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.
Last time, I said I wanted to look at the following three questions:
- Could God have made beings incapable of sin?
- If not 1, could He have made beings capable of sin but who would never sin in actuality?
- 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.
Aside from the title, the video above doesn’t have much to do with the post, but that’s never stopped me before. This post, in fact, is the latest installment in my series on free will. The main focus of that series hasn’t been on examining free will as such. Rather, the main thrust has been to see if a finite but immortal being could make an irrevocable choice. This is relevant to the idea of universalism. This is because the concept of the eternity of Hell is that the damned have in effect chosen their state and, so it is asserted, will never change their minds. Aside from merely asserting this to be the case, there didn’t seem to be any logical reason for this to be. After looking at several aspects of the problem, my final conclusion was that there’s no clear answer either way.
This post goes off on another tangent, though, and is more connected with my series on the Fall. For reasons that will become clear in posts that I’m planning as a continuation and (possible!) completion of that series–the longest-running series on this blog–I think it’s necessary to look at another aspect of free will. What I want to do is to ask the question: Is our free will compatible with the foreknowledge of God? In short, if God knows what we’re going to do before we do it–from all eternity, in fact–are we truly free?
We’ve been looking at different issues interrelated with universalism. In light of some of these, it bears returning to a more fundamental concept: How do people get to hell (assuming they indeed do so), anyway? This seems like a stupid question, but bear with me.
Traditionally, the image is that of Jonathan Edwards’s famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God“: that is, God, in His wrath, casts the damned into Hell. Of course, the unspoken assumption here is that eternal Hell and unending punishment is just. Such arguments usually end in the assertion that God is perfectly just and that since His ways are so far above ours as to be inscrutable, Hell and damnation are therefore just, no matter what we think. Even if it could be argued that it would be unjust for a human to do such a thing (and there are actually people who are working on this), the idea is that God, being above us, is not bound by the same ethic as we are. It seems to me that this is an invalid argument, and I’ve argued, based on Plato’s Euthyphro, that God must follow the same standards as we do in this case.
At this point, supporters of hell try to get God off the hook by the free-will argument. They make the claim that God does not condemn anyone to hell. Rather, He sets certain ground rules as to appropriate actions and the consequences thereof. If a person lives in such a way that the consequences are eternal Hell, this is not God’s fault. The person knew the ground rules and he knew the consequences. Like the person who gets drunk and goes out driving anyway, only to wreck, likewise the damned receives the fruit of his own action. This is what I’ve previously described as going to Hell in a nice handbasket.
In the last post, we saw how both we and God must be held to the same moral standards. If it would be wrong for us to condemn someone to an eternal (or near-eternal) hell, then the same is true for God. Now the typical work-around for this, with those who promote the traditional idea of hell, is that God doesn’t condemn anyone; rather, by their free choices, the damned condemn themselves. The damned were not sent or compelled–they freely chose to listen to the little guy with horns and a pitchfork on the wrong shoulder! I’ve discussed this notion more technically here. What I’m doing in this post is tackling the same notion–that allowing people to damn themselves gets God off the hook–in a less technical and philosophical, and more direct way. This was originally from a blog discussion on universalism that I had awhile back. I had written up my response in a Word Pad document for posting; but I’ve since forgotten the context, so I don’t remember exactly when, where, or with whom I had this discussion (though I know the likely candidates for each).
In any case, I’ve put my part of the discussion here intact. I decided not to edit it, and left it as is. However, to give it context for the discussion we’re making here, and to clarify some points, I’ve added this commentary which I’ve put in dark green (I originally did it in red, but decided that’s too hard on the eyes), leaving the original post in black.
God has the choice to make or not make any of various possible universes inhabited by intelligent creatures. Free will isn’t really the issue: since He’s all-knowing, He knows exactly what choices these creatures will freely make. Thus, He knows, for example, that in Universe X, containing Joe Schmoe, Joe, as a result of his temperament, the choices that are presented to him in Universe X, and so on, will freely make choices resulting in his eternal damnation. In fact, God knows this with absolute certainty. I’m aware that this last point could be argued–some would say that by definition God cannot know a freely made choice with 100% certainty. He might know it with any arbitrary accuracy short of that; but there would always be room for doubt. For the purpose of the discussion here, though, we’ll let that be for now; I’m looking more in-depth at free will in a separate, though related, series.
Now God makes Joe, his temperament, etc. and also sets the ground rules of Universe X. Thus it seems reasonable to say that God is in a real sense responsible for Joe ending up in Hell. To argue, “Well, it was Joe’s choices that damned himself” seems fatuous. It’s as if I bred a type of dog that is highly disposed to chase cars and then turned it loose in Times Square, then disavowed responsibility for the inevitable moment when the dog gets run over. Yes, arguably the dog doesn’t “make a choice”; but given God’s perfect knowledge, it’s a difference of degree, not kind. After all, God knows with 100% accuracy that Joe, in Universe X, will end up damned, so the for all the difference it makes and all the good it does him, Joe might as well be the dog turned loose in Times Square.
Now one might still say that it’s Joe’s fault because he freely chose; but at this point I think we’re at a metaphysical impasse. I think some want to use “free will” here as a way to absolve God of blame. Yes, He made Joe and every aspect of his personality, and put him in Universe X, where he will certainly be damned, as opposed to Universe Y, in which God foresees that Joe would not have chosen so as to be damned; but Joe is still free, so the fact that God essentially set him up is still not His fault.
This is more or less the argument of “free” as “lacking exterior compulsion or duress” vs. “free” as “able to decide otherwise”. In the first case, God doesn’t “force” Joe to do the things that lead to his damnation, any more than in the dog analogy I “force” the dog to chase the car that runs over it. This is essentially the viewpoint of soft determinism or compatiblism. Many forms of Calvinism tend towards this view; that is, no matter what the biological inclinations and desires, family background, etc. that Joe may have, he is still free to choose options in a real sense. By way of contrast, incompatibilism–which is the perspective both of those who assert the existence of free will and also of those who assert so-called “hard” determinism–argues that pure determinism cannot be reconciled with true human free will.
If this is your perspective, then I guess there’s nothing more to say, since you apparently don’t mean by “fault” or “responsibility” what I do (once more, see the discussion here). I think God is on the hook there, and Joe’s freedom doesn’t absolve Him.
1. God is supposed to be perfectly loving and to desire the salvation of all.
2. Since He can foresee all results, even of free choices, with perfect accuracy, He can be said, in effect, to choose how many will be damned, since He knows the exact outcome of every decision of every being in every cosmos He could create. He knows, e.g., that in Universe C only three percent of the humans will ultimately be damned, but that in Universe D, all of them will be. By choosing to make Universe D, God would be deliberately choosing the damnation and eternal suffering of everyone in it, even if each person freely chose the actions resulting in this.
3. From 1, it would seem that God would choose the universe with the fewest damned. Arguably, He would not choose to make a universe in which any were damned. Of course that gets into “best possible world” stuff–it’s better to have ten million damned and four million saved than to have a world where none are saved–but this is fatuous, and Voltaire did a better takedown of this line of thinking than I ever could. There is no way we can make determinations like that (who says the four million saved is worth the ten million damned, anyway?), not least that since damnation and salvation are eternal, it becomes difficult to put valuations on those states. Anything claiming otherwise is mere assertion.
4. Thus, assuming the traditional view that most are damned (let’s say 95%, just to put a number on it), it seems odd that God would have made this universe, rather than one in which only 50% were damned, or 25%, or 10%, or 0%. My opinion is that He did, in fact, make one in which 0% are damned (not to say they don’t undergo lengthy purgation; I’m talking about eternal damnation). To be explicit, I think He made a world in which 0% are ultimately damned, and that world is this one. We are, after all, discussing universalism.
5. Thus, if you assert otherwise, it seems that either you’re saying that somehow 95% damned is congruent with God’s love and mercy–which is fine, but it’s hard to see how that works; or that you’ve got to say that God couldn’t make a universe with better stats. I don’t see how you prove that; and if God is all-loving, I don’t see why he’d even make such a crummy cosmos in the first place.
I doubt any of this changes your mind, which is fine; but perhaps it puts things in a clearer light in terms of what I’m arguing.
Next: A couple more refinements, followed by a look at the motivating factors behind those with the beliefs against which I argued in this post.
Part of the series Universalism (What the Hell?!)