Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Selective universalism

The most winsome argument for universalism goes something like this: Most Christians only believe in hell because they believe Scripture, and they believe the Bible teaches eternal punishment. So we believe in hell because it’s our Christian duty to believe in hell. It’s our duty to believe whatever the Bible says.

But that’s the only reason we believe in hell. Left to our own devices, we wouldn’t believe in hell. If we were in God’s place, we would save everyone.

That’s a wedge argument for hell. However, the emotional appeal of universalism is overextended by the universalist.

Mind you, I don’t think that feelings dictate doctrine. I’m merely addressing the universalist on his own turf.

1. At a purely emotional level, do I wish that everyone would be saved? No. At a purely emotional level, I only feel the loss of lost loved ones. Of people I know and love.

For example, thousands of people die every day. Do I mourn their death? No really. Most of the time we don’t give it a second thought.

And that’s because we never knew them. As a matter of personal experience, they don’t exist for you and me. Had they never been born, we wouldn’t register the difference.

We don’t grieve for their passing. We only grieve for our loved ones.

At a purely emotional level, I’m a selective universalist. I wish that all of my loved ones were saved. But, frankly, I don’t feel the same way about your loved ones. I don’t know them, and I don’t know you.

Suppose you’re the daughter of Genghis Khan. For all I know, he was a loving husband and father. Maybe he doted on his daughter.

So you’re broken up at the prospect that dear old dad went to hell when he died. But you’ll have to understand if I don’t feel the same way.

As I say, thousands of people die every day, but you and I don’t register the impact of their death the way we register the death of someone we know and love. We aren’t grief-stricken by the death of a perfect stranger.

I don’t mourn the death of an ancient Egyptian. I don’t mourn the death of a nameless peasant who lived in Medieval Provence.

I know, at an abstract level, that a great many human beings die every century. But I don’t know who they were. I don’t usually know that a particular individual, with a unique personal history, lived and died at that time and place. I only know that in the case of a few famous people who make it into the history books.

Everyone else is just an abstraction to me. I don’t miss them because they were never a part of my life. I don’t know enough to know what I’d be missing by not knowing them. There is no sense of personal loss.

2.Incidentally, one of the stock objections to hell is that we can’t be happy in heaven knowing that anyone is in hell. But when I get to heaven, will I notice who isn’t there?

I don’t know the vast majority of human beings who ever lived or died, or shall ever live or die. So I wouldn’t even be aware of their absence. For all I know, they never existed. I won’t compare the company of heaven against a missing persons list to see who didn’t make the cut. The Book of Life is classified.

The only people whose absence I’d notice are people I know, or knew about. Either celebrities or acquaintances of mine.

3. Each generation is like a chapter in a book. God puts certain characters in certain chapters. These are the people we know. The people we care about. The people we pray about. That’s how God made us.

4.But what about compassion? Even though you may be a perfect stranger to me, yet since you’re human, and I’m human, I can extrapolate from my experience to yours. I can imagine what it would be like to be in your situation.

And I think that’s wonderful. Compassion is both a cardinal virtue and a theological virtue.

But compassion is concentric. It comes in degrees. I may care about the mother of my best friend, but her death wouldn’t hit me as hard as the death of my own mother.

Then again, it’s possible that I can’t stand my best friend’s mother. The only reason I put up with her is that I can’t cut her out of my life without cutting him out of my life. So she’s the price I have to pay to maintain my friendship.

6. This brings me to the next point. There are people we positively dislike. Would it detract from our enjoyment of heaven if they didn’t join us there? No. And you know that’s true. Admit it. Spare me the mock pieties.

Now, someone might object that this reflects the wrong attitude towards the lost. Aren’t Christians supposed to love neighbors, enemies, and strangers?

True, but as soon as you introduce that consideration, which is a valid consideration in its own right, you’ve shifted from feelings to duties. And a duty is something we’re obligated to do despite how we feel about it.

The question I’m addressing is not how you ought to feel, but how you actually feel. For the appeal of universalism is ultimately emotional. Even sentimental.

Once you shift the issue from feelings to duties, universalism instantly loses its emotional pull. For that’s a completely different argument.

And while we have an obligation to care for the lost, we have no obligation to care for the damned.

7. But perhaps someone will say that once a disagreeable person gets to heaven, he will be agreeable. No doubt that’s true.

But, once again, that shifts the argument. The emotional appeal of universalism is that I supposedly can’t bear the thought of parting with someone.

But if it’s someone I actively dislike, then I can obviously bear the thought of spending eternity in his absence. And if he never makes it to heaven, I’ll never know what it was like to share his company in heaven. If he got to heaven, he would be a wonderful companion, and only at that point would I miss him were he to disappear.

8.Universalism has a certain undeniable appeal, but it also has a Mephistophelean catch to it. Like those horror shows in which a lover strikes a bargain with the dark side to get his beloved back.

Yes, he gets her back, but in exchange for something else. A two-for-one sale. She returns from the grave, but something else comes back from the dead as well. Something that should have stayed put. The lovers try to resume the blissful existence they had before her premature demise, but that other thing which came up from hell literally bedevils any attempt to turn back the clock.

If you prefer, let’s consider something more realistic. An armed man breaks into your home. He ties you up. Then he rapes, tortures, and murders your wife right before your eyes.

Your wife was not a believer, so you have no hope of ever seeing her again. That compounds the tragedy.

Although this is a hypothetical case, there are real life examples.

Suddenly a universalist appears on the scene, in his top hat and Van Dyke. He offers to reunite you with your wife, in the world to come—but only on condition that her tormenter and killer will also spend eternity in heaven.

In your inconsolable grief you might be tempted to accept the Faustian deal, but can anyone honestly say that’s an emotionally satisfying solution to the tragedy?

Will a universalist presume to tell you that you can’t be happy in heaven as long as your wife’s assailant is unhappy in hell?

Suppose the assailant would be a wonderful person in heaven. But you want to see him suffer for what he did. You want revenge. You want God to exact retribution.

And the Bible endorses that emotion. Even in heaven, the saints pray that God will punish the wicked. Empathy isn’t always a good thing. It’s evil to be equally empathetic with a child and a child rapist.

A vindictive emotion can be sinful. But a vindictive emotional can also be a sanctified emotion, or even a glorified emotion.

Universalism plays on the suggestion that every Christian is a universalist at heart, yet his head is at war with his heart. But that, at best, is a half-truth.

Emotionally speaking, a Christian is, at most, and only, a selective universalist. It’s his heart’s desire that all his loved ones are heaven-bound. And, all things being equal, he will extend that desire to your loved ones.

But all things considered, there are many people whom he would just as well receive their just deserts. There’s a point at which the friend of your friend transitions into the friend of your enemy—or the enemy of your friend. At that juncture, natural compassion loses its grip. Sympathy changes to antipathy.

For me, the joy of heaven isn’t dimmed by the prospect that Genghis Khan is wiling away the hours of eternity in the delightful company of Old Horny and Attila the Hun.

By trying to be too much of a good thing, universalism ends up being too much of a bad thing. Everyone gets what he wants, but at the cost of getting something he doesn’t want.

Rev 21:4 is a very precious promise. And I’m very curious to see how God will fulfill that promise. I know that universalism is the wrong answer. I look forward to the right answer.

1 comment:

  1. Good points, Steve. To piggyback: if someone is going to keep consistent with the emotional argument for universalism, he also has to deal with the fact that our emotions change over time.

    For instance, suppose Adam marries his high school sweetheart Becca when they are both 20. He does this instead of marrying Claire, who is also the same age.

    At 30, Becca passes away in a car accident. At first, the grief is nearly unbearable for Adam. If you were to ask him: "Who would you rather see in heaven, Becca or Claire?" he would answer, "Becca!"

    But days turn into weeks, and weeks into months, and months into years. When he may not have gone half an hour without thinking of Becca for the first month after her death, by the time he's 35 she comes to mind less often. And when he marries Claire at the age of 40, he remembers Becca in a different light, one filled more with "what might have beens" then the intense, emotional separation.

    The years go by and Adam and Claire celebrate their fifith wedding aniversary. Now the 90 year old man's emotional connection to his first wife who died when he was 30 is no where near the same as it was back then. Instead, he has formed a much stronger current emotional attachment to Claire. If you asked him, "Who would you rather see in heaven, Becca or Claire?" he would answer: "Claire."

    Of course we could also change the above so that after Adam and Becca marry, Becca commits an affair, hires someone to kill Adam (unsuccessfully), and burns their house down before dying in the car accident which happened during her getaway attempt. Adam's emotions are going to be completely different from what they would have been if it had been a more normal event.

    In either way, the emotional argument has to handle the fact that our emotions change. They are not immutable, and therefore they cannot constitute an objective standard which can be used to determine who should or shouldn't go to heaven or hell.