Thursday, September 16, 2010

Negative Reactions Towards Universalism

One more time, I wish to expand my recent writings on intolerance of religious beliefs. Specifically, how intolerance is directed at universalism.

The examples of intolerance mentioned in my last two posts were committed by a minority of believers in the religious community. But, at the risk of sounding like I have a persecution complex, I feel the dislike of universalism is more widespread (although definitely less vigorous and violent).

Christianity in the United States is extremely diverse, with thousands of different denominations. The more liberal denominations often have adherents willing to except the validity of other religions (i.e., you do not necessarily have to be a Christian to get into heaven), yet even they usually reject universalism. Why is this?

One theory is that universalism is perceived as "not fair". Universalism is often interpreted to mean "no punishment for the wicked". Yes, there is the "death then glory" school of universalism, with Hosea Ballou being the most well known advocate of this position. However, a majority of universalists I have encountered do not interpret universalism this way. They believe in some form of punishment for unrepentant sins, usually a type of purgatory (and the many forms that could take), using corrective punishment for rehabilitation.

Another theory is that universalism is a threat to the familiar. When someone is raised in a particular religious tradition, it frequently becomes part of their identity and the basis of their security. They believe their path is the correct path, and all other paths lead to destruction. Universalism shuns this idea, allowing (depending on the precise type of universalism) several to almost infinite paths to salvation. Recognizing multiple options inevitably takes away power and control from the traditional churches and threatens their monopoly on the truth. Since humans find comfort in being convinced their beliefs are the "true" ones, a system claiming otherwise would easily attract derision.

The final, and most disturbing, theory on universalism's threat is that there are religious believers who despise, whether secretly or openly, people with opposing religious beliefs and who feel no regret at the thought of them suffering in hell. According to some Christian theologians:

  •  "The blessed in the heavenly realm will watch the torments of the damned so that their beatitude will please them all the more." (Thomas Aquinas)
  • "At that greatest of all spectacles, that last and eternal judgment how shall I admire, how laugh, how rejoice, how exult, when I behold so many proud monarchs groaning in the lowest abyss of darkness…". (Tertullian)
  • "The view of the misery of the damned will double the ardor of the love and gratitude of the saints of heaven." (Jonathan Edwards)
While few today would be willing to say this in such bold terms as the three men above, the sentiment remains. They feel nonbelievers deserve eternal hellfire and plan to enjoy the sufferings of those not lucky enough to be saved as an added bonus of their own redemption.

Universalism, even when framed within conservative Christianity, is a radical idea. The Catholic Church even considers it heresy. When fear of hell is used to control people's religious beliefs, radical ideas are painted as a threat to their salvation. Who can blame them? If they truly believe that becoming a universalist gives you an express ticket to hell, you cannot blame them for their dislike. On the other hand, with those who delight in everlasting hell (but only for others, of course),  universalism becomes not a threat to their salvation, but to their eternal happiness.

Either way, this intolerance arises from the teaching of an eternal hell. It uses fear to force people into unquestioning compliance, can twist minds into sickening glee at the sufferings of others, and drives away those seekers whose heart cannot mesh their desire for a loving God with His supposedly eternal and fiery torture chamber. It is a doctrine which, in my opinion, has done more damage to both God and religion than any other.

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