In my recent interview with Robin Parry on universalism, Robin observed that Christians should want universalism to be true. Indeed, he put the point rather provocatively when he declared, “You’d have to be a psychopath not to want [universalism] to be true.”
Psychopath?! Them’s fightin’ words!
That might seem like a daring statement, but as Parry notes, even conservative Calvinist philosopher Paul Helm agrees that Christians should want universalism to be true. Indeed, J.I. Packer makes a similar point when he observes: “If you want to see folk damned, there is something wrong with you!” (Revelations of the Cross (Hendrickson, 1998), 163).
So we are left with a situation in which proper Christian character requires that we hope universalism is true even as we are to believe it isn’t.
Next, Robin addresses the underlying tension between the doctrine of eternal conscious torment and Christian “moral character formation”. He explains:
“Someone said to me, ‘Oh, I believe that hell is tormenting people forever. I don’t have a problem with that. And I think, when you first come across this view, if you’re an ordinary human being, you would have a problem with that unless there’s something really wrong with you, something seriously in terms of your moral compass. So then you have a theological system where you have to try and desensitize yourself to this. And there is a real problem of a theological system that actually, rather than cultivating virtue in your attitudes and so on, cultivates attitudes that are actually vicious.”
As Parry points out here, eternal conscious torment presents a serious problem, for the Christian determined to move beyond the pained contortions of cognitive dissonance and to a real embrace of the doctrine is required to adopt attitudes toward some of God’s creatures that are, as Parry says, “actually vicious”. To be sure, the individual may not know who the reprobate are, but they do know that a subset of God’s creatures will be subject to eternal torments even as the elect experience maximal joy in a restored creation. Consequently, they should seek to inculcate in themselves attitudes that are in conformity with God’s, including a satisfaction in the horrifying future of the reprobate. It does indeed seem that the only alternatives at this point are extreme cognitive dissonance or vicious attitudes that are indeed inimical to the cultivation of true Christian character.
Parry is not suggesting that advocates of eternal conscious torment are vicious. But he is claiming that consistently embracing eternal conscious torment as the fate for the reprobate requires the cultivation of attitudes that are vicious. Think, by analogy, of the meat eater overcome with compassion when witnessing the horrors of the slaughterhouse. But rather than resolve not to eat meat, he resolves to harden his emotions against the terrible fate of industrial livestock. Likewise, the Christian overcome with compassion or immobilized in anguish for the eternally damned either lives in cognitive dissonance or seeks to inculcate vicious attitudes whilst cauterizing his compassion and embracing the divine plan of never-ending torment for the reprobate.
Is there a way to proceed in the interpretation of scripture and theological reflection which can help us avoid this impossible choice between cognitive dissonance and moral disassembly? Shouldn’t right doctrine seamlessly interweave with right character formation?
Eric Seibert believes so and he offers a way forward with a hermeneutical principle to guide theological reflection. (For more on Seibert see my audio podcast interview here and my print blog interview here). Seibert’s proposal has a decent lineage: St. Augustine. He begins by quoting the great Church Father:
“Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this two-fold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.”
Seibert then fills out Augustine’s principle:
“Whenever we read and interpret the Bible, we should always be asking whether our interpretation increases our love for God and others.” (The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy (Fortress Press, 2012), 66-67).
The position offers at least the beginning of a resolution to the problem. Whenever we encounter a doctrine or a reading of a biblical passage, we must ask of it, does that doctrine or reading increase our love for God and neighbor? If one concludes that it does neither, and indeed does the opposite, we have a reason to reject it. Consequently, the extent to which one believes eternal conscious torment leaves one in the hinterland between cognitive dissonance and the inculcation of vicious attitudes, to that extent one has reasonable grounds to reject the doctrine.