word before we begin: A couple of posts ago, we talked about the character of God as Love. The information there is important background to the discussion here, so I recommend you read that one before proceeding if you haven’t yet.
We’ve been talking about the contours of the Universalism I’m advocating and some overarching Biblical themes and motifs that should cause us, I argue, to prefer Universalism to any system—whether annihilation or eternal, conscious torment—that teaches irredeemable, pure harm. These motifs have included both (1) the character of the Christian God and (2) the Old Testament pattern of redemption from judgment. By necessity, these arguments have appealed abundantly and specifically to the Bible.
One objection that some have seen as a powerful rebuttal to the conclusion of the ultimate reconciliation of every human person is extra-biblical, though, or at least Biblically obscure. It is the issue of the nature of human freedom.
(Some may say that the notion of human freedom isn’t the least bit obscure. Some will argue, referring to texts such as Job 42:2 or Jeremiah 10:23, that the Bible clearly and unambiguously teaches determinism. Others, citing texts such as Joshua 24:15 or Matthew 23:37, will argue that the Bible clearly and unambiguously teaches human freedom. [A good rule of thumb in my opinion is that whenever anyone tells you the Bible makes anything “clear,” you should check that thing out thoroughly.])
What I want to do here, then, rather than try to settle once-for-all the issue of the nature of human freedom (as if I could), is to make an end-run around all that, and to consider instead each accounting of human freedom in turn, seeing where each one leads. I think they all lead to Universalism.
First, to ground ourselves, it will be useful to offer some definitions. What exactly do we mean when we say humans are (or are not) free?
Determinism entails the belief that the cause of all events, including human action, ultimately lies outside the agents who are acting. Human freedom is an illusion. This external control may be due to some sort of direct divine intervention (for theistic determinists), or it may be due to the inexorable trajectory of a material world (for materialist determinists). In no case, however, can one act other than she does, due to these irresistible outside forces.
Perhaps a more careful term than “freedom” is “indeterminism.” It is, in short, a denial of the above proposition—the cause of human action does NOT lie external to the acting agent. Among philosophers, there are a couple of conceptions that more carefully lay out what freedom can mean. These are “libertarianism” and “compatibilism.”
Among Christians, two primary schools of thought advocating libertarianism have arisen in recent decades. These are Molinism and Open Theism. Each has its champions and its detractors, and the debate is lively (the administration of Mercy on All identify as Molinists, for example; your present author remains agnostic), but any accounting which endorses libertarianism, whether one of these two or something else entirely, will stipulate to the following:
Libertarianism teaches an absence of any impediment to choose otherwise; for at least some human actions, there is a non-0 probability for a range of choices; seeming options really are options, and were it possible to rewind the universe, one may choose, at least in some instances, other than one has.
For the purposes of our current discussion, the above stipulation, common to all libertarians, will suffice.
Compatibilism aims to bridge the gap between determinism and libertarianism; the cause of action does not lie external to the agent, but within the agent (usually in her desires). Nevertheless, despite appearances, the probability for every action taken is fully 1, the probability for seeming alternatives fully 0. We are free in at least some instances to act in accordance with our strongest desire, but we are also bound in those same instances to act only in accordance with that strongest desire. Compatibilism aims to operate as a via media between the opposing poles of determinism and libertarianism. (Whether it is successful in bridging that gap is an open question, beyond the scope of our current topic. We will assume, for the sake of the post, that it is successful. If you disagree, you can treat compatibilism here as equivalent with determinism.)
I will offer that, for my own part, I lean toward libertarianism as the truest accounting of human freedom, in (too) brief because it seems truest (it really feels like I have more than one option in at least some instances), it seems Biblically implied (“ought” implies “can,” and we are given many commandments telling us what we ought to do), and it seems to me that without libertarian freedom, theodicy may be insoluble (even as libertarianism can only hope to be a necessary and never the sufficient condition in any workable theodicean calculus).
I am also happy to offer that I do not insist on libertarianism. Instead of trying to definitively demonstrate any particular vision of human freedom (or lack thereof), my aim here will be to show that, given the conditions already stipulated about the character of God, any accounting of human freedom leads directly to, and in no instance away from, Universalism.
Determinism and Universalism
We will lay aside materialistic determinism here. It is trivially true that if the God of Christianity is not consistent with reality, then none of anything we say here will be true either. That question is obviously beyond the scope of our current topic.
For theistic determinists (who definitionally assume the ability of God to direct all human action), either God is Love or God isn’t. If God isn’t Love, then God isn’t the God of Christianity. We are no more interested in that position than we are in the position of the materialists. (It remains true, as previously noted, that holiness and justice are no checks on love.)
If God is Love, then all actions determined by such a God would be in the service of the best interests of the beloved. For Christians, the best interests of all human persons is blissful communion with God. This means that for determinist Christians, all actions determined by God would be in service of the blissful communion of all human persons with God.
Thus, if the God of Christianity directs all human action, then God directs all of that action inexorably toward communion with God, and thus universalism obtains under any scheme of Christian theistic determinism.
Compatibilism and Universalism
In contradistinction to the God of the Christian determinist, the God of the Christian compatibilist does not immediately direct all actions taken by all agents; instead, those actions, though still ultimately probabilistically determined (i.e. there never really was another action the agent could have taken, though it may have seemed as though there were), are so determined based on the desires of the acting agent.
But no one creates his own desires (passions are called passions because they are passive), so those desires are themselves the effects of external causes—accidents of birth and parenting and manifold experiences interwoven in ways at once myriad, subtle, and complex. This complexity makes predictions difficult for humans—but not for the omnipotent, omniscient God of Christianity who set the world in motion.
Logically Possible Universes
Philosophers like to talk about these things called “logically possible universes.” These are universes which at least potentially could have existed instead of the universe in which we all live. So there could be a logically possible universe, for example, in which everything is precisely the same, down to the last detail, except that I wore a pair of brown shoes today instead of black. Or there could be a logically possibly universe which comprises exclusively 1 ¼” ball bearings—just an infinite expanse of ball bearings as far as the eye can see in every direction. (Except of course there are no eyes in this ball bearing universe to see them with.)
Speaking directly to the issue of Universalism, it is perhaps the case that
-there is a logically possible universe in which every human person’s existence ends in irredeemable, pure harm.
Or perhaps it is the case that
-there is a logically possible universe in which ALMOST every human person ends in irredeemable, pure harm—everybody, perhaps, except for me. (Sorry, everyone else).
Or maybe there is a logically possible universe in which
-almost everyone ends in everlasting blissful communion with God—except me. (Gulp.)
Or there could be a universe in which
-absolutely everyone, including me, ends in blissful communion with God.
And of course there are countless other options that lie in between these poles. So:
If a God who is Love could have, before the creation of the universe, actualized any of these logically possible universes, which would such a God have chosen? It is a question which virtually answers itself.
This brings us back to compatibilism. If compatibilism is true, then we act in every instance in accordance with our strongest desire, which, again, is a result of the interplay of myriad factors which find their source ultimately in the origins of the universe God chose to actualize. And under compatibilism, a God of Love can scarcely be imagined to do otherwise than to actualize the universe in which all freely (in a compatibilist sense) come to repentance and knowledge of the truth (as is God’s explicitly stated desire), and thence into everlasting blissful communion with God. Thus, if compatibilism is true, Universalism obtains.
(As an aside, it may be that not all of the universes named here really are logically possible. If so, however, then the only logically possible universe which finds its source in a God who is Love is, again, the one in which, due to that Love, Universalism obtains.)
Libertarianism and Universalism
This brings us finally to libertarianism and universalism. This is the kind of freedom which, when people offer it as an objection to Universalism, is the one they mostly have in mind. For many of these people, God’s love is expressed through honoring humans’ free (in a libertarian sense) actions. Thus, they conclude that God ultimately allows rather than inflicts everlasting separation between Godself and those humans who would select such a thing.
To this, I offer two responses:
1. It is not clear that love always honors libertarian freedom.
2. It is clear that if human freedom is both inviolable and libertarian in nature, then everyone will ultimately freely choose to end up in blissful communion with God.
Here’s what I mean:
1. Love and Freedom
I have a son. As any parent of any child knows, children sometimes make choices that are not in their own best interests. They may choose to use their bodies in ways that will ultimately be harmful to them, or they may choose to bend their minds toward unfruitful enterprises. Some of these harmful choices parents may indeed honor. If, for example, my son wants to play rough and run thereby the risk of a skinned knee, I’ll let him. Scrapes and bruises heal, and I can even have a hand in their healing. If, however, my son chooses to grasp the beautiful, red, glowing light on that spiral of metal that was black just a few moments ago, love for my son does not move me to honor his choice to reach out and grab hold of the burning stovetop and scar himself literally and for life; it moves me instead to scream and smack that hand deterministically away from that stove so as to save him from the devastating effects of such a poor choice, effects I as his loving father am powerless to heal. So: Is libertarianism inviolable?
Even if it could be demonstrated (as again, I am inclined to believe is the case) that at least some actions are free in a libertarian way, does it follow that a God who is Love would never undermine that freedom when that freedom was leading us toward a disaster that God himself could not redeem? It certainly doesn’t seem obvious to me, even if it could be demonstrated, as I doubt that it could, that a disaster irredeemable by God was possible in the first place.
2. Libertarianism and Freedom
There are some, however, who will insist that yes, love—real love—always honors libertarian freedom and never interferes with it, no matter what. Rather than enter into protracted debate with these folks, let us simply accept their premise and follow it to its logical conclusion. What would that mean?
Well, first, it would rule out annihilationism. When someone is irredeemably obliterated, her freedom is irredeemably obliterated right along with her, so if annihilation as commonly taught by annihilationists were true, then God, rather than honoring freedom or considering it inviolable, would instead insist on the irrevocable destruction of freedom—via the irrevocable destruction of the one who possesses it. (And the same is true, of course, with any inescapable judgment God inflicts.) So God is perfectly willing, under annihilation (or any scheme of irredeemable judgment) to violate human libertarian freedom. Thus, anyone who teaches a judgment of inescapable harm ipso facto disqualifies libertarianism as a reason to prefer his system to Universalism. (And we have already seen that, if God is willing to violate freedom, then a God who is Love would violate freedom in such a way as to ensure communion with God, not the opposite.)
Some people may at this point argue for a so-called “dependent probability model” of freedom, wherein continued rebellion against God calcifies the rebellious against repentance—ultimately everlastingly. But this thinking is flawed. If it were possible for rebellion to direct the rebellious finally and terminally against any possibility of repentance, libertarianism as defined (non-0 probability of acting otherwise) has been ipso facto violated.
What all this means is that if one wants to insist that God truly honors libertarian freedom inviolably, but also to insist that some will never enter into blissful communion with God, then one is stuck with the scheme C.S. Lewis sets up in The Problem of Pain:
“I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside [. . .] They enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded…” (626).
So according to Lewis, those who are suffering eschatological judgment continue to suffer it at their own insistence. And perhaps that is the case. But if so, what then?
If God truly does honor and never violates human libertarian freedom, that means—necessarily—that there is everlastingly a non-0 probability that every human person will freely (in a libertarian sense) choose repentance and blissful communion with God. And a non-0 probability over a literal infinity of opportunities yields a probability infinitely close to 1 that every human person will so choose. Thus, with odds infinitely close to 1 for and infinitely far from 0 against, under an inviolable libertarian freedom, Universalism once more obtains.
A Brief Word about Theodicy
Some will notice that some of the above sounds similar to arguments about the problem of evil: if an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God exists, then how can evil? Elsewhere, I may offer some thoughts on this admittedly sticky problem for Christians. Here, though, I will only note that it is an inept analogy for Universalism, because whereas any evil perpetrated on earth is redeemable (and as a Universalist I would argue it is all in fact redeemed), a judgment of irredeemable pure harm is not, and this is a qualitative difference between the two. Part of what makes Universalism powerful philosophically is that it offers, in my opinion, another necessary (though perhaps not sufficient) antidote to the problem of evil, whereas every doctrine of irredeemable pure harm, it seems to me, only exacerbates the problem.
To sum up, I offer a flowchart, epitomizing all of the above in one convenient visual. I know some of the language above threatens to be occasionally a little impenetrable; my hope is that this chart helps to penetrate it:
So now, we have behind us what seems to me some very powerful objective, overarching reasons to adopt the Universalist texts as operative and the lens through which to view and interpret any text which seems not to teach it. As a reminder, these are:
-The firmly established pattern of restoration from judgment the Bible details
-The nature of any accounting of human freedom
With all of this in the background, I offer that Universalism is just the ending of the Gospel story we ought to expect. What remains is to look at texts. If there are texts which unequivocally countermand my view, then I will need at least to hold my view loosely, if not abandon it altogether. (That’s probably the best way to hold all non-essential views anyway.) But if no texts do unequivocally countermand my view—if there are plausible alternate interpretations to any “non-universalist” texts, interpretations compatible with Universalism, then this backdrop should direct me to preferring those compatible interpretations. And if, further, there are texts which forcefully teach my view, then they, bolstered by the backdrop, would cause it to seem to me almost foolish to resist accepting Universalism wholeheartedly, even if I may without those texts only hope it to be true, or suspect it to be true, or find it only (even barely) plausibly true. In the next couple of posts, we will take a hard look at both sets of texts. It promises to be fun.