Category Archives: Universalism

Will the Ancient Greeks be Saved?

I love ancient Greece. I adore the stories they told about heroes and gods, and delight in how they displayed these stories in stone works and painted objects. My desktop background on my computer is an image of Zeus throwing a thunderbolt. Admittedly I am far more fascinated by ancient Greece than ancient Israel, my religious forebears.

I should point out that I’m using the phrase “ancient Greeks” rather loosely – to refer to everything from the Mycenaean empire to the classical Greece of the philosophers. What has happened to these people? Where are they now? For atheists the answer is simple: they have gone the way of all flesh; dead and decomposed, leaving only a selection of artworks and old ruins to testify that they ever existed. They have been, as we one day will be, gnawed away by the savage teeth of time.

However, for theists – and Christians in particular – the answer is not so simple. Christians traditionally believe that when we die our soul will (prior to the final resurrection) abide either in the presence of God – Heaven – or a place of punishment – Hell. Some might hold to a belief in some form of purgatory, and others might adhere to the notion of “soul sleep,” whereby the dead unconsciously rest awaiting the final resurrection and judgement at the end of time. Regardless, even if we can’t answer the question “heaven or hell?” now, most Christians would agree that the ultimate fate of every person is either heaven or hell – the presence of God, or His absence (sometimes thought to be annihilation, but more commonly conceived as conscious torment). And so the question remains: what of my beloved Greeks? The Greeks lived long before Christ, so knew nothing of the gospel. Moreover, they knew nothing of Yahweh or the Old Testament covenants. Their world was much smaller than ours. Greeks believed that most people went to Hades after death – a ghostly shadowy existence. If you were a particularly great hero you might make it to the Elysian Fields, or even get promoted to Olympian immortality, a la Heracles. But what should Christians think? Will the ancient Greeks go to heaven or hell?

I want to look briefly at four common Christian answers, (though please note this is far from an exhaustive list).

1. The Strict Calvinist Answer

God has preordained the lives of all people. Some are preordained to everlasting life, others to everlasting damnation. Since the ancient Greeks were not part of God’s elect or his chosen people, they are condemned to Hell. God has chosen, in his sovereignty, not to disclose Himself to them and save them. He has chosen to leave them in their wickedness, their fallen human state, a state we see clearly from the poverty of their religious ideas. This is not unjust, on the contrary God is right to punish them as sinners. I confess I have a difficult time with Calvinist explanations such as this one. That God creates millions of people without any hope of salvation and destined for eternal conscious torment is a rather disgusting doctrine that every fibre of my moral sense resists. Of course, it might turn out to be true, but given how the doctrine flies in the face of our sense of morality and justice I think we are justified in looking at other answers.

2. The Qualified Universalist Answer

This view holds that whilst everyone who hears the gospel and rejects it is hellbound, those who have never heard it – such as the ancient Greeks – get a free pass through the pearly gates by dint of ignorance. This view can be heard often enough at the popular level, but it isn’t one I’ve heard from any Christian theologian, since it suffers from one fatal problem: If it’s the case that ignorance of the gospel gives a free pass to heaven then there seems fairly strong moral case against evangelism. Preaching to those who have never heard the gospel puts them at serious risk. The way to populate heaven would be to keep the gospel to yourself, hide all the Bibles, close the churches, and suppress the gospel message as far as possible.

3. The Liberal Universalist Answer

On this view people such as the ancient Greeks will go to heaven because ultimately everyone does anyway. This obviously avoids the problem with qualified universalism by dispensing with the eternal punishments of Hell, but does it threaten the importance of preaching and mission? Many Christian theologians think it does, but I think that might be hasty. Admittedly, if all religions are equally good paths to God, then the importance of preaching and mission with a view to conversion is unnecessary. However, that idea is not essential to universalism. Perhaps a universalist could hold that whilst everyone ultimately goes to heaven, there are different ways of getting there and some are better than others. Perhaps Christianity is the pinnacle of God’s self-revelation to the world, and perhaps those who embrace it get further along on the journey. This, however, strikes me as speculative and with little basis in Christian tradition, despite the best efforts of excellent thinkers – such as John Hick – to give it a theological basis.

4. The Standard Answer

Here the notion is that those who have never received the gospel are simply judged by the light that they do have, and thus some of the ancient Greeks are bound for heaven, whilst others bound for hell. What is it to be judged by the light one has? Well, it means that each person is held to a standard suitable for their moral and spiritual knowledge and awareness. Has some given person done well with the knowledge he or she had available? Take some ancient Greek – perhaps a priest of Apollo. He believes in the gods, has a sense of right and wrong which he seeks to live by, desires to worship the gods in the way he sees as proper and fitting, and in particular wishes to see Apollo exalted and honoured and the people who come to worship him blessed. He does not know Yahweh, but he does have some religious or moral awareness which he seeks to follow as well as he can. Is it not plausible that such a man will be saved? I cannot of course say that he will or he won’t – humans are poorly placed indeed – morally and epistemologically – to make such judgments, but I don’t see that we can rule it out and it strikes me as a solution to the problem which should satisfy most believers.

Perhaps then one day I might just shoot the breeze with Plato or have a good laugh with Aristophanes.

Stephen J. Graham

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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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