Sunday, March 3, 2013

"Hopeful" vs "Dogmatic" Universalism: Some Thoughts on Terminology

There's a common distinction today between two broad species of universalism within Christianity: "hopeful" universalism and "dogmatic" (or "confident") universalism. The former holds, roughly, that given broader Christian teachings we have reason to hope that all will be saved. The latter holds that given broader Christian teachings it follows that God will save all--that God has both the resources and the will to achieve this end without thereby compromising  other divine objectives or values.

I suspect, however, that the terminology here may lead to some confusion. The language of hopefulness suggests humility in a way that the language of confidence/dogmatism does not. The latter suggests a certainty  about matters that many will find unsuitable to the subject matter. Many Christians with universalist leanings may gravitate towards the "hopeful" species for precisely this reason.

In fact, I think that those who are drawn towards universalism also tend to be the very people who are suspicious of "dogmatism" in the modern sense of the word, and who have a broad aversion to the kind of unquestioning certainty that characterizes fundamentalism.

But it seems to me that humility--and an aversion to "dogmatism" in the contemporary sense--is consistent with both species of universalism. And to the extent that our terminological choices lead those who value humility to favor one species over the other, I think our language may be doing a disservice to thoughtful reflection on the subject.

Robin Parry (writing as Gregory McDonald) seems to share my uneasiness in the opening pages of The Evangelical Universalist, when he locates his own position relative to the standard distinction. Here is how he puts it:
Some Christians describe themselves as "hopeful uniersalists." By this they mean that Scripture gives good grounds for real hope that all will be saved, but there is no certainty. Perhaps human freedom or God's sovereign right to determine the future rule out any certainty here. That is not my position...Other Christians are dogmatic universalists. They argue that it is certain that God will save all. I agree but with a qualification. The theology outlined in this book is one that espouses dogmatic universalism, but I must confess to not being 100% certain that it is correct. Thus I am a hopeful dogmatic universalist, a non-dogmatic dogmatic universalists, if you will. All theological systems need to be offered with a degree of humility, and one that departs significantly from the mainstream Christian tradition calls for even more.
These comments gesture towards the following fact: humility in the domain of Christian doctrine finds its chief expression in the extent to which one recognizing one's own fallibility with respect to one's own beliefs. And such humility is entirely consistent with being a so-called "dogmatic" or "confident" universalist. We need to distinguish, here, between (a) the substance of one's view and (b) one's degree of openness to alternative views, to being proved wrong, to admitting errors in one's reasoning, etc.--in short, one's fallibilism.

Suppose the substance of your view is this: Nothing about God's nature or the nature of God's creation rules out some creatures being eternal damned, but there are reasons to be hopeful that none will endure this fate. In this case,  you're a hopeful universalist. But suppose you are dead certain that there is nothing about God's nature or the nature of God's creation that rules out some creatures being eternally damned. Suppose you don't even consider the possibility that you could be wrong about this. Suppose you think that anyone who disagrees with this is a blasted idiot not worth listening to. Suppose you refuse to consider objections to your position, since doing so is a waste of time given the impossibility of your being wrong. And you're prepared to confidently anathematize anyone who thinks that there is something about God's nature or the nature of God's creation that rules out any creature being eternally damned.

Is such a hopeful universalist humble?

By contrast, suppose the substance of your view is this: There is something about God's nature and the nature of God's creation that makes the salvation of all inevitable. In that case, you're a confident or "dogmatic" universalist. But suppose, like Robin Parry, you recognize that the reasoning leading you to this conclusion could be mistaken. And so you are open to considering objections from those who disagree, weighing the merits of their case. You are fallibilistic about your own position, recognizing that it could be in error because it results from finite human capacities. But insofar as the opposing views are also the views of finite persons, you treat them as fallible as well. Perhaps you arrived at the view because you were humble enough to question your previous commitments, to examine and re-examine the merits of your reasons for them, and open-mindedly engage with those of a different persuasion. And now that you have arrived at your universalist conclusion, you continue to exhibit the same humility that led you to it in the first place.

Is such a dogmatic universalist dogmatic?

It seems to me that it is quite clear that humility and hubristic dogmatism are compatible with both species of universalism. As such, I worry that the standard terminology is misleading. But the question, then, is what terminology we should use instead. I doubt we want to start consistently using the terminology of "dogmatic hopeful universalism," "hopeful dogmatic universalism," etc. So what are the alternatives?


  1. I go back and forth on this question. For me personally, the hope for universal salvation is contingent on many other beliefs, many of which I believe, at least partially, on the authority of the Church--e.g., the trinitarian identity of God, the resurrection and divinity of Jesus of Nazareth. At no point would I ever say that I am *certain* about any of these beliefs. I believe them on faith. And on Tuesdays and Thursdays I find it very difficult to believe many of them at all. I would describe the above beliefs as dogmas, but that only says something about their constitutive and irreformable nature within the life of the Church. It gives me reason to hold onto them even in the midst of great doubt. Am I confident about them? Yes, on Sundays, Mondays, and Fridays. Could I be wrong about them? Yes. I acknowledge the possibility that there might be no God or that Christianity is bogus. I do not know. I believe.

    And now we come to my belief in the universal salvation of all humanity, a belief that has never been the majority opinion within the Church. Not only has it not been judged to be dogma by the Church but at most times and places it has been judged as contrary to the apostolic revelation. I cannot even say that the plain reading of Scripture (and I'm not sure there is such a thing) supports it. I daresay that most Scripture scholars would deny that the apocatastasis is clearly taught by the New Testament. But I hope. Hope is but faith disposed toward the future.

    So why do I still hope? Because I believe that the gospel reveals God to be absolute Love. If I were an Augustinian, perhaps I could then logically infer universal salvation; but I'm not an Augustinian. God has given us freedom precisely because he is Love and desires us to freely love him in return. I do see a conflict here between. The example of Lucifer haunts me. I look inside my heart and I see my own stupid pride and egotism. I feel my resistance to God's love. Is it possible that I might hold out against God for an eternity? And if it's possible for me, is it not also possible for others?

    So where does this leave me? It leaves me with my hope that God the Holy Trinity exists and that he is absolute Love. It leaves me with my hope that, perhaps even contrary to the plain meaning of Scripture, he will never give up on any of us. And finally it leaves me with my hope, my desperate hope, that Eric Reitan's illustration of the coins holds up at the Eschaton.

    So am I a hopeful universalist or a dogmatic universalist?

    1. Thanks for this. It nicely elaborates on the issues I'm trying to highlight here. One might put it this way: Christian belief as a whole is a matter of faith, not knowledge. As such, a Christian universalist's belief in the salvation of all is a matter of faith, not knowledge--faith about the future. And, as you say so nicely, "Hope is but faith disposed toward the future." In this sense, all universalists are hopeful universalists.

      The distinguishing question is, I think, what one thinks follows from other Christian doctrines with respect to salvation. There seem to be three broad possibilities here: One could think that the broad set of Christian teachings implies that not all are saved. One could think it is consistent with all being saved but does not imply it. Or one could think that it implies that all are saved.

      With respect to these options, one could be entirely unsure about which is the most plausible or defensible. Or one could have a clear view about what the implications are but have a clear sense of one's own fallibility with respect to that view. Or one could have a strong suspicion. Or one could encounter arguments for one of the options and think, "This seems reasonable, and it's the most appealing to me; so I earnestly hope it's correct."

    2. "Hope is but faith disposed toward the future"--I stole that from Fr Richard John Neuhaus: Will All Be Saved?. He did have a wonderful way with words. :)

      I was just reading today Met Hilarion Alfeyev's book on St Isaac of Ninevah. Isaac believed in Gehenna but thought it was temporary. I thought you might enjoy this passage:

      "I am of the opinion that he is going to manifest some wonderful outcome, a matter of immense and ineffable compassion on the part of the glorious Creator, with respect to the ordering of this difficult matter of gehenna's torment: out of it the wealth of his love and power and wisdom will become known all the more--and so will the insistent might of the waves of his goodness. It is not the way of the compassionate Maker to create rational beings in order to deliver them over mercilessly to unending affliction in punishment for things of which he knew even before they were fashioned, aware how they would turn out when he created them--and whom nonetheless he created." (*The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian*, p. 287)

      Isaac believed that all punishment is therapeutic and rehabilitative. Over and over again he writes that God does not requite evil: "So then, let us not attribute to God's actions and his dealings with us any idea of requital. Rather, we should speak of fatherly provision, a wise dispensation, a perfect will which is concerned with our good, and complete love" (p. 289).

      For Isaac, hell is purgatory. In a "hidden mystery," all demons and human beings will be saved.

    3. In the final analysis, I think I would describe myself as a confident universalist, but not a dogmatic universalist. I cannot use the word "dogmatic" because universalism is not a dogma that has been defined by ecumenical council nor is it a belief that is clearly and indubitably supported by the New Testament. But given all that I believe of the absolute and unconditional love of God, I simply must confidently hope that all will be saved. Does that make sense?

  2. Hi, Eric as usual a thoghtful post on the subject by you. As a Universalist myself i would like to know how psychologically harmful you think a belief in eternal concious torment or some variation of it is? Like being Racist, is this compatible with Christian love? I find it somewhat ironic that i have never met a non universalist who thinks they are going to eternal hell.(or their loved ones for that matter) Anyway, forgive my rambling, i am just a layman but i would be interested in your opinion, MATT

    1. This post from a few years back speaks to your question, I think:

  3. Eric,

    On this level of discourse I think the best one can do is to try and describe as precisely as one can one’s own experience of the issue at hand.

    So I happen to be a very confident universalist. I find it is virtually impossible to me to doubt this issue. Paradoxically it’s easier for me to doubt theism – sometimes the thought washes over me that, after all, it is possible that reality is just a big mechanism and that the deliverances of all my thoughts and feelings ultimately point to illusions. When that happens I remember quickly enough how unreasonable such a view turns out to be on many fronts, not to mention how ugly and unnatural such a view is to live with – and so the sheer relative improbability of naturalism quickly pushes me back to theism. But while here I am a practically absolutely confident universalist.

    My confidence does not have anything to do with thinking that I am infallible. Of course I am fallible. One would have to be very dimwitted to think one is infallible in about any issue, and especially in deep matters of metaphysics. It’s just that I clearly see that anything but universalism is incompatible with the greatest being I can conceive. Thus I am completely confident – as a matter of direct perception – that the greatest being I can conceive (i.e. what I call God) will see to it that universal salvation obtains. And should I be mistaken in this, it would only mean that the God of the perfect beauty I see, the God of the perfect love I feel, is not there. It would mean that theism, as I mean the concept, is not true. This in a nutshell. I am not absolutely certain that I am right about God and about universal salvation, I am absolutely certain that the God I love will save all.

    So am I lacking in humility here? That’s a strange question for me to consider, for it seems to me that on the contrary should I have any doubts in God’s universal salvation, should I entertain the mere possibility that God might fail to realize that which, everybody agrees, God wishes – it’s then that I would lack humility. It would be like I staring at God to whom I relate and saying:

    I understand Sir, that You perfectly love us all and wish we all should be eternally with You, but there are also Your holiness and divine justice to consider. I know it’s not only about Your love and wishes – all and each one of Your attributes are divine and absolute. So, as it may be the case with the most loving and caring and forgiving and longsuffering parent, I understand it is *possible* that the point comes where You will say to one of us ‘Despite all my love and despite all I did for you, and only by your own free will, I see you have made up your own mind. So be it - go out of my sight and be as you will.’

    It seems to me that attitude is one of lack of humility. It is to assume that on my own judgment (of theology or of scripture or of whatever) it may be the case that God’s love is defeatable, that it may the case that reality or even God’s very nature will ultimately trump God’s wishes. Which attitude, it seems to me, ultimately also entails a lack of faith in God, a lack of trust in the power of God, a doubt about the integrity of God.

    Now here I am here describing my own experiential reality, and pass no judgment whatsoever on other peoples’ relationship to God, which for all I know may be quite different than mine. I can imagine a theist’s intuitions about humility to go the other way. I can imagine a theist’s sense of justice to be different than mine. I can imagine a theist having a different view of human nature, one according to which a creature can rot to the core and be beyond redemption. Here I am only describing my own sense.


  4. Finally, when I try to see what grounds my confidence in universalism I find that it is not really grounded in humility. Nor in faith. Nor is it grounded in my perception of God’s perfection, or in any of the basic beliefs I hold about God. Rather it is grounded in my finding that my love for God is simply incompatible with the idea that all creatures will not in the end be joined together. I can’t even compare the kind of love I have for God with the love I might have for a lesser god in that sense. The picture that comes to mind is Christ’s parable about the good shepherd who will leave the 99 sheep and tirelessly go look for the single one lost. It’s not the fact that the parable is in the Gospels that is relevant to me, but the power of the story by itself, for it leads me to the realization that were I one of the sheep I wouldn’t love any other shepherd with the kind of love I hold for this one. And not because of self-interest, or wishfulness, or of the fear that I might be the single one lost (which of course I might be), but because of the realization that any other kind of shepherd is a fake shepherd, and this my shepherd is the only real one.

    1. Your invocation of the parable of the lost sheep here resonates strongly with me. In a sense, "God" names the most lovable being. Were I to think that God does something less than everything God could possibly do to save each lost sheep, God would thereby in my sight appear less lovable than, as a matter of fact, I take God to be. If I have to choose between conceiving of God in one way and another--and if the former way inspires in me a more profoundly loving response, then my obligation to love God with all my heart and soul and mind requires, if you will, that I conceive of God in the former way.

      I think, in a real sense, the following is true for me: Were I not a universalist, I would be in violation of the first Commandment.

  5. I prefer the term used by William Barclay. Like him, I would describe myself as a convinced universalist. I'm convinced that universalism is true, just as I'm convinced that God is real. I'm absolutely certain of neither, but I trust them to be true. I'm convinced by a number of philosophical, theological and scriptural arguments, but what have been decisive for me is a simple feeling that the God I have come to know and love could never possibly settle for anything less. As my mother used to say, I believe because the alternative is impossible. Existentially impossible, anyway.

    David Lowes Watson captures this feeling perfectly: "Should there be, at the parousia of Jesus Christ, even one of God's family who, after repeated entreaties and boundless parental care and concern, stubbornly refuses to accept his birthright of salvation, and turns away from God for ever and ever; should there be even one such creature, then God's cry of anguish will rend the cosmos, and the heavenly feast will be eaten in a terrible, terrible silence."

    I'm a convinced universalist because I believe this to be true, and that the God of love and of all being could never, and would never have to, let it come to this.


  6. Eric, I'd like to bring to your attention, as well at the attention of your readers, a series of blog articles I have recently written on the remarkable 7th century universalist, St Isaac the Syrian. The first article begins here: The last two articles in the series specifically address the question of hell.

    Fr Aidan Kimel

  7. I love coming across fellow travellors like this. I can't help but wonder just what directions the ability to connect online opens up for the future of inclusive faith. I can only imagine how isolated people such as St. Isaac must have felt.

    Apologies for the tangent. It just seemed a thought worth sharing.

    I would also fall into the "confident universalist" camp I suppose. And like one of the other commenters, I guess I'm not very humble about it. I just have a great deal of difficulty understanding why it's so obvious to some, and completely opaque to others.

    I wrote four paragraphs on "What I Believe" on the Seems Like God blog. The comments I received were both heartwarming and perplexing.
    The bottom line is, how do we avoid apathy when we remove fear of damnation from the equation? What motivates us, not just to be "good", but to transform the world if there's no "reward" or "punishment" for succeeding or failing?