Universalism: Summary (for now)

Update:  I have edited this post slightly to make the taxonomy of various forms of  universalism clearer.

OK, so let’s do a summary of the points I’ve developed over the last few posts (editing slightly where needed).


1. a) infinite punishment for finite sin is just or

1. b) God is a capricious tyrant.

Regarding people who hold the TVOH, and thus necessarily (if implicitly) one of the above,

2.  a) Many Christians actually see Hell not as a sorrowful thing, but a vital necessity and an active good.

2. b) As a corollary, they have an active desire to see malefactors damned.  In short, it’s not just a tragedy, but an active attitude of, “Yes, those m*^%$#@*&^%$#s are getting what they deserve!  Justice is served!  God is not mocked!”

2. c) As another corollary, such people seem to have a model of morality that is at best conventional, if not pre-conventional, a model which they project on everyone else; that is, they assume that people are driven so much towards selfishness and sin that only threats, the bigger the better–preferably the infinite and eternal threat of Hell–can keep them in line.

2. d)  As a final corollary, this implies that these people have rather disordered inner lives themselves.  In short, they are not saying, “Because of the love of God and the grace He gives me, I no longer have a desire for sin X,” or even the less exalted, “Though I am strongly tempted to X, I don’t want to be that kind of person,” but rather, “I wanna do X soooo bad, but if I do I’m gonna burn, so I’ll refrain.  As long as all the other yahoos who give in will burn.”

3. a) Soft universalism does not mitigate points 1. a) and 1. b) above.  The rarely stated implication is still that somehow eternal damnation, at least in principle, is just.  The only difference is that there is now a hope that God won’t implement it.  This has no logical bearing on the morality of God setting up such a policy in the first place.  Adding to my original phrasing of this point, it is sometimes said that “Hell exists, but it’s empty.”  Not only does this fail in the way we’ve already described, but it’s not even intelligible.  As most theologians and the late Pope John Paul II have said, Hell is not a place, but a state of being, an eternal alienation from God.  A possible state that is not implemented doesn’t even exist.  It’s like telling my child that there is a time out, but it’s not inhabited!

3. b) The belief that God damns no one but that any damned have brought damnation upon themselves by their sole fault also does not mitigate 1. a) and b) above, nor is it logically coherent.  God has created intelligent beings and established a universe and a milieu in which they can damn themselves; and thus ultimate responsibility still resides with Him.

3.  c) It seems that the main appeal of soft universalism is that

i) it does not deny traditional doctrine, thereby assuaging the fears of those who hold it of being thought by others or by themselves to be heretical

ii) it assuages believers’ discomfort with the concept of eternal damnation by positing that maybe God saves most or all

iii) it “lets God off the hook”–by positing that all people might be saved, and that if that doesn’t happen, then it’s purely and solely the fault of the damned themselves, and God is absolved of all responsibility in the matter.

Thus we can continue to think of Him as all-loving and all-benevolent while still allowing, at least in principle, the existence of Hell.

4.  a)  Hard Universalism (HU)–that God with 100% certainty will save all–can be rejected, since it assumes things we’re unable to know.

4. b)  So-called Soft Universalism (SU)–that God might save all–admits of various degrees of probability, to such an extent that it is not readily distinguishable from what I call Optimistic Universalism (OU), loosely construed; that is, the idea that all will in high likelihood be saved, though we can’t know this with certainty.

4. c) It is not evident that OU is

i. heretical

ii.  an invalid perspective for a Catholic to hold

iii.  morally problematic

iv.  intrinsically presumptuous

5. a)  The only effective way to argue against a universalist position (hard or soft) seems to be to argue a sort of internal, “fundamental option” on the part of the damned to reject meaning (since God is the source of meaning) and retreat, in a sense, into meaninglessness, into madness.

5. b)  Since our individual meanings are emanations or derivatives or subsets of the ultimate Meaning, this would mean that on some profound level, part of Meaning negates itself.

5. c)  This doesn’t seem obviously to be impossible or contradictory; but it doesn’t seem completely coherent, either, and at best it’s debatable.

5.  d) Ultimately it comes down to one’s intuitions about God; and following Balthasar and others, my intuition is that ultimately all meaning–us–is restored to Meaning–God.

5. e) Once more, given that universalism in general (except arguably HU) cannot be heretical, it seems to me that the views developed in point 5 here are not heretical, either, and are a real possibility.

Summing all this up:  Most attempts to defend the idea of hell and simultaneously the idea of God as merciful, loving, desiring the salvation of all, etc. fail to do so.  Whether they are more traditional and assume some or most will be damned, or more modern and “compassionate” and in the name of universalism argue that the damned damn themselves, they still fail to absolve God of the responsibility for this–that is, for being a near-demonic tyrant.

It seems that the only consistent solutions to this are either to say, with the Jansenists and their modern sympathizers, that God does not, in fact, want all to be saved; or to make a sort of fundamental option/quasi-existentialist argument that the damned, in a sense, are part of God (or His creation) that sort of “sloughs off” from its source.  The former argument (Jansenism) makes for a more monstrous god than any other we’ve looked at.  The latter doesn’t seem to be obviously falsifiable (or unfalsifiable, either); but it seems rather strange (how can fragments or images of the Divine permanently leave the Divine?) and does not seem to cohere with the notion of the God of Love who empties Himself totally, letting nothing stand in the way of total and ultimate identification and solidarity with Him and mankind.

Therefore, for now, I end by saying

1.  Optimistic Universalism, or OU, is not and cannot be heretical unless one wants to throw out the entire post -Vatican II Church.

2.  OU does not preclude a purgatorial state of possibly very long and painful duration, or imply that somehow the bad guys “get away with it”.

3.  OU is not intrinsically a sin of presumption (it might be twisted in that way, but this can happen to the most orthodox doctrine).

4.  OU seems to be the best way of preserving the Christian notion of a God of infinite love, mercy, and compassion.  All other views seem to make Him monstrous, vindictive, or at very best indifferent or perhaps impotent.

5.  Therefore, I have no problem in openly saying that I am an advocate of hard universalism (understood as I’ve defined it).  Quod erat demonstrandum.

This has been a long excursus, but I think it’s necessary and that it’s been coming for a long time.  Given the impetus for it, I think I’ve managed to discuss more ramifications and aspects of universalism than I’d originally planned; and I think it is good groundwork to have laid as we move back to a more direct consideration of the Fall.

Part of the series Legends of the Fall.

Posted on 06/11/2012, in Catholicism, Christianity, philosophy, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. A Friendly Adventurer

    This is a great post, and very carefully reasoned out. I have logically come to similar conclusions and it changed the entire way I approached religion and the bible. Consequently, the lingering anxiety in the back of my mind concerning religion… dissolved…

  1. Pingback: Universalism (What the Hell?!): Index « The Chequer-board of Nights and Days

  2. Pingback: Legends of the Fall: Index « The Chequer-board of Nights and Days

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