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Universalism and the Problem of Evil

This quote sums up one ideal. Universalism sums up the Heavenly optimism possible under Christianity. The doctrine of eternal damnation sums up its hellish underbelly. Since the southerners amongst you are already quite familiar with the latter, I’ll include the former quote:

Universalism as hitherto expounded and applied is without doubt incomplete and faulty. It will be better understood and more consistently set forth. But it’s seed-thought–that God is the eternal Father of mankind, and that right and not wrong, good and not evil, happiness and not misery, are the sure outcome of his creation and providence–is God’s own thought, and is as sure of the whole religious field erelong as noon is to follow dawn. . . But whatever this church is to do or become as an organization, one thing, I think, is clear, it stands for the fullest and most rational gospel that the human mind has ever been invited to examine, or the human heart to enjoy.

This is nice, but the problem is that while the human heart may enjoy the fullness of such a Gospel, the human mind must injure reason to accept it. Wrong, evil, and misery are already known outcomes of creation, just as assuredly as are right, good, and happiness are. We have no recourse but to acknowledge that both sets of outcomes have already come to pass and will continue to as far as we can foresee. Perhaps God is capable of and planning to banish one set of these outcomes for the world generally, or on a case by case for individuals, but it if so we must still admit that reason is incapable of producing a compelling reason to believe that this is the case. Especially in light of the fact that he is not doing it in the present, reason compels us to conclude that it is less likely to be true than to be untrue.

So, I think a religious universalism – indeed any responsible religious response to the world of experience – must be more careful than what Rev. Atwood suggests. The truth of universalism is that God is not malicious. But the truth is also that God doesn’t constrain the world to goodness. Our theology, if we are to have one, must unashamedly profess that the world does not conform to any known human or Divine notion of goodness. We must greet it on its own terms, and bring with us not only our notions of goodness, but the will to live them independently of creation.

4 comments to Universalism and the Problem of Evil

  • Dana Reynolds

    Universalism or eternal damnation both have long antecedents in Christian theological debate. Biblical texts have been successful used to argue either point, but generally, churches have come down on the side of the earlier decisions in Church Councils during the 4th and 5th centuries.

    Far more important today, I believe, is whether one’s theology, worldview, philosophy, and politics is either inclusive or not. To use a label of Universalism today requires, in my mind, leaning heavily in the “inclusive” side of the spectrum. In the words of an old gospel tune, “we’re gonna sit at the Welcome Table one of these days,” and that means all of us.

    This does not address the problem of evil or the disposition of God. I am pretty clear that without human beings, one doesn’t have to worry about either. Evil is a judgment by people, not by nature. We humans are the source of evil in the world. All religious texts speak to this, but by far the best understanding I’ve heard comes from Carl Jung, his “Answer to Job” the one possible exception. That particular work was not helpful to me, but his other writings on the topic help explain how humans manifest evil in the world without fully understanding where it comes from.

    As an aside, Rev. Hosea Ballou’s “Treatise on Atonement” is a far superior work on classical Universalism than is Rev. Atwood’s quote. Of course, Ballou is a major work and we only have a short piece from Atwood.

  • Thanks very much. I don’t believe I met you when you led our church here in Chattanooga, but Steve and others that remember you speak well of you. I have found an on-line version of Ballou’s Treatise that perhaps some will find useful. I’ll read it myself in fact.

    Your point that good and evil are judgments made by humans and not facts of nature is well taken. I also appreciate the view of the importance of inclusion. I was writing today to make a theological point – that we must not consider nature or God malicious (and must therefore reject damnation, whether we are Christian or not) – but also that we must acknowledge that nature doesn’t conform itself to our judgments, and must therefore not let our rejection of damnation be replaced with an unrealistic view of Utopia.

  • Jeff

    smijer, there is a typo in your quote that you’ll want to correct. It is in the last line, where it should read “one thing, I think, is clear” not “in thing, I think, is clear.” The typo appeared in the original post at Transient and Permanent but has now been corrected.

    Rev. Atwood means that wrong, evil, and misery are not ultimate outcomes of creation. They certainly exist during the short time of mortal life, but they have no enduring future into eternity. When he says that reason demands Universalism, he is not arguing from the general human experience but specifically from a reasonable understanding of God as a loving parental figure–Universalism at root was always a theology about God, not about humans. Rev. Atwood is unable to accept as reasonable that an all-powerful, all-good, loving parent would create a world in such a way that billions of that deity’s own children would go to wrong, evil, and misery for all eternity. This indeed serves as a compelling reason for accepting Universalism for him. The partialist view of salvation is an injury to reason, in his view, given the parameters of the discussion (i.e. is God a parent or not? Is God loving or not?).

  • Thanks – I have corrected that typo. I did get the idea that Rev Atwood was talking about ultimate, but my response is that what has happened cannot be undone – it is in that sense already “ultimate”. So, while I agree that reason does not allow for God the Parent to allow eternal damnation, I feel that whatever view of universalism we take not run afoul of the real. I am suggesting that God the ultimate parent does not do justice to what we know of the world. Instead, what we know of the world must inform our universalist notion that God is not a Dungeon-Master, and also that God is not an “Ultimate” parent in this world.

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