One way that someone who merely hopes that all will be eventually saved avoids the conclusion of universalism is by adopting a certain form of epistemic agnosticism (which is seen to be a more humble stance in the face of the majesty of God’s transcendence). “Until we can see the whole reality God intends,” it is said, “we cannot know whether all will certainly be saved or be in the right position to judge whether a non-universalist image of God is worthy of worship.” But, while I am sympathetic to the project of skeptical theism when it comes to making sense of temporary evils, I cannot understand this stance when it comes to God’s ordaining or permitting infinite evils in humans (such as it would obtain in any form of eternal hell—whether one of eternal conscious torment, annihilation of the wicked, or some view in between these and universalism).
While it is strictly speaking true that we cannot presently see the whole reality that God intends in the eschaton, I think it is reasonable to believe that we have a real glimpse of the end in the glimmers of hope we occasionally observe when, for instance, an apparently irreformable person slowly reforms their life. A cynical person—posing, as they always are, as a ‘realistic’ person—might point as ‘counter-evidence’ to other examples of people dying so obviously unrepentant that it’s almost fated they would continue resisting the Good ad infinitum. But does this pessimism concerning the corruptibility of human nature really make it most reasonable to infer that it is actually possible for some persons to be finally irredeemable? And is the posture that allows for this tragic possibility really a more humble and less presumptuous one compared to the ‘dogmatic’ universalist’s? Needless to say, I think the answer to both questions is ‘no’. To the first question, I think a pessimistic posture is less than a fully Christian one; it is an example of what one could call a ‘low’ anthropology that diminishes the significance of our being created as ‘living idols’ or images of God. If creation is, as Pseudo-Dionysius would say, a theophany, a manifestation of God, it is appropriate to primarily view creatures as living logoi (words) of God in a real sense, even as it is true that we fail to recognize this because of our status as finite and hence corruptible. It is not, moreover, a pantheism to resist a sharp God/world dichotomy in this way, since a distinction between the two is still maintained when we acknowledge that no one creature can express God’s essence completely.
To the second question, and following on from this ‘high’ anthropology, I do not see how it is more presumptuous to speak for God by saying, for instance, that it is in God’s nature to create a world where hell is only ever restorative and educative, always oriented towards theosis—and it is not in God’s nature to allow any creatures to everlastingly perish—than it is to assert the opposite. It is simply an unavoidable fact, at the end of the day, that we all try to speak for God, our conscience and reason—informed by the witness of tradition—telling us what actions would befit his nature and not. Non-universalists do this too when they claim—resting on a (in my judgement) dubious confidence that scripture and tradition speak against any vain human utopian hope—that it would be fine for God to create humans knowing full well that some of them would sin and not be redeemed. In a real sense and from a certain perspective, this claim could be seen as just as—if not more—presumptuous as the vehement denial that God would create knowing that some would be finally irredeemable, insofar as it involves speaking for God in saying that it is possible for the creation of the redeemed to be worth the destruction of the unredeemed.
I am one of those who has the firm conviction that it is, in fact, presumptuous since it is dishonouring of God himself to resign oneself to this ghastly possibility—insofar it is, it seems to me, contrary to true and complete love of neighbour as oneself to do so. It is thus a false humility to imply that God’s reason can go not only beyond our reason, but potentially against it. Admittedly, it is sometimes difficult to know whether something is supra- or contra- reason (as with, say, the doctrine of the incarnation). But, on the whole, if, after deep reflection and fervent prayer, one sees a theological system to go against, not just beyond, our God-given moral grammar, I think they should stop pretending that it could even possibly be true (in this case, that God might actually turn out to be less loving than we had hoped).