Why I Am Not a Universalist
(Even though I want to be)
After Reading Matthew 10-11
The people of God need not worry about the “eternal destiny” of others; they/we do not need to speculate or pontificate about whether those who do not confess Jesus will “go to heaven” or end up in “hell.” And it takes most of my energy and tongue-biting to make that assertion. For I am a would-be universalist, in the train of Origen, Ephrem (I think:
Concern for the eternal well-being of those who have never known Jesus, or who have heard only a false gospel, or who reject Jesus has seemed a natural concern from the beginning of Christian consciousness. Preaching about the “harrowing of hell” goes back to almost the very beginning. And already in the mid-third century, Origen had been declared heretical for positing that God’s grace would embrace all universally – perhaps whether all wanted it or not. Logic, furthermore, probably blended with love and compassion, raises the question of the fates of those who lived and died before Jesus. As recently as the Second Vatican Council one theologian concluded that Scripture requires that we accept that Hell exists, but it does not require us to believe that anyone populates it. (Rahner, I think.)
But as he so often does, Hauerwas puts the emphasis where it belongs: As Christians, we are perpetually (despite our growth in grace) childlike before the purposes and works of God. We are dependents who have been lifted up from our lowly states to that of blessedness. It is our task to get on with living out our salvation and to leave salvation to God.
Of course, we don’t just sit back and let it happen. As the Gospel of Matthew sets it up, we join the ranks of the apostles, whose mission (co-mission with Jesus) was to make known that the reign of God has drawn near in Jesus. We are called in order to be sent to proclaim “Repent!” and “Be of good cheer!” We are also authorized to pray for all who do not meet Jesus (in person or through his apostles) and for all who reject him.
The mission to proclaim the Gospel (as Jesus makes crystal clear in his commissioning of The Twelve, this proclamation is by word and good work) is urgent precisely because it is the offer of salvation – the announcement that time to fend off God is past; he’s at the gate, ready to enter. Regardless of one’s “universalism” tendencies, this urgency cannot be denied. It is written through the entire Scriptures. And if we worry for the eternal well-being of others, and we might rightly do so, then the mission is all the more urgent to get the word out. We may not excuse our own reticence, sloth, shyness, languor, or whatever through easy reliance on the specious (specious on Scriptural grounds) belief that preaching doesn’t really matter, that acquaintance with Jesus is nice but not necessary for salvation, that God will pull everyone in to is realm – kicking and screaming, if need be.
So it is a direct denial of the scriptural witness to assume that Jesus is incidental to the salvation of the world – its people and all the rest. It is also nonsensical to make such an assumption. At the root of such a hope is that God will ultimately ignore the wishes, the free will of those whom he draws in to the kingdom. And at root that is the hope that God will work violence on those who reject him.
For it is violence to force one’s will on one who knowingly and voluntarily rejects it, wants nothing to do with it, prefers another. To reference something I recently read: It is violence for a 40-year-old sincere and pious Fundamentalist Latter Day Saint to force himself through “celestial marriage” on a 14-year-old, even believing that to do so is to save her soul. And it is no less violent for God to grab someone by the nape of the neck and force him into the kingdom of heaven. And if it’s one thing God has shown himself to be in regard of his people it is non-violent. Despite all the ill for the world that has resulted, God has not forced himself on his people –
Fundamentally, there is no ground on which the Christian may sit in self-satisfaction that the word of God will proceed without her involvement. To be baptized is to be ordained to the mission of the Twelve – ordained, not to preach to the community of faith, but to bring the Good News in language and deeds to all those who need (and in many cases, have been waiting without knowing for) just that message.
Hauerwas contrasts (ala Matthew 11) the followers of Christ, who are infant-like in their dependence on Jesus and the other followers of Christ for their very survival, with the wise and intelligent, who hold power and blinding think they are strong and self-determining. And he says this about universalist concerns:
If followers of Christ … are those who are infants from the perspective of the wise and intelligent, that is, from the perspective of those in power, they will find that they do not need an account of the status of those who are not Christians. Rather, they need only to be a people whose lives are so captured by the Son that others may find that they are also captivated by the joy that animates the lives of those claimed by Jesus.(Hauerwas, Matthew, p. 117)
As is so typical of Hauerwas, he doesn’t make it easy to feel that one has a grasp on this Christian faithfulness thing. It is tough to keep one’s focus on those one sees and knows, not worrying overly about the hordes elsewhere. But some of that is required. But we must also have the wider perspective and encourage those who know a call, a vocation to proclaim Christ where he is not known. We may rightly argue over the shape that ministry will take: Will it be a matter primarily of demanding that people “accept Jesus” or will it be a more subtle case of setting up schools and hospitals and waiting for them to ask the right questions? But we can no longer, if we ever could, ignore the urgency of calling and sending men and women to represent Jesus Himself in their proclaiming and salving and healing and exorcising and raising the dead. Their and our very lives depend on it.
This is not to say, of course, that our hopes must follow our logic. It is, I think, incumbent on every Christian to hope that what I have set forth above is not complete (which is easy to admit) and suffers from a narrowness of knowledge that will be corrected on the last day. It is my urgent hope that the Mighty ones – Origen, Barth, von Balthasar, perhaps Jenson – are correct in their conclusions that the grace of God is ultimately undefeatable. God has worked bigger surprises in the history of the universe.
And so we must live in the hope that God has it all in hand to save all this creation, with the loss of not even a sparrow. But we must also live as though the future of the world depends on us, the successors to the apostles. For when all is said and done, both perspectives recognize that it is only “in Christ” that salvation – “in this world and the next” – is possible.