An Analysis of Universalism

Continuing from my last post, I want to bring out more explicitly the logic of my thinking that soft and hard universalism are not readily or easily distinguishable.

A soft universalist hopes for the salvation of all.  To hope for something seems to imply, of necessity, that the thing hoped for be possible, no matter how improbable.  To put it another way, one may hope for something that is likely, or that is improbable, or that is very improbable, or that is 99.999999% + improbable; but it is incoherent to hope for something that is impossible.

For example, I might roll the dice and hope for a seven or eleven, which is very moderately improbable (about 22%, or a little more than a one in five chance).  I might hope for a twelve (though in craps I’d lose with that!), which is more improbable–only a one out of thirty-six chance, or slightly less than 3%.  I might hope for 10 twelves in a row (0.00000000000000027%, or about 3 out of ten quadrillion), which is highly improbable.  I might even hope for 50,000 twelves in a row.  I’m not going to calculate that, but if you rolled the dice every second for the entire life of the universe you’d probably not have long enough for the odds to favor such a run.  It’s not impossible, though.

However, I can’t hope to roll a seventeen.  Given that the dice have faces that go up to six, two dice could never land in a configuration that adds to anything higher than twelve.  No number of rolls would make this possible, obviously.  Therefore, to hope to roll a seventeen is meaningless.

Thus, we can see that the statement “I hope for X” necessarily implies the statement “X is possible.”  To hope for something that is definitively impossible would be incoherent.  Thus, when writer at this site, in discussing the views of Origen and Karl Barth says the following, my emphasis:  “[Origen and Barth] hoped for a universal reconciliation, but thought it not possible or, at best, were agnostic about it,” he is stating, in the first case at least, an absurdity.  One cannot hope for something that is not possible.  One might be agnostic about the outcome, but this still implies possibility.  After all, I’m not in the least bit agnostic about whether 2 + 2 =5; I know for a fact that it does not.  To be agnostic about universal salvation is to imply it to be possible.

Thus, there are really only two truly different views on salvation.  One is limited salvation–some (perhaps most, but at very least one) are not saved; they are damned forever.  The other position is universalism–all are ultimately saved.  “Ultimately” may take a long “time”, and even the saved may differ in their closeness to God; but all are, nevertheless, saved.  There is no eternal damnation.  We do not know for a fact that either of these is true or false.  From a Catholic perspective, all we can ask is, has either of these views been either definitively condemned, or definitively asserted.

I have neither the time, resources, nor inclination to answer this question directly.  However, we can look at the matter indirectly.  If it is true that the Church has ever definitively pronounced that at least some will definitely go to Hell; in short that as a matter of fact, not all will be saved, then these things all logically follow:

1.  All forms of universalism, even soft universalism, are mistaken and heretical.

2.  It is not only heretical but logically impossible to hope “that all men be saved”, since it is not coherent to hope for the impossible.

3.  Since major theologians, at least one Pope (John Paul II), and implicitly some of the documents of the Second Vatican Council have either endorsed or at least put forth the possibility of soft universalism, to the extent (as discussed last time) that it has practically become the default view in the Church at large, it follows that the Church at large, including one or more popes,  has lapsed into heresy; which is what sedevacantist and other schismatic Catholics actually aver.

Since 3. would be intolerable for non-schismatic Traditionalists, it appears necessary at the very least to admit that soft universalism is at least non-heretical.

But now, consider.  If we define “hard universalism” as the doctrine that God must save all, and/or that we know this with 100% certainty, then it seems evident that such a belief is questionable, asserting far more than we know or can know.  By this strict definition, I’m not a hard universalist.  But what, then, is a soft universalist?  Does it mean you may merely hope all be saved, but are not allowed to entertain probabilities?  It’s hard to see how this could be–if I hope for X, then this implies some non-zero possibility of X; and this further implies that I might have some idea as to what that probability is.

Thus, while hoping that God will save all, I may have varying assessments of the likelihood of that happening.  It may be vanishingly small; moderately improbable; moderately probable; or it may be that the chances of such universal redemption are very high, 99.9999999% +.  If one grants that soft universalism is not in itself heretical, then it’s hard to see any theological reason that one may not say that the hope of universal salvation is not very well justified and highly probable.  On what basis, e.g., could one say that I can be a soft universalist, but only if I think universal salvation is less than 35% likely?  I trust that such a numbers game is absurd.

Thus, as long as one doesn’t say that universal salvation is true beyond all possible doubt (and few things are that certain), then there seems to be no restriction as to how likely one thinks it to be.  Given that, it seems perfectly acceptable not only to hope all will be saved, but to posit that they almost certainly will be saved.  This–that while not asserting so in an absolutely inerrant definitive way beyond all conceivable doubt,  but nevertheless with nearly 100% probability, one says that God almost certainly will save all–is how one might define “hard universalism” in a looser sense than the version I used above.  Given the non-heretical nature of soft universalism as such (and for reasons discussed above, I think this is a necessary concession for non-schismatics), it is very hard for me to see how this re-defined hard universalism is heretical or unacceptable.

Thus it seems to me that this proposition, which is for all practical purposes hard universalism, is not and cannot be heretical and is an acceptable position for a Catholic to hold.

Part of the series Legends of the Fall.

Posted on 04/11/2012, in Catholicism, Christianity, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

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