Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Christian Universalism: An In-House Practice of Generous Orthodoxy

I am not a universalist. I am not an exclusivist. I am not an inclusivist. I am a Christian wrestling with an in-house debate [1] related to the implications of the vocation of Jesus, i.e. his birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, on the history, present, and future of the whole world (versus the elected few). I am also a follower of Jesus who dares to hope that all of humanity can be redeemed. In other words, the ransom has been paid (Mat. 20:28; Mk. 10:45), Christ has died once for all (Rom. 6:10; 2 Cor. 5:14-15), death has lost its sting (1 Cor. 15:55), the gates of heaven will forever remain open (Rev. 21:25), as God desires not only the church, but also the whole world to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4; 1 Jn. 2:2). I am aware that a long list of competing biblical references could be compiled and a systematic, proof-texting debate could be pursued ad infinitum. Nonetheless, the dialectic remains. I wonder if that is the way that it is supposed to be?

Origen of Alexandria
While I do find myself leaning more towards universal redemption, potentially due to my eternal optimism and inability to believe that anyone is beyond redemption or without hope, I am also aware that the Scriptures are clear on this matter on one point: limited and universal redemption are possible. However, that is not my current gripe when it comes to this in-house debate. Instead, my frustration lay in the inability to relinquish the association between universalism and Unitarianism. [2] That is to say, there is a clear and significant distinction between Unitarian Universalism and Christian Universalism. The former is rooted in politically correct, cultural and religious pluralism that believes all religious faiths to be witnesses to redemptive truth and universal salvation. The latter is a Christocentric reading of Scripture and interpretation of the gospel that believes in and through Jesus alone the whole world and all of humanity are saved. [3] In language common to Evangelical theology, Jesus is the only way, truth, and life (John 14:6). This way was and is for the entire world and all of humanity.

I also struggle with how the mere mention of universalism leads to a complete dismissal of the viability of evangelism and missional vocation for a Christian universalist. This sort of assumption reduces the nature and purpose of Christian mission to an evangelism rooted in an escapist and fatalist theology. In that light, Christian universalism actually gains an edge in that it promotes Christian mission as present incarnations and inaugurations of the new creation that is already here and yet to come. Moreover, when one’s eschatology is shaped by universal salvation evangelism becomes an invitation to participate in this divine and everlasting life in anticipation of the eternal life to come. Thomas a Kempis once wrote, “Practice now what you’ll have to put into practice then.” This is the paradigmatic nature of Christian mission and evangelism within a universal hope for the world’s redemption.

I am aware that I develop these reflections from my context of freedom and luxury and within a nation that privileges people like me, i.e. white men. Furthermore, as a Protestant Christian, neither I nor my ancestors suffered through the holocaust, making hope for even Hitler’s postmortem redemption less personal and painful. I did not suffer through American segregation or African apartheid, making it far easier to relinquish resentment of those who promoted racism and oppression. I do not live in Western Sudan and the regions of Darfur, certainly alleviating a need to quench a thirst for vengeance against those who encourage mass genocide of the tribal peoples. Moreover, those who have endured these historical crimes against humanity, as well as many others like them, may find universalism not only improbable, but also offensive. Why would they want to hope for an eternity where their oppressors also have been granted access? I cannot answer that justifiable question. I cannot even relate to the context in which such question would be posed. I can only bear witness to the gospel that calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute you. And for those who may feel unable to do so, I can only offer love and prayers for their enemies on their behalf. I am not saying that Christian universalism is the most effective reading or interpretation of biblical theology, for it may not be. I am suggesting, better said, longing for others to dare hope for it. [4]


[1] I borrow this phrase from Gregory MacDonald, author of the blog, Evangelical Universalist. He writes on his blog, “Therefore disagreements about whether all will be saved should not be thought of as debates between ‘the orthodox’ and ‘heretics’ but rather as ‘in-house’ debates between Christians” ( 24 Sept. 2010).

[2] My frustration on the matter began when an article was published in Relevant Magazine by Jonathan Merritt, “The Rising Tide of Universalism.” Nov/Dec 2008. . I wrote a critical review of this limited and na├»ve article, of which a portion was published in the in the following month’s issue.

[3] This is not a new conversation in the Christian tradition.  Men and women alike have explored and suggested the viability of Christian universalim, most notably Origen.  While I am not interested in exploring the contributions of this faithful disciple at this time, although I hope to in the near future, I do suggest reading some of his works, e.g. Origen: An Exortation to Martyrdom, Prayer, and Selected Works .  Also, look for the release of All Shall Be Well: Explorations in Universal Salvation and Christian Theology from Origen to Moltmann by Gregory MacDonald.

[4] A phrase borrowed from Hans Urs von Balthasar, a 20th century Swiss theologian and Catholic priest.