The possibility of universalism comes up every so often in the bloggernacle (see for example, these discussions at M*, BCC, and NCT.) In reading these conversations, I’ve realized that my own universalist leanings are not particularly unusual, at least in the context of the Bloggernacle. (Further evidence of its apostate nature, some might say.) I think the theological debate is an interesting one. But in this post I want to bracket the question of whether universal salvation is possible in the context of LDS doctrine, and look at some of the more practical issues involved. The concern most often raised about the idea is that it leads to complacency. In a nutshell, if everyone is eventually going to be saved, what incentive do I have to be good? Why not eat, drink, and be merry? Is anxiety about salvation something positive, even necessary—something that will motivate me to live better in the here-and-now?
I do think that a teaching of guaranteed universalism (i.e., certainty that everyone will eventually be saved, no matter what), runs the very real risk of leading to complacency, and perhaps a sense that one’s actions don’t ultimately matter. And this is a problem. However, I see this as somewhat different than discussing universal salvation as a serious possibility (though not a guarantee). This latter formulation, I would argue, rather than being a damper to spirituality, can instead serve as a tremendous source of hope and therefore encouragement to pursue righteousness. It reminds us that God is in the business of saving, not of damning, that salvation/exaltation is not something intended only for an elite handful of God’s favorites, but rather for all of us (although we of course have the choice to reject it). LDS scripture goes so far as to say that it is God’s work and glory to bring it about. We therefore do not have the luxury of writing ourselves off–or dismissing anyone else–as hopelessly lost, and therefore giving up, because God refuses to do so. In this way, I think universalist ideas can actually be a strong counter to complacency.
I am also skeptical about the idea that people should be scared into being good, whether with threats of eternal punishment in the traditional Christian vision of hell, or even the kinder, gentler Mormon version of not making it to the Celestial Kingdom and missing out on what you could have been. I had a lot of anxiety about this kind of thing as a kid; I had nightmares about the Second Coming arriving while I was still mired in sin. In retrospect, I’m not sure it was the most spiritually healthy way to live. At least in my own life, I have observed that the experiences which have most motivated me to change, to want to do better, have not involved guilt and anxiety, but rather a genuine acceptance of who I am now combined with a vision of who I could be. Threats, I have observed, rarely lead to strong relationships–or even to enduring behavioral changes.
I am also intrigued by the argument that without an emphasis on next-life consequences, people will have no reason to keep the commandments in this life. The underlying assumption here seems to be that righteousness is so difficult, so unpleasant, that people will only be motivated to pursue it with the promise of a big reward to come. I would certainly not dispute that the commandments can be difficult. Yet if we believe Alma, wickedness and happiness are in fact antithetical, which suggests to me that the kinds of relationships and behaviors in which we are called to engage are not meant as arbitrary hoops to jump through for an eternal reward, but are actually tied to the quality of our life experience here. This suggests to me that we would find some value in them even if there were no next life. In fact, I would argue that life here has more potential to be meaningful if not lived in single-minded pursuit of salvation/exaltation in the next.
On a similar note, I see something problematic about living according to certain behavioral standards with the motivation of gaining an eternal prize, or avoiding eternal punishment. I am reminded of the experience of being visit taught by someone who is clearly doing it so they can check it off their list (I should mention that I’ve been on both ends of this). Perhaps this is what Paul is getting at when he says that he can bestow all his goods to feed the poor, give his body to burned–and yet without charity, he is nothing. A common critique of Christianity is its individualistic emphasis, that it sometimes sounds like a belief system that is all about the self, producing adherents whose primary concern is with their own personal eternal reward. Yet at the heart of Christianity is the call to love others. Given this, I sometimes wonder whether salvation is in fact something you can pursue directly.
Another concern sometimes arises in discussions of universalism. It is this: what if I work incredibly hard to make the Celestial Kingdom, and get there–only to discover that that my slacking off, sinning neighbors somehow made it in as well? Will I feel like I’ve been cheated? Will my salvation be less worthwhile if it’s not as exclusive? Some Christian theologians in the past have in fact suggested that one of the pleasures of heaven will be viewing the torments of the damned. As in the parable of the day laborers, it just doesn’t seem fair that those who only came to work late in the day got the same pay as those who were there from the beginning. One of the most radical and challenging aspects of grace, I believe, is that it pushes to the breaking point our sense of fairness, of how things should be. It ruptures any neat system in which the books are carefully balanced and everyone gets exactly what she or he deserves.
On this subject, I like the approach of Catholic theologian Hans urs von Balthasar, who comments,
But woe is me if, looking back, I see how others, who were not so lucky as I, are sinking beneath the waves; if, that is, I objectify hell and turn it into a theological-scientific ‘object’ and begin to ponder on how many perish in this hell and how many escape it. For at that moment everything is transformed: hell is no longer something that is ever mine but rather something that befalls ‘the others,’ while I, praise God, have escaped it.1
There is much talk about the danger that the possibility of universalism might negatively affect our attitude toward our own life, our own status before God. But I think this brings out another aspect of this topic–that the rejection of any such possibility runs the risk of what in Mormon terms might be called the Rameumpton approach, the comfortable speculation about those others who are bound for damnation. Balthasar, like many contemporary Catholic theologians, calls for an approach in which we take the possibility of our own falling short very seriously–but when it comes to our neighbors, we are called to have an attitude of hope. And I’d add an LDS twist to this: central to our doctrine is the notion that relationships really matter, that they have the potential to continue throughout the eternities. The Celestial Kingdom becomes much less appealing if the people you care about aren’t going to be there. Given this, wouldn’t we have even more reason to hope for universalism?
I do think that it’s important to emphasize that actions have consequences, to challenge complacency–and I would certainly say that any theology which leaves us comfortably sinning, thinking that we can always fix things later, is deeply flawed. I’m not advocating Nehor’s version of universalism. But I remain unpersuaded that a flat-out rejection of the possibility of universalism is necessary to avert this risk. I think we can find ways of talking about the seriousness of sin while still holding out hope that universalism is at least a possibility. For example, there is clearly danger in procrastinating the day of your repentance; as Alma tells us, we might hit a point where it is everlastingly too late. But does this refer to the danger that the door will be forever shut as we arrive at some final point of no return where God eternally seals our fate? Or could it be that the very real risk we run in choosing to remain in sin is that the further we get away, the less of a desire we will have to return–and we must grapple with the sobering possibility that we might never choose to do so?
I am intrigued by the different uses of the term “fear” in the scriptures. On the one hand, we are told to fear God, and to work out our salvation with fear and troubling. On the other, we are encouraged to fear not. Something in the tension between those two perhaps gets at the nature of faith, and the need to avoid both complacency and despair as we think about questions of salvation. Perhaps we could slightly revise T.S. Eliot: “Teach us to fear, and not to fear. Teach us to sit still.”
- Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope AThat All Men Be Saved, with a Short Discourse on Hell, trans. David Kipp and Lothar Krauth (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 190. [↩]