Suan Sonna & Samuel Watkinson Part III

The following is an ongoing dialogue between Suan Sonna and Samuel Watkinson concerning the merits of Christian Universalism.

Written by
Suan Sonna
Apr 20, 2020
Suan Sonna

raised three arguments against universalism. The first is Mackie’s dilemma. The second is the co-opting problem. The third is a defense of the traditional view (I originally called it the “two worlds theodicy”). I umbrellaed my arguments and the entire debate under six criteria. 

I stated first and foremost that we must avoid asserting our intuitions as much as possible lest this debate be irresolvable. Samuel and I need to rely more on principles in our shared classical theist tradition. I then presented four explanatory standards – scope, power, least ad hoc, and plausibility – and the principle of sufficient reason so dear and central to our tradition: we cannot escape from offering an explanation of affairs that could have been otherwise. Samuel, insofar as I can tell, did not dispute these standards. I will henceforth hold him to them. 

Mackie’s Dilemma 

Mackie’s dilemma contains two sub-arguments. The first is that an explanation is required for why God did not create a morally perfect initial world though He could have. The second is the charge that Samuel affirms all six propositions of Mackie’s logical problem of evil and therefore undermines theism. 

In response to the first sub-argument, Samuel writes, “Suan’s insistence that universalists must explain why God didn’t create Mackie’s world to begin with is fundamentally misguided for many reasons. The most obvious one is that it misunderstands and, in turn, distracts from the purpose of an argument for Christian universalism, which is not to solve the question of the traditional ‘problem of evil’… Rather, it only intends to remove the problem of an eternal hell.”

This response is astonishing for two reasons. 

First, it seems to admit that universalism lacks explanatory scope and is ad hoc. If my eschatological account can explain why there is evil in the first place and provide a comprehensive account of the initial and final world all in one, then this would count in favor of the traditional view’s scope and simplicity.  

Second, Samuel’s suggestion that one can separate the traditional problem of evil from one’s ultimate eschatological picture is jarring. Surely a complete eschatology would address the single most penetrating reason for why we need a new creation – evil. Samuel seems to assume that universal salvation removes the problem of evil and only leaves us to confront the problem of hell, but such an assumption is erroneous. 

Universalism deals with one element of the problem of evil, but it must confront the others in the mix. The problem of evil is not so much about the suffering itself, although that does matter, but the intelligibility of God’s creating a world in which that suffering transpires. I am claiming that Samuel is not off the hook just yet, because a more complete explanation is required. 

This leads to the second sub-argument – Mackie’s six propositions. Here they are once again: 

(1) God exists. 

(2) God is good. 

(3) A good being does all it can to eliminate evil. 

(4) God is omnipotent. 

(5’) An omnipotent being can eliminate all evil.

(6) There is evil.

Samuel writes, “Suan imagines that I would affirm Mackie’s third premise- ‘a good being does all it can to eliminate evil.’ But, in fact, I do not affirm Mackie’s third premise, nor (as might be expected at this stage) do I accept the inference that is supposed to follow from the fifth premise (“an omnipotent being can eliminate all evil”): that God, because he is also “a good being”, should eliminate all evil, immediately or at all. However, I could still argue, in denying these premises, that we have good reason to suppose that if Christian revelation is in any way true, God will eventually eliminate all evil – not because he is a moral agent like us… but because such a conclusion would be most consistent with what Christians have proclaimed about the nature of God classically (as Origen and Gregory of Nyssa argued with particular eloquence): that judgement and suffering (retributive or undeserved) always gives way to restoration and healing because of who God is, a God whose essence is an unrelenting, unceasing Love.” 

While Samuel claims to deny (3), he swiftly affirms it. Samuel makes a crucial mistake here. (3) does not say, “A good being should eliminate all evil” but that “A good being does all it can to eliminate evil.” In other words, it is not putting an obligation on God or making Him a moral agent like us. It is instead claiming that the maximal elimination of evil within one’s powers follows from one’s goodness if one is truly good. This mistake allows Samuel to believe he is not committed to (3), but his other statements militate against this move. He claims for instance that God’s eventual elimination of evil is due to His character as being essentially loving. However, we could switch “A good being does all it can to eliminate evil” to “A loving being does all it can to eliminate evil” since love and goodness are essentially interchangeable to Mackie’s argument. Hence, Samuel is committed to (3) and his case for universalism suffers from Mackie’s logical problem of evil. 

Worst of all, Samuel is in a lose-lose situation here. If he denies (3), then the force of his arguments for universalism significantly decreases. He would be admitting that it is possible for God to be good without actualizing universalism. If he affirms (3), then he falls prey to Mackie’s logical problem of evil. 

The Coopting Problem 

The coopting problem aims to undermine the justifications for the universalist position. This means that even if one’s position were true one does not have good reasons for affirming it; the same reasons offered for one’s position can also be used to reach a diametrically opposed conclusion. This is another way of demonstrating that Samuel’s position lacks explanatory power, since his explanation cannot best its competitors. Generally speaking, if a position is unjustified, then that is usually a good indicator of its falsehood. For instance, if after all this debate Samuel cannot provide a justification that isn’t susceptible to being coopted, then it is probably the case that God was not acting on any of Samuel’s purported reasons, and therefore universalism is probably false by consequence. 

I examined three possible moves Samuel could make in my opening statement.  

The first is to argue that since God has no moral obligations He is not bound by Mackie’s vision. I rejoindered that by the same logic God would not be obligated to fulfill Samuel’s vision either. Samuel writes, “Suan’s first counter-objection (a)—that, if God is not obligated to create Mackie’s world, he could equally be not obligated to save all—fails for at least two reasons: (1) there are other (and arguably better) ways to show why God might not have created Mackie’s world to begin with apart from denying that God has obligations (see below on soul-building); (2) it illicitly conflates protology (first things) and eschatology (last things) by jumping from ‘we cannot fault God for permitting e.g. an isolated natural disaster or a Holocaust’ to ‘we cannot fault God for permitting an eternal hell.’”

Samuel does well to reject the first possible move. He has other reasons for rejecting Mackie’s position and therefore does not hastily declare victory simply based on God’s lack of moral obligations. This response prevents me, at least here, from coopting his reasoning. Fortunately, I anticipated his insertion of the soul-making or soul-building theodicy. 

Before we continue, however, I must expose another serious mistake. Samuel claims that my objection “conflates” protology and eschatology. But it is not my objection that does this but our very classical theist tradition. The principle of finality states that the efficient cause of an effect is only intelligible with respect to its final cause or purpose. God is the efficient cause of the cosmos and His creative act is only intelligible in light of the ultimate, final purpose for which God chose to create it. Hence, the creation of our initially imperfect cosmos requires an ultimate purpose or reason for its being so, especially when it could have been otherwise. The question of first things and last things is inexorably interwoven based on the principle of finality – one of the fundamental principles of our tradition. Samuel must, in accepting my standards, provide a comprehensive explanation from beginning to end or one that is at least as competitive as mine lest he persists in overlooking the principle of finality. 

Now, I anticipated Samuel’s next move would be to mention the love and character of God. I argued that Mackie could coopt this position and question why God’s love is ultimate rather than immediate. My point here is to once again press Samuel to provide consistent and plausible reasons for preventing Mackie’s coopting attempt. 

Samuel responds, “This is a question that not only a universalist but every theist has to answer, including Suan himself. But by asking this question he’s failing to recognise that we’re not comparing possible world scenarios of how God could have created in the beginning, but rather different pictures of final creations. And, as we will see in the third section, I think it is obvious that Suan’s vision of the final creation—the institution of a (purportedly) 'perfect' hierarchy wherein the only 'good' of the eternally damned is their maintenance in existence—is irredeemably inferior to a universalist one.”

This response is unsuccessful. 

First, it once again ignores the principle of finality. Samuel cannot just focus on the final creation; he must provide reasons for why God created our imperfect initial world as well. The final creation on Samuel’s view appears to merely be a correction to this one, but we are not further illumined on why the initial world we observe, with its evil and suffering, preceded the final when the final creation could have been our starting point. 

Second, in compounding his mistake, Samuel’s position once again appears ad hoc and lacks explanatory scope. The entire data of the creation requires an explanation – why this initial-and-final-world structure? – not just at its tail end. 

Third, his response misses the point of my argument. My argument is attacking the justifications he could offer for his position and its explanatory power in turn. Even if his vision of the final world is superior in some sense to mine, it would be irrelevant to the coopting problem since Mackie can ask why God didn’t create an initially perfect world and I can pounce once Samuel mentions the soul-making theodicy. 

Furthermore, the greatness of the final world must take into account the principle of finality. God could create a final world where we would all be as intelligent as David Bentley Hart and as musically talented as Samuel, but this would not explain why an initial world of evil and suffering existed in God’s ultimate vision. The final must make sense of the initial lest we compromise the intelligibility of God’s actions. Samuel’s argument must now adapt to the principle of finality, meaning it is incomplete as of now. 

Soul-Making and The Traditional View

I presented three reasons for why appealing to the soul-making theodicy does not ultimately bode well for Samuel. The first is that horrendous evils are unnecessary for the attainment of virtue, meaning Samuel must strengthen the soul-making theodicy to account for horrendous evils. He agrees with my proposed solution that even though horrendous evils are unnecessary for the attainment of virtue, they are necessary for attaining the qualitative depth of virtues that would otherwise be lacking in a world without horrendous evils. This response helps both of us address Mackie, but there’s a further implication that Samuel cannot reject without collapsing the entire solution. That implication is the traditional view. 

First, I defined a virtue as a trait or disposition towards the good and a vice as a disposition towards the bad (which is a perversion and privation of the good). And, I noted that the qualitative depth of virtues and vices are found in proportion to the good they uphold or violate, especially when the virtues and vices clash. Consider Martin Luther King Jr. – the Jim Crow South so clearly and belligerently violated the dignity of human life, the basic good with the highest ontological priority according to natural law theory (aside from God). Vices that go against the good of human life are therefore incredibly perverted, while virtues like courage in the act of saving and preserving human life are incredibly profound. Such virtues and vices reveal the highest and lowest depths the soul is capable of attaining. 

Now, I should clarify that this is not the only way for virtues to acquire depth. Imagine a perfect man who would prevail in the face of adversity despite never experiencing any (or less serious) trials. In a way, this perfect man has reached the height of virtue, but not in the same way as someone like Jesus of Nazareth who expressed self-sacrificial love in the face of his executioners, and so gloriously conquered death through that love. There is something more profound about Christ’s character than the man who is shielded from suffering. This is the sort of profundity or depth Samuel and I believe God aims at maximizing. 

Second, I argued that God clearly desires the maximal qualitative depth of virtue (and vice) unless it can be demonstrated otherwise. This presumption holds, since God aims at maximizing the depth of virtue and a world with this maximal range is possible. God is the greatest, ultimate, final, unifying good that human beings can pursue. This means that the maximal depth of virtue (and vice) is unattainable unless there are also virtues and vices tied to our pursuit of God. I proposed that faith (understood as total self-sacrificial, self-denying love) is the virtue that preserves the integrity of our pursuit of God. On the other hand, the vice that most offends God is total self-serving, self-oriented pride that warps the agent into their own “God”. 

Third, there must ultimately be a symmetry between the totally perfected and the totally damned. Since the virtues and vices in pursuit of God are “total” in nature or quality, they are also, based on Aristotelian metaphysics and virtue ethics, everlasting in consequence. We know they are total in nature since withholding any modicum of ourselves from God is to withhold some of ourselves from pure goodness. To do such a thing is to make room for darkness, impurity, and sets us on the trajectory to fortify our perversion, seeking exceptions and compromises to pure goodness for our exploitative gain. Here, everlasting darkness is not a tacked-on punishment, but one that simply follows from the nature of evil itself. As I said in my opening statement: 

"Vice and virtue have temporal (even everlasting) consequences. Recall Aristotle’s observation that we must be habituated into virtue since we are corruptible. We see that performing good or bad actions causes us to develop an appetite that shapes our future choices and in turn our character and souls. St. Thomas notes that God’s grace perfects nature. When we exercise the virtue of love in pursuit of God, this opens us to eternal perfection through receiving His grace. But, the vice of pride opens us to eternal imperfection and perversion."

On the other hand, the faith of those who chose to surrender to God in the initial world and cooperate with His grace invites total perfection. The maximal height of this virtue would be lost, however, without the total darkness that contrasts it - and the darkness can only be truly total if the damned are everlastingly separated. To tamper with this symmetry would suddenly mean God is not aiming at the maximal depth of virtue, leaving us to wonder for His reasons again. 

Let me offer a more precise argument for this symmetry. Sung-Keun You defends Augustine’s free will theodicy by arguing that the potential to sin is not a true potential unless it is ever actualized. You is trying to avoid Mackie’s perfect initial world scenario by arguing that God desires the clash between good and evil, and the evil cannot be a mere hypothetical potency that is never actualized. In other words, You is avoiding a Mackie coopting attempt. 

Consider an Aristotelian example of Augustine’s point. A potency is not a true potency unless it is ever actualized. Imagine that someone proposed that some being had a previously unknown potential. And, when we went to observe this being in action, no such potential is ever in fact actualized. And suppose that we observe this being in every possible world, and they never have this potential actualized. It would therefore be improper and baseless to claim that such a being has that potential. But, if one insists that that being has such a potential, even without it ever being actualized, then it would be true without any limiting principle that all beings have all sorts of equally real potentials. My chocolate ice cream could potentially turn into an alligator at 7 degrees celsius for instance. At such a point, then, we would be committed to Humean regularities for the laws of nature and not actually be in the classical theist tradition any longer. 

My point is that based on my previous arguments we know that the virtue of faith and the vice of pride are total in nature. But, they cannot be truly total in nature unless their respective states obtain - just as a being’s potential to do x is not a true potential unless that being will in fact have that potential actualized. To be clear, these are potentials related to a being’s nature generally speaking. If agent 1 and agent 2 are both rational animals but one goes to heaven and the other to hell, then it would still be true that the potential to go to heaven or hell is a real one for rational animal beings. 

I can now form a serious dilemma for Samuel. If Samuel denies this Augustinian account of potentiality, then Mackie returns with his perfect initial world scenario (since hypothetical evil and suffering are as “real” as real evil and suffering) and Samuel must deny that evil by nature has these eternally corrupting potentials (since universalism would have to be true in every possible world according to Samuel and hence evil’s potential for eternal corruption would never obtain in any possible world). 

In doing so, however, Samuel would be divorcing himself from the classical theist tradition built on Aristotle and the Scholastic view of the person and appetites (committing himself to a sort of Humean metaphysics if he claims that eternal corruption is a “real potential” but never actualized). He would also be casting doubt upon the true nature of evil and God’s pure goodness. After all, if defying God, who is pure goodness, does not demonstrate a “pure” or total darkness of everlasting potential, then what is the true consequence of rejecting pure goodness itself? If, on the other hand, Samuel accepts this Augustinian account of potentiality, then he gains a solution to Mackie (since this model vindicates my solution) but at the price of universalism. I consider this dilemma fatal for universalism. 

Universalism’s Last Hope

Universalism’s last hope is that God will actualize a world with the maximal qualitative depth of virtue compatible with everyone ultimately being saved. In my longer paper against universalism, however, I questioned why God ought to make this shift from our perfectly self-sufficient qualitative consideration on the depth of virtue (which, if left untampered, would entail not all are saved) to the quantitative consideration of the number of persons saved. I intend to address here the universalist’s last hope.

First, Samuel’s argument that God must ultimately save everyone for the sake of preserving His character is reminiscent of what I considered to be a mistake in Augustine’s free will theodicy. Augustine claimed that God created an initially imperfect world so that He could maximally exercise the virtues of love and justice through becoming incarnate, dying, and resurrecting. But, God, in His essential perfection, is not made better by maximizing anything of Himself (since such is in principle impossible for an already perfect being). This is why I have stressed, especially in formulating my theodicy, that the ultimate reason for God deeming our world worth creating, and eventually perfecting, must be something about the world itself. This ultimate reason, I maintain, are the unique, perfected agents of the final world who really could have given themselves to total darkness, as evidenced by the damned, but who nonetheless chose to surrender all of themselves to God in the initial world, a world where both the good and evil were live options for pursuit. 

Second, let us return to the coopting problem. Mackie can return in many ways if the universalist takes this modified path. Recall that what originally defeated Mackie’s dilemma was the maximal qualitative depth of virtue. Mackie cannot coopt my position in its pure form, the traditional view, because his alternative possible worlds necessarily require a compromise on the non-negotiable maximal depth of virtue (which brings with it evil, even horrendous and everlasting ones). The universalist who insists that God will limit the depth of virtue within the quantitative fold of everyone being saved must offer some justification for this position. At that point, however, the other coopting problems return, leaving the universalist in either a never-ending series of inconclusive justifications or to simply assert their intuitions – which Samuel and I agreed to minimize as much as possible. It appears as if Samuel faces another lose-lose situation. 

For instance, mentioning God’s love invites us to once again ask why His love is ultimate rather than immediate, or why there are horrendous evils rather than milder ones. Since God is not, on the universalist picture, in the business of the maximal depth of virtue, why can He also not be more constrained on the kinds of evils He allows, and why would He not just begin with perfect beings anyway (which was my third objection to Samuel’s position in my opening statement)? Horrendous evils seem more likely to occur in worlds where deep, everlasting perversion is not only possible but will obtain. And, despite Samuel’s claim that this sort of reasoning is question-begging, it is meant to explore which explanation most naturally anticipates or is compatible with the reality of our world. 

Third, the traditional account is simply superior to universalism, meaning the last hope for universalism ultimately fails in competition. Mackie’s dilemma cannot touch the traditional view, since my theodicy clings to the non-negotiable maximal qualitative depth of virtue. This alone is a deal-breaker against Samuel’s universalism. But, furthermore, my position is strengthened by the fact that it is totally compatible with classical theism: 

"God will perfect the natures of those who exercise the virtue of love [or faith]. These beings will be the greatest in terms of depth, since they existed in a world where the full potentiality of good and evil ran its course, and they nonetheless chose to be perfected by God’s grace. Their perfection is the crowning achievement of the final world and the reason why God allowed the trouble of the initial world.

I maintain there will be a hierarchy of goodness in the end where the damned are only kept in existence by virtue of the convertibility principle. This fundamental principle states that goodness and being are interchangeable. The damned will be the lowest in the hierarchy of goodness. And, they will eternally remain in their condition, because they perverted themselves so deeply against the good, exploiting it for their purposes, and, God created a world where such creaturely states could obtain. "

Notice that I satisfy the principle of finality in the first paragraph by clearly explaining why the initial world, with its evil and suffering, precedes the final world in an intelligible order. I then provide the convertibility principle in the second paragraph in order to make sense of the damned’s place in the hierarchy of goodness. And, in conjunction with my defense of the non-negotiability of the maximal qualitative depth of virtue, all of these cement together into an unassailable traditionalist picture. 

With respect to my hierarchy of goodness, Samuel accuses it of painting God in a negative light. However, it is the only rationally consistent and compelling view on offer. One must conclude, based on our desire to uphold our commitments, that perhaps Samuel must reevaluate his background intuitions in order to arrive at a state of intellectual reflective equilibrium, one that universalism demonstratively cannot provide. 

For instance, Samuel concludes his analysis of my hierarchy of goodness with, “For if the perfection of a select number of ‘virtuous individuals’ is, apparently,  ‘the reason why God allowed the trouble of the initial world’ (emphasis mine), then one might reasonably question whether this is an acceptable ‘price’ to pay, so to speak, for living in a world wherein the damned are virtually a means to an end of the elect. I think it certainly isn't worth it.” 

Samuel asserts his intuition at the very end, and not only is it one that I do not share based on the principles of the classical theist tradition – which is very hierarchical in nature – but also because we agreed from the beginning to rely more upon our tradition rather than our intuitions. And, just as evil is parasitic upon the good, I have argued that the damned are parasitic upon the saints for their existence. This is compatible with the classical theist tradition. 

Now, Samuel might object that any remaining evil in the eschaton somehow undermines God’s victory. But, this is false. Evil cannot in principle touch God or defeat Him just as shadows do not count as evidence against the sun’s intense brightness. Indeed, by Samuel’s logic, it would seem as if God is defeated right now but will one day be victorious (or “more” victorious) once all evil is eliminated.  

There is much more that can be said. Samuel mentions the principle of remedial punishment which I have responded to here and here. If he still presses on the principle in our written debate, then I am willing to address it in later rebuttals. He also mentions the problem of “natural inequality” which I am prepared to respond to based on the metaphysics of natural law theory – God is ontologically superior to us but we are ontological (hence moral) equals to one another. Samuel in the end of his response shares a quote from That All Shall be Saved on Hitler’s qualified guilt, which I am also ready to respond to in later rebuttals with Harry Frankfurt style thought experiments on freedom and moral culpability. 


This debate will ultimately be adjudicated by our shared commitment to the classical theist tradition. Unfortunately, Samuel asserts his intuitions during vital moments, and I demonstrated through the principle of finality that his vision is incomplete. When we consider the four explanatory standards, we find that universalism lacks explanatory scope and is not the least ad hoc, especially since Samuel overlooks the principle of finality and admits that he is only focusing on the final creation but not all of the relevant data. Furthermore, the coopting problem demonstrates that universalism lacks explanatory power, and Mackie’s dilemma removes its plausibility. Samuel must either deny the principle of sufficient reason at this point or continue pressing onwards, somehow discovering an alternative explanation that is as strong as the traditional view. 

Along the way, we found that Samuel traverses into at least three lose-lose situations for his position. The first is with respect to (3) of Mackie’s logical problem of evil – either Samuel must reject (3) and with it the force of universalism, or he must accept (3) and swallow a defeater to theistic belief. The second is that Samuel cannot continue to assert his intuitions and must, by virtue of the principle of sufficient reason, continue offering justifications. But, as of now, it appears that the quest for an exclusive justification for universalism is futile. The third is that Samuel cannot reject the Augustinian account of potentiality without also compromising the classical theist tradition built on Aristotelian and Scholastic metaphysics or risking the ability for Mackie to return and inquire on why there needs to be any evil in the first place. After all, if no beings need to in fact endure evil but can do so in mere hypothetical scenarios in say God’s intellect, then there is literally no reason why evil must be really suffered. Worst (or best) of all, if Samuel accepts Augustinan potentiality, then he cannot be a universalist since my theodicy would be true. 

Finally, the traditional view not only meets Mackie’s dilemma, the coopting problem, and Samuel’s objections, but it passes our standards with flying colors. The classical theist synthesis provides me with all of the resources I need to assemble my case against universalism and to address Samuel's objections. 

Suan Sonna is a philosophy student at Kansas State University. He writes on the philosophy of religion, metaphysics, ethics, and theology. He currently runs the Facebook page and YouTube channel "Intellectual Conservatism" where he defends an Aristotelian-Thomist perspective on public morality and government.