On universalism again

13 09 2019

The summer has been busy so keeping up with blog posts has been difficult. In June, the Church Life Journal published Taylor Ross’s reflection on Origen’s doctrine of salvation in The Severity of Universal Salvation. Here the premise is that the doctrine of universal salvation is far from a “walk in the park,” that the process of purification by which a soul is ready to go back to God is difficult and, more often than not, very long. Ross writes:

It should not require a theological treatise, much less the anxious methods of psychoanalysis, to recognize that the human will is capable of a seemingly endless charade of avoidance. Origen infamously entertained a seemingly endless proliferation of ages because he knew, presumably firsthand, that very often the soul would rather journey on with its false attachments than be transfigured. So, if he countenanced the idea of a God patient enough to make time for fallen creatures to willingly repent, it is because Origen knew, presumably firsthand, that there is no shortcut to reformed desire.

Ross further writes:

Envision drinking the LORD’s “cup of fury” and vomiting them up, as Origen puts it. Then imagine enduring the scorching flame those sins have ignited, and doing so until you are ready to repent of them—ready to repent not for the pain of being made to recall them, as though the fire was merely a punitive measure meant to goad a vague sense of remorse, but ready to take responsibility for the counterfeit corpse these specific sins have molded, and thus prepared to consign every last one of their ghastly sinews to the outer darkness before replacing them each in turn with ligaments worthy of shining raiment. It is simply presumptuous to assume shedding the shadow-self one has spent a lifetime shrouding around one’s soul is any less painful or punishing than serving an eternal sentence in an inferno not of one’s own making.

Origen seems to reject the idea of the transmigration of souls, and honestly, I haven’t read enough on this topic to comment further. So I assume that this purification happens akin to Catholic purgatory, but perhaps for a much longer time. Nevertheless, these thoughts remind me of the travails of the child about to be reincarnated in its mother’s womb, as described in the Third Canto of the Srimad Bhagavatam:

The child thus remains just like a bird in a cage, without freedom of movement. At that time, if the child is fortunate, he can remember all the troubles of his past one hundred births, and he grieves wretchedly. What is the possibility of peace of mind in that condition?

Thus endowed with the development of consciousness from the seventh month after his conception, the child is tossed downward by the airs that press the embryo during the weeks preceding delivery. Like the worms born of the same filthy abdominal cavity, he cannot remain in one place.

The living entity in this frightful condition of life, bound by seven layers of material ingredients, prays with folded hands, appealing to the Lord, who has put him in that condition.

Far from the Western New Age titillation at the idea of having lived many lives, the wheel of samsara in Sanatana Dharma is painful beyond belief. One could say there there is indeed a Hell, and we’re currently in it. That we alternate between pleasure and pain is part of the torture itself. There are hellish planets that make Dante’s vision seem quite tame by comparison, but even if one achieves a sort of paradise in the material world (the planets of the devatas), the danger is always that one will tumble back down to experience all of this again. Only one’s definitive escape to the spiritual world through devotional service (bhakti yoga) stops the wheel for you once and for all.

Which brings me to a more recent entry into this topic: a review of David Bentley Hart’s controversial new book defending universal salvation. I have no intention of buying Hart’s book right away. My book budget is fairly limited and this is far from a priority. However, I have read a bit of Origen and was a great devotee of the writings of St. Gregory of Nyssa back in another lifetime (ha!) so I am pretty familiar with the defense of apokatastasis as probably described here. That said, I can believe that Hart has to shoehorn his reading of universal salvation into the New Testament only with much difficulty. Also, I suspect that any of his ad hominem characterizations of those who defend the eternity of hell are akin to Nietzsche’s invective against the sadism of saints watching damned souls suffer as described in the Genealogy of Morals.

I have to repeat myself in saying that, if one is prepared to defend the eternity of the punishment of Hell for damned souls, one should probably also be prepared to defend the idea that most humans who have ever lived go there, even unbaptized infants and those “ignorant of Christ”. The willingness to mentally send categories of people to Hell was far easier when Christians believed that the original message of the Apostles had reached the entire human race, and all peoples were given a chance to accept or reject it. In the “Age of Discovery,” when it became evident that this was not the case, the endless speculation about the nature of “invincible ignorance” took place. Now theologians speculate that someone raised in a Lutheran family in an almost exclusively Protestant part of the world could not possibly have really rejected Christ and His Church because of personal prejudices and faulty instruction. Similarly, aborted children could not possibly be excluded from the Beatific Vision and salvation, and thus the limbus infantium was abolished (as if a Pope could abolish a whole realm of the spiritual world, how interesting!) And in pastoral practice, people who commit suicide or people who die in an “irregular” situation are no longer denied a church burial because the presumption is always one of mercy, as in these people were probably not in their right mind when they died committing heinous or unfortunate acts.

This is not to say that these more charitable practices and opinions are wrong per se. The difference between what Hart is positing and what his critics believe is that of moving the goalposts vs. eliminating them altogether. The modern Christian shouldn’t wish that anyone is in Hell, nor declare with any certainty that many or most are in Hell (in spite of Scriptural and Patristic statements to the contrary). And they contort moral law and speculate on subjective mental states in order to adapt to this sensibility. Hart is only taking it to the next level and refusing to play the game altogether. No one ends up in Hell because, subjectively, no one would want to be there if they understood what it was. The difference between freeing a teenager who tragically committed suicide from Hell based on his mental state in via versus freeing him from Hell because no one ultimately goes there seems a hollow one. If two paths lead to the same destination, take the shortest one. Hart’s might be the shortest path in our current environment. Those who thump the Bible or state, “But it’s the principle of it all!” seem to not be credible in my opinion.

Then again, one could be perfectly at peace with the idea of many burning in Hell, as in the vision showed by Our Lady at Fatima or in the various other private revelations throughout Christian history. This would be an honest opinion in my view. I do not share it, but I can respect those who say, “Look man, it’s just a mystery,” and hope for the best. But then perhaps you’re reaching into the territory of an “unpreachable Gospel,” and that has its own problems.



One response

20 09 2019

Interestingly, I bought Hart’s book just a few days ago, and am about a third of the way through. He does have some tics and faults in his style, true; but I’m firmly in his camp.

As to moving the goalposts, that’s been going on for a long time, and not even always by universalists. The idea of the limbus patrum was a way of getting the virtuous pagans (and, according to Dante, even some Muslims) out of hell; the limbus infantium was basically invented by Medieval theologians to avoid Augustine’s idea that unbaptized infants are damned to hell (if the Pope “abolished a whole realm of the spiritual world, apparently theologians were also able to create it!); the idea of mitigating circumstances in, say, suicide, goes all the way back to the famous story about the suicide’s mother and St. Jean Vianney; and the emphasis of some, such as C. S. Lews, on the irrevocable decisions of the damned (which could be summed up as “God doesn’t damn people; people damn people”) is a far cry from the rhetoric of Jonathan Edwards:

That God will execute the fierceness of his anger, implies that he will inflict wrath without any pity: when God beholds the ineffable extremity of your case, and sees your torment to be so vastly disproportioned to your strength, and sees how your poor soul is crushed and sinks down, as it were into an infinite gloom, he will have no compassion upon you, he will not forbear the executions of his wrath, or in the least lighten his hand….

I would agree with you that I can respect the old-school “God gleefully casts you–and almost everyone else–into hell, and you deserve it” view much more that than super-psychologized and somewhat namby-pamby “Well, God wants everyone to be saved, but the damned in a sense really want to be damned, so there’s not really anything He can do about it” modern view. If you think God damns people to hell for all eternity, own it, and then explain why He’s still perfectly loving, etc. Don’t try to shift the blame (that doesn’t metaphysically work, anyway).

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