In my previous article “The Catholic Church and the Return of Hell,” I asked, Why are Roman Catholics historically pessimistic about the eternal salvation of humanity, given its teaching on efficacious grace? Needless to say, the question can be expanded to include all churches that teach some form of efficacious grace. Calvinists immediately come to mind. And they have a quick answer: predestination! limited atonement! read Romans 9! For those in the Calvinist tradition, the universal salvific will of God is sacrificed for absolute election. From all eternity God has unconditionally predestined some to salvation and some to perdition. We may not know the number of the damned, whether it be one or many; but a populated hell there most certainly will be—all to the glory of God.
Ten years ago Protestant theologian Oliver Crisp published an incisive essay exploring the question of universal salvation from an Augustinian perspective: “Augustinian Universalism” (International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 53 [June 2003]: 127-145). Based on traditional Augustinian (think Calvinist) premises, he elaborates an argument for universal salvation.
Crisp begins by specifying the following convictions shared by traditional Augustinians:
1) All things that happen are pre-ordained by God.
2) By eternal decree God predestines all who will be in heaven and all who will be in hell.
3) The damned have no good reason to complain of their situation, because, to quote Francis Turretin, “If they examine themselves, they will discover in their own sin the most just foundation both of their preterition and punishment.”
4) The soteriological position of a person at the point of death defines his eternal destiny: if he is regenerate, he will be saved; if not, damned—no post-mortem conversions.
5) The punishment of hell is retributive, infinite, and eternal.
If God has predetermined that some will suffer eternal perdition, how can this be morally justified? Traditional Augustinians offer this rejoinder: “God requires that both his mercy and grace, and his wrath and justice are displayed in his creatures. That is, God could not bring about a state of affairs which involved the actualization of one set, but not the other (a set of the elect, say, which was co-extensive with the domain of peccable human agents, and where the set of reprobate was an empty set)” (p. 130).
It is necessary, the Augustinian explains, that the essential attributes of God be displayed in creation. The essential attribute of divine benevolence is expressed in God’s mercy and grace; the divine attribute of divine holiness is expressed in God’s wrath and justice. If no one enjoyed the beatific vision or if no one suffered eternal punishment, then “there would be a failure to display the fullness of the divine character,” which is one of the principal aims of the creation. Thus Jonathan Edwards:
The great and last end of God’s work which is so variously expressed in Scripture, is indeed but one; and this one end is most properly and comprehensively called, “the glory of God”; by which name it is most commonly called in Scripture … those things, which are spoken of in Scripture as ultimate ends of God’s works, though they may seem at first view to be distinct, all are plainly to be reduced to this one thing, viz. God’s internal glory or fullness extant externally, or existing in its emanation. And though God in seeking this end, seeks the creature’s good; yet therein appears his supreme regard to himself. (Quoted by Crisp, pp. 130-131)
St Anselm, on the other hand, offers an alternative opinion: the honor of God requires that some be rewarded to display the divine goodness and some be punished to display the divine justice:
For when thou punishest the wicked, it is just, because it is consistent with their deserts; and when, on the other hand, thou sparest the wicked, it is just, not because it is compatible with their deserts, but because it is compatible with thy goodness. (Quoted by Crisp, p. 131)
The point of these arguments “is to show that God has a reason for so acting,” namely his self-glorification. “The assumption behind these views of Edwards and Anselm,” continues Crisp, “appears to be that God has to manifest his grace and mercy and his wrath and justice in order that he is seen to be just as well as merciful” (p. 131).
This position is vulnerable to a serious objection: why has God arbitrarily chosen this world, when he could just as easily have chosen to create a world where one more person will be saved than will be saved in our world?
Given that the number of the elect is actually n, there is a possible world where the number of the elect is n+1. The question then is, why does God actualize this world, rather than another world where there are n+1 than in the actual world? In other words, God could actualize a world in which he elects one more member to the set of the elect, such that the set of the reprobate has one less member. … The fact that God does not actualize such a world appears, prima facie, to be arbitrary. God could, of course, add many more members than this to the number of the elect. But for any number of members in the set of the elect, so long as there is at least one person in the set of reprobate, we can ask why is there not one more member in the set of the elect than there actually is, since God’s justice is still served if only one person is in hell. For on the logic of traditional Augustinianism, what is crucial is that divine wrath and justice are made manifest in his creation, such that his divine attributes are clearly displayed. There is nothing in the logic of Augustinianism that stipulates the number of those benefiting from divine grace or being punished for divine justice. All that this argument for the exemplification of divine justice requires is that at least one person be in hell, so that at least one person is punished for their sin in order that divine justice be displayed and divine holiness vindicated. (p. 132)
Candidates for that one damned person immediately come to mind: Judas Iscariot, Nero, Attila the Hun, Adolph Hitler, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Ted Bundy—all would seem to qualify. But Crisp points out that the one damned person need not even be human. A single demon would suffice. (I nominate Beelzebul.) All that is necessary for justice to be displayed is the eternal punishment of one moral agent.
Augustinians reply to the problem of arbitrariness by invoking the inscrutability of the divine will: God has his own good reasons of which we are presently ignorant. Yet the appeal to divine inscrutability does not satisfy. The fact remains that “if it is possible for God to actualize a world where this level of suffering is reduced to only a single person (and his justice is still satisfied by this and adequately ‘displayed’), then the fact that God has not actualized such a world, opting instead for a world where there is objectively morally more suffering and less happiness that there could be seems to disconfirm either the essential benevolence of God, or the existence of God” (p. 133).
In the second half of his article, Crisp proposes an Augustinian universalism that does not require the damnation of even a single human being. His argument:
(1) God decrees to create and elect all human agents.
(2) God decrees that the mechanism by which the sin of all human agents is atoned for is the death of Christ.
(3) The sin and guilt accruing to all sinful human agents is transferred to Christ, who is punished on their account on the cross.
(4) All human agents are saved; none are lost, and none are in hell. (p. 135)
The argument hinges on some form of penal substitutionary atonement, which Augustine did not teach but which became characteristic of Reformed presentations of the atonement. The argument fufills three key Augustinian concerns: Christ’s atonement is particular (it atones for the sins of the elect, not the reprobate), effective (God will infallibly bring the elect to saving faith and thus to heaven), and demonstrative (the crucifixion of the divine Son powerfully displays the divine attribute of retributive justice). Most importantly for our purposes, it eliminates the problem of arbitrariness. No moral agent, other than Jesus himself, is needed to manifest the divine justice. “God’s grace and mercy,” concludes Crisp, “are shown to all human agents in their election (in Christ), and his wrath and justice are shown in the death of Christ, which atones for the sin and guilt of all fallen human agents” (p. 137).
Crisp believes that he has offered a coherent and valid argument for an Augustinian universalism. This doesn’t mean that he believes it is true, as he remains convinced that Holy Scripture authoritatively teaches a populated everlasting hell. But, he argues, if in the name of the Bible the Augustinian refuses to embrace universalism, then he must find a way to persuasively address the problem of evil raised by his position:
If God could have created the sort of world outlined in Augustinian universalism, why did he not do so, since there appears to be no reason according to the tenets of traditional Augustinianism we have examined, why God could not create a world where all human agents were in fact elect because all their sin was dealt with in Christ. Or alternatively, to return to the arbitrariness problem for traditional Augustinians, God could actualize a world where only one moral agent was in hell and all other agents were elect. (We might call this version of Augustinianism the limited damnation view.) Both of these options satisfy the retribution thesis beloved of Augustinians, and appear to display the glory of God in a way which is objectively better than the world that God did, in fact, create. (p. 142)
I’m not sure how an Augustinian or Thomist might want to adapt Dr Crisp’s universalist argument, formulated as it is within a Calvinist theological framework. Thankfully, Anselm’s satisfaction theory is available for Latin Catholics—no need to go the full penal substitution route. But the Catholic faces the same problem of evil: if God can efficaciously save one human being, why does he not save all? Why has he chosen to create a world where some (many, most) perish, when he might have created a world where only one—or even none—perish? Why hell?