Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Damned Nonsense! Post #11: What about Missions?

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 worknot all opinions expressed in this series are Holy's. Please check out all the posts in this series!

In this series we've been exploring lots of different arguments for and against Universalism. Here is one against it: 
"It trivializes the radical sinfulness of fallen humanity, and plays down the penalties due for such sin; it compromises morality by denying that good or evil choices make any ultimate difference, and undermines the missionary mandate of Christ by implying that evangelism and conversion are incidental to salvation.” (David Hilborn and Don Horrocks, “Universalism and Evangelical Theology: An Historical Theological Perspective,” from Evangelical Review of Theology, no. 30 July, 2006, 216. )
While we've already touched on the trivialization of consequences and playing down of sin, we have yet to explore the last point made by the critics. Does Universalism undermine missions? Many critics claim that Universalism and missions together yield an oxymoron. If everyone will be saved, why evangelize? In today's post I'd like to debunk this silly criticism and explain that Universalism not only promotes missions but requires it.

The claim that Universalism undermines missions is based upon a specific caricature of Universalism. Did you pick up on this caricature in the above quotation? Did you notice the view of salvation implicit in the criticism? 
The authors argue that Universalism implies that "evangelism and conversion are incidental to salvation"! What, then, exactly is salvation, some kind of switch that God flips in the End to make everything hunky-dory? This caricature (or straw man) portrays Universalism as only concerned with what happens in the End. The universalist is really only concerned about what happens after death or later down the road; and, therefore, lives a liberal, non-evangelical life because s/he thinks that everybody's gonna make it anyway. 

What I find interesting is that this caricature of Universalism is itself rooted in a popular Evangelical view of salvation that significantly distorts the biblical meaning of salvation. Over the past 300 years the evangelical movements of Dispensationalism and Fundamentalism (and probably 18th century Pietism) have come to dominate the popular understanding of salvation as individual postmortem destination (i.e. heaven or hell). This view has led to ineffective and unbiblical evangelism (I have written on this elsewhere). As you can see, this is implied in the criticism above.

The problem with this criticism is that it forgets the full meaning of salvation in the Bible. Salvation, according to Scripture, is not going to a destination when you die, it is the manifestation of God's rule on earth as it is in heaven. Salvation is not about going to heaven, it is about heaven coming to earth. Salvation is not only about what happens later, it is about what's happening now as well. All of these sentiments are best captured in Jesus' central proclamation: the kingdom of God is at hand.

The kingdom of God was the heart of Jesus' message (Mk 1:14; Matt. 4:23; Luke 4:43) and it meant nothing less than the salvation of the cosmos by God. Simply put, the phrase kingdom of God means the manifestation of God's sovereign rule; but it has a long history in the story of Israel, going all the way back to Abraham. The covenant that God made with Abraham was for Israel to be a blessed people and thereby bless the whole world (Gen.12). To Abraham God promised a community of people that would outnumber the stars (Gen.15). Thus, the salvation of God's people was always intertwined with their missional calling to bless all the families of the earth. The salvation of God is the fulfillment of the Missio Dei (the mission of God). Salvation and missions go hand-in-hand.

By proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand, Jesus invoked the ultimate hope of Israel that was rooted in the Abrahamic covenant. Salvation was nothing less than the fruition of the Abrahamic covenant on earth, here and now (i.e. the kingdom of God). The resurrection of Christ confirmed the inauguration of this reality and the Church continues it's mission to invite the world to salvation in Christ in the kingdom of God.

Paul explains salvation in this very way in Galatians: "He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit." (3:14) N.T. Wright reminds us that "the covenant between God and Israel was always designed to be God's means of saving the whole world." Therefore, salvation is inherently missional. 

This understanding of salvation changes everything. Instead of inviting people to "accept Jesus into their heart" or assent to a mere belief system, salvation is participating in the kingdom of God. Salvation is a way of life here and now. That the universalist believes all shall be saved in the End does not change the fact that salvation is available here and now! Salvation requires participation in the kingdom of God, which is, until the last Day, also the Missio Dei. Salvation "calls forth" what  Douglas Harink calls a "corresponding right-making (justice) among the peoples of the earth." Therefore, Universal salvation requires the active participation in the salvific mission of God by living into the kingdom of God here and now - and inviting others to do so as well.

Though he is not a universalist, I was struck by Tony Campolo's words in his new book Red Letter Revolution. He captures the necessity of missions in light of salvation:

"... if there wasn't any heaven, and if there wasn't any hell, I would still be, as I am today, committed to evangelizing. Most days, I am out on the road preaching to people and asking them to come forward and accept Christ as their personal savior. I do that not only because it guarantees them a ticket to heaven but also for two other reasons. Number one is that we, who have allied ourselves with Christ and the work of his kingdom, want to recruit others to join us in the task of changing the world into what God wants it to be. Evangelism, as I view it, is recruiting agents for God's work in this world. Second, I believe that by calling people to Christs and asking them to participate in his work in the world, I am offering them a calling that will give them ultimate meaning in their lives. ... The question, What is the meaning of my life? is of ultimate importance. My answer is, "You are here in this world because God wants you to partner with him in bringing love and justice into the world." (50-51)
I don't want to sound like a broken record, so I will quit here. The major point is that salvation cannot be understood as only the postmortem destination of an individual. Salvation is the kingdom of God, and the kingdom of God is at hand! This means that salvation requires the mission of living the kingdom of God and inviting others into the covenant people of God now.

- jmw

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