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."