Tag Archives: universalism

Do evangelicals give Israel a free pass?

Do evangelicals give Israel get a free pass?

I was thinking about this the other day as I listened to a podcast interview in which the guest argued that the gospel Paul presents in Romans is universalistic (we should take heed, she suggested, to Paul’s repetitive use of “all” in reference to both the consequences of Adam’s sin and the effect of Christ’s death). Whenever the subject of universal salvation or reconciliation in Jesus Christ—that is, the idea that in and through Christ everyone will ultimately be saved—comes up, my mind tends to go to the strong and dismissive opposition such an idea seems to get, particularly in evangelical circles. What about judgment? What about repentance? these people wonder.

Yet it seems to me that many of these same people give the modern nation-state of Israel, on the assumption that they are are the same Israel of which the Bible speaks and for (to me) vague biblical reasons, a free pass into salvation. Israel, it seems, will be folded into the Kingdom just for being Israel, whether or not they are doing justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with God. For Israel it seems like judgment and repentance aren’t an issue, but for gentiles it certainly is.

I admit I do not pay much attention to Zionism (e.g., John Hagee) and its close associates, so perhaps I am mishearing them, but this is the impression I get.

(It occurs to me now that evangelicals also tend to think of salvation as a community thing when it comes to Israel, but an individualistic thing for everyone else.)

This is not, of course, itself an argument for universal reconciliation. This is simply to point out what seems to me, if my impressions are correct, an inconsistency in evangelical thinking about salvation.

Thy will be done (thoughts on hell inspired by a children’s story)

I started reading The Chronicles of Narnia with Madeline last week and came across an interesting passage in The Horse and His Boy.  Two things to know: The animals in Narnia are friendly and able speak, but Digory’s Uncle Andrew is unable to understand them–their voices just sound like animal sounds to him and he’s terrified of them. Uncle Andrew has a major Narnia-based economic scheme in mind and Digory wants Aslan to set him straight. Aslan has this to say:

I cannot tell that to this old sinner, and I cannot comfort him either; he has made himself unable to hear my voice. If I spoke to him, he would hear only growlings and roarings. Oh Adam’s sons, how cleverly you defend yourselves against all that might do you good! (The Horse and His Boy, 158)

There’s no question that Lewis’ theology shows up in his writing, but I couldn’t figure out what Aslan’s words reminded me of. Then I remembered: something N.T. Wright said in Surprised by Hope. This forms part of a discussion on purgatory, paradise, and hell, and Wright is writing in response to the popular (in “liberal” circles, anyway) notion of hell eventually being empty (i.e. some form of universalism).

I find it quite impossible, reading the New Testament on the one hand and the newspaper on the other, to suppose that there will be no ultimate condemnation, no final loss, no human beings to whom, as C.S. Lewis puts it, God will eventually say, “Thy will be done.” I wish it were otherwise, but one cannot forever whistle “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy” in the darkness of Hiroshima, of Auschwitz, of the murder of children and the careless greed that enslaves millions with debts not their own (Surprised by Hope, 180).

Wright goes on to suggest his own view contrary to the traditional view of hell*, saying that

one of the primary laws of human life is that you become like what you worship; what’s more, you reflect what you worship not only back to the object itself but also outward to the world around…. My suggestion is that it is possible for human beings so to continue down this road, so to refuse the whisperings of good news, all glimmers of the true light, all promptings to turn and go the other way, all signposts to the love of God, that after death they become at last, by their own effective choice, beings that once were human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all (Surprised by Hope, 182).

If I have to give a name to one of my hobby-horses, I suppose it would be “soteriology”–or at least that part of it that wonders who can be or is saved by the work of Christ (I should have written a thesis on the topic while Terry Tiessen was still the theology professor here). I suppose I would call myself a hopeful universalist. I find many of the arguments for Christian universalism quite compelling.

Christian universalism is considered by many to be a cop-out in the face of discomfort with the notion of eternal conscious torment. But I can’t help but wonder if Wright’s view isn’t exactly the same thing. Yet it will not face nearly the opposition Christian universalism does, because at least people are eternally punished in some way (why do we wnt this so much?). And not only that, it may just have less scriptural or historical basis than Christian universalism. (In fairness, in the next paragraph he does consider his view speculative.)

I am also doubtful of his reasons for rejecting universalist ideas. The horrors that he lists may make him wish that there are people beyond redemption, but it doesn’t follow that it will be so.** Just because Joe Despot did some horrendous things, it does not automatically follow that there must be some kind of eternal punishment for him.

Further, we do believe that God’s grace is sufficient to atone for even the sins Wright lists. If (hypothetically speaking) the perpetrators of these sins were to repent, under the traditional view of things, they too would be saved. It seems to me, therefore, that the horrors we see in this world don’t necessitate punishment beyond, perhaps, that suffered by Christ (but that’s another discussion).

Wright–or any of us, frankly–might not be able to imagine it otherwise, but again that doesn’t make it so.

Wright is usually pretty good letting scripture shape his views. In this case he merely alludes to his readings of the New Testament. This isn’t particularly helpful, but then these “last things” are in general speculative.

[PS. I’m not saying Wright is wrong (heh heh), just that I don’t think he’s given good reason, scripturally or otherwise, for his position.]


*I have the feeling that Wright’s view actually might have its origins in Lewis as well, but I can’t say for sure as Wright does not credit him in any way.

**Ignoring the question of at what point a sin is grave enough to warrant mentioning in this discussion.  That is, under Wright’s scheme, which sins are bad enough for us to expect eternal punishment?

(Cross-posted at I Heart Barth)

Hermeneutical trump cards

In order to produce a ‘normative’ statement out of the New Testament it is practically inevitable that one will emphasize one part of the text at the expense of the rest. This functions, at both a scholarly and a popular level, by means of elevating certain parts of the theology of the New Testament…into a ‘canon within the canon’…. This is not to say that one should not operate with some sort of inner canon: all interpreters do, whether they admit it or not, in that all come to the text with some set of questions that begin the encounter. The question then is: what should we do with this starting-point? Should we use it simply as a way in to the material, remaining conscious of its implicit bias? Or will it be used as a Procrustean bed by which to measure, and condemn, the other bits that do not fit? (N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 21-22.)

Hermeneutics is not just a question of what we do with the text. It is also about recognizing what we each bring to the text or impose on the text.

One of my papers for my hermeneutics class last semester was on the subject of infant baptism. The assignment was to take an issue that has divided our church (or the church in general) and examine the hermeneutical questions and challenges of each position. What made this paper particularly interesting and useful was that we were not to take a side on the issue, not to argue for one or the other, but simply to present the respective arguments and then examine and critique the hermeneutical issues at hand.

I chose infant baptism because I grew up in a believer baptism setting. That is, the denominations in which I participated did not practice infant baptism, but only baptized adults (or individuals beyond a certain age) who have made a personal decision to follow Christ. The denomination of which we are now a member and in which I hope to be ordained practices both infant and believer baptism.  What this means is that the child of believing parents is not automatically baptized. Instead, parents choose whether they want their child baptized or simply dedicated so that they can choose to be baptized on their own when they are older. After writing this paper, this conscience-based position seems like the sensible thing. However, pastors in our denomination are required to do both. If the parents want their child baptized, the pastor has to be willing to administer it. So this paper was a useful exercise for me.

There are a number of issues at stake in this issue, but I won’t get into all of them now, but one hermeneutical issue in particular stood out to me: giving certain verses or passages precedence over others. Among the various arguments for or against this position, there is one significant place where both sides use the same passages to argue for opposing positions: the household baptisms in Acts. The text is technically silent on the presence of infants in these household baptisms. The believer’s baptism-only side (credobaptists) argues that since infants are not specifically mentioned, they must not have been included. The infant baptism side (paedobaptists) will say that while infants are not specifically mentioned in the text, a household would by definition and in all likelihood have included infants.  In this instance, both sides are using the silence of the text to argue for their position. In other words, the Bible itself nowhere else explicitly states whether there were or were not infants included in these household baptisms. The interpreter has to make a hermeneutical decision as to how to approach these texts and “outside” (that is, from other parts of scripture or theology) influences inevitably come into play.

Of course, both sides have ways of supporting their position by drawing on other Biblical texts which indirectly relate. The credobaptist, however, will say something like this: “Every instance of individual baptism in Acts is preceded by belief/decision, so it follows that the same happened in the household baptisms.”  This is where it gets interesting. Here’s how I put it in my paper:

The question must be asked…whether the cases of believer baptism and the cases of household baptism are to be understood in the same way.  Is it reasonable to set a pattern for baptism that runs straight through both individual baptisms and household baptisms? Should the clear cases of individual believer baptism be given hermeneutical precedence so [that] they define the parameters of the more ambiguous household baptism passages? The believer’s baptisms are clearly dealing with adults, so it is not clear how they apply to the baptism of infants…

We do this sort of thing all the time, of course.  We use the passages that support our current position to smother the passages that seem to suggest something else. We are not comfortable living with the tensions of scripture. We like everything to be smooth and unambiguous, so we either overpower contrary texts  with the texts that support our position or ignore the contrary texts altogether.

But there’s no good reason that I can see for doing this sort of thing.  This is an example of what Wright calls “a canon within the canon”. We give certain texts more heremeneutical power than others, and it’s usually the passages which support our current position.  It looks kind of like this:

Paedobaptist: I think the household baptisms may at the very least allow for the possibility of infant baptisms.

Credobaptist: Every instance of an individual getting baptized in Acts shows clear personal commitment to the way of Christ.  So, I don’t think so.

Somehow, we think that simply naming the supporting texts is enough to deal with the contrary texts. But there’s no real reason for this.  The same thing will happen with many other issues. Christian universalism is a subject that I keep returning to.  It seems to me that the “hell passages” have been given trump powers over passages which may hint at something else or beyond.  So the conversation may look like this:

Universalism: I think the New Testament certainly allows for the possibility for universal reconciliation. Take, for instance, Paul’s writing about Christ dying once for all and Christ being the new Adam who does the sin of the first Adam.

Exclusivism: Yeah, but the New Testament has all sorts of references to hell and judgement.  So, I don’t think so.

End of discussion. But this kind of trump move is hermeneutical dishonesty.

Universalism defined

Perhaps I’ve done this before, but this kind of thing develops over time.  I was thinking about this post on the way home from class this morning and started thinking about the definition of the universalism I refer to from time-to-time on this blog.  There isn’t just one universalism; there are many.  What I am talking about is specifically Christian universalism.  By way of comparison, let me reduce the universalisms to two:

1.  Universalism (or perhaps General Universalism): everyone is “saved” regardless of their beliefs, faith or religious affiliation.  This is a kind of pluralism or relativism of sorts, because every way is a valid way to salvation.  Of course, what salvation means in this context is uncertain, because each faith system will have their own vision of what that might be (and “salvation” may not even be an appropriate term for certain belief-systems) — whether it be nirvana or heaven or simply ceasing to exist altogether or nothing.  So, in a way, all ways are valid ways, but all ways are also non-ways, because none of it really matters and the result is uncertain.

2.  Christian universalism (or, perhaps, Universalism in Christ): everyone is saved regardless of their beliefs, faith or religious affiliation (so far it’s the same as General Universalism) through Christ (that’s the clincher).  The key element in Christian universalism is that the saving agent is still Christ (and “salvation” is meant specifically in Christian terms)–Christ’s work is effective for all people (which is the orthodox belief) regardless of belief (the universalist distinctive).  I suppose you might say that Christian Universalism takes the Bible very seriously when it says that every knee will bow before Christ and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord (assuming I’m understanding the intent of those passages correctly — Phil 2:8-11; Isaiah 45:23; Rom. 14:11)

This might sound coercive–you mean everyone will be *forced* to worship Jesus?–but that’s not the case.  The argument goes that when faced with the crucified and risen Christ we will not wish to do anything other than worship him–rather like being presented with a convincing, irrefutable argument in a debate, except that we wouldn’t stubbornly or pridefully refuse to admit it, as we might in a debate.  It will be a willing confession of lordship when the risen Christ is met.

If you think about it, Christian universalism is essentially theologically identical to your standard orthodox soteriology (if I may insert a fancy theological term for “the study of salvation”) with this one exception: that the best before date, if you will, is extended to beyond death to the culmination of all things.  Note that everyone will confess Jesus as Lord–they are not saved in spite of confession someone or something else as lord, but everyone will willingly confess specifically Jesus as lord (or, to put it in the terminology with which I was brought up, everyone will choose, willingly, to say the “Sinner’s Prayer”, although I don’t personally like that approach or terminology anymore).

Now this second definition–Universalism through Christ– just my (working) definition of the term universalism, as I use it on this blog.  This isn’t any kind of “official” definition, but one I’ve cobbled together.  (And it doesn’t address the issue of what this means for Christ’s command to make disciples.)

Bonhoeffer. Bart. (von) Balthasar. (B)universalism.

I read this in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics the other day:

There is no part of the world, no matter how lost, no matter how godless, that has not been accepted by God in Jesus Christ and reconciled to God. (67)

Hints of universalism, perhaps?  No.  Bonhoeffer makes a clear statement about the need for salvation and his active participation in the plot to kill Hitler is not a natural outcome, I don’t think, of a universalist theology (or is it?).  But interesting nonetheless.

This was discussed in class.  What Bonhoeffer is getting at is that Christ is already in the world.  To borrow directly from my professor, the church’s mission isn’t to bring the Light to the world, as it if somehow possessed the Light; the Light is already in the world, and the church responds to it worship (and thereby also points to it).

Bonhoeffer goes on:

…in the body of Christ all humanity is accepted, included, and borne, and…the church-community of believers is to make this known to the world by word and life.  This means not being separated from the world, but calling the world into the community…of the body of Christ to which the world in truth already belongs. (67)

That still has the ring of universalism about it.  Or at least near-universalism.  So close, in fact, you wonder why it isn’t.

But I digress.

I read tonight in William C. Placher’s Narratives of a Vulnerable God the following in a discussion about interfaith dialogue, pluralism and expressing disagreement with other faiths:

Two of the theologians in our century most unbending about the errors of other faiths, Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar, also entertained at least a strong hope for universal salvation.  Barth believed that we could at least hope that all could be saved, since we cannot imagine that anyone could hold out against the reality of what one already is in Christ.  What crucially distinguishes Christians is that we already know the good news. (123)

That will, naturally, sound terribly arrogant to some, but it makes sense in the context of what Placher is saying (I may post about that later).  But do you see the similarities between Barth’s (paraphrased) words and the words of Bonhoeffer?   All this was mostly to say that there is a surprising amount of overlap and interrelation and (unwitting) dialogue (not about universalism, though) between the various things I’ve been reading so far this semester.  Bonhoeffer. Placher. Yoder. Fascinating.

Also, though, universalism (or at least the hope for it) isn’t the Brad-Pitt-in-12-Monkeys of theology.  Or maybe it is.

Back to reading.

Stick in the spokes of grace

A cartoon by nakedpastor:



One of the appeals of Christian universalism* is that it allows God’s redemptive work in and through Jesus to be much broader than we have traditionally allowed–it sees God’s grace reaching as far as he desires, which is to everyone (see 2 Peter 3:9).

The traditional view of eternal punishment in hell for some (many? most?) seems, on the face of it, to be kind of like a stick in the spokes on the bicycle of God’s redemptive work.  God desires everyone saved, but there’s a catch and there’s apparently nothing God can (or will?) do about it.

I don’t presume to know scripture well enough and certainly don’t understand God nearly well enough to to have any sort of answer on this, but I continue to ponder it, because there seems to be a disconnect in scripture between God’s intentions and the actual outcome (as per the traditional view).

*Nakedpastor is not necessarily endorsing a Christian universalist worldview with this cartoon.

On justice and judgment

From Andre:

A further thought on justice – because it’s on my mind and is integral to understanding judgment:

Traditional Hell is not justice. It is merely torture to no end. The biblical idea of justice does not mean punishment to no end – it means making things right. It is restorative. The notion of restoration does not proceed from human thinking but has come to us through the expression of God’s character. Only God has to the power to truly make everything right, and he has promised that he will. Punishment that is not restorative is not a godly notion, but a human one. Anyone can do it. But in Christ, who neither condemned the woman caught in adultery, nor the schemers who dragged her before him, we have been shown a better way. Conviction and return to God are better than condemnation and destruction. (link)

Interestingly, I was reading Elizabeth Achtemeier’s Preaching the Hard Texts of the Old Testament tonight and she mentioned that the Hebrew word used for “judge” is also often used for “save”.  There may be some correlation there, though I realize in Greek (the language of the New Testament) it might be a different story.


(Incidentally, the quote above was tacked on the end of a good review of Gregory MacDonald’s The Evangelical Universalist, which I have yet to finish reading.  That’s what I get for all the browsing I do.)

(And one of these days I’ll post something original.)

You become what you worship

This is what N.T. Wright has to say about final judgment in Surprised by Hope (the book to which the author quoted in the last post was responding):

. . . I believe [the following possibility] does justice to both the key texts and to the realities of human life of which, after a century of horror mostly dreamed up by human beings, we are now all too well aware.  When human beings give their hearfelt allegiance to and worship that which is not God, they progressively cease to reflect the image of God.  One of the primary laws of human life is that you become like what you worship; what’s more, you reflect what you worship not only back to the object itself but also outward to the world around.  Those who worship money increasingly define themselves in terms of it and increasingly treat other people as creditors, debtors, partners, or customers, rather than as human beings.  Those who worship sex define themselves in terms of it (their preferences, their practices, their past histories) and increasingly treat other people as actual or potential sexual objects.  Those who worship power define themselves in terms of it and treat other people as either collaborators, competitors, or pawns.  These and many other forms of idolatry combine in a thousand ways, all of them damaging to the image-bearing quality of the people concerned and of those whose lives they touch.  My suggestion is that it is possible for human beings so to continue down this road, so to refuse all whisperings of good news, all glimmers of the true light, all promptings to turn and go the other way, allsignposts to the love of God, that after death they become at last, by their own effective choice, beings that once were human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all.  With the death of that body in which they inhabited God’s good world, in which the flickering flame of goodness had not been completely snuffed out, they pass simultaneously not only beyond hope but also beyond pity.  There is no concentration camp in the beautiful countryside, no torture chamber in the palace of delight.  Those creatures that still exist in an ex-human state, no longer reflecting their maker in any meaningful sense, con no longer excite in themselves or others the natural sympathy some feel even for the hardened criminal.  (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, pp. 182-3)

Another interesting perspective.  I suspect, however, that this is more speculative even than some would consider Universalism to be.

(It also, incidentally, makes me think of something from a fantasy novel.  First I thought of Gollum, but that wasn’t right.  Then I settled on Ringwraiths.

Oh, and by the way, whenever I say “fantasy novel”, I mean “a book by J. R. R. Tolkien”.)

Then neither do I condemn you.

I haven’t touched the subject of Christian Universalism in a while, but I came across some interesting thoughts a couple of weeks ago, which I have been meaning to post.  Once again, even if we don’t believe that scripture supports a Christian Universalist perspective, it is fair to say that hoping for and desiring universal salvation is Biblical. To that end, I continue to read hopefully on the subject.

The Evangelical Universalist links to a post written specifically in response to N.T. Wright’s views on hell, particularly as discussed in Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (as I recall, Wright dedicated maybe 3 pages to the subject of hell).  The writer (Dan) has this to say, which does not require a knowledge of Wright or his works:

. . . given Wright’s emphasis upon the biblical narrative, I’m a little surprised that he doesn’t think (or at least doesn’t say) that the salvation of all might be just the sort of “surprise” that fits rather well within the trajectory of that narrative. Despite the Old Testament material that shows us that the Gentiles would be also be welcomed into the Kingdom of God, the offer of the inclusion still came as a surprise to many in the days of Jesus and Paul. Of course, in retrospect, we 21st-century Christians can see how that inclusion fits the story rather well. I can’t help but wonder if a similar surprise awaits us. Given the hints that exist within the Scriptures, we might also see the inclusion of all people in the consummation of the Kingdom.

. . . I can’t help but think of the scenario in Jn 8.1-11 involving the woman caught in adultery. I wonder, if at the moment of judgment, once we have been fully confronted with both our own sinfulness, our own complicity in the broader structures of sin, and the ways in which those who sinned against us have been sinned against, if what will result is similar to what happens to the woman. In 1 Cor 6.2, Paul tells us that the saints will judge the world. I wonder if this means that God will say “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone.” I wonder then, if we are unable to throw stones, if God will also say to those being judged, “then neither do I condemn you. Come now and leave your life of sin.” (Link)

Interesting thought, no?

*The* Evangelical Universalist

You’ll recall a year and a half ago I did a series of posts on the first couple of chapters of Gregory MacDonald’s The Evangelical Universalist (1, 2, 3, 4, 4.1, 5, 6). Unfortunately, I lack blogging-through-books stamina and never got past the sixth post, which finished off his argument from logic for Christian universalism. I stalled before reaching MacDonald’s scriptural argument for Christian universalism and I haven’t read any further in the book since then. (I feel bad about this, as the author was kind enough to answer some of my questions about the topic by email.)

I fully intend on completing the book (reading and blogging) at some point. In the mean time, Graham just informed the blogosphere that Gregory MacDonald has started the Evangelical Universalist blog. Check it out!

It’s an interesting subject and not one that should be dismissed without consideration.

My question is simply that if we have a fellow evangelical believer who thinks in all honesty that Scripture is consistent with his universalism then, if that universalism is not a threat to any creedal beliefs or central gospel affirmations, can we exclude him from the fold? Can he not be treated simply as an evangelical who we think is mistaken about the possibility of redemption from hell? Can he not be treated with the same tolerance Arminians and Calvinists have for each other? This need not mean that we avoid arguing about the topic but simply that we see it as an argument taking place within evangelicalism. (Link)