On Hellfire and Cosmic Freedom (or, Does Everyone Go to Heaven?)

 

shutterstock_176697395Rob Long is in trouble. Those are his words, not mine.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, listen to the latest GLOP podcast, in which Rob fesses up to being a universalist. Universalism, for those who don’t know, is the belief that everyone goes to Heaven. In Rob’s view, the next life is going to be one big happy reunion, and we’re all invited. (Of course he is free to clarify if that’s not quite what he thinks.)

So, this is the point where I confirm all your worst suspicions about academics and their pointy-headed silliness. When I was in graduate school, I took a seminar on the problem of evil (“how could an all-powerful and all-loving God have created a world with evil in it?”). That might sound pretty specific as the topic for a whole class, but it got better (or worse). As it turned out, almost the whole seminar was dedicated to fleshing out contemporary arguments in favor of universalism.

The bottom line is that I spent a whole semester studying modern arguments for the proposition that all human beings will eventually go to heaven. No doubt your tax dollars sponsored it in one way or another. But I digress.

I went into this seminar half looking to be convinced that universalism was reasonable, and consistent with traditional Christianity. Most of the authors we read (Eleonore Stump, Marilyn McCord Adams, John Hick) regard themselves as members of one or another mainline Christian group, and I was somewhat hopeful they would persuade me that I too could happily rest in the view that all will be saved. I was skeptical, just because Jesus in the Gospels really does seem to indicate that damnation is a real thing. But perhaps these very smart people could find some way to explain that?

I expect my reasons for favoring universalism were similar to Rob’s. It’s so unpleasant to think of anyone ending up damned, and why would God allow that if he loves us? Anyway, universalism seems like such a nice, neat answer to the injustices of life. Some people seem clearly to be better positioned to become upright and virtuous, and how is that fair? But if we all end up in the same happy place regardless, it might not matter so much.

Also, I worry quite a bit about myself or my loved ones ending up in Hell. The possibility is just so horrifying; how can I not worry? It’s obviously comforting to let go of that fear on the grounds that hey! Life is an everybody-gets-a-prize sort of activity. Don’t sweat it.

I promise not to put you to sleep with all the pedantic details of my semester studying universalism. I’ll just give you the very big picture, which is that these smart modern thinkers really did convince me … to hate universalism. Hate. By the end of the semester I had concluded that it was an utterly contemptible view, and I have never changed that position. Sadly, that means that I worry about Hell even more now than I did previously. Ah, grad school!

Why is universalism, not just wrong, but actually repugnant? Not because I relish the thought of bad people in Hell. (I’m the sort of softy who can’t help but wonder whether there might be some kind of out even for Judas Iscariot.) Not because I want to be better than anyone else. (As I’ve already admitted, I’m just praying, literally, that I’ll end up with the sheep.) The issue is one that might even interest our atheist crowd: it comes back to the meaning and purpose of freedom.

One way or another, all universalist theories have to undercut the notion that earthly life is morally consequential. If we’re all going to heaven, it must somehow turn out not to be true that some of us culpably choose the wrong path. Even those who seem utterly closed to character rehabilitation, must be rehabilitated, come Hell or high water. (Oh wait! Not Hell, of course.)

For that to work, we’ll have to conclude that the choices we make in this lifetime don’t actually matter very much. And on some fundamental level, that means a very low level of human freedom. We’ll need to presume that we’re neither morally mature (because only “moral children” are prohibited from making choices for themselves), nor genuinely free (because free people can decide to reject the good).

To put the point more simply: universalism is cosmically infantilizing. It offends me for the same sorts of reasons that the nanny state offends me. Is the Kingdom of Heaven the true nanny state? Please. That can’t be right.

Why do we value freedom? Isn’t it primarily because we want the dignity of a morally consequential existence, where our successes and failures really mean something? In that case, does it make sense for a conservative to hold an eschatological view that essentially undercuts all the things that, in the political sphere, are most precious to conservatives?

Rob, I apologize if these reflections cause you any anxiety about Hell. But trust me, in the long run, fear of hellfire is chicken soup for the conservative soul.

There are 153 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. 1967mustangman Inactive
    1967mustangman
    @1967mustangman

    Eh I’ve always taken the position that universal salvation would be cool, but it probably doesn’t work that way.

    • #1
  2. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Rachel Lu: I’ll just give you the very big picture, which is that these smart modern thinkers really did convince me … to hate universalism.

    Well, I dunno about smart modern thinkers, but smart patristic thinkers have managed to convince me that Christians ought not to foreclose the possibility that repentance may occur even after death. Some disparage this thinking as universalism. I note that it’s different: saying it’s possible that all may be saved – even, perhaps, those who die unrepentant – is not the same as saying with certainty that all will be saved.

    The above distinction seems like an obvious one to me, but others will insist that no, it’s not a distinction. They say the former thought cannot help becoming the same as the latter thought and therefore renders the person thinking it a universalist.

    I don’t find the possibility of moral development after death infantilizing, but rather respectful of the human soul’s freedom. Why even bother believing in a soul that continues after death if that soul no longer has moral agency?

    • #2
  3. Jim Beck Inactive
    Jim Beck
    @JimBeck

    Evening Rachel,

    Does the Universalist position imagine that someone could walk away or walk past Heaven? Or how do they argue against Lewis’s “The Great Divorce”?

    • #3
  4. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist
    @WesternChauvinist

    Jim Beck:Evening Rachel,

    Does the Universalist position imagine that someone could walk away or walk past Heaven? Or how do they argue against Lewis’s “The Great Divorce”?

    We have our own Universalists right here on Ricochet. Kate Braestrup, for one.

    Why don’t you ask them? It’s always best to go directly to the source, imo.

    • #4
  5. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu
    @RachelLu

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Rachel Lu: I’ll just give you the very big picture, which is that these smart modern thinkers really did convince me … to hate universalism.

    Well, I dunno about smart modern thinkers, but smart patristic thinkers have managed to convince me that Christians ought not to foreclose the possibility that repentance may occur even after death. Some disparage this thinking as universalism. I note that it’s different: saying it’s possible that all may be saved – even, perhaps, those who die unrepentant – is not the same as saying with certainty that all will be saved.

    The above distinction seems like an obvious one to me, but others will insist that no, it’s not a distinction. They say the former thought cannot help becoming the same as the latter thought and therefore renders the person thinking it a universalist.

    I don’t find the possibility of moral development after death infantilizing, but rather respectful of the human soul’s freedom. Why even bother believing in a soul that continues after death if that soul no longer has moral agency?

    I grant the distinction. But I still say there’s still no good reason to believe that everyone ends up in Heaven, unless you’re willing to resort to infantilizing. On a level of possibility, sure, everyone could end up going the right way. It’s possible that every single voting American could vote for Trump in the next election. But it ain’t gonna happen.

    • #5
  6. Jordan Wiegand Inactive
    Jordan Wiegand
    @Jordan

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: Well, I dunno about smart modern thinkers, but smart patristic thinkers have managed to convince me that Christians ought not to foreclose the possibility that repentance may occur even after death. Some disparage this thinking as universalism. I note that it’s different: saying it’s possible that all may be saved – even, perhaps, those who die unrepentant – is not the same as saying with certainty that all will be saved.

    Indeed.  I believe (and really hope) this is the case.

    I think Lewis’ suggestion that the gates of hell are locked from the inside is accurate.

    Also in the Apostle’s Creed, Christ harrows hell.  Seems to me that one might reject the rescue out of pride, which, interestingly enough is the first sin.  But all the same, there’s hope for everyone.

    But this isn’t universalism.

    • #6
  7. Pilli Inactive
    Pilli
    @Pilli

    (“how could an all-powerful and all-loving God have created a world with evil in it?”)

    The statement above denies that God is all powerful and is therefore not really God.  All powerful means that God CAN create a world that has evil in it.  That does not mean he DID create such a world.  He allowed evil to enter His world by allowing us to turn our backs on Him.

    Those of you with children know exactly how God feels.  When your child disobeys or uses poor judgment, aren’t you disappointed?  If your child deliberately harmed you and kept his back turned to you, you would ask only that he tell you he was truly sorry so you could forgive him.  Without forgiveness there can be no reconciliation.  Without reconciliation, one will not enter Heaven.

    • #7
  8. C. U. Douglas Thatcher
    C. U. Douglas
    @CUDouglas

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Rachel Lu: I’ll just give you the very big picture, which is that these smart modern thinkers really did convince me … to hate universalism.

    Well, I dunno about smart modern thinkers, but smart patristic thinkers have managed to convince me that Christians ought not to foreclose the possibility that repentance may occur even after death. Some disparage this thinking as universalism. I note that it’s different: saying it’s possible that all may be saved – even, perhaps, those who die unrepentant – is not the same as saying with certainty that all will be saved.

    The above distinction seems like an obvious one to me, but others will insist that no, it’s not a distinction. They say the former thought cannot help becoming the same as the latter thought and therefore renders the person thinking it a universalist.

    I don’t find the possibility of moral development after death infantilizing, but rather respectful of the human soul’s freedom. Why even bother believing in a soul that continues after death if that soul no longer has moral agency?

    The Great Divorce is a great fictional illustration of these ideas.

    • #8
  9. Mike Rapkoch Moderator
    Mike Rapkoch
    @MikeRapkoch

    I have a different reason for believing in hell. Life, while it has many consolations, is filled with suffering and loss. If we all go to heaven–all are on the way to perfect bliss–then God is a cosmic fiend for making us endure the pains of life. What could we possibly learn from suffering if we all enjoy eternity and its goodness? Why sacrifice? Indeed, why risk the agonies of love, if it all turns out perfectly even for those who do not love? I would be very confused–and more than a little doubtful–of such a god.

    • #9
  10. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Jordan Wiegand: Also in the Apostle’s Creed, Christ harrows hell. Seems to me that one might reject the rescue out of pride, which, interestingly enough is the first sin. But all the same, there’s hope for everyone.

    Yep. I agree with you, though I think there seems to be a fair amount of disagreement (at least among Protestants) that the Creed describes the harrowing of Hell. I think it does.

    Rachel Lu: On a level of possibility, sure, everyone could end up going the right way. It’s possible that every single voting American could vote for Trump in the next election. But it ain’t gonna happen.

    Though I’m glad you and I agree on the possibility (and that possibility isn’t certainty), I wouldn’t disparage the possibility as being quite the same as every voter choosing Trump in the next election.

    Because of knowledge constraints, we are on a stronger footing dismissing as statistically impossible (“ain’t gonna happen”) earthly events than transcendent events. And Christians are called to desire the salvation of all – and believe God desires the salvation of all – more than one might desire, say, the election of a given politician. I wouldn’t feel comfortable pretending that a pious hope is a certainty, but neither would I be comfortable being quite that dismissive of it.

    • #10
  11. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Sounds as if the course were very poorly taught.

    • #11
  12. Susan the Buju Contributor
    Susan the Buju
    @SusanQuinn

    Buddhism says that heaven (nirvana) and samsara (hell) exist right in this moment-we just can’t see it. Besides, I’ve already written a post on reincarnation. We are accountable for how we live and for the karma (good and bad) we accumulate which we take into future lives. I hope they’re right that I won’t come back as a toad (ick!)

    • #12
  13. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Susan the Buju: I hope they’re right that I won’t come back as a toad (ick!)

    Knee-deep!

    • #13
  14. Susan the Buju Contributor
    Susan the Buju
    @SusanQuinn

    Arahant: Knee-deep!

    Rats!

    • #14
  15. Bob W Member
    Bob W
    @WBob

    The question I always have about Hell is whether those who are there cease to be free beings. Do they just experience the pains of Hell without being able to feel remorse or sorrow for their actions that put them there? And if they are capable of such repentance, then why are they forever cut off from God? In their lives, if they had repented, then they could have avoided Hell. But now they can’t? Why is that? It certainly wouldn’t undermine the importance of free will or result in a universalist infantilism, as Rachel says, to allow even those in Hell to escape it. And wouldn’t it also be possible for those in Heaven to abuse their free will and get kicked out?

    This question of course assumes the literal reality of Heaven and Hell. In this view Heaven and Hell are just the next stops on a temporal itinerary of souls. But this literalistic view raises unanswerable questions like the one above, because it views the afterlife as another stage of the life we have now in which we are still who we were before we died. Perhaps it makes more sense to view the irreversibility of Heaven and Hell as a symbol for the larger truth that what we do in our lives matters, and that we have only one shot at it.

    • #15
  16. Judithann Campbell Member
    Judithann Campbell
    @

    And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

    I once heard a very conservative Catholic priest argue that the above verse, in his opinion, means that at some point, the powers of heaven will storm hell and save everyone there. He understood the verse to mean that the gates of hell cannot keep heaven out. Somehow, I have a feeling that his belief may not be in line with Church teaching, but his ideas have always stuck with me. I don’t know whether I share his belief or not :)

    • #16
  17. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty
    @BasilFawlty

    So pre-existing immoral conditions are absolved retroactively by your redemption insurance policy?

    • #17
  18. Judithann Campbell Member
    Judithann Campbell
    @

    Basil Fawlty:So pre-existing immoral conditions are absolved retroactively by your redemption insurance policy?

    I have no idea what this means, or whom you are addressing :)

    • #18
  19. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Bob W: [Do] those who are [in Hell] cease to be free beings[?] Do they just experience the pains of Hell without being able to feel remorse or sorrow for their actions that put them there? And if they are capable of such repentance, then why are they forever cut off from God? In their lives, if they had repented, then they could have avoided Hell. But now they can’t? Why is that? It certainly wouldn’t undermine the importance of free will or result in a universalist infantilism, as Rachel says, to allow even those in Hell to escape it. And wouldn’t it also be possible for those in Heaven to abuse their free will and get kicked out?

    The italicized question has been pondered since early Christianity, and the orthodox answer seems to be no: Something about Heaven is permanent; the freedom of souls in Heaven is at last freedom not subject to abuse.

    This is maybe less far-fetched than it sounds, since we picture God as a being of both transcendent freedom and transcendent goodness, and salvation traditionally as a process of divinization or theosis, where human souls become more like, or united with, God, partaking more and more of the divine nature.

    Why is God free but not evil, while our freedom obviously permits us to choose evil, at least this side of Heaven? Dunno. Only that human freedom must allow us to so choose, while we trust God not to be evil.

    • #19
  20. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu
    @RachelLu

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Jordan Wiegand: Also in the Apostle’s Creed, Christ harrows hell. Seems to me that one might reject the rescue out of pride, which, interestingly enough is the first sin. But all the same, there’s hope for everyone.

    Yep. I agree with you, though I think there seems to be a fair amount of disagreement (at least among Protestants) that the Creed describes the harrowing of Hell. I think it does.

    Rachel Lu: On a level of possibility, sure, everyone could end up going the right way. It’s possible that every single voting American could vote for Trump in the next election. But it ain’t gonna happen.

    Though I’m glad you and I agree on the possibility (and that possibility isn’t certainty), I wouldn’t disparage the possibility as being quite the same as every voter choosing Trump in the next election.

    Because of knowledge constraints, we are on a stronger footing dismissing as statistically impossible (“ain’t gonna happen”) earthly events than transcendent events. And Christians are called to desire the salvation of all – and believe God desires the salvation of all – more than one might desire, say, the election of a given politician. I wouldn’t feel comfortable pretending that a pious hope is a certainty, but neither would I be comfortable being quite that dismissive of it.

    I think we can “desire the salvation of all” (de se) while dismissing the salvation of all (de dicto) as unreasonable to expect or even regard as a real object of hope. I don’t per se want any particular person to be damned, but I do regard damnation as a very live possibility for each one of us.

    If we go around thinking, “gosh, I sure hope everyone is there at the heavenly banquet”, that doesn’t seem to me exactly pious so much as… imaginatively presumptuous. What we see in this world suggests that some souls reject the good and degenerate morally. Fixing your mind (“hopefully” as you would say) on the possibility that that degeneration might be less serious than it actually seems is not, to my mind, spiritually healthy. We should operate under the assumption that moral choices are of great importance, and potentially of great negative importance.

    Again, this does not preclude hoping for the salvation of all (de se). In this life, when working with children (say, teaching Sunday School), we hope that each child will live a good life. We hope for good things for every one. But we don’t go around thinking, “I hope the next generation transforms our fallen world into a utopia.” We can recognize the reality that all will not make it, without doing any particular soul the disservice of writing him off.

    • #20
  21. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Rachel Lu: I think we can “desire the salvation of all” (de se) while dismissing the salvation of all (de dicto) as unreasonable to expect or even regard as a real object of hope. I don’t per se want any particular person to be damned, but I do regard damnation as a very live possibility for each one of us.

    I’ve seen early Christian writers put it that about the right balance of hope to have is not so much that you ever think of your own salvation as assured, but not so little that you despair of others’ salvation. It’s not necessary to believe this admittedly vague rule of thumb in order to be a good Christian, I suppose, but it has struck me as fairly helpful advice.

    Rachel Lu: But we don’t go around thinking, “I hope the next generation transforms our fallen world into a utopia.”

    Good heavens, even a person who believed in universal salvation would have no warrant for thinking this! Why on earth would you think to conflate the two?!

    • #21
  22. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu
    @RachelLu

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Rachel Lu: I think we can “desire the salvation of all” (de se) while dismissing the salvation of all (de dicto) as unreasonable to expect or even regard as a real object of hope. I don’t per se want any particular person to be damned, but I do regard damnation as a very live possibility for each one of us.

    I’ve seen early Christian writers put it that about the right balance of hope to have is not so much that you ever think of your own salvation as assured, but not so little that you despair of others’ salvation. It’s not necessary to believe this admittedly vague rule of thumb in order to be a good Christian, I suppose, but it has struck me as fairly helpful advice.

    Rachel Lu: But we don’t go around thinking, “I hope the next generation transforms our fallen world into a utopia.”

    Good heavens, even a person who believed in universal salvation would have no warrant for thinking this! Why on earth would you think to conflate the two?!

    The point is just to illustrate the difference between de re and de dicto “hoping for all” (as applied to people). There’s a piousness for hoping for good things for each person individually, which takes a very different turn when we start thinking about the collective.

    • #22
  23. MJBubba Inactive
    MJBubba
    @MJBubba

    Western Chauvinist:

    Jim Beck:Evening Rachel,

    Does the Universalist position imagine that someone could walk away or walk past Heaven? Or how do they argue against Lewis’s “The Great Divorce”?

    We have our own Universalists right here on Ricochet. Kate Braestrup, for one.

    Why don’t you ask them? It’s always best to go directly to the source, imo.

    Chaplain Kate says there is no hell.   In the comments, MFR said that hell is the same thing as purgatory.

    I disagreed with both of them.   We went around and around for a while.   776 comments.

    http://ricochet.com/archives/no-hell-soft-pews/

    I am sticking with the clear words of Scripture.

    • #23
  24. MJBubba Inactive
    MJBubba
    @MJBubba

    Hebrews 9:

    24 For Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us:

    25 Nor yet that he should offer himself often, as the high priest entereth into the holy place every year with blood of others;

    26 For then must he often have suffered since the foundation of the world: but now once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.

    27 And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment:

    28 So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation.

    • #24
  25. The King Prawn Inactive
    The King Prawn
    @TheKingPrawn

    Show me a person not deserving of hell (other than Jesus), then I’ll reconsider hell as injustice rather than justice. Universalism starts with the presumption that even one righteous man (or woman) can be found.

    • #25
  26. Larry3435 Member
    Larry3435
    @Larry3435

    A very wise man answered this question to my satisfaction:  “Why worry about it?  Soon enough, you will know.”  Is there really any more to say?

    • #26
  27. MJBubba Inactive
    MJBubba
    @MJBubba

    Matthew 10:

    27 What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. 28 And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

    • #27
  28. E. Kent Golding Member
    E. Kent Golding
    @EKentGolding

    It would be cruel of God to inflict his presence on those who do not want it.   Hell is another form of mercy.

    • #28
  29. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu
    @RachelLu

    Larry3435:A very wise man answered this question to my satisfaction: “Why worry about it? Soon enough, you will know.” Is there really any more to say?

    I dunno, I think it might be pretty worth worrying about, given the potentially rather great significance for your life here below.

    • #29
  30. Judithann Campbell Member
    Judithann Campbell
    @

    MJBubba: you know far more about Scripture than I do, so I am curious, what do you think Christ meant when he said that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church? I am asking out of genuine curiosity; I am not sure what I believe about hell, but I find Jesus’ words about the gates of hell not prevailing against the Church fascinating.

    • #30

Comments are closed because this post is more than six months old. Please write a new post if you would like to continue this conversation.