Universal Salvation and Universal Damnation

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As the discussion at Jollyblogger continues on the five points of Calvinism, one of the commenters on Total Depravity and Free Will (which I discussed briefly the other day) gives an argument I've heard many times, that Calvinism leads to universalism. The idea here is that if God can save people by causing them to believe, and it doesn't violate their freedom in any moral way to do so (which compatibilism assumes), then God must have the obligation to save all. God has the ability to do something good with no moral reason not to and even a compelling moral reason to do it. Thus Calvinist principles require God to save everyone.

Another commenter responds with something that really clarified for me what's wrong with this argument. The commenter says that a similar argument can be constructed based on God's justice, arguing that God ought to damn everyone to hell, and anything that might move God away from such a decision is really unjust and therefore morally evil. The first argument ignores God's justice while emphasizing God's mercy, and this second argument ignores God's mercy while emphasizing God's justice. That's how the commentator put it, anyway. I would say, rather, that each argument, rather than ignoring one of God's attributes, instead redefines one of the two attributes so as to preclude the other. Universal salvationists define mercy as all-encompassing and inconsistent with the kind of justice the Bible attributes to God. Universal damnationists define justice as all-encompassing and inconsistent with the kind of mercy the Bible attributes to God. Both make God in human image, because only we have such diminished justice as to be without possibility of mercy, and only we have such diminished mercy as to be without possibility of justice. I should add that similar arguments about annihilationism vs. conscious torment in hell can fall into the same pitfalls, on both sides of the debate.

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Welcome to this week's Christian Carnival (#45), an eclectic collection of submitted writings from Christian weblogs. The following 37 articles are loosely organized around the idea that there are three dimensions to spirituality: vertical, horizontal ... Read More

Christian Carnival XLV from The Crusty Curmudgeon on November 24, 2004 11:25 PM

Jeremy at Parableman takes on a couple of common arguments against Calvinism. Read More


Take the Dante's Inferno test....I seem to have reached Purgatory...


Good point. Nice post.

Yeah, I think you are right in that they redefine God's attributes, rather than ignoring them.

Good post.

Yet in the end the philosophical and logical arguments give way to scripture, where in Exodus 33:19b God says, " I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion."

God's justice met in Christ; God's mercy taken in his own council. God always keeps to himself a remnant, an example of his mercy within his judgment.

Well, some of the people who give this argument aren't too concerned with scripture. They're universalists, and that's hard to justify scripturally. There are those who do that, though. Keith DeRose, a philosopher at Yale who occasionally comments on this blog, thinks universalism is what scripture in fact teaches.

I'm not sure the Exodus passage in itself requires any eternal punishment or compassion. If God has some compassion in this life and some judgment in this life, the text is technically consistent with either universal damnation or universal salvation. This is exactly what universalists who care about scripture say, and my hypothetical universal damnationist (I think there may really have been such people at some point, but I don't know of any right now) might say the same thing.

>If God has some compassion in this life and some judgment in this life, the text is technically consistent with either universal damnation or universal salvation.

I don't agree because there is no qualification in the text as to limits on where or when, so it seems to be pretty all encompassing. This is too serious a matter for God to be that sloppy about, which of course he is not.

As to universal either/or, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus seems to deal with both those arguments. It also is not qualified as to being temporary, and if that was the argument, then the plea of the rich man wouldn't carry the weight it does if all he had to do was wait out the punishment.

We both agree on scripture being the final arbiter.

Are you getting any sleep yet with a new baby in the house? God grant you peace and rest. You really do have much to be thankful for this year.

If Christ paid the total price for our sins, then judgement is satisfied, and therefore is no longer an argument against universal grace by itself. However, I will grant that if one assumes limited atonement as well, that you can have reason for limited grace. However, you then have the exact same problem with limited atonement: Why would God choose to deny application of His blood to the sins of any man since in consequence it denys that man's salvation?

That sounds very much like the argument I dealt with here. I think it's just as much a problem why God would save anyone. Either argument, I think, assumes some notion of justice or mercy that we import from our own experiences and then apply to God. I think that kind of argument would work just as easily for universal damnationism as it does for universalism about salvation. That's why I don't think philosophical arguments should decide this for us. That's the thing I like most about Keith's arguments. Much of what he's doing is straightforward exegesis, not exegesis I agree with, but it most of what he doesn't doesn't assume any anthropomorphism about applying our notions of justice or mercy to God. I don't think anyone who believes seriously in moral effects of the fall should think our moral reasoning is going to be good enough to know what sort of things a perfectly good being would do and how justice and mercy all work out together in such a being. We're just not in an epistemic position to make such judgments. That's what the book of Job is all about, in fact, and I think that's the book most Christians fail to take into account when thinking about how best to respond to the problem of evil, which deals with the same sort of questions about God's moral character.

I just found this blog, and I think it is very interesting. I know this is an older discussion, but I think I will just jump in and see what happens.

Jeremy, I've read some of your stuff here, and I must confess, I really do percieve a good heart in you.

I do, however, wonder somewhat about the reasoning you employ in this line of discussion about Universalism.

For instance, (and I will quote you here in the hopes of not misrepresenting the case) you stated that, to you, it's "just as much a problem why God would save anyone". I wonder about this because it goes directly to the question of how one percieves God and his relationship to His creation. And this is really what the core of all this discussion is about, viz., how God, exactly, relates to the things He has made. And this question, naturally, goes to the very question of our ability to place our faith in Him, that is to say, His trustworthyness.

So by way of illustration, I might pose the following proposition to you, e.g.,"I think it's just as much a problem why God would NOT want to save everyone". For this proposition we seem to have at least some prima facia Biblical evidence. But, for your proposition, I must confess, I find none.

Now I could go along here and qoute a mountain of scripture that would support my propostion that God does, at least, DESIRE His entire creation to be in harmony with Himself. But I'm sure that there are a ton of these scriptures flooding into your mind even as you read this. So there's no sense in making a list. There may also be a some which seem to refute it.

But if we assume that my proposition is true, that God really does care for His creation, or that His "tender mercies are over all His works", then why should we assume it an amazing thing that God should save us. The picture of God we hold in our hearts is the very picture which tends to dictate our theology (and vise versa) and the extent of our faith. Do we see God as "put off" by us, or do we see Him as concerned about our plight in this world as it relates to our bondage to sin, the world, and the flesh? How we answer this question has a direct impact, not only on our theology, but also upon how trustworthy we find God to be and how much confidence we are able to place in Him.

I say, with a great degree of confidence, that the whole tenor of the NT, if not the Old also, is that God is VERY concerned about our plight. In fact, if it is not for this very reason that He "sent the Son to be the Savior of the world", then men, even belivers it would seem to me, really have no hope. And very large portions of scripture tend to make no sense whatsoever. The only thing left is a fatalistic expectation of torments, and it is only by some happy coincidence that He decides to save even a few.

So when you say "That's why I don't think philosophical arguments should decide this for us", I am inclined to agree. Neither should we allow ourselves to assign human notions of justice and mercy to God. But neither should we allow our theology, i.e., the popular orthodox theology, to dictate to us what the picture of God is, or has to be, that we hold in our hearts. If we do that, we are in danger of allowing the opinions of others to inform us of what we are to believe. All one really need do is examine the history of the church in the dark ages to apprehend this danger.

Does He hate our sin because it is "infinitely offensive" to Him, or does He hate it because it destroys the objects of His love, namely, us? Did the sacrifice of His Son not demonstrate the care, the mercy, the grace and loving kindnes which is characteristic of Him? Would it not be, or is it not, a cause of grief among the sons of men that Jesus' sacrifice does not, nor could it, accomplish that very thing for which it was intended? The only logical conclusion of the popular theology, whether Calvinistic or Arminian, it seems to me, is a kind of gloomy fatalism, in which God does not really care for the things His hands have made, He finds it totally and completely offensive to Himself, and in the end, formulated a half hearted plan to save only a very few. And from this perspective, it is a total mystery to me as to why John would declare that "God is love".

But from this perspective, also, I find a reasonable explanation for the statement "I think it's just as much a problem why God would save anyone". This is the crux of the matter. Indeed, if "God is love", then the real question might be why he would choose to torture anyone forever.

I agree that the emphasis is often on mercy and love, but that's because the accounts are written by the beneficiaries of that mercy and love, and they're often reflections on that mercy and love. It really doesn't take much familiarity with the Bible to find the passages that so strongly emphasize God's righteous wrath.

What God says to Moses when he tells him he's going to say his name is a nice encapsulation of the character of God:

the LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation. (Exodus 34:6b-7, ESV)

Some people wrongly ignore the emphasis on mercy there, but it's too easy to want to emphasize the mercy while ignoring the other part of what God is here revealing as his character. A fairly clear picture of how close this is to the heart of God comes in the descriptions of God as jealous and avenging. The prophets give some vivid pictures, including this one from Nahum:

The LORD is a jealous and avenging God; the LORD is avenging and wrathful; the LORD takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps wrath for his enemies. The LORD is slow to anger and great in power, and the LORD will by no means clear the guilty. His way is in whirlwind and storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet.... The LORD is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him. But with an overflowing flood he will make a complete end of the adversaries, and will pursue his enemies into darkness. (Nahum 1:2-3, 7-8; ESV)

Another is at the end of Revelation, when image of birds feasting on the flesh of the wicked who had gathered against God is referred to as the great supper of God. Somehow this destruction of the wicked is God's feast. It's not sadism, but it's a delight in the satisfaction of justice.

One problem I've always had with universalism, at least how it's often argued for on philosophical grounds, is that it takes there to be something intrinsically wrong with the satisfaction of justice. I think such a philosophical assumption is at least unwarranted and perhaps even morally offensive, particularly given the great emphasis on justice in the prophets, which always amounts to condemnation of those who oppose the righteous.

Jeremy, I do agree that there are many who over-emphasize the mercy and love of God to the exclusion of any form of just retribution at all. I do not align myself with them. On the other hand, is it not possible to formulate a theology which would strike a proper balance of mercy and justice, despite your position that, "We're just not in an epistemic position to make such judgments"? Unfortunately, those judgements have alreay been made.

Take for instance the purely philosophical position that because God is infininte in nature, it follows that our offenses are also of an infinite nature and therefore require infinite punishment. This line of reasoning, to the best of my knowledge, cannot be supported from scripture. Yet it is just this sort of reasoning that moves the debate to the more philosophical side and is relied upon by the traditionalist to justify his exclusion of the vast majority of humanity from God's grace. But what is amazing to me is that despite the fact that it violates the consciences of many, by their own admission, they refuse to look for another paradigm that might satisfy the demands of justice and leave their own consciences unviolated. On the other hand, this very senario goes a long way in explaining the increasing popularity of annihilationism. At least it seems to make God out to be more merciful. But here again, by their own admission, many confess a twinge of the conscience. Something about it still doesn't seem right.

So despite not being in an "epistemic position to make such judgments", we continually make them. And as a result, we have been given a variety of definitions of both mercy and justice. The question boils down to which one is the actual Biblical picture, if any.

Might I suggest here a possible biblical picture of mercy and justice. I say "possible" because there are, in fact, many possible ways to apprehend it. "When the judgments of the LORD are in the earth, the inhabitants therein will learn righteousness." It is my view, and of others also, that justice is not truly satisfied until two things occur. The first is restitution. That is to say that justice requires that the harm done to another be undone. It is my understanding of the Mosaic Code, that all transgression of the law demands restitution be made. In cases where the offender cannot make proper restitution, the offenders life is required of him, as in the case of murder, idolatry, and certain sexual sins. The others leave restitution up to the convicted offender. The second thing that must occur is that the offender offends no more. Here is where mercy is secured. This is the reason also why repentence secures mercy for us. We learn, or determine, to offend no more. God can then make restitution in our stead, and often does. If we assume this view to be correct, then it is easy to see that our offenses are necassarily limited. In other words, it is, in fact, impossible that we should be able to cause one another, much less God, irreparable harm. God, I believe it must be admitted, can repair anything.

And so it is from this perspective that I believe the Apostle Paul wrote Romans chapter 5. Adam's diobedience harmed us, but Jesus' obedience undoes the harm. In this case, restitution has been made to all the decendants of Adam, and of course, to Adam himself, since he was unable to undo the damage he had done. The only requirement of justice remaining is that the offender learn to offend no more. This is where the judgements, or the just retributions, come in. If they are for the distinct purpose of training in righteousness, then the demands of justice are fully met. However, if they are simply for the vindictive satisfaction of justice itself, then justice itself will never be fully met, and the harm that Adam caused himself and all of his decendents remains upon us.

And so it is that the NT speaks in quite a number of places about the universal nature of Jesus' sacrifice of himself for us, and contrasts this with the punishments of the disobedient. The believer is indeed in a unique position. Restitution has been made to him, and for him, and he has determined to offend no more. He is "justified", i.e., declared innocent. But the disobedient's guilt remains upon him, because he has not fulfilled the second requirement of justice, that he offend no more. For this, (I believe the exegetical picture of the NT shows), future JUST retributions are required in the training of the disobedient to offend no more. "When the judgments of the LORD are in the earth, the inhabitants therin will learn righteousness."

is it not possible to formulate a theology which would strike a proper balance of mercy and justice, despite your position that, "We're just not in an epistemic position to make such judgments"? Unfortunately, those judgements have alreay been made.

There are judgments made in the Bible. I'm talking about people who impose a philosophical prejudice on their interpretation of the Bible. As you note, this can happen on both sides of disputes like this one. I noted exactly that in my post.

I don't have a problem with most of what you go on to say, except this. You've found some cases of how judgment and mercy worked out in a particular context. I'm not sure we can derive from that what the nature of judgment and the nature of mercy are, not with the sorts of necessary and sufficient conditions philosophers like to do when engaging in conceptual analysis. I think the argument you're hinting at does try to do that.

I'd rather stick to what the text actually says if I can, especially when the text itself is what is so often disputed. Importing philosophical views, even ones that you might think fit well with the text of the Torah (in this case), doesn't help clarify the text if it turns out those views aren't the only way to read the text and may not have been the principle behind what the text is saying to begin with.


My name is Susana. I�m a teacher in Portugal, but I have a problem. My beloved brother has a disease who has no mercy! And I waste all my money with therapy and medicine!
He love to learn(he has a deep Christian faith) but he have no money and a very few friends!
The only joy he has is to read(it's a compulsion).
Will you please help out his poor and lonely soul by sending him some books. Any books would be greatly appreciated.
He would really like books about Jesus Christ, any Christian book would be loved.
Thanks for saving her soul from the hell in which he live.
I really need a lot of help. I�m starting to think that there is no help for me, too! WE DON'T HAVE A PRIVATE COMPUTER!
Please please please send me something!Old, even damaged print matterial, anything..

I thank you your love


Our address:

Susana Silva
Travessa Monte Louro, 102 ,2� esq.
4250-321 Porto

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