Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Hopeful Universalism, and then some

Currently, the debate over "hopeful universalism" seems simplistic. The only issue considered is this:

[HU] All Christians should at least hope that universalism is true.

Universalism here means the view that all people will eventually be reconciled to God, some only after serving some time in a purgatorial, rehabilitative hell. Call this UR, universal reconciliation.

The idea is that [HU] is the moral high ground, Christians who don't hope for UR are morally deficient. It's the proper thing to do. Moreover, if one believes that the Bible teaches that there is a hell and some people will be in it forever, these people should at least hope that they've misunderstood the Bible on this matter.

But on this assumption, shouldn't those who push the above claim push other states of affairs to hope for?

For example, the above ad hominem (not in a fallacious sense) argument against traditionalists without the hope in UR can be applied to other areas, like:

  • Hope that no human who has or will ever exist spends any time in hell? Universalist Robin Parry writes,
    "Historically all Christian universalists have had a doctrine of hell and that remains the case for most Christian universalists today, including Bell. The Christian debate does not concern whether hell will be a reality (all agree that it will) but, rather, what the nature of that reality will be. Will it be eternal conscious torment? Will it be annihilation? Or will it be a state from which people can be redeemed? Most universalists believe that hell is not simply retributive punishment but a painful yet corrective/educative state from which people will eventually exit (some, myself included, think it has a retributive dimension, while others do not)."
    But shouldn't we at least hope that no human will have to spend any time in this "painful" place? Surely it would be better for them to go straight into heaven. Shouldn't universalists hope they're wrong even about their own conception of hell?
  • Hope that pluralism (all roads lead to heaven) is true? Since it would be more probable that more people would go straight to heaven without spending any time in hell if pluralism were true, shouldn't we hope for it? Hope we've misread the exclusivist passages?
  • Hope that the OT reports of harem warfare are myths, and thus hope that inerrancy is false? Shouldn't we at least hope we've read those passages wrong and Israel never killed thousands of men, women, children, and animals?
  • Hope that the story of the flood is a myth? Same reasons as above.
  • Hope that the story of the sin of Achan is false? Achan sinned, and his family and livestock were burned and stoned. Shouldn't we hope this didn't happen? Hope we have misunderstood the text at least?
  • Hope that the story of Samson is false? Hope we've misread about an all-knowing God giving Samson his strength to bring down the Philistine temple and kill many more in his death than in his life?
  • Hope that Old Earth Creationism, with all the millions of years of animal death, is false? Doesn't YEC have millions less cases of animal and human death and suffering? Isn't this better? If a loving God could have avoided millions of cases of death and suffering, wouldn't he? YEC would be one way to achieve this.
These are just some examples. Shouldn't those who push [HU] also push the above? Aren't those who at least hope that the above isn't the case more pious or moral than those who don't? Aren't the same reasons for why all Christians should at least hope for UR applicable to the above?


  1. This kind of hopefulism isn't very biblical. Christian hope is founded on knowledge of the truth, not wishful thinking. While it's true that God does not desire that any should perish, He has made it clear that many will - and for good reason. (Whether we fully know or understand God's reason is immaterial. Everything God does is good.) Therefore, we should not desire that any should perish in that we should seek to proclaim the gospel to all people. However, there is no hope once they are lost to us and God's purposes for removing that hope are good.

  2. Jim, if God doesn't desire that any should perish, why doesn't he save them all? He can't obtain what he desires? Also, since I believe the Bible does teach that some people will be in hell forever, it is irrational for me to hope that all people will be in heaven forever. it's like getting a news report from a very trustworthy source that a dirty bomb went off in the middle of Times Square, definitely killing some people. It would be irrational for me to hope that everyone made it out alive if I also believed the news report. I might hope that my friends who were visiting NYC at the time made it out alive, but not that everyone indiscriminately made it out alive.

  3. Paul, unless I misunderstood you I don't think we disagree. 2 Peter 3:9 is tempered by 2 Peter 3:7. I'm merely drawing a distinction between the kind of hope founded on certainty that permeates the scriptures (2 Peter 3:15, for example, as long as we're in this passage) and the wishful thinking we call "hope" in today's English vernacular. God's "desire" in verse 9 isn't called "hope". But here we see that God can have desire that is outside His plan.

  4. Sorry, I got my Peter's mixed up. That's 1 Peter 3:15.

  5. Jim, yeah, I just don't see God having that desire. If he knows that some sinner, S, will be in hell (indeed, God decreed it), then it makes no sense to desire the impossible---the salvation of S. It is irrational to desire what you know is impossible to have. if God truly did desire S to be saved, he would simply fulfill this desire. If S desires Ω, then S typically acts in ways to bring about Ω. God in no way acts to bring about salvation for S, thus it's hard to see in what sense he could desire it, at least on action-based accounts.

  6. Hi Paul,

    If it is irrational for God to desire the impossible (In 2 Pet 3:9) - what do you think is the best reading of this verse? Or to what benefit are we provided with this verse?


  7. Rohan,

    I think it is irrational for anyone to desire the impossible if he knows it is impossible to achieve, bring about, obtain, satisfy, etc., so not just irrational for *God* to so desire.

    I like Baukham on 2 pet 3:9

    “God’s patience with his own people delaying the final judgment to give them the opportunity of repentance, provides at least a partial answer to the problem of eschatological delay…The author remains close to his Jewish source, for in Jewish though it was usually for the sake of the repentance of his own people that God delayed judgment,” Jude, 2 Peter (Word 1983), 312-13.

    Our benefit is knowing that God will bring all his elect in, as promised. The church triumphant will contain every person that was elected from the foundation of the world, none will be lost. If you have a future great grandchild that God has elected, he will be there, even if you never meet him here.

  8. Paul, I'm having trouble seeing how it is (necessarily) irrational to desire something you know is impossible.

    I desire to eat chocolate right now, but there is no chocolate in the house. Furthermore, to stave off diabetes as long as possible, I'm going to refrain from buying some.

    I don't feel I'm being irrational in my desire to eat chocolate, even though I know it is currently impossible, and even though I know I am not going to fulfill the conditions that would make it possible because of my superior, obviating desire.

    What would you say makes my desire irrational in this case? How are you defining rationality?

  9. Dom,

    Of course, it's not impossible for you to eat chocolate, unless you're using an idiosyncratic definition of "impossible." So try to think of it like this, if it helps: do you think it is rational to desire to draw a square circle *if* you believe that it is impossible to draw said "shape"? I grant it may not be irrational if you don't have the belief that it is impossible, but we can both agree this doesn't apply to God.

    Second, I would suggest you don't desire to eat chocolate, you desire to refrain for various reasons, and you act in ways to bring about that desire, such as refraining from eating chocolate, which you very easily could.

    You may wish that things were different and you could eat chocolate, but that's not to desire to eat chocolate. As a basic level, probably the most popular and intuitional account of a to desire Ω is analyzed as:

    For an organism to desire p is for the organism to be disposed to take whatever actions it believes are likely to bring about p.

    Now, you may not actually bring about p, because there may be stronger, competing desires, or you may be injured, etc. However, *ceteris paribus*, you would take whatever action you believe likely to bring about p. Now, there's discussion in the philosophical literature, but no one suggests that you can have a desire for p if you believe that p is ceteris paribus impossible for you to get.

    There are other theories of desire, like pleasure based accounts, on which desire is analyzed as,

    For an organism to desire p is for the organism to be disposed to take pleasure in it seeming that p and displeasure in it seeming that not-p.

    Which again, of course, doesn't obtain if the organism believes that p is impossible.

    As far as 'rational,' I think it's irrational on several accounts of rationality. I think it's means-end irrational, I think it's proper function irrational, I think it's irrational on other accounts to.

  10. Another issue is that of God desires that *all* be saved, then in this context of a fallen created theatre, he desires that his attribute of justice not be fully magnified, since he would desire that no *guilty* person ever suffer for their crime, and I don't see God desiring that any his attributes not be fully realized and maximalized.

  11. Paul,
    It seems irrational, but you have to address the text of the Bible. We have βουλόμενός (boulomenos) in 2 Peter 3:9 and θέλει (thelei) in 1 Tim 2:4. They have similar meanings and in each passage similar function:

    "The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing [boulomenos] that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance." (2 Peter 3:9 ESV)

    "This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires [thelei] all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." (1 Timothy 2:3-4 ESV)

    Therefore, I don't think the precise word is important here. But we can't dismiss what the Bible indicates here by saying that it is irrational. The Bible is not irrational. In both passages, Paul and Peter both use the statements that God doesn't want any to perish, or that He wants all to be saved (and I would consider the two essentially equivalent), as presuppositional to the surrounding discourse. To say that these statements are unreasonable because the Bible also indicates that some people are condemned to hell begs the question that all things God wants He enacts. Therefore, there are two possible meanings for what is written in these pasages:

    1) "all" and "any" are figurative, or
    2) God doesn't enact all that He desires.

    Given good hermeneutical priciples, applying rules for determining if "all" and "any" is figurative, it's a bit of stretch. I'll grant that it's possible that these are used figuratively.

    I may be wrong, but it seems that number 2 may be correct. We would have to consider God's will to be monolithic and completely unnuanced in any way. But John Piper indicates that this may be the case. Triablogue also acknowledges this, here and here.

  12. Jim,

    I didn't dismiss is simply because it's irrational, I provided another alternative.

    I also provided analyses of 'desire,' which don't fit with the verse, so maybe you could provide an account of 'desire,' and not a dictionary definition.

    Lastly, I suggested that there is a reason God would not desire the salvation of all, for then his attribute of justice would not fully be manifested in his created theatre.

    So I just don't think you properly representing my case here.

  13. Also, I am not triablogue, but I do happen to know that almost all the contributors here don't agree with the interpretation of 2 Peter and I Tim that you're presenting. Steve doesn't. Gene doesn't. I think Peter Pike doesn't. Moreover, one may consistently hold to both the "two wills" doctrine as well as deny your read of 2 Pet etc. So bringing up the two wills doctrine doesn't undermine anything I've argued.

  14. Since 1 Tim. 2 was mentioned, here's Towner

    “The purpose of the reference to ‘all people,” which continues the theme of universality in this passage, is sometimes misconstrued. The reference is made mainly with the Pauline mission to the Gentiles in mind (v7). But the reason behind Paul’s justification of this universal mission is almost certainly the false teaching, with its Torah-centered approach to life that included either an exclusivist bent or a downplaying of the Gentile mission,” The Letters to Timothy & Titus (Eerdmans 2006), 177.

    “Paul’s focus is on building a people of God who incorporate all people regardless of ethnic, social, or economic backgrounds,” ibid. 178.

    “The possibility that this text expresses a thoroughgoing ‘universalism’…is removed by the consistent emphasis on faith for salvation in 1 Tim (1:16; 3:16; 4:10; cf. 2 Tim 1:5),” ibid. 178, n.38.

  15. Hey Paul, obviously I have a less philosophically rigorous understanding of "desire" than you do; hence my confusion.

    For example, I wouldn't take a desire to entail a disposition. At least, not assuming that a disposition is something which leads necessarily to an action to obtain the object of desire, assuming such action is possible. That seems to be what you're implying, but correct me if I'm wrong.

    So, when I say that it doesn't seem irrational to desire something impossible, I suppose in more philosophically cautious terms I'd say it doesn't seem irrational to be inclined by your nature to entertain an agreeable attitude toward something impossible.

    For example, hopeful universalism. I'm not a hopeful universalist, but I am inclined by nature to entertain an agreeable attitude toward the salvation of my non-Christian friends. Now, let's say that I know for a fact, by some private revelation, that one of those friends is not among the elect. Colloquially speaking, I would still desire that he be saved. Now, I agree it would be irrational to act toward that end (praying for his salvation etc). So I'm not saying I would desire his salvation in a dispositional sense, if I'm understanding you correctly. A desire of "intention", as it were, would be irrational.

    But on the other hand, it doesn't seem I'd be irrational to continue to find the idea of his salvation agreeable in some sense. In fact, if I have a love for someone, wouldn't it be a bit of a "proper function faux pas" to not desire their salvation in some sense (a desire of "attitude", as it were)? How could my mind be functioning properly if I loved someone but didn't want the best for that person?

    Anyway, I certainly don't have the kind of philosophically nuanced understanding of desire as you; I haven't studied that. So if "desire" is the wrong term philosophically, my bad. But what would the term be, then?

  16. "So I just don't think you properly representing my case here."

    I may not be, but it pays to check anyway:

    1) The Bible reads, "This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth."
    2) The Bible also reads, "The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance."
    3) I summed, "God does not desire that any should perish."
    4) You wrote, "I just don't see God having that desire."

    Then you proceeded to make an argument that didn't interact with the scriptures that you appear to contradict, although you did post a commentary on 2 Pet 3:9 to Rohan which started, Your fall-back was on your earlier argument about God not desiring. Non-Reformed theologians abuse texts like this and I don't want to see Reformed theologians handle them as carelessly. So I ask.

    "almost all the contributors here don't agree with the interpretation of 2 Peter and I Tim that you're presenting."

    That's fine. I gave a simple hermeneutic take on it and there are probably better. I'm open to the possibility that I'm wrong. I haven't read anything on this from the Triabloguers that I disagree with, but I'm sure I haven't read everything they've written on the matter either.

    "Moreover, one may consistently hold to both the "two wills" doctrine as well as deny your read of 2 Pet etc."

    My read is precisely the "two wills" doctrine (my option #2), so how can you hold the "two wills" doctrine and deny my read? But you have been defending the "figurative or limited all" doctrine (my option #1).

    "So bringing up the two wills doctrine doesn't undermine anything I've argued."

    I brought up the "two wills" doctrine as exemplary of what I hold, not necessarily to undermine your position. I just wanted you to interact a little more meaningfully with the language of the Scriptural passages you appear to deny.

    It's a poor hermeneutic to use doctrine to interpret scripture where doctrine should be informed by scripture. We must not develop a doctrine based on some passages and deny other passages based on that doctrine. You say that you don't think God desires that all should be saved, but then you say that God desires all, meaning the elect, are saved. Logically, you can't have it both ways unless you explain that what you refute in the first statement isn't what the scripture says, but that the scripture is misunderstood. If that's where you are, then we agree. But the way you said it is confusing and if I can misconstrue it, then others can too. I do this all the time, so I'm not holding myself above you at all on this point.

  17. Jim, I think the problem you face here is just that the verses you offer are incredibly unconvincing as universal prooftexts. And I know for a fact they've been dealt with here on Triablogue before. So the presumption in a discussion here is that it has been established that they don't teach a universal salvific desire on God's part.

    I agree with that presumption, even though I hold (for a modern Calvinist) a rather idiosyncratic view of God's salvific attitude toward the non-elect. If you want to try to make an argument from these texts, you'll need to do more than just quote them. You'll have to give an exegetical argument showing that we should accept how you interpret them.

  18. Dominic,
    I already gave my hermenuetical rationale in my 5/30/2011 12:53 PM comment. I've already said that I haven't read everything that has been written on Triablogue so there may be a very good reason put forth for denying a universal desire on God's part. I've also said that I may be wrong. I'd love to read it. Could you post a link?

  19. Hey Jim, no worries. Here are a couple of links to previous posts on Triablogue that deal specifically with 2 Peter 3:9: "All" is an Adjective and On Avoiding the Obvious.

    Taking a broader, philosophical approach, if we understand a desire to be a disposition entailing an action toward an object or end, then it is very problematic to say that God desires the salvation of the non-elect. That would entail him acting toward that end. But he has already decided the non-elect are not saved. So logically (if we're understanding desire in this sense) it cannot be that God desires the salvation of the non-elect. That would contradict a fundamental element of God's nature, which is his rationality.

    That said, I don't understand desire in the sense Paul has given. Paul is much more versed in philosophy than I am. In philosophy, I'm sure desire means what he has said it means. But in a colloquial sense, as I've suggested, I think it has a weaker meaning, whereby we could say that God desires the salvation of the non-elect. That is, God finds it agreeable, in some sense which is already contingent upon his decision to create the non-elect for destruction in hell, that they be saved. He does not intend to save them, and indeed he desires not to save them in the strong sense Paul has given. But because he is benevolent and because they are made in his image, he entertains a desire, in the weak sense, that they could be saved.

    I don't think this view makes God irrational. It simply makes him capable of complex attitudes. He can entertain one "weak" attitude which is contingent upon a state of affairs brought about by a contradictory "strong" attitude. He is not conflicted; he is simply complex.

    Could be that Paul will come back and shoot that view full of holes, of course (:

  20. Thanks for all your contributions guys - it's been very helpful.

    Perhaps one of you could point me to any posts on Triablogue that deal with another (somewhat related) issue. Otherwise, any comments would be appreciated.

    Within the Calvinist paradigm, how are we to best understand 1 Cor 3:12-15 in light of Eph 2:10?

    Compatibilism, QED? :)

  21. Rohan, I think maybe you should explain what you see the problem as being between those two verses. Your question implies a difficulty understanding how they relate to each other, but when I read them I don't see the issue, so it's hard to respond.

  22. Dominic,
    Thanks for the links. Very helpful. Exactly what I was looking for.

  23. Dominic,

    I apologize for being vague - I'll elaborate.

    If God has predestined the good works that we will do (Eph 2:10), how is it that those very works seem to be described in 1 Cor 3 as being "tested" according to what each has done? I'm tempted to read the passage as if it were encouraging Libertarian Free Will.

    Additionally, what could be the purpose of "heavenly rewards" if God has predestined the good works we are to do? The only conclusion I can draw is that the rewards that 1 Cor 3:14 speaks of are predestined as well and are therefore not meant to be an additional incentive for holy living.

    I'm still struggling to grasp how we're accountable for the good works we achieve, when it seems good works are primarily a means of determining a regenerate heart (James 2).


  24. DOH! I cam back to see if anyone had responded to my comment I definitely posted here, and I see it's not here. I'm busy now but I'll post it latter.

  25. Dom,

    So here's where it looks like things stand:

    1. You claim that on my various defs of 'desire,' then it is irrational for God to desire that *all* men be saved given that he infallibly believes, indeed has decreed, that all men will not be saved.

    2. You claim these defs are more "philosophical" while your understanding is more "ordinary."

    3. You claim there's another sense of 'desire', though, according to which we can say that God 'desires' the salvation of all.

    So, first let me address (2). I think action or disposition based accounts of desire are the most popular, common sense understanding. If you read work on 'desire,' I think you'd note this. They begin with ordinary usage and try to draw out what they're saying or implying. Anyway, I don't see a pressing reason to discuss whether one's view is the common sense one.

    Second, there's still some analysis to be done on your understanding, for I'm not sure I understand what is meant by "agreeable." Anyway, let's call your sense "Bnonn's sense of desire," or, "B-Desire" for short :-)

    Let's apply your sense to this situation:

    Suppose your good friend Smith has been kidnapped by a crazed gang of killers. They go around demanding that people bring out the impossible or else they will kill them. So, your friend's task is to draw a square circle. You find out about this and his task. You, being a smart guy, are well aware that it's impossible to draw said shape. Do you nevertheless B-desire that your friend can draw said shape? Do you sincerely B-desire this?

    I dunno, I don't think I would. Does that make me not proper function loving? In any case, perhaps B-desire means something like this:

    [B-D] S 'B-desiers' Ω for S* if and only if S believes that it would be good for S* to have or obtain Ω.

    Obviously, it would be good for your poor friend Smith if he could draw said shape, and so it would be good for Smith is square-circle was an actual shape (whatever sense we can make of that).

    Okay, so I can grant that there are legitimate B-desire cases. God might even believe that it would be good for some sinner S if S were in heaven rather than hell.

    Now, here's the crucial question: Is B-desire the sense of 'desire' used in the various "desires all" passages? I don't think so. Does θέλω (thelo) mean something like "B-desire"? No, it doesn't. It most frequently means to will, determine, implying volition or purpose.

    Another problem is that the passages seem to imply that God desires something to become actualized. That the world should contain this feature. Those who take these passages as meaning God desires all without exception to be saved suggest that God desires this state of affairs to become actualized. Thus it's not just something good for the people if they were to have it. One reason I don't think God desires or thinks this actual state of affairs is good (note just something good for someone regardless of whether it obtains). On reason is that if God choses to create he does so ultimately for his glory. He does so to manifest and magnify himself throughout the created theatre. He maximizes and magnifies all of his attributes. If no one were in hell, there's reason to think his attribute of justice would not fully be magnified, for no one actually guilty would be punished throughout eternity. Some think Christ's death is enough for this. I an others don't, since Christ was not actually guilty, and thus there would be no exercise of justice on the actually guilty. So, I don't think God desires or things this state of affairs is agreeable or good, even though he may believe that salvation is good for any human.

  26. Rohan: I take Eph 2:10 to be speaking of how our good works are a result of our being a new creation; ie, they are grounded in the work of Christ, rather than in our own natures. 1 Cor 3:10 talks about the same thing.

    God "prepares" our works "beforehand" in the sense that he ordains them, just as he ordains all things in creation. When you say "predestined" I think you mean "ordained". Predestination (it seems to me) refers specifically to the salvation of the elect.

    1 Cor 3 is talking about the quality of our works; that they will be tested. But I'm at a loss as to how God's testing of the works he ordained us to do implies that we have libertarian free will. It doesn't seem any different, in principle, to God being wrathful towards sinners who he ordained to sin, or whatever. The same goes for your question about reward. If God ordained the work, and God ordained the reward for the work, what is the problem? Just as God ordained the sin, and God ordained the punishment for the sin.

    If you think that this is problematic, then you have a MUCH larger problem of theology, and I don't see how LFW saves you unless you want to go the whole hog and become an open theist. But if you don't think it's problematic, then I don't get why you think Eph 2:10 and 1 Cor 3 are in conflict?

  27. Hey Paul. Cool, I get my own manner of desiring named after me :D I think I generally agree with your analysis of what B-desire is. Very good.

    I also agree with you that the best understanding of "desire" in the "desire all" passages is not B-desire. As I mentioned before, I don't find those Arminian prooftexts convincing. They aren't the reason I believe in God's general salvific attitude (B-desire). In fact, I think understanding those verses like an Arminian does makes God irrational, just as you say, and exposes the contradictions inherent in Arminianism.

    In regards to the rest of your comment, I am in absolute agreement. In fact, I have never seen anyone articulate my own thoughts so accurately—which up until now has worried me, because I thought I might be rather aberrant in them!

  28. Dom,

    I'm surprised you could read and understand my comment! I quickly fired it off and just re-read it and noticed some ambiguities and a few typos. I should have read your paper on good internet writing before I posted, I think :-)

  29. Dom,

    I would think all Reformed would agree with "God's general salvific" desire in the sense you say you mean it, "B-desire." It seems obvious that for any sinner, salvation is better for that sinner than is damnation. So there's got to be something else to the debate between Calvinists who deny God's desire to save all and those who don't, those like Ponter etc.

  30. I would think all Reformed would agree with "God's general salvific" desire in the sense you say you mean it, "B-desire." It seems obvious that for any sinner, salvation is better for that sinner than is damnation.

    Hey Paul, I'm not sure. Maybe. Maybe I did misunderstand you before as regards your analysis of B-desire. Or maybe I just read into it more than you intended. I suppose I would take it as implicit that if there is some occasion, O, on which God acknowledges the goodness of Ω for S, then O would be an instance in which God, being benevolent, could acknowledge that there is some sense in which it would be good to him for Ω to be possible.

    Ie, considered in and of itself, in relation to his love, God could "desire" Ω. The best way that comes to mind for describing what I mean is a "counterfactual desire". Like, if O were the only fact in the world, then God would act to achieve Ω (remembering that Ω is counterfactually possible). Or, if O were the only fact in the world, and if God were considering it only in relation to his benevolence, then he would act to achieve Ω. Of course, O is not the only fact in the world, and God doesn't only consider things in relation to his benevolence. But given his omniscience, it seems (to me of course) that such consideration would be part of the set of attitudes he could, and therefore would, entertain.

    This is just something that seems intuitively right to me, but of course I'm wary of intuitions after those arguments with Reppert (: