Monday, February 18, 2013

Does Hopeful Universalism Sacrifice Divine Goodness?

Last week, in an Ancient Faith Radio piece entitled "Will Everyone Eventually Be Saved?", host Kevin Allen interviewed Perry Robinson, editor of Energetic Procession (an Orthodox theology blog), about a topic dear to my heart: Christian Universalism.

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.


  1. Eric,

    As you say, and as seems to be quite clear, Perry’s argument turns on a equivocation of the meaning of the proposition P=“eternal creaturely existence of hell is compatible with God’s perfection”. Still, that equivocation apart, don’t both the hellist and hopeful universalist agree that P is true? After all they both agree that it is possible that in fact some creatures will eternally exist in hell.

    I suppose both the hellist and the hopeful universalist agree that God wishes all to be saved. The difference I understand is it that the hellist puts some special relevance to one’s state at the moment of death in this earthly life. In particular the hellist believes that at least a few people will be found by God to have perverted themselves so gravely in this life that God will stop working on their salvation (and further that no salvation without God’s help is possible). And the reason, I take it, freethinking hellists believe that, is not that they fail to see that love requires that one doesn’t ever give up on others, but that according to their judgment God’s perfection entails the right balance between love on the one hand and justice and holiness on the other.

    My intuitions about perfection are clearly on the universtalists side, and hellists’ preoccupation with holiness and justice strikes me as a projection of all-too-human concerns. On the other hand, probably hellists tend to think that universalists are carried away by the similarly all-too-human idea that God must be a terribly nice guy. On the whole it seems to me that universalists tend to trust more in the reliability of direct personal revelation, and hellists tend to trust more in passed-down written revelation. Universalists hold that Christ is still at work illuminating humanity’s understanding, hellists that Christian truth is already pretty much established. The universalist position strikes me as being so overwhelmingly obvious that I can’t imagine a hellist not being driven at some perhaps subconscious level by a Pascal-like wager: If universalism is true then one loses little by embracing the wrong belief of hellism But if hellism is true then it may be the case that the cost of embracing the wrong belief of universalism is potentially infinite.

    1. I agree with much of this. I started a comment exploring where hopeful universalists DO differ from hellists--but it became so long I turned it into a new post.

  2. I consider my position to be that of a hopeful universalist. However my reasons for that are different. I am not a Philosopher of Religion, and thus strict philosophical logic does not enter into the equation in quite the same way it does for you, Eric. I am a hopeful universalist because I believe that's the position the Scriptures point us to. The New Testament is, in my view, in tension on this matter, and I don't think it's up to us to resolve the tension so much as to live within it. Scripture seems to me to remain hopeful that all will be united with Christ, but also clear that our individual decisions have real and lasting consequences. It's something of a paradox I know, but I am happy to live within the paradox, and feel I am obedient in doing so.

  3. Dr. Reitan,

    Maybe you could do a post on how universalism works with our etchical choices. I think some oppose univeralsim because of justice: people want to see injustice rectified at death. (Though, the irony, is we tend to forget the log in our own eye when looking at the spec in the other person's eye whom we are judging.)

    How does univeralism apply to the situation of Mother Theresa (MT) and someone like Osama Bin Laden (OSB)? If MT is much closer to the ethical goal of conforming her life to Jesus Christ than OSB, are you saying that while MT is much farther along in the healing and transofmation process of a life in God, that God will continue to work with OSB indefinately after death until he conforms to what a life in union with God is supposed to look like?

    Thanks for your efforts.