Arguments Against Universalism: Your Own Damn Fault, Part 1–Rules are Rules
Back here I discussed arguments against universalism that I considered to be invalid, since they missed the point by devolving into ad hominems or other logical fallacies. At the end of that post, I touched on the two types of anti-universalist arguments that I thought actually addressed the issue:
I’m dividing [anti-universalist arguments] 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 dealt with the first of these here, here, and here, concluding that a truly loving and just God would not logically cast people into eternal hell as a retributive punishment. Even many people who want to defend the idea of a populated Hell agree as far as that, especially since the last century. Thus, I want to look at the second set of arguments–that the damned in some sense damn themselves.
The “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” model of a wrathful God who retributively flings sinners into Hell with abandon gradually fell out of favor from the Enlightenment onward. The Deist philosophes of the 18th Century tended to look at all such interventions by God as unlikely. Deists and the increasingly vocal agnostics and atheists of the day tended to join together in viewing Hell as a sadistic fantasy of humanity and not a metaphysical reality.
Christians were slower to come around, though the Universalist Church unabashedly taught the salvation of all. The Unitarian Church moved in a universalist direction, too, ultimately merging with the Universalist Church to form the Unitarian-Universalist (UU) Church of today. Even many prominent Christians, such as popular fantasy writer George MacDonald, were universalist or universalist-leaning.
More traditional Christians still maintained, on doctrinal and Scriptural bases, that Hell was real, and that at least some people have gone and will go there. Up against compelling arguments against such retributive punishment, and in an atmosphere of greater skepticism about Hell in general, many traditional Christians gradually softened their defense of Divine retribution, and came to argue for Hell on a different basis than before. They acknowledged the problems with the retributive model of Hell-as-Divine-Punishment. They agreed that this did not reflect well on God. Many went so far as to boldly assert that God damns no one, even that He wants all to be saved. Then how is it that anyone is in Hell? Because, came the answer, the damned put themselves there.
There is a cruder and more external form of this argument, and a subtler, more psychological form. We’ll look at the first here–what I characterize as the “Rules are rules” version. Essentially, this asserts the following:
- God makes a set of rules that are necessary for salvation.
- Everyone is aware of these rules or can become aware of them through his/her own effort.
- God, being fair, refuses to “stack the deck”. Though He wants all to be saved, He wants this to happen fair and square, by each person doing what must be done for his/her own salvation.
- Everyone’s salvation is thus his/her own responsibility.
- Therefore, if anyone fails to meet the criteria for salvation, it is that person’s own fault, not God’s, that they are damned.
If one accepts 1-3, 4 and 5 logically follow. However, these first three propositions are all problematic.
1 is problematic in that it implies that salvation is not about holiness or even morality, but strict adherence to a set of rules. As much as Christians have seemed to teach this for centuries, it is not actually a part of Christian doctrine. To egregioiusly summarize complex theology, while good works–“following the rules”–might be a manifestation of one’s nearness to God, they are not criteria by which one is saved.
Even if one accepts 1, 2 is manifestly untrue (unless one wants to make the argument that some do, that a person who really, reeeeeeally exerts his reason enough would eventually come to the understanding of the Law Written on the Heart). Some traditionalists do make allowance for this with concepts like Baptism of Desire and invincible ignorance (in short, a person, such as an Indian in 1491, with no chance of knowing about the Christian God, is not judged on that, but on his behavior and the state of his soul). Even for believers, though, this seems problematic. There are thousands of churches and denominations, each claiming that it has God’s Will for Humanity correct. What is one to do?
3 asserts that God stands by impartially and lets things work their way through. This is usually defended on the grounds that God respects our free will–a concept I took issue with back here. In any case, it seems to be oddly dispassionate behavior for a God who supposedly desires the salvation of all.
Even if we argue that 1-3 are not prima facie invalid, we still have an odd scenario here. As I said back here:
[God] knows, for example, that in Universe X, containing Joe Schmoe, Joe, as a result of his temperament, the choices that are presented to him in Universe X, and so on, will freely make choices resulting in his eternal damnation. In fact, God knows this with absolute certainty.
Now God makes Joe, his temperament, etc. and also sets the ground rules of Universe X. Thus it seems reasonable to say that God is in a real sense responsible for Joe ending up in Hell. To argue, “Well, it was Joe’s choices that damned himself” seems fatuous. It’s as if I bred a type of dog that is highly disposed to chase cars and then turned it loose in Times Square, then disavowed responsibility for the inevitable moment when the dog gets run over. Yes, arguably the dog doesn’t “make a choice”; but given God’s perfect knowledge, it’s a difference of degree, not kind. After all, God knows with 100% accuracy that Joe, in Universe X, will end up damned, so the for all the difference it makes and all the good it does him, Joe might as well be the dog turned loose in Times Square.
Now one might still say that it’s Joe’s fault because he freely chose; but at this point I think we’re at a metaphysical impasse. I think some want to use “free will” here as a way to absolve God of blame. Yes, He made Joe and every aspect of his personality, and put him in Universe X, where he will certainly be damned, as opposed to Universe Y, in which God foresees that Joe would not have chosen so as to be damned; but Joe is still free, so the fact that God essentially set him up is still not His fault.
Another analogy that I’ve used in blog discussion elsewhere goes like this:
A father of several children calls them together and tells them how much he loves them. He continues by saying that he has buried a number of land mines on the property. He doesn’t tell them the exact number or location, but says that there are several dozen, and he gives vague instructions (one’s near the garden, some are over in the wooded area, etc.). He firmly enjoins them to stay away from these areas, saying that if they love him as he loves them, they will obey him. Finally, he closes by saying that if anyone goes poking around and gets blown up, while he will grieve, the destruction of one of his own children, whom he loves more than anything, will not be his fault.
I trust these two analogies demonstrate the bankruptcy of the scenario outlined in points 1-5 above. There is still one more scenario, though–the psychological interpretation of self-damnation. We’ll look at that next time.
Part of the series Universalism (What the Hell?!)