Tuesday, May 17, 2011

How Universalism Gets Everyone Out of Hell . . . And Heaven

Here’s a rough sketch of an argument

Seems one of the main motivating arguments for universalism is:

[P] It is necessarily unjust that S *deserves* an infinite Punishment for a finite sin.

(I think talk of "infinite" punishment is muddled, but the term is frequently used by universalists. But if you too find it muddled, substitute some term like "endless" or "everlasting" for "infinite.") I take that principle, i.e., [P], if it is true, to be necessarily true.

However, in talk of desert, retribution, etc, punishment is simply a subset of things we may be said to deserve. Other members of the set would be praises, rewards, etc.

If [P] expresses a truth, so does this:

[R] It is necessarily unjust that S *deserves* an infinite Reward for a finite action.

If [P] is a necessary truth, so is [R]. Indeed, seems to me that [P] is true iff [R] is true. How could one be true and the other false given retributivist presuppositions about desert? [P] seems to be thought false strictly on the basis of deserving something infinite for something finite, since they are not proportional, and so unfitting. If the proportionality objection holds for [P], then it would seem to hold for [R] too, and vice versa.

I take [P] and [R] to be instances of a general premise about deserts:

[D] It is necessarily unjust for any S to Deserve an infinite X for a finite Y.

This expresses the proportionality objection. It seems ¬[D] is supported by counter examples; for example, where X = a loss and Y = some action/s. We can forever lose out on many things due to our finite actions, and we can be said to deserve the loss. Suppose Peter was going to be given the highest status in heaven a mere creature could have if he did not deny Christ three times, and he would keep it forever. He did deny Christ, so he loses out on that status. I don’t think many would think this is unjust. Thus [D] as stated is false. Yet maybe [D] could be restored, allowing some to argue that both [P] and [R] are still true.

But I take [R] to have possible counter examples, that is, these things are up for debate and it seems a contingent exegetical fact whether they turn out to be true, here’s two:

[1] Adam would have deserved everlasting (reward) life had he fulfilled the law in the garden—a finite action.

[2] Jesus endlessly deserves glory, honor, titles (reward) for the finite actions he undertook in his active and passive obedience, also earning everlasting life for his people.

So, ¬[R]. Put differently, [1] and [2] may not be true, but whether one thinks they’re true or not doesn’t hinge on [R], just on exegesis or theological presuppositions. Since [1] and [2] are possibly true, then [R] is false, and if [R] is false, [P] is false.

The upshot is: If Adam wouldn’t have failed, “heaven” would eventually be depopulated because it would be unjust for him to deserve an infinite reward for finite actions. And, since Jesus is said to deserve or earn glory, honor, titles, and everlasting life on behalf of his people, and since he did so by finite acts, then he cannot have his rewards in an “infinite” way (“infinite” is the word Universalists have chosen to use, but the above argument goes through if we change it to “unending”). Not only can he not endlessly remain the mediator between God and man (a reward he earned by finite acts), his people cannot have an infinite time in heaven since that reward would need to “run out” too, as it were, so as to ensure proportionality. Of course, the universalist can say heaven was not deserved for us by the actions of Jesus, but then one struggles to find what sense this is evangelical universalism anymore. In fact, sending Jesus here seems positively cruel and pointless.


  1. I'm surprised no one has made a comment on this post yet. Since it makes a strong case that "Evangelical Universalism" is an oxymoron.

    In the meantime, Paul I have a question for you if you have the time to answer it. I side with you, James Anderson, and the other Triabloggers when it comes to your criticisms of Clarkian (or Cheungian) Scripturalism.

    Cheung has said, "...I would say that only the biblical first principle is self-justifying..." http://www.vincentcheung.com/books/ultimate2010.pdf page 69

    I believe he's referring to Scripture there. Would you say the same thing about Scripture? If not, what about the Christian worldview? Is the Christian worldview self-justifying?

  2. AP, thanks.

    I would say I'm not even sure what he means. Is he just talking about self-justifying in the foundationalist sense? If so, that's subject to the classic criticisms of foundationalism. Does he claim to know the claim? It can't be self-justifying, he's just given us the set of the only self-justifying principles there are, and his claim isn't included. So is it deducible from the Bible? No. So he doesn't know the claim. Moreover, how does he know that only the Bible principle is self-justifying? Is he aware of every possible claim to a self-justifying first-principle? How could he know that? Perhaps there's some *general* flaw with any principle sans Bible first-principle that rules it out from being self-justifying. Well, what is this flaw and how is it justified and known? So if this is the sense he means it in, then no, I wouldn't say the Bible is self-justifying in this sense. Then there's problems regarding what is meant by "Scripture" or "first-principle," as those terms are vague and ambiguous.

    But maybe he just means something like the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit, that testifies to the redeemed that they are in contact with God's word. Something like that? Well, I believe in the internal testimony and also the self-attestation of Scripture, but neither of those should be put in the way he puts it. If that's all he means, why not stick with the traditional phrasing and language?

  3. Paul,

    I like the argument.

    What would you say to someone who counters in this vein:

    Jesus was an infinite (or more appropriate adj) person, so he can accumulate infinite rewards in a finite amount of time. All other humans are finite, so they cannot accrue an infinite penalty in a finite amount of time.

  4. Hi Marshall,

    I don't think that would work. First, it skips over the Adam point. Second, the actions were finite nevertheless, and the point is to finite actions *deeds*. Third, Jesus was also human, and some rewards apply to his humanity. Fourth, I presume that Universalists would object that if, somehow, Jesus failed and sinned, and thus there were some Christians who believed that he was in hell forever, and had some texts which appeared to back this up. Lastly, on its own terms this would seem to allow for endless punishment as Jesus was the only person able to take the punishment for sin, all others will never pay, being finite. So the objection may backfire on itself.

  5. Paul said...
    Moreover, how does he know that only the Bible principle is self-justifying? Is he aware of every possible claim to a self-justifying first-principle?

    Great questions. If I had just quoted Cheung in full, you wouldn't have had to asks them. I partially quoted him because it's what I wanted to highlight.

    Here's a fuller quote of Cheung...

    Although I would say that only the biblical first principle is
    self-justifying, even if a non-biblical first principle is self-consistent and self-justifying, it must be broad enough to make knowledge possible. It must contain enough content so that one may deduce an adequate worldview from it.

    Anyway, I'm satisfied with you answer. Thanks for taking time to answer it. :-))

  6. Yeah, well, of course Cheung can't "deduce" a "worldview" from the Bible (has he ever given this deduction?). Moreover, there are dozens of "worldviews" (whatever that terms means for him) that are consistent with the Bible. Supposing he could deduce a worldview, others could deduce contradictory ones. Worldviews are simply underdetermined by the Bible. Furthermore, he can't deduce logic from the Bible, so does he get to tack that on? Is this "the Bible +"? Well then, other people get to tack on additions to their self-justifying basic principle. That's kinda te direction I'd take in response :-)

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  10. Cheung has an interesting article here.

    In a web of propositions, some propositions are more central to the web, the destruction of which would also annihilate the propositions that are more remote. But even the most central claims require justification, and a worldview in which the propositions depend on one another in a way that lacks a first principle is in the final analysis exposed as having no justification at all. The claim that a worldview can be a web of mutually dependent propositions without the need of a first principle is really an attempt at hiding the fact that all of the propositions in such a web lack justification.

    I wonder only appies to "worldview propositions." I have a hard time accepting that all my beliefs depend on other beliefs except the self-justifying ones. I believe my hands are in front of me typing right now. What (other belief) justifies that belief? Is it part of my worldview or some other web of propositions?

    Why not conjoin all the true propositions into one big conjunctive fact, and then deduce from that fact all true propositions...my first principle is called the big conjunctive fact. Wow, that part was easy to nail down. What's next?

    Cheung says, "A first principle is inadequate if it fails to provide information concerning epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics, and if it fails to justify itself."

    This seems plausible. But then again, why not say that a first principle is inadequate if it fails to entail all the true propositions? (Perhaps Cheung does say this?) Does the conjunctive fact fail one of Cheung's criteria for a first principle? (I haven't looked into it. I hope it does!)

    But what if only the conjunction of several propositions entails all the true propositions. Cheung's argument here doesn't make sense to me.

    Every worldview has a starting point or first principle from which the rest of the system is derived. Some people claim that a worldview can be a web of mutually dependent propositions without a first principle. However, even if a million liars vouch for one another, all of them are still liars. At least one reliable man would have to vouch for them. But if all of them a liars, a reliable man would not vouch for them, and their credibility falls apart. Likewise, a web of propositions would still need a first principle that supports them all. A true first principle would not produce a web of false propositions, and a web of false propositions would not be supported by a true first principle. Therefore, the first principle remains the crucial issue

    A million false propositions can be consistent and yet still be false. That seems obvious enough. But he says "at least one reliable man" would need to vouch for the liars. So his analogy should read, "Likewise, a web of propositions would still need at least one starting principle that supports them all. So how does that deal with the claim that a worldview can be a web of mutually dependent propositions? Am I missing something here? This doesn't seem to even remotely support his claim.

  11. Marshall,

    Here's a verse for the claim:

    "Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men."

    Finite act for infinite reward.