Jeff Cook has posted the final installation of his series on universalism at Scot McKnight's blog. Here, as I have done and promised to do, I will respond to his arguments from a universalist perspective. Nota bene: this is a long one.
Jeff opens with an interesting question:
Given Universalism, one cannot possibly choose death, cannot choose to live apart from God or God’s community. No one created by God has real options about their destiny, but is this a problem for Universalism?
But he leaves this question and goes on to other matters. I will have to address this question at greater length in a future post, but I want to leave some brief remarks on the matter first. It is a commonly thought in Christian thinking that humanity was created for fellowship with God. After all, in numerous places in Scripture, we find the affirmation that all things (including all people!) were created by, through, and for God and Christ (e.g., Rom 11.36, Col 1.16). Now if God has created all people for fellowship with himself, then the minimum of rationality demands that he create human creatures with a structure that inclines them to search after him. And that is exactly what Paul affirms in his sermon to the Areopagites: he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth . . . so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him (Acts 17.26-7).
Now obviously nothing can satisfy this intrinsic desire for happiness except God. That is Augustine's famous point: our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee, O Lord. Consequently human agency is ultimately and always a search for God, even if particular human persons do not realize this. And a life apart from God inevitably will not satisfy a person's longing for deep, eternal happiness, because nothing apart from God can possibly give that. So the universalist does believe that people do not "have a choice" about their ultimate destiny, in the sense that no one can forever put off living in communion with God because there is an object of human agency as such, namely the good, and people will find out that they cannot find the good apart from God. And this is not particularly problematic, because after all, this is what human beings are made for! There's nothing problematic about a human finding out her true destiny, her true identity!
The problem with many theologians is that they are more existentialists than Christians when it comes to the question of freedom of the will. They think that freedom means defining yourself and your own destiny, choosing between alternatives placed before you. This implies that the human person does not have her identity given to her naturally through her creation by God, but rather she constructs it for herself. I think you would be hard pressed to find any Christian theologian who thought this way prior to perhaps Kierkegaard, and certainly this picture has no scriptural support at all. Scripture permits that people become wicked, certainly, but it never supposes that the wicked are not acting unnaturally and contrary to their constitution and creation by God for doing so. On the contrary, a life in godliness in obedience to Jesus Christ is a life lived in obedience to the truth (cf. Rom 2.8). Beyond that, the existentialist picture makes no sense of the fact that human agency per se has an object -- namely the good, or happiness as Aristotle defines it in Nicomachean Ethics. The fact of the intrinsic teleology of the will goes to show that we do have a prior nature, that we are not mere blank slates. (This is to say nothing of the obvious facts of our biological identity which place limits on what we can be!)
Now if it is true that the will is subordinated to the intellect in pursuit of the good, then this teleological conception of volition carries along with it its own definition of freedom. Rather than freedom being the power to choose between mutually exclusive opposites, it would seem that freedom, true freedom, is the power to choose on the basis of knowledge of the good. We may have moments where opposing alternatives seem equally open to us, but that is because of our ignorance about the true good of the matter, and this is a sign of ignorance, and hence of unfreedom.
Does this conception of freedom allow for libertarianism? Maybe, maybe not, but in any case, libertarianism is not that hot a theory of freedom anyway. I don't understand the obsession some theologians and Christian philosophers have with libertarian freedom of the will. Some libertarian theories are arguably incoherent and make free choice impossible -- as some compatibilists have argued. But in any case, I remain neutral on the question of libertarianism and stick to my ethical intellectualist guns, because this is the way of the classical universalists as well.
So to return to Jeff Cook, he considers that the universalist says something like this: God looked at the various possible worlds he could have created, and determined to make a particular world F in which he foresaw that all persons would be freely reconciled to him. Jeff raises a number of problems and questions about this picture.
The first is this: it may be the case that given all the possibilities World F does not exist.
The problem here is that I do not think of possible worlds as things that have some sort of existence independently of God, as if God merely 'is given' a set of possible ways he could create things and has to make due with what he has. This is an absurdity to my mind, because it is not as if things have existence independently of God's power to create them; after all, for all things except God, to exist is to be created (and sustained in existence) by God. Thus, I take it that God defines which worlds are possible, not anything else, and certainly not worlds which have no existence at all since they are merely possible! The direction of definition goes from God to world, not from world to God. Thus I don't see any problem here. Why shouldn't there be a possible world in which all people are freely saved? Is such a thing made impossible from God's own nature and power itself? Surely not!
There is yet a further argument the universalist may make here. It is an unimpeachable principle of modal logic that if X is actual, then X is possible. After all, if something were not possible, it could never have been actualized; therefore what is actual must also be possible. Now the universalist thinks there are very good reasons for supposing that as a matter of fact, all people will be saved. Consequently there is a possible world in which all people are saved -- namely this one!
Finally, I take it that the above-described conception of human freedom along ethical intellectualist lines is broadly compatibilist in spirit. After all, human freedom is principally about acting on the basis of knowledge about the good, rather than about choosing between compossible but mutually exclusive alternatives, and so on. So God could simply create a world in which he has determined that all persons will freely come to be saved. Now here's the kicker: Jeff cannot simply assume that free choice means libertarianism. That begs the question against compatibilists. Further argumentation has to be given, and he needs to deal with the responses compatibilists have made to libertarian arguments (e.g., the Consequence Argument).
The second is this: assuming for a moment that a good God could allow or initiate the annihilation of an unjust soul, it may be the case that God could actualize a world in which all are redeemed, but that those worlds lack other beauties which a world with some ultimately annihilated contain. Yes of course the salvation of all is a great good, but universal salvation may make other great goods impossible.
It is difficult to see why anyone should believe this. Cook considers that in world F (in which all are redeemed/saved), it may be that Christ does not die for the salvation for the world. But how is anyone saved, and from what, if Christ did not die for them? So I think Jeff here is a bit confused. But this minor point is a quibble and not worth spending much time on. The real problem is that Jeff, once more, is considering that possible worlds are just 'given' to God, independently of what he wants, and he merely has to work with what he's got. I don't accept this picture, I don't think any of the classical universalists thought about things this way, and certainly Jeff hasn't argued for it.
The third is this: Thirdly, it may be the case that in a possible world (like World F) where all come to faith—you and I may not be included. That is, it could be the case that in every possible world where you and I exist, we do not embrace God or his community. We will call this “transworld irredeemability.”
The same problem mentioned above applies here as well: Jeff continues to argue about possible worlds as if they are merely given God, rather than determined by God's own power itself.
There is a further problem with the notion of "transworld irredeemability." In the first place, it is an absurd notion. Suppose God creates a world in which he implants a person with a deep knowledge and awareness of relevant factors regarding salvation: first, that God is the only source of lasting happiness; second, that sin inevitably leads to misery and suffering; third, that it is within her power to repent and to live in communion with God, as God offers so very clearly. I don't see why such a world is not possible. But if this person is transworld irredeemable, then she would still choose to live in sin. It is arguable that this would not be a choice at all, at least not a free choice, but rather evidence of serious cognitive malfunction, as if she were acting out of some kind of irrational compulsion. Furthermore, this is only a conceivably possible scenario if we do not accept the ethical intellectualist picture I described above, along with its teleological conception of volition. But I don't see any hope of making sense of human agency as we actually experience it in the world apart from that picture. Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics took it as obvious -- and everyone else in the debate did too -- that there was an ultimate goal of human agency, and he even argued for this conclusion in case some perverse persons were not yet convinced. So if there is something we are always seeking, and if we are made to see where we will get it, then we will go for it -- simple as that. No person could in principle be transworld irredeemable and remain a rational agent with functioning volitional faculties.
Jeff also argues that God would not be doing any wrong in creating a person knowing that she will eventually be annihilated. He says: Imagine again that God foresees that you and I will never choose to embrace God. Unredeemable souls like us do not deserve to exist. Unredeemable souls will never participate in the robust life God offers—but God being utterly gracious makes you and I anyway, and our temporal existence is a grand, temporary gift to people like us. What could miserable souls like you and I who reject God’s love in every possible world, do to deserve to be alive? And yet here, in creating us, God extends grace even to those with transworld irredeemability—those who God foresees will never be a blessing to others or to Himself.
I don't find this plausible. Suppose someone lives a life of utter misery and suffering: abused by his parents, victimized by his neighbors in the rough neighborhood where he grew up, taken advantage of by people as he grows older and tries to make a living, rejected and hurt by various women with whom he tried to have meaningful relationship, and eventually he dies slowly after being stabbed by a mugger. He is resurrected and is offered a chance to enter into God's kingdom, but out of resentment and hatred for God for having created him in the world, he incorrigibly refuses and is eventually annihilated.
Did this person experience a "grand, temporary gift"? Did God create him in order to show him how much he loved him, knowing how miserable his life would be and that eventually he would reject God definitively? Does it make sense that God would create a person like this out of great love for a potential that will never be realized? All of this is absurd to me!
Furthermore, I don't see how, on this picture, God is not engaging in some kind of naive, perhaps masochistic nostalgia, akin to a guy who continues to make advances at a woman he knows will reject him every time, and in the end definitively, giving her gifts and doing nice things for her which she will never recognize and for which she will never express gratitude. It's weak! It's pathetic! This doesn't seem to me to be the God about whom it was said, I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted (Job 42.2). This is a kind of weak, romantic God that makes no sense given the way we see the world. Christians and Muslims are decapitated by ISIS soldiers; men and women are kidnapped, tortured, and their corpses eaten by psychopaths; teenagers make each other's lives a living hell until one of them commits suicide. Do you want a world like this run by a God who can't guarantee the end will be a good one regardless? Do you think those persons were worth creating, if in the end they are nevertheless annihilated?
Now certainly Jeff will question my own view of things. I think most Christians are libertarians because they want to maintain a critical distance between God and the evil things that take place in the world, especially the evils that human beings do to one another. I should start by saying that not all the scriptural writers shared this concern, but I won't press that point. Is theological determinism that bad? Is it really worth avoiding at all costs?
I think not. It depends what kind of person is doing the determining, to what end everything is headed. If the person doing the determining is good, and if perhaps we have some kind of convincing confirmation of his goodness (say, in his willingness to be crucified for our sins), then as bad as things may seem at times, we are within our rights to be convinced of God's goodness nonetheless and to trust that there's reason -- perhaps unknowable to us -- why things are the way they are.
Jeff will insist: if God could have just created a world with free agents and ensured that no one would commit any evil, why wouldn't he have done that? I will use the words of a friend in answering: doing this may make other great goods impossible.
Perhaps God wants the world the way it is for this reason: the happy ending to a story is better when there has been conflict and trouble and toil along the way. The Lord of the Rings is so fascinating and so captivating because they don't simply teleport to Mt. Doom to destroy the ring; rather they have to go through numerous struggles, a long and perilous journey, fighting with others and with themselves along the way. In the end, the peace that comes upon the land after the defeat of evil is that much more profound precisely because they remember what it took to get there. So also mutatis mutandis with our present world.
Imagine reading a novel that at times took some twists and turns for the worse, and you could not see how the author will get the main characters of out of the trouble they're in. Yet, somehow, surprisingly and pleasantly, all the pieces of the puzzle fit together in the denouement and suddenly you could see why everything had to be the way it was. Whereas the experience was previously arduous and even hopeless at times, now it all makes sense, and your pure pleasure at knowing this is indescribable. Perhaps that's the kind of world God wants to create -- a world in which, somehow, in some way I do not know (in Origen's words), even the worst sinners and all of humanity are saved through God's dramatic intervention in Jesus Christ. But to create such a world, there has to be evil.