Hoping All Will Be Saved, Part 1: Hope Is in the Air
May 6, 2011 — 16:20

Author: Keith DeRose  Category: Afterlife Hell  Tags: , ,   Comments: 16

Perhaps spurred on by the release of and subsequent discussion of Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, there seem to have been from Christian sources a lot of recent expressions of hope that all people will be saved. In case you missed it, one example of such an expression (though one quite independent from the Love Wins brouhaha) that will be of interest to many readers of this blog came from Alvin Plantinga, in this interview. Money quote:

That’s called universalism. And I don’t myself quite believe it, but I don’t disbelieve it either. I think it’s something that a Christian should at least hope for.

As far as what he thinks is true, Plantinga seems here to be leaning toward universalism. At least that’s how I’m inclined to read the above bit, given the “quite” in the “I don’t myself quite believe it,” and the absence of such a “quite” in what comes next. And the rest of what Plantinga says also inclines me to such a understanding. (He discusses universalism at 2:10 – 4:45 of the video.) But the endorsement of hope in the last sentence of the above is equally interesting.
But also in the air these days are reactions against such hope. In a blog post that is itself an enthusiastic endorsement of hope on this matter (but also a denial that more than hope is called for – and the post also seems to me to contain a little lapse in modal logic), Paul Griffiths notes:

Bell has been excoriated, scarified, and cast into the outer darkness by some in the evangelical world for defending such a hope. They are the ones who are quite sure that universalism can’t be true, and that to affirm it is to reject orthodoxy.

As I know from recent facebook discussions, some Christians (as well as interested non-Christians) are dumbfounded that any Christians would reject even hope on this matter. In subsequent posts, I hope (!) to address what might be thought to be wrong with such a hope, answer such worries, and discuss the role of hope in the Christian life a bit.
Here I just want to set up that discussion by making an important preliminary point. In many Christian churches, communities, and institutions, one can get into trouble for being a universalist, and this drives a lot of Christian universalism (and openness to universalism) underground (as I discussed a bit several years ago here). And this may cause suspicion that some of those who express hope, but not belief or acceptance, that all will be saved may really believe or accept universalism, and are expressing mere hope here in order to avoid trouble. And I have little doubt that that’s so in at least some cases. But certainly not in all cases — and I would certainly think, for example, not in the case of Plantinga. Many seem to genuinely hope that all will be saved, while quite genuinely finding the reasons for thinking that hope will be realized to fall short of justifying acceptance of universalism. The hope-without-acceptance position may constitute an effective shelter for underground universalists from the heretic hunters (in some segments of Christianity), but it does so in part because it’s a reasonable position to more genuinely occupy – and a position that many reasonable Christians genuinely do occupy. At any rate, I will be discussing the hope-without-acceptance position as a genuine stance a Christian might take, and not as position to publicly adopt while more privately holding something else.

  • Joshua Rasmussen

    Al once told me that universalism seemed to him to be more likely to be true that not; so, at least at that time, he was definitely leaning in that direction.

    May 6, 2011 — 17:14
  • Keith DeRose

    Yeah, Al had told me something similar several years ago. I’m not remembering exactly what, but in vague terms I remember his attitude toward universalism was quite friendly, but he wasn’t sure. This is the first I’ve heard of him saying anything like that publicly (though he didn’t tell me anything like “don’t tell anyone I said this”).

    May 6, 2011 — 18:18
  • Perhaps Plantinga is getting more open in his retirement (not that he would have been in trouble losing an academic post for his views)?

    May 6, 2011 — 21:16
  • I of course could be wrong here, but I wouldn’t think Plantinga’s retirement has much to do with it. He’s retiring from Notre Dame, and, among other reasons for doubt here, my general impression (those who know better can correct me if I’m wrong) is that the RCC is much more open to the hope in question than is much of Evangelical Protestantism.
    I don’t really want to speculate here about Al, esp. since one might be trying to explain something (why he is now more open about this) that, at least from my pov, might well not even be true. As I indicated in my previous comment, he never told me that I should keep things quiet. So, for all I know, he’s not been keeping this quiet at all, and this is just the first time he’s had occasion to address the matter in a very public setting (or even, I suppose, just the first occasion that I’ve become aware of).

    May 6, 2011 — 21:46
  • Matthew G

    That interview with Plantinga was taped years before the whole Rob Bell thing. The strong reactions I’ve seen against Bell’s universalism has more to do with, I think, his derogatory attacks on the traditional view than his hope. Also, the provocative promotions for that book gave the impression of a cheap universalism that says all religions are right and Christ’s atonement is just a way for some but not others. If he had expressed himself similarly to Plantinga (an exclusivist who hopes for universalism), it would’ve been a different story. I think if one had a nice conversation with one of those ole scary evangelicals, most would not object to hope.

    May 6, 2011 — 23:17
  • Keith DeRose

    Well, Matthew G, I’m sure you’re right about some evangelicals, but I could (though I won’t, for obvious reasons) put you in touch with folks who work at evangelical institutions (and who have worked there for years, so presumably they know the score pretty well) who have told me that expressing even hope is dangerous for them. This of course isn’t true at all evangelical institutions. Indeed, the hope-without-accepting wouldn’t be an effective shelter for anybody if even hope were disallowed in all these places. And where it is perceived as a danger, that’s not always because folks know that they’ll get in serious trouble for it, but is often that they’re just very unsure whether it’s safe. I’m not bold enough & don’t know enough to say one way or the other where “most” evangelicals come down on this, but it seems enough of them are against even hope (and enough of those are strongly enough against it, and are powerful enough) to cause a problem at some places. My *guess* is that hope is often rejected as out of place, but in how much of Evangelical Christianity it’s actually dangerous is very unclear — and it may well be that that’s still being decided at many places. My hope is that it won’t be dangerous — and perhaps expressions of hope from people like Plantinga can help here.
    I have a very different take on Bell’s book. I find it deeply sad that *that*, of all things, could cause such a freak-out. But here everyone should be their own judge. I encourage people to take a look for themselves to see if they think the book should be so controversial.
    I don’t know about the “provocative promotions for that book” that you say “gave the impression of a cheap universalism that says all religions are right and Christ’s atonement is just a way for some but not others.” Could you cite any? But I will say that any such promotions were extremely misleading, b/c Bell’s position isn’t anything like that.

    May 6, 2011 — 23:56
  • Keith DeRose

    It could perhaps be a useful thing to put together some on-line information about just where the lines are at various places in terms of acceptable vs. unacceptable beliefs wrt universalism and related views. (E.g., hope ok; being quite unsure frowned upon but not dangerous; expressing a leaning toward universalism dangerous; actually accepting it: you’re out.) An anonymous wiki couldn’t be trusted. But if someone would post what they’re told by various sources who were identified to the compiler, but then not named on the on-line document, it could perhaps be useful. For instance, it could be useful to students at Christian colleges and to church members to know what where their teachers and pastors just can’t go when they discuss these matters with them.

    May 7, 2011 — 0:22
  • Keith DeRose

    On the RCC’s openness to hope that I mentioned in the 4th comment….
    An email tells me that entry 1821 of the Cathecism of the Catholic Church, 2nd. ed., has this comment, in which the h-word figures prominently:
    “In hope, the Church prays for ‘all men to be saved’.”

    May 7, 2011 — 9:20
  • The “prays for all men to be saved” could be distributively understood: “(x) the Church prays that x be saved.” Let me explain.
    Suppose there are three buttons on a panel such that if and only if you press them all, something good happens for me. I can then request non-distributively that you press all the buttons. My request gives you a reason to press all the buttons. But if you understand me non-distributively, it no more gives you reason to press two buttons than it gives you reason to press zero buttons.
    On the other hand, I might benefit from each of the three buttons you press. In that case, although I may phrase the request in the same way (“Could you press all the buttons?”), for each button, I mean to give you a reason to press that button. I am making a distributive request. In that case, if you understand me distributively, my request does give you a reason to press all the buttons, but it also gives you more reason to press two buttons than to press one, and more reason to press one than to press none.
    Now, is a distributive or non-distributive reading more likely in the Church’s prayer that all men be saved. Very few Catholic thinkers in 1821 would have thought there was more than a slight probability that everyone would be saved. Then on a non-distributive reading of the request, the request is very much a long-shot, and if, as would have seemed most probable, the request would not be fulfilled at all. It would have made a lot more sense to pray distributively that all be saved, since that request would have some use even if God wasn’t going to be saving all.
    But that was too quick. One can combine the distributive and non-distributive readings. Thus, one can ask: “Could you press all the buttons, and if not all, then as many as you can?” The above argument doesn’t rule this out. My feeling for the Catholic tradition, including the discussions of the “pro multis” and the translation issues associated with that, is that the distributive reading is better than the combination reading.
    More recently, John Paul II says some interesting things in Crossing the Threshold of Hope. When I read the text the first time, I thought he meant to leave open the possibility of hoping that all would be saved. When I re-read it just now, I don’t see that possibility as left open, except distributively (for all x, we should hope that x be saved, including when x=Judas):
    “The problem of hell has always disturbed great thinkers in the Church, beginning with Origen and continuing in our time with Sergey Bulgakov and Hans Urs von Balthasar. In point of fact, the ancient councils rejected the theory of the ‘final apocatastasis,’ according to which the world would be regenerated after destruction, and every creature would be saved; a theory which indirectly abolished hell. But the problem remains. Can God, who has loved man so much, permit the man who rejects Him to be condemned to eternal torment? And yet, the words of Christ are unequivocal. In Matthew’s Gospel He speaks clearly of those who will go to eternal punishment (cf. Mt 25:46). Who will these be? The Church has never made any pronouncement in this regard. This is a mystery, truly inscrutable, which embraces the holiness of God and the conscience of man. The
    silence of the Church is, therefore, the only appropriate position for Christian faith. Even when Jesus says of Judas, the traitor, ‘It would be better for that man if he had never been born’ (Mt 26:24), His words do not allude for certain to eternal damnation.
    “At the same time, however, there is something in man’s moral conscience itself that rebels against any loss of this conviction: Is not God who is Love also ultimate Justice? Can He tolerate these terrible crimes, can they go unpunished? Isn’t final punishment in some way necessary in order to reestablish moral equilibrium in the complex history of humanity? Is not hell in a certain sense the ultimate safeguard of man’s moral conscience?”

    May 7, 2011 — 14:54
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    There is the Bible but there is also one’s perception of God, the sensus divinitatis, which is major property of the human condition. If one’s sense when reading the Bible contradicts one’s built-in sense of God, what should one trust more? The answer is obvious, given that it is by one’s sense of God that one becomes aware of the relevance of scripture in the first place.
    Also, we know that the NT has been written and edited by many hands. It is fair to say that most people whose words found their place in the NT were highly spiritual with an intimate relationship with God. On the other hand we know that all people are fallible beings, and at least some of these people may have been more concerned about political contingency than about truth. As for Jesus’ words in the NT, whereas probably most were accurately transcribed, how do we know that some are not an editor’s interpolations? Christians, then as today, are a creative lot.
    I think there are several tests one may apply. Does something that Jesus supposedly said fit with Jesus’ coherent psychological profile (which luckily enough is very well preserved in the Gospels)? Does a particular verse of Jesus give good fruit (the good fruit being to motivate us to follow His path and become like Him)? Aren’t other Jesus verses in the text, perhaps of a deeper spiritual nature, which say another story? Does some particular Jesus verse comport with God’s perfection?
    In my own case the last question above carries particular weight. Given that, as we all agree, God does desire the salvation of all, to assume that God will fail to realize His/Her desire is in my mind a huge affront to God’s greatness. And being a Christian, the mere suggestion that some people won’t ultimately be saved is a huge affront to the value of Christ’s atoning self-sacrifice. In my ears the doctrine of hell sounds diminishing of God and of God’s providence; it diminishes and trivializes the power of God’s love and the meaning of Christ’s sacrifice. And it makes evil ultimately victorious in the sense that it renders evil capable of existing eternally. It is as un-Christian an idea as I can imagine.
    Now, it seems you justify the doctrine of hell on the idea of justice. You quote Pope John Paul II: “At the same time, however, there is something in man’s moral conscience itself that rebels against any loss of this conviction:”
    There is nothing in my moral conscience that rebels against the loss of the dogma that some persons will suffer for ever in hell. Nor is it in the moral consciousness of any universalist. Quite the contrary in fact.
    “Is not God who is Love also ultimate Justice?”
    Yes, but justice has nothing to do with reward and punishment. Reward and punishment are means for behavior control, and somebody who behaves well because of rewards and punishments has no moral merit whatsoever. Justice is a property of the God-structured (and hence intrinsically moral) reality, namely that all of one’s choices will meet their natural deserts. So, choosing what is good will never be in vain, and choosing what is evil will never be smart. Nothing good can ever be lost, and nothing evil can ever persist. I don’t want to sound like a movie, but there is an intrinsic force in reality towards goodness and away from evil. We are all aware of that.
    “Can God tolerate these terrible crimes?”
    Yes, for love is longsuffering. But through universal salvation and cosmic apokatastasis all evil acts will in the end become inconsequential and in that sense non-existent. It is only in universal salvation that evil can definitely be vanquished.
    “Will these terrible crimes go unpunished?”
    No, in the sense that they will meet their terrible deserts, which is a fact of the structure of reality. It would be an affront to God’s justice if any evil choice, small or big, would escape its natural desert. And that’s why some peoples’ understanding of God’s forgiveness as God washing one’s sins away, is an affront to God’s justice too (not to mention kind of self-serving it seems to me). Forgiveness, be it God forgiving us, or somebody of us forgiving another, is the commitment to atonement, and thus, in a timeless sense, the realization of atonement. But forgiving another does not imply that the other will escape the natural deserts of their choices. It’s not in our power, or even in God’s power (for it’s against God’s purpose) to remove justice from the natural order of things. Rather, who profits by forgiving the other is oneself, for one escapes the bitter deserts of not being forgiving, particularly one’s alienation from the other.
    Christ’s incarnation is God’s final creative act. It is the act by which the metaphysical chasm between created persons and God is bridged. It is the act by which salvation/atonement is made possible for all, and thus, given God’s untiring love, makes salvation/atonement guaranteed for all. But it is mistaken to believe that Jesus’ sacrifice may remove the natural deserts of one’s evil choices. And that’s why to make an evil choice is always and no matter what a bad choice, a stupid choice. Christ did not hang on the cross in order to soften the seriousness of evil by removing its bitter fruits. Christ hang on the cross to put creation in a course in which evil and all imperfection will be absolutely vanquished.
    Christ’s sacrifice though teaches something else: That reality is such that it is possible to suffer more than one’s deserts. Indeed, Christ suffered even though sinless. In these cases justice requires overcompensation in goodness. Hence the Beatitudes. And hence God’s glorification in the sacrifice of Christ.
    Isn’t final punishment in some way necessary in order to reestablish moral equilibrium in the complex history of humanity?
    Yes it is. But, again, the use of “punishment” is misleading. In the human world punishment is something one does to others (and shouldn’t do, by the way). But there is no such thing as God’s punishment, or God’s reward, for that matter. Rather the God-created reality is such that evil choices are intrinsically self-punishing, and good choices are intrinsically self-rewarding. Incidentally, that major moral property of reality has been noticed by even non-theistic religions, such as Hinduism or Buddhism, which speak of the law of karma. It’s not the personal God who rewards or punishes, it’s the moral structure of reality that entails the natural consequences of choices.
    Is not hell in a certain sense the ultimate safeguard of man’s moral conscience?
    No, not at all. On the contrary, the dogma of hell is a huge and destructive affront to the very idea of moral conscience. I am a sinful and vengeful person, but even so my moral consciousness finds the mere idea of never-ending conscious suffering too horrible to bear considering.

    May 8, 2011 — 9:24
  • “Also, we know that the NT has been written and edited by many hands.”
    It is no harder for divine inspiration to work with many writers and editors than with one. Nothing that God (qua God) can do is hard for God to do.

    May 9, 2011 — 10:44
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    You write: “It is no harder for divine inspiration to work with many writers and editors than with one.”
    My point is this: The quality of the NT is quite uneven, and it sounds like a not quite harmonious choir of many voices. This fits well with our knowledge of human fallibility and with the messy process by which the NT was produced, but does not fit well with the premise that God guided the production of the NT by special providence.
    “Nothing that God (qua God) can do is hard for God to do.”
    I agree, but I am uncomfortable with language about what God can do, for I don’t think that the concept of “can” applies to God. God does whatever God wants to do with no limitation which might justify the use of “can”. (On the other hand “can” can be used in the modal sense it is used in the present sentence, but as it can lead to confusion I think such use should be avoided.)

    May 11, 2011 — 2:36
  • “Given that, as we all agree, God does desire the salvation of all, to assume that God will fail to realize His/Her desire is in my mind a huge affront to God’s greatness.”
    Consider this argument. Start with the observation that the following statements are inconsistent:
    1. There are unrealized goods.
    2. God desires every good.
    3. Everything God desires is realized.
    So everyone needs to reject one of the three statements. I reject 3, and hence I deny that the claim that God will fail to realize a desire is an affront to God’s greatness. God desires every good, but some goods conflict. It would be good for Jones to have a life without any suffering, and it would be good for Jones to suffer in compassion for another. These two goods logically conflict.
    It would be difficult to reject 2–it would seem to go against God’s perfect goodness.
    So, I think, the question is going to be: to reject 1 or to reject 3? There are many, many good arguments for 1. Each sin of mine is a good argument for 1. I was lazy at t0. It would have been good for me to be industrious at t0. So, that’s an unrealized good. Or take this (I don’t actually like aggregate value–see my discussion with Keith in another thread–but you might find this case persuasive). Let n be the number of humans who ever live. Let m be any number greater than n. (The argument is open to n and m being infinite.) Then the following seems to be an unrealized good: That at least m humans be united with God.

    May 11, 2011 — 11:18
  • Of course, one might also distinguish between God’s consequent and antecedent will. God antecedently desires every good, but consequently only desires some. The ones he consequently desires are all realized. Then the question will be whether God antecedently or consequently desires the salvation of all.

    May 11, 2011 — 11:25
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    “2. God desires every good. […] It would be difficult to reject 2–it would seem to go against God’s perfect goodness.”
    Actually, that’s the premise that strikes me as being seriously wrong. Let me start on a light-hearted note:
    In a short story by science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, there is this planet governed by a philosopher king who most of all desires to learn new truths. A pair of alien engineers arrive, and the philosopher king asks them to build a machine that will continuously print truths. They do so, sign all the warranty papers, collect their fee, and leave in hurry before the official presentation of their marvellous truths producing invention. The thing is that the machine works exactly as ordered, but prints out a long and completely inconsequential list of truths, such as “Mrs Rose’s chicken produced today an egg on which 5 brown spots are visible by the naked eye”, and so on. The idea of the story is that not all truths are good to know. Were the king more wise he would have desired to know a few significant truths and not as many truths as possible.
    More seriously, and in the context of theology, we tend to forget that greatness refers more to quality than to quantity. Thus, the idea that God desires every possible good strikes me as contradicting God’s rationality, not only because the value of goods is very uneven, but also because, as you point out, some possible goods conflict. So, in my judgment, it would go *against* God’s perfection for God to desire every good. Rather, with Leibniz, I think God’s greatness implies that God does not desire anything which is less than some actualizable best state of affairs. If then it is true that God desires the good of universal salvation we can safely deduce not only that universal salvation is possible but also that it will be realized by God.
    Now at this stage one may question whether God really desires universal salvation. Universal salvation is one good among many, and perhaps God values some other good more than it, indeed some good that cannot obtain unless some created persons for ever suffer in hell (and not, say, are sentenced to hell but ultimately pardoned, or even are simply annihilated). So far so good as far as the logic goes, but I have never heard anything plausible about what that overriding good might be. One suggestion, namely that the overriding good is the eternal manifestation of God’s wrath, strikes me as unintelligible, for the greatest conceivable being has no such feelings and certainly no such values. I suspect not even the most mean-spirited and conceited human has such values.
    “Of course, one might also distinguish between God’s consequent and antecedent will.”
    One might, but I would say that a person who in the morning wants a particular meal for dinner while knowing that in the evening she will want a different meal for dinner – strikes me as being very far from the greatest conceivable being. I mean I can, just barely, imagine a normal human person being like that, but the idea that God would have this kind of flip-flopping and indeed consciously self-negating will strikes me as unintelligible too.

    May 12, 2011 — 1:29
  • Wes Morriston

    Alex wrote:

    The “prays for all men to be saved” could be distributively understood: “(x) the Church prays that x be saved.”

    I’m not sure that the “distributive” reading is adequate. It’s beyond human power — even that of “the Church” — to go through the whole list of human persons, praying for each one individually. If one’s prayer for the salvation of “all men” is to cover each person, then at some point one is going to have to pray, collectively, for all members of some group(s) or other. The obvious way to do this would be to pray that (x) x be saved. Alternatively, one could pray one at a time for the salvation of each person one knows by name or definite description, and then pray that (x) if x is unknown to me then x be saved. This would be a daunting task, but I suppose it would get the job done.
    Praying that (x) x be saved does not, of course, commit one to universalism; but it does seem to imply the hope that universalism is true. It makes no sense to ask God for something that one cannot legitimately hope he will do.

    May 14, 2011 — 12:50