Purgatory Heaven and Hell

The one exception referred to above, that is to say, the one aspect of specifically Christian eschatology to have attracted a great deal of attention from philosophers of religion in recent years, is the question of hell. Hell does not feature in the Christian creeds; but it has been the dominant view in Christian doctrine down the ages that salvation in and through Christ is effective only for those who, explicitly or implicitly, accept God's forgiveness and open themselves up, in faith, to the Spirit's work of sanctification. Human God-given freedom, it is held, always leaves open the possibility of rejection of the divine love, and consequent alienation from the springs of eternal life. The possibility, in this sense, of everlasting damnation cannot be denied. And, to judge simply by the empirical evidence of peoples' lives and deeds in this life, much of the world remains unredeemed, and many souls do repudiate the love of God and find themselves in hell. The tradition suggests that this remains the case for ever.

The view that this is not the case, and that no one can resist the gentle pressure of the love of God for ever, is known as universalism. It is the view that, in the end, all will be saved. Very much a minority view in earlier centuries, universalism is widely held today by Christian theologians and philosophers, as we shall see.

Before examining the debate over hell and universalism, we need to consider the doctrine of purgatory. This is the view, premised upon the highly plausible conviction that few are ready, at death, for immediate translation to the life of heaven, that the vast majority of the faithful require a period of gradual reconstruction before they are fit for the beatific vision. The doctrine emerged in the early Church — it has at least some scriptural basis in I Corinthians 3: 15 — and had secured a firm place in medieval Christianity. It fell into disrepute at the Reformation, largely through the scandalous practice of the sale of indulgences, whereby time in purgatory was alleged to be reduced. But the doctrine itself survived this abuse, and it is widely held in, and beyond, Roman Catholic Christianity today. A dramatic and moving portrayal of its religious significance may be found in John Henry Newman's poem, The Dream of Gerontius, turned into a wonderful oratorio by Elgar. And, as Austin Farrer put it, with his characteristic light touch: 'It seems strange, indeed, that so practical and pressing a truth as that of purgatory should be dismissed, while so remote and impractical a doctrine as the absolute everlastingness of hell should be insisted on.'

A salient feature of the traditional doctrine of purgatory was its restriction to those whose wills are already set, at the moment of death, in the direction of trust in God. For the most part, mainstream Christianity has held to the notion of the finality of death, that is to say, the belief that no further opportunities for repentance or conversion will be given in the life of the world to come. Purgatory will simply be a matter of cleansing or purification for those who already have at least some degree of faith in God when they die. This conviction is challenged by John Hick in his greatly expanded treatment of purgatory in Death and Eternal Life. Its rejection enables us to give proper attention to what Hick calls 'parescha-tology', the doctrine of intermediate stages between death and the final consummation. Hick himself, in accordance with his philosophy of religious pluralism, whereby the different faith traditions of world religion provide alternative and complementary paths to spiritual fulfilment, sees these future stages as disparate. People pass through many post-mortem 'worlds' before they reach the ultimate state, itself conceived of as multifa-ceted. In the final section ofthe present chapter, we shall see reason to think in much more unitary terms of growth towards a Christ-centred eschaton. But one thing we shall have to accept from Hick's position is his unqualified rejection of the finality of death. Only so can the case for Christian universalism be considered seriously. To the debate over universalism we now turn.

Philosophers of religion who have argued in favour of universalism include John Hick, the present author, Marilyn McCord Adams, Thomas Talbott and Eric Reitan.47 Their opponents, defenders, that is, of the traditional doctrine of hell, include Peter Geach, Eleonore Stump, William Lane Craig, Michael Murray and Stephen Davis. To illustrate this debate, I shall concentrate here on Talbott and Adams among the universalists, and Craig and Stump among the traditionalists, with little more than passing reference to the other scholars mentioned.

Talbott argues his case with great clarity and cogency. In a nutshell, the argument goes like this: it is simply inconsistent to hold, in the first place, that God is love and wills the salvation of everyone, in the second place, that God has the power to achieve his redemptive purpose for the world, and yet, in the third place, that some sinners will never be reconciled to God, but will remain in hell for ever. These three convictions are still incompatible, even if hell is understood as a state of alienation brought about by people's own perversity, rather than as unending punishment exacted by the Creator. The only view consistent with the first two convictions is that, in the end, one way or another, if not in this life then in the next, even the most obdurate sinners will be won over and made fit for heaven.

At least four objections to Talbott's case for universalism have been raised. Craig and Davis both support the view that the dominant thrust of the Christian scriptures suggests not only the possibility but also the reality of eternal loss. Secondly, they observe that Christian mission loses much of its motivation if all are to be saved in any case. In the third place — and this is of more philosophical interest — they and other critics, such as Murray, urge the point that significant human freedom would have to be overridden on the universalist hypothesis. (Connected with this is Gordon Knight's argument that the greater good of not overriding human freedom may entail God's inability to achieve all his redemptive purposes.) In the fourth place, Murray also raises the question why, if universalism is true, God puts human creatures through all the trials and tribulations of earthly life. Why does he not create heaven directly?

Taking these four points in reverse order, let us consider how Talbott replies to his critics. His answer to Murray50 is a development of Hick's 'soul-making theodicy',51 whereby the conditions of our formation are necessary for the creation of finite personal beings. This point has already been noted in the course of our brief discussion of the problem of evil in chapter 3 (section 3. 2. 6). Heaven cannot be created directly. Only by being fashioned from below, in and through an ordered material universe, can creatures capable of being translated into the conditions of eternity be made.

The objection that universalism entails the overriding of creaturely freedom is the most serious problem from the point of view of philosophy. But clearly, for Talbott, God's power to achieve his redemptive purposes does not require compulsion. The love of God, revealed in Christ crucified, will eventually succeed in persuading and winning even the most obdurate. The tenability of this view depends, of course, on our abandoning the idea of the finality of death. And, as Adams makes clear, it involves a high doctrine of divine resourcefulness. Her other reasons for refusing to accord priority to the rebelliousness of creatures will be considered shortly.

Talbott and Adams make short shrift of the argument that, without the danger of incurring hell, morality and mission lose their motivation. It is indeed hard to see this as a serious point. The moral and religious motivation for evangelization is no more and no less than the command and the desire to make known, and to share, the love of God revealed in Christ.

The question of scriptural authority for universalism or for the traditional view is not as easy to resolve as Craig and Davis make out. Texts can be cited on both sides of the debate. Philosophical interest in this question will take us back to the issues concerning the nature ofrevelation considered in chapter 2. Universalists will argue that doctrines cannot be based on details culled from parabolic imagery or from the perfervid imagery of the Book of Revelation. They agree that the general thrust of scripture should determine the development of Christian doctrine, but their evaluation of that general thrust is very different from Craig's and Davis's. Moreover, if we take seriously the arguments of David Brown (see chapter 2, section 2.6) about the way in which revelation goes on, precisely through the kind ofwrestling with scripture that leads to revised and changing understandings of key elements in the Christian faith, we shall be the readier to accept the view that sinners can never put themselves beyond redemption.

Let us now consider, however, two ways in which the doctrine of hell has been defended by Christian philosophers. William Lane Craig has suggested that perhaps 'God has actualised an optimal balance between saved and unsaved, and those who are unsaved suffer from trans-world damnation'. What does this mean? Craig argues that some, maybe many, possible people will freely reject God's grace in every possible world. They incur, that is, 'transworld damnation'. And the creation of a world of free persons who do accept God's grace, and are thus able to accept the gift of heaven, may only be possible at the cost of allowing there to be other persons who suffer from transworld damnation. Accepting the doctrine of God's middle knowledge (which we rejected in earlier chapters — see chapter 3, section 3.1.6, and chapter 4, section 4.5), Craig then suggests that God's omniscience enables him to create an actual world which achieves the optimal balance between the saved and the unsaved. There is no injustice in this, since the damned freely incur their own fate.

Quite apart from its reliance on the dubious doctrine of middle knowledge, this scenario is bound to strike the sensitive reader as morally outrageous. As Marilyn McCord Adams says in her essay, to be discussed below, 'Craig's picture is not only theoretically mistaken, but also pragmatically pernicious', just because it would be impossible to love a God who was prepared to create a world destined for heaven at such a cost.

Eleonore Stump defends Thomas Aquinas's doctrine of hell on rather different grounds. For her, God's love for the damned is shown is his preserving them in being for ever.55 Since being and goodness are equated in Thomistic metaphysics, this is the best God can do for them without overriding their freedom to reject his love.

Some philosophers, among them Richard Swinburne, consider the possibility that the language of hell and damnation is better interpreted in terms of annihilation rather than being kept for ever in a state of alienation. But it is hard not to agree with Adams that Stump's and Swinburne's views of the nature of eternal loss are no more compatible with the goodness and the love of God than is the traditional doctrine of everlasting punishment.

Adams's defence of universalism has a moral and religious depth and perspicacity that far exceed those of any other author considered in this section. She brings out the incommensurability between any view of everlasting loss or punishment and the evils, even the horrendous evils, perpetrated by finite creatures. She also shows the limitations on human freedom and responsibility necessitated by our rootedness in a nature and a culture not of our own making. Above all, she brings out the incompatibility between any view of hell (other than as temporary and remedial) and the goodness and the love of God revealed in Christ. I have already referred to her stress on the resourcefulness of the divine love in overcoming, without compulsion, even the most obdurate resistance. The moral seriousness of Adams's defence of universalism is a standing refutation of the view express by Stephen Davis that 'the wrath of God is our only hope because it teaches us the moral significance of our deeds and shows us how life is to be lived'.58

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