Thursday, May 18, 2006

Universalism

"the lost message" (aka Simon?) has been pondering the possibility of salvation for all in a number of interesting posts. I'd like to offer my perspective.

First of all, Universalism, or apokatastasis panton as us patristics snobs like to refer to it, was fairly widely accepted in the early Church. Origen usually gets the blame/credit, but his teacher Clemens of Alexandria is the first father we know thought that all would finally be saved. Several other fathers subscribed to this opinion, including heavyweights Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzes. Basil, their friend and brother was of a different opinion though, but he writes at one point that most ordinary Christians believed in this. Finally I'd like to mention Isaac of Nineveh. If it were not for the fact that it will be at least two years until it comes out I would plug my book as a decent study on this and other fascinating aspects of Isaac's thought.

I find the apokatastasis doctrine appealing, not only for the obvious reasons, that it enables us to make sense of God's love. Even if we believe that we can not really understand what God's love means, a love that will lead to the eternal punishments of a substantial part of humanity just does not seem to have any analogous connection with human love to me.

Of course what happens beyond death is something we can merely hope for, and I guess any rightminded Christian hopes that God would find a way to save everyone. But I like the fact that if we adopt a universalist standpoint it gets rid of the awful idea that one is Christian, goes to church and prays, primarily to avoid hell in the next life. If we trust that God's love is strong enough to overcome not only sin, but egoism and selfhate as well, it makes possible an understanding of Christianity that focuses on how we can make this life easier, given whatever circumstances we have to live under.

Now, for arguments in favor of the apokatastasis, I'll gladly point you towards "the lost message".

14 comments:

rob horton said...

I do think freedom opens the door to some rejecting the love of God, even if He spent the eternal future attempting to woo them. I am fairly attracted to Clark Pinnock’s conditional mortality presentation. Eternal tormenting does not appear congruent with the God who is willing to suffer so immensely to communicate His love to us.

Looney said...

" ... one is Christian, goes to church and prays, primarily to avoid hell in the next life ..."

I must have missed something. I thought it had something to do with being born again ... being a child of God - through adaption ... accepting Jesus as savior ... a relationship with God through Jesus Christ ...

Patrik said...

My point exactly. It seems to me all of that stuff tends to get lost, because people think the real reason to be religious is to secure a ticket to heaven.

the lost message said...

Hi Patrik,

Thanks for the mention on your blog and the post responding to Universalism.

Just a quick question. Is your view on universalism based on the revelation of 'God is love' or on the biblical witness in its totality?

After looking at the biblical commentators I am struggling to find any scholars which hold these universalist passages, to be in any sense universalist!

Blessings,

Simon

P.S I am enjoying your building theology in your recent posts. I will take some time out to consider more fully!

Patrik said...

Hmm, isn't the witness of the bible in its totality that God is love? I think the biblical passages you cite in your posts are significant. Besides the question of what God's love would mean if hell meant eternal punishment, there is the question of how one can reconcile God's expressed will to save all humanity and his omnipotence, unless what adopts the unversalist standpoint.

I can't claim to have studied this issue at length, and what I have done is mostly in the patristic literature. I'm not aware of any recent theologians that have adressed the question. There is a anthology called: "Universalism and the doctrine of Hell: Papers presented at the Fourth Edinburgh Conference on Christian Dogmatics", ed: Cameron, Nigel. (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1993). I haven't read it myself, but a fellow doctoral student here cites it.

Also, Universalism and incluvism seem closely tied together, so check out Hick, Troeltsch and the others.

Finally, isn't Barth's interpretation of predestination a kind of Universalism?

Looney said...

I can't imagine how a neutral observer would find a universalist message on reading the Bible the first time. There are just too many statements on the subject. God is just as holy as He is loving. One doesn't trump the other. These two properties sit annoyingly side-by-side, just like free-will and predestination. Just like photons are both particles and waves. God is holy (can't tolerate sin) and loving (reaches out to sinners). If sinners don't respond ...

Then there is the purgatory concept that People will be punished for a while, but 'eventually' go to heaven.

I believe that God created time, but 'eventually' implies a time element that is part of the creation and not associated with heaven and hell. Purgatory forces our earthly viewpoint onto heaven, which is wrong. The same goes for those who think heaven will become boring eventually - as all things do. Boring requires a time element too.

The Bible says, "Do you not know that the saints will judge the world"? The Universalists need to trust this final judgment. The Christians need to stop making so many judgments now based on incomplete data and with no ability to carry out a sensible sentence.

Patrik said...

The problem would be to find a neutral observer, I guess.

rob horton said...

I don’t believe holiness and love stand next to each other. It appears to me that holiness speaks of the whole-ness of God. God is complete. God’s expression of wrath is also an expression of His love. His wrath is against that which is destructive to what He values. Love responds with passion against that which is destructive. Personally, I am not interested in participating in the lake of fire – the second death. Personally, I prefer to be clothed in the Anointed One. Personally, I prefer to reach out in love to those around me and share God’s love with them. The message of He wants to be your lover, but if you are not interested He will torment you in fire for eternity doesn’t appear to win hearts. Nor does the message of He wants to be your lover, and to get you interested He is offering you a billion dollars. For too long we have appealed to self-interest, and thus people are not saved from a self foundation. God desires to woo us to a God foundation. I believe Universalism gives some a warm fuzzy feeling, but I don’t think it takes freedom serious. Some think that if you embrace Universalism you will lose passion for those who have not heard the Good News – I don’t think that is the issue…

Looney said...

"The problem would be to find a neutral observer, I guess."

Point to Patrik.

Still you have the problem that the Bible has plenty of threats about judgement. Why mention a lake of fire if only the demons are heading there? Is God just joking? Perhaps the references to judgement are just a spiritual version of trivial pursuit where we receive irrelevant data so that we can ponder it for theology dissertations?

Rob: I am mostly with you. Talking about hell isn't going to get anyone closer to God. God frequently does use it as a catalyst for people to re-evaluate their eternal position.

Steve Blakemore said...

Universalism -- a beautiful hope. Judgement -- a necessary corollary to God's love, if God not only loves the sinner (all of us) but also the one's sinned against (all of us). Love is not antithetical to judgement nor vice versa. The question becomes what is the nature of that judgement.

Hell would not be God's wish for any (unless of course the reformed doctrine of double predestination is correct, but I think not). Yet, if salvation is only possible via right relationship with God, then only those who willing receive God's love and love God in return (for that is the essence of the relationship God wants -- remember the greatest commandment)could be in right relationship with God.

Salvation, therefore, is better understood in these relational terms. It is not a thing or a status. Hence, sadly the prospect of one not loving God freely and joyfully, makes the possiblity of non-universalism a tragic probable reality.

Now, I think we are wrong, however, to limit the persuasive powers of God to the short time that one is in this life. The possibility of post mortem salvation could very well be a part of God's relationship with fallen persons.

Patrik said...

I'm glad there is a real discussion here, although I feel a bit guilty that it takes place here and not over at the lost messagewhere it after all started.

Rob, I don't want to sound heroic or anything, but if my going to heaven causes fellow human beings to go to a lake of fire, I think I should be there with my brothers really. Wouldn't care much for a place that is pure because of genocide on the dissenters.

I belive in a judgement, but I guess I don't think it will be so much about separating the good people from the bad people (however you define that) as separating the good from the bad in people. Many of the relevant scripture passages can be interpreted like this. I would not mind thar certain parts of me would go to a lake of fire. In fact I'd like that very much.

the lost message said...

Hi Patrik,

No probs with the discussion here! *secretly weeps!*.

I have enjoyed it so far although I have addressed some of the issues presented by Looney and Rob already.

I have got two more posts to come on the subject:
1. The Challenge universalism presents
2. The Textual argument for universalism

and then I am done!

Patrik said...

Cool! I'm looking forward to it!

James said...

Hi Patrick,
This is the first time I stumbled upon your blog. Thanks for writing it. I am a Unitarian Universalist and , to be honest, I am just starting to understand the theology of my church. For example, Unitarianism has often been explained to me as the opposite of Trinitarianism. Recently though, I have had Unitarianism described as such: the followers of Jesus believed themselves to be people of the way, before they met Jesus. That to me explains to a much greater detail why we profess to respecting all faiths...

I have also always understood Universalism as 'there is no hell'. Then I understood it in terms of 'if this earth and everything on it is God's creation, then earth is heaven'. But one thing I never understood was the thought that the 'Universe' loves me. That thought befuddles me. I hope you keep writing on this topic.