi-Pelagianism. Hart clearly disagrees with strong Augustinianism of the sort that would teach guilt by nature and monergism/double predestination. However, Hart does not deny that the will is in bondage; he would agree with the orthodox doctrine that apart from grace the soul is incapable of reaching toward God. He does, moreover, assert with much support from scripture and tradition that Christ came to free all from this bondage into which they have voluntarily entered, and he does so by rekindling their free will rather than overriding it.

But the gap between Hart and much of Calvinism remains great. Recent controversial comments by popular Reformed preacher John Piper about how God really kills everybody, it’s just a matter of when, vividly represent a theology Hart regards as perverse. Piper added words to the effect that God, as God (by definition), has absolute and immediate control of everything. This is exactly illustrative of Hart’s observation about the dangers of collapsing primary and secondary causality into a single determining will (which must therefore be responsible for good and evil alike). I think Hart is just in regarding this as symptomatic of an unhealthy and narrow obsession with sovereignty, like an overriding fascination with the sheer power of a nuclear bomb or volcano. God is not some tremendous brute event admired for arbitrary expressions of will or power; he is love itself, and therefore to be loved.

To Piper, it must not appear that way. Within his own logic, the fact that everybody dies eventually is not irrelevant to the fact that some die earlier and more painfully than others. Those who die under particularly tragic circumstances are not getting some “special” treatment by being made to die. But a God who pulls every trigger and tortures every child and rains down every disease, who throws souls into the furnace with the same enthusiasm as he plucks a few out, is a God whom Ivan Karamazov can justly regard with distrust if not contempt. Because, as Hart demonstrates, such a God must be a God who delights in the pointless suffering of his creatures. If Calvinist theology cannot escape this specter in its haste to ensure that God’s sovereignty is duly exhaustive, it has done a great disserve to itself and an injustice to the character of God.

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