Links added 4 August:
Information about this case isn’t easy to come by, but here are a couple of old stories that provide some account of the events:
-From Aug. 19, 2011 in the Banner, the “official magazine of the Christian Reformed Church” (the denomination with which Calvin College is associated) there is “Calvin College Religion Profs in the News; One Alleges College Is Being Dishonest”
-From the Aug. 2011 Spark, Calvin’s own alumni magazine, there is “Calvin professors in center of origins conversation”
“A Tale of Two Professors” is a recently produced documentary, half of which is on the interesting case of John Schneider, who was a tenured professor in the Religion Department at Calvin College, until he was forced into early retirement over his work concerning how to understand the doctrine of the Fall in light of scientific results suggesting there were no historic first humans, Adam and Eve, who began their lives in an unfallen world, free of evil and death. (I would not recommend the documentary’s telling of the other story they cover, but, unfortunately, the tales are woven together so that you kinda have to take them both in.)
Schneider’s story was also told a couple of years ago by Michael Ruse in the Chronicle of Higher Education, in an opinion piece whose title reveals how Ruse saw the whole affair: “The Shame of Calvin College”. And in a blog post at New APPS, Jon Cogburn helpfully quotes the question and answer from the Heidelberg Catechism that seems most relevant to the case. (Faculty at Calvin sign a “form of subscription” endorsing that Catechism, along with a couple of other historic Reformed confessions; the form itself is here. Batman’s response is here.)
The documentary brings in Jamie Smith of the Calvin philosophy department to give the college’s side of the issue. Smith explains:
We want to cultivate a theological imagination that doesn’t assume that it’s either/or. As if, “Oh, this new data has come in. We’d better abandon everything we’ve thought for fifteen hundred years.” So, we want to ask hard questions, but we want to do that faithfully.” (8:42 – 8:59)
I want to be careful in responding to that. The context in which it’s presented in the documentary suggests that it is aimed at Schneider, as an explanation/justification for why his treatment was appropriate. But I can’t be sure that the documentary is presenting this fairly. For all I really know, Jamie could have been just explaining how in principle the college might be justified in restricting someone, or, indeed, he could have been just explaining how he thought these questions should be pursued, with no reference at all to the issue of whether the college should take any actions against anyone who didn’t pursue the questions in that way. In that case, my complaint is against the documentary, and not against Jamie.
But since it is suggested – whether by Jamie himself or by the editing of the documentary – that this is directed at Schneider, it really ought to be said that we’re not talking here about “new data” that has just come in. The results that drive Schneider’s questions are quite old. It’s stuff we’ve known for a long time. And I take myself to be seeing things much as Ruse does in saying that it’s stuff that many parts of the Church have been embarrassingly slow to respond to in anything close to a satisfying way. And as for the “abandon everything we’ve thought for fifteen hundred years” bit, well, that’s obviously blowing things up a bit (or more than a bit), since of course nobody’s talking about all that, either. Perhaps that’s just some harmless rhetoric (since it is so obviously blown up), but one might wonder about the use of such pumping of one’s opponent’s position in the context of discussing the ouster of someone from his job. (Though again, I’m not certain whether my complaint here is against Jamie or against those who put this documentary together.)
Incidentally, Jamie is part of a group that has a grant from the BioLogos Foundation for a project entitled “Beyond Galileo – to Chalcedon: Re-imagining the Intersection of Evolution and the Fall”, so, presumably, we will soon be able to see a concrete example of how to ask the hard questions here faithfully. Making sense of evolution while remaining faithful to the honest-to-God truth of “all the articles and points of doctrine” of the Reformed confessions would seem to me quite a challenge!
(I thought some Prosblogion folks may find this essay interesting, because it touches on and connects with several interesting philosophical and metaphilosophical issues, and also some interesting issues about the role of faith in the religious life. I don’t mention faith in the essay: that’s one of the “connected” issues that isn’t actually touched on. But it’s interesting to me to see how some theists can be very disturbed at the suggestion that they don’t know that God exists, while others shrug it off with some thought along the lines of “Well, that’s what faith is for.”)
I know many people who claim to know whether God exists. In each case (individually), I suspect they’re wrong about their having such knowledge. In fact, I suspect that they are all wrong. That is, I suspect that nobody that I know knows whether God exists. So I suspect that delusions of knowledge about this matter run rampant among folks I know. Not a particularly nice suspicion to harbor, I realize. But I thought I’d express and explain that suspicion here, describing my grounds for it.
For Christian universalists of my basic type, as well as many other Christians who stray from traditional, mega-nasty doctrines of hell in certain vaguely universalist directions, C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce has been a godsend.
The “basic type” of universalists in question are those who accept what I call “strong exclusivism,” which goes beyond the claim of “exclusivism” that it is only through Christ that any can be saved to add a condition to the effect that in order to be saved, one must somehow explicitly accept Christ and the salvation he makes possible. The exact nature of the explicit acceptance can be worked out in various ways, but the problem here, of course, is that many people die without having explicitly accepted Christ on just about any way of working out those details. The solution to the problem is to hold that saving explicit acceptance can occur after death.
But while some Christian universalists are thus moved to believe in “further chances” after death (FC), and many other Christians also accept FC for reasons other than that it is the way to square universalism with strong exclusivism, I am still inclined to believe something in the vicinity of what I wrote quite a few years ago in my on-line defense of universalism about the strength with which the opposing doctrine of “no further chances” (NFC) is held in many evangelical circles:
I think no other doctrine can even compete with “no further chances” in terms of the following three factors. No doctrine even comes close to a) being so strongly believed by so many evangelicals despite b) being so utterly disastrous in its consequences and c) having so little by way of Scriptural support.
Well, I suppose I can now come up with some serious competition for NFC here–and even one example of a belief that can beat NFC on this score. (And this not so much because the conditions “on the ground” in EvangelicalLand have changed, but just because I’ve become more aware and appreciative of the tough competition NFC faces.) Still, I think NFC scores very high on this measure.
To the extent that attitudes are softened at all toward FC, it seems to be largely through the influence of Lewis’s Divorce, which has been running interference for universalists and their fellow-travelers for years now. Many evangelicals admire Lewis, and that he presents a picture on which there are further chances constitutes for them a reason for giving FC at least some credence–or at least to not react quite so vehemently those who accept, or even just seriously consider, FC.
So I’m working a bit against my own cause here, but still, I have to question whether Lewis is really promoting FC in Divorce. What is largely at issue is how to read this bit from the end of his “Preface” to the book:
I beg readers to remember that this is a fantasy. It has of course–or I intended it to have–a moral. But the transmortal conditions are solely an imaginative supposal: they are not even a guess or a speculation at what may actually await us. The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the after-world.
I should say right off the bat that I am very far indeed from being an expert on Lewis. So it’s very possible that–and indeed it would be great if–some readers know about other things he wrote that bear on how to read him here. (Indeed, for all I know, he directly addressed FC in some context where he was writing more straightforward, expository prose.) In fact, I guess this post can be viewed largely as a bleg in this regard. I’m going mostly just by what is in Divorce itself.
But I always assumed that the ability of the characters in the story to move from hell to heaven was in the scope of the “transmortal conditions” that were just an “imaginative supposal.” As such, I took Lewis to be saying that was “not even a guess or a speculation at what might actually await us.” So I was quite surprised to find people thinking that Lewis was promoting FC in Divorce. But, focusing especially on the last sentence above (which is also the last sentence of the “Preface”), I suppose I can see how they might think so: One might think it’s the details of the story that are added for effect as an “imaginative supposal,” while some of the more basic and important features of the story, including the ability to move from hell to heaven, are being presented as features of what will actually–or at least may (well) actually–await us.
So I should say a little about why I thought the further chances in the story were supposed to be among the “imaginative supposals” of Divorce. And I guess I was largely led here by what I took the “moral” or main point of the book to be. I’ve always taken Divorce to be mainly about the various tendencies we have–different ones for different people–to “choose against joy.” These are tendencies we (many of us: again, different ones for different people) have now, and constitute a problem for us now, and so are worth exposing. That account of what Lewis was trying to get at provides an account of why he would include the ability to move from hell to heaven as an “imaginative supposal” of his story, even if he wasn’t even speculating as to whether that will be the case in the afterlife. Sometimes a good way to explain a feature of something is to show how that feature would manifest itself in counterfactual situations. And that’s what I think is going on in Divorce. Imaginatively supposing that folks can move from hell to heaven allows Lewis to make points he wants to make about our current condition. He is saying that we have self-destructive tendencies that are so bad that we can easily get to the point that even if we were in hell but then got to experience heaven and had the chance to stay there, we would choose to return to hell. That the ability to move from hell to heaven could function so well as an “imaginative supposal” to help Lewis make important points should, I think, make us quite hesitant to conclude that that feature of his story was anything more than such an “imaginative supposal.”
“Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem…”
I’m taking the phrase “the Hitler types” from a post by Richard Mouw (my former teacher at Calvin College: as if there weren’t enough Calvin connections in this series!). You may want to read Mouw’s whole post, but to set the context for the bit about Hitler, Mouw has stated clearly that he is not a universalist, and in explaining his position, he seems to have indicated that he agrees with Rob Bell that people who choose hell will get it, when he writes:
And I certainly do believe that some folks choose that hell. The Hitler types. The man who kidnaps young girls and sells them into sexual slavery. They are well on their way to hell, to becoming inhuman monsters. To be sure, as the hymn rightly reminds us: “The vilest offender who truly believes/ that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.” But for those who persist in their wicked ways, eternal separation is the natural outcome of all the choices they have made along the way.
And many have (especially recently) expressed finding it especially difficult to believe that the likes of Hitler (or Tony Soprano, in the case of an odd opinion piece in the NYTimes by Russ Douthat!) might make it to heaven. Why? Well, the most natural explanation for the special problem here would be that these “Hitler types” are especially bad. Picking up on that, together with Mouw’s later-expressed openness to hope that people might be able to accept Christ after death, one colorful comment to Mouw’s post reads:
But then, you do affirm hell to be a real place, sir. Full of those “Hitler types” and pedophiles. As for the rest of us gossips, slanderers, and adulterers of the heart, things are looking up. Turns out, God is a God of multiple chances. In this life, and the next.
I don’t think Mouw’s special problem with Hitler types going to heaven is directly that they are just too bad to make it in. Mouw does after all immediately go on to indicate his agreement with the hymn that even the “vilest offenders” can be pardoned, so if there are chances after death (which I don’t read Mouw as necessarily endorsing, but as at least hoping for and not ruling out), it would seem possible that even the vilest offenders might have a chance. My guess is that Mouw’s thinking is that the “Hitler types” are especially unlikely to turn to Jesus, even if they do get the chance to do so after death: They are very solidly in the “choosing hell” column now, and there’s little reason to think they won’t continue to be so.
And so, certain individuals are thought to be especially problematic for universalism. The main reason for thinking they don’t wipe out hope (or so it seems to me) is that we know already from this life that even the most dramatic turnarounds are possible – and we get a pretty good example of such a turnaround in Acts in the case of Saul/Paul, who seems to have been a bit of a “Hitler type”–the “chief of sinners” to use his own (translated) way of expressing that he was “the vilest offender.” (It is perhaps no coincidence that the best scriptural grounds for thinking that Christ’s act of righteousness actually might lead to acquittal and life for all people are from the writings of one who had been something of a Hitler type himself before being redeemed.) My response in my on-line defense of universalism: “We know that some in this life have been only been moving further and further away from accepting Christ. And some people can be very obstinate. And some have become incredibly evil in this life. But, on the other hand, even in this short life, we all know of instances in which people having all three of these problems to a great degree who were brought around and were saved. So, again, I see no grounds for pessimism that an infinitely resourceful God, who is able to take as much time as He needs, will be able to win over everyone eventually.” Of course, I am here supposing that God’s ability to save people continues after their death, and that God does indeed desire that all people will be saved, but given those assumptions, which seem correct to me, I see little reason to give up hope here. (And without those assumptions, hopelessness seems to spread far beyond the Hitler types, so I’m seeing not much of a special problem in these cases.)
Victims and (perhaps even more so) the loved ones of victims of cruel and horrible evils may find the idea of the perpetrators of these evils ever escaping hell revolting. (And I imagine that some of the loved ones of some of the victims of the worst abuses of Saul’s might have found it difficult to hope for his salvation.) This of course doesn’t apply to all of the victims or loved ones of victims: some are astoundingly gracious about this. (A wonderful example of someone adopting a gracious point of view is given in this account of a 9/11 survivor.) Those of us who hold that or hope that even the perpetrators of the worst evils of this world may eventually be reconciled with their victims & with God should recognize that the resistance some people feel to such a view and to such a hope can be coming from a good place — concern for the victims and for justice — even as we think this resistance is somehow ultimately wrong. And while we may hold that joining God in hoping or desiring that all people will be saved is some kind of ideal, we should at the same time recognize that in our messy world, not all cases of adopting this hope would be changes for the better: For some who don’t hold this hope, some of the nearest versions of themselves who do hold such a hope may do so because they are not as concerned for those who have suffered. We certainly don’t want to encourage them to become such versions of themselves.
I strongly encourage those of an opposite point of view to take a similar attitude. If you for instance think that all who fail to accept Christ before death will suffer eternal conscious torment, and you think that this is made clear enough that in some good sense we should not even hope for a better fate for them, you may think that in some sense not hoping for, say, the wellbeing of a deceased loved one is some kind of ideal. (This way of thinking seems very alien to me, but that’s not surprising: the differences in points of view here are very great.) But you can still recognize that those who hold such a hope may be coming from a very good place, and that in our messy world, not all cases of abandoning such hope would be changes for the better.
First, an update. As you will recall, in Part 2 we saw that Jamie Smith seemed to be thinking that the scriptural case for universalism could be “so easily refuted” that he was going to ignore that case (and that he was doing universalists who would appeal to such a case a “favor” by ignoring it), and we were asking (OK: with a bit of taunting thrown in) Jamie what decisive refutation he might have in mind. Well, Jamie has now responded (not just to my post, but to two other blog posts as well), but it looks like he’s not going to be telling us what (if any) refutation he might have had in mind, because he doesn’t specify it in his response, and its title would seem to indicate he’s not going to be saying any more on the subject: “Once (and only once) more on the ‘new universalism’.” You will also recall that in connection with my request, I had claimed that some pretty serious scriptural cases for universalism have been attempted. And Jamie does say this in response (it’s item 2 below that we’re directly interested in; I give the material before it to help set the context; there’s also a third item in this section; the parenthetical material and the stuff in brackets is all Jamie’s):
C. So I wish I had more retractions to make. You can chalk this up to either my stubbornness or my stupidity, or both. Just a few minor points:
1. Yes, the “new” universalism is not “new”–there are ancient streams of this. Yep, OK.
2. There are people who offer rigorous arguments, biblical cases for universalism, etc., etc. Turns out people have written lots of books on this. (Gee, really? Well, gooolllly…if only uh’d known…) Yep, got it. [See B.2 above]
Yes, of course, I see what look like marks of (very heavy) sarcasm here. I’ve always thought that I was reasonably adept at discerning what’s being communicated through sarcastic material, but in this case I’m quite unsure. I’m inclined to read these as retractions Jamie is making, throwing in some peculiar remarks, the intent of which I’d then be guessing is to diminish the importance of the points being conceded? (Yes, it is rather strange in that case, since he is on this reading diminishing the importance of how good the scriptural case is, when his very own view would seem to make that the centrally important issue. But in the context of his whole post, it might make sense, for it seems that he might be indicating that this whole topic is just extremely unimportant to him. So the strength of the scriptural case can be central, but if it’s central to an unimportant topic, at least to him, it’s still not important?) But who knows? Maybe these aren’t retractions, but explanations made through heavy sarcasm for why he is not making any retractions here?
At any rate, I’m inclined to just venture a guess that Jamie doesn’t really know of any really decisive refutations of the serious scriptural cases for universalism, but was taking it that there were decisive refutations for the best cases for universalism (perhaps because he was seriously in error about what the best cases were like).
If so, he is far from alone….
“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…
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.
My favorite universalist passage is Romans 5:18. (Originally, my favorite one was I Corinthians 15:22, and I was then pleased to learn that that had also apparently been the favorite universalist passage of Abraham Lincoln. But I was putting it over Romans 5:18 because I was mistakenly thinking that Romans 5:19 severely curtailed the power of Romans 5:18. For this mistake, and why it’s a mistake, see my quick discussion of Romans 5:18 in section 2 of “Universalism and the Bible“.) Among the nice features of Romans 5:18, I’ll here quickly note just one. A decent percentage of the “refutations” of universalism I encounter make this move: They claim that while all will indeed be made alive in Christ, this life will turn out to be a bad deal for many, because they will be made and kept alive in order to face judgment and eternal torment! Now I think that (among its other problems) this move is based on an extremely bleak, excessively narrow, and wholly implausible understanding of Paul’s use in such contexts of the likes “alive” / “life” (and correlatively of the likes of “die”), especially as they occur in phrases that talk about such things as being made alive in Christ. (But any port in a storm, I suppose.) So perhaps I just shouldn’t even worry about such maneuvers. But it is nice, given the potential worries many apparently have here, that Romans 5:18 throws in that bit about “acquittal”, saying Christ’s act “leads to *acquittal* and life for all men.”
But what about that “leads to”? It’s long seemed to me the most likely escapes here would focus on the “leads to”, rather than the “all” of this passage. (Why I take a dim view of at least the most prominent forms of attempted escape that focus on the “all” is explained in my previous post here.) Maybe this passage just describes how all people are led, or what possibilities are opened to them, while leaving it open that some won’t follow this leading or actualize the relevant possibility?
But that’s not how such claims work….
AIRLINE OFFICIAL: All the passengers survived the crash.
REPORTER: Do you mean that all of the passengers survived in the “all without exception” sense of ‘all’, or in the “a great many” or “all without distinction” sense?
A: All I meant was that all of them survived in one of those last two senses you mention. I didn’t mean they all survived in the “all without exception” sense of ‘all’. And unfortunately, several passengers did die.
RELATIVE: I was so excited when I heard on the news that “all the passengers had survived”! “Henry’s alive!” I called out. Imagine my disappointment when I learned that the news report was using the “a great many” / “all without distinction” sense of ‘all’, and that in fact several passengers had died! Now I’m left wondering about poor Henry.
A: I wonder how the students in our town’s high school did on the big state test? How did the underclassmen do? How did the seniors do? I can’t wait to find out!
B: I was just at the high school and heard the news on that: All the students passed the test.
A: Really? Even that Johnny kid from down the block? I wouldn’t have thought he could possibly pass.
B: He did fail.
A: But didn’t you say that all the students passed?
B: I meant that all passed in the “a great many” / “‘all’ without distinction” sense of ‘all’. I didn’t mean that each and every one of them passed.
There are many ways by which non-universalists try to evade the universalist implications of the New Testament passages typically cited as teaching universalism (like those presented in section 2 of my on-line defense of universalism). Sadly, one of the most common is to claim that ‘all’ (and its Greek equivalent) does not always mean “all without exception”, but has some other, weaker sense, and to urge that the passages are only saying that all will be saved in one of these weaker senses of “all”…