In his recent blog article “Universalism and our Subpar World?” philosopher Jeff Cook raises the following question:
Why think the purgatorial fires experienced in this life are insufficient for every soul to experience the vile weight of sin and its repugnant fruit? Why think the grace of God experienced in this life daily is insufficient to draw every human soul willing decisively into the arms of Christ?
In fact, the grace of God in this life is quite sufficient for the salvation of all, Cook suggests. “I find the Annihilationist view superior here,” he writes, “for God has foreseen and made a good world with precisely those elements that would draw every human he has actualized into an experience of his redeeming grace.” What about those who reject the forgiveness and mercy that God offers (and Cook doesn’t tell us whether anyone has definitively rejected God)? His reply: it’s their own fault.
The Annihilationist may answer that no one included in this world has been wronged by God having made them or gone without his grace and offers of redemption. Given Christian Theism, God’s Spirit is loose and offering salvation to all people in ways they understand. Death is a clear empirical fact and this is why the hope of resurrection—not latter refinement—is a primary mark of the Christian proclamation. In short, Annihilationism is a superior view because it can claim that the world we experience is fully sufficient for the tasks God has undertaken.
Cook is not presenting a novel argument here, as I’m sure he would acknowledge. C. S. Lewis compellingly advanced the criticism in his wonderful parable The Great Divorce. God does not do anything wrong by permitting his rational creatures to choose definitive separation from him. Likewise, the annihilationist might say, God does not do anything wrong by permitting his rational creatures to choose absolute non-existence (for a sophisticated free-will defense of hell with annihilationist option, see Jonathan Kvanvig, The Problem of Hell).
I’m at a disadvantage at this point, as I have not read Dr Cook’s book Everything New: Reimagining Heaven and Hell and therefore do not know how he understands the Final Judgment and Gehenna. Question for Dr Cook: do the damned choose their annihilation or is it imposed upon them?
Cook does not in his article present an argument for why we should believe that the divine grace in this world is sufficient to bring all to saving faith. He simply asserts it, no doubt constrained by length considerations. But arguments are necessary. Consider, for example, this counter-proposal from Marilyn McCord Adams:
A realistic picture of human agency should recognize the following: (a) We human beings start life ignorant, weak and helpless, psychologically so lacking in a self-concept as to be incapable of choice. (b) We learn to “construct” a picture of the world, ourselves, and other people only with difficulty over a long period of time and under the extensive influence of other non-ideal choosers. (c) Human development is the interactive product of human nature and its environment, and from early on we humans are confronted with problems that we cannot adequately grasp or cope with, and in response to which we mount (without fully conscious calculation) inefficient adaptational strategies. (d) Yet, the human psyche forms habits in such a way that these reactive patterns, based as they are on a child’s inaccurate view of the world and its strategic options, become entrenched in the individual’s personality. (e) Typically, the habits are unconsciously “acted out” for years, causing much suffering to self and others before (if ever) they are recognized and undone through a difficult and painful process of therapy and/or spiritual formation. (f) Having thus begun immature, we arrive at adulthood in a state of impaired freedom, as our childhood adaptational strategies continue to distort our perceptions and behavior. (g) We adults with impaired freedom are responsible for our choices, actions, and even the character molded by our unconscious adaptational strategies, in the sense that we are the agent causes of them. (h) Our assessments of moral responsibility, praise, and blame cannot afford to take this impairment into account, because we are not as humans capable of organizing and regulating ourselves in that fine-tuned a way. And so, except for the most severe cases of impairment, we continue to hold ourselves responsible to one another.
Taking these estimates of human nature to heart, I draw two conclusions: first, that such impaired adult human agency is no more competent to be entrusted with its (individual or collective) eternal destiny than two-year-old agency is to be allowed choices that could result in its death or physical impairment; and second, that the fact that the choices of such impaired agents come between the divine creator of the environment and their infernal outcome no more reduces divine responsibility for the damnation than two-year-old agency reduces the responsibility of the adult caretaker. (“The Problem of Hell” in Readings in the Philosophy of Religion, p. 442)
Is it in fact that case that all are given in this life all the resources they need to make a fully-informed and free choice for God? Adams certainly does not think so. Perhaps in Eden human beings enjoyed all sufficient grace; but since our expulsion from paradise everyone is now born into a condition of brokenness, alienation, ignorance, and disability. So what does it mean to declare the sufficiency of divine grace in this situation?
But even if we grant Cook’s premise of the sufficiency of grace, why does this make the annihilationist position more probable than the universalist position? While annihilationism eliminates the horror of the interminable torment of the damned, it does not eliminate the horror of extinction. We are presented with a picture of God deleting the creatures he has made in his image and for which he became Man and died on a gibbet. When God annihilates someone, is he thinking to himself, “This man deserves it” or “My hands are tied. I’ve done all I could do” or “Thy will be done.” And what of those in heaven who love the reprobate? Perhaps the “Argument from God’s Love for the Blessed” loses some of its force, given that the damned do not suffer eternally; yet it is still difficult for me to imagine enjoying the vision of God without my wife, children, family, and friends. Just ask the survivors of suicide. Just ask the parents who have lost a child. Not only does annihilationism concede the defeat of God’s eternal purposes for his creation, but it definitively seals the grief of those who love the annihilated.
Why think that God would accept anything less than the final reconciliation of every human being? And if, as our experience of the world seems to attest, that many in this life do reject the offer of divine mercy, why think that the divine Creator does not have a backup plan to implement the victory won on Easter morning? Why think, as Sergius Bulgakov puts it, that “God’s wisdom has stopped impotently before an insuperable boundary set by creaturely freedom,” “that the sacrifice of Golgotha has turned out to be incapable of triumphing over hell” (The Bride of the Lamb, p. 483)?
Why think that God’s grace is insufficient for apokatastasis?