The human qualities of the raw materials show through. Naïvety, error, contradiction, even (as in the cursing Psalms) wickedness are not removed. The total result is not “the Word of God” in the sense that every passage, in itself, gives impeccable science or history. It carries the Word of God; and we (under grace, with attention to tradition and to interpreters wiser than ourselves, and with the use of such intelligence and learning as we may have) receive that word from it not by using it as an encyclopedia or an encyclical but by steeping ourselves in its tone or temper and so learning its overall message.
–C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms; from here
It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers will bring us to Him. When it becomes really necessary (i.e. for our spiritual life, not for controversy or curiosity) to know whether a particular passage is rightly translated or is Myth (but of course Myth specially chosen by God from among countless Myths to carry a spiritual truth) or history, we shall no doubt be guided to the right answer. But we must not use the Bible (our fathers too often did) as a sort of Encyclopedia out of which texts (isolated from their context and not read without attention to the whole nature & purport of the books in which they occur) can be taken for use as weapons.
–C. S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 3; from here
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.
There any number of translations of the Bible, in full or in part, and more each year, it seems. There are classic Bibles like the King James and Douay-Rheims versions, modern Bibles such as the Revised English Bible and the New Revised Standard Bible, Protestant Bibles, such as the New International and English Standard versions, Catholic Bibles, such as the New American Bible and the New Jerusalem Bible; there are more traditional formal equivalence Bibles (the New King James), dynamic equivalence Bibles (the Good News Bible), outright paraphrases (the Living Bible); and on it goes. To this number has recently been added a translation of the New Testament by Greek Orthodox scholar and theologian David Bentley Hart.
Hart has made a name for himself as a scholar, theologian, and cultural commentator, having published eleven books and numerous articles in both professional journals and in venues such as The Wall Street Journal, The New Atlantis, and First Things. Hart had planned to translate the New Testament for some time, but a spell of ill health slowed him down. Finally, he completed the translation, which was released in October of 2017.
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.
Update: A Facebook friend has reported that I misremembered the Hitchhiker’s guide, writing “Not My Problem” field for “Somebody Else’s Problem” field. Due corrections have been made! I have left the title intact, though, for the sake of the alliteration….
In the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as fans well know, the setting is the fictional Southern California city of Sunnydale. Sunnydale just happens to be located on top of the literal gates of Hell–the Hellmouth, as it’s called in the show. Because of this, Sunnydale is chock full of vampires, demons, and monsters of various sorts. The ongoing joke in the series is that everyone in the city is completely oblivious to all of this, attributing supernatural events, murders, and general mayhem to anything but their real causes. The explanation given by Giles, Buffy’s Watcher, is that most people subconsciously block out anything that conflicts with their picture of ordinary reality. They literally can’t see the weirdness.
In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy (consisting actually of five volumes by Douglas Adams and one by Eoin Colfer), there is mention made (in Life, the Universe, and Everything, I believe) of the SEP field. It is explained that invisibility is extremely difficult to produce. Therefore, if someone wants to hide something (in the novel, an invading spaceship), it’s easier to use the Somebody Else’s Problem–SEP–field. Humans have a natural propensity not to want to get involved with anything that is “somebody else’s problem”. The SEP field amplifies this natural tendency, so that while the object to be hidden is perfectly visible and in the open, no one actually notices it.
My contention is that most people who read the Bible are much like the people of Sunnydale; or to change similes, they read the Bible as if under the influence of an SEP field.
Last time I said we need to start our second look at the Fall from the other end; that is, with the Atonement. To do that, I want to begin with what has tended to be the traditional viewpoint (at least in the West), the Penal Substitutionary model of the Atonement. I’ve discussed it a bit before, but I want a narrower focus here, and I want to discuss the issues I see with it. For the purposes here, I’m writing the outline as if the first two chapters of Genesis were literally true.
1. The first human couple, Adam and Eve, are created innocent and free from sin. Humans, like the angels before them, and like all created intelligences, truly have free will.
2. The human race is given a test of obedience: the command to Adam and Eve not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
3. Humans fail the test through the abuse of their God-given free will. Tempted by the Serpent (traditionally interpreted as Satan), Eve eats the Forbidden Fruit and gives it to Adam, who does so as well.
4. As a result of this, they and all their descendants are stained with Original Sin both in terms of guilt and of effects. That is to say, all descendants of Adam and Eve inherit the guilt of their sin merely by descent. Even a newborn child has the guilt of Original Sin, as well as the effects thereof. These effects include, among other things, weakness of the will, difficulty in overcoming bodily urges, loss of a direct knowledge of God, a tendency towards sinful actions, and most significantly, mortality. Further, the world itself suffers from this curse, with plagues, disease, and all natural evils being unleashed into the world by Adam’s sin.
5. Though the action of disobediently eating the Forbidden Fruit was finite, the guilt thereby incurred is infinite. This is because the sin was against God, who is infinite. The human race is therefore barred from fellowship with God, and from Heaven after death.
6. God wishes to restore the human race to His fellowship and make Heaven possible for them. However, He cannot merely dismiss Original Sin and allow a “do-over”, since He is all-just, and this would contravene His justice. Through Original Sin, mankind is in “debt”, either to God or to Satan (accounts vary); and since God is perfectly just, this debt must be paid in full. However, from 5, we see the debt is infinite. Therefore, by definition, it can never be paid by mankind, individually or as a race. However, as humankind incurred the debt, humankind must pay the debt; which is impossible. Mankind is up the well-known creek without a paddle.
7. God, however, is not only perfectly just, but perfectly loving. Therefore, He sends His Son, Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, to take human form. This is vitally necessary. As a human, Jesus can pay the debt incurred by Adam. As God, Jesus can pay an infinite debt in full. As both human and God, Jesus can represent the entire human race. Therefore, his death on the cross pays the infinite debt of mankind to the Father (or the Devil) in full, thereby satisfying both God’s justice (the debt is legally paid, no chicanery) and his mercy (God in Christ does it for a human race that can’t do it for itself).
8. Though the debt is now paid, individual humans, in order to benefit from it, must accept Christ. How one does this varies in the teaching of different churches, but all agree on this in one way or another.
I think this is a reasonable summary. Now let’s analyze it.
Last time I stated the postulates I’m starting with in order to move forward in considering the Fall. They seem reasonable to me, in light of what has been looked at and discussed in this series over the last nine months. However, I want to look at one alternative (which I reject) in order to elaborate on why I reject it and what I see as being problematic about it.
First, I need to correct something I omitted in my last post. I gave my “postulates” for this discussion, but left out the most obvious and important one, the zeroth postulate, if you will, without which there’s no point in even having written this series to begin with.
0. Science is correct in asserting the vast age of the Earth and universe, and the evolution of humans from lower animals.
Comment: As noted in my update to the previous post, this is not a postulate properly so-called; but it’s solid enough.
Corollary: Any theology which does not take 0. into account is to that extent erroneous, and thus can–and should–be dismissed out of hand. Therefore, for example, young Earth creationism, anti-evolutionism, and so-called Intelligent Design as presented, are non-starters.
Having set the stage, let’s move on to look at an account of the Fall that seems fairly popular in some circles and discuss its ramifications.
Not geometric postulates, though! This is a sort of continuation of my last post in this series, as well as trying to articulate what I’m postulating, what I’m trying to avoid, and why.
First, as I said way back here (allow me the luxury of quoting myself without seeming a total egotist!):
Nasty things–evils–existed long before humans came on the scene. Hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, droughts, tornadoes, predators, disease, pestilence, cancer, and so on have been around for eons. Thus, any system that posits their existence as coming after the Fall of Man is not going to work. [E]vils or Evil can’t be blamed on Eve’s apple.
Without claiming to give knowledge from on high, I suggested a possible (and in my mind, not unreasonable) theory as to the origin of pre-human evil, here.
For reasons that I’ve elaborated on in this series, as well as in the previous post, I think it’s hard to maintain the idea of Original Sin as a discrete, specific transgression by a particular individual or couple at a particular time in history. Therefore, theories of the Atonement that are based on the traditional concept of a literal Adam, Eve, and Fall must be reworked and overhauled, perhaps massively. Summarizing this,
1. The evils in the physical universe are not caused by the Fall of Man,
2. which could not have occurred as a discrete act by a specific person or persons.
I think these are fairly sound postulates, though I want to discuss objections to number 2 in an upcoming post. The following two postulates are more speculative and will be revisited, but I’ll state them simply for now:
3. Man was originally good in intention (metaphysically or from a supra-temporal or aeviternal perspective), if not temporally and/or historically, and this original metaphysical goodness was marred, if not temporally and/or historically (lots here to unpack, but let it be for now).
4. Christ, through his life, death, and resurrection brings atonement to humanity (though how this is done is not yet clear, assuming one rejects the literal Genesis story. Once more, let it be for now).
This is where I’m starting from as I try to pick my way forward on the Fall and what that may or may not mean.
Update: It is Lent, so I will repent of my sins against mathematics. I used the word “postulate” very loosely. In mathematics (my field) a postulate (or axiom) is the most basic point from which one builds a proof or argument. Postulates are not proved because they cannot be proved–they’re self-evident. For example, postulate number one illustrated above (the illustrations show Euclid’s Postulates) is that two points in a plane give a unique line. If one understands what “point”, “plane”, and “line” mean, this postulate is self-evident; it must be true; it can’t not be true. The points above are certainly not like this. None of them are self-evident, and given what we know about the origins of the cosmos, 1 can be reasonably proved (remember, postulates can’t be proved). It would have been better to call these points my starting points or my basic assumptions. Oh, well.
I also realized that I should have added another basic assumption; but I discuss that in the next post in this series.
Part of the series Legends of the Fall.