Mar 252012

This morning, Eddie Rivera, the pastor at SPUMC, preached what I thought was a fantastic sermon on John 14:6, the rather infamous text in which Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Eddie pointed out that he has struggled mightily with this text over time. He said that, within the United Methodist community, you will find people who claim that this text is speaking only of the way people “come to” the Father within the Christian community, and others who claim it is the only way for all humans to “come to” the Father. Without invalidating either perspective, Eddie pointed out that the text challenges us as a Christian community to live in the way of Jesus – that this is the means by which the world around us is going to find life. Any interpretation of this text that does the opposite – sets us apart from and against the world around us – is contrary to the very nature of being “life” to the world.

I thought that this was a fantastic point, and, during the last couple of hours, I’ve been finding my self coloring in some of the ideas he sketched during his sermon with my own experiences.

It seems to me that the thing about John 14 that has always made me uncomfortable is the fact that it sets out a metanarrative (an overarching “story” that claims to encompass and control all other stories). In the postmodern era, people are deeply suspicious of metanarratives. In last century, metanarratives have put people in gas chambers and caused others to fly airplanes into buildings. They have justified torture and created a seemingly impossible political divide within our country.

Similarly, because those of us who live in the first world are becoming increasingly in contact with and aware of other nations and cultures, we are also acutely aware that not everyone shares our metanarratives. The Islamic metanarrative is different from the Buddhist one, and both of those are different from the metanarrative of the humanist/atheist. If we are all going to co-exist, then we are going to have to find a way to deal with the fact that we all have different cosmic “stories” rolling around in our minds.

So…many people, and most especially young people, are deeply suspicious of metanarratives.

Yet it strikes me that this text is, unavoidably, an expression of the Christian metanarrative. True, its not designed to answer the question of “will people who live in the future, and  who follow other religions go to heaven after they die?” – which is what many of us suppose. That is, in any case, a bad question – and I will have to leave my reasons for that observation for another time. In the meantime, my central point is that – if you read John as a whole – it is clear that Jesus has been given to the world, and that Greeks – who, in Jesus’ time, practice other religions – are clearly among those whom he is going to draw to the Father. There is no escaping it. This is a metanarrative from an early Christian community, not simply an isolated statement about how that community comes to know God.

But is it a harmful one? I have no doubt that it can be and is often perverted into mean-spirited claims that are designed to exclude and de-humanize non-Christians. But does the text itself, if given a full and fair reading, result in a metanarrative that is destructive to the world around it?

I don’t think so. At its heart, the text is telling us that we can know our Creator by looking at the person of Jesus. If we look at his life and listen to his words, we are also looking upon God as well. To live out our lives as Jesus lived his (v. 12) is the “way” to the Father, the means by which we discover “truth” and the avenue to “life.” Jesus was not a source of pain and exclusion to those around him. He was a source of hope and love and healing. If we do the same, there is no way that this metanarrative can harm others. This was Eddie’s point this morning.

Now I want to wander a little beyond what Eddie had to say, so be warned: what follows was not part of Eddie’s sermon (though it agrees with what he has said).

First, it seems to me that some people who do not call themselves Christian understand the “way of Jesus” better than many who do. They live out lives of non-violent resistance to injustice as Jesus did. They care about the marginalized around them. Like Gandhi, they refuse to give into the seductive lure of cultural and national exceptionalism and greed. They are, consciously or not, coming to know the Father through the way of Jesus. This possibility is not unheard of in scripture (see Paul’s comments in Romans 2:14-16). Is it the title “Christian” that puts us on the way of Jesus, or is it the way we imitate him (even when we don’t know that is what we are doing)?

Second, it seems to me that John 14 has nothing to say about the extent to which humanity will ultimately “come to the Father” through Jesus, a point that many seem eager to make with this text. It claims that Jesus will make it possible for humans to come to God, but says nothing about how much of humanity (few? many? most? all?) will do so.

The metanarrative of scripture seems to me to be moving to a much different, and more hopeful place. Humanity takes a very difficult and winding path through the Bible, no doubt. There are times of judgment, stories of hells, and tales of narrow paths that only a few find. But – as I’ve said before – this narrative ultimately seems to speak in universal terms. In John “all people” are drawn to Jesus. In Paul, every knee bows and every tongue confesses. In Revelation, the gates of God’s garden-city are open and the nations stream in to be healed by the medicinal herbs of its trees. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, even in the Old Testament, we are told that God will one day “raise up” Sodom, possibly the most notoriously wicked city in all of scripture.

To say that mankind comes into relationship with its Creator through Jesus is not to say that those who are a part of our small group of believers in the here and now are the only ones who finally make it into God’s new world. This enables us to live along side others who cling to different metanarratives in peace and hope. After all, the universe is a big, beautiful, and mysterious place. Surely, it has not yet yielded all of its secrets to humanity. Surely, even if our own story holds true, others can appreciate deep truths about the world that we do not. And, if we hold to our own meta-narrative in the way Jesus tells it and lives it out, we can be sure that God is very, very patient and full of infinite love.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus tells us at the start of John 14, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.”

In a world full of different metanarratives that is trying to coexist, surely this makes for a much better rallying cry than verse 6.

It is in God’s nature to make lots of space for everyone.

We should do the same.

Jun 192011

Hopeful Universalism lives with an unresolved tension. It recognizes that some parts of scripture point toward an exclusive kind-of salvation that is found only in Jesus, leaving some on the “outside.” But it also recognizes that other parts of scripture point toward a Christ who is reconciling “all things” to himself, looking to a day when every knee bows and every tongue confesses. This strange paradox is captured perfectly in I Timothy 4:10, which speaks of “God, the savior of all men, and especially those who believe.”

Hopeful universalism neither explains away nor over-emphasizes either of these two voices. Rather, it chooses to acknowledge the paradox, to live with it, and to trust that, even if universal reconciliation is not to be, all things are still moving toward a resolution that is “too wonderful to know” (Job 42:3).

Jun 182011

I am a hopeful universalist, or, to put it in slightly more provocative terms, a universalist sympathizer.

What does that mean? It means, as I recited in a prior post, that I’m not a universalist, but I suspect that God might be.*

Hopeful universalists can be contrasted with what we might call dogmatic universalists, who believe and teach the certainty of universal salvation (i.e., the concept that all people will be saved…which usually means that they will eventually be saved, after a period of time in hell).

For the dogmatic universalist, universalism is a matter of theological certainty/necessity. For the hopeful universalist, it is instead a matter of possibility. Hopeful universalism, then, is best characterized as a particular attitude of prayer, rather than a strict academic or theological teaching.


*I adapted that statement from this video of NT Wright, which was the subject of a prior post. Wright, it should be noted, didn’t really adopt this statement (it was made by someone else). However, he used it to point out the flexibility and play that is at issue in the universalism debate.

Feb 272011

The net was abuzz last night over a video from Rob Bell that promotes Love Wins, a book that will be released at the end of March. Here is the video:

LOVE WINS. from Rob Bell on Vimeo.

In the video, Bell asks a series of questions about the doctrine of hell, the most pointed of which is this: will the vast majority of humanity will suffer conscious, eternal torment?

The questions alone seem to be enough to hit some hot buttons. Commenters on Vimeo, for example, are quoting scripture back at Bell, as if his complete teaching was laid out in the video (its not). Likewise, noted Christian leader John Piper has now famously tweeted “Farewell Rob Bell,” linking to a blog post by Justin Taylor which suggests that Bell’s teachings on the subject are “false doctrine.”

The general tone of the critics has been something like this – “Okay, we’ve seen the video, we now know that Bell is a universalist. Now that he has come out in the open, our suspicions of his heresy are confirmed.”

Scot McKnight has thankfully weighed in on the subject, cautioning us to wait and talk about Bell’s ideas after the book is actually released. Likewise, Tom Batterson, who has actually read an advance copy, has quoted from segments of it. The snippets Batterson quoted do not suggest to me that Bell is a universalist, but his apparent rejection of the teaching that people’s fates are “sealed” at death will not win over many of his critics.

The flurry of emotion over the entire subject is, I think, itself somewhat telling. For better or worse, Bell has hit a note that marks a significant break between Christians in our culture.

Often, in heated debates, I think it is helpful to try and understand what is going on behind the scenes. Why is this a message so many people want to hear? Why are people so upset over what amounts to nothing more than a series of questions in a promotional video?

To set the right tone for a debate of this magnitude (and make no mistake, once the book is released, such a debate will occur), I think its important to get in touch with why we are all so emotional about it. That helps us to keep our cool while we try to understand where the other side is coming from. So lets work through that for a minute.

From the perspective of traditional evangelicalism, and even moreso from the reformed perspective, the gospel is first (and, to some, exclusively) about being “rescued” from hell. Jesus’ work on the cross, his atonement, is an act that allows those who believe in him to avoid an eternal fate in hell. This is a perspective on the gospel that Brian McLaren has characterized as a “soul sort narrative.” Ultimately, everything you read in the Bible is about saving people from hell.

If we come to believe that hell doesn’t exist, or that it doesn’t affect all nonbelievers, or that “good people” who are nonbelievers can be saved, then this entire perspective falls apart. The entire understanding of the gospel is built on the premise that we need to be “saved from hell.” Take that “need” away, and the whole thing collapses like a tower of blocks. Kevin DeYoung, for example, has more or less said this. He can’t make sense of anything in the Bible if his concept of hell is challenged. And I believe he is sincere.

So it’s a scary thing. If the tower collapses, then you either have to say it was all a fraud to begin with, or you have to pick up the pieces and try to put them together in another way. Either way, your entire worldview must go through a dramatic, jarring shift.

Its also worth mentioning that reputations of leaders are on the line here. If they are getting the hell question wrong, then it follows that there are problems with a lot of other things that they have said as well. That could be really embarrassing. I am sure that many leaders who disagree with Bell are going to do so with great (and appropriate) humility, but there may also be some egos, and some pride, involved on the part of his critics.

That is one side of the debate. What about the other?

For others of us (and I include myself in this group), the tower of blocks looks pretty wobbly to begin with. The notion that, ultimately, the vast majority of humanity will spend eternity in eternal suffering just doesn’t jive with all of the Biblical talk about God’s love. Something seems deeply wrong with this scheme.

This is what is at stake for the other side: What is God really like? How can God’s essential nature be trusted as one that is loving, if it is God’s intention to do this act of (to us) unimaginable horror? We don’t really want to see the tower stand as it is, because it presents its own, frightening view of cosmic history.

Thus, some of us are eagerly (and silently) waiting for someone to come along and, like the child who observed that the Emperor was naked, finally yank out the block that pulls down the tower. We think that Bell is going to do that for us.

But pulling this block is a very serious thing. If we hold any respect for scripture, we are going to have to account for God’s judgment and wrath and, yes, the Biblical texts that refer to hell. In other words, the “hell” block may not fit well at the foundation of our faith, but – when we eventually rebuild the tower – its going to have to fit into it somewhere.

While the “traditional” side is frightened that no new worldview can emerge once we pull the block, the opposite side of the debate may underestimate how difficult its going to be to put together a new tower. We need to approach the subject with sobriety, and respect for the prior generations who handed this perspective to our own.

To summarize, then, here is what I think is at stake: We aren’t just arguing over a few minor points of doctrine, we are arguing over a key component which is central (even essential) to the faith of a large number of Christians. A great number of things depend on how we answer the “hell” question.

This storm has been brewing for a long time, and – as you might expect – some are spoiling for a fight. Lets not allow the tension to cause our discussion to spiral out of control, into name calling, mischaracterizations, and dismissiveness. This means a great deal to all of us. Lets address each other with (1) a genuine desire to understand what people are saying and why it is important to them, (2) mutual respect, and (3) humility.

As followers of Jesus, it is the very least we can do.

Feb 082010

One of the odd things I’m learning about moving to a new blog is that the old one doesn’t really die unless you completely pull it down. Even after I publicly announced that my blog was dormant, people – mostly, I’m guessing who linked to it via search engines and blogrolls that haven’t been updated – continued to read and comment. Today, someone named Mannik left a comment on one of the more heavily-commented posts on my old blog – entitled Paul, Hell, and Universalism. Interestingly, that post is now three years old, almost to the day.

Mannik’s comment was extensive and somewhat personal, and I want to respond. However, I want to do it in a forum where more people can be exposed to the conversation, so I decided to shift my response over to this post. (I’ve linked to this post after Mannik’s comments so that, if he continues to monitor the comments, he can read what I have to say here).

I plan to eventually revisit the subject of Hell, salvation, and universalism on this blog in considerably more detail. However, for the time being, a Cliff’s Notes version of the prior post will have to do.

My 2007 post points out that, while mainstream Christianity seems to have a fixation on the doctrine of hell and the way it fits into our belief systems, the Apostle Paul himself had – literally – nothing to say on the subject. Paul often talks about God’s wrath and judgment, but he never discusses it in terms of the image of the valley of Ghenna, the word has evolved into “Hell” in our language. Also, with the exception of one somewhat cryptic passage in a letter to Timothy, one that some don’t even attribute to Paul – there is nothing in Paul’s writings that suggests the idea of eternal “punishment” for sins.

I then quoted from several texts in Paul’s writings that include themes of universal salvation (or, what some call universal reconciliation). My point was that, in the debate between Exclusivism (the idea that all non-Christians will go to Hell) and Universalism (the idea that all people are ultimately “saved”) everyone has to pick and choose which texts they want to focus on. Universalists put emphasis on these texts and “play down” others. Exclusivists do the same thing.

This was part of a series of posts on Hell. In those posts, I pointed out that I am not, strictly speaking, a believer in universal reconciliation. I do, however, fit into the odd-ball category of the hopeful Universalist. That is, I believe that universal reconciliation is possible, and I therefore hope and pray for it. I am also a believer that – whatever Hell/Ghenna may be – the Bible writers didn’t understand it as a place where all non-Christians will end up. But sorting all of that out will have to wait for future posts.

Responses to the Paul, Hell, and Universalism post have been very emotional. Some commenters felt strongly that universalism is inconsistent with Christian beliefs and with the Bible. Others weren’t sure why its a big deal to talk about the possibility of universal reconciliation. One even linked to some of his own thoughts on the subject.

Today, Mannik made this comment (I don’t believe that Mannik’s native language is English, so I’ve edited it slightly):

I came from a Hindu background and gave my life to Christ [many] years ago. My parents were very strong in their religion and I as a youngster [did] the same. However when I was exposed to the Truth of the gospel and saw the Grace of God as compared to idolatry, karma and reincarnation etc, I knew how wrong all these were. So at the cost of being expelled, ill-treated and rejected from my family and village, I chose Christ. My decision broke the heart of my mother and my family. My mother would cry night and day, and I know she suffered a lot.

Universalism must make many people feel comfortable, but not so with those like me, who have caused [grief] to our own.

I would be more than happy [to] know that at some point in eternity my parents will come to the Lord, but I could have remained in my religion and in my family without causing any distress, and breaking my mum’s heart. IF I [HAD KNOWN THAT] ALL ARE ULTIMATELY SAVED, then WHY [WOULD I GO THROUGH ALL OF THIS] FOOLISHNESS, in light of the Universalists’ belief. Really, I [would] always regret knowing the simplest way was to STAY IN MY EX RELIGION, if Universalism was true.

I realize that all of that is a lot just to get to a response that is relatively short, but I hoped to give everyone a feel for the context of Mannik’s remarks and my own. So…to Mannik, I say this:

I have a couple of things that I hope you will consider.

First, I hope you will consider whether things ever could have been any different. You’ve described an experience that dramatically changed the way you look at the world. Even if you had known that, “in eternity,” as you say, God will wait patiently for your family to see the universe as you, would it have made sense for you to go on living as if your own view of the world hadn’t changed? I think that, if you reflect on it, you’ll see that continuing to live as if your view of the world had not changed would not have made much sense.

Second, I hope you’ll consider whether an approach to Christianity that removes Hell from its center might have helped you – and may could even now  help you – to stay in relationship with your family. I know nothing about the particulars of your situation. However, my experience has been that people don’t react well to a message which indicates that God intends to do violence to them simply because they don’t have a correct view of their world. That sort-of message isn’t consistent with the central Christian assertion that God is good. On the other hand, I wonder if they would be more open to staying in relationship with you if you have a faith that declares that God intends to make all of our world – including many, maybe even all, who do not fully understand God – whole and beautiful and eternal. I’m not saying that would have been – or could be the case – with you, but I think that it can make a big difference in many situations.

Anyone else want to comment?