I believe in free will. I believe that our freedom plays an essential role in the process whereby God, first, brings us into existence as rational and self-aware beings, and second, perfects us as his sons and daughters. But as a Universalist, I also accept two additional Pauline claims: (1) that the very same “all”who died in Adam will most assuredly be made alive in Christ (I Corinthians 15:22), and (2) that our destiny “depends not on human will or exertion, but upon God who shows mercy” (Romans 9:16).
So how do I put these seemingly disparate ideas together? Fortunately, Paul himself teaches us exactly how to put them together consistently. For though Paul clearly rejects the idea that we choose freely between different possible eternal destinies, arguing instead that our destiny is wholly a matter of grace, he nonetheless stresses the importance of choice. “Note then,” he writes in his letter to the Romans, “the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness toward you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise, you also will be cut off.” So how we encounter God’s love in the future, whether we encounter it as kindness or as severity, is indeed, says Paul, up to us–a matter of free choice, if you will. But our ultimate destiny is not up to us, because God’s severity, no less than his kindness, is itself a means of his saving grace. In particular, God’s severity towards the unbelieving Jews–even his willingness to blind them, to harden their hearts, and to cut them off for a season–is according to Paul but one of the means whereby God will save all of Israel in the end. In Paul’s own words, “a hardening has come upon part of Israel . . .. And so allIsrael will be saved” (Romans 11:25-26). What our free choices determine, then, is not our eternal destiny, which is secure from the beginning, but the means required to achieve it. For the more tenaciously we cling to our illusions and selfish desires–to the flesh, as Paul calls it–the more severe will be the means and the more painful the process whereby God shatters our illusions, destroys the flesh, and finally separates us from our sin.
A virtue of the Christian religion, as I see it, is that Christians are never permitted to take credit for their own redemption or even for a virtuous character (where such exists). All credit of this kind goes to God. But the Christian religion also stresses the importance of free choice, of choosing this day whom you shall serve. Nor need there be any tension between these two emphases, provided that we regard our free choices as determining not our eternal destiny, but the means of grace available to us. Essential to the whole redemptive process, I am suggesting, is that we exercise our moral freedom–not that we choose rightly rather than wrongly, but that we choose freely one way or the other. We can choose today to live selfishly or unselfishly, faithfully or unfaithfully, obediently or disobediently. But our choices, especially the bad ones, will also have unintended and unforeseen consequences in our lives; as the proverb says, “The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps” (16:9). A man who commits robbery may set off a chain of events that, contrary to his own intentions, lands him in jail; and a woman who enters into an adulterous affair may discover that, even though her husband remains oblivious to it, the affair has a host of unforeseen and destructive consequences in her life. In fact, our bad choices almost never get us what we really want; that is part of what makes them bad and also one reason why God is able to bring redemptive goods out of them. When we make a mess of our lives and our misery becomes more and more unbearable, the hell we thereby create for ourselves will in the end resolve the very ambiguity and shatter the very illusions that made the bad choices possible in the first place. That is how God works with created rational agents. He permits them to choose in the ambiguous contexts in which they first emerge as self-aware beings, and he then requires them to learn from experience the hard lessons they sometimes need to learn.
My point is that a pattern of bad choices can be just as useful to God in correcting us and in teaching the lessons of love as a pattern of good choices can be. And perhaps that is one reason why Paul at least raises the embarrassing question: “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” (Romans 6:1). After all, “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20). But Paul’s correct answer is also most emphatic: “By no means!” That the pain I experience when I thrust my hand into a flame may serve a beneficial purpose–because it enables me to avoid an even greater injury in the future–hardly entails that I have a good reason to thrust my hand into the flame again and again. And similarly, that the misery and unhappiness that sin brings into a life can serve a redemptive purpose–because it can provide a compelling motive to repent–hardly implies that one has a good reason to keep on sinning and to continue making oneself more and more miserable.
More than a few have charged that universalists operate with an overly sentimental conception of God’s love. But no one who actually reads the early Christian universalists, such as Origen or St. Gregory of Nyssa, could possibly come away with that misconception. If anything, the idea that God will in the end destroy sin altogether rests upon a more rigorous conception of God’s holy love than does the idea that he will keep sin alive throughout an eternity of hell. For according to the former idea, God will not permit any of us to cling forever to our illusions or to remain forever ignorant of the true nature of our selfish choices. We are free to sin and perhaps even to sin with relative impunity for awhile, but in no way are we free to sin with impunity forever. So unless we first repent of our sin and step into the life that Christ brings to us, God will sooner or later–in the next life, if not in this one–permit our illusions to shatter against the hard rock of reality. In that respect, God’s holy love is like a consuming fire (see Hebrews 12:29); it will continue to burn us until it finally purges us of all that is false within us. The more we freely rebel against it and try to defeat it, the more deeply and inexorably it will burn, until every conceivable motive for disobedience is consumed and we are finally transformed from the inside out. And so God will eventually destroy sin in the only way possible short of annihilation: by redeeming the sinners themselves.