What My Universalism Is and Is Not

What My Universalism Is and Is Not October 1, 2016
Courtesy of Pixabay
Courtesy of Pixabay

If you spend more than 20 minutes with me, either in person or on social media, you will no doubt pick up on the fact that I am an unabashed Universalist. I have no qualms about this. But what this specifically means may or may not be understood by a good number of those I encounter. Proof of this can be found in the machinegun style questioning that often gets thrown my way, as if each round that is pumped toward my general direction is something new I haven’t seen before—as if I’ve never read the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, never read Mark 9, never read 2 Thessalonians 1:9, and never read the book of Revelation—with Left Behind or The Late, Great Planet Earth as my concordance. And so, in this essay, I hope to elucidate just what, exactly, I personally believe regarding salvation and whom it is for. But like all things in life, not all Universalists will agree, because, as my best friend Michael Machuga once noted, “I have yet to meet any two people who have an identical experience of God and the nature of reality.”[1] So with that, let’s get into it, shall we?

POINT I: I’M PATRISTIC IN NATURE

To begin, I must admit that contrary to what many think, I am actually quite Orthodox in my faith, in that I affirm both the Apostles’ Creed and the original Nicene Creed, taking no issue with any part of either. (As for later creedal statements—namely the expanded version of the Apostles’ Creed (359 CE) and the Athanasian Creed (500 CE)—well, that’s a different story.)

Furthermore, I take seriously the history of the Church, and how the early Patristics interpreted the Gospel and the writings of Paul. I recognize, as Augustine put it, “that some—indeed very many . . . deplore the notion of the eternal punishment of the damned and their interminable and perpetual misery (emphasis mine).[2] Some of these “very many” include, but are not limited to, Origin, Clement of Alexandria, and perhaps most notably, Gregory of Nyssa, who some consider to be the “Augustine of the East.” That is to say, Gregory of Nyssa is the go-to theologian per the Eastern Orthodox Church, in the same way as Augustine is per those in the West.

Now, I do not mention a small handful of early Universalists as some proof that it is doctrinally correct. I simply do so in order to point to the fact that these issues weren’t as cut and dried back then as many of my interlocutors say it is today. Certain doctrines that are presently “off-limits” were on the table during the first few hundred years, and as a good Orthodox Christian, I recognize that. So, perhaps a return to the spirit of the first few centuries is in order, where an all-inclusive Eschatology can again be, at very minimum, open for debate.

POINT II: JESUS CHRIST IS THE CENTER

One of the questions that often gets asked of me is have I abandoned Jesus and the Cross. Well, nothing could be further from the truth. For me, everything starts with Jesus. As an autobiographical aside, without him, I would still be an atheist. So, literally, nothing could be further from the truth, as my entire worldview hinges on Jesus Christ, with the Cross being a primary focus (along with the Resurrection).

What I have abandoned, however, is the atonement theory that is underneath the accusations that I have forgotten the Cross, namely, penal substitution. This theory—and when I say “theory,” I do not use it in the same way science uses it—posits that Jesus Christ was punished on the cross in our stead. Thus, the Cross is a transaction. That I have abandoned, and with glee. But just because I have done so does not make me unorthodox or heretical even.

You see, thinking about Jesus’ death in this economy of exchange sort of way was not put into a formal theory until Anselm of Canterbury did it in the late 11th century, and it likely originated, as J. Denny Weaver points out, “as a reflection of the penitential system and the sacrament of private penance that was developing throughout the medieval era, and also reflected the image of the feudal lord who gave protection to his vassals but also exacted penalties for offenses against his honor.”[3] That is to say, Anselm was a product of his time and place in the universe. Later, the penal part of the equation became emphasized by, you guessed it, a Middle Ages era lawyer from Geneva named John Calvin. And while Calvin was brilliant in many regards, he, like all of us, is a product of his time and place in the universe. So in a time and place where justice and honor and redemptive violence played such role in society, it is not surprising, then, that the theologians of this era would think of the Cross in a similar manner.

But that doesn’t mean they are correct or that the economy of exchange model is apt. I’ll quickly mention two other theories that, not only do I find resonance with, but so too did the early Christians.

First, and the most dominant of the theories, early on at least, was Christus Victor, which states that the death of Christ defeats the powers of evil, thus freeing humanity from its bondage. So it is apocalyptic in nature, a deliverance of God of the greatest kind. Second, the moral influence theory correctly points to Jesus as the true human, or to put it in Pauline language, the second Adam. But because it fails to grasp the prodigiousness of the cross, it needs something like Christus Victor to stand with it, and when it does, only then do we have a decent working model of how atonement works. Jesus Christ is our model for how we are to live as true humans, and by his death and resurrection he gains victory over sin and death, making us “at-one” with God, thus allowing us to follow him not only in this life but into the “next” as well.

POINT III: JUSTICE IS SERVED

An oft used accusation detractors of universal reconciliation make is that there is no room for justice. I don’t want to put words in people’s mouth but what I take this to mean is that there is no room for their understanding of justice. You see, justice need not include vengeance. It need not be retributive or, worse yet, according to the eternal conscious torment model, infinitely more than retributive. It can be restorative. It can be, according to Mark 9:48–49, a type of justice that burns everyone in the best of ways, making us good and salty. It can be, according to 1 Corinthians 3:12–15, a type of justice that burns away the “wood, hay, and straw” so as to save the person, “but only as through fire.” It can even be, as Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans, unsearchable and inscrutable by human standards. Why? Because it is a justice that is centered on mercy for all (Rom 11:32), and is that which restores former enemies of God (Rom 11:28). This is unsearchable, mind you, for the very reason that we often think of justice in retributive terms—an eye for an eye. But not God, he instead forgives.

But all this being said, what I am not saying is that people won’t undergo a “purification process,” if you will. To answer the infamous question that gets flung my way, “No, Hitler won’t just waltz into heaven with the same racist and murderous attitude that put innocent people through hell.” Yes, perhaps Hitler has a lot more “wood, hay, and straw” to burn off before the jewel—or in other words, the Christ that enlightens all people (John 1:1–5)—shines through for others to see. But even he is no match for Christ, just as you and I were no match either. Or, as Sadhu Sundar Singh once so eloquently penned,

However bad and evil-living a man may be, there is in man’s nature a divine spark or element which is never inclined toward sin. His conscience and spiritual feelings may become dull and dead, but this spark of the divine is never extinguished. This is why even in depraved criminals there is always some good to be found. It has been noticed that some of those who have committed murders with the utmost violence and savagery have often generously aided the poor and oppressed. If this divine spark or element cannot be destroyed, then we can never be hopeless for any sinner. If we say that it can be destroyed, then sorry at separation from God because of sin and the remorse of hell will never be felt, because for feeling this pain of sorry and remorse there is nothing in man but this spark—and hell will not be hell without this feeling. And, if he feels the pain, then, being tortured by it, sooner or later it will assuredly compel him to come to God for restoration.[4]

POINT IV: WHAT DOES THE BIBLE SAY?

First off, the Bible says a lot of things. Let me rephrase that. The various writers, many of which are unknown, say a lot of things about a lot of topics, much of the time in direct contradiction with one another. So we need to carefully discern what is said in the Bible, and the best way to do that is by starting at the Cross, with a dying God-man—lungs filled to the brim with blood and sputum—preaching forgiveness to those who put him there. If we don’t start there, we can make “biblical truth” claims about nearly anything under the sun.

That being said, what does the Bible say about universal reconciliation? Well, a lot actually, much of it being found in the writings of the Apostle Paul. I’ve touched on this a lot, and in a variety of different places, so I won’t go into the details here.[5] But it is also a theme that runs throughout both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures at large.

On numerous occasions throughout the Hebrew Bible, and even after wicked peoples and nations face terrible judgment and destruction, they then experience restoration. This is witnessed in Ezekiel 16:53, which reads, “I will restore their fortunes, the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters and the fortunes of Samaria and her daughters.” This is Sodom we’re talking about! The Sodomites are the worst of the worst, right? And yet their fortunes are restored. Another instance where we witness this is in Jer 48 and 49, when both the Moabites and Elamites are reconciled post-destruction. Yet another instance is in the prophecy from Isa 2—5, where after judgment befalls the wicked nations, they are all said to “stream to the Lord’s house” (Isa 2:2–3).

Then, when we turn to the New Testament, specifically to the book of Revelation—and only after getting rid of our aforementioned dispensationalist “concordances”—we pick up the same themes. After all of the destruction of the wicked nations, and after they are thrown into the lake of fire, they are seen bringing their glory through the perpetually open gates of New Jerusalem (Rev 21:24, 22:15), where there is a healing tree (Rev 22:2) and a bride of Christ calling them in (Rev 22:17).

So, throughout, it is as if there is this overarching biblical metanarrative toward the reconciliation of all things to God, with of course the Christ being the cornerstone that the builders rejected (Ps 118:22; Luke 20:17). And it is this narrative that makes the Bible such a beautiful collection of writings, where true hope can be found. In spite of all the  ebbing and flowing, the theological discourse that is contained within, there indeed seems to be a progression to something bigger and better than the exclusivists would have us believe.

CONCLUSION

So much more could be said here, but I wanted this to be just a taste of what I believe are the implications of the Gospel for all of humanity—sans none. You may not agree, but at least you know where I am coming from. And I’m always willing to hear a different take, only holding loosely to my doctrinal statements. Thus far, however, I haven’t been satisfied with anything short of the ultimate redemption and reconciliation of all those I’m called to love, which, if we’re taking Jesus seriously, includes even those who insist on being my enemy.

May God’s mercy, as promised, truly endure forever (Ps 136).

Shalom.

Works Cited

Augustine, Confessions and Enchiridion. Translated and edited by Albert C. Outler. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955.

Singh, Sadhu Sundar. Meditations on Various Aspects of the Spiritual Life. London: Macmillan, 1926.

Weaver, J. Denny. The Nonviolent Atonement. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001.

 

[1] This quote is from a book I am coauthoring with Michael, entitled A Journey with Two Mystics: Conversations between a Girardian and a Wattsian.

[2] Augustine, Enchiridion, sec. 112.

[3] Weaver, Nonviolent Atonement, 16.

[4] Singh, Meditations, 57.

[5] See, for instance, All Set Free, pp. 81–88, and “Paul’s Inclusive Theology,” found at http://www.preachingpeace.org/teaching-resources/articles/25-articles-ebooks/articles-by-friends-of-preaching-peace/335-paul%E2%80%99s-inclusive-theology-a-consistent-view-throughout-the-pauline-corpus.html.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Ellen Hammond

    Your thoughts are laid out very well in this article and should give many cause to pause and think for themselves. It is sad that you are constantly accused of heresy etc. for reasoning and researching your faith rather than just accepting flawed theology as many of your accusers seem to have done. Now, when someone starts to question your beliefs, just send them to this article and hopefully it will open their eyes and minds.

  • Matthew

    That is what I wrote it specifically for. <3

  • guynorred

    Very well put. I will be using this for reference when I need to explain my own universalism.

  • tonycutty

    Brilliant. I echo whay Guy said 🙂

  • Wow. Superb!

  • Cheryl

    How freeing! Great article!

  • Glad you enjoyed it!

  • Thank you!

  • Marc Foster

    Marc Foster

  • Jean Clink

    I really appreciate the way you laid this all out. Very well done.
    One teaching we really like which helps to set this all up is ‘Divine Justice’ by a Coptic Orthodox named Hany Mikhail on youtube.
    Your readers may appreciate this look at the history of these doctrines.
    We are glad to see so many young men exploring this way of seeing the Gospel!!
    Blessings to you in all your endeavors.

  • James

    Admittedly I’m not much of a betting man but if I were I think the safe money would be on penal substitution. Seems to me you have nothing to lose by backing it. If its wrong, perhaps you believed a lie but in the end you end up in the same place in the long run. But if you are right you have saved yourself some awfully big problems. On the other hand if you back universalism and are wrong, well….doesn’t really seem like a gamble you’d want to take, especially if there is evidence both ways.

    Being new to your writing (and the topic) I’m keen to clarify my understanding. So, on the justice point, (if i understand it correctly) Christ doesn’t atone for *anyones* sin on the cross, but justice is satisfied through the fire – God’s purification. Does that mean we all go through the fire to atone for our own sin? Or only some? And if only some who are those some (i.e. is there a line of some sort)? What differentiates Hitler and Mother Theresa?

    Would value your thoughts.

    Best.

  • Safe money on penal substitution? I suppose, if God is a divine child abuser, then sure, we’d want to say whatever we need to say in order not to get squashed like a bug. Just like when dad stumbles home from the bar again, we say what we gotta say in order to not get a whoopin’. But, is God like Jesus or Zeus? Is God a peace-maker or Ares, the God of War? Is God a loving father or like my dad? My money is on the former. Furthermore, it is so very obvious (even if one hasn’t read up on Girard’s mimetic theory) that we tend to imitate the gods we worship. To that end, if God had his son killed in order to appease his wrath, we will, often non-consciously, follow suit. That is not a “safe bet” by any means.

    And as to your last set of questions, I’m not really sure what you are getting at. Maybe rephrasing would help me better understand.

    Thanks.

  • James

    Thanks for the reply.

    That would be true if the penal substitution story was the God punishes someone else. But the doctrine (whether agreed with or not) is that “God was in Christ” so that God was punishing God. So if that does drive behavior it would lead to self sacrifice for reconciliation.

    The question I was asking in the second part is about how justice works in your universalism – in penal substitution Jesus takes the “justice” – ie is punished in our place thereby atoning for our sin – this is the Rom 3 isssue of being just and the justifier.

    If I understood your point on justice still being served, there are still consequences for sin – I think you mention Hitler has some wood to burn. Since we all sin and since in your version Jesus doesn’t atone for anyone’s sin in the justice sense of atonement, does that we all (not just Hitler) have some justice coming?

    Can I also ask if your reference to Augustine is meant to show that Augustine was a universalist or that he knew of universalists but was himself not one?

    Thanks!

  • James

    Just wanted to add a further question if I may. The pen sub doctrine often gets this child abuse issue thrown up.

    It seems to me though that all schools have the same problem – John 3:16 makes it clear that The Father gives the Son.

    Whether that is as a ransom or a propitiation seems to be a little bit like splitting hairs when it comes to the question of whether God is “nasty”. I favor ps because it affirms the father is in the son and so it is god punishing god (ie self sacrifice).

    Let’s assume it’s not ps- surely you still have the problem that the father subjects the son to death? And not to expunge sin but just to set an example – can’t it be argued that the Father does the same thing but achieves less outdone by just setting an example. Either way it seems hard to say God is bad in one camp. It good in the other? Or have I missed something?

    Would value your view.

  • Lots of questions here. First, I think justice was displayed on the cross, and that justice is mercy. Second, PSA was not a doctrine until Calvin formulated it (following Anselm) in the 16th century. That doesn’t make it wrong per se, it just doesn’t surprise me that a lawyer thought of the cross in this way. Third, Augustine wasn’t a universalist but admitted most in his day and those that preceded him were. Fourth, there is a difference between God offering a sacrifice and desiring one. If the Father puts forth the sacrifice to appease an angry humanity then that is fundamentally different then if we put forth the sacrifice to the angry deity. For a look at the pitfalls of PSA, I recommend the book “Stricken by God?” edited by Brad Jersak and Michael Hardin. You can get it from Eerdmans.

  • Lots of questions here. First, I think justice was displayed on the cross, and that justice is mercy. Second, PSA was not a doctrine until Calvin formulated it (following Anselm) in the 16th century. That doesn’t make it wrong per se, it just doesn’t surprise me that a lawyer thought of the cross in this way. Third, Augustine wasn’t a universalist but admitted most in his day and those that preceded him were. Fourth, there is a difference between God offering a sacrifice and desiring one. If the Father puts forth the sacrifice to appease an angry humanity then that is fundamentally different then if we put forth the sacrifice to the angry deity. For a look at the pitfalls of PSA, I recommend the book “Stricken by God?” edited by Brad Jersak and Michael Hardin. You can get it from Eerdmans.

  • Lots of questions here. First, I think justice was displayed on the cross, and that justice is mercy. Second, PSA was not a doctrine until Calvin formulated it (following Anselm) in the 16th century. That doesn’t make it wrong per se, it just doesn’t surprise me that a lawyer thought of the cross in this way. Third, Augustine wasn’t a universalist but admitted most in his day and those that preceded him were. Fourth, there is a difference between God offering a sacrifice and desiring one. If the Father puts forth the sacrifice to appease an angry humanity then that is fundamentally different then if we put forth the sacrifice to the angry deity. For a look at the pitfalls of PSA, I recommend the book “Stricken by God?” edited by Brad Jersak and Michael Hardin. You can get it from Eerdmans.

  • James

    Thanks – I’ll get the book.

    Could you elaborate on how you see justice as having been served on the cross? Perhaps that is tied to what you mean by justice wis mercy.

    Do you mean God was dispensing Justice – ie the just consequences of our sin, on Jesus? Given your view on PSA I doubt that’s what you mean.

    Maybe you can point me to something you’ve written on it or maybe summarize here.

    Thanks again.