Universalism: A Summary Defense
Early in the history of this blog I posted my reasons for subscribing to universalism. Lately I've wanted to pull those arguments into a summary post. Here, then, are the reasons I believe in universal reconciliation, the eventual redemption of all of humanity.
1. Talbott's Propositions (along with a discussion of moral luck and human volition)
The philosopher Thomas Talbott has us consider the following three propositions:
God’s redemptive love extends to all human sinners equally in the sense that he sincerely wills or desires the redemption of each one of them.
Because no one can finally defeat God’s redemptive love or resist it forever, God will triumph in the end and successfully accomplish the redemption of everyone whose redemption he sincerely wills or desires.
Some human sinners will never be redeemed but will instead be separated from God forever.
All three propositions have ample biblical support. But, as Talbott points out, you cannot, logically, endorse all three. Talbott goes on to show how the various soteriological systems adopt two of the propositions and reject/marginalize the third. Summarizing how this happens:
Calvinism/Augustinianism: Adopt #2 and #3. God will accomplish his plans and some will be separated from God forever. This implies a rejection of #1, that God wills to save all humanity. This conclusion is captured in the doctrine of election and double predestination (i.e., God predestines some to be saved and some to be lost).
Arminianism: Adopt #1 and #3. God loves all people and some people will be separated from God forever. This implies that God's desires--for example, to save everyone--can be thwarted and unfulfilled. This is usually explained by an appeal to human choice. Due to free will people can resist/reject God. Thus, where a Calvinist puts the "blame" on God for someone going to hell (election) Arminians place the blame on people (free will).
Universalism: Adopt #1 and #2. God loves all people and will accomplish his purposes. This implies a rejection of #3. The implication is that God will continue his salvific work in some postmortem fashion. Note that this postmortem salvific work can, and often does, involve a strong vision of hell and can be Christocentric.
I reject Calvinism because I find the doctrine of election to be loathsome. I don't find God worthy of worship, praise or service if he created people with the intention of torturing most of them forever. True, such actions would demonstrate his sovereignty and "justice" but it is hard to see those actions as loving and praise-worthy. Also, I don't see how Calvinism allows for a dynamic and interactive relationship between God and humanity. We end up being mere puppets and playthings.
To be fair, the reason Calvinism and Reformed theology leaves me cold is largely biographical. I grew up in an Arminian tradition. Since college, however, I've grown disillusioned with free will soteriological and theodicy systems. For three interrelated reasons:
Moral Luck: We begin life in very different places, morally and religiously. Some people get a head start on Christianity. Others are raised in different religious traditions. Further, our life journeys can be highly variable, religiously and morally. A child might be abused by a church leader. A missionary might never show up at your village.
The Timing of Death is Unpredictable: The death event is arbitrary in its timing. Some people live to a ripe old age and get to repent of past sins or find the time to explore Christianity (if they were born into another religion). Other people die young and never get the chance, through no fault of their own, to repent or explore Christianity.
Free Will is a Non-Starter: As a psychologist I've come to believe that human volition (will) is very circumscribed and anemic in its powers. Humans have the capacity for choice, and perhaps freedom within a certain range, but at the end of the day human choice is finite and limited. It can only do so much.
Given that our moral and religious journeys are qualitatively different (e.g., moral luck: some people get head starts), that death is random (which can arbitrarily lengthen or shorten your religious and moral journey) and a realistic view of human volitional powers (there is no radical form of free will) it was difficult for me to maintain the Arminian stance of my religious heritage.
So, having rejected both Reformed and Arminian thinking I've settled on universalism as the soteriological and eschatological system that best describes my views on salvation and redemption.
2. A Morally Coherent View of Justice
Most defenders of a classical view of hell eventually make appeals to God's justice. However, for justice to be justice it has to meet a few, almost axiomatic, standards. Most importantly, all notions of justice involve proportionality. As they say, the punishment must fit the crime. Thus, a punishment of infinite duration and unspeakable torment fails to meet any moral standard of justice. More, if we want to link justice to love then there needs to be a rehabilitative facet to the punishment. Not all justice is rehabilitative. Capital punishment isn't. But a loving justice will try to accomplish three things:
Vengeance for Victims (Justice)
Rehabilitation of the Perpetrators (Grace)
The Reconciliation of Perpetrators and Victims (Forgiveness and Repentance)
Of the major soteriological systems only universalism gets us all three of these things.
3. Missional Concerns Over the Soteriological/Eschatological Disjoint
Many people in the church see salvation as a binary, you are either saved or lost. Christians then fetishize this status, obsessing over who, at Judgment Day, will be saved or lost. This causes the Christian community to become otherworldly in its focus, ignoring the cosmic (e.g., social, political, ecological) and developmental (i.e., sanctification) aspects of salvation. This becomes a missional problem in the church, where people just look to "get saved," eschatologically speaking. But it is hard to fault people for this fetish if they are seeing things correctly, that there will be a non-reversible binary judgement at the end of all things. In short, as much as missional church leaders want to instill the notion that salvation is this-worldly as well as other-worldly they will fail, for clear psychological reasons, unless they undermine the classic doctrine of hell. Leave the classical teaching of hell intact (overtly or by trying to ignore it) and you'll compromise your missional effort. Like it or not, hell and mission are intimately related. Worries over hell (which can't be helped if you leave the doctrine intact) will import otherworldliness into the mission of the church.
4. Regulating Passages
The biggest objection to universalism involves the passages regarding hell in the bible. However, there is no doctrinal teaching that doesn't have contradictory tensions within the biblical witness. Witness the hermeneutical and exegetical diversity within the Christian tradition. In short, universalists are not in any unique position. This is the way it is with just about any doctrine.
The issue, then, ultimately boils down to which biblical texts will regulate doctrinal choices. For example, which of the two passages regulates your doctrine regarding female leadership in the church?
"I do not permit a woman to teach, nor have authority over a man." (1 Timothy 2.12)
"There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3.28)
If you are a Complementarian Passage #1 regulates your understanding of Passage #2. If you are an Egalitarian Passage #2 regulates how you understand Passage #1. And there is no way to resolve any debate between the two camps as these are meta-biblical choices.
A similar thing holds for the soteriological debates. Universalists have regulating passages that frame how they understand the texts about hell. Here are four regulating texts for universalists:
"God is love." (1 John 4.8)
"For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross." (Colossians 1.19-20)
"When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all." (1 Corinthians 15.28)
"For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all." (Romans 11.32)
As with the gender texts one has to choose regulating texts about hell. And these are meta-biblical choices. People who believe in a classical vision of hell will read the four passages above through that lens. Universalists, by contrast, will read the texts on hell through the lens of these four passages. That is, they will teach that hell must:
Be a manifestation that "God is love."
Be a means to "reconcile all things" to God
Allow God to be "all in all"
Provide a way for God to "have mercy upon all"
I think it was Karl Barth who said that he couldn't be sure if universalism was true but that it was every Christian's obligation to hope so.