Arguments Against Universalism: A Personal Encounter

Back here I discussed two forms of argument against universalism, both of which I considered to be red herrings–that is, arguments that don’t actually address the issue at hand.  The first argument boiled down to saying, “Don’t worry about the fate of others–worry about yourself.  Your main goal is to keep yourself from going to hell–God will take care of everyone else.”  This altogether avoids the issue of whether eternal damnation is just, or congruent with God’s infinite goodness, so it’s certainly a red herring.  I had this further to say about it, though:

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.

Well, I want to relate that story now.

When I was in college, around 1985, I lived in a dormitory that had the rooms arranged in suites.  In short, the rooms were in pairs, with two students in each room and a shared bathroom between the two rooms.  Thus, you had a roommate and two suitemates.  One of my suitemates–and I don’t even remember his name, though I can call his face to memory–was a member of Campus Crusade for Christ (now known as Cru–almost as silly a renaming as the change of the Sci-Fi Channel to Syfy).  He was overall a nice guy, and he didn’t try to evangelize me or do a hard-sell of his faith.  He invited me to events now and then, which I politely declined.  At this time, I was in my seeking phase.  I hadn’t rejected Christianity as such, but as I’ve noted before, I was an Arian at the time–that is to say, I couldn’t accept the doctrine of the Trinity.  Since that’s pretty much a square-one, basic belief for any major form of Christianity, I didn’t think I could legitimately associate myself with any Christian church.  Certainly I was highly allergic to any form of Evangelicalism.  To the extent that I was anything, I was sort of a Buddhist fellow-traveler.  In any case, I wanted nothing to do with the Campus Crusade for Christ (which I’m going to abbreviate as CCC henceforth to save time).

An acquaintance, or at least fellow CCC member, of my suitemate would visit him now and then.  I don’t remember his name, either, though as with my suitemate, I can clearly recall his face.  He was congenitally handicapped and confined to a motorized wheelchair.  I didn’t interact with him as much as I did with my suitemate, so I didn’t have strong feelings either way about him.  That changed one particular day.

I don’t recall the context, but I was either in the common area of the dorm or in one of the campus cafeterias, and my suitemate and the other guy (since I can’t remember his name, I’ll just refer to him as Other Guy from this point onward) and, if I recall correctly, a few others, were gathered together talking.  To be honest, I don’t have the slightest idea what I was doing there or why the others were, either.  I don’t know if my suitemate had invited me to hear Other Guy’s pitch for CCC (why I would have been there for such a pitch voluntarily I can’t imagine, but I may have been in an expansive mood), or if we were hanging out eating (I had a different circle of friends with whom I usually ate, but they may not have been there that day), or what.  I do remember with crystal clarity the course of the conversation.

Other Guy was making his pitch for CCC and why I Ought to Become a Christian.  The emphasis, as is typical of certain strains of Evangelicalism, was on Saving Your Soul, and Avoiding Eternal Damnation.  I heard him out politely, and then asked him the following question:  What about people who, through no fault of their own, did not know Jesus?  Pre-Columbian Americans, uncontacted tribes, and so on, certainly couldn’t “dedicate their lives” to someone they’d never even heard of.  I may have also asked about good people belonging to other religions, but I’m not sure.

In any case, Other Guy didn’t give me a straight answer.  He beat around the bush, and brought it back to me.  My bullshit detector was blaring loudly by this time.  He had not answered the question.  I pressed him again and again:  What about those ignorant of Christianity?  Do they go to hell even though it’s not their fault?  Other Guy kept trying to evade the question and to bring it back to me, but I was now in bulldog mode and would not let go of the original question.  What about the ignorant?  You haven’t answered my actual question yet!

At this point, an expression of pure rage appeared on Other Guy’s face, and he practically shouted at me, “You need to worry about your own salvation, not theirs!”  If he could have stood up and loomed over me as he said this, I’m sure he would have–that was the vibe I was getting.

I don’t recall what happened after that.  I think I said something neutral and let it drop.  I definitely resolved right then that there was no way in hell–pun intended!–that I’d ever have the least thing to do with CCC after that.  I have kept that resolve ever since.  I never spoke to Other Guy after that, except for maybe a formally polite greeting if I saw him.  I cooled off a bit towards my suitemate, too–he had set the thing up, after all, and had not intervened in the discussion, presumably tacitly approving Other Guy’s position.

As long time readers know, I come from a small town in Appalachia, smack in the middle of the Bible Belt and hotbed of Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism.  Such contacts as I had with these forms of Christianity in my youth had not left positive impressions, and as I’ve noted before, I made a point of actively avoiding attending church throughout my youth and young adulthood.  At some point during my college career, my mother suggested that I should perhaps check out different churches on campus to see if there was one I liked.  Maybe I should visit a different one every week.  I actually thought that sounded like a good idea; but my native laziness and the uncertainties I still had about certain religious issues held me back.  After the encounter with Other Guy, it went from laziness and uncertainty to, “If this is what’s on offer, then hell no, I won’t go!”  And I didn’t.

I realize now that it’s not fair to tar all of Christianity and all Christians with the brush of Evangelicalism/Fundamentalism.  I’d even say that it’s not fair to tar all Evangelicals and Fundamentalists with the brush of ignorance, intolerance, bigotry, and general nastiness.  There are Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians who are true exemplars of the teachings of Christ, especially in loving service to others; and some of these are better and holier people than I’ll ever be.  That said, stereotypes are not altogether without basis, as witness the conversation with Other Guy.  Also, recall two things:  One, my background, which did not favorably predispose me to Evangelical/Fundamentalist Christianity in the first place.  Two, recall that the 80’s were the peak of scandals with such televangelists as Jim and Tammy Bakker and Oral Roberts, as well as the wall-to-wall media presence of the ever-obnoxious Jerry Falwell.  For many young seekers like myself, “Christianity” was all too closely linked with hypocrisy, fleecing the poor, and hatred.  Note well–this wasn’t the eeeevul media beating up on poor, misunderstood Christians.  People such as the worthies mentioned were doing a fine job of discrediting the faith all by themselves.  Given that this was my view already, Other Guy managed to tip me over the edge to complete rejection of Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism.

For reasons I’ll detail at some future date, I had developed a positive outlook on the Catholic Church, which struck me as very much different from those represented by Other Guy, Falwell, et alia.  I had a couple of acquaintances who were Catholic, and one invited my to the Newman Center a few times.  I never could quite accept said invitations–I still felt a little weird about going to church.  Still, I think some seeds were planted, and as I’ve noted before, I eventually entered the Church a few years after college at the Easter Vigil 1990.

To be completely fair, as I was preparing this post, the following column by Alan Jacobs sprang to mind.  The main thrust of the column is to argue against consequentialism in Christianity.  In short, a believer shouldn’t become discouraged if his efforts don’t have results, or if Christian living doesn’t make the world a better place.  The main point, says Jacobs, is to obey the teachings of Christ, not to worry about whether or not they “work”.  In the course of building his argument, he has the following to say (my emphasis):

When people ask Jesus whether many will be saved or only a few — which is basically a question about the general or universal consequences of sin — he begins his answer by telling them to focus their attention on their own spiritual condition: “Strive to enter through the narrow door.” (And he adds that some of those most confident of their admission will be turned away.) When people ask whether the eighteen people who died when the Tower of Siloam collapsed suffered death as punishment for being more wicked than other people, Jesus says: Nope, they weren’t more wicked than you, so repent now while you still can. When Jesus prophesies the death of Peter, and Peter replies by asking what will become of John, Jesus replies: “What is that to you? Follow me.”

This, in substance, is not enormously different from what Other Guy said.  So what, then?  Was I in the wrong, after all?  Well, I present the following thoughts.

First, my question was specifically about those who, though no fault of their own, didn’t know about the Christian faith.  The passage Jacobs cites is the more general question of how many will be saved, period.  I don’t think my question was unreasonable, and this passage doesn’t address it either way.

Second, the context of the Gospels is somewhat different.  One consistent motif in Jesus’ preaching is his eschewing of abstract theology in favor of action.  The clearest example of this is in Matthew 25:31-46, in which the sheep (the saved) and the goats (the damned) are judged purely on their actions, with belief and theology not even coming into the picture (many of the saved, in fact, seem somewhat surprised at being saved).  Thus, I think that one can read the quotes Jacobs references something along the lines of, “I don’t want to get drawn into a theological debate on this–you’d be better off to get your acts together and do what you’re supposed to do instead of dealing with metaphysical abstractions.”  Jesus is trying to give the questioner an impetus to act, rather than answer a theological question.

Third, I think Jesus, in part, is avoiding the pitfalls of a direct answer.  Had he said, “Very few will be saved,” then people would tend to think, “This is good news?  If I’m probably doomed, why bother?”  On the other hand, had he said that most or even all would be saved, the likely response among many would be “Hell, yeah!  Party on, and no matter what we do, it’ll be OK!”  I have argued back here (point 5) that it’s mistaken to argue against universalism on the grounds that it would give people free license in their behavior, and I stand by that.  That, though, is admittedly an abstraction, and once more, Jesus is anything but abstract.  In the Gospel, though, Jesus is faced with a pastoral situation–not the abstract theology of how many ultimately will be saved, but the practical consideration of how people will understand what he tells them.  He doesn’t want people to despair, on the one hand, or not even try on the other, so he says, in effect, “It ain’t easy–better get on the ball!” without actually answering the question as such.

Fourth, though this is a tangent, I think this saying can be reconciled with universalism.  I’d go along the lines of David Bentley Hart in his translation of the New Testament.  He points to the following from 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 (NIV, my emphasis):

For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.

Paul seems to be saying those who are faithful and virtuous will be saved, and furthermore, rewarded for their virtue.  Those who lack virtue will see their works “burned up”.  However, they will “yet be saved” though “as one escaping through the flames”.  This seems to be saying that while they won’t merit salvation (and I’m not exactly saying that the virtuous “merit” it either, but I don’t want to open the can of worms of faith vs. works right now), they will be saved “as one escaping through flames”–that is, being purified from their iniquities.  They won’t receive a reward–perhaps they’ll be on a “lower” level of heaven than the just (as John Scottus Eriugena speculated).  This model is also similar to the therapeutic model of hell that I’ve suggested elsewhere.  In any case, my general point is that I don’t think this saying of Jesus is irreconcilable with universalism.

Finally, I think there’s a difference between the question asked in the early 30’s AD and the same question asked nearly two thousand years later.  Beliefs on the afterlife among pagans and Jews of the 1st Century AD ran a wide gamut.  Reincarnation, different planes of existence, and reward and punishment were just a few of the options on offer.  The Sadducees–the priesthood of the Judaism at the time–didn’t believe in an afterlife at all (see Mark 12:18-27), thus being ironically in agreement with some pagan schools of thought, such as Epicureanism!  Jesus is clear that there is an afterlife and that there are different outcomes.  However, if one reads the Gospels carefully without all the cultural accretions it has acquired, with due reference to the original Greek, one will see that Jesus is very vague and non-specific.  Saved playing harps in white robes on clouds and damned burning while being poked with pitchforks do not occur in the actual words of Jesus.  John 14:1-4 is probably the most explicit he gets.

In modern times, though, we have centuries of complex and very graphic stories about the fate of the dead, aided and abetted not a little by Dante Alighieri and Hieronymous Bosch.  Catholic children have been taught that they could burn in hell forever for eating a hotdog on a Friday, Protestant children have been taught that even the most virtuous people of other religious faiths would burn in hell forever just for being the wrong religion, and Christian children–and adults–of all stripes have been threatened with hell on a fairly regular basis in the name of the “good news”.  Christian teachers have been more than willing to make up for the ambiguity of the Founder’s words!

What I’m saying, then, is that the question, “Will many be saved?” coming from Jesus’ interlocutor and a similar question that I asked in the 80’s aren’t addressing quite the same thing.  In the first case, it’s not even clear that the questioner believed in an afterlife at all.  It seems to me he was saying something like this:  “Look, you say that there’s a life after all this.  I hear different things–the priests say one thing, the Pharisees another, the pagans yet another.  I’m not sure.  You’re saying that there is an afterlife and it’s going to be a reward for some–the ‘saved’–and punishment for others.  If I’m going to buy into this, I have to know–how likely is it that I–or anyone else–will be saved?”

Jesus’ response is, in effect:  “There is an afterlife, and what you do now does affect how it will be.  Believe in that to start with.  My mission isn’t going to last for long, so I don’t have time to debate the finer points of it all for now.  Right now, go out and strive mightily to ‘enter by the narrow gate’.  If you’ll do that, you’ll be OK.  The Church, which will continue after me and with my authority, will explain it all in greater detail as time goes on.  That’s not your problem now, though.”

Note that Divine justice isn’t at issue here.  The question is not really theological but practical, and the answer is even more so.  Jesus is certainly not using hell as a threat (the word “hell” isn’t even in the verses in question); rather, he uses the metaphor of the broad and the narrow gates as a motivation for action in the present while refusing to play a numbers game.

My question, by contrast, was on the justice of the damnation of those who had no way of even knowing about the two paths.  Is being damned for ignorance just?  Some have thought so over the centuries.  Note this famous story (from here) of the attempted baptism of the last pagan king of the Frisians:

Either Wulfram or Willibrord was about to baptize the king, when Redbad asked: “Will I meet my ancestors in Heaven after I die?“, Wulfram or Willibrord responded: “No, they were not baptized, so they are in Hell.” Redbad replied: “Then I rather spend eternity in Hell with my ancestors than in Heaven with my enemies (the Franks).” From that moment on Redbad found new faith in his old pagan believes, and he also wanted the territories back he lost to the Franks.

Way to spread the Gospel, Wulfram!  My patron saint, St. Augustine of Hippo went even further, saying that infants who died unbaptized went to hell.  The mildest form of hell, he was quick to add, but hell for all that.  Let that sink in.

The Church was never willing to go quite as far as that, and developed the concept of Limbo as a place of perfect natural happiness for unbaptized children.  More recently, then-Pope Benedict XVI (now Pope Emeritus) suggested in 2007 that we may hope for the outright salvation of unbaptized children.  As to adults, the Church, even in the pre-Vatican II era, developed the concepts of baptism of blood (the death by martyrdom of one professing Christian belief but who has not yet been baptized) and baptism of desire.  This latter concept suggests that those who have no way of knowing of the faith, or who are irremediably set against it by invincible ignorance, may still be saved by their good life which is lived in accordance with the implicit knowledge of God that they share with all human beings.  The assumption is that if they knew about the Gospel and full understood it, they would desire baptism and seek it out.  Thus, they are saved by their implicit faith, even though they themselves did not clearly understand the nature of God.  This is not unlike what Paul says to the Athenians in Acts 17:22-23.

Of course this is a teaching of Church tradition, since Jesus did not speak to the issue at all.  For those who insist on deriving doctrine solely from the Bible–a perspective that I, as a Catholic, don’t share–there’s not much else to be said.  Well, except that one might point out John 12:32, where Jesus says, “ And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.”  Sounds pretty universalist to me.

I will close by noting that I wasn’t fully in the universalist camp at the time of the conversation with Other Guy, and that I didn’t necessarily expect a universalist answer.  What I did expect was some answer.  He could have said, “Yeah, the unevangelized do go to hell.  Seems harsh, but them’s the breaks.”  That, to me, is a repugnant view, but at least such an answer would have been honest, and that would be a proposition that could be debated.  He could have said, “I think God does cut those who had no chance to believe some slack.”  I would have been more receptive to that, if that’s what he believed.  He could have even said, “I don’t know.  The Bible doesn’t say.”  Unsatisfactory, but honest, at least.  I had the clear impression in the discussion that he actually did believe that anyone without explicit faith in Christ would be damned, whether they had a way of knowing or not, and that’s just the way it is; but that he was reluctant to say that outright for fear of losing a potential convert.  I, of course, wasn’t willing to let it drop.  After all, if I’m going to sign up for a religion that claims to follow an all-loving, perfectly merciful, and infinitely compassionate God, you need to explain to me, and explain very thoroughly, why things that seem totally lacking in mercy and compassion–such as damning the ignorant–fits with your picture of God. Losing your crap and yelling at the other person is certainly not an effective strategy!

Why Other Guy got so upset I don’t know.  Jesus spoke in very harsh terms on many occasions–but when he did, he was always addressing the hypocritical religious leaders and the well-to-do.  He never used Other Guy’s strategy on those who came to him with sincere questions.  Yes, he did say that we don’t need to worry too much about others but focus on ourselves.  He certainly never saw those who questioned him or even disagreed with him as a threat, as Other Guy apparently saw me.  Still, I think, for the reasons I’ve laid out, that he wasn’t closing off questions of salvation permanently or altogether.

In any case, this story is illustrative of my point, which is that while one’s motivation to look out for one’s own salvation is important, and encouraging one to do so is not necessarily out of line, it is a completely separate issue from the question of who is saved, and whether the numbers thereof are few, many, or all.  If someone is discussing this with a seeker, the exactly wrong approach is to use the “worry about yourself” strategy as a way of dodging the question.  A would-be evangelist needs to be brutally honest about what he believes, and why.  If the seeker is moved to join, then great; if not, then that’s the way it goes.  Using “worry about yourself” as a cudgel to eliminate questioning or debate is absolutely the wrong way to go.  My main focus must be on my own salvation, of course–but that doesn’t put the salvation of others out of the realm of discourse.

So, the take-away:  Work out your own salvation, pray for that of others, but don’t try to shut down the discussion!

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

Posted on 20/06/2019, in Christianity, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Hello, I really enjoyed this post as it almost mirrors a conversation that I had with someone the other day and I too felt that my direct questions were not being answered. It’s interesting that you chose Augustine as your patron saint given that your beliefs on universalism are so different. I am an Anglo Catholic and would really appreciate maybe a top 5 books that have influenced your way of thinking. That would really be appreciated.

    • Thanks for the shout-out, Peter. I entered the Church twenty-nine years ago and was in a very different place when I selected Augustine for my Confirmation saint. I go back and forth in my feelings about him; but I certainly don’t share his views on salvation.

      My series Your Own Personal Canon deals with books that were very influential to me. As to books that influenced my religious thinking, particularly in leading me to the Church, I’d say the top five were:

      1. A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller, Jr.. The influence was indirect but real, and I’ve written about it in the “Personal Canon” series.

      2. On Being a Christian, by Hans Küng. It influenced me in an unusual way, which I discuss here.

      3. Heresies, by Harold O. J. Brown, which I discuss in the same post I linked to in in the last point.

      4. Why Be a Christian?, by Rosemary Haughton. This got me over the problem of organized religion, and I may write on it someday.

      5. Miracles, by C. S. Lewis. All the books that I’ve read by him have been influential, but this is the only one that I’m completely sure I read before converting.

      I will be writing about more books, including some of these, over time, so keep tuned in. Glad you like the blog!

      • Thank you for revealing the books that have influenced you in some way. Much appreciated.

  2. If people can be saves by their ‘implicit faith’, does that not mean that evangelizing them could put their eternal soul on jeapardy by giving them a shot of actively rejecting the message?

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

  2. Pingback: Arguments Against Universalism: Missing the Point, Revisited | The Chequer-board of Nights and Days

  3. Pingback: The Long Journey to the Trinity | The Chequer-board of Nights and Days

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