Monday, October 29, 2012

Damned Nonsense! Post #5: Original Ungrace

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!

The preceding posts have demonstrated that traditional views on salvation and hell are not simply the "clear teaching of Scripture" but rather varying 'schools' of approaching the Bible and theology. In Post #1 we learned that the traditional views have emphasized or neglected various parts of Scripture. The question before us today is why tradition has vehemently held on to hell. Why, for example, have passages about hell been given more weight than, say, passages about Christ's atonement for all? In today's post I propose, along with Thomas Talbott, that "something other than biblical exegesis lies behind the fierce opposition to Universalism that we find in tradition," (Talbott in Holy, p.1).

Whenever I bring up the topic of Universalism to fellow Christians there is an instinctive reaction against it. I use the word instinctive very intentionally because I have noticed that this reaction comes from a place of deeply embedded beliefs about the way things are. It is as if the thought of God saving all people clashes into the very essence of what is true about God and reality. This is an important observation and I encourage the reader to reflect upon whether or not this is true in your experience.

The sociologist Peter Berger referred to our deeply embedded beliefs as our "plausibility structure." It refers to all of the "unconscious assumptions 'accepted within a given society, which determine which beliefs are plausible to its members and which are not,'" (Berger in Holy, p.6). That word "plausible" indicates everything that we can even imagine as being possible. Our plausibility structure is like the lenses through which we see the world, especially as it pertains to voices of authority and credibility. The only problem with our plausibility structure is that it can inhibit us from seeing that which is outside of or contrary to it. 

A great example of this is the Newtonian view of time and space. Since Einstein came along and demonstrated that the Newtonian view was wrong, physicists have agreed with the theory of relativity. However, the majority of folk (myself included!) can't seem to break free from Newton's view that time is the "stage" upon which objects play out their existence. This *false* view is totally embedded into our world view. To get closer to the link between our plausibility structure and the topic at hand, let's try a little thought experiment (tailored for Christians):

1. When did you first learn that not all people would be saved? 
2. How did you first learn that not all people would be saved? 
3. Was it by reading by reading the Bible?
4. Or, was it taught to you?
5. When you first began to read the Bible, did you approach it with the presupposition that all would be saved? Or, did you begin with the presupposition that not all would be saved?

If you grew up in the church then it is more than likely that hell has always been a part of your plausibility structure. And, it is likely that you did not first learn about hell from reading the complete narrative of Scripture; rather, you learned from what was taught as the "truth" about God. The world into which we are born gives us are sense of what is "normal." Even people who join the church later in life are usually already informed by traditional portraits of hell. The myth of heaven/hell permeates Western culture so pervasively that it is almost impossible to break free from the traditional view of seeing God as the one who sends the unsaved to hell. Whether in comedic caricatures or serious theology, hell is embedded in our plausibility structure (e.g. just watch TV commercials, read comics, or listen to people talk).

Since the majority of Western Christians were taught about hell before they were able to study the Bible for themselves, it is not surprising that the default reading of Scripture has been one that gives more weight to passages about hell and eternal punishment rather than the scope and finality of Christ's victory. In other words, it's no surprise that the plausibility structure of tradition leads to an interpretation of Scripture that opposes Universalism.

We must ask why this view has become the norm when the Bible clearly contradicts it in many places (at least as much as Universalism is also contradicted). In other words, is there something other than "clear biblical teaching" that has kept hell in the game for so long? Along with Talbott and Holy, I believe there is. 

I believe that the our human instinct is to preserve the traditional view of hell because we are fundamentally bent toward ungrace. In the final analysis, "it is 'original ungrace' not biblical exegesis that lies behind even evangelical opposition to Universalism," (Holy, 30). In agreement with Holy, I believe that the visceral reaction against Universalism is the result of our desire to exclude those who we believe do not deserve God's grace. As Talbott puts it, it is the opinion that "God has no right to extend his mercy to a given class of persons."  

The popular Christian author Philip Yancey wrote a contemporary classic called What's So Amazing About Grace? (1997) In it Yancey explains that human beings have "an inbuilt resistance" to grace and it goes "against every instinct of humanity." Indeed, the scandal of God's grace does not make sense in a world where people are supposed to get "the rewards and punishments that they deserve." 

This is precisely why most Christians cannot allow grace to be grace! Instead, traditional [predominately Arminian] Christians distort grace to mean that only those who respond to Christ in a certain way before a certain time will receive God's grace. 

Holy explains:

"This is most obvious in Yancey's proposed definition of grace as meaning that 'there is nothing we can do to make God love us more' and 'nothing we can do to make God love us less.' He stresses that our 'instinct' is that we have to 'do something in order to be accepted' by God is wrong. Yet, at the same time, he says that 'all we must do [to 'get to heaven'] is cry 'help!'. Surely, then, there is something we can do to make God love us more? It is hard to see in what meaningful sense those who 'fail' to 'get to heaven' (and, thus, presumably, end up in hell, however that is defined or conceived) are accepted and loved by God." (30)

Holy's critique of Yancey is a prime example of how Christians instinctively distort grace into ungrace. We convince ourselves: 'It is not up to God to have mercy upon whoever God pleases (Exod. 33:19), instead we must decide who gets God's grace based on our reading of Scripture and our tradition because surely we know!'

It always fascinates me to observe the dynamic between the "saved" and the "unsaved" in the Gospels. The "saved" in Jesus' day were no doubt the self-confident "children of Abraham," those who perceived themselves to be in God's favor. Yet whenever Jesus extended grace to the "unsaved" -  those who supposedly did not deserve it - the "saved" became outraged (e.g. Matt. 9:11, Luke 7:39, John 9:16). Perhaps this is why Jesus told a parable about laborers in a vineyard who each receive the same reward despite working different amounts. When payment is given there is outrage among those who are stuck in a plausibility structure of "earning" what they "deserve." The same can be seen in the parable of the Prodigal Son as the elder brother is enraged by the father's grace.  

There comes a point when we must consider that maybe our own plausibility structure has been infected by sin. What if we really are bent toward ungrace? To facilitate some reflection on this question, allow me offer a list of claims that Christians have traditionally preferred to endorse instead of the claim that God will save all. 

Consider the following:
  • God simply does not love all people.
  • God does not desire the salvation of all.
  • God saves some and damns others to hell.
  • Hell exists because God cannot stand to look upon sinners.
  • God still loves those in hell, but refuses to save them.
  • God doesn't love those in hell.
  • Jesus did not die for all people.
  • Jesus only died for the elect whom God foreknew.
  • Those in hell did not do their part to accept God's grace.
  • Those in hell choose to be there.
  • God will annihilate those in hell against their will (out of mercy, of course).
  • Those who end up in hell have the option to leave but will reject God forever.
I could go on but I will stop there. To be fair, these individual statements become more coherent within their respective systems of theology, but the point still stands. These horrific statements are ideas that most Christians are more compelled to believe than the statement 'God will ultimately save all people.' One way to interpret this opposition to Universalism is to say that the above statements are what Scripture teaches. Unfortunately (or fortunately!) there is a lot of Scripture that teaches otherwise (see Post #6 next). Another way to interpret this opposition to Universalism is what I have proposed in today's post. Allow me to summarize:

Human beings are fundamentally bent toward ungrace. We are so brilliant, so crafty, and so self-centered, that even our religion has been contaminated with ungrace. We have turned the very means of God's universal grace to humankind - the Christ Event - into a measuring stick for including ourselves and excluding those that we don't think deserve God's grace.
But if grace is grace, and if there is nothing we can do to make God love us more or less, than how is it that some end up in heaven and others in hell? It would seem that there are only two options. Option 1: Those who end up in hell are not wanted by God (Calvinism).  Option 2: Those who end up in hell did not do their part to receive their "free grace" (Arminianism). 

Or, maybe there is an Option 3?


Next Post: How about Universalism?


  1. Hey Josh - really thought provoking stuff in all of these posts. I love you and one of your previous comments where you said we should "hold them all in tension. The universalist texts AND the hell texts. And let us work out our faith together in fear and trembling!" I am looking forward to tomorrow's installment. Regarding this post, I do think we are all bent toward "ungrace" and many other flawed sinful tendencies, whether from nature or nurture, and whether from religion, culture or upbringing. You have provoked me to come up with a list of statements that I believe confidently, and another one to wrestle with how they can agree with each other. Just thinking out loud here:
    - God is holy (righteous)
    - God is good (only good, in no way evil)
    - God is just (punishing all unrighteousness)
    - God is love (his very essence)
    - God is also able to hate (though his hatred is righteous)
    - God created heaven and hell (i.e. assuming heaven and hell both exist, God created both)
    - I deserve hell (feel free to ask me why)
    - Christ deserves Heaven
    - Christ is God
    - God experienced hell for me
    - God desires all people to be saved
    - God is solely responsible for my salvation (even my faith is His gift to me...this is where I tend to agree more with Calvinists than Arminianists)
    - God can save whomever he wants (even all people, who am I to say he doesn't)
    - Salvation is through Christ alone
    - Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess (give praise) to God

    Now some thoughts I wrestle with:
    - God would still be entirely holy even if no one / a few / many go to hell eternally
    - God would still be entirely good even if no one / a few / many go to hell eternally
    - God would still be entirely just even if no one / a few / many go to hell eternally
    - God would still be entirely loving even if no one / a few / many go to hell eternally
    - God will / will not get everything he desires
    - God is able to judge the living and the dead & preached to the dead(1 Peter 4:5-6)
    - I have accepted Christ or he has chosen me, or both
    - Those who don't accept Christ are still chosen (justified) by him? (this one I find particularly hard)

    Love to you brother,

  2. Travis, thanks so much for the comment and genuine interest in this series. I hope your spirit is able to separate the wheat from the chaff in my writing so that you may be blessed. This is a slippery subject matter and my overall hope is that we can all agree on that.

    I appreciate your "credo" of faith statements here. I think they are a nice representative of the tensions that we find in Scripture. And i appreciate your honesty about the latter statements that you are wrestling with.

    You make two statements back to back that are actually the very reason I lean toward Universalism. You say that God desires the salvation of all, and then you say that your faith is a gift of God (where you tend to agree with Reformed more than Arminian). Having grown up Arminian, I am more an more becoming led to universalism THROUGH Calvinism. Know what I mean? Like, I agree with you... and that is precisely why I lean toward universalism. :)

    Check out today's post #6 and see what you think.

    Peace and love to you brother.

  3. Hey Travis! After finding the first post tonight I've been devouring each one in turn!

    I hope you will do a post (It would've been best to do it after or included in this one) about the Great Commission. It's not a facet that conflicts with universalism, but I think it should be addressed nonetheless. Traditional salvationists would point to the Great Commission as their motivation, defending themselves from your accusation of ungrace.

  4. Sorry JMW. I accidentally called you Travis in my last comment, getting confused with the other commentor on this post.

  5. Orion, that is a good topic to explore. Many criticize Universalism for being weak on missions and evangelism. I think I will take up that topic next week.

    Thanks and peace to you.