Over the last few days, a lively discussion about that piece has been taking place on the Ancient Faith Today facebook page, on the discussion thread linked to the announcement for the radio interview, in which Robinson responds to some critics. When I was tagged in that discussion, I found myself reading through it and puzzling over some of Robinson's comments about so-called "hopeful universalism."
(I also have things to say about his failure to engage with many of the arguments that John Kronen and I develop in God's Final Victory, despite his contention that he has read most of what I've written on this subject--but at the moment I'm at a loss for how to articulate my concerns without laying out half the content of the book, which I don't have time to do; maybe I'll pick up some of my concerns piecemeal in future posts).
So what is hopeful universalism? Roughly, at least as I understand it, it's the view that while God cannot guarantee the salvation of all, there is good reason to hope that God will nevertheless succeed in saving all. Hopeful universalists thus live in the hope that all will be saved, trusting in God's resourcefulness to achieve this best-of-all-possible outcomes--but they acknowledge that there can be no guarantee of universal salvation, because they believe that our ultimate destiny depends on free choices over which God cannot exert sovereign control. If (as they hope) all are saved, it is a contingent fact--one achieved because God's resourceful persistence paid off, not because it was necessary or inescapable.
In the facebook discussion about his interview, Robinson challenges this species of universalism in a way that left me scratching my head. So I started to write a reply in the facebook comment thread--and, as is typical with me, ended up writing something way too long to be fitting as a facebook comment. So, instead, I'm turning it into a blog post--a kind of open letter to Perry Robinson.
So, without further ado, here are my remarks:
You say, “Hopeful Universalism not only fails to solve the problem of Hell, it makes the problem worse since we have to sacrifice divine moral perfection to make it work.” I’m trying to understand your case for this. Here’s what you say explicitly, in a response to Carrie:
Suppose we hope that no one goes to hell forever. Suppose those that go there go there for a temporary period of time and then get out. This is a contingent fact that all people change, though it is possible that someone could be there forever. If Hell is the worst of evils and is incompatible with divine goodness, then it is contingently true that God is good. This is just to say that God is contingently good. Just so long as it is possible on Hopeful Universalism that someone could be in hell forever, Hopeful Universalism sacrafices divine perfection. That is, Hopeful Universalism only "modally masks" the problem of Hell, it doesn't solve it.The argument here relies on attributing to hopeful universalists the premise that “Hell is the worst of evils and is incompatible with divine goodness.” Grant the premise that the existence of anyone in eternal hell is incompatible with God's goodness, and it follows that were hell's ultimate emptiness merely contingent (as hopeful universalists believe), God's goodness would be rendered contingent as well.
But is this premise something that hopeful universalists generally endorse in the sense required in order for your reasoning to be valid? Surely not. It seems odd indeed to imagine that hopeful universalists believe that whether or not God is perfectly good depends upon whether a state of affairs obtains in the world over which God lacks sovereign control. But that is what this premise would have to amount to, since hopeful universalists are merely hopeful about their universalism precisely because they think that salvation depends on the concurrence of a creature's free will, and because they do not think God can strictly speaking guarantee that any free creature will concur in this way while still being free.
Perhaps hopeful universalists say things that sound a bit like this premise, but that's not the same thing. We need to read what hopeful universalists say with the same principle of charity that should guide all such discussions.
But even if there are hopeful universalists who do embrace this premise in the sense required for the critique to work, the problematic implication you draw from the premise would not render hopeful universalism untenable in a broader sense—since there are perfectly coherent versions of hopeful universalism available that do not endorse the premise that you require in order to generate the problem. Your claim that "we have to sacrifice divine moral perfection to make (hopeful universalism) work" is simply false. There are other ways--some of them pretty straightforward.
Hopeful universalists surey must believe that any world in which some created persons are forever damned is something less than the best conceivable world. After all, for universal salvation to be a proper object of hope, it has to be seen as better than the alternatives. It’s also likely that hopeful universalists will endorse the view that eternal damnation is the worst evil that can befall a person. But it doesn’t follow from this that a world in which the contingent possibility of this evil befalling someone is a world that a perfectly good God would not create. Of course, one might well think that very thing. But my point is that hopeful universalists needn’t affirm this premise just because they see damnation as the worst thing that can happen to a person--and, in fact, it seems that their refusal to affirm that premise is one of the key things distinguishing them from more "confident" universalists.
After all, hopeful universalists could readily hold (along with liberal hellists) that the value of conferring significant freedom on creatures is so great that any world in which such freedom did not exist would be suboptimal. In other words, a necessary condition for the realization of an optimal world is that God create creatures with significant freedom. But the hopeful universalist might further believe that once God has achieved this necessary condition for realizing an optimal world, God has thereby given up sovereign control of outcomes in that world. In other words, the realization of the other necessary conditions for achieving an optimal world no longer falls within the scope of God’s sovereign power.
But the hopeful universalist can maintain that God is enormously resourceful even in the absence of sovereign control of outcomes. Because hopeful universalists see the salvation of every creature as an aim that a perfectly good being would never give up on (even if it is an aim that a perfectly good being might have to give up on guaranteeing in order to achieve other aims that a perfectly good being would have), they believe it is an aim that this enormously resourceful God will never give up on. And this enormously resourceful God will have all the opportunity afforded by eternity to keep working on the salvation of the unregenerate. And so, although what is additionally required for achieving the optimal world—namely, that all free creatures eventually come to make the free choices that lead to loving union with God—is something that God cannot bring about through His sovereign will alone, it remains something that we can reasonably hope for—in part because of our belief in God’s perfect goodness.
How is any of this incompatible with continued belief in God’s moral perfection? It’s not. Generating a conflict between hopeful universalism and God’s moral perfection requires insisting that hopeful universalists ascribe very rigidly to a premise about the incompatibility of divine goodness and a world in which anyone is eternally damned. But if there is anything that distinguishes the hopeful universalist from the confident one, it is precisely this: the hopeful universalist believes (a) there are things--most notably significant creaturely freedom--that a perfectly good God would care so much about that He would be prepared to sacrifice the certainty (if not the likelihood) of universal salvation for its sake; and (b) bringing about significant creaturely freedom does remove the certainty (if not the likelihood) of universal salvation.