Arguments Against Universalism: Missing the Point, Revisited

Awhile back I did several posts in which I tried to look at various arguments against universalism and to show why, in my view, those arguments were unsuccessful.  The first post in that series looked at arguments that didn’t even address the issue to begin with, but which missed the point either through logical fallacy or misdirection.  Recently I have been involved in discussions on universalism on a couple of other blogs and in an online course I’m taking.  Some of the same hoary old anti-universalism arguments I’ve detailed before have been cropping up.  There has also been a bit of missing the point.  In light of this, I want to take a second look at two arguments which miss the point and which I didn’t directly discuss before.  One did not actually come up in the discussions, but was jarred loose in my memory.  The other is less an argument as such and more an approach, but I think in a sense it also misses the point.  Onward, then!

The first argument is to say something like this to the universalist:  “I understand your concerns, but they’re misplaced.  Instead of worrying about the fate of others–which you can never know, anyway–you need to focus on yourself.  Take every care that you can to lead your own life in such a way as to merit salvation, and leave others up to God.  He’ll take care of things.”  A more nuanced, complex, and sophisticated version of this argument is made by the late Avery Cardinal Dulles in this essay at First Things (my emphasis):

We are forbidden to seek our own salvation in a selfish and egotistical way. We are keepers of our brothers and sisters. The more we work for their salvation, the more of God’s favor we can expect for ourselves. Those of us who believe and make use of the means that God has provided for the forgiveness of sins and the reform of life have no reason to fear. We can be sure that Christ, who died on the Cross for us, will not fail to give us the grace we need. We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, and that if we persevere in that love, nothing whatever can separate us from Christ (cf. Romans 8:28-39). That is all the assurance we can have, and it should be enough.

Both of these versions of the argument boil down to this, to put it crudely:  “The fate of others is none of your business!  Work out your own dang salvation, and quit ragging on God!”  Alas, this argument, however stated, is a red herring.

A red herring is a fallacy in argumentation that changes the subject.  It is the logical equivalent of snapping one’s head to the side and shouting, “Squirrel!”  Red herrings are not always quite as obvious as that; but they still are in essence rhetorical squirrels.   Note how Cardinal Dulles does this–observe the boldfaced phrases.  The emphasis is on “making use of the means that God has provided” us, and persevering “in that love”.  This gives us “all the assurance we can have” and that “should be enough”.  In short, we ought to work out our own salvation, and not worry about the fate of others–we already have “all the assurance we can have, and that should be enough.”

Now I have to be fair to Cardinal Dulles.  In the bulk of the linked essay, he does argue, on grounds of Scripture and Tradition, that universalism is incorrect.  The quoted block above comes from the very end of the essay.  Still, in all due deference to Cardinal Dulles, I think he’s incorrect in asserting that Scripture and Tradition necessarily entail non-universalism.  I’ve argued before that they do no such thing, and that at best, Scripture and Tradition are ambiguous regarding universal salvation.  One must also note, in fairness, that he points out the responsibility we have to each other:  “We are keepers of our brothers and sisters. The more we work for their salvation, the more of God’s favor we can expect for ourselves.”  It’s interesting, though, that after arguing in favor of his position–that hell is real and populated, and the universalist hope is ill-founded–and noting, further, that we should be concerned for others, he ends by saying in effect that it’s none of our business if others are damned, and we’d do better to look to ourselves.  Once more, the justice and philosophical coherence of an eternal hell are taken for granted, and our attention is directed to the squirrel of “worry about your own soul!”

In the interest of full disclosure, I am personally very, very allergic to the “worry about yourself, never mind about others” argument–or “pseudo-argument”, I should say–for personal reasons.  I’ll elaborate those in a post soon to follow, since it would take up too much of the current post if I related them here.  Keep tuned for that story.

Meanwhile, in case this still isn’t clear, let me give an analogy.  Suppose I’m considering taking a job offer at Company X, and I’m talking to a supervisor of hiring.  I express my concern to him that I’ve heard rumors that the boss will fire people for wearing shirts he doesn’t like.*  The hiring supervisor says, “Well, if you look at the long-timers and imitate what they wear, you ought to be OK.  Besides, he hasn’t fired that many people for their shirts, anyway.”  Note how crazy this would be–he admits the boss does something that is illegal and immoral, and doesn’t object to it!  He just tells me basically to watch what I wear!  He also brushes away the fact that people have lost their jobs merely because of the shirts they wore!  There is no notion that the hiring supervisor gets that there’s something wrong with this picture.  Would you take a job there?

Likewise, if you want me to consider your religion, and you answer my concerns about hell by 1.  telling me it’s not my problem to worry about the eternal damnation of others, and 2.  we don’t know how many others are damned, anyway, then you are not, in my view, doing a good job of convincing me.  In the meantime, I reiterate:  It is a misdirection to state that the universalist should worry more about his own soul and less about those of others, because it does not address the fundamental issues, to wit:  1.  Is hell just?  2.  Is a populated hell true?  Moreover, it’s lacking in charity, in that it dismisses our concern for others.

The second argument I want to discuss is using Scripture as a cudgel.  I don’t mean using Scripture to argue against universalism as such.  One can make a cogent argument against universalism from Scripture.  I acknowledge that.  I do assert, though, that one can also make a cogent case for universalism from Scripture.  As I’ve said before, based on Scripture alone, the case cannot be definitively decided either way.  What I’m talking about in this context is using certain quotations from Scripture as a way to shut down the discussion altogether.

I’m currently taking an online course on the Koran, and in the discussion threads I got into a discussion of universalism.  I made many of the same arguments I’ve made in the course of this series.  Now admittedly, I know much less about the Koran than I do about the Bible; and the Koran is much more explicit in its teachings on heaven and hell, making universalism much harder, if not impossible, to argue on a strictly Koranic basis.  In any case, I found it interesting that at one point, my interlocutor quoted the Koran, Sura 3:66:  “Lo! ye are those who argue about that whereof ye have some knowledge: Why then argue ye concerning that whereof ye have no knowledge? Allah knoweth. Ye know not.” (Pickthall’s translation)  This reminded me of the typical Scriptural response you get in a Jewish or Christian discussion, typically Isaiah 45:9 (“Woe to those who quarrel with their Maker, those who are nothing but potsherds among the potsherds on the ground. Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’ Does your work say, ‘The potter has no hands’?“) or Romans 9:21 (“Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?”)

All of these quotations, whether they be from the Koran, the Old Testament, or the New Testament, are all saying the same thing:  “How dare you question God Almighty, you little worm!!!”  I’m overstating slightly for effect; but that attitude often does come across when people cite such quotes.  It often comes at the end of a long discussion where the universalist has patiently pointed out the lack of a definitive case for hell based on Scripture, and has brought up the philosophical difficulties of the concept of hell, and has tried to respond in charity and good faith to the arguments of the non-universalist.  Then, in a fit of frustration and pique, the non-universalist pulls one of these quotes.  On the one hand, I find that a bit annoying, since it’s in effect a threat–“Keep up what you’re doing, buddy boy, and you’ll be sorry!  God’s gonna get you, and get you good!”  The non-universalist is threatening the universalist, on God’s behalf, with the very thing the universalist calls into question!

On the other hand, I can’t help but get a sly kick at such quotes, because they actually are a sign of defeat.  I don’t necessarily say that the non-universalist sees it that way, or is fully conscious of it.  Still, to cite a quote that basically says you have no right even to make the argument you’re making, because it’s an affront to God, is an implicit admission that the non-universalist has run out of arguments.  Once more, he is yelling, “Squirrel!” and trying to divert attention from the actual issue at hand.  This time, instead of the red herring being “Worry about yourself!” as in the first example discussed, it is “Who are you even to be arguing this, anyway?”  Alas for the non-universalist, this is every bit as much a red herring, a misdirection, a yelling of “squirrel”, as the previous “argument”.  In both cases, the non-universalist misses the point with a vengeance.  In neither case are actual Scriptural or philosophical arguments for or against universalism engaged.

I should point out here that I am not a proponent of sacrilege or blasphemy, or disrespecting God in general.  As I’ve said before, in my discussion of the Bible, one can’t give equal weight to everything in it, at least not in a literal sense.  It’s interesting that the potter/pot quotes all occur within polemical contexts in the Bible–prophets (Isaiah, and also Jeremiah, chapter 18) or apostles (Paul) who are trying to get the attention of a recalcitrant audience.  In my opinion, it’s not Scripture at its best.  In any case, it is indeed true that we can never fully understand God–or even understand Him very much.  At the end of the day, there is much about world about which we must say, “We just don’t know why this is so,” and must trust in God’s providence in what often seems to be an absurd cosmos.

On the other hand, theology is, as St. Anselm said, “faith seeking understanding”.  We may never find that understanding; but surely there’s nothing wrong with seeking it.  We need to be humble; after all, humility is all too easy to lose.  Still, though, the Jewish and Christian traditions both descend from Abraham through Israel–and that name means “He struggles with God” (cf. Genesis 32:28).  All through Scripture, people of faith have complained to, struggled with, and argued with God Almighty to His face.  Consider Abraham haggling with God over the fate of Sodom (Genesis 18:16-33); Moses haggling with God over the fate of Israel (Exodus 32:31-32); pretty much the entire book of Job; Jeremiah’s heartfelt lament to God, “You have duped me, O Lord!” (Jeremiah 20:7); Jesus begging that the cup be taken from his lips (Luke 22:42) and his anguished cry on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34); and Paul’s pleading with God to remove the “thorn in his flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9).  I’d like to also point out the famous Talmudic story (from here, my emphasis):

The Talmud [Bava Metzia 59b] records a conflict between the Sages and Rabbi Eliezer (the “cemented cistern who never loses a drop,” according to Ethics of the Fathers) over whether or not a particular type of oven is subject to ritual impurity. Rabbi Eliezer brings three miracles to support his case, culminating in a “Divine voice” which exclaims: “What do you want from My son, Rabbi Eliezer? The Law is always in accordance with his view.”

Nevertheless, the Sages stand their ground. They argued that when Moses said the Torah “is not in heaven” [Deuteronomy 30:12], he meant it had been given to the scholars here on earth to interpret. The Oral Law is determined by majority rule; hence, the Sages can overrule not only Rabbi Eliezer but even God Himself!

The Talmud goes on to record Elijah the Prophet’s report of God’s reaction: “The Almighty laughed and said, ‘My children have defeated Me, My children have eternalized Me,” (the Hebrew nitzhuni can mean both things).

A Christian example of sassing the Almighty is the well-known story of St. Teresa of Ávila (from here):

One time her saddle slipped, and she found herself head down under the belly of a donkey as she crossed a stream. Complaining to the Lord of her treatment, she heard him reply, “Teresa, whom the Lord loves, he chastises. This is how I treat all my friends.” She replied tartly, “No wonder you have so few!”

Thus it is crystal clear that in the Jewish and Christian traditions, struggle and argument with God is not only possible; not only acceptable; but even laudable.  He is our maker and we His creatures; and once more, we must always cultivate a spirit of humility and awe, and must realize that we’ll never understand very much of the Great Mystery.  Still, God is strong enough to take criticism and questioning from us; and I think it is unfair and demeaning to us, and not giving God enough credit, when one tries to use Scripture as a club to shut down the discussion.  Certainly the great worthies of the past enumerated above didn’t hesitate to express themselves!

Thus, in conclusion, let’s by all means argue for or against universalism.  Let’s not drag red herrings of the sort discussed in this post through the arguments, though.  Let’s keep on topic and not miss the  point.

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

* A response to this occurs, so I want to deal with it right now.  If an employee of Coke wears a Pepsi shirt; or if a job requires a suit and tie and an employee comes in wearing a Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops; or if a shirt has something obscene on it; then in any of these cases, firing might be appropriate, depending on context.  In my analogy, I mean something arbitrary and silly, such as the boss firing you for wearing a green shirt instead of a blue one, or because you wore plaid instead of solid, or something like that.  In short, I mean a firing that’s obviously unjust.

Posted on 04/03/2018, in Christianity, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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