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Rob 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.Published in