View all Ask a Priest | August 21, 2015
“Ask a Priest: Isn’t It Perverse to Create a Person, Knowing He Will Be Damned?”
Q: How far back does God’s foreknowledge of someone’s damnation go? Does he know that someone will be condemned before he creates him? I mean, if God knows that a person will be damned before he creates him, why does he create him at all? Wouldn’t it be perverse to create a person, knowing that he will be damned? If God knows that we will be saved or damned before he creates us, and he still creates us, wouldn’t that be predestination? How do I reconcile God’s foreknowledge with human freedom? With the power of prayer? Could you give me any references that I could read to better understand this issue? Thank you very much and God bless. -F.A.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: Some of your questions touch on matters that have generated lots of theological debates over the centuries. Obviously I won’t be able to resolve the issue here, but perhaps a few observations and replies will help.
God sees and knows everything — past, present and future — since he is outside of time. Even before he created the physical world around us, he already knew where everyone would end up. So, yes, God knows whether a soul will end up in hell even before he creates the soul.
Here it is good to recall what condemnation and hell are about. We shouldn’t think of hell as some kind of superheated furnace into which God flings souls who have stepped out of line and who didn’t repent before death.
Rather, think of it like this: God, who is infinitely good, infinitely merciful, infinitely loving, wants to share his love with creatures made in his image and likeness (see Genesis 1:26). He creates them out of nothing and gives them free will. He makes them free because he wants them to freely love him. After all, love requires freedom. God could have made us like robots. But can a robot love?
Now, some people use their free will to love God, others don’t. Some people use their free will to offend and reject God. If they die in that state, they in effect live with the eternal consequences of their decision. If they didn’t want God, well, they will have to live with that decision forever. That is what hell is. It is not something imposed by God as much as it is something chosen freely by people.
If anything is perverse in all this, it is the decision by souls to reject God. That God created us in the first place is a marvelous sign of his greatness. That some of us reject this loving God is a sign of how badly we can use freedom.
God’s knowledge that a soul will end up in hell shows his omniscience, not his malevolence. An analogy might help here.
Imagine that you give your neighbor a bottle of his favorite wine as a gift on his birthday. Now, imagine that a few minutes later you see your neighbor toss the bottle of wine out his third-story attic window. You know that within a second or two the bottle will shatter when it hits the cement sidewalk below. And, lo and behold, the bottle shatters and the wine is lost. Did your “foreknowledge” cause the bottle to break? No. Are you perverse because you gave him the bottle of wine in the first place? No.
Or take a more personal example. Let’s say a man and woman marry, with the hopes of starting a family. Lo and behold, their first baby arrives a year later. Will this baby grow up and someday sin? Probably. Now, sin is offensive to God. So why did this couple ever marry and have a baby? Are they “perverse” because they wanted to bring children into the world, children who someday will likely sin and offend God?
Of course, we wouldn’t consider such a couple perverse. Rather, we think of them as a very healthy couple who want to share their love with their own children. Let’s say that the parents raise the children as best they can. If the kids grow up and sin and misuse their free will, will that be the parents’ fault? No, the onus is on the kids. What the parents did was honorable, beautiful. What the wayward kids do is foolish, a misuse of freedom. It’s similar with God who creates us. Our being created reflects his greatness; our sinning shows our bad decisions.
It sounds odd, but even souls in hell reflect the goodness of God. Their very existence as souls shows the miraculous creative power of God. And the fact that such souls are barred from God’s presence is a sign of his infinite holiness; the souls who sinned grievously cannot mar the beauty of God, they cannot disturb the happiness of heaven.
Now, what about predestination? It is good to recall what predestination doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that God decided ahead of time who was going to be saved and who was going to be lost. God’s ideal plan is for everyone to be saved. Indeed, he “wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).
The Catechism in No. 600 says: “To God, all moments of time are present in their immediacy. When therefore he establishes his eternal plan of ‘predestination,’ he includes in it each person’s free response to his grace: ‘In this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.’ For the sake of accomplishing his plan of salvation, God permitted the acts that flowed from their blindness.”
The idea is that somehow God has already factored in people’s free choices when looking at the sweep of history. This raises even more questions, I know. Here, we are up against the mystery of how God works in history. That kind of topic has inspired whole libraries to be written. (For more reading see this article.)
And what about reconciling God’s foreknowledge with human freedom? And with the power of prayer?
Again, just because God knows something in advance doesn’t mean that he directly causes it. God foresaw 9/11, but his foreknowledge didn’t take away the free will that the attackers used that day for such horrific ends.
Also, God foresees our freely offered prayers and acts of repentance, and has already factored them into his own response. For more reading on this topic you might look at the Catholic Encyclopedia entry or the Catholic Answers piece.
I will be the first to admit that this answer can’t explain fully the connection between God’s providence and foreknowledge and man’s free will. Getting to heaven is a grace of God. We can’t get there on our own. Yet, some of us will, and apparently some of us won’t. That is a mystery in itself.
We can be sure of one thing, though. God loves us and wants for all of us to be saved. Yet he seems to respect our free will enough to allow some souls to be lost. That is a bit scary. That should keep us praying for the grace of final perseverance.