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GOTT-June 06, 2006

Hoping that Universalism Is / Will Be True

In the comments to my previous post, after coming to the defense of universalism, Kevin Corcoran closes a comment with these words:

btw: I am not myself committed to universalism. I hope it’s true, and even pray that it’s true. But I can’t say I believe it’s true.

And a couple of later commentators seemed attracted to that stance.  And my sense is that it’s a fairly popular stance — and is becoming increasingly so.

K-Cor has a short piece in the May/June 2005 issue of BOOKS & CULTURE in which he discusses what leads him to this position.  I recommend that to those interested in the stance.  However, I think you’re going to have to go to an appropriate library, b/c it doesn’t seem to be on-line — or at least not freely available on-line.  (B&C seems to provide only the first little bit of it as a teaser here.)

Beyond recommending that article, my purpose here is just to do a little clarrifying of different positions according to which one can be appropriately said to “hope that universalism is true” (or to “hope that universalism will be true” — the reason for this different formulation will be explained below).

Many who say they have such a hope take a non-universalist (though not an anti-universalist) stance.  Like K-Cor, they don’t believe that universalism is (or will be) true — though they also don’t believe that it is (or will be) false.  This may be b/c, like K-Cor, they think the scriptural evidence is unclear on the matter; to quote from K-Cor’s B&C piece (or at least the draft of it that he sent me):

I have come to think rather that the biblical evidence underdetermines the matter: there is a biblical case to be made for both separationism and universalism, but neither proves itself the clear winner.

Now I am a universalist — largely because I have a different understanding of the biblical evidence according to which universalism does win.  (“Clearly?”  Well, I don’t know if I’d go quite that far.  But toward the beginning of my defense of universalism I do say that universalism strikes me as the fairly clear winner.)

But I think I too can be described as hoping that universalism is / will be true.  For I want it to be true, and I’m not certain that it is.  Though I read the evidence as supporting universalism, I recognize that the case can be doubted.  And the fact that so many thoughtful Christians do doubt it of course gives me pause.

K-Cor writes not only that he hopes that universalism is true, but that he doesn’t believe that it is true.  Now, often when we say “I don’t believe that p,” we are at least hinting that we believe that not-p.  (This is what linguists call “neg-raising.”)  But I don’t take K-Cor to be even hinting at this.  He seems to be in a state in which he believes neither that universalism is true nor that it’s false.  He doesn’t read the evidence as pushing strongly enough in either direction for him to have a belief about the matter.

So, do I believe that universalism is true?  It would make things easy if I just said I do believe it — as I’m tempted to do.

But that’s actually a tough call for me; I’m far from comfortable saying that I do believe it.

“What?!  He doesn’t believe it?!  How can he call himself a ‘universalist’ then?!”

Well, I’d also be uncomfortable saying I don’t believe it.  I have my doubts about how smoothly the notion of belief applies to areas like philosophy, religion, and politics (etc.) — areas where disagreement is not only very commonplace, but also doesn’t seem to be a good sign that anything is wrong.  If we disagree about which team won the 1997-98 NBA championship, then something has gone wrong.  (In this particular case, something has gone wrong on *your* end: I know!)  But if we disagree over whether free will is compatible with determinism, nobody supposes that anyone is being irrational, or that anything particular has gone wrong — though if we are realists (as I am, and as I’ll hope you are), we’ll think that somebody has ended up with a false position about the matter.  That’s just how it goes on such topics.  Do we each believe our positions in such cases?  Well, maybe, but, like I said, I’m not so sure.  I’m much more comfortable saying that I accept the philosophical (political, religious, etc.) positions that I take on disputed matters.  What’s involved in accepting a position is probably as murky as believing it, but it seems to be a different murky notion.  One difference is that acceptance seems a bit more responsive to the will.  I’ve looked at the evidence, and it seems to me to be pointing more in one direction than the other, though it’s certainly not a clear call.  Now I decide: Shall I accept the position that I think the evidence is pointing toward?  Is the evidence strong enough to do that?  In accepting that p, I’m, as it were, signing up for the p “team”.  Yes, that’s my position.  I’m not certain that it’s true, but I think it is, and I’m ready to join the team.  I take responsibility for defending the position, explaining why I hold it, etc.

In roughly that way that I take myself generally to accept the positions I take in disputed matters, and in that spirit, I also accept universalism.  And K-Cor seems not to.  When he writes that he is “not committed to universalism,” that seems to be coming very close to saying that he doesn’t accept the position in the way that I do — and the way I’ve been trying to explicate.  I am committed to the position.  That doesn’t mean I’m committed to never changing my mind — but it does express an at least somewhat stable position.  K-Cor is not in that way committed to either the truth or the falsehood of universalism.  As he reads the relevant considerations, they don’t justify taking a stance either way.  Like K-Cor, to again quote the draft of his paper, “I’ve got to call ’em as I see ’em,” and I read the evidence differently.  (Though I’m focussing here on the biblical evidence, which I do judge to favor universalism, philosophical grounds are also relevant to what I’ve ended up thinking.  Since K-Cor is also a philosopher, this is no doubt true of him as well.)  And that I see the evidence as being strong enough to make it appropriate to accept universalism seems to be the key difference between a somewhat uncertain universalist such as me, and an “undecided” like K-Cor.

There’s also another position — one that I’m at least open to — that’s interestingly different from the ones described so far, on which one hopes not that universalism is true, but that it will be true.  But that gets a bit complicated, so I’ll put it below the fold….

(Here I borrow from the second Appendix to my on-line defense of universalism; see that for a bit more explanation.)  Suppose that one is an “Aristotelian” about “future contingents” and as a result believes that there are no truth values to propositions about what someone will or won’t freely do in the future.  (A much more thorough explanation of the position would be nice for various purposes, but for the current discussion, I hope that conveys the basic idea well enough.)  And suppose that one is also what, in my on-line defense of universalism I call a “fervent exclusivist.”  That is, going beyond “exclusivism” (the position that it is only through the saving work of Christ that any can be saved: a position I accept) and “strong exclusivism” (the position that in order to be saved, one must meet some condition to the effect that one personally accepts the salvation Christ makes possible: another position I accept), one holds that to be saved, one’s acceptance must be free (a position I don’t accept, but am attracted to).  Now, one may find oneself holding that all humans will be saved is neither true nor false.  Not even omniscient God knows whether all humans will be saved.  (Omniscience is a matter of knowing all truths.  If there is no truth here to be known, God’s “failure” to know here counts against God’s omniscience no more than does God’s “failure” to know that 2+2=86.  One who holds the position being described denies what’s known as “comprehensive foreknowledge,” but not omniscience.)  On this view, universalism is not now either true or false.  What one hopes for is not that universalism is true (it isn’t), but that it will be true.

I think one can hold to some version of this position and still count in a good sense as a universalist.  Suppose one holds the just-described position, and holds that, though there’s not now any fact of the matter whether all humans will be saved, it is OVERWHELMINGLY probable that all will be saved.  The chances that any will resist God forever are VANISHINGLY small.  Then I think one in a good sense can be counted as a universalist.  After all, you believe it is overwhelmingly probable that all will be saved, and in contested theological matters, we can’t expect to reach beyond that level of certainty anyway.  (Indeed, due to the usual causes — human fallibility on such tough questions — we’re not even going to get up to that level of certainty, nor even close to it, on this or any other tough matter, anyway.)  But this does seem to compromise on universalism a bit, because one is not only admitting that one could (of course!) be wrong about the matter in question, but also that according to the position one holds (however firmly or tentatively), there is some (VANISHINGLY small, but still existent) objective chance that not all will be saved.  Not even God knows for certain that all will be saved.

But other versions of the position just described can be held by one who hopes that universalism will be true, but who cannot in any good sense be counted as a “universalist.”  Here I’m thinking of someone who doesn’t believe it’s highly probable that all will be saved — either because they have a different estimation of the chances, or because they are completely agnostic about what the chances are.  I suspect many who are inclined to describe themselves as hoping for the salvation of all humans may well find themselves gravitating toward such a position.

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Theres been some recent discussion over at the Think Tank blog about universalism, mostly revolving around Keith De Roses compelling biblical case for universalism. With regards to universalism, I find myself very close to Kevin Corcora… [Read More]

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I also can’t affirm universalism, but hope that it is true. What scares me is that more people don’t pray for it to be true. Regardless of what the scriptures say about universalism, why should we not be advocating with God for it?

In the end I do think it will be up to God to decide however it is to be done. I certainly will er on the conservative side and not take for granted that universalism is the answer, but in every opportunity possible I feel that it is my duty to pray for it and ask on behalf of the entire creation for it.

I am currently working on a novel that calls into question universalism to the point of reconciling Satan. Very fun idea…taken from Origen’s universal reconciliation position.

Posted by: kevin | June 06, 2006 at 07:43 PM

I like what you said here. I believe universalism is true, because it is the only thing I can believe. Maybe I believe so strongly because I want to. I don’t know. But, I place all my hopes in Christ and the redemption the Cross brought to all mankind. I have to. I consistently fail at traditional religion. I’m no good at it. I have to trust that Christ is the one the prophets foretold, and believe that He did what He was destined to do. I know my views are naive, but they are all I have.

Posted by: bruced | June 06, 2006 at 10:42 PM

My position is somewhere within this spectrum also. Universalism feels right, and the concept is very attractive. Biblically based analyses of the topic prove very convincing and I really want to believe BUT…

…it is hard to go against what the majority of Christians/theologians throughout history have believed and continue to believe. With a few notable exceptions, the entirety of orthodox church tradition has held to the concept of a permanent judgement and punishment, with no second chances after death. The Bible is just not clear enough on what exactly happens, but it is very clear that there will be some sort of judgement. I can’t help thinking that if the doctrine of hell/damnation is so completely off base, how could God allow the majority of Christians to believe and preach it?

So while I sincerely hope and pray that some sort of Christian universalism is the truth, and while I am very compelled by the arguments Keith and others present, I just can’t bring myself to the point of saying that it is what I believe. I just wish the NT was more decisive on the matter.

Posted by: Baggas | June 07, 2006 at 02:14 AM

A couple of quick comments. First, the piece I published in B&C lacks the relevant quotes that were in the draft of mine Keith references. That’s so for several reasons that I won’t go into here. But, nonetheless, Keith reads me right.

Second, I agree completely with the belief/acceptance distinction that Keith draws. Beliefs seem to me to be largely outside of my voluntary control and not “up to me”, in a very real sense. I find myself with beliefs. But then there are positions/propositions I accept, I take them on board or sort of welcome them into my noetic web, and am prepared to defend them. This is how it is with many of the philosophical positions I hold. Could I be mistaken about my view of human nature, for example? You bet; but, about the positions I hold I say “this is how it seems to me and here’s why…”

One final thought. Keith mentions very briefly and in connection with God’s knowledge of future contingents, that he’s not attracted to the view that one’s embrace of Christ needs to be free. I suspect that many reading this blog have contrary intuitions here. I suspect, on the basis of many conversations with many people about these matters, that many believe that if universalism is true, then human freedom is, ultimately, compromised in some way. I want to say two things. First, it seems to me pretty obvious (or as obvious as anything is in the spiritual life) that God values, and values very highly, human freedom. And I’m quite certain Keith agrees. Therefore, it seems to me that God’s desire to save all includes a desire, all things being equal, to do so in a way that preserves the freedom of human beings. Again, I bet Keith agrees. However, I don’t imagine that God values the freedom of his human creatures more than the creatures themselves. So, it seems to me that there could come a point at which God is faced with the following terrible situation: either to preserve human freedom at the cost of losing one of his beloved or yanking (for a time) the freedom from one of his beloved for the ultimate good of his beloved. As a loving parent, I have a tremendous amount of sympathy for taking the latter course of action. It’s not best, all things being equal. But, if preserving my child’s freedom ever meant that my child would ultimately destroy his or her life, all things AREN”T equal, and I’m going to value the ultimate good of my child over the relative good of their freedom. So, here, I agree with Keith: I don’t think that one’s embrace of Christ MUST be free. Better if it is, of course and, in a very real sense, tragic if it isn’t.



Posted by: Kevin Corcoran | June 07, 2006 at 09:59 AM

This is good conversation – conversation that doesn’t happen often enough. Thanks for engaging us all in this topic.

After reading these additional thoughts, I think I probably end up in the same “neighborhood” as you, regarding this conversation.

While it is not strictly philosophical/theological, I most of all appreciate the writing of George MacDonald in this area. In addition to his “Unspoken Sermons,” his fantasy “Lilith” is a wonderful, fantastical exploration of the Love of God and his desire to redeem all, in the end.

Posted by: Adam | June 07, 2006 at 10:20 AM

One small correction. Kevin writes:

Keith mentions…that he’s not attracted to the view that one’s embrace of Christ needs to be free.

Actually, I am attracted to that view (which I call “fervent exclusivism”), and say so. But a problem for the thought that universalism is true is produced by F.E. together with another view I admit to being attracted to, what I call “zealous incompatibilism.” I sketch two ways of handling that problem, one of which allows one to hold on to F.E. But I prefer the second view, which does give up F.E., but still places a great value on free acceptance. So, I am attracted to F.E., but end up leaning toward a position that gives it up under some pressure. So that’s just a small correction.

Posted by: Keith DeRose | June 07, 2006 at 11:56 AM

I still don’t understand the role of missions if universalism is true. Kevin has offered a few metaphors: broken legs, sickness… but at the bottom of things do we (as Christians) really have to go out of our way to preach the gospel to the nations if universalism is true? Would St. Paul have gone through everything he went through if he didn’t believed life and death were at stake? In preaching the gospel to people, Paul gave himself to the point of death to change the lives of people here on earth? One of the things that I have always found different about Christianity when compared to all other religions is that Christianity takes this life seriously. Our beliefs and our actions matter not only here on earth, but also in eternity. Now, if I am wrong about there being a place called hell and the belief that unrepentant people are sent there forever, then I’m wrong, but not to worry because everything will work out in the end if universalism ends up being true. However, what if the Universalist is wrong? Have they not been peddling a false “hope”?

Finally, what good does it do to hope that universalism is true if you don’t believe that it is true? Wouldn’t time be better spent hoping and believing in something more definitive like the forgiveness offered in Christ’s earthly Church?

Perhaps Pascal’s wager would be helpful in this discussion. Instead of belief in God what if the wager were modified to the question of universalism? It would go something like this:

“Let us then examine this point, and let us say: “either universalism is or universalism is not.” But to which view shall we be inclined? Reason cannot decide this question. Infinite chaos separates us. At the far end of this infinite distance a coin is being spun which will come down heads or tails. How will you wager? Reason cannot make you choose either, reason cannot prove either wrong…”

What is to be gained by hoping or believing that universalism is true? What do you have to lose? What do you have to gain by believing that universalism is false? What do you have to lose?

Posted by: M. Draft | June 07, 2006 at 01:53 PM

I still don’t understand the role of missions if universalism is true.

Well, what’s the role of missions if universalism isn’t true? Unless your answer is “To prevent people from suffering eternal exclusion,” you can just keep the same answer — as I say in the first Appendix to my web page defending universalism, universalism doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter whether people accept Christ in this life, or sooner rather than later, and it doesn’t rule out punishment; all it rules out is eternal punishment. If that is your answer, and you think missions makes sense only if people face eternal exclusion if they don’t accept Christ in this life, well, that’s sad. As I write in that first Appendix: “It would indeed be very sad if Christians believed that there is strong reason or motivation for accepting Christ in this life only if one faces an infinitely big stick if one fails to do so.”

Posted by: Keith DeRose | June 07, 2006 at 02:28 PM

Perhaps Pascal’s wager would be helpful…

Well, don’t get me started on that! It’s a huge topic about which I have too much to say. But to be brief (and perhaps even cryptic), I think the attempt to manipulate one’s beliefs for Pascalian reasons is extremely dangerous. Believe me, it can leave you in a really messed up state in which you actually can’t tell whether you genuinely believe, or are just trying hard to believe for prudential reasons (out of fear).

Posted by: Keith DeRose | June 07, 2006 at 02:42 PM

Keith, a quick question about the scope of the belief/acceptance distinction you endorse, in light of your last comment. Your last comment seems to indicate that belief is crucial in some way, so that trying hard to believe (out of fear or some other motive) would be very bad. Do you think this, or am I misinterpreting here? What I’m wondering is whether belief is crucial, for whatever reasons, or whether acceptance might be good enough (again, for whatever purposes belief might be thought to be essential).

Posted by: jon kvanvig | June 07, 2006 at 04:15 PM

Those who engage in Pascal-like thinking are often motivated by the thought that belief is crucial — that their eternal destiny may well ride on what they believe to be the case. I am not myself sold on the idea. I know they’re going by passages like “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ & you will be saved,” “that whosoever believeth on him should not perish but have everlasting life.” But these don’t seem to be cases of beliefs in propositions (though they may ultimately involve beliefs in propositions in some complicated way). Anyway, as I’ve indicated, I find questions of belief in the relevant propositions quite vexed here. I guess I’m more of a “I believe; forgive thou my unbelief” kinda guy. I do think that trying to manipulate one’s beliefs is quite dangerous. If what one believes really is crucial, I fear that Pascalian proceedures may be more effective in producing pseudo-beliefs rather than real ones. But even if what one believes is not crucial, it is important that one be genuine — which involves not having what one takes to be the case (in various modes) being governed by fears, prudential concerns, etc.

Posted by: Keith DeRose | June 07, 2006 at 08:31 PM

A few months back, a good friend and I had an extensive discussion on the topic of universalism. He took the universalist stance and I took the separationist. We engaged in lengthy discourses (120 pages in all) ranging from human will to divine will to divine attributes to church history to Greek exegesis, etc.

As I’ve had some time now to step back from that conversation, I can make room for the possibility of universalism, and not claim sole necessity for separationism (if that’s what we’re calling it these days). My view of the evidence sees things in the “traditional viewpoint,” but I like the view that von Balthasar brings out, that we should indeed all hope for the possibility that all men are saved.


Posted by: Chris King | June 07, 2006 at 10:55 PM

Universalism doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter whether people accept Christ in this life

Really? Because if punishment is not eternal, then I see no reason (outside of getting out of some undefined period in punishment early) why people need or should even desire to accept Christ in this life.

Posted by: M. Draft | June 08, 2006 at 03:43 PM

Well, as I said in my previous comment, I find that very sad. Accepting Christ is a wonderful thing. To say it only makes sense to do so if one can avoid an eternal punishment by doing so seems to rob it of its wonderfulness.

Posted by: Keith DeRose | June 08, 2006 at 05:46 PM

Dr. Corcoran,
I am wondering what it is about universalism that you find most problematic. why not believe that it (that is universalsim) is true instead of hoping that it is true?

Posted by: Dave | July 20, 2006 at 11:46 PM

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