A Universalist Prolegomena

Intellectual honesty offers little comfort when faced with the possibility of estrangement from the vast majority of people one knows. To consider the marginal theologies of Christian history viable means to challenge the popular opinion, the “traditional” view, the “biblical” or “orthodox” position. One’s church options shrink, particularly in the Bible Belt where conservative perspectives rule, and the last comment on “liberal theologies” is laughter—the marginal is also the joke. If one has been trained at an evangelical seminary, the move into adopting a different theology relegates one to the number of graduates who have either abandoned the faith or, at least doctrinally speaking, “gone astray”.

The climate continues to change, of course. Many I know are sympathetic to various theological niches, and most have lightheartedly entertained my willingness to bend, flex, and change. My move from angry Arminianism to compassionate Calvinism proved moderately difficult. Then came a more drastic change: abandoning the traditional view of eternal conscious torment for the Conditionalist/Annihilationist view, which states that, after allowing for some period of conscious punishment, those who do not belong to Christ will be completely destroyed—the utter elimination of opposition to God’s redemptive, restorative purposes. This view draws a fair amount of criticism, with some even considering the view heretical. Our family’s movement away from an Anabaptist understanding of baptism to a Presbyterian (paedobaptist) one raised a few eyebrows, but did not cause much of a stir otherwise.

My most recent exploration is quite different. Evangelical Universalism is the doctrine that all will eventually be saved, will enter into God’s kingdom because Christ paid the price for all people, every individual. Not to be confused with religious pluralism (any and all religious paths lead to God), in Evangelical Universalism there is still no salvation apart from Christ—He took on the sins of the world by dying on a cross, and was raised to life three days later, which conquered death in our place and secured the salvation of the entire world. The major difference between this and traditional belief is that Hell is a place where punishment still takes place, but for the Universalist it is restorative, corrective, purposeful; not ultimate and final. Hell still exists, but those who go there eventually see the full impact of their sin and are able to repent, praising Christ, and rejecting opposition to Him.

The doctrine of Hell is what makes this brand of Universalism evangelical: there is still reason to preach repentance here and now because Hell is not a place anyone wants to go. The objection that Universalism removes the urgency to preach the Gospel is false: if my wife is using a chainsaw in such a way that, though she won’t kill herself with it, she will cut off an arm, I would still warn her and help her use the chainsaw correctly. Just because Hell will not last forever does not mean we should cannonball into the Lake of Fire. The punishment is not the ultimate point anyway. Christ is. If our humanity functions at its best when it properly worships and obeys its Creator, then that is our task and our song regardless of whether or not punishment will result from disobedience. This objections runs the risk of making avoidance of Hell, instead of the beauty of Christ, the reason why someone should repent—the very reason why Jonathan Edwards threw away his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” after only a few preachings. He was no Universalist, but he knew the dangers of emphasizing Hell in quickening sermons instead of emphasizing Christ.

This exploration of mine has several movements that I will develop in the posts to come. Feel free to interact and ask questions as much as you wish. I have not finished this exploration, and much is at stake, but I am looking forward to the rest of the journey.

The Death of God

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When the sixth hour came, darkness fell over the whole land until the ninth hour. At the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which is translated, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they began saying, “Behold, He is calling for Elijah.” Someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed, and gave Him a drink, saying, “Let us see whether Elijah will come to take Him down.” And Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed His last. And the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. When the centurion, who was standing right in front of Him, saw the way He breathed His last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

-Mark, Chapter 15

For a religion that purports to bring joy to the world, Christianity seems preternaturally focused on death. Indeed, without the death of Jesus as God, atonement within Christian theology would be impossible. So great is this event, that Christians around the world commemorate it as “Good Friday.”

On this point, we can hopefully find no small level of agreement.

The death of God is of incredible significance for those who have moved beyond traditional religious beliefs and practices, and seek now to advance a humanistic ethic in a world where we have no benevolent deities to beg for blessings, nor tyrant gods to blame for miseries.

Humans have been commemorating the deaths of gods as far back as the Mesopotamian culture, in which the goddess Ishtar dies and ventures into the underworld, only to return days later in triumph. In the ancient Greek and Roman cultures, the goddess Persephone goes below and her return marks the beginning of Spring, as celebrated by the Eleusinian mystery cult during the time of Jesus. Among the Old English tribes, the goddess Ëastre (also called Ôstara by the Germans) represented rebirth and new life; the Christian scholar Bede noted that her name had been appropriated by Christians to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, the latest god to seek death for the benefit of humans.

Is_God_DeadThomas J. J. Altizer, writing in The Gospel of Christian Atheism, acknowledges that “the death of God is a Christian confession of faith.” However, unlike traditional Christian orthodox views of atonement, Altizer suggests that “through the events that faith knows as the Incarnation and the Crucifixion, God empties himself of his sovereignty and transcendence, and not only does this kenotic sacrifice effect the dissolution of the opposition between Father and Son in the new epiphany of God as universal Spirit, but so likewise vanishes the opposition between God and the world.” In other words, God (as Christ) actually died on Good Friday, emptying Himself into the world and collapsing any division between them. Thus, rather than viewing the world as a dark place still in rebellion against God, Altizer sees the world as filled with God, following the self-negation of His transcendence.

Though the theology of Christian atheism is not resonant for me, I appreciate its directional tack. The America we live in is increasingly hostile to God – not only explicitly, through the rise of the New Atheist movement and encroaching secularism in government, but also implicitly, through the rise of the Nones and diminishing interest in religious institutions. To be an evangelical Christian in 21st-century America is to be always on the defensive, but to be a Christian atheist in the Altizer mold is to revel in the many permutations of divine manifestations in our art, literature, and scientific achievements. The Humanist in me recognizes that, whether we realize it or not, we have become the Gods of our own overlapping Universes, and that it is incumbent on us to rise to the responsibilities we face with such a title.

In Mark 16, the followers of Christ seek his dead body, but it is gone. In the original version of the story, there is nothing more to tell; confronted by supernatural visitors, the earliest Christians disobey their directives and flee from the truth. I wonder at times if the Easter season doesn’t suffer from the typical fast-forward from Good Friday to Easter Sunday. Although trumpeting the resurrection of the god does put the Spring back in one’s step, it also resets the clock for the next iteration of the cycle, another repetition of the death and rebirth of the deity next year. Perhaps if Good Friday were punctuated, at least with a comma, but hopefully with a semicolon, Christians might reflect on the significance of the death of God in their lives, and in the lives of their Humanist friends and neighbors.

Regardless, it is my sincere hope that we all can celebrate together during this season of death and rebirth; while my Christian brothers and sisters are able to find joy in the sacrifice of the figure of Christ Jesus, my Humanist siblings are likewise jubilant at the death of God, and we embrace the necessity of sacrifice from one for each other, in the interest of advancing a human-centered ethic that benefits us all.

A very Good Friday to you, and a very happy Easter to all your friends and family that celebrate it.

Christians and Homosexuality—Part II

Historically, Christians have lost in the public arena. That is how it all began, in fact, with the greatest loss, the death of Jesus of Nazareth. His policies were not forced or voted upon to be implemented. He did not rally like-minded people for His cause. He gave up, lost, humbled himself. He loved while still proclaiming his message.

What would it cost a Christian to love without pretense? We hear of our offenses against those whom we invited to this or that social function if only to “witness” to them. Our message is so great we belie its patience and humility through our forced “boiling down” of the message and trickery. What if we gave up this battle against homosexual unions? What would it really cost us?

We tire of “the left” preaching tolerance when it seems to have tolerance only with its like-minded constituents, which is agreement, not tolerance. Yet we pretend to accept everyone with our gospel message while declaring war on them. Are we afraid that we don’t possess enough love? That God can’t love people despite their sin? Are we so sin-free that complete repentance is demanded of everyone else before we will give them an opportunity?

I want to take things a step further. What do we lose even if homosexuality is merely a preference? What battle are we really fighting? When did the gospel—allegedly our greatest responsibility—take a backseat to the issue of American citizens’ rights to homosexual civil unions? I ask because I don’t see the stand against intoxication, which is already legal. I don’t see the stand against obesity, which is already legal.

The point is not to give up and allow anything and everything. The point is to pick our battles against the right things. We are battling sin; not homosexuals. How much greater would our message of hope and love be if we conceded all the ground we feel entitled to in order to present a humble, weakened, compassionate, understanding Gospel? What impact has the gospel had in our lives that we attribute to Jesus campaigning and dividing the country on political issues? None—we proclaim his humility, his love, his willingness to die with the sinners and become one himself.

Can we still point sinful people toward the gospel? I certainly hope so. The world is sick and Jesus is its healer. Sinful people need to be pointed toward Jesus. We don’t need any more people being pointed toward homosexuals and pretending they are the enemy. We don’t need any more bad logic that says allowing homosexual unions means not preaching truthfully about sin. Do we really need to identify everyone’s individual sins before we can feel good about preaching the gospel? We are all born into sin, into a broken system. Suppose you do “fix” that gay girl or guy, what about their pride? What about their lust? What about their anger? What about their idolatry? What about their greed? Do you also need to beat them over the head about those things? Or can you stand firm in the truth of the Gospel that all are under the power of sin and all need freedom from it?

Picture this: you support homosexual unions and can tell a gay couple that you fought for their civil rights because you believe in their humanity and dignity as such; not as trickery or a “foot in the door,” but as a true display of humble love. You then let them know that you have tried to love as Jesus did, by humbling yourself even where you weren’t sure or disagreed; not to add another church-goer but because such a message of love ought to be proclaimed. You refused to dehumanize them because you love them. That is tolerance. You might have been sure that homosexual activity was sinful, but how sure were you that you needed to oppose it like you did? How sure were you that it was “the” issue it has become? How sure were you that you spent as much time sharing the gospel or sending money to impoverished people?

How much time did Jesus spend condemning people and fighting against their public rights?

How much time did Jesus spend welcoming outcasts, feeding the hungry, proclaiming hope despite sinfulness?

Christians and Homosexuality—Part I

I say “Christians and Homosexuality” instead of “Christianity and Homosexuality” or “Christ and Homosexuality” because I cannot speak on behalf of the latter two with any real confidence. I can suppose, derive, conclude, and assume; but none of those things would prove official enough. I can, however, speak on behalf of myself—a Christian—as well as on behalf of those Christians with whom I have spoken. Perhaps “Some” should go at the front of the title, but I’d like to retain enough gravity without the presumption.

Talking Past One Another

Christians who understand homosexuality as a personal preference do not understand why such a thing should carry so much weight. Of all the personal preferences humans have, why should this one make the headlines, alter legislature, or assume civil rights status?

Others, including some Christians, who understand homosexuality as equal to race or color do not understand why opponents would cite an ancient text in defense of limiting the civil rights of a group of human beings.

Do you see where we talk past one another? Both sides have a responsibility that each too infrequently assumes.

For Christians opposed to homosexual practice (as opposed to attraction without practice only) there needs to be a realization that, throughout its history, Christianity has been willing to bend and flex with science without risking biblical authority. With six years of formal exegetical training under my belt, I am fully aware of the limits within which the exegete must work. In other words, the Bible can only say so much and we can only make so much room for interpretation before we run out of textual warrant for the various interpretations we make. This does not mean that anything goes, or that anything is possible, nor that we cannot be fairly firm in our convictions about what the Bible teaches. It does mean, however, that we cannot be as reactionary. If patience is a fruit of the Spirit, our public presence should reflect that. If we are truly confident that God’s authority is behind the Bible, then we need not worry.

We need to decide what is really at stake in this discussion. I have yet to hear of such phobia, anger, outrage, and push for legislation over divorce—an infinitely more devastating problem than homosexuality could ever pose to traditional marriage. Two gay guys getting married has absolutely nothing to do with the sanctity of my marriage. It just doesn’t. Me not loving my wife like Christ loves the church? Me feeding sexual urges outside of my marriage? Where are the picketers for that? Where’s the presidential statement against that? Until I see people lined up outside of court houses protesting another divorce between two church-goers, I’ll not take seriously anyone’s “defense” of the sanctity of marriage or arguments against homosexual unions outside of those same court houses.

For others, including some Christians, defending homosexuality as a civil rights issue, please exercise patience and good judgment and take the time to actually explain things. Emotional outbursts and marches and parades certainly bring awareness and have their place; but they seldom teach anything to anyone who doesn’t already support the cause. They serve as public debates wherein the opposition hears no real argument and is given no opportunity to offer a real rebuttal. I know countless Christians, including myself, who are all-ears on this issue, waiting for good reason to overturn what was nearly universal opinion until relatively recently—that homosexuality was a merely a preference. Why? Because we strive to be people marked by love. Jesus was infinitely patient with the social outcasts of His day and we want to be just like Jesus. He also stood for things. Many things. So, we will stand where we need to while still being loving.

Christians are not bigots or homophobes for trying to be faithful to the God of the universe. If you believe that such a god exists, and act in accordance with what you think that god expects, then you are acting consistently as well as intelligently. No, really, if you think a god is “out there” and its opinion is the ultimate one and that there are consequences for siding against that god, anyone expecting you to be hypocritical about that is a fool. Granted, being faithful to God often takes forms that are anything but faithful and indeed bring shame and disgrace to the name of Jesus. But on what planet could you really lump together Billy Graham and the hateful punks of that “church” in Kansas?

That said, the argument against limiting freedom to a group of people because of their sexuality is a solid one, if indeed that sexuality is not a simple preference. If it is a simple preference, like ice cream or shoes, then it does not deserve the impact it’s having. If it does, then NAMBLA actually has a point (God forbid.) But be more proactive in educating people about the issue. Do you have solid scientific evidence that supports your view? Great! Then act consistently within the worldview to which you adhere and present your case on your terms. Holding on to what you know to be solid evidence while expecting others to bend to your emotional whims is not only irrational but ineffective. There are many who will listen, but not to nonsensical ravings. The Christian worldview has quite a history of being compatible with various philosophical systems, scientific theories, and sociological data. What would a truly “humanist” worldview look like if it promoted true tolerance and found solutions for bringing the myriad facets of humanity under one umbrella without the destructive hand-waving anger of a Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens? Anyone can be angry and exclude others; but true peacemakers appreciate the mess for what it is and work to bring the messy into the fold of the allegedly neat, which is what Jesus did.

In conclusion, each side talks past the other and both are too seldom willing to sit and listen, to actually consider the other viewpoints and maybe give a little ground here and there. Are we so committed to the “grey” areas that the only means of arriving there are “black-and-white” battles? And what if the evidence points the other way, for either side? Will that side be willing to admit a mistake? If you’re reading this and are already convinced that homosexuality is not a preference, that this is a civil rights issue, that Christians not on your side are dead wrong, how willing are you to back down if the evidence points the other way? Are you hanging your hat on evidence or on something else? As a Christian who believes in the authority of the God who somehow inspired the original words of Scripture, I’m willing to let some things go. I’m willing to admit wrong and to let God be God where I cannot be. I’m willing to let two gay guys have a wedding and get tax breaks and visit each other in the hospital. But don’t expect me to simply take your word for things, and I won’t expect you to believe the things I do.

No True Scotsman

Zach and I banter about what he calls the “No True Scotsman” defense for Christianity on account of appalling behavior by those claiming to be Christians. It goes like this: That mass-murderer calls himself a Christian, but he probably isn’t a Christian since a true Christian would not do that.

Like most issues we discuss, this has multiple layers. On the face of it, it is true that people who say they follow Jesus often do stupid, mean, or outright horrible things to other people.

How do we distinguish between those who merely call themselves Christians and those who really are Christians? In one sense, we can’t. We aren’t God so we can’t know for certain who really belongs to Christ and who doesn’t. In another sense, we can observe people’s behavior and have a fairly good idea of whether or not they are following Jesus as they ought.

The biggest indicator is repentance. Does the person have any remorse over their sin? Is it something they wrestle with and have simply lost this battle but are resolved to overcome it? Is it a sin that they are justifying? A mass-murderer is simply not someone who is following Jesus. A mass-murderer also is not in a state of overcoming their temptation and trying to not sin—by definition they are on a spree.

Usually, however, saying that someone is not a Christian comes into play when considering something like the Crusades. Anyone can take a set of Scriptures and twist it to fit whatever purpose they want. It isn’t about what the “Christian” thing to do is at that point; it’s about finding popular support for one’s ambitions—if it can be made to seem Christian enough and if the “enemy” can be portrayed as enough of a threat to God’s Kingdom, then justification and rationalization win.

I think this discussion can be more fruitful if we don’t set the goal as determining who is or is not a Christian. Since Jesus is the “author and perfecter,” we are better equipped to determine what does or does not constitute Jesus-like behavior, and leave it to God to say who belongs to Him or not.

While cliche and over-merchandized, the acronym “WWJD” is still a good question when discussing things like murderous cults and child molesters. Would Jesus murder a bunch of innocent people? Probably not. Would Jesus molest children? Definitely no. So if this or that person does things Jesus wouldn’t ever do, we can safely say that—at least at that time—they are not following Jesus. We can also safely say that a group of people acting under selfish consensus and misusing Scripture to justify horrible things is a group of people not acting Christianly. Moreover, since the Spirit works to unify believers to be more like Jesus together, then a group of people consciously acting contrary to how Jesus would act is not a group of people attentive to the Spirit’s work of unity for the purpose of being a light to the world.

So, we can stack all the cards we want against a person or a group of people, but the real point is that anyone who says they are following Jesus and acts in a way He wouldn’t is someone who—at least at that point in time—is not following Jesus.

Thermopylae and The Doubting Thomases

The Public Library is a great place to grab a few good DVDs. On my family’s most recent visit to the Rockwall Library, I found a History Channel special called Last Stand of the 300, which details the events surrounding the Spartan stand at Thermopylae during the second Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BCE.

A particular fact about these events struck me. The Greek city-states (not a unified, singular “Greece” yet) stayed away from each other for the most part. Each city-state looked after its own interests, including religious differences, and did not typically become embroiled in the affairs of others. The second Persian invasion changed that, at least for this battle. Several city-states banded together to prevent overall domination by the Persians—a force with tremendous momentum and evil intent.

Before I even finished the documentary, I texted Zach to point out the analogy between the Greek city-states and us—The Doubting Thomases. Zach and I agree on very, very little. Our presuppositions—despite a somewhat-shared realism—could not be further apart: he’s an atheist and I’m a theist. Such a difference has massive implications socially, politically, hermeneutically, and so on. The fact that we have this difference and continue to be friends is not shocking or even surprising because we’re both fairly nice people and easy to get along with. We send Christmas cards to each other. We sometimes get books for each other when we see books the other would like (Including an awesome set Zach got for me last year, which had autographs from three of my heroes: Robert M. Price, Bart Ehrman, and Daniel Wallace!) We’ve sent gifts to each other’s baby boy and occasionally even seek wisdom from one another about difficult personal matters. In short: we’re friends. Good friends (don’t correct me on that, Zach, or I’ll cry.)

What makes this partnership so fascinating is that, like the Greek city-states, we don’t share universal interests. We have our own agendas and our own views to refine and develop. We even have “battles” between us that have been known to stretch out into 65 comments on my Facebook wall. He has frustrated me a few times and I’m certain I’ve returned the favor more times than that.

What unites us is a shared sense of responsibility to use the gifts and resources we’ve been (yeah, I’ll say it) blessed with to make a difference and push back against “evil”. We both hate social injustice. We both want the world to be better for our sons. We are both disgusted by hatred, intolerance, neglect, and abuse caused by those using religion as a justification for their subconscious or conscious lust for power.

Zach has known some good Christian and otherwise religious people. I have known some good atheists and otherwise non-Christian or non-religious people. There are truths we can all agree on and there are evils we can all take up arms to battle against. We don’t have to erase what makes us unique; but we need to set aside what prevents us from growing stronger so that we can truly push back the darkness that threatens to destroy us all.