One of the scandals of religion is that of exclusivity, the belief that the adherents of the particular religion will receive “X” benefits and those who don’t…will not. In reaction to these claims of exclusivity, there are many who attempt to equalize the playing field, so to speak. These advocate that if there is God who rewards humans with “X,” then all humans, without qualification, will receive “X” unconditionally.

There is one level, of course, on which this idea (i.e., universal reconciliation) is an appealing concept. After all, it is difficult to imagine eternal separation from reconciled life with God. As callous as we humans can oftentimes be towards others, there is something innately disturbing about the idea of another person existing in dysfunctional relationship with God for all of eternity. Such reflections quickly lead to sentimentalized conceptions of eternity in which all, unequivocally, are reconciled to God and others.

Unfortunately, the sentiments of universal reconciliation disastrously ignore the issues that lie at the heart of the meaning of reconciliation and forgiveness. In reality, such a move co-opts the crises of reconciliation and forgiveness, replacing them with the opiate of universalism. However, this anaesthetizing of the severe consequences of relationship and its potential dysfunctions serves only to deconstruct the personhood of the those whose eternal destinies are being considered, creating a picture of eternity in which universal reconciliation is entirely anti-personal, the annihilation of both the divine and human self.

The Co-Dependant God

Classic theism presumes that God is a personal being. As a personal being, God is capable of existing in relationship not only to Godself, but also to that which God has created and endowed with personhood. If it is assumed that God relates to human persons on an inter-personal level, one must also affirm the potential for the consequences of such relationship. Therefore, it is not only possible that God can relate in a reconciled manner towards humanity, but also in dysfunctional way (even if this dysfunction is in no way the result of any divine action).

Universal reconciliation, however, denies this nature to God and introduces to the divine personhood a severe co-dependency. Universal reconciliation advocates that in eternity, all will be reconciled to God and exist harmoniously in relationship with God. Therefore, regardless of the way in which the human person has related to God, the end will be the same. Even if one desires to live dysfunctionally in relationship to God, this dysfunction will be erased and replaced–by divine fiat–with reconciliation.

However, this perspective ignores the nature of personal relationship and the reality of reconciliation. Reconciliation is not something that can be compelled from another. Rather, it is a crisis of personal interaction in which forgiveness and love repair that which is dysfunctional, thereby overcoming hostility and enmity. Universal reconciliation, however, allows for no such crisis. Within this framework, reconciliation is necessarily compelled from God. In this way, God is actually required to be reconciled to humans, regardless of how these have individually related themselves to the divine person and in spite of any particular desire they might have one way or the other.

This represents the infinitizing of the neurosis of co-dependency. Within universal reconciliation, God must be reconciled and exist in reciprocally reconciled relationship with those who do not desire to be reconciled to God (per the dysfunctional ways in which they have related themselves to God). Like the abused who craves the attention and over-power of their abuser, the God of universal reconciliation co-dependently exists in restored relationship to those who do not desire proper relationship with God. Yet in this relationship there is no redemption, no equity, and no manifestation of the self-giving nature of love. Rather, it is simply the ultimate form of abuse, self-deprecation, and relational neurosis on behalf of the divine person. Just as abuse and co-dependency are ultimately de-personalizing, so universal reconciliation de-personalizes God, denying that God can meaningfully exist in relationship to other persons. Quite contrarily, the God of universal reconciliation is the ultimate non-person, lacking any real personhood to which human persons could be related.

Ultimately, it is a wonder why anyone would wish to be reconciled to such a God (even though actual, life-giving reconciliation is actually impossible in such a scenario), yet this is precisely the kind of deity which universal reconciliation engenders.

The De-Human

Although the consequences of universal reconciliation are devastating to any robust conception of the personhood of God, it is also particularly destructive to understanding the nature of the human person. If personhood is central to what it means to be human, then it would naturally follow that as God is also personal, there is room in which human persons can be related to the divine person. As mentioned before, this possibility carries the corollary necessity that this relationship can be either mutually reciprocal or dysfunctional. Therefore, if God is truly Creator and the infinite person, all persons exist in relationship to God, either positively or negatively.

To be able to exist in such a relationship (not only in relationship to the divine person, but also to other human persons) is central to personhood. For example, one would not assign personhood to a chair. Although one can exist in relationship to the chair (via a positive or negative assessment of it), this is not a relationship of personality. Interpersonal relationships, however, function on the level of personal and mutual interaction, reciprocity, dysfunction, etc. In other words, persons are able to choose the ways in which they will relate themselves to others. While such choices of relation will not automatically engender the desired relationship, overtures towards a relational end create the possibility of such relationships materializing. Whatever the outcomes of these relational movements will be, the central issue is that the possibility of existing in these kinds of relationships to others is central to personhood, central to being human. The removal of this potential equates to the de-personalizing and de-humanizing of the relational, human person.

Unfortunately, this de-humanizing is precisely the consequence of universal reconciliation. If all are eventually reconciled without qualification, the very potential for determining the ways in which one will relate oneself to others (including the divine person) is annihilated. As human persons, in the eschaton, no longer (or did they ever really have it?) have the potential for either being reconciled to God or existing in dysfunctional relationship to God, the very meaning of personhood has ceased to exist. Although from the divine perspective (noted above) human persons are the abusive overlords that extract a particular relationship from God, from the anthropological perspective, they are equivalent to the chair mentioned above–i.e., they are de-humaned beings who, like the chair, are incapable of existing in reciprocal relationship to the divine person.

Therefore, in attempting to mitigate the admittedly distasteful conception of an eternity in which some will exist in perpetual relational isolation from the divine person, universal reconciliation has effectively deconstructed the human person, removing the potential that any will exist as personal beings beyond the grave. It is curious how this conclusion is any better than the alternative which it seeks to overcome.

Toward an Alternative

If one is to preserve the dynamic of relationship which much exist to not only safeguard the personhood of God, but also protect against the de-humanizing of created persons, I think one must reject universal reconciliation. If reconciliation is something that occurs reciprocally between persons, there must be space in which its opposite can also be a reality. If God must exist in fully reconciled relationship with all human beings, then God has ceased to be a fully-formed personal being, and is merely the co-dependent deity who destructively capitulates to the wills of those who do not desire relationship, but rather power. And if all human persons will inevitably be fully reconciled to God, they have been de-pesonsed and de-humaned, for the potential of personhood to exist–either destructively over and against another or willfully in reciprocal, reconciled relationship–has been effectively annihilated by divine fiat.

Therefore, a middle way must be pursued. There must be space in which the will of God to be reconciled to all can be affirmed while concomitantly preserving the potential that humans persons can choose to be or not be reconciled to God. Against those who assert that this is a cruel perspective of eternity, I would vehemently disagree. While the consequences of choosing to not be reconciled to God and others may be truly devastating, to not have the potential to embody these consequences would be even worse. A de-humaned eternal existence would be worth nothing, as would a de-personalized God. It is only with the potential for dysfunctional relationship that true reconciliation can be engendered. The magical reconciliation of all things may be aesthetically pleasing and emotionally satisfying on a superfluous level. However, it creates a pseudo-relationship that is plastic and hollow, one which lacks the depth of the true personal interaction for which humans were created.