Public Lecture Review: “How to Be a Universalist” and “The Best of All Possible Stories: Can It Be True?”

How Not to Argue for Universalism

Hi everyone, sorry for the lack of posts–I got married. I originally wrote this for the Trinity Western University newspaper, the Mars Hill, but they are unable to publish it this issue. They might still publish it in a future one, but I have permission to post it here.

Universalism holds that salvation through Christ will apply, ultimately, to all sentient beingfireflame(maybe even Satan and his demons): Hell will be empty—if it even exists.

In a public lecture on Universalism on February 13, both Trinity Western University’s Myron A. Penner (Ph.D. Philosophy) and celebrated documentary filmmaker Kevin Miller (Hellbound?) agreed that it is difficult to understand the traditional doctrine of Hell and damnation:

For a Calvinist, why wouldn’t an all-powerful, all-loving God elect everyone? For an Arminian, is it really loving to respect someone’s “freedom” to choose Hell? Shouldn’t a loving parent override the freedom of a child who disobeys a warning keep away from danger (how much more so with God)? Moreover, are those who “choose” Hell cognitively aware of it? Surely they would not oppose God if they understood the consequences. More generally, it just seems “out of proportion” for finite sin to merit infinite, conscious, eternal punishment.

In the end, Penner rejects Universalism because there is “no good way to tell what counts as sufficient information and rationality for a morally culpable free choice of this magnitude”; Universalists would need to prove that “perpetual, free rejection of God” is impossible; otherwise, “it is possible that hell is populated.” But Miller pushes back, seeing the full restoration of sinners as morally superior to eternal punishment—even worse, if God allows people to perpetually reject him in Hell, then he is allowing sin to persist for eternity!

So we have three sets of difficulties concerning Hell: emotional unease, philosophical difficulties, and theological misgivings.

Regarding the first, something is of course wrong if we hope that there will be people in Hell. After all, the Lord himself “take[s] no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ez. 33:11). At the same time, I am wary of allowing emotions to influence my doctrine. For me, if theology is nutrition, then emotions are sugars and sin is trans-fat: Scripture teaches that that our hearts are “deceitful… [and] desperately sick” (Jer. 17:9); they are the source of “evil thoughts, murders, adulteries…” (Matt. 15:19); “There is a way which seems right to a person, but its end is the way of death” (Prov. 14:12). If emotions were crowned king, we would probably arrive at something like secular humanism: people are basically good; don’t harm or judge anybody; do what makes you happy; make the world a better place.

As a student of Apologetics, I was surprised that Molinism was ignored (named for the Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina [1535-1600])—which is essentially a Calvinist-Arminian, middle-ground position that William Lane Craig uses to suggest that there simply might not be any “feasible, possible world” that God could sovereignly create, in which everybody freely chooses him (reasonablefaith.org). (Probably Penner finds this view unhelpful in resolving the issue.) Although I think Molinism can show that Christianity is not necessarily logically incoherent, I cannot sit through Dr. Archie Spencer’s classes without sensing the Reformed-Barthian critique that Molinism trades too much of God’s sovereign freedom away. Certainly we can use Molinism as an apologetic response to charges that divine sovereignty and human freedom are logically contradictory and therefore Christianity is incoherent. But for theology, it seems best to say that Scripture doesn’t teach precisely how divine freedom and human freedom interact—only that both are meaningful realities. If we were to make philosophy king of the discussion, then I think we might end up ruling out God’s transcendence, the Incarnation, the Atonement, any “objective” meaning of Scripture, and reality itself—depending on how far down the postmodern rabbit-hole we care to tumble.

This brings us to theology’s relationship with philosophy. Now, I appreciate Penner’s defense of the traditional doctrine (It’s great apologetics!), and I recognise that he spoke as a philosopher at a philosophically-themed event; yet, along with Karl Barth, I think that philosophical concepts/categories must be informed by Christian meaning before we can use them in theology (Church Dogmatics III.3.49.2). Donald Bloesch is also helpful here: “The question is whether philosophical concepts and images are baptized into the service of the gospel or whether they alter the apostolic interpretation of the gospel” (The Holy Spirit, 255. I recognize the irony in citing Barth when some think that he himself was a universalist; Spencer thinks that Barth’s universalism has been exaggerated by Donald Bloesch.). Otherwise, philosophy forgets its place. It’s one thing for philosophy (or science, linguistics, archaeology, etc.) to help us distill and understand Scripture’s teaching; it’s quite another for philosophy to “correct” that teaching once it is properly understood. The difference is subtle: science can help alert us to the possibility that Genesis 1-11 isn’t meant to be taken literally (there is evidence for an old earth, etc.), but science certainly cannot deny the Resurrection just because it cannot account for it (what possible scientific evidence could there ever be–apart from discovering the corpse of Christ–that the Resurrection has not happened?). Likewise, just because philosophy cannot account for divine/human freedom does not mean it can correct the doctrine of Hell; philosophy must not “paint its own problems onto the sky,” as it were. Properly informed, Holy Spirit-serving exegesis comes first. (I’ve no reason to think that Penner would disagree.)

(I do appreciate what philosophy can do; Penner’s argument is a great apologetic argument in defense of the traditional doctrine. I’m not trying to set up a theology-vs.-philosophy dichotomy here. I’m only saying that when we discuss doctrine, we are doing theology, and we need to use theology’s toolset– which includes theologically-informed philosophical reflection but primarily relies on sound exegesis as its bedrock. It must do so if we are to avoid simply relying on the “wisdom of the world” (1 Cor. 2).

I appreciate Miller for upholding the centrality of Christ, and I found his observation that “Chronological snobbery is a two-way street” to be particularly insightful and helpful: we should not evaluate any idea simply on the basis of how old or new it is. What I don’t appreciate is that (intentionally or not) he seems to subtly caricature people who believe in Hell as angry and unforgiving–I picked up on this in both his popular documentary Hellbound? and in his talk at this public lecture. (This is no better than if I were to caricature Miller as a bleeding-heart, liberal extremist who wants to throw away the Bible and Christian Tradition.) I don’t want there to be a Hell any more than I want there to be cancer, poverty and war, but I am convinced that the Bible teaches that there is such a place. Miller warns against following majority opinion, but, ironically, his own Universalism is much more palatable to popular culture (with its religious pluralism, humanism, etc.) than the traditional doctrine of Hell is.

However, it is Miller’s subordination of theology and exegesis to philosophy and emotional unease that really strikes a chord with me. It may seem that restoration is morally superior to eternal punishment, but—despite Miller’s (correct!) warnings about how worldview lenses can distort our understanding—he seems to gloss over just how limited and contingent our misgivings really are. This was particular noticeable when he made the comment that we could “put on Augustine’s lens” in addition to our own, so that we have an advantage over the Fathers–What!? we can never put on Augustine’s lens or even each other’s lenses. We don’t have Augustine’s lens–only his books; we can’t breathe the fourth/fifth century air; we can’t visit ancient Hippo; we can’t talk about a gladiator fight as if we can seen one for ourselves; etc. (In fairness, I may be pressing Miller’s words too hard: he seems to be more balanced in his blog.) Take the postmodern critique regarding objective certainty and add to it the Bible’s scepticism about the human heart: we are both blind and biased, utterly impoverished apart from divine revelation; we are not in any position to correct special revelation (once it is properly understood)—if we were, it couldn’t really be divine revelation. Who are we, at all, to say what the “best” story is? Moreover, if we agree with the Reformed conviction that God’s being and his action are unified (cf. 2 Tim. 2:13), then to ask for a God who decrees different things is to ask for a God with a different nature.

Before Jesus, there was no clear articulation of the afterlife. If Universalism were true, wouldn’t Jesus be an exceptionally poor and misleading teacher, given that he basically introduced the idea of Hell? If an eternal punishment seems out of proportion, isn’t an eternal reward also so? If many early Christians were Universalists, as Miller holds, doesn’t that mostly just show that we are prone to downplay God’s judgment in any age?

During the Q & A, I asked Miller how we could make sense of the urgency in the New Testament if there weren’t anything ultimately at stake. His response (if I understood correctly) was that the gospel could do much-needed transformative good here and now. But can that fully explain why the apostles (and others) suffered disgrace, persecution, and martyrdom? Why would Paul warn against false teaching “with tears” (Acts 20:31) and wish to be accursed instead of his Jewish countrymen (Rom. 9:3)? Why should I suffer even one awkward moment for a gospel that doesn’t need to be believed? Why not pretend to be secular humanists (to avoid offense), do some social good while we can, and preach the gospel privately to those who need additional transformation? Do you see how the priority gets reversed? Traditionally, getting right with God was most important, and the results of being transformed–good deeds–were secondary. But if Miller is right, then our only urgency comes from a desire to make the world a better, more peaceful and loving place now–it’s a worthy goal, but is it more important than repentance and belief? Universalism subordinates the gospel to social concerns. Now, if Universalism is true, then, fine, it seems the gospel should be subordinated to social concerns–after all, everyone will be saved anyway, and there will even be situations where preaching the gospel will cause hate, division of families, social rejection of stubborn sinners, and invite persecution, so it is clearly better not to preach the gospel at all when it will cause these socially negative things–if Universalism is true.

People often ask, “How could a perfectly loving God send anyone to Hell?” They rarely ask, “How could a perfectly just and holy God allow anyone into Heaven?” Both questions are answered at the Cross: philosophy and emotions cannot answer them. The Greeks scoffed at Paul because the Resurrection offended their philosophy that matter and bodies were bad; the doctrine of Hell offends our own philosophy and culture—but neither of these is an appropriate starting point for formulating Christian doctrine. A good argument for Universalism must begin with Scripture, not only highlighting the verses that seem to support it (and there are some), but also dealing squarely with the many (I would say the overwhelming majority) that do not, as well as the entire missional, urgent tenor of the New Testament.

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