Another standard objection you often hear in response to Christian universalism is this: What about God's justice? By subscribing to universalism are you not ignoring willful disobedience and the cries of victims? Isn't universalism kind of like a get out of jail free card? Plus, if everyone gets to heaven what prevents people from sinning and living it up in this life?
Let's address some of these questions.
First, to be honest, this post only needs to be about twenty words long. Let's try it:
Universalists (of my ilk) believe in hell and that God will punish sin with vigor. The only issue is if this punishment leads to any ultimate good.Well, that's 27 words. Close. But really, the phrase universalists believe in hell--only four words--should suffice. And with that, we can end this post. This whole justice angle is just not a legitimate criticism.
But since we are all here I might as well say a few more things about this topic...
To begin, if you've been reading along you know I believe in hell. Again, the only difference between Christian universalism and the traditional view is what happens way, way down the line. Think long term. Think about billions and billions of years of hell. So psychologically speaking, from the perspective of the tormented person, there really is no practical difference between the universalist view and the traditional view. Think about it. Our minds can't even comprehend a number like, say, a Googolplexian. Practically speaking, we are talking here about an eternity, even if the number is finite as the universalist contends.
To be sure, some universalists might balk even at a Googolplexian of torment. That's fine, but that isn't the point I'm trying to get at here. What I'm trying to gesture toward, in floating these incomprehensibly large numbers, is that the traditionalist just isn't thinking hard enough about what an eternity of conscious torment really implies. More, how could a traditionalist justify an eternity of torment as more just than a Googolplexian of torment? Does justice necessarily involve eternity? And if it does, I'd love to see the moral logic behind that argument.
Unfortunately, however, it is at this point--when asked to provide a positive theological or moral account for how an eternal punishment fits the definition of justice--where the traditionalist tends to retreat into incoherence. Which is fine I guess. It's just that I thought we were having a theological conversation. You know, where arguments are exchanged. I mean, it's fine to ask questions about universalism and justice, but you need to play ball and offer your own positive argument addressing the problems with the traditionalist view of hell and justice. I can explain why universalism is just. Can you explain why the traditional view is just? Personally, I've never heard a persuasive argument from a traditionalist on this issue. Whenever an argument is offered it usually boils down to this: "God sends people away for eternal torment and this is a just outcome because, well, God is doing it and God is just." Which is just about as circular an argument as you're ever going to find.
Which brings me to my second point. What do we mean by justice? At it's heart justice is about proportionality and balance. This is why Lady Justice is always holding scales. When we see proportionality and balance in outcomes or opportunities we say something is fair or just.
In light of this, how is an eternal punishment or torment proportional or balanced? Can an eternal punishment even be placed on the scales of justice? An eternal punishment shatters the very definition of justice. You can't set an infinity down on one side of the scales of justice and keep droning on as if nothing odd just happened. You have some serious explaining to do.
Again, this is where I think the traditionalist needs to make a positive argument. How can you believe in an eternal punishment and still hold to a recognizable conception of justice? This is why I don't think universalists have anything to fear from traditionalists on this score. For it is the universalist, perhaps surprisingly, who is positing a vision of the afterlife that is just. An afterlife that is built upon notions of proportionality and balance. In short, justice is what universalism is all about! By contrast, the traditionalist is using the word "justice" but he isn't using the term in any way we could recognize. In the mouth of the traditionalist the word "justice" is a shell, an empty cipher, signifying...what exactly? I don't know. But you can't call it justice.
Which brings me to my third point. What is being balanced out in justice? Often it's the harm done to victims. We want justice for the victims. You kill or rape someone we want you to pay for your crimes. The punishment should fit (balance out, be proportional to) the crimes. That would be justice.
And so you often here a lot of self-righteousness from traditionalists on this point. We are the ones, it is insinuated, who care about the victims. We think God will get back at those murders and rapists.
But it's at this point where the traditional account starts to move in a troubling and very dark direction. I agree that a part of God's punishment and judgment is about making sure victims are honored and that perpetrators of horrific crimes aren't getting a free pass. So I agree. Hell awaits.
But what, exactly, are we wanting God to do to "set this right"? What gets us a just result for the victims?
Let me ask this question: what would God need to do to a perpetrator, torment-wise, to get a victim to say "That's enough."? Think of the Saw movies. Is that what we want God to do get justice for victims? To get pay back by setting up horrific and psychotic punishments for perpetrators? How far down this road do we want God to go?
See, while I agree that any view of God's justice involves God's dealing with perpetrators, we are coming close to some pretty sinister territory. The point is, when we speak of God's justice for victims, of having perpetrators pay for their crimes, we have to keep God's love also in view. Otherwise we will lose our way, wandering off into a nightmare of revenge. Yes, Hitler (he always comes up in these discussions) shouldn't get off easily. But is it just and loving to have Hitler live in a Saw movie for all eternity? Or could we, after a Googolplexian of Saw-like experiences, numb and sick at the spectacle of horror going on and on and on, finally say "Enough."?
When is the blood lust of heaven sated?
For our part, universalists insist that justice must involve reconciliation. This is a key insight in George MacDonald's sermon Justice, that no amount of punishment (because it's just a mounting pile of pain) gets us a just result. Yes, punishment is involved in justice. But peace must be the ultimate goal. And the point here isn't about pity for the perpetrators. I don't know how much torture Hitler will have to endure for me to say "Enough." But I can imagine such a horizon existing in my heart (not that I get to pick that horizon, I expect six million Jews are better positioned to judge...but wait, oh I forget, the Jews are also in hell, being tormented right along with Hitler...silly me). But this isn't just about the perpetrators. It's also about the hearts of victims. Heaven can only be realized when the torture, hate, blood lust, vengeance and pain fully come to an end. For both victims and perpetrators.
Which brings me to a final point. One root of the problem with the traditionalist view is this notion that God is schizophrenic. God is like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. God's got this loving side and this justice side. And you get either one or the other. If you accept Jesus into your heart you get the loving side and skip the justice side. Conversely, if you reject Jesus you get the justice side and miss the loving side. But you never get both at the same time.
To be quite frank, this whole notion that God can't love you because his justice has to be satisfied is, well, nice words fail me. Maybe you have to be a parent to really get this, but my love for my kids is the same as my "justice." If my son throws a ball through a neighbor's window it's neither loving or just to let him just walk away. My love and my sense of justice aren't battling it out inside of me to determine which side of me my son will experience. No, it is both loving and just--and this is the key--to get my son to walk over to the neighbors, ring the doorbell, and face the music. Love and justice are the same thing. This is the great insight at the heart of the theology of George MacDonald.
When you talk about God you talk about all God's attributes at the same time. You don't talk about God being omnipotent or omniscient. God is both, at the same time. In the same way we cannot talk about God's love or justice. So let's be clear. God isn't torn about you. God isn't in two minds about you. God isn't ambivalent about you. God doesn't want one thing for you but be compelled to do the exact opposite. It's not a this or a that. Mercy or justice.
God simply loves you.
And that isn't offered up as a wishy-washy sentiment. That's the most terrifying thing I can tell you. Yes, God's love should wash over you like a warm embrace. But it should also scare the bejeezus out of you. God's love isn't a get out of jail free card. Just ask the nation of Israel. Just ask Israel what it's like to be loved by God. Is God's hesed a get out of jail free card? Uh, nope. So why posit this bifurcated, Gollum-esque, Multiple Personality Disordered God of the traditionalist view? Again, let's go back to the prophets. Master the prophets and you master the language of heaven and hell.
I could go on and on. But this is enough for now. In summary, I don't think universalism has any problem with God's justice. In fact, I think universalism is the view that gives us the most coherent account of God's justice.
If anything, I think it's the traditionalist who has some serious explaining to do.