In the last post, I “outed” myself (thanks, Richard, for the term) as a universalist sympathizer. Its not that I’m a card-carrying universalist, bent on imposing that perspective on others. Universalism has its own set of problems, which I recognize. But the universalist approach to scripture does resonate with me on a visceral level. I can’t give all of the reasons why. However, in the next series of posts, I’m going to explore – as best I can – the reasons that I am able to get into words.
When it comes to exclusivism (the position that everyone except Christians who “believe” in Jesus will go to hell), I know of no one who is a complete, all-out purist. Exclusivism – if ingested in its purest form – is almost impossible to keep down.
Why? No reason from scripture, really. “Pure” exclusivism just seems too derned unfair.
Lets begin with the most obvious example: infants. I have never heard anyone suggest that an infant who dies in the womb or in its first few hours, days, or even months, is bound for hell. Even though the infant could never possibly form any thoughts that vaguely resemble “belief” in the most traditional, evangelical sense, exclusivists make it clear that infants will not end up in hell. The same is almost always considered to apply to people who are so mentally incompetent that they are not even capable of embracing faith in Jesus.
So the key question then becomes: at what point does the situation change for an infant/child? In my faith tradition, it was often said that children must reach an age where they are “accountable” to God, presumably because they eventually come to understand what sin is all about. Before then, they are in no danger of hell. After that time, they are. [I will spare you extended stories about how anxiety-producing this thought can be at the tender age of ten – you can probably imagine: get “in” before you “get it” and it doesn’t count, but wait too long and – zap! – you might just get hit by a car before you realize the time has come for you to embrace faith! That alone was a good reason to be paranoid about crossing streets when I was young.]
But some aren’t even satisfied with this. “What about those who never are told about Jesus?” they ask, “Is it fair when they never had a chance to avoid hell?” Thus came into being yet another item on the theological menu of hell: inclusivism, or the belief that some, but not all, non-Christians will be saved.
And here’s where it really gets interesting, because some people take things a step further, saying: “If someone is truly going to hell only if they have a chance to make a legitimate choice, what about those to whom Jesus has been misrepresented? What about victims of the crusades? Or homosexuals who are told – literally – that Jesus hates them? What about those who were sexually abused by the clergy? Or those who never really encountered God’s love in the gospel, because the gospel was masked in legalism? They were never given a legitimate chance to embrace a loving, caring God either, were they?”
I hope you can see how, if you’re willing to be sufficiently sympathetic, inclusivism can begin to approach universalism. And the point I am making is this: once you start down the path of saying: “I’m sure God wouldn’t eternally torment this person” (as everyone does) it is very hard to stop.
Universalists are often criticized for their blind trust in God’s goodness in the face of “exclusivist” passages, yet everyone recognizes that a pure exclusivist position is unfair. They don’t really have a biblical explanation for it, they just realize that, based on everything scripture tells us about God, absolute exclusivism can’t be the case, because if we know nothing else about God, he is good and just. Universalists are doing the same thing everyone else does with “exclusivist” passages. They are only doing it to a greater degree.
In the universalist way of thinking, God’s goodness is not a problematic barrier around which they must construct their system of right beliefs. Instead, faith in God’s goodness, love, and justice is the foundation on which our entire reading of scripture should be built.
Up next: love, goodness, justice, and the universalist