Equally Shaky Ground: The Ancillary Hypotheses of Calvinism, Arminianism and Universalism

Some thoughts I recently shared a few months ago at the Evangelical Universalist Forum:

One of my favorite ways to introduce universal reconciliation in Christ and to compare and contrast it with other soteriologies--Calvinism and Arminianism in particular--is to use Thomas Talbott's propositions as described in his book The Inescapable Love of God and his essays in the edited book Universal Salvation?: The Current Debate.

Specifically, Talbott has us consider the following three propositions:
  1. God’s redemptive love extends to all human sinners equally in the sense that he sincerely wills or desires the redemption of each one of them.
  2. Because no one can finally defeat God’s redemptive love or resist it forever, God will triumph in the end and successfully accomplish the redemption of everyone whose redemption he sincerely wills or desires.
  3. Some human sinners will never be redeemed but will instead be separated from God forever.
As Talbott points out, what is interesting about each proposition is that all three have ample biblical support. But, as Talbott goes on to point out, you cannot logically endorse all three. You have to accept two of the propositions and reject a third. And depending upon which propositions you either accept or reject you end up with either Calvinism, Arminianism, or Universal Reconciliation.

It ends up looking like this:
  1. Calvinism: Adopts Propositions #2 and #3. God will accomplish God's plans and some people will be separated from God forever. This implies a rejection of Proposition #1, that God wills to save all humanity.
  2. Arminianism: Adopts Propositions #1 and #3. God wills to save all people and some people will be separated from God forever. This implies a rejection of Proposition #2 as God will fail to accomplish something God wills (i.e., to save all people).
  3. Universal Reconciliation: Adopts Propositions #1 and #2. God wills to save all people and God will accomplish God's purposes. This implies a rejection of Proposition #3, that some people will be separated from God forever.
If you are long time reader I've walked you through Talbott's propositions a few different times over the years. In this post I want to talk about the ancillary hypotheses associated with Calvinism, Arminianism and Universal Reconciliation in association with Talbott's propositions.

First, to clear up the jargon. The definition of ancillary is "providing necessary support to the primary activities or operation of an organization, institution, industry, or system." Something ancillary is in the background working in a support role.

An ancillary hypothesis, then, is a theoretical notion that works in the background to support some theoretical model. Theories, as they grow more complex, are often confronted with contradictory data or logical inconsistencies. In the face of that, theories often add ancillary hypotheses to fill in the gaps or to strengthen up the logical connections. In this post our theoretical models are Calvinism, Arminianism, and Universal Reconciliation.

Specifically, after you adopt two of Talbott's propositions and reject a third you're left with a logical conclusion but are without a mechanism.  For example, Calvinism rejects Proposition #1, logically implying that God doesn't want to save all people. Well, that seems strange. God doesn't love everybody? Could you explain what you mean by that? What's the mechanism here?

Arminians, by contrast, reject Proposition #2, logically implying that God's will to save all people will be thwarted. Well, that seems strange. God's sovereign and omnipotent will can be thwarted? Could you explain what you mean by that? What's the mechanism here?

Finally, Universal Reconciliation rejects Proposition #3, logically implying that people won't be separated from God forever. Well, that seems strange. Hell isn't eternal? Could you explain what you mean by that? What's the mechanism here?

The point being, after you accept and reject Talbott's propositions there are some residual questions, issues that need to be resolved. Why doesn't God love everybody? How can God's will be defeated? How can hell not be forever?

To answer these questions you need some ancillary hypotheses. Mechanisms that explain how the three propositions might work together given how you've accepted or rejected them. These ancillary hypotheses aren't found in Talbott's propositions--that is why they are ancillary--and we could imagine a variety of potential mechanisms to make the various propositions work together. But generally speaking, the accepted ancillary hypotheses are these:

  1. Ancillary Hypothesis of Calvinism: Election
  2. Ancillary Hypothesis of Arminianism: Free Will
  3. Ancillary Hypothesis of Universal Reconciliation: Duration of Hell
In order to explain why God doesn't will to save everyone, Calvinism posits the ancillary hypothesis of election, where God restricts God's saving actions to only a few, the elect. In order to explain why God doesn't always get what God wants, Arminianism posits the ancillary hypothesis of free will, the exercise of which gives humans the ability to thwart God's efforts to save them. And finally, Universal Reconciliation posits an ancillary hypothesis about hell, arguing, in most formulations, that hell is finite in duration.

Election, free will, a finite hell. These are the ancillary hypotheses sitting behind Talbott's propositions. They are not contained in Talbott's propositions, but they function in the background to to make each theoretical model work.

And here's my observation about all this. Each of these ancillary hypotheses are hotly contested. And no wonder as ancillary hypotheses tend to be the weakest links, the bits of post hoc speculation and jury-rigging needed to make the system work.

And that goes to my point. Is the doctrine of, say, election any less controversial and contested then, say, a universalist speculating about the duration of hell? To say nothing of free will.

As I see it, all three ancillary hypotheses are equally speculative, equally debatable and equally problematic. Which is yet another reason why I don't think Universal Reconciliation is any more "heretical" when compared to the more accepted soteriologies. I think everyone is on equally shaky ground.

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63 thoughts on “Equally Shaky Ground: The Ancillary Hypotheses of Calvinism, Arminianism and Universalism”

  1. Thanks, Richard. I found Talbott's propositions very helpful when thinking this all through for the first time.

    Equally shaky ground, perhaps, but presenting a very different face to people who don't identify themselves with the church. My training and research in psychology has left me with an appreciation of the fact that our ontology (view of truth) fundamentally affects our epistemology (what questions we ask) - as you point out in this post - and that this fundamentally affects our methodology (the way we go about things).

    Is it unfair of me to characterise the three positions you outline as ontologies that:

    - express power
    - offer choice
    - include others

    and to suggest that this changes the questions we ask as churches and the agendas and programmes we set as a result - the ways in which we define the success of our mission along the lines of:

    - faith as conformation (holiness)
    - faith as qualification (membership)
    - faith as process (works of mercy)?

  2. Express power, offer choice, include others. I like those contrasts very much. Funny, I never really thought about how the soteriologies work out as mission for the church. That's such an obvious moves. Thanks!

    My assessment of "equally shaky ground" isn't really the best way to phrase what I'm saying. Thinking about it this morning I probably should have used something like "equally controversial ground."

  3. If I were to accept the validity if this entire framework, I'd be a universalist. Instead, I'm none if the above. I think the effort to decide which program God is running, between these three, makes us think we have got God all figured out and neatly contained. Embracing one of these systems ends up elevating the system above the Word, and leads us to find our identity in a system, instead of Christ. That isn't to say I'm against systems or logic. I'm a big fan, and thanks for the post! What I object to is the sense that we should be universalists or Calvinists or Arminians, perhaps dividing churches along these lines. Instead, i think we should be curious and interested in the discussion, without finding our identity in any of the systems. And maybe the systems are most useful when they show that none of the systems makes easy and intuitive sense of the tradition or scripture. Other systems, and sets of systems, are possible as well.

  4. I completely agree, Dan. I'm always suspicious of an over-reliance on logical propositions. There is a danger of operating within a closed system that becomes increasingly unaware of its own assumptions. That's why I think it's really good to be aware of where one is coming from, without feeling the need to wholly identify with the soteriology to which one is appealing. One of the few things I'm pretty sure about these days is that everything I know is wrong. In a world of propositional 'truths', we're all idolaters.

  5. Thanks, Richard. I read your choice of words as a move towards respectful inclusion BTW. @-:¦

  6. P.S. Off-topic - and feel free to delete this post, Richard - I notice that you're due to tackle the theology of Les Miserables soon (which I'm currently reading!). Any chance of you sharing your insights here? Just wish I could be there...

  7. Thanks, Richard. Well put.
    I have just a few things to add, in case you're interested:
    1) If all 3 are on shaky ground, I get frustrated by Calvinists who say that only Calvinism is biblically/ theologically viable; or Arminians who say that only Arminianism is biblically/ theologically viable; or universalists who say that only universalism is biblically/ theologically viable. Oddly enough, because of the circles I move in, I don't currently hang out with anybody who says the first two--but I do hang out with people who say the third.
    2) If the ancillary hypotheses are all 3 particularly dubious, I have considered the possibility of not making them a part of our doctrine. That is, our doctrine includes the universality of God's redeeming love; the efficacy/ triumph of God's redeeming love; and the state of hell/ separation for those who reject God's redeeming love. When the logical inconsistency arises, we can, essentially, say, "Despite the logical inconsistency, these three statements are part of the church's witness. There is a bunch of discussion that goes on about how to reconcile them, but none of that discussion is a consistent part of the church's witness."
    3) As an extension of the first two: I value those thinkers, in all three camps, who most clearly affirm the actual biblical propositions, and are most tentative about the ancillary hypotheses. There are Calvinists who affirm God's sovereign will and the reality of hell for sinners, but are "squishy" about whether, exactly, God really elects some for damnation. These say "somehow, God's will includes the reality of sin" instead of "God chooses to damn people from the start." There are Arminians who affirm God's universal redeeming love and the reality of hell for sinners, but are "squishy" about free will. These say, "it seems that, despite the triumph of God's will, God allows some people to reject Him" instead of "we choose for ourselves and God can't do anything about it." And there are universalists who are insistent about the victory of love, but squishy about hell--like George MacDonald, who does not say "hell is temporary" but more subtly says, "who can say, even after centuries of hell, that God's love has given up on a person?"

  8. I disagree that each is on equally shaky ground. The evidence in the Bible for an eternal Hell is almost non-existent, and the evidence that none of the authors of the Bible believed in an eternal Hell is plentiful. The contrast presented by the OT and NT sees to be life in contrast to death, not life in contrast to eternal conscious torment. If the intent was to present eternal conscious torment as the contrast to (eternal) life, why are there so few passages that clearly teach it, and hundreds of passages that talk about death instead?

    I also disagree about ancillary hypothesis #3. As a universalist who does not think there is any good reason to believe in an eternal Hell (and that there are at least 95 good reasons not to), I think that the ancillary hypothesis for Universalims is in fact the Duration of Death, not the Duration of Hell. The question is whether death, for some, is forever - whether what is often called "Annihilationism" is true. The case for an eternal Hell is commonly assumed by traditional theology, but it is not actually made. I would say that this is because an eternal Hell is only present in the Bible if one reads it into the text, with a small handful of possible exceptions that do not outweight the overwhelming references to death as counterpoint to life.

  9. I like this a lot. I just want to be fair to my Calvinist friends, so I want to emphasize that (for the good ones) the ontology of the first position is precisely not to express power (as humans) but rather to bow to God's power. This may be what you mean by "conformation" or "holiness." Calvinism is, for them, first and last about admitting powerlessness--the one thing, they would claim, that all humans are striving to avoid.

    Rightly or wrongly, these Calvinists see any focus on choice/ membership (Arminianism) or on process (including works of mercy) as subtly expressing a will to power. I have power over my choices/ membership; I have power over my works of mercy and discipleship process and "becoming skilled" (as Richard puts it) in living the kingdom of God; but some doctrine of election removes our faith and our mission from the realm of human power.

  10. And therein lies what I increasingly see as one of the key challenges of living today as a Christian – the need to balance our human desire to know and understand against a willingness to accept mystery and unknowing and not pigeon-holing ourselves or God into a particular category.

  11. Doug, I think you may be missing Richard's point. Annihilationism is not universalism; it is, in the end, more compatible with Calvinism (God elects some to perish by annihilation) or Arminianism (some, by their choice, perish by annihilation) than with Universalism (if God's redeeming love triumphs, if God's will for all to be saved is realized, then none can be annihilated). A temporary hell allows God's redeeming love to triumph; annihilation does not.

  12. Thanks, jlh11a. I like the way you reframe Calvanism here. I was referring primarily to powerful constructs of God, by the way, but suggesting that this can seep through into everyday interactions. Perhaps there is an interesting dichotomy to be explored here between the espoused propositions you describe (valuing powerlessness before God) and the lived expressions of some (certainly not all) Calvinists. The other serious flaw in the Calvinist stance you portray is that it is the chosen celebrating their own election and wringing their hands over those outside the gate. Ouch.

  13. I wonder sometimes if a relevant concept gets left of this conversation and never talked about and I understand why given the implication. But isn't it possible that the use of the word "people" is presumptuous, implying that all people are the same and should be given the same considerations? To be extreme AND FOR POSSIBILITY THINKING ONLY...let's say for the sake of argument that their are two types of human beings: 1) The ones God made who have the breath of life and 2) the ones Satan made in like a lab or something, a soul-less human being creation (meaning not having the breath of life from the creator God). If this were somehow true doesn't that change the discussion because technically:

    1) God's creations would be all elected but Satan's creations maybe not?
    2) Being from God, God's creations always choose God and Satan's creations maybe always choose their creator?
    3) The duration of or actuality of hell really doesn't matter if their are two types of people...Perhaps Satan and demons go to hell forever, Satan's creation perhaps just live once finitely (anniliation), and God's creations live on forever??

    Hitting send, but perhaps regretting it, while praying this post is truly anonymous.

  14. With all due respect, in what way is the concept relevant? Is there some reason to suspect this scenario is being played out?

  15. I must have missed the altar call to become one of these three things. It seemed to me more of a thought experiment that points out the contingency of these positions (simplified, of course, in order to make Beck's point). As such, I found it interesting. I didn't take it as a call to identify with a system. Or did I miss something?

  16. As to the first point: a certain sociology of religion, which "projects" an ontology of God onto the religious community, completely misses what (for any Calvinist) is the point: we are NOT God. I don't know which Calvinists you run into, but the ones I know are--even when wrong-headed--consistent in seeking to emphasize their own powerlessness.

    That also helps with your second "serious flaw." Admittedly, there may be an inevitable us/ them in every position (even the "us" who are doing works of mercy, versus the "them" who aren't!). But Calvinists have famously claimed not to know who is elect, and to emphasize the fact that the elect come from the most unlikely places. It seems to me that classical, traditional, mainstream Calvinism would engage in "celebrating the hope that God has elected us, while constantly stressing that God has elected others, especially those who don't know it or show it (yet)." When put this way, I don't see the "ouch."

    Pax Christi.

  17. I think the issue you'd run into is the notion of "Satan's creation." As best I can tell, that's just not a Christian idea.

  18. Oh, let me add one more thing: I am not denying that Calvinists can be proud, controlling SOBs. What I am claiming is that Calvinists are, more consistently than any other group I know, aware that they are proud, controlling SOBs. That is the sickness; their Calvinism is at least an attempt at a cure. Therefore, Calvinism seems weird to basically nice people who have never been such proud, controlling SOBs, and therefore do not see the need for this cure.

  19. This is a classical, logical possibility. Christianity has always rejected it, because Christianity has always grounded its understanding in the basic notion that God created everyone. Practically, if you choose this option, I'm afraid that you'll end up alongside Hitler, the Inquisition, and every other institution that, in deciding that some people were "from Satan," denied the responsibility to respond to everyone as God's creation.

  20. I wasn't accusing Richard of doing that, and I hope it didn't come across as if I was :) I don't think I accused him of that, and actually I thanked him for the post. Instead, I was objecting to a general sense that we should, which often arises implicitly in these discussions. Or did I miss something?

  21. This is not a belief I hold and I thought it was clear it was asked in the context of possibility. Relevancy seemed to stem from the notion of bridging the gap of shakey ground. The idea only a curiosity stemming from trying to understand how/why God would ask his people to kill cannonite men, women, and children or flood the earth or be grieved about creation or accept a human sacrifice, etc.. And when I went to 24/7 prayer movement conference once in Kansas City (and then never again), they talked about how Jesus would come back to essentially slaughter unbelievers and set up his Kingdom which sounded very WWII to me. I tried to understand this...tried to reconcile the violent nature of God's wrath as it is Biblically explained....I think because I perhaps don't want to serve a "Hitler" type.

  22. Well, it's an interesting approach to theodicy, to be sure. I just think it introduces more problems than it answers. :)

  23. I liked Dan Heck's comment about not falling into a system. I would like to be a universalist, but I also have the sense that our freedom, however limited, is really important. Furthermore, it does seem that we are capable of destroying our souls, perhaps to the point of no return. There are people who rape infants, and people like Ariel Castro who locked up these three women and raped and abused them for years. I would like to think that somehow repentance and forgiveness is possible for them, but I worry that there really is a point at which your evil actions have caused you to destroy your own soul. Thoughts, anyone?

  24. Reason to suspect...no. But the imagination can definitely run wild when giants I guess roamed the lands prior to the flood and something about the demon hybrids and I guess being glad the book of Enoch wasn't cannonized but apparently read by early Christians?

  25. Well, the early Christians hailed from a people with a rich and robust mythological literature. I think we do them a disservice when place a burden on that literature it is not able to bear (that is, when we insist on reading it literally).

  26. 100% agree and 100% don't understand the separating of the wheat from the tares other than I'm not the one doing the separating or deciding when it happens.

  27. I think another alternative is to be less rigid in the way we identify ourselves. As Christians we might tend to think of identity as a kind of commitment--I am Christian because I am committed to Christ; being a Christian is the same thing as committing oneself to being Christian--but that's not always what identity is. I am right now, for better or worse, a student, but I hope that two years from now I will no longer a student. Identities aren't always permanent, but people in general (and maybe Christians in particular) think they are and praise people whose identities are especially permanent. So we ought to be able to identify with one of these frameworks so long as we acknowledge that they're provisional.

  28. It isn't simply about prooftexts for this. There is an anxiety that haunts both testaments and becomes palpable in the urgency expressed by Jesus. Given the length of the wait for Jesus' anticipated second coming the psychological focus gets pushed into what we call the "after-life". Who will inherit the earth? Who will sit with Abraham at the feast? Who will hear the words "depart" or be confronted with the locked door? The NT oozes with this anxiety and many of the conversations revolve around inclusion and exclusion.

  29. I agree entirely - it's just that the anxiety is not about eternal conscious torment. That's my only point re: the discussion of Hell.

  30. It is, in many ways, an anxiety about justice and whether (and how) it will be meted out, is it not?

  31. I hope I didn't miss Richard's point - I was trying to make a different point, and point out an instance where I think his central claim - that the three positions he presents are on equally shaky ground - is not in my view correct. I agree that annihilationism is not Universalism. Nor is it eternal conscious torment, which is what Hell represents in almost every instance in which we use the word, in the present and historically. A temporary Hell does potentially allow God's redeeming love to triumph, I have no disagreement there. It's just that the 'default' Hell is not temporary. A temporary Hell would also be on very shaky ground if we are looking at the Bible, and even shakier ground if we are looking at theologies in which a Hell would exist in the first place.

  32. I think "Hell" might be a red herring here (there's a sentence you don't get to use every day). You could substitute "duration of punishment" or "duration of death" for "duration of Hell" and the structure of the typology and its attendant "ancillary hypotheses" would still be same.

  33. Can you clarify...are you saying the Old Testament shouldn't be insisted upon being read literally or just the book of Enoch? Kinda similar don't you think?

  34. It's really just an expansion of the ideas I floated in this post:


    You know, if you read this blog you pretty much know what I'm thinking. Clearly, I don't hold a lot back.

  35. Well, there's no good blanket hermeneutic. But certainly large chunks of the Old Testament. Maybe some of the New. And there are modern myths that probably need some critical pushback as well.

  36. I think that's totally legit. It basically is the point I was trying to make with this post awhile back:


  37. I couldn't agree more. I admit that I don't live up to these standards of "squishiness" in my writing, which often has an edge to it. Mainly because I think UR is in a bit of an underdog role and still very, very much stigmatized. But "squishy" is my experience.

  38. Given my views, I very much agree with you. The "audience" of the post is less the proponent of UR than the Calvinist and Arminian who think they are standing on rock solid ground and that UR is "shaky." The post is a bit of judo.

  39. I agree on not getting locked into a system.

    Here's one thought I had, a post I'd been meaning to write on this very topic.

    Let's say there are these instances where irreparable moral damage has occurred. (And let's set aside the issue of moral luck about where the causes of the damage might be. For example, these people might have been victims of abuse themselves.) How many of the population fit this description? It's gotta be a very small number. .000001?

    If so, then 99.999999% are going to heaven. We're arguing about .000001. Such numbers are a far cry from any tradition view of hell and is basically a quasi-universalist stance.

  40. Yes, I think it's much better to err on the side of "God is trying to get as many people as possible into heaven." Dallas Willard used to say, "God will let everyone into heaven who, in his considered opinion, can stand it." I like that, and it's about as far as I want to speculate.

    I also had this idea of hell as "time-out". Heaven is this big party, but you can't join the party until you really are ready to get along with other people, and also deal with all the not-nice things you've done. I hope as many people as possible choose to deal with their junk so they can come to the party.

  41. I'm actually really glad you asked this question! I have SO much trouble understanding why God would "ask his people to kill cannonite men, women, and children or flood the
    earth or be grieved about creation or accept a human sacrifice, etc." I hadn't considered this possibility before, and I feel like it's worth bringing up, even if it turns out there are a lot of reasons to reject it. I don't want to serve a Hitler-type god either, and I certainly hope that God is not actually that way, but I keep coming across biblical images of God as destructive, violent, angry, vengeful...how am I supposed to respond to a god like that? Are those real aspects of who God is?

  42. I like your approach here, Richard. I have a "yay" and a "nay" comment, in reverse order.

    The Calvinist would seem to have the upper hand on the universalist, since (in my judgment) there's more scriptural support for divine election than for finite duration of hell. On the other hand, who's to say election—reworked christologically and interpreted differently than Calvin and his followers—couldn't be the ancillary hypothesis for universalism (a la Barth)? Voila: maximal biblical backing for the "best" outcome of the three options.

    (I'm leaving out the free will/Arminian position because, cards on the table, I think it's the weakest to begin with, in both premises and conclusion.)

  43. From my own experience, having progressed through all three "systems," depending on which paradigm you lean towards, you end up with very different perspectives on God's nature, which ultimately shapes how we view and treat other people, including (especially?) unbelievers. And I really think whether we intend to or not, if we take salvation seriously, we are forced to choose one of the three perspectives...IMO.

  44. Those early restoration preachers (Stone - Campbell) mainly focused their studies on the cardinal principles of Calvinism. I think, for the most part, they got it right biblically. But, we forget that they just accepted many other doctrines (without a lot of study) that came from the Roman Catholic Church, such as the doctrine of hell.

  45. A friend of mine once told me that he would take Calvinism more seriously if just one pastor believed that he wasn't one of the elect.

  46. I think that we are very rarely forced to do anything at all. A simple option is to say, "I don't know." A less simple option is to say, "These all seem inadequate, so I'll hold out for something that seems adequate," or "These all point to the mystery of God's judgment, and I believe that this is absolutely unknowable as a matter of doctrine." But these are just meta-options, which are generally available in almost any situation when someone is telling you that you have to pick from among several options. You can also challenge the priors involved in any of the 3 concepts, like Andrew pointed out. For example, you can suggest that aionios, which is rather poorly translated as the Latin word Aeternum, deals with concepts outside of time, not endless successions of events within time. This is genuinely distinct from ideas of "endless" punishment, but it is also distinct from ideas of "temporary" punishment. On this reading, term is, simply, expressing something different. It is as if were standing at a fork in the road, and someone tells you that you have to turn either North or South, but you turn their map around, point at the sun, and tell them that they are wrong: you have to turn either East or West, if you want to keep traveling to new places. And this is just the beginning of the ways in which you can reframe the entire discussion! I would even argue that each of these claims has an indefinitely large set of priors. You can confirm that by using what I call the "little kid test." Just keep asking why. Once you see that, you can also see that there is an indefinitely large set of ways to challenge the underlying assumptions and reframe the entire discussion. Among the other interesting priors to challenge are the specific definitions of scriptural warrant involved, and whether the texts themselves can be convincingly harmonized in spite of the apparent tension or contradiction.

    And yet, that still hasn't exhausted your options! Because in another way, you can find other points that scripture makes, in addition to these 3, and add more items to the list. Just to pluck another example from the tradition, you can add the claim (which has significant scriptural warrant) that the scriptures are concerned with corporate/group-level salvation, and not individual level salvation. And you can add the proposition that the scriptures are concerned with individual level salvation, not corporate salvation. Now, in addition to your set of 3 mutually exclusive claims that can claim scriptural warrant, you have 2 more mutually exclusive claims, defining a set of 6 distinct claims. Are you forced to choose between these 2 claims as well? This is an issue that some people debate, and if you choose one of these sides, your decision dramatically affects what your universalism, Calvinism or Armianism look like. But most of us probably haven't ever considered it, or considered it important...or, perhaps even coherent. But it is intriguing,and fun, and it has very real implications for your practical theology as well. But would you say that you now have to choose from these 6 positions. (And I have an indefinitely large set of propositions waiting here in my back pocket, which will quickly multiply this to 12, and 36 and 144 positions, from which you must, supposedly, choose :)

    Beware when someone gives you a finite list of options, and tells you that you have to choose one. They are almost certainly wrong, in a number of ways. You have meta-options that pertain to almost any choice. You can question an indefinitely large set of priors. And you can add an indefinitely large set of additional propositions to most lists of propositions. Have fun :)

  47. That's a great point. Though I haven't read Barth's Dogmatics, from what I understand his doctrine of election to be that's basically how I see it. It seems to be a simple two-step move: 1) God electing Christ (as the representative of humanity) and 2) a high Christology (per Col. 1.15-20).

  48. Right, Doug. I think "eternal conscious hell" is hard for a lot of people. I just wanted to emphasize that we could ditch "eternal conscious hell" pretty easily as Arminians or Calvinists. Universalism is, imho, still stuck with an ancillary hypothesis that everyone, 100%, gets saved--and that's a harder sell.

  49. Paul, I think this is a key point I'd like to see Richard address some day. As long as this is about propositions and prooftexts, then universalism looks just as good--maybe a little better.

    But there is a tone, pervasive in the Bible and in tradition, that is bigger than propositions and prooftexts. It is the Two Ways. It is claiming that our eternal fates are, in some real ways, like this life--that rejecting God here has real eternal consequences, just as bowing to God here as real eternal consequences. And it is this tone that I have the hardest time reconciling with universalism.

  50. Thank you, Dan. I think I get what your saying and it's sort of helpful. But I guess from my perhaps simplistic, day to day frame of mind, to have any kind of peace of mind, I need to know pretty certainly or at least be able to have a strong hope that God is really loving and compassionate and powerful (as best I can understand those terms from my own experience of life on this earth)..whether He is bigger than my and my loved ones' sin natures which can and will will keep us separated from Him forever if left to ourselves. I also seem to have a nature that is pretty often uptight about how messed up this world is. I need to know that everything will ultimately turn out, not just alright, but very well--basically put back in order with how it should be and what seems to have been "meant to be" --with all that I know to be true, right and good. Guess that's just how I'm wired. If I need a bigger imagination, well then, I need help with that too. :-)

  51. I'm experiencing anxiety right now and its not about hell or justice...its anxiety about not interpreting the Bible correctly. It seems the sin I might need saved from is not being able to make up my mind about what the hell the Bible is saying. I hope blaspheming the Holy Spirit is not indecision. But then again, nobody ever killed in the name of unsure.

  52. Oops...*you're saying*
    And, I guess I might as well add, if you haven't already figured it out...this leaves me pretty squarely, if not generally, in the Universal Salvation realm. I have a far greater measure of peace, joy and hope these days as well as a deeper love and appreciation for Christ--His work, words, and life! :)

  53. Interesting scheme, thanks for sharing

    I think that many Christians would like to believe in universalism, as long as they can reconcile it with what the Bible seems to teach. At least, that holds for me.

    Thus, is there a decent and honest interpretation of the Hell-scriptures (say, Mat 25:46 and 2 Thess 1:9, to begin with), that can be reconciled with universalism? I'd be very interested to learn about that.

    Aside, if I think about persons like Bashar al-Assad or Ariel Castro, I am not sure if heaven should be a proper 'final destination' for them. Annihiliation also feels righteous, somehow. But how can we ever judge what is a proper final destination for other people?? Shouldn't we just become agnostic about the eternal fate of such extremely bad persons, and thus leave alternative options like annihilation on the table?

  54. I think the doctrine of hell stands of dodgy ground. Maybe we should re-examine the idea of purgatory; it might be a bit wobbly itself, but no more so than hell, and anything we say about the afterlife is speculative anyway. It's wobbly because the Biblical authors were speculating themselves.

  55. Thanks...I love the honesty of you saying you find it sort of helpful ;) I'm humbled by the reminder that as much as I like this kind of reflection, it isn't the core of what matters. Even reflections on the way reflections aren't the core of what matters aren't the core of what matters. (Yes, I'm trying to be a bit funny.)

    I agree that this sense of assurance in God's endless love for everyone and the entire cosmos is really important. I think it is closer to the core of what matters, for my own well being, my interactions with other people, and as a basic insight into God's character. At least for me, this sense of boundless joy and assurance comes from prayer, being in community centered on the sacraments, trying to be like Jesus, and studying the Bible and realizing that so many of the awful, abusive things people do with that book are not justified. I think logic, argumentation and systematic theology serve other useful functions, and they can even help guide people into this experience of God's love. But this sense of assurance is something that runs even deeper than our systems. I think it comes from a place beyond our own words, but precisely for that reason, it makes space to fearlessly speak and reason without getting too attached to any particular argument. I guess I think that reasoning can be at its best when it isn't made to bear burdens beyond its strength, and assurance is at its strongest when it isn't taken to depend on fallible arguments.

  56. I heartily concur with everything you said here, Dan. You've summed it up very nicely. Thank you! It feels good to be understood on something that matters so very much, and now I have a clearer understanding of what you were getting at in your original comment.

  57. I'd love to add to this apparently excellent discussion, but I've no great points. I am wondering though about how this comports with your resistance to anything of a death-centered soteriology. If I remember right, your series on Universalism had an awesome post about the restructuring of Christian thinking away from the central location of death-as-ultimatum-for-decision-about-salvation via the Christus Victor atonement theory. I remember both liking it a lot and seeing how it blends well with your argument in the Slavery of Death series.

    But i just find it so hard to talk about typical atonement theories without also marrying them to the centralization of death for the soteriological mechanism to really make sense. Surely this difficulty is in part the milieu in which these traditions have been swimming in lately, but I wonder what it might mean to try to disentangle all of them away from a death-centered emphasis to something else. Certainly your brand of Universalism is trying to do this, but can we not think of some ancillary arguments that could buttress up the Calvinist and Arminian temperaments in a way that could also do this?

    Do you get the gist of what I'm getting at? Any thoughts towards how this might shade the conversation differently?

  58. There are lots of ways that people reconcile them, or reframe the whole discussion. Evangelical Universalist.com is chock full of them. My preferred readings reframe the whole discussion. Matthew 25, for example, is the conclusion of the Mt. Olivet discourse, which begins with the disciples asking Jesus what will signal the end of the age (aion) and the destruction of the temple. The rest of the discourse is widely taken as Jesus' answer to this, using traditional prophetic language for the end of empires and eras; the general reading of this discourse among Catholics is that these prophecies were fulfilled with the destruction of the 2nd temple, and this is also the reading of plenty of Protestant denominations and scholars. The Olivet discourse concludes with a story that shows that those who were generous to the poor will receive their aionios reward (the word age, turned into an adjective), and those who were not generous to the poor will receive their aionios punishment. In its immediate grammatical context, there is a strong case for translating aionios to mean "of the age," since the end of the aion of 2nd temple Judaism is the primary topic of the whole discourse. Now, you can do other things with the passage by extension; Catholics and Orthodox and plenty of protestants consider this preterist reading to be the correct reading of the passage, as long as you don't preclude its continuing or future application. But this changes the whole weight of the argument, and it also suggests that even in a future application we are talking about the judgment of ages, not a judgment that endures ages. IE: this is a prophecy of the judgment of history, by the God of history, prefigured in the destruction of the 2nd temple. The length of the punishment is not even really in view, but instead, the status of the judgment as being the judgment 'of he ages.' You'll find the same root word, aion, repeated in Thessalonians 1:9, and once you've adjusted your understanding of Matthew 25, the other instances adjust quite naturally to this reading. The word aionios is also used to describe the length of Jonah's time in the belly of the whale (and a number of other incidents that come to an end), and so people will often point out that aionios generally connotes a certain intensity within a duration, not necessarily endless duration. In that sense, it is a bit like saying, "Hurry up! You are taking for-ever!"

    In Greek philosophy, the word aionios was also used to connote something beyond time, the image of immovable time. Cool, trippy, and fun, and distinct from both an endless sequence of events, and a sequence of events with an end. Lots of the early church Father's, who went about reconciling Christianity with Platonic philosophy, would have had this kind of meaning in view. This was then translated into Latin as aeternum, which has the unavoidable connotation of endless time that we now find in our word eternity. I think it is tough to argue that Jesus had the philosophical Platonic implications of his Aramaic words in view when he told these stories, and even harder to argue that he was primarily focused on the Latin translation of a Greek translation of his Aramaic. But I have a very high Christology, so maybe he was thinking about that. If he was, I bet he intended to use it as a negative example, to teach missionaries to be careful in how they translate ;)

  59. Wow, thanks for the link and for your comments. Gives a lot to think about.
    (and it makes me wonder... how can a layman ever understand the Bible, if so much is lost in translation and cultural differences etc..)

  60. I hope it helps :) On reading: I think Paul is a great guide to how we should consult our conscience as an important (if not decisive) factor. I think conscience is an essential component of reading, and one of the ways the Holy Spirit guides us. If something violates your conscience, formed by Christ's example, then either look closer, or just say that there is probably something else going on. This is actually perfectly normal, and normal readers seem to do it quite naturally most of the time. If Bible reading weren't regularly conditioned by Christian conscience, I think you'd have people running around doing far crazier and more immoral stuff, far more often. So many of the amazing experiences I've had with scripture have started with me saying, "That just seems wrong. I must be missing something," and then digging deeper to discover what the text might actually be saying.

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