Musings about Universalism, Part 2: Volitional Integrity and Hell as Groundhog Day

In the last post I said C.S. Lewis and N.T. Wright get three things right in their conditionalist visions of hell. I then noted two of those things: they get God right (the most important thing to get right!) and death right. In this post I want to talk about the third thing they get right: Volitional integrity.

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.
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?

This is a good question and, as mentioned, it expresses something that both Lewis and Wright seem concerned with. Specifically, 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.

...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.
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."

Thus, one of the virtues of the views espoused by Lewis and Wright 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 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 adopt your 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 it's 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 me back to a point from the last post. 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 (my hand is raised) are pretty hard cases. And we're going to need some time. You parents know exactly what I'm talking about. Some of your kids are responsive and obedient. Others are, well, 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 never fear. Your kids have another Parent.

And this Parent, well, this Parent has all the time in the world.

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32 thoughts on “Musings about Universalism, Part 2: Volitional Integrity and Hell as Groundhog Day”

  1. I have a few thoughts.

    1. Volition or free will is a red herring. Faced with the certainty of eternal torment, absolutely everyone would choose Christ. The only question is whether there's enough information to rationally make that choice, and for many people, there isn't. (Disclaimer: I don't believe in Hell anyway.) Now, if the choice is between staying dead or being resurrected, sure, you can give people a choice. A lot of people wouldn't *want* to live forever. (But that gets silly too, since you'll have people who love Christ rejecting him just because they don't want to be immortal.)

    2. What reason is there to think that "salvation" in the New Testament has anything to do with the afterlife at all? Given the apocalyptic context of first-century Judaism/Judeo-Christianity, salvation seems to refer to God's work and the coming of his kingdom *on earth* for the benefit of all (or nearly all) mankind. Salvation is never described a financial transaction for timeshares in Elysium.

  2. Hi Paul,
    I couldn't agree with you more. One of the reasons I subscribe to universalism is that, once you settle into the view, it allows you to stop obsessing about eternal hellfire and get on with the business of "Your Kingdom come on earth."

    So why devote so much attention to something that, once adopted, is effectively shelved? Mainly to work against the problem you talk about. Because if you believe in a traditional view of hell you can't help, in this life, thinking, even obsessing, out THAT. That is, traditional views of hell import an other-worldliness into the Christian life which undermines missional engagement.

    In short, I think the doctrine of universalism has a therapeutic effect. It allows you to say, "I'm not sure how all this is going to shake out after death. But I believe God is love and will be good and fair to everyone." And with that in play (and I think that's were the majority of Christians really are, a kind of working or functional universalism) you can get on with the business of the day: Loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself.

  3. When you speak of "moral virtue", then you are suggesting certain actions? What actions are being suggested? Obviously, there is some "measurement" or "standard". You suggest, "Jesus". Is this the universal moral model for everyone? of just those that choose to be "Christian"? (Others would say that obedience to scripture would be the "standard" or "measurement". There are just as many problems with this model, too.)

    As Paul suggests, it really doesn't call for commitment to Christianity to be morally virtuous. It might mean another model of virtue is more valued to the individual. Do all humans need "models" to follow?

  4. Hi Angie,
    If you are a Christian universalist then, yes, you believe that "no one comes to the Father except through me [Jesus]." But this is less a matter of intellectual assent than becoming like Jesus who, for Christians, represents the goal, telos of human development and evolution. Who we are "meant to be.'

  5. I agree. Also, the traditional salvation-or-hell theology places an enormous burden on its proponents to convince others to the same A,B,C and D, with a sort of black-mailed, fear-and-shame-based recruitment, trusting having the "right" viewpoint more than God.

    If salvation is really about being set free from sin and death, then it also has to answer the theodicy questions, and address not merely the sin and wrongs one commits, but also the damage taken from wrongs done to that person.

  6. BTW, I didn't address the "moral consequences" to one's choices. Certainly, one will choose unhealthy behavior if they are criminally oriented, addictive, or mentally ill. But, aren't there police officiers, counselors, psychatirsts, that can interevent more effectively than the untrained, religoous?

    You have posted a seris before on the anxiety of the religious, the monsters, etc. The religious are anxious about "pleasing God", or "doing the right thing". They can be overconscientious about the minutest insignificance, fearing judgment, or some horrible outcome. Moral research has suggested that this is the first stage of moral development. I don't think that one has to be religous to be moral. I think we need a healthy respect for the law, and a civil respect to each other, but more than that is "above and beyond" anyone's business.

  7. Richard, I just now read your last two posts and I'm enthralled. Without knowing all the cultural context of being a Christian Universalist (I've been away from Christian sub-culture for some time now) based on how your thinking here, I'll sign up!

    I think we're mistaken when we frame The Christ-Event as something that is meant to AFFECT God: God hates me until I don Jesus; then He loves me.

    God doesn't need AFFECTING- I do. When I look at a word like Repent, which carries the idea of returning from exile, or Salvation, which shares the same root as Salve, it looks to me that God is at work in the way you so beautifully describe in your post above.

    When my kids were about six, and in winter it became cool at this age to wear as little warmth as possible, I didn't make an issue of it. I simply said to them, "if you're cold put your jacket on; if you're not cold don't worry about it." I wanted them to relate their jacket wearing to their own selves- not my parental decree.

    Sometimes it was all I could do to not just jump in and make the wear their coats.....

  8. Richard, I am enjoying reading through your stuff on universalism. I have read back through your "post-Cartesian" stuff, and it has given me lots to think about. I don't get a lot of theological investigation/debate over here in the boondocks of northern Thailand, so it is fun for me to read through your musings. So, keep 'em coming.
    After rereading your stuff on a post-Cartesian world (the gist of which I have agreed with for a while, though I came to it through cultural anthropology instead of psychology and neuroscience), I still wonder about where you ascribe "blame" for the problems that God is trying to fix. In other words, where is the agency outside of God that caused (or causes) the problem God is saving us from ? And if God is solely responsible (meaning, the only one with the volition and power to make things run well or amuck), then wouldn't it be the case that universalism is not a testament ultimately to God's love but a testament to his power and ability to clean up his own mistake? (I am basically asking you to answer the problem of evil in relation to your views of free will and universalism. Nothing too big, right?
    But, here is my real question. Following your train of thought in this last post (which I liked), where and how does this postmortem "education" happen? In other words, if humans are fundamentally embodied beings (which I agree with wholeheartedly), then a postmortem education would happen in a resurrected body, I presume. And to follow the language of scripture, it will happen in God's new creation, the fullness of the coming of the new age. In other words, it will happen to all of us, together, on earth. So, if this education, or saving, is a process, then the implication is that a portion of the resurrected population will still be jerks at the beginning (i.e., Hitler, serial killers, etc.)--jerks to the point of being harmful to others. Thus, new creation doesn't sound like a place where there will be "no more mourning or crying or pain."
    Just trying to fill in some holes in my understanding. I'd appreciate any thoughts you have.

  9. "And this Parent, well, this Parent has all the time in the world."

    What a refreshing possibility. It's amazing how much of my own anxiety comes from the feeling I carry around that says, "there's not enough time." Reading this and other posts, it occurs to me that my experience of God has been infused with that panicky feeling as well.

    I also realize that I parent differently when I'm anxious about time. I wonder how many times I've related to God as the impatient parent wanting to jerk me about all the time.

  10. I do not "buy into" supernaturalism. And even the use of terminology, such as "coming to the Father through Jesus". What does THAT mean? Symbolization is the height of faith development, which means that people understand "myth". But, one doesn't have to choose to live their life "for myth". Even if one subscribes to Incarnation, then that is a choice of moral modelling. And a choice to belong to the Chrisitan community.

    The Christian sect, as a religion, was intially a Jewish sect. Should we consider Jewish Humanism as really "the message"? Humanism doesn't have to be connected to religon at all, does it? One must choose what, where and with whom they will live their life.

    Choice is morality but not about defining such choice for another. Isn't this why our laws are not postive, as to justice, but negative, in preventing injustice? Religion wants to define, where the Constitution leaves room for liberty of choice and value.

  11. Hi Derran,
    It is good to talk to you. We've missed you.

    Boy, I wish I could say "Here's how the New Creation is going to work."

    Let me make a few observations. First, this isn't just a problem for universalism. Under traditional views when I die I'm still dying in an unsanctified state. I'm still a jerk. The point is, by leaning to hard on justification traditional views also struggle with how sanctification is going to work after death. Because that project is still ongoing at the point of death. So I think that's a problem across the board. Whatever mechanisms are in place for handling this aren't going to be fundamentally different under universalism. Perhaps just more intense or of longer duration. Basically, what we call hell.

    So my guess is that the language of heaven and hell is trying to grapple with this mystery. We die as unsanctified creatures. So hell is necessary to deal with that. But heaven, the New Creation, is the goal. So, roughly, we start off in hell and move into the New Heaven and the New earth.

  12. "But universalists believe death has been defeated. This simply means that God gets to keep working on you."

    Death was stronger than God and prevented Him from 'working' before the cross? So, Jesus' death gave God more time to work on me? What possible support is there for such a view?

  13. Dr. Beck,

    Thank you for another thought provoking post. I've been following this conversation of yours for years, and have enjoyed your questions and searching for answers.

    I personally find myself falling in line with Lewis and Wright, so as you mentioned in the post, I wrestle with the idea of volition and a person's ability to not choose God. It seems that for universalism to work, one must assume that, given enough time, all people would choose God, and I can see how that makes sense. As a Christian, I have to admit my own biases and ask, "Well, who wouldn't choose God?" At the same time, how does universalism respond to the story of Genesis? The stage set in Genesis 3 tells the tale of humanity in the presence of God, what could have been the eternal presence of God, and it chose to turn its back on that presence. If it can happen once (the turning away from God when death was not an issue), what would keep it from happening again? Yes, death has been defeated through Jesus, but a world before death didn't keep humanity from turning away from God before. From a universalism viewpoint, what is the ontological difference between a post-Jesus reality (as far as humanity's relationship with God goes) and a pre-fall?

  14. Richard,

    On your point about Calvinism and Universalism--as i understand it, there is a hybrid view. Augustinian Universalism more or less accepts TULIP, but believes everyone is in the Elect category. i'm fairly certain that's the view of Marylin McCord Adams.

    About Frankfurt, i think you've oversimplified a bit. i haven't read your previous series on the subject, but i've read some Frankfurt. It's not merely that a person has to be doing what they want for them to be acting freely (which, i take it, you understand that acting freely means or implies being morally responsible for one's actions). A person who's been brainwashed is doing what they want. The same goes for a drug addict. i haven't read the particular paper you cite, but elsewhere Frankfurt says that wanting what you're doing has to be caused in the right way. I think the paper is Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person. He presents a theory about first and second order desires, how they relate, and which relations constitute free actions.

    Again, i admit i haven't read the previous stuff (i really shouldn't even be reading the current posts with the workload i've got), but merely citing Frankfurt does take a lot of compatibilist/incompatibilist worries for granted.


  15. I used the term 'the cross' and you help by saying the answer is 'Easter!' Surely you know that that is a distinction without a difference given our context? So, I'll rephrase: What about Jesus' resurrection gave God more time? By the way, I believe I am asking in good faith.

  16. Easter, as I understand it, means that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God.

  17. So, if I'm reading you correctly, you're arguing for the Origenist account of salvation?

  18. I haven't read Origen so I can't say. But from what I understand, secondhand, about his views there are similarities.

  19. That's fair. But if I'm to solve the whole free will debate here that's a high bar to clear. All I can do is gesture toward a view of "free will" that I think is psychologically more plausible.

    Generally, as I've written about before, I don't like to frame the issue, for these theological purposes, as a debate about "free will vs. determinism." I like to talk about intermediate positions I call "strong volitionalism" (a robust view of human agency bordering on causally uncontrained free will) and "weak volitionalism" (the view I've been talking about, a more realistic and finite view of human volitional capabilities).

    The point, for me at least, is that strong volitional models are under strain. People can debate that, but I think people are becoming much more realistic about what humans, volitionally speaking, are capable of. More, as McCord Adams discusses, we can expereince volitional ruin, the complete collapse (due to horroric suffering, disease, abuse, or truama) of volition.

    So what do you do, as a conditionalist, with those situations? True, for workaday life, with a normally functioning will, the conditionalist account seems plausible. There is no overt reason, in those cases, not to choose God. But the conditionalist account breaks down at the margins (as McCord Adams argues). Consequently, I think we need a more robust account (again following the universalism of McCord Adams). Scope for God to work in a rehabilitative way.

    So that's how my view of human volition lands me with universalism.

  20. Thank you for that. I never would have made the connection between God having more time and there no longer any separation from His love. You are correct; nothing can separate us from the love of God as a result of Easter.

    But there is a context that can not be ignored without embracing error. 'Us' in that context are God's elect (Romans 8:33). Not much of an election if 'all' gain office.

  21. Agreed. The pinch for the universalist position is that nothing can separate us from the love of God that is "in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8.39). I plan to get to that Christological issue in a coming post. I don't know if you'll agree, but I hope you'll see I think your concern in this regard is something I take seriously, even if we can't find common ground.

    That said, the seeds of universalism can be found in the Easter narratives. Humanity murders God. Essentially saying, good riddance! That is rebellion at its worse, the murder of God. Effectively, this creates hell: separation from God. And yet, God comes back from the dead. And forgives. In this we see God's forgiveness "in Christ" given to a rebellious humanity. Just as Christ forgave the sins of his murders. Their sins were forgiven though they did not believe, nor did they repent. The source of their forgiveness was found only "in Christ."

  22. Great blog and great comments - thank-you, everyone. @-:¦

    As an educational psychologist, my experience is that most, if not all, challenging (=rebellious?) behaviour stems from fear and anxiety, leading to an overriding need to control the environment in an often-fruitless effort to reduce that fear.

    Perhaps in the presence of the perfect love that drives out fear, one's choices are altered, one becomes 'free' to act according to one's true self, created in the image of a loving God.

    Just as psychological context can constrain us into a multiplicity of choices, love can free us into a single inexorable choice.

  23. Hi Mike,
    Sign-ups are this weekend from 8:00 to 10:00.

    Regarding universalism and Christian culture, Scot McKnight, a leading Christian author, blogger and intellectual, thinks this issue--universalism--is the biggest, most pressing issue facing contemporary Christians. See his post today:

  24. I really do look forward to all of your posts and the one you mention here is certainly one which I will seriously read. One last parting shot before I wear out my welcome (oh, I guess its too late for that :) ), the forgiveness you refer to does not have to include the forgiveness of sin nor the declaration of righteousness. Only the one thief, for example, was told where he were going that day. Truly, I wish He would ultimately redeem all of us; God knows (no pun intended) we all desperately need that. But, that just isn't His plan.

  25. To pose another possible entry in the metaphors of how God gets us to accept salvation of our own "free" will - the recent movie Inception. The gospel enters our subconscious and keeps penetrating until it gets so deep that it becomes our own idea.

  26. Fantastic post, Richard. This really helps to clarify a couple of issues that have been pestering me for a long time.

  27. He got in trouble for a universalism that included even the fallen angels and Lucifer. He also has some odd pre-existance theories (and really, even a pre-this creation fall), which are reminiscent of the Mormon account of creation, but apart from that, his account is intriguing because he sees salvation as akin to remedial learning with whatever time necessary being given. I suppose, on review, that it's really only the only similarity.

  28. I'm glad I'm not the only parent who couldn't get her kids to wear coats. What makes parenting so tricky, too, are the differences in each child.

    I'm still weighing out the differences between human freedom and volitional integrity. I'm not sure I see the difference. And maybe it's just my circle, but most Christians I know can't see through the walk-the-aisle-to-get-saved scenario. It's embedded in traditions that can't or don't think outside that theological system. The little nagging voice that says, "something's just not right about this" is easy to push aside in a group like that. And it really takes becoming pushed out of the group to begin to question it.

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