Here's the second post in Jeff Cook's series on universalism at Scot McKnight's blog. Cook's argument this time around has to do with the adequacy of the present world for our moral development. He writes:
If we assume Universalism, then the world we experience does not adequately fulfill one of its primary jobs: creating the environments in which human souls become sons and daughters of God and share his likeness.
The idea that the refining fire will be increased for those who need it after death invites the question: why has God done such a poor job constructing this world? Why does our pre-death experience lack the fires necessary for requisite soul-making and drawing all to Christ?
If God created our world only as a purgatorial sphere, Robin Parry calls this “torturing people into heaven” but I don’t think that’s how a Universalist like John Hick would think of it. The refining power of our world is at times severe and necessary for a human soul to share the “likeness of God”.
But here’s the problem: why think the purgatorial fires experienced in this life are insufficient for every soul to experience the vile weight of sin and its repugnant fruit? Why think the grace of God experienced in this life daily is insufficient to draw every human soul willing decisively into the arms of Christ?
They are not—and this makes Universalism less likely.
Is there much that the universalist can say in response? Yes; in fact, I don't think this particular objection is very difficult to answer.
Let me start by noting that it is not unique to the universalist to claim that this world is the theater of rational agents' moral development. Anyone, whether a universalist or annihilationist or traditionalist, could accept this claim, and simply motivate their eschatological stance accordingly. They all have to answer the question: if this world is the theater for the moral development of rational agents, then why aren't they all perfected by the time they die? But for this reason, the universalist could more or less make use of any response the other views' adherents could use.
It is debatable whether Athanasius was a universalist (I happen to think he was, following the suggestive evidence brought forth byIlaria Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis (2013)), but let's suppose for the moment that he wasn't. This is how he describes the creation of humanity and its purpose:
On the Incarnation, 4).
For Athanasius, then, humanity was created in an environment hospitable for its further moral development, assuming that they made use of their freedom to reflect the image of the Logos and enjoy interminable life in fellowship with God. But if they should misuse their freedom and choose wrongly, then their context would change, and barring any sort of intervention on God's part, their environment would become miserable, inhospitable, one in which they continue in death and in corruption. (By the way, if Athanasius says that the sinful continue in death and corruption, this implies that 'death' and 'corruption' are not utter annihilation but a kind of miserable, lifeless continued existence.)
This is the way a universalist could happily answer Cook's objection. Our world was initially adequate for the development of our characters into the image and likeness of God, but human sin changes things somewhat. It's not that the world is so obviously inadequate for the task God set it to. Rather, human beings can make use of the opportunities given them or not, and if they do not, then more drastic measures are taken in the next world.
The problem with Cook's argument is that it doesn't take into consideration the reality of human choices, which are sometimes wrong and misplaced. Indeed, he describes the universalist scheme so mechanistically that there seems to be no room for choice at all; but the universalist doesn't need to accept this.
It may be that this world offers us plenty of opportunities for moral development, but it is also up to us to make use of them accordingly. And if we don't, it is not at all surprising that some persons die without being made into the likeness of God. Yet God, not wanting any to perish, gives these persons further opportunities in the next world -- drastic measures, perhaps, for the worst of them -- so that his purposes in creation would not come to naught. Athanasius argued that it would be unworthy of God and a compromise of his goodness if his creatures, made rational in the image of the Logos, should be destroyed -- whether deservedly or undeservedly (On the Incarnation, 6). So therefore he takes every measure to ensure the salvation of all.
In brief, then, the response may be this: this world is adequate, but it is up to us to make adequate use of it. And for those who do not take advantage of the opportunities this life affords them, there is a solution in the next world. Yet the next world's solution is a drastic and painful one, and therefore we are motivated to take advantage of our time here.