Sunday, May 11, 2014

Against hopeful universalism: reply to a comment

On a previous incarnation of this blog, I posted an argument against a mere hopeful universalism that appeals to the dialectic of divine sovereignty in the OT/NT as appreciated by Levenson's Creation and the Persistence of Evil. The argument, briefly, is that if we may only hope that God's desire that all persons be saved be realized, hope without being dogmatic, this would require us to adopt a merely hopeful attitude towards God's sovereignty as omnipotent ruler of the universe; so long as a human sinner refuses to repent and have fellowship with God, the Lord's will is not realized and his rule is compromised.

mome commented the following:

Under certain notions of what Gehenna is, such as those that describe it as a suffering amid the “fire of God’s love” because of an individual’s hatred or rejection or sorrow in the midst of that love, or other notions that resemble this, it is possible to describe such a state as both salvation and damnation at the same time (God has saved this person and brought them exactly to that “place” or “state” to which all the saved have been brought, but this person continues to damn him/herself, so to speak, because of the reality of his/her own freedom or inner state or what have you). An argument may be made that in this sort of scenario, God has accomplished his will and his sovereignty has not been compromised, but that because this would not exactly fit the usual expectations of universalism (nobody suffers anymore) this could not be described as universalism. Thus, one may remain hopeful that all may eventually come to the point of no longer damning themselves in the midst of their own salvation without being certain that they will. God’s sovereignty would not be at stake in such a view. A pertinent question here would be what exactly it means for “all people to be saved.” Does this mean that all are saved from death? from hades? Does it mean all are saved from separation from the Divine? Does it mean all are saved from all suffering? Does it mean all are saved from all evil, and that all evil is eliminated from “existence” (setting aside arguments about whether evil “actually exists”)?

I take it that such a conception does not adequately describe God's salvific desires vis-a-vis humanity. Stăniloae says in The Holy Trinity: In the Beginning There Was Love that God created humanity for the purpose of extending the paternal-filial relation between the Father and the Son to many more sons; this can't be accomplished so long as human persons resent, hate, fail to return, are tortured by God's paternal love for them. The Son does not respond in this way to the Father. So also God wants an obedient and glad response to his love, not a tortured one. Moreover in The Experience of God: Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, vol. 2: Creation and Deification, he says that God's intention for the creation is its deification. But an eternity of misery and torture is hardly a deification -- that is not what God's life is like, and so we are not participating in God's life if that is our lot forever.

Moreover, this is not a picture of hell that I accept. The scriptures describe hell if anything as an exclusion from God's love, not an unwelcome inclusion into it. The parables in Mt 25 and elsewhere in the gospels speak of the "outer darkness" into which sinners and the disobedient are cast. Likewise Revelation speaks of those who are "outside," such as the dogs, sorcerers, etc. I don't doubt for a minute that God loves those who are in hell, and obviously I think even hell is intended for their good, since I am a universalist. But this is not a picture of hell that I find scriptural: the spatial metaphor, so far as it is used in scripture, does not describe the damned and the saved in the same place, but in different places with correspondingly different experiences. God's goal is their eventual inclusion, but first there is an exclusion.

It is obvious to me what the phrase "that all people be saved" means -- the same thing it means everywhere in scripture: that people be lifted up into the life of the fellowship of the Holy Trinity and all that this implies, whether justification or sanctification or resurrection to immortality or whatever. Salvation means fixing everything that is wrong with humanity, including the wayward and disobedient will. There is no salvation worth talking about in scripture except one that means moving from a worse state to a better one. It would hardly be a salvation worth accomplishing to keep a sinner in torment for eternity because he rejects the love of God in his immortality, rather than merely allowing him to be destroyed if he doesn't want life with God anyway. If anything, raising a person to immortality knowing that it will be torturous for her unto eternity is demonic. At the very least it does not express love. You may respond that even God does not know whether every person will be saved or not, but that is a long discussion and takes us down a different road.

These, then, are my points in response: God's salvific desire implies more than a mere salvation from the biological fact of death, but rather includes joyful and voluntary fellowship with the Trinity; for this reason, so long as this desire is not realized, his sovereignty is compromised; consequently, a merely hopeful universalism issues in a mere hope in God's sovereignty, which undoes the biblical function of the eschaton, and which compromises the strength and confidence of Jesus' affirmation of the arrival of God's kingdom in him (Mark 1.15 and elsewhere).

1 comment:

mome said...

Thanks so much for your reply. I do realize my own suggestions were sloppily written. I say "suggestions" because they're not necessarily my actual opinions, but I suppose I currently lack the confidence to be more than hopeful about universalism at this point, though I am quite happy to be moved toward greater confidence by bringing up questions such as these to people such as yourself who are more certain than I.