Universalism and Freedom (Jeff Cook)
I get to begin with a celebration! This is the last official work I am doing to promote Everything New: Reimagining Heaven and Hell. Most sane authors don’t spend 7 years on a project, but this one was worth it to me. For those who read it, thank you!
Now, to the business of hell. 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.
Though I embrace Annihilationism, I find the purgatorial view both praiseworthy and worth critiquing. If you’d like to see the definitions and preliminaries I’m assuming, the first post of the series is here.
If I Were a Universalist
When I think about the position, my initial critiques of Universalism focus on freedom. 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? I think it is something worth wrestling through and on the backside assessing.
If I were a Universalist I would advance a principle:
(P) God has foreknowledge of the choices every free creature would make in any world he might actualize.
This is a compatibilist line of thinking and it assumes that human freedom and God’s selection of a specific foreknown future are not incompatible, and therefore God may select a world with a story and final state he sees as best while honoring the choices of all human souls.
If I were a universalist, I would argue something like this: If we presuppose P, then God may look at the trillions of possible worlds he could actualize and see that in at least one of them all the free creatures eventually choose to embrace Him as Father and the community of God as their family through Christ.
Let’s call the most desirable of these foreknown worlds “World F”.
If I were a Universalist, I would argue that prior to creating anything God has foreseen that if he were to actualize World F, all the potential sons and daughters in World F would eventually embrace their identity and the God who loves them. This view can make sense of two very important details: (1) It affirms human freedom, and (2) “God gets what God wants”: the redemption of all those he created.
I personally think this is the most compelling way to setup Universalism.
Possible Worlds and God’s Grace
So, let’s talk about (P) and World F.
First, it may be the case that given all the possibilities World F does not exist. That is, there may not be a possible world in which all of God’s creatures freely choose to be redeemed. God would foresee this and if God desired to create a world with potential sons and daughters, God would need to make a world in which some are lost. If World F does not exist in the inventory of possible worlds, creating a world with the annihilation of some souls would not be a limitation on God’s foreknowledge—God can see all possible worlds. And this would not be a limitation on God’s power—God could actualize any world that is possible. The inability to create World F would be a metaphysical fact about reality itself.
All this to say, the claim that Robin Parry makes well, that “There are no good reasons to deny that God wants to save all people and that he can save all people without violating their freedom” (Macdonald 163) may be false. On this front, God may not be able to have his cake and eat it too, but that does not call into question God’s power or love. It simply describes the overall inventory of possible worlds.
Second, 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.
For example, in a world where all are redeemed, the displays of God’s love may not be available in the depthy ways we experience in our world. In World F, for example, Christ may not die to initiate the salvation of all (that is, in all possible world’s in which all are saved the cross and resurrection events may not occur) and thus that world would lack the amazing display of God’s grace our world experiences. In World F, the stories of all the actual humans may be far less compelling and weighty. World F may lack the dark elements required for genuine soul-making and sanctification. Overall, if God made a World F, we may lose significant experiences of God’s grace and transformation which we encounter in a world where some human souls will choose evaporation. In short: though God may want the salvation of all, there may be other compelling goods that would give God reason to prefer a different kind of world.
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.”
Said another way, it may be an metaohysical fact about you and I (given our personalities in all possible worlds in which we exist) that we are the kinds of people who will never embrace the invitations of God. We could be unredeemable personalities.
But God may have chosen not to create World F because God still loves you and I.
God certainly could have created a world without those with unredeemable hearts, but perhaps God looks on our potential, loves us and wants us to experience our actuality even though our relationship with God will be temporal. If God desired to create you and I—knowing our annihilation would occur—this is not a knock on God’s character. Creating souls like you and I would be a display of deep graciousness on God’s part.
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.
So here’s the argument: on Universalism every human soul will eventually provide some benefit to God and God may have good personal reasons for actualizing every human souls—he foresees every souls future and the joy he will experience with all. But on the Annihilationist view, there may be some souls who will never benefit God, and by making them, dying for them, and allowing them to ultimately reject Him—God’s love is truly offered to the most underserving.
Annihilationism allows God to extend grace at a heightened and more profound level than Universalism.
One last word on God’s foreknowledge, my examples all assume God’s knowledge of the future events within all possible worlds. However some Universalist embrace an open future, either because they hold to libertarian freedom or they believe the future is unknowable, which brings us to a last reflection.
We should acknowledge that it is quite difficult to hold to an open future and embrace Universalism. I hear in the language of many Universalist a commitment to the hope that eventually all will receive God’s grace given the trillions upon trillions of years ahead of them. But given an open future, the renewal of all things is only a possibility. In fact, if one holds to an open future, the Universalist have God creating a state of affairs that looks an awful lot like the Traditionalist Hell: a sphere where the unjust dwell after death that goes on and on and on.
All this to say, Annihilation may prove a better position regarding human freedom for the Annihilationist can embrace libertarian free will, avoiding agnosticism about God’s future. The Annihilationist can allow God’s grace expressed in action for even those who will never receive his grace (where the Universalist cannot). As I argued in prior posts, annihilation makes more sense of death and the construction of our world. Finally there are more potential worlds which may include many more impressive beauties if Annihilation is an option for God, and in selecting worlds with such beauties in which some souls will be destroyed, God has not prima facie wronged anyone.
If I had time and space, arguments could be made from the problem of Divine Hiddenness (“Given Universalism, why does God not opt for self-disclosure?”), the problem of hell’s location (“Where do we locate the purgatorial hell in our cosmology?”), the problem of how hell works (“Is God in control of hell where God’s pruning happens or is hell separation from the divine?), the problem of manipulation (“Is Universalism actually coercive? If one is somehow incarcerated until they change, then does not repentance looks much more like the result of Stockholm syndrome than an authentic, life-giving pursuit?”) These are further issues I see Universalists needing to speak to in order to hold a solid position.
To close these posts, I have not wished to offer decisive arguments against Universalism, only to highlight places where Annihilationism strikes me as philosophically superior. I look forward to the emerging conversation between these two theories in the future. I find in the honest Universalists I know worthy interlocutors who challenge my thinking, engage the scriptures in creatively praiseworthy ways, and who stand beside me as kin in Christ.
I do hope our conversation will not result in a divide and conquer scenario, in which traditionalism maintains its dominance, but that our conversation will instead be a new and exciting playground for the many emerging theologians and philosophers to come and play.
Grace and Peace.
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.