Theology and philosophy is always building a mystery, in a sense. Even then, one always has to lay the appropriate foundations for what one is discussing. This is especially true for me in my continual (and mostly losing) battle against prolixity. I am working on a post in my series on universalism–one which is a slight tangent from the musings on free will that I’ve had over there of late. However, as I’ve been writing it in my head, I’ve realized that without having put down a single word of it, it’s already expanded beyond my original plans. Thus, I’m posting this essay as a way of laying some groundwork that will (hopefully) streamline the upcoming post. Given that I’ve managed to write nearly 3000 words on Mystery Science Theater 3000, I don’t know how successful I’ll be on shortening a serious topic; but I guess we’ll see.
As a preface or prolegomena to the upcoming post on some views of hell that I find problematic, I want to lay out my own perspective.
1. I am making my arguments in favor of universalism from the perspective of the Abrahamic religions.
Comment: I’m Catholic, so I belong to an Abrahamic faith. I take insights freely from other religions, but as a member of an Abrahamic faith myself, if I’m going to argue for universalism, I have to do it within that context, specifically from the Christian, and even more specifically, from the Catholic, perspective.
2. There are two basic ways of arguing for universalism: from Scripture or from philosophy.
Comment: Arguing from Scripture means arguing that Scripture says God does such-and-such (with the ancillary arguments as to how and by whom Scripture is to be interpreted). Arguing from philosophy means arguing from general principles and definitions, which may or may not be rooted in Scripture, that God does such-and-such.
3. Universalism cannot be clearly defended–or rejected–based only on Scriptural criteria.
Comment: The Old Testament doesn’t even clearly teach an afterlife at all. There are passages in the New Testament that seem to indicate the existence of Hell, and that Hell has a (possibly vast) population. There are other passages that imply universal salvation. There are even passages that have been taken to indicate that the damned are not tortured infinitely, but annihilated altogether. All attempts to defend either Hell or universalism based on Scripture have unspoken assumptions that are extra-Biblical.
4. Given this, the best criteria for examining universalism are philosophy and the more philosophically based areas of theology.
Comment: The Catholic Church has based its theology much more heavily on academic philosophy than have the Eastern Churches; but all agree that tools beyond Scripture itself are needed in cases such as this. Sola scriptura, that is, is completely out.
4. Neither the Catholic nor the Orthodox Church (nor the other Apostolic Churches, that is, the Coptic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East) have ever, by unambiguous and universally accepted criteria, ever definitively and infallibly taught that anyone (let alone most people) is in Hell. This has certainly been the general understanding; but it has never been infallibly and definitively taught.
Comment: Many popes have indeed made statements to this effect; however these statements conflict with statements of the Second Vatican Council. Moreover, none of these statements have been unambiguously been declared to be infallible. The popes who made these statements probably thought they were infallible and intended them as such; but Magisterium has not defined them as such and has taught to the contrary on many points.
5. Universalism, at least in the form of the hope that all might be (or likely are) saved, is not heretical.
Comment: Origen and “Origenism” were indeed condemned by the Synod of Constantinople and by the Fifth Ecumenical Council. However, what precisely Origen believed is a maddeningly complex question. The form of apocatastasis which Origen may (or may not) have taught seems to have involved a cyclical view of the cosmos in which all beings ultimately return to their original state. Universalism doesn’t necessarily imply that. As to “Origenism”, exactly what this covers and exactly what the Origenists (who came much later than Origen and who seem to have extended his system far beyond what he actually taught) believed is also unclear. In any case, many theologians of the last fifty years or so, most notably Hans Urs von Balthasar, have taught a form of “hopeful” universalism without being condemned. I think it safe to draw from all this that while some forms of universalism have been declared out of bounds, universalism itself has not.
6. What I call “optimistic universalism”–the opinion (not the complete certitude) that most or all will be saved is also not heretical.
Comment: If any form of universalism is allowable, it pretty much necessarily follows that optimistic universalism can’t be rejected out of hand.
7. Thus, I think it is still an open question as to whether universalism is compatible with Christianity. My opinion is that it is; others think not; but none of the Apostolic Churches have ever definitively rejected universalism.
Comment: I think, therefore, that it is valid and permissible for a Christian to hold universalist beliefs as long as he does not assert that this is one hundred percent certain, or that God must save all.
In light of this, I’m going to go in a slightly different direction on the next post in this series. Rather than arguing for it (which is the purpose of this entire series), I want to look more at personal motivations. That is, why do non-universalists–those who believe that at least some, and perhaps many or even most go to Hell–hold the views they do, and what do these motivations say about the issue in general?
The writer is a spiritual anarchist, as in the depth of his soul every man is. He is discontented with everything and everybody. The writer is everybody’s best friend and only true enemy — the good and great enemy. He neither walks with the multitude nor cheers with them. The writer who is a writer is a rebel who never stops.
–William Saroyan, The William Saroyan Reader (1958); courtesy of Wikiquote.