Those of us who are Gnostics believe that all people are ultimately saved and that God always loves us, no matter what we do. These beliefs are true, but they can very easily be simplified and misunderstood. God is never angry with us in the way in which a vengeful human would reject us, but God’s love for us has a dark side and one which we should rightfully fear. God loves us not in a sentimental way which aims at our ease and pleasure but, rather in a way which aims at our highest good and with an intensity which no one, even the highest angels, can understand.
–Edward J. Parkinson, in “Divine Justice: Gnostic Reflections on Some Often Terrifying Realities” at CatholicGnostics.com.; courtesy Wikiquote
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.
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.
Recently we looked at universalism in relationship to Scripture and Tradition, and we saw that neither of these sources of authority conclusively condemns the hope of universal salvation. In short, while we can’t argue that universalism is definitively true based on these sources, neither can we say it us ruled out, either. Universalism is therefore a possible and non-heretical option. Whether it is reasonable or likely is an issue for philosophical and theological discourse, which has been the overall approach of this series.
I have certainly posted plenty of things philosophical in this series on universalism, and I think I’ve dealt with all the most important issues. I would like to look at one somewhat ancillary issue, though. This is inspired by a recent blog discussion I had (which I also referenced in the last post). At one point, an interlocutor going by the handle seven sleepers, in taking issue with my stated opinion on universalism, said, “Side note: If you ditch hell, you lose heaven. Pretty obvious that to lose one is to lose the other.” My response there was, “No, it is not, in fact, obvious, nor is this assertion even logical. It is merely an assertion.” In this post I’d like–very briefly!–to unpack my thoughts on this.
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.
Here we talked about the creation of the material world and embodied intelligences (us) by God. Over here we looked at how truly free creatures must be created at a certain “distance” from God’s perfection, with the (probably inevitable) corollary that at least some, if not most, of them will fall away to one degree or another. Let us now start connecting these two threads and see where this leads us.
First, it is worth pointing out a slight nuance in the concept of the Fall. To the orthodox, the Fall of mankind came after embodiment. That is, humans were originally created as embodied souls. Since humans were, in this narrative, primordially innocent, there was thus nothing “wrong” with embodiment. Had the Fall not occurred, humans would have lived embodied lives in innocent perfection. Embodiment is a feature, not a bug, so to speak. The Fall distorted the relationship of body and soul; but that relationship in and of itself is fundamentally good. It is also important to point out that in this model, we don’t have a body; that is, we are not actually a spirit that just inhabits a corporeal form. Rather, we are a body; or better, we are a holistic combination of body and soul making up one single hypostasis (person).
C. S. Lewis puts it in somewhat mystical language in Chapter 14 of The Great Divorce:
I saw a great assembly of gigantic forms all motionless, all in deepest silence, standing forever about a little silver table and looking up on it. And on the table were little figures like chessmen who went to and fro doing this and that. And I knew that each chessman was the idolum or puppet of some one of the great presences that stood by. And the acts and motions of each chessman were a moving portrait, a mimickry or pantomime, which delineated the inmost nature of his giant master. And these chessmen are men and women as they appear to themselves and to one another in the world. And the silver table is Time. And those who stand and watch are the immortal souls of those same men and women.
Thus the body and the soul are in a sense different manifestations of the same thing, merely seeming different (puppet vs. giant) because of our perception of time.
In the Gnostic mythos, the body, along with the rest of the material cosmos, is created by the evil and/or ignorant Demiurge, who makes it as a sort of imperfect, Bizarro-world copy of the dimly perceived Pleroma (the perfect spiritual world of the Aeons, the angelic intelligences created by God). Thus, embodiment is a bad thing, as the material world itself is a bad thing, at best a pale reflection of the true Good, at worst a cesspit of suffering and limitation. Some versions of the Gnostic mythos posit embodiment as a theft of the Light–the spiritual essence that comes from the Pleroma–by the Demiurge and his Archons; in some versions, Sophia (the Aeon whose sin led to the existence of the Demiurge in the first place) deliberately “seeds” the human body with the Light, as a long-term “time bomb” that will defeat the Demiurge and ultimately bring about the end of the material cosmos. In this reading, embodiment is a good thing for the goal it will ultimately achieve; but it is still bad for us at the present. Our goal is to escape embodiment and return to the Pleroma.
Thus, the Gnostic perspective holds embodiment to happen after the Fall, or perhaps to be a sort of Fall itself; and the antagonism of the spirit and the body is not an accident, but it is baked into the cake, so to speak. We are not a body-soul amalgam, as in orthodoxy, but a soul–our true self–which is unfortunately connected to a body (or possibly many bodies–some forms of Gnosticism posit reincarnation) as a result of the entrapment of the Light in matter.
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.