Do Universalists Dream of Eclectic Hells?

The emergence of hopeful universalism in the 20th century is a fascinating phenomenon. Whereas universalists in the past have forthrightly affirmed the proposition that God will, necessarily and indubitably, reconcile all sinners to himself within the Trinitarian life of his unbounded love, hopeful universalists are unwilling to affirm the proposition and raise various objections against it, including:

  • The strong universalist claim subverts divine freedom.
  • Jesus and the Apostles taught the everlasting punishment of the wicked.
  • Justice demands that impenitent sinners be punished.
  • God cannot guarantee the salvation of all without violating human freedom.
  • The Church authoritatively rejects necessary universalism as heresy.
  • We just can’t be sure.

For these reasons and others, hopeful universalists do not affirm the strong universalist claim that God will definitely save all; nonetheless, they hope and pray that he will. As Michael Rea puts it, they hold “the considered unconditional hope that soteriological universalism is true together with an absence of belief that it is true.”1 Hopeful univer­sal­ists desire the salvation of all; they acknowledge that it seems to be the eschatological conclusion that best accords with God’s love and goodness; but, they insist, we do not, cannot know that it is true. Our epistemic condition permits us to pray for the reconcil­iation of all, but we may not publicly teach it with the certainty of faith. The possibility that some or many will be eternally damned must always be kept open. Hence the solemn warning of Hans Urs von Balthasar: “We stand completely and utterly under judgment, and have no right, nor is it possible for us, to peer in advance at the Judge’s cards.”2 We must not dismiss or suppress, he goes on to say,

the horrifying thought that brothers and sisters of Christ, created by the Father for Christ, who died for them in atonement, may fail to reach their final destination in God and may instead suffer eternal damnation with its everlasting pain—which, in fact, would frustrate God’s universal plan of salvation. If we take our faith seriously and respect the words of Scripture, we must resign ourselves to admitting such an ultimate possibility, our feelings of revulsion notwithstanding. We may not simply ignore such a threat; we may not easily dismiss it, neither for ourselves nor for any of our brothers and sisters in Christ.3

Maybe eternal perdition, maybe not. Hence the curious phenomenon of Christians unconditionally hoping and praying for the salvation of all, absent belief that it will or can be so—absent belief, in other words, that God wills the salvation of all, given human sin and wickedness. St Augustine would no doubt have included Balthasar and his fellow hopeful universalists among his list of the misericordes (“compassionate ones”).

Readers, I am sure, will have noted that the objections cited above against the strong universalist position (except for the last) are also advanced, even more vigorously, by the proponents of eternal perdition. So what is the difference between the infernalist and the soft universalist? Rea does not speak to this question, but given that he thinks it is possible for the soft universalist to hope for the salvation of all even while believing that it is probably false, the difference may be thin indeed. Perhaps we should speak of soft-soft universalists and hard-soft universalists.4

Rea identifies and responds to the following four objections commonly advanced against his thesis:

Hoping Against the Evidence

Imagine two scenarios: compelling evidence comes to your attention that (1) a trusted business partner has been transferring large sums of money to individuals not connected to the company, or (2) your spouse is keeping regular appointments with an unknown person at a local hotel bar. How do you respond? A reasonable response would be to refrain from jumping to conclusions and hope that the evidence is wrong. “In fact,” Rea writes, “hoping in situations like these that one is mistaken might seem not only reasonable but virtuous, a manifestation of epistemic humility, a disposition to interpret others as charitably as possible, or faithfulness to a friend or romantic partner.”5

In a similar way, perhaps hopeful universalism might be described as an expression of epistemic humility. Let us say, for example, that after faithful study of the Scriptures, Church Fathers, and the authoritative teachings of the Church, you reach the disturbing conclusion that God does will the damnation of the impenitent and that hell will likely be populated. But instead of immediately embracing this conclusion, you decide instead to hope that you have made a mistake in your interpretation of the data, that the fault lies with you and “is not one about the goodness of God. The best theories of hope allow for one to have rational hope even for things that one takes to be highly improbable; so there is no in-principle irrationality in believing a conclusion and hoping that one is mistaken.”6

Rea points out, however, that the position of the hopeful universalist is different from the businessman and spouse. For both the question is not whether embezzling or marital infidelity is wrong but whether they have been betrayed. Deciding that question depends on one’s confidence in the evidence. If you judge the evidence weak, it is reasonable to hold onto your good opinion of your partner or spouse and hope that the appearances of impropriety are mistaken. But if after further investigation the evidence becomes compel­ling, then reason requires you to adjust your opinion of their character. You can no longer hope against the evidence. At some point, hope must give way to belief. Similarly for the universalist hope:

Suppose one is deeply committed to the goodness of God, and suppose one has high confidence that scripture reliably teaches that universalism is false. One then has a defeater for the belief that it would be a bad thing, all things considered, if universalism is false and, indeed, one has good reason to believe that it would not be a bad thing if universalism is false. In that case, there are no rational grounds for hoping that universalism is true. On the other hand, if one’s confidence in God’s goodness and the badness of hell trumps whatever confidence one has that scripture reliably teaches that universalism is false, one has a defeater for the belief that scripture so teaches. In that case, then, one should not only hope that universalism is true, one should believe that it is true.7

Hopeful universalism thus seems to lie in a grey area of ambiguity in which one is torn between two conflicting apprehensions of the gospel. The situation is inherently unstable. How long may one, should one rationally hope against the evidence?

Hoping for the Improbable

Has Rea’s argument proven too much? If his argument is sound, he appears to have demonstrated “that worshippers of God cannot rationally maintain considered hope in anything they do not think is likely to happen.”8 Rea dismisses the concern and assures us that “the best theories of hope maintain that hope for what is improbable can be, and often is, entirely rational.”9 The key lies in the difference between hoping unconditionally and hoping conditionally for a specific outcome.

Suppose you purchase a lottery ticket, knowing full well that the odds of you winning the prize is extraordinarily slim. You rightly infer that the odds that God will bring it about that you will win the $1,000,000 prize is also extraordinarily slim. God could certainly do so—he has the power—but long experience shows that he has little interest in manipu­lat­ing gambling events to the profit of his followers. More likely he leaves game and gambling outcomes to a combination of chance, operation of natural laws, and human choices.

But if this is right, then unconditional hope in a particular lottery outcome might just be unconditional hope that the natural course of events breaks in one’s favour; and this will not pose any tension with a second-order desire to prioritize God’s will. If God has genuinely left an outcome partly to chance, free choice, the laws of nature, or some combination thereof, then any of a variety of possible, and even unlikely, outcomes will be consistent with God’s will. And, of course, the same reasoning applies to a great many other apparently unlikely events that we are inclined to hope for.10

And here is the difference between unconditionally hoping for a successful gambling outcome and unconditionally hoping for the salvation of all. The former avoids the challenge of reconciling your hope with the divine will, but the latter potentially, perhaps inevitably, generates this problem:

However, if a worshipper of God finds herself unconditionally hoping that God will guarantee a particular outcome—as would be the case if one were hoping for God to ‘rig’ a lottery in one’s favour, and as is the case when one hopes that universalism is true—then I do think there is tension with her second-order desire to prioritize God’s will. For, again, it is solely up to God whether God is willing to guarantee the outcome; and so, in hoping uncon­di­tionally for a particular outcome, one might be hoping for something that is in fact inconsistent with God’s will.11

Soteriological universalists avoid the problem of prioritization, as their hoping is conjoined with belief that God truly wills the salvation of all. But soft universalists, precisely because they do not believe that God wills universal reconciliation, inevitably find themselves in the spiritual dilemma of unconditionally hoping for an eschatological end that my be opposed to the Lord’s eschatological will. Rea suggests that the rational move for the hopeful universalist is to either abandon his unconditional hope and embrace the doctrine of everlasting damnation or embrace the belief that God will bring about the reconciliation of all humanity. One option Rea does not consider is the adoption of a contingent hope: “If it is your will, please save all.” But not only does this change evacuate the act of hope of evangelical and spiritual power, but it needs to be complimented by a second prayer: “If it is your will, please condemn the impenitent to everlasting punishment.”

Resisting Personal Transformation

Regarding this third objection I will be brief. I’m not even sure it should be called an objection to hopeful universalism; it is, rather, a problem we will all face in the eschaton: namely, freely embracing the painful changes needed to bring us into conformity with the divine character and life. The bottomline:

This, then, is the position of the hopeful universalist. As a worshipper of God, she had better believe that God is perfectly good and that she will, therefore, be all-things-considered better off if she brings her preferences into line with God’s. But then it will not be rational for her to prefer not to match God’s preferences with respect to universalism, in which case it will not be rational for her to hope against a transformation in which her preferences fall into line with God’s should it turn out that God in fact wills the falsity of universalism.12

Clearly, though, this situation is not unique to the hopeful universalist; it applies equally to the strong universalist and the infernalist. May God give us the grace to fully embrace his truth and good will.

Evil and the Divine Hiddenness

The final objection Rea considers is based on his previous writings on evil and divine hiddenness. He explains:

In particular, I have argued that our epistemic limitations undermine inferences from our beliefs about the nature of love and goodness to conclusions about what a perfectly good or loving God would in fact do. For example, the problem of evil trades in part on the idea that there seem to be some actual evils that a perfectly good and omnipotent being could have prevented without losing any greater good, and so if God exists, God would have prevented these evils. Similarly, the problem of divine hiddenness trades in part on the idea that a perfectly loving and omnipotent deity would not leave anyone in a state of non-resistantly failing to believe in God or bereft of deeply longed-for experiences of the love or presence of God. But in response to both problems I have argued that, because the phenomena in question might well serve goods beyond our ken that justify God in permitting them, we are not entitled to infer from the fact that such phenomena occur that there is no God, or that God is not perfectly loving or good.13

This is an argument that has been long advanced by the defenders of hell: God permits the the evil of everlasting irremediable suffering in order to effect a greater good. Given our present epistemic limitations, we are not privy to God’s reasons, but our ignorance does not justify the inference that God is evil or not perfectly good. Yet Rea does not believe that this defense of hell can be convincingly deployed against the thesis:

Although there is a tradition of interpreting scripture in a way that supports the denial of universalism, our grounds for believing that God has not acted so as to make universalism true are nowhere near as good as our grounds for believing that God has not acted so as to prevent people from suffering in horrendous ways. Without such grounds, those who believe on the basis of their (admittedly limited) grasp of love and goodness that a perfectly good or loving being would act so as to make universalism true are not forced to choose, as in the problems of evil and divine hiddenness, between rejecting this belief and rejecting belief in God. They can instead reject the premise that God has not acted so as to make universalism true, and they can do so on the strength of their conviction that God is good and their further conviction that the doctrine of hell is incompatible with perfect love and goodness. The situation of the hopeful universalist is, therefore, entirely unlike our situation with respect to the problems of evil and divine hiddenness; and so, by my lights, the solutions to those problems that I have elsewhere advocated do not have application here.14

Unfortunately, Rea does not elaborate why he believes that the grounds for the divine permission of eternal irremediable suffering are demonstrably weaker than the grounds for the divine permission of horrific suffering. Hopefully he will address this topic in a future journal article.


I think I’ll give Dr Rea the last word:

The attraction of hopeful universalism lies in the fact that it seems to be a happy halfway house between full-blown acceptance of universalism on the one hand and, on the other hand, abandonment of some of our deepest intuitions about how a perfectly good and loving being would behave towards broken persons in less than epistemically ideal circumstances. What I have argued in this article, however, is that there is in fact no happy halfway house. To the extent that one genuinely, reflectively, and categorically prefers that universalism be true (as contrasted with preferring it only fleetingly, or conditionally upon its already being God’s will), one’s conviction that God is good provides one with reason to believe that universalism is true.15


[1] Michael Rea, “Hopeful Universalism,” Religious Studies (6 October 2020): 1, See part one of this series: “The Irrationality of Hopeful Universalism.”

[2] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? (2014), p. 166.

[3] Ibid., p. 237. I considered myself a hopeful universalist for well over a decade. During that time I never figured out to my satisfaction how to preach hopeful universalism. So I decided on hopeful sermons devoted to the absolute love of God, combined with a periodic sermon focused on the threat of everlasting damnation. So was I an optimistic universalist or a tepid infernalist?

[4] Similarly, we probably should also distinguish between hard-hard infernalists and soft-hard infernalists. The latter are known for saying, “Sure, of course I hope God saves all; I just don’t think it’s likely.” Intonation is critical.

[5] Rea, p. 8.

[6] Ibid., p. 9.

[7] Ibid., p. 10.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., p. 10.

[10] Ibid., pp. 11-12. Unfortunately, Rea has failed to clarify the difference between unconditional and conditional hope. I’m on my own here, which is a scary thought.

[11] Ibid., p. 12.

[12] Ibid., p. 15.

[13] Ibid., pp. 15-16.

[14] Ibid., p. 16.

[15] Ibid., p. 15.

(Return to Part 1)

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9 Responses to Do Universalists Dream of Eclectic Hells?

  1. Joe says:

    Hell is just a fleeting dream, because ultimately, we are more Human than human.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Iainlovejoy says:

    I still don’t get the argument, unless it assumes Calvinist-style predestination? If it doesn’t then the hopeful universalist is in exactly the same position as the infernalist: they believe God would like everyone to be saved but may on practice not save everyone because something in the nature of their sin prevents it, or makes damning them necessary for some greater good. The infernalist believes the conditions necessary for a person’s damnation are in fact fulfilled in some people, the hopeful universalist hoping or believing that (although theoretically possible) they are not in fact fulfilled for anyone.
    “Hence the curious phenomenon of Christians unconditionally hoping and praying for the salvation of all, absent belief that it will or can be so—absent belief, in other words, that God wills the salvation of all, given human sin and wickedness.”
    This is just nonsense. Hopeful universalists definitely believe God can or could save all given the right circumstances: that is basically the *definition* of hopeful universalism. What they lack is a believe that it will necessarily be so: it might might not be depending on people’s sin. They also absolutely do believe that God wills the salvation of all, its just that human freedom or some other reason means that it cannot be *guaranteed* in the face of human sin and wickedness: the hopeful universalist just hopes that (although there theoretically might be) there will in fact be no human sin or wickedness so great that forgiveness is impossible.
    I think Rea has entirely confused what “hopeful universalists” are hoping *for*. His argument only makes sense if he thinks hopeful universalists are not simply hoping that we “get lucky” and no-one in practice ends up damned, but rather that they are hoping *dogmatic universalism itself* is true – that they are hoping God has in fact predestined salvation to all while believing that he hasn’t. I am wondering if Rea is making this mistake because he indeed believes in Calvinist-style predestination, in that salvation or otherwise is not a matter of chance or human response to God but determined for all from the outset, and it simply hasn’t occurred to him that anyone believes anything else.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I disagree that Rea is speaking nonsense, according to his definition of hopeful universalism–namely, an unconditional hope that God will save all, absent the belief or conviction that he definitely will. Once the Cathollic hopeful universalist admits that God will damn some if they do not fulfill the conditions of salvation (as conceded by Balthasar), then their hope has become conditional and their position has collapsed into infernalism. God is reduced to a passive observer, waiting to see if all do not die in a state of mortal sin. Remember: for the Catholic, there are no second chances. The orientation toward God achieved at death is final.

      For this reason, Henry Karlson describes Balthasar as “The Hopeful Non-Universalist.”


      • Iainlovejoy says:

        I’d agree that “hopeful universalism” as commonly understood collapses into infernalism just with very few or (if we are lucky) no people actually damned in practice: what I am not clear is why Rea appears to be arguing against a different kind of “hopeful universalism” than the one hopeful universalists commonly hold. I am also not clear if Rea is a universalist saying “hopeful universalists” should stop pretending to be universalists when they are not, or an infernalist saying their hope is a false one and they should accept that some people deserve and ought to be damned eternally and will be.


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