Interlude: Questions, Objections, Issues
Before we move along to more of the philosophical and theological issues involved in the concept of Hell, let’s look at objections, questions, and issues involved with the view of universalism. Remember, there are two flavors: soft universalism (all might be saved, or we can legitimately hope all will be saved) and hard universalism (all will be saved, or it is highly likely that all will be saved).
First, are these two versions even that much different? I didn’t really express my answer–“no”–clearly when I declared myself a hard universalist. There is very little of which we can say we know it to be true. I’m 99.9999999% + sure that I’m in my house typing this post; but I could be hallucinating, plugged in to the Matrix, a brain in a vat being fed false impulses, the only being in a solipsitic universe which is creating his own fancies, etc. Ultimately everything comes down to odds. The odds of the Matrix, etc. are low; the odds I’m really doing this are high.
Likewise, I don’t claim to know that God will save everyone, or most, or some, or anyone. By the same token, I don’t know whom He will damn. For that matter, I don’t know He even exists. I think He does; I think it’s highly likely He does; I certainly have faith that He does; but I don’t know this. Some individuals who’ve had mystic experiences claim to know God exists, and to know things about Him. Maybe they’re right; maybe not. Pending the reception of direct revelation, I have to say that what mystics say in unconfirmed, and that while I believe, I don’t know.
Thus the difference between soft and hard universalism is really more a matter of one’s assessment of the probabilities. The soft universalist is either A. agnostic, refusing to say what the probability of universal salvation actually is; or B. believes the probability is very low (even to the point that they may actually doubt it), but hopes otherwise (like the purchaser of a lottery ticket); or (and I think very many fall into this category) C. thinks the chances of universal salvation are actually high, but that it is morally suspect to say that explicitly.
I can respect A. Having been trained in the sciences, I think agnosticism is a good epistemological stance, in general. We know much less than we think. The corollary is that one must be equally agnostic as to damnation, the afterlife in general, and so on. Most people don’t carry it that far.
B. seems to me to be bordering on self-delusion. If I buy a lottery ticket, I might have brief fantasies of what I’ll do with the money if I win; but I don’t base my plans for tomorrow on such a slim chance. I see people who on every paycheck go out and buy thirty, forty, fifty dollars worth of tickets; and never win; and still keep buying them. If you think the chances of universal salvation is slim, then any hope otherwise is just to make yourself feel better. It’s like going to the store on a depressing day when everything has gone wrong and buying a lottery ticket so that for five minutes you’ll feel a little better deluding yourself that you might win, and then going back to a dreary day and hearing the winning numbers announced and seeing you have none of them. To each his own, but I don’t see much point in this.
C. is the optimistic position that given what we know of God, the likelihood is high–perhaps almost certain–that He will indeed ultimately save all. It still doesn’t claim to force God’s hand, or to know what He’ll do; it just thinks the odds for universal salvation are high. This is the belief that I realized I’d essentially held. I realized that I believed this but was afraid to say so. I think an awful lot of soft universalists are in this category–they’re really in effect hard universalists, but they think it’s wrong, for whatever reason, to believe so, or at least to say so. I just ceased to believe that believing or saying this was wrong.
So why might it be wrong to believe or say that all will probably be saved?
First, there are a lot of people who think even soft universalism is wrong, evil, corrupt, and a dangerous, if not damnable, belief. The articles here, here, and here at a Traditionalist Catholic site (which seems to be sedevacantist as well) argue forcefully that not only does God damn most of humanity, but that He wants it that way–He does not want all to be saved, not even unbaptized infants. According to this site, the idea of Limbo (a mitigation of the fate of the unbaptized) was a heresy. I think this makes out God to be demonic, but they’ve even thought of that (my emphasis):
It is a false and harmful charity that seeks to obscure ‘hard teachings’ and to hide the gratuitous nature of God’s love for his creatures and the nature of the loving response that he gratuitously puts into the hearts of his elect. Indeed, if God is eminently prudent, then the devil is thoroughly cheeky and his demons delight to incite people to despise the true God and to thus damn themselves, blaspheming him in their inordinate worldly concern for the reprobate and in their refusal to know him and to adore him as he is. They are wont to utter such dreadful blasphemies as that, Such a God would be unjust, cruel, the devil himself and eminently unlovable! Thus the devil constructs a blasphemous parody of the true religion to damn people in, sometimes called Pelagianism or Molinism. It is almost impossible to find an orthodox Christian these days, who really loves God. People who teach a false doctrine that compromises the doctrines about God, original sin and the punishments that he subjects people to, unite themselves with the demons, inciting blasphemy. Historically, the Jansenists represented honesty and the Jesuits represented doctrinal and moral compromise. The elect are few, the damned many.
So to argue that damning unbaptized infants to eternal hell or damning most of humanity is a horrible view of God is in fact itself a demonic delusion!
The interesting thing about this nasty, horrendous site is that it uses the exact same mode of arguing as those who, while not holding such extreme views, still argue against hard universalism. Actually, such people–as well as non-schismatic Traditionalists who hold the extra ecclesiam view–have the stronger argument. As I’ve pointed out before, large numbers of the earlier Church Fathers were, in fact, universalist; but as far as official documents goes, they are depressingly uniform in consigning all non-Catholics and most Catholics, too, to eternal perdition. In the case of some, it can at least be argued cogently that they were intended by their authors–Popes or councils–to be infallible.
That puts non-schismatic Traditionalists in a bind. The movement since Vatican II has certainly been away from the Traditional View of Hell (TVOH). The teachings of the Council on religious liberty have certainly made the urgency of converting all to the Faith seem somewhat less pressing–an odd thing if all non-Christians are a massa damnata. Hans Urs von Balthasar famously argued for at least the hope of universal salvation in his book Dare We Hope that “All Men Be Saved”?, for which he was never condemned (neither was the book). Pope John Paul II has been sympathetic to soft universalism, and even stated, in Crossing the Threshold of Hope that we can’t know that even Judas Iscariot might not have been saved. Given that the Pope has been beatified, this has obviously not been considered heretical, though many Traditionalists are very uncomfortable with it. The current Pope, though more theologically cautious than his predecessor, has nevertheless promulgated a document that while not rejecting the traditional teaching on Limbo per se, calls it into question, intimating that unbaptized infants not only go to Limbo instead of Hell, but may actually go to Heaven.
Finally, my personal (albeit anecdotal) observations, as one who has been a Catholic since the age of 26 (22 and a half years ago) and has been a member at various times of five different parishes under the auspices of over a dozen priests over the years, and who has a visitor at masses in many cities and states. Soft universalism seems to be the default teaching on the ground, with Hell being rarely preached (or tangentially so, at best) and a very optimistic theology being promoted. This even from some priests whom I knew to be quite conservative in most areas.
Really, schismatic Traditionalists once more have the better argument. If one takes seriously the teachings on salvation promulgated at the highest levels of the Church before Vatican II, many of which seem to have been intended to be infallible, and compares them with the teaching since the Council, it certainly does seem as if the “smoke of Satan” has indeed infected the Church and that the Second Vatican Council was a heretical work of the devil and all successive Popes have indeed been damnable heretics, false shepherds, instruments of spiritual disaster.
Of course, I don’t accept the general model of infallibility that is proposed (I don’t reject it altogether, either, but that’s for another day). I think the Church can change, and that it did so in a timely and necessary way at Vatican II. Many Traditionalists, though, find themselves having to endure severe cognitive dissonance in trying to square the circle of making pre- and post-Vatican II teaching in such areas align. Some do heroic mental gymnastics to do so. Many are very resentful of V II for having left such doctrinal loopholes (as they perceive them) open. Some can’t square that circle and leave to become schismatics or to give up religion altogether.
The point is that who wish to deny hard universalism while accepting the soft form are making the same arguments against hard universalists that those who deny even soft universalism would make against them. It would seem very difficult, within a totally Traditionalist and “orthodox” framework, to support any form of universalism. Thus, Traditionalist supporters of soft universalism seem to me to be in the very state of contradiction and cognitive dissonance as that in which we universalists are supposedly mired.
This post has gone on much longer than anticipated, so I’ll continue this in the next post.
Part of the series Legends of the Fall.
Posted on 04/11/2012, in Catholicism, Christianity, religion, theology and tagged afterlife, Catholicism, Christianity, damnation, heaven, Hell, philosophy, religion, salvation, theodicy, theology, universalism. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.