“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”…
So I’m teaching this honors undergrad class on C.S. Lewis and the Problem of Evil here at Baylor. Today we covered parts of “Animal Pain” from _The Problem of Pain_. I must say that well prior to reading Rowe, I was very struck with the problem of animal pain. I regard it as in certain ways much more troubling than the problem of human pain. In fact, it constitutes–and I’m probably not alone here, though at one time it was rare to find anyone who even talked about it–one of the two objections to theism which have any real weight with me, and it bears much, much weight.
In the chapter, Lewis suggests that…
Occasionally one meets with the idea that, granted, bringing in eternal life really does help a lot with the problem of evil or with hiddenness, nonetheless bringing in eternal life is a cheat because it begs the question or something like that.
I can see how one can object to the eternal life move by saying that some things are so horrendous that God shouldn’t allow them even if he compensates those to whom they happened. Or that an omnipotent God shouldn’t need to compensate. Or that God has some kind of a duty never to be hidden (but: surely a lover is permitted to hide for a while, since otherwise it would be wrong to play peekaboo with infants who don’t understand about object persistence). But the “it’s a cheat to bring in eternal life” move is not this move. Rather, it grants, at least for the sake of argument, that if there is eternal life, then God can have a justification for allowing the evil or being hidden.
I am having a hard time seeing how this “it’s a cheat” move is supposed to work. Let T = theism, L = eternal life and E = the atheological arguer’s favorite evil/hiddenness evidence. Then: T is equivalent to T&L or T&~L. Now to grant that eternal life would solve the problem would be to grant that P(T&L|E) is not significantly less than P(T&L). Now let the theist grant, in a spirit of mutual accommodation and simplification, that E is conclusive evidence against T&~L: P(T&L|E)=0. But now:
P(T|E) = P(T&L|E) + P(T&~L|E) = P(T&L|E).
But P(T&L|E) is not significantly less than P(T&L), it was granted. So, basically, the atheological evidence E lowered the probability of T to around the probability of T&L before that evidence.
Now, if in our background there is the fact that there are person, then P(L|T) is quite high. If God made persons, it is very likely that they (or at least those who do not deserve to not have it–there might be room for tweaking of what exactly L says), it is very likely that he made them to have eternal life. But if P(L|T) is quite high, then P(T&L) is pretty close to P(T). Since P(T|E) is not much smaller than P(T&L), it follows that P(T|E) is not much smaller than P(T).
So I just don’t see how the “it’s a cheat” move is supposed to work. Once one grants that the probability of T&L does not go down very much given E, then given the very plausible claim that most of the probability of T is contributed by T&L portion, it simply follows that the probability of T does not go down very much given E.
Suppose there is a perfect being (God)–a being maximal in power, knowledge, and goodness. Then this being will likely “save” (restore relationship with) everyone (all humans) eventually because:
1. God desires that everyone enjoy union with Himself.
2. If (1) is true, then God will do everything he can, without sacrificing a higher good, to maximize the chances of everyone enjoying union with Himself.
3. Granting each person an indefinite number of times the capacity to enter such a union (through repentance, trusting in Jesus, whatever) doesn’t sacrifice a higher good.
4. Granting each person an indefinite number of times the capacity to enter such a union is something God can do.
5. Granting each person an indefinite number of times the capacity to enter such a union maximizes the chances of all his creatures eventually entering such a union.
6. Therefore, God will grant each person an indefinite number of times the capacity to enjoy union with Himself.
7. If (6), then everyone will eventually enjoy union with God (argument for this to come).
8. Therefore, everyone will eventually enjoy union with God (be “saved”).
Here’s why to believe each of the premises.
I think I’ve hit on one of the things that’s been lurking in the background in my resistance to the idea of an age of accountability. Now this post will largely be assuming some things many here will not grant, e.g. exclusivism about who gets saved, Christian particularism about how they get saved, perhaps Protestant soteriology, and traditional or classical models of divine knowledge (as opposed to open theism). One reason I assume these is because I think they’re all true, but it’s more important for this post that most people who hold to the age of accountability as I’m about to explicate it do in fact assume all these things. Perhaps denying any of them, or at least certain ways of denying them, will get around the problems I’m about to raise. I think it might still take some work to do so, however.
There’s a tradition in Christendom which says that faith in Jesus Christ as one’s savior, and commitment to him as lord, is necessary for salvation. (Different Christian traditions might state this requirement differently; the important point is that almost everybody who hasn’t been in contact with Christian missionaries, or isn’t part of a chain which goes back to Christian missionaries, will fail to meet this requirement.)
There’s another Christian tradition which says that one must have this faith before one’s death.
While I see somewhat strong scriptural merit behind the first tradition (despite a growing number of Christian philosophers rejecting it; I think they’re called inclusivists), I don’t see much scriptural merit behind the second tradition. Furthermore, as my friend Patrick Todd pointed out to me at the Pacific SCP, it seems arbitrary for God to pick death as the moment beyond which there is no return. From the standpoint of eternity, why then? What’s so important about that point? It seems that a less arbitrary point would be when a person has shaped his character in such a way that he would never have the faith which I described in the first paragraph of this post (this shaping might happen via what Robert Kane calls “self-forming actions”). A picture of how all this might happen is illustrated beautifully in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. Furthermore, I bet that inclusivists might be more open to exclusivism if they rejected the second tradition.
So, I don’t see much scriptural merit behind the second tradition. On the more philosophical side (and hence, more germane to this blog), it seems that death would be an arbitrary point at which to judge people’s eternal destiny.