Christ and Horrors, Part 3: Horror Defeat, Universalism, and God's Reputation

Continuing our review of Marilyn McCord Adams' Christ and Horrors. Again, in this series I'm picking and choosing aspects of Adams' work that are of particular interest for this blog. I'm leaving tons on the the table, much of which would be of interest to theologians. So, please get Christ and Horrors and read the book for yourself. This series is mainly intended to pique your curiosity.

In my first post we noted that Adams links horrors to our existential ability to create meaning out of our experiences. Horrors defeat this ability. That is, when exposed to ruinous abuse, disease, or pain we simply cannot find "the point." We cannot make "sense" of the horrific situation. The horror overwhelms our capacity to weave the experience into a coherent and positive narrative.

In my last post I outlined Adams' three stages of horror defeat. Recall, in Stage 1 God joins us in the midst of horror allowing for the possibility of meaning creation. However, if we are volitionally ruined this possibility is never actualized. Thus, in Stage 2 God works internally and externally to build our meaning-making capacities. Finally, in Stage 3 horrors are brought to an end.

As we examine this framework it has probably dawned on you that, although Stage 1 horror defeat has already occurred, Stages 2 and 3 are yet to be for most persons. That is, many people die in the grip of horror and fail to make horrors personally meaningful. This may be due to volitional ruin, but it can also be due to the fact that the horror involves a person's death. In short, Stage 2 horror defeat will not occur for every person prior to their mortal death. Thus, if horror defeat is on the agenda of God His efforts to defeat horror for every person implies universal salvation. As Adams' claims (p. 51): "I insist, God will be good-to each created person by weaving up any horror-participation into an unending relationship of beatific intimacy with God. In my judgment, grim realism is not inappropriately derogatory of human dignity, but rather serves to magnify the miracle of God's making good on God's cosmic project by benefiting each and every human being. (And, yes, my focus on horrors does drive me to a doctrine of universal salvation!)."

The "grim realism" is Adams' claim about volitional ruin noted in my last post: We must be realistic, grimly realistic, that human agency cannot overcome horrors by imbuing them with meaning. And if this is the case it necessarily implies that God must extend his salvific work post-mortem to bring horror defeat to every created person.

Stage 2 and Stage 3 horror defeat, for Adams, implies the union of subjective and objective horror defeat. That is, in Stage 3 horrors are objectively defeated: And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." He who was seated on the throne said, "I am making everything new!"

But for horrors to be completely defeated a subjective component must also be realized. That is, it is not good enough for horrors to be objectively defeated in the Eschaton. Horrors must be defeated subjectively, within the experience of each horror participant and victim. And it is this defeat of subjective horrors that demands God's post-mortem intervention.

Again, I think this is a critical insight from Adams. Too often in theodicy discussions only Stage 1 (Divine participation) and Stage 3 (objective horror defeat in the Eschaton) get discussed. And, to be frank, that just isn't good enough. Stage 2 defeat (the subjective defeat of horror for every horror victim) must be a part of the package. God owes it to those very particular individuals. And it is this particular debt that cannot, for many persons, be realized in this life.

This is not to say that many believers are not already experiencing Stage 2 horror defeat right here and right now. I see it every week in my church. People are undergoing horrific things in my church. Death of children, trauma, abuse, addictions, disease. And weekly we hear testimonies of God's faithfulness. These saints, via the grace of God, can find meaning in the horror. And many, although never wishing to go through the same experience again, would not trade in their horror for the union it created between them and God. These are amazing testimonies. Evidence that God is making good on his Stage 1 horror defeat as evidenced in the Incarnation. God is, truly, with us.

But, grimly we must remember, these testimonies are unique and rare. Most die struggling toward Stage 2 horror defeat. God might be glimpsed and sought for in those hospital rooms, therapy offices, or killing fields, but people are ruined by their experiences of horror. For them the work of God must continue after death so that horror defeat is brought to all. As Adams says (p. 207): "Nevertheless, for an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good God, a future just society isn't good enough. What about the countless individuals sacrificed on the slaughter-bench of history? An omniscient and omnipotent God Who loved human beings would make it up to them, would guarantee that there was enough positive meaning in it to defeat their horror-participation and make their lives great goods to them on the whole and in the end!"

Obviously, this vision demands that we rethink traditional notions of hell. As readers of this blog know, I'm good with that. In one of my favorites passages from Christ and Horrors Adams says this (p. 229-230, emphases hers):

"Traditional doctrines of hell err again by supposing either that God does not get what God wants with every human being ("God wills all humans to be saved" by God's antecedent will) or that God deliberately creates some for ruin. To be sure, many human beings have conducted their ante-mortem lives in such a way as to become anti-social persons. Almost none of us dies with all the virtues needed to be fit for heaven. Traditional doctrines of hell suppose that God lacks the will or the patience or the resourcefulness to civilize each and all of us, to rear each and all of us up into the household of God. They conclude that God is left with the option of merely human penal systems--viz., liquidation or quarantine!

Traditional doctrines of hell go beyond failure to hatred and cruelty by imagining a God Who not only acquiesces in creaturely rebellion and dysfunction but either directly organizes or intentionally "outsources" a concentration camp (of which Auschwitz and Soviet gulags are pale imitations) to make sure some creatures' lives are permanently deprived of positive meaning.

My own view is that ante-mortem horror-participation is hell enough. Horrors constitute the prima facie destruction of the positive meaning of our lives; a destruction that we lack knowledge, power, or worth enough to defeat; a destruction that reasonably drives many to despair. For God to succeed, God has to defeat horrors for everyone. We have all been to hell by being tainted by horrors ante-mortem. We all meet the horror of death at the end. For some, life has been one horror after another between the dawn of personhood and the grave. In millions of cases, these horrors have been spawned by the systemic evils of human societies. To be good-to us, God will have to establish and fit us for wholesome society, not establish institutions to guarantee that horrors last forever in the world to come!"

Ante-mortem horror-participation is hell enough! Yet again let me just say how much I think Adams "get's it"!

Let me conclude with a brief comment on unviersalism. Most people think that universalism is a soteriological move. That people believe in the idea because universalists just want "everyone to get to go to heaven." But for me, and apparently for Adams, the universalist move is rather a theodicy move. That is, I believe in universalism not because I'm concerned about Me and You and Our Eternal Destination. Truly, I don't worry about that very much at all. No, I'm a universalist not because I'm concerned about Us but because I'm concerned about God. Specifically, I'm concerned about God's reputation. God made us radically vulnerable to horrors. He had his reasons for this. But whatever those reasons were, God's reputation for love and goodness demands that he defeat horrors. And, as Adams correctly and courageously notes, this implies newer, fresher notions of post-mortem ontology and existence.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

6 thoughts on “Christ and Horrors, Part 3: Horror Defeat, Universalism, and God's Reputation”

  1. Richard,
    This review is touching something deep and relevant to my old and weary walk with God. Ive seen to much horror in my ministry, and yes, my recent heart conversion to universal reconciliation is, in the core of my being, a defense of God. An untwisting of scriptural systems that define Him as other than the restorer of all things. Thank you

  2. Based on what you've written, I think that Adams' "horrors" framework is useful in conceptualizing what God is doing in the world, but I don't think her (somewhat common) equivocation of hell with suffering in the present age fits with the text of the NT, which does IMHO present hell as a state/place of eschatological judgment for those who refuse to acknowledge and participate in God's kingdom. I think universalists hurt themselves when they make that comparison, because it just doesn't hold up in the text.

    Still, her more general point - "people suffer enough in the here and now, why do they need it in the future?" - is well taken.

  3. Richard,

    It seems to me that the problem with theodicy is that it, in the words of Matthew Condon, is "rationalizing suffering" at the expense of God. As such, it is a grave intellectual temptation. Either we minimize the horror of suffering or we "blame" God. Adams' approach is somewhat Kantian or a more sophisticated "in the sweet by and by" and "farther along we'll understand why" view.

    In their torment, both innocent Job and innocent Jesus respond in the interrogative: "You want me to repent in dust and ashes (Job)" "My God, my God! Why hast Thou forsaken me? (Jesus)" Finding a "subjective" defeat of horror in this life, is, I think, possible. Otherwise we are left with the quietist approach and would never have eliminated institutionalized slavery. (Britain did it without civil war.)

    Matthew, Richard,

    I guess I am a near-universalist. C. S. Lewis once stated that God would be ungracious in not providing a permanent, eternal condition (in my view not torture but oblivion or the second death) for those who truly did not want to be in relationship with God.


    George Cooper

  4. Richard:

    Thanks for the book recommendations. In the last couple of days I read Jack Miles' God: The Biography (very impressed by it, especially his take on Job) and just started reading Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God.


    I agree in principle with you that God would have to leave the option of rejecting him open. But if someone actually took advantage of the option, wouldn't it imply that they were so ruined by the horrors that they preferred oblivion to the eternal life?

    In the context of theodicy seen as explaining away the suffering, David Bentley Hart's The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? could be of interest. Among other things it discusses Dostoevsky's character Ivan Karamazov and his rejection of the universal harmony built on the human suffering.

    After all, Ivan asks, if you could bring about a universal and final beatitude for all beings by torturing one small creature to death, would you think the price acceptable?

    This is a very interesting question, as the foundation of Christianity could be seen as exactly such an act. If the whole human race is God's executioner, doesn't this add just another terrible sin to its account? If God takes all the responsibility for his death (in effect, divine suicide), are humans totally off the hook for reaping the benefits of the sacrifice? (This is just a tangent moving in Jack Miles' direction; the book doesn't go there.)

    Voltaire sees only the terrible truth that the history of suffering and death is not morally intelligible. Dostoevsky sees – and this bespeaks both his moral genius and his irreducibly Christian view of reality – that it would be far more terrible if it were.

    Christian thought, from the outset, denies that (in themselves) suffering, death, and evil have any ultimate value or spiritual meaning at all. It claims that they are cosmic contingencies, ontological shadows, intrinsically devoid of substance or purpose, however much God may – under the conditions of a fallen order – make them the occasions for accomplishing his good ends.

    [S]imply said, the suffering of children remains real and horrible and unjust, and it is obscene to seek to mitigate the scandal of such suffering by allowing hope to degenerate into banal confidence in “God’s great plan.”

    Our faith is in a God who has come to rescue his creation from the absurdity of sin, the emptiness and waste of death, the forces – whether calculating malevolence or imbecile chance – that shatter living souls; and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred.

    For, after all, if it is from Christ that we are to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil, and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless, and miraculous enmity: sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are part of the eternal work or purposes of God.

  5. Rasul,

    Dostoyevsky presents the case admirably through Ivan. "After all, Ivan asks, if you could bring about a universal and final beatitude for all beings by torturing one small creature to death, would you think the price acceptable?" Unless we wish to join Caiaphas and torture and kill an innocent and rationalize it as penal atonement, the answer--God's answer--is a resounding, "NO!"

    Part of the struggle, it seems to me, that we humans have, is in dealing with God as apart from his creation. The Biblical account of origins makes it clear that creation is good but that it is God-created and not godly in God's fulness and complete desire for creation. Certain forms of piety claim that sin, suffering, and death are "God's will" and maintain rhetorically that "if there were no darkness, how would we know the light." Such is sentimental, demonic nonsense. God has charged us from the beginning with subduing creation in God's name. Even now, as St. Paul puts it, "the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God" who like Jesus ought to be "going about doing good and healing all those oppressed of the devil" for God is with us.

    You may be correct. God may have prepared Hell but may put no one there.


    George Cooper

  6. I was reading the Catholic Encyclopedia entry on "Evil," and
    it said (my emphasis):

    "There is therefore no 'summum malum', or positive source
    of evil, corresponding to the 'summum bonum', which is God (I, Q.
    xlix, a. 3; C. G., III, 15; De Malo, I, 1); evil
    being not "ens reale" but only "ens rationis"—i.e. it exists not as an objective fact, but as a
    subjective conception; things are evil not in themselves,
    but by reason of their relation to other things, or persons. All
    realities (entia) are in themselves good; they produce bad results
    only incidentally; and consequently the ultimate cause of evil is
    fundamentally good, as well as the objects in which evil is found
    (I, Q. xlix; cf. I, Q. v, 3; De Malo, I, 3). Thus the Manichiean
    dualism has no foundation in reason."

    I never knew evil is not an ens reale but only an ens
    rationis; it simply follows from privation not being an ens

    So, to answer my personal long-standing question of whether "good
    and evil are merely man-made constructs," I would say good definitely
    isn't, for we definitely don't create good out of nothing inasmuch as we don't create
    the Supreme Good, God, Who is uncreated. And does evil, an ens rationis—"a
    subjective conception" or "being
    which has objective being in the intellect alone"—make it any
    less real? Are relations—the reason by which a thing can be evil—not
    real and "merely man-made constructs?" I don't think so.

    Also, "That
    Divine Providence Does Not Entirely Exclude Evil from Things"
    is a related, fascinating article in the Contra Gentiles.

    I never realized how fascinating the question of evil is until I started thinking about these things. It really does go to the crux of philosophical issues.

    Marilyn McCord Adams approach the problem of evil from the angle of being,
    goodness, and privation thereof? I know she is
    knowledgeable of Thomas Aquinas, too. Thanks

Leave a Reply