Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Some Thoughts of Universalism: Recognizing the Inadequacy of Pat Responses

I’ve decided that one of the more recent comments on my RD article about the conservative backlash to Rob Bell is worth reflecting on here, simply because it helps to highlight some of the unconvincing lines of thought that are too often unreflectively thrown out there in response to universalism. If Christians (and other theists) are to converse thoughtfully about issues such as universalism, we need to take our thinking deeper than the pat responses allow. And for that to happen, the weaknesses of the pat responses need to be clear. So here is the text of the comment, in which at least some of the pat responses to universalism are put forward:

In reference to the part of your article that discusses "when all means some," one must look at the entire context of a passage in the bible. If you only look at one verse, it is easy to pull things out of context and assume things. When these passages refer to "all," they are talking about all who trust in Him. If everyone on this earth is automatically saved and we can do whatever the heck we want with no consequences, then God would not be a loving God. Just like a parent who disciplines his or her children out of love, so does our Father in heaven. Doesn't it seem like a huge waste of time for those who have a relationship with God to continue if they are going to heaven regardless? Never underestimate the power of God's grace but ever take it for granted either.
There are three points made here. The first has to do with biblical interpretation. On this issue the commenter stresses the importance of reading the Bible holistically and interpreting isolated passages in the light of such holistic reading.

I couldn’t agree more. If the Bible is to be seen as authoritative at all, then I think it must be in these terms, where the plain sense of isolated passages is subordinated to the core messages that emerge through a holistic reading. Such an approach fits well with seeing the Bible as the product of diverse voices writing at many times and places in history, reflecting on their understanding of and experience of the divine in terms of their own cultural lenses. It is by reflecting carefully and critically (in conversation with others) on a cloud of such fallible witnesses that we can begin to see the common themes that lie behind their limited perspectives, and thereby transcend those limitations.

My point in picking out the “universalist texts” in my article about Bell was precisely to highlight the fact that an approach to the Bible that prioritizes a narrow reading of the literal sense of isolated texts is not as such consistent with a confident endorsement of the doctrine of eternal hell—because there are isolated texts whose literal reading seems universalist. Given the complexity of the text—given that there are isolated passages that in their most straightforward sense support universalism, while others support damnation and a few support annihilationism—reaching theological conclusions based on what the text says requires critical thinking in light of the whole, something which is most effectively done in open conversation with those who have a different reading. It is only by respectfully considering the reasons and arguments of those who read the holistic message in different ways that we can reach responsible conclusions about what the whole tells us (if anything) about the eternal fates of human beings. And the fanaticism of “hellists” such as Piper and Taylor impedes just this sort of critical dialogue.

The second and third points raised by this commenter go beyond the matter of biblical interpretation to more philosophical reasoning about universalism and “hellism” in the light of core Christian teachings. The commenter offers, in effect, two arguments. The first is stated as follows: “If everyone on this earth is automatically saved and we can do whatever the heck we want with no consequences, then God would not be a loving God. Just like a parent who disciplines his or her children out of love, so does our Father in heaven.”

The argument here, in brief, tries to spell out the implications of the traditional Christian notion that God is essentially loving in something like the way that good parents are loving (“our Father in heaven”). If God is loving in this way, God would not let us do “whatever the heck we want with no consequences,” because good parents do not let their kids do whatever the heck they want with no consequences. Apparently, however, the alternative to letting your kids do whatever the heck they want with no consequences is to reject them utterly and completely, decisively casting them away from you and into an endless torture chamber.

Excuse the sarcasm—but it is helpful in calling attention to the false dilemma at work in this particular argument. Universalism is in part premised on the recognition that there are alternatives to coddling or “enabling” those you love (protecting them from all the negative consequences of their poor choices) and utterly rejecting those you love. Good parents do neither. As such, if God is like a good parent, God would do neither. So what would God do, given the extraordinary resources that God has available (assuming traditional theological assumptions)? That, of course, is one of the key questions that Christian debates about universalism and hellism need to grapple with. One cannot rule out the various universalist answers with nothing but a bizarre false dilemma (“bizarre” because the options presented are both ones that seem to be things a God conceived in the Christian sense would avoid). And there are various universalist answers, since, of the different ways God might respond to beloved but frequently misguided and willful creatures, it seems that more than one might be thought to culminate in the salvation of all.

Finally, the commenter asks, “Doesn't it seem like a huge waste of time for those who have a relationship with God to continue if they are going to heaven regardless?” The reasoning here seems to be pragmatic: If all are saved, then no one has any reason to have a relationship with God (because the only reason to have a relationship with God is in order to get into heaven). Hence, we must reject universalism if we want anyone to be motivated to cultivate a relationship with God.

Presented in these terms, the weaknesses of this argument essentially speak for themselves. But just in case it isn’t obvious, let me enumerate the problems here. First, there is the assumption that “getting into heaven” is the only reason anyone could have for continuing a relationship with God. This suggests that there is nothing intrinsically rewarding about nurturing such a relationship in this life, that those who pursue a relationship with God are doing it wholly for future rewards and get no immediate benefits from it.

Really? I could understand this perspective if God is conceived as a tyrant in the sky who reards the loudest sycophants, or as an unpleasant uncle you might decide to spend time with so you can get written into his will. And there are certainly some people who do conceive of God in something like that way. But those who have had profound experiences of God's presence in their lives don't usually come away with an impression of God as a nasty tyrant or annoying uncle. They are like lovers smitten.

The baffling nature of this perspective really comes out when we begin to reflect on what Christianity has traditionally taken “heaven” to be. It is, simply put, having a relationship with God of the most immediate and powerful kind. Heaven just is intimate loving union with the creator—the beatific vision. And so the commenter’s question really amounts to this: Why should I bother to have a taste of heaven now when I’ll get to enjoy heaven later regardless?

Of course, the most significant challenge to universalism becomes apparent if we restate the question in a different way: Why should I bother to have a relationship with God now when I will eventually come to have the most intimate kind of relationship with God later? Stated in this way, it calls attention to the fact that relationships usually involve the voluntary participation of both parties. But doesn’t this mean that, if heaven consists in having a relationship with God of a particularly intimate and immediate kind, that there can be no guarantee that all will come to experience heaven (since whether this happens depends on the free choices of the creature)?

In the theological debate between universalists and hellists, this question raises the most interesting and thorny philosophical issues—issues pertaining to the nature of freedom. Some think that freedom is such that, if we assume that human beings are really free, universalism has to be rejected (or simply held out as a hopeful possibility). Some people treat this position as uncontroversial—but is it?

I think the controversy here can be highlighted by asking a different but related question. Suppose someone is confronted with a standing offer that is never withdrawn. Suppose, furthermore, that rejecting the offer has natural consequences that are negative (because one has a nature such that accepting the offer is the only way to really be satisfied), and that these negative consequences become progressively worse the longer one rejects the standing offer (in the way that thirst or hunger become progressively worse the longer one rejects water and food). And suppose, finally, that the person has every conceivable reason to accept the offer (the person has come to see that accepting the offer is supremely good in every conceivable way) and absolutely no reason to reject it (the person has come to realize that all supposed reasons to reject the offer are utterly vacuous). On these assumptions, can we imagine that a person who is free to do otherwise would reject this offer forever?

In effect, the latter part of That Damned Book (whose actual working title is God’s Final Victory) aims to answer this question in the negative. But while I may have more to say about this issue in later posts, for now I want to highlight the controversial character of the view that divine respect for freedom is incompatible with a guarantee of universal salvation. This view is hardly beyond dispute—in fact, it there is a powerful intuitive case for thinking that if people have every reason to choose something, no reason not to, and infinite opportunity to choose it (because it is a standing offer), they will eventually choose what they have every reason to choose and no reason not to choose. The choice will be free but inevitable.

Put simply, there is no pat biblical or philosophical/theological basis for dismissing universalism. Those who want to defend the traditional doctrine of hell need to confront some serious issues, and they should ideally refine their arguments in conversation with those who thoughtfully develop an alternative view.


  1. Thanks, Eric. Have you seen Bernard Schweizer's most recent piece over at Religion Dispatches? He is, in part, responding to your own most recent RD essay on the Rob Bell brouhaha. In it, toward the end, he raises an issue that fascinates and troubles me: that the traditional conception of Heaven may be as problematic as our traditional ideas about Hell. In summary, he suggests that Heaven as traditionally conceived would not be a place where anyone could have free will. If you've read it, could you say a word or two about it if you have time?

  2. Evan--Yes, I read Schweizer's piece. His thoughts about heaven are interesting and I have some thoughts on it, but don't have time to take them up right now. Maybe later in the week.

  3. Dr. Reitan,

    I suspect you already read the Prosblogion, but definitely don't miss Keith DeRose's recent article, "All."

    Also, I have just finished your (excellent!) book and will hopefully post a review on my blog at some point this month.


  4. Among authors I have read, no one inspires me to obedience more, or calls me to deepen my relationship with God more than George MacDonald! Even though for me the jury is out on the question of Universalism, the fact that a bold Universalist motivates me to love and obedience defeats those oh so shallow notions of Christianity expressed in the "pat response." Thank you for your article!