Is Teaching Universal Salvation Pastoral Malpractice?

There’s been plenty of chatter in the theological blogosphere over David Bentley Hart’s provocative new book That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation, which argues forcefully that for God to be truly God, all things must ultimately be reconciled to Him. Much can be—and has been—said already about the merits of Hart’s argument (my own review is coming out in Ad Fontes in a few weeks). But as I’ve reflected on the book over the last couple of months, what keeps coming to mind isn’t the overarching argument as such, but rather the pastoral dimension of the issue—what it would really mean, in practical terms, if the Church as a whole followed Gregory of Nyssa rather than Augustine of Hippo.

My questions on that front were multiplied when I watched the recent Netflix film Come Sunday, which depicts Pentecostal minister Carlton Pearson’s embrace of universal reconciliation and the subsequent fallout in his congregation. As the film recounts, Pearson was excommunicated from his denomination after publicly questioning whether the unreached really suffered eternal damnation (though this doctrinal shift appears to have been the tip of the iceberg—Pearson currently ministers in a Unitarian congregation).

To be sure, the stakes are high whenever this issue comes up. Both Hart (in the closing pages of his book) and the filmmakers behind Come Sunday give voice to a common intuition: the teaching of universal salvation carries with it a strong risk of leading the faithful into moral unseriousness. And I suspect that intuition is sound. It seems apparent that, without the specter of an eternal hell, many, many Christian believers would be less incentivized to flee from sin. (It was this recognition that made Friedrich Nietzsche all too happy to claim all religion is reducible to a form of social control.)

In large part, I think this anticipated reaction is traceable back to an unmooring of the doctrine of sin from a cohesive theory of natural law—that is, the sense that God’s commands are given for our flourishing in a tangible, real-world, here-and-now sense. This way of thinking applies even to seemingly trivial transgressions, such as (for example) taking the Lord’s name in vain. That proscription isn’t a Commandment because God arbitrarily gets huffy over casual uses of His name—it’s a Commandment because it goes to the heart of what it means to properly live as a human being. If I blurt out “God damn it!” when I stub my toe on a doorjamb, in that moment I take something that’s sacred and beautiful (the name “God”) and I wrench it down to a base level, weaponizing the most important thing of all against something I experience as a petty annoyance. And if that misuse of God’s name becomes habitual, it becomes harder for me to be spiritually moved by invocations of God’s name. As a result, I’m less open to His name in the context of worship, less moved by references to Him in everyday speech, and less receptive to His work. Misuse of God’s name thus throws up unnecessary barriers between me and my ultimate end—full openness to, and union with, Him. (In addition, that sort of language drains force from the concept of damnation—alienation from the Source of all goodness—by making it an everyday remark.)

This approach to God’s Law—a way of thinking about sin and God’s will as deeply bound up with our real-world well-being—is unintelligible if one holds to a view of sin that collapses Christian virtue into a matter of mere legal compliance (as a friend of mine likes to point out, such an account is all about “rules without reasons”). But it offers a powerful answer to the question of why—assuming for the sake of argument that universal reconciliation is indeed the correct view—a Christian ought not live an antinomian life. On this model, sin doesn’t just offend God in an abstract sense; it hurts us in ways that grow more severe over time.

So, it seems to me, the teaching of universal reconciliation need not inevitably lead to widespread hedonism: irrespective of whether one ultimately finds their eternal rest in God, it makes no sense—lies of the devil notwithstanding—to engage in self-destructive activity (sin) while here on earth. But just because moral laxity isn’t a necessary consequence of preaching universal reconciliation doesn’t mean it’s not a likely consequence. After all, almost no one actually thinks along these lines and can articulate a clear account of sin’s harms from a natural-law perspective. And this is what makes me wonder whether it makes any pastoral sense to preach and teach universal reconciliation, irrespective of its intellectual merits. 

Whether or not universal reconciliation is true, sin is real and devastating—alienating us from God and from our neighbors—and (if our consciences are properly formed) we should want to avoid it.  But as Christians who celebrate Jesus’s totalizing victory over the powers of death and hell, we always run the risk of neglecting what Lutherans would call the “third use of the Law”—God’s commandments understood as a “guide,” as that set of guardrails that lead us toward flourishing as the human beings we were created to be. This tension, in the developed world, is all too often resolved in favor of “cheap grace.” As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wryly put it, “The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite.” In short, we are not suffering from an excess of guilt, but an excess of self-affirmation. Broad proclamation of universal reconciliation, it seems to me, cannot but amplify that tendency. 

As previously mentioned, this isn’t a theological commentary on the merits of the universal-reconciliation perspective (for what it’s worth, though, I do not myself hold such a view). Rather, it’s simply the observation that, even if it were true, the churches of most advanced Western societies could not respond appropriately to such a doctrine. Absent a philosophical backdrop that takes seriously the corruptive effects of sin—as a matter of natural law, not simply rule compliance—it seems to me that the problem will prove intractable.

John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds a J.D. degree from Yale Law School, and is pursuing his Master of Arts in Religion at the Institute of Lutheran Theology.

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