Thursday, 3 October 2019

Universalism

One of the strands of Christian thought maintains that God's mercy is such that everybody will eventually be saved. This is called universalism and goes back at least as far as the 3rd century theologian Origen. It's a tempting doctrine, especially for those who focus on the love of God more than the truth of God, but it does have certain problems.

Before considering those, let's look at its attractions and how it might work. The main attraction is obviously that everything is working for the good and no one will be left behind. Somehow every human soul will be brought to salvation. However long it takes, everyone gets to heaven. This might work through a long period of purgatory or it could work through reincarnation with souls continuously coming back until they learn their lessons and are purified of their sins. God has all the time he wants to bring this about and so there is no reason why it cannot come to pass.

The chief objection to universalism is that it comes close to making a mockery of free will which is the defining characteristic of a spiritual being and the reason why God created human souls. It's why we live in a world of good and evil where we have to make a positive choice and the fact of God is not self-evident. We have to incline our hearts to him of our own accord.

This objection might be got around by saying that all those who are saved do eventually have to choose God and not reject him, but if you reject God constantly and only finally accept him because circumstances force you to do so, is this really free will? Surely the whole point is that you choose God when you don't have to, when there are other options that might seem preferable? This act of choice, freely made without coercion or experiencing the results of wrong choices, indicates what you are like inside as a person. If it is only endless experiences in purgatory or a sequence of earthly lives that finally bring you round to God when you have more or less exhausted every other possibility, is that really your own choice, your free choice? Does it reflect who and what you are? You see the problem. If all are saved then salvation is devalued. If it happens anyway then why bother to make spiritual efforts? You might get there earlier but so what? Sin away in perfect freedom, thumb your nose at God who is just a benevolent old uncle who tut tuts affectionately but doesn't really mind what you get up to.

There is something unusual about the present time. It does seem, more than in the past, as if human beings are being called to make a definitive choice, though whether this is for all time or the foreseeable future is a moot point. But it could be that there is a parting of the ways with those who do choose to follow God being taken to higher ways of being while those who either actively deny him or just can't make the leap of faith being held back and left on lower levels. Jesus talks of sheep and goats. He didn't seem to be a universalist. He warns us of the perils of hell in language that leaves no room for doubt. On the other hand, God is merciful and the parable of the prodigal son might offer hope to everyone.

Perhaps to think in terms of salvation and damnation is a mistake. Which is not to say those two conditions do not exist. I'm sure they do and we'd better believe it. But maybe there are many worlds between these two extremes where souls that have neither embraced the reality of God nor sunk to total rejection of him experience external environments that correspond to the inner state of their souls. Until such time as they change that inner state though that may be more difficult in worlds other than this one which is specifically set up for the purpose of choice and change. 

What this all comes down to is time. How much time are we allowed? Endless time or a certain period? I can think of reasons for either but only God knows. There is surely a sense, though, that it would be wrong to allow time to play no part in the process. A soul that either ignores or rejects God constantly must one day be called to account in a world in which justice has any meaning. God's mercy may precede his wrath but does it completely obviate it?

17 comments:

ted said...

William, interesting topic. I know David Bentley Hart has a new book exactly on this topic. I do find he brings a fair amount of rigor to his orthodox thinking, so I plan to read it at some point.

William Wildblood said...

Perhaps I should read that book though I have to say I have read a couple of books by this author and find myself in two minds about him. He's hugely intelligent and erudite but I see him more as an intellectual theologian, articulate and knowledgeable, very powerful in argument and debate, than someone who can go behind ideas to simple spiritual truth. Just my impression.

Obviously I haven't read the book since I only heard about it 10 minutes ago! But I looked at the top review in Amazon and straightaway notice something about the following quote from the book. I've cut out bits that are just word spinning.

"Can we imagine .. that someone still in torment after a trillion ages ......is in any meaningful sense the same agent who contracted some measurable quantity of personal guilt in his .... terrestrial life? And can we do this even while realizing that, at that point, his or her sufferings have in a sense only just begun, and in fact will always have only just begun? What extraordinary violence we must do both to our reason and to our moral intelligence."

This seems to be taking a crude idea of hell as eternal torment and running with it. But descriptions of hell are clearly only symbolic. What hell is is separation from God. It might not actually be experienced as torment by the person who is in hell. And this is the point. We are given the opportunity either to accept God or reject him. The latter may not result in endless torment. It might just mean we don't go to heaven which to one who is aware of heaven would be hell but not to the one who isn't aware.

If we have free will that must mean something. If, ultimately, it's meaningless then God is a cheat. The other assumption in this passage is that time in hell is experienced as time in this world. That is most unlikely.

Perhaps the problem is the sharp dichotomy in Christianity between heaven and hell, salvation and damnation. It may be that there are many shades in between in some of the 'many mansions in my Father's house'. Once you accept this then whether there is universal salvation or not takes on a different sense.

The reviewer says he was most impressed by Hart's refutation that "hell is a necessary possibility incurred by human freedom " which (basically) is that no one in their right mind would choose hell so if you reject God it can only be that you don't have enough information or your freedom is somehow restricted through some imperfection. You're not in your right mind and that's not your fault. Your choice is not free.

I think this misses the whole point. Firstly, we do have enough information. We may choose to ignore it but it is there if we want it. Secondly, if we reject God it is because of a moral imperfection not something over which we have no control. It is because we love ourselves more than God. The human being may naturally be oriented towards the good but free will means we can prefer what is not natural. Hart seems to be engaged in logic chopping here which is something I've noticed in his writing before.

I'm going by the review not the book but the quoted passages which were most convincing to the reviewer don't stack up for me. As I say, the whole problem might be a false one in that there are more things going on in the universe than just heaven and hell.

Moonsphere said...

Whether Universalism is true or not - it should never be at the forefront of our thinking. It carries the same dangers of simplistic complacence that the "I'm saved!" sects of Christianity do. If it does have a positive function, it might offer solace to the desperate and those utterly without hope.

If we take the reincarnatory approach, then the eternal hell concept does not ring true - for we will take another earthly body at some future point. But reincarnations will draw to a close at some point. Perhaps then we can speak of a Last Judgement.

If we take the Anthroposophical view of the future - then on the next incarnation of the Earth - (Future Jupiter) - human beings will have advanced to a non-physical state. And so for those who somehow don't make the grade by the end of "Earth" evolution - they may face the prospect of dropping back to a less than human state - somewhat akin to the difference between human beings and nature spirits at the current time.

William Wildblood said...

Some excellent points there Moonsphere. All of which make sense to me. The whole debate may be built on a false foundation, viz making a determining choice in just one life that leads to triumph or disaster with nothing in between,

Moonsphere said...

There is something unusual about the present time. It does seem, more than in the past, as if human beings are being called to make a definitive choice, though whether this is for all time or the foreseeable future is a moot point.

William, I think this is of the greatest importance. It seems that we have reached something of a fork in the road. No longer is it just a question of "keeping up" with the pace of spiritual evolution - now it becomes possible to separate ourselves entirely from the path. The so-called "bifurcation of humanity" is now underway. A difficulty in sensing the divine truth in this life becomes an impossibility in the next. Those who have failed in this, will become wholly dependent on those who have not.

The last petition of the Lord's Prayer - "Deliver us from Evil" - is a simple binary - a plea from future humanity who long ago took a binary choice, a road from which they themselves could never recover by their own efforts alone.

William Wildblood said...

I am convinced that we are reaching a sheep and goats moment. It's going to be a severe testing which searches the heart. Many who think they are on the right side will be in for a surprise. Observing the status quo even when that is the religious status quo will not be enough.

Eric said...

I like that you say 'must choose to follow God' rather than just believe in him by saying yes to an idea. Humanity is an organism, not a social club. Who knows if one really believes in God or not? I'm not denigrating the power of scripture here and it is of course crucial to believe in Jesus than anything else, but it's not the only 'thing'. It doesn't cut - or else Christianity wouldn't be corrupt. I know you've been through this before, but squeezing God into an abstract concept and holding on to the idea means trying to trap what can't be trapped. It makes me spiritually claustrophobic, even if it also IS important to speak about Him personally, and to idealize him. But the outside of the representational does not come before its actual interior. This is why I am not a strict lutheran, I can't abide philosophically. God is real because Jesus is an empirical fact, not just a metaphysical assertion. The living God is someone whom you develop towards progressively. Therefore, I don't think God judges on a standardised yes/no basis - That might be the Islamic God. If we live in the latter days it should be logical to assume that the Devil has polluted the idea of what God even is to avert people from belief. I'm sure God must personally judge people based first on their inner orientation rather than outer affiliation. I think God picks those who he really wants in the end.

Also, I think there has to be some fundamental motivation for people to actually choose God, other than predetermination and the mere fact that he might exist. It must be crucial for people to choose God, not just because of salvation, but because we Must choose Him out of collective responsibility and self-sacrifice. We Must choose Him because it is vital to Fix what we ourselves have broken through the fall - and God might even need our help. Or things will not be good. This I think is the operational motivation to choose God, outside of the theoretical one. The belief in God is not what magically accomplishes the mission but is the ritual means for remembrance and striving for the resolution.

Anyway, I got a little carried away here but I hope the point came across. These are sporadic thoughts and should not be taken entirely literally.

Bruce Charlton said...

Christians usually assume that everyone want to be in Heaven but some find the price too great. Yet, what most strikes me is that most people don't want Heaven - even if there was 'free entry' they apparently would not want to dwell there.

This not just from how people behave, but from what they say - what they aspire to. Just read/ watch/ listen-to anything in the mainstream of modern discourse; and it is clear (to me, anyway) that Heaven is not wanted.

This is a very serious state of affairs, because if people don't want what Jesus offered, then really there is nothing more to be said. Threats are useless. Attempts to convince people that Jesus was divine, that Heaven is real, are also useless.

As for time; I don't suppose God puts a limit but Men might well do so. Assuming (as I do) that we are free to make permanent decisions, permanent committments, irreversible decisions (because if we are not free and able to do this, nothing could be depended upon and everything would be contingent - even salvation) then I don't find it hard to believe that some Men would decide to reject Heaven permanently and at short notice.

This is exactly the *kind* of irreversible decision some people are making, all the time, without need or compulsion (and against God's wishes) - for example, more than half of younger women have tattoos...

William Wildblood said...

Eric, please do get carried away! It's always interesting to read. Funnily enough I just started to write something about belief in God, what is belief and what is the God in which I believe and how do I act on that belief etc. Jesus himself said that some people will say they believed in him but he doesn't know them.

Bruce, I agree. The universalist idea assumes that everyone wants heaven but many really don't seem to. And that's not even considering the price of entry.

Shaun F said...

I guess from a theological point of view we differ. There may be choice - but God's will is sovereign.

I guess that’s because I’ve seen miracles. And saved? Well what does that mean? Really? You'll get to Heaven? (Rhetorical question.)

I never believed in choice when it became self-evident all the Buddhists in Sri Lanka that practise ritual and superstition but not Christianity (cause missionaries haven’t got there) were going to Hell. Didn't make sense. Then when I pulled out a good concordance and Hell turned into Gehenna - which was a specific place outside Jerusalem - it dawned on me - Hell would be good for Christianity. Then I dug a bit deeper and discovered the heresy of the Scofield Bible and the Rapture. Scratching beneath the veneer, can reveal a bit of a worm. At end of the day - I presume - from a sovereign God perspective that non-believers will get an easier pass than those who "chose" Christianity. I also believe there are Christians out there that don't know they are Christian. I also believe God is a lot more loving than pastors paint him to be. I'm a bit of a heretic. God’s wrath was satisfied at the Cross. Jesus died so all people could be reconciled to God. Now all we can do is reap the consequences of our sin/vice or by enjoying the hardship and blessings of following the 10 commandments and 7 cardinal virtues.

edwin said...

Speculations about the afterlife are always as problematic as they are irresistible. Eternity is inconceivable except as an extension of time that reaches beyond the horizon. And time is change. One difficulty with the notion of being cut off from God forever is that it would seem to mean a devolution into ever deeper abysses of fantasy and malice - an infinity of evil, if you will. But is such a thing possible? For what end? Not rehabilitation and reclamation, if universalism be rejected. And not pure retributive justice certainly, for what would be the point? A god that could be offended by us and demand that we pay everlastingly for our impudence is hardly a god worth caring about. And, as you point out, there is something gratuitous, even pointless, about a free will whose end is predetermined by an external agent. Christ said the truth will make us free and that He is the truth. So, until we are one with Christ, we are slaves - of sin, of egoism, of the animality of our lower nature. And being unfree, can we really choose in a fully responsible way? Can a slave, no matter how ill-willed, elect his own damnation? When we are truly free - one with Christ - where is our free will? It seems that freedom is really freedom to become joined to Christ, to our source in the Logos. And there, we can no longer choose, for the good will compel us irresistibly. You have brought us to the point of so many things in raising this question of universalism. I have just read Bentley Hart's book and I think I may read it again. He makes some compelling arguments that require contemplation.

Moonsphere said...

The concept of Universalism raises issues of God's omnipotence. If a human being were to be won over by the dark powers - do we assume that God is always capable of turning that situation around? Or is there in fact a desperate battle for souls waged between God and the evils that freedom has created.

I think it's important to distinguish between "freedom" and "free will". Freedom is a means - free will is an end. From the time of the Fall we have had freedom, but free will is still in an embryonic state. In freedom we act for good or for ill but the exercise of true free will always leads to the right choice. To have purified ones motives to such an extent that ones will is free - then one will naturally be in alignment with Divine Will.

In the case of Universalism, we may need to consider that by God's reckoning, the freedom of human beings may outweigh our ultimate safety.

edwin said...

To separate freedom from free will, with the latter being determined by the good - God - and the former by - what? - I don't think this holds together. To say we are free to choose, at any point in our development, should not be understood to mean that we can choose anything based on any criteria. We are always bound by our nature and circumstances and our will always chooses that which we think to be good. To will our own destruction, consciously, freely, would be the act of a madman, of a diseased brain. Immorality is stupidity. It is mistaking a lesser good for a higher one and failing to see the full consequences of an action in the light of truth. Children who misbehave are sent to their rooms to think about what they did wrong, the hope being that they will, by reflecting on the chain of events, see the consequences of a bad decision and its execution. Does it always work? No. Passion often obscures thought and overpowers reason. Free will occupies a point at the intersection of morality and ontology. The question of free will can be seen as one of ontology: do we possess as part of our given nature the capacity of self determination, or are we causally determined by external forces? It is also a question of morality: do we have the capacity to oppose our own good, knowingly, and to incur irreversible and forever fixed consequences? Is evil a real part of our nature that can be chosen as a terminus of our existence? Looking at the problem in the light of being a parent, I can say that I don't think I would stop loving any of my children, nor give up on their salvation, no matter how long the struggle for their reclamation might last. I cannot see myself saying, "Well, they have exercised their free will and I will not deny them the dignity of their damnation. Let me be happy with my other children and forsake this reprobate." The logic of free will and the logic of love cannot be opposed. Or so it seems to me.

Eric said...

I believe we are free insofar as we choose to stand in the light and gain spiritual momentum, as well as avoid materialistic inertia. Natural law is omnipotent. While there is entropy, there is an eessential self-organizing orderliness to the world. We can attune ourselves to God's hand but not really 'choose' Him per se. We can choose to deny him, to turn away from him - becoming Luciferic shadows.

If God is omnipresent we don't even have to choose him more than consciously open ourselves up to the divine light. If we retain spiritual equilibrium, things work out fine. Explicitly, we can of course choose Jesus Christ. We can choose to join him, but it is not a 'must'. Jesus Christ also chooses. God in himself is sovereign, regardless if humans show up and form social clubs around him or not. He has already chosen us by virtue of us being here. Christ showed the way, but trying to 'catch' God is like trying to catch water with a fish net.

I agree with Shaun F that there are Christ-spirited people who don't 'know' they are 'Christian'. Official Churchians on the other hand may often display straitlaced attitudes. They might worship Christ collectively but fail to naturally evoke the Christ within, which is really dangerous. Spiritual dryness is the signs of our times. God knows who is worthy of forgiveness, and who is standing naked behind the bush.

Ultimately I think it's worth to remember that spiritual matters happen beneath the layer of human socializing. The task of spirituality is to peel this layer off in the first place.

William Wildblood said...

All of this can only be speculation and, from a purely practical point of view, it's not important. The only thing that is important is to put ourselves right with God here and now. Even if all souls are eventually brought back to God that is still what each one will eventually have to do.

Having said that, I see the essential conflict as being between love and freedom as you have all pointed out. Sometimes it's hard to see how these can be reconciled but I suppose in God they can. And yet maybe not. Maybe it would be like having a circular triangle which not even God can do because it is a contradiction in terms.

But here's a thought. Revelation talks of the the second death and souls being cast into the lake of fire. If human beings are made up of a triad of spirit, soul and body it could be that the first death is that of the body and the second that of the soul which can either die and be resurrected as in true spiritual exaltation, this is the right path, or just be destroyed if it rejects God. But, and here is where love and freedom could be reconciled, the spirit behind that soul, the monad as it is sometimes called, is uncreated and cannot be destroyed. It may be that this monad creates or is given a new soul which then has another shot at the spiritual evolutionary path. This both is and isn't the same person, a distinction that can only be grasped spiritually which is to say I don't really grasp it in my human mind but have a sort of intuitive sense of it. Sorry if that sounds nonsensical.

One thing I do know is that my spiritual self is not the same as my William Wildblood self which is, as it were, a limited projection of the soul behind WW. The Masters told me that 'the greater part of you remains with us'. This greater part is what matters.

edwin said...

Much hangs on what it means to be an individual. What is our core identity? We know what it is not, which is most everything we know through the senses and become attached to. But what is the "greater part" as your masters expressed it? If it is a "ding an sich" that is inaccessible to our awareness, what relevance can it have to our life in the here and now? How is the greater part related to the lesser part?

William Wildblood said...

It's a spiritual rule that the greater includes the lesser but puts it in a different perspective, see square and cube as I mentioned somewhere else recently. I think enough of our full individuality is here to do the work we need to do here and enough is withheld so that this work can be done. I have always felt that there is far more to my true self than I can currently access. I find this very frustrating at times. I assume it's the same for everyone and we all have a higher self that includes but goes beyond that portion of the self that is accessible through a physical brain.

I would say that the lesser part is an offshoot of the greater part, which is a spiritual being, circumscribed by virtue of the fact that it has to operate through physical matter. But I suspect there may be more to it than this.