Q & R: Are You a Universalist? Or a Whig?
Here's the Q:
After reading "Why did Jesus, et al, cross the road," I wanted to ask your thoughts on universal salvation, since you seemed to "dance around" this idea throughout the book. Is Christianity the "have" and other religions the "have-nots?" I would love it if you were to write a book on the subject ...
Here's the R:
As you can imagine, I get asked this question a lot. And it's a legitimate one that I love to talk about because it opens into one of the most important subjects Christians need to grapple with: what is Christianity for?
Whenever the question comes up, it feels like I'm being asked whether I'm a Whig. The Whigs (in US politics) were a powerful political party in the US in the early 1800s. They arose in large part in reaction to President Andrew Jackson, and they differed with the Democratic Party of the day over many issues - including banking, treatment of Native Americans, presidential war powers, and the Supreme Court. After a few decades of relevance, they had no coherent and unified response to the issue of slavery. When they couldn't deal constructively with that emergent issue, they faded into nonexistence.
Universalism is one of three "theo-political parties" that arose in an era that shared a dominant assumption: the Christian faith is primarily a solution to the problem of original sin, which is a condition that dooms all humans to eternal conscious torment in hell. "What is Christianity for?" All three parties agreed: to get as many souls as possible out of hell and into heaven after death. Jesus mattered because belief in him was the ticket to heaven. Based on this shared assumption, the three parties differed on the scope of Jesus' saving-from-hell work.
The "Exclusivist Party" said that exemption from hell and entry into heaven was granted only to Christians. The "Inclusivist Party" said that hell exemption was granted to Christians and others of good faith. The Universalist Party said that all would be granted exemption from hell and entry into heaven through the universal saving work of Jesus.
Meanwhile, many of us are coming to a similar conclusion: all three parties define themselves based on assumptions that we no longer share. We don't believe
A) that the Christian faith should be defined in terms of the doctrine of original sin (as articulated in the fifth through seventh centuries, and defended today most enthusiastically by neo-Calvinism and Fundamentalism), or
B) that "salvation" in the Bible is primarily about exemption from eternal conscious torment in hell, or
C) that Christianity's primary purpose is to determine one's after-death destination.
A) The Christian faith is about the good news of God proclaimed and embodied by Jesus Christ and affirmed, explored, and applied by the apostles, rooted in the Scriptures, and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
B) Salvation derives its meaning in the Bible from God's liberation (salvation) of Hebrew slaves in Egypt. It is about God's ongoing work in creation to liberate from slavery, oppression, exploitation, lust, greed, pride, and all other forms of sin and evil.
C) Christianity is a movement of people joining God in the healing of the world, beginning with ourselves, following the way of Jesus.
In that sense, salvation is universal in intent - of course! In that sense, I am a universalist because I believe God loves all that has been created (Psalm 145:8-9). God "is not willing for any to perish," but desires all to discover the liberating truth. So when people like me hear exclusivists act as if God elected some to privilege and others to damnation, we can't stop asking questions.... What kind of God would create a universe planning to consign much of it to destruction and even worse - to eternal conscious torment? And if people end up in hell "by mistake" - not by God's pre-planned intention - why would God have decided that was a risk worth taking? What kind of God would find it "self-glorifying" to enjoy bliss in heaven with the redeemed while the unredeemed suffer eternally down in the basement? What kind of people would, upon sober reflection, consider that end to be blissful? Is that the best "good news" that Christianity can muster - eternal salvation of a few, eternal damnation of the rest?
When we say things like that, Exclusivists say, "Aha! So you're universalists after all! You believe everything is going to end up fine so there is no need for Christian evangelism and mission."
But that's equally far from the truth. We look around us and see creation subject to oppression and injustice on every hand. Vulnerable people are exploited by powerful and predatory people. Ecosystems are destroyed by foolish and careless economies (in which nearly all of us are partakers). Systems of oppression rape, pillage, steal, kill, and destroy. Is the whole universe enjoying "salvation" in that sense of liberation to God's "shalom?" Is the "missio dei" complete? Of course not! What kind of God, or believers, would say, "It's OK! Everyone's going to heaven in the end! So don't worry too much about all these problems here on earth! Everything is fine! Sing another worship song and have another glass of wine!"
That kind of complacency is appalling. That's why, even though we believe God's love is universal, no exceptions, we don't feel the old term "universalism" - as popularly understood - fits.
If the gospel is the good news of God's gracious love for all creation ... if the gospel is a call to universal reconciliation with God, ourselves, one another, even our enemies, and all creation ... if discipleship is a call to "seek first God's kingdom and restorative justice" ... then asking us to define ourselves in relation to the old three-party system is like asking us our opinion of Andrew Jackson when the Civil War is looming.
Just as the issue of slavery rearranged American politics in the mid-1800's, emerging issues are rearranging our theological landscape today, including:
- environmental destruction that is an inevitable consequence of an unsustainable economy
- unaccountable corptocracy and increasing corporate control over government and media
- the growing gap between a rich elite and the poor masses, between those who monopolize wealth and opportunity and those who work harder and harder for a smaller and smaller share
- an out-of-control military-industrial complex and the proliferation of weapons, from guns to nuclear weapons
- the rise of fearful, militant, and hateful religion
- the breakdown of communities, families, and human thriving in the fallout of the previous issues
Contrary to our critics, our rethinking of the three-party theo-political system hasn't involved ignoring the Bible, cherry-picking happy passages and employing the "select-delete" keys over the others. No - we've gone back to the Scriptures and studied them passionately. We've become convinced that the old theological systems that interpreted every verse in the Bible in light of what I call "the six-lined narrative" are in fact houses of cards, or perhaps better put, houses built on sand.
We've realized that centuries of tradition have taught good Christians to make unwarranted assumptions - for example, that "salvation" means "exemption from hell," or that "judgment" means "sending to hell," or that "Jesus died for our sins" means "Jesus died as a penal substitutionary sacrifice to solve the problem of original sin." Instead, we're reading the Bible with different hypotheses - that "salvation" means "liberation, healing, correction, and restoration," that "judgment" goes beyond punishment to restoration and so means "confronting evil and setting things right," that "Jesus died for our sins" can mean "Jesus died because of our sins," or "Jesus died to turn and heal us from our sins."
That's why I think the old three-party system that divides people into exclusivists, inclusivists, and universalists offers people - like the Whigs of the early 1800's - three ways of being increasingly irrelevant and unhelpful.
My critics love to say that I'm evading (dancing around) the issue. I wish they could come to understand that it's much worse than that. I'm rejecting the whole paradigm that defines the issue as it does.
I'm sorry - that's probably way more than you were asking for! But I hope it helps explain why I love to respond to this question, even though I can't offer a short, one-word, yes-no answer to it. You'd think I'd at least have a clever one-sentence answer by now. (The one in italics above is probably as close as I've come in that regard ...) Am I dancing around the question? No ... it's just not the question I want to dance with. Another question has captured my heart, namely, "How can I participate in God's dreams coming true here on planet earth?" There's a dance that I can enter into with both feet and a full heart.