“In hope, the Church prays for ‘all men to be saved’.” — The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd. ed., entry 1821
As promised in the previous installment, we will now begin to look at the case against hoping that all people will be saved. As I’ve been asked: How can Christians possibly be against even hope on this matter? Well, as it turns out, in a post that has been noticed at, for example, The Gospel Coalition, James K.A. Smith has recently written up a case against this hope, “Can hope be wrong? On the new universalism” – which is quite interesting, given Plantinga’s recent expression of hope (that we looked at last time) and Plantinga’s very deep ties to the Calvin Philosophy, since Smith (or Jamie, as we know him) is a member of the Philosophy department at Calvin College.
Jamie recognizes how counter-intuitive his anti-hope stance will seem to some, writing this about what he calls the “‘at-least-I-hope’ strategy”:
Doesn’t it just name what all of us secretly desire? Indeed, wouldn’t we be quite inhuman if we didn’t hope in this way?
The basic type of explanation for why this hope is wrong given by the best of the no-hopers is that hoping that all will be saved betrays or constitutes an insufficient level of commitment to some view (often a theory of everlasting punishment for the lost, combined with the claim that there will indeed be some who are forever lost) contrary to universalism – and Jamie’s case against hope seems to be of this basic type. I will address this basic case (and also Jamie’s own use of it) in a later post.
Here I’ll clear the way for that by first registering a few complaints about some features of Jamie’s post that go beyond the basic strategy – in I think some unfortunate ways…
Since I’ve now found that the first two complaints I was going to raise have (closely enough) already been raised by Halden Doerge here (and this post also contains some other good points of response to Smith, so, though I don’t agree with all of what Halden writes, I highly recommend it for your consideration), I’ll try to be quick with them.
First, as we’ll see next time, Jamie claims that we need to submit our hopes to “discipline by the authority of Scripture.” And this, as Halden notes:
begs the rather gargantuan question of whether the hope for the salvation of all creation is really so obviously unbiblical.
As Jamie knows perfectly well, biblical cases for universalism have been made by many in recent years (as well as in not-so-recent years), ranging from my little on-line primer all the way to extremely serious studies. Jamie’s response? He’s not going address it. Why? Not enough time or space in the post, wants to focus on something else while referring us to someone else’s response, it’s too big a topic? No, you see, the scriptural cases (presumably all of them, including the best and the most serious [by which I don’t mean my own!]) are so easily refuted (by some means that Jamie doesn’t even motion toward) that he’s going to do those who make them a favor by ignoring them! The level of sheer bluster here seems to me to exceed Dawkins at his best (worst?). I kid you not:
The question , then, is just what compels one to be an evangelical universalist? Some resort to prooftexting, operating with a naive, selective reading of Scripture. I’m going to do the evangelical universalist a favor and ignore such a strategy, only because I think it can be so easily refuted.
“Well,” you might think, “he must here be speaking not of the serious cases that have been made, but only of naÃ¯ve attempts to ‘prooftext’. He must get to the more serious cases elsewhere.” Well, look at Jamie’s whole post. For him, so much comes down to what hopes are ruled out by the clear teachings of Scripture that he really needs to consider the best cases that have been made, and this really is all he has to say against Scriptural defenses of universalism. It’s hard to know how to be charitable here, but I’m guessing he’s saying that even the best cases are examples of naÃ¯ve prooftexting that are “so easily refuted” (apparently in some way he doesn’t even need to specify) that you do their proponents a favor by ignoring them. [One seems to be doing Jamie no favor by instead reading him as making a limited claim about the worse cases, while knowing that there are better cases out there.] And he seems not to be against what looks like “prooftexting” in general: toward the end of his post, he imagines wanting to hope that he will remain married to his wife in the life to come, and seems to think such a hope should be extinguished by a lightning-quick (prooftexting?) appeal to Matt. 22:30. So, it seems the real problem here is that the Scriptural case for universalism is “so easily refuted” – in a way he won’t even mention! Now that he’s set the bar so sky-high on how decisive a case we will be expecting to see, it will be interesting to see if Jamie deigns to tell us what refutation(s) he had in mind. C’mon, Jamie. Don’t do us any favors; let us have it. If it is so “easy,” it shouldn’t take up much of your time.
So, what does he do, if not address what, from his own point of view, should be the central issue? That brings us to my second complaint. He focuses on what he takes to be the motivations of his opponents: “No, the motivation for evangelical is not really a close reading of the Bible’s…” Man, I have to stop it right there. Ignore the cases evangelical universalists have actually laid out, because you see their real motivations? Nice. Thanks for that favor. No, I suppose I should give a little bit more (though of course you can click through and read Jamie’s whole piece):
No, the motivation for evangelical universalism is not really a close reading of the Bible’s claim about eternity. Instead, it seems that the macro-motivation for evangelical universalism is less a text and more a hermeneutic, a kind of “sensibility”…
Nice. Some of what Halden says about this is insightful. I’ll just say I hang around (this is on-line hanging around) a bit with some of the other evangelical universalists (as we’re often called) that I imagine Jamie must have in mind here, and I don’t recognize us in Jamie’s sketch. But I suppose people’s motivations are often hidden from them (I really do suspect that!), and are more open to the wise, discerning eyes of their opponents (that part, at least as directed at Jamie here, is sarcasm).
On to a couple more quick complaints. I think Jamie puts more weight than I do on what the Church has traditionally held. (But not to give a false impression: His test for what should discipline our hopes is “the authority of Scripture.”) And that’s cool; we can’t here settle the huge issue of how much weight should be assigned to what. But in defending a tradition-friendly approach he remarks:
I’ll confess to being a kind of theological Burkean: it’s very hard for me to imagine that I am smarter or better than Augustine or John Calvin or Jonathan Edwards. I’m not generally given to whiggish theology.
And it should be quickly noted (in case Jamie is suggesting otherwise: I’m not sure how to read him here) that disagreeing with someone (whether a church father or a renowned theologian from centuries past, or a contemporary) doesn’t mean you’re taking yourself to be “smarter or better” than them. Presumably, Jamie doesn’t think he’s “smarter or better” than all the theologians of the past that disagree with him on this issue (or others).
Out of respect for my universalist forebears, I’d like to clear up a false impression some readers might gather from Jamie’s opening two paragraphs. Since “universalism” is used in importantly different ways, it is important to distinguish the basic types as Jamie does, so that’s good. But I worry that some readers may gather from his opening that the “Christocentric universalism” that I and others hold is a new thing. It isn’t. We like to think it’s at least as old as St. Paul, but less contentious examples appear early in the Church, and in Robin Parry’s words, it “runs like a slender thread through the history of Christian theology.” Slender, yes; new, no. And as a Christian universalist, I have always taken comfort from the fact that, while I am accepting a view that has been a minority position in the church, I am nonetheless joining with some of the Christian theologians that I most respect.
Finally, a terminological point. I’m not sure I’m reading him right on this, but Jamie at places seems to be using “new universalists” in such a way that those who merely hope for the salvation of all in a Christ-centered way, even if they don’t accept that all will be saved, are “universalists.” I think we shouldn’t take the terminology in that direction; it will cause a lot of confusion. Those of us who actually accept that Christ’s act of righteousness will lead to acquittal and life for all people tend to feel an important bond with those who only hope for that, but those mere-hopers will have to do better than that if they want to be full-fledged members of the universalist club!
(For those who don’t have sufficient background in the ways of EvengelcialLand to see it, that last bit is supposed be ironic, since in much of Evangelical Christianity, universalism doesn’t function as some exclusive club that people try hard to qualify for, but rather as something many strive hard not to be associated with.)