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«Three Versions of Universalism Michael J. Murray The doctrine of hell is as troubling as any feature of the traditional Christian faith. The notion ...»

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Three Versions of Universalism

Michael J. Murray

The doctrine of hell is as troubling as any feature of the traditional Christian faith.

The notion that God would send some of His creatures, all of whom He loves, to an eternity

of suffering in separation from Him seems to many to border on incoherence. As a result,

this traditional doctrine has come under increasing critical pressure as many philosophers of

religion, even Christian philosophers of religion, argue that such a doctrine is philosophically indefensible.1 A number of alternative accounts of human eternal destiny have been proposed by these critics,2 and foremost among these is the doctrine of universalism, i.e., the doctrine that all are ultimately redeemed to enjoy perfect communion with God forever. In this paper I offer some critical philosophical reflections on the doctrine of universalism.

Attempts to defend the traditional conception of hell usually come in one of two forms. The first consists of arguments by way of revealed theology, that is, theological arguments in favor of the view which arise from exposition of the relevant Biblical texts.3 The second consists of attempts to argue for the view by defending it against charges of internal inconsistency.4 This second strategy often amounts to more of a theodicy or defense of hell than it does an argument for advantages of the traditional doctrine over its competitors. In this essay however, I will attempt to argue for the traditional view not by arguing for its internal consistency, but by arguing directly against what I take to be its most popular competitor, universalism.

The argument will consist of three parts. I will begin by developing the simplest version of universalism, one which it appears none has endorsed, but one which will allow us to set out some critical apparatus that will be useful later. I will then look at two sophisticated variants of the naive view, variants which are widely endorsed by universalists.

I will then show how these sophisticated versions fall prey to difficulties related to those facing the naive view.

Naive Universalism As I will use the term here, naive universalism (NU) is the view that upon death all persons are instantly transformed by God in such a way that they fully desire communion with God and are thus fit for enjoying the beatific vision forever. With one possible exception, no one has endorsed naive universalism.5 Yet, by starting with this view, and raising some objections against it, it will be easier to motivate the more sophisticated versions of universalism and the objections these versions face.

The Gratuitous Earthly Life The first difficulty facing naive universalism (NU) is, somewhat surprisingly, a problem of gratuitousevil. What is surprising about this is that the universalist position is usually proposed as a way of solving at least one problem of gratuitous evil, the one which (supposedly) arises by way of the traditional doctrine of hell.6 And while universalism would solve such a problem (if there were one), it raises an equally difficult problem with respect to evil in via., i.e., evil experienced by persons (at least) in their earthly life. Most (though not all) theists admit that gratuitous evils, if any there be, would present significant difficulties for traditional theism. Thus, it would be a serious blow to the universalist scheme if one can show that it admits instances of evil which cannot be justified as in some sense a necessary condition for the occurrence of some greater good or prevention of some greater evil,.

For my purposes, we can characterize gratuitous and nongratuitous evil more

carefully as follows:

(NGE) An evil E is nongratuitous if, and only if, (a) there exists some outweighing intrinsic good G such that it was not within God's power to achieve G without either permitting E or permitting some other evil at least as bad as E and (b) there is not some further intrinsic good G*, which is both exclusive of G and greater than G, which could have been secured without permitting E or some other evil at least as bad as E.

(GE) An evil E is gratuitous if, and only if, it is not non-gratuitous.7 We can begin to frame this first problem for NU as follows. On the NU picture, all human beings end up in perfect communion with God, enjoying the beatific vision forever.

This entails, however, that one’s fate in eternity is entirely independent of the individual choices a person makes and the beliefs a person adopts in the earthly phase of their existence. Thus, the evils that one experiences in the earthly life are gratuitous. Why, one is led to wonder, would God put us through such a pointless exercise, an exercise filled with much misery, suffering, and travail, only in the end to invest the experience with no ultimate consequences or significance?

Universalists who rejects the traditional view because it seems to include gratuitous suffering on the part of the damned thus seem to exchange this difficulty for the problem of gratuitous evil in via. While they can dismiss the (supposed) gratuitous evils of hell, they must now account for evils experienced in the earthly life.

The universalist might respond here that earthly evils are not without purpose since, contrary to first appearances, they are necessary conditions for procuring outweighing goods. However, the universalist continues, the outweighing goods in this case are found not in the afterlife, but in the earthly life itself. Thus, while evils in this life do not affect my eternal destiny, they do affect the course of the earthly life itself and in this way earthly evils have their purpose in bringing about outweighing earthly goods.





Notice, however, that this response misses the point of the original criticism. While the response offered here shows that the evils in the earthly life might satisfy conjunct (a) in the right half of the biconditional (NGE), it fails to satisfy conjunct (b). The intrinsic good of the earthly life, on the NU scheme, seems outweighed by the good one would have experienced if one has been created enjoying perfect communion with God from the beginning. Why would God prefer to have us spend our first seventy or so years of existence in this earthly phase, enjoying a measure of intrinsic good but with the accompanying evil required to secure it, rather than positioning us in such a way that these years are spent in perfect communion with Him in heaven? After all, any earthly goods obtained would pale in comparison with the goods achieved by spending those years in this way.

Universalists might instead respond to this objection by claiming that their response to the “problem of in via evil” need be no different than that of many traditional theists.

John Hick, a proponent of universalism, responds in this way, arguing that the purpose of earthly evil is to allow the possibility of “soul-making.”8 In this life we are exposed to evil as a necessary condition for being able to freely cultivate characters that are either virtuous or vicious. And things are no different on the universalist view: evil allows us to develop characters that are good or evil. How does the fact that all end up in heaven detract from the value of the soul-making experience? The proponent of NU might construct an analogy here between the earthly life and rites of passage for entering into certain clubs or organizations, such as the pledging process for fraternities or two-a-days in the pre-season for college football. In both cases, one might argue, the purpose of the rite is to develop certain traits in the initiant. The fact that no one, in the end, fails to become a member of the group is just irrelevant. Why can’t the earthly life serve a similar functions with respect to eternity? That is, the earthly life serves to develop characters, but all are nonetheless admitted into perfect communion with God in the end.

While there are a number of promising features in such an analogy, the disanalogies between these cases and the universalist scheme are telling. No doubt, the function of these rites of passage in fraternities and team sports serve a certain purpose: something analogous to soul-making. It is the qualities developed during the rite that determine the quality of the experiences of future group members. But the outcomes in such cases may vary significantly. One might grow to respect and appreciate the coach, or one might grow to despise him. Even though the initiants might recognize that some of the traits developed are useful for playing the game, they can still love playing the game or hate it. And so, similarly, it seems, if soul-making allows us to develop in an analogous way, similar differences may be found in the quality of the experience of those who later enter heaven.

Those who have cultivated well-ordered characters will enjoy the goods afforded in eternity.

But what of those who failed to do so? Either they will be “miraculously transformed” into lovers of God, or they will spend eternity in the presence of God, but be unable to enjoy it. If the former then the evil in via is thoroughly gratuitous. But if it is the latter, then there are some for whom existence in heaven will be tantamount to a life in hell.

Those who have cultivated self-loving characters will not find happiness in being forced to commune with God and so will despise their existence. This alternative seems even more suspect since on their view, heaven is described as a place where one finds true well-being and fulfillment in the beatific vision. Notice finally that this view backs away from the original position since, according to it, there is no instant transformation of the person which makes them suited for perfect communion with God. Instead, persons come as they are, with the character they have cultivated, and the quality of their experience is determined by the character they bring.

The Denial of “Autonomy” This leads us to a second closely related argument against NU which has as its focus a certain feature of creaturely freedom. Above I have argued that NU entails that nothing in one’s earthly existence serves as a necessary condition (as described in NGE) for securing perfect communion with God, making it and the evil it contains gratuitous. As I noted, this seems to raise a troubling problem of evil. But such a view also seems to infringe on a certain important feature of creaturely freedom since it entails that one’s choices have no effect on the outworking of one’s destiny.

It is a commonplace among theists responding to the problem of evil that appeal be made to creaturely freedom. Since, creatures are free (in the libertarian sense) they have the power to go wrong, and God cannot de-activate this power without de-activating the creature’s freedom. Furthermore, it is commonly held that the existence of these free creatures justifies the resultant moral evil, since a world with free creatures is on balance better because the existence of such creatures permits the possibility of moral goods.9 But, as many have noted, it is not mere “freedom of choice” that the theist is after with such theodicies. What the theist really needs is a freedom of choosing that is expressed in actions that influence the course of events in the world. Thus, in addition to the ability to choose in the absence of determinism, the libertarian theist also wants choices that result in significant change in the local environment. Let us call this latter feature “autonomy” to distinguish it from the mere “freedom of choice” often emphasized by libertarians.10 Thus, a world with “autonomous” creatures is a world where creatures are not only allowed to make evil choices, but choices which issue in evil acts and have evil consequences. A world with agents who can choose freely but are unable to act autonomously would be a world filled with freely choosing brains-in-vats. While free choosing might go on, the choices would never have expression in or impact on the local environment, whether good or evil. There are, of course, different sorts of effects on the local environment that free choices might have. A presupposition of any soul-making style theodicy, is that one of the relevant effects of our actions is the strengthening or weakening of our virtues and/or vices. In fact, as noted earlier, some theists, including some universalists, think that the power to bring about virtues and vices in our character is the very essence of human earthly existence.

George Schlesinger, in his article “The Scope of Human Autonomy”11 argues that one problem for universalism is that while it allows freedom of choice, it denies autonomy (in the above sense) because eternal outcomes do not vary with earthly choices. That is, while it allows human beings to make choices, including choices that are relevant for soulmaking, it does not allow outcomes to vary accordingly, since those who choose to develop characters which are self-directed and not God-directed are summarily transformed. More broadly we might say that one can choose to cultivate a morally vicious character, but in the end one cannot have such a character. One can choose to act in such a way as to acquire such a character, but in the end one will be unable to effect such a development in character.

Of course, for God to set us up in this fashion is just to take away the autonomy we need for free action to have the significance that makes it worth having. One might think about NU by way of the following analogy. On the picture proposed by the universalist, it is as if one were to go to the drive-through window at a fast food restaurant, make a selection, and order. But, no matter what is ordered, the attendant hands over the same food.

If you order fish, you get a hamburger, if you order ice cream, you get a hamburger, if you order a french fries, you get a hamburger.... You are welcome to freely choose whatever menu item you like, but at this restaurant, you have it their way. And so it is on the universalist picture. You are welcome to do whatever you like, but with God, you have it His way. As a result, while free choosing may go on in the universalist’s world, it is a free choosing that is without autonomy, since one is transformed into a lover of God, whether one chooses to be such or not.



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