Ad Limina Apostolorum (Blog) | St. Augustine's Library
Thursday, March 10, 2005

On Universal Salvation and Christian Charity 

Disputations takes on the concept of universal salvation, or at least, some of the more facile arguments put forward in its defense. As a follow-up, he clarifies the manner in which this concept can be legitimately defended - i.e., as a matter of Christian hope, rather than one of faith or knowledge. The arguments he addresses, of course, are not new ones. St. Augustine, the 'doctor of grace', established a theological repertoire in the fifth century which essentially furnished the counter-arguments against such propositions for centuries. In fact, a simple reminder that Augustine's name is inscribed in the ecclesiastical calendar might in itself constitute a suitable rejoinder to the universalist camp.

In re-reading the good doctor's City of God recently, I came across a really juicy argument which merits some rehashing. In Book XXI of that work, Augustine tells us of those who "attribute to God a still greater compassion towards men" than the Scriptures would seemingly justify:

There are others, again, with whose opinions I have become acquainted in conversation, who, though they seem to reverence the holy Scriptures, are yet of reprehensible life, and who accordingly, in their own interest, attribute to God a still greater compassion towards men. For they acknowledge that it is truly predicted in the divine word that the wicked and unbelieving are worthy of punishment, but they assert that, when the judgment comes, mercy will prevail.

Augustine repeats the arguments used to justify this universalist position, all of which would be readily familiar to us - that eternal punishment would contradict the biblical affirmations of God's infinite mercy, that Scripture simply posits the existence of hell without specifying its population, that biblical warnings of hell may are meant merely for our moral correction, etc.

But Augustine, it might surprise us, does not spend any time rebutting these arguments. His answer is only three short sentences:

And yet they who hold this opinion do not extend it to the acquittal or liberation of the devil and his angels. Their human tenderness is moved only towards men, and they plead chiefly their own cause, holding out false hopes of impunity to their own depraved lives by means of this quasi compassion of God to the whole race. Consequently they who promise this impunity even to the prince of the devils and his satellites make a still fuller exhibition of the mercy of God.

Yet the argument is more potent than it seems. Augustine reminds us that the discussion of eternal merit and retribution cannot be carried on as if it simply involved the fates of men: it is a cosmic and universal principle, which is inclusive of all rational creatures. In other words, the angelic powers are just as subject to this principle as we. A true universalist argument, he claims, will not be limited to men, for how can we plead divine mercy upon impious men and yet remain calloused against the damnation of angels, whose prior glory so outshines our own? Those who call for an extraordinary display of divine compassion, would not a 'fuller exhibition' be a truly universal pardon, which would include even the devil and his henchmen?

This is no red herring. It is a reductio ad absurdum, which, if truly logically followed out, shows the incomprehensibility of the universalist position. For the universalist to remain true to his principles, the fallen angels must be included within the scope of the requested pardon. To plead for men, but to exclude the demons, would be logically inconsistent. Of course, Augustine knows well that no Christian worth his salt would anticipate the pardon of devils (cf. the ninth anathema of the fifth ecumenical council). Thus, the universalist is forced into a logical quandry, holding that the damnation of some rational creatures is compatible with divine mercy, but the damnation of others is incompatible. Additionally, all talk of an empty hell, whose rhetorical existence serves the exclusive purpose of a moral goad, begins to ring hollow.

Of course, the argument has less force in an age when most liberal Christians (who would be most likely to advance the universalist argument) have little tolerance for belief in angels and demons anyways, at least as personal beings. But a parallel argument, which substitutes 'Really Nasty Men' (tm) like Hitler or Bin Laden for the demons, might work just as well. No one wants to imagine himself perishing in eternal flame, but the picture of Hitler reclining in perpetual bliss doesn't exactly sit well either.

Bottom line, Augustine underscores the point that none of us really want universal salvation. We just want a salvation that is broad enough to include ourselves, without requiring any of that risky business of virtue or suffering on our parts.

This gets me back to another, more personal point. The debate over universal salvation always seems to get us so worked up, and I am the worst. Why does it raise so many hackles? I realized the answer to this years ago, when I was first confronted with serious and reasonable arguments for an empty hell (or at least the hope of one). I recoiled at the concept, not because the argumentation was logically faulty, but because the practical consequences simply didn't appeal to me. Once I confronted myself with barefaced honesty, I realized I didn't want an empty hell. I didn't want a full heaven. I wanted a heaven populated exclusively with the people who really deserved it, who had made great sacrifices and avoided the really bad sins - in short, people like me. I wanted everyone else getting just what they deserved, especially a few particularly nasty people I knew. The hope that all men might be saved, the hope which reflects a divine intention (1 Pet. 3:9) and therefore becomes for us not a fanciful question but a moral obligation, in the end, was not a hope that I even wanted to possess. Perhaps I'm just a more bitter or self-righteous person than most, but I suspect a few others struggle with this as well. God may wish that all men be saved, but many of us want to see at least a little blood: As dark as this seems, it's almost as if our exemption from eternal fire won't taste as sweet unless we can look down upon others who didn't make the cut.

Whenever I do feel a bit self-righteous, or over-estimate my own degree of Christian charity, I recall this. Until the salvation of all men becomes a possibility I not only reluctantly accept as a theological concept, but a genuine hope which fills my mind with intense desire and yearning, I have not yet matched the love of Christ in my soul.

# posted by Jamie : 9:28 AM


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