I’d like to be a universalist. Or, at least, something more like a universalist than I am now. The more I ponder the ramifications of the traditional idea that anyone who doesn’t put faith in Jesus going to Hell, the more I hope that there’s more than one loophole.
My thoughts have been pushed on this recently by a few different interactions.
I have continued reading Rachel Held Evans’ Evolving in Monkey Town. In this book she chronicles her own struggles with the idea of God sending people to Hell. They began when she was in college and saw on TV the murder of an Afghan woman.
The injustice of it was searing. And, the reality struck Evans deeply that this woman was not a Christian, was a Muslim because of her upbringing. Is the God of justice going to meet her in judgment, this victim of injustice, and condemn her to hell for all eternity? Was her abuse and murder only the beginning, a foretaste of what’s to come?
A second factor has been an e-mail conversation with someone who wanted to know a bit more about what I meant by saying that Romans is Paul’s theodicy project. For my work on Romans, that was confined to a very narrow question: the question of God’s faithfulness to the Jewish people in accordance with what God had promised in scripture.
But that doesn’t make for a very compelling answer to the global questions of the presence or absence of a just God. Is the gospel good news, he asked me, for a girl who is imprisoned, a victim of sex trafficking?
Again the question comes to us how the gospel is actually good news for someone who has experienced nothing but injustice, whose life is defined quintessentially by her status as a victim. Is the gospel good news if it means that such a victim, upon death, will meet a judgment that makes her life of perpetual rape seem like paradise in comparison.
A third strand of thought has been stirred by my reading through Revelation. That book ends with a few surprises.
In the book of Revelation, everything is black and white. There are the people who follow the Lamb and there are the people who follow the beast and there is no waffling in between. Those who follow the beast, who are enriched by the great Prostitute, mourn her death and then become a feast for the birds of the air.
But here we are, at the end. A surprising parade enters. People who, based on the logic of the story shouldn’t be there. But not only are they still alive, they are priests, bringing the gifts of the peoples to God.
A few thoughts on all this:
- I trust that the God of all the earth will do what is right. I will hope and trust that the God who is just will be the justifier of the one who has suffered unjustly here on earth. Although I can’t say that any one person or category of people will “be saved” in the end, I anticipate that I will be surprised at the company of faces gathered before the throne worshiping God in the end. Revelation encourages me to hope for such surprises.
- Once upon a time, I had two categories of universalist. One was what I called the “Duke Methodist” (sorry, Duke friends, it’s a story about my past) type of universalism due to the way I heard some Div students undermining the importance of sin. This sort of universalism was the “we’re not so bad, so surely no one could end up in hell” universalism. The other was what I called “Barth universalism” (though I know Barth wasn’t a universalist). This sort of universalism was the “Christ’s work is so big that it clears out hell” universalism. Any hope we have of a surprising embrace, a unexpected inclusion, will have to be closer to the latter. There is only one way to the Father and it is through the Son. But I anticipate being surprised at some of those whom the Son chooses to bring before the Father, claimed as his own.
- It is important not to undermine the significance of setting ourselves against the purposes of God or of rendering to other “gods” the worship that only the true and living God is due. There is a grave possibility of aligning ourselves against the work of God in the world. Of course, as I read through the biblical texts I discover that this possibility often lies closer to hand for those who should be insiders than for those who are distant from God’s people.