Universalism: Is It Coherent?

Recently we looked at universalism in relationship to Scripture and Tradition, and we saw that neither of these sources of authority conclusively condemns the hope of  universal salvation.  In short, while we can’t argue that universalism is definitively true based on these sources, neither can we say it us ruled out, either.  Universalism is therefore a possible and non-heretical option.  Whether it is reasonable or likely is an issue for philosophical and theological discourse, which has been the overall approach of this series.

I have certainly posted plenty of things philosophical in this series on universalism, and I think I’ve dealt with all the most important issues.  I would like to look at one somewhat ancillary issue, though.  This is inspired by a recent blog discussion I had (which I also referenced in the last post).  At one point, an interlocutor going by the handle seven sleepers, in taking issue with my stated opinion on universalism, said, “Side note: If you ditch hell, you lose heaven. Pretty obvious that to lose one is to lose the other.”  My response there was, “No, it is not, in fact, obvious, nor is this assertion even logical. It is merely an assertion.”  In this post I’d like–very briefly!–to unpack my thoughts on this.

On the face of it, with regard to the ultimate fate of humanity, there are from the Christian perspective three and only three logical possibilities:

  1. All are damned.
  2. None are damned (i.e. all are saved).
  3. Some are damned and some are saved.

Each of these statements seems perfectly straightforward and in no way seems to have anything logically contradictory about it.  No one has ever held a belief in Option 1, obviously; universalists hold (or at least hope for) Option 2; and the traditional view in the Christian world  has tended towards Option 3.  In any case, damnation and salvation are said to be choices made by the individual through his or her beliefs and actions.  Now, if I offer a group of people a choice, it is certainly possible that all will choose the same way, and it is equally possible that some will choose one way and one another.  To be more precise, say I give people a binary choice, one of two and only two things.  There is no reason to think they couldn’t all choose A, or all choose B, or some choose A and some B.

In some cases, common sense would indicate it not only possible but likely that all would choose the same way.  If I said, “I will slap you in the face if you want me to; otherwise, I’ll leave you alone,” I imagine everyone would choose against the slap.  If I said, “I will give you $1000 if you want me to; otherwise, I won’t,” I imagine everyone would likely choose for the cash.  If I said, “I’ll give you a ham sandwich if you want me to; otherwise, I won’t,” it wouldn’t surprise me if ham aficionados chose to take me up on the offer, while vegetarians chose to turn it down.

Thus it seems unclear why “If you ditch hell, you lose heaven.”  It is perfectly rational to say that hell is a real and potential choice and at the same time that no one actually makes that choice.  How does the existence of heaven necessitate an actual, as opposed to merely potential, hell?  That would be like saying in the above example that the only way it would meaningful for some to accept my offer of $1000 is if at least some rejected that offer.  I trust that the illogic of this is clear.  As of the time I write this, there has been no further post from seven sleepers in the combox discussion referred to above, so I have no word on his (or her) exact take on the matter.

Given this, I can only speculate.  The best I can come up with is something like this:  True freedom of will implies the ability to make a truly free choice.  In the matter of Heaven vs. Hell, salvation vs. damnation, to say that someone is truly free is to say that someone is free to choose hell and damnation.  To say that all will ultimately choose heaven is thus implicitly to deny that anyone truly has free will.  That’s my take on what seven sleepers is implicitly saying.

Now as a matter of fact, it is the teaching of the Church that there is one specific circumstance in which one can have perfect freedom–the highest degree of freedom, in fact–while not only choosing heaven, but being unable to choose otherwise.  This seemingly paradoxical state is the state of those who experience the Beatific Vision.  In short, as I discussed at length in the previous post to which I’ve linked, those who experience God as He is share not only in His divinity but in His sovereign freedom, by which He is able in perfect freedom to make choices which are nevertheless eternal and unalterable.  The saints and the angels, in short, not only will not, but cannot ever fall away from God; and so far from being compulsion, this is a manifestation of true and perfect freedom.

Now I would assert that it is still logically possible to imagine that even without the assistance of the Beatific Vision, no human being makes the choices that result in damnation.  There seems to me nothing logically contradictory about such a notion, nor does it seem logically necessary that some choose damnation.  That said, empirical observation of human behavior makes it seem indeed vanishingly unlikely that all  humans do, in fact, choose salvation–i.e., that they choose for God.  If this is what seven sleepers was saying–not that free will logically necessitates that some choose damnation, but that the observed likelihood that none so choose is very, very low, then I’d have to agree with him/her.

Perhaps what seven sleepers meant, though, was that my assertion that all ultimately choose salvation–in short, that damnation is not actually eternal–was problematic in that it implies a lack of freedom of the will.  In short, it implies that God forces salvation upon the unwilling.  Now I would agree that God does not so act.  He does not force us–that would be the metaphysical equivalent of rape, to be blunt, and God is not a Divine rapist.

To this, I reply as I did here and here:  Essentially, one’s “true self” is the Image of God deep within one’s psyche.  We are said by orthodox theology to be made “in the image and likeness of God”, and that we are created to have a natural desire and yearning for God; and I take these teachings seriously.  If our ultimate, irreducible, true nature is the Image of God, longing to return to its maker, then an eternity in hell would seem somehow to demolish that image and to eternally thwart that desire.  As I discussed, especially in the second of the above linked posts, one can view the Image of God as a mirror in our soul, a tiny mirror reflecting God.  All the sin and ugliness and nastiness of our lives are like layers of dirt and dust covering the mirror.  Externally, it looks like a mess.  Still, underneath it all is that same mirror, and it is as capable of reflecting as ever.  Cleanse it from the slime and filth upon it, and its natural reflectivity is once more manifested.

In short, I take sin–even the greatest levels of sin–to be layers of dirt overlaying our Divine core, the Image of God.  Our condition could be likened to an addiction, or to mental illness. Just as an addict or a mentally ill person “wills” things that are not what he would actually will if he were healthy or sane, we, caught in the sickness of sin, act against our own best interests, indeed, against against our own deepest nature, our true nature, the Image of God within us.  With an addict or a madman, we strive to heal them, even if it’s “against their will”.  I put that in scare quotes because the addict or madman is not capable of acting on his true will.  If the detox or healing process is successful, the person returns to his senses, and so far from being angry that he was treated “against his will” is happy that he was healed, so that his true will could once more be manifested.

That’s my model of hell and how God deals with its denizens.  God will not force Himself on anyone; but he will, bit by bit, remove all the layers of sin and filth from the “damned” person.  Not being in his right mind, as it were, the false will–or false self–of the damned rebels, flinches back, experiences the pain of what we call “hell”.  Just as detox for an addict or treatment for the mad can seem hellish, so the treatment for the self-damned is truly Hell.  In the end, though, the cleansed soul is able to re-establish contact with its true self.  As I said here:

I’m not suggesting that God is some kind of evil, Nazi-esque tyrant out to break the wills of the damned.  I certainly don’t believe in such a God.  Rather, being perfectly good and having a desire that all be saved, He can be the perfect therapist who accomplishes the goal with no abuse of the patient.  With God there is no unjust committing of patients to an asylum, no abusive treatment, no nefarious ulterior goals.  The treatment program might, as I said, be unpleasant at first to the recalcitrant–that’s why we call it Hell–but in the end it will be recognized even by them as the good that it is.  Will they be different people?  Yes, in the sense that a dried-out junkie or a madman returned to sanity are different; but they will not be new selves, but true selves.  The Hitler or Bin Laden that emerges will not be a spiritual lobotomite or an automaton-like happy drone, but the person that each should have been in the first place.  Thus, even if one wants to argue that the damned have definitively chosen to reject God at the point of their death, I think it can be argued even then that they are not bereft of hope.

Thus, I think that there is no loss of free will in the scenario of the ultimate salvation of all mankind.

There is one more objection, a subtler one, that might be made to my views at this point.  As I discussed previously, God had to make intelligent beings without the Beatific Vision, even though He knew they’d almost certainly fall away from Him.  Otherwise–had they had the Beatific Vision in the first place–they would not be sufficiently “separated” from God to be truly free and independent beings.  In fact, since I presume that if God could have made a universe in which no truly free beings would ever have fallen in the first place, He, being perfectly good, would have done so; and since we obviously don’t live in such an unfallen world; therefore I’m inclined to think that for reasons we can’t understand, the Fall was in some sense necessary, given the existence of beings with free will but without the Beatific Vision.  Well, one might say, if the original Fall was necessary to accomplish God’s goals, even if we can’t understand quite why, is it not possible that, for equally obscure reasons, given human free will, the existence of an eternal hell and its non-zero population, is equally necessary?

This is a fair objection, and at least hypothetically possible, I’ll admit.  However, I think the two situations are not symmetrical to each other.  I think it is valid to argue that intelligent beings–the angels and us–had to fall before we could later return to God.  However, the Fall was merely the initial stage of the process.  The end result was always the restoration of all to God and their divinization through the Beatific Vision.  The Fall was merely a means to that ultimate end.  By contrast, there is no end for which eternal damnation of some–even of a few–intelligent beings could serve as a means.  Those who are saved are certainly not saved because of the damnation of others.  Moreover, God is explicitly said to desire the salvation of all (1 Timothy 2:3-4).  Thus, it seems that while He allows the initial Fall, he ultimately works to empty hell out of all those who, acting out of their false wills, have put themselves there.  Since He is all-good and all-powerful, He is able to do this without abrogating or overriding their true free will.  Thus, in my view, the ultimate disposition of the universe is that all are most likely saved.

Thus, I think it can be shown why “ditching hell” does not, in fact, result in “losing heaven”.  We are not even ditching hell, in fact; merely properly situating it not as a final destination, but one more step, if a long and painful one, on the road to ultimate beatitude.

Part of the series “Universalism (What the Hell?!)

Posted on 27/01/2018, in Christianity, philosophy, religion, theology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: