On universalism

David Bentley Hart needs a serious smackdown.  Not for heresy, but for endorsing anti-Christian stereotypes (“Christians just believe in hell because they’re mean and hate people.”)  Theological arguments are one thing, but you don’t ever give aid to the enemy.  Especially when this particular ad hominem is so stupid.

The priest at my parish once was boasting about the young generation of Catholics–they’re pro-life and passionate about social justice and they don’t care about the afterlife!  Supposedly these youngsters are indifferent to the matter of their own eternal beatitude or damnation because they’re just so unselfish.  I’ll believe it when I see them being comparably indifferent to their own material comfort in this life.  Modern Catholics are indifferent to the afterlife because they don’t believe in it.

Which is actually a much more defensible position than universalism.  One could at least argue that all Jesus’ and Paul’s talk about heaven and hell was meant to be a metaphor for something else, but what exegetical principle could possibly justify accepting verses about heaven as literal and discarding verses about the other possibility?

One should not be able to get away with declaring bits of the Bible to be figurative without some indication of what is actually being talked about.  In case of the Last Things, the main message is Judgment.  Nearly always, when the New Testament talks about heaven and hell, it’s really talking about judgment.  In this life, we are all trapped in ambiguity; everyone is a mix of good and evil.  But such is the simplicity of God that final allegiance to Him must be all or nothing.  So our lives receive a final resolution, unjustifiable from the immanent perspective of our life history, imposed through Him.  If this is the literal message, then one could drop belief in a literal afterlife while retaining it, but believing in heaven while rejecting hell undercuts this only plausible figurative reading.  Universalism undermines Final Judgment, which is what Jesus is most adamant about.

Dropping the afterlife altogether solves the “how can it be fair to punish somebody forever?” problem and the “what kind of existence can it be if you can no longer change your mind?” problem.  Universalism solves the first (since eternal undeserved reward bothers us less); it solves the second only if you accept the Thomist argument that someone enjoying the beatific vision could never freely choose to sin.  Both of these are vulnerable to the “if that’s what Jesus meant, how is it nobody ever understood Him that way before?” objection.  My idea that the damned are punished for a finite time and then live a pleasant but non-beatific eternity in limbo also has more going for it than universalism, since our lives then have at least some eternal consequence.

Speculation about the afterlife is unhelpful.  The main message that must not be lost is Someday you will be judged.  That, and Don’t aid the enemy.

God loving the Jews best and the more general scandal

It is hard to understand how the God of classical theism can become part of His world.  Suppose God wishes to appear to me in a flash of light.  He could certainly create a bright object in front of me, or just the light, or just stimulate my optical nerve.  But when one considers that God continuously creates me and my actions, it becomes hard to say that He is more present in the flash of light than he is in me observing it or in any other object in the universe.  As the first cause of everything, even intelligent beings, it is hard to understand how God can relate to us like another finite being would.  In particular, he is always the active, never the passive (reactive) partner.  In the Thomist-Calvinist system, He can no more be disappointed or upset by one of us than Shakespeare could be angry at Lady Macbeth.  His love is understood not as a reaction to His creatures but as their cause.  The Thomist-Calvinist system is coherent, even beautiful, except for all the convolutions of trying to reconcile it to an incoherent concept of “free will”.

And yet the Christian religion is about God somehow becoming a part of the world, being able to act and react to it as one being among many.  This is, of course, the point of the Incarnation–the Son becomes a man.  However, even in the Old Testament, the leap has somehow already happened, in that God’s love for the Jews is presented as altogether passionate.  One can reinterpret God the jealous and forlorn lover of the Jews in accord with the doctrine of divine impassivity, but is such violence to the text necessary?  We seem to be presented with another instance of “God coming into the world”.  If so, presumably it is grounded in some mysterious way on the pre-eminent “coming into the world”, the Incarnation.  Perhaps by transitive application of Trinitarian relations to the Son’s human nature, so that the Father thereby “enters the world” as the tribal deity of Jesus’ kin, but that’s wild speculation.  If we want a nice symmetry (and who doesn’t?), perhaps the mystery of created grace is that of the Holy Spirit “entering the world”, particularized to a single soul, also somehow made possible by the Incarnation.

I am starting to understand Christian Zionism and philosemitism.  Last week, my daughter Sabrina needed some dental work.  It turned out not to be a big deal, but I was inordinately nervous, and with that and my last post in mind, it occurred to me that God loves the Jews the way I love my girls (and not only in the impassive way that He loves the rest of us), so as a favor to Him, I should abstain from criticizing and, whenever possible, from impeding His beloved people.  This seems to have occurred to most Christians already, aside from those who do it only out of fear of the Jews.