Arguments Against Universalism: Missing the Point


This entire series, obviously, is an extended argument in favor of universalism.  In order to argue for something, though, one has to understand the arguments against it.  Over the years I’ve had many conversations about universalism on blogs and elsewhere.  In doing so, I’ve encountered some contra arguments that I take seriously.  However, I’ve encountered many more arguments that are weak or problematic; moreover, it tends to be the same hoary arguments repeated again and again.  Thus, I’m taking a break from actively analyzing universalism and building a case for it, and instead looking at some of the common arguments I see being made against it.  In short, instead of an FAQ (frequently asked questions), I’m putting up a list of FMA (frequently made arguments).  That way, I’ll have a place to refer back to as a time-saving device in the future.

There are three categories of anti-universalism arguments I want to look at.  The latter two, which I’ll deal with in later posts, are more serious in that they actually address the relevant issues.  Here, though, I want to look at arguments–or I should say “so-called arguments”–that actually fail to address the actual issue of universalism, instead resorting to logical fallacies or irrelevancy.  There are five specific arguments that I’ve often heard that fall into this category in one way or another.  The first two are examples of ad hominem arguments, more specifically the genetic fallacy.  I’ll number these arguments as I go, dealing with each after describing it.

1.  “Why does Hell upset you so much?  Why are you so emotional?  You’re just a softy who can’t bear the thought of even the most hardened sinners suffering in Hell!”

I reject the characterization of the universalist position as sentimentalism, though even C. S. Lewis, whose arguments against universalism I mostly respect, while disagreeing with them, does this at times.  However, even if we posit that universalists are bleeding-heart sentimentalists, this does not dismiss their argument.  The aforementioned genetic fallacy argues that X is wrong because of the morals, motivations, or other supposedly unsavory things about those who promote X.  A simple example would be to say, “Hitler was a vegetarian; therefore vegetarianism is bad!”  Of course, Hitler’s unpleasantness is totally irrelevant to vegetarianism as such.  The best ideas have been held, at times, by total reprobates; and the worst ideas have been promoted by seemingly “nice” people.  An argument falls or stands on its merits, not on the disposition of its promoters.  Heck, I could shoot back that anti-universalists are cold-hearted and cruel; that wouldn’t be a valid argument, either.

2.  “You just don’t want to believe in Hell because you’re afraid of going there!”

Well, not necessarily–most universalists don’t look at it this way.  However, what if they did?  What if, as some atheists have accused, anti-universalists just believe in Hell because they’re not really about love and hope, but just want people they don’t like to get it good in the afterlife?  Once more, we’re calling names, not making an actual argument.

Moving from explicit ad hominems, we look at the following:

3.  “Who are you to question God?”  He is perfect and all-loving; so if He instituted Hell, it is of course just, and arguments against it are immoral!”

This is the most easily dismissed argument, though one of the most commonly made.  Unfortunately, it is, strictly speaking, unfalsifiable.  If one defines God as all-good and perfect, and if one takes this to mean that everything He does or commands is ipso facto good and perfect, then things such as “the plagues and destruction God sent against His own people (Numbers 11:33, Numbers 16:1-35, and Numbers 25:1-4), the (lauded) behavior of Phineas (Numbers 25:5-9) which causes God to stop the last-mentioned plague, the mandates to kill all the men, women, and children in various cities in Canaan when the Jews return from Egypt (Joshua 6:20-27, 8:24-26, and 11:10-15, among others)–and…2 Samuel 24 and 2 Kings 2:23-25,” among others, are just fine and dandy.  One cannot make an argument against this to one sufficiently committed to the idea that whatever God does, even if He sent everyone to Hell, is automatically good.

My response is the same as that of Socrates in the Euthyphro.  I won’t rehash it here, but I will quote C. S. Lewis and G. W. Leibniz again, as I did in the linked post:

“[I]f good is to be defined as what God commands, then the goodness of God Himself is emptied of meaning and the commands of an omnipotent fiend would have the same claim on us as those of the ‘righteous Lord.’” Or again Leibniz: “this opinion would hardly distinguish God from the devil.” That is, since divine command theory trivializes God’s goodness, it is incapable of explaining the difference between God and an all-powerful demon.

In short, if God is said to be all-good and all-loving, and if “good” and “loving” are to be meaningful at all, they must have some analogy to what we mean by the terms.  If it is claimed that God has done or commanded something that we’d consider evil coming from anyone else, then there’s something wrong with the claims we’re making about God in the first place.  Once more, to those committed to the perverse doctrine of “might makes right”, and that thus God’s infinite might makes anything He does right, this will not convince.  I trust, though, that to those not so committed, the noxious nature of this viewpoint will be clear.

4.  “Sure, Hell is nasty; but you have to realize just how bad sin and evil really are!”

Since I take sin and evil very, very seriously, I used to pause in respect a bit at this argument.  In recent months, though, I’ve seen it used an awful lot in discussions about universalism.  Moreover, it’s often used, as I’ve come to see, as a way of shutting down argument.  Noting this and giving it careful thought, I’ve concluded that this argument is less worthy of respect than I’d thought, as well as being irrelevant to the point.

First, there is a hidden ad hominem in it.  Implicitly, this is saying, “Don’t you realize how bad sin and evil are?  Or are you naive?  Say–maybe you don’t think sin’s that big a deal!  Maybe you’re blowing it off!”  In short, the universalist is subtly painted as naive at the best, stupid or outright evil at the worst.  Once more, name-calling is not an argument.  It’s worth noting, by the way, that this is the same type of argument used against those who oppose capital punishment and harsh sentencing.  “Are you soft on crime?”  That argument is no better than the one about Hell, and it is aimed at the same effect:  to close down discussion on the issue by browbeating the opponent and impugning his good faith.

Beyond the implicit ad hominem, though, this argument doesn’t logically work in that it is circular–it assumes what it sets out to prove.  “Hell is bad, but look how horrible sin is,” and its parallel argument “Execution is bad, but this guy was a murderer,” both assume that Hell–or capital punishment–is, in fact, a just and commensurate punishment.  All right, we agree on the evil of Hitler–but is it, in fact, worthy of eternal punishment?  We agree that this murder was heinous–but is execution the truly just dessert?  Maybe the answer is “yes” and maybe the answer is “no”.  The thing is, we have to show why it is or isn’t just.  This argument is like the arguments of “tough on crime” advocates.  Anything that falls short of the most draconian measures–measures which are assumed without examination or justification to be appropriate–is being “soft” on crime.

Thus, the “look how bad sin is” argument fails.  In part it is an ad hominem/genetic fallacy; and to the extent that it is not, it assumes the validity of Hell as punishment for sins without actually making the case for this.  I think this argument can be rejected as missing the point on these grounds.

5.  “Without a belief in Hell, people will do anything they want!  And they’d be right!  If I know I’m going to be saved no matter what, why should I bother to be good?  Why not live it up now and then enjoy Heaven in the afterlife?”

This is probably the commonest response I see in discussions of universalism.  Now I will be completely fair and point out that there is a certain amount of evidence that belief in “supernatural punishment”–Hell–does result in lower crime rates.  It’s worth noting that crime does not disappear in such societies, however.  It’s also worth noting that societies with robust belief in Hell have also historically practiced things such as jihads, pogroms, torturing or massacring of heretics, and so on, that were held to be morally good.  It would be interesting to factor such things as this into the analysis of the effects of belief in Hell on societies.  It’s also important to note that these findings have been questioned.  Nevertheless, even if we assumed, for the sake of argument, that belief in Hell is completely benign in its effect on societies, it’s useful to point out the words of C. S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters (courtesy of here) in this regard:

For the Enemy [God–Lewis is here writing in the persona of a demon] will not be used as a convenience. Men or nations who think they can revive the Faith in order to make a good society might just as well think they can use the stairs of Heaven as a short cut to the nearest chemist’s shop. Fortunately it is quite easy to coax humans round this little corner. Only today I have found a passage in a Christian writer where he recommends his own version of Christianity on the ground that “only such a faith can outlast the death of old cultures and the birth of new civilisations”. You see the little rift? “Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.” That’s the game….

In short, this viewpoint is using religion instrumentally, not because of its inherent truth or falsity.  In effect, such a perspective ends up agreeing with the old accusation of atheists that religion is just a device to keep people in line.  Religious believers should think long and hard before adopting such a perspective, which only undercuts the credibility of religion in the long term.  After all, if some other religion than one’s own, or a non-religious method of some sort, can be found that make society even better, that implies that the religion being argued for should be ditched–not a conclusion the believer is likely to desire.

More fundamentally, the “without Hell people will misbehave” argument fails simple logic.  That something is useful does not imply that it’s true.  If it could be demonstrated that those who believe in elves, unicorns, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster lead happier lives, it would still not demonstrate the existence of those beings.  There is also a fail in terms of morality.  The episode “Justice” of Star Trek:  The Next Generation portrays a planet in which there is perfect order, peace, and harmony–because the punishment for the slightest infraction is death!  Such a system would certainly be effective, and equally certainly be completely immoral.  Likewise, the effectiveness of belief in Hell in positively influencing people’s behavior says nothing about the morality of a system or a God that damns people eternally.  Once more, the issue at hand has been side-stepped.

It’s worth pointing out one final thing that I hear in discussions of universalism.  It’s not exactly an argument or a fallacy, so I haven’t numbered it; but I have heard, “Why do you care if I believe in Hell?  You disagree with it, so my belief won’t affect you, anyway.  You may think my belief is cruel, but you don’t share it, so why does it matter to you?”

Well, first, I think the traditional view is wrong, so it matters to me if someone is advocating a position I think is wrong.  Second, crime rates aside, I think belief in Hell has corrosive effects on people’s psyches (note this and this, for example).  Most importantly, I think the whole Hell narrative posits certain things about God that seem to me to be totally untenable.  I imagine a believer in Hell would fight against universalism because he’d think it to be wrong, because he’d think such a belief bad for religion, and because he’d see it as an affront to God.  I see opposition to the traditional concept of Hell in the same light.

In the next two posts in this series I’ll look at arguments for Hell that at least address the issue.  I’m dividing them into the more traditional arguments that God directly punishes sinners, who deserve what they get, and more modern arguments that take a more psychological approach and locate Hell in the viewpoint of the damned themselves.  I think these categories are problematic as well; but we’ll look at them in the following posts.

Posted on 06/11/2014, in Christianity, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

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