On Freedom and Universal Salvation

Related to yesterday's post about David Bentley Hart's book That All Shall Be Saved, below is a reworked post from six years ago, giving newer readers a taste of how I've argued for universal reconciliation.

The big point of the post below is how to square universal reconciliation with human freedom. For a lot of people, that's the big sticking point. An appeal to human freedom sits at the heart of many arguments for eternal conscious torment, but it also sits at the heart of a view called "conditionalism" or "separatism," the view of hell espoused by C.S. Lewis and dramatized in The Great Divorce and Rob Bell in his book Love Wins.

Using Love Wins and C.S. Lewis as points of contrast (and to be clear, I'm a huge fan of both Lewis and Rob), what follows is a meditation on love, freedom, and salvation:

When Love Wins came out many pointed out that what Rob Bell was saying wasn't new. Love Wins was sharing the view famously espoused by C.S. Lewis. Specifically, God's love wins because God respects human freedom, not because everyone, eventually, is reconciled to God. C.S. Lewis famously phrased the notion this way: The doors of hell are locked, but they are locked from the inside. We banish ourselves from heaven, not God. The idea here is that God never forecloses on salvation. Not now, not ever. But humans, exercising their freedom, can turn away from God and keep turning away. Perhaps for eternity.

Here are selections from Love Wins where Rob Bell is walking through this conditionalistic, separatist vision of "love winning":
If we want hell,
if we want heaven,
they are ours.
That's how love works. It can't be forced, manipulated, or coerced.
It always leaves room for the other to decide.
God says yes,
we can have what we want,
because love wins.
Now back to that original question: "Does God get what God wants?" is a good question, an interesting question, an important question that gives us much to discuss.

But there's a better question, one we can answer...It's not "Does God get what God wants?"
"Do we get what we want?"
And the answer to that is a resounding, affirming, sure and positive yes.
Yes, we get what we want.
God is that loving.

If we want isolation, despair, and the right to be our own god, God graciously grants us that option. If we insist on using our God-given power and strength to make the world in our own image, God allows us that freedom; we have the kind of license to that. If we want nothing to do with light, hope, love, grace, and peace, God respects that desire on our part, and we are given a life free from any of those realities. The more we want nothing to do with all God is, the more distance and space are created. If we want nothing to do with love, we are given a reality free from love.
The specific issue I'd like to assess in this vision, and with conditionalism/separatism generally, is the regulating notion that love requires freedom. Love wins, not because we all get to heaven, but because we all get what we want. Love wins because love allows us freedom. So even if someone is separated from God, perhaps for all eternity, that is a win for love. Because you are getting what you want.

You don't want God and walk away.
God allows this.
So love wins.

Let's think about that. Love, according to conditionalism/separatism, allows people to walk away from God. More, Love allows people to keep walking. Toward what? Away from "light, hope, love, grace, and peace." So this passage in Love Wins asks us to imagine Love allowing people to walk deeper into darkness, despair, hate, revenge, and violence. To get a sense of this, imagine the horrors, depravity and bestiality of war. And then keep multiplying that. We imagine Love allowing people to walk deeper and deeper into that?

The question all this raises is if a loving God would allow that descent into madness to happen.

The response, I'm guessing, comes back to the issue of freedom. What, it might be asked, am I suggesting? That God thwart our choices and corral us, against our will, into heaven? That seems to be the key idea driving Rob's and Lewis' vision: Love requires freedom. This is how love "wins." As Love Wins says, "That's how love works. It can't be forced, manipulated, or coerced. It always leaves room for the other to decide."

It's at this point I'd like to push back with a little psychology, because I think the notion of freedom at work in conditionalism/separatism is flawed.

At root, our psychological experience of freedom is comprised of two things: 1) Self-authorship/ownership and 2) Choice/caring congruence.

We feel free when we "own" our decisions and actions. When I scratch my nose I feel that I "own" (i.e., willed) the entire action. This sense of ownership helps create a feeling of self-authorship. I am writing, with my decisions, the story of my life.

We know this experience of "ownership" is a feeling because there are situations when this feeling can become suspended. Hypnosis and disassociation are examples. In such cases my motor cortex is activated--I'm doing things--but I don't feel the actions are "mine."

The second part of the feeling of freedom involves choice/caring congruence. When our choices align with what we want or care about we feel a sense of inner harmony and freedom. I'm doing what I want to do. Harry Frankfurt calls this volitional unanimity. Everything within me "agrees." Desire, choice and behavior are aligned.

(Programming note: I use the word "volitional" a lot in what follows. "Volitional" means "pertaining to the will.")

Feelings of "unfreedom" occur when we are forced, say, at the point of a gun, to do something that is misaligned with what we care about. We are doing something we don't want to do. The point-of-a-gun example seems obvious enough when we think of external compulsion. But the compulsions can be internal as well. Psychosis, obsessive-compulsions, and addictions are all examples of states where people feel internally overthrown or coerced. But these are really just extreme example of what Paul describes in Romans 7, doing things we don't really want to do. Paul describes this lack of volitional harmony as being "wretched." It doesn't feel good. It doesn't feel free. We feel internally betrayed and coerced, "against our will" as it were.

All this describes our inner experience of freedom.  Freedom--call it free will or voluntary behavior--is the experience of self-authorship and inner unanimity.

Let's now go back to Rob Bell's statement: "That's how love works. It can't be forced, manipulated, or coerced. It always leaves room for the other to decide." As it stands, this assessment is totally non-controversial. Love doesn't put a gun to your head. Love doesn't force, manipulate, or coerce.

In short, God wants our choices to be voluntary. God wants us to "own" the decision. God wants us to "want" the decision.

But here's the critical issue at this point, an issue that many who make strong appeals to human freedom against universalism regularly overlook. As we've just noted, more than mere choice is involved in creating the experience of freedom. For a feeling of freedom to exist we need choice/caring congruence.

Suddenly, this freedom thing is looking a bit more complicated. Freedom isn't simply the absence of external coercion. Freedom is about getting our choices to align with our affections and desires. God abandoning us to our choices isn't freedom. It's a lack of coercion, to be sure. But that's a very thin view of freedom, love and choice.

Let me try to illustrate this by taking on a sacred cow.

You often hear preachers say, "Love is a choice." This is wrong. Love is fundamentally about caring. To be clear, I'm not saying that love is a fleeting feeling. I'm saying that love is a deeply rooted affection.

What is remarkable is that everyone knows this already. So it's a testimony to how strange things have become that I have to spend words convincing people to stop and note how very strange and inhuman is the "love is a choice" formulation. Just think of someone you love (I've got my sons in my mind) and ask yourself: What best describes your experience of love toward these people? Choice? Or a deeply rooted affection?

I don't know about you, but I don't wake up and "choose" to love my sons. No, I wake up and feel a deeply rooted affection.

To be sure, those affections affect my choices and decisions. And that's going to be my final point in all this. Caring drives choice. I make loving choices because I care about my boys. I don't choose to care about my boys so that I can make loving choices. That's backward.

How did the "love is a choice" meme become so ascendant and popular among preachers? Here's my best guess:

The "love is a choice" meme gained prominence among preachers as they were trying to preach the centrality of covenant and promise-keeping in the face of marital infidelity, where people were justifying their actions with statements like "I just don't love him/her anymore." And by this people meant, "I don't 'feel' in love with him/her anymore." To push back on that argument preachers started to respond with,"Love isn't a feeling. It's a choice." And what they meant was that feelings of affection ebb and flow, but a commitment gets you through the low periods. This is true, but we should get clear about what is actually going on.

What the preachers tend to miss is that you have to care about commitments for the "love is a choice" encouragement to work. Because if I don't care about my commitments or keeping my promises you have very little leverage with me on this score. Again, this is my root point. Caring is what grants us volitional traction. If you don't care about something I can't use it to sway your choices. Parents of teenagers know this very well. Where caring doesn't exist, you have zero volitional traction to affect choice.

In short, what the "love is a choice" encouragement is doing is this: "I know you don't care about him/her right now. But you should care about the promise you made before witnesses. You should care about your integrity. You should care about what God thinks. You should care about the kids." And so on. The hope here is, because caring has evaporated for the spouse, that caring can be found elsewhere--in God, the kids, the commitment, the extended family, personal integrity/reputation. But at the end of the day you've got to find caring somewhere. Because if you can find that caring and bring it to the front you can affect the choice. You can say stuff like, "Okay, you don't love him/her. But think about the kids." You try to fish for some alternative/backup location of caring to give the marriage time to heal and for spousal affections/caring to reemerge.

The point is, I understand the whole "love is a choice" idea and what it's trying to do--shifting caring from the spouse to the promise--but we shouldn't think "love is a choice" is good psychology. "Love is a choice" isn't psychology, it's a rhetorical strategy and it should not be used to guide us in thinking about human freedom.]
Given what I've sketched above, let's return to the view of freedom at the root of Love Wins and conditionalism/separatism. What's the problem with C.S. Lewis' and Rob Bell's view of love and freedom?

On the one hand, the notion that Love isn't going to force or coerce anyone into heaven is perfectly true. I totally agree. But there's something problematic if this is all we mean by "freedom," God just leaving us to our choices. Again, freedom isn't just about choices. Freedom about something deeper and more complex. Freedom has to be about what we care about. Freedom has to be about love.

I think Augustine was pointing to this when he said that all our little loves are shadowy and incomplete until they fully rest in the Love of God. "Our hearts are restless," he famously wrote, "until they rest in Thee." Our affections are broken and scattered. Our loves are all pointed in the wrong direction. And due to that disarray our choices become sinful and self-defeating.

With our affections broken our choices are broken.

Here the deep problem with conditionalism/separatism comes into view. If our affections are disordered there is no way we can "choose our way" toward God. Something deep within us is confused and disoriented. We want the wrong things. So if God wants us to turn toward the Kingdom God can't just abandon us to our choices. God can't just step back and say, "I love you. And because I love you I will step back to grant you freedom." That's a recipe for disaster. Because freedom isn't about the absence of external pressure or force. Freedom, rather, is about getting our choices aligned with our affections. But if we want the wrong things to begin with how are we to make good choices?

The point is, love isn't going to win if God just steps back to abandon us to our choices. There might be a "win" in there somewhere, but it's not a winning God would want. Love doesn't win if all we have are choices running amok because of our disordered affections. No, love really wins only when God begins to work at a deeper level, when Love begins to work with our loves. Love moves our loves toward Love. Our desires and affections have to change before our choices begin to move. And that requires positive action on God's part. Not the Divine withdrawal and passivity that Love Wins imagines in the passage above.

And I'd also like to make the point that this healing of affections is generally going to be a very slow process. Because Rob Bell's right on this point: God isn't going to overthrow or coerce our affections, internally or externally. God can't just change our affections overnight without that being experienced as a volitional assault upon us. These are psychic structures rooted deep, deep within our identity. These are psychic glaciers that are going to have to move at a glacial pace.

But they can move, even if slowly. And the slow pace allows us to preserve our inner sense of self-authorship and unanimity.

Which brings us to one the reasons why I prefer universalism to conditionalism/separatism. Conditionalism suggests that God abandons us to our disordered affections and the predictable volitional mess that soon follows. Universalism, by contrast, confesses that God loves us and will not abandon us, that freedom isn't about a lack of coercion. A lack of coercion is not what sets us free. What sets us free is having our affections healed.

Freedom happens when our loves come to rest in Love. And where conditionalism/separatism envisions God's abandonment, universalism envisions God's tireless and eternal involvement in bringing this healing to completion.

It is a vision of Love healing the loves of my life--bringing order, unanimity, and harmony.

Bringing freedom.

That is when Love truly wins.

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