Category Archives: theology

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.

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Excursus: The Beatific Vision

On more than one occasion over the course of this series on universalism, I have mentioned the Beatific Vision.  Despite this, I have never elaborated or discussed the concept at length.  As I was working on a follow-up to the last post, though, it occurred to me that the subject of the Beatific Vision was becoming increasingly relevant.  Rather than try to  unpack the notion there, I decided to give it a post of its own.

The Beatific Vision is a term in Catholic theology which, simply put, means seeing God as He is.  Of course, “seeing” is a metaphor here.  It means, more precisely, the full experience of God in His full divinity.  This is said to be the final goal of the saved.  Those who are in heaven, human and angel, have this experience of God perpetually.  In fact, to say that the saints and angels are “in” heaven is inaccurate.  Heaven is not a place, but a state of being–and that state of being is exactly the one that ensues from the Beatific Vision.

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Universalism: Scripture and Tradition

The last seven posts in my series on universalism (beginning here and going to here) were intended more or less as a coda to the series.  My idea was that they would in summary fashion deal with all the major objections to universalism–both those that in my judgement missed the point and those that at least legitimately took on the issues at hand–and show why they were unworkable or problematic.  So I thought, anyway.  Alas, nothing ever ends–nor, in a sense, would I expect it to.  Strong partisans of what I have called the traditional view of hell (or TVOH, as I abbreviate it) are not likely to be moved by any arguments.  Conversely, strong universalists will likely also remain unmoved.

This week I have participated in a combox discussion at Rod Dreher’s blog, and as sometimes happens, the issue of universalism arose.  There was a bit of back-and-forth between me and some supporters of the TVOH.  For those who are interested, the exchange is over here.  It’s actually much shorter and less detailed than previous blog discussions I’ve had on the issue, both there and at other blogs.  It does induce me to make more explicit some points that I have not, perhaps, elaborated on enough here.  Mostly, I’ve been looking at the philosophical underpinnings of the arguments for the TVOH, and trying to show why those underpinnings are problematic, as well as trying to make a philosophical argument in favor of universalism.  As often happens in combox discussions, though, the discussion in question brought back the issue of authority.  I have never really explicitly dealt with that issue in this series, though I’ve touched on it several times.  Therefore, I decided it would be a good idea to dedicate a post specifically to just those issues, which I will now deal with.

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I Ain’t Got No Body: Embodiment (or not)

Here we talked about the creation of the material world and embodied intelligences (us) by God.  Over here we looked at how truly free creatures must be created at a certain “distance” from God’s perfection, with the (probably inevitable) corollary that at least some, if not most, of them will fall away to one degree or another.  Let us now start connecting these two threads and see where this leads us.

First, it is worth pointing out a slight nuance in the concept of the Fall.  To the orthodox, the Fall of mankind came after embodiment.  That is, humans were originally created as embodied souls.  Since humans were, in this narrative, primordially innocent, there was thus nothing “wrong” with embodiment.  Had the Fall not occurred, humans would have lived embodied lives in innocent perfection.  Embodiment is a feature, not a bug, so to speak.  The Fall distorted the relationship of body and soul; but that relationship in and of itself is fundamentally good.  It is also important to point out that in this  model, we don’t have a body; that is, we are not actually a spirit that just inhabits a corporeal form.  Rather, we are a body; or better, we are a holistic combination of body and soul making up one single hypostasis (person).

C. S. Lewis puts it in somewhat mystical language in Chapter 14 of The Great Divorce:

I saw a great assembly of gigantic forms all motionless, all in deepest silence, standing forever about a little silver table and looking up on it.  And on the table were little figures like chessmen who went to and fro doing this and that.  And I knew that each chessman was the idolum or puppet of some one of the great presences that stood by.  And the acts and motions of each chessman were a moving portrait, a mimickry or pantomime, which delineated the inmost nature of his giant master.  And these chessmen are men and women as they appear to themselves and to one another in the world.  And the silver table is Time.  And those who stand and watch are the immortal souls of those same men and women.

Thus the body and the soul are in a sense different manifestations of the same thing, merely seeming different (puppet vs. giant) because of our perception of time.

In the Gnostic mythos, the body, along with the rest of the material cosmos, is created by the evil and/or ignorant Demiurge, who makes it as a sort of imperfect, Bizarro-world copy of the dimly perceived Pleroma (the perfect spiritual world of the Aeons, the angelic intelligences created by God).  Thus, embodiment is a bad thing, as the material world itself is a bad thing, at best a pale reflection of the true Good, at worst a cesspit of suffering and limitation.  Some versions of the Gnostic mythos posit embodiment as a theft of the Light–the spiritual essence that comes from the Pleroma–by the Demiurge and his Archons; in some versions, Sophia (the Aeon whose sin led to the existence of the Demiurge in the first place) deliberately “seeds” the human body with the Light, as a long-term “time bomb” that will defeat the Demiurge and ultimately bring about the end of the material cosmos.  In this reading, embodiment is a good thing for the goal it will ultimately achieve; but it is still bad for us at the present.  Our goal is to escape embodiment and return to the Pleroma.

Thus, the Gnostic perspective holds embodiment to happen after the Fall, or perhaps to be a sort of Fall itself; and the antagonism of the spirit and the body is not an accident, but it is baked into the cake, so to speak.  We are not a body-soul amalgam, as in orthodoxy, but a soul–our true self–which is unfortunately connected to a body (or possibly many bodies–some forms of Gnosticism posit reincarnation) as a result of the entrapment of the Light in matter.

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Talking Body

Last time we looked at whether God could have created truly free beings that either could not or would not sin, and concluded that likely He could not do so.  In short, truly free beings must have the possibility of sinning, and given enough time, at least some are almost certain to do so.  A third question we posed and saved until later, to wit:

Given the assumption (which I accept) that God made the spiritual world and the incorporeal intelligences (what we call angels, etc.), why did He make embodied intelligences–i.e. us, as well as any other intelligent species that may exist here on Earth or elsewhere in the cosmos?

This question seems to be on a tangent from the questions about the ability of beings to sin, but there is a subtlety involved, which I’ll get to a few posts down the road.  In the meantime, I want to look at possible answers.  After all, the various Christian accounts of creation, orthodox, Gnostic, and other, all agree that God began creation by making the incorporeal–bodiless–intelligences that we call angels, demons and (perhaps) other types of spirits.  Embodied intelligences (such as ourselves), and for that mater, the material cosmos as a whole, were not created until after the spirit realm.  In most traditional religions, though, the spirit realm is thought of as being “higher”.  The question, then, is if this is so, why did God bother with the “lower” realm–our realm–and with us?  Weren’t we a bit of a come-down from the angels?

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Blinded by the Light

Last time, I said I wanted to look at the following three questions:

  1. Could God have made beings incapable of sin?
  2. If not 1, could He have made beings capable of sin but who would never sin in actuality?
  3. Given the assumption (which I accept) that God made the spiritual world and the incorporeal intelligences (what we call angels, etc.), why did He make embodied intelligences–i.e. us, as well as any other intelligent species that may exist here on Earth or elsewhere in the cosmos?

Here I want to look at 1 and 2.

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Legends of the Fall: Let’s Get This Party Started!

‘Cause it can’t always be Gaga–forgive me, Mama Monster!  😉

My series “Legends of the Fall” has been on hiatus for a considerable time.  Finding time and motivation, as well as deciding where I wanted to go with it, have slowed me down.  Moreover, the blog itself has been on semi-hiatus for about a year as life has gotten in the way.  Fiddling around on it and musing a bit today, I had a few ideas as to what I can do.  I won’t say I have a definitive conclusion to the series–what human can claim to understand the Fall?  I do think I have a direction in which I want to go with the series, though, and now is as good a time as any to start hashing it out.

In the next few posts I want to restart the series by asking the following questions:

  1. Could God have made beings incapable of sin?
  2. If not 1, could He have made beings capable of sin but who would never sin in actuality?
  3. Given the assumption (which I accept) that God made the spiritual world and the incorporeal intelligences (what we call angels, etc.), why did He make embodied intelligences–i.e. us, as well as any other intelligent species that may exist here on Earth or elsewhere in the cosmos?

I think that important conclusions can be drawn from number 3 especially.  We’ll get to that in time.  Some of the issues involved in these questions have been touched on before in the course of this very long series, but I think it will be useful to visit them afresh, as well as looking at new angles.

Thus, get ready for new posts, and let’s get the party started!

Part of the series “Legends of the Fall

Arguments Against Universalism: Justice Must Be Served, Part 3–An Eye for an Eye?

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Last time we discussed whether infinite retribution for even the worst of finite sins is just.  Our answer to that was, “No.”  Here, though, we’ll look at a more fundamental question:  Is retributive justice itself truly just?

In the first post of this discussion, we looked at the various types of punishments for transgression, and what purposes they try to achieve:

  1.  Restitution seeks to redress a loss.  For example, if you steal from me, you must give the money back.
  2.  Prevention or containment seeks to prevent a crime from happening again.  If you’re in jail for bank robbery, you can’t rob another bank (at least until you are released).
  3.  Deterrence seeks to prevent crime in the first place.  If I know I’ll go to jail for bank robbery, I’ll be less inclined to rob banks to begin with.
  4.  Rehabilitation seeks to retrain or reform a criminal so that he or she can become, in the words of the cliche, a “productive member of society” who will not be inclined to be a repeat offender.
  5.  Retribution is the notion that certain responses are inherently appropriate for certain offenses.

All of these models of punishment are more or less intuitively obvious.  Certainly a criminal should make restitution for his or her crime; prevention and deterrence are fairly obvious motivations for punishment; and while rehabilitation had been controversial for various reasons, it still is fairly logical on its face.  Retribution–that a person deserves a certain punishment because of what he or she did–is, however, more mysterious.  It seems to be uncontroversial and intuitively right; and yet it seems to defy easy analysis.

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Arguments Against Universalism: Justice Must Be Served, Part 2–Just Desserts

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Not that kind of dessert; but I couldn’t resist the visual pun!  🙂

Back here we began the discussion of the traditional argument in favor of Hell (and thus against universalism) which asserts that God is just in condemning to Hell the souls of those who are not saved (by whatever specific criteria that is determined).  In that context, we looked at the functions of punishment for transgression, and we came up with the following:  restitution, prevention, deterrence, rehabilitation, and retribution.  After discussing these various motivations for punishment, I concluded with this:

Hell certainly won’t rehabilitate the damned, since they are said to be damned eternally, incapable of reform.  It won’t give the saved restitution–if someone murders me, no amount of Hell he experiences will bring me back to life.  Further, whether I go to Heaven or Hell is traditionally said to be dependent on my own spiritual state.  In short, Heaven is not a “restitution” to me for getting murdered.  If I’m in a state of mortal sin, I’d go to spend eternity in Hell with the one who murdered me.  Prevention and deterrence are not operative here, either.  Fear of Hell might keep a living person on the straight and narrow.  However, after the Last Judgement, when everyone is either in Heaven or Hell, neither prevention nor deterrence has any further purpose.  The saved can no longer sin, so there is no necessity to deter them from evil.  Even if the damned were “let loose” from Hell, the saved can no longer be harmed in any way, so there’s nothing the damned can be prevented from doing to the innocent.

Thus, the only logic of Hell can be that it is a just retribution.  If an eternal Hell exists, retribution is its sole logical purpose.  Thus, in looking at this  issue, the question is not “Is eternal damnation just?” as such, but “In what way and to what extent is retribution, or more precisely retributive punishment just?”

Thus in trying to determine if it is just for God to damn certain people for eternity, we actually have two questions.  The first and most obvious is, “Is eternal punishment for one’s sins just?”  This is the question I’ll discuss in this post.  However, the very question brings up another, subtler question, to wit:  “Is retribution a just motivation for punishment at all?”  That question I will deal with in the next post in this series.

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Arguments Against Universalism: Justice Must Be Served, Part 1–Retribution

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Back here, having addressed arguments against universalism that miss the point, I said,

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.

Thus, I want now to look at the former of these notions:  that God directly punishes sinners, with the corollaries that they deserve that punishment; or to put it another way, that eternal damnation is in fact just.  In order to do this, before even discussing “just”, we have to begin by unpacking the meaning of “punishment” itself.  After all, if a person has transgressed moral law, there are several different responses society can have, all loosely lumped under “punishment”.  These responses are distinct, though, and are very different in what they attempt to achieve.  First, there is the notion of restoration or restitution.

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