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?

A Universal Solution

“And Yahweh restored Job’s condition, while Job was interceding for his friends. More than that, Yahweh gave him double what he had before.”

Job 43:10, NJB

 

“For just as in Adam’s wake all die, so in Christ’s wake shall all be restored to life.”

1 Corinthians 15:22, PNT

saddam_heaven

Looking forward to spending eternity with Mormons and dictators? Yeah, me too.

More than anything else, the doctrine of Hell reverberates throughout the Christian cultural experience, destabilizing the foundations of a religion that purportedly seeks to elevate the God of Love. As a young child, the calculus was laughably simple; the worst place and the worst fate imaginable were the inevitable consequence of rejecting the gracious offer of the smiling felt-board Jesus, and so of course anyone would do anything possible to avoid the realm of H-E-double hockeysticks. So obvious, I thought it was, that I truly could not imagine anyone being aware of this situation and not reaching desperately for Christ’s outreached hand.

As I grew older, I became aware of non-Christians around me, and though I could not muster the evangelistic spirit to dialogue with them, it became apparent to me through my understanding of Christian theology that they were bound for a balmy clime. I’ve spoken with other Christians and apostates who reflect back on similar realizations and note their adolescent horror, their growing metaphysical anxiety when the fates of their unbelieving friends and family were made apparent. I felt no such trepidation, although I can recall a deadening of my empathy for those who rejected the Blood of the Lamb. They weren’t deserving of His Grace, I told myself, they were sinners and reprobates who warranted punishment, regardless of my personal esteem. I didn’t feel sorry for them because I couldn’t, and so I couldn’t care less. It wasn’t the first time that my Calvinist upbringing inspired apathy, and it wasn’t the last.

Though my apostasy wasn’t a rebellion against these moral strictures, it did allow me the freedom to reexamine the theological assumptions of my youth. Reading the sacred scriptures now without devotional context was a transformative experience. Suddenly the Fall was evacuated of its moral urgency, and Paul’s insistence of its salvific repercussions seemed like an exercise in analogy-stretching at best. My development as a freethinking atheist since then has led me to make light of this “pernicious doctrine,” to point out the fractures it makes in the foundations of Christian theology, and when necessary, to use it to publicly beat Christians about the head and neck. Some of these are adversaries who, like apologist Matt Slick, are comfortable enough with it that my blows rain down with all the ferocity of styrofoam. Others, like my friend John, live their lives at Peniel, the noise of my criticisms deafened by their own.

Annihilationism is one proposed solution to the problem of Hell, traditionally a minority view although advocated now by liberal Christians like Greg Boyd:

While more attractive than eternal torment (what’s a couple thousand years of excruciating pain between friends?), this solution still insists on punishment for its own sake, without hope of redemption or restoration. I suppose that the saints and angels would be able to take some solace from the expectation that after some undetermined number of aeons the crackling of reprobate skin and sulfurous smoke of imperishable flame will cease to provide a pleasing smell to the heavens, and they can enjoy their Kool-Aid and harp music in peace. But what a waste!

Universalism provides the goal that annihilationism avoids: restoration of the reprobate to full communion with Christ. Though the scriptural support for this position is sufficiently weak (or sufficiently challenges orthodoxy) to bring charges of heresy against Christians like Rob Bell who tread close to its edge (or dip a toe), it should be noted that it largely neuters the criticisms that freethinkers have levied against the doctrine of Hell for centuries. I say “largely” because it does not dismiss this concept altogether, nor does it quench the flames and dull Satan’s trident. Indeed, these tortures now become corrective, instrumental, and necessary for the restoration of the sinners through the Grace of God.

I don’t know how my theology would have developed had I remained a believing Christian. It’s possible that I may have entrenched my traditional Calvinism, smothered my empathy, and focused only on the glory and sovereignty of God. I suppose it’s also possible that I may have moved in the same direction as John, although I hesitate to give myself that much credit; Christianity has not historically been kind to the heterodox. As a freethinking atheist and a Humanist, I’m still confronted by the moral failure of the Abrahamic god, and I don’t know that I could in good conscience accept the offer of Universal salvation even if extended. Despite the lowered gate of Heaven, I would still be one of those that walked away.

“It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only that I most respectfully return Him the ticket.”

Dyostoevsky, The Brothers Karamozov

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.

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.