Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Damned Nonsense! Post #6: How about Universalism?

This post is part of the Damned Nonsense! series, a collection of posts exploring the Christian doctrine of salvation. It is named after a dissertation by Ravi Holy entitled "Damned Nonsense: An Argument for Universalism Consisting of a Critique of All the Alternatives to It." While some of the series' content is adapted from Holy's work, not all opinions expressed in this series are Holy's. Please check out all the posts in this series!

In today's post I'd like to put forth the basic support for Universalism. Admittedly, this post may seem a bit underwhelming for some readers. I say this for a few reasons.  First, I have already presented a lot of support
for Universalism in the form of arguments against Calvinsism, Arminianism, Annihilationism, Lewisim, and Original Sin (see posts 1-5).  Second, I will not deal with hell in today's post. That will be in post #'s 7 and 8. Third, the reader may be looking for something that does not exist, that is, a flawless argument for Universalism. I have noticed that many skeptics of Universalism expect its proponents to offer some kind of clear-cut answer to 'prove' that it is undeniably true. This is unfortunate and I can tell you that you will not find 'proof' in this blog series. The point is not for universalism to "win the day," but to lose its false caricature as heresy. Whether or not you discover enough material to consider Universalism as a hopeful alternative to the traditional views is up to you and God. At the end of the day, I simply wish to put forward some good thoughts on this topic and allow you the reader to explore. So let's get to it.

I concluded yesterday's post on 'Original Ungrace" with this: 

If grace is grace, and if there is nothing we can do to make God love us more or less, than how is it that some end up in heaven and others in hell? It would seem that there are only two options. Option 1: Those who end up in hell are not wanted by God (Calvinism).  Option 2: Those who end up in hell did not do their part to receive their "free grace" (Arminianism). Or maybe there is an option 3? 
Option 3 is, of course, Universalism. More specifically, option 3 is the belief that nobody remains in hell forever because the God who desires all to be saved has given pure grace to all through Christ and will therefore save all. Thus, the major point that I want to put forward in today's post is that Universalism hinges upon two biblical/orthodox claims about God: 1) God desires the salvation of all. 2) God is sovereign.

In the book
Universal Salvation? The Current Debate, the Calvinist theologian Daniel Strange writes that "Talbott is indeed correct that if Christ died for everyone then everyone will be saved," (p.160, original italics). Contrary to Calvinism and Arminianism, this is exactly what Universalism champions. Christ died for all and therefore all will be saved. Let us therefore begin by examining where Universalists find support for the claim that Christ died for all.

As with any theology rightly to be named
Christian, they begin with the Gospels' witness to the Incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth (Heb. 1:3). Firstly, let us ask if there is any indication that the God revealed by Jesus desires the salvation of all. In his life and ministry Jesus actively pursued those who were "lost" and "un-elect" (e.g. Matt. 9:9-13; Mark 5:24-34; Luke 6:27-29, John 4:7ff). One does not have to read very far into the Gospels to see that Jesus reveals a God who desires the inclusion of all and sundry. In a series of parables Jesus compares God to a shepherd who pursues a lost sheep until he finds it; to a woman who pursues a lost coin until she finds it; and to a father who breaks social norms, forgives beyond measure, and embraces his lost son because he has been found (Luke 15)! Jesus himself referred to his ministry as the year of radical debt-forgiveness (Luke 4:19) and his own death as the means to "draw all men" to himself (John 12:32). Because of this Universalists believe that Jesus unequivocally desires the salvation of all.

In addition to the four gospels, the New Testament conveys a God who desires all to be saved. The support for this is found explicitly in Acts 3:21, 1 Tim. 2:1-4, 4:10, 2 Peter 3:9; and implicitly in Rom. 11:32; 1 Cor. 15:28; 2 Cor. 5:13-19; Eph. 1:7-10; 1 John 2:2 and many others (you get the point). Universalists interpret the New Testament as communicating a strong witness to God's desire to save all.

At this point Universalists are still in good company. Many people believe that God desires the salvation of all. What separates Universalists from others is that they actually believe that God will achieve the salvation of all. This belief is rooted in the second orthodox claim: God is sovereign. This claim needs little defense because it is the presupposition of most Christian theology: if God is God, then God achieves God's purposes. (Process theology presents a slightly different view of God's sovereignty, but that is another blog series entirely!)

However, in addition to the claim that God is sovereign and therefore achieves what God wills, Universalists find evidence in the New Testament that God actually achieved the salvation of all in the Christ Event (the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus).  I'm trying not to proof text too much, but the following are among several passages that are used to support this view:
  • Romans 5:18 - Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.
  • Romans 11:32 - For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.
  • 2 Cor. 5:18-19 - All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.
  • Col. 1:19-20 - For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
  • 1 John 2:2 - He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
  • 1 Tim. 2:6 - Christ Jesus "gave himself as a ransom for all men"
  • Heb. 2:9 - Jesus tasted "death for everyone"
In other words, Universalists answer the question "Did Christ die for all?" with a "Yes." Not everyone agrees with this view. John Piper, for example, has written on the limited nature of Christ's atonement in several places such as here. Nevertheless, Universalism proposes that the death and resurrection of Christ is the ontological event of God's salvation of all. As I understand it, the Christ Event is the eschatological judgment and salvation of all of humankind. This is why the resurrection is the beginning of the New Creation, the eschatological beginning of the New Age. (This is how I *personally* understand the New Testament at this point in time) 

Though not a Universalist himself, N.T. Wright seems to agree with Universalism that the Christ Event is efficacious for the whole world:

"There [in Romans 8], Paul outlines and celebrates the hope that one day the entire cosmos will have its own great exodus, its liberation from bondage to decay. The point is this: the covenant between God and Israel was always designed to be God's means of saving the whole world. It was never supposed to be the means whereby God would have a private little group of people who would be saved while the rest of the world went to hell (whatever you might mean by that). Thus, when God is faithful to the covenant in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and in the work of the Spirit, it makes nonsense of the Pauline gospel to imagine that the be-all and end-all of this operation is so that God can have another, merely different private little group of people who are saved while the world is consigned to the cosmic wastepaper basket." (from What Saint Paul Really Said, 163-164)

It seems that the church father St. Athanasius interpreted the Christ Event similarly: "For He alone, being Word of the Father and above all, was in consequence both able to recreate all, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be an ambassador for all with the Father. ...For this reason, therefore, He assumed a body capable of death, in order that it, through belonging to the Word Who is above all, might become in dying a sufficient exchange for all, and, itself remaining incorruptible through His indwelling, might thereafter put an end to corruption for all others as well, by the grace of the resurrection." (from The Incarnation of the Word)

Theologian Jürgen Moltmann is, in fact, a Universalist and claims that "the realistic consequence of the theology of the cross can only be the restoration of all things." According to Moltmann "Christ 'suffered the true and total hell of God-forsakenness' for all people on the cross. Therefore all people are already included in the new creation which began with the resurrection. Since Christ died for all when all were sinners, 'all will be made righteous without any merit on their part'." (Holy, 13. Moltmann quotes taken from The Coming of God)

It does not take a learned theologian to notice that Univeralism is totally centered around the unique and decisive events of Jesus the Christ. In this sense, Universalism is fundamentally Christian. It does not begin with the "feel good" belief that God will save all and then run back to the Bible to dig for support. On the contrary, Universalism is rooted in the New Testament texts that communicate that God not only desires the salvation of all, but also achieved this in the Christ Event.  

I think this is a good place to stop for today. The major points that I wanted to communicate in today's post are:

  • Universalism hinges upon two biblical / orthodox claims about God: 1) God desires the salvation of all. 2) God is sovereign.
  • At the heart of Universalism is the conditional proposal: if Christ died for all then all will be saved.
  • Universalism begins with the biblical witness, especially the Christ Event, and concludes that God not only desires the salvation of all but has ontologically / eschatologically won the salvation of all in the Christ Event
I want to conclude today's post with some wisdom from the great 20th century theologian Karl Barth.  In his colossal Church Dogmatics he reminded us that even if we cannot argue the certainty of Universalism, "We are surely commanded the more definitely to hope and pray for it!" (CD vol. 4:3:1, 478)

If you don't hope and pray for it, why not?


Next Post: What to do with hell... (part 1)