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I’ve written about angels before, in different contexts.  Here I want to address the most basic question about angels, to wit:  Do they exist?  My answer, not to leave you in suspense, is “yes”, but it will require a bit of unpacking to get there.

Part of the reason I write this is that a periodic interlocutor on another blog I frequent habitually argues that “angels” are to be understood not as separate beings, but rather as manifestations or perhaps appendages of God.  An “angel of the LORD”* is no more an individual entity than my hand or foot is.  I disagree with this, but there is some ground for this assertion.

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Arguments Against Universalism: Missing the Point, Revisited

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.

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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: 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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The Disenchantment of the World, Part 2: The Rise of Monotheism


Last time we looked at ancient religion and noted that the so-called “Three C’s” of religion–that is, Cult (worship), Creed (belief), and Conduct (behavior)–were generally separate.  The great exception to this was Judaism.  To lay the background, it’s important to note what Judaism is not.  Judaism is typically contrasted with the other religions of antiquity in that it is said to be the first monotheistic religion.  In fact, the evidence is that Judaism in its inception was henotheistic, not monotheistic.  That is to say, while only one god, YHWH, was worshiped, the existence of other gods was not denied.  Traces of this can be found in places in the Bible such as Genesis 1:26, Exodus 15:11, and Psalm 95:3, among others.  Full monotheism–the belief that only one god exists–developed gradually, becoming more or less set by the prophetic era (7th to 6th Centuries BC).

Judaism was also not the first monotheistic religion.  Atenism, the religion of the so-called “heretic Pharaoh” Akhenaten, as well as Zoroastrianism, were both arguably monotheistic (although there is debate on this; but that’s a can of worms I don’t want to open now) before Judaism.  The uniqueness of Judaism lay not in its monotheism or in its being the first religion to be monotheistic.  Rather, it was the first religion that could be characterized as “ethical monotheism“.

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The Abrahamic Faiths


Having talked about ways to understand and categorize religions, let’s now do so.  There are various ways to do so:  by geographic region (Asian religions, African religions, European religions, etc.); by founding (revealed religions vs. folk religions, etc.); and so on.  I want to look at what might be called “genetic” or “family” relationships.  That is, members of a particular faith might modify, develop, or alter doctrines, worldviews, and such, until what initially is a sort of heresy of the original religion becomes a brand new religion in its own right.  That process is a topic for the future.  Right now, I want to look at the “family” of religions that claims the most adherents worldwide, the Abrahamic family of religions.

In the early days of the United States, though the Founders strongly emphasized freedom of religion and did not, themselves, think of America as founded on Christianity or any other religion, the general feeling was that the U. S. was, in a sense a “Christian” nation.  In the 20th Century, as the nation became more diverse, there was some effort to expand the definitions of U. S. religious culture.  Particularly after World War II, in light of the Holocaust, and in an attempt at reparation for the Antisemitism that had been all too common previously, it became common, and later expected, to use the term “Judeo-Christian”.  The idea was to emphasize commonalities–ethics, the Ten Commandments, etc.–as an attempt at a more irenic way of speaking about religions.  It has been objected–and in my mind, rightly so, to some extent–that the term “Judeo-Christian” is a bit of a weasel word that improperly conflates vastly different faiths.  Nevertheless, it has been thought of as a better-than-nothing term.  However, as Islam has become more noticeable in our society, there has been a casting about for a new term.  “Judeo-Christian-Islamic” and similar locutions have been tried, but are cumbersome.  Finally, the term “Abrahamic” has been coined as a way of embracing the commonalities of all three religions.  In this case, I think the term is good and useful.  It is this which I wish to discuss.

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Hell, Salafis, Philosophers, and Playing the Odds

Over at his blog at The American Conservative, Rod Dreher quotes from this original article over at The New Republic online.  Here’s the part that Rod quotes, my emphasis:

I never asked much of Hesham El Ashry, and Hesham never asked much of me. All I wanted was some conversation about religion and Egyptian politics with someone who had strong views on both.  All Hesham wanted was one more chance to describe in grotesque detail the fate that awaited me and everybody I loved: Our skin would thicken, not with callouses but with soft, thin, tender layers, each more sensitive than the last. Eventually the accumulated layers would be miles deep. And then God—not my god, or the god of the vast majority of so-called Muslims, but the one true Allah, worshiped by Hesham’s fellow Salafis—would burn off those layers individually, savoring the pain until he reached flesh. Then Allah would restore them again, like Prometheus’s liver, so he could blister and rip them away for eternity.

“Do you feel that?” Hesham asked me once, gently handing me a scorching glass of Lipton, poured straight from a whistling kettle. He never missed a chance to illustrate a point. My fingertips burned, and I recoiled a little, losing a splash of the tea. “You feel why Allah chooses heat,” he said. “Because it’s the worst torture there is.”

Hesham is a squat little guy, 52 years old and usually smiling, as guys who think a lot about hellfire and how they are surely going to avoid it often do. Though he is not rich, he spends his time and money freely in an effort to convert new Muslims, and for the last year, I have been a special project. His goal is as much spiritual as hygienic—a quest to purify Islam and the world of heresy and disbelief.

Every couple months, I visited his tailor shop in downtown Cairo for instruction in the narrow, rigid take on Islam known as Salafism. As a Salafi, Hesham explained, he is concerned not only with replicating the ways of the prophet and his companions, but also with erasing all religious “innovation” (other Muslims might call it “development” or “progress”) that has perverted Islam since the eighth century. He always greeted me cheerily, with a “Salaam” and a handshake. Eventually, we achieved a sort of unconventional friendship. “I hate you,” he told me in August, with a smile. “I hate all Jews and Christians, anyone who is not a Muslim.”

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Theism: Poly, Mono, Heno, and Other Options

This is about some issues I’ve thought about for some time, but have never written up, for whatever reason.  The thing that inspired me to write now was a comment on a recent thread over at the Ocholophobist’s current blog [no longer available in this iteration as of April 2016, alas] (my emphasis):

There’s certainly a Protestantized/pop Catholicism for converts which seems to “stick” and yet only does so by watering down and trivializing what I would consider to be central elements of the Catholic faith. Granted, certain segments of American Orthodoxy do this as well (“We don’t pray to Saints; we just ask them to pray for us, like friends!”), but I’m not sure they pull it off as easily.

Well said, I thought upon reading it; and after mulling it over for a few days, have decided to write this post.

Simplistically, people typically take “polytheism” to mean “worshiping many gods” and “monotheism” to mean “worshiping but one god”.  Even atheists and agnostics tend to accept these definitions.  Such definitions aren’t exactly wrong; but they do little justice to the complex reality of religious belief.  Furthermore, they do not exhaust all the options.   Read the rest of this entry