Why No One is Really an Exclusivist

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 

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4 Responses to Why No One is Really an Exclusivist

  1. Richard says:

    Matt,
    Nice analysis. I think there is a great deal of implicit or crypto-universalism in the church, particularly in progressive, emerging churches (which is why so many of them are thinking about universalism as a soteriology of the emerging movement).

    Highland is very crypto-universalist. Nary a word about hell or damnation is every mentioned. That is implicit universalism, a tacit, unvoiced deemphasis on hell. Further, although Mike overtly denies universalism, he’s a crypto-universalist. For example, awhile back he said (as I recall): “In my early years I used to think the big question was where I would spend all eternity. Now I think the question is: What kind of person do I want to be if I were to live for all eternity?” Well, that’s the whole spirit of universalism: Less about location and more about formation.

  2. Justin says:

    actually there are some branches of Calvinist that are just about as purist as you can get. I knew a guy who believed his own child who had been miscarried by his wife was not in heaven.

    I have a very interesting view of hell. I am exclusivist, but I believe every single person has hope of being included if they so choose.

    Thing is, hell to me is simply absence of relationship with God. We have our source in him, in His image, and our soul you could say is like an umbilical cord to God. We spend our whole lives in a hunger for something, and running around hurting each other and ourselves to find it. God is the answer to that hunger, deep need. So anyways, the thing about choice is if you choose not-God, you can’t choose Heaven, because Heaven is only Heaven cause God’s there. So there’s no where else to go. So they go to not-God, or hell.

    Now sometimes I fluctuate between eternal punishment, since eternal starvation of the thing you were created for is surely punishment, or annihilationism. I don’t really know. Your thoughts about the refining fire, and eventual entrance into Heaven are very intriguing. In a very real way I hope you’re right. I know God is mercy, and honestly I’ve seen him show so much mercy where he could have righteously shown judgement. But I know he is Judge as well…and I don’t know, he has every right to send us all there and leave us there for eternity….sadly so.

    I dunno….you really made me think about this, and I’m not sure….I will just add it to my pantheon of thoughts on hell, and just be glad I’m not going there either way. Not really the point of life anyways, that is to share and be christ that others might have this relationship with God I have, now and on into eternity. Especially now, and especially after they die. They’re both important equally.

  3. Jeremiah says:

    This was a real eye-catcher:
    “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. ”

    I’m in the same position myself. But I must disagree with the idea of inclusivism as a gateway to universalism. Only in fundamental circles, using a criteria of liberalism as a scale, can I see this relation. And that’s a lot of “-isms.”

    Emergent churches today, if they are universalist, are only so by default. If pressed, I am certain that most would align with the inclusivist crowd. No one but God, and the most pious of us, want Hitler in Heaven. The same probably goes from Hussien and bin Laden. We want the really bad guys in Hell, at least for a while, but the fairly moral party-goers–we want them with us.

    I wish I could adopt a Universalist stance, I really do. I just can’t make it work biblically.

  4. Matt says:

    Richard-
    I like the phrase crypto-universalist. I enjoyed our conversation on this subject on Saturday, and hope we can have more like it.

    Justin-
    Thanks for reading and commenting. I think you are articulating a pretty reasonable viewpoint. And if I have read some of his previous comments correctly, I have a friend who reads this space who lines up pretty closely with you. Perhaps we’ll hear from him soon as well.

    Jeremiah-
    Thanks for the kind words, and the respectful way that you have disagreed. I think this sort-of dialog is very healthy, if for no other reason than to allow all of us to see how everyone is struggling with this issue. I am less interested in getting people to agree with my answers/leanings (which are often woefully misinformed and poorly reasoned) than to opening the subject up for discussion so that we can all learn from each other.

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