When I was at DePauw, one of the classes I did pretty badly in was Nineteenth Century Russian literature. Ironically, it’s also one of the classes that has stuck with me the most.
We read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. One part I remember from the movie (yes, I read the book too) was where this drunk was rambling on about biblical eschatology. He said that, after everything is said and done, God will welcome the Beast of Revelation 13 into his kingdom. Ultimately, there would be a final reconciliation between God and his enemies.
You might think that these were the mere ramblings of a drunk, but I encountered the same sort of idea in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. In this work, there is an atheist named Ivan Karamazov, and he has a very religious brother, Alexei. One the 1958 film version, Ivan was played by Richard Basehart, that abusive teacher on Little House on the Prairie who told Laura Ingalls to “Hold out your hand.” And Alexei was played by William Shatner, better known as Captain Kirk.
In the chapter “Rebellion” (see here), Ivan and Alexei get into a religious debate. Ivan tells a story about a general who owned a lot of estates. One day, an eight-year-old boy threw a rock at the general’s favorite dog, crippling his leg. The general was upset, and, in retaliation, he kidnapped the boy, locked him up for the night, took him outside the next morning, stripped him, and set his hounds on him while he (the boy) fled. The dogs ripped the little boy to shreds, right in front of his weeping mother.
Ivan doesn’t buy into the whole “God has a plan, and we don’t always understand his ways” spiel. He wrestles with a scenario in which the whole world will proclaim the justice of God’s ways, and the mother will forgive and embrace her child’s killer, as both sing praises to God. For Ivan, however, that doesn’t exactly cut it. The child was still viciously ripped to shreds, which caused an immense amount of pain to his mother. Meanwhile, the pompous general was on his abusive power trip, and he was influential enough to escape any punishment that may be imposed (if any). As far as Ivan is concerned, nothing can make up for that–not a final reconciliation, not even hell.
Ivan seems to discuss a form of universalism, in which everyone praises God and embraces one another in the final eschaton. He may not think that God forces all people to believe in him, for he says that he’s not going to join in on the praise party when all of that happens. But he seems to assume that many Russian Christians don’t buy into an “accept Christ before you die, or you’ll go to hell for all eternity” sort of mindset. At the same time, he does address the doctrine of hell, so apparently there were people who believed in it.
Overall, Ivan highlights what many identify as a problem in universalism: it appears to take away from God’s justice. “If Hitler is in heaven, then I don’t want to be there,” Jerry Falwell once said in a debate with a universalist. The concern seems to be that, if God saves Hitler in the afterlife, then he is disregarding all of the pain and suffering that Hitler caused, as if it doesn’t really matter.
I can understand the thirst for God’s justice, for you see it all over the Bible. At the same time, don’t we all hurt other people when we sin? The thief on the cross whom Jesus welcomed into his kingdom probably harmed some people in his insurrections. Yet, Jesus forgave him. The Assyrians conquered defenseless countries and brutally impaled people’s bodies as a warning. Still, God spared them from destruction in the Book of Jonah. Why should we put Hitler in a completely different category?
Also, suppose Hitler said the sinner’s prayer right before he died. According to many evangelicals, he’d go straight to heaven. What’s that do to God’s justice?
Of course, that raises all sorts of other issues. If Hitler actually felt remorse, then perhaps he should receive forgiveness. But can his remorse make up for all of the pain and suffering he caused? Should he get off scot-free, even if he’s sorry?
I wonder if there are strands of Russian Christianity that embrace universalism. And I wrestle with the ramifications of that view as Dostoevsky presents it.