Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Landscape of Hellism and Universalism

In a comment on my last post, Dianelos made the following remark:

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 agree. Hopeful universalists and hellists are both committed to P--and in exactly the same sense. But that then raises the question of how and where hopeful universalists differ from hellists in their beliefs. 

This, of course, generates the broader question of how best to distinguish species of hellism and universalism. In God's Final Victory (hopefully available in paperback very soon), John Kronen and I offer a strategy for doing so that I think is quite effective. But there are various ways to make the same distinctions--and it seems to me it might be helpful to use the point of agreement between hellists and hopeful universalists, noted by Dianelos, as a springboard for making some of the same basic distinctions in a fresh way (especially since John and I did not devote much attention to hopeful universalism in our book). 

So, hellists and hopeful universalists (but not confident universalists) agree that the following proposition is true:

P: Someone's eternal existence in hell is compatible with God's perfection 

Since there is a difference between hopeful universalism and hellism, and since the difference doesn't lie with P, where does it lie? It seems to me that, in arriving at their hopeful conclusion, hopeful universalists also embrace the following two premises:

Q: It is incompatible with God's perfection for God ever to give up on attempting to save the unregenerate by all morally permissible means (the last qualifier presumably ruling out means that overmaster the creature's will or simply "reprogram" the creature to become a God-loving, virtue-yearning creature).

R: If God never gives up on attempting to save the unregenerate by all morally permissible means, then granted the enormous resources God has available (even given the qualifier) it is reasonable to hope (but not be confident) that all the unregenerate will eventually be saved.

This picture gives us a clear indication, first of all, of how hopeful universalism differs from confident universalism. I happen to find R too pessimistic with respect to God's resourcefulness, which is why (given my allegiance to Q) I'm a "confident" universalist and not merely a hopeful one (although I certainly respect hopeful universalists and find their position reasonable). 

It seems to me, in short, that most confident universalists think that R should be replaced with some premise like the following:

R*: If God never gives up on attempting to save the unregenerate by all morally permissible means, then granted the enormous resources God has available (even given the qualifier) it is certain that all the unregenerate will eventually be saved. 

Of course, Q and R* together imply the rejection of P. This is why confident universalists disagree with both hellists and hopeful universalists with respect to P.

Hellists, by contrast, must either reject Q or hold that R (not to mention R*) is too optimistic with respect to God's capacity to win over intransigent creatures in morally permissible ways. 

(It occurs to me that there is a third, albeit strange option: Agree with R, and hence agree that it is reasonable to hope that all will be saved, and yet to choose not to hope for this--but I won't explore that option here.)

Let me begin with R. The belief that R is too optimistic will have one of three bases: (a) one thinks God is less resourceful than hopeful universalists do (an unlikely view); (b) one thinks God has more extensive moral constraints on what He may legitimately do (a more common view, although its defenders tend to be hesitant to use the language of "moral constraints" in relation to God); (c) one has a magnified view of creaturely intransigence.

Let me say a bit more about (c). The idea, as I understand it, is this: creatures not only have the freedom to choose their characters but to do so in such a way that they not only render themselves wicked but also impervious to both internal and external forces that might motivate subsequent improvements in that character. Put another way (borrowing the language of Jerry Walls), they make a "decisive" choice for evil.

Now it seems to me there are two things that might make a choice decisive: something about the nature of the choice (flowing from the nature of the chooser), or something about the conditions under which the choice is made. If the former, this means that free creatures are able to do something to themselves by their choices, some change to their character that is (i) so permanent as to render impossible any future potential to make opposing choices (in effect, one has exercised one's freedom in such a way as to permanently compromise one's future freedom with respect to changing one's character) and (ii) so powerful as to be immune to influence from any external force (or at least any external force short of one that directly "reprograms" the person's character and will). In short, persons have a free will which enables them to simultaneously kill their freedom of choice (with no hope of resurrection) and render themselves completely resistant to any external influence on character-development (short of divine reprogramming). 

What we're talking about here isn't just a free will but a will with super powers. Imbued with this mighty will, people can make themselves eternally immune to any and all salvific efforts by a determined God who has COMPLETE AND IMPECCABLE UNDERSTANDING of the unregenerate person's psychology. None of this knowledge will do the very creator of the universe any good. The will is just so mighty that an eternity of moral lessons devised by an infinitely creative mind will be utterly pointless. The will is so mighty that it can set a creature so fixedly against God that it becomes a foregone conclusion that there's no chance in...well, hell...of the omniscient, omnipotent source of all life and being finding a way, even with an eternity of opportunity, to inspire an inner change of heart.

Given this way of putting things, one might understand why some theists are uneasy with this basis for denying R. They might, then, be drawn to the idea that a decisive choice for evil gets its decisiveness, not from the nature of the choice, but from the conditions under which the choice is made. Specifically, we make choices under conditions of limited opportunity. After a certain point, whatever choice we have made becomes permanent--not because we make it permanent, but because something about the nature of reality makes it so. 

This seems to be the approach of those who place a great weight on what happens prior to the moment of death. Whatever states of character you have when you die are effectively cemented in place--at least if they are God-rejecting ones. No Christian with any measure of orthodoxy would be willing to say that those who are destined for heaven when they die have their character permanently frozen in the condition that prevailed just prior to death.

After all, no one dies in a state of perfect saintliness. Perfect sanctification, if it happens at all, must come after death. Perhaps, then, what is cemented at death is your trajectory. If you're on a trajectory towards God when you die, that trajectory continues until you are finally purged of all sin and fully sanctified. If you're on a trajectory away from God, then you stay on that path and become eternally mired in wickedness. Not because something about your choice makes that inevitable, but because the nature of the world is such that the end of earthly existence brings an end to any further capacity to alter one's moral trajectory.  

Why the end of earthly existence should do this, and thereby place a profound time constraint on God's salvific intentions, is another matter. If it's a contingent fact about reality, then one would wonder why an omnipotent God would allow the world to be arranged in such a way when it could have been arranged otherwise--in a way that would give God more opportunity to work on the beloved unregenerate children He wants to save. But if it's a necessary fact about reality, one that's beyond God's power to change, one is left to wonder what makes it necessary. It isn't logically necessary. 

Is it, then, morally necessary? That is, does morality require that God make salvation a very limited-time opportunity? If so, then we are basically holding the view that R is too optimistic because God endures more extensive moral constraints than the hopeful universalist realizes--what I referred to above as option (b). But it's hard to see why this should be a moral constraint binding on God. What is it, exactly, that makes it morally unfitting to allow character formation to continue beyond the few decades that human beings are alive on earth? If there are moral constraints on how God can seek to influence the unregenerate, constraints that make it unreasonable to hope that God will succeed in saving all, I think the hellist would be well advised to look elsewhere for it.

Hellists who don't like the direction of these thoughts might decide to deny Q instead of R. And some hellists do just that. They maintain that a morally perfect God could very well, consistent with moral perfection, cease to will the salvation of those who remain unregenerate before death. And, abandoned by God, these poor souls are also denied access to the resources necessary to pull themselves out of their sinful condition. They may never have made a decisive choice for evil, but evil is what they decisively get--because without God's grace, they have no hope on their own of pulling themselves out of misery. 

And why would God abandon them in this way? Hellists have offered a range of reasons--usually ones that invoke retributive justice and divine holiness--but I've gone on long enough and so will stop there for now.

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