Justice and the New Universalism

The universalism debate has been kicked up a bit again, at least in my corner of the ‘interweb’.  Responding to Lauren Winner’s essay on Rob Bell in the New York Times Book Review, Jamie Smith questions the “hope” and “imagination” of popular universalists (see also Paul Griffiths response to the same article).  Kicking the universalist nest in this way was sure to stir up a response, and it has been vigorous by Halden and David.

Points can be had on both sides.  Certainly Jamie has properly expressed the all too typical sentiment of pew filling evangelical universalists who “hope” against hope that their friends will be saved because they just can’t “imagine” God not letting people in, “God is a God of love, isn’t He?” (Just see any of the recent post on Hell at emergentvillage). But certainly there are more robust and and less sentimental arguments offered by theologians that can’t be so easily dismissed by a psychological analysis (although, as a pastor, and therefore charged with the care of souls, I don’t generally discount the need for psychoanalyzing).  So while Jamie, from my perspective, does properly unveil a popular universalist sentiment, properly academic arguments must still follow.

(And just as an aside, it would be good to understand the difference in genre between popular/pastoral analysis and academic/systematic analysis…what I might say in a specific pastoral context might sound the opposite of what I believe dogmatically…some my even say that I’ve failed to abide by this…).

Discipline of Love

But I would like to take the conversation a slightly different direction by noting that either alternative (universalist or not) argues from within a (personal/intellectual) discipline of God’s loving forgiveness.  The question between the two is really just how and to what extent this forgiveness is possible.  But this begs the question of the need or desirability of forgiveness at all.

I remember a recent conversation with a woman down the street.  Raise nominally Jewish, she was telling me that she had finally embraced her atheism.  She and I enjoyed poking fun at her husband, the agnostic, for not having the guts either to believe in something or believe in nothing.  But at one point in our conversation she flat out said, “I just couldn’t believe in a God who come forgive Hitler.  I don’t want to forgive Hitler, and I certainly don’t want God to either.”

The type of love, justice, and forgiveness offered in Christ dwells outside the city of normal life (to circle back to the name of this blog).  The typical laws of the city (of humanity) are an eye for an eye (note David’s previous post), so the possibility for utter forgiveness lives outside these walls.  And first and foremost we must remember this when we talk about universalism.  Many, even if they don’t believe in God, don’t want God to be a universalist.  They want judgment.

Which Love?

However, it is not enough just to state that this conversation is intramural to Christian orthodoxy, for, as David C. rightly notes, there are questions of the atonement and incarnation at stake.

So, to my point, what is the difference between coercion and persuasion in the atonement and regarding universalism?  Of course I don’t think the difference can be so easily distinguished, but I’m not writing a book here.

In George MacDonald’s wonderful Lilith we are presented with a fantastic (literally) tale of an encounter with and the redemption of evil.  I’ll not summarize the whole tale (please read it), but near the end we hear of Lilith, the embodiment of evil, seeking redemption, yet unable to give up that which is keeping her from sleeping (the sleep of death which brings life).  She is unable to open her hand and let go, and finally asks Adam (the Adam) to wield the sword given him from the angel who now no longer guards the gate to Eden, and slice off her hand.  He consents and before her severed hand hits the ground Lilith immediately falls to sleep (i.e. is redeemed).  The moral is that all will be saved, even if something needs to be severed (coerced?).

C. S. Lewis, in a somewhat obvious counter to his mentor’s universalism, writes The Great Divorce, the celebrated bus trip from hell/purgatory to the gates of heaven.  One man, coming up from the grey town below, holds the chain before himself of a collared tragedian who always speaks on the man’s behalf.  This is his ideal self projected to others.  His wife pleads with the man to let go of the projection, to stop playing a part other than himself.  But through various excuses and thinly disguised self-deceptions, the man demurs and returns to hell, choosing for himself purgatory.  This, I offer, is an image of persuasion (and it’s failure) as a means of redemption.  The choice is always the man’s, nothing is forced on him.

The questions before us, then, is, Which mode of redemption is more loving? Why? What model of atonement doe it presuppose?  What type of justice does this entail, letting one live with one’s decisions or forcing a change?  And most importantly what kind of politic (persuasion vs. coercion) is involved?  What kind of justice?

These are important questions that we must keep asking, knowing that they lead us farther and farther beyond the walls of the earthly city.

I’m not sure who ends up on which side, but this has makes me wonder if universalism isn’t the inversion of a strong calvinism (you are forced to be saved)?   Perhaps, then, Weslyans can’t truly be universalists.

  • Bob Hyatt

    yes- exactly. I’ve been saying Universalists and hardcore Calvinists have more in common than they would like to think :)

  • http://veeritions.wordpress.com/ Tim McGee

    Given Barth’s influence at the academic level, I don’t think anyone would be surprised that one can take a certain strand of Calvin’s thought and turn it towards universalism (however, this Barthian reflection has much more to do with Christology than discussions of God’s powerful will).

    I also don’t see why we can’t imagine an all-persuasive, non-coercive display of God’s glory in Christ through the work of the Spirit. After all, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess…That seems at least possible, and allows us to bracket the question of whether the account of agency that the persuasive/coercive dynamic presupposes is Christologically, and therefore anthropologically, appropriate.

    However, where I think Barth would be rightly suspicious of many of these discussions on universalism is that he builds his “hope” for universalism out of our displacement from the sinfully appropriated seat of the judge, and instead of placing us before a mysterious and hidden divine will, he places us before the judge who is Christ. The “knowledge of good and evil” is the power to declare/give life or death (Gen 3-4), and both universalists and their critics sometimes seem to believe that Scripture tells them how to make these judgments.

  • geoffreyholsclaw


    I think it might be possible to imagine an all-persuasive, non-coercive display of God’s glory in Christ through the Spirit. I’m just not sure it is right (although I’m not convinced if it is wrong).

    You mention the the Phil. 2 “every knee will bow” which has always been one of those passages that makes things sticky. I this the moment God asserts his dominance (so that all ‘must’ bow), or merely the culmination of his loving redemption when every knee will want to bow.

    You begin with Barth, but I was coming more at this from Augustine and his idea that the word of Christ counters the persuasive words of satan, reversing the fall. Satan didn’t use force, but persuasion and so too Christ in redemption.

  • http://itself.wordpress.com/ Thomas J Bridges


    Thanks for the post. It seems that the meaning of justice is one of the major stakes in these arguments about the “new universalism,” and I think it is helpful to recall that most English translations of the Hebrew Scriptures use “justice” and “righteousness” for the same Hebrew word (Ṣ’daqah) according to context, and similarly the Greek word dikaiosyné (and its variations) is translated either justice or righteousness. So we must talk about justice and righteousness together. Recent Pauline scholarship has been helpful in recovering/revealing the holistic nature of God’s salvation (God’s righteousness) in translating dikaiosyné as right-wising (Bultmann), rectification (JL Martyn), or setting things right (Gorman). we also have the recovery of Pauline (and Christian, in general) apocalyptic, which rightly draws attention to the cosmic scope of God’s setting things right.

    JKAS notes an emphasis among “new universalists” on the triumph of Christ over evil powers (“the new universalist Christ is a victor, not a redeemer”), but I think this isa proper soteriological recovery of Biblical and patristic theology (e.g., this is one of the things Christian apocalyptic helps us see). Sure, there are different images of Christ’s work in Scripture, but the image of Christ conquering the powers, and through it offering the power to “snatch us from the present evil age” (Gal. 1:4…is this “redemption,” or only a triumph?) makes it less anthropocentric, and more about what the work of Christ accomplishes, and this is the work of Christ done “while we were still sinners.” This is why I am sympathetic to more Christological (e.g., Barthian) leanings in the debates about universalism–they are less anthropocentric in their argument. (Note: though I am not a universalist, I also not a non-universalist).

    Now, of course this must be worked out anthropologically, to some extent. But, as many of the church Fathers frequently say, God’s punishment often is for purification, not just some penalty with no redemptive purpose (e.g., many fathers speak of fire for the purposes of purgation [purification]). What seems to odd to me is the arbitrary “deadline” of individual human death. Christ died while Saul was still a sinner, and before there was any repentance; likewise, Christ died before Hitler had the chance to repent. Hitler is dead. But why is there no chance for purgation, for confession and right-wising, and for reconciliation between Hitler and those he killed–just because it did not happen before he died? The insistence that there is no time/chance for this seems arbitrary, when the Scriptural witness is so fuzzy about what happens after death. It’s not like Paul, Augustine, you or I will escape judgment, yet that does not mean that God will not get us back, that God will not fully heal our wounds, forgive our sins, and set things right–which may be a very painful process, even for such “saints” as Augustine. What is to prevent Hitler from going through that painful and yet healing process? Origen entertained such an eschatology–though I know his eschatology is wrapped up in all kinds of Neo-Platonic problems. To sum up, I end up around the turf of people like Barth and Balthasar, with hopeful agnosticism about the end of all creatures, but if we are going to discuss justice, I think it is helpful to remember that justice, discipline, and judgment are not to be thought of as outside God’s purposes of redemtion.

    • d. w. horstkoetter

      To add a bit more to the Hebrew side — on justice and righteousness — if you’re curious, check out J. G. McConville’s God and Earthly Power: An Old Testament Political Theology. The point of the book is about developing justice-righteousness throughout the Hebrew Bible.