Monday, July 13, 2015

Response to Jeff Cook, 2: Our inadequacies

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:

Grudging existence to none therefore, He made all things out of nothing through His own Word, our Lord Jesus Christ and of all these His earthly creatures He reserved especial mercy for the race of men. Upon them, therefore, upon men who, as animals, were essentially impermanent, He bestowed a grace which other creatures lacked—namely the impress of His own Image, a share in the reasonable being of the very Word Himself, so that, reflecting Him and themselves becoming reasonable and expressing the Mind of God even as He does, though in limited degree they might continue for ever in the blessed and only true life of the saints in paradise. But since the will of man could turn either way, God secured this grace that He had given by making it conditional from the first upon two things—namely, a law and a place. He set them in His own paradise, and laid upon them a single prohibition. If they guarded the grace and retained the loveliness of their original innocence, then the life of paradise should be theirs, without sorrow, pain or care, and after it the assurance of immortality in heaven. But if they went astray and became vile, throwing away their birthright of beauty, then they would come under the natural law of death and live no longer in paradise, but, dying outside of it, continue in death and in corruption. This is what Holy Scripture tells us, proclaiming the command of God, "Of every tree that is in the garden thou shalt surely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil ye shall not eat, but in the day that ye do eat, ye shall surely die." "Ye shall surely die"—not just die only, but remain in the state of death and of corruption (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.


Jeff said...

On your view, would God foresee the fall.

If yes, then the problem remains.

If no, you'll have other foreknowledge issues as universalist.

Grace and peace.

Steven Nemeș said...

Hi Jeff,

Yes, I think God foreknew that humanity would fall. But why does this resuscitate the problem?

The answer to your objection is this: not all persons are perfected in this life because they do not all make good use of the time given them. (I did not write this in my original post, at least not clearly, but it may also be that perfection is not attainable in the present fallen body. Perhaps perfection requires the resurrection body. This is a contingent fact in light of the contingency of the fall.)

Can you elaborate how the problem remains in spite of the supposition of divine foreknowledge?

Jeff said...

I'm not arguing everyone needs to be "perfect".

I'm saying :
People need to do X in order to embrace God's grace.
X is really really really important to God.
Not all people do X in this world.
This world is insufficient in getting all people to do X.

My question stands: 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?

Steven Nemeș said...

I will get rid of the language of perfection. In any case, the perfection of the human being is the way I understand the telos of God's salvific activity, so I am just appropriating your argument to my own theology.

Okay, let me see if I can get at what you're saying.

My response to your argument as formulated in the above comment is this: the means this world provides for X are in themselves adequate to the task, but some persons don't make use of the means that this world provides for accomplishing X; therefore they die without having accomplished X.

In a sense, the means are "insufficient" in that their mere existence is not causally sufficient to ensure that all persons will come to know God's grace. That is an empirical datum. But note: they are "insufficient" in this sense on your picture, too, since you don't believe that all persons come to know God's grace. So the universalist can argue tu quoque on this point.

You hold in your original post that the world God has created is sufficient for X in some sense -- perhaps "adequate to the task, if utilized properly" is a way of fleshing out what this means. That is the sense I get reading your post. Well, it is obvious that the universalist can say the same thing.