The Attraction of Universalism – Reflections

Universalism has never been Christian orthodoxy though it has always had its defenders, from early days with Origen right up to recent times with John Hick. The reason it has never become orthodoxy is because the Bible nowhere teaches it. Those who argue for universalism typically do so by way of inference from other theological propositions they assent to. Despite this fact the case for universalism has strong appeal.

First and foremost it has a strong emotional, or psychological, appeal. Human beings naturally desire that everything will work out for the best; that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well,” as Julian of Norwich put it. Even with respect to the worst representatives of humanity – say, Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot – we rightly desire the best. Not, of course, that we would wish well upon them in their wickedness, but rather we wish that even those we regard as hideously wicked would change, would realize their wickedness, would become good; in short that they would repent. Nietzsche once warned of those people who had an unhealthy obsession with punishing others. Surely this applies to Christians as strongly as to anyone else, given that salvation is by grace, and if justice were to have the final word who could stand?

Secondly, universalists are correct to point out possible and plausible roads of inference from certain other Christian beliefs to universalism. For example, the philosopher Peter Kreeft thinks of Hell as in some sense self-inflicted. It is a choice to reject God and thus the damned must live with that consequence. Kreeft even thinks that the damned could turn and accept God but they simply refuse to do so. He even speculates that Hell and Heaven could be objectively the same place – the immediate presence of God – but the damned experience this presence as torturous and rather than turn and face the light they prefer to chase their own shadow – forever.

The late John Hick would, I think, chastise Kreeft for not taking his view to its logical conclusion. God – a being who is all-loving and who desires all people to come to Him is reasonably thought of as a being who would never give up on any of his creatures. He would never stop trying to win them over. Of course, God could never force their will and make them accept Him. But, argues Hick, if we really believe God is the greatest being in the universe – a being possessing omnipotence and omniscience – and if He has all of eternity in which to work, is it not perfectly reasonable that eventually all of the damned will stop “chasing their own shadow” and be won over by God?

Hick admits that it’s strictly logically possible that some free creatures will continue shunning God forever, but regards it as practically impossible. He invites us to consider the analogy of William James, in which a master chess player is playing against a novice. It’s logically possible that the novice will win, but it’s a practical certainty that the expert will, eventually, get the check-mate.

There is, so it seems to me, real force in Hick’s position considered against that of Kreeft as it stands. Those who adopt a Kreeftian approach to Hell will have to reckon with Hick’s argument, and at the very least be open to the possibility that all will eventually be won to salvation.

More conservative approaches to Hell are not faced with this problem. On these views human beings, during their earthly lives, make a final decision for or against God and the salvation He offers. Thus, more conservative theologians think Kreeft is incorrect to suppose that the damned could turn to God but choose not to and thus remain in Hell. On the conservative viewpoint the door of Hell is irreversibly locked. There is no escape. The damned are lost forever, not primarily by dint of self-separation, but rather as a punishment for their sin.

Universalists typically think this is simply unjust, and presents the Christian theist with the enormous difficulty of squaring the doctrine with the goodness and justice of God. Here again there is strong intuitive appeal in the universalist case. It does indeed seem (prima facie) perverse that a human being should be lost for all eternity – completely cut off from God – as a result of his or her finite sins. William Lane Craig argues that it is at least plausible that the sin of rejecting God is of such magnitude that it warrants eternal punishment. But don’t we rightfully ask: Are such people really irrevocably evil such that not even God in all His majesty could bring them to their senses? I confess I find that a very difficult idea to accept. It’s seems so alien to much of our experience of other people.

What then for the non-universalist? He could take refuge in the doctrine of conditional immortality – the idea that those who reject God simply go out of existence. Or perhaps he or she will point out that reactions to the traditional doctrine – such as mine above – simply don’t reckon at all fully with the depths of the depravity of sin. The defender of the traditional picture might simply point out that since we know God is all-powerful, wholly good and perfectly just, and since Jesus Christ certainly seems to have been no universalist, then the existence of Hell is compatible with God’s goodness and justice even if we can’t see how. Perhaps in our sinful state we grossly underestimate the holiness of God. Perhaps our sin itself blinds us to the depths of our sin, making us poor judges of such matters. And thus with Abraham we can simply cry “Will not the Judge of the earth do right?”

Which brings us full circle to a point I made at the beginning: universalism is not taught in scripture, and I can’t see any plausible way of interpreting scripture in universalist terms, or squaring universalism with the teaching of Jesus Christ. Universalism, however attractive, cannot therefore be adopted as a Christian doctrine – that doesn’t mean we can’t hope that it will be true. True or not the Christian hope is simply that the Judge of the earth will indeed do right.

Stephen J Graham

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Filed under Hell, Universalism

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