Friday, September 13, 2013

Universalism and the Argument from God's Love for the Blessed: Considering an Objection

In God’s Final Victory, John Kronen and I put forward a number of initial “prima facie” arguments for universalism as a starting point for our subsequent case that universalism has more going for it than hellism (given Christian starting points). One of those arguments, which we call “An Argument from God’s Love for the Blessed,” runs as follows:

1. Anyone in a state of eternal blessedness possesses both perfect bliss and universal love for all persons.

2. Anyone who possesses universal love for all persons and who is aware that some persons are eternally damned cannot possess perfect bliss.

3. Therefore, anyone who is aware that some persons are eternally damned cannot possess eternal blessedness (1, 2).

4. If anyone is eternally damned, anyone who possesses eternal blessedness would be aware of this.

5. Thus, if anyone is eternally damned, then none possess eternal blessedness (3, 4).

6. God, out of benevolent love for His creatures, confers blessedness at least on those who earnestly repent and seek communion with Him.

7. Therefore, God does not eternally damn anyone (5, 6).

Versions of this argument have been advanced by both Friedrich Schleiermacher and, more recently, Thomas Talbott. Thanks to the blogging efforts of Fr. Aidan Kimel, this argument has received some recent attention in the broader blogosphere.

One blogger, Brandon, raises an objection to it in a recent post on his own blog. I started to respond in a comment, but the comment quickly got so long that I decided it was better to post my reply here.

Brandon’s objection rests on the following key premise (which I will henceforth, with great creativity, refer to as Brandon’s Key Premise):

“The particular complete joy that is intrinsic to heaven itself (which is all that can be meant by perfect bliss in (1)) consists of possession of God as universal and consummate good by love and understanding, or to look at it in the opposite direction, being energized by God as universal good in both understanding and will.”

Based on this premise, Brandon argues that the sufferings of the damned cannot take the perfect bliss of the damned away. Since the bliss flows immediately and essentially from union with God, being in such union is sufficient to guarantee such bliss no matter what else might be going on. As Brandon says, “since by nature it flows directly from God in that union, it is not in the power of the blessed not to have it, regardless of anything else that may happen to them.”

The substance of John Kronen’s and my reply to this line of objection is already articulated in God’s Final Victory (see pp. 81-89). But sometimes it can help to connect the dots in connection with a particular objection. That’s what I mean to do here.

In a nutshell, Brandon’s Key Premise begs the question and relies on a parenthetical claim which is false.

Let me begin with the parenthetical claim. By “perfect bliss” John and I mean unalloyed joy that is fitting to one’s circumstances—in other words, joy that is (a) faultless, in the sense that it is appropriate to feel that level of joy given the state one finds oneself in, and (b) maximal, in the sense that it is the greatest joy of which beings of our nature are capable. Hence, what Brandon takes to be “all that can be meant” is decidedly NOT all that can be meant by “perfect bliss”—and is, in fact, not what we mean.

Now the question is whether the distinctive kind of blessedness of heaven—what the blessed have necessarily by virtue of being in the state of blessedness—includes perfect bliss in the indicated sense. Brandon’s way of putting matters does not allow for this question, which is why I say it begs the question.

Let me approach this another way. While I think Brandon’s Key Premise is problematic, there's a near cousin to it which I think is correct—namely, the premise that results if you swap out “the particular complete joy that is intrinsic to heaven itself” with “ the particular blessedness that is intrinsic to heaven itself,” resulting in the following:

“The particular blessedness that is intrinsic to heaven itself consists of possession of God as universal and consummate good by love and understanding, or to look at it in the opposite direction, being energized by God as universal good in both understanding and will.”

This is, if you will, the non-question-begging variant of Brandon's Key Premise. And the question that isn't begged is whether the blessing of union with God includes perfect bliss. In effect, what John and I (and Schleiermacher and Talbott) argue is that the blessing of union with God includes certain things necessarily—such as moral sanctification and an unfiltered encounter with the divine–but that it cannot contain perfect bliss necessarily unless, necessarily, all are saved.

The reason is because emotional states are about something. A state of perfect joy has a cognitive dimension to it: there is a judgment to the effect that one is in circumstances that warrant perfect joy. One could experience perfect joy that was, in fact, unwarranted only if one were either (i) ignorant of relevant facts about one’s condition, or (ii) morally imperfect (and so had a distorted value system which led one to treat imperfect conditions and perfectly wonderful). But the nature of blessedness—what is essential to union with God—precludes both (i) and (ii) with respect to perfect joy in the face of the eternal damnation of some of God’s beloved children.

Let’s step back and work through the thinking here in a more systematic and complete way. The blessing of salvation, as Brandon notes, involves being “energized by God as universal good in both understanding and will”—which includes moral sanctification. In other words, it includes loving as God loves. (Anyone who was “drugged” into a stupor of self-focused delight by the experience of being united to God, to the exclusion of caring about the fate of others, would not be in a state of blessedness because they would not be perfected in love). The blessing of salvation also involves not being blocked from knowing about what can only be of profound significance to God (since one cannot be united to God through one’s understanding if things that are of utmost significance to God are hidden from one).

The fate of the damned would be of utmost significance to God. That His plan of salvation and desire for the salvation of all were ultimately thwarted—that some of His beloved creatures were mired eternally in the worst conceivable state that a being can endure—could not be anything BUT of utmost significance to God. Thus, anyone who has the distinctive blessedness of heaven would be conscious of the fate of the damned. Anyone perfected in love would be grieved by the fate of the damned. Thus, anyone who has the distinctive blessedness of heaven would, if they knew of it, be grieved by the fate of the damned. Thus, both God and the blessed would be grieved by the fate of the damned.

To be grieved by some aspect of reality is to be in a state that falls short of perfect joy. Put another way, you are not perfectly happy if there are aspects of reality that you can only regard as a profound tragedy to be grieved, and which you actively do grieve—a profound tragedy which never comes to an end, and which you therefore never stop grieving.

Hence, the particular blessedness that is intrinsic to heaven itself—possession of God as universal and consummate good by love and understanding—will result in something substantially less than perfect bliss if reality includes elements that warrant grief as the fitting response (that is, the response exhibited by anyone who is morally sanctified).

To the extent, then, that the traditional doctrine of heaven has included perfect bliss within its conception, heaven will be experienced by anyone only if no one experiences hell.

Now one could (as we note in our book), bite the bullet here and conclude that the blessed in heaven don’t enjoy a state as wonderful as what the tradition has held them to enjoy. But one should reach that conclusion only if one is forced to it by the overwhelming weight of the arguments.

That’s why, in our book, John and I introduce this as an initial “prima facie” argument for universalism—one of four such arguments that we put forward initially as offering a presumptive case that the hellist must overcome by weightier arguments. So: are there weightier arguments for the conclusion that God’s salvific aims are finally and ultimately defeated in the souls of the damned? We think not, and make the case for that at length in God’s Final Victory.


  1. Your argument is completely on point, Professor Reitan.

    I think it is even more compelling, on a personal level, than many of the other arguments against eternal damnation.

    The notion that we could be even marginally happy in heaven (forget entirely about eternal bliss--just minimally happy) with the knowledge that other sentient beings--particularly people that we have known and loved--were being tormented in eternal hell seems completely absurd: our whole existence in heaven would be haunted by the tragic, horrifying knowledge that others were existing in absolute and utter agony in hell.

    As soon as we move from abstract talk about hell and ask ourselves, "Could I ever really be happy in heaven if my spouse/child/parent/sibling/friend were in hell?", we are driven inexorably to the conclusion that the very existence of an eternal hell is incompatible with a happy hereafter in heaven.

  2. Dr Reitan, thank you for responding to Brandon's argument. It does help to have someone to connect the dots. I had not distinguished in my mind between blessedness and blissfulness.

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  4. As a Universalist I have often found the argument from the blessedness of the Saints very compelling, but I have lately wondered if the argument is not overly emotional. We feel, I certainly do, that the damnation of some would be incompatible with the perfect blessedness of anyone perfected in love, since love entails empathy and compassion. But what if it had become metaphysically impossible for God to do anything for the damned (I do not believe that this can ever be the case, but for the sake of argument let's say it can) then it would serve no purpose to be disturbed by their fate. Would it be impossible for God to count His losses and move on? This sounds utterly horrid, I know, but is it horrid in a moral sense?

    There is a sense in which I believe that God possesses a form of perfect blessedness even now, alongside His perfect empathy and compassion. God cares about His creatures and has an intimate knowledge of their suffering, but I don't think He is disturbed by it, at least not in the sense we are. He doesn't need to be in order to do His absolute best for his creation. I wouldn't exclude sadness from God, but I don't think it makes sense to attribute such states as despair, or depression to God, or think of Him as distraught or mired in grief. I don't think suffering or evil has any power over Him or His emotional states. There is a sense in which the form of empathy we possess, the kind that really disturbs our happiness and peace of mind when we become aware of the suffering of others, is necessary because of our selfishness. A perfectly good and selfless person would do his best to ease the sufferings of others even if it hadn't the slightest effect on his own happiness. We need to be disturbed in order to be properly motivated to help. But if we became perfected in love and if we knew we could no longer do anything for the damned, then our circumstances and our emotions would change dramatically. Is it possible that we could feel a perfect empathy for the damned and wish that they would have been saved, and simultaneously exist in a perfect undisturbed bliss?

    All that being said, I do think that the blessedness of God is dynamic rather than static; that it encompasses and includes in itself the beauty of creation and the joys and returned love of His creatures. This would make His blessedness much more complete if all were saved. So, if you want God and the blessed to possess a blessedness that is properly perfect, then Universalism is the way to go :)

    Best regards,
    Øystein Evensen