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.

5 Responses

  1. Speculation about the afterlife is unhelpful? Only if the primary and repeated teaching of the fourth gospel is ignored.

    This reports that Jesus’s main teaching was the promise of resurrected eternal life to all who followed him. The further information was that we would thus be raised to become Sons of God, as Jesus.

    This plain teaching has been “contextualised” out of existence since very early in church history – and the fourth gospel seen as supplemental instead of foundational.

    That aside, I find that”speculation” about the afterlife is my single most powerful source of hope, and the first fruit of active, living faith in the love of God the creator.I

    I agree that final allegiance to God must be total because eternal. And it seems obvious that many/ most modern people would not want to make such allegiance. Leaving aside judgement, few people I know would choose to live eternally in Heaven, even if they knew for sure it was true and could be had for the mere asking.

    They regard Heaven as evil and boring – like life as part of a traditional, loving Christian family is considered by such people ( most modern people) to be evil and boring

    Such is the depth and pervasiveness of evil here and now.

  2. Lignite is very common hereabouts, and much of the near-surface groundwater is consequently very sulfurous. In the past, people drank water from the sulfur springs in the mistaken belief that it had medicinal properties. When it was discovered that there was no medical benefit to drinking this water, people admitted that it was really rather nasty and stopped visiting the springs. Resorts and hotels had been built at several springs, but these declined, went out of business, and are now entirely disappeared. I relate this story because I believe it is an analogue of what happens when people believe there is no spiritual benefit to organized religion. And by spiritual benefit, I don’t just mean that it puts a spring in your step. That sulphur water did relieve constipation, but in an imperfect and inconvenient way. I think of those old sulfur springs resorts when I hear atheistic Church leaders propose to repurpose the Church as a cultural institution, a social club, or a welfare agency. If their “sulfur water” is no good, I’m going to go to concert halls for music, to a real club for society, and to the government for welfare.

    I think universalism is the fruit of hypertrophied compassion, and I think hypertrophied compassion is a sin because it severely impairs our capacity for justice. Compassion responds to conspicuous suffering that is right before your eyes, and is more or less blind to diffuse suffering. It sheds tears for conspicuous cruelty to criminals, but can barely comprehend the diffuse cruelty of criminals. Historically, universalism was also a reaction to the glee with which some Calvinists would describe the suffering of unregenerate souls, but fire and brimstone is all but absent from modern Christianity.

  3. […] 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. […]

  4. “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”. seems vivid and real enough.

  5. So, Hart equates Hell with Purgatory?

    That doesn’t mean there’s no eternal consequences since Jesus suggested there are those who are greatest and least in the kingdom of Heaven.

    And the temporal consequences of Purgatory would still be quite motivating.

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