An agnostic philosopher considers God, the limits of reason, and universalism (2023)

I’m an agnostic. I wish I believed in Christianity (or at least a certain kind of Christianity) but I don’t. I simply don’t believe in God because I do not feel I have the evidence he exists. It’s a marvelous idea, but where’s the proof? But I’ve been thinking about God a lot lately as I am studying medieval philosophy, and it seems to me that many Christians have not fully grasped the implications of an all-powerful, all-loving, and all-knowing God, just how wonderful, magnificent, and beyond comprehension a thing like this would be. In particular, I’ve been bought back to thinking about God through a kind of aesthetic, philosophical wonder at the doctrine of universalism, that all people will be saved. Though I can see no reason to believe in the Christian God, universalism makes me sad about that. I thought I’d present some meditations on God that I’ve been contemplating, in the hope they’re of use to believers, unbelievers or both.

{Perhaps this essay is a symptom of the fact that people are always telling me I’m writing like Søren Kierkegaard and I’m leaning into it. Oh, dear.}

I- Prayers for the dead

Let me illustrate with an example. There is an argument between (most) protestants and Catholics about prayers for the dead. Catholics argue from a number of premises which include tradition, and a passage 2 Timothy 1:18 in which Paul appears to pray for a man named Onesiphorus who, based on contextual clues, maybe dead. Protestants reply by rejecting church tradition as authoritative and claiming that the contextual clues around the passage in 2nd Timothy can be read in other ways. Protestants also give as a master argument something like the following:

  1. The apostle Paul would not do that which is futile.

  2. If Onesiphorus is dead, he is either in heaven or hell.

  3. If he is in hell, prayer is futile for he shall remain forever in hell.

  4. If he is in heaven, prayer is futile, for he is already in a state of perfect and permanent bliss.

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  5. Therefore, if Onesiphorus is dead, praying for him is futile.

  6. Therefore, either the apostle Paul was not praying for him, or he was not dead, or both.

Catholics simply deny premise 2, for they hold that many persons when they die go neither to heaven nor to hell, but to a realm called purgatory, where through punishment they are made perfect until they can go to heaven. In this state, prayers are meant to be efficacious for speeding a person’s acceptance into heaven. Catholics have a number of reasonable biblical arguments for their position, and the protestants have a number of arguments for their own view, it gets complex.

But even if you don’t deny premise 2, it’s possible to hold that prayers for the dead have value.

In the Christian tradition, it is commonly held that God is outside time, or that, at the very least, he has a perfect knowledge of the future. Now suppose that Onesiphorus was dead, but that Paul didn’t know his ultimate fate- he didn’t know whether Onesiphorus was in heaven or hell. If Paul prayed for Onesiphorus after he died then God would know and have known for all eternity that Paul was going to pray for Onesiphorus after he died. In whatever mysterious way prayer entreats God to do good, he would thus take it into account before Onesiphorus died.

And why can’t an omnipotent and omniscient God grant a prayer before it is made? Thus it seems to me that even if the protestants are right about purgatory, they are wrong to think that prayers for the dead have no merit.

Now I’m not claiming any special genius for myself, anyone who spends way too much time thinking about time would be able to come up with that argument, but I can very easily imagine an unsophisticated fellow who, upon learning that his brother died, begun to pray for him, reasoning that God had told Christians to pray for what they wanted. The local theologian scoffs, giving the argument I outlined above for the futility of prayers for the dead. The simple man replies that the salvation of his brother would be a good thing, and God says to pray for good things, so he should pray for it.

I think the unlearned man has the right of it here, and as long as the ways of God are extremely complex and mysterious, which the Abrahamic conception of God requires that they will be, he’s always going to have the right of it. Much as I wish it were, it’s not my religion, so I’m hesitant to comment, but I suspect a lot of Christians are missing out on the best part of actually being Christian- a sense of total trust even when you can’t reason out a way things could work out.

II- Universalism

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I bring up this seemingly abstruse argument to make a point. This is a possible way that God could bring about good that many people have probably never even considered because it’s so far outside the ordinary human experience of time.

I was once told a story by a dear friend, a Jew, who attributed this story to a Muslim friend of his. I apologize if I repeat the story with any errors.

Once a sinner resolved that he would repent to Allah. He wanted to do it in the right way, so he decided he would do it upon reaching a certain city. On his route, the man dropped dead.

Allah put the question to his angels what the fate of the man should be. The angels discussed among themselves and came to a consensus that if he had made it halfway in his journey, he should be admitted into paradise, but if he had made it less than half the way, he should go to Jahannam (hell).

Allah agreed. As it turned out the man had been less than halfway to the city in which he planned to repent. Rather than sending the man to hell, Allah in his wisdom rewrote both history and geography to move the location of the city closer to where the man had died. The man was then admitted to paradise. The point of this lovely story as I take it is that attempts to circumscribe divine mercy are futile.

To be a Christian (or any kind of monotheist) is to believe in a being who can do good in an infinity of ways that you do not comprehend, and even an infinity of ways you cannot comprehend and who will do exactly that.

The only possible response to this is a state of perpetual, child-like hope and complete trust. “God’s ways are not your ways” or “What is impossible for man is made possible with God”. It’s all going to turn out not just well but in some sense, as well as it possibly could.

Let’s take another example. There is a long-standing debate between those who think that the bible teaches that every human will ultimately be reunited with God in heaven and the more common view that a lot of people, perhaps even a majority, perhaps even a vast majority, will spend eternity being tortured in hell. The philosopher Keith DeRose gives an excellent summary of the universalist case here. My conclusion, on studying the texts pretty closely, is that if I were a Christian, I would throw my hands up in despair of finding an answer, but hope that everything would turn out well.

On purely textual grounds, I would be pretty comfortable arguing it either way. Pretty much the only positive conclusion that I would be willing to draw from the seemingly contradictory texts in the bible on this subject is that something strange, perhaps beyond the human power to comprehend, but certainly beautiful and wondrous was going on. I think the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar contention that Christians have a basis for hope that universalism might be true, but no basis for certainty is a sensible position.

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But again, I got to thinking about all the spanners that thinking through the implications of belief in an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God would throw in the works of trying to figure out the answer to this question.

One argument against Christian universalism works as follows, viz:

  1. There are many passages that establish a belief that Jesus is God, and died for the sins of all is necessary for salvation.

  2. There are many passages that establish that once you die, that’s it, there are no second chances.

  3. Some people die not believing in Jesus.

  4. Therefore some people die without salvation.

It’s not clear to me why, if you believe in a genuinely omnipotent, omniscient God who loves us dearly, but has zero respect for our ordinary conception of how things work, you should accept premise 3. I think there are at least two alternate possibilities:

How do you know anyone has ever died not accepting God?

How do you know any unbeliever has ever died on this earth?

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It would be no problem, whatsoever, for God to stop time at the moment of an unbeliever’s death, and right before they die have a conversation with them that convinced them to convert. But we needn’t imagine time stopping either. It would be just as easy for God to whisk away unbelievers at the moment before they die, replace their bodies with an artificial corpse, heal the dying unbeliever, instruct them in faith, and then let them pass on.

(Two interesting facts about this bizarre idea that maybe people aren’t actually dying, viz 1. To the best of my knowledge, the only individuals definitively stated to have died in the New Testament after the death of Christ are Christian 2. It may help make sense of another strange and seemingly false passage: “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”)

The main objection I can see to the above arguments is that it’s improbable- why believe in this sort of thing without evidence?

My response is that it’s improbable only if you haven’t truly internalized the idea of an omnipotent, all-loving God. We think of things like this as improbable because it would be impossible for us to do anything like this. If God exists, it’s as simple for God as it is for you to raise your hand, in fact, it’s infinitely simpler.

That’s what I’m trying to get across with this essay. If you really accept and submerge yourself in the idea of an all-powerful, all-loving God then the way things are for you is really like a two-year-old child who has only just learnt to speak sentences trying to understand their loving parent’s role in the world. These fantastic possibilities are presented not so much as a way of understanding, but as a way of showing that even at the limits of our understanding, the possibilities get bizarre, and of course, we can’t even imagine what is beyond those limits.

St Julian of Norwich was a medieval mystic. At one point in her life, she became deeply distressed because so many people were going to go to hell. As I understand it, she had a vision in which God basically said to her “I won’t explain all of the details to you, but trust me, it’s going to be okay.” At one point Jesus says to her:

“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well”

Julian of Norwich presented herself as unlettered and unlearned, confused by her own revelations, but simply trusting God that all would be alright, in the same way, a young child who cannot understand why his parents have to go to work but takes their word for it, trusts her parents. I want to suggest that not only is that perfectly reasonable it is the only reasonable response to fully internalizing the idea that God can do anything whatsoever, is not limited by our understanding or imagination, and wants what is best for everyone. Far from being a reflection on her unlearnedness, Julian of Norwich was one of the few people who actually got the rational response if you accept the premises of an all-knowing, all-loving all-powerful God. The suspension of judgment and total trust.

A couple of things you might like if you enjoyed this post. Firstly, my free book which you can find by clicking this: Live More Lives Than One, and secondly my subreddit which you can find by clicking this: r/PhilosophyBear. Also please share this post if you liked it <3.

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An agnostic philosopher considers God, the limits of reason, and universalism (1)

FAQs

What does universalism mean in religion? ›

Universalism, belief in the salvation of all souls. Although Universalism has appeared at various times in Christian history, most notably in the works of Origen of Alexandria in the 3rd century, as an organized movement it had its beginnings in the United States in the middle of the 18th century.

What is the biblical defense of universalism? ›

In Christian theology, universal reconciliation (also called universal salvation, Christian universalism, or in context simply universalism) is the doctrine that all sinful and alienated human souls—because of divine love and mercy—will ultimately be reconciled to God.

What is the theology of universalism? ›

Christian universalism refers to the idea that every human will eventually receive salvation in a religious or spiritual sense, a concept also referred to as universal reconciliation.

Why universalism is right? ›

Universalism is important because it is a view about the shared characteristics of all humans. It is particularly necessary to reiterate that there are such qualities in a world where ugly divisions between groups have once again become apparent.

What are the limits of universalism? ›

Universalism has practical limits of its own: it cannot dissolve cultural differences, or remove the need to make political decisions. But, provided such limitations are understood, it surely remains the most useful default principle for collaborative work.

What do Universalists believe about God? ›

Universalism is a religious denomination that shares many of the same beliefs as Christianity, but it does not accept all Christian teachings. Its followers believe that all persons can find salvation and that the souls of all people are in a constant search for improvement.

Videos

1. Universalism and Eternal Hell | Dr. Josh Rasmussen & Dr. Eric Reitan
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