I actually didn’t intend to write again on the universalist hope for at least a good while, but some thoughtful comments on my blog encouraged me to change my mind. For purposes of clarity, I’m going to structure this series in terms of objections to the universalist hope, followed by my brief responses.
1) The universalist hope undermines evangelism and the summons to repentance.
The objection has an initial plausibility. There is no question that fear can be a powerful motivator within the Church. One doesn’t have to look very hard to find examples where the threat of everlasting punishment has been effectively employed to move people to specific kinds of positive action, whether it be personal reform (“I don’t want to go to hell. I hereby repent of my adultery”) or the undertaking of the arduous task of mission (“I will go to China and preach the gospel, lest they never know Christ and be everlastingly damned”). It’s possible, of course, to mute or tone down the threat, yet to be effective it must always be present to some degree, if only as background music. The gospel thus becomes carrot and stick—the carrot of eternal good and the stick of everlasting torment. Its “if, then” rhetorical structure is similar to the discourse we find in many places in the Old Testament, with the prophetic threat of temporal punishment being replaced by interminable eschatological punishment. The only real difference is that the stakes have been infinitely raised. “I’ve got really good news and really bad news,” the preacher tells us. “Which one do you want to hear first?”
It should be noted that the terror generated by the threat of eternal damnation is not eliminated by the the increasingly popular free-will defense of hell. In the older presentations of perdition, God retributively punishes the wicked (see the Stanford Encyclopedia entry on hell). God is the one who actively inflicts suffering in the name of justice. But in the free-will model, God assumes an unbiblical passive role. He does not so much as judge as ratify the fundamental choice of those who stand before him in the eschatological dock. God continues to love the damned, yet because of the kind of people they have irreversibly become, they can only experience the divine presence as torment. The intent of this model is clear—to get God off the moral hook for the horrors of damnation. Whether it in fact accomplishes this goal is debatable, but one thing it does not do—it does not mitigate the fear of the future generated by the threat of eternal perdition. We can call it the Kimel principle: if we can find a way to damn ourselves forever, we probably will.
The important question: Should terror, anxiety, and dread be the principal motivators for repentance? Fear of painful consequence can certainly produce changes in behavior, but can it generate genuine love of God and heartfelt trust in his providence? No theologian in the Christian tradition has been more emphatic in his rejection of the “pedagogy of fear” than Fr Sergius Bulgakov. Not only is “this doctrine of terror … totally incapable of achieving its pedagogic goal,” states Bulgakov; but “striking sensitive hearts with horror, paralyzing filial love and the childlike trust in the Heavenly Father, this idea makes Christianity resemble Islam, replacing love with fear” (The Bride of the Lamb, p. 484).
Only the good news of God’s absolute love and infinite mercy, embodied in Jesus Christ and the community of the Church, can convert sinful hearts to the Savior.
Opponents of the universalist hope repeatedly speak as if advocates of apokatastasis reject Gehenna altogether, as if everyone gets into heaven without repentance and regeneration: “I’m okay, you’re okay, we will all be okay.” This is patently false. Numerous contrary examples might be provided, ranging from Origen and St Gregory Nyssen to George MacDonald, Sergius Bulgakov, and Thomas Talbott. For each, perdition remains a horrible possibility for every sinner. If a person does not repent in this life, he will take his hell into the next. As Neil Gaiman remarks: “I think hell is something you carry around with you. Not somewhere you go to.” There can be no escape from the necessity of repentance, for only the pure in heart shall see God. The hopeful universalist, therefore, differs from the traditional infernalist not on the existence of hell but on its duration and purpose. St Isaac the Syrian writes:
Accordingly we say that, even in the matter of the afflictions and sentence of Gehenna, there is some hidden mystery, whereby the wise Maker has taken as a starting point for its future outcome the wickedness of our actions and wilfulness, using it as a way of bringing to perfection His dispensation wherein lies the teaching which makes wise, and the advantage beyond description, hidden from both angels and human beings, hidden too from those who are being chastised, whether they be demons or human beings, hidden for as long as the ordained period of time holds sway. (Second Part 39.20; also see “The Triumph of the Kingdom“)
The universalist refuses to limit either God’s love, omnipotence, or wisdom. Even Gehenna has a purpose, a terrible but ultimately converting purpose—to bring all into the Kingdom.