You know that last 40 minutes on a long flight that seems to take forever and drains every last ounce of your energy? That's how I feel about this last post. We have covered a lot of material in this little series and the mental gymnastics have left me quite fatigued. It hasn't been a perfect flight, there's been some turbulence here and there (and no snacks!), but it's been a good and worthwhile journey. I hope that you have found the trip worthy of your time and maybe you will want to visit again in the future. Nevertheless, it is important to bring this series in for a landing. And like many say, landing is the most important part. So in today's post I would like to focus on what is perhaps the most important part of this entire discussion.
What is at stake in the debate about Universalism is the doctrine of God itself. Underlying every doctrine of salvation is an implicit doctrine of God: who God is, how God relates to the world, what are God's purposes for the world, and what are God's promises to the world. When we discuss salvation, atonement, hell, and so forth, we are discussing the very nature of God. In other words, the universal salvation debate is not simply about the salvation of humankind, it is about the One Who Saves.
In this light, the traditional view of salvation implies not only a God who saves, but also a God who damns, rejects, or quits. It is for this reason that more and more people are not only abandoning hell, but God altogether. For millions of people there is a disconnect between God's love and hell. On this note, I particularly love Bob Dylan's lyric in the song "Pay in Blood":
I've been through Hell, What good did it do?
You bastard! I'm supposed to respect you!
I'll give you justice, I'll fatten your purse
Show me your moral that you reversed
Jan Bonda captures this popular sentiment when he says, "The theologian who succeeds in convincing believers that the doctrine of eternal punishment does not lead to a terrifying image of God has yet to arise. ... For how many has this doctrine - that God wants the doom of the many, and that those who believe must simply accept this fact - been the main reason why they could stand it no longer in the church and why they lost their faith?" (Bonda, 27-28) Indeed, this is the sad truth of millions who have given up on the Christian faith.
Those who espouse the traditional view must say something similar to what Clark Pinnock has said: "There comes a point when God, who has done everything to bring sinners back to fellowship, gives up trying," (from his [misnomered] book, Unbounded Love). Hell implicates God, plain and simple. As soon as we say "hell" we are talking about the very nature of God. Therefore, the only way to change our thinking about hell is to change our thinking about God. This series has been an attempt to challenge what we think about God's nature, purposes, and promises. I have attempted to put forth a view of the God revealed in Jesus Christ that makes room for the *possibility* that all shall be saved. By providing some of the historical, philosophical, and biblical support for this view, I have argued that universal salvation deserves a seat at the table of Christian orthodoxy. Universalism is, at least, as flawed as the traditional views of Calvinism and Arminianism.
In the final analysis, however, it all comes down to the doctrine of God. The question, What can we actually know about God? lies at the heart of this and all theology. In this series I have argued that we can know the following about the God revealed in Jesus Christ:
- God is sovereign creator, sustainer, and redeemer of creation.
- God's love and grace are unconditional.
- God desires the salvation of all.
- Jesus is God incarnate.
- Jesus died for all.
- Jesus defeated death and sin.
- Jesus is the Lord of the cosmos.
This much, I believe, we can know in the confidence of faith, hope, and love. And this much we can proclaim as good news for a world that is wounded and suffering! From here it is up to the individual to explore further the implications of such claims about God's nature, purposes, and promises. But I would not recommend exploration without due caution, for it is a dangerous thing to fall into the hands of the living God. One may find her entire theology turned upside down or his faith foundation violently shaken.
In the first century C.E. the nation of Israel yearned for their covenant God to bring salvation. Many Jews awaited the coming of a messianic figure, much like Moses, to deliver them. Some expected a warrior-king, a son of David who would bring a mighty military victory for Israel. Others anticipated a royal priest who would rebuild and reestablish the Jewish Temple as holy and undefiled. And still others anticipated a heavenly messiah who would bring judgment upon the wicked and vindicate the righteous.
What no one expected was a prophet who would invite sinners and pagans into the community of God.
What no one expected was a suffering messiah who would die at the hands of Israel's enemy.
What no one expected was a crucified Christ who would cry, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
What no one expected was that the crucified Christ would be raised from the dead in order to proclaim this messiah's Lordship and this salvation of God for the world.
... What do you expect?
This is not a conclusion. This is not the end. It is a layover. A time to rest before your next flight. Grab a beer or a coffee and relax. Find one of those charging stations and get your iLife all charged up for the next flight. This is just the beginning. Further reflection and journeying await. My hope is that this series has provided nourishment for the journey that lies ahead. May God lead you through the wilderness and protect you in the storm. May God bring you home rejoicing at the wonders God has shown you.
Recommended flight destinations...
Hellbound the Movie
The One Purpose of God - Jan Bonda
The Inescapable Love of God - Thomas Talbott
Universal Salvation: The Current Debate
The Last Word & the Word After That - Brian McLaren
Love Wins - Rob Bell
Hell: A Hard Look at a Hard Question - David Powys