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.[1] 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.”[2] 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.”[3] 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.

[1] Against Heresies 1.10.1; 3.19.1; 4.37.1.

[2] Marshall, “Universal Salvation”, 73-74.

[3] Dale C. Allison, “The Problem of Gehenna,” in Resurrecting Jesus (London: T&T Clark, 2005), 99.


Matt Viney said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Derek Leman said...

But, Michael, while my mind is not completely settled on the matter, your logic here has a major hole and you leave out a key fact about the kind of universalism Robin Parry (and perhaps Rob Bell, though I have not read him) are proposing. They are not saying "no judgment" but "judgment isn't the last word and redemption happens from the place of judgment too."

So, you would need to argue, if your case is about the logic of judgment, that sins committed now require unending judgment or there is no justice. That is a hard thing to argue.

As for the alleged weakness of the exegesis of the universalists, your statement hardly covers the evidence and biblical theology is not best resolved with shallow prooftexting. Both sides are capable of this error. Richard Beck's recent post does an admirable job of summarizing how themes of judgment and universal redemption might work together.

Derek Leman

James K. said...

Hi Mike,

Thanks for your thoughtful reflections. As I was reading your post, I was reminded of our tendency to gravitate toward doctrines, and moreover, a God, we like and understand, sometimes in contravention of God's Word. (This isn't to minimize the real exegetical issues raised on both sides of the issue.) Bonhoeffer has some incisive words on this matter in his reflection on Gen 3 in his book Creation and Fall: "The decisive point is that through this question [the serpent's question] the idea is suggested to the human being of going behind the word of God and now providing it with a human basis--a human understanding of the essential nature of God. . . . In this way the serpen purports somehow to know about the depths of the true God beyond this given word of God. . . . It requires humankind to sit in judgment on God's word instead of simply listening to it and doing it. And this is achieved by proposing that, on the basis of an idea, a principle, or some prior knowledge about God, humankind should now pass judgment on the concrete word of God . . . they have become God's master. (DBWE vol 3, 106-8) I know I see this tendency in myself, which is why I bring it up, not that I want to assume it in others.

Jason said...

"Does the depth of depravity perpetrated against other human beings and against the infinite holiness of God not warrant a proportionate punishment?"
Would not the crucifixion of Jesus and his descent into the dead/hell serve as an equally infinite punishment on our behalf? I do not have a definitive stand on universal salvation but it seems to me that the "justice" argument (also made by Calvin) fails to consider that God's justice requirement might (I say might) have been fulfilled in Christ taking our just punishment. As Barth would say it - Jesus was the "Just Judge Judged in our place." In saying this wasn't enough justice to appease God and that some (such as Hitler) must be punished as well, might we not be diminishing what Christ actually accomplished on the cross?

theologist said...

Thanks Mike. What's the source for the Howard Marshall quotation, please? You only give a brief reference in footnote [2].

Michael F. Bird said...

Theologist, it's in a book edited by Robin Parry (can't remember the title).

Ian Clary said...

Fantastic, thank-you for this reflection.

Dec said...

"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?"

Not that Jesus was a martyr as such, but his death and the death of Steven paint a picture of "righteous sufferers" seeking the salvation of their murderers. They seem to want the very thing that you imply is unfair. The point of suffering for faith wasn't so they'd get "in" while the murderers would stay "out". The point was in fact to do away with such a distinction. If Steven sees his murders in heaven, there will probably be none happier than he.

I am not a universalist, for the record, but I think the arguments against universalism that I've read are quite weak.

It's easy to argue that Hitler surely deserves hell, but what about all those Jews he murdered that rejected Jesus as Messiah and Lord? If they end up in the same miserable place as Hitler is there any justice (in the biblical sense of the word) at all? And if they do not, then surely the lines that Evangelicalism has drawn need to be a lot more blurry, if not done away with completely.

CrazyLoverWannabe said...

I assume the book edited by Robin Parry is Universal Salvation? The Current Debate., edited by R.A. Parry and C.H. Partridge.

CrazyLoverWannabe said...

The argument that universalism renders evangelism moot is only relevant is you believe that any time spent in hell is tolerable and that, as a universalist, one is willing to stake another's eternity on one's own belief. I know no universalist who is willing to concede either of these. I suspect that a person in hell, even if they were absolutely convinced of universalism and that their stay would be temporary, is likely to experience a hopelessness and despair of incredible magnitude.

CrazyLoverWannabe said...

"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?"
This is an "ends justifies the means" argument and seems to suggest that, if a potential martyr believed in universalism they would not have bothered with all that "suffering for the faith" business. Aside from the obvious fact that many martyrs didn't necessarily "choose" their sufferings, it's clear that they counted it as all joy to be deemed worthy to suffer for Christ. It seems more consistent that these same martyrs would rejoice should universalism eventual prove true.

Claire said...

Isn't the real argument against universalism is that these people have rejected the sacrifice of Christ? So although Hitler did greater evil then those people he killed, isn’t it true that the rejection of Christ and His sacrifice becomes the real issue.

Nance said...

I'm certainly a novice here, but I hope that Marshall's discussion prior to the quotation we have here offers some responses to Barth. Not that Barth was a true-blue universalist, but he definitely holds some of the positions Marshall is brushing off.