“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.
Here is a set (no doubt incomplete) of important traditional Christian theological commitments directly about humans in hell:
- All human beings in hell will be in hell everlastingly.
- No human being in hell experiences the union with God characteristic of heaven.
- All human beings in hell deserve to be in hell everlastingly and deserve all of the harsh treatment they receives there.
- No human being in hell would have been better off to have ceased existing instead or to have never existed.
- Some human beings are in hell and experience on-balance significant everlasting suffering there.
Seems that describing it as “shameless self-promotion” absolves one, though I doubt it. But that’s the line so I hereby use it, whatever purgatory consequences… My new collection, in draft form, LaTeX’ed to beautiful purposes by Oxford’s document class, is here.
Any thoughts welcome, of course–would love to minimize the errors!
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.
The standard age-of-accountability view includes the following claims:
1. At some age (which may not be the same for everyone), each person becomes morally responsible.
2. Before that point, (a) it would be unjust for God to hold the person responsible for their sins, or (b) they aren’t really sins until that point, or (c) God would always be merciful in such cases when justice might still be deserved.
3. After that point, the gospel message applies, and those who repent and follow Christ are saved, while those who don’t are not.
Now there’s an unspecified fourth issue that an age-of-accountability view might go either way on. What criteria determine what the age of accountability is, and do the criteria admit of vagueness such that there isn’t a clear line between being morally responsible and not being morally responsible? So we get the following two views:
Let Egalitarian Universalism (EU) be the doctrine that God exists and gives everyone infinite happiness, and that the quantity fo this happiness is the same for everyone. The traditional formulation of Pascal’s Wager obviously does not work in the case of the God of EU. What is surprising, however, is that one can make Pascal’s Wager work even given the God of EU if one thinks that Bayesian decision theory, and hence one-boxing, is the right way to go in the case of Newcomb’s Paradox with a not quite perfect predictor (i.e., Nozick’s original formulation).
Here is how the trick works. Suppose that the only two epistemically available options are EU and atheism, and I need to decide whether or not to believe in God. Given Bayesian decision theory, I should choose whether to believe based on the conditional expected utilities. I need to calculate:
- U_{1}=rP(EU|believe) + aP(atheism|believe)
- U_{2}=rP(EU|~believe) + bP(atheism|~believe)
where r is the infinite positive reward that EU guarantees everybody, and a and b are the finite goods or bads of this life available if atheism is true. If U_{1} is greater than U_{2}, then I should believe.
We’ll need to use our favorite form of non-standard analysis for handling infinities. Observe that
- P(believe|EU)>P(believe|~EU),
since a God would be moderately to want people to believe in him, and hence it is somewhat more likely that there would be theistic belief if God existed than if atheism were true (and I assumed that atheism and EU are the only options). But then by Bayes’ Theorem it follows from (3) that:
- P(EU|believe)>P(EU|~believe).
Let c=P(EU|believe)-P(EU|~believe). By (4), c is a positive number. Then:
- U_{1}âU_{2}=rc + something finite.
Since r is infinite and positive, it follows that U_{1}âU_{2}>0, and hence U_{1}>U_{2}, so I should believe in EU.
The argument works on non-egalitarian universalism, too, as long as we don’t think God gives an infinitely greater reward to those who don’t believe in him.
(However, universalism is false and one-boxing is mistaken.)
Ari: Consider this horrific theology: God forces Sally to sin, in a way that takes away her responsibility, and then he intentionally causes eternal torment to her.
Cal: I thought you were smarter than that. That isn’t Calvinist theology! Calvinism holds that God intentionally causes people to sin in a way that retains their responsibility, and then punishes some of them.
Ari: I didn’t say it was a Calvinist theology. You agree that this is a horrific theology, I take it?
Cal: Yes, of course.
Ari: Why?
Cal: Because God is punishing an innocent.
Ari: I said nothing about punishment. I said God intentionally caused eternal torment. I didn’t say that the torment was a punishment.
Cal: How does that make it not be horrific?
Suppose God gives to each person the greatest equal probability of being saved. It is true, suppose, that there are two, and only two, groups of people. The members of one group will all be saved and the members of the other group will all be damned. The good news is that one of the groups is twice as large as the other. God gives each person the greatest equal probability of being saved only if he saves every member of the larger group. The epistemic probability that you are among the saved is then about .67 or 2/3.
Now suppose God offers to tell everyone whether she is in the larger group or the smaller group. Would it be rational to accept this information? If everyone learns which group she is in, then the greatest equal epistemic probability that each person is saved diminishes to .5 or 1/2. God must now flip a coin to decide which group is saved, the smaller or the larger. That is the only way to give each person the greatest equal probability of being saved. What should you do?
It is a strange problem since, if we refuse the information, *many more people get saved*! It is also strange since, you are already in one or the other of those groups. The information doesn’t affect which group you’re in.
(Cross-posted to my own blog.)
Some people, I think, are still under the impression that the infinities in Pascal’s wager create trouble. Thus, there is the argument that even if you don’t believe now, you might come to believe later, and hence the expected payoff for not believing now is also infinite (discounting hell), just as the payoff for believing now. Or there is the argument that you might believe now and end up in hell, so the payoff for believing now is undefined: infinity minus infinity.
But there are mathematically rigorous ways of modeling these infinities, such as Non-Standard Analysis (NSA) or Conway’s surreal numbers. The basic idea is that we extend the field of real numbers to a larger ordered field with all of the same arithmetical operations, where the larger field contains numbers that are bigger than any standard real number (positive infinity), numbers that are bigger than zero and smaller than any positive standard real number (positive infinitesimals), etc. One works with the larger field by exactly the same rules as one works with reals. This is all perfectly rigorous.
Let’s do an example of how it works. Suppose I am choosing between Christianity, Islam and Atheism. Let C, I and A be the claims that the respective view is true. Let’s simplify by supposing I have three options: BC (believe and practice Christianity), BI (believe and practice Islam) and NR (no religious belief or practice).
Now I think about the payoff matrix. It’s going to be something like this, where the columns depend on what is true and the rows on what I do:
C | I | A | |
BC | 0.9X-0.1Y | 0.7X-0.3Y | -a |
BI | 0.6X-0.4Y | 0.9X-0.1Y | -b |
NR | 0.4X-0.6Y | 0.4X-0.6Y | c |
Here, X is the payoff of heaven and -Y is the payoff of hell, and X and Y are positive infinities. I assume that the Christian and Islamic heavens are equally nice, and that the Christian and Islamic hells are equally unpleasant. The lowercase letters a, b and c indicate finite positive numbers. How did I come up with the table? Well, I made it up. But not completely arbitrarily. For instance, BC/C (I will use that symbolism to indicate the value in the C column of the BC row) is 0.9X-0.1Y. I was thinking: if Christianity is true, and you believe and practice it, there is a 90% chance you’ll go to heaven and a 10% chance you’ll go to hell. On the other hand, BC/I is 0.7X-0.3Y, because Islam expressly accepts the possibility of salvation for Christians (at least as long as they’re not ex-Muslims, I think), but presumably the likelihood is lower than for a Muslim. BI/C is 0.6X-0.4Y, because while there are well developed Christian theological views on which a Muslim can be saved, these views are probably not an integral part of the tradition, so the BI/C expected payoff is lower than the BC/I one. The C and I columns of the tables should also include some finite numbers summands, but those aren’t going to matter. A lot of the numbers can be tweaked in various ways, and I’ve taken somewhat more “liberal” (in the etymological sense) numbers–thus, some might say that the payoff of NR/C is 0.1X-0.9Y, etc.
What should one do, now? Well, it all depends on the epistemic probabilities of C, I and A. Let’s suppose that they are: 0.1, 0.1 and 0.8, and calculate the payoffs of the three actions.
The expected payoff of BC is EBC = 0.1 (0.9X – 0.1Y) + 0.1 (0.7X – 0.3Y) + 0.8 (-a) = 0.16X – 0.04Y – 0.8a.
The expected payoff of BI is EBI = 0.15X – 0.05Y – 0.8b.
The expected payoff of NR is ENR = 0.08X – 0.12Y + 0.8c.
Now, let’s compare these. EBC – EBI = 0.01X + 0.01Y + 0.8(b-a). Since X and Y are positive infinities, and b and a are finite, EBC – EBI > 0. So, EBC > EBI. EBI – ENR = 0.07X + 0.07Y – 0.8(b+c). Again, then EBI – ENR > 0 and so EBI > ENR. Just to be sure, we can also check EBC – ENR = 0.08X + 0.08Y – 0.8(a+c) > 0 so EBC > ENR.
Therefore, our rank ordering is: EBC > EBI > ENR. It’s most prudent to become Christian, less prudent to become a Muslim and less prudent yet to have no religion. There are infinities all over the place in the calculations, but we can rigorously compare them.