I was recently involved in an email conversation with someone who was wondering about the issue of free will and coercion in how we might think about universal reconciliation in Christ. Specifically, the most common argument you hear objecting to universal reconciliation in Christ is the assumption that this vision must involve some act of coercion on God's part. The objection is that if everyone is eventually reconciled to God then at some point God would have to force certain people in some form or fashion.
I've written about this issue at great length on this blog. Specifically, in 2011 I wrote a post describing how volitional integrity is a key and central aspect of how I envision reconciliation in Christ. I even go on to describe how God might go about achieving this volitional integrity, using the movie Groundhog Day as a thought experiment.
Again, whenever I talk about universalism I invariability get this question: Doesn't universalism imply that God has to force people into accepting and loving God? That is, if everyone is eventually reconciled with God how does God overcome our willful, and even hateful, rebellion?Vocabulary Note:When I talk about "will" and "choice" I use the word psychologists use a great deal: volitional.
1. The act or an instance of making a conscious choice or decision.
2. A conscious choice or decision.
3. The power or faculty of choosing; the will.
This is a good question because we want the movement into salvation to protect the volitional integrity of the individual. We don't want God to force, coerce, or override the will of the person. We want the individual to make this choice of her own free will.
And by "free will" I don't mean "causally unconstrained." I mean free will as the philosopher Harry Frankfurt describes it, as a state of volitional unanimity:
When we are doing exactly what we want to do, we are acting freely. A free act is one that a person performs simply because he wants to perform it. Enjoying freedom of action consists in maintaining this harmonious accord between what we do and what we want to do.So, what we want in the "free choice" of salvation is volitional unanimity and integrity. When a person chooses God we want them to want to choose God. And if God interferes with this, if the person feels she is choosing something she doesn't want, we lose volitional unanimity and integrity. The person feels violated and coerced, volitionally speaking. The choice isn't felt to be "free."
...Just as we act freely when what we do is what we want to do, so we will act freely when what we want is what we want to want--that is, when the will behind what we do is exactly the will by which we want our action to be moved. A person's will is free, on this account, when there is in him a certain volitional unanimity.
Thus, one of the virtues of the views espoused by people like C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce and Rob Bell in Love Wins--a view often called "separationism" as the person eternally makes the choice to stay separated from a Loving God--is that they work hard to protect volitional unanimity and integrity. God doesn't force or coerce a choice. The door of salvation, as Lewis says, is locked from the inside. And if you want to open it, well, you have to want to open it. The choice, as they say, is yours.
In light of this, universalism seems problematic as many think the view implies that God, seeking universal reconciliation, would have to use force to overcome willful human rebellion and sin. That God would have to kick the door down and drag you out kicking and screaming. Against your will as it were.
So how should a universalist answer?
First, let me address any Calvinist readers. Specifically, if you are a Calvinist you aren't allowed to raise this particular objection about universalism. And here's why.
If you are a Calvinist you believe that salvation comes via God's election. That is, in one moment you are a depraved, evil and rebellious human being. The next moment, after God's amazing grace "elects" you, you are a new creature, a friend and child of God. The point is, if you're a Calvinist you really shouldn't be quibbling about volitional integrity with universalists. Glass houses you know. You have your own problems on this score.
Look at it this way. Universalists could simply adopt the Calvinistic mechanism of salvation (God's election) wholesale. The only difference, in that case, between the Calvinist and the universalist, would be the arithmetic. The number of people who get to experience God's grace. But the mechanism of salvation would be identical in both cases.
So if a Calvinist ever asks a universalist the question "How can God save everyone without forcing them into salvation?" the universalist can respond "The same way God 'forces' the elect--by an act of Divine grace. We don't disagree about how salvation happens. We just disagree on the math."
So, dear Calvinists, let me step past you to address my Arminian brothers and sisters, who, by privileging human choice over Divine election, have actual concerns about volitional integrity. How can a universalist allay the concerns of Arminians?
There are a host of answers, so I'll just give you the ones that work for me. Basically, we just need to think of salvation as less an ultimatum than a process of education.
For a lot of Christians salvation is basically the process of posing an ultimatum to the human will: Choose Christ and live or deny Christ and go to hell. Basically, evangelism is a threat with a choice. An ultimatum.
I think this view of salvation is so popular because it has a lot of rhetorical oomph. It fits the contours of contemporary Christian evangelism, revivalism, and altar calls. The evangelist makes a powerful emotional appeal and the audience has to Decide. Come forward and be saved. Or sit there and be lost. The same model works well in a smaller bible study context where you peer over your bible at the poor sap going to hell and make the sales pitch: Accept Jesus or not?
I think most people are fully aware of the problems with this view of salvation. So I don't want to get into all that here. Suffice it to say I see salvation as less an ultimatum posed to the human will than Incarnational practices aimed at the acquisition of virtue. Moral education if you will. Salvation is about becoming Christ-like.
When framed like this I hope we can see how worries over volitional integrity go away. For example, most parents are trying to shape the character of their children and few of them would consider what they are doing a manifestation of "force." The same goes for how God treats his children. Our moral biography with God, in this life and the next, is about moral education, training in virtue, and spiritual formation.
Okay, but what about if a person is willfully rebelling? How can God "educate" that person?
Well, the same way all good teachers work with difficult students. You focus on trust, allow natural consequences to unfold, and persuade. Think about this using therapy as an example: How does a therapist get, say, an addict to give up his addiction when the addict is in denial about it? Psychologists routinely assess where a person is in the stages of change tailoring interventions to suit the motivational situation. God could do the same thing.
But what would that look like? I hesitate to give specifics because such thought-experiments are wildly speculative. I'd hate to float an idea and have people think "That's what Richard thinks is going to happen when we die." I don't know any such thing.
Still, it might be helpful to float an idea or two to expand our our theological imaginations. So, two quick ideas. First, when working with hard cases God's moral education could be direct and aggressive. Think of The Christmas Carol and Scrooge's experiences with Jacob Marley and the Three Spirits of Christmas. Scrooge wasn't forced into repentance, volitionally speaking. He was simply allowed to see things that helped him connect the dots, morally speaking.
But if the aggressive approach in The Christmas Carol is too in your face, think of something more slow and subtle like what we see in the movie Groundhog Day. In the movie Bill Murray's character is able to reach the same conclusions as did Ebenezer Scrooge, only more slowly. Murray's character was given the time to follow every moral path toward its inevitable outcome. Finally, at the end of this process, simple natural consequences bring about repentance, change, and virtue. Again, no force is used. All that is needed is time.
Which brings us to what I think is the key issue in this discussion. Time.
If moral education has an enemy it is time. Death in particular. Death arbitrarily lengthens or shortens your moral history with God. But universalists believe death has been defeated. This simply means that God gets to keep working on you. Some of us are pretty hard cases. And we're going to need some time. Parents know exactly what I'm talking about. Some of your kids are responsive and obedient. Others are a handful, to say the least. It's hard to get through to them. And we fear perhaps we'll never get through to them. But we hope that years, even decades down the road, a turn will happen. That after the rope gets played out the bottom will be reached and a change will come.
Sometimes, like the Prodigal Son, we need to hit rock bottom in the far country to come to our senses. And that change of heart isn't forced on the Son by the Father.
It's just the natural outcome of the Father stepping back and letting the consequences play themselves out.
Because the Father has all the time in the world.