Eucatastrophe at the Eschaton

The fifth section of The Doors of the Sea contains Hart’s central concerns with inadequate Christian theodicies (as he considers them), and is the section where he showcases Ivan Karamazov’s rebellion against God.

“This is the splendid perversity and genius of Ivan’s (or Dostoyevsky’s) argument, which makes it indeed the argument of a rebel rather than of a mere unbeliever” (p. 38).

In summary, the argument runs this way:

“After all, Ivan asks, if you could bring about a universal and final beatitude for all beings by torturing one small creature to death, would you think the price acceptable?” (p. 42).

Hart says rightly that Dostoyevsky’s genius is very much in evidence as he frames Ivan’s rebellion for him. But he then ruins his observation by combining it with a striking contempt for other believers.

“I am convinced that Ivan’s discourse . . . constitutes the only challenge to a confidence in divine goodness that should give Christians serious cause for deep and difficult reflection. Those Christian readers who have found it easy to ignore or dispense with the case that Dostoyevsky constructs for Ivan have not, I submit, fully comprehended that case (or, alternatively, have comprehended it, but adhere to so degenerate a version of Christian doctrine that they can no longer be said to understand the God revealed in Christ” (p. 42).

In short, it appears that Christians who are not with Hart on this one must be either stupid or evil. But his contempt for others notwithstanding, Hart still makes a good observation about Ivan. What he does not appear to see is that Ivan would make short work of Hart’s approach as well.

“Ivan’s rage against explanation arises from a Christian conscience, and so — even if Ivan cannot acknowledge it — its inner mystery is an empty tomb, which has shattered the heart of nature and history alike (as we understand them) and fashioned them anew” (p. 44).

Hart is right that Ivan’s rage is fueled by a Christian conscience — it requires the faith in order to be able to rail against it. To use Van Til’s image, a rebellious child has to sit in the lap of an adult in order to have his slap reach. Because of this, Ivan refuses to “figure the suffering of children into that final equation without remainder” (p. 40). A litany of outrages against children are listed by Ivan (and Hart), and the question about final trade-offs and outcomes is then posed. “Would you think the price acceptable?” What Hart will not face is the fact that he, and any orthodox Christians who affirm creatio ex nihilo, answer this question with what Ivan would consider a yes.

The universe is here, and it has contained, contains, and will continue to contain unspeakable acts against children (p. 39). Now God is the one who put this universe here, and who sustains it in its continued course. Without God doing this, these unspeakable acts would not and could not have happened. All these evils are part of a contingent universe which depends upon the will of God for its continued existence, which means that every evil act is conducted in the palm of God’s hand. God is present at all of them. This means that something has prevailed upon God to do what He has been doing. Some “price,” as Ivan would summarize it, has made the decision worth it. If some Calvinist had wandered far enough east into Russia to have a conversation with Ivan about this, it would not be long before Ivan said, “To hell with your God.” But if Hart came up immediately afterwards to fix things, with handwaving assurances about the mysteries of creational freedom and the empty tomb, on his way out the door Ivan would have just enough time to say, “Yours too.”

We don’t usually have to talk about these things until an event like the Asian tsunami forces the topic on us. But as long as we are talking about it, and as long as Hart wants to maintain that thoughtful Calvinists don’t really “understand the God revealed in Christ,” I will respond with the rejoinder that between atheism and Calvinism there is no consistent stopping place.

We live in a world that contains both rapists and little girls. The “humans-need-to-have-free-will” defense of God fails, not because it maintains that God wants us to have free will, but rather because this whole problem is caused by God apparently favoring the free wills of rapists while despising the free wills of little girls. Read the newspaper. Watch the evening news. Look around. It is an undeniable fact that little girls are sacrificed, and that God does not intervene to stop it. Assuming His existence, His refusal to stop such sacrifices means that He cannot stop them or He will not stop them. If He cannot, then He is not the God of the Bible. If He will not, then He has His reasons. And it does not really matter if they are the reasons that Hart thinks or the reasons Wilson thinks, the fact remains that Ivan will have no patience with either of us.

But let us be done with Ivan because he wants to use the mistreatment of children as his basis for condemning everyone, including God, but he has no basis for condemning the mistreatment of children. Why would that be wrong, on his principles? If you frame the whole matter in terms of a refusal to hear the explanation, no matter how good it is, then you have fallen into some form of atheism. And as soon as you have done so, you have lost all your reasons to condemn those things that have outraged you, and if you feel like it, you now have no consistent reason not to engage in them yourself.

Some might not want to get rid of Ivan because he provides a handy human shield against the questions posed by Calvinists, which is understandable I suppose. But if you have faith in the Author, and are willing to read on to the last chapter of the story, then prepare your heart for an exhaustively satisfying eucatastophe.