by Thomas Talbott, Ph.D.
Hopeful Versus Necessary Universalism
There seem to be two separate paths that have led some to a “hopeful universalism,” as many have called it: one biblical and the other philosophical.
The biblical path rests upon two distinct New Testament themes that many find difficult to harmonize: the theme of Christ’s total victory and triumph over sin and death, on the one hand, and that of God’s wrath and judgment of sin, on the other. David Bentley Hart thus points out that, according to the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, these two distinct themes represent “two kinds of absolute statements, both indissoluble in themselves and each seemingly irreconcilable with the other. And we are supposedly forbidden—by piety, by doctrine, by prudence—from attempting to decide between them” (That All Shall Be Saved, p. 102). Evidently, then, we are being asked to hold together two theological claims, even though they might appear to us as flatly inconsistent; we are to hold them together “in a sustained ‘tension,’ without attempting any sort of final resolution or synthesis between them” (pp. 102-103). And maintaining such a tension will supposedly enable us to hope for, without being certain of, an ultimate reconciliation of all things, including all human beings, in Christ. Thus the title of Balthasar’s book Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”?
But what sort of hope does that amount to? What does it even mean to hope for a universal salvation even as one tries to accept as equally true that some will be lost forever? Set aside the Bible for a moment, and consider the following two propositions on their own terms, so to speak:
- All human beings will eventually be reconciled to God (through the redemptive work of Christ).
- Some human beings will never be reconciled to God.
These two propositions are clearly inconsistent and are indeed self-contradictory if you subtract the parenthetical phrase in (1). There is no mystery about this and no sense in trying to hide this fact behind a lot of silly talk about antinomies or a supposed tension between these two propositions. The conjunction of (1) and (2) is simply false, even as every other conjunction of the form: p and not-p, is false. Whatever its source, therefore, any evidence for (1) is evidence against (2) and any evidence for (2) is evidence against (1); and furthermore, any sacred text or set of texts that appears to endorse—in different places, perhaps—both of them has thereby presented evidence of its own unreliability. That is why, if we turn our attention back to the Bible again, all but a relatively few Christian theologians have proceeded in one of two very different ways. Those who interpret such tests as 2 Thessalonians 1:9, the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31-46), and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16), among others, as providing a biblical warrant for (2), or the idea that some will never be reconciled to God, have typically adjusted their understanding of Christ’s triumph and total victory over sin and death accordingly. And similarly, those who interpret such texts as Romans 5 and 11, 1 Corinthians 15, and the old creedal hymn reproduced in Colossians 1:15-20, among others, as providing a biblical warrant for (1), or the idea of universal reconciliation, have typically adjusted their understanding of God’s wrath and judgment of sin accordingly. The one way of proceeding is just the reverse of the other. For obvious reasons, moreover, few theologians, whatever their view of hell might be, have been willing to vacillate between (1) and (2) or, worse yet, to embrace them both in an act of sheer irrationality.1
Accordingly, Hart seems to me right on target when he comments: “I cannot quite suppress my suspicion that here the word ‘tension’ is being used [by Balthasar] as an anodyne euphemism for ‘contradiction.'” And similarly for his comment that this “whole posture looks uncomfortably like intellectual timidity to me”—although, for my own part, I sometimes wonder (without much evidence) whether Balthasar’s basic strategy, as a Catholic priest, was simply to get others in his church to examine various universalist-sounding texts more closely even as he managed to escape the charge of heresy. In any case, with a bit more sarcasm, perhaps, Hart finally concludes his critique of Balthasar this way: “And, frankly, I have no great interest in waiting on God to see if in the end he will prove to be better or worse than I might have hoped” (see p. 103 for the above quotations). Whereas no one can question Balthasar’s greatness as a 20th Century theologian, his biblical case for a “hopeful universalism” nonetheless strikes me as a gigantic copout. If the New Testament theme of Christ’s total victory over sin and death provides a biblical warrant for accepting proposition (1) above, as I believe it does; and if the theme of divine judgment also provides a biblical warrant for accepting proposition (2), as I believe it does not, then New Testament eschatology is simply incoherent and confused. It is as simple as that.
The philosophical path to a “hopeful universalism” is perhaps more hopeful (pun intended) than the biblical path. It rests on the assumption that our freedom in relation to God, which includes the power to persist in rejecting him forever, is incompatible with determinism, at least in this sense: no genuinely free choice or action can be the product of sufficient causes that lie either in the distant past before we were born or in eternity itself. So even if the infinitely resourceful God should in fact successfully reconcile all human beings to himself, there would still remain the logical possibility that he might not have been successful. There would still exist, in other words, possible worlds in which some of us freely reject him forever even if the actual world should not be one of them. We can at least hope, therefore, that God will successfully reconcile the entire human race to himself, but we can never be certain in this life that he will successfully do so.
But just what kind of freedom are we talking about here? Hart raises two questions at this point that bring us to the very crux of the matter: “Could such a refusal of God’s love be sustained eternally,” he asks, “while still being truly free? And would God truly be the Good in an ultimate sense—and his act of creation good in a final sense—if the eternal loss of any soul to endless sorrow were a real possibility?” (pp. 27-28). We’ll take up the first question in Part III of this review and concentrate here on the second question. Why suppose it even possible, if I may express the question in a slightly different way, that our Creator who loved us into existence in the first place would grant any of us the power to harm ourselves irreparably, or in a way that not even Omnipotence could repair at some future time? To begin with the most extreme kind of case, consider a putatively possible world—call it β—that includes all and only those created persons who exist in the actual world, except that in β every one of them freely rejects God forever. Do we have any reason to believe that β is a genuinely possible world? If God exists necessarily and thus exists in all possible worlds; and if he retains his essential perfections, such as perfect love and justice, in every possible world in which he exists, then it is simply inconceivable, surely, that he would have permitted β to become the actual world. But if it is impossible that he would have permitted such an absolute disaster to occur in his creation, then β is not a genuinely possible world after all.
The moral here is that you cannot settle the question of which free choices are genuinely possible simply by adopting a conception of human freedom that makes it look as if certain choices are indeed possible. You must also consider which choices a loving and just God would permit someone (or some collection of persons) to make, or at least to carry out successfully. We know from history, for example, that God did permit Hitler’s murder of six million Jews. But in a case such as this, he can at least resurrect the victims of murder just as easily as he can the victims of old age. So now we must ask whether God might have allowed Hitler to inflict upon these victims of his cruelty a kind of harm that not even Omnipotence could repair (or at least bring to an end2) at some future time. Is it even possible, to be more specific, that God might have granted Hitler the power to annihilate the souls of certain Jews forever? The question virtually answers itself. So if, given his essential nature, it is not even possible that God should grant someone the freedom to inflict irreparable harm on someone else, why suppose it possible that he would grant any of us the power to inflict such irreparable harm on ourselves?3
In fact, given that we are not isolated monads, why suppose it even possible that we could harm ourselves irreparably without, at the same time, harming irreparably those who in obedience to Christ have managed to love us even as they love themselves? When the mother of Ted Bundy declared, so agonizingly and yet so appropriately, her continuing love for a son who had become a monster (as a serial rapist and murderer of young women), she illustrated the true nature of a mother’s love and the true nature of God’s love as well. Her obvious suffering over what her son had become and her all-consuming desire that he should achieve redemption of some kind is reminiscent of Paul’s ”unceasing anguish” over the spiritual health of his beloved kin: ”I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish [or pray] that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people” (Rom. 9:2–3). So how, I ask, could God possibly impart blessedness to the anguished Paul and to the suffering mother of Ted Bundy, unless his forgiveness should find a way to reclaim their lost loved ones as well? It will not do, at this point, to invoke the possibility of blissful ignorance. Hart acknowledges that God could, if he chose to do so, remove from the minds of Paul and the mother of Ted Bundy all knowledge of their lost loved ones: “Think of it as a kind of heavenly lobotomy,” he suggests, “a small, judicious mutilation of the intellect, the surrender of a piece of the mind in exchange for peace of mind” (p. 150). But Hart also stresses how much of their individual personalities that would likely destroy.
[God] could of course erase each of the elect as whatever they once were, by shattering their memories and attachments like the gates of hell, and then raise up some other being in each of their places, thus converting the will of each into an idiot bliss stripped of the loves that made him or her this person—associations and attachments and pity and tenderness and all the rest. But persons could not be saved; they could only be damned. (p. 155)
Not only would such “an idiot bliss stripped of the loves” and memories that made the mother of Ted Bundy the person she was not qualify as a worthwhile salvation for her; this would itself be akin to a kind of damnation, even if not a total annihilation. Indeed, only if the ultimate truth about the universe should turn out to be glorious could Jesus rightly declare, “You shall know the truth, and the truth [not blissful ignorance and not an elaborate deception] shall make you free” (John 8:32; NKJV). But if the truth about the universe is ultimately tragic or even includes an element of unmitigated tragedy, then it will also, by its very nature, include grounds for a kind of eternal sorrow and regret. And that is precisely why two thoughts were able to convert Paul’s “unceasing anguish” over the fact that so many of his beloved kin had rejected Christ, which he expressed at the beginning of Romans 9, into the ecstatic joy he expressed at the end of Romans 11. The first was that the faithful remnant of Israel, or the elect, were but the first fruits of a larger and more communal salvation that would eventually include all of Israel (see especially Rom. 11:16 and 26). And the second was that the non-remnant Jews, the so-called non-elect, “have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy . . . For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all” Rom. 11:31-32—NIV).
From such considerations as these and a host of others, Hart draws, correctly in my opinion, the following inference: “either all persons must be saved, or none can be” (p. 155—italics his). Either (a) it is necessarily true that all persons will be saved, or (b) it is possible that no one, including Jesus Christ or even the Father himself, can truly be saved from eternal sorrow and regret. But (b) is utterly absurd for a host of biblical, theological, and philosophical reasons. Therefore, it is necessarily true that all persons will be saved. Having eschewed a so-called hopeful universalism, Hart thus embraces what some Christian philosophers have called a necessary universalism; and in Part III of this review, we’ll examine a further reason for embracing necessary universalism: the incoherence in the very idea of someone freely rejecting God forever.
 Balthasar could argue, I suppose, that the Bible establishes merely the epistemic possibility that (1) is true as well as the epistemic possibility that (2) is true—as if, for example, Paul’s explicit statement that God is merciful to all were merely a shorthand way of saying, “For all we know, God is merciful to all.” But that would be as pointless as saying, “For all we know, Jesus Christ died for our sins.” It would also be an admission that we have no clear idea of what Paul’s teaching really was.
 Clearly, bringing to an end the harm we have done to ourselves or to others is a necessary condition of God’s repairing such harm in any conceivable way whatsoever.
 For more on this point, see the section entitled “Irreparable Harm and the Limits of Permissible Freedom” in Thomas Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2014), pp. 177-181.
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Dr Thomas Talbott is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Willamette University and author of the celebrated book on the greater hope, The Inescapable Love of God. He is the author of numerous philosophical articles, as well as a piece published on this blog: “How to Read the Bible from a Universalist Perspective.”