Life in the Marketplace of Ideas
"God is Not a Christian": An Interview with R. Kirby Godsey
Rob Bell's Love Wins launched a major conversation on salvation and the afterlife. He suggested that God would, in a sense, eternally hold the door open for those who have separated themselves from him to receive the grace he gave in Christ. Does this harmonize with your own views?
I haven't read Bell's book, but I do think we place too much emphasis on time. Death is the end of time but not the end of life. Death is a moment in life. We make death too much of an absolute boundary. Obviously I cannot claim to understand all the ways of God and what comes beyond the grave. But I'm not content to say that if God has not made his way into a person's heart before the person dies, then God has lost the opportunity forever. I don't want to impose a boundary like that on God. My universalism of hope is based on a very high view of God's presence and power.
Philosophically, I have a problem with the notion that there is an everlasting realm of evil, alongside the everlasting realm of good. Of course, I don't think of heaven and hell so much as places to go, but as conditions of the human spirit. Hell is the condition of living in the absence of God's presence, living as if God's presence is irrelevant. That leads to disastrous consequences. I don't in any way diminish those disastrous consequences and the judgment that they bring.
But I do believe that creation moves from God to God. The order of things, in the economy of God, is not Creation-Redemption-Judgment but Creation-Judgment-Redemption. Redemption is God's final word.
I suspect many Christians find a universalistic hope appealing, yet they feel that their fealty to scriptures won't allow it. They feel a tension between their own experience of a God who seems endlessly gracious and forgiving, and what seems like an exclusivist strain within the scriptures. Does your view of other religions and universal salvation require a diminished view of the authority of scripture?
There's a sense in which the scriptures do, at times, appear a bit exclusivist. Jesus says, "No one comes to the Father but by me." And I actually believe that to be the case. I just don't want to define that route too narrowly. I never get the feeling, even in scripture, about the behavior of Jesus. Jesus seemed to be embracing of all people, and particularly of sinners. I also realize that our knowledge of Jesus is mediated mostly through Scripture, but not exclusively. It's also mediated through the Church and our own experience of God.
So yes, a case can certainly be made that there's a kind of exclusivist strain in scripture. I certainly feel the tension between exclusivism and a wider embrace of God. But I think that strain is much less evident in the actual teachings and presence and work and life of Jesus, which point me toward the wider embrace. So I'm more persuaded by Jesus' presence than by the scriptural expressions of Jesus' presence. I do take seriously the authority of scriptures, but to me the Word of God made flesh is far more the ultimate Word.
We're nearing the tenth anniversary of 9/11. What can we do as people of faith to prevent religiously motivated attacks in the future?
The world has grown smaller. The need to live together with respect and civility and earnest understanding is critical. It's a great challenge—and we're coming to it late.
To prevent future tragedies, we need to reach out and embrace people of other faiths in our own small communities, particularly so that our children can begin to see other people as valuable and worthy of respect, not as objects of fear or hostility.
These conversations cannot take place only among the clergy. They need to be among ordinary people of faith. So while there are actions we need to take as governments and nation-states, as a practical matter what we can do is open up conversations amongst peoples of faith in our own communities. That reduces the fear which is, in my judgment, at the root of so much hostility.
If we could overcome the strangeness, if we could overcome the anxiety over being with people who look different, people who have different religious practices, and actually understand who they are and what their histories are, those would be the most important steps that we could take in our smaller communities to help prevent horrendous episodes like 9/11.
For more information, see the conversation on "Is God a Christian?" at the Patheos Book Club.
Dr. Timothy Dalrymple is the Associate Director of Content at Patheos, and writes weekly on faith, politics, and culture for Patheos' Evangelical Portal. Follow him at his blog, Philosophical Fragments, on Facebook or on Twitter.