When it comes to the question of universal salvation: An interview with Eric Reitan
Two months ago I invited philosopher Eric Reitan to participate in an emailed interview on the occasion of his book God’s Final Victory: A Comparative Philosophical Case for Universalism (co-authored with John Kronen) being offered in soft cover. Eric graciously agreed and the fascinating exchange that resulted is recorded below.
If you’d like to hear more from Eric (and after reading this interview you will) you can check out his blog “The Piety that Lies Between“. But for the fullest overview of his views pick up a copy of God’s Final Victory as well as his earlier book Is God a Delusion? A Reply to Religion’s Cultured Despisers.
In keeping with my common practice, I’ve rendered the interviewee’s words in red.
* * *
Randal: Eric thanks for agreeing to do this interview. We might as well start with definitions, especially given that people seem to have all sorts of things in mind when they hear the word “universalism”. So how do you define universalism?
Eric: Universalism as I understand it is a doctrine about salvation. It is, roughly, the view that all are saved. But this means that to understand what universalism holds, we need an understanding of “salvation.”
There is, in fact, a distinctively Christian concept of salvation. Other faiths may have analogues, but the distinctiveness of the Christian concept gives rise to a distinctively Christian universalism. It’s this Christian universalism I’m interested in.
For Christianity, salvation is a solution to a problem. The problem is one that’s faced by created persons (as opposed to created non-persons such as slugs or non-created persons such as God the Father). The problem is sin.
So what’s sin? As I see it, sin is essentially a distortion within a rational creature’s values: some things are valued more highly than they ought to be and others less highly. The cause of this distortion is alienation from God. Put simply, God is not just the most intrinsically valuable reality, but the infinitely valuable source of all that has value. Get cut off from that, and you’re entire value system is unmoored. Something else fills the gap, becoming the chief value around which your other values are organized. Maybe it’s personal pleasure or money. Maybe it’s another person whom you deify. Maybe it’s an institution or a book. This sort of idolatry—making something other than God the primary object of your devotion—lies at the heart of sin.
Given the nature of the problem of sin, there’s only one real solution: restoration of the creature’s relationship with God. Salvation consists in entering into a loving communion with God in which the truth about God is irresistibly present to the creature: Here is the infinitely valuable source of all that has value. It’s God. And God is love. To be saved is to exist eternally in a state of loving communion with the creator-who-is-love.
To exist in such a state is to experience immediately the ultimate good, and so to have one’s existence defined fundamentally by the one thing that fully satisfies our deepest longings. This, of course, brings with it unmitigated joy—the joy of heaven.
But given that salvation is a solution to a problem, and the core problem for Christians is sin, moral sanctification is more central to a Christian concept of salvation than is heavenly joy. The joy of heaven isn’t some separate reward. It’s the joy of existing in a right relationship with God, the joy of being a vessel into whom divine love is endlessly poured and out of whom divine love endlessly flows, unimpeded by the obstacles fashioned by sin. (There’s more to be said here, but I suspect it will come up in response to later questions.)
Universalism, then, is the view that all created persons will eventually come to be in this state. Sin will be overcome, at least in the end, in every human soul. Every person will be united with God in love. Every person will come to experience and live within the joy of the beloved community that is the Kingdom of God.
Now it is standard to distinguish between two species of universalism based on how you hold to the universalist view. Universalism could be something you think is true (a belief) or something you hope is true. The former is usually (but, I think, misleadingly) dubbed “dogmatic” or “confident” universalism. You may be a universalist of this stripe because you think it is taught by Paul in the epistles, or because you think it’s a clear implication of more central Christian doctrines (but you may be more or less “confident” of these things).
On the other hand, you might hope that the view is correct—which presumably entails that (i) you think nothing in your broader belief system precludes it from being correct (and some things might suggest it), and (ii) your broader beliefs and values make this is a fitting thing to hope for. But you don’t think it follows from other teachings you accept. Perhaps you think creaturely freedom—and God’s respect for it—might thwart even the most unwavering divine intention to save all…but there’s reason to hope it won’t.
There are also other ways of parsing out Christian universalism into different species—ways that John Kronen and I explore in our book, God’s Final Victory. But I’ll hold off on further explicit taxonomy for now. I do want to close, however, with a few remarks about what Christian universalism is not—and these remarks will likely offer hints of some of the variety that is possible within Christian universalism.
First off, Christian universalism is not the view that all created persons are ushered into heaven at death. Universalism is the view that all persons are ultimately saved. Such a view is consistent with some (even many) suffering in hell, perhaps for a long time. You might, in other words, accept that some endure the extreme state of suffering traditionally associated with damnation. What you’d deny is that such damnation is eternal.
Universalists needn’t deny that a gulf separates the damned from the blessed, a gulf the damned cannot cross even if they repent. Such a view is consistent with universalism so long as one further thinks that the gulf will one day be bridged. Zoroastrians adopted a universalism of this sort: The damned are trapped in hell until the end of history, at which point they are liberated as part of God’s defeat of the Devil.
Furthermore, universalism as such does not deny that salvation depends on the atoning work of Jesus. Christianity holds that God entered history in the person of Jesus to save sinners. Christian universalism holds that Jesus succeeded thereby in saving all of them. Christian universalists differ from “hellists” (Christians who think some will be eternally damned) on precisely this point: the scope and success of Jesus’ saving work. Some hellists deny that this work was for all sinners, but hold that Jesus’ work succeeded in saving all those God intended to save. Other hellists believe that Jesus’ atoning work was meant for all, but think that in some cases God’s efforts failed. Christian universalists think Christ’s saving work was universal in scope and in success.
Universalism also needn’t exclude the belief that only (and all) those who explicitly accept Jesus as Lord will be saved. One simply needs to combine this belief with the further conviction that, ultimately, every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Finally, Christian universalism should not be confused with Unitarian Universalism. Unitarian and Universalist denominations in the US merged in 1961. But there is nothing about universalism that precludes accepting the doctrine of the Trinity. Christian universalists take their universalism to follow from (or at least not conflict with) their broader Christian commitments, and so routinely practice their faith within established denominations or churches as opposed to forming a separate denomination.
Randal: That is a very helpful introduction. It is also a necessary one given that, as you recognize, most people (including most Christians) are not even familiar as to what this position called “Christian universalism” is. But doesn’t that fact raise a rather glaring objection to the view? After all, Jesus promised that the Spirit would lead the church into truth (John 16:13). So one would think that if universalism is true that it would have become and remained a consensus position in the church which it clearly is not. This fact may not entail that universalism is false, but it certainly stacks the deck against the position, don’t you think?
Eric: It’s certainly true that universalism (or “apokatastasis” as the doctrine was called in the early history of the church) has never enjoyed anything approaching consensus support among Christians. But it’s also important to remember that it has been around as a theological doctrine since Christianity’s earliest days. Gregory of Nyssa, an important early Church Father, espoused it—and was never anathematized for doing so.
Another early Church Father, Origen, didn’t fare quite as well. But while Origen taught universalism, it was a specific brand of universalism linked to a theology of pre-existent souls who were ultimately “restored” to union with God. Emperor Justinian produced nine anathemas against Origen—one of which reads like a general denunciation of universalism. But when you look at the official anathemas against Origen that come out of the Fifth Ecumenical Council (and which Justinian influenced), what we find is that the anathematizations are tailored to specifically target what we might call “Origenist” universalism. Justinian’s language of general denunciation is avoided, perhaps so as to avoid anathematizing Gregory of Nyssa’s universalism (a universalism not couched in the doctrines that troubled the church at the time).
Be that as it may, there is some reason to suspect that the anathematization of Origenism and the species of universalism Origen taught was enough to motivate later theologians to steer clear of universalism in general—a kind of guilt by association. Whatever the reason, universalism has remained an unpopular view in the history of the church. And as someone who believes that the Christian theological tradition embodies a wisdom shaped by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it ought to give me pause when I find myself convinced of something that has been and continues to be a minority view in the church.
It does give me pause—by which I mean it gives me compelling reasons to look humbly and charitably and respectfully at what the tradition has said on the matter, at the objections that have been raised against the minority view and the arguments that have been put forward in support of the more widely accepted alternatives.
But as someone convinced that guiding a fallen humanity towards truth is a bit like herding cats, I also worry a great deal about any theological principle which holds that a view is suspect simply because it has failed to become a consensus position in the church up until now. Even with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the church has experienced profound and sometimes crippling divisions over quite crucial matters of doctrine.
Consider Calvinist/Arminian disputes about the role that creaturely choice plays in salvation. This is no trivial issue—and there’s no consensus. Does that mean there’s no truth? Does it mean the Holy Spirit hasn’t been at work revealing the truth? Hardly. On this issue, the failure of a consensus up to now may say more about the stubbornness, willfulness, and selective blindness of the sinners God is trying to guide than about the presence of divine guidance. Maybe that’s why Jesus’ statement in John 16:13—that when “the Spirit of truth comes” it will “guide you into all truth”—wasn’t accompanied by a timetable.
If you think, as I do, that Martin Luther was onto something with his doctrine of salvation by grace through faith, you can’t help but consider that this notion had become so eclipsed in Luther’s day that it came to him as a stunning and transformative revelation. Meditating on the gospel and Paul’s writings, Luther found himself confronting an insight that shook his theological world. I like to think that some variant of this insight is making headway towards becoming a consensus position in the church—but if so, it surely didn’t fit that description a millennium-and-a-half into Christianity’s history.
Are there truths that don’t fit that description two millennia into Christian history? Are there lonely voices crying out in the wilderness today, voices through whom God is speaking in an effort to guide a complacent or stubborn majority? If so, we don’t want to dismiss them preemptively because their views haven’t already become the consensus view.
A few years ago, Carlton Pearson—a Pentecostal mega-church pastor in Tulsa, was meditating on the gospel and Paul’s writings and found himself confronting an idea that shook his theological world. Even knowing that it could (in fact, did) shatter his prosperous ministry, he felt compelled to share what seemed to him a stunning and transformative revelation. A few years later, Rob Bell offered a message that leaned towards a “hopeful” universalism (but never exactly endorsed it). John Piper excommunicated him by tweet, but his thoughts opened up a lively discussion in the church.
Are these signs of the fitful lurching of the church towards truth—instances of the Spirit making a few blazing cracks in the walls of human intransigence, cracks that will grow until the truth that they illuminate becomes irresistible? Or is it, instead, the dangerous voice of heresy? Or something in between?
Not every solitary voice is a prophetic one through whom God is nudging the church closer to the truth. Some are lunatics. Some are sell-outs to secular culture. Some are hubristically caught up in their own cleverness.
Not every widespread view is the result of divine guidance. Some are holdovers of ancient cultural prejudices born in an age of ignorance. Some got wide cultural traction because privileged elites found them helpful in maintaining social control.
Not every unpopular view is unpopular because God led the church away from it. Some views are unjustly marginalized because, through historic accidents, they’ve been associated contingently with views that were justly marginalized.
This is why we have to move beyond the “external form” of a view (e.g., whether it is widely held in the tradition or not). We need to think substantively about the view’s merits, the arguments for and against it.
So, I do think that the fact that a view has been a minority position in the history of the church is a weighty reason to wrestle seriously with traditional arguments against the view, to approach the view with humility and openness to being corrected. But I don’t take this fact to be, by itself, a weighty reason to think that the view is false. If the latter is what you mean when you say that “the deck is stacked against the position,” then I’d have to disagree.
I disagree, in summary, because the failure of the church to rally behind a particular doctrinal option might spring, not from the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but from the finitude and intransigence of those who are being guided. A church that fails to acknowledge this possibility is even more likely to resist correction from the Holy Spirit in those places where finitude and intransigence have led it astray.
Randal: I agree that universalism ultimately stands or falls on its substantive merits (or lack thereof). Unfortunately, universalism seems to have more than its share of half-baked objections. And it might be helpful to get some of those out of the way before moving on to the more substantive case for and against the position. With that in mind, I’ll list off several brief objections and you can respond to however many you like before we move on.
I’ve often heard people object that universalism undermines God’s glory and the atonement while weakening our sense of sin. I’ve also heard that it undermines our motive for evangelism and reflects a modern sentimentalism. I also read an article in which Ray Comfort objects on the ground that universalism secures a place in heaven for Nazis and rapists! Finally, I often hear people object simply with the response that universalism is “beyond the pale” of orthodox possibility. What say you?
Eric: Let me begin with Ray Comfort’s claim that universalism secures a place in heaven for Nazis and rapists. This objection depends for its appeal on a bit of equivocation—a sort of double meaning that I think can be usefully characterized using an example. I choose one from own family history, since it features a Nazi bound for heaven.
My grandfather was a Baptist minister in Denmark during the Nazi occupation. During the war he was part of the Danish resistance, but after the war one of the most affecting things he did was minister to Nazi collaborators who’d been convicted of treason and sentenced to death.
This ministry included being present during the convicted traitors’ executions (by firing squad). Years ago my grandfather shared with me one of these experiences, one that especially moved him. It involved a convicted Danish Nazi that I’ll call Lars. With my grandfather’s encouragement, Lars underwent a religious conversion while awaiting execution. He laid bare his sins before God and accepted Jesus into his heart.
And he lost all fear of death. The final journey to the firing squad was more harrowing for my grandfather (by his telling of it) than it was for Lars. At the execution Lars declined a blindfold, wanting to face his final moments with his eyes wide open. As the moment approached, he proclaimed that he felt Jesus’ presence. The order to fire came. My grandfather wept, but Lars did not. He was secure in his salvation.
My grandfather was also sure of Lars’ salvation. He was confident that this Nazi collaborator convicted of treason was a man of God, and that despite his offenses he would be ranked among the blessed in heaven.
Would Ray Comfort disagree? I doubt it. Unless he wants to abandon core themes of Christian theology, Ray Comfort must believe, along with my grandfather, that there’s a place in heaven for this Nazi.
But, of course, not as a Nazi. According to my grandfather’s theology—a theology I’m convinced Ray Comfort shares—Jesus secured by His death on the cross a place in heaven for all sinners, including Nazis and rapists. But neither my grandfather nor Ray Comfort, nor any Christian universalist I have ever known, thinks that Nazis and rapists will take their place in heaven while remaining unrepentant Nazis and rapists.
My grandfather would not have ministered to convicted Nazis were it not for his faith that Christ has opened the gates of heaven even to those complicit in the horrors of Nazism. But my grandfather did not thereby believe that, among the blessed in heaven, one would find Nazis eager to exterminate those among the blessed who didn’t fit the proper racial profile. He did not believe that, among the blessed in heaven, one would find rapists itching for the chance to corner and violate another child of God.
If that’s what Ray Comfort means by “securing a place in heaven for Nazis and rapists,” then it would clearly be absurd to accept a theology that embraced such a thing. It would also be absurd to suggest that Christian universalists embrace such a thing.
They don’t. There’s a sense in which Christian universalists do believe there’s a place in heaven for Nazis and rapists—but it’s closer to the sense in which my grandfather believed it, the sense in which Ray Comfort believes it.
Christian universalists believe that, ultimately, all created persons will be redeemed. And by this they mean that all created persons will ultimately turn away from sin and turn towards God, and so come into loving communion with God and the blessed. In the end, all created persons will be taken up into this beloved community, this Kingdom of God. But there is no room in God’s Kingdom for the Nazi’s hate or the rapist’s impulse to violation. None of those things will be found in heaven, even though former Nazis and rapists will be.
But my grandfather believed that, too. And so, I’d hazard to guess, does Ray Comfort.
Unlike my grandfather, however, Christian universalists believe that in eternity there will no longer be anyone who continues to harbor the Nazi’s hate or the rapist’s impulse to violation. All Christians agree that no such persons will be found in heaven. Universalists believe that (at least ultimately) no such persons will be found in hell, either. According to universalists, sin—conceived as a disposition to be opposed to God and the good—will be purged from God’s creation because it will be purged from the souls of all of God’s creatures (the matter of how is something that will surely come up later in this discussion). According to the traditional doctrine of hell, by contrast, this sinfulness—these dispositions of character fundamentally opposed to God—will never vanish. They will persist forever in the souls of the damned.
And universalists tend to think that, when it comes to God’s glory, the latter view does more to undermine it than the former. Universalists tend to think that sin is such a stain on God’s creation that even its persistence in hell is an affront to God’s glory. So long as any creature of God is infected with that which is against God, something of God’s is not as God intended it to be. The doctrine of hell is the doctrine that, in some human souls, sin wins out over God’s plan of salvation.
Universalists say no. Sin wins out nowhere. Sin is too awful, too much of an affront, for God to allow it to remain a part of His creation. Is thinking such a thing indicative of a “weakened sense of sin”? Hardly. I would argue that those who aren’t bothered by sin’s persistence—even in the souls of the damned—are the ones who have a “weakened sense of sin.” Anyone who takes sin to be a fundamental blight on God’s creation must be bothered by a view according to which the blight is only quarantined rather than eradicated. (This is one reason why so many Christian hellists find universalism appealing enough to wish it were true even when they regrettably conclude that it’s not).
I suppose you could try to preserve the doctrine of hell while also holding that all sin is eradicated. You might think the damned in hell eventually come to full and genuine repentance—that even the damned are redeemed of sin—but then pair that with the view that it’s “too late” for them and God continues to exclude them from heaven because His offer of salvation is a limited time offer.
But there are all kinds of problems with this approach. First of all, no creature can overcome sin apart from God, because overcoming sin is about restoring one’s relationship with God. So how could the damned come to be redeemed and yet still remain in hell? Furthermore, this view seems to put limits on divine love—not limits imposed by other divine traits like justice, but mere temporal limits, limits imposed by the contingent matter of when the creature turned towards God. Insofar as God’s love is the crown of God’s glory, this seems to be a different sort of affront.
I suppose you could go partway towards universalism and embrace “annihilationism” (the view that those who remain unsaved cease to exist altogether, either at death or sometime after death). In that case, sin is purged from God’s creation—by eliminating from God’s creation some of God’s creatures. But then you’re throwing out the baby with the bathwater, the beloved child of God along with the sin. And I can think of a more glorious victory for God than that. Is it an affront to God’s glory to attribute to God the most glorious victory over sin that I can imagine?
As far as the idea that universalism undermines the Atonement, it is crucial to remember that Christian universalists believe, as all Christians do, that we are saved through Christ’s atoning work. The Atonement is about securing human salvation in the face of sin. The difference between Christian universalists and other Christians, then, has to do with just how successful that atoning work is taken to be. Does it undermine the Atonement to believe that it was as successful in achieving its aim as it could possibly be, rather than somewhat less successful than it might have been?
And on the matter of evangelism and the motive to evangelize: Evangelism is about spreading the good news. Is such a project undermined if the news is too good?
Unfortunately, a lot of Christians pursue evangelism in the manner of a Head & Shoulders commercial: first convince the prospective buyer that they have a problem (drifting white flakes or a hellish fate), then introduce your product as the solution. Sell them on the bad news and let fear of the dire picture you’ve painted lead them to buy the product you’re selling.
Christianity isn’t a product, and evangelism isn’t a sales pitch. Evangelism is about shouting joyously from the mountaintops the wonderful things God has done in history through the person of Jesus Christ.
But perhaps I’m leaving something out here. Some evangelism springs not merely from a joyous desire to spread good news but from a place of deep loving concern. Many earnestly seek to evangelize because they love their neighbors and want what is best for them—which isn’t the same thing as a Madison-Avenue-style advertising campaign. Does universalism undermine these loving motives?
Let me make two points here. First, there are people who fervently evangelize the benefits of a whole foods diet without for a moment thinking that adopting such a diet will make a difference in one’s eternal destiny. What motivates their evangelical fervor is their belief that such a diet will bring immediate benefits here and now. And from a Christian perspective, no whole foods diet (or yoga regimen or positive thinking seminar) can compare, in terms of this-worldly benefits, with a right relationship with God. It is, simply put, the very best thing that can happen to you right now. So why wouldn’t our love for our neighbors inspire us to invite them to partake of this incomparably wonderful good, if they aren’t enjoying it right now?
Second, while universalists believe that all are eventually saved, such a belief is compatible with the view that some of those who are eventually saved go through hell first. Some people may come to realize that union with God is infinitely preferable to alienation from God only because they have come to experience first-hand just how terrible it is to be alienated from God. Universalists might very well be motivated to evangelize by the desire to spare the neighbors they love such misery. Misery doesn’t have to be eternal in order to be monumentally bad.
Randal: Interesting! I appreciate your perspective and in particular the provocative contrast between sin being “quarantined” and “eradicated”. Defenders of eternal conscious torment certainly seem to face a dilemma in this regard. On the one hand, if they present the damned as existing in eternal rebellion, then God seems to be a failure. On the other hand, if they present the damned as remorseful or even repentant for their sin, then God seems unjust.
However, I have often heard it claimed that the damned providentially play a role in God’s eternal economy by manifesting God’s justice in virtue of their eternal punishment. Could it be that the damnation of the reprobate provides for the elect a fuller manifestation of the divine nature than would be possible if all were saved?
Eric: So, let’s consider the notion that “the damned providentially play a role in God’s eternal economy by manifesting God’s justice in virtue of their eternal punishment.” The first thing I want to say about this idea is that it seems to presuppose that God’s justice was not sufficiently manifested on the cross. That may not trouble you. It all depends on your theory of the Atonement. But I can imagine plenty of very conservative Christians being very troubled indeed, at least once they reflect for a bit on this implication.
But let me focus on something else. I must concede that I find this notion vaguely nauseating. That is, I find the moral assumptions underlying it distasteful to my moral sensibility—moral sensibilities that are powerfully expressed and affirmed in my understanding of the Christian faith.
This idea that the eternal suffering of the damned serves the providential role of manifesting God’s justice to the elect—especially if it serves as the core explanation for damnation—leads, I think, to the following consequence: The reprobate are reduced to a mere means to an end: the end of manifesting the divine justice.
There is, I think, a comparable problem even on the side of mercy and love, in those theologies that see the saved as a means of manifesting divine mercy. I can’t love you if I don’t value you for your own sake, for what you are essentially. And if my loving you becomes just about manifesting my loving nature, I paradoxically establish that I lack a loving nature to manifest.
Now there are ways of framing such theologies (which I associate with Calvinism) that can be seen as attempts to avoid this “instrumentalization of the creature.” So long as manifesting justice and mercy are merely supplemental goods served by damnation and salvation, rather than their essential aims, you can escape turning persons into things. But in relation to the damned, I worry that no notion of retributive justice that escapes this implication is one that can also justify eternal alienation from God as a punitive response to sin.
There’s a practical problem here, which I think comes out in how your question is framed. You’re asking us to consider the idea that “the damnation of the reprobate provides for the elect a fuller manifestation of the divine nature than would be possible if all were saved.” Confronted with this idea, even if you can resist in theory treating the damned as nothing but a means to this benefit for the elect, when it gets down to the business of living out the faith, you can see how dangerously easy it is, given this view, to regard the damned—created persons who bear the stamp of their divine creator but whose potential has been vitiated by unrepentant sin—as merely a means to the end of manifesting God’s justice. Their good would be better served if they, too, were saved; but in that case this instrumental good of manifesting divine justice wouldn’t be realized. So let’s rejoice that their good has been thwarted, so that they can efficiently serve as a means to our ends!
More significantly, however, I think that when the eternal suffering of the damned is construed as a just punishment for sin, the view of retributive justice that avoids instrumentalization becomes unavailable.
And I think avoiding instrumentalization of persons is imperative. To be clear, there is an enormous difference between being an instrument and a mere instrument of God. To be an instrument is to serve God’s aims—something we all should hope for. But when I talk about the instrumentalization of a person, I mean reducing someone to the status of merely an instrument, as nothingbut an instrument. I mean someone being treated as if they’re not a being with subjectivity and will and an inherent worth rooted in the kind of being God made them to be.
This is a kind of active lie: to treat someone as if they are something less than they actually are. As I see it, the most coherent understanding of retributive justice construes punishment as an active repudiation of just this sort of lie: “You treated this person as if she were a mere thing to be used, and thereby profoundly undervalued her. This punishment I now impose in response represents the extent of your error, and is a denunciation of your lie proportional to its scope. This degree of suffering is what a moral being, a being aligned with the good, should feel about having made a valuational error so grave.”
In our book, John Kronen and I refer to this conception of retributive justice as “vindicatory justice,” because punishment is seen as vindicating the right order of values by repudiating the valuational error that lies at the heart of sin. In a nutshell, people (and this includes the divine persons of the Trinity) have a high degree of intrinsic value (in the case of God, infinitely high). When they are treated as less valuable than they really are (by treating them as if they were mere things to be used), then there is a kind of lie about them that has not only been told in words but manifested in action—and this lie needs to be forcefully repudiated, not merely with words but with action.
Now it seems to me that vindicatory punishment can avoid repeating the same mistake as the original lie. In other words, it needn’t treat the person being punished as if they were merely a thing. Vindicatory punishment can avoid doing so if the punitive message being conveyed—the repudiation—is aimed in the first instance at the person who is enduring the punishment. “This is what you have done. This is the extent of your error.” If you are a rational creature capable of living in the light of truth, then I show respect for you if, in the face of your error, I convey the truth to you with the aim of inspiring you to see and embrace that truth. Punitive punishment, at least when it is done right, is just such a communication.
But if the reprobate are confirmed in damnation, if they are finally and ultimately cut off from the light of grace which makes it possible for any being to discern moral truths—and if, furthermore, this ultimate separation from the light needed to see the truth is part of the punishment itself—then it seems as if the punishment by its very nature is incapable of being an act of respect for the one who is damned.
Let me put it this way: A God who punishes sinners is not necessarily a liar, not necessarily someone who treats sinners as if they aren’t what they are, what God Himself made them to be, namely persons. A God who punishes sinners in order to communicate to them the deep truth about what they have done is not a liar. But if the punishment involves finally and ultimately separating the sinner from the light of truth, then the punishment can’t be construed in this way. If the punishment is “retributive,” it’s not retributive in the sense spelled out above. Put bluntly, I don’t see how this view doesn’t turn God into an eternal liar eternally lying about the nature of his own creatures.
For me, this is what the crassest retributive conceptions of justice amount to: behaving as if persons aren’t persons, treating persons as if they were mere things that can be used as we see fit to enlighten or “delight” the saved (as if those perfected in the grace of God could ever be delighted by such a thing) and to “manifest” God’s justice.
Now the line of argument I spell out above is not actually the core one that John and I focus on in our book. There are plenty of other things to be said about retributive theories of hell—and John and I talk about them at some length, paying special attention to the role of the Atonement in thinking about these matters. But since I’ve gone on at some length already, I won’t explore those other issues in depth here.
Instead, let me offer the briefest summary of our conclusion about the Atonement and retributive conceptions of hell, in a way that hopefully can serve to set up some further questions. When it comes to the Atonement, John and I argue that it becomes very difficult to hold to any retributive theory of hell once you take seriously the idea that Jesus atoned for human sin on the cross. Either that Atonement was fundamentally incomplete in terms of meeting the demands of justice (in which case it becomes unclear how any additional human activity could close the gap), or it was complete but is attributed only to those who subjectively appropriate Christ’s merit by an exercise of will. But in the latter case, it is no longer justice that offers the ultimate reason why some are damned. In that case, it comes down to free will—which is a separate topic and, to my mind, the most challenging and philosophically interesting one when it comes to the question of universal salvation.