As I have mentioned before, I am a Christian Universalist. This means that I hold to certain typical Christian beliefs—most specifically, that the death and resurrection of Christ means our salvation—but also hold one very non-typical belief—that the death and resurrection of Christ means the actual, accomplished salvation of every human being.
At some point I'll probably post up a defense of this view. It's not unique to me (as you can see from the link above) and is held by several important contemporary Christian philosophers, theologians and other thinkers (including one of my mentors from many years back, Tom Talbot), as well as some of the most important Christian thinkers from antiquity. (For example, Origen and Gregory of Nycea.) So for this post, I'll just ask you to trust that the view isn't absolutely insane, even if it's wrong.
In this post, I'm concerned with a question about the implications of universal salvation. But to ask the question I have to set it up with some further information about my beliefs. Or rather, lack thereof. I am at best agnostic concerning any kind of afterlife at all. (Actually, I have this fond hope that before the big crunch or the heat death, a vast intelligence or intelligences will undertake the "resurrection" of every being that had ever lived and we'll all have a real interesting life free from suffering etc etc. But that's hardly a religious hope.) I don't consider the scriptures to be literally written by God, nor do I take them to be the kind of thing that is supposed to deliver propositional truths about how things work supernaturally. I take them to be a record of people wrestling with theological and ethical concepts, and they often used supernatural concepts to come to terms with this, for very understandable reasons. But this does not mean we must buy into the supernatural stuff in order to be moved by the theological and ethical stuff.
But Universalism asserts that every human being's salvation has been accomplished through Christ's death and resurrection. When trying to de-supernaturalize this, we run into several problems. What's "Christ's resurrection" mean? What is the non-supernatural relation between it and our salvation? What's salvation mean?
The last leads to what I want to focus on. What's salvation mean if not "going to heaven?" Because going to heaven is about as supernatural as it gets. How am I going to de-supernaturalize (I should probably just say naturalize) something like salvation?
Well, this isn't unheard of. Many wishy washy protestant liberal Christians (like myself) naturalize talk of heaven and hell by talking about present states of mind, or present ways to interact with our fellow human beings. So for example, we'll take things like Jesus's saying "The kingdom of Heaven is within you" (or "among you" depending on the translation) as indicating that his goal, while couched in supernaturalistic concepts, wasn't really about an afterlife, but about how we do things right now in this life. To be doing things one way constitutes being "in heaven." To do things a different way constitutes being "in hell." I'm sure you've encountered this idea here and there.
But think about this from a universalistic point of view. Suppose the claim is made that everyone is (or will be) saved. Well, on the above naturalization of the concept of salvation, what this would imply is that everyone is (or will be) doing things in the right way—that particularly meaningful and deeply blissful way we claim Jesus was talking about when he referred to the kingdom of heaven.
This is straightforwardly false if we're refraining from reference to an afterlife.
So that's the problem. How can I be a wishy washy liberal protestant Christian and a universalist? How should I naturalize the concept of salvation if it can't mean actual, accomplished living the "Way of Heaven" (so to speak) here in the real world before death?
(Of course I could follow the implication the other way, and say that if I'm so convinced of Universalism, maybe I should take this to be evidence for an afterlife. So I'll briefly explain another motivation for this naturalization project. If it's all about rewards in an afterlife, then every attempt to be ethical becomes a fundamentally selfish action. But I'd reject a religion that advocates fundamental selfishness. It is not my experience of religion that it can have such a foundation. Religion is about something other than that. But if this is so, then whatever deliverances a religion gives concerning rewards in an afterlife must provide a means for translation into non-rewardy non-afterlifey concepts. In other words, that which is best about Religion itself, in my experience, practically demands this kind of naturalization.)
So again, in a nutshell, the question is this: What can a doctrine of universal salvation already accomplished through Christ's death and resurrection mean if there is no afterlife? Put even more succinctly: What can it mean to say that everyone is saved if salvation does not involve going to heaven after you die?
I think I'll leave off formulating my stab at an answer for my next post, but in the meantime, I'm curious to hear from anyone reading this what they think of the question, its motivation, and any possible answers.
Post Script: When I call Tom Talbott "one of my mentors from many years back" I mean that I considered him a mentor through several conversations we had online about fifteen years ago. I do not honestly know whether he would remember me. (I'm about to find out.) And I do not mean to imply that he would endorse anything like the "naturalization project" I've gestured at here. I merely meant to indicate that he is a prominent Universalist among analytic philosophers of religion.