What’s really at stake in the debate about universalism

Ted Grimsrud—April 3, 2011

Years ago I met a guy who pastored in Canada in the Mennonite Church. He struck me as a good person, seemed pretty gifted, someone I could easily imagine being successful in ministry. But he told me (and this was confirmed by others later) that he had gotten in trouble pretty often, even lost a couple of jobs. What was the problem? He was a universalist. He believed all people would find salvation, and he was willing to state that openly.

Ever since that conversation, I have noticed that for whatever reason, universalism seems like about the worst heresy there is. It seems like, at least in circles I’m familiar with, that it is much more objectionable for Christians to be too welcoming than it is to be too strict.

I have been aware of this dynamic surfacing again in controversy among North American evangelical Christians over a new book by a young superstar pastor named Rob Bell (the book is called: Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived; here’s one long highly critical review and a here’s link to the Google page for “rob bell love wins”). Before Bell’s book was even published, some of his theological enemies caught wind that he argues for a view that struck these thought police as dangerously close to universalism.

This debate about Bell’s book is fascinating, and has stimulated me to reflect a bit more on the universalism controversy as I have experienced it over the years—and to think some new thoughts about what I think may actually be at stake. I think the real issues that matter are a bit different than those generally discussed. And, I think this in large part because of what I understand the Bible to teach.

The focus of the debate seems to be on what happens to people after they die. One extreme would be to say only the elect few go to heaven and the rest are condemned to everlasting torment in hell. The other extreme would be to say everyone goes to heaven to be with God. Most Christians are somewhere in between, of course, with perhaps the most common view (at least traditionally) being closer to the few going to heaven and the majority spending eternity in hell pole.

It’s small wonder that people who take seriously belief in God’s love for the world would be troubled by the doctrine of eternal punishment in hell for the vast majority of humankind. But there seems to be a strong need for belief in some kind of literal hell for many Christians for most of the past 2,000 years. It’s worth reflecting on what the attraction is to this belief in hell. What does that particular conviction give those who hold it?

The focus in much of the debate seems to be on wrangling over specific verses in the Bible. As a rule, the literal hell people probably have a much stronger case based on prooftexts than do the universalists. However, the universalists are not without their own texts. We should remember that the “Universalist” half of the current Unitarian Universalist denomination in its beginnings was a biblicist movement that drew its convictions about universal salvation from a literal reading of the Bible.

However, theology by prooftext is always a problematic proposition. The Bible simply does not work very well when it is seen mainly as a repository of isolated verses that give us magical access to God’s truth. An approach that is much more coherent with the actual biblical materials sees the most profound meaning not in specific verses but at the opposite end of the list of possible reading strategies—the Bible as a big story that with all is complexities and diversity gives us a coherent plot with a beginning and end (my book that develops this point, God’s Healing Strategy: An Introduction to the Bible’s Main Themes, is coming out in a revised edition later this spring).

If we approach the question of universal salvation in light of the big story of the Bible, I do think we would have at least to recognize the appeal of universalism, even if we don’t fully embrace that stance. From the story of creation to the final vision in Revelation 21–22 of the completed healing work of God (and note the presence of God’s human enemies, “the kings of the earth,” inside the New Jerusalem), we get the picture of a God who desires salvation for all of God’s creation—and who works to effect that salvation.

However, a careful consideration of the big story of the Bible (and actually, a careful consideration of just about all the small stories that make up this big story as well) should make clear that the on-going debate about where human beings go after they die is missing the central concern of the Bible altogether. That is, the Bible is concerned with life in the here-and-now, not life after we die.

I find it highly ironic (and also worth some thought about why this might be) that those who claim to be biblical literalists, those who in the name of biblical authority scream “heresy!” so loud in relation to those who don’t share their convictions about hell and condemnation, miss so blatantly the basic message of the Bible. Again: The Bible from start to finish is concerned about life in the here-and-now, not life after death.

At the same time, I think we must also ask abut what kind of truth the Bible contains. Even if the Bible wanted to, could it give us definitive information about life after death? In a way this is an speculative question, because in fact that Bible does not try to give us such information. But what makes us think it could?

There is no argument about special revelation that is not either circular (that is, we say the Bible is special revelation because the Bible teaches that it is special revelation) or a projection of what must be rather than a conclusion based on evidence (that is, we say the Bible is special revelation because we believe that we must have special revelation to be able to function as Christians).

If we don’t assume some kind of magical intervention by God akin to a kind of fortune-telling, it is only logical to doubt whether people who have not yet died could write with any authority about what happens after we die. Of course, in the Bible itself even the rare occasions that writers to make statements about life after death, they have a different agenda than providing authoritative autonomous facts about the afterlife. They are always thinking in terms of the relevance of this information for life in the present. The “prophecy” always serves ethics. The warnings about the future always serve the call to present faithfulness.

Let me illustrate my points here by looking at the book of Revelation, certainly a central text for those who want to talk about the future, life after death, and the reality of a literal hell.

We may (with extreme over-generalizations) break down schools of thought concerning Revelation into four categories. The book of Revelation contains: (1) special revelation about the future and about life after death with a special concern with detailed predictions about the future [for example, Hal Lindsey and the Left Behind books—these folks tend definitely to be big on a literal torment-filled, everlasting hell]; (2) special revelation about the future and about life after death that is best approached through its first-century context with a special concern with giving ethical directives and hope amidst on-going persecutions [for example, a fine recent book by Mennonite biblical scholar and pastor Nelson Kraybill, Apocalypse and Allegiance: Worship, Politics, and Devotion in the Book of Revelation]; (3) interesting first century literature from a self-styled Christian prophet that is mostly paranoid ravings from a unreliable fanatic [for example, journalist Jonathan Kirsch's best-selling History of the End of the World]; or (4) interesting first century literature from a self-styled Christian prophet who has remarkable insights into the world as domination system and the relevance of Jesus’ message for creative peaceable responses to domination [for example, Walter Wink's Engaging the Powers (especially chapter five) and Mark Bredin's Jesus, Revolutionary of Peace].

This fourth approach is the one I take. In this view, Revelation then is not a promise of an already determined outcome—either the few are saved and most are punished amidst the Great Conflagration reading of Hal Lindsey or the peaceable end affirmed by Nelson Kraybill. I don’t believe that John of Patmos had any special knowledge of how things actually will end up. He doesn’t give us certainty of a happy outcome for the human project.

Rather, I read Revelation as portraying a method. If we are to achieve a peaceable end, Revelation gives us a vision of how we will do so. Revelation shows us the pattern of Jesus (faithful living in persevering love, death at the hands of the powers that be, and vindication) and asks us to imitate that pattern as the best strategy for dealing with the forces of domination. If those oppressive forces are to be defeated, Revelation claims, it will be only through the pattern of Jesus. And, should that pattern be embodied, we may hope that even God’s worst human enemies, “the kings of the earth,” will themselves find healing and themselves be transformed into peacemakers (Revelation 21–22).

This hope for the kings of the earth is the basic biblical message concerning universalism. Not a promise that after death they will make to heaven (or be sent to hell), but a call to live here-and-now in such a way as to contribute to their healing. We contribute to their healing by resisting their oppression, but doing so in imitation of Jesus’ style of persevering love (not in imitation of the Powers-that-be’s retributive “justice”). Such resistance allows for the kings themselves to change. The focus, again, is on the here-and-know. The visions of Revelation, like the big story in the whole Bible, mean to inspire faithful living—not provide information about life after death.

What’s at stake, then, in the debate about universalism is whether our beliefs about heaven and hell serve the biblical mandate to devote our lives to sharing God’s healing love with all those we can in the world we live in.

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21 Comments

Filed under Salvation, Theology, Universalism

21 responses to “What’s really at stake in the debate about universalism

  1. Pingback: What about universalism? « Peace Theology

  2. Berry Friesen

    Thank you for addressing this subject. Our understandings of faith and salvation have become so strongly identified with eternal life that our pastors dare not broach this subject with us.

    You help us the most when you remind us that the primary concern of the Bible is this life in the world Jesus has saved. But we would benefit from hearing more from you about why we shouldn’t focus instead on all those references in the Bible to eternal life. Why did the biblical writers talk so frequently about it if it isn’t an important consideration?

    As for universalism, yes, there are many passages that seem to support it. Yet it’s not conclusive. I think Paul spoke most comprehensively to the subject, and he appeared to hold the view that eternal life is a gift of God and part of the new creation in Christ Jesus. As for those who didn’t care for the good news of God’s abiding determination to save creation, Paul seemed to think they too would get their wish and simply perish.

    Perhaps it is only by lowering the stakes in the so-called afterlife that we will begin to take this life seriously.

  3. This is a helpful piece. The ‘Bell’ controversy has been overhyped but I’m grateful for much of the discussion. The issue raises many of the same questions we have been wrestling with around the violence of God, in particular with regard to ‘divine misbehaviour'[ in the Old Testament. It is always possible in the latter case to reach for a Christocentric hermeneutic in approaching the Old Testament. I don’t hold to a narrow biblicism and the concentration of references to hell in Matthew is one of the main reasons why I don’t..

  4. Ted Grimsrud

    Thanks for the thoughts, Barry. Good points!

    Just quickly, I don’t really think there are “all those references in the Bible to eternal life”—assuming by “eternal life” you mean “life after death.”

    First of all, in the vast majority of the Bible (i.e., what we Christians call the Old Testament), there is no concept of personal existence beyond death. So, “life after death” is marginal to the Bible as a whole.

    Second, I don’t think even in the New Testament there are a lot of references to “eternal life” (more on the meaning of that term in the next point), and even fewer where that is the main focus of the discussion. The synoptic gospels, Paul’s writings, Revelation, Hebrews, certainly James, all seem focused on life in the here and now, not life after death.

    Third, even when the term “eternal life” is used (as in John’s gospel), it seems that the meaning has mostly to do with the quality of life, not life after death (just as “heaven” in the NT has to do more with present spiritual existence than future life after death).

    So, really, I don’t think the biblical writers do “talk…frequently” about life after death—when they do, on relatively rare occasions, talk about “eternal life” they are thinking mostly of bringing the realities of God’s wholeness into present life.

    • Berry Friesen

      During 2005 I led a Sunday school class where we studied the substance of “Christian hope” biblical writers looked forward to. In short, we found much about the transformation of creation and much about the resurrection of the dead. We found very little to support conventional understandings of haeven and life-after-death.

      So I agree with the direction and emphasis of your comments.

      But ever since that study, I have been sensitized to biblical references to eternal life. And there are indeed many, espcially in John as you note, but also in (nearly) every other book in the Second Testament.

      My point is that when addressing those of us in the pew about this subject, much work will be needed before we will be convinced that you (or others following your teaching in this regard) are taking the Bible seriously and not ignoring a core aspect of the faith expereince of the early Christian writers. 21st century Christian think they know exactly what those texts mean. It will be a huge and painstaking task to dislodge that conviction.

      • Ted Grimsrud

        This is the problem, Barry: “21st century Christians think they know exactly what those texts mean.” I have found on occasion that when I show that I am taking the Bible seriously and using the Bible itself to refute what “21st century Christians think they know” people will listen respectfully to what I am saying.

        You’re right, it is a huge and painstaking task to reconfigure people’s theology. So one does what one can. My biggest concern, though, is trying to understand the biblical materials myself and work as hard as I can at articulating what I come to understand. And to articulate it clearly and accessibly. After that, it’s up to the Holy Spirit….

  5. Pingback: Heaven, Hell and ‘Vision’: ‘Living in the Present Moment’ | Creative Love Theism: Reflections of a Contemplative Neo-Anabaptist

  6. markmcculley

    Hi, Ted. As an ex-universalist, I perhaps should appeal to some Bible verse proof texts! Interesting that the best advocate of penal substitution you can name (for all some ,not the “others”) is Hal Lindsey. I know that you have a big interest in the book of Revelation, but since when is Lindsey is somebody who can best talk about one side of the debate on particularism and the atonement? This would be like me saying that Karl Barth’s 40 page “exegesis” of Judas “handing over” Jesus is the best use of a proof-text for universalism.

    Yes, I know Barth denied being an universalist.
    Perhaps Barth shared with Scotus the idea that God is pure will and thus free to reverse any revelation so far. But I will tell you the best advocate of universalism, and then ask you to tell me the best (not Hal Lindsey) advocate you have read for particularism. Tom Talbott. Even though I think he’s wrong, he does attend not only to Bible texts but arguments from the side. He does not stay in his ghetto.

    The person you pick doesn’t have to be a pacifist. I don’t think Talbott is a pacifist either, although I doubt that Tom would approve of Augustine’s approval of “just-policing”.

    • Ted Grimsrud

      Thanks for the comment Mark.

      I think the actual direction of what I wrote would be that we have to be agnostic about universalism. If we don’t have reliable information about the reality of hell as the fate of some when they die, we certainly also don’t have reliable information about everyone going to paradise when they die. I do also state that the “literal hell” people probably have more of the Bible on their side than the universalists.

      What I’m trying to say in the essay is that the debate over “particularism” and “universalism” insofar as it is focused on life after death misses the main thrust of the Bible—which is focused on life in the here and now and generally uses allusions to an afterlife as a means to speak to present day faithfulness.

      I certainly wasn’t thinking of Hal Lindsey as a representative advocate for penal substitution or particularism. I simply mention Lindsey as a well-known writer who reads Revelation in a literalistic future-oriented way.

      Because I don’t think the debate about what happens after we die is particularly relevant for biblical-oriented theology and ethics, I have not really investigated that debate. I actually met Tom Talbott a number of years ago (my close friend was his brother-in-law prior to a divorce) and I recommended that he submit an article to the old Reformed Journal that caused quite a stir. I have his book on universalism but haven’t read it yet.

      Again, I am not trying to take sides on the particularist vs. universalist debate. I am trying to say both sides are wrong inasmuch as they don’t echo the Bible’s preoccupation with this life.

  7. Hey Ted,

    You say that the debate over universalism misses the point because the biblical authors are not concerned with life after death but with the here and now. If one frames the debate as being between a Greek, metaphysical, other-worldly, disembodied existence vs. a Hebraic, earthy, love-your-neighbor understanding of humanity, then you’ll win every time. I don’t think that framing the debate in this way is at all fair though.

    Isn’t the biblical witness concerned everywhere with the *future*? While salvation (suspending the interpretation of that term momentarily) is present in incipient form, the biblical hope is oriented towards the horizon–towards the resurrection of the dead and the coming of Christ. It is these events which will establish, with totality and finality, the kingdom of peace. If one wants to somehow demythologize the hope of the resurrection and the second coming, bringing them into the present, has she not capitulated to philosophical trends (i.e., existentialism) as much as any classic metaphysical thinker? If the biblical hope is truly a resurrection hope, then it is *everywhere* concerned with life after death–that is precisely the good news about the resurrection!

    Also, at one point you ask about the capability of the biblical texts to tell us about life after death, asking how these human authors would have access to this realm that is beyond the world? Instead of providing insight into things beyond the world, the biblical authors provide a model of how to achieve peaceable ends. They do this by pointing to “the pattern of Jesus.” Haven’t you cut the ground from under yourself here? When the biblical authors point to the pattern of Jesus, what are they pointing to? What is it that makes him the archetypal model of peace? Surely you cannot affirm, given your understanding of the biblical authors and your comments on “special revelation”, that the person of Jesus depicted in the Bible is a revelation of the person and will of God. You say

    There is no argument about special revelation that is not either circular (that is, we say the Bible is special revelation because the Bible teaches that it is special revelation) or a projection of what must be rather than a conclusion based on evidence (that is, we say the Bible is special revelation because we believe that we must have special revelation to be able to function as Christians).

    So if you deny anything like “special revelation” somehow connected to the Bible, where do you ground your insistence that we look to Jesus to find the truth of God (i.e., that we are to seek peace)? Is this revealed to you in Jesus or in the Bible, or does it come from somewhere else? What I’m trying to ask is this: *Why pacifism*? Is it grounded in the being of God? Is it revealed in Jesus? If so, what’s the epistemological route to get here? I suppose you could try to ground it on the basis of a natural theology, but I would contend that a “survival of the fittest” ethical model would have as much (or more!) basis than a pacifist model, on a purely natural analysis anyways.

    I’m not trying to be a jerk here-maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t see a) how you can really say that the bible isn’t about life after death when the resurrection is so central, and b) how you propose to give a theological grounding of pacifism given your understandings of the biblical text and denial of revelation (the concept, not the book).

    Cheers!

    • Ted Grimsrud

      Matt! Great to hear from you. I believe you when you say you are not “trying to be a jerk” here—I don’t think you are a jerk, just wrong (smile).

      You raise a lot of challenging points. I will try to speak to a few—and if you don’t continue the conversation then I will think you’re a jerk!

      (1) I think you are switching categories when you respond to my comments about “life after death” with your comments about “the future.” I didn’t mean to say that the Bible is not concerned about the future at all, only that it’s not concerned about “life after death” in the way that participants in the discussion about universalism are. To the extent that the Bible discusses even resurrection it is focused not on “after we die” but on faithfulness in the present (see, for example, 1 Cor 15:58). Have you read N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope? He likely wouldn’t agree with much of what I say, but I think his argument against centering Christianity on life after death captures much of what I am trying to get at.

      (2) You seem to be forgetting the Old Testament when you write about the Bible’s message “everywhere” being about resurrection. It seems that if you are going to summarize the Bible as a whole being about “resurrection,” you can’t be taking Old Testament faith very seriously. This is the big question about resurrection (it seems to me—see my chapter on resurrection), I think, is if it adds a whole new level of content to the story of salvation or if it essentially is about vindicating the already proclaimed biblical message of salvation.

      But I would also reiterate that I am not rejecting the centrality of resurrection, I’m challenging a doctrine of resurrection—is it mainly about life after death or about providing empowerment for life here and now?

      (3) You are trying to paint me into a corner of your own making when you question whether I can affirm Jesus as “a revelation of the person and will of God” given my “understanding of the biblical authors and…’special revelation’.” To the contrary, I would suspect that your approach leads you not to an affirmation of the Jesus of the Bible as “revelation of the person and will of God” because you seem to be starting with certain assumptions about the shape of Jesus’ divinity rather than drawing conclusions based on the story itself. And not only would I say Jesus is “a revelation” of God but the definitive revelation (see my chapter on Jesus’ identity).

      The thing is, if the actual content of the story does not lead to our affirmation of Jesus’ divinity and shape that affirmation, it’s hard to see such an affirmation as anything but mystification and projection.

      (4) It is your statement that I “deny anything like ‘special revelation’ somehow connected to the Bible.” Rather, what I challenge is what I call a view of special revelation that is akin a fortune telling-like magical intervention by God that is justified by a circular argument. I think “special revelation” could be useful descriptor of the Bible, but it has to be based on conclusions based on the lived-out content of the Bible as transformative in real life, not on a assumption based on our own doctrinal understandings that we read into the Bible. It does seem like you are representing an approach that does start with the assumption that we must have “special revelation” to function as Christians so therefore we do have “special revelation.”

      (5) Finally, I actually do believe that if Christian pacifism is not grounded in both the life and teachings of Jesus understood as definitive revelation of God’s character and will and our understanding of the actual world we live in (“natural theology”), we are going to end up either with a kind of Gnostic pacifism or a pacifism that will be superficial and likely short-lived. If we believe the world truly is “survival of the fittest,” then we likely will follow that vast majority of Christians over the past 1600 years and embrace “necessary” violence.

      The issue, I think, is not that we can’t say that the character of God is pacifist without your kind of doctrine of “special revelation” (as I implied, the vast majority of Christians who have shared that kind of doctrine have accepted violence—and most Christian pacifists have based their pacifism much more on practical ethical grounds than on “special revelation”). Rather, it is whether we can trust that God does actually reveal Godself to us “from the ground up” through genuinely human vessels.

      Thanks again for the response and I hope we can keep “talking.”

  8. Ah yes, I forgot-you are one pacifist who likes a good fight (or a debate at least).

    (1) I certainly believe that the resurrection of Christ has implications for the here and now. That’s true enough. But you are still saying that it doesn’t have the implications for “life after death” in the way in which it is being used in the universalist debate. Am I right? If so, I would ask you-how can resurrection *not* have, as one of its core concerns, life after death? Resurrection is precisely *life after death*. Is it not? So to say the Bible is not concerned with an existence beyond (though in continuity with) this existence, seems to me highly problematic. Again, I’m saying this without positing an other-worldly reality that is entirely separate from this.

    (2) I am not disregarding the Old Testament. I see the Old Testament as part of a movement towards fulfillment. As such it is neither dispensable nor complete in itself. It is an open question: will God’s purposes for the world ever actually come to fruition through his people Israel? The vacillating narrative of God’s blessing and human unfaithfulness display this open question. Jesus Christ, his incarnation, death, and resurrection provide the answer to this open question. So I’m not saying that resurrection is everywhere an explicit theme, but this is certainly the glorious good news and the goal of the narrative.

    (3) I’m not actually sure what you’re saying here. I’m probably just not getting it. Can you reiterate? Sorry…I can say that I think we would both be in agreement with the assertion that Jesus’ divinity is revealed in the narrative….I’m also confused as to what I said that would tell you that I am starting with assumptions about Jesus’ divinity and subsequently importing them into my reading of the Bible. What have I said that would lay me open to this charge? I believe that the Bible is a divinely authorized witness to God’s self-revelation in the history of the covenant of God and man, culminating in Jesus Christ. I don’t see why you would say that I have simply imported that into the text.

    (4) and (5) to come later-I’ve got to run off somewhere right now.

    • Ted Grimsrud

      Hi again, Matt. Right—I tell my lifelong Mennonite friends when they are giving me a hard time to remember that I grew up with fistfights and do not have the instinct to avoid conflict.

      (1) I think the discussion here is drifting away from what I was trying to get at in my initial post. I don’t have major problems with talk about resurrection and even life after death; what I have a problem with is focusing on who goes to heaven or not. And asserting the doctrinal necessity of a literal hell. And being offended that God is extraordinary generous and might be seeking to find a way to bring healing to everyone.

      Also, if we insist on “continuity” between this life and the next, we should be fine. And if we reject “positing an other-worldly reality that is entirely separate from this [existence]” we should be fine.

      The test, though, is whether we are truly following Jesus’ path of love of neighbor (which includes enemies). If we are not, yet still claim to be going to heaven and to know who is not going to heaven, we are missing the central teaching of the Bible.

      (2) Of course you would deny that you are “disregarding” the Old Testament. You believe the Bible as a whole is special revelation. But, it seems to me, you are not drawing your theology from the OT. You are starting with the NT and only using the OT insofar as it fits with what you see in the NT. Maybe “neglecting” would be more precise than “disregarding.”

      Either way, I think if one takes the OT more seriously, one will read the NT differently (the NT as a complement to the OT will be read very differently than a NT as read through the lens of later theology [that in reality is not much based on the actual content of the NT]). And this different reading will put the resurrection in a different context: as vindication of the core message of the OT, not as a new doctrine.

      I think the big challenge Judaism has for Christianity (as you portray Christianity, which is the majority [supersessionist] view) is this: If God’s purposes for the world did not come to fruition through Israel but rather through Jesus Christ, why is there so little evidence of this “fruition” in history? Not only that, why is it that followers of this Jesus have been so violent and oppressive—including towards the Jewish people?

      (3) Okay, I went on the attack mode a bit because I didn’t like how you tried to paint me in a corner. You did not, of course, lay out your own christology. I guess I was assuming that if you don’t like my method, you must be doing something quite different. If you are indeed taking a narrative-first approach, I don’t understand why you would react so much to my version of that approach.

      One question here is what you mean by “divinely authorized.” And how do you arrive at that belief? All I am saying is that if we do come to that conclusion, we should do so on the basis of the evidence. But if we take that approach, we have to be open to the evidence taking us different directions that we might expect when we start out. That is, we have to have a bit of vulnerability. I don’t see that kind of vulnerability in most evangelical or Barthian theology.

      Thanks for the conversation!

  9. Berry Friesen

    Ted, still thinking about your post, especially this paragraph, which sends us in the right direction, I think:

    “Rather, I read Revelation as portraying a method. If we are to achieve a peaceable end, Revelation gives us a vision of how we will do so. Revelation shows us the pattern of Jesus (faithful living in persevering love, death at the hands of the powers that be, and vindication) and asks us to imitate that pattern as the best strategy for dealing with the forces of domination. If those oppressive forces are to be defeated, Revelation claims, it will be only through the pattern of Jesus. And, should that pattern be embodied, we may hope that even God’s worst human enemies, “the kings of the earth,” will themselves find healing and themselves be transformed into peacemakers (Revelation 21–22).”

    To put it in my own words, we don’t have experience with life after death and our assumptions about that subject are inherently highly suspect. When we find a person and/or a tradition that displays compelling insight into life before death, we have reason for trusting their assumptions about life after death. That’s because there is a strong connection between how one lives before death and what one believes about life after death.

    To play this out, within Paul’s writing we find a mix of passage, some that suggest an assumption of universal salvation and others that suggest an assumption that eternal life is a gift only for a portion of mortals. Where does that leave us in attempting to model our thinking after his?

    Maybe it helps that Paul consistently assumed a final judgment at which all mortals will be called to account. Do you agree with that assessment of his writing?

    • Ted Grimsrud

      Thanks, Berry. I like your point about trusting someone’s views on life after death when their views on life in the here and now are trustworthy.

      The way I would say it is that Paul profoundly believed in God’s justice—which for him meant, among other things, that God does hold us accountable for our actions. The notion of “wrath” enters here, not as God’s anger but as God allowing humanity to experience the consequences of our commitments.

      However, Paul also believes that God is at work seeking to help us break free from “wrath” (the dynamic of wrong commitments leading to negative consequences). Paul’s God, ultimately, is a compassionate, generous God. This does not mean a God who does not hold us accountable, but a God who will bring healing from our damage when we trust in God’s compassion.

      I think you probably are right that “Paul consistently assumed a final judgment at which all mortals will be called to account.” But more than speculating about the precise way this judgment will happen and about who will receive what kind of fate at that time, Paul emphasizes the present-day ethical significance of this conviction. Our actions do matter.

      And, I think contrary to a Lutheranism-gone-to-seed “cheap grace” or the kind of fundamentalist conversionism I was exposed to as a young Christian, Paul understood that this judgment would be holistic, related to our entire lives and our deeds and not simply our beliefs.

      • Berry Friesen

        Yes, “Paul emphasizes the present day ethical signifcance” of his conviction about accountabilty.

        For the time being, my assumptions about immortality and an afterlife have become very modest, resting on a simple phrase from Psalm 112:6: God remembers the righteous.

        I do wonder, however, what ethical impact such a modest view would have were it projected over a significant period of time.

        Over the past several centuries, much ethical action has been premised on the assumption of conscious immortality. It gives me pause to consider the impact of pulling that string out of the rug.

  10. (4) On the topic of “special revelation”-it’s obviously a nexus of questions. I don’t really like the term “special revelation” at all. I would prefer that we use the term “revelation,” if I had it my way. Anyhow, you say that it seems like I’m operating under the assumption that we must have revelation to function as Christians and therefore concluding that the Bible is revelation. I think that’s what you said, am I right? Here’s what I think: I don’t think human beings have access to ultimate reality via human enquiry-the way is blocked by human finitude and sin. But I do believe God has revealed Himself finally, definitively, and authoritatively in Jesus Christ. In fact, I only know of our inability to find him otherwise by virtue of the fact that he has revealed himself in this way. And the faith we have in his revelation is grounded only in the revelation itself–where else are we going to ground God’s revelation? On human thinking? In logic? In empirical study? These things ought to all follow after their object (Jesus Christ) but they cannot establish the object! Call it fideism, call it circular, call it whatever-it’s based on the understanding that Jesus Christ is risen, living, and active and that he is the one who reveals himself.

    (5) I was under the impression that you were making the following claim: there is no way for the human authors of the Bible to tell us anything about the afterlife because, qua humans, they do not have access to the reality beyond death. Therefore, we shouldn’t look at the Bible for this type of information. I don’t see how you can be so restrictive about the biblical authors revealing something like that, but at the same time affirm that God’s eternal being is in any way revealed by these same human authors. How would they have any access to God’s being? Wouldn’t the same hard restriction apply to them as humans in this instance?

    • Ted Grimsrud

      (4) In a nutshell, I think you are positing, in effect, that there is some way for God to bypass our human finitude and give us true revelation that is not susceptible to human distortion and sinfulness and vulnerability. I am not sure why you would say this unless, in some sense, you thought this was the only way we could access truth. Which does seem to me to be starting with a definition of what we need and then drawing a conclusion from that definition.

      It makes more sense to me to accept that as human beings we can only access anything outside of us through our human finitude. It is dangerous to try to find some authority that bypasses that finitude—and lots of violence has and does result.

      The issue, though, is whether we actually do experience God and truth and healing. I think we do. That makes me think that human finitude (sinfulness, et al) must not be an impossible barrier for accessing truth. The book of Yoder’s writings that I edited, A Pacifist Way of Knowing, speaks helpfully to this theme, especially his essay, “But We Do See Jesus,” which is also in his book The Priestly Kingdom.

      (5) What I would say is that it’s not all or nothing. It’s like the difference between fortune telling and futurology. The former posits some special, magic-like knowledge not accessible through normal human channels; the latter bases its projections regarding the future on information from the past and present. The Bible is more like the latter. If people genuinely know God and are living faithfully to the expectations of Torah and the gospels, they will have insights into the nature of reality that those who are not don’t. And as such, they may have wisdom to offer about God’s character and how that might shape what to expect in the future.

      The “access to God’s being” comes only through the synergy between human faithfulness and divine inspiration. The biblical writers can’t tell us anything without our following the path. And if we’re following the path we will be concerned about loving our neighbors, not what happens after we die.

  11. On

    (1): Not trying to hijack the discussion, I guess I just thought you were saying that the Bible has nothing to say about life after death and that it’s all about ethics in the here and now. I suppose that, given context, I can see where you’re coming from.

    On the other stuff: I’m not trying to challenge your pacifism per se-just more curious about how it’s grounded. For me, any argument about pacifism would carry the most weight if it shows that it is rooted in who God is, and this always brings up the question of access to this reality…

  12. Gary Olsen-Hasek

    Personally, having spent years studying many religious traditions and practices, I think of the universalism debate somewhat differently than how it is discussed here. I find it very disturbing for many in our larger culture, regardless of Christian commitment or otherwise, to impose “heaven” on people who may not believe or desire it. It is a sort of a philosophy of spiritual imperialism that says we know a loving God will bring all people to “eternal life.”

    I’m a bit of an agnostic on some of this, as you are Ted, be it on the topic of heaven or hell.
    As a Christian, I am hopeful for “resurrection” in the present life and because I have a diseased body, I’d appreciate a new one in the future. I wouldn’t expect one of my Buddhist friends to seek the same, nor would I tell them that they should look forward to life in “heaven” or the “new earth” when all they want is Nirvana. While there seems to be a “sorting out” eventually, all that sheep and goats stuff in Matthtew 25. One can argue about the meaning of it. Jesus does spend time talking about both things that lead to life and those that lead to death, so I’ll try to venture toward the life enhancing.

  13. Pingback: Defending Yoder vs. Leithart and other blog posts « Peace Theology

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