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.
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!
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
- The idea of an eternal universe that goes through infinite cycles of creation, evolution, decline, and dissolution
- Many levels of existence beyond the earthly
- A belief in reincarnation or rebirth, in which beings take on numerous lives in numerous realms
- 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
- 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.
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.
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.
We’ve been looking at arguments against universalism. Here, here, and here we considered the traditional view that God damns sinners to eternal hell as a form of retributive punishment, and found it lacking. Last time, we looked at the notion that the damned actually damn themselves. From an external perspective, which is what we considered, it seems that such a system paints God in every bit as bad a light as does the notion of His vindictively casting sinners into hell. There is, however, another, more psychological flavor of the “damned are in Hell because they damned themselves” argument. I’ve touched on it in the past, but I want to look at it in greater detail now.
The argument is in brief that those who are ultimately lost have not transgressed a rule or set of rules that God has implemented and thus failed to make the cut for Heaven. Rather, they have made themselves, by their own choices, incapable of Heaven. To use an analogy: If I loaf around as a couch potato and don’t go to training sessions, I won’t make the track team. This won’t be a punishment as such–rather, it’s because I won’t have the ability to run! Moreover, if I hate track, then to me, being a couch potato is even desirable! Thus, in a sense, the damned not only have cultivated attitudes and habits that make it impossible for them to appreciate Heaven, but they also get what the really want. Hell, to them, is perhaps not a punishment, but an actual desire. This model of damnation is strikingly–and chillingly–described in C. S. Lewis’s classic novel The Great Divorce.
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.
In the last few posts we’ve looked at several aspects of universalism: whether Hell is compatible with God’s mercy, how the saved view the damned, whether people can be said truly to choose Hell, and what this implies for our personalities.
Now as I noted here, one can argue for the traditional view of Hell (TVOH) on Scriptural or philosophical bases; and as I also noted, it doesn’t seem as if the TVOH can be defended purely on Scriptural bases. In any case, I can understand arguments of this sort even if I don’t agree with them. If one believes that a doctrine of hell is necessitated by Scripture or by philosophical reflection, I can respect that. What I’m more interested in here is motivation. In short, what is the motivation that energizes one’s belief? More to the point, what is one’s attitude towards one’s belief? Let me unpack what I mean.
Suppose I go to the doctor and he says I have cancer in my leg, and that this will require amputation. Now there are three things involved here. One, the matter of actual fact: that is, do I actually have cancer? Second is the treatment: is it necessary to remove the leg, or are there other viable treatments? Third, how do I feel about having the leg removed? Obviously, I’m going to want to establish the first two: I’m going to want to be damn sure that I do have cancer and that amputation is the only option. If these are established, then there’s no help for it. The thing is that I’m not going to be happy about the amputation per se. I’ll be happy if it rids me of cancer, because I’ll be happy to live and to have my health (other than in my leg) restored. However, I’d be a lunatic to cheer on the amputation as such. Even more so, if my doctor seemed to enjoy amputating limbs, I’d be very hesitant to have the operation done, at least by him. To be happy to help someone live by surgery is very much different from getting off on amputation in and of itself.
This is where, in discussions about hell, I find the attitude of supporters of the TVOH very much interesting. I can understand that one might, in light of one’s study of Scripture and of philosophy, feel compelled to believe in hell as traditionally understood, just as an oncologist, on the basis of his expertise, diagnoses cancer. I can also understand that there can be differences of opinion among equally skilled experts. Just as one exegete might argue for the TVOH and another against, so different doctors might disagree as to whether the leg, in the above hypothetical, actually needs to be amputated, or whether some other treatment might work. What I don’t get is the attitude. If my doctor said, “Good news! We gotta take the leg!” it would be grossly understating it to say I’d be taken aback and appalled. However, this cheery, positive attitude seems to be the exact attitude of many who support the traditional view of hell. Perhaps I shouldn’t say “cheery”; but they do invest much emotional energy into supporting hell.
In which I clarify and expand some notions that I unintentionally left hanging last time.
My thesis there is that sin–or human imperfection, if you prefer more neutral terminology–is much like addiction. An addict, becoming progressively more deeply addicted, becomes less in possession of true freedom of action. Unlike a first-time user, who freely uses nicotine or heroin or whatever, the addict uses it from physiological and psychological need. Even with the realization that what he’s doing is bad for himself and that it may compel him to do other negative things–lying, cheating, stealing, even murder–in order to get the next fix, he is powerless to stop. His freedom of will is mitigated, overlaid, suppressed, all because of the addiction. This is why interventions are often necessary to get an addict on the way to healing. Unable to take the first step himself, he needs a prod from others. He may even need to be forcibly institutionalized.
By analogy, I said sin is like an addiction. We suffer from it as a result of genes, upbringing, society, and so on, and are in its grip from the start (what we could call “Original Sin”). Thus, our freedom is compromised by our sinful tendencies, and we are unable, by ourselves, to take the first steps to overcoming sin. In traditional theology, prevenient grace is God’s “intervention”–the prod he gives us that makes us able to begin the process of spiritual rehab (I should point out that this works in any religious framework. God can, and in my view does, give prevenient grace to non-Christians as much as to Christians. The basic concept here could be re-framed in terms of other religions, too, but in this context I’m using the Christian perspective). Extending this further, I argued that this is not a breach of our free will. My contention was that just as an addict’s free will is compromised by his addiction, ours is compromised by sin. I think a strong Scriptural and theological case can be made for this.
Thus, there is a person’s surface, or “false” will–the will that is wounded and compromised by sin. Just as the addict “wants” drugs, we think we “want” all kinds of bad things. Below the false will is the true will–what we’d really want if cleansed of sickness. Just as an addict, after drying out, realizes he doesn’t really want more drugs, the sinner, after cleansing, realizes he never really wanted to sin. Of course, this rests on my unexamined assumption–that is, that there actually is a “true” will, and that this true will is on the side of the angels–that it really, beneath it all, wants the good and wants to escape addictions, of drugs or of sin. But is this assumption true?