Why I am a Universalist, Part 4: Moral Luck

We now come to one of the biggest reasons for why I’m a universalist: Moral luck.

In my opinion, moral luck poses the most significant theological problem to classic formulations of Arminian systems (i.e., we are saved or damned by a choice we make: accepting Jesus as our atoning sacrifice). I don’t think the ACU community has yet come to fully wrestle with the theological problems regarding moral luck. This, despite years of my good friends Drs. Paul Morris and Fred Aquino repeatedly articulating the problem on campus. Our very smartest students see the problem, but few theological solutions are proffered on the ACU campus. Thus, many of these students grow disillusioned with Christianity. They see moral luck as a deal breaker.

Well, let me add my attempt to deal with moral luck head on.

What is moral luck? Well, Steve Allison from the blog Out of the Depths made this insightful comment two posts ago:

I would say that my journey to universalism began while a student at Harding, in part as a result of mission trips I made to Europe between my sophomore and junior years. From that experience I derived a sense of the role that environment plays in one's view of reality and religious beliefs. How could it be that an honest mistake based on centuries of tradition like getting sprinkled or attending a church where an organ was played could lead to one dancing on the griddle for ever and ever? A person's heritage growing up can never be escaped. How can a Jewish person whose whole family perished in the holocaust objectively consider Jesus? How can a person born in a hovel somewhere in the 3rd world be held accountable if they never hear or happen to ignore a few radio broadcasts telling them about Jesus?

Well, that’s it, that’s moral luck. More formally, moral luck is when a person is assigned moral blame or moral praise for an action when the person did not have full control over the action (see here for more). Or, as I like to frame the issue, moral luck recognizes that we are contingent beings. That is, the fortunes of birth, heredity, and circumstance (e.g., the dominant religion of your nation or family) dramatically shape who we are. Small changes in circumstance can radically alter our futures (for those who know about chaos theory, call this the “moral butterfly effect”).

If you are a believing Christian consider this:

How likely is it that you would convert to radical, militant Islam?

Not very likely I bet. But consider the symmetry of the situation:

How likely is it that you could covert a radical, militant Islamic person to Christianity?

Not very likely.

So, according to free will doctrines of soteriology (e.g., Arminianism) you, the Christian, go to heaven and the Islamic person goes to hell.

But is this a fair and just outcome? True, you accepted Jesus from an act of will, you could have chosen differently. But, you must admit, you were also extraordinarily lucky. As Kant said:

"And how many there are who may have lead a long blameless life, who are only fortunate in have escaped so many temptations."

Fortunate to be born in America. Fortunate to have had the experiences you did during your formative years. And so on. If you were born as a young, poor male in Iran, well, I doubt you’d be a Christian right now.

Consider another scenario, a terrible one:

You are sexually abused by a leader of a church.

Well, let’s imagine that this experience, an all to common one, decisively poisons a person against God, faith, and the church (and I’ve seen this happen many times, haven’t you?). Can you blame this person? Was this experience in anyway their fault? A horrible lighting strike (metaphorically speaking) hit this person and overwhelmed them. Yet, according to free will systems, this person is going to hell. Doesn’t matter that a monster harmed them while representing Jesus. Those are just the breaks.

Well, I can’t see a just and loving God working in this fashion. A loving and just God is going to have to deal with our contingent histories, to remove moral luck from the salvation equation. But how can he do this if death interrupts our moral development? Truly, there just isn’t enough time in this life to correct many of our contingent histories. So what does God have to do? I’ll tell you:

He has to defeat Death. He has to defeat The Scourge of Humanity.

See, Death’s Sting isn’t just about dying, although that is bad. It’s about running out of time. About death trumping God’s efforts to eradicate sin and sanctify creation. Death is a moral clock. And it’s ticking.

But here is the witness of universalism: God is governed by no clock. He doesn’t run out of time. His love never fails.

Romans 8:38-39
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Are you convinced of this?

I am.

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3 thoughts on “Why I am a Universalist, Part 4: Moral Luck”

  1. I agree with you. I have to believe that God is more moral than I am. I don't beat my child or use my power over her in any way that would break her spirit or harm her physically or emotionally. Yet God, in all his wisdom, finds his holiness to be more important than his children's eternal life. No, God has to have more on the ball than I do. The gnostics had to wrestle with this question too and came up with a demiurge who was responsible for the bad behavior by God in the Old Testament, not the true God. They could not reconcile a loving God with the actions of the Old Testament God. I applaud your efforts to maintain a vision of a loving God in spite of short sighted readings of the Bible by those who are "saved" and could care less if their views of God let the majority of the world fry forever in hell. That's a loving God I can do without.

  2. Thanks for the new insight into the reading of Romans 8. I was in Vilnius, Lithuania a few weeks ago on business and had the opportunity to visit a place where political prisoners were incarcerated, tortured, and executed. I posted some pictures. In consideration of all they went through, it is difficult for me to view certain religious confessional requirements in the same light and with the same importance as they have been accorded.

  3. Hi Dr. Beck.

    Love your work. Especially this.

    Why does moral luck push you to universalism though? I know some philosophers (e.g. Nancey Murphy) attempt to reconcile physicalism and neo-compatibilism about free will with some sort of 'new heavens new earth' doctrine, but isn't the more intuitive view to reject afterlife theology altogether? Or perhaps just to be agnostic about it?

    Of course, I struggle with what it means to be a 'Christian' without believing in an afterlife, but I'm struck by the dubiousness of epistemologies of 'special' revelation--revelations which disclose a 'beyond' in the plans of God. Where's epistemic humility in all this?
    More fundamentally, where's our healthy sense of tragedy?

    Just some questions I had...
    Thanks for you work.

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