Saturday, May 22, 2004

Horrendous Evils and the Love of God

Universalism has always had a small, but popular following in liberal churches, and it has enjoyed a more prominent, albeit unofficial, standing in the Greek and Russian Orthodox tradition.

In general, its appeal is overtly and ultimately sentimental. Recently, though, two trained philosophers have come to the defense of universalism. In examining their case we are reviewing the most rigorous case that can be made for universalism. The two books are Horrendous Evils & the Love of God (Cornell 2000) by Marilyn McCord Adams and The Inescapable Love of God (, 1999) by Thomas Talbott. I'll begin with Adams.

Although a number of Bible scholars have tried to make an exegetical case for conditional immortality, I know of no philosophical theologian who has tried to make a stringent case for conditional immortality. From an apologetic standpoint, this puts universalism in a class apart from annihilationism. So let us examine the argument for universalism, beginning with Adams.

Some of her criticisms of opposing positions are right on the mark. She says that,
"At a minimum, God's goodness to human individuals would require that God guarantee each a life that was a great good to him/her on the whole by balancing off serious evils" (31).
And it seems to me that this is a perfectly just criticism of all soteric schemes that are universal in intent, but not in effect.

She takes issue with glib appeals to divine passibility. She agrees with Paul Fiddes that even if God were literally empathetic, this would not entail divine suffering, for we only suffer if we suffer against our will, under some form of outward constraint (170).

Likewise, she agrees with Richard Creel that two subjects can have the same sensations without the same emotions, for one subject may be able to place his unpleasant sensations in a larger and disarming context (171). In addition, God cannot suffer loss in the same way that a creature can (172). As such, there remain significant respects in which God lacks the vulnerability that is a prerequisite of true suffering.

She is also critical of a libertarian version of postmortem evangelism:
"Walls meets his Wesleyan worries, that not everyone has a fair antemortem chance, with the proposal that God will extend the 'deadline' for such individuals, to guarantee each the opportunity to make a 'settled response' under 'the most favorable circumstances.' Yet, where created agency is twisted by horrors (as above), this fresh start would require massive miraculous repairs, drastic alterations of a sort Walls otherwise thinks we have a right against God not to produce" (48).
Along the same lines, she takes aim at Hick's soul-building theodicy:
"the sacrifice of participation in horrors is pedagogically inept as a first lesson because it can damage the person so much as to make much further antemortem progress from self-centeredness to other-or God-centeredness virtually impossible" (53).
Taking another swipe at a libertarian theodicy, she says that
"a parent or teacher can be 'good to' a three-year-old in awarding it the dignity of self-determination with respect to issues slightly beyond its cognitive and emotional grasp. But benevolent pedagogy allows this to take place only within a controlled framework in which neither choice courts disaster" (47).
Often, though, her criticisms glean some good in the position she chooses to critique. She says, for example, that 
"God could feel torn with anger and grief at the way we treat each other…God might also feel exasperated at our individual and collective inability to discern the benevolence at divine intentions" (173).
To which I'd say that a God, if "God" is the right designation for such a being, who feels inwardly torn and exasperated with the work of his own hands, is a God who would richly deserve our inability to discern his benevolent intentions, and if any exasperation is due, it is the creature who would be entitled to be exasperated with such a inept and ineffectual Creator. One might as well worship Zeus or Wotan or nothing at all—which amounts to much the same thing.

Likewise, she tells us that Christ suffered in both natures (174), leaning, it would seem, on the flimsy reed of Moltmann's exegesis of Mk 15:43 (176), which entirely overlooks the fact that Christ is quoting a question, not asking a question—not to mention the relation of that question to the steady progression of Ps 22 from despondency to triumph.

But after dispatching or tweaking some of the alternatives, what are her positive arguments for universalism?

To begin with what ought to be the most important issue, and the only issue that really counts, what Biblical support does she find for her position, and how does she square that with evidence to the contrary? Her solution is to distinguish between two different plotlines in Scripture, and favor one over the other. There is, on the one hand, apocalyptic eschatology:
"Apocalyptic theology offers us two one-dimensional collective characters; the righteous and the wicked. Likewise, its plot recognizes two opposite conditions—one all good…and the other all bad—and two ages. Its plot line moves from one age to the other via the intervention of a heavenly rescuer who effects a simple reversal…the wicked [will be consigned' to torture chambers either eternally or until they wither away…evil is not defeated, but balanced off in a retributive ordering: the sufferings of the righteous are canceled (without being seen to have contributed to any good) by heavenly joys, while the crimes of the wicked are balanced off by their torment in hell…The two collective actors swap positions, but do not change character. The wicked are not redeemed, nor does suffering come to an end. Sharing as it does all the aesthetic defects of a grade B Western, apocalyptic theology pays the price of limited plot resolution" (137-38).
Before turning to her alternative, this description calls for a number of comments:

i) She treats the witness of Scripture as though she were a film critic. But even at that level, she might as well complain that a movie about WWII shares all the defects of a grade B Western and pays the price of limited plot resolution.

To favor universalism over apocalypticism on aesthetic grounds sidesteps the question of truth entirely, and plays into the deep-seated suspicion that universalism is nothing more than make-believe and wishful thinking. The course of the future is not a novel in which we get to write the ending to our own artistic satisfaction.

ii) It is a travesty of Scripture to insinuate that the redeemed are heaven-bound because they are virtuous while the damned are hell-bound because they are vicious. This leaves out of account the status of the redeemed as sinners saved by grace.

iii) Scripture does not depict hell as a torture chamber. That is reading Scripture through the lens of Dante. It conjures up all sorts of invidious images and connotations that are not a necessary part of the Biblical witness. If Adams can't make her case without tilting the scales, then she has no case to make.

iv) The sufferings of the righteous contribute to the good by manifesting the mercy and justice of God as he delivers the righteous and judges the wicked.

v) To say that evil is not defeated follows from a very idiosyncratic definition of "defeat." Although the Nazis were not redeemed, they were surely defeated. Of course, if you choose to define success and failure according to universalism, then you can say this about the apocalyptic vision, but that begs the question by assuming what it needs to prove. To merely contrast the one with the other does not justify a comparative judgment, for it has to take one as the standard of reference, which is viciously circular.

She then sets the apocalyptic denouement over against the Passion account:
"This plot does not rest content with a simple reversal of fates. The human enemies of God are not left one-dimensional: for the worst they do in the passion narrative to their role as instruments of the devil, is turned by God into a fresh opportunity for them to step out of this role, through repentance, a change of heart…those who consented to the death of Jesus and repent afterwards have the opportunity to enter into the covenant blessings with the consolation of recognizing the worst thing they ever did as making a positive contribution to God's plan to spread his glory to the ends of the earth" (139).
But to oppose this "storyline" to the apocalyptic outlook is another straw man argument:

i) The redeemed are redeemed from the ranks of the wicked. That's what makes them the redeemed. So there's room for members of one side to cross over to the other side. This can happen in both directions.

ii) The timeframe of the Passion is obviously different from the timeframe of the general judgment or the death of any particular sinner. So there is no apparent tension between these two storylines, for these events occur at different points in the story.

iii) It is true that the apocalyptic scenario has a predestinarian element, but so do the Gospels and the Book of Acts.

iv) The plan of God both opens and closes the door on the range of opportunities. But, of course, it's not as though universalism offers any freedom of opportunity. Everyone ends up in the same place, so universalism can hardly fault apocalypticism on libertarian grounds.

v) Assuming, for the sake of argument, that these present contradictory endings, why choose one ending over another? Why choose either ending? Whether some are saved, everyone, or no one, is question that can only be settled by revelation, or not at all.

Adams can only play one Scripture off against another on one of four assumptions:
a) Scripture is uninspired.
b) Scripture is intermittently inspired
c) Scripture is fully inspired by a fallible God.
d) Scripture is inspired, but in the form of open-textured and formally discordant metaphors that do not point in any uniform direction.

Under none of these assumptions, whether individually or in some combination thereof, is Scripture a reliable source of information about the afterlife.

Elsewhere she says that "In the crucifixion, God identified with all human beings" (166), but no exegetical argument is offered for this sweeping claim. She goes on to say that by becoming a curse for us, God enables "human perpetrators of horrors to accept and forgive themselves" (107).

But whatever the subjective value, if any, of this result, Scripture nowhere attributes to the atonement either this intent or effect. Rather, the consequence of the atonement lies with divine forgiveness and divine acceptance of the redeemed.

She also mentions, as if supportive of her thesis, "the power of horrendous evil to make participants with (like Judas, according to Mt 26:24 & Mk 14:21) never to have been born" (42). Yet this is hard to reconcile with universalism, or even annihilationism.

In another gesture towards the witness of Scripture, Adams extracts a divine code of honor and then deploys that in defense of universalism:
"The code of honor allows even universalists to accommodate the biblical threat that Judgement Day will put us to shame. For whatever else it means, Judgment symbolizes God's making plain and public the truth about Who God is, who we are, and the evaluative truth about what we have been and done" (127).
But this is open to several crippling objections:
i) Her version of the honor code is a highly abstract and generic construct. It cannot be used to negate the specifics of Scripture regarding the afterlife.
ii) Judgment Day is a symbol, but more than a symbol. It is a symbolic event. So it cannot be manipulated like a merely conventional emblem.
iii) To say that "whatever else it means," this particular aspect is consistent with universalism is, even if true, a transparent fallacy, for the universalist can only accommodate the biblical threat if his own eschatology is consistent with everything meant by Judgment Day. There is more to judgment than a guilty verdict. There is the sentencing phase and meting out of a just punishment. It's about truth and consequences, not truth without consequences.
iv) She fails to distinguish between a pedagogical reward and a meritorious reward. A parent will often reward a child as an incentive. This is not a meritorious reward. This is just a way of training a child to form good habits. He is encouraged to do the right thing. Heavenly rewards serve the same function. It says nothing about our intrinsic value to God or his gratitude to us (127-28).

She admits that the OT teaches limited atonement:
"More often than not, the Hebrew Bible understands this solution to be exclusive. The explicit purpose of the holiness code is to separate Israel out from the other nations" (97). 
Yes, and you could say this same thing about the NT holiness code. And if you have a contrast between Israel and the world in the OT, you have a parallel contrast between the Church and the world in Pauline and Johannine theology. So this doesn't seem to be very encouraging to universalism.

But in speaking on the scope of redemption, she says that,
"My criterion is universalist in insisting that God be good to each created person" (157).
The problem with her criterion is twofold:
i) This is a not a criterion for judging universalism, but a criterion by which universalism judges the alternatives. And this leaves unaccounted for the criterion by which she judges universalism to be true in the first place.
ii) Her insistence that God be good to every rational creature is inconsistent with her position that God sustains no moral obligations to any rational creature (204).

Given her disdain for the authority of Scripture, it is not surprising that Adams has ready recourse to extra-canonical sources. She makes free use of the apocrypha. And her general method is to conduct a running discussion with various philosophers and theologians, past and present.

Now there is nothing necessarily wrong with being in dialogue with a philosophical or theological tradition. But sound theology does not enjoy the creative freedom of a literary tradition. This is not an internal debate in which we compare and contrast one man's ideas with another's, and stake out a mediating position.

No, the basis of theology is historical revelation—which comes to closure in the NT. This will, indeed, draw us into a hermeneutical and ecclesiastical tradition, but Scripture is both the source and standard of reference. It forms an external check on tradition. And the hermeneutical circle is not a vicious circle, for a high doctrine of Scripture goes hand-in-hand with a high doctrine of providence.

Theology isn't supposed to be reducible to the play of ideas. What is at issue is the relation between revelation and reality. If our beliefs don't square with revelation, they don't square with reality. And what's the point in having beliefs about the world that don't correspond to the world? If I don't bring food with me on a trip to the moon, believing that the moon is made of green cheese, then I'll starve to death.

Let us remember what we're talking about. We're talking about nothing less than the future fate of the entirety of humanity. And that is neither an intuitive question nor an empirical one. It is not a truth of reason or a sense datum. It will be an observable event, but not at present. So armchair speculation is impotent to adjudicate this issue.

Adams puts a lot of stock in the effusions of Julian of Norwich. This is noteworthy on a couple of grounds:

i) Why does she think that a mystic is more reliable than the canonical prophets and apostles?

ii) Julian's mystical theology represents a paradigm-shift from a paternal to a maternal model of God. This is a natural move for a universalist to make. And it's not coincidental that Adam and Julian are both women.

Generally, women favor mercy over justice, and people over principles—whereas men generally reverse the priorities.

Universalism naturally goes hand-in-hand with a different doctrine of God. We're no longer talking about Christianity, but a different religion altogether—albeit a Christian heresy.

But, other issues aside, why believe that God is feminine rather than masculine? What is the rational basis for this belief? What's the evidence? What would count as evidence? What's our source of information? These are not unreasonable questions to ask a philosopher such as Adams.

I would add in passing that Christianity as a central place for the feminine. The relation, though, is not Madonna and child, but husband and wife. Yahweh assumes the role of husband in relation to Israel, and Christ in relation to the Church.

In attacking retributive justice, Adams says that,
"As critics of retributivism commonly point out, retribution is a matter of proportion, whereas the notion of proportionate return demanded by the lex talionis already breaks down in ordinary cases where numbers are large. For example, suppose I knock one tooth out of the mouth of each of thirty-two people each of whom has a full set of teeth and then the authorities knock out all thirty-two of my teeth by way of punishment. Is my having no teeth not much worse than their each having thirty-one teeth? Or suppose I interrupt television transmission of the superbowl game, thereby causing twenty million fans one hour of fury and frustration each; surely, my suffering twenty million hours of fury and frustration is much worse" (40).
This is an interesting criticism, but it suffers from several flaws:
i) It raises the question of the editorial viewpoint and implied reader. Is Adams writing as a believer to unbelievers? As a believer to fellow believers? Or as an unbeliever to fellow unbelievers?

I ask because a Bible-believing Christian does not require an independent argument for everything he believes. As long as something is taught in Scripture, that is sufficient argument for believing it. The veracity of the teacher verifies the teaching.

Now, some Scriptural teachings may be capable of independent justification. And doing so may be worthwhile as an apologetic exercise.

But if Scripture teaches the doctrine of hell, and if the principle of retributive justice figures in the Scriptural rationale for hell, then it is highly improper for a professing Christian to attack either the doctrine itself or a supporting argument—or to demand additional warrant on the part of the church. This is only an open question of Scripture leaves it an open question. Otherwise, there's nothing to debate. Case closed.

ii) Adams is operating with a very wooden, numerical concept of retribution. Morality is a qualitative rather than quantitative category. It only takes a rapist a few moments to rob a little girl of her innocence and scar her for life.

Yes, there is a spatiotemporal disproportion between guilt and retribution. But that is not the relevant point of comparison.

iii) Indeed, the disproportion works the other way. Once you do something, you can't undo it. If you did wrong, what you did will always be wrong. Guilt has no built-in shelf-life. Guilt is eternal. So this is really an argument for hell, rather than against it.

Continuing her criticism,
"Matching the prima facie ruin of the victim's life with the prima facie ruin of the perpetrator's would not make the world a better place, much less defeat the disastrous harm to the victim…To return horror for horror does not erase but doubles the individual's participation in horrors—first as victim, then as the one whose injury occasions another's prima facie ruin" (41).

"Retributive justice is powerless to either compensate [the victim] or to make the total state of affairs morally better" (61).
By way of comment:

i) As above, this still suffers from an overly literal construction on an eye-for-an-eye. The point is not that the victim should necessarily reenact every detail of the crime against the victimizer. The Mosaic code never held that if you rape my child, then I get to rape your child. The principle of retribution is not necessarily imitative. Sometimes direct compensation is a suitable form of restitution (e.g., theft/repayment), but that depends on the nature of the crime, not the nature of retribution. Justice determines the crime, crime doesn't determine justice.

ii) Adams' objection reflects the characteristic arrogance of universalism. One, who is not the victim, presumes to speak on behalf of the victim. As a practical matter, many victims to take moral and emotional satisfaction in seeing the victimizer suitably punished. Who is Adams to say they have no right to feel that way or see that justice is done?

iii) Retribution is not necessarily compensatory. Compensation can take other forms, such as eternal beatitude.

iv) Justice is not a means to an end, but an end in itself. Justice is good in and of itself. It is not merely instrumental to a higher good.

Proceeding with her assault,
"As for Divine goodness to created persons, some grim hell advocates simply conceded that Divine Goodness finds its primary expression in the world as a whole, so that Divine government may sacrifice the well-being of individual created persons as much as that of particular swallows and ants for the benefit of the common good" (41).
Although briefly stated, this is the core objection of universalism to particularism. And her summary is another caricature of the opposing position:

i) Even if we don't regard teleological ethics as an all-sufficient value-system, it hardly follows that part/whole or means/ends relations have no role in the moral value and valuation of a given state of affairs. Adams is a goal-oriented agent. She wrote this book as a means of winning readers over to universalism.

Although the end doesn't justify any means whatsoever, moral deliberation is a purposeful activity. A moral agent has a reason for what he does, and whether he has a good reason for what he does figures in the moral value and valuation of the act. Misuse or abuse presupposes a right and natural use.

ii) To speak of sacrificing the few for the many ignores a number of moral distinctions. To begin with, it disregards the fundamental distinction between guilt and innocence, which is the basis of justice and just deserts. Is it wrong of Patton to sacrifice 500 Nazis to save 50 GIs? Is it wrong of Bonhoeffer to sacrifice the Führer to save a whole nation?

iii) Adams overlooks a possible tradeoff between the common good and the greater good. What if it's a choice between a lesser good for the many and a greater good for the few?

For example, in Scripture, polygamy sometimes serves the common good (i.e., Levirate marriage), but monogamy is a greater good. Exclusive goods may be more valuable than inclusive goods. Second-order goods may be higher goods than first-order goods. To be a redeemed creature may be better than to be sinless or impeccable.

However, Adams may also object to an Augustinian theodicy on other grounds. She says, for example, that
"where entrenched horrors are figured into the bargain, however, it is far from obvious that a perfectly good God would accept them as the price of a very good world with as favorable a balance of moral good over moral evil as God could weakly actualize" (30).
Yet the question at issue is not what is "obvious." The reason the problem of evil is called the "problem" of evil is because the relation between God and evil is not obvious. That is the inspiration for a theodicy, whether Leibnizian, libertarian, soul-making, supralapsarian, reincarnational, or universalist. Certainly her own theodicy is a very complicated piece of business.

Many things are true which are inevident. Either their truth can only be known by revelation, or teased into a more comprehensible form by rational reflection and analysis.

She goes on to say of the Leibnizian version that,
"Such government would thereby show itself to be at best indifferent, at worst cruel. Rather, I contend that God could be said to value human personhood in general, and to love individual persons in particular, only if God were good to each and every human person God created" (31). 
By way of reply,
i) No consequentialist theodicy, be it Leibnizian, supralapsarian or otherwise, implies the indifference of divine government. To the contrary, the teleology of a consequentialist theodicy implies very carefully planning and execution on God's part.
ii) Even if it were cruel, Adams has said that God is not morally obligated to human beings. She compares the metaphysical and moral distance between God and man to the distance between man and maggots (94-95).
iii) Since cruelty exists in the world, and figures very prominently in the problem of evil, it follows that—absent atheism—no theodicy can avoid positioning God in some sort of relation to the cruelties of life on earth.
iv) In addition, some cruelties counterbalance others. The cruelties of the wicked are balanced out by the cruelties of hell.
v) Doesn't her embrace of the evolutionary process commit her to a governance of the world that is indifferent at best and cruel at worst? Is evolution especially kind to individual men, women, and children?
vi) The charge of cruelty overlooks elementary distinctions of innocence and guilt. Evildoers deserve harsh treatment.
vii) It is precisely because men and women are personal agents that they are morally accountable for their deeds.
viii) It is precisely because God is a moral agent that he is capable of exercising individual, moral, and rational discretion. He is not bound by mechanical uniformity in his governance of the world.
ix) It is illogical to say that God cannot be good to anyone unless he is good to everyone. This demands a supporting argument.

In yet another objection, she says that,
"We cannot bear full responsibility for something to the extent that—through no fault of our own—'we know not what we do.'…we cannot be fully responsible for those dimensions of horrendous evil that are inevitably inadequately conceivable by us. Insofar as culpability is directly proportional to responsibility, we cannot be fully to blame either…This would be true in spades for Adam and Eve who—prior to the fall—would have no experience at all of evil or suffering.

Suppose a parent introduces a three-year-old into a room which contains gas that is not harmful to breathe but will explode if ignited and also contains a stove with brightly colored knobs which if turned will light the burners and ignite the gas. Suppose further that the parent warns the child not to turn the knobs and then leaves the room. If the child turns the knobs and ignites the gas, blowing up the room, surely the child is at most marginally to blame, even though it knew enough to obey the parent, while the parent is both primarily responsible and highly culpable" (38-39).
Yet this line of argument is liable to two major objections:
i) She faults the freewill defense for being too indeterministic, but the Augustinian theodicy for being too deterministic. But is there a coherent compromise position?
ii) She fails to see how her story of the gas stove undercuts her Arminian ethic. The mother didn't know that this would happen. And the mother had no prior personal experience of the consequences. Yet her reckless disregard is, by her own admission, morally censurable.

The mother's comparative ignorance does precious little to mitigate her guilt. Indeed, there's such a thing as culpable ignorance. There are some things you either ought to know, or if they cannot be known, demand that appropriate precautions be taken.

Of course, if she knew more she'd be even more culpable, but distinguishing between degrees of guilt doesn't distinguish between one theodicy and another, for everyone, including the Calvinist, admits cases of aggravated guilt as well as diminished responsibility. And even extenuating circumstances are not the same as exculpatory circumstances.

In another apparent criticism of hell, she confesses to us that, 
"My own view resonates with C. S. Lewis's suggestion, in The Problem of Pain, that vice in the soul preserved beyond death eventually brings about a total dismantling of personality to the torment of which this worldly schizophrenia and depression (much less Swinburne's lost souls) are but the faintest approximations" (47). 
By way of reply: 
i) This is not a Scriptural objection. 
ii) I'm not in a position to speculate on the mental state of the damned. And if I were to conjecture, it is easy to imagine that the damned are hardened into a state of utter callousness. 
iii) Even if what she said is true, how is that an objection to hell? Isn't hell supposed to be unpleasant, and more so than anything on earth? I'd expect the damned to be clinically insane, whether manic-depressive, psychopathic, or what-all. 

If this is the best case that a modern philosopher, ordained minister, and student of Scholastic theology can make on behalf of universalism, then its prospects seem pretty dim. But perhaps our next book can do a better job. 

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