Friday, July 24, 2015

Why "Hopeful Universalism" Isn't Hope

There's a standard line in the field that goes something like this: we may hope that God will save all people, but we may not confidently announce this or rely on it. It's very close to what George Hunsinger calls "holy silence," or "reverent agnosticism." It's even closer to something Wittgenstein is supposed to have said at the beginning of the Tractatus: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent." Except the real sentiment Wittgenstein means to express is more like this: "Let what can be said at all, be said clearly; we must [only] be silent on points about which nothing can be said."

I will be absolutely blunt with you: if the redemption of humanity, God's redemption of God's creature, cannot be proclaimed confidently as gospel, then we have no good reason to trust this "god" whose freedom we are so piously attempting to preserve. We want to leave room for God to do whatever God might feel necessary at the end of the world. Room for God to be absolutely inconsistent with Godself, if need be. Only one thing could persuade us to do this, though: the defense of a doctrine by which we have always asserted that bad people (not us, but really bad people) will get what they "deserve" in eternity, and will get it for all eternity—if, that is, they aren't simply destroyed outright with extreme prejudice. A doctrine we think of as perfectly and impartially just.

A doctrine that is as perfectly and impartially just as we are.

And so, to the extent that we are willing to cognize total salvation, total eschatological redemption, as a possibility, we attempt to make it a remote one. Ideally desirable, maybe, a product of an understandable idealism, a nice idea, ... it's just such a shame reality gets in the way. So go ahead, hope for that. But don't expect it. Don't think you have any reason to trust that it will happen, or that it's even likely to. And above all, don't talk to other people about it like they should have any confidence in your foolish hope.

Why? Because in the end, God's going to do what God wants. And God doesn't care what you want. God doesn't care about "nice."

But which "God" is this? Is this god really the one we know in YHWH and Jesus? The trustworthy father of the adopted people, whose adoption grows ever larger toward the world? Whose people are always bloodthirsty and vengeful and restrictive, hating their neighbors, cousins, and even sometimes their parents, brothers, and sisters? The god whose promise is that in the end this people, and all peoples, will be subject to true justice instead of their hatreds and violences against one another? The god whose justice is mercy, who loves peace and blesses those who make peace? The god who came here in flesh to die rather than to kill? That god is eternally faithful, and needs no protection for a freedom custom-designed to permit eschatological infidelity. So what "god" are we protecting with this irreverent pretense to ignorance? What are we saving by foreclosing on speculation built on the gospel rather than the law?

"Hopeful universalism" isn't a good Christian position. It isn't even genuinely hopeful. Hope is only truly hope if it is expectation of something trustworthy, something as yet unseen but promised. We may justifiably have hope in the extremely unlikely—if we have been given reason to expect that it will nonetheless happen. If I encourage you to hope for something that I have reason to expect won't happen, and no good reason beyond my own optimism to expect that it might, I am encouraging false hope and acting in bad faith. If I tell you you may hope for something that you may not proclaim as gospel, giant warning lights with sirens should be going off in your head. An unreliable object of hope is not an object of promise, or it is only the promise of an unreliable god.

What's the basic problem? That we see a dilemma when we see gospel and law, yes and no. When we see these together, however much we might want the yes, we have more use for the no. And we believe that they stand in conflict, a conflict that must be resolved from our side. Or, rather, from your side. Or, in the rarer instance, that God will resolve this dilemma by division, by assigning some to yes and others to no—which is just what we believed when we thought morality could effect change, and why positions that truly assert God's unalterable decision are rare in practice. Justice, after all, if it is not caprice, demands that we determine our own fates, and deserve them. We don't actually want, or trust, a cruel and arbitrary god. But there is nothing we would not accept from the hands of an arguably just, if disproportionate in response to demerit, deity. Such a god makes sense to us, and always has.

"Hopeful universalism," with its sham "hope," is merely a way of wedging the door open for this damnation. A "third way" like all others, wanting the look of a nicer outcome but with all the ceremony of cruel judgment intact under the surface. If we truly cannot speak of eschatology, let us erase all of our eschatologies and leave the field. Otherwise, let us have this contest over what God is truly like, and what such a God will truly do. There is evidence from which we may obediently work, and positive things may be said without falling into nonsense. So believe in damnation, or salvation, and defend yourself in good faith, but do not come to me with appeals for "holy silence" on the subject. If you are impartial about injustice, you belong to the injustice as surely as if you believed it to be just.