Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Universal Salvation and Probability

Every so often, another Catholic encourages me to "dare to hope that all are saved". After all, it is not a matter of doctrine that any specific person is damned. We know that God's mercy is great, and given God's mercy and our beliefs about the bliss of heaven and the torment which is hell, it seems reasonable that any soul would choose to embrace God over separating himself permanently from Him.

For me, this idea seems to fall down, however, when applied to the whole of humanity. In a sense, it's a lot like the issue of the probability of sinlessness which I wrote about briefly a while ago: Given that we have free will, it would seem that in any given situation we could choose to do the right thing -- though obviously we in many cases feel a strong urge not to or don't even have a clear understanding of what the right thing is. However paradoxically, while in every individual choice it would seem that we could choose not to sin, it seems like an impossibility that any one person would in fact make the right choice in every single circumstance, thus living a life entirely without sin (except for original sin.)

Similarly, it seems to me that while there's clearly a chance that any given person, no matter how sinful, will repent before death, embrace God's forgiveness, and be saved, I simply can't imagine it as possible that every single person in the history of humanity would do so. We see people so very frequently, in ordinary life, actively choose to do thing which they know will make them unhappy out of anger, pride or even just habit -- I just don't find it persuasive that no one would ever have chosen to utterly refuse union with God and insist that he would "rather rule in hell and serve in heaven."

So I do not hope that all will be saved -- I stick to hoping that each person will be saved.


Donald R. McClarey said...

I rather think that if all were to be saved, Our Lord would have given some indication of that while he was here on Earth. Instead his teachings about Hell make for sobering reading indeed, and never a syllable to indicate that there are not souls where "the worm dyeth not".

Unknown said...

Darwin, how is your closing thought not a distinction without a difference?

Don, the argument that Darwin is alluding to isn't that all are in fact actually saved, but whether or not it's even possible and right to *hope* that all will be saved. Solid Catholic theologians have argued that we have no basis to assert that all *will* be saved, but that there are grounds for hoping (in the sense of the virtue, not in a merely optimistic sense) that that happen.

Darwin said...

Darwin, how is your closing thought not a distinction without a difference?

In isolation, I can see how one can hope that any individual person may have, somehow, been saved. Henry VIII, Brutus, Musollini, me -- who knows, each one may manage to be saved.

However, I can't really bring myself to hope that all will be saved, because I don't see it as remotely possible that all will be saved. At most, I could perhaps hope that most could be saved, but that seems an odd thing to exert energy on hoping in the theological sense of the term.

Brandon said...

I agree about the analogy with sin; I've had similar thoughts myself.

On the virtue of hope issue, my thought is this. Christian hope is an expectation of obtaining what is otherwise impossible for us, namely, God Himself, through God's help, which makes eternal happiness in union with God possible to us. This is strictly something which each person can only do for himself or herself: it is each person who obtains with God's help for them in particular, and one of the helps is itself the virtue of hope. Hoping for another's salvation in this sense cannot have any certainty and therefore cannot be hope in a strict and proper sense; if we hoped for them directly in the way we hope for ourselves, we would be presuming both on the person doing the obtaining and God giving the help. This is why, I think, the traditional view is that we can only hope for another insofar as love unites the other to ourselves, and that it does not bear the same certainty when indirect like this: genuinely to have the virtue of hope is already to have the very assistance in which one places one's hope. But we cannot have any certain anticipation or expectation on the basis of the virtues of another. We can only hope for others in the sense that, hoping for ourselves, we love others, and thus being unified by love with them, praying for their salvation as we pray for our own.

Thus the phrase 'dare to hope that everyone will be saved', if we are using hope in the proper theological sense, is equivocal between 'dare to have sure expectation that everyone will be saved' (which is hope exercised directly) and 'dare to love everyone so as to do for their salvation what one does in hope for one's own' (which is the only way we can genuinely exercise theological hope for others). The former is simply wrong; it misplaces the certainty of hope and so falls into a sort of massive presumption. The latter avoids this problem, and in exactly the right way, but actually praying for everyone -- not merely praying words like 'let everyone be saved' but actually praying for each and every person -- is immensely harder to do than to say. Doing it in a complete way is surely not possible for us prior to heaven. Doing it in an incomplete way does seem to be possible; I remember Mother Theresa had a special rosary with which she prayed several times away in a general way for sinners on every continent. And perhaps this is an additional reason for asking the saints and the Virgin to help out -- a sort of doubly indirect way of indirectly hoping for others. And certainly this is a perfectly orthodox way of understanding the phrase. But I think it's important to emphasize that if we are talking a genuine virtue-of-hope sense of the phrase, we are talking an extraordinarily high standard of prayer (and other good works, like proclaiming the Gospel; but in how many good works besides prayer do we actually get anywhere near doing it for everyone?). Really, for most people, hoping for the salvation of people they know will be a handful, and will mean a lot of prayer on its own. And, in any case, you have to start at hoping for people you know before you can graduate to hoping for everyone.

Unknown said...

However, I can't really bring myself to hope that all will be saved, because I don't see it as remotely possible that all will be saved.

But isn't our faith *full* of things which are (seemingly) extremely unlikely? Hasn't the history of grace (or grace in history) surprised us on numerous occasions?

I agree that it's unlikely that everyone will be saved, and I also think that this isn't something getting worked up about. Nonetheless, when -- for example -- I pray the Fatima prayer, I truly *do* pray that Jesus will lead *all* souls to Heaven.

Darwin said...


As always -- your explanation is very illuminating. I don't think I understood the distinction between types of hope that you describe there.

Given that the phrase often seems to come up in the context of worrying that the idea of anyone being damned suggests a cruel God, I had taken the meaning to be the first of the two possible meanings you list:'dare to have sure expectation that everyone will be saved'

Or maybe, if not quite "sure" at least "strong expectation". This is the interpretation which I'm uncomfortable with.

The second meaning (which it seems to me that Fatima prayer, as Chris points out, is an example of) I don't have a problem with -- though I'd agree that it's something we'll achieve only partially this side of the beatific vision.


Good point. I also pray the Fatima prayer -- though I guess I'd always thought of it as being both a prayer for graces to be bestowed on those still alive (in order that they not be damned at the particular judgment) and also for the poor souls in purgatory that they speed heavenward.

I guess in my untutored terminology I was using here: I saw it more as a prayer that each person be saved rather than a statement of expectation that no one ever has been or will be damned.

Maiki said...

"One should pray that Apokatastasis is true, but one would be foolish to teach it as doctrine." Saint Maximos the Confessor.

Anonymous said...

But of course,’ she said, ‘it’s very unexpected for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, but the gospel is simply a catalogue of unexpected things. It’s not to be expected that an ox and an ass should worship at the crib. Animals are always doing the oddest things in the lives of the saints. It’s all part of the poetry, the Alice-in-Wonderland side, of religion.’

--Lady Marchmain,