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.

Revisiting the Problem of Evil…Again

The problem of evil constantly occupies my thoughts. So much of theological reflection takes place within the emotional effects of reality; its practical import never escapes me and I fail to understand how so many Christians draw such a sharp distinction between theology and practice. These thoughts about evil have a direct impact on how we see things, how we treat people, how we handle the troubling things that happen to us and the rest of the world. Theological appropriation for the religious person is paramount.

While vacuuming my house today, I dwelled on the thought that if evil is the strongest argument against God’s existence, then God’s existence must be the strongest argument against the problem of evil. Maybe. If this life is not the whole story, if justice comes, if somehow all of the suffering proves to have been worth it, then that means evil does not ultimately prevail. Believe me: I tend to side with Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov and say that I would give that ticket back—the kind of suffering humanity has experienced can’t possibly be worth any compensation, can it? I suppose on certain levels the idea seems reasonable enough. Nasal congestion, pets dying, minor surgeries, bumps and bruises, even death at the end of a long life. But we all can think of myriad events and situations that offer an insurmountable case against any metaphysical compensation.

Christians speak of a hope that we can scarcely imagine: living on the new earth that God will create, in His presence, without evil or trial. We will have the “benefit” of having endured all the suffering, which indeed shapes us, yet living freely without fear or anxiety. Therein lies the appeal of universal salvation, at least for me. I have already done away with any notion that infants, the mentally handicapped, or any other person incapable of “making a decision for Christ” will undergo any kind of judgment. If God is all-loving and all-just then what possible reason would we have to think He could find an infant deserving of the same condemnation as Hitler? I’m familiar with the possible answers and, frankly, they all suck. They don’t actually answer the question. If you find yourself in a hospital with a mother who has just lost her child, you’re a monster if you give her anything less than hope that her baby is snuggled up with Jesus and waiting for her mommy to join her “soon and very soon.”

I followed Jesus for years before I became aware of the problem of evil. My most basic response then, as it is now, was “But that’s not the whole story.” The last twelve years have realized a persistent revisitation of the problem. Because of my insistence that theology directly impacts my life and ought to do the same for any Christian, I don’t find theological answers to this problem proving themselves utterly useless; indeed, the hope that my beautiful baby boy is loved by the God who created him supports my own weak love. When daddy fails him, when it seems like daddy doesn’t love him, he is loved on the deepest level with the unfailing love of the God who lovingly knit him for His own glory. Imperfections and all, babies belong to the Lord and I believe He is faithful to restore them.

I don’t know what that means. I don’t know what that looks like. I don’t know if every parent is reunited. I don’t know how the future will make up for the past and for now. Many days I don’t care how or why and I don’t believe anything can be compensated for. But I won’t hang up my hat. The irony presented by the problem of evil lies in the fact that it asks me to sacrifice what I now know for what is not a reality for me. When we shake our fists at the sky over what happens to others, we don’t abandon our families over it. Other evil is not my evil to endure in the same way, (and I think both sides of this debate do an awful disservice to those who have and are suffering by making them object lessons.) I don’t live less thankfully for my own child when someone is devastated by the tragic loss of theirs. Please understand, I’m weeping as I write this because I’ve seen what it looks like for a family to lose their child. I hate it with every fiber of my being. It utterly baffles me why God would allow such a thing in silence (which is perhaps a lesson to us theologians and to the apologists who venture “the answer” when even God won’t reach down in the darkest times and offer a whisper for a crushed family.) But whether religious or not, the response of every witness who has their own child is to squeeze that child even tighter and sigh grateful sighs that they still have their child. I just can’t hug my boy and not be grateful.

The suffering of others has set up camp in the center of my mind. I beg for an answer. I pray angrily sometimes and ask, “What are you doing?!” I’ve nearly abandoned my faith because of it on several occasions. But intellectual honesty and integrity don’t allow me to abandon the reality of the fact that I have been spared, and that the hope I have was given to me as a gift that I did not originally want, and that it circulates throughout my being with the same blood and along the same pathways as the hope I have for others. I don’t abandon that hope for others because as badly as I want their suffering to end, I want to give them hope. I want to comfort the dying child in his hospital bed. Russell may not have been able to believe in God after seeing that child, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to punt when that child asks me if she is going to heaven.

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.

An Atheist in Heaven

John’s post about Universal Salvation got me thinking about Heaven. And that even if I were to hope that all people are ultimately saved, maybe I don’t really want to be if Heaven is the destination.

“Heaven” is one of the most ubiquitous religious concepts, yet remains nearly as nebulous as the concept of “Hell.” In the Western tradition, Heaven served simply as the domain of the deities, which mortals were unable to access unless they were particularly pious or virtuous (e.g., Elijah, Herakles, the Mahdi). As an optional (positive) destination within the afterlife, Heaven was linked more closely with the underworld than the mystery beyond the clouds, such as the Greek concept of the Elysian Fields. Eastern versions of Heaven were mysterious realms full of supernatural agents, the spirits of ancestors, and the source of divine rule.

The Bible mentions Heaven infrequently, and provides the only clear description in the 21st chapter of the Revelation of John. There, Heaven is presented as a new version of the city of Jerusalem, except constructed almost entirely of gold and jewels. The Revelator further describes the New Jerusalem as being centered on worship of Jesus Christ:

I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. And the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. In the daytime (for there will be no night there) its gates will never be closed; and they will bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it; and nothing unclean, and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

The conception of Heaven that most appeals to me is what C.S. Lewis imagined for the completion of his Narnia series, “The Last Battle.” Lewis’ Heaven is really nothing more than a rebooted version of the world we already know, minus all pain and suffering.

And that sounds nice to me, admittedly. I suppose that if there is a God who exercises his prerogative to extend universal salvation, that’s the best possible outcome that I could imagine. But I doubt that I could extend my appreciation, least of all my worship. For if a version of the world we know now without pain and suffering is within the control of a God, why not just reboot the system now and install the upgrade? If universal salvation is truly a viable option, then any delay is unnecessary cruelty.

As an atheist in Heaven, I can imagine my shock and surprise giving way not to a deep and abiding sense of gratitude, but rather to a bitter disappointment. Perhaps the more humane option really is something like Annihilationism, which would at least spare virtuous atheists the agony of an unending moral despondency.

Wanting Universal Salvation To Be True

Too many of us professing to be Christians get caught up in discussions over who will and will not end up in heaven. To some degree this is warranted: the Bible does have a lot to say about salvation. Jesus drew a bunch of lines and had people on both sides of those lines. My purpose here isn’t to argue for Universal Salvation. Nor is it to argue with John Piper fan-boys who want to make the issue irrelevant without first exegeting as much as possible using a redemptive-historical hermeneutic. I care about the text, but I care more about something else right now: who we think we are and what warrant we think we have to play Duck-Duck-Damned.

Christians—all Christians—should want the doctrine of Universal Salvation to be true. That want is not irrelevant, nor is it a distinct issue from “what the text actually says.” To want such a thing is to hope that Love indeed conquers all, that evil does not win out in any way, that we can still preach a specific Gospel of repentance and necessary faith in Christ while leaving eschatological issues aside. We tend too often to blend in our “non-essentials” with our “essentials.” I think it’s true that apart from Christ mankind is hopeless—the text is clear on that point. What is not as clear is whether Christ’s atonement extends past the end of people’s lives now. Indeed, the Israelites who died before Christ died without an explicit faith in Christ are not lost. God’s people are God’s people regardless of when.

What I’ve just said is not an argument for Universal Salvation. It is an argument for relaxing a bit and realizing that we are not as sure as we think we are. I paid my seminary dues and I get to talk with guys who have just started seminary. Many sound as sure as I sounded when I started. After four years I’m much less sure about a lot of issues where grey areas exist, where Scripture is either not so clear or textually suspect. I don’t care if I can create a nice, coherent systematic theology. I don’t have anything against that; I just don’t care to go that route. I’d rather be heterodox but consistent in how I approach and interpret the text without having to gerrymander Scripture to get my interpretation to fit into the fabled “historical faith.”

So what do I do with these grey areas and unclear texts? I keep searching. But I also keep thinking about how to love people and love God. If I want any person to receive my love wholeheartedly it’s God. What that means is that I’m willing to give God the benefit of the doubt and preach a Gospel of repentance because that much is very clear. But to speculate on who is saved and who isn’t is playing God. Playing God doesn’t seem like a very loving thing to do to God. Adam and Eve learned that the hard way (didn’t we all?)

“So we can’t talk about who’s saved and who isn’t?” No, we can’t. Our business is to proclaim Christ and to love. “But how will we know who to preach to?” Easy: don’t pick and choose but be authentic with everyone you meet. Leave the rest up to the only One who actually knows what he’s talking about. We don’t do God or people any justice by deciding for God or them what their destiny is. We also expose the nastiness of our heart when we respond so negatively to the idea of Universal Salvation. We should pray that it is the case. Why? Because if you believe you’ve been saved by God from something terrible, then you are a cold-hearted person to want anything less than the same for anyone and everyone whom you (ought to) believe is in the same sinful boat you were and are. Reformata et semper reformanda.