There’s a lively discussion at the moment about the possibility — or indeed, the inevitability — of universal salvation. TJ White’s treatment of Christ’s descent into hell in his recent Incarnate Lord includes some helpful discussion of universalism that clearly locates what I take to be the anthropological crux in the dispute between (say) followers of Nyssen and Aquinas. All parties, let’s assume, agree that at least some persons can die in state of estrangement from the LORD (mortal sin, as Catholics think about it). And all parties agree, let’s assume, that such a person would enter into the condition of suffering the LORD’s absence that traditionally goes by the name of Hell. The question that divides Nyssen from Aquinas is whether a post-mortem conversion of the sinful soul back to the LORD is possible, or if the tree lies as it falls.
Nyssen defends the possibility — indeed, the necessity — of such a post-mortem exhaustion of creaturely sin with a lovely image:
Now that which is always in motion, if its progress be to good, will never cease moving onwards to what lies before it, by reason of the infinity of the course to be traversed:— for it will not find any limit of its object such that when it has apprehended it, it will at last cease its motion: but if its bias be in the opposite direction, when it has finished the course of wickedness and reached the extreme limit of evil, then that which is ever moving, finding no halting point for its impulse natural to itself when it has run through the lengths that can be run in wickedness, of necessity turns its motion towards good: for as evil does not extend to infinity, but is comprehended by necessary limits, it would appear that good once more follows in succession upon the limit of evil (On the Making of Man 21.3).
White follows Aquinas in disputing the possibility of a this sort of transformation. He writes,
The human being must choose in relation to the supernatural prior to death. The reason is structural or metaphysical: the human soul learns and reasons in dependence on sensible phantasms received from the bodily senses and is made for this manner of learning (cf. ST 1.84.6-7). Once the spiritual soul is separated from the body, it does not cease to exist, but it is incapable of further free self-determination (ST I.84.8). (401)
If there is a new choice for Christ that is made after death, this also implies that the person can act in a natural, intellectual and free way without the body. Consequently, human freedom is in a sense fully operative independently of the body…[In this case,] the act of salvation becomes more natural or more likely without the body than it is with and in the body…The body becomes an obstacle to salvation. As in the case of Origen, such thinking tends towards an overt form of Gnosticism. (428)
Aquinas, then, while surely motivated in part by the Gospels’ language of “eternal fire” (e.g., Matt 25:41), understands the reason for hell’s eternity as grounded in the nature of the human, as fundamentally dependent on the body for its acts of knowledge and will, even with respect to the LORD (“all our knowledge begins in the senses,” cf. ST I.1.8.c, I.84.3.sc.). And of course, Aquinas offers a corresponding argument about the irreversibility of angelic sin, which I briefly discussed here.
Is Aquinas’s Aristotelian empiricism a satisfactory account of human knowing? I fear not, and David Hart does a nice job of summarizing why:
Before any conscious recognition of even an elementary likeness between different things is possible, certain abstract concepts must already be in operation,” namely, “the abstract concept of resemblance, as well as some concept of discrete objects as discrete objects of mental focus, and some set of conceptual rules regarding what sorts of similarity or dissimilarity to look for or ignore” (The Experience of God, 184).
Unless we innately possessed some fundamental concepts (such as “equal,” “similar,” “greater than,” “distance,” etc.), we could never even begin to know the external world as composed of various kinds of things, rather than as a “blooming, buzzing confusion,” to borrow James’s phrase.
So, if you’re a certain kind of Aristotelian in anthropology, universal salvation viewed as an inevitability won’t make much sense; if you’re deeply committed to the fundamental plasticity of the human will, as is Nyssen, the notion of a hellish stasis probably won’t make much sense, either. (A third option, not canvassed here, is annihilationism w/r/t hell).