Ah Universalism (Again)

When it comes to universalism there is a line of argument against it that goes something like this: If universalism is true, then Christianity is pointless. A slightly softer version of that claim can be stated as follows: If universalism is true, then Christianity is unnecessary. And the last, slightly weaker, variant that I will point to is this: If universalism is true, then Christianity amounts to an “option” (one of many), that is, a personal philosophy for living which may, or may not, be superior to the plethora of others available. This last line of argument comes packaged with a set of worries that if Christianity is about anything else than getting into Heaven, there’s not much more to it—at least not that much more than one might find in any number of other religions or philosophical disciplines. To be honest I am not a fan of these rather consequentialist arguments concerning Christianity and universalism; they cheapen the Faith right off the bat. At the same time, however, it is at least worth asking why someone would feel bound to profess Christianity as anything other than a preference if indeed universalism is true. For Christianity can be, and for a number of people often is, aesthetical, cultural, and/or psychological. And for a certain segment of the population who frets that their own adherence to Christianity falls into one of those (or several other) categories, universalism cuts off all hope of “elevating” that adherence, or so some fear it seems.

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32 comments

  1. Just came across this, from Pope Pelagius I’s profession of faith in his letter “Humani generis” (ca. 557). I agree that the pragmatic arguments against universalism are insufficient, but unlike Mr. Hart, it seems to me that there is a fairly strong consensus in the tradition against universalism, and for the eternity of hell. Granted I am not as learned as he.

    “Quem credo et confiteor … sicut ascendit in caelos, ita venturum iudicare vivos et mortuos. Omnes enim homines ab Adam usque ad consummationem saeculi natos et mortuos cum ipso Adam eiusque uxore, qui non ex aliis parentibus nati sunt, sed alter de terra, altera autem de costa viri [cf. Gn 2,7 22] creati sunt, tunc resurrecturos esse confiteor et adstare »ante tribunal Christi, ut recipiat unusquisque propria corporis, prout gessit, sive bona sive mala« [Rm 14,10; 2 Cor 5,10]; et iustos quidem per largissimam gratiam Dei, utpote »vasa misericordiae in gloriam praeparata« [cf. Rm 9,23], aeternae vitae praemiis donaturum, in societate videlicet angelorum absque ullo iam lapsus sui metu sine fine victuros; iniquos autem arbitrio voluntatis propriae »vasa irae apta in interitum« [Rm 9,22] permanentes, qui viam Domini aut non agnoverunt aut cognitam diversis capti praevaricationibus reliquerunt, in poenis aeterni atque inexstinguibilis ignis, ut sine fine ardeant, iustissimo iudicio traditurum. Haec est igitur fides mea et spes, quae in me dono misericordiae Dei est, pro qua maxime paratos esse debere beatus Petrus Apostolus praecipit ad respondendum omni poscenti nos rationem [cf. 1 Pt 3,15].”

    1. To throw out a few other interesting passages, we also find mention (as I work through my Denzinger) of “perpetua damnatio” in the profession of faith of the 16th synod of Toledo (DH 574), and “aeterna supplicia” in a letter of Pope Adrian I to the Spanish bishops on the topic of predestination (DH 596), “aeterna damnatio” in Canon 4 of the Synod of Valence in 855 (DH 630), “cruciatus gehennae perpetuae” in a letter of Pope Innocent III to Abp. Humbert of Arles (DH 780), and of course “cum diabolo poena perpetua” in the profession of faith of the Fourth Lateran Council (DH 801).

  2. Granted I am not as learned as he.

    Well, what that’s got to do with it? We don’t have a Magisterium of Theologians, thank God. As Blessed John Henry Newman observed, the greatest saint and the most learned doctor may err. Individual Fathers may err. We don’t have to engage in the never-ending battle of warring Fathers, theologians, and staretzes (sp?). We have the Church’s Teaching Authority, which trumps any one individual Father or theologian.

    In Orthodoxy, it seems to me, you can pretty much believe whatever you want, as long as you can find at least one ancient Father to back you up. If that’s unfair, I apologize, but I wish that someone would prove me wrong. I see Dreher celebrating a “God of Wrath” while Father Kimel celebrates universalism — and they’re both in ROCOR, for goodness’s sake. If that’s not confusion and incoherence, I’d like to see what is.

    Jesus spoke about Hell numerous times, and never once did He indicate that (a) it was empty; (b) it would always be empty; or (c) it was temporary. Never. Once. In fact, He always said just the opposite — that people who refused His Grace or refused to love their neighbor would go to the place of perdition where “their worm dies not.” I don’t see how one can sophistically twist His words into an eisegetical pretzel in order to reach the self-serving conclusion that they were merely hortatory. But hey, that’s just me.

    Hell is horrible. God does not wish it on anyone. But some people choose it, apparently. And, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, they get what they wanted. You cannot force people to be happy. Forcing people violates their human dignity. God is not in the business of violating people’s human dignity.

    I’ll stick with the Magisterium, as expressed in your excerpts, rather than relying on one or two early Fathers who are at odds with the rest of the consistent Tradition. It’s a lot safer than playing Dueling Fathers IMHO.

  3. It seems to me that there’s quite a bit of misunderstanding about the “universalist” “doctrine”, if such it be, among quite a few “Christians”.

    The first point to remember is that Jesus Christ is much more than what scripture and doctrine have described…this might be a shocker…but non-“Christians” might have an insight into Christ and His teachings that we “Christians”, in our pride and ignorance, have overlooked. It might be nice to pay attention to such insights rather than dismiss them.

    The second point to notice is that there’s nothing “special” about being a “Christian”. An illustration of this is the parable of the “prodigal son”. The elder brother is offended at the treatment given by the Father to the prodigal son. After all, he has followed all the rules etc; yet is given no attention, compared to the wayward son. Traditional commentaries always point to the elder son as being a type of the Jewish faith but, nowadays, perhaps another view might be more apt. Think about it.

    Some technical points might be of use here…there is a very real debate going on concerning the translation or mis-translation of terms in the Greek New Testament…according to quite a few scholars of Greek, there’s a distinction to be made between ainios and aidios, both terms translated into Latin as eternal. The first describes a long duration, an eon, and the second describes a notion beyond that of the first which only God possesses. According to quite a few scholars, only the first describes the punishment for sinners while the second describes the life of those blessed by God. In other words, “hell” is not “eternal” but aionic, lasting an age, an eon, but not possessing that temporality, or rather supra-temporality that God has. Another point is that the punishment of hell is always termed in the Greek New Testament as being “medicinal”, towards healing. and never towards punishment. If you wish to inquire further, read Illaria Ramelli, a Catholic theologian, whose book, The Christian Doctrine of Apokastasis, is an interesting introduction to all the pertinent writings by various Christian writers from the New Testament to Eriugena….http://www.brill.com/christian-doctrine-apokatastasis

    It seems to me that those who are concerned that, somehow, their faith is useless given universal salvation have, like the elder brother in the parable, not grasped the point. One is a Christian as a matter of gift, not reward. As gift, it therefore means that Christians are called to be examplars of the Love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the world. Never mind the result, just do the work required. Quit worrying about those “others” and just do what is in front of you.

    It seems to me that those who wish Christianity to be “special” are lacking in something.

    Another point to make is that the doctrine of “eternal hell-fire” has been used to great effect by those in power, political, economic and ecclesiastic, in order to prevent people from asking some very deep questions about justice, equality etc;, questions that can only have as a proper response,
    the Gospel of charity, agape…but that is just too much for those in power…better to keep people frightened and subservient…

    1. Well, yes, quite frankly, I do think that Christianity is “special.” But I don’t think anyone here has said that non-Christians can’t get to Heaven. Jesus said “No one comes to the Father except through Me,” but he never said, “No one comes to the Father except through explicit, conscious, confessional belief in Me.”

      I believe people can respond to Our Lord’s overtures of Grace even if they do not know Him by Name. I believe that non-Christians can be saved and Christians can be damned. I don’t think most non-universalists would suggest otherwise. Leastwise not the non-universalists around these parts. ;)

      For me, pace DBH, free will is still key. You cannot force people to be happy.

      C.S. Lewis explains this really well, I think. He says something to the effect of, “In the end there will be only two kinds of people: those who say to Christ ‘Thy Will be done,’ and those to whom Christ says, sadly, ‘Thy will be done.'” As Saint Faustina testified, Hell is self-chosen. God condemns no one. And, as C.S. Lewis speculated (and I think he’s right), the souls in Hell actually do prefer to be there, in a perverse kind of way. They’d rather have Hell than Heaven, because they think they can have Hell on their own terms. Yeah, that’s hard to understand — but haven’t you ever known someone who wallowed in his or her misery and seemed to prefer it to happiness? I have known several people who were exactly like that. Dickens portrays such a person in Little Dorrit. It’s been many years since I read it, but IIRC this character even provides a testimony to this mindset: “Diary of a Self-Hater.”

      Jesus told Saint Faustina, “The loss of a single soul plunges Me into mortal sorrow.” He does not want anyone to go to Hell. He desires that all be saved. But He will not force us to accept eternal joy against our will, because He will not violate our human dignity. Only free people can be truly happy.

      That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

      For my part, I hope, pray, and trust that most people will get to Heaven, even if they have to do quite a bit of Purgatory first. I hope that Hell’s population is smallish. But, based on Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium, I’m pretty certain Hell’s not empty.

      1. I hope you’ve made the distinction between free will and freedom of choice. That’s often confused, ( for an example; Milton Friedman’s notion of freedom is basically freedom of choice,i:e; the more choices one has, the freer one is…thus the wonderful “free market” with its plethora of choices being the evidence of superiority).

        But free will is actually not the exercise of choice but the exercise to follow the Good.

        In order for that exercise to occur, the will must not be impeded by any ignorance or passion. Thus, those of us beset by such things rarely have the opportunity to exercise free will. We choose out of habit, passion, ignorance and desire. Rarely do we make a decision or act that is not based on that.

        You’re correct that Hell is self-chosen but it does leave a question of how long passion, ignorance, habit and desire can continue. That is why the notion of aionic time is quite intriguing. The eon of punishment has only certain temporal quality that’s up to the person in it.

        1. None of this explains the First Sin.

          Either libertarian free will, or God orchestrates the Fall.

          1. Some of the Fathers regard the “Original” or “First sin as the act of an immature human being not yet capable of non-gnomc will.

            1. Yes. On this view, God created man psychophysically incomplete, placed him into a context where he would necessarily sin, commanded him not to sin, and then punished him for sinning, even though he had no power to do otherwise.

              This is the view of will necessary to construct the “loving” God of universalism.

            2. This is the view of will necessary to construct the “loving” God of universalism.

              Hah!

              I still believe that the American Orthodox embrace of universalism = Calvinism with icons and incense. Notwithstanding the appeal to a few ancient Greek Fathers. That’s just the veneer. Beneath the veneer, it’s all good old American Calvinism.

            3. Diane,

              Sure.

              To be fair, there’s a strain of Thomism that I suspect is vulnerable to the same critique, but Thomists tend to be awfully coy on these matters. To DBH’s credit (and evagrius’), at least he’s putting his cards on the table.

              Fortunately for Catholics, the “LFW is incoherent” thing cannot actually be true, as libertas specificationis has been employed dogmatically.

  4. The Faith is about other things, which we might group as “living well”; but surely there is no good greater than Heaven; and meeting Our Lord Jesus Christ after the end of one’s earthly life, the dearest wish of the Christian, the one expectation that makes it easy to bear all those things that would otherwise cause much pain and sorrow. Thus to ask “but then what is the point of being a Christian”, while I can see how it misses some important aspects of Christianity, is as concise a way as one can wish, of getting at the core of what it means to be a follower of Christ. Life can be lived quite well following other systems. I struggle to see how it cheapens the Faith to affirm that what makes it unique is that it is the only sure way to attain eternal rest.

  5. es. On this view, God created man psychophysically incomplete, placed him into a context where he would necessarily sin, commanded him not to sin, and then punished him for sinning, even though he had no power to do otherwise.

    This is the view of will necessary to construct the “loving” God of universalism.

    So, instead….God created humanity psychophysically complete, ( i.e.; with completely functioning intellect and reason and control of desire and passions), etc;etc.

    This is where the view of “libertarian free will” fails to explain the following result.

    I certainly would like to know how it does. Could someone explain it?

    1. Some things only smart people play dumb about.

      The freedom to do thus or otherwise is a plain fact of human subjective experience. If you must be furnished with some explicative Theory of Everything before you’re prepared to accept such a fact, then the deficiency is not in those billions who can see what is in front of their own noses.

      As the proprietor of another popular Catholic blog likes to say, “no theory is better than bad theory.”

      1. The freedom to do thus or otherwise is a plain fact of human subjective experience.

        So for you, “freedom” is simply “freedom of choice”?

        If so, then there’s no need to continue the discussion. There’s an obvious lack of insight and reflection that can’t be addressed.

        1. What a strange response. No one said “simply.” In fact, the very term libertas specificationis itself suggests that “freedom of choice” (power of contrary choice) is one kind of freedom among others.

          But certainly, Adam having power of contrary choice is a necessary condition for man bearing responsibility for the Fall. That is, it’s a necessary condition for God not bearing total responsibility for the Fall.

          This seems like pretty straightforward stuff, but there are probably Calvinists who would disagree.

            1. Why either/or? You’re letting your schema determine your thinking, when it should be the other way around.

              With respect to the sin of Adam, I’m saying that in identical circumstances Adam could have obeyed God, rather than disobeying him.

              Do you agree, or is your temporal/eternal distinction an attempt to muddy the waters?

            2. I’m thinking of the “time” after “judgement”….if there is such.

              It seems to me that we are entering a region far beyond our ken…and simplistic notions reduced to “choice” are not applicable.

  6. I would also like to know how orthodoxy=calvinism…To merely state it is not argument. Could there be an elaboration of this, please.

  7. An interesting subject. I think the points evagrius has made – e.g. the apparent experience that we do not choose things free of passion, prejudice etc – the Greek distinction between ainios (‘terrible’) and aidios (‘eternal’) – the ill-fit between the idea of human choice and the idea of eternity – are all substantial and not directly addressed in the other comments. Hell is indeed an idea about which men and women can and have often speculated but in my view its nature and existence – in the sense it has often been catechetically presented – is, as evagrius suggests, quite beyond our ken.

    Aside from that, I would suggest that it is not safe to rest one’s view of the eternity of Hell – let alone its existence in the traditional sense – on Genesis and the idea of original sin, since the former is quite reasonably widely considered to be a religious myth and symbolic and not literal or historic, and the latter is largely Augustine’s attempt to identify the ‘rationale’ for Jesus’ death on Calvary and resolve the probably unresolvable puzzle of Divine Love for imperfect humans! I myself am quite open to the idea that, in common with all matter and spirit, we come from and out of God and will eventually merge back into the stuff of the universe God created, i.e. God. It’s certainly how I think of the rest of creation around me, rocks, trees and animals, and, with St Francis, I see myself as ontologically part, not opposed, to these ‘brothers and sisters in creation’.

    However, in the end, I do not know and do not believe anyone else knows, for sure about the Last Things.

    1. First, if you prefer, you may preface any of my comments about Genesis with the phrase, “within the economy of the story.”

      My arguments in this thread, where I have actually stuck my neck out for certain actual propositions instead of conjuring mist, are as follows:

      1) Catholic dogma affirms libertarian free will with respect to God, so even if man does not have LFW it is not because the concept is incoherent or refers to nothing. (Orthodox who do not accept the Magisterium may disregard this point.)

      2) If we cannot fully account for how the power of contrary choice works in practice, then that is what is “beyond our ken.” Our immediate subjective experience of LFW is defeasible, either by divine revelation or demonstration of logical contradiction, but no one has actually refuted it. So we ought to trust normal human experience until someone actually shows that we shouldn’t.

      3) If humans don’t have the power of contrary choice, then God is the author of evil, and any postmortem suffering, purifying or not, is a manifest injustice inflicted solely by Him.

      If anyone is interested in argument instead of assertion and obfuscation, then by all means have at it.

        1. The power to do thus or otherwise, in identical circumstances.

          To illustrate that you know full well what I mean, you might drop the coyness and answer a question of mine. On your own view of will, in the same circumstances as you found at 6:15, could you have decided not to post your question? Did you have the power to close your browser before hitting “post comment?”

  8. Some thoughts….

    As long as some are going to cast doubt and rubbish on orthodox Catholic teachings, I suggest to them that conditionalism and annihilationism might be more probable than universalism, based on certain interpretations of the New Testament at least.

    evagrius – apparently pointing to Ramelli and others for support, – wrote: “in the Greek New Testament…according to quite a few scholars of Greek, there’s a distinction to be made between ainios and aidios, both terms translated into Latin as eternal. The first describes a long duration, an eon, and the second describes a notion beyond that of the first which only God possesses. According to quite a few scholars, only the first describes the punishment for sinners while the second describes the life of those blessed by God. In other words, “hell” is but aionic, lasting an age, an eon, ”

    I am not an expert, but if the above is right, it seems possible (at first glance) for one to maintain:

    IF ‘aiónios’, in relation to hell, fire, punishment, is temporary (not “eternal” or everlasting), THEN ‘aiónios’ in relation to life, heaven, is also temporary (not “eternal” or everlasting). (e.g. Matthew 25:41; 25:46). ‘Heaven’ then lasts for an eon, just like ‘Hell’. Not longer.

    evagrius wrote: “It seems to me that those who are concerned that, somehow, their faith is useless given universal salvation have, like the elder brother in the parable, not grasped the point. One is a Christian as a matter of gift, not reward. […]

    It seems to me that those who wish Christianity to be “special” are lacking in something.

    Another point to make is that the doctrine of “eternal hell-fire” has been used to great effect by those in power, political, economic and ecclesiastic, in order to prevent people from asking some very deep questions about justice, equality etc;, questions that can only have as a proper response, the Gospel of charity, agape…”

    My questions:

    Can the Universalist accept the notion of a reality, created by God, in which the eonic ‘gift’ of eternal (‘aiónios’) life, the heaven promised by Christ, will be revoked at the end of the blessed eon, ending the age of the ‘world to come’?

    Could the ‘Universalistic’ doctrine of “eternal heaven and beatitude”, be used ‘to great effect in order to prevent people from asking some very deep questions about justice, equality etc’?

    1. Of course, one can point to Mt 24:35 in order to support the notion that heaven is not everlasting, as well as Rev 21:1… And annihilationism might even claim Rev 21:8, I think.

      (N.B.: I am not evagrius with a small ‘e’.)

      1. Evagrius with a big ‘E’

        Thanks for the texts. Not my intention to promote heresies, of course.

        A thought:

        I recall reading a book about the Council of Florence many years ago. Appeared St. Gregory of Nyssa was read, understood, used and even excused in different ways. I understand nobody wanted to call him a heretic or say a bad word – thought some saw the influence of Oregenes Adamantius, i.e. Origen. None of the council fathers, east or west, Catholic or Orthodox, promoted universalism. Even purgatory was too much for some there. Now inclusivism and universalism seem to be favoured by many.

    2. 2 Peter 1:10-11, αἰώνιον βασιλείαν = everlasting / eternal kingdom

    3. Huh…aidios, as a temporal term, pertains to God and all those in union with God…so “eternal life” with God is of that temporal quality not that of aenios…Is that clear?

    4. You ask significant questions, Paul Borealis, and I would venture the following responses, with the disclaimer that I’m not completely sure my own position makes me a classic Universalist (although I think it’s panentheist) and hence these thoughts are simply my own:

      (1) Whilst the usual concept of ‘eternal’ (as in ‘eternal life’) would not seem to permit an apparent contradictory, i.e. an ‘eternal-life-that-comes-to-an-end’ (or an ‘eternal-life-that-is-not-eternal’), my instinct tells me that because – as I believe – we have difficulty or inability to conceive or imagine eternity as ultimately something that is not temporal, or, if you like, not equivalent to a time-that-never-ends rather than non-time, we cannot rule out the idea that eternity or eternal life is finite, without contradiction. For, if eternal life is not life-that-never-ends but life without beginning or end, then for all practical purposes, it might as well be thought of, from our point of view, as being able to end.

      But I don’t assert this as anything other than the possibility it seems one can be open to. So, my answer is, yes, I can be open to the idea that a blessed aeon can come to an end and do not see that it is intrinsically opposed to any of the notions or imagery in the Gospels.

      (2) The idea that universalism can be used to prevent people from asking important questions about justice and equality or that it might have the effect of dulling moral sensibility would, I think, have to be answered with a yes. But no more perhaps than any other doctrine. The idea, for example, that the sheep will go to the right and the goats into the fire has itself been a spur and rationale permitting all kinds of unjust and oppressive characterisations of others, ‘them’, and so on. Moreover, it is my understanding that in the Christian context, i.e. Christian universalism, universalism does not eschew the concepts of good and bad, right or wrong, but rather emphasises the sovereignty and ultimate power and scope of God’s reconciling love and that it is beyond us to know exactly how that happens beyond visible examples we encounter in our own experience. In addition, universalism, as I understand it, does not absolve us from meeting and rising to the challenges of justice and equality, but restrains us from projecting our means, mechanisms and imperatives to the God of all.

      As I said, these are just my own responses, I do not purport to speak for Universalists as such. But thank you for your probing post.

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