Thursday, September 8, 2011

A Q&A With a Closeted Christian Universalist

In the recent hubbub surrounding Rob Bell's book -- to which I contributed my own (more meta) reflections back in March -- I got into a conversation with a friend who is an avowed, though closeted, universalist. My own mind remains unsettled, and in a double sense: I am unsure of what, ultimately, to think on the matter, and the question itself is a kind of destabilizing force in my attempts to answer it. That being the (perilous) situation, I sent my friend some questions for my own personal benefit; but it turned out I appreciated them so much that I thought (with permission) that I'd share them here.

My questions, obviously, are in bold; universalistic answers follow.

- - - - - - -

Who is the final arbiter of the conviction that all will ultimately be saved? Is it, or can it be, more than than merely the individual believer?

Who is the final arbiter of any Christian conviction other than God? I am not sure we have a "final arbiter" for anything until the eschaton when God makes everything clear. In the present, individuals must make choices and discern what to trust and where to place their faith, in conversation with a variety of sources and relying on those sources to varying degrees.

Doesn't it seem at least somewhat compromising/sketchy that universalism would seem most compelling to "us," a notoriously relativistic and pluralistic generation/culture, plus one that knows almost no suffering, sectarianism, isolation, persecution, encounter with evil, etc? Sure, as a person of almost complete privilege, who has never had to suffer seriously, it "sounds good" to affirm universalism -- but then again, I would!

In a sense, yes. But, it is not like this is a new doctrine. Of course, it has always been the minority view and that definitely counts against it, but it is not like it was only thought up today. Also, there are universalist accounts that bend towards relativism, but not all of them. And it would make sense that it would become appealing in a pluralistic generation/culture, when people are regularly confronted with people of other faiths. It is remarkable that anyone post-Constantine could formulate a doctrine of universalism, considering almost everyone was a Christian, except for their enemies!

In regards to our being a generation that knows almost no suffering/persecution/encounter with evil/etc., I don't think that is necessarily fair. In fact, I think many are drawn to universalism in light of the Holocaust. At least for me, that makes it very attractive. How can I say that Nazi Christians are going to inherit eternal life with God, while the tortured and slaughtered Jews are going to eternal hell? I would say it is in light of the horrible suffering people in the 20th century witnessed and heard about that makes universalism attractive. I (we) want God to make things right for every single Jew that was deprived of their humanity in the Holocaust, and I desire the same for their persecutors.

Richard Beck's recent post resonates with me big time: either God chooses people's eternal destiny or people choose their own. So either God sends people to hell or people choose to go there. But if God does, that seems messed up. If people choose, then it seems really unjust that I get to spend eternal life with God, in large part because where I was born and to whom I was born, while someone else was born in a different place and to different parents. I want to uphold a level of responsibility for human choices, which is why I believe in a limited judgment, but eternal condemnation seems a little disproportionate.

In the opening monologue to the film Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck says something like, "In this neighborhood people don't fall through the cracks, they are born in the cracks and then fall through them." If that is true, then it seems like God's grace ought to ultimately redeem those people.

Don't most New Testament texts seem to imply what's usually called "dual destiny"? How ought we to read these texts?

Indeed. First, you should read Beck's series on this because he devotes an entire blog post to it. Second, I think the texts that bend towards universalism seem closer to the center of the gospel (Philippians 2). Third, I think we could probably make sense of many of those dual destiny texts in light of universalism, as limited judgments. Fourth, I think there are super-strong extra-biblical reasons for universalism that need to be taken quite seriously.

What is hell?

Isn't this a question for a dual destiny person, like yourself? For me, I think of hell like purgatory, a place of purification and purging in the "refiner's fire" of God's love. I don't think I am happy with the "absence of God" interpretation of hell, but instead I like to think about it as the full presence of God overshadowing the evil in people's lives and cleansing them of it.

What are we to do with a belief/conviction that we refuse to proclaim? In what way is universalism, then, good news? Is it? Or is it just a largely unspoken hope?

It seems to me that there ought to be lots of beliefs/convictions that you, as a professional theologian, should refuse to proclaim, except when questioned. In fact, I would argue that plenty of things I (we) believe may be true, are not necessarily healthy for public proclamation in the church. I don't plan on talking to my children about universalism until they are old enough to understand and conceptualize it in a theologically sophisticated way. Universalism is dangerous for the developmentally, theologically, or spiritually immature.

I do think it is appropriate to share the doctrine of universalism for those who inquire, especially when those outside the faith are inquiring and dual destiny is a stumbling block to faith.

While I think the critique that the urgency for missions "is taken away" is a weak one, isn't there something to the idea that those who are persecuted and martyred, who hold to the good confession until the end, do so with exactly the same "reward" (biblical language!) as their torturers/murderers? Though this might be the very scandal/radicality of the thing, at the very least it seems to cut out from under the power and motivation on the part of the sufferer for Christ.

I hear you on this, but I guess I am inclined to a purgatorial view of things here. The martyr will be ushered immediately into the loving presence of God and will experience this as sheer joy and delight. The torturers/murderers will face that same loving presence as pain and judgment.

(Here I would highly recommend Marilyn McCord Adams' Christ and Horrors. It is excellent, and would be a great place for dialogue. She makes some fascinating philosophical claims.)

One last thing: It seems like the normative pattern for martyrs should be Jesus and Stephen: "Forgive them for they no not know what they do," not satisfaction that their tormenters are going to eternal damnation.


  1. I should add that I think the very last point is an extraordinarily strong one: if Jesus and Stephen are the paradigm, then it is exactly right to note that they categorically do not exult in the eventual annihilation/punishment of their murderers, but rather ask God to forgive them.

  2. I think the only way forward in this discussion will be for those with univeralist leanings to be very clear about what the Gospel offers us. A singnificantly more comprehensive understanding of salvation is needed by all sides.