On Universalism and Larger and Smaller Infinities

I had a discussion recently with a friend about universalism, or the view that everyone will be saved in the end, that no one will be doomed to hell forever. She didn’t like it. “If everyone is forgiven in the end,” she said, “then what difference does it make how a person lives their life?”

“It makes all the difference to the life,” I replied, “whether the person in question has what Kierkegaard would call the proper God-relationship.” That is, to fail to have the right relationship to God, is to miss out on the glorious joy that emanates from the conviction that all of reality is the work of a loving creator who loves all creatures with a love that surpasses all understanding.” Christianity, I went on to argue, promises joy in the present, not simply in an afterlife, and that joy makes all the difference to a person’s experience of their life. 

“Yes,” she replied, “but this life is vanishingly small compared to eternity. What about eternity, what difference does it make there?” 

“Well,” I continued, “a person who did not have the right God-relationship in this life will live eternally with the grief of having wasted the precious gift that was their temporal life.”

“Yes,” she replied, “but that will be forgiven. The person who rejected God in this life will be viewed equally by God with the person who accepted God. So that person should not feel any guilt. Their rejection of God has been forgiven. So then what is the difference? What difference does it make in eternity if one accepted or rejected God in one’s temporal existence? And if it doesn’t make any difference there, then it ultimately doesn’t make any difference here, in this life.”

It’s tempting to argue that that’s correct, that it will ultimately make no difference whether one accepted or rejected God in this life. Christianity argues otherwise, however. It promises joy in this life that is specific to the believer, a joy inaccessible to the nonbeliever. Whether a person has access to that joy would seem to make a very great difference in this life, even if it would make no difference in eternity.

Let’s assume, however, just for the sake of argument, that the idea of universal salvation does imply that it makes no difference, even in this life, to say nothing of the hereafter, whether one accepted or rejected God. If that were true, it would arguably be an insurmountable problem for the vast majority of people who seize upon the reference to the “unpardonable sin” of  “blaspheming against the Holy Spirit” (Mark 3:28) as meriting eternal damnation. I don’t believe, though, that it’s true, and many devout Christians, including Origin, and more recently, George MacDonald, believe that all are saved in the end, even those guilty of the “unpardonable sin.”

To be saved, however, does not necessarily mean to escape punishment. MacDonald writes in “The Consuming Fire,” that 

[i]f the man resists the burning of God, the consuming fire of Love, a terrible doom awaits him, and its day will come. He shall be cast into the outer darkness who hates the fire of God…. Imagination cannot mislead us into too much horror of being without God—that one living death. …. God hath withdrawn himself, but not lost his hold. His face is turned away, but his hand is laid upon him still. His heart has ceased to beat into the man’s heart, but he keeps him alive by his fire. And that fire will go searching and burning on in him, as in the highest saint who is not yet pure as he is pure. 

But at length, O God, wilt thou not cast Death and Hell into the lake of Fire—even into thine own consuming self? Death shall then die everlastingly, 

And Hell itself will pass away,

And leave her dolorous mansions to the peering day. 

(“The Consuming Fire,” Unspoken Sermons, Series One.)

So universalism does not necessarily mean it doesn’t matter how a person lives, or that they would not be punished in any way for living an unethical or irreligious life. They just wouldn’t be punished forever.

Human beings seem drawn, though, to the idea of eternal punishment. Hence to suggest that even the greatest sin of all will not be punished eternally presents for many what is an insurmountable problem. It’s possible, however, that what is viewed by human beings as an insurmountable problem is not viewed as such by God. It is possible that the love that surpasses all understanding surpasses it in precisely that sense, that where human beings demand eternal punishment God does not. Punishment, yes, but only for purification, not for retribution, and only so long as is necessary, not forever.

But if this is true, then it would appear that how a person lives their life will ultimately make no difference in eternity. Yet I think this is mistaken. 

I have always found it not merely comforting, but spiritually enlightening, to think of God on analogy with a human parent. My friend has children and, of course, loves those children very much, so I thought it might be helpful to draw an analogy between a person who rejects God and a child who rejects their parents. 

“Would you love that child less than your other children?” I asked. 

I don’t think it is even necessary to point out to a parent the passage from scripture where it is said that “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons” (Luke 15:7). Parents are like God in that respect. They love their difficult children more, if it is ever appropriate to talk about degrees of parental love, precisely because those children are more in need of love.

My friend agreed that, of course, she would not love one of her children less than the others simply because that child was difficult even to the point of rejecting her. 

“So say that child one day sees the error of their ways,” I continued, “and comes to you contrite, overwhelmed with grief at having treated you so cruelly, professes deep filial love and begs for forgiveness. You would of course forgive that child and love them every bit as much as your other children, wouldn’t you?”

She agreed. 

“But even given that that child now knew they were as loved as your other children, in fact now understood that they had always been as loved as your other children, even in the depths of their depravity, there will still linger with that child a grief over having rejected your love and having lived a large portion of their life rejecting your love, of having lived a large portion of their life outside your love, so to speak.” 

“But such grief would be inappropriate for a redeemed sinner,” my friend responded, “because God has forgiven them.”

But would it be inappropriate? “The notion that the salvation of Jesus is a salvation from the consequences of our sins,” writes MacDonald, “is a false, mean, low notion. The salvation of Christ is salvation from the smallest tendency or leaning to sin. It is a deliverance into the pure air of God’s ways of thinking and feeling. It is a salvation that makes the heart pure, with the will and choice of the heart to be pure” (“Justice,” Unspoken Sermons, Series One, emphasis added).

Grief over having sinned is a consequence of sin. Forgiveness does not necessarily wipe it out. God’s forgiveness can, arguably, wipe out guilt, but grief and guilt are not the same thing. Guilt is an ontological phenomenon. Grief is a psychological phenomenon. The guilty do not always feel bad about their guilt, and the grieving have not always done something which incurs guilt. One can grieve, in fact, over having done something that was actually well intentioned, but which had unanticipated negative consequences. Or one can grieve over having done something without a full understanding of the context of the action. In neither instance is there guilt, and yet there is grief none-the-less.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that God’s forgiveness is so refreshing, God’s love so overwhelming, that it leaves no room even for grief. So that any difference between someone who rejected God in this life and someone who accepted God is completely obliterated in eternity. What then? Is there then really no difference between these two people? 

I believe there is still a difference. What Kierkegaard refers to as “worldliness” is obsessed with the quantitative. Indeed, the span of a normal human life is vanishingly small compared to eternity, if in fact, eternity is quantifiable. Importance is not necessarily reducible to size, though. The human heart is also very small, not vanishingly small, of course, but very small, compared to the rest of the body. It is essential to life, however. The importance of the heart cannot be reduced to its size relative to other organs. Many things in life are like that. The moment when couples exchange marriage vows is like that. The moment of reconciliation between a parent and a prodigal child is like that. These are only brief moments that as such are swallowed up in the vastly larger temporal expanse of a life, and yet their significance can rival that of the life as a whole. 

Years ago, someone explained to me how in math, there can be larger and smaller infinities. All the even numbers, for example, are an infinite set, and yet so are all the real numbers and the latter set is actually larger than the former set, even though both are infinite. I believe people are like that. That is, I believe goodness has a kind of metaphorical volume. The medievals spoke of evil as a privation, merely an absence of good, rather than a positive force itself. I don’t always like that characterization of evil, but I find it helpful in the context of this problem. That is, it seems to me that the person who rejected God in this life in that way deprived themselves of being. That is, it seems to me that there is more to the being of someone who accepted God in this life than there is to the being of someone who rejected God. The one self is larger, to speak loosely, than the other, larger here in this life, but larger also in eternity. There is a more to the being of the believer than to the being of the non-believer, even when eternity has otherwise made them equal. 

But my supposition that God’s forgiveness is so refreshing, God’s love so overwhelming, that it leaves no room even for grief was undertaken simply for the sake of argument. God doesn’t love collectively. God loves individually. God loves to a level of particularity that even the most earnest introspection cannot penetrate. In fact, I think God leaves this grief alone, leaves it alone not as any kind of punishment but because it is inextricably intertwined with the griever’s gratitude toward God. It becomes essential to their particular covenant with God and that covenant, in all its particularity, is essential to their self.

So there is a difference. Even if in the end, we are all redeemed, we are not all therefore made exactly the same.