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“Continuous” vs. “Discontinuous Functions”:

 A response to David Burton’s defense of Universal Salvation


Robert T. Peterson

Hammond, Indiana


In the March 2003 issue of this journal, David R. Burton argues that while there is a continuum in the level of moral behavior, there is, under the doctrine of heaven and hell, no such continuum with regard to heavenly salvation or eternal punishment. There is rather a “discontinuous function,” in which it must be one or the other, with no middle ground.  He explains that the Universalist position, in contrast, asserts that everyone, to one degree or another, goes to heaven.  Burton argues that this position is “more reasonable, less extreme, more just, and, to the extent believed, more likely to lead to moral behavior than the traditional views of heaven and hell, salvation and damnation.” I am, on all points, unconvinced of his position.  


Regarding the first – that the Universalist position is “more reasonable,” it is only so if one assumes Burton’s premise, that there is a continuum of moral behavior. This issue will be addressed in part II.

Regarding the second assertion, what is “extreme” depends, of course, on what you think is moderate. The justification of universal salvation on the ground that there is no clear demarcation of the levels of human virtue or vice is similar to the rationale of former Illinois Gov. George Ryan for his oxymoronic “blanket commutation” of convicted murderers from execution. He could not, he stated, find a clear point on which to decide who should face execution and who should not, so he decided not to execute anyone. [1] A lot of people thought that that was (along with some other choicer adjectives) extreme. By the same token, some might feel that sending all those at the bottom of the moral “continuous function,” such as unrepentant serial murderers, to heaven, to whatever degree, simply because no bright lines of moral demarcation could be discerned, is also extreme.

That said, I do have to say that, to me, the idea that eternal damnation in hell for one’s earthly sins seems “extreme.”  (Although I must confess that –  like, I suspect, most people –  I somehow do not find the idea of eternal reward in heaven for one’s earthly virtues [or for at least my own] to be extreme.) Such an alternative to heaven, however, is not the only one. Another alternative – one seemingly supported by near-death experiences [2] – is that those who do not go to heaven simply cease to exist (an outcome which, for some souls tormented by a true memory of what they did on earth, may actually be a kindness).

Another speculation is that heaven consists of the good things we do in our lives, while the bad things cease to exist.  Assuming that everyone has some good in them, this would lead to the Universalist position. The question is, however, whether everyone does have some good in them. This also will be discussed indirectly in part II.

The assertion that the Universalist position is “more just” goes most to the heart of the issue, and will be the primary subject of part II. For the present, we will instead address Burton’s final claim – that a calibrated universal salvation is more likely to lead to moral behavior. For that, his argument is that, under a “heaven or not” approach, sinners may conclude that their chances for heaven are hopeless and that upright people may conclude that “they have it made,” and so consequently such an approach could provide no positive incentive to either. In both cases, however, this arguments assumes more than simply a belief in heaven and hell; it also assumes that people will have such confidence in their own judgment that they will believe they can accurately predict what God’s appraisal of them will be.

Even if we posit, as Burton does, that God’s justice is similar to our own, this confidence could nonetheless be on very thin ice. For even if God’s justice is the same, God’s powers of discrimination are probably infinitely more comprehensive and precise. C. S. Lewis, for example, made the point long ago, that, in the eyes of God, a person who has been blessed and goes on to become a missionary may actually be morally inferior than a person who is not blessed, and becomes a thug, yet at one point in his life, he finally steps forward, and, at possible personal risk to himself, stops his fellow thugs from needlessly beating a victim. Such appraisals are far beyond our own capacities, but, presumably, not God’s. Consequently, any human calculation on such matters would be impossible; consequently, as far as our own calculations can inform us, none of us are condemned, and none safe.

Even, however, if we could appraise God’s judgment, there remains the companion belief of heaven and hell – that is, the doctrine of repentance, which promises that whoever truly repents of his/her sins (that is, presumably, for reasons other than the avoidance or mitigation of punishment) will be saved. Under this doctrine, it is not really the sin that condemns the sinner, but rather his/her lack of repentance. Presumably the doctrine of repentance applies to the Universalist position as well; since, however, under it everyone is going to heaven in any case, it is not of the same consequence. 


In arguing that universal salvation is more just, Burton argues that, with regard to moral vice and/or virtue, there is a continuum (or, one may say, a “continuous function”), whereas the two bare possibilities of heaven or hell do not reflect a continuum, but rather a “discontinuous function.” Consequently, any demarcation point on the continuous function of moral behavior that determines whether a soul goes to heaven or hell (or oblivion) can only be arbitrary and thus unfair. The question is, however, whether or not, in the context of human morality, there is in fact a discontinuous function.

On individual moral questions themselves, this is generally not the case. Generally, there is a right and a wrong, and there is not a continuum of rightness or wrongness between the two. I suppose that, to this, what Mr. Burton would say is that most of us act with sometimes good, and sometimes bad motivations, and when they are all added up, the “moral sums” of individuals form a continuum. I am not at all sure that this is the case.

Let us take, for example – not as an authority, but as a basis for discussion – a Biblical passage that, in fact, deals with subject of heavenly rewards, that of the parable of the workers of the vineyard (Matt. 20: 1-15). In it, an employer went to a market square hiring workers at different times during the day, so that some worked the full day, while others worked as little as an hour. At the end of the day, however, the employer paid them all the same. Initially, this would seem to support Burton’s position. But, while these men, after waiting in the square for work, were toiling in vineyard, other men were out on the highway stealing and killing for their income. While the employer rewarded equally all those who showed the intent to work, the parable says nothing about rewarding those who did not show up in the square for work at all. It did not say he equally rewarded, or rewarded at all, murderers and thieves. [3] And between them and the vineyard workers, there was no continuum, no middle ground. You were either working in the vineyard, or you were lurking on the highway, scanning for a victim.

Now, of course, it is possible that some workers, after their day in the vineyard, might go to the highway in order to supplement their income. It’s possible, but it doesn’t seem likely. A person who has toiled for his income in the vineyard himself would seem to have a greater understanding of what it meant to earn his own income, and what it meant for someone else to come and take it away. For him to then turn around and steal from other workers would contradict every premise that he was working under in the vineyard. On such a basis, one can reasonably assume that, if in fact the day worker became a night thief, he probably was not much of a worker even in the day, and that he stole from his employer whenever he got the opportunity.

But might the thief have some other compensating qualities? Aside from how he got his money, what if he is generous with it, and helps those in need? A Robin Hood, for example. It is probably pertinent to point out here that Robin Hood, as portrayed in legend, was in fact a fictional character. As someone put it, “Robin Hood was a hood.” In any case, the generosity of a thief is not the same thing as the generosity of one who has toiled for what he gives away.  There may, in other words, be core moral qualities that affect everything else. Generosity may commend nothing to the thief until he forswears thievery.

There is, in short, not a continuum between the vineyard worker and the thief, but a rupture. Their principles are not part of a continuum, but are contradictory to each other. Such a position, in more abstract and categorical terms, is taken by Immanuel Kant. He writes:

“But the moral law, in the judgment of reason, is in itself an incentive, and whoever makes it his maxim is morally good. If, now, this law does not determine a person's will in the case of an action which has reference to the law, an incentive contrary to it must influence his choice; and since, by hypothesis, this can only happen when a man adopts this incentive (and thereby the deviation from the moral law) into his maxim (in which case he is an evil man) it follows that his disposition in respect to the moral law is never indifferent, never neither good nor evil.

“Neither can a man be morally good in some ways and at the same time morally evil in others. His being good in one way means that he has incorporated the moral law into his maxim; were he, therefore, at the same time evil in another way, while his maxim would be universal as based on the moral law of obedience to duty, which is essentially single and universal, it would at the same time be only particular; but this is a contradiction.”[4]

Those that are motivated by what Kant calls “moral law” may falter, but the direction of their aspiration remains the same. And as they persist, the faltering is presumably less frequent. For those who reject such law, the opposite is true. “As the twig is bent, so the tree grows,” and so the rupture between the two grows. Within these two progressions, however, there would almost certainly seem to be a continuum of advancement. Heaven may be reserved for those who are advancing, with varying degrees of success, in one of them.

Finally, the question of justice cannot arise at all unless there are rights involved. For anyone, is occupancy of heaven a right? Of course it is not. All we have comes as but a gift from God. If God chooses or not to provide the gift of heaven also, that is God’s choice, and “justice” does not come into play.

This point is worth noting because, if the “discontinuous function” argument can justify universal salvation, it can just as easily justify universal damnation. God is under no obligation. Rather than to give the evil a measure of the reward that saints earn, God could choose to give saints a measure of the punishment that the evil earn. They would be in hell, but, under the logic of Universalist doctrine, not as bad a hell.  This does not strike me as being necessarily more just or otherwise preferable to the traditional views of heaven and hell.


[1] Since most murderers escape punishment altogether, the logical progression of Ryan’s rationale would be not only that the murderers should not be executed, but that they should be released.  Ryan did not go that far, since that would have endangered the public, and so was therefore unacceptable.  He supported protecting the public; he apparently did not, however, support the death penalty, which presumably was the real reason for his mass commutation.  His “rationale,” in other words, was simply a rationalization.

[2] Some people experiencing near death report a tunnel of light and other sights and feelings suggestive of a heavenly afterlife – but not all people do. Were there a hell, one might expect the others to see a foreboding tunnel of red flame, but this has never been reported.  It has been rather the tunnel of light, or nothing.

[3] Indeed, elsewhere Jesus, by clearly affirming the existence of hell (e.g., Matt. 23:33) effectively says precisely the opposite.

[4]Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, Book I, 19-20. [See]

About the author:

Peterson is a winner of the Acton Institute’s 2002 essay competition.  (That essay, a fictional dialogue about the parable of the workers in the vineyard, can be accessed at


© 2003 American Unitarian Conference