Anselm’s Concept of the Resurrection to Perfect Eternal Happiness for Believers and the Resurrection to Complete Misery for Unbelievers

Anselm’s Concept of the Resurrection to Perfect Eternal Happiness for Believers and the Resurrection to Complete Misery for Unbelievers

By Samson Covatch May 7, 2018

In St. Anselm’s work Cur Deus Homo he makes an interesting statement about the destiny of believers and unbelievers. He states in Book II, Chapter III that, “We know...that as humanity, had it continued in holiness, would have been perfectly happy for, if it persevere in wickedness, it shall be likewise completely miserable forever.” The impression seems to be that happiness is the ultimate state of existence whereas misery is the ultimate punishment. If this were to be the case then why not adopt a semi-epicurean philosophy as the model for Christian piety?

Anselm looks to the assumption that if human beings never sinned, they “would have been transferred with the same body to an immortal state,” with the assumption that happiness is the original state of mankind. When I look at the quote again, it causes me to wonder if punishment and reward are understood through a culture of struggle and sadness. The idea that prolonged happiness could be so far removed from society that nothing more heavenly could be fathomed than that. Conversely, misery experienced in daily life to prolong without relief is a concept most disparaging.

For Anselm, the argument is the full restoration made by Christ which includes even the most minute thing. Everything has a purpose and place which must be restored and set right otherwise God is lacking in his perfection of creation and thereby rendering Him mutable. While this is true, is it true to the degree that the creation must perceive of itself as part of the rationale for this dynamic to be complete? If God created us with the potential of experiencing a diverse range of emotions, then why is defaulting to one particular emotional state desired to the point where it could never be realized due to a lack of contrast?

Anselm lived during the first crusade which means he would have been exposed to the advancements of the Muslim armies. The splitting of the Eastern Greek churches with the Western Latin churches in 1054 would have also caused concern. His exiles throughout his religious life would also have taken a great deal of psychological attention. Living in such a world as this would have caused a pining in someone’s life in which the greatest bliss would be one of happiness in all areas of life. We tend to look for a reason through the chaos of the world around us knowing that things are not what they should be. Finding a glimpse of veracity in the reality of Christ furthers our presuppositions on what we have determined must be the truth.

In Chapter sixteen of St. Augustine’s work, The Handbook of Faith, Hope, and Love he states, “For our aim must always be to reach that state of happiness in which no trouble shall distress us, and no error mislead us.” Augustine is informing the reader that knowledge is not the answer to happiness, but the way in which we may avoid that which causes unhappiness and evil. Standing on the shoulders of the work of Augustine is to be able to make statements axiomatically to support one’s arguments. Anselm takes the assumption in Augustine’s work here and in chapter eleven of the same document that, “what is called evil in the universe is but the absence of good” and thereby connecting happiness with goodness and the absence of good as that of misery or evil. I still get the feeling that our perception of the proper order of things is the central thought for redemption. This blurring can cause the idea that an insatiable appetite for the desires toward pleasure are to be considered heavenly and misery to be a hellish existence. Given this concept, those who experience happiness are within God’s will and grace and those who experience misery are deemed to suffer for their sinful desires.

There is a continuous thread that runs through this view of happiness and misery both before and after Anselm’s statement. That being said, if one were to look hard enough, I suppose you could find consistency for any idea, but if the question is “Is this the end goal for mankind?” then the answer would be contested. According to the Westminster Catechism, the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. While this is on similar lines toward happiness, it is not understood conversely as Anselm has postulated. We are not to deduce that misery is the chief end of the reprobate. It can be argued that this is a part of the destiny of those outside of Christ although, it is difficult to assume that those in eternal torment retain the same mental faculties in which what they are experiencing, would be understood as misery. To understand that you are happy and in a state of happiness would be rewarding, but to not understand would be a state of contentment. Likewise, if you lack the cognitive objectivity for happiness, then misery is a state in which relief would be the opposing desire and not that of happiness. In light of this, I wonder if contentment and relief are to be all that we can experience in this life, within Anselm’s view, or if true joy and happiness in Christ can be experienced in times of suffering? If so, then pain, suffering, and misery can coexist with happiness, contentment, and relief.

Later on in Church history, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote on the doctrine of double happiness in which perfect happiness is not possible on this earth, but imperfect happiness is. The influence of Aristotelian philosophy impregnating the minds and work of both Anselm and Aquinas is obvious in this regard. In commenting on the Platonic understanding of reality through the five traditions, four attributed to Plato and the fifth attributed to Aristotle, Paul Tillich writes,

this highest form, called ‘God’, is moving the world, not causally by pushing it from the outside, but by driving everything finite toward him by means of love...God, the highest form, or pure actuality (actus purus), as he calls it, moves everything by being loved by everything. Everything has the desire to unites itself with the highest form, to get rid of the lower forms in which it lives, where it is is the bondage of matter.

The axiom of this reasoning leads to the inevitable conclusion for happiness in its truest form of love to be the highest ideal and therefore the ultimate state of perfection. I have a hard time with accepting this because of the genesis of the understanding. While we can know something about God, without special revelation this understanding is more incomplete than it is wrong. Because of the incompleteness of the positive statement extrapolating a negative is only as accurate as the initial understanding. I want to be careful in demanding more than what is intended by Anselm. If he is speaking of only one aspect of the eternity of the righteous and the wicked for the sake of arguing the fullness of order necessarily achieved by God through Christ in the universe, this is understandable. If Anselm is arguing for this as the completion of the eschaton as it relates to humanity, then it would seem to be lacking.

When thinking about persevering in wickedness leading to being completely miserable forever then I have to wrestle with Matthew’s gospel which states, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Instead, fear the one who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28, NET). There is more than just an indication of unpleasantness within this passage of Scripture. Anselm’s claim is made in regards to the bodily resurrection of both believers and unbelievers, but the reward or punishment is unevenly focused on the mental or immaterial part of mankind's constitution. If the misery is due to a type of physical torment, the centrality of the experience is within the conception of the effect of the occurrence being properly understood as miserable. This scripture verse shows that both the material and immaterial or better said, the totality of the person, is how this type of punishment may be experienced.

To further support Anselm’s concept of perfection of happiness in the eschaton can be found in the book of Revelation, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death will not exist any more—or mourning, or crying, or pain, for the former things have ceased to exist” (Rev 21:4). It’s not as though the misery causing experiences will affect us, but that these things will no longer exist. All of this points to an eternal happiness with a distant concept of there once having been mourning, crying, and pain which may fade away into what we would call folklore or memes, to use a more modern word better suited for this discussion. While it may seem to give more validity to Anselm’s statement, it’s not the denial of this reality, but the exclusivity of it as the locus for resurrection glory as apprehended. The most obvious place in Scripture to go is back to Genesis when talking about the restoration of the universe and the resurrection. If we’re making the argument for what the resurrection would be like through the restoration of all things and the concept of Shalom, then our picturesque model would be found here. Are Adam and Eve perfectly happy or merely content? Without a frame of reference for misery, could they ever experience true happiness? We seem to have gained something through the resurrection in Christ greater than what would have been originally experienced. Revelation 21:8 speaks of the second death which gives an indication of a greater punishment then what was experienced as well. All of the scriptural evidence for Anselm’s claim is valid, but only in an incomplete way.

The immediate literary context is how man will rise with the same body he has in this world except that it will be as though sin never entered. The theory is that if Adam never sinned he would be eventually changed to an immortal state. While working through the possible arguments, I find myself more hostile to this understanding because of its lack of completeness as well as its assumptions on the perfection of mankind that was lost. Certain aspects of sin had not been taken into consideration such as the noetic effect of the fall. This would need to be weighed in two ways. First our ability to grasp such a completion with the assumption that we are correct in our conclusions. Second, that somehow this effect is nullified upon death even though it is an immaterial effect with varying degrees of measurement and manifestations. This leads us back to the idea of complacency within Adam and Eve that seems not to be a stage of perfection of happiness. Degrees of happiness in the eschaton is more reasonable for creatures designed for passibilty without changing the very nature of what we are as human beings. Likewise, the effect of sin does not seem to stop after death for those who are lost. Would they be so lost mentally that the suffering would gradually intensify to the point of not being able to understand the misery they are experiencing? If this is removed, are they truly miserable in any meaningful sense?

My conclusion for this claim is that the focus of it seems slightly misdirected insofar as we are resurrected in the likeness of Christ and not in the likeness of Adam. The likeness of Adam takes us only to the point of what St. Augustine called posse piccare (possible to sin). If this is the default state of the potential perfection, then it would necessarily hold true that we would be able to sin and fall individually in the eschaton and salvation would have been not true salvation. Leading to the problem of God not having perfected His creation, which is the thesis of Cur Deus Homo. Non posse piccare (not possible to sin) would be the desired outcome as we are resurrected in the likeness of Christ. As the body of Christ, this is the default state we are to exemplify within our understanding of our glorification.

The claim that Anselm makes ultimately falls short in substance but not in the trajectory it seeks to demonstrate. By adjusting the claim, the argument can be made sensical. The claim should start not with the incompleteness of Adam, but with the completeness of Christ. Therefore, the eternal declaration for mankind is in Christ and his perfection. We are not restored to a kind of past glory with the possibility of sinning, but instead the true glory in Christ without any ability for degradation. The concept of theosis overlooked by Anselm is concerning regarding what God has said about us. “But to the one who does not work, but believes in the one who declares the ungodly righteous, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Rom 4:5) and “Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:1). This declaration is likened to a creative force that is spoken by God and behooves us to accept it as an eternal concept that supersedes our original understanding of who and what we are. If we are like Christ, then we have the same range of emotions such as concern along with a sense of distress as we see with Paul’s conversion. “He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’” (Acts 9:4). Jesus questioning Paul for the reason of persecution is not an expression of perfect happiness. Furthermore, Revelation 6:9-11 states,

9 Now when the Lamb opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been violently killed because of the word of God and because of the testimony they had given. 10 They cried out with a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Master, holy and true, before you judge those who live on the earth and avenge our blood?” 11 Each of them was given a long white robe and they were told to rest for a little longer, until the full number was reached of both their fellow servants and their brothers who were going to be killed just as they had been.

Their crying out doesn’t sound as though they are perfectly happy, and in verse eleven they are told to rest a little while longer. Rest from what? Perfect eternal happiness? In light of Scripture, the fullness of resurrection is that we are to be what God has said we are to be, not what we had been. We are to retain our emotional dynamics and have a potential for greater and greater happiness, so likewise those in hell are to experience greater and greater misery and torment. Whatever these come to mean, they are not to be understood as static states of existence.

Works Cited

Aquinas, Thomas, The Summa Theologica,

Coakley, John W., & Andrea Sterk, Readings in World Christian History, Volume I: Earliest Christianity to 1453, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004.

St. Augustine’s Doctrine on the Bondage of the Will

Tillich, Paul, A History of Christian Thought, New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1968.

Westminster Catechism,