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Kevin Corcoran

Dark Thoughts

Hoping that all will be saved.

Reflective people of all walks of life find themselves, from time to time, pondering what I refer to as "dark thoughts." What makes these thoughts "dark" is not that they are particularly macabre or especially sinister. Rather, it's that for most of us of post-college age, the activities of daily life—working, caring for children or aging parents—occupy the preponderance of our time during the light of day, and it's only when the lights go out—when our heads make contact with our pillows in the dark of night—that a space opens between our ears wide enough to accommodate them. The sorts of thoughts I have in mind are these: Is the life I am now living a meaningful one? Do I really believe that mom's multiple sclerosis has come to her from God's fatherly, providential hand? Given the religious pluralism that surrounds me, and the devout and sincere believers of other faiths that I know personally, is it really rational for me to continue to believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation? Except for people like me, who get paid to ponder and explore such questions in the light of day, these are thoughts that typically pay us a visit under the darkness of night, when we slip under our covers and wait patiently for sleep to come and usher us off to temporary rest.

The dark thought that I want to explore here is this: Could it be that God's saving love is so radical that, eventually, all human creatures are saved? For me this thought was most recently occasioned by the death of my best friend from college. Sam and I met at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) in 1987. We were enrolled in the same philosophy course with a professor who would become our favorite—Stephen Vicchio—and with whom we would take many more courses. After graduating from UMBC I went on to do graduate work while Sam eventually made his way into computer programming. I loved Sam. He was raised Jewish, although his pilgrimage of honest and sincere truth-seeking led him to embrace more characteristically Eastern forms of belief. Sam was a kind soul, and he leaned into life with the kind of childlike openness that inspires. He was, indeed, a dear friend. Over the course of 17 years Sam and I talked for countless hours about God, the Christian faith, and other matters of fundamental human concern. Shortly before Christmas last year, Sam called from the hospital and left a message on my answering machine. He told me that the doctors were going to have a look at his brain in order to figure out the source of a persistent headache. They found it—an inoperable brain tumor. Nine months later I helped to bury him.

Sam, so far as I know, did not die in Christ. Is he damned? Forever? It's a question that pricks the heart when someone you know and love—someone who, so far as you know, did not embrace Christ—dies. It's an important question, one that I tell my students ought to keep them awake at least a few nights of their life.

Many of us who were raised in the church have come to understand hell in the terms bequeathed us by Dante, as a place of unremitting torture and horrible agony. Such, we believe, is the eternal destiny of unbelievers. There is biblical evidence for the doctrine of eternal damnation. For example, 2 Thessalonians 1:9, "They shall suffer punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might." Now, depending on whether your theological sensibilities incline you toward a tough-minded, double predestinationist view, or toward a kinder-gentler picture of God, the doctrine of eternal damnation will either sit comfortably in your bosom or make you squirm. Okay, perhaps it makes all of us squirm; or at least it should!

The doctrine of double predestination, in case you've forgotten, is the belief that before the foundations of the earth God chose some to spend eternity in heaven and all others he destined to be eternally damned. Let us call those who believe that some people will spend eternity in hell, separated from God as the source of eternal joy, separationists and let us call those who believe that, eventually, all will be saved and reconciled to God, universalists. If you believe in double predestination, then you are a card-carrying separationist. But one doesn't have to believe in double predestination in order to embrace separationism, and indeed most separationists don't. Separationism is, we might say, an equal opportunity employer; lots of staunch Arminians embrace the belief as well!

I must confess that I find themes in the Reformed branch of Christianity to which I belong that nudge me toward universalism. For example, I believe that God's purposes ultimately will be realized (that God is sovereign and ultimately gets what God wants). And I believe further that among God's purposes is that human beings flourish. Since I cannot fathom how human beings could possibly flourish if they are burning in hell forever, or even just separated from God as the source of all joy—forever—I admit to experiencing a strong tug toward universalism. The alternative, it seems to me, is to believe that frail, finite creatures like ourselves can ultimately and forever thwart God's purposes. That thought doesn't travel down my Reformed gullet very smoothly.

And just as there is biblical support for the doctrine of eternal damnation (and therefore, separationism), so there is biblical support for universalism. Consider for example Romans 11:3, "For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all" (RSV). Many Christians I know believe that universalism entails a rejection of the doctrine of hell and the elimination of the need for Christ's reconciling work. That, however, is simply false. Although some universalists believe that all roads lead to the heavenly banquet—the way of Christ for us Christians, the way of detachment for Buddhists, etc.—others are what we might call Christocentric universalists. Christocentric universalists believe that there is only one way to salvation and that way is through Christ's reconciling work. They simply believe that eventually all will be reconciled through Christ. And what of hell? Well, the Christocentric universalists that I know believe in it. They simply believe that hell is not forever, that eventually, God's love will be found so winsome and irresistible by hell's human inhabitants that all will finally embrace it.

The universalists I know are also committed to what we might call a doctrine of "second chances," i.e., the belief that although some reject God prior to death, death does not close off further opportunities to embrace God. Indeed, if one is a Christocentric universalist who believes that an existential embrace of Christ is necessary for salvation, and who also believes that some people in fact reject Christ during their earthly existence, then such a universalist must be committed to a doctrine of second chances.

Perhaps surprisingly, it is not only universalists who believe in second chances. I know separationists who believe that for some—those rendered psychologically incapable of receiving the gospel because of upbringing or those who die ignorant of the gospel—God extends further opportunities for reconciliation post mortem. But those same separationists also believe that even with further chances some will either not embrace Christ or will persist in their rejection of God's love, forever. Separationism is not, therefore, incompatible with belief in second chances.

So what are we to make of all this? My commitment to the authority of the Scriptures requires that I submit to what it seems to me those Scriptures teach on this matter. While it seems to me that there is some biblical support for universalism, the evidence does not strike me as overwhelming and conclusive. On the other hand, while there is some biblical support for the doctrine of eternal damnation, the evidence does not strike me as having the same force as the evidence for separationism.1 Is the evidence for separationism stronger than the evidence for universalism?

Being a philosopher I confess a certain fondness for drawing distinctions (especially when I find myself in a pickle). And I find the following distinctions to be rather helpful here. Suppose someone tells you that it is raining. You might, as a result of being so told, come to believe that it is raining. Alternatively, if you left the windows to your house open you might, as a result of being so told, come to fear that it is raining. Or, supposing that it hasn't rained in quite some time and that your garden is looking rather withered, you might, as a result of being so told, come to hope that it is raining.

I guess I would put my thoughts this way. I do not believe universalism to be true. For if universalism is true, then it is a flat metaphysical impossibility that any should reject Christ forever. And it seems to me possible that some should do just that. Nevertheless, as a result of the evidence there is in its favor, and considering the prominent place universalism has held in the thinking of some of the church fathers, I think that there is room for me as a Christian to hope that universalism is true. Indeed, even if one believes that separationism is the clear and unambiguous view of Scripture, there is room to hope that universalism is true. After all, with the American League Championship Series this past October standing at 3-0 in favor of the Yankees, I firmly believed that the Yankees would win the series; nevertheless, I continued to hope that the Red Sox would win. (And win they did!) Likewise, I find myself hoping—with all my heart hoping and even sometimes praying—that God's love extends to everyone, and that, eventually, that love will have its way with all and all will embrace it. Speaking personally, few things would bring me such joy as to embrace, once again and forever, my dear friend Sam, whose voice from the hospital that fateful day I cannot bring myself to erase from the telephone answering machine.

Kevin Corcoran teaches philosophy at Calvin College. He is the editor of Soul, Body, and Survival: Essays on the Metaphysics of Human Persons (Cornell Univ. Press).

1. The Greek term that gets translated as "eternal" in the passage from 2 Thessalonians literally means "age-enduring," and is in fact used by Paul himself in other places (Rom. 16:25-26, for example) in ways that clearly do not mean forever or eternally. So the biblical case for eternal damnation is complicated by the Greek.

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