Monday, November 5, 2012

Damned Nonsense! Post #9: What about Freedom?

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! 

NOTE: The formatting/spacing of this post is all messed up. In short, Blogger sucks. I apologize.

Freedom. This is the issue that causes me the most amount of confusion and doubt when it comes to Universalism. Not only is freedom essential to love, but also Jesus did not force anyone to follow him, he only invited them. If God is love, then God must respect human freedom. Will everyone ultimately choose God? Will God save people against their will? Or, does salvation ultimately rest in the free choice of the individual? How can Universalism claim that all will be saved when it is clear that not everyone chooses God in this life?

In today's post I would like to address the topic of freedom with the following thesis: "Necessity may not be the opposite of freedom." (C.S. Lewis) This is a bit of a long post, so grab a cup of coffee and sit back for a slow read.

Most Christians today believe that salvation comes down to our choice. This is evidenced in the dominance of Arminianism in contemporary Protestant theology. The Anglican theologian Alister McGrath affirms this perspective in his book Justification by Faith:
"The decision to accept or reject God remains our decision, a decision for which we and we alone are responsible. God gives us every assistance possible to make the decision he wants us to make, but he cannot make that decision for us. God enables us to accept his offer of forgiveness and renewal by removing or disarming every obstacle in its path - obstacles such as spiritual blindness, arrogance, confusion, a compromised freedom of the will, and so forth. But, in the end, God cannot and does not make that decision for us. To affirm human dignity is to affirm our ability to say "No!" to God - an affirmation the New Testament and the Christian tradition have no hesitation in making. Universalism perverts the gospel of the love of God into an obscene scene of theological rape quite unworthy of the God whom we encounter in the face of Jesus Christ." (106)
These are strong words and they ring true for a great many Christians today. When we read the gospels it seems that salvation in the kingdom of God is inherently participatory. Jesus did not force people to follow him, he only invited them. It seems logical then that salvation requires the individual to make a conscious decision to follow Christ, accept God's love, etc. The fundamental claim that McGrath argues is that God cannot do something for us, that is, in place of us. 

I must admit that I have been sympathetic to this argument for most of my life. It seems clear that human beings play an essential role in their salvation. Conventional wisdom claims that God offers salvation to humankind as a free gift to accept or reject, all we must do is accept it. Ultimately, salvation comes down to our choice. God cannot do anything for us.

At this point a question is raised: Isn't this exactly what God did, in fact, do? Didn't Jesus die for us - in our place - in order to reconcile all creation to God? If humankind was "like sheep without a shepherd," if Christ died for us "while we were still sinners," if we were "made alive when we were dead," then what Jesus did for us was done precisely because we were unable to do anything to save ourselves.

The Arminian view, which emphasizes human freedom, typically argues that God's work in Christ 'makes it possible' for human beings to be saved, but the final step is ultimately up to the individual. In other words, Christ made all people 'savable' but respects our freedom to choose or reject that salvation. This is the predominate view of Christian salvation today, but it may, in fact, be problematic. Let's explore.

Holy writes, "It seems to me that, in spite of his attempts to be faithful to the Reformed understanding of the pure-gift-nature of salvation and faith, [McGrath] is still giving the casting vote to the human will. He might be saying that salvation is 99.999% God's work with only 0.001% required from us, but... if anything is required from us in order to be saved, if it is possible to be damned because of our failure to do something, then salvation is, ultimately by works." (Holy, 36, italics original)

And elsewhere: "Arminian theology seems to make nonsense of Paul's statements about the impossibilty of boasting in Ephesians 2:8-9 and Romans 3:7. If it is our choice that either 'qualifies'(!) us for salvation or condemns us to damnation, as Arminianism suggests, then the correct answer to the question, 'Why is John Doe saved?' is not 'because Jesus died for his sins'. According to Arminianism, Jesus died for everybody's sins. What has made the difference, in the final analysis, is John Doe's own decision. …To say 'Yes, you have to do something to be saved but you are not saved by anything you do' is simply nonsensical." (Holy, 8, italics original)

Holy uncovers the flaw of Arminianism and its hidden idol: human sovereignty. Jürgen Moltmann suggests that the popularity of Arminianism "fits the modern age, in which human beings believe that they are the measure of all things, and the centre of the world and that therefore everything depends on their decision." On the contrary, he argues, "all will be made righteous without any merit on their part," (Moltmann in Holy, 13).

Does this mean that human beings do not have the genuine freedom to refuse God's love? Does this mean that human beings will be saved against their free will? The answer to both of these questions is "no." Universalism affirms the genuine freedom of all human beings: "Unswerving insistence on the inviolability of freedom must be maintained from beginning to end if all that follows is not to fall away into self-contradiction and futility," (John Robinson in Holy, 37). Yet Universalism also contends that all persons will ultimately choose God because the love of God is irresistible.

At this point many protest that the irresistibility of God's love denies human freedom. This is precisely the argument of McGrath above: if we are unable to say "No" then we have lost our freedom and the love of God is perverted. Universalism proposes that this debate all depends on how we understand the nature of human freedom. We in the modern West like to believe that freedom is defined by the ability to choose. Put simply, freedom is the fact of having options. Notice, however, that this interpretation of freedom has nothing to do with truth, only choice. This definition allows for the illusion of freedom when, in fact, one is not free. (Is this not the status of "freedom" in America today?)

Accordingly, we Westerners believe that we possess this kind of pure libertarian freedom, a freedom that allows each individual to do whatever s/he pleases. "The individual is sovereign" says modernity. But this is an illusion. In reality, none of us choose to come into existence and the existence into which we are born is finite, restricted, and governed by a design outside our own making. Furthermore, if we are born into sin (as most Christians believe) then we are not, in fact, free but rather enslaved, unable to say "Yes" to God. This does not sound like libertarian freedom at all. Ultimately, it is only God who possesses pure libertarian freedom, only God is sovereign.

Genuine human freedom, from a Christian perspective, is the freedom to be who we are in Christ. According to this view, individuals are only free when they have come to know the truth. Only then are they free to become yoked with Christ in the true reality of God's Trinitarian love. Richard Bauckham explains:

"The way to respect the difference between the unrestricted, sovereign(!) freedom of God and the limited, creaturely freedom that is properly human is to realize that humans become truly free, in an appropriately human way, not by copying God but in relationship to God. …[G]enuine freedom - as opposed to the freedom imagined in hyperindividualism - is not self-constituting and independent of anything outside itself but is constituted and formed in human relationships and in concrete situations. …[H]uman freedom is relational and is situated within the narrative of God's Trinitarian love for the world. It is not an inherent property but an experience of growing into freedom in relationship to God. It is not a matter of mere emancipation from external constraints, like the degenerate freedom of the contemporary West, but a process of formation of the self in relationship. And while this freedom is limited, its limitation is not experienced as an evil one but as the creaturely condition for relationship with the infinite God." (God and the Crisis of Freedom, 204-205)
The irony of Arminianism is that it emphasizes precisely the kind of freedom that human beings cannot possess, i.e. sovereign, libertarian freedom. In doing this, it builds its soteriology on a delusional foundation (and hubris!). Contrary to this, Bauckham insists that human beings are free only when they have come into right relationship with God. Anything less than this is not freedom at all, but enslavement to a delusion. 
Freedom has less to do with the capacity to choose and more to do with what is true. It is this understanding of freedom that informs Universalism.

In fact, isn't this the kind of freedom we find in the letters of Paul? When it comes to freedom, Paul is not a modern American presupposing that everyone is already free and has the freedom to choose. No, Paul insists that everyone is in bondage until they are free in Christ (see Gal. 4:8-9). Not only are we not free, but our liberation is an act that God does, not us (Gal. 4:9). In Galatians 5:1 we find Paul's profound words: "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free."

further understand this view of human freedom, let's take as an example the conversion of C.S. Lewis as found in his autobiographical Surprised by Joy:

"The odd thing was that before God closed in on me, I was in fact offered what now appears a moment of wholly free choice. In a sense. I was going up Headington Hill on the top of a bus. Without words and (I think) almost without images, a fact about myself somehow presented to me. I became aware that I was holding something at bay, or shutting something out. Or, if you like, that I was wearing some stiff clothing, like corsets, or even a suit of armour, as if I were a lobster. I felt myself being, there and then, given a free choice. I could open the door or keep it shut; I could unbuckle the armour or keep it on. Neither choice was presented as a duty; no threat or promise was attached to either, though I knew that to open the door or to take off the corset meant the incalculable. The choice appeared to be momentous but it was also strangely unemotional. I was moved by no desire or fears. In a sense I was not moved by anything. I chose to open, unbuckle, to loosen the rein. I say, 'I chose', yet it did not really seem possible to do the opposite. On the other hand, I was aware of no motives. You could argue that I was not a free agent, but I am more inclined to think that this came nearer to being a perfectly free act than most that I have ever done. Necessity may not be the opposite of freedom, and perhaps a man is most free when, instead of producing motives, he could only say, 'I am what I do.' "

Here Lewis describes his "free choice" as something rather paradoxical. While his choice was certainly conscious ("I became aware"), it was also instinctive and natural ("I was aware of no motives. You could argue that I was not a free agent"). In the final analysis, Lewis discovered something that he could not resist, something so necessary that "it did not really seem possible to do the opposite." Yet he still describes his choice as "nearer to being a perfectly free act" than most he had ever done. Søren Kierkegaard captures this paradox when he wrote the following: 

"Christianity teaches that you should choose the one thing needful, but in such a way that there must be no question of any choice. ... Consequently, the very fact that there is no choice expresses the tremendous passion or intensity with which one chooses. Can there be a more accurate expression for the fact that freedom of choice is only a formal condition of freedom and that emphasizing freedom of choice as such means the sure loss of freedom? The very truth of freedom of choice is that there must be no choice, even though there is a choice." (Provocations, 289)

Lewis' account is not unique. Stories of Christian conversion often reveal the paradox of making what seems to be an irresistible choice (e.g. the conversion of former atheist and French Communist, André Frossard). What Lewis and many others describe in their conversion is the kind of human freedom that allows for Universalism to affirm both the free will of every person and the universal salvation of all. As Walter Wangerin Jr. once wrote, "True obedience was ever an act of freedom!"

In the final analysis, salvation is inherently participatory. It requires a kind of synergism between the grace of God and human freedom. But Universalism proposes that this free choice (or "cooperation" or "participation") is ultimately irresistible. As it was for the Paul the Pharisee when confronted by Jesus on the road to Damascus, so too shall it be when human beings are confronted with the profound truth of God in Jesus Christ. Put another way, in the end "every knee shall bow." (Rom. 14:11) 

As I have mentioned from the start, every view of salvation has its baggage, including Universalism. When it comes to today's topic I think Universalism has lots of baggage. Here are a few ideas that deserve to be explored further.

1. Universal salvation obviously depends on postmortem conversion. This is not a huge problem per se, but many will argue that it is not supported in Scripture. In fact, the Bible seems rather ambiguous about it. More problematic are the details of this postmortem conversion, which leads me to #2.

2. Universalism, especially as I have argued in this post, seems to rely on the hope of a vague postmortem encounter with God or the "Truth." Universalists rarely describe this encounter (because it is naturally impossible), but rather assume that whatever it entails, people will find it beautiful and irresistible. Is this postmortem encounter with someone/something other than Jesus? Or a different Jesus than the one we find in the gospels? 

The issue for me is that God has been revealed in Jesus of Nazareth and it is this crucified/risen Jesus who is Lord. If we want to see God, we look at Jesus (John 8:12-47, etc.). My question for Universalists who hope in postmortem conversion is, 'Who will be encountered in the End?' It cannot simply be a vague "Love" but rather the One Who is Love and bears the scars of God's Love. Will those who reject Jesus now find him irresistible later? This is a good issue to explore, especially since Jesus was rejected by many in real life. This leads to #3.

3. Universalism assumes that in the End God will be irresistible. So the question is: Who/What are people rejecting today? This is perhaps more of a haunting question for the Church since She has done so much damage in promoting a God that looks nothing like Jesus. (see chapter 10 in Shane Claiborne's The Irresistible Revolution for a good place to explore this issue) Nevertheless, the question remains and is deeply tied to #2. 


Alright, that is quite enough for today. Let's summarize to conclude this post.

  1. It seems that for God to respect human freedom then we must possess that capacity to say "No."
  2. Arminianism endorses this modern, libertarian view of freedom. Freedom is defined by the capacity to choose.
  3. Universalism endorses a view of freedom quite different from the modern, libertarian view. Freedom is to be who we are in Christ. We are only free when we are in right relationship with God.
  4. Because of this view of freedom, Universalists propose that God will ultimately be irresistible because God offers true freedom.
  5. In the final analysis, "Necessity may not be the opposite of freedom."
  1. All of this depends on postmortem conversion, which is a speculation at best.
  2. Postmortem conversion seems to rely on a vague picture of people encountering an "irresistible God." But, God is revealed in the Crucified Messiah. The King of the Cosmos is the non-violent one whose power is perfect in weakness. Will this be "irresistible" to all people?
  3. Not everyone finds Christ irresistible now, so why assume that all people will later? 
May the Church, who is the Body of Christ, actually embody the Jesus who is irresistible. Amen.

- jmw


  1. i admit, i skimmed.

    problems #2 and #3 at the bottom are well-articulated (as always).

    the "who will they find?" question is good too. I'm wrestling with the ultimate flimsiness of a "love love love" theology that seems ever so popular today.

  2. Thanks, Larry. Some dense stuff here. But I agree with you on the issues at hand. I struggle with two major aspects of this:

    1. Jesus reveals God (is God's self-revelation). When we see the Crucified Christ, we see God "hidden under the cross".

    -> Not everyone finds this God attractive. Ergo, not everyone will be saved, etc.


    2. Jesus also DIES FOR HUMANITY and says "Father Forgive them" while on the cross! WHAT! - this reveals a very "universalist" God.

    So... the conundrum...


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