Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Third New Book Excerpt: Atonement-Based Theories of Universal Salvation

I am presently working on the chapter of That Damned Book in which we consider species of "DU" (the Doctrine of Universalism). Our strategy is to distinguish species of DU according to two parameters: first, in terms of what is taken to be God's motive for willing the salvation of all (or, in terms we borrow from the Lutheran Orthodox, in terms of God's "impelling cause" for saving all); second, in terms of the means God uses to bring it about that all sinners are reformed in the ways necessary for enjoying the beatific vision.

So, we divide this chapter into two main sections--one which distinguishes species of DU according to God's motives or impelling causes for saving all, the other according to God's means of saving all. The excerpt below falls in the former section. In that section we identify five sub-species of DU, which I will lay out here to provide context:

IU1: God is motivated to save all through His sheer benevolence
IU2: God is motivated to save all by virtue of Christ's Atonement
IU3: God is motivated to save all out of His "complacent love" for Himself
IU4: God is motivated to save all out of His "compacent love" for creatures.
IU5: God is motivated by several or all of the motives identified in IU1-IU4.

After discussing versions of DU that appeal to God's benevolence alone as the motive for God's desire to save all, we turn to IU2. In the earlier draft of this chapter, this section was substantially shorter, but I felt moved to expand it a fair bit (but still not nearly enough to provide a fully adequate exposition of the various species of Atonement Theory discussed). I share it here in part because it relates to some themes that come up in the first excerpt I posted a few weeks back. Since this is very much a work in progress, feel free to make suggestions for refining it.

The first and most obvious reason why IU1 might be incomplete, at least from a Christian perspective, is that Christians believe Christ’s Atonement plays a central role in salvation. Christians might therefore worry that appealing to God’s “naked” benevolence as the sole motive of our salvation, without reference to the Atonement, risks making Christ’s work irrelevant. Now we have already pointed out in Chapter 1 the problem with this worry. As we put it there, one may be convinced that a good God wants to save all, can do so, and hence will, without so much as considering the specific steps God might take or need to take in order to do so—and hence without considering whether the means He used (or had to use) are those Christians affirm.

And so it seems one might hold that God’s motive for saving all is nothing other than His benevolence, but then go on to argue that the Atonement is the necessary means of saving all, thereby ensuring that Christ’s work is not irrelevant.

But while this strikes us as correct as far as it goes, it is not the whole story because, on some of the most influential versions of Atonement doctrine, Christ’s Atonement can be taken as a “means” of salvation only in a very special sense. Specifically, it is the means whereby it becomes morally fitting for God to will the salvation of sinners. Rather than serving as the means whereby God actually brings about the salvation of sinners, the Atonement serves as the means whereby God becomes reconciled to sinners so as to be able to will their salvation as an end.

In the taxonomy of DU we’re developing here, when we distinguish species according to God’s means of saving all our focus will be on alternative ways that God might go about converting sinners (that is, bringing it about that they are subjectively capable of enjoying the blessings of heaven), not those means He might employ to harmonize His moral motives with respect to the sinner.

Now there certainly are important understandings of the Atonement which take Christ’s work to serve primarily as a means of converting sinners. For example, the “moral influence” view of the Atonement promulgated by Abelard and taken up by a number of later progressive theologians treats Christ’s life, crucifixion, and resurrection as offering a moral lesson intended to awaken sinners to the gravity of their sin and so inspire repentance. On this construal, the Atonement might well be understood as a means of bringing about the conversion and salvation of the sinner. But if so, either it is efficacious in the sense that it irresistibly brings about conversion (at least when God fully employs it by, say, vividly presenting to the sinner the full significance of Christ’s death on the cross), or it is resistible by the exercise of the sinner’s free choice and can only be used as one strategy among others to wear away at the sinner’s resistance over time. These alternatives exactly parallel the means of salvation we will explicate in the next section. Hence, if the Atonement is construed in this way, it can be readily folded into the means of salvation we discuss in the next section.

But the most historically influential theories of the Atonement have conceived of it, not as a causal means used by God to convert sinners, but as a means whereby God’s motives for rejecting sinners—motives which would otherwise impede Him from acting on His prima facie will to save sinners—are done away with. In other words, the most historically influential Atonement theories presuppose that God has morally compelling motives which conflict with the benevolent ones that would otherwise motivate him to save sinners. But while these Atonement theories posit such conflicting motives, they also conceive of the Atonement as a means of overcoming the conflict, and hence of clearing the way for God’s benevolence to operate unimpeded.

The point, in other words, is that there might be a distinctively Christian species of DU according to which (in the helpful technical terminology of the Lutheran Orthodox) God possesses more than one impelling cause for willing the salvation of all. In addition to the “internal impelling cause” of our salvation found in God’s sheer unmerited benevolence (IU1), one might take there also to be an “external impelling cause” found in the all-sufficient Atonement of Christ (IU2). What this external impelling cause does, however, is bring it about that a divine reason not to save all—what we might call a “salvation-impeding divine motive”—is done away with.

Perhaps the most dominant strain of thought on the Atonement follows Anselm in holding that the salvation-impeding motive in question is God’s need to meet the demands of retributive justice. Many if not most who ascribe to this Anselmian "penal-substitutionary" view conceive of God’s justice as a separate attribute from His love, one that places limits on the appropriate expression of it. Put simply (and overlooking differences of detail), the idea is that sinners come to deserve eternal punishment because in offending an infinite God they have committed a crime of infinite severity. The Atonement is God’s means of vicariously meeting the demands of justice, thereby sweeping away a moral impediment that would have otherwise barred Him from willing the sinner’s salvation. Because Christ was fully God, what He endured on the cross had the infinite worth necessary to atone for sins of infinite gravity. Because He was fully human, what he endured could be offered up on behalf of humanity as the payment for humanity’s sinfulness. And because Christ’s atoning work fully satisfies the demands of justice, God is free to act on His benevolent desire to save sinners without thereby offending the demands of justice (a reconciliation of motives that itself has its origins in God’s love).

Does this Anselmian doctrine, with its introduction of divine justice as a distinct trait separate from God’s love, rule out DU? On the contrary, we will argue in Chapter 4 that those who seek to justify DH by appeal to the demands of divine justice actually confront a compelling challenge to their view in the Anselmian theory of the Atonement and its later development (especially among the Lutheran Orthodox). We argue, in effect, that even if divine justice is taken to be a distinct motive apart from God’s benevolence that places constraints on the exercise of the latter, any view of divine justice according to which eternal damnation is the appropriate penalty for sin would actually call for something like a vicarious Atonement—which in turn would remove any impediment to God’s saving all stemming from the demands of justice. In short, we think there can be a distinctly Anselmian species of DU, one which holds that, because Christ satisfied the demands of justice on the cross, God is free to act on His limitless benevolence to pursue the salvation of all.

But to say that an Anselmian version of DU falling under IU2 is possible is not to say that such a version is the best Christian version of DU. In fact, there have been many Christian critics of Anselm’s understand of the Atonement, and as such many who would be loathe to accept IU2 if it meant allegiance to some variant of the penal-substitutionary Atonement theory.

Reasons for criticizing the Anselmian theory are numerous. Some reject it on the basis of its separation of divine justice from divine love, holding instead (with, for example, Karl Barth) that divine justice should be understood as an expression or manifestation of divine love. Others object to it because the theory makes the crucifixion into something orchestrated by God in such a way that we can no longer treat it as we ought to, namely as a wrong done by humanity to the incarnate God. Still others argue that this model of the Atonement is premised on the moral acceptability of retributive violence, and so is at odds with important New Testament themes testifying to an ethic of nonviolence.

While we have some sympathy with all of these objections, we also think it is possible to construct a variant of the Anselmian theory that avoids them—a variant we find nascent in some of the things said by Luther and later Lutheran theologians. On this neo-Lutheran theory, the key impediment to saving sinners is not that justice demands of God the infliction of retributive suffering. Rather, the key impediment lies in features of the moral character of reformed sinners.

The idea, roughly, is that sinners cannot come fully into God’s presence—which entails both truly understanding and aligning ourselves with the good—without both (a) becoming perfectly conscious of the full weight and magnitude of our past sinfulness (our guilt), and (b) becoming the kind of people who take responsibility for our past errors (who do penance—which is what divine justice really calls for, as opposed to the mere external infliction of hardship). That is, when we are morally perfected through the beatific vision, our past sins do not and cannot just go away as if they never existed. On the contrary, for sinners such as ourselves to become sanctified means, in part, coming to fully understand our guilt and feel a pressing moral need to make it right—and so to diligently pursue penance for the wrongs we have done.

But here is the problem: We can’t make it right, because nothing we as finite beings can do would be sufficient to atone for wronging the infinitely benevolent creator of all. And as such, the guilt we bear is more than we can bear. And so, in the absence of some kind of profound divine intervention, coming into the presence of God (which, of course, is the essential element of salvation) would lead us to care so much about the good and to take such responsibility for our sins that we would toil for eternity to make up for offenses we could never succeed in making up for. And so, paradoxically, for anyone who has sinned—in other words, for all of us—salvation would be hell.

Put simply, the guilt we have accrued for our sinfulness is too great for us to bear ourselves. And so God, in His perfect benevolence, finds a way to bear it for us on the cross.

It isn’t our purpose here to explain how Christ can vicariously bear our guilt and perform on our behalf the penance we’d otherwise feel compelled to attempt despite its fruitlessness. Our point here is simply to highlight another version of vicarious, “substitutionary” Atonement theory, one in which the brutality of the crucifixion is not conceived as something orchestrated by God on the grounds that penal violence is morally required to satisfy a divine justice divorced from His love. On this view it is quite possible to see the crucifixion as something that we humans do to Christ precisely in response to His sanctity and benevolence, precisely because we cannot bear the burden of guilt we would experience were we to truly internalize what it means to be as good as we ought to be, as good as Christ calls us to be, as good as we intuitively recognize Him to be. We reject and nail Christ to a cross rather than face the magnitude of our sin. This isn’t something God does to Christ to satisfy the demands of justice. Rather, it is something we do to Christ to avoid having to bear the burden of our sin.

What God does, in response, is turn our violence on its head, making of it a penance on our behalf. Because we cannot bear our guilt, we nail Christ to the cross. And Christ makes of that crime an opportunity to bear our guilt in truth. The ultimate sin of killing the Incarnate God is transformed, through a kind of divine moral jujitsu, into the sufficient atonement for that very sin. By deciding to treat our crime against Him as a penance for that very crime, Christ makes it possible for us to “wear His cloak of righteousness” over our own sin (to borrow Luther’s language) as we come into the presence of God, and so to experience the beatific vision without being overwhelmed by our own guilt.

There are many details which would need to be worked out in order for such a view of the Atonement to be wholly defensible. The point we want to make here, however, is that like the Anselmian theory, this neo-Lutheran variant holds that a vicarious Atonement clears away an impediment to God’s willing the salvation of all. For Anselm, the impediment is the moral demand that an infinite punishment be imposed in response to sin. On the neo-Lutheran view, the impediment is that sinners who become sanctified experience a responsibility and need for penance too vast to bear. The same divine love that inspires God to wish to impart the beatific vision also precludes Him from imposing on us a burden we could never conceivably bear—and that is what granting us the beatific vision would entail in the absence of a vicarious Atonement. What the Atonement does, then, is lift away a moral impediment to God’s willing that sinners be granted the beatific vision—an impediment rooted in divine love, conflicting with another urging of divine love, and overcome by divine love.

What this shows, we think, is that even those universalists who have serious objections to the Anselmian theory might nevertheless embrace a version of IU2 that takes seriously a kind of substitutionary Atonement. But there is even more to be said here, because the Anselmian theory is not the only Atonement theory which might ground a species of IU2. Specifically, we think a species of IU2 can be grounded on the oldest Atonement theory, endorsed by the early Church Fathers and sometimes called the “Ransom” theory, which views Christ’s suffering and death as a ransom paid to the forces of evil in order to liberate sinners from bondage to those forces.

While there are different ways of working out this theory, including Gustav Aulen’s “Christus Victor” approach, one possibility (metaphorically promulgated by C.S. Lewis in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe) is to see the forces of evil as having acquired a legitimate claim over sinners. One might imagine that sinners have, by an exercise of will, made a more or less metaphorical contract with the Devil. We have used the freedom God gave us, the freedom to make decisions about the disposition of our own lives, in the most self-destructive way imaginable: handing our lives over to das Nichtige (“the Nothingness,” Barth’s term for the palpable force of nonbeing that is God’s ultimate adversary) in exchange for ephemeral or imaginary goods. And insofar as God has given us a real right over our own lives, our act of giving those lives over to the forces of darkness thereby confers upon those forces a claim upon us that God cannot legitimately ignore.

To pursue our salvation in defiance of that claim (which an omnipotent God would certainly have the power to do) would be less than morally perfect. And so God, being morally perfect, becomes incarnate and offers Himself to be crucified in exchange for releasing humanity from bondage. And once we are released, the moral impediment which stands in the way of God pursuing our salvation is lifted. Once again on this view, the universalist could argue that this impediment is wholly lifted—thereby endorsing a species of IU2 according to which, by virtue of the ransom Christ paid for our souls, there is nothing that impedes God from willing the salvation of all.

In short, there are numerous ways of understanding the Atonement, several of which could be incorporated into species of DU falling under IU2—but not, we think, divorced from IU1. For even if Christ’s Atonement is conceived as operating on God’s motives (rather than serving as a tool to convert sinners), the way in which it does so is by clearing away a conflict in God’s motives such that God’s benevolence is free to act unimpeded on the sinner’s behalf.


  1. Eric, I'll be picking up a copy of this book when it comes out. Your essay "Human Freedom and the Impossibility of Eternal Damnation" is still on of my favorites.

  2. Eric,

    You speak of Atonement as if it is a foundational Christian belief, but I wonder if that is so. The dictionary definition of “atonement” is “compensation for a wrong”, but I wonder if the idea of a mercantilist God who in a sense signs contracts with clauses about debts and about penalties, even if finally willing to cover himself the penalties the other party has incurred, isn’t really a crude and misleading image. Why not use instead the dogma of redemption, according to which God’s incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth serves several salvidic meanings, including that God came down to us in order to open the way for us to go up to God? That the Divine became human so that the human could become divine? That the limitless became limited so as to raise the limitations of our condition? Why not see in God’s incarnation and suffering in Jesus of Nazareth, an act of humiliation and love and companionship – rather than an act of “paying the ransom of sin”? And what about the notion that through the incarnation and suffering God achieved knowledge and virtue S/He couldn’t otherwise achieve?

    How is one to interpret God’s actions, not from the point of view of the traditional solutions of our cognitive past, which is flawed as all creation is flawed, but from the point of view of our living sense of personal perfection? That the doctrine of hell is a false interpretation of God’s justice is more or less obvious, but isn’t the dogma of the fall (without which the doctrine of atonement would not make any sense whatsoever) equally false, and for basically the same reason, namely that it does not comport with God’s perfection? After all the doctrine that God’s creation suffered a catastrophic failure right at its beginning is akin to believing that an excellent engineer would build a house which would immediately collapse. The story of the fall in Genesis strikes me as particularly incoherent. I have always wondered how Adam and Eve should know that it was evil to disobey God before having eaten from the tree of knowledge of good and evil?

    My larger point is that for natural theology to become a science (in the traditional sense of the word), theists must stop behaving as if theistic beliefs are not based on the sense of the divine all people possess. It is a sense that gives us access to the objective reality of God, and on which one can reason about the truth value of propositions such as the doctrine of hell. Our sense of the divine may not be as sharp as our optical sense of physical phenomena on which the physical sciences depend on, but is no less veridical. It is as if we are all born seriously shortsighted in our sensus divinitatis. But the acuity of this sense can improve in various ways, such as increasing in virtue (“the pure in heart shall see God”), or through prayer even in the form of just persistently thinking about God. Perhaps the reason for this state of affairs is that, given the nature of the divine, one’s knowledge of it comes fundamentally by acquaintance. In theism the question is not so much “what is the truth?” but “who is the truth?”, or even “how is it like to be the truth?”

    I have one final observation on your list of the IUs. I would like to suggest that God’s motivation for universal salvation is entailed in God’s motivation for creation itself. And the latter motivation strikes me as almost tautological: God’s motivation for creation is to bring new value into existence, and as the nature of God is the greatest value there is, the goal of creation is to create new persons in God’s image, who freely choose to realize that image and transform their nature into becoming as perfect as God’s is.

  3. Dianelos--Thanks again for the thoughtful comments. I think they highlight the extent to which the term "atonement" has drifted from its etymological roots--"at-onen," meaning "at one" or in accord.

    To atone is to bring into accord or harmony that which was not so before. But in modern usage, the term generally refers strictly to expiation of past sins or crimes through payment, punishment, or acts of penance.

    I suspect that a key reason for this narrowing of meaning is precisely the fact that the term has become deeply wedded to Christian theology, and because the dominant Christian theory of Christ's Atonement in the west has been the penal-substitutionary theory that has its roots in Anselm.

    But broadly speaking, a Theory of the Atonement in Christian theology refers to ANY theory of how Christ's life and work makes humanity "at one" with God. As such, the theories you mention first--in which the incarnation plays the crucial role of forging a pathway between humanity and God--are Atonement Theories in the broad sense.

    In this sense, to say that Atonement is a foundational Christian belief is to say that it is a foundational Christian belief that Christ somehow plays an instrumental role in bringing humanity into union with God. The question then becomes HOW.

    Here is where one finds substantial divergence within the Christian tradition. But insofar as variants on the Anselmian theory have become dominant in Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, devoting attention to whether this theory is compatible with universalism is important.

  4. Eric:

    So your idea is to show that universalism is compatible with official Christian dogma, such as the penal-substitution understanding of redemption, even if it is the case that the latter dogma is in fact false. I can see why you say this is important, and I can see how interesting and indeed plausible the solution you suggest is. Perhaps it is the case that the universality of God’s savific love is such a deep theistic principle that even false dogmas point to it.

    On the other hand, considering how common the affirming the consequent fallacy is, your idea may also be kind of counterproductive: Your readers may get the impression that your argument actually strengthens the idea of penal-substitution atonement. But I am nit-picking; the traditional idea of hell is probably the single most damaging theistic idea there is, and anything one can do to remove it is probably worthwhile. Perhaps you could add a bit in your book indicating how a positive understanding of redemption also points to universal salvation. As does the positive understanding of the origin of evil which the Irenaean theodicy expounds.

  5. The concept of hell moves people into forming some shockingly wrong ideas. So, for example, in Al-Ghazali’s “Best of All Possible Worlds” one reads the following: “Were it not for hell, the blessed in paradise would not know the extent of their blessedness”. And: “Indeed, giving precedence to the perfect over the imperfect is justice itself. So too is heaping favors on the inhabitants of paradise by increasing the punishment of the inhabitants of hell.

    As theists we are committed[1] to the idea that the actual world is the best possible world. Which is really what the problem of evil is about, for it is difficult to understand how a world with so much evil as ours, can be the best possible world. In a recent interview I have heard Alvin Plantinga propose the idea that the Christian story of Christ’s atonement is so great, that a world that does not include it cannot be the best possible world; but for Christ’s atonement to obtain the presence of evil is necessary, and not just the presence of some peccadillos, but the presence of huge and destructive evil. Now I see the logic of the idea, but where is the beauty of it? The idea that people should do evil and suffer evil in order to make place for God to atone for them, strikes me as kind of incongruent. On the other hand I think the following better idea can be built on the same foundations:

    One starts by noting that, if anything, Christ’s atonement is about forgiveness, and indeed it is in the unconditional, universal, and loving forgiveness of Christ where the greatness of His life lies. Now consider a possible world where in the end every victim forgives her slayer, where in the end the slayer repents, where in the end the victim and the slayer love each other as themselves. Such a world is greater than a world where the victims are rewarded in paradise and the slayers punished in hell. And, similarly, such a world is greater than a world in which there are no slayers and no victims at all, but where all persons since always love and do only good to each other. My point is that the greatest love of all, is the love which unconditionally forgives, the love which loves those who are imperfect and do evil, the self-transcending the self-sacrificing love in the embrace of which evil is extinguished. The greatest possible world then is the world in which such atoning love, both divine and human [2], can obtain. The best possible world is one where evil is overcome by love, and not a world in which no evil but just love exists. And hence the best possible world is one of universal salvation, and not one or retributive justice.

    It is then perhaps in the value of atoning love where we find the justification for the presence of evil. What I find especially striking in this theodicy though is that it not only *solves* the problem of evil, but in a way actually *dissolves* it. For evil exists in the degree that it remains in existence as evil. If the world is such that all evil will serve as the ground for forgiveness and hence for universal salvation, if all evil will serve as the ground for atonement (in the original sense of being as one, as you explained in the previous post), then each evil will be seen as a source of a greater good and hence as being good itself, the way that dirt is one source of a flower and is hence considered good. But then in then end evil will have stopped to exist, and evil qua evil will be seen to never have existed.

    [Notes to be found in the next post]

  6. [1] Having said that, I find that the idea of God first considering all possible worlds and then creating the best one of them, is at best a rough first approximation of the truth, and that one must be careful not to overdo it. For example, in Daniel and Frances Howard-Snyder’s “How an Unsurpassable Being Can Create a Surpassable World” I read the following: “Possible worlds are necessarily existing abstract entities that have their being independent of anyone’s creative activity.” This can’t be right under any reasonable understanding of what “existing” means. Moreover all good possible worlds contain freedom, both divine and human, as well as the creativity such freedom entails, so in any sense that possible worlds “exist” it can’t be an existence that is “independent of anyone’s creative activity”. In general I suggest that the paradigm of God as some kind of a mathematician moved by love to carefully consider all logical options before actualizing the best one, is further from the truth than the paradigm of God as some kind of an artist moved by love to create a space propitious for greater love to grow.

    [2] Which reminds me of your idea about what a saintly thing it would be if Pope Benedict were to accept punishment for the evils committed by others in his church. Sacrificial atonement is an action not only open to God.

  7. Christ saves us in the following manner:

    1)He lives the perfect life- perfectly obedient and faithful even in the midst of great personal suffering and loss.

    2)The obedience of the Son is a great delight to the Father, a sweet aroma.

    3) The Father rewards the Son for His obedience by giving Him all power and authority in heaven and earth.

    4) The Son uses that power and authrority to save, redeem, abolish death, subject all of creation to Himself, etc.

    Consider Phil 2:5-11 in this light.

    Consider the story of Joseph. His faithfulness in the midst of trials, his exaltation to the right hand of Pharoah, and the way he used his power and authority to save all of Egypt from famine/death.