Why "Hopeful Universalism" Isn't Hope

There's a standard line in the field that goes something like this: we may hope that God will save all people, but we may not confidently announce this or rely on it. It's very close to what George Hunsinger calls "holy silence," or "reverent agnosticism." It's even closer to something Wittgenstein is supposed to have said at the beginning of the Tractatus: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent." Except the real sentiment Wittgenstein means to express is more like this: "Let what can be said at all, be said clearly; we must [only] be silent on points about which nothing can be said."

I will be absolutely blunt with you: if the redemption of humanity, God's redemption of God's creature, cannot be proclaimed confidently as gospel, then we have no good reason to trust this "god" whose freedom we are so piously attempting to preserve. We want to leave room for God to do whatever God might feel necessary at the end of the world. Room for God to be absolutely inconsistent with Godself, if need be. Only one thing could persuade us to do this, though: the defense of a doctrine by which we have always asserted that bad people (not us, but really bad people) will get what they "deserve" in eternity, and will get it for all eternity—if, that is, they aren't simply destroyed outright with extreme prejudice. A doctrine we think of as perfectly and impartially just.

A doctrine that is as perfectly and impartially just as we are.

And so, to the extent that we are willing to cognize total salvation, total eschatological redemption, as a possibility, we attempt to make it a remote one. Ideally desirable, maybe, a product of an understandable idealism, a nice idea, ... it's just such a shame reality gets in the way. So go ahead, hope for that. But don't expect it. Don't think you have any reason to trust that it will happen, or that it's even likely to. And above all, don't talk to other people about it like they should have any confidence in your foolish hope.

Why? Because in the end, God's going to do what God wants. And God doesn't care what you want. God doesn't care about "nice."

But which "God" is this? Is this god really the one we know in YHWH and Jesus? The trustworthy father of the adopted people, whose adoption grows ever larger toward the world? Whose people are always bloodthirsty and vengeful and restrictive, hating their neighbors, cousins, and even sometimes their parents, brothers, and sisters? The god whose promise is that in the end this people, and all peoples, will be subject to true justice instead of their hatreds and violences against one another? The god whose justice is mercy, who loves peace and blesses those who make peace? The god who came here in flesh to die rather than to kill? That god is eternally faithful, and needs no protection for a freedom custom-designed to permit eschatological infidelity. So what "god" are we protecting with this irreverent pretense to ignorance? What are we saving by foreclosing on speculation built on the gospel rather than the law?

"Hopeful universalism" isn't a good Christian position. It isn't even genuinely hopeful. Hope is only truly hope if it is expectation of something trustworthy, something as yet unseen but promised. We may justifiably have hope in the extremely unlikely—if we have been given reason to expect that it will nonetheless happen. If I encourage you to hope for something that I have reason to expect won't happen, and no good reason beyond my own optimism to expect that it might, I am encouraging false hope and acting in bad faith. If I tell you you may hope for something that you may not proclaim as gospel, giant warning lights with sirens should be going off in your head. An unreliable object of hope is not an object of promise, or it is only the promise of an unreliable god.

What's the basic problem? That we see a dilemma when we see gospel and law, yes and no. When we see these together, however much we might want the yes, we have more use for the no. And we believe that they stand in conflict, a conflict that must be resolved from our side. Or, rather, from your side. Or, in the rarer instance, that God will resolve this dilemma by division, by assigning some to yes and others to no—which is just what we believed when we thought morality could effect change, and why positions that truly assert God's unalterable decision are rare in practice. Justice, after all, if it is not caprice, demands that we determine our own fates, and deserve them. We don't actually want, or trust, a cruel and arbitrary god. But there is nothing we would not accept from the hands of an arguably just, if disproportionate in response to demerit, deity. Such a god makes sense to us, and always has.

"Hopeful universalism," with its sham "hope," is merely a way of wedging the door open for this damnation. A "third way" like all others, wanting the look of a nicer outcome but with all the ceremony of cruel judgment intact under the surface. If we truly cannot speak of eschatology, let us erase all of our eschatologies and leave the field. Otherwise, let us have this contest over what God is truly like, and what such a God will truly do. There is evidence from which we may obediently work, and positive things may be said without falling into nonsense. So believe in damnation, or salvation, and defend yourself in good faith, but do not come to me with appeals for "holy silence" on the subject. If you are impartial about injustice, you belong to the injustice as surely as if you believed it to be just.


  1. Just curious. Does this mean you believe in Purgatory, or does everyone go directly to Heaven?

    1. No, and no. Heaven is a realm of the present creation, the realm of angels, who are creatures just like us—but it is a realm in which God's just rule is realized. The angels are what we are not: obedient. This is why the "kingdom of God" is also called the "kingdom of the heavens": not because the heavens are God's natural realm, but because God does in fact rule in them, and they do in fact serve, and live the lives of just creatures.

      Purgatory is a novel invention, built out of moralism and designed to give a kind of antechamber in which we will be appropriately processed into worthiness, made right in the ways we have not made ourselves in life. It's an interesting classical alternative to the Protestant binary, and it has been abused like all eschatologies in order to demand compliance of the living, but there is nothing about it that demands respect from a scriptural perspective. There is no reason to believe in it, any more than in the binary of reward and punishment destinations that it modifies.

      Can you imagine salvation without making redemption depend on moral performance in life? Affirm judgment, yes, because God is just and we are not, but don't be convinced that judgment produces salvation. Romans certainly says it doesn't.

  2. Well, then what happens when an average Joe like myself dies? Where do I go?

    1. Much like Juan, I'm still working on that. There are all sorts of answers I could give you, but the most basic answer is: wherever we go when we die, it will not be away from God. We are, in our present self-arranged pseudo-separation from God, as far from God as we will ever be. And God is no father from us than God has ever been.

      As to where in a more concrete sense, the Bible gives as many various mythologies of "the place where the dead go" as the church ever has, and they don't belong to a single system. But bottom line, the writers of scripture all seem to have believed that "where the dead go" connected in some way with "the lower parts of the earth," and with "thin" places where they believed they experienced phantasms, ghosts, etc.

      Of course, that three-story cosmos doesn't mesh with the two-story creation. Nobody confesses that God made an afterlife realm, much less two of them. They just imagine particularly remote-from-everyday-life bits of creation as though they were where such a thing might be, and then more imaginatively detail them.

      But wherever "where the dead go" is, about which we have no reliable information, we know that we are to expect the resurrection of the dead, and the gift of the new creation in which we shall live when all the kingdom of earth is rightly God's kingdom just as the heavens are today. We know that the dead are not gone, that God does not cease to know them and will not cease to know us. And we trust that redemption, whatever it will look like, will be the fulfillment of our being as God's creatures, not its destruction.

    2. (Whoops. "God is no faRther from us..." Cleaned my keyboard, and it glitches now.)

  3. Thanks for writing this post, Matt. I really believe, hope, and expect universal salvation. Anything less is unthinkable to me. I'm just trying to come up with the best way to talk about it still. I started reading Barth's CD (study edition) and can't wait to read his thoughts.

  4. Universalism is an old heresy. You say we "have no reliable information" about where the dead go. Jesus speaks of "outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth." Pretty reliable information coming from Jesus, or do you call this another "myth"? Outer darkness sounds like hell to me, not to mention that the Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church have always taught the Doctrine of Hell. It seems to me -- and to many people -- that Universalism is just a convenient way out to anyone worried that he/she may be violating God's laws and commands. You say: "Can you imagine salvation without making redemption depend on moral performance in life?" Clear to me.

    1. You're welcome to keep including a wide variety of not-actually-referring-to-the-afterlife images in your eschatology as though they referred to hell if that works for you, but the tradition isn't right just because it's said something.

      Nor is it any skin off my nose for you to waltz back into this thread and shout "heresy!" at me. If you think that is going to work, you haven't been paying attention. This is not a place where the authoritarianism you've been taught has any power.

      I've handled ethics. Ethics isn't a problem for me—the problem is saying that ethics earns you a spot in heaven or hell. People who are comfortable with the afterlife they think they merit don't understand the full reality of God's judgment. If you're fine with the fate your sin merits, good for you. If, instead, you trust in the God who redeems sinners, you might want to rethink your position.

    2. Kathy,

      Have you actually studied the subject of universalism? Even evangelicals are jumping on board as of late. I have many resources I can point you to (many of them free). If interested let me know. A simple, surface appeal to the bible just won't do anymore.


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