Tuesday, November 27, 2012


I'm ditching this blog for a new one over at WordPress. After five years of blogging here at VideoAudioDisco I am giving up the ghost and starting fresh. Why? I just felt like a change (not to mention some frustrating blips with the blogger interface). Everything in life is provisional and this little blog has been a wonderful home for the past 5 years. The 311 posts convey my journey from Buffalo to Philadelphia to Toronto, as well as four years of seminary, two presidential elections, and lots of heretical theology. But it's time to move on. And what better time of year to begin a new blog than the beginning of the Christian year.  The advent of the Coming One is upon us. May we attend the End.

New blog is here.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Damned Nonsense! Series Conclusion: What's at Stake?

This post is part of the Damned Nonsense! series, a collection of posts exploring the Christian doctrine of salvation. It is named after a dissertation by Ravi Holy entitled "Damned Nonsense: An Argument for Universalism Consisting of a Critique of All the Alternatives to It." While some of the series' content is adapted from Holy's worknot all opinions expressed in this series are Holy's. Please check out all the posts in this series!

You know that last 40 minutes on a long flight that seems to take forever and drains every last ounce of your energy? That's how I feel about this last post. We have covered a lot of material in this little series and the mental gymnastics have left me quite fatigued. It hasn't been a perfect flight, there's been some turbulence here and there (and no snacks!), but it's been a good and worthwhile journey. I hope that you have found the trip worthy of your time and maybe you will want to visit again in the future. Nevertheless, it is important to bring this series in for a landing. And like many say, landing is the most important part. So in today's post I would like to focus on what is perhaps the most important part of this entire discussion.

What is at stake in the debate about Universalism is the doctrine of God itself. Underlying every doctrine of salvation is an implicit doctrine of God: who God is, how God relates to the world, what are God's purposes for the world, and what are God's promises to the world. When we discuss salvation, atonement, hell, and so forth, we are discussing the very nature of God. In other words, the universal salvation debate is not simply about the salvation of humankind, it is about the One Who Saves.

In this light, the traditional view of salvation implies not only a God who saves, but also a God who damns, rejects, or quits. It is for this reason that more and more people are not only abandoning hell, but God altogether. For millions of people there is a disconnect between God's love and hell. On this note, I particularly love Bob Dylan's lyric in the song "Pay in Blood":

I've been through Hell, What good did it do? 
You bastard! I'm supposed to respect you! 
I'll give you justice, I'll fatten your purse 
Show me your moral that you reversed

Jan Bonda captures this popular sentiment when he says, "The theologian who succeeds in convincing believers that the doctrine of eternal punishment does not lead to a terrifying image of God has yet to arise. ... For how many has this doctrine - that God wants the doom of the many, and that those who believe must simply accept this fact - been the main reason why they could stand it no longer in the church and why they lost their faith?" (Bonda, 27-28) Indeed, this is the sad truth of millions who have given up on the Christian faith.

Those who espouse the traditional view must say something similar to what Clark Pinnock has said: "There comes a point when God, who has done everything to bring sinners back to fellowship, gives up trying," (from his [misnomered] book, Unbounded Love). Hell implicates God, plain and simple. As soon as we say "hell" we are talking about the very nature of God. Thereforethe only way to change our thinking about hell is to change our thinking about God. This series has been an attempt to challenge what we think about God's nature, purposes, and promises. I have attempted to put forth a view of the God revealed in Jesus Christ that makes room for the *possibility* that all shall be saved. By providing some of the historical, philosophical, and biblical support for this view, I have argued that universal salvation deserves a seat at the table of Christian orthodoxy. Universalism is, at least, as flawed as the traditional views of Calvinism and Arminianism. 

In the final analysis, however, it all comes down to the doctrine of God. The question, What can we actually know about God? lies at the heart of this and all theology. In this series I have argued that we can know the following about the God revealed in Jesus Christ:

  • God is sovereign creator, sustainer, and redeemer of creation.
  • God's love and grace are unconditional.
  • God desires the salvation of all.
  • Jesus is God incarnate.
  • Jesus died for all.
  • Jesus defeated death and sin.
  • Jesus is the Lord of the cosmos.
This much, I believe, we can know in the confidence of faith, hope, and love. And this much we can proclaim as good news for a world that is wounded and suffering! From here it is up to the individual to explore further the implications of such claims about God's nature, purposes, and promises. But I would not recommend exploration without due caution, for it is a dangerous thing to fall into the hands of the living God. One may find her entire theology turned upside down or his faith foundation violently shaken.


In the first century C.E. the nation of Israel yearned for their covenant God to bring salvation. Many Jews awaited the coming of a messianic figure, much like Moses, to deliver them. Some expected a warrior-king, a son of David who would bring a mighty military victory for Israel. Others anticipated a royal priest who would rebuild and reestablish the Jewish Temple as holy and undefiled. And still others anticipated a heavenly messiah who would bring judgment upon the wicked and vindicate the righteous. 

What no one expected was a prophet who would invite sinners and pagans into the community of God. 

What no one expected was a suffering messiah who would die at the hands of Israel's enemy.

What no one expected was a crucified Christ who would cry, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

What no one expected was that the crucified Christ would be raised from the dead in order to proclaim this messiah's Lordship and this salvation of God for the world.

... What do you expect?


This is not a conclusion. This is not the end. It is a layover. A time to rest before your next flight. Grab a beer or a coffee and relax. Find one of those charging stations and get your iLife all charged up for the next flight. This is just the beginning. Further reflection and journeying await. My hope is that this series has provided nourishment for the journey that lies ahead. May God lead you through the wilderness and protect you in the storm. May God bring you home rejoicing at the wonders God has shown you.

Love wins.
- jmw

Recommended flight destinations...




Rethinking Hell

Christian Universalist

Hellbound the Movie


The One Purpose of God - Jan Bonda

The Inescapable Love of God - Thomas Talbott

Universal Salvation: The Current Debate

The Last Word & the Word After That - Brian McLaren

Love Wins - Rob Bell

Hell: A Hard Look at a Hard Question - David Powys

Friday, November 9, 2012

Damned Nonsense! Post #13: Hans Urs von Balthasar...

“Just as God so loved the world that he completely handed over his Son for its sake, so too the one whom God has loved will want to save himself only in conjunction with those who have been created with him, and he will not reject the share of penitential suffering that has been given him for the sake of the whole. He will do so in Christian hope, the hope for the salvation of all men, which is permitted to Christians alone. Thus, the Church is strictly enjoined to pray “for all men” (and as a result of which to see her prayer in this respect as meaningful and effective); and it is “good and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved…, for there is one God and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself over as a ransom for all” (1 Tim 2:1-6), who, raised up on the Cross “will draw all men to himself” (Jn 12:32), because he has received there a “power over all flesh” (Jn 17:2), in order to be “a Savior of all men” (1 Tim 4:10), “in order to take away the sins of all” (Heb 9:28); “for the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men” (Tit 2:11), which is why the Church “looks to the advantage of all men, in order that they may be saved” (1 Cor 10:33). This is why Paul (Rom 5:15-21) can say that the balance between sin and grace, fear and hope, damnation and redemption, and Adam and Christ has been tilted in favor of grace, and indeed so much that (in relation to redemption) the mountain of sin stands before an inconceivable superabundance of redemption: not only have all been doomed to (the first and the second) death in Adam, while all have been freed from death in Christ, but the sins of all, which assault the innocent one and culminate in God’s murder, have brought an inexhaustible wealth of absolution down upon all. Thus: “God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all” (Rom 11:32).”

Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone Is Credible (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 97-98.


- jmw

NEXT WEEK: Series Conclusion - What's At Stake?

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Damned Nonsense! Post #12: William Barclay, 'Convinced' Universalist

Professor of Divinity and Biblical Criticism at Glasgow University and the author of many Biblical commentaries and books, including a translation of the New Testament, "Barclay New Testament," and "The Daily Study Bible Series."

I am a convinced universalist. I believe that in the end all men will be gathered into the love of God. In the early days Origen was the great name connected with universalism. I would believe with Origen that universalism is no easy thing. Origen believed that after death there were many who would need prolonged instruction, the sternest discipline, even the severest punishment before they were fit for the presence of God. Origen did not eliminate hell; he believed that some people would have to go to heaven via hell. He believed that even at the end of the day there would be some on whom the scars remained. He did not believe in eternal punishment, but he did see the possibility of eternal penalty. And so the choice is whether we accept God's offer and invitation willingly, or take the long and terrible way round through ages of purification.
Gregory of Nyssa offered three reasons why he believed in universalism. First, he believed in it because of the character of God. "Being good, God entertains pity for fallen man; being wise, he is not ignorant of the means for his recovery." Second, he believed in it because of the nature of evil. Evil must in the end be moved out of existence, "so that the absolutely non-existent should cease to be at all." Evil is essentially negative and doomed to non-existence. Third, he believed in it because of the purpose of punishment. The purpose of punishment is always remedial. Its aim is "to get the good separated from the evil and to attract it into the communion of blessedness." Punishment will hurt, but it is like the fire which separates the alloy from the gold; it is like the surgery which removes the diseased thing; it is like the cautery which burns out that which cannot be removed any other way.
But I want to set down not the arguments of others but the thoughts which have persuaded me personally of universal salvation.
First, there is the fact that there are things in the New Testament which more than justify this belief. Jesus said: "I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself" (John 12:32). Paul writes to the Romans: "God has consigned all men to disobedience that he may have mercy on all" (Rom. 11:32). He writes to the Corinthians: "As in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive" (1 Cor. 15:22); and he looks to the final total triumph when God will be everything to everyone (1 Cor. 15:28). In the First Letter to Timothy we read of God "who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth," and of Christ Jesus "who gave himself as a ransom for all" (1 Tim 2:4-6). The New Testament itself is not in the least afraid of the word all.
Second, one of the key passages is Matthew 25:46 where it is said that the rejected go away to eternal punishment, and the righteous to eternal life. The Greek word for punishment is kolasis, which was not originally an ethical word at all. It originally meant the pruning of trees to make them grow better. I think it is true to say that in all Greek secular literature kolasis is never used of anything but remedial punishment. The word for eternal is aionios. It means more than everlasting, for Plato - who may have invented the word - plainly says that a thing may be everlasting and still not be aionios. The simplest way to out it is that aionios cannot be used properly of anyone but God; it is the word uniquely, as Plato saw it, of God. Eternal punishment is then literally that kind of remedial punishment which it befits God to give and which only God can give.
Third, I believe that it is impossible to set limits to the grace of God. I believe that not only in this world, but in any other world there may be, the grace of God is still effective, still operative, still at work. I do not believe that the operation of the grace of God is limited to this world. I believe that the grace of God is as wide as the universe.
Fourth, I believe implicitly in the ultimate and complete triumph of God, the time when all things will be subject to him, and when God will be everything to everyone (1 Cor. 15:24-28). For me this has certain consequences. If one man remains outside the love of God at the end of time, it means that that one man has defeated the love of God - and that is impossible. Further, there is only one way in which we can think of the triumph of God. If God was no more than a King or Judge, then it would be possible to speak of his triumph, if his enemies were agonizing in hell or were totally and completely obliterated and wiped out. But God is not only King and Judge, God is Father - he is indeed Father more than anything else. No father could be happy while there were members of his family for ever in agony. No father would count it a triumph to obliterate the disobedient members of his family. The only triumph a father can know is to have all his family back home. The only victory love can enjoy is the day when its offer of love is answered by the return of love. The only possible final triumph is a universe loved by and in love with God.
[Quoted from William Barclay: A Spiritual Autobiography, pg 65-67, William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 1977.]

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Damned Nonsense! Post #11: What about Missions?

This post is part of the Damned Nonsense! series, a collection of posts exploring the Christian doctrine of salvation. It is named after a dissertation by Ravi Holy entitled "Damned Nonsense: An Argument for Universalism Consisting of a Critique of All the Alternatives to It." While some of the series' content is adapted from Holy's worknot all opinions expressed in this series are Holy's. Please check out all the posts in this series!

In this series we've been exploring lots of different arguments for and against Universalism. Here is one against it: 
"It trivializes the radical sinfulness of fallen humanity, and plays down the penalties due for such sin; it compromises morality by denying that good or evil choices make any ultimate difference, and undermines the missionary mandate of Christ by implying that evangelism and conversion are incidental to salvation.” (David Hilborn and Don Horrocks, “Universalism and Evangelical Theology: An Historical Theological Perspective,” from Evangelical Review of Theology, no. 30 July, 2006, 216. )
While we've already touched on the trivialization of consequences and playing down of sin, we have yet to explore the last point made by the critics. Does Universalism undermine missions? Many critics claim that Universalism and missions together yield an oxymoron. If everyone will be saved, why evangelize? In today's post I'd like to debunk this silly criticism and explain that Universalism not only promotes missions but requires it.

The claim that Universalism undermines missions is based upon a specific caricature of Universalism. Did you pick up on this caricature in the above quotation? Did you notice the view of salvation implicit in the criticism? 
The authors argue that Universalism implies that "evangelism and conversion are incidental to salvation"! What, then, exactly is salvation, some kind of switch that God flips in the End to make everything hunky-dory? This caricature (or straw man) portrays Universalism as only concerned with what happens in the End. The universalist is really only concerned about what happens after death or later down the road; and, therefore, lives a liberal, non-evangelical life because s/he thinks that everybody's gonna make it anyway. 

What I find interesting is that this caricature of Universalism is itself rooted in a popular Evangelical view of salvation that significantly distorts the biblical meaning of salvation. Over the past 300 years the evangelical movements of Dispensationalism and Fundamentalism (and probably 18th century Pietism) have come to dominate the popular understanding of salvation as individual postmortem destination (i.e. heaven or hell). This view has led to ineffective and unbiblical evangelism (I have written on this elsewhere). As you can see, this is implied in the criticism above.

The problem with this criticism is that it forgets the full meaning of salvation in the Bible. Salvation, according to Scripture, is not going to a destination when you die, it is the manifestation of God's rule on earth as it is in heaven. Salvation is not about going to heaven, it is about heaven coming to earth. Salvation is not only about what happens later, it is about what's happening now as well. All of these sentiments are best captured in Jesus' central proclamation: the kingdom of God is at hand.

The kingdom of God was the heart of Jesus' message (Mk 1:14; Matt. 4:23; Luke 4:43) and it meant nothing less than the salvation of the cosmos by God. Simply put, the phrase kingdom of God means the manifestation of God's sovereign rule; but it has a long history in the story of Israel, going all the way back to Abraham. The covenant that God made with Abraham was for Israel to be a blessed people and thereby bless the whole world (Gen.12). To Abraham God promised a community of people that would outnumber the stars (Gen.15). Thus, the salvation of God's people was always intertwined with their missional calling to bless all the families of the earth. The salvation of God is the fulfillment of the Missio Dei (the mission of God). Salvation and missions go hand-in-hand.

By proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand, Jesus invoked the ultimate hope of Israel that was rooted in the Abrahamic covenant. Salvation was nothing less than the fruition of the Abrahamic covenant on earth, here and now (i.e. the kingdom of God). The resurrection of Christ confirmed the inauguration of this reality and the Church continues it's mission to invite the world to salvation in Christ in the kingdom of God.

Paul explains salvation in this very way in Galatians: "He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit." (3:14) N.T. Wright reminds us that "the covenant between God and Israel was always designed to be God's means of saving the whole world." Therefore, salvation is inherently missional. 

This understanding of salvation changes everything. Instead of inviting people to "accept Jesus into their heart" or assent to a mere belief system, salvation is participating in the kingdom of God. Salvation is a way of life here and now. That the universalist believes all shall be saved in the End does not change the fact that salvation is available here and now! Salvation requires participation in the kingdom of God, which is, until the last Day, also the Missio Dei. Salvation "calls forth" what  Douglas Harink calls a "corresponding right-making (justice) among the peoples of the earth." Therefore, Universal salvation requires the active participation in the salvific mission of God by living into the kingdom of God here and now - and inviting others to do so as well.

Though he is not a universalist, I was struck by Tony Campolo's words in his new book Red Letter Revolution. He captures the necessity of missions in light of salvation:

"... if there wasn't any heaven, and if there wasn't any hell, I would still be, as I am today, committed to evangelizing. Most days, I am out on the road preaching to people and asking them to come forward and accept Christ as their personal savior. I do that not only because it guarantees them a ticket to heaven but also for two other reasons. Number one is that we, who have allied ourselves with Christ and the work of his kingdom, want to recruit others to join us in the task of changing the world into what God wants it to be. Evangelism, as I view it, is recruiting agents for God's work in this world. Second, I believe that by calling people to Christs and asking them to participate in his work in the world, I am offering them a calling that will give them ultimate meaning in their lives. ... The question, What is the meaning of my life? is of ultimate importance. My answer is, "You are here in this world because God wants you to partner with him in bringing love and justice into the world." (50-51)
I don't want to sound like a broken record, so I will quit here. The major point is that salvation cannot be understood as only the postmortem destination of an individual. Salvation is the kingdom of God, and the kingdom of God is at hand! This means that salvation requires the mission of living the kingdom of God and inviting others into the covenant people of God now.

- jmw

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Damned Nonsense! Post #10: The Orthodox View

This post is part of the Damned Nonsense! series, a collection of posts exploring the Christian doctrine of salvation. It is named after a dissertation by Ravi Holy entitled "Damned Nonsense: An Argument for Universalism Consisting of a Critique of All the Alternatives to It." While some of the series' content is adapted from Holy's worknot all opinions expressed in this series are Holy's. Please check out all the posts in this series!

Let's take a break from all this heavy reading and watch a video. In today's post Orthodox Christian priest, Steve Robinson, explains the difference between the popular Protestant view of salvation and the Orthodox view. Enjoy.

"And now, there is no place where God is not.
There is no place to escape the love of God.
There is no place that we can hide from God's love for us
that flows from His heart like a river of fire." 

"Steve Robinson is an Orthodox Christian living in Phoenix Arizona and owns his own construction company. Prior to becoming Orthodox, he was an evangelical pastor and church leader. More recently, he established one of the most popular Orthodox podcasts on the planet – Our Life in Christ– which he hosts with his friend Bill Gould."

- jmw

Tomorrow's Post: Universalism & Missions

Monday, November 5, 2012

Damned Nonsense! Post #9: What about Freedom?

This post is part of the Damned Nonsense! series, a collection of posts exploring the Christian doctrine of salvation. It is named after a dissertation by Ravi Holy entitled "Damned Nonsense: An Argument for Universalism Consisting of a Critique of All the Alternatives to It." While some of the series' content is adapted from Holy's work, not all opinions expressed in this series are Holy's. Please check out all the posts in this series! 

NOTE: The formatting/spacing of this post is all messed up. In short, Blogger sucks. I apologize.

Freedom. This is the issue that causes me the most amount of confusion and doubt when it comes to Universalism. Not only is freedom essential to love, but also Jesus did not force anyone to follow him, he only invited them. If God is love, then God must respect human freedom. Will everyone ultimately choose God? Will God save people against their will? Or, does salvation ultimately rest in the free choice of the individual? How can Universalism claim that all will be saved when it is clear that not everyone chooses God in this life?

In today's post I would like to address the topic of freedom with the following thesis: "Necessity may not be the opposite of freedom." (C.S. Lewis) This is a bit of a long post, so grab a cup of coffee and sit back for a slow read.

Most Christians today believe that salvation comes down to our choice. This is evidenced in the dominance of Arminianism in contemporary Protestant theology. The Anglican theologian Alister McGrath affirms this perspective in his book Justification by Faith:
"The decision to accept or reject God remains our decision, a decision for which we and we alone are responsible. God gives us every assistance possible to make the decision he wants us to make, but he cannot make that decision for us. God enables us to accept his offer of forgiveness and renewal by removing or disarming every obstacle in its path - obstacles such as spiritual blindness, arrogance, confusion, a compromised freedom of the will, and so forth. But, in the end, God cannot and does not make that decision for us. To affirm human dignity is to affirm our ability to say "No!" to God - an affirmation the New Testament and the Christian tradition have no hesitation in making. Universalism perverts the gospel of the love of God into an obscene scene of theological rape quite unworthy of the God whom we encounter in the face of Jesus Christ." (106)
These are strong words and they ring true for a great many Christians today. When we read the gospels it seems that salvation in the kingdom of God is inherently participatory. Jesus did not force people to follow him, he only invited them. It seems logical then that salvation requires the individual to make a conscious decision to follow Christ, accept God's love, etc. The fundamental claim that McGrath argues is that God cannot do something for us, that is, in place of us. 

I must admit that I have been sympathetic to this argument for most of my life. It seems clear that human beings play an essential role in their salvation. Conventional wisdom claims that God offers salvation to humankind as a free gift to accept or reject, all we must do is accept it. Ultimately, salvation comes down to our choice. God cannot do anything for us.

At this point a question is raised: Isn't this exactly what God did, in fact, do? Didn't Jesus die for us - in our place - in order to reconcile all creation to God? If humankind was "like sheep without a shepherd," if Christ died for us "while we were still sinners," if we were "made alive when we were dead," then what Jesus did for us was done precisely because we were unable to do anything to save ourselves.

The Arminian view, which emphasizes human freedom, typically argues that God's work in Christ 'makes it possible' for human beings to be saved, but the final step is ultimately up to the individual. In other words, Christ made all people 'savable' but respects our freedom to choose or reject that salvation. This is the predominate view of Christian salvation today, but it may, in fact, be problematic. Let's explore.

Holy writes, "It seems to me that, in spite of his attempts to be faithful to the Reformed understanding of the pure-gift-nature of salvation and faith, [McGrath] is still giving the casting vote to the human will. He might be saying that salvation is 99.999% God's work with only 0.001% required from us, but... if anything is required from us in order to be saved, if it is possible to be damned because of our failure to do something, then salvation is, ultimately by works." (Holy, 36, italics original)

And elsewhere: "Arminian theology seems to make nonsense of Paul's statements about the impossibilty of boasting in Ephesians 2:8-9 and Romans 3:7. If it is our choice that either 'qualifies'(!) us for salvation or condemns us to damnation, as Arminianism suggests, then the correct answer to the question, 'Why is John Doe saved?' is not 'because Jesus died for his sins'. According to Arminianism, Jesus died for everybody's sins. What has made the difference, in the final analysis, is John Doe's own decision. …To say 'Yes, you have to do something to be saved but you are not saved by anything you do' is simply nonsensical." (Holy, 8, italics original)

Holy uncovers the flaw of Arminianism and its hidden idol: human sovereignty. Jürgen Moltmann suggests that the popularity of Arminianism "fits the modern age, in which human beings believe that they are the measure of all things, and the centre of the world and that therefore everything depends on their decision." On the contrary, he argues, "all will be made righteous without any merit on their part," (Moltmann in Holy, 13).

Does this mean that human beings do not have the genuine freedom to refuse God's love? Does this mean that human beings will be saved against their free will? The answer to both of these questions is "no." Universalism affirms the genuine freedom of all human beings: "Unswerving insistence on the inviolability of freedom must be maintained from beginning to end if all that follows is not to fall away into self-contradiction and futility," (John Robinson in Holy, 37). Yet Universalism also contends that all persons will ultimately choose God because the love of God is irresistible.

At this point many protest that the irresistibility of God's love denies human freedom. This is precisely the argument of McGrath above: if we are unable to say "No" then we have lost our freedom and the love of God is perverted. Universalism proposes that this debate all depends on how we understand the nature of human freedom. We in the modern West like to believe that freedom is defined by the ability to choose. Put simply, freedom is the fact of having options. Notice, however, that this interpretation of freedom has nothing to do with truth, only choice. This definition allows for the illusion of freedom when, in fact, one is not free. (Is this not the status of "freedom" in America today?)

Accordingly, we Westerners believe that we possess this kind of pure libertarian freedom, a freedom that allows each individual to do whatever s/he pleases. "The individual is sovereign" says modernity. But this is an illusion. In reality, none of us choose to come into existence and the existence into which we are born is finite, restricted, and governed by a design outside our own making. Furthermore, if we are born into sin (as most Christians believe) then we are not, in fact, free but rather enslaved, unable to say "Yes" to God. This does not sound like libertarian freedom at all. Ultimately, it is only God who possesses pure libertarian freedom, only God is sovereign.

Genuine human freedom, from a Christian perspective, is the freedom to be who we are in Christ. According to this view, individuals are only free when they have come to know the truth. Only then are they free to become yoked with Christ in the true reality of God's Trinitarian love. Richard Bauckham explains:

"The way to respect the difference between the unrestricted, sovereign(!) freedom of God and the limited, creaturely freedom that is properly human is to realize that humans become truly free, in an appropriately human way, not by copying God but in relationship to God. …[G]enuine freedom - as opposed to the freedom imagined in hyperindividualism - is not self-constituting and independent of anything outside itself but is constituted and formed in human relationships and in concrete situations. …[H]uman freedom is relational and is situated within the narrative of God's Trinitarian love for the world. It is not an inherent property but an experience of growing into freedom in relationship to God. It is not a matter of mere emancipation from external constraints, like the degenerate freedom of the contemporary West, but a process of formation of the self in relationship. And while this freedom is limited, its limitation is not experienced as an evil one but as the creaturely condition for relationship with the infinite God." (God and the Crisis of Freedom, 204-205)
The irony of Arminianism is that it emphasizes precisely the kind of freedom that human beings cannot possess, i.e. sovereign, libertarian freedom. In doing this, it builds its soteriology on a delusional foundation (and hubris!). Contrary to this, Bauckham insists that human beings are free only when they have come into right relationship with God. Anything less than this is not freedom at all, but enslavement to a delusion. 
Freedom has less to do with the capacity to choose and more to do with what is true. It is this understanding of freedom that informs Universalism.

In fact, isn't this the kind of freedom we find in the letters of Paul? When it comes to freedom, Paul is not a modern American presupposing that everyone is already free and has the freedom to choose. No, Paul insists that everyone is in bondage until they are free in Christ (see Gal. 4:8-9). Not only are we not free, but our liberation is an act that God does, not us (Gal. 4:9). In Galatians 5:1 we find Paul's profound words: "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free."

further understand this view of human freedom, let's take as an example the conversion of C.S. Lewis as found in his autobiographical Surprised by Joy:

"The odd thing was that before God closed in on me, I was in fact offered what now appears a moment of wholly free choice. In a sense. I was going up Headington Hill on the top of a bus. Without words and (I think) almost without images, a fact about myself somehow presented to me. I became aware that I was holding something at bay, or shutting something out. Or, if you like, that I was wearing some stiff clothing, like corsets, or even a suit of armour, as if I were a lobster. I felt myself being, there and then, given a free choice. I could open the door or keep it shut; I could unbuckle the armour or keep it on. Neither choice was presented as a duty; no threat or promise was attached to either, though I knew that to open the door or to take off the corset meant the incalculable. The choice appeared to be momentous but it was also strangely unemotional. I was moved by no desire or fears. In a sense I was not moved by anything. I chose to open, unbuckle, to loosen the rein. I say, 'I chose', yet it did not really seem possible to do the opposite. On the other hand, I was aware of no motives. You could argue that I was not a free agent, but I am more inclined to think that this came nearer to being a perfectly free act than most that I have ever done. Necessity may not be the opposite of freedom, and perhaps a man is most free when, instead of producing motives, he could only say, 'I am what I do.' "

Here Lewis describes his "free choice" as something rather paradoxical. While his choice was certainly conscious ("I became aware"), it was also instinctive and natural ("I was aware of no motives. You could argue that I was not a free agent"). In the final analysis, Lewis discovered something that he could not resist, something so necessary that "it did not really seem possible to do the opposite." Yet he still describes his choice as "nearer to being a perfectly free act" than most he had ever done. Søren Kierkegaard captures this paradox when he wrote the following: 

"Christianity teaches that you should choose the one thing needful, but in such a way that there must be no question of any choice. ... Consequently, the very fact that there is no choice expresses the tremendous passion or intensity with which one chooses. Can there be a more accurate expression for the fact that freedom of choice is only a formal condition of freedom and that emphasizing freedom of choice as such means the sure loss of freedom? The very truth of freedom of choice is that there must be no choice, even though there is a choice." (Provocations, 289)

Lewis' account is not unique. Stories of Christian conversion often reveal the paradox of making what seems to be an irresistible choice (e.g. the conversion of former atheist and French Communist, André Frossard). What Lewis and many others describe in their conversion is the kind of human freedom that allows for Universalism to affirm both the free will of every person and the universal salvation of all. As Walter Wangerin Jr. once wrote, "True obedience was ever an act of freedom!"

In the final analysis, salvation is inherently participatory. It requires a kind of synergism between the grace of God and human freedom. But Universalism proposes that this free choice (or "cooperation" or "participation") is ultimately irresistible. As it was for the Paul the Pharisee when confronted by Jesus on the road to Damascus, so too shall it be when human beings are confronted with the profound truth of God in Jesus Christ. Put another way, in the end "every knee shall bow." (Rom. 14:11) 

As I have mentioned from the start, every view of salvation has its baggage, including Universalism. When it comes to today's topic I think Universalism has lots of baggage. Here are a few ideas that deserve to be explored further.

1. Universal salvation obviously depends on postmortem conversion. This is not a huge problem per se, but many will argue that it is not supported in Scripture. In fact, the Bible seems rather ambiguous about it. More problematic are the details of this postmortem conversion, which leads me to #2.

2. Universalism, especially as I have argued in this post, seems to rely on the hope of a vague postmortem encounter with God or the "Truth." Universalists rarely describe this encounter (because it is naturally impossible), but rather assume that whatever it entails, people will find it beautiful and irresistible. Is this postmortem encounter with someone/something other than Jesus? Or a different Jesus than the one we find in the gospels? 

The issue for me is that God has been revealed in Jesus of Nazareth and it is this crucified/risen Jesus who is Lord. If we want to see God, we look at Jesus (John 8:12-47, etc.). My question for Universalists who hope in postmortem conversion is, 'Who will be encountered in the End?' It cannot simply be a vague "Love" but rather the One Who is Love and bears the scars of God's Love. Will those who reject Jesus now find him irresistible later? This is a good issue to explore, especially since Jesus was rejected by many in real life. This leads to #3.

3. Universalism assumes that in the End God will be irresistible. So the question is: Who/What are people rejecting today? This is perhaps more of a haunting question for the Church since She has done so much damage in promoting a God that looks nothing like Jesus. (see chapter 10 in Shane Claiborne's The Irresistible Revolution for a good place to explore this issue) Nevertheless, the question remains and is deeply tied to #2. 


Alright, that is quite enough for today. Let's summarize to conclude this post.

  1. It seems that for God to respect human freedom then we must possess that capacity to say "No."
  2. Arminianism endorses this modern, libertarian view of freedom. Freedom is defined by the capacity to choose.
  3. Universalism endorses a view of freedom quite different from the modern, libertarian view. Freedom is to be who we are in Christ. We are only free when we are in right relationship with God.
  4. Because of this view of freedom, Universalists propose that God will ultimately be irresistible because God offers true freedom.
  5. In the final analysis, "Necessity may not be the opposite of freedom."
  1. All of this depends on postmortem conversion, which is a speculation at best.
  2. Postmortem conversion seems to rely on a vague picture of people encountering an "irresistible God." But, God is revealed in the Crucified Messiah. The King of the Cosmos is the non-violent one whose power is perfect in weakness. Will this be "irresistible" to all people?
  3. Not everyone finds Christ irresistible now, so why assume that all people will later? 
May the Church, who is the Body of Christ, actually embody the Jesus who is irresistible. Amen.

- jmw