Room for the Universal

“If others go to Hell, I will go too. But I do not believe that; on the contrary, I believe that all will be saved, myself with them—something which arouses my deepest amazement.”

–Søren Kierkegård

My theological and exegetical training afford me myriad tools with which to address the question of Universal Salvation. The expectation amongst many of my friends is that I will put forth clear, black-and-white interpretations of the Bible, replete with conservatism-friendly apologetical strategies that play properly into our agreed upon dialectic.

A recent gathering of some Houston and Dallas friends for a short summit on the topic of Universal Salvation all but destroyed such a strategy from my plan, and here’s why: we all realized that anyone can play that game. The appropriation of this or that text to suit my theological needs is not going to settle the matter for me or anyone else, because we don’t make theological decisions that way. Certainly, we want to treat the Bible fairly, giving it enough of its own voice as we can, working hard to ensure that our philosophical and theological desires don’t interfere with our interpretations; but how successful are we at doing this?

What highlights this problem very well is asking the question itself: Is Universal Salvation a live option for Christians? The most accommodating response I received thus far has been a smirk, with a head toss, followed by a “I don’t know, man…that’s a tough one.” Other responses range from “Does it really matter? Just follow Jesus.” to “There’s no way, and here are all the reasons John Piper knows that can’t possibly be what God would ever do.” It wasn’t until I visited my summit friends that I heard more than one person admit the possibility. One thing on which we all agreed: you can read nearly any salvation text in a Universalist way, giving a perfectly reasonable interpretation, and being justified in doing so. The summit was set up so that I defended the Universalist view, while a good friend argued against it. He had made up his mind beforehand, but even he admitted that things were not as cut-and-dry as he previously thought. Questions were raised that stumped all of us, and we could not give a good reason why Universalism should not be a live option for any and all Christians.

Indeed, I have yet to hear a good reason why not. Every person who has had a ready-made answer thought they said something novel, made an objection no one had thought of before, and had an emotional reaction to the very idea. But why? What is so objectionable? The problem with deciding beforehand is difficult enough to swallow, but to have such a strong reaction against the idea raises another very troubling issue: why do we seem so opposed to Universal Salvation? It’s one thing to say, “You know, I wish it were true that everyone went to heaven when they died, I just don’t see it in the text; but I’m willing to change my mind in light of better evidence” and another to say, “No way. There’s no way. That’s heresy, and it’s not biblical, and it’s spitting in Jesus’ face.”

So, before we even consider the texts, the philosophical arguments, the theological discursive strategies, we need to decide if we’re willing to have our minds changed. If not, then there’s no point moving forward. If not, I’d really love to hear a good reason why not. What are we so afraid of? What do we really lose if we change our minds? Can we imagine that there might be more to gain than to lose?

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.

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.