The free will defense against universalism

One of the most common rationales for rejecting a belief in universal reconciliation or Christian universalism is what might be called the free will defense against universalism. We are told by Arminians and other non-Calvinists, including recently Roger Olson, that for God to force salvation down our throats would be a violation of human freedom.  He wants us to love Him of our own volition.

My approach to that objection has been to first try to answer the question, why would anyone want to reject God? “I’ll never understand,” sang PFR, “why you would walk away from love.” The universalist responds that no one in his/her right mind would; a good God would not sentence anyone not in their right mind to death (much less to the torture chamber) any more than we would. In fact, surely a loving Creator could hardly be prevented from setting such people back into their right minds, even if they died before the process was complete.

I was delighted to see that in responding to Olson, Eric Reitan has articulated my stance better than I have. For those who can’t be bothered to read his long and excellent post, I offer this excerpt:

On the broadly Christian picture of reality, God is the infinite objective good Who is the source of all finite goods. And as such, all creaturely goods flow from God. To be cut off from God is to be cut off from one’s own good. To see and understand the truth about reality, given this portrait of what that reality is like, is to see and understand that nothing good can come from alienation from God. And to see and understand this is to see and understand that there is no reason–NONE–to reject God. All possible motives for such rejection are exposed as vacuous.

Furthermore, it is hard to credit the idea that creatures who are a product of this infinite and infinitely good God would be designed in such a way that they would gravitate towards this ultimate good when presented with it in an unclouded way. We are naturally ordered to union with God, Aquinas maintains, in such a way that when presented with an unclouded vision of the divine we cannot help but love and long for it. Aquinas therefore thought that no creature of God, made for union with God, could, once presented with an unambiguous vision of God, choose to reject God. The clear sight of the summum bonum would swamp all other desires and expose all false beliefs about the choice-worthiness of rejecting God.

If one rejected God under those circumstances, it would have to be because human free will is subject to some kind of bizarre randomness that could act against all a creature’s converging motives, leading them to do what they neither want to do nor think there is any good reason to do. And Aquinas did not believe that free will operated in this perverse way. Indeed, if free will were nothing more than randomness at work in human choices, it would hardly be a gift of God. More like a curse. To be saved or damned by a flip of the coin is hardly better than being saved by divine “coercion.”


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