by Thomas Talbott, Ph.D.
In an article entitled “The Incoherencies of Hard Universalism,” recently published in Church Life Journal (18 October 2022), James Dominic Rooney argues that universalism is a serious heresy that Christians should clearly reject. He begins his article by mentioning the controversy over whether the Second Council of Constantinople (more generally known as the Fifth Ecumenical Council of the Christian Church in 553) really did condemn universalism along with other doctrines, such as the pre-existence of the soul. But concerning that controversy, he suggests that even if “universalism might not have been condemned by that council,” this would constitute “nothing more than an interesting historical tidbit for orthodox Christians.” I tend to agree with him here. For the controversy over whether St. Paul himself delivered a universalist message and was therefore a heretic, given Rooney’s view that such a message is itself heretical, seems to me far more pertinent and far more important than the controversy over the rulings of a single council. So if I may be forgiven an extraneous remark here at the outset, I have yet to see a single cogent argument against the claim that St. Paul was himself a universalist.1
My principle concern here, however, is with Rooney’s philosophical case against hard universalism, as he calls it, which he identifies as the view that “it is not possible for anyone to end up in hell for eternity.” And when he speaks of someone ending “up in hell for eternity,” he has in mind, I presume, someone’s going to hell and then remaining there for an unending period of time. I emphasize this point because of several imprecisions in his basic argument against universalism, which runs as follows:
If it is a necessary truth that all will be saved, something makes it so. The only way it would be impossible for anyone to go to hell is,
1. that God could not do otherwise than cause human beings to love him or
2. that human beings could not do otherwise than love God.
3. There is no third option.
Note first the apparent assumption in the first two sentences of this quotation that if “it is a necessary truth that all will [eventually] be saved,” then “it would be impossible for anyone to go to hell.” But as it stands, that is a simple non sequitur. If hell itself, however else we might understand its nature, serves a corrective purpose in the divine scheme of things or even serves as a means of bringing sinners back to Christ, as many Christian universalists believe it does, then it hardly follows that no sinners will ever go there. So the claim that no one will remain in hell forever must obviously be distinguished from the claim that no one will ever go there in the first place.
The Second Option
Consider next the second option that Rooney offers above: the option “that human beings could not do otherwise than love God.” Is this supposed to imply that newborn babies come into their earthly lives already loving God? If so, then no universalist should concede the relevance of such an absurdity as that; and if this second option does not carry such an absurd implication, then how are we to understand it? Again, it is certainly true that we humans normally emerge and mature into adults in a context of considerable ambiguity, ignorance, and misperception. So any implication that we “could not do otherwise than love God” during our earthly lives would likewise be both absurd and clearly irrelevant to the claim that God will save everyone in the end. So again, just how are we to understand this second option? Because Rooney offers nary a clue concerning a more precise formulation of it, one that avoids the obviously absurd implications just mentioned, I shall here propose, as an alternative to his second option, what I take to be the sober truth of this matter.
But first some preliminary thoughts by way of preparation. Few Christians would reject the idea that the perfected saints in heaven have indeed reached a point where they could not do otherwise than obey the will of God and, similarly, “could not do otherwise than love God.” They have achieved, after all, a full clarity of vision concerning who God is, why he is the ultimate source of human happiness, and why acting otherwise in such matters would be utterly irrational and stupid. So is it Rooney’s view that the perfected saints in heaven no longer obey God freely? If so, then many of those who worry about heresy, as I do not, will no doubt regard him as a heretic; and if not, then acting freely in a specific situation does not always require that one could have acted otherwise in that very same situation. As for those on either side of the grave who are not yet perfected saints in heaven, the more controversial issue, I suppose, is whether there could be a guarantee of some kind that they will eventually become such? My own conviction that there is indeed such a guarantee rests upon two assumptions: first, that moral freedom requires a minimal degree of rationality, and second, that, for this very reason, the idea of a free and fully informed decision to reject God and his love for us represents a metaphysical impossibility.
With respect to the first assumption, an obvious question arises. Just how should we understand the minimal degree of rationality that moral freedom requires? Although people use such terms as “freedom” and “free will” in a variety of different ways, virtually everyone seems to agree that we should exclude lower animals, newborn babies, the severely brain damaged, the seriously demented, and perhaps even paranoid schizophrenics from the precise kind of freedom that moral responsibility requires. That’s because the relevant freedom requires an ability to reflect upon and to evaluate one’s own actions, to draw inferences with some degree of accuracy from one’s own experience and from the consequences of one’s actions, and to learn important lessons, as the evidence continues to pile up, concerning the conditions of one’s own happiness. But as with borderline cases in general, it is probably impossible to say exactly when a maturing child, let us say, becomes rational enough to advance above the relevant threshold or when someone suffering from age-related dementia sinks below that threshold. In the case of a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, for example, there need be no exact instant at which her ever-diminishing rationality removes the last shred of her remaining freedom; it is enough that at some point she has clearly lost the ability to make minimally rational judgments and has therefore lost the ability to act freely.
So that brings us to my second assumption above. Are there cogent reasons for believing that a free and fully informed decision to reject God forever represents a metaphysical impossibility? Of course there are. Even C. S. Lewis, despite his own defense of a free-will theodicy of hell, once offered support for this assumption, perhaps unknowingly, when he wrote concerning the divine nature that “union with that Nature is bliss and separation from it [an objective] horror.”2 Suppose, then, that we think of the outer darkness as a biblical image of separation from the divine nature as far as this is possible short of annihilation; suppose further that we think of such separation from every implicit experience of God as something akin to a soul suspended alone in sheer nothingness, without even a physical order to experience. If that would be an objective horror, as Lewis insisted, then it would explain why no minimally rational person could both experience this objective horror and continue to embrace it freely. It would also explains how God could shatter all of the illusions and self-deceptions that might make a life apart from God seem desirable and how he could do so without in any way interfering with our freedom to separate ourselves from him. For it is precisely when we exercise that very freedom and when God permits us to experience the very life we have confusedly chosen for ourselves that we begin to experience, and finally to discover, its horrific nature. Just as no one (with a normal nervous system) who is rational enough to qualify as a free moral agent could both shove an unprotected arm into a hot fire and retain an illusion that this fire causes sensations of intense pleasure, neither could such a person both experience the outer darkness and retain forever the illusion that some other imagined condition, such as submission to God, would be even worse than this.
In any case, here is a revision of Rooney’s second option, the truth of which I am prepared to defend:
2* No one who experiences the bliss of union with the divine nature can “do otherwise than love God,” and no one who freely refuses the offer of such a union and then experiences the full horror of being separated from the divine nature as far as this is possible short of one’s own annihilation can continue to embrace that separation freely.
Part of the issue here is whether there are limits of any kind to the range of possible free choice. Although Rooney seems to identify moral freedom with the power to act otherwise, as we have seen, it is easy enough to imagine cases where someone has such a power and yet remains too irrational to qualify as being morally responsible for his or her actions. Suppose, by way of illustration, that a schizophrenic young man should kill his loving mother, believing her to be a sinister space alien who has devoured his real mother, and suppose further that he does so in a context in which he categorically could have chosen otherwise (in part, perhaps, because he worries about possible retaliation from other sinister space aliens). Why should such an irrational choice, even if not causally determined, be any more compatible with genuine moral freedom than a rigorous determinism would be? Either our seriously deluded beliefs, particularly those with destructive consequences in our own lives, are in principle correctable by some degree of powerful evidence against them, or the choices that rest upon them are simply too irrational to qualify as free moral choices.
Similar remarks apply to the view of Lewis, with which Rooney concurs, that “the doors of hell are locked on the inside.” Given the traditional view of hell as an externally imposed punishment for sin, one that includes everlasting conscious torment, we can at least make coherent sense of why no one would ever exit from a hell of that kind; it would simply not be permitted. But Lewis imagines hell to be a freely embraced condition rather than an externally imposed punishment; that is the whole point of declaring that “the doors of hell are locked on the inside.” And that also raises again the obvious question of how someone who is rational enough to qualify as a free moral agent could both experience the sheer horror of separation from the divine nature (or the misery of hell, if you prefer) and continue freely to embrace it forever.
The First Option
According to Rooney’s first option, as he originally formulated it, “God could not do otherwise than cause human beings to love him.” As Jeremiah Carey points out in a previous response to Rooney on this blog, the term “cause” is simply too vague in the present context and clearly needs further clarification. But I shall concentrate here on the expression “could not do otherwise” and the role it plays in Rooney’s understanding of divine freedom. “What is necessary” for divine freedom, Rooney insists, “is that God could have done otherwise”—in other words, that “God is free of necessity in what he chooses to do.” Rooney thus contends that “what it is to be free (for both God and humans) is that one’s actions are not necessary” in that one acts freely only when one could have acted otherwise.
So is this an adequate understanding of divine freedom? Not in my opinion. Set aside the great questions (that occupy so much of Rooney’s attention) concerning the possibility that God might not have created anything at all or might not have entered into his own creation by way of an Incarnation. Is it not a necessary truth, according to traditional Christian theology (not to mention Titus 1:2), that God never lies? And is it not likewise a necessary truth that God never chooses to break a promise? If these are indeed logical necessities, it looks as if, according to Rooney, God never speaks the truth freely and never keeps his promises freely. In his dispute with David Bentley Hart, Rooney thus writes: “Being free [always?] involves being such that one can act on other reasons; necessitation looks strictly incompatible with [divine] freedom for that reason.” But again, isn’t that just obviously false, given a Christian understanding of the divine perfections? For even if God could have acted on “other reasons” and have refrained from making any promises at all, there are surely no possible reasons upon which he might conceivably act for the purpose of breaking a promise. Neither are there any possible reasons upon which he might conceivably act for the purpose of issuing certain kinds of commands. To give just one example, it is logically impossible, surely, that a God whose very essence is perfect love should issue a command that we torture babies for our own sadistic pleasure. So given such a logical impossibility as that, does it not follow, given Rooney’s conception of divine freedom, that God is not really free in this matter? Like Hart, I would argue instead that God’s freedom consists simply in his being true to himself, whether or not he could have done otherwise with respect to some specific action; and in a similar vein, C. S. Lewis, whom Rooney appears to revere, once put it this way:
Whatever human freedom means, Divine freedom cannot mean indeterminacy between alternatives and choice of one of them. Perfect goodness can never debate about the end to be attained, and perfect wisdom cannot debate over the means most suited to achieve it. The freedom of God consists in the fact that no cause other than Himself produces His acts and no external obstacle impedes them—that His own goodness is the root from which they all grow and His own omnipotence is the air in which they all flower.3
Now against this understanding of divine freedom, which Lewis appears to share with Hart, Rooney argues as follows:
What is necessary [for divine freedom] is that God could have done otherwise . . . If God were required to act only on the “best” reasons available to him, as Hart implies, God would be dependent on those reasons. Necessitating God’s choices is problematic because it implies that God’s goodness is dependent on creation or what he does. But God’s goodness is not dependent on creation.
I must confess that these remarks make no sense to me at all. If it is a logical (or metaphysical) necessity that God keeps whatever promises he makes, then it is also a logical necessity that his reasons for keeping a given promise (assuming he makes one) will always outweigh whatever reasons may exist for breaking it. But how on earth does that make God’s goodness dependent on the very reasons for which his own moral perfection is responsible?—and how on earth does it make his goodness “dependent on creation”? What, in other words, is the relevant conception of dependence here? According to the traditional doctrine of divine aseity, neither God’s necessary existence nor his essential goodness is causally dependent upon (or a causal effect of) anything that happens in his creation; all relations of causal dependence go in the opposite direction. But whatever one might otherwise think of this doctrine, in no way is it inconsistent with there being a host of logical (or metaphysical) necessities and impossibilities, grounded in God’s self-sufficiency and essential perfections, concerning how he would providentially care for any created loved ones, if there should be any. When Rooney declares, “Necessitating God’s choices is problematic because it implies that God’s goodness is dependent on creation or what he does,” he therefore owes us something more than a bald assertion at this point. For as any perfect being theist would insist, he has it exactly backwards here. It is precisely the necessity of God’s goodness that actually determines some of his actions in creation—that he never breaks a promise, for example—so that his actions in relation to his creation are themselves dependent upon the nature of his goodness, not vice versa.
Rooney also owes us some additional clarity on his own understanding of such concepts as that of freedom, free choice, and free will. In the first sentence of the above quotation as well as elsewhere, he at least appears, once again, to identify doing something freely with a power to act otherwise. He then declares, “Universalism would not be true without denying either human freedom in salvation or divine freedom in creation or redemption.” But so what? All I ask for at this point is a bit of clarity from Rooney concerning his own use of the term “freedom” and its implications. If he wants to use this term in such a way that one acts freely only when, at the time of acting, one also has a power to act otherwise, then I will gladly accept this as a stipulation. For we are all free to stipulate a specific meaning for some technical term we are using, although we must also be clear about its implications. One implication of Rooney’s apparent stipulation is this: if a young mother, filled with love for her newborn baby, finds it utterly unthinkable (and therefore psychologically impossible) to abandon her baby and not to take care for it, then she does not take care of her baby freely in the above stipulated sense. But again I ask, “So what?” There are many other conceptions of freedom—including libertarian conceptions, I might add4—according to which our young mother does indeed take care of her baby freely. So to repeat the point, all we need here is a bit of clarity concerning the meaning and the implications of the basic terms we are using.
It seems likely, moreover, that neither God nor we humans typically make our most important decisions in a context in which we could have acted otherwise. As an illustration that takes us back to the issue of human freedom, consider how C. S. Lewis described his own conversion to Christianity when he wrote:
I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England . . . a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape. The words compelle intrare, compel them to come in, have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood, they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy. . . . His compulsion is our liberation.5
Does this not sound more like Hart’s conception of human freedom than it does Rooney’s conception of it? Consider how carefully Lewis chose his words in the larger context leading up to the above quotation. He observed first that “before God closed in on me, I was in fact offered what now appears a moment of wholly free choice.” But lest this remark should be misunderstood, he immediately added the following clarification: “I say, ‘I chose,’ yet it did not really seem possible to do the opposite [or to do otherwise]. . . . You could argue that I was not a free agent, but I am more inclined to think that this came nearer to being a perfectly free act than most that I have ever done. Necessity may not [always] be the opposite of freedom . . .” So here Lewis explicitly contradicts Rooney’s apparent assumption that necessity always is the opposite of freedom, and he thus illustrates the usefulness of a more subtle account of freedom, one that does not simply identify freedom with the power to do otherwise. And as I have already suggested in the previous section, a more subtle account should include these two ideas: first, that moral freedom requires that one has surpassed a certain threshold of rationality, and, second, that an utterly irrational choice cannot possibly qualify as a choice for which one is morally responsible.
The Inclusive Nature of Love
Now finally, Rooney interprets one of Hart’s arguments against an everlasting hell, perhaps the most persuasive one of them all in my opinion, as follows:
[T]here can be no eternal or perfect happiness if even one person is lost to damnation. In sum, ‘true spiritual love could never abide the sight of souls suffering in hell’ . . . Hart’s point is simply that the existence of [an everlasting] hell would make it impossible for anyone, let alone God, to be eternally happy. True love of others could not co-exist with even the possibility that anyone could be damned [with no further hope of salvation].
A point that Rooney fails to clarify here concerns the way in which love—that is, love in the sense of willing the very best for another—ties the interests of people together. We see this most clearly, perhaps, in the case of our own family and close friends, where we may find it somewhat easier to obey the second of the great commandments (see Matt. 22:39). For according to this commandment, we are to love others even as we love ourselves. If I truly love my own daughter and love her even as I love myself, then her interests and my own are so tightly interwoven as to be logically inseparable: any good that befalls her is then a good that befalls me, and any evil that befalls her is likewise an evil that befalls me. Or as Jesus himself once expressed a similar point: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it [i.e., performed acts of kindness] to one of the least of these my brethren [or loved ones], you did it to me . . . [and] as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me” (Matt. 25:40 & 45).
So is my claim here that any temporary harm or hardship that befalls one of my own loved ones would inevitably undermine my own happiness? Of course not! I would at least hope that I could experience directly many instances of temporary harm and hardship without losing a more basic sense of serenity. But even if I should fail in this regard, many of the saints among us would not; and the real issue comes down to whether one can sincerely believe that all will be well in the end. So let us now suppose that I should discover that some version of the doctrine of everlasting conscious torment should actually be true and that my own daughter was destined for such an end. Even if such a supposition expresses a logical impossibility, as I believe it does, we can at least imagine it being true. Suppose, then, that I should discover, to my horror, that my daughter had indeed come to such a terrible end. Even if I were to discover that, by her own will, she had made herself intolerably evil, I would still experience this as a terrible tragedy and an unacceptable loss, one for which no compensation is even conceivable. Is it any wonder, then, that Paul could say concerning his unbelieving kin whom he loved so dearly, “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people” (Romans 9:3)? From the perspective of his love, in other words, Paul’s own damnation would be no worse an evil, and no greater threat to his own happiness, than the eternal damnation of his loved ones would be.
I have no doubt, by the way, that God could, if he chose to do so, wipe all knowledge of such tragedies from our minds, although I doubt he could do so effectively without destroying a lot more of our minds than we might imagine. But blissful ignorance is a far cry from the most worthwhile forms of happiness, and it has, in any case, no relevance at all to God’s own happiness. So does God’s love for us likewise tie his interests together with our own? If it does—and I see no way it could fail to do so—then God’s own happiness surely is logically inconsistent with certain kinds of things happening to us. Or, to put it another way, God’s own happiness could not possibly be consistent with just anything we might imagine happening in his creation. Nor does it follow that actual events in the creation causally determine God’s happiness or could otherwise threaten it. Accordingly, a bit of clarity on this matter is essential to a proper evaluation of the following objection that Rooney raises against Hart: “Now, strictly speaking, we know it must be false in at least one instance that every person’s happiness depends on every other. God’s happiness exists in communion with that of the other Trinitarian persons; God’s happiness does not depend on his creatures.”
So just how should we understand Rooney’s claim here? Is he claiming that God’s eternal happiness is logically consistent with just anything that someone might imagine happening to his creatures? Suppose that a religious alien from Alpha Centauri should declare that all Christians, including Rooney, will burn eternally in hell for their blasphemy in accepting the Christian faith; and suppose further that our alien “friend” should then remind us that God’s own happiness does not depend causally on anything that actually happens in his creation. This might seem like a neat trick if it could fool some into believing, contrary to numerous biblical texts, that God cares nothing about what actually happens to his creatures. But that would also be sheer confusion. For once again, it is precisely God’s eternal happiness together with his essential goodness that determines the very nature of his providential control over his creation. And this explains, in particular, why God would never permit irreparable harm—that is, harm that not even omnipotence could repair at some future time—to befall one of his own loved ones. It also explains why certain conceptions of hell, including that of our imagined alien, would be logically inconsistent with God’s own happiness and essential goodness.
We thus confront a choice between two very different explanations concerning why nothing in creation could ever threaten God’s own happiness. We might imagine, first of all, that God should be utterly indifferent and couldn’t care less about the ultimate fate of created persons. But of course indifference is just the opposite of any genuine love for another. So even though I would never attribute to Rooney, without clearer evidence, the view that God is utterly indifferent concerning the ultimate fate of human beings, I would like to understand better his remark concerning communion within the divine Trinity. For this remark could easily be interpreted as implying that God’s happiness is logically consistent with just anything we might imagine happening outside the sphere of that special communion. Anyway, an alternative explanation of why nothing in creation could ever threaten God’s own happiness does not reject the idea that he cares deeply about the ultimate fate of those whom he has loved into existence in the first place. A Christian universalist may thus hold that the God “who desires everyone to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4) and “is not willing that any should perish but [wills instead] that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9) never has the slightest doubt concerning his ability to satisfy his own will or desire in this matter. For has he not already arranged things so that “one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people” (Rom. 5:18b)?
Finally, against any suggestion that communion within the Trinity could render God indifferent to the fate of those others whom he has loved into existence, I would argue that the truth is just the opposite of that. The following analogy is no doubt flawed in many ways, but it nonetheless points in the direction of an important truth. Suppose that a young married couple have an absolutely fulfilling love relationship with each other, and suppose further that their relationship would remain altogether fulfilling even if they never have children together. They enjoy hiking together in the mountains, joking around with each other and their friends, and just being in each other’s presence. Still, if they do have a child together and continue to love that child with all their heart, then their happiness cannot remain consistent with just anything that might happen to that child. Similarly, even if God’s happiness is consistent with his choosing not to create anything at all, his decision to create additional persons to love automatically changes the situation he faces in this respect: his supreme happiness is no longer consistent with just anything we might imagine happening in his creation. Yes, there is an important disanalogy in the present context between our example of loving parents and the Trinitarian God of Christianity. For however loving a pair of human parents may be, they will have far less control over the ultimate fate of their child than an omnipotent and omniscient God would have over the ultimate fate of his creation. But that merely underscores the point that, unlike a pair of human parents, God’s own happiness is never vulnerable to conditions over which he has no control at all.
Perhaps I can do no better, by way of a conclusion, than to reproduce a paragraph from a section entitled “The Essential Role of Human Freedom in Universal Reconciliation” from my book The Inescapable Love of God (pp. 123-124):
Essential to the whole [redemptive] process, then, is that we exercise our moral freedom—not that we choose rightly rather than wrongly, but that we choose freely one way or the other. We can choose today to live selfishly or unselfishly, faithfully or unfaithfully, obediently or disobediently. But our choices, especially the bad ones, will also have unintended and unforeseen consequences in our lives; as the proverb says, “The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps” (Prov. 16:9). A man who commits robbery may set off a chain of events that, contrary to his own intention, lands him in jail; and a woman who enters into an adulterous affair may discover that, even though her husband remains oblivious to it, the affair has a host of unforeseen and destructive consequences in her life. In fact, our bad choices almost never get us what we really want; that is part of what makes them bad and also one reason why God is able to bring redemptive goods out of them. When we make a mess of our lives and our misery becomes more and more unbearable, the hell we thereby create for ourselves will in the end resolve the very ambiguity and shatter the very illusions that made the bad choices possible in the first place. That is how God works with us as created rational agents. He permits us to choose freely in the ambiguous contexts in which we first emerge as self-aware beings, and he then requires us to learn from experience the hard lessons we sometimes need to learn. So in that way, the consequences of our free choices, both the good ones and the bad ones, are a source of revelation; they reveal sooner or later—in the next life, if not in this one—both the horror of separation from God and the bliss of union with him. And that is why the end is foreordained: all paths finally lead to the same destination, the end of reconciliation, though some are longer, windier, and a lot more painful than others.
 I defend this claim in a presentation I made at the Door Standing Open Conference in Providence, Rhode Island, on April 28, 2018. The presentation was entitled “How to Read the Bible from a Universalist Perspective,” and it is available at the following URL: http://www.willamette.edu/~ttalbott/Reading%20the%20Bible.pdf
 C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955), p. 232.
 C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1944), p. 23.
 See, for example, my explanation of the source libertarian view in my book Understanding the Free Will Controversy: Thinking through a Philosophical Quagmire (Eugene, OR; Cascade Books, 2022), pp. 15-17.
 Lewis, Surprised by Joy, pp. 228-229.
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Thomas Talbott is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. He is best known for his advocacy of trinitarian universalism. Due to his book The Inescapable Love of God and other works, he is one of the most prominent Protestant voices today supporting the doctrine of universal salvation. The 2003 book Universal Salvation?: The Current Debate presents Talbott’s “rigorous defense of universalism” together with responses from various fields theologians, philosophers, church historians and other religious scholars supporting or opposing Talbott’s universalism. Talbott contributed the chapter on “Universalism” for The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology. A list of his peer-reviewed articles can be found on his webpage. This past summer Wipf & Stock published his book Understanding the Free-Will Controversy. Over the years Dr Talbott has contributed several articles to Eclectic Orthodoxy, including “Free Will Theodicies of Hell,” and a four-part review of That All Shall Be Saved.