Back in early February I wrote a response to Nate — one of our resident academic philosophers — and his critique of greater goods theodicy. (See “Is God a user? A response to Nate’s Principle“.) Nate offered a reply a few days later but with the flurry of activity it was never properly responded to.
I began writing a reply to the main sections of Nate’s comments, starting with the first paragraph. Then I discovered that my response to that first paragraph was getting long, and so I’ve decided to break up my response into multiple parts. This first part concerns the topic of universalism. Our focus here will be with Nate’s first paragraph:
Randal talks about “hopeful universalism” in the context of defense. My understanding is that while we cannot *know* God will save everyone, we ought to hope that Christ’s saving grace extends to everyone, such that we will all be redeemed in the end, maybe not immediately, but in a Lewisian “Great Divorce” type of situation where hell is the rejection of God and reconciliation is possible even after death. My comprehension of how this would work is very limited. Unfortunately I’ve never read the book, and my only knowledge of it is second-hand through my mother — not to psychologize too much, but I believe she became a universalist because of the cognitive dissonance resulting from her previous Southern Baptist soteriology and her son’s decision to become an atheist. Sorry for the digression — I’m not saying that all people come to be universalists because of emotional needs, however it’s probably the case that many do. It doesn’t matter one way or the other because that would be committing a genetic fallacy.
Let me begin with Nate’s characterization of hopeful universalism. As he describes it, “while we cannot *know* God will save everyone, we ought to hope that Christ’s saving grace extends to everyone, such that we will all be redeemed in the end”. I agree that a person could adopt hopeful universalism out of this principled stand that it is not possible to know whether God will save everyone. But the core claim is somewhat different, namely that in the absence of any definitive knowledge that (i) all are saved or (ii) not all are saved, one ought to hope that all are saved.
Nate then shares an interesting biographical detail. He notes that his mother became a universalist and he speculates that his own rejection of Christianity might have provided the catalyst for her change in belief. Superficially, it is ironic than an apostasy (i.e. a rejection of one’s previously held religious convictions) rather than a conversion would be the catalyst for a conversion to universalism. Wouldn’t an apostasy make it less likely, all things being equal, to envision all eventually being saved?
Nate suggests that the adoption of universalism may have been driven by emotional needs. However, he judiciously adds that attributing one’s adoption of universalism to emotional need does not mean universalism is false, for that would constitute the genetic fallacy. I agree. By the same token, the fact that some people are likely atheists at least in part out of the desire that God not exist (e.g. so-called “anti-theists”) provides no evidence that atheism is false.
However, more needs to be said here. If one can show that the only reason a person is a universalist (or, for that matter, an atheist) is because of emotional need, that would serve as a defeater for that person believing universalism (or atheism) is true, even if it doesn’t provide a reason to think it false. In other words, it would provide an undercutting defeater to one’s rational belief in universalism (or atheism). (Undercutting defeaters undermine one’s justification to believe p but they do not provide justification to believe not-p.)
Does this mean that a parent who becomes a universalist only because of their child’s apostasy has a defeater for their newly held universalist commitments? The answer is: not necessarily.
Imagine a young woman who is adamantly prochoice until the day she sees an ultrasound scan of the fetus developing in her uterus. Immediately upon witnessing that image she “feels it in her bones” that elective abortion is wrong. The experience has provided for her no new propositional information about the complex ethical issues surrounding abortion. It is, instead, a change in belief occasioned by an experience and driven by emotion. Does that mean she has a defeater for her new conviction?
No. The experience could provide her with a non-propositional knowledge of acquaintance of just what is at stake in abortion in a way that she had previously lacked. And based on this new experience she could now assess differently data that she had previously believed was supportive of elective abortion.
So now imagine a parent who experiences the shock and grief of a child apostasizing from their religious convictions. Originally, that parent had believed that apostasy without later repentance and restoration in this life leads to eternal separation from God. But now as that parent gains this knowledge of acquaintance of their own child’s apostasy, they have the occasion to reflect upon their own overwhelming love for the child and desire that the child achieve shalom (or wholeness). And through that experience they draw the conclusion that the love and resourcefulness of God, which is infinitely greater than that of any finite parent, surely could not allow this child to slip from his grasp. God is, as Francis Thompson famously put it, the “Hound of Heaven” who pursues each wayward creature until each and all achieve shalom. With this experience the parent would now be reoriented to the Christian story, turning with fresh eyes to the biblical text, now reading it in a way consistent with universalist convictions.
Of course, beliefs gained under these kinds of convictions remain defeasible. Both the new prolife convert and the new universalist convert could be wrong. But justified beliefs don’t have to be indefeasible. The point is that both individuals could be justified in reading the same evidence different based on an emotionally moving experience.