A Defense of Universalism

by Zachary Reimer

fabrizio-verrecchia-184076-unsplash

Statue of Saint John of Nepomuk holding Christ by Fabrizio Verrecchia

I am often asked why I defend the doctrine of universalism, the idea that all people will eventually be saved. As a philosophy student, I do not count myself as qualified to, engage with universalism as a strategy of biblical study or as the correct interpretation of the historic thought of certain theologians. Rather, this article will be successful in so far as I have provided you with reasons to believe that several problems in philosophy can be weakened – or even solved – by postulating universal salvation.

Between Biblicism and Sentimentalism

To begin, I will distinguish my approach from two other views termed the ‘sentimentalist’ view and the ‘biblicist’ view.1 For the sentimentalist, the idea of hell as a place of eternal conscious torment is disgusting and seen as oppressive, vindictive, or mean-spirited. On the other hand, the idea of everyone being saved seems good, inclusive, or caring. The problem with sentimentalism is that it takes good intuitions, skips the argumentation, and then concludes with universalism. I do not desire the damnation of anyone, but my engagement with universalist reasoning does not stop there. I embrace sentiments, but universalism, as with almost everything else, should be held for good reasons.

The other position I will call the biblicist view. Biblicism holds that the Christian scriptures define and delimit the conversation regarding heaven and hell, and that the primary question is whether the Bible seems to point to people ultimately being in hell. Although this view appears to answer the sentimentalist need for reasons, it has several problems. First, it presupposes a hermeneutic wherein the goal is to line up proof texts (by “proof texts”, I mean verses in scripture which appear to, or are used as, support for a doctrine), or larger passages, which appear to stand for and against the various doctrines available. Unfortunately, if our interpretive strategy already precludes certain doctrines, we know that proof texting is not adequate. God does not have a body, but we can find many verses to use as proof texts.

Jerry Walls, known for his philosophical and theological defence of the doctrine of hell, recognizes that, since the data of scripture do not provide sufficient evidence, we must look to other sources to engage with the doctrine, such as aesthetics, metaphysics, and ethics.2 Second, there is a difference between the content of the bible and the concepts that that content presents. We might say that people are punished for eternity, but unless we know what that means, it does little to say, “the bible says . . ..”

My area of interest, as a philosopher, is not whether (content) the bible says that there is a hell, that people will be there, that God blames people for their sins, or other facts, but rather what (concept) “hell,” “residence in hell,” “blame,” and “sin” mean. And, as with our interpretive range in the first problem, it does not matter if the bible speaks of God’s body or God blaming if neither God having a body nor blame language make sense. We use the same strategy either way. As a result, my approach is different.

Cumulative Explanatory Universalism

My strategy, which I will call ‘cumulative-explanatory universalism’ (hereafter CEU), arises from three bases: my rational intuitions regarding God and value, my understanding of the bible and the story God is telling through it (a theologically informed reading of scripture), and current philosophical problems. Therefore, I will consider it an effective picture, and rationally strong, to the extent that it is intuitive, consistent with scripture, and workable in weakening several problems in metaethics and the philosophy of religion. I do not take philosophy to be a worldview or some sort of competitor to Christianity. Rather, it is a set of tools and research areas involving knowledge, value, reality, logic, and the philosophical investigation of other disciplines (such as the philosophy of science, religion, or sport).3 So, this strategy will seek to use the tools of reason to explain and provide answers to philosophical problems by employing the resources of theology.

There are, so far as I can tell, three primary sources for the CEU approach: universalism seems to be the best approach to addressing the value of (or reason for) creation, the argument from divine hiddenness, and the problem of religious luck. These sources are not unique to me. They can be traced to my interaction with the history of Christian religious philosophy both in Eastern Orthodox (for instance, D. B. Hart4) and Analytic or Anglo-American branches (for instance, Robin Parry).

Creation: Is this World a Mediocre Choice?

The first source of universalism is the reason for, or value in, creating. This problem can be seen from Gottfried Leibniz5 and David Bentley Hart. Though approaching the topic from radically different backgrounds and standpoints, they agree that God has a reason to create. Now, let us suppose that reasons are values (we talk of ‘choosing for good reasons’ and ‘making good choices’), and the whole description of what God can make real – a ‘world’, let’s say – can be called either good, neutral, or bad. A good world has an overall balance of reasons in favour of actualizing it, whereas a neutral world has equal (in number or weight) reasons for and against, and a bad world has on balance more (or weightier) reasons not to create it.6

We do this naturally when in conversation with others. Imagine congratulating a friend for her great decision of comparing and choosing a place to study and then saying that she chose a mediocre school when she could have picked a higher quality institution. Your congratulations would either be ironic or a slip of the tongue. This line of thinking is true of God. If anything, God should be thought of as making good choices. By a mere utilitarian calculus – or, I would conjecture, on other views of value – one can see that, necessarily, God would only create a world that is on balance good; he would have no good reason to do otherwise.

This creates a problem for hell, since, if even one person is damned for eternity, this is an eternal accruing of disvalue. Someone is sustaining their sin, evil, or recalcitrance against God forever. As the theologian Sergius Bulgakov states, “Those who proclaim the infinity of torments [or hell] also necessarily affirm the eternity of evil and its coeternity with good, as well as the invincible fury of the hatred of sinners direct toward God.”7 Alternatively, consider whether that person does not sin in hell. Even if that is true, they are not living their purpose of rightly valuing God. As the poet Thomas Traherne states, “The end for which you were created, is that by prizing all that God hath done, you may enjoy yourself and Him in Blessedness.”8 As a result, there is still continuous disvalue in eternity. So, no matter how much value is accrued by, say, the salvation of ten billion people, in the end, the contingent, finite disvalue of a person in hell matches the value of every other person; God creates a value-neutral world.

If we admit this, then we are saying that God would freely create a world where he has just as much reason to create as he has reason not to create. For example, if I got to infinity by adding in billions (those saved), and I removed an infinity by increments of one (one single damned person), I have added and subtracted the same number. The problem is the equality of the two groups (saved and damned) in terms of the endlessness of their states. By hypothesis, both groups have an endless amount of time to gain or lose created value. If it was temporary on both sides, we could compare more saved versus fewer damned, but the number of saved and damned is irrelevant if the states are eternal. So, God as a creator is fundamentally arbitrary and unwise. Yet the problems do not stop here. If we were to allow that God could save everyone, then we have a new problem: God had it within his power to create a better world, and he specifically chose not to do so. Whereas there might not be a ‘perfect world’ – a world with the highest conceivable value – so God would not be less than God if he did not create one, God has literally no reason to create a value-neutral world. So, a no-best-possible-world reply would not suffice. God cannot create a world where there is eternal disvalue accrued.

There are several ways that one could reply to this style of argumentation. One could say that God is not ultimately a person who decides for better reasons than not. God does not act via his wisdom, or considering value, but by his desire or will. In response, I appeal to the idea of God as the perfect being. I fail to see that a non-rational God is better than one that is supremely rational. Second, one could argue that, like us, God makes decisions which are not good or bad. The choosing of one world over another is one of those choices. This is what I call a “popcorn preference.” For instance, if you said to me, “why did you choose that piece of popcorn over the one next to it?” I may appeal the ratio of butter to popcorn, ease of access, or salt content, but the most likely response is that there is no rational reason why I chose it above the others; it was a mere preference. If this is true of God’s choice of which world is actual, it is analogous in rationality and value to the choice of a piece of popcorn; the world is ultimately of little importance.

So, God’s rationality is supposedly saved by making the world meaningless. Third, one could argue that God had no other choice but to make a value-neutral world. In response, consider a world which lasts for five minutes including one good-hearted, laughing angel. There is no pain, and there is five minutes of finite value. It seems conceivable that God could have created that world instead. So, God had other options than a value-neutral world.

Control: Is Morality an Absurd Gamble?

The second source of universalism is the problem Linda Zagzebski titles ‘religious luck.’ She argues that luck, “when a person’s degree of moral responsibility for an act or personal trait goes beyond the degree to which she controls it”,9 pervades all our moral action, threatens to devastate all our moral theories, and is exacerbated by the addition of theism. In this section, I will present her contrastive portraits of moral and theological luck, discuss her concerns with potential solutions, and conclude with her solution: universalism.

There are three types of luck: circumstantial, constituent, and consequential luck.10 Luck regarding consequences is illustrated by whatever happens as a result of our action and is beyond our control. If I try to shoot someone and have a fit of asthmatic coughing, the difference between me being guilty for murder and not is beyond my control. This extends to luck regarding circumstances, for my consequence-laden actions are crafted by my circumstances. If I had not been in anger-inducing circumstances, I never would have wanted to kill. Someone identical with me, yet not facing those same experiences, would have been innocent. You may ask whether I should then be blamed for my character. The problem here is that the character traits I have are up to my circumstances, heredity, or upbringing and not my control.11 This leaves no theory or form of moral life free of luck: if the problem of luck succeeds, we must suspend ethics as a whole. So, we must find an escape.

Unfortunately, Christianity exacerbates moral luck. “The doctrines of grace and of an eternal heaven and hell” make the problem, in her words, “infinite.”12 For grace, it is necessary for salvation and for the moral worth of any and all of our actions, yet grace is not within our control.13 There is literally no end to the results of the luck of entering heaven or hell. Further, Christianity reveals that God is in control of how the good and bad luck is disbursed. Continuing the gambling analogy, religious luck is not merely me envying someone else’s winnings, it is that I could have been different, and so I recognize that I had no control over which version of myself God chose to create.14 So, instead of God being the source of morality, God makes ethics fundamentally incoherent.

Zagzebski offers five theological responses to the problem of religious luck with the inclusion that God knows what moral agents would do in any circumstance, resulting consequences, or set of constitutive elements.15 The “Total” view tries to eliminate luck by judging a person’s character based on all possible consequences, constitutive elements, and circumstances that one would have. The concern with this view is that this world, and what one does in it, has basically no bearing on, or meaning for, one’s moral worth.16 The “Minimal” view suggests that our responsibility only goes as far as we have control.17 So, we are not blamed for anything beyond our control – no luck is guilt-worthy. The problem with this view is that, even with God’s omniscience, there may not be a particular degree of blame held by a person. If even God cannot determine how much control we have, then this solution fails. The “Equal” view holds that God balances your reward or punishment in proportion to the challenges you have been given.18 The two problems Zagzebski presents are the following: first, the gambling analogy of ‘higher stakes’ only works if we get to choose the stakes, but the stakes are not up to us. Second, as in the previous solution, there may be indeterminate levels of blame or control. The “Powerful” solution tries to remove luck completely by giving more grace to those with greater challenges.19 While better than the previous views, this suggests that people who struggle in this life are the recipients of greater grace and are greater failures than we had thought.

Finally, the “Universal” view suggests that, since theological luck exacerbated the problem of moral luck by making the ‘stakes’ of the moral life infinite by introducing heaven and hell and made God the personal force behind luck of all types, universalism could remove both problems.20 If all are saved, luck is (primarily) a phenomenon of this life. Regarding rewards in heaven, we all get more than we deserve, but this is already central to Christianity – it is a religion of grace.21 This solution does not suffer from the concerns of the previous four views, and it transforms the problem of moral luck and God’s role in it to advantages of Christian theism.

We can take this solution one step further. Recall that one of the main concerns was why we are responsible for our moral worth in the actual world. Considering this, universalism requires what I call ‘retrospective responsibility.’22 By this, I mean that we can ‘take responsibility for’ something. Once I mature and am cognizant of the value of my life, I can endorse a certain moral profile.23 I can be held responsible for the things that I do, if God ensures that I can (a) see my actual life as an overall good, and (b) know that God will be shown to be good, just, and faithful throughout my life, regardless of which life he chooses for me. Our lives are pervaded by luck, and God rigs the game. Fortunately, God ensures that you can endorse your “character.” Given conditions (a) and (b), the only luck-free choice you would make is salvation. It would be absurd to damn yourself without reason, and a luck-free decision takes away your reasons to be damned. So, if any person does not endorse their character, they are not blameworthy for their actions, and so hell is a gamble, and the actual world is nearly morally meaningless. This removes hell as a plausible option. Alternatively, if every person endorses her character via retrospective responsibility, then one is blameworthy for one’s profile, the world is morally meaningful, and one is ultimately saved. This also removes hell as a plausible option. So, if we are willing to say that life is a good bet, and that we are responsible for our actions, we have agreed to universalism.

Hiddenness: Is God a Failed Concept?

The third source of universalism is a type of defense suggested by apologist William Lane Craig in response to the problem of divine hiddenness.24 John Schellenberg, presenting the classic articulation of the problem of divine hiddenness, argues that, given God’s existence, we should not expect anybody to fail to believe in God through no fault of their own.25 It seems that we do in fact find people of this sort, or we at least have very good reason to believe that there are these types of people. So, the lack of belief or presence of ‘non-resistant nonbelievers’ provides us a reason not to believe that a God that is “always open to a personal relationship” exists.26 Unfortunately, for the theist, this seems to be a necessary condition for a perfect being. As a result, we have a good reason to believe that God does not exist.

To counter this argument, one must reject one of the key premises that he presents. Sadly, for theists, the reasons he presents are generally easy to accept and difficult to defeat. Schellenberg’s view of perfect love and the existence of non-resistant nonbelievers is compelling, and to argue against those positions, I believe, would be counterproductive. My approach is to offer a counter-argument to the idea that it is necessary that a perfect God would always be open to his relationship-capable creatures. As with other necessary premises, if one can provide reason to believe that that premise is even possibly false, then the argument as a whole is undercut; it would not give you reason to reject belief in God. Considering that the key premise of his argument is a conditional, an “if, then” statement, then all I would need to show is that the first part (the antecedent) could occur without the second part (the consequent) obtaining. All the defender of theism requires is a story presenting the possibility of a perfectly loving God without openness to relationship. If one can show this is possible for one second in the life of one person in the history of the universe, the argument from divine hiddenness fails.

Here is my story.27 Recall that Schellenberg’s argument covers any relationship-capable creature. These include, as he recognizes, creatures which (a) eventually choose to be resistant non-believers and (b) have any type of free will you desire to employ.28 Now that this is clear, let us consider the implications of a Schellenberg-style good God. First, it is reasonable to believe that this type of God would not only not primarily value belief, he would have it as a subordinate value to a greater communication of his value. Imagine a parent who has a child. Would she prefer, given the choice, that the child believes the parent exists or that the child believes the parent exists and is in a thriving relationship with the parent? This seems true of a God, too. Second, this God would have knowledge of, as we mentioned in the previous sources of universalism, what his creatures would freely do.

From these points, imagine this: possibly, there are ‘counterfactually stubborn persons,’ persons that would freely reject God permanently, if they were to come into belief in God at a particular time. God could either not create them, or God could choose not to place them in situations which would enact their stubbornness. Given that God would want to create and save any persons he creates, for any counterfactually stubborn person, he will decide to not be open to relationship (he will even cut them off from belief) so that no person would in fact be in a state where she or he ultimately remove herself or himself from the possibility of a relationship with God. If we suppose universalism, God’s desire to create counterfactually stubborn persons, and counterfactual stubbornness (something Schellenberg would most likely accept, given his openness to various forms of free will), we have a counterexample to one of the central premises of the argument from divine hiddenness. In support of universalism, if some people both experience nonresistant nonbelief and ultimately reject God, then divine hiddenness has not been defeated, for then God would not be prioritizing salvation over belief. If universalism is true, then it may be that for any experience of hiddenness, it is God’s alternative to a person ultimately barring herself from a relationship with God.

Viable Universalism

So, is the world an incoherent choice, morality an absurd gamble, or God a failed concept? If your answer, given the above considerations, is “no,” then you and I share a philosophically-informed (hopeful) universalism. You may not believe, for reasons of scripture or counter-arguments, that all will be saved, but you have now found three reasons to believe that universalism makes sense of several philosophical concerns and is neither in the extreme of mere sentiment or stretched exegesis. You may have different reasons for embracing or rejecting universalism, but we are all united in the hope that all will be saved.

 

Zachary Reimer is currently completing his MA in Philosophy at Ryerson University and received his BA Honours in Philosophy from Tyndale University College and his BA in Social Science from Providence University College. His research interests include moral epistemology, free will and agency, and divine hiddenness. He loves to bake and takes it very seriously.

[1] Compare with the anti-sentimentalism of Sergei Nikolaevich Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), 483.

[2] Jerry Walls, “A Hell and Purgatory Response,” in Four Views on Hell, eds. Stanley Gundry and Preston M. Sprinkle, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 55.

[3] Timothy McGrew, “The Convergence Model,” in Four Views on Christianity, eds. Stanley Gundry, Richard Davis, and Paul Gould (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016).

[4] David Bentley Hart, “God, Creation, and Evil: The Moral Meaning of Creatio ex Nihilo,” in The Hidden and the Manifest: Essays in Theology and Metaphysics, Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 2017).

[5] Gottfried Leibniz, “Theodicy,” in Modern Philosophy, ed. Forrest E. Baird (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2011), 281-282. This section, as well as others, speak of value attributions to God’s creation and consideration of possibilities. Leibniz seems to think that the value of salvation is greater than eternal damnation, but, oddly enough, refers to evil as limited; he states, “evil has its bounds” (282).

[6] For a sample from the plethora of articles on this topic, see Klaas J. Kraay, “Creation, Actualization and God’s Choice among Possible Worlds” in Philosophy Compass 3 (4), 2008: 854-872.

[7] Bulgakov, The Bride, 486.

[8] Thomas Traherne Centuries of Meditations, ed. Bertram Dobell (Grand Rapids, Mich: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2000). .

[9] Linda Zagzebski, “Religious Luck,” Faith and Philosophy 11, no. 3 (1994): 397.

[10] Zagzebski, “Luck,” 398. The following is an exposition of her article.

[11] Ibid., 400.

[12] Ibid., 402.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 407.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 407-408.

[17] Ibid., 408.

[18] Ibid., 409.

[19] Ibid., 410.

[20] Ibid., 411.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Along with Stephen Davis in Ibid., 413, and Marylin McCord Adams, “The Problem of Hell: A Problem of Evil for Christians,” in William L. Rowe, God and the Problem of Evil (Malden, MS: Blackwell, 2007), 285-286.

[23] This idea is an expanded version of McCord Adams, “Heaven,” 386 and John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York, N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 2005), 22-28. This view is similar to what political philosopher Rawls calls the ‘original position.’ In his view, we can imagine what we would agree to if we remove sources of bias or power (race, class, gender, etc.) and consider what would arise from a few basic conditions of what a person and society should be; which society would we endorse?

[24] William Lane Craig, “William Lane Craig vs Daniel Came,” (debate presented in Dublin, Ireland, March, 2017). See characterization of the argument at 43:00.

[25] J. L. Schellenberg, Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason: With a New Preface (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006).

[26] J. L. Schellenberg, The Hiddenness Argument: Philosophy’s New Challenge to Belief in God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 53

[27] This is the embryonic form of what I seek to develop later as a potential theodicy of divine hiddenness.

[28] Ibid., 65.

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