Saturday, January 26, 2013

Why Hitler Will (Not) Be in Heaven

"Our God is a consuming fire." - Hebrews 12:29

I hold to a hopeful conviction that ultimately everyone will be united with God through the grace of Christ. As I visit with people about this conviction (known as "Christian universalism"), inevitably folks will respond by saying, "Oh, so you think everyone goes to heaven." In some sense, yes, I do believe that "everyone goes to heaven," but I am not entirely happy with describing my belief in universal salvation in that way. Because of the popular idea of heaven that many entertain, it can be very misleading for me to say it like that.

I don't think going to heaven means that we are transported to an ethereal Disneyland beyond the clouds. Heaven, in the Christian theological tradition, is held primarily to be a state of perfect intimacy and full union with God, and I believe that can be experienced here and now, and in the world to come. I don't pretend to understand the metaphysics of an afterlife existence, but I believe that when we die we live on in the realm of God's immediate presence, and that the words "heaven" and "hell" denote two opposite ways of experiencing the presence of God's holy love.

If our lives and hearts are full of love for God and neighbor, the fires of God's holy love will be experienced as warmth and light. 

If our lives and hearts are full of apathy and hatred towards others, then I believe the flames of God's holy love will be experienced for a time as painful and, in some ways, a source of great torture. 

I also don't pretend to know exactly what God's judgment will be like. To some degree, we must all use our biblically-shaped imaginations in a speculative way when thinking about this difficult topic. Bishop Will Willimon describes the wrath of God as the ultimate encounter with the painful truth about ourselves. He writes, “Perhaps the wrath, the just judgment of God upon us is a kind of slaying, a kind of baptismal death to our illusions and lies, that pain that happens when we are given time to stare into the mirror of truth, the pain that is harsh but is also due to love?”[1] 

This makes a lot of sense to me. God's judgment is when all the lights are turned on and we must come to terms with the truth. It is the horrible experience of fully realizing the pain we have caused others and that we have caused God through our self-centered ways of living. It is a pain that can be experienced now or then, and it is a pain that can cut deeper than any other pain. 

It is also the kind of pain that leads to repentance and reconciliation. This is why Origen, an early Christian universalist, said that even if we could escape God's judgment, we shouldn't want to. God's judgment is like the tough diagnosis that is needed for the right kind of healing to take place. It might hurt like hell, but its purpose is to heal and make things right.

With this is mind, let's consider one of the most frequent objections to my position, which goes along lines like this: "You don't really think that Mother Teresa and Hitler are going to end up in the same place, do you?" 

My response is a clear "no" and "yes." 

If by "Hitler" you mean a moral monster filled with prejudice and hatred, then no, that Hitler will not be in heaven. You cannot be perfectly united with God and enjoy the intimacy of his self-giving and other-centered love and be filled with anti-God ways of being. Heaven would be hell to someone whose heart is set against God. 

But consider this thought experiment about what divine judgment might look like for Hitler. What if God were to punish Hitler in the world to come by transforming and softening Hitler's heart to make him capable of truly feeling all the pain of his victims? Nothing could be more painful, and yet, at the same time, nothing could be more hopeful. This would be torturous to experience, yet it would also set him on the road to repentance.

Ultimate justice would be for God to bring Hitler to repentance by burning away all his self-protective delusions, giving him a long look into the mirror of truth, and enabling him to experience the pain of his crimes. But God's justice that can make all things right would not stop there. God could also enable Hitler to participate with God in bringing healing and wholeness to his victims in the world to come, and God could enable his victims to extend God's forgiveness to Hitler. 

The scenario I have constructed for what divine judgment for Hitler might be like is speculation, to be sure, as all such reflection on this topic ultimately is. However, so much speculation about hell has been rooted in the myth that mere retribution achieves genuine justice, as if an eternity of pain for Hilter would somehow balance the scales of justice and make things up to his victims. But when it comes to real justice, scales do not need to be balanced; heart needs to be healed and lives need to restored. So, while this is speculation, at least this is speculation rooted in Jesus' clear rejection of mere retribution (Matt. 5:43-48), and in God's clearly revealed purpose, achieved in Christ, to reconcile to himself all things. (Col. 1:20). 

[1] Willimon, Who Will Be Saved?, 83.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Heresy of Racism

But when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction... But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel...”

                 - Apostle Paul, Galatians 2:11-14

The first big church fight wasn't about the doctrine of the Trinity or how to describe the person of Jesus. Those would come later. The first big argument was about racism. 

The major ethnic/racial categories in the New Testament are "Jew" and "Gentile" (i.e., all non-Jews). Paul's gospel message was that in Christ, God had broken down the dividing wall separating these two ethnic groups (Eph. 2:14). Universal human sinfulness and universal divine grace place us all on equal footing before God (Rom. 3:21-26). 

Most first century Jewish Christians would have had an issue with this, and understandably so. After all, they were "chosen." They were set apart from the rest of the nations as the special locus of God's redemptive work. They were given special laws to show their "set-apartness" to the rest of the world, things like circumcision, sabbath observance, and dietary regulations. 

So Paul, a first century Jew who had his life rearranged by Jesus, comes along and says that these things no longer matter for one's identity as part of the people of God. He says that faith in Christ, not one's ethnic status, ultimately determines one's relationship with God. 

This was a very unpopular and highly controversial message for his fellow Jews, even for those Jews who had become followers of Christ. Peter, for example, even though he had a supernatural vision of God's universal embrace (see Acts 10), fell back into his old pattern of spirituality that made a strong divide between Jews and other ethnic groups. Old habits are hard to kick. 

Paul's response was to get in Peter's face and tell him that he was wrong. For Paul, this was not a side issue. This was not an optional feature of Christian discipleship. This was not something that Christians could agree to disagree on. 

For Paul, to act in a racist way- to assume that one's ethnic heritage and status somehow gives you a privileged place in the world- is to "not act consistently with the truth of the gospel." Confronting and combating racism, according to the New Testament, is absolutely central to living in a way that goes with the grain of the good news of Jesus. To fail to do so is heresy.

Ironically, while many Christians have used the Bible to justify their racism, the apostle Paul was willing to set aside the continuing relevance of major portions of the Bible in order to oppose racism. His experience with the Gentile's experience of God lead him to reinterpret the significance and application of major sections of the law concerning circumcision and dietary regulations, which were seen as absolutely foundational to the identity of the people of God at that time. 

There is no question that Paul, in reference to his time and place, was an enormous liberal who was willing to rethink the bedrock foundations of his religious heritage because of his experience of Jesus and his love. Paul's opponents certainly had scriptures on their side that seemed to strongly indicate that if a person is to become part of the people of God, they must adopt the Jewish ethnic identity markers first (e.g., Gen. 17:9-14). But Paul was so convinced of human equality in Christ (Gal. 3:28) that he used that as his reference point and interpreted everything in the light of that affirmation. 

Paul thought it would be heretical, in his day and time, to continue to apply those biblical commandments that reinforced a sense of privileged ethnic status. 

He boldly and uncompromisingly read the Bible through the lenses of Christ's boundary-shattering love and grace. 

So, when Paul asks us to be imitators of him (1 Cor. 4:16), I say we do it. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

Hell Has Always Been Under Fire

An excerpt from Flames of Love: Hell and Universal Salvation:

Hell in the Christian Tradition

In questioning hell, it may bring some comfort to know that the “traditional view” hasn’t always been the only or even the dominant view. Prior to the early fifth century, there were three alternatives within mainstream Christianity concerning the fate of non-Christians: eternal conscious punishment (non-Christians suffer everlasting torment), annihilationism (non-Christians simply die and that is that for them), and universal salvation (all people will be saved through Christ).[1] This is important to know because often times in this debate people will accuse Christian universalists of being “heretics,” that is, people who are outside the bounds of legitimate, orthodox Christian faith. For the first four hundred years of the church’s existence, this was not the case. There was disagreement among Christians as to how to envision the life to come, but the universalist option was considered to be one of the alternatives within the bounds of orthodox faith, along with the other two named above. Often scholars who believe in an everlasting hell are too quick to project a theological uniformity on the early church that simply wasn’t there. Albert Mohler, for example, claims that a belief in universal salvation was clearly a minority belief that rejected the “patristic consensus” on the existence of an eternal hell.[2] But the only way you can claim a “consensus” in the early church is by making the biased and unfair prior decision to exclude those theologians who did not clearly believe in an eternal hell and who made a mixture of both cautious and bold affirmations of the salvation of all through Christ. The theologians that fall in this category include folks like Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Macrina, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, Evagrius of Pontus, Cyril of Alexandria, Ambrose of Milan, and the early Jerome. This reads like an all-star team of early church theologians. These were some of the most significant formers and shapers of the Christian faith, and all of them held forth the possibility, and some the certainty, of a universal reconciliation. Significantly, St. Augustine, writing in the early fifth century as a strong advocate of the belief in eternal conscious torment for non-Christians, does not ever attempt to appeal to a consensus among church leaders on this issue to settle matters. In fact, he makes reference to the “very many” [3] that held the universalist view. So, it is simply historically false to claim that belief in universal salvation was from the beginning a fringe view deemed to be heretical by most church leaders. It was clearly a live option for many Christians in the first four centuries of the church.
Of all the theologians named above, probably the most revered and influential one of them all was Gregory of Nyssa, who was a major player in developing the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. He was so respected by the universal church that he was later named the “Father of fathers,” and he was a key player at the Council of Nicea in the fourth-century, from which we received the “Nicene Creed.”  Gregory strongly affirmed the restorative and temporary nature of God’s punishments and the eventual salvation of all people, and he was never condemned for this position.[4] However, later Christians did try to edit his writings in order to expunge the universalist affirmations, claiming that these were later additions and not Gregory’s original writings. This project failed, however, because Gregory’s universalism is woven too deeply throughout his writings to simply cut out a paragraph here or there.[5]  
It is worth noting that the Nicene Creed, which is the touchstone of orthodoxy for Christianity globally and historically speaking, does not contain any affirmation about the nature or duration of hell. It affirms that Christ will come in judgment and that there will be a resurrection of the body and life everlasting, but it doesn’t specify an eternally dualistic outcome of the judgment. It leaves enough conceptual space to make room for any of these three positions. This creed affirms what all Christians hold in common (divine judgment and resurrection to life everlasting), but allows for divergent perspectives on what happens to non-Christians or “the wicked.” Although much later creeds and formulations of faith would often include an affirmation of everlasting damnation for the wicked,[6] none of the definitive, ecumenical creeds of the first four hundred years include such an affirmation. In a well-circulated and often-quoted essay on the history of universal salvation, the highly-respected biblical scholar Richard Bauckham writes, “Eternal punishment was firmly asserted in official creeds and confessions of the churches. It must have seemed as indispensable a part of universal Christian belief as the doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation.”[7] This assertion simply does not fit the historical reality of the theological breadth and doctrinal focus of orthodoxy in the first four centuries. Gregory of Nyssa, again, was one of the primary shapers of the orthodox formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity, and yet he was a universalist. His example, along with several others, shows clearly that beliefs about the Trinity and the incarnation were much more central to defining orthodoxy than were one’s views on salvation and punishment in the life to come.
We must be careful not to assume that currently dominant views about the afterlife have always been that dominant. The popular Christian author Randy Alcorn, in his foreword to Mark Galli’s book God Wins (which is a response to Rob Bell’s Love Wins), makes this mistake when he asserts, “If the orthodox view on salvation and damnation are up for grabs, then surely virtually everything in the Apostles’ Creed is also.” This statement is misleading on several levels. First, it fallaciously appeals to a “slippery slope” that is intended to scare people away from asking questions out of a fear that if you question anything, you will go on to be critical of everything, and eventually you will be left with nothing. Second, and more importantly, it reveals a deep ignorance of the plurality of views about the afterlife that have existed within the Christian church from the beginning. Although Alcorn considers one’s view of punishment in the age to come as just as basic to Christianity as everything else in the Apostles’ Creed, the framers of this creed would disagree, since they themselves didn’t even make belief in an everlasting hell an essential doctrinal item in the creed! I personally believe every line of the Apostles’ Creed,[8] and I haven’t found that my questions related to the punishment in the age to come have led me in any way to renounce anything essential to the Christian faith. Contrary to Alcorn’s assertion, my acceptance of the universalist vision has only served to heighten my gratitude and enhance my conviction of the beauty and truth of the Trinity, the incarnation, Christ’s atoning work on the cross, etc. A Christian universalist, Gregory MacDonald argues, can certainly “maintain all the central elements of orthodox Christian faith.”[9]
It is so important to know that while questioning the infinite duration of hell may seem for many of us modern Christians as tantamount to questioning the triune identity of God revealed as Father, Son, and Spirit, it has not always been so. I think the discussion around this issue could become much more constructive if defenders of an everlasting hell would stop uncritically assuming and deceptively asserting that the church has always agreed with them. I have never seen as much “revisionist history” as I have while studying the contemporary defenses of an everlasting hell from conservative Christian authors. While many things that I argue for in this book are controversial and debatable, this isn’t one of them. It is a historical fact that there have been orthodox Christian leaders and thinkers from the beginning of the church who have embraced, if not an outright belief in universal salvation through Christ, at least a hope in this grand and beautiful ending to the story that God is writing.

[1] See Daley, The Hope of the Early Church; Brattston, “Hades, Hell and Purgatory;” Sachs, “Apocatastasis in Patristic Theology.”
[2] Mohler, “Modern Theology,” 18. The term “patristic” is often used to refer to the theologians of the first few centuries who are seen as “fathers” to the church. I don’t like the term because there was some significant “mothers” to the church as well, such as Macrina, the sister of Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa, and teacher to them both.
[3] Augustine, Enchiridion, 473.
[4] See Daley, The Hope of the Early Church, 69-92; Ludlow, Universal Salvation, 21-104.
[5] See Trumbower, Rescue for the Dead, 124.
[6] The first creed to include such a dogmatic affirmation is the so-called “Athanasian Creed,” which is now believed to have been formulated sometime in the middle of the 6th century.
[7] Bauckham, “Universalism,” 47. The earliest creed that Bauckham cites is from the Athanasian Creed, and the rest are from the post-Reformation period.
[8] While some are quick to label Christian universalists as “liberal,” I do not think of myself as a theological liberal. Theological liberalism is a wide and diverse movement, to be sure, but at its core is a tendency to try to reinterpret the Christian faith within a naturalistic metaphysic and a rationalistic epistemology. In other words, liberalism seeks to make the Christian faith acceptable to people who see science as the ultimate arbiter of truth. While theological liberalism has produced many insights in biblical studies, and has a laudable  emphasis on social action, it’s attempt at redefining the Christian faith to fit “modern” people strikes me as misguided.
[9] MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, 175. This is a pseudonym for Robin Parry.

Monday, January 14, 2013

How I Became a Universalist

It was not easy for me to become a Christian universalist, which is someone who believes that ultimately God will save all people through Christ. It was not easy because so many people I respect as Christian leaders dismiss universalism as heresy. It was not easy because I have a high view of the Bible, and it seemed impossible for me to square universalism with Jesus’s words about “everlasting punishment.”  It was not easy because I only knew a very small number of Christians who even were open to such an idea, let alone who fully embraced it. Yet, about a decade ago, I became a universalist. Here’s why.
From the time I began thinking theologically, I have been troubled by hell. I grew up in a rural United Methodist church, and I do not recall ever hearing hell talked about at church, but it is just in the air you breathe in this part of the Bible Belt. As an undergrad, I began seeking to reconcile the existence of an everlasting hell with a loving God, and I succeeded for a while. I came across C.S. Lewis’s writings, and embraced his defense of an everlasting hell as the necessary consequence of human freedom. People are not in hell by God’s choice, according to this view, but by their own. “The gates of hell are locked on the inside,” Lewis said. This free-will defense of everlasting damnation, which is very popular, has received a strong defense by several contemporary philosophers of religion, such as Jerry Walls and Jonathan Kvanvig, and these defenses convinced me for several years. Love requires freedom, so if God wants us to respond out of love for God, then God cannot make us choose for God. Case closed.
Over time, though, I started wondering about how we can speak of an ultimate divine victory over evil, which the Scriptures seem to clearly declare (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:28; Rev. 21:1-5), if there are some people who will forever resist God. How in any meaningful sense can we claim that Christ is truly victorious over evil if evil will always exist in the hearts of those who eternally reject him? Relocating the basis of hell from divine justice to human freedom solves one problem, but it opens up many more. How could God be happy knowing that some of the creatures made in his own image and likeness were forever damned? If we are to think of God as being better than any human parent, as Jesus taught us to (Luke 11:11-13), then how could God ever be content knowing that God’s children are forever lost?
Jesus seems to have raised this question in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). After the prodigal son has come home and the father has decided to throw a party, the older brother refuses to come in and so the father goes out to plead with him to come in. The story ends with the father outside the party pleading for the older son to come in. Are we to imagine that the father in this parable at some point will give up on the older brother, “respect his freedom,” and go back to the party? It seems that Jesus is telling us that God, precisely because his heart overflows with compassionate love, cannot rejoice and join the party until all his children are at home.
God is not a “gentleman,” as one pundit put it in the aftermath of the Connecticut tragedy, who leaves wherever he is not wanted. When a person rejects God, God doesn’t get offended and back off. According to Jesus, the good news is that God is a heartsick father who pursues, begs, pleads, refuses to give up, and does everything that God can bring that person to an awareness of their need for grace and to an awareness that there is more than enough grace to meet their need. Is it possible for some to forever hold out and refuse God’s offer of a loving embrace? Can some forever refuse to come home to the divine party?
While it may be possible, it seems to me to be a virtual impossibility, given the nature of God’s steadfast love. I do not believe that God will ever force anyone against their will to love and worship God, but from own experience, I know that God has the power to thoroughly change human hearts and set them free to seek joy where it may truly be found. If God can do that for people in this age, then I see no reason why God couldn’t do it in the age to come for those who resist here and now. While I still believe the gates of hell are locked from the inside, I also believe that Christ has descended into hell and has the keys to set the captives free (Rev. 1:18). That’s why I became a universalist.
This post was originally written for:

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Universalism and United Methodism

In a previous post, I argued that there are no compelling reasons, historical or theological, to give the label "heresy" to the theological position known as "Christian universalism." While this position may be wrong, and while it certainly isn't so obvious that it commands the assent of all Christians, there doesn't seem to be a compelling reason why Christians shouldn't be allowed to hold such a view and still be considered to be within orthodoxy. You can affirm every line of the Apostle's Creed and the Nicene Creed and still be a Christian universalist. After all, it was Gregory of Nyssa, an early Christian universalist, who was one of the final editors of the Nicene Creed.

In this post, I take up the question of whether Christian universalism is consistent with United Methodism. This is an important question for me as a United Methodist because even though Christian universalism may not be heresy, it could be reasonably argued that this position is not within the bounds of the United Methodist branch of the Christian faith. If I were trying to make the argument that United Methodists can't be Christian universalists, I would base my argument on the Confession of Faith, Article XII- The Judgment and the Future State:
We believe all men stand under the righteous judgment of Jesus Christ, both now and in the last day. We believe in the resurrection of the dead; the righteous to life eternal and the wicked to endless condemnation.
There are four distinct yet interrelated affirmations made in this article:
1) We believe in the righteous judgment of Jesus Christ. 
2) We believe in the resurrection of the dead. 
3) We believe the righteous receive eternal life. 
4) We believe the wicked receive endless condemnation.
Christian universalists can agree with the first three affirmations (and I do), but we would disagree, of course, with the last affirmation. Christian universalists do believe that ultimately wickedness will be forever condemned (in that all evil will be forever destroyed), but we do not believe that people will be subjected to condemnation without end. 

I am a Christian universalist and I am a United Methodist pastor, so I have a bit of an issue here. I clearly disagree with one of the four affirmations made in Article XII of our doctrinal standards.

While this might seem like an open and shut case, in that I clearly disagree with one of our doctrinal standards, the Book of Discipline itself does not offer a very clear and precise account of the nature of authority of our doctrinal standards. In the section "Doctrinal Standards in The United Methodist Church" (¶ 102), we are told that we stand "continually in need of doctrinal reinvigoration." Indeed, in principle, our doctrinal standards are open to change and subject to revision at every General Conference. 

Most importantly, though, is the fact that in "Our Theological Task" (¶ 104) we are clearly and specifically told that we should question our doctrinal heritage. These are some of the questions we are specifically told to ask of our expressions of the faith: "Are they true? Appropriate? Clear? Cogent? Credible? Are they based on love?" We are also told we "must appropriate creatively the wisdom of the past and seek God in [our] midst in order to think afresh about God, revelation, sin, redemption..." (italics mine) 

According to our BOD, our theological task as United Methodists is, in part, to be willing to raise important questions about out doctrinal heritage for the sake of renewal and even revision. So, one the one hand we have a collection of doctrinal standards that we say define us as a denomination, but on the other hand, we have in our official book of church law the clear and explicit charge to ask critical questions about our doctrinal heritage. 

One question I have is this: are we supposed to just ask questions so long as we end up agreeing with everything we already believe? And if that is the case, why question in the first place?

The theological position on the afterlife that I articulate in Flames of Love clearly goes against one of our doctrinal standards, yet it clearly accords with the instruction we are given in our theological task. I believe in Christian universalism primarily because I believe that is what the Bible as a whole teaches, and I use tradition, reason, and experience in the way I flesh out this view. The energizing center to my whole position is John Wesley's insistence that love is God's "reigning attribute." 

I should also be clear that I do not think United Methodism should change its official position to endorse Christian universalism, and I have no interest in working towards that goal. I believe that orthodox, biblical Christians can hold one of several views on hell. The early church was wise in allowing some diversity within orthodoxy on this issue. In the Nicene Creed and the Apostle's Creed, both products of the 4th-century church, we find affirmations of divine judgment and resurrection of the dead, but exactly how it all works out was left open and up to God. This seems like the path of wisdom to me. Believing that all people stand under divine judgment and that all people are surrounded by divine love is at the heart of our faith, but a particular view on how it all works out should be left open for discussion. 

I would like to see Article XII changed to reflect the openness of the early ecumenical creeds on this issue. Instead, it reflects the later Protestant scholastic tendency to want to nail down with precision official affirmations about virtually every theological idea. For the sake of "doctrinal reinvigoration," I think we need to be open to asking questions about matters such as this. I think there is a place within United Methodism for Christian universalism, not as an official position, but as one possible way of thinking about how to put together our belief in Christ's righteous judgment and in Christ's boundless love. I do not think that for United Methodists Christian universalism should ever become dogma that must be believed. But I do think there is value in presenting it as an orthodox, biblical option that can be believed, and that is what I am interested in. 

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Jesus, Hell, and Arrogant Religion

If we are going to take Jesus seriously in our discussions and debates about heaven and hell and who goes where, then we need to see not only how Jesus talked about hell, but who he talked about it to, and we need to pay very close attention.  What we see may surprise us.

Although preachers and evangelists most often preach about hell to try to convert people to Christianity, it is highly significant that Jesus never tried to scare people into the kingdom of God by threatening them with hell.  The only people to which Jesus talked about hell were his own followers and to the self-righteous religious leaders of his day.  He never once threatened hell to an "outsider."  Not once.  He reserved threats of hell to religious "insiders," to shake them out of their spiritual complacency and their sense of religious superiority.

We often assume that heaven is for good people and that hell is for bad people.  But according to Jesus's message and ministry, it is the reverse: heaven is for bad people and hell is for "good" people. Heaven is for people who know they are in need of large doses of grace, while hell is for people who alienate themselves from God and others through the self-sufficiency and self-centeredness of their own pride (Luke 18:9-14).  Jesus didn't see those who were outside the bounds of proper religion as the ones in danger of hell.  He saw the ones on the inside as being in the most spiritual danger, because when we are on the inside, it is easy to become complacent and presumptuous and turn our focus on making judgments about others.

This is precisely what many of the Pharisees, the self-appointed spiritual and moral guardians of society, did in their day.  They were so sure of their insider status with God that they turned their energies towards using threats of hell to those who didn't measure up the way they did.  Jesus's teachings on hell took the Pharisees to task by turning their judgments back on themselves.  The threat of hell was used by Jesus, not primarily to encourage speculation about others in the world to come, but to encourage examination of our own lives here and how concerning all the ways in which our pride, greed, lust, anger, judgmentalism, and apathy may be leading us down a wide road to self-destruction. (Matt. 5:21-30; 7:13-14).

When it came to "outsiders," Jesus tried to love them into the kingdom of God.  Jesus did not try to convert people by threatening them or heaping guilt or shame on them, as did many of the Pharisees in his day and as many church leaders do today.  He tried to transform them by eating with them, by scandalously welcoming them into an unconditional embrace of love.  This shockingly inclusive compassion that Jesus showed to notorious and egregious sinners like tax collectors and prostitutes was what magnetically drew the crowds of ordinary people to him, and at the same time enraged the religious leaders to conspire against him.

I am convinced that we Christians have for too long preached about hell as the Pharisees did, not as Jesus did.  We have made it only about "them" then, not "us" now.  It is a tragic irony that so many of us Christians have become just like the people Jesus most strongly opposed.  I suspect Jesus doesn't find the irony very amusing.

This post was originally written for the online community "Christians Tired of Being Misrepresented".

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Is Universalism Heretical?

Is universalism outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy? That is, can a Christian believe in universalism and still be considered a good and faithful Christian? To answer this question, we first need to be clear on what we mean by "universalism." The kind of universalism I am interested in defending in my book also goes by the names "Christian universalism," "universal salvation," or "ultimate reconciliation." According to this perspective, all people will ultimately be saved through Christ. This perspective still has a place for judgment and punishment in the age to come (potentially severe, yet temporary in duration and restorative in function) and holds that Christ is the only savior of humankind. 

This distinctly Christian universalism stands in sharp contrast to pluralistic universalism (or "pluralism"), which holds that there are many equal paths to God, disregards any uniqueness in Christ's role in our salvation, and denies or downplays any role for divine judgment. It seems correct to me to say that this kind of pluralism is in fact heretical, in so far as it denies the uniqueness of Christ's revelation of God and Christ's mediation of God's salvation to humanity. In saying that, I do not mean to imply that people who hold pluralism to be true are wicked or stupid, or anything of the sort. I just mean to make the judgment that this perspective does not seem to be within the bounds of orthodox Christian faith. 

Another distinction that is important within Christian universalism is between what theologians usually refer to as "dogmatic" and "hopeful" universalism, or "necessary" and "contingent" universalism, as contemporary analytic philosophers of religion call it. Dogmatic/necessary universalism declares strongly that God will in fact save all people, while hopeful/contingent universalism simply claims it is possible that God will save all people. It is usually the dogmatic/necessary type of universalism that Christians tend to label heretical. It is ok to hope in universal salvation, but to believe in it and proclaim is taking it too far. 

From my theological perspective, I do believe it is inevitable that all will be ultimately saved by God through Christ.  So, I am more than just hopeful, in the sense of just wanting it to be true but not thinking it is likely to happen. However, I do not claim to know with certainty that my theological perspective is true. So, my view is more than merely "hopeful," but it also falls short of being "dogmatic." In my system of theological belief, I do think it is necessarily true that all will be saved. Yet, I do not claim to know with certainty that my theological system is true. I hope it is, and I think I have good reasons for thinking it is, but I could be wrong.

When Christians label a belief system as "heretical," they may mean to say that the church at an early ecumenical council made such an authoritative declaration and we are bound by it, or they may mean to say that as a theological judgment (regardless of what previous councils have said) it is false and dangerous for Christians to believe. I will respond to both senses of the charge of heresy.

I have often hear Christians say that the church has condemned universalism. What they are referring to is the 553 Second Council of Constantinople (the fifth of the seven ecumenical councils). There is a great deal of historical debate about exactly what was stated at this council. There is no doubt that the council condemned Origen (an early Christian universalist) in its eleventh anathema, yet the precise reason is not stated. There is no reference to universal salvation in this anathema or in the other thirteen. However, there are fifteen additional anathemas stated against Origen that may have come from this council, or they might have been appended later, and, if so, do not have the authority of the council's decision. Even if we assume that the fifteen anathemas against Origen do have the authoritative backing of the council, it is clear that Origen's belief in universal salvation is inextricably bound up with his understanding of the pre-existence of human souls and their destiny to return to a purely spiritual state. So, the council doesn't claim to condemn belief in universal salvation as such; it only condemns the particularly Origenist view of what universal salvation entails, namely, a return of souls to a pre-existent state. 

Complicating factors is that in addition to the council's fourteen historically certain anathemas, and the additional fifteen anathemas against Origen that are historically uncertain, there are also nine anathemas against Origen by the Emperor Justinian in 543 that were made in a more local meeting of bishops. The ninth anathema clearly condemns belief in a universal reconciliation of "demons and of impious men." It is sometimes assumed that this declaration of Justinian carries the authority of the fifth ecumenical council, but this anathema is not repeated at the ecumenical council of 553. If Justinian intended to condemn belief in universal salvation as such, then the authoritative council a decade later did not carry this forward. 

One of the central pieces of evidence that the fifth ecumenical council did not intend to condemn belief in universal salvation as such, but only Origen's particular version of it, is that Gregory of Nyssa was never condemned for his belief in universal salvation. Gregory's universalism was not related to any notions of human beings pre-existing in a purely spiritual state in heaven, and so his type of universalism was never condemned. That he was never deemed heretical is high significant, given his authority and stature in the early church. Gregory of Nyssa was a key formulator of orthodox doctrine, and had a large role in the production of the Nicene Creed. He was so highly revered that at the seventh ecumenical council in 787, he was given the title "father of fathers" and is still revered as such today. Since we can reasonably suppose an ecumenical council would not give such high honors to someone who held a view that was  deemed heretical by a previous ecumenical council, we can safely assume that the fifth ecumenical council did not intend, and was not later understood as intending, to condemn belief in universal salvation as such. 

All of this historical explanation, however, is not really necessary to respond to the charge of heresy from a Protestant perspective. Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians consider the seven ecumenical councils as strongly authoritative, while Protestant denominations are divided on how many of the councils, if any, are considered authoritative. Even those Protestant denominations that do give them some level of authority clearly subordinate their authority to that of Scripture. For Protestants, Scripture is always primary in the formation of our theology. If Scripture is primary, then how can we use tradition (in this case, a decision from an ancient church council) as a theological trump card? 

For Protestants, the determination of what is orthodox and what isn't can never be decided solely by church tradition. Interestingly, the same council that many people (erroneously) assume declared that all forms of Christian universalism are heretical also declared, in its second anathema, for it to be heretical to deny the perpetual virginity of Mary. Protestants have tended to not take this as binding because it seems to go against some clear affirmations in Scripture that Mary and Joseph had marital relations after the birth of Jesus (e.g., Matt. 1:25). So, for Protestants, anything declared in an ancient ecumenical council is, in principle, open to revision in the light of better understandings of Scripture. 

Historically speaking, most Christians consider the Apostle's Creed and the Nicene Creed to be the touchstones of orthodoxy. It would seem odd to me to apply the label "heretic" to someone (like myself, for example) who affirms both of these creeds. You can affirm these creeds and still be a universalist, as there are no affirmations of an everlasting hell to be found in these creeds. 

So, taken in the historical sense, the charge of heresy does not seem to be appropriate to all forms of universalism.

Theologically, some might argue that universalism is still heretical because it denies what most Christians throughout the ages have believed, namely, that there is an everlasting hell and that some will be forever lost. Here I will offer the response of an 18th-century Baptist universalist preacher (yes, you read that right) named Elhanan Winchester. Winchester argued that universalism shouldn't be considered heretical because it simply draws a logical conclusion from two orthodox premises:

1) God desires to save all people.
2) God has the power to accomplish God's redemptive desires.

How, Winchester argued, can you get an heretical conclusion by putting together two orthodox premises? Calvinists deny (1) and affirm (2). Arminians affirm (1) but deny (2). Universalists affirm both (1) and (2) and get the conclusion that God will ultimately save all people. Another way to put the point is to consider these statements:

1) God desires to save all people.
2) God has the power to accomplish God's redemptive desires.
3) Some people will spend an eternity in hell. 

Calvinists, Arminians, and universalists all affirm two of these statements and deny one of them. Since Calvinists strongly disagree with Arminians but do not label them heretics, and since Arminians strongly disgree with Calvinists but not label them heretics, then why should Calvinist and Arminian Christians think that universalist Christians are heretics? Why is it that some Christians are willing to allow for disagreement over (1) and (2), but not (3)? 

So, whether understood in a historical sense or in a more conceptual theological sense, I cannot see why Christian universalism should be given the label "heresy."