Theology & Spirituality

Anselm’s Ontological Argument for Universalism?

For my monthly contribution, I want to engage in an interesting thought experiment. Let me start off with the caveat that I am not, at this moment, a Universalist. In the upcoming November Round Table on Hell and universalism, I will described myself as a “Hopefulist” in the sense that I desperately want it to be true that God eventually saves everyone in the end, but I cannot definitively prove that this is the case. I currently find it difficult to reconcile a Universalist position with certain Scriptures that seem to clearly hint at eternal punishment. However, I do wonder if something like Anselm’s Ontological Argument can be tweaked to support the Universalist position. So I would like to propose this idea as a thought experiment for the Conciliar Post community to engage in rather than as a conclusive argument.  

For those who don’t know him, St. Anselm (1033-1109) was a Benedictine Christian monk, Catholic theologian, and Archbishop of Canterbury (prior to the Church of England becoming a distinct entity from the Roman church, though there were episodes in Anselm’s life which highlighted the tension between England and Rome, and perhaps foreshadowed things to come later when King Henry VIII formally rejected the Pope’s authority). He was an author who published many works and popularized the Satisfaction Model of the Atonement, which was an earlier version of Penal Substitution.

One of his greatest contributions to the Christian intellectual tradition, however, was his version of the Ontological Argument to prove God’s existence:

[Even a] fool, when he hears of…a being than which nothing greater can be conceived…understands what he hears, and what he understands is in his understanding…And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater…Therefore, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, exists in the understanding alone, the very being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, is one, than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible. Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding in reality.  

If you put this argument in a standard form, it would look something like this:

    (1) God is the greatest possible being imaginable.

    (2) He exists in the mind (i.e. my mind is aware of his existence).

    (3) A being that exists both in the mind and in reality is greater than a being who only exists in the mind.

    (4) If God merely exists in the mind, we can conceive of a being greater than him.

    (5) No being can be conceived of greater than God because nothing can be greater than the greatest possible being.

    (6) Therefore, God exists not only in my mind, but also in reality.

If you have a particular issue with Anselm’s ontological argument, you will automatically disagree with what I’m proposing here (and I should note that I’m not entirely sold on this argument either). Basically, if God’s goal is to save all people, or at least as many people as he can draw to himself, then it would make sense that a divine being who brings X number of people to salvation is greater than a being who brings Y number, assuming X is greater than Y.

It should also be noted that Calvinism seems to be incompatible with this argument. In Calvinism, God is purely an exertion of will. If that is true, then whoever is saved is saved because God has eternally decreed it to be so. Similarly, whoever is damned is damned because of the same eternal decree. I find this position to be problematic, almost to the point of functional pantheism.

Here is what the ontological argument for universalism would look like:

    (1) God exists in the mind as the greatest possible being.

    (2) Based on his revelation in Scripture, God’s will is accomplished when people are brought into covenantal relationship with himself (Ezek 18:23; John 3:16-17; 2 Cor 5:19; Col 1:20; 1 Tim 2:4; 2 Pet 3:9)

    (3) The greatest conception we can have of God is one who accomplishes his will completely.

    (4) If God saves x number of souls, he accomplishes more of his will than if he saves y number of souls, assuming x > y.

    (5) Therefore, eventually, God will bring all people into covenantal relationship with himself.

Now admittedly, this could pose a problem because it raises a fundamental question: was sin necessary for God to achieve his will? If so, it raises the same difficulties I raised in the article linked above about Calvinism and Pantheism. However, if it was not part of his will, than I am conceding that premise 3 may not be true because sin happened contra God’s will.

However, per premise 2, God’s desire is to bring people into covenantal relationship with himself. It seems that free will is a prerequisite to a relationship becoming any kind of real possibility. Giving someone a free choice whether they will enter a relationship or not entails two potentialities: either acceptance or rejection. In the Christian understanding, sin is symptomatic of a rejection of God.

However, Paul summarizes God’s mission in Col 1:19-20 (NRSV), “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.” If his goal is universal in scope, how can we conceive of a situation where God “gives up” on souls who have chosen to reject him? Roman Catholic mystic Brennan Manning described it this way, “The furious love of God knows no shadow of alteration or change. It is reliable. And always tender.”[1]

A person stranded in the middle of the ocean can choose to fight the waters as long as possible but barring a miraculous rescue, they will eventually have to relent to the ever-present waters surrounding them. Maybe a similar, but much more redemptive reality, is true of souls who reject God. Perhaps his love envelopes them and eventually wears them down to the point where they relent. Only in this instance, it is the moment they are saved.

In the words of John Lennon, “you may say I’m a dreamer.” Maybe I am. But it doesn’t stop me from praying and hoping that this is true and that all may eventually come to bask in the eternal light of God’s love.


[1] Brennan Manning, The Furious Longing of God (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2009), 35.

Wesley Walker

Wesley Walker

Wesley is from Raleigh, North Carolina. He went to Liberty University for his undergraduate and graduate degrees in Biblical Studies where he was also on the debate team. He currently resides in Annapolis, Maryland and is a priest at St. Paul's Anglican Church (APA). He lives with his wife Caroline, their son Jude, and their two dogs. He co-hosts the podcast, The Sacramentalists.

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