Why I am a Universalist, Part 2: God is not worthy of worship just because He's God

I moved toward universalism during college. During my junior and senior year of college I went through a crisis of faith regarding the object of my faith: God.

What bothered me was simply this: God is not worthy of worship just because He is God.

For if God were a fiend, or cruel, or unreasonable, or spiteful then I just didn't see how He would be entitled to worship, service, and devotion. If God were vengeful, unreasonable, and cruel then the moral thing to do, it seemed to me at least, would be to rebel against Him. He might send me to hell for that, I decided, but if He's cruel at least my rebellion against Him was moral and heroic. I had no interest in serving a cruel and unreasonable God.

So I came to this conclusion: God is not worthy of worship because He is God, God is worthy of worship because He is Good.

And this realization, still at the foundation of my faith, sent my spiritual journey in a whole new direction.

For the crisis came upon me when I began to seriously meditate on the morality and goodness of eternal damnation. Any way I sliced it I found the vision of an eternal torment full to overflowing with unspeakable agony to be morally repugnant. No human judge or jury doling out such a punishment would be deemed reasonable agents of justice. Yet this was just the sort vision everyone around me was extolling about God.

And when I questioned my peers and bible professors about this vision of eternal damnation the arguments all boiled down to the same thing: An appeal to God's Sovereignty, His Godhood.

"God is God."
"Who are we to question God?"
"We can't understand God."

and most common of all...

"We worship Him because He is God and you are not."

As I heard these answers in various formulations I screamed in my heart: NO! GOD IS NOT WORTHY OF WORSHIP BECAUSE HE'S GOD! HE'S ONLY WORTHY OF WORSHIP BECAUSE HE'S GOOD!

So, I moved to universalism for this simple reason: It holds to the vision that God is good. No other vision, as I've sat with them, can make this claim.

It is true that counter-arguments can be marshaled. But they generally fall into one of two categories:

1. The bible says that there will be eternal damnation. Perhaps that seems unreasonable or immoral to you Richard. But God is God and you are not.

2. God is BOTH just and good. He needs to be BOTH.

I'll have more to say about each of these in the coming posts, but today my response is this:

To those arguing #2: I claim that God is Good, totally. Therefore, His justice must be good as well. His justice must be loving. God is not schizophrenic, with two competing personalities within Him, one pulling for forgiveness and the other for justice. As Talbott points out, God's moral nature is simplistic. God is love. And thus, since God is the creator of Hell, Hell must also be an extension of His love. Just how this can be so I'll discuss in coming posts.

To those arguing #1: I have no answer than this. If God is God and I am not and you ask me to believe in or submit to a God I find morally reprehensible, I will refuse. I would rather envision and seek a God greater and more gracious than the one you now serve.

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10 thoughts on “Why I am a Universalist, Part 2: God is not worthy of worship just because He's God”

  1. The interesting thing about "how we perceive God", is that our minds will be transformed into a likeness of the God we perceive. That's why so many of us are so screwed up... our twisted view of a God is all over the map. Then so are we.

  2. I appreciate your thoughtful reflections on these issues, but I can't help but point out (especially because no one else has seen fit to offer much in the way of criticism) that your arguments are just not sound.

    God is not worthy of worship because He is God, God is worthy of worship because He is Good.

    Why should it be an either/or? (like Calvinism/Arminianism, and any other suspiciously-manmade-looking dichotomies one might care to name) If God could not have been other than good, just as he could not have failed to exist, then certainly there can be no sensible splitting of the two questions.

    If God is God and I am not and you ask me to believe in or submit to a God I find morally reprehensible, I will refuse. I would rather envision and seek a God greater and more gracious than the one you now serve.

    What if you had to invent him out of thin air in order to do that? Then you're left in the following position: Acknowledging a necessarily existent God who unfortunately failed to be fully good; in fact, turned out to be quite a fiend. But you, on the other hand, are somehow in a position to recognize a possibility for transcendent good that God has failed to meet; and you'd be doing that in the same capacity that God would have had if he had been as good as you. In other words, God has somehow succeeded in creating something greater than himself. Rather than take up this (outlandish, at best) possibility, return to my point made above, about the venerable theological tradition of conceiving of God's maximal goodness as of a piece with his necessary existence. If that is the case, then your either/or dilemma dissolves, and furthermore you would have a rational, objective basis for simply suspending judgment on the question of what it is or is not eternally ethical for God to do. You might have to give up some psychological comfort, but isn't it rational to suspend absolute judgement on matters on which one is straightforwardly not properly disposed to pronounce?

    And I think you would have to make up a "God" to your own liking rather than discover an existent one, because what historical alternative is there to the God revealed in the Judeo-Christian Bible? And in that Bible are statements, among those of Jesus himself, which as far as I can tell cannot be reconciled with Universalism. Maybe annihilationism, at a stretch (even there I'm highly skeptical), but not Universalism. Given all the foregoing, I must conclude that the only thing Universalism has going for it is psychological comfort, period and paragraph.

    I guess this is just a natural consequence of your psychologistic "theological train wreck" you mention above? ;-)

  3. Micah,
    I also appreciate your comments. Unfortunately, I don’t know if there is much I could say to have you appreciate my position. I think we are bringing different theological sensibilities to the subject.

    However, to be honest, I’m not sure I know what you are talking about. Perhaps I’m just dense.

    First, are you saying that it is impossible for a god to not to be good? That a god, if one existed, necessarily must be good? If so, what are your reasons/evidence for this? Or is this just consoling vision you also have? A vision, as you say, of your own “liking”? In short, are you not also open to the claim that you are creating a God in your own image? If not, why are you immune to this assertion?

    Second, I’m unclear why you are concerned with me seeing a “good” that traditional notions of God have excluded from his nature. I see nothing illogical about this. If I find a picture of God that is immoral why can I not reject that picture as immoral? You are assuming that the picture I’m rejecting is accurate, correct? Isn’t that the root of the difference between us? That you see God rightly and I’m deluded?

    So you see, I’m not envisioning a God better than God himself. Who could know such a thing? No, I’m envisioning a God better than your picture of God. That, it seems to me, is not so outlandish. Nor is it unsound.

    But you may object and say that the God you envision is good. Which means that you and I must debate what “goodness” really is as we apply the adjective to God. That is what this whole debate boils down to. We disagree on what “goodness” is all about. What God’s “love” is all about. This is the crux of the matter. A matter fully worth discussing. So, if you are interested in discussing this, what exactly IS your picture of God? Why do you call him good? Why do you call him loving?

  4. In order to minimize any talking-past-each other, let's agree that we're both talking about the monotheistic God of the Bible. The way God's goodness has long been traditionally understood is that it's metaphysically of a piece with his necessary existence. This makes sense given the inherent natures of good and evil: good comes first, and evil is just a perversion thereof. So just conceptually, there's no reason to countenance a possibility that the God, the monotheistic one, could have been evil. I advert to that conception not because it's to my "liking," (although in fact I do find it extremely satisfying on a number of levels) but because it's philosophically sound and for historical reasons must be the one that corresponds to the God revealed in the Bible. (I’m going to hope that that much is understood without painstakingly explicit defense.) So that's the reason I maintain that the question of why we worship God can't be sensibly dichotomized (or trichotomized, or subjected to any other -chotomies) into "because he's good, not because he's God." His goodness is metaphysically necessarily of a piece with his Godness, so to separate the questions is to implicitly say something like "Oh, thank goodness God didn't turn out to be evil... thank you God for not being evil!" He can't help not being evil, so this is silly. This is a point worth making in and of itself (it has an important application to the Euthyphro dilemma, for example, but that’s another topic entirely), but I think it's also relevant to the argument for Universalism.

    Now we get to appearances to the contrary about God's goodness, and resolving them. In your most recent post (10/24), you discuss the very relevant point of moral coherence, and that everyone has to do this in their reading and interpretation of scripture. How do we do this? Many atheists try to do this and come to the conclusion that the God of the Bible couldn’t possibly exist, because his attributes as presented in the Bible seem to them to be contradictory. In those cases, the criterion is entirely on the objector’s own moral judgment. For a believer, on the other hand, given that we believe in the God of the Bible, there’s no question of finding out whether God is good or not. One can only consistently acknowledge that all good comes from God, and furthermore that we ourselves don’t have perfect sensibilities of goodness, justice, love, even in finite areas of our own everyday concerns, much less in eternal matters that we scarcely grasp the outlines of. What I suggest is that it is exceedingly reasonable to suppose that the reliability of our moral judgments on eternal matters quite remote from our everyday experience (gauging the full depths of the consequences of sin, understanding what damnation really is, and so on) is highly questionable at best, and is not an adequate basis for making sweeping impossibility arguments like I hear you making (if I understand you correctly)—that it is not possible that a maximally just, good, and loving God would consign some souls to eternal damnation. (At least, I guess I hear you saying that you’re confident enough in this statement to let it trump a number of intransigent textual evidences, and whatever other arguments besides, for Exclusivism.) So in areas where we can’t quite make sense of God’s actions, it makes sense to suspend absolute negative judgment, unlike the atheists I mentioned, who are unwilling to do so—indeed, have no reason to do so because they don’t believe in God in the first place.

    So, the argument I hear you making is one based on conceivability—picturing in your mind what eternal damnation must be like and rejecting it as unacceptable. It’s schematically just like a skeptic who tries to picture the existence of demons and can only conjure up in the imagination the comical figures in red tights with pitchforks, and “reasons” that since that couldn’t be real, demons couldn’t possibly exist. I do understand where you’re coming from, and that you think you’re adding a “good” to God’s list of attributes that’s been long overlooked. But that hinges on, among other things, the possibility of God eventually winning over all human free wills to His side—we would certainly like to say that it’s possible, but on matters like these I think it’s only fair to say that we just don’t know what we’re talking about. We may well be asking God to create round squares.

    I don’t think I’m going to change your mind or anything—indeed, if you just can’t bring yourself to accept the idea of eternal damnation, then universalism is certainly preferable to atheism, I should think—but I would at least hope to press home the point that your assertions about Universalism are quite a bit stronger (in the philosophical sense of far- and potentially over-reaching) than you perhaps realize. In addition to the points made above, there is the real potential, if not inescapable necessity, for a Universalist who reasons as you do to consider themselves morally superior to Exclusivists, by dint of being able to imagine a “better” God. And you may well be morally superior to me and/or most Exclusivists, for all the facts of the matter may be. But that wouldn’t mean that you’re right about Universalism.

  5. Oh, I wanted to make one more point: If we rely heavily on the analogical reasoning of what we would or would not do as parents in order to tell us what God would or would not do, then we may or may not have successfully gotten at God's attributes, but what we will have is an excellent candidate for the kind of "father-figure" god that Freud thought we invented by projection.

  6. You know what, forget it, I'm just being a pedantic snoot. Take or leave anything I said, I don't mind. My guess is as good as yours.

    These internet "debates" always just leave me feeling "dirty."

  7. Micah,
    I don't think you're a pedantic snoot. This post of mine was provocative, a poke in the eye. Which was wrong. So I deserve some strong critique and criticism.

    When I wrote the post I wondered if it was appropriate, the tone that is. Let me clarify what I was trying to do.

    The post was trying to capture a theological journey I had in college. And it was an emotional journey. I was trying to capture that emotional tone in my post. I was trying to capture my frustrations with a kind of shallow, unreflective fideism I frequently ran into during college.

    In short, your points, building upon both logical analysis and traditional interpretations of Scripture, are well taken. My argument in this post is, well, less an argument and more autobiography. Thus, as an emotional account, this post isn’t the most logically rigorous. Further, I come across as smug and morally superior.

    So, I apologize for my part in this. I also hate web debates. I’ve been to your site and know you to be an intelligent and faithful follower of Jesus. If you and I cannot treat each other charitably, what point is there to this discussion if we are not following the way of Jesus?

    I’ll finish out this series, and you may disagree along the way, but I hope we’ll seek out the common ground we share.
    PS- BTW, I know you are married. Does your wife ever get tired with how much you get wrapped up in the blog stuff? I know mine does!

  8. Well, having a two-year-old and a first-trimester pregnant (Shhh! Don't tell anyone!) wife to take care of, I find I don't have much time to blog in the first place. So that kind of takes care of that. :-)

  9. There is no question that God is good because Jesus fully demonstrated that in His life and death. What other basis can you use to determine God's goodness. Remember it was never the God's intention for man to have the "knowledge of good and evil".

  10. What a great post. It summarises the journey I have been on in recent years, discovering His goodness and love - that He is a good, loving daddy - and, over the last year or so, questioning passages in the Bible that do not seem to me to match up with the actions of a good, loving person.

    This led me to universalism. I was initially resistant to it as I had preconceived ideas abot it, but when I read up on it, I found that Christian Universalism is still consistent with what we understand about salvation and forgiveness, none of that gets thrown away. What we have instead is a God who wants all people to be saved and eventually, will do it.

    Suddenly the bad news of the gospel evaporated and I become more in love with our amazing, merciful, good loving God.



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