The Goodness of God and the Freedom of Man Sacrificed on the Altar of Universalism: or, Two Brief but Powerful Arguments Against Everyone Going to Heaven

In Destiny and Deliberation, Johnathan Kvanvig mounts an impressive attack on universalism on two fronts: the goodness of God and the freedom of man, and, to this reader at any rate, has given more than ample reason to doubt the truth of universalism. Perhaps what makes this so persuasive to me is that the arguments are purely philosophical – no retreat to contentious translations or traditions are possible here, no invoking of controversial thinkers to place universalism on firmer ground. If these arguments work, universalism is simply not an option. Kvanvig is working with what he calls ‘McTaggert’s dilemma‘, but I actually think that if we bracket that to the side, the challenge to universalism is even starker. The arguments proceed roughly as follows. The truth of universalism is either contingent or necessary – i.e., universalism is a possibility or it’s an impossibility. The former attacks the goodness of God, and the latter attacks the freedom of man.

Central to contingent universalism is the idea that, on universalism, the infliction of hell on a person by God would be wicked: so, if God sends someone to hell, He would have done a wicked thing. The argument is already taking shape: suppose that the truth of universalism is contingent, ‘…it is possible that a person ends up in hell…as a matter of contingent fact every human being will end up in heaven’ (p. 43). Now, a non-contingent fact here is that God is perfectly good, that is, there is no possible world where God isn’t essentially morally perfect. Thus, God cannot perform any deed that isn’t morally perfect. This is where the conflict lies: if it is possible that a person ends up in hell but wrong as a matter of contingent fact, then there is a possible world in which God acts immorally by assigning a person to hell. Contingent universalism thus moves God’s essential moral character in the realm of contingency To put it in a bit tighter of logical form:

  1. On contingent universalism, sending someone to hell is a wicked deed
  2. God is essentially perfect and cannot perform a wicked deed
  3. If contingent universalism is true, there is a possible world where God sends someone to hell and performs a wicked deed
  4. Therefore, if contingent universalism is true, then there is a possible world where God isn’t essentially perfect

Contingent universalism is thus inconsistent with the idea of God’s moral character being essentially and non-contingently his.

Necessary universalism (NU) fares no better. Here, the central idea is that ‘it is impossible that Hell is inflicted on anyone, and if that is true, no threat to God’s perfect goodness remains’ (p. 45). Kvanvig argues that if NU is true, then it is impossible that anyone fails to be conformed to the image of God’s son. This conformation is critical to a conception of heaven: conformation is necessary for presence in heaven. Therefore, for NU to be true, all people will have to be conformed to Jesus’s image.  Here Kvanvig notes that this seems to conflict with the idea that such conformation has to be taken on by the person himself: in some way, cooperation is necessary (this can be taken in a minimal way or a maximal way – monergism in justification and synergism in sanctification or full blown synergism). A bare minimal notion of the principle of alternative possibilities (PAP) is necessary to describe the kind of freedom necessary for such cooperation (note that the PAP is the minimum required, not the full doctrine of freedom itself). So the two things we have assumed here for presence in heaven are (1) the minimum freedom required for cooperation necessary for conformation and (2) a doctrine of PAP necessary for that freedom. Given these two assumptions (and it is really difficult to see how these could be contested, especially in the weak forms given) Kvanvig makes explicit his argument:

Presence in heaven involves the free submission of the will to one’s creator, but in any display of freedom, there is the capacity to choose, or try to choose otherwise. Hence it is impossible that it be necessary that one freely submit in the way required. Hence it is not possible that it be necessary that everyone ends up in heaven.  (p. 50)

Thus, if NU is true, it can only be true by obliterating the freedom of the human person. This is a serious price to pay, and one wonders how it differs from more hardline construals of theological determinism (strict versions of Calvinism come to mind here.

A serious argument has been given against contingent universalism and necessary universalism. The former sacrifices the essential goodness of God and the latter the freedom of man and so becomes divine determinism, and neither appeals to anything other than bare minimal notions of goodness and freedom. To my mind these are fatal objections.

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8 thoughts on “The Goodness of God and the Freedom of Man Sacrificed on the Altar of Universalism: or, Two Brief but Powerful Arguments Against Everyone Going to Heaven

  1. cal February 7, 2017 / 9:51 pm

    It seems like a lot of popularized Universalism involves a translation of Hell into a kind of Purgatory. Thus if Hell is construed as such (say, George MacDonald’s “Lillith”) then it might defeat the claim that Hell is necessarily wicked (torment as eternal state as vile, as opposed to reforming or penal pain) and does not impinge upon the goodness of God as necessary. This seems to be the kind of Universalism floating around, ranging from Rob Bell to DB Hart. I’m not sure this would tackle those kinds of people’s objections.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joshua February 7, 2017 / 9:53 pm

      From one horn to the other (plus purgatory is silly anyway)

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      • cal February 7, 2017 / 11:24 pm

        I get that this then translate to the Necessary Universalism. But let’s consider Hart’s Nyssene Universalism. In that the discussion is that Christ’s work of salvation saved Human Nature. Therefore as Human beings the conformity is predestined, however that works itself out. Keeping this metaphysical, more or less, how does Kvanvig deal with nature in sussing out the meaning of freedom. In the Nyssene model, salvation has become as natural to Human nature, and so freedom is structured around how one gets there (the hard way or the easy way). Biting the bullet might not necessarily lead to hyper-Calvinistic determinism. How would he(you) deal with this?

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  2. Ian Miller February 10, 2017 / 11:44 pm

    I will say that as a hardline determinist, Necessary Universalism is something of a logical answer, even though I do not see it as acceptable within Biblical revelation.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joshua February 10, 2017 / 11:46 pm

      It would be consistent, that’s for sure. It won’t get a sympathetic hearing from me – being a non-determinist, libertarian, agent causal, whatever term most appeals to you – but it is consistent.

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  3. Jeff April 5, 2017 / 11:10 pm

    Wonderfully said.., good expansion on what Mr. Kvanvig always tightly packs in his writing

    Liked by 1 person

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