My friend Trevor recently posted a Facebook link to an article in the New York Times entitled "The Case for Hell" by Robert Douthat. So of course I've been thinking some more about Universalism and all that.
Douthat is obviously a believer in hell. He laments what he sees as a decline in this belief, which he attributes to a growth in pluralism ("are Christians obliged to believe that Gandhi is in hell for being a Hindu?") and an increasing outrage at suffering which comes as a result of our prosperity and relative safety.
However, he sees a problem with a faith that eliminates hell.
...to believe in God and not in hell is ultimately to disbelieve in the reality of human choices. If there’s no possibility of saying no to paradise then none of our no’s have any real meaning either. They’re like home runs or strikeouts in a children’s game where nobody’s keeping score.
In this sense, a doctrine of universal salvation turns out to be as deterministic as the more strident forms of scientific materialism. Instead of making us prisoners of our glands and genes, it makes us prisoners of God himself. We can check out any time we want, but we can never really leave.
The doctrine of hell, by contrast, assumes that our choices are real, and, indeed, that we are the choices that we make. The miser can become his greed, the murderer can lose himself inside his violence, and their freedom to turn and be forgiven is inseparable from their freedom not to do so.
Perhaps Douthat has something like CS Lewis's view of damnation in mind - when we reject God, we are unable to recognise him, like the dwarfs at the end of The Last Battle who sit in a huddle in the midst of paradise and see it as a wasteland. Hence, he slides over the question of Gandhi and onto the question of Tony Soprano, a fictional character who knows he is doing wrong and yet continues to do it. In the process, he shows the weakness of his position.
To my mind this weakness is threefold. Firstly, he assumes that the traditional Christian position is that people who devote their lives to evil will be sent to hell, while those who devote their lives to good will be taken to heaven. In this sense hell is self-chosen and his argument makes some sense.
However, this is not the traditional Christian view. In this view we are all devoted to evil as a result of our participation in original sin, and we are saved by the grace of God, mediated through our faith in Christ. This means indeed that Gandhi, who was clearly a fallible human being but devoted his life to doing good, would go to hell because he rejected the Christian faith. On the other hand a notorious villain like Robert Mugabe is likely to go to heaven because despite devoting his life to oppression, murder and pillage he is a practicing Christian.
The second weakness is that by implication it sees death as the deadline for this decision. We will appear before God in the next life and be called to account for what we have done in this one. At that point, it will be too late to repent if we have not already done so. Hence, our choices in this life matter, but in the next we will have no choice. This is a crucial aspect of the cruelty of God in the traditional view - at the very moment when the veil is removed and we see the nature of reality clearly, it is too late to respond. This highlights a point I have made before - most people who reject Christianity do so, like Gandhi, because they are unconvinced of its truth, not because they are deliberately and consciously rebelling against God.
The third problem with his argument, and for me the most serious, is that it assumes the only choices that matter are eternal ones. The removal of choice in relation to heaven and hell (if this is indeed what Universalism represents) makes all other choices meaningless as well. I find this perplexing. Surely if I choose to be loving towards my wife and children - as opposed to either abusing or abandoning them - this choice matters here and now, irrespective of whether it leads me to heaven and hell. Whether Robert Mugabe goes to heaven or hell, the people of Zimbabwe care deeply about what he does to their country. In denying this Douthat is flirting dangerously with the idea of the illusory nature of earthly life. He is suggesting that earthly suffering and joy don't really matter, all that matters is the next life.
A few years ago I read some books by Thomas Merton, the American Trappist monk who wrote extensively on the spiritual life. I would hardly like to compare myself to Merton. However, one of his insights that has stuck with me is his description of how he would progress to a certain point in his spiritual development and then realise that what he thought was an expression of pure love for God was really an act of self-love and self-indulgence. So he would abandon that, move to a deeper stage of spirituality, only to find his selfishness expressing itself again.
This is what the discussion about Universalism does for me. How much has my faith been motivated by the selfish desire for eternal bliss, and by the fear of eternal torment? If this is what motivates my faith, then once I have expressed that faith and moved "into the camp" what motivates me to do right? Can I move beyond fear and desire and learn to truly act out of godly love?