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Heaven, Hell, and the Religions

We’ve looked at universalism in the Abrahamic and Dharmic religions, and in a summary way in the other major (and minor) religions of the world.  In this post I’d like to see what, if any, broad patterns we can find, and what their relevance is in general and in particular, specifically in regard to universalism as a concept.

In the case of traditional and folk religions, the very concept of an afterlife often seems murky–the dead inhabit a shady, insubstantial realm such as the Greek Hades or the Hebrew She’ol.  Alternately, they may inhabit the realm of the deified or semi-deified ancestors.  These two possibilities are not exclusive, it should be noted.  Some such religions, such as that of the ancient Celts and some strands of the ancient Greek religion, had some sort of belief in reincarnation (or “metempsychosis”, as the Greeks referred to it).  By and large, there is no consistent idea of reward and punishment–Heaven and Hell–in most of these faiths.  To the extent that there is, it is either ambiguous or applicable only to a few (such as the Greek Elysian Fields and Tartarus) or it seems to have been imported from other religions (any notions of heavens and hells in Chinese and Japanese religion, for example, come from Buddhism).

In general, I think it fair to say that there is no clear evidence for reward and punishment in the afterlife in any of the religions that precede the Axial Age, with the probable exception of the religion of Ancient Egypt and the possible exception of Zoroastrianism (so many Zoroastrian writings have been lost and there are so many issues with dating the ones we have, that there is some ambiguity as to how old certain doctrines actually are).  I think it is also safe to say that there is also no clear evidence of reward and punishment in the afterlife in the traditional and folk religions that have survived to modern times, except insofar as they’ve been influenced by so-called great or world religions.

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Universalism in Various Religions: Miscellany

We’ve looked at universalism in the Abrahamic and Dharmic faiths.  There are other important religious traditions to consider, but the remaining ones, by and large, cannot be grouped together as we’ve done in the last two posts.  Therefore, this post will be a bit of a grab bag.  The order in which I consider the various religions with which I’m dealing here will be broadly by type or cultural zone (e.g. I’ll look at the Chinese religions together); but once more, there will be no formal grouping of religions by category as before.  Therefore, go below the cut tag and we’ll begin!

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Universalism in Various Religions: The Dharmic Faiths

Last time, we looked at universalism in the Abrahamic faiths.  In this post, I want to look at universalism in the Dharmic religions.  The Dharmic faiths are the great religions which originated in the Indian subcontinent, stemming ultimately from the ancient beliefs of the Indo-Aryan peoples.  The oldest of these is the religion we refer to  as Hinduism, traditionally known to its adherents as Sanātana Dharma, “the eternal religion”.  From Hinduism gradually developed the Śramaṇa movement, which developed eventually into Buddhism and Jainism.  The most recent of the Dharmic faiths, Sikhism, came into being in the 15th Century, evolving from the branch of Hinduism known as the Sant Mat movement.

All of the Dharmic religions share certain basic concepts.  Chief among them are

  1. The idea of an eternal universe that goes through infinite cycles of creation, evolution, decline, and dissolution
  2. Many levels of existence beyond the earthly
  3. A belief in reincarnation or rebirth, in which beings take on numerous lives in numerous realms
  4. A belief in karma, the principle by which one’s actions are requited, for good or for ill, in the present life and/or future lives
  5. Finally, a belief that beings can ultimately end the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (samsara) through proper spiritual practice

Having laid our the similarities, let’s look at the religions individually.

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Universalism in Various Religions: The Abrahamic Faiths

This series on universalism has looked at the topic from the perspective of Christianity.  This is because, first of all, I myself am a Christian, of the Catholic variety.  Second, despite universalist themes that go back to the very beginning of the faith, Christianity has by and large been construed as non-universalist; thus, the necessity of making arguments in favor of universalism.  I thought, however, that it would be interesting–and perhaps instructive–to look at the other great religions and their teachings on the afterlife, especially as regards the notion of universalism.  In order to avoid an inordinately long post, I’m going to break this up by category.  This post will deal with the Abrahamic religions.

The Abrahamic faiths are, obviously, those closest to Christianity in worldview in general, and in views of the afterlife in particular.  Thus, we will look at them first.  Judaism and Islam are obvious candidates, of course.  However, I will also give a brief consideration to Gnosticism, Mormonism, and also to the Bahá’í Faith, for reasons I’ll elaborate below.  We will look at them in historical order, beginning with Judaism.

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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: Summary (for now)

Update:  I have edited this post slightly to make the taxonomy of various forms of  universalism clearer.

OK, so let’s do a summary of the points I’ve developed over the last few posts (editing slightly where needed).

Either

1. a) infinite punishment for finite sin is just or

1. b) God is a capricious tyrant.

Regarding people who hold the TVOH, and thus necessarily (if implicitly) one of the above,

2.  a) Many Christians actually see Hell not as a sorrowful thing, but a vital necessity and an active good.

2. b) As a corollary, they have an active desire to see malefactors damned.  In short, it’s not just a tragedy, but an active attitude of, “Yes, those m*^%$#@*&^%$#s are getting what they deserve!  Justice is served!  God is not mocked!”

2. c) As another corollary, such people seem to have a model of morality that is at best conventional, if not pre-conventional, a model which they project on everyone else; that is, they assume that people are driven so much towards selfishness and sin that only threats, the bigger the better–preferably the infinite and eternal threat of Hell–can keep them in line.

2. d)  As a final corollary, this implies that these people have rather disordered inner lives themselves.  In short, they are not saying, “Because of the love of God and the grace He gives me, I no longer have a desire for sin X,” or even the less exalted, “Though I am strongly tempted to X, I don’t want to be that kind of person,” but rather, “I wanna do X soooo bad, but if I do I’m gonna burn, so I’ll refrain.  As long as all the other yahoos who give in will burn.” Read the rest of this entry

Damnation: Inside, Outside, Upside Down

Update:  I have edited this post and the following posts in this series slightly to make the taxonomy of various forms of  universalism clearer.

Continuing with the project of rectification of names regarding Hell–that is, saying things as they are, and bringing out  hidden implications, let’s review what we’ve got so far, and then move on to some metaphysics.

Either

1. a) infinite punishment for finite sin is just or

1. b) God is a capricious tyrant.

Regarding people who hold the TVOH, and thus necessarily (if implicitly) one of the above,

2.  a) Many Christians actually see Hell not as a sorrowful thing, but a vital necessity and an active good.

2. b) As a corollary, they have an active desire to see malefactors damned.  In short, it’s not just a tragedy, but an active attitude of, “Yes, those m*^%$#@*&^%$#s are getting what they deserve!  Justice is served!  God is not mocked!”

2. c) As another corollary, such people seem to have a model of morality that is at best conventional, if not pre-conventional, a model which they project on everyone else; that is, they assume that people are driven so much towards selfishness and sin that only threats, the bigger the better–preferably the infinite and eternal threat of Hell–can keep them in line.

2. d)  As a final corollary, this implies that these people have rather disordered inner lives themselves.  In short, they are not saying, “Because of the love of God and the grace He gives me, I no longer have a desire for sin X,” or even the less exalted, “Though I am strongly tempted to X, I don’t want to be that kind of person,” but rather, “I wanna do X soooo bad, but if I do I’m gonna burn, so I’ll refrain.  As long as all the other yahoos who give in will burn.”

3. a) Soft universalism does not mitigate points 1. a) and 1. b) above.  The rarely stated implication is still that somehow eternal damnation, at least in principle, is just.  The only difference is that there is now a hope that God won’t implement it.  This has no logical bearing on the morality of God setting up such a policy in the first place.  Adding to my original phrasing of this point, it is sometimes said that “Hell exists, but it’s empty.”  Not only does this fail in the way we’ve already described, but it’s not even intelligible.  As most theologians and the late Pope John Paul II have said, Hell is not a place, but a state of being, an eternal alienation from God.  A possible state that is not implemented doesn’t even exist.  It’s like telling my child that there is a time out, but it’s not inhabited!

3. b) The belief that God damns no one but that any damned have brought damnation upon themselves by their sole fault also does not mitigate 1. a) and b) above, nor is it logically coherent.  God has created intelligent beings and established a universe and a milieu in which they can damn themselves; and thus ultimate responsibility still resides with Him.

3.  c) It seems that the main appeal of soft universalism is that

i) it does not deny traditional doctrine, thereby assuaging the fears of those who hold it of being thought by others or by themselves to be heretical

ii) it assuages believers’ discomfort with the concept of eternal damnation by positing that maybe God saves most or all

iii) it “lets God off the hook”–by positing that all people might be saved, and that if that doesn’t happen, then it’s purely and solely the fault of the damned themselves, and God is absolved of all responsibility in the matter.

Thus we can continue to think of Him as all-loving and all-benevolent while still allowing, at least in principle, the existence of Hell.

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Universalism, I Presume?

Update:  I have edited this post and the following posts in this series slightly to make the taxonomy of various forms of  universalism clearer.

Last time, I defined Hard Universalism (HU)–all will be saved; Soft Universalism (SU)–we may hope all will be saved, but ought not to inquire beyond that; and what I’ve called Optimistic Universalism (OU)–we hope all will be saved, and the likelihood is that they probably will be.  That is to say, OU, while having no metaphysical distinction from SU except degree, is functionally equivalent to HU.  I myself hold and advocate OU.  For reasons I discussed last time, it seems that OU is not heretical.  I said last time that there is only one reason I can think of that one might, from a traditionalist perspective, reject OU.  That’s the topic of this post.

Generally, one will hear that universalism is a form of the sin of presumption.  The definition, and some commentary, from the linked article, my emphasis:

[Presumption] may be defined as the condition of a soul which, because of a badly regulated reliance on God’s mercy and power, hopes for salvation without doing anything to deserve it, or for pardon of his sins without repenting of them. Presumption is said to offend against hope by excess, as despair by defect.

Suarez…enumerates five ways in which one may be guilty of presumption, as follows:

  1. by hoping to obtain by one’s natural powers, unaided, what is definitely supernatural… after grievous sin (this would involve a Pelagian frame of mind);
  2. a person might look to have his sins forgiven without adequate penance….
  3. a man might expect some special assistance from Almighty God for the perpetration of crime (this would be blasphemous as well as presumptuous);
  4. one might aspire to certain extraordinary supernatural excellencies, but without any conformity to the determinations of God’s providence. Thus one might aspire to equal in blessedness the Mother of God;
  5. finally, there is the transgression of those who, whilst they continue to lead a life of sin, are as confident of a happy issue as if they had not lost their baptismal innocence.

Theologians draw a sharp distinction between the attitude of one who goes on in a vicious career, precisely because he counts upon pardon, and one whose persistence in wrongdoing is accompanied, but not motivated, by the hope of forgiveness. The first they impeach as presumption of a very heinous kind; the other is not such specifically. In practice it happens for the most part that the expectation of ultimate reconciliation with God is not the cause, but only the occasion, of a person’s continuing in sinful indulgence. Thus the particular guilt of presumption is not contracted.

Let’s analyze this.

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Defining Terms and a Recap

Update:  I have edited this post and the following posts in this series slightly to make the taxonomy of various forms of  universalism clearer.

Let’s recap what we’ve discussed here and here, and do so in a more focused way.

First, to be clear in the following, we’re going to have to define some things in a fairly consistent way, since there are some subtleties involved.

“Universalism”, at least in a Christian context, is the belief that all humans will eventually be saved.  Details about how this happens and intermediate purification vary, but for what we’re doing here, the given definition is sufficient.

“Hard universalism” is really the source of the problem, since it’s ambiguous.  In the strictest sense, it means the belief that all humans will definitely be saved.  Alternately, a hard universalism could say he knows all will be saved.  The probability of universal salvation is 1 (same as 100%, for non-math people).  I’m going to call this strict definition of hard universalism–well, “hard universalism”, and abbreviate it HU.

“Soft universalism” (SU) is in fact a rather soft and squishy term.  It means the hope that all will be saved while not maintaining that such universalism is certain or can be known.  This is vague, however–does it mean one hopes with no opinion as to the hope’s likelihood of being realized?  In short, does it mean one must remain agnostic?  Or may one speculate on the odds?  From some discussions I’ve had, it seems that many who hold SU think it’s theologically or even morally wrong to say anything beyond “I hope all will be saved,” without speculating beyond that.  There’s really only one theological justification for such a view that I can think of, and I’ll deal with it in the next post.  Meanwhile, I think one can say “I hope, rather than know, that all will be saved, and the likelihood of it is X.”

Now for reasons I’ve discussed in the earlier posts, I don’t think the salvation of all (or any, or none) can be known with 100% accuracy.  Theology aside, there are simple epistemological reasons for this–who can claim to know what God does?  Thus, any belief in universalism is a belief in a possibility, not a fact. However, people may differ over what they consider the possibility–or probability, statistically speaking–to be.  It has to be above 0 (else there’d be no probability of it at all) and below 1 (otherwise it would be certain, which seems impossible to ascertain).  Different people may set low odds–say, 0.01–or high odds–e.g. 0.99.  Even if one sets odds at 0.99999999999, one is short of absolute certainty, and thus not HU properly so-called; however, at that level, one is pretty darn sure.   Read the rest of this entry

Universalism (What the Hell?!): Index

Once again, a sub-thread within my “Legends of the Fall” series has taken on a life of its own, to the extent of meriting its own index.  I don’t know how many more will end up here, but there are probably lots to come, either within “Legends of the Fall” or in this series outright.  Have a hell (or heaven, or none of the above) time reading these posts!

Legends of the Fall:  Reflections

Hell, Salafis, Philosophers, and Playing the Odds

Out of the Closet

A Helluva Post on the Rectification of Names

Excursus:  John Scottus Eriugena

To Hell in a Nice Handbasket

Interlude:  Questions, Objections, Issues

An Analysis of Universalism

Defining Terms and a Recap

Universalism, I Presume?

Damnation:  Inside, Outside, Upside Down

Universalism:  Summary (for now)

The parent series, “Legends of the Fall”, is going in a different direction, so the following addenda will be only in this index, though some may later cross back over.

If I Only Wanted To

The Divine Exception

Been a Long Time, Been a Long Time, Been an Aeviternal Time

Change My Mind (?)

Stubborn Highlanders

Sea Battles and What Will Be

The Divine Exception, Revisited

Simply Irresistible (or not?)

Some Preliminary Groundwork

Confucius and Socrates

More on Universalism–Compulsion vs. Choice

All Things Dull and Ugly

Choices and Consequences

The Mind is Like a Mirror Bright

I Want Your Love and I Want Your Revenge

Stubborn Highlanders Revisited, and Antinomies of Pure Reason

Arguments Against Universalism:  Missing the Point

On Anti-Universalist Arguments (reblogged from Opus Publicum)

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

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

Arguments Against Universalism: Justice Must Be Served, Part3–An Eye for an Eye?

Arguments Against Universalism: Your Own Damn Fault, Part 1–Rules are Rules

Arguments Against Universalism: Your Own Damn Fault, Part 2–Better to Reign in Hell

Universalism: Scripture and Tradition

Excursus: The Beatific Vision

Universalism: Is It Coherent?

Universalism in Various Religions: The Abrahamic Faiths

Universalism in Various Religions: The Dharmic Faiths

Universalism in Various Religions: Miscellany

Heaven, Hell, and the Religions

The New Testament, translated by David Bentley Hart–a Review

Arguments Against Universalism: Missing the Point, Revisited

The Good, the True, and the Beautiful, and Why We Shouldn’t Misbehave

Scandal and Universalism

 

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