Universalism and Death (by Jeff Cook)

Universalism and Death (by Jeff Cook) July 6, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-06-30 at 6.25.02 PMThis post is by Jeff Cook, and I am committed to giving space to Jeff’s public ruminations because they are reasonable and give us space to think through challenging topics with rigor.

Jeff Cook: I’ve become convinced this year that the traditional view of hell will not last as a dominant theory among scholars for much longer. The arguments for the traditional hell fail so spectacularly and their conclusions are so repugnant that the traditional view is only carried in the popular mind by assumption and convention.

No, the conversation about hell in the 21st century among those who study will shift and the debate will focus on two morally-coherent views of hell: annihilationism and universalism.

Recently, at Fuller a conference was held outlining and exploring these two views, and I wish to present and dialogue through the three arguments I presented. This will be the first of a three part series thinking through the purgatorial view of hell.


First, though I am passionate about the intellectual and ethical failures of the Traditional View of Hell, I do not feel the same way toward the Purgatorial View. I champion Universalism as a far superior option to Traditionalism and think it can be spoken of boldly from within orthodoxy defined by the Creeds.

Second, let’s talk definitions. For “Annihilationism” to be a proper description of hell—one person must cease to exist and no human being can suffer indefinitely. Given the Annihilationist conception of hell, It could be the case that there will be souls who repent in some purgatorial world; so too, a soul may be punished punitively for a limited time if that is necessary to fulfill justice. Looking at them in turn, Annihilation has the widest arms, allowing for appropriate reprimands and, if possible, inviting God’s love to do its work in a postmortem sphere.

By “Universalism” (or the “Purgatorial View”) I mean the theory that every human being will eventually, now or in some post-mortem future, embrace redemption through Christ. For the sake of these posts, I will exclusively engage the writings of John Hick and Robin Parry who have done praiseworthy work for the rest of us and set out some initial reflections to questions I’m inclined to ask.

Lastly, what I hope to do in these posts is offer a set of potential anomalies or inconsistencies for Universalism to consider. I myself do not think any of these arguments are decisive disproofs, but taken together I think they constitute a worthy set of questions that may push Universalists to a more complete theory or move them toward a preference for Annihilationism.  So here we go…

Argument 1: Universalism needs to Wrestle with Death

What is the point of death? God has allowed, if not foreseen, a world in which human beings will die. Death may be the result of sin and human choices, but God has actualized a world in which death could be/would be a reality. So why?

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?

There’s an argument to be made here from Ockham’s Razor: If we hold that a simpler world is more likely, Annihilationism is not only superior to the Traditional View, but to the Purgatorial View in its simplicity.

Given Universalism those who reject God will experience a purgatorial state, but if we hold to Ockham’s Razor we might ask: “Why didn’t God simply create the purgatorial world without a physical death? Why the two stages and not one?” What’s the purgatorial experience going to solve that this world cannot? Perhaps it provides more time, but why not construct a world with more time?

I am inclined to think some knowledge and experiences may be counterproductive in this life (given the function of life now), but quite valuable after death. So too, I am open to thinking some choices may only be available after death and only then have soul-restoring power.Why this could be the case, however, needs clarity.

Now, Robin Parry has an answer here. He argues, “Hell is supposed to be a punishment for wrong doing, but in this supposedly efficient scenario people have not even had the opportunity to act wrongly. I understand hell to be a post-mortem situation in which God brings home to us the terrible consequences of sin, [but] this makes sense for someone who has lived a sinful life and needs education” (MacDonald 162).

I don’t find this line sufficient. God could provide knowledge of sin’s consequences in any number of ways without violating one’s freedom or contradicting the achievement of God’s other priorities. For example, we know many things about sin and its consequences: intuitively, through watching the experiences of others, even fictional displays communicate very well (I imagine a dark screening of “Clockwork Orange” or “Kids” may be sufficient for many to know the horror of life without God).

Now, is knowledge of the consequences of sin the only reason for the experience of death? If so we might question, given the deep pain associated with death, whether this was the best option available to God. All things being equal, death seems something to avoid and the fact that God did not avoid death in the world he actualized points to a difficulty within Universalism. God could have created a purgatorial world perfectly constructed for soul-making without death.

Now, as an Annihilationist, I would affirm the purgatorial world is the world God created. That is, our world sufficiently purges, refines, awakens, and constructs what are initially embryotic souls. Some Universalists affirm the perspective of John Hick and his recent articulation of an Irenaean theodicy, much of which I would also champion (see Everything New). Hick does a masterful job showcasing why pain in this world is necessary given God’s aims at creating sons and daughters.

The Annihilationist has a good answer to why God allows death. Given death and our potential evaporation, 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.

Furthermore, the simplicity of Annihilationism makes it more likely, not relying on non-empirically verified spheres of existence or extended lengths of time to do work that we all see is presently taking place in the lives of many now.

Jeff Cook teaches philosophy at the University of Northern Colorado. He is the author of Everything New: Reimagining Heaven and Hell(Subversive 2012). You can connect with him at everythingnew.org and @jeffvcook.

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