Roger Olson and David Bentley Hart on universalism

A few months ago I responded to a post concerning universalism on Roger Olson’s blog. What I want to focus on is not the post itself but a discussion in the comments section of the post (N.B. for clarification I have made a couple minor edits of my own comments below without always noting them. The originals can always be found at the link above.)

In responding to another commenter, I contended that, “For many of us, universalism has as much to do with our beginnings as our endings… [viz., that] 1) God created us, as Augustine suggested, in such a way that we can never be truly ‘home’ without Him; 2) Our separation from God is a result of a perversion of our intended orientation; 3) God has the ability, intent, and an eternity’s opportunity to heal everyone to at least get us to the point at which we will recognize Him as perfect goodness and as wholly lovely. At that point, any reasonable, unimpaired soul would willingly embrace the perfect good and wholly lovely. More than ‘hopeful’, it seems to be the only reasonable outcome to expect given those assumptions…”

At which point Olson joined in: “Hopeful expectation, maybe, but not dogmatic knowledge.” On several occasions he has made a sharp distinction between what is taught in Scripture, which becomes a matter of dogma, and that which is reasoned, about which we cannot claim any certainty or undue emphasis.

To this I responded that we should have more than mere hopeful expectation that all will be redeemed because if we posited either that “God could but would not heal an impaired will” or that “He designed creatures that, even once all external encumbrances were removed, would still have a desire to reject the plainly beheld utmost Good,” we would be contradicting descriptions of God that (to use his term) are revealed. Even if we don’t have what he would call dogmatic grounds for universal reconciliation, I proposed that it is at least axiomatic. “But then again,” I noted, “most all of our dogmas are based on interpretations rather than unrefracted revelations.” I wanted to make the last point because his category of “revealed” ends up being vacuous given the human element of interpretation: nothing is “revealed” in Scripture that is not then processed and shaded by human reason.

Olson declined to engage those points, choosing to shift to his most fundamental objection to universalism (that I’ve responded to before): “The larger issue,” said he, “is the relative autonomy required for a real relationship. What you call ‘healing an impaired will’ would amount to coercion.” This free-will objection is probably one of the most commonly raised against universalism.

I tried again: “It really seems you’re saying God would rather have people choose to commune with Him in violation of their own judgment than choose Him because they can accurately perceive His intrinsic goodness and love Him for that sake. If a mind rejects intrinsic goodness, it is the definition of ‘broken’–and being born in this fallen world, how could it not be broken? We’re not talking about some biology lab experiment where God creates lots of tabula rasa entities just to see which ones will choose Him: the teaching on the imago dei paints a very different picture. A God who desires all to come to repentance wouldn’t leave those whose judgment is impaired to their own devices any more than a loving father would be content to watch his mentally handicapped son play with a loaded gun, knowing what will inevitably happen and yet not interfering. The line between coercion and persuasion/coaxing/wooing is not thin at all: coercion entails a violated will, whereas the latter refer to removing hindrances” and revealing how what is already wished for can be fulfilled. “I’m not really talking some monergistic remapping of the mind, but of patient interaction with every yet-viable part of the will. (On the other hand, I don’t know that violating my toddler’s will to run into a busy street is such an unforgivable coercion.)”

I was trying to point out a realization I had that unveiled universalism as the only view I now find coherent. It was an epiphany grounded in two unlikely universalist allies, namely Augustine’s teaching (mentioned above) that man was “made for” God and can only find rest in Him and Luther’s emphasis on the bondage of the will. As I wrote some time ago, “[God] has never made a soul that could become so blind as to be utterly incapable of recognizing Him as Father, and [George] MacDonald doubted to the extreme that there ever existed a soul that would not be irresistibly drawn to Him and His goodness once it did recognize Him. Our wills are bound, bound by our biology, bound by our cultures, habits, and prejudices: what else would a loving Father do but make every effort to free His children from that bondage? ‘The will of God should be done. Man should be free—not merely man as he thinks of himself, but man as God thinks of him’ (MacDonald).”

This week it all came home to me once again as I read Eastern Orthodox scholar David Bentley Hart’s unexpected foray into another comments section, this time on Fr. Aidan Kimel’s blog, Eclectic Orthodoxy. After describing himself as a “complete and unreserved universalist”, something that I don’t believe has heretofore been common knowledge, DBH explained that “freedom as defined in a purely voluntarist, spontaneous, atelic movement of the will–pure libertarian freedom…is a logically incoherent model of freedom…”

The classical Platonic-Aristotelian-Christian understanding of freedom is one in which the rational will of necessity, when set free from ignorance, wills the good end of its own nature; and perfect freedom is the power to achieve that end without hindrance. Thus God is perfectly free precisely because he cannot work evil, which is to say nothing can prevent him from realizing his nature as the infinite Good…Since, after all, all employments of the will are teleological–necessarily intentionally directed towards an end, either clearly or obscurely known by the intellect–and since the Good is the final cause of all movements of the will, no choice of evil can be free in a meaningful sense. For evil is not an end, and so can be chosen under the delusion that it is in some sense a good in respect of the soul (even if, in moral terms, one is aware that one is choosing what is conventionally regarded as “evil”); and no choice made in ignorance can be a free choice.

In simple terms, if a deranged man chooses to slash himself with a knife or set fire to himself, you would not be interfering with his “freedom” by preventing him from doing so. You would be rescuing him from his slavery to madness. This is why the free-will defense of the idea of an eternal hell is essentially gibberish.

So the moral of the story (aside from the observation that a lot of the most interesting discussion in the blogosphere comes from the comments section!) is that the libertarian or free-will objection to universalism, at least as commonly formulated, ultimately has no legs.

Now, regarding whether universalism is “revealed” in Scripture and hence eligible to be dogma for folks like Olson, we may soon begin to see progress on that front as well: according to the same comment thread, DBH stated his conviction that universalism is the only coherent way of reading Paul and his intention to write a technical work on the subject. In the meantime, he says he has been chalking up even more evidence of the prevalence of universalism (also called apokatastasis) in the New Testament as he works on a translation that he quips will deserve to be called the “Apokatastatic Standard Version”!

But even if the biblical evidence ends up falling shy of teaching universalism, I cannot see why anyone considering the above arguments has any reason to cling to that still-too-bleak belief in hopeful universalism rather than at least axiomatic universalism, in which no diseased soul can remain unhealed and God must fulfill His destiny of being all in all.

Tagged with:
Recent Posts:
  • Sign me up to buy a copy of the Apokatastatic Standard Version!

  • Christopher

    I’ve toyed around with universalism over the years, and I’m a huge fan of Hart’s, but I was actually kinda puzzled by passage you quoted above.

    Is Hart’s argument that God *can* in some rightful way coerce creatures’ will in the right direction? Would he say that God can “force” creatures into true freedom (i.e. inability to sin) in the eschaton? Is that what you’re saying?

    I feel like I must be sorely misunderstanding something, but I can’t figure out where I’ve gone wrong.

    • Christopher,

      I’m not going to be able to speak for DBH, for obvious reasons. But here are a couple thoughts where you may be having difficulty.

      For one thing, persuasion – that is, intentional influence – of any kind (“Repent!”) amounts to a coercion of the will: anyone who takes one step beyond merely explaining without any regard for whether the idea is accepted into actually arguing for something and seeking to persuade is attempting to force another’s will to conform. So even if He merely persuaded all of His creatures into true freedom through impassioned pleas, He would be in a very real sense overriding their will with His own. The “coercion” factor needs to be brought into perspective, it seems to me.

      But in a very real sense it’s much less a matter of coercion as of healing. “Coercion” implies a violation of the will; in DBH’s view, there is no violation, but a repair. If a baseball crashes through my window, we wouldn’t say that the window’s repair was “forced”, although technically it did of course require effort to get it back to the state it was intended to be in before being destroyed by outside interference. If God created us to be oriented in one way and our will points another, somewhere along the way our will has broken down and is in need of healing. That’s DBH’s point about true freedom: if we grant that God had the right to make us willful creatures in the first place, surely He is doing nothing unforgivably coercive if He uses any method necessary to get our wills back on track after being tainted and corrupted. The idea that there is an objectivity to goodness and wholeness is foundational here; it also explains why we do as much as we can to prevent suicidal people from following through with their wills — we generally recognize that true health would not seek its own destruction.

      I hope I’m not talking past you here and answering objections you haven’t raised (but others have raised them, I assure you).