Jeff Cook is posting a series of articles on Scot McKnight's blog; the first one is here. His stated purpose is to push Universalists to a more complete theory or move them toward a preference for Annihilationism. I want to offer a response to each of his articles as they are released.
The first article concerns the question of the purpose of death on the universalist scheme. He raises the question:
What purpose does death hold on Universalism? If the soul is immortal and redemption will happen eventually, why does God create the twofold experience of life, then death, then a different form of life?
His suggestion is that there is an argument to be made on grounds of parsimony that annihilationism fares better than universalism when it comes to the question of death. He writes that because of death, on this former view, the weight of our moral choices are elevated and have more significant consequences. Given how human beings function and the seductive nature of some sins, death is a spur for right living.
I don't think, however, that death poses a particular problem for the universalist. There may not be only one particular function or purpose of death; perhaps God allows death for a number of different reasons. I will try to elaborate on some of these reasons by drawing from the classical universalist tradition as described in Ilaria Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis (Brill, 2013). (Incidentally, I think this book, alongside her Terms for Eternity co-authored with David Konstan, is essential reading for anyone who wants to comment on the doctrine of universalism intelligently. This is not to say that Jeff Cook is not commenting intelligently! I think it is (for now) the reference work for anyone who wants to understand the classical doctrine of universalism and its scriptural, philosophical, philological, and traditional evidences.)
To begin, Clement of Alexandria affirmed that God's providence orders all things for the sake of universal salvation. Likewise Isaac the Syrian affirmed that everything that God does to us and permits in his world is dictated by his love, grace, and mercy -- even if it may seem otherwise to us. Thus the first thing the classical universalist must say is that death functions for our salvation in some way. The universalist need not know exactly how this is true; after all, we are talking about God's purposes in permitting evil things to happen, and I think I stand with most Christian thinkers these days that we have no reason to suppose these reasons should be clear or even possible for us to discern. But we may go further, nevertheless.
Some of the classical universalists thought that the imposition of death after the sin of Adam and Eve was an act of grace on God's part. Because they would die, therefore the sins of humans would not go on infinitely and their guilt could not be compounded ad infinitum. There was a limit put to their sinning and therefore also to their guilt. Theophilus of Antioch and Gregory of Nazianzus affirm this interpretation. Indeed, Gregory of Nazianzus goes on to say that the apparent curse of death turned out to be an act of philanthropia, love for humanity, and he affirmed that he was convinced that this is the way in which God punishes.
Isaac the Syrian further suggested that death was a hidden grace because through death, our mode of being can be changed: we go from our present accursed and fallen state, by resurrection, into a glorious, redeemed, and immortal state. The implicit premise is that human nature, once cursed by sin, could not be totally transformed and redeemed unless it first died and was resurrected. Evidently, as Tupac says, "That's just the way it is." Consider that Jesus' pre- and post-resurrection bodies were quite different: for example, Paul affirms that Christ is no longer subject to mortality after his resurrection (Rom 6.9). Likewise Paul writes in 1 Cor 15 that our resurrection body is quite different from the present body: this is a fleshly one, whereas that one will be spiritual (1 Cor 15.44). Because our present cursed bodies are doomed to die, we would be hopeless without the possibility of resurrection; but there can be no resurrection apart from a prior death! Thus, death is the means by which we leave the cursed conditions of the fleshly body and later are resurrected into the spiritual body.
Importantly, however, I think the universalist is perfectly within her rights to hold that death is a punishment for sin. This is true even if God, in his goodness, also acts so that this punishment will not be the final word for human beings. It is no less true for Athanasius, for example, that death is the imposed punishment for sin, even if thanks to Christ and God's goodness, death is no longer a condemnation and a punishment for us (cf. Athanasius, On the Incarnation 6). God established this punishment for sin, first so that the desperately wicked might not live on forever, ravaging God's creation (imagine if Hitler never died!); but also because it is the way that God punishes us for our sin -- by taking us away from each other, from the people and things we love, from the life we know. Even if there is a sort of spiritual, quasi-embodied intermediate state -- which I do affirm; cf. the appearance of Elijah and Moses at the Transfiguration -- it seems that the reality of resurrection proves that the natural and appropriate state for the human person is embodied on Earth. We are taken away from our home as a punishment for our sin.
Now the classical universalists affirmed that in God, his goodness and his justice were the same thing; they both sought after the same end, which is the deification of humanity. But they also thought that for all of us, the goodness and the justice of God are unavoidable. Knowing that all would be salted with fire, they consequently sought to have salt within themselves (cf. Mark 9.49-50), rather than to suffer punishment needlessly because of laziness or negligence. So the classical universalist could say (I don't know if any of them did say this) that our death is a punishment for our sin, which we all suffer because God's justice cannot be avoided. But this punishment is not suffered the same way by someone who knows that it is for her good, and that it will come to an end with the transformation of her character, and who desires that transformation and vows to contribute to it voluntarily.
The New Testament describes the death of Christ on the cross in two ways: Christ in Mark and Matthew is rather agonized, crying out at the moment of death that God has abandoned him; Christ in Luke and John is confident and full of trust for God, entrusting himself to God and proud that his mission has been accomplished. Perhaps these two depictions represent the two ways that human beings will inherit the kingdom of God; for the righteous, they will trust God even in their sufferings and in their death; for the wicked, their death will be an agonized one of apparent abandonment by God.
Finally, I think the universalist can make use of death for the same reasons that Jeff Cook proposes for the annihilationist. I must first note that Cook has it wrong when he describes the universalist as affirming two worlds: this world, and then a purgatorial world after death. There is only one world, the world created by God and inhabited by human beings, whether living or dead. The intermediate state is not another world but merely another way of living in and experiencing this world. The resurrection state is not in another world but in this one, in a transformed quality. And all of life in the world is ultimately purgatorial, whether life takes place here or later, after death. However, not all life is equal, and not all sorts of life offer the same opportunities for growth.
In this life, God gives us (generally speaking) the freedom and peace to seek moral development and life in fellowship with him on our own. Even if at times we are chastised by the Lord, still these chastisements take place in this life in conditions of general peace, and if we repent we can escape them. But the punishments of the next world for those who refused to repent and to orient themselves towards God in this life are unanimously described in the New Testament in terrible, awful terms. Perhaps this is because a person who lives her whole life in opposition to God in this life, unwilling to repent despite the numerous occasions she has been given, will (de)form her character in such a profound way that only severe punitive measures can prove to help her. This is the character they have chosen for themselves, and therefore the Physician has to treat the patients as they are.
The universalist can affirm that death functions as a limit on the opportunities this life affords us to develop our characters and to turn towards God. If the punishments of the impenitent after death are inevitable, and if they are terrible, then the reality of death puts urgency on the call to repent and turn to God with all of our hearts and souls. The punishments in the afterlife will not go on indefinitely, nor will they result in the sinner's annihilation, but that doesn't make them any the less terrible; and their inevitability after death is what makes death such a serious and grave thing.
So then, here are a few things the classical universalist can say about death:
1. Death is a phenomenon ordered by God for our salvation.
2. It is a hidden grace, in that it puts a limit on our guilt.
3. It is a hidden grace, in that through it we can be freed of our cursed, fleshly bodies and attain to the resurrection body.
4. It is a punishment for our sin, which we cannot avoid because God's justice is inexorable.
5. It puts a limit on our opportunities for repentance here, whereas the punishment of the impenitent in the next life is unavoidable, and so gives our moral choices weight and significance.