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Hopeful Calvinism (Part 1)

0. Introduction

“Hopeful Universalism” gets a lot of attention these days. It is said that, even if you don’t believe that universal reconciliation is the case, you should at least hope that it is the case. Of course, universalists think this, but so do many non-universalists (whether they are agnostic on the matter, annihilationalists, committed classical Arminians, and probably even some Calvinists, I’d assume). Alvin Plantinga summed up this view nicely when he said in an interview with Robert Lawrence on Closer to the Truth (2:10-4:45) that:

Christians sort of, traditionally, classically, think there are these two states after death. There is heaven and there is hell, and the people who are chosen by God or have faith in God or accept what God requires them to, they wind up in heaven, others wind up in hell. I’m not so sure the Bible actually teaches that. There are lots of passages in the Bible that suggest that everybody winds up in heaven. So St. Paul says something like ‘as through one man sin entered the world, so through one man shall all be saved. As the one man all sinned, so through the one man all shall be saved. It is the same word, same greek word in those two occurrences that suggest that everybody will be saved. . . . That’s called universalism. And I don’t myself quite believe it, but I don’t disbelieve it either. I think it’s something that a Christian should at least hope for.

I suspect Plantinga expresses the sentiments of many Christians.

1. Hoping For Universalism?

One major idea behind hopeful universalism is this: Hell is so bad, and the thought of people (whether friends and loved ones, or unknowns) spending forever there is so dreadful, that we should hope that hell will not be populated by people forever. It is often put this way: How can you really, fully, completely enjoy heaven if you knew your, say, daughter was in hell? Of course, I don’t mean to say that hopeful universalists are myopically driven by considerations of the badness of hell, they also certainly believe that life in heaven is so good that they don’t want anyone missing out in it. But the badness objection does seem to be a (if not the) major motivator.

But what does embracing hopeful universalism entail? Suppose I believe that it is true that there is a hell and that it will be populated by some people forever. Should I hope against “reality?” Would that be irrational? Well, the hopeful universalist says that what I should hope for in this case is that my reading of the biblical texts are mistaken. Surely, even if the Bible is infallible, that does not imply that our interpretations are infallible. So, hopeful universalism says we should hope that we’re mistaken about our reading of Scripture. Some Christians may say that they believe in libertarian free will, and therefore that God can’t ensure that all will go to heaven. Putting aside arguments that universalism could obtain even if our choices were purely random, one thing the hopeful universalist will suggest that we should at least hope that we’re wrong about God not interfering with our libertarian freedom. The cost is too high, and God is too loving. Any good parent would interfere with her children’s libertarian free will choices or actions in some cases. For example, if their child were about to commit suicide.

The point to make here is that hell is so terrible (and heaven so wonderful) that we should at least hope that we’re wrong about even some of our most cherished beliefs if those things stand as obstacles to God getting everyone into heaven.

2. If Not Universalism, What Else?

Since hopeful universalism is not my direct concern in this post, we can grant that it’s the best of all eschatological hopes (though in the interest of full disclosure I do not agree with this). This means that classical Arminians, classical Wesleyans, Open Theists, and Calvinists should all hope that universalism is the case. That is, they should all hope that they are wrong about their respective tradition’s take on the final state of man. However, we all agree, I think, that, at a minimum, universalism could be false (many think it is false). Evangelical Christians of all stripes may be strongly committed to their own particular view of man’s final state, but it seems to me they would all admit that it is possible that they could be wrong. For example, I assume a large percent of Christians at least believe something like this:

TRADITION = It is a possible that, for all we know, “the tradition” is right; i.e., there is a hell and it will be populated by some people forever. Furthermore, the punishment received by those in hell is of a retributive sort (even if not only of a retributive sort).

Now, certainly, many Christians believe that TRADITION is true (which has the consequence that annihilationism is false too). But most, if not all, believe that it could be true. I would also be willing to say that many Christians, even if they don’t ultimately don’t buy it, believe that TRADITION has some decent arguments in its favor, the least of which is, church tradition itself. So, hopeful universalists, annihilationists, traditionalists, etc., might find themselves asking a question like this: Well, what if universalism is wrong, and what if TRADITION is right, what should we hope for then? Well, here is one view I think virtually all evangelical Christians would be in agreement about:

HELLZNO = Should we hope for Calvinism? Hellz no! We should never hope for Calvinism over any other (broadly traditional) view on offer.

Now, by ‘Calvinism’ I mean here, classical Calvinism. I will define this minimally and broadly for our purposes as the view that God determines all that comes to pass, man does not have libertarian free will, and some people will be retributively punished in hell—those and only those people God passed over, all others are graciously given faith to believe in Jesus. Well, what would be hoped for? I wouldn’t be a stretch to say that most evangelical Christians, including evangelical universalists, would hope that something like Classical ARMinianism obtains:

CARM = If TRADITION is true, Classical Arminianism is the only game in town for which to hope.

By ‘Classical Arminianism’ I mean minimally and broadly the view that God has given man libertarian free will to choose for or against Jesus, God gives grace to all men to make them able to trust in Jesus, hell is retributive (we’re stipulating this via TRADITION), but all those who go to hell were the indeterminist “ultimate source” of their actions that led them to hell. Note also that all that is claimed in CARM is that we should hope that Classical Arminianism is true, not that it is. It’s somehow kinder or more humane to hope for this over, say Calvinism, in ways similar to hoping for universalism is kinder and more humane.

Now, given TRADITION and HELLZNO and CARM, the latter two I suspect enjoy a large body of support on the stipulation of TRADITION, we have something like this:

HOPEFOR = Necessarily (via HELLZNO), if TRADITION is true, we should hope for CARM over Calvinism.

I suspect that most Christians, universalists included, believe that HOPEFOR is true. That is, there is no possible circumstance in which anyone minimally concerned with their fellow-man should hope for Calvinism over Classical Arminianism. I suspect most Christians simply find HOPEFOR to be obvious, a no-brainer.

3. Could We Hope For Calvinism?

I’m not sure such a strong claim can be made, though. In fact, I want to argue that, for all we know, HELLZNO and CARM are false; and that, given some plausible assumptions, assumptions had by many hopeful universalists (which, you will remember, includes not just dogmatic universalists), and assumptions about punishment and culpability that grant a fair amount of weight to libertarian intuitions, there could be a case in which Classical Calvinism should be hoped for over CARM. I take it that this is a highly controversial claim, and many cannot see how such a case could be made. But not seeing how something is possible doesn’t mean it’s impossible. In the next post I will present the case and, while I know not everyone will be persuaded, some may be, especially those hopeful universalists motivated by considerations of the badness or terrors of hell.

To be continued . . .

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