Friday, August 28, 2015

Universalism: the killer of Christianity

Check out this blog post by Fr. Dwight Longenecker on the topic of universalism. See if anything he says even remotely resembles the kind of doctrine I've been writing about on this blog for a long while now.

He makes a few claims about universalism, all of which are more or less false.

He says universalism is (1) a sentimental belief held by people who are so cushioned from the realities of life that they don’t know anybody who deserves hell and they think God is just as nice and polite as everybody they know and so wouldn’t have such poor manners as to send anyone to hell.

I don't think this adequately represents universalism as affirmed by ancient luminaries and theologians such as Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Isaac the Syrian, Evagrius Ponticus, Maximus the Confessor, Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, etc.

Far from being motivated by mere sentiment, these fellows thought that universalism was taught by Scripture: for example, they appealed to Paul's words at 1 Cor 15.28 that at the telos, "God will be all in all." If God is all in all, then there cannot be any evil any longer, since evil is the absence of the Good, i.e. God; if God is to fill all things, all evil must disappear and there must only be goodness and God. For this reason, there will be a time when no one will any longer love sin, or be ignorant of God's true goodness, or desire something else apart from fellowship with God. Likewise, the apostle Peter speak of the time of the apokatastasis panton, the restoration of all things back to God (Acts 3.21).

They certainly affirmed that some persons who did not purify themselves of sin in this life through repentance, baptism, and ascetical discipline would suffer punishments and torments in the next world in Gehenna. But they thought that these punishments would be meted out in accordance with desert, which they considered would always be finite. After all (as argued by Theodore of Mopsuestia and Diodore of Tarsus), Christ would not say that one servant who knew less would be beaten with few stripes and another who knew more with many (Luke 12.47-8) if the punishments were not limited in duration and meted out in keeping with desert. Likewise, Christ would not say that there is no getting out of the prison until you pay back the last penny (Mt 5.26) if there weren't an intrinsic limit on one's culpability and punishment. Indeed, for Origen, everyone must meet with the consequences of their actions; there's no escaping divine justice for anyone. But God's justice does not seek punishment for its own sake, but rather, as Clement of Alexandria held, his punishments save and educate. They are aimed at the reformation of the sinner and her restoration to God, even though they are also meted according to merit.

So Fr. Longenecker doesn't characterize things adequately when he attributes the universalist with the notion that (2) Everybody goes straight to heaven when they die. I don't know of a single universalist theologian, whether ancient or contemporary, who actually affirms this. This is a caricature and a straw man.

Fr. Longenecker likewise complains that universalism (3) doesn’t make a lot of sense in marketing terms. He notes that "progressive Catholic priests" (he doesn't name any names) have been teaching universalism of some sort or another for a few decades now, while at the same time wondering why so few men are attending seminaries to become priests or otherwise to take up the religious life.  He thinks the answer is easy: For forty years you’ve told people that everyone is going to heaven no matter what. The people are not stupid. They’ve drawn the obvious conclusion that they therefore don’t need to go to church, or that it doesn’t matter what church they go to. If everybody’s going to heaven there is no such thing as mortal sin and if there’s no such thing as mortal sin why bother with God, religion, Jesus, Mary and Mass?

But again, I don't know of any universalist theologian or pastor who thinks that "everyone is going to heaven no matter what." I've never heard or read any such claim. The classical universalists I enumerated above thought that at the end, all persons would be restored to God, yes, but not before each got what he was due for the life he lived. There is no escaping or setting aside the justice of God in the ancient universalist scheme, and they all affirmed that unrepentant sinners of every kind would meet the consequences of their actions in Gehenna through horrible punishments. So this is a straw man and a caricature, again.

Likewise, I think the claim that "there's no such thing as mortal sin" needs to be qualified a bit. I take it that a Catholic hopeful universalist like Hans Urs von Balthasar would not deny that there are mortal sins; after all, he takes eternal damnation to be a real  possibility for some people who refuse to repent of their sins and to accept the offer of salvation in Jesus Christ. Likewise, St. Catherine of Siena knew that eternal damnation was a real possibility, and precisely because it was possible, she prayed fervently that God would not allow any to fall into it but instead to save all. So the universalist does not need to hold that eternal damnation is impossible in principle. Indeed, precisely because it is possible, therefore the universalist prays for the salvation of all people far and wide, as the apostle Paul himself required of us (1 Tim 2.1-4).

As an aside: I am not Catholic, but I take it that one reason why so few people are becoming priests and monks, etc., is the requirement of celibacy. In our culture and in our times, where sexuality is so public and so (inordinately) valued, many people feel that voluntary celibacy for life is too great a burden to bear. That is a likelier candidate for explaining why so few people become priests.

So Fr. Longenecker concludes with this: (4) Universalism is a false doctrine that kills Christianity, and those who preach it are false teachers and anti Christs.

I'm not sure that it "kills" Christianity. If anything, universalism is a uniquely Christian doctrine and hope. As Ilaria Ramelli argues in her The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis (Brill, 2013), there is no evidence of any religious group or movement affirming universal salvation before Christianity, and pagan (neoplatonist) universalists of later centuries were themselves influenced by Christian thought; no Greek pagan thinkers ever affirmed that all persons would eventually be restored to fellowship with God before Christianity arrived on the scene.

Finally, I suppose that Fr. Longenecker would have the Church excommunicate numerous saints and important figures and doctors of the Church with universalist teachings or sentiments or prayers as false teachers and anti-Christs: Gregory of Nyssa and the other Cappadocians; Evagrius Ponticus; Ephrem the Syrian; Isaac the Syrian; Maximus the Confessor; Catherine of Siena; Hans Urs von Balthasar; Pope Benedict; etc.

I think Fr. Longenecker badly misrepresents universalism and his arguments are not particularly good; he demonstrates an unfamiliarity with the doctrine as it has been taught and affirmed by Catholics and others, both in ancient history and in contemporary times.


Strider said...

Good response to Fr Longenecker, Steven.

You mention Pope Benedict as having universalist sympathies. What texts do you have specifically in mind?

Steven Nemeș said...

I knew I would have to answer to that one. :-)

I'm thinking of a passage in von Balthasar where he lists contemporary Catholic theologians who agree with him about the viability of universalist hope, and among others he names Joseph Ratzinger.

Steven Nemeș said...

I haven't read anything from Ratzinger's oeuvre, I am following Von Balthasar's claim.

Strider said...

Steven, Ratzinger's book *Eschatology* is a must-read. I recommend it highly. I think you'll discover, though, that he is not a universalist. He basically advances a free-will model of damnation. For an intro to his thought, see his encyclical Spe salvi:

Steven Nemeș said...

Von Balthasar lists Cardinal Ratzinger among those who are with him about the viability of a hope for the salvation of all in the first chapter of "A Short Discourse on Hell" (2014, p. 133). It may be that Ratzinger thinks that the free choice model describes how people will be damned, if any will be damned at all in the end. But I'll have to read the book myself to see.