Emergent Freedom Versus Hellish Sovereignty: With Michelangelo

Between Calvin’s notion of double predestination and the idea of a fully developed human agency freely choosing (either heaven or hell), is the biblical picture of humans emerging in their fullness only in and through the work of Christ.  Michelangelo’s sculpture, Awakening Slave, in which a human form appears to be emerging from stone, illustrates the biblical picture of this slowly emerging humanity. The slave is missing his head and the stone itself seems to have imprisoned the man. The dust (adamah), like the stone from whence the slave emerges, is both the substance and that which constrains Adam (humankind) – the tendency or pull is one of return to dust. Just as the sculpture is incomplete, Adam is declared incomplete apart from Eve yet, Eve is the foreshadowing of an emerging new humanity (the Church). The completion of man by the creation of woman, means creation is an open-ended process in which the whole inner basis of humankind (contained in the name Adam) is an ongoing realization. The Second Adam completes the emergence of the human capacity for image bearing but the dust constricts, in varying degrees, those passing from the first Adam to the Second. Paul pictures it both as an accomplished fact (“through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men” (Ro 5:18, NASB)) and an unfolding process (“through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous” (Ro 5:19)).

As with the narrow path leading to universal salvation (see my previous blog) the process is predetermined and yet, it is still unfolding.  There is a struggle, as the dust of death continues its infectious process (“death spread to all men”), but the counter-force of life “abounds” as an eternal, irresistible force. John’s Gospel likens the transition to creation recommencing, with “in the beginning” and Christ’s words from the Cross, “it is finished” (the inauguration and completion of creation in Genesis), bracketing the unfolding of the recreation begun in Christ.  In John’s depiction of this recreation, the darkness has no power to resist the light and sin and death have no more power to resist life than “nothing,” in creation ex nihilo, can resist God’s powerful Word. From “dust to dust” is the delimitation lifted at the Cross, “giving rise” to this emerging, resurrected sort of humanity. When Michelangelo was asked (in the apocryphal story) about the great difficulties he must have had in sculpting his masterpiece David, he is said to have replied, “It is easy. You just chip away the stone that doesn’t look like David.” A new humanity is taking shape, just as David is made to emerge, through the chipping away of salvation history.  With this “emergent salvation” freedom dawns gradually.

This freedom is not that of choosing (e.g. choosing between heaven and hell or, what is the same thing, good and evil) nor is it the freedom presumed lost (the freedom of an unconstrained agent) due to sin.   This sort of human freedom, which makes eternal conscious torment a necessity, succeeds in foisting an absurd lie (sin itself) into the center of theology, all under the auspices of God’s granting ultimate dignity to human freedom.  This longed for “lost freedom” is precisely that which is offered by the serpent in the Garden.  Conjured from out of the choosing is the agent enabled to choose – a human version of creation ex nihilo. In the primordial lie, good and evil, life and death, are the choices from out of which the human creator god arises. Infinite unconstrained choice (being “like God”) is to be had only where finitude and personhood are set aside.  The flesh and its contingencies, the constraints of embodiment, any determinate time or place, must be transcended or set aside.  Perhaps this choice arises spontaneously, unconstrained by any particular thought.  But this finite creature unconstrained by mortality or thought must already occupy the place of the dead.  Only the dead cannot die, only the dead are thoughtless, and only the dead are unconstrained by embodiment. The finite creature unconstrained by anything is an absurdity – a reified nothing. Ironically, this lie of the serpent (the mortal claiming immortality) is deployed as an argument for eternal conscious torment.  God apparently respects, in this hellish apologetic, an absolute human choosing and agency, such that his eternal torment of the perpetrators is the only option.  In truth, the argument seems to function as a surreptitious championing of a serpent inspired notion of human freedom and sovereignty.

In the case of Calvinist double predestination, it is the divine will pictured on the order of a human notion of sovereignty (unconstrained choosing) which results in two parallel orders – hate and love, wrath and redemption, eternal hell and heaven. Divine sovereignty, in the very contradiction of two contradictory characters and orders, is posited as the only absolute. In Hell as eternal torturous existence, wrath is on a continuum in the divine nature, coexisting forever with love. Scripture tells us just the opposite – God is good and only his loving-kindness is everlasting (Ps 118:1). “For His anger is but for a moment, His favor is for a lifetime; Weeping may last for the night, But a shout of joy comes in the morning” (Ps 30:5). The consistent message of Scripture is, “He will not always strive with us, Nor will He keep His anger forever” (Ps 103:9).

Calvin’s picture of the divine choosing is that it is demonstrably unconstrained by reason or intelligibility.  However, human notions of goodness, morality, and love, cannot bear the opposite meaning, when applied to God, and still retain any meaning. A God who arbitrarily assigns some to burn in hell forever and some to live in heavenly bliss, demonstrates his sovereignty at the price of his goodness. For those who are redeemed under this system, redemption is at the price of those chosen to suffer. In this picture, the damned seem to be the cost God is willing to pay for the redeemed.  This not only contradicts the character of God depicted in Scripture but it undermines the N.T. depiction of atonement. As David Hart asks, “Compared to that unspeakable offering, that interminable and abominable oblation of infinite misery, what would the cross of Christ be?”[1]  To answer this unanswerable rhetorical question requires a compounding of evil. Reformed development of the notion of penal substitution “doubles down” on sovereignty and wrath. The Cross absorbs the eternal divine wrath only for some, while leaving the requirement of an eternal conscious hell for the many.

The vision of creation being completed (an unfolding process) through Christ does not give primacy to human choice or arbitrary sovereignty but presumes the election of Christ precedes the Fall (not simply in time but in God’s purpose).  Sin or the Fall does not subvert God’s purposes in creation, and the incarnation is not an emergency measure or a backup plan.  God has not risked the cosmos, rolled the dice and lost – if you will. He has not gambled away the majority of souls burning in hell forever so as to gain those few who might find the narrow way. Nor is he, due to his imponderable sovereignty, willing for the damned to suffer interminably so that the redeemed might be arbitrarily chosen.  God’s election is complete and visible in his election of Christ.  As Karl Barth describes it, “The Triune God eternally elects, or chooses, in divine freedom, to be for humanity the God of grace and love.” This divine freedom, shared in and through the grace and love of Christ, imparts a “learned” freedom in the race of the second Adam.

The reign or rule of sin as it existed in Adam is undone by Christ’s death and the Christian enters into this freedom (Ro 8:2). Paul depicts this freedom as being realized through historical processes of purification. He says, “we live; as punished yet not put to death” (2 Co 6:10). This punishment is not that of retribution but is a redemptive “training in righteousness.” The judgment itself, depicted in I Co 3, depicts a purifying and refining which brings closure to this historical process: “If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire” (1 Co 3:15).  Even the passage (Math 25:46) foundational to “eternal punishment” might best be translated (according to Hart), “And these will go to the chastening of that Age.” As I have previously explained, the noun “aion” (sometimes translated in this passage and elsewhere as “everlasting”) in Greek literature has always meant “an indeterminate period of time.” It could be as short as the time Jonah spent in the belly of a fish (even though the KJV has him in the “belly of Hell forever”) the length of a man’s life, or as long as an age. The word used for “chastening” originally meant pruning or docking to maximize the growth or fruitfulness of trees or other plants. The only use of the noun in the N.T. is in I John 4:18, where it does not refer to retribution, but to the suffering someone experiences in fear and who is not yet perfected in charity.  The learning and practice of charity frees from fear completely. Could it be that the “chastening of that age” is the culmination of this process, in which God’s love will be “all in all?”

The story goes (again, apocryphal) that when Michelangelo finished his statue of Moses, it seemed so real and alive that he ordered it to speak.  Seeing that it wouldn’t, he slammed down his hammer on it, on the knee—in a fit of anger and frustration.  It would seem that a god that would pound its creation forever for not “coming fully alive” makes a hell of a lot less sense.[2]

[1] Hart, “God, Creation, and Evil: The Moral Meaning of creatio ex nihilo”, 14.

[2] Thanks to Jason Rodenbeck for pointing me to the notion of an “emergent” person in William Hasker.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.