Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Reflections on Universalism
It just so happens that I'm lecturing on the "scope of salvation" for Friday's systematics lecture. Here is part of the notes that I've prepared:
Calvinists like to tout themselves as holding to a form of monergism whereby God alone works salvation in the individual, while those horrid Arminians and Catholics purportedly teach a synergism of divine and human wills. The problem is that any system of theology, including Calvinism, that recognizes a tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility is going to entertain some form of synergism. Unless humans are nothing more than puppets there is always going to be the objective work of God countenanced with the subjective response of humanity to the divine work. In the Reformed scheme human will is freed and faith is activated by the regenerating work of the Spirit. God takes the initiative, he is utterly sovereign, his purposes are assured, but I’d hardly call it mongergism in the literal sense. Truth be told, the only true monergism is universalism since God alone does everything for salvation, no response, not even faith is required, and there simply is no tension about divine sovereignty and human responsibility on the universalist scheme. Understood this way universalists are the true “Calminians,” a hybrid Calvinist-Arminian offspring, as they combine the Calvinistic view of the efficacy of God’s saving power with the Arminian view of the universal scope of God’s salvation. God’s love is universal and his power is limitless; what God desires must effectively come to pass. If his desire is that all people be saved, then all people must be saved. However, this is a jaundiced view of salvation. God produces the means of salvation (the cross and empty tomb) and also induces the prescribed response (faith and repentance). God determines the end of salvation and also the means. God’s glory is manifested in the satisfaction of his justice, the exercise of his grace, the protection of his holiness, and the effusion of his love. God gives to each as they deserve, though to some, for reasons ineffable and mysterious to us, he designs to show mercy by bestowing the gift of faith. I would add that the universal offer of the gospel does not require a universal salvation. Irenaeus believed that the incarnation was purposed to unite humankind to the Logos so that they might receive adoption. But he also believed in an eternal punishment for the wicked who failed to embrace the gospel. So there is an objective dimension to salvation, but it needs a subjective appropriation. God’s communion with creation will only transpire once it is purified of the sin and evil that has entangled it, and it is believers who cling to the Logos through the Spirit, that will enter into that world.
Wrapping this topic up, part of me would like to be a universalist (I think), but the testimony of scripture and the witness of the broad Christian tradition suggests that it is not a legitimate theological option. The exegetical gymnastics used to justify universalism will not score high before a panel of exegetes. Howard Marshall rightly concludes: “The major weakness in the universalist view is thus that in attempting to explain the few text which it interprets to refer to the salvation of all people it has to offer an unconvincing reinterpretation of texts about God’s judgement and wrath and to postulate an unattested salvific action of God in the future … The New Testament does not teach nor imply universal salvation. It teaches the reality of a final judgment on the impenitent and sadly it states that some will be lost. That is why there is such an urgency to proclaim the gospel to all the world.” I agree, a passion for mission will inevitably evaporate in the universalist scheme. If everyone is saved whether they know it or not, does it really matter if we make it known or not?
But there is another problem for universalism concerning justice. Is it the case that the Pol Pot’s and the Billy Graham’s, the Adolf Hitler’s and the William Wilberforce’s of world history, will share in God’s paradise with only a temporary detention for the wicked? Does the depth of depravity perpetrated against other human beings and against the infinite holiness of God not warrant a proportionate punishment? If martyrs for the faith receive the same destiny as those that murdered them, is there any point in suffering for the faith, and do martyrs really receive a reward that is different from what their murderers receive? Will God not answer their prayer and avenge their blood (Rev 6:10). In the end, I have to agree with Dale C. Allison who reflects: “I do not know what befell Mother Theresa of Calcutta when she died, nor what has become of Joseph Stalin. But the same thing cannot have come upon both. If there is any moral rhyme or reason in the universe, all human beings cannot be equally well off as soon as they breathe their last and wake again.” Though heaven may be the will of God, an eternity without God is the natural will of fallen humanity. For I believe that many on the last day, though they may regret their sin and the estate it has brought them, will still loath their Judge, show contempt for the Saviour, and would prefer to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.
What is more, I would add that that announcement of judgment is something that is part of the gospel message (Rom 2:16; Acts 17:31) and judgment is partly deserved for not believing the gospel itself (Rom 10:16-18; 2 Thess 1:8; 1 Pet 4:17). For the universalist this judgment is effectively neutered, denied, or curtailed by their scheme. Let us remember that the gospel is news about destruction and salvation, it is invitation and warning, it pertains to persons lost and found, it is both gift and demand. A denial of a final separation between God and the wicked tears apart the very heart of the salvation that the gospel offers. For if we are not saved from the judgment of God, what is it that we are saved from? For the universalist the best he or she can say is that by believing in Jesus one avoids an unfortunate though entirely temporary purgatorial state that cleanses a person before entering paradise. For the universalist the gospel is news of salvation for all, not an invitation for the lost to be saved. For the universalist the good news is so good that it need not be announced for Jesus Christ and faith in him are not, never were, and never will be the necessary means of salvation. But this is not the gospel we have received in the church. The condemnation resulting from Adam’s fall can only be undone by the condemnation of sin in the flesh of the Son of God, so that the sons and daughters of Adam, through faith in the Logos, attain to reconciliation with their Creator. I might also point to the words of the Serpent in the Garden of Eden who told Eve that if she were to eat of the tree of knowledge, “You will not certainly die” (Gen 3:4). The gospel was required because the first doctrine denied by anyone was the doctrine of judgment. If a denial of judgment facilitated the Fall and necessitated the gospel, if the gospel saves believers from the judgment of God against their sin, then denying judgment can be nothing other than a denial of the gospel story. What univeralism offers is a mirage, what the gospel offers is hope.