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Reflection: 01-10

One night, during our Thursday night chats, Fr Andy said (paraphrasing), ‘God’s love is the greatest, most powerful thing of all. If anyone resisted God’s love, then that person would be more powerful than God. I don’t believe that.’ That night, I disagreed. God doesn’t force Godself upon people. If a person doesn’t want to love God or accept God’s love, that doesn’t make her more powerful than God. That’s just how love works. But, I have to be honest, that thought gnawed at me more and more. The more I thought about it, the more I could see truth in it. If God is anything, God is Love (1John 4). I do not think, nor have I ever thought, that anything within creation was more powerful than the Creator. To quote Pete from O Brother, Where Art Thou?, ‘That don’t make no sense!’ So the idea that God’s Love would be cosmically victorious stewed within me. More so than I would have ever thought.

Then, while checking the RSS feeds of websites that I read, a discussion popped up about a book titled, The Evangelical Universalist. For the longest time, I never gave it much more than a glance. But one day . . . one day I read through the post and then followed the link to Amazon.com and ordered the book. I’m not really sure why. I don’t really recall anything within the post that touched me. Maybe it was just the idea that God’s Love is the greatest thing of all. I’m not sure. And I didn’t really know what to expect when the book arrived. I read some of the reviews on Amazon.com and don’t really remember anything extraordinary there, either. I do remember one person commenting that that Thomas Talbot’s book, The Inescapable Love of God was a better, more entry level book into the world of universalism. I found that Talbot had a website and I bookmarked it and then downloaded the free chapters he made available. I read them with great interest. Not my usual hunger and thirst type of interest but I just couldn’t stop reading them! He made some great sense. I could hardly wait until MacDonald’s book showed up!

When it arrived, I tore into it. ‘MacDonald’ (a pseudonym) has the book set up in three basic sections – philosophical arguments, scriptural arguments, and exegesis. I followed the philosophical arguments better than I thought I would be able. He made a lot of sense. The scriptural arguments were just as good, if not better, than the philosophical arguments. However, the exegesis on Revelation leaves a lot to be desired, in my opinion. To be honest, I got lost. I was tracking him for a while, but then, I’m not sure what happened, it just became fuzzy. Over all, a good read, with a lot of good points.

MacDonald starts in the introduction by asking a very powerful question, ‘Could I love a God who could rescue everyone but chose not to?’ The impact of this question is unsettling at the least and world crumbling at the most – if one honestly wrestles with it. I had to put the book aside and just think about that question for quite some time. I tried to justify the reasons why I thought God would – ‘God didn’t choose to save everyone’; ‘God won’t rescue those who don’t want to be rescued’; whatever – but they all felt forced. So, once I realized that I must deal with question, I was prepared to read the rest of the book.

One of the first points that he makes is that he is not espousing a universalism that one can act however or believe whatever one wants. MacDonald is trying to merge the universalists view with the view that ‘evil doers’ and ‘unbelievers’ will be ‘punished’ in ‘hell’ and then, when their sentence is over, they will be released and they will then turn to God and believe. So ‘hell’, in MacDonald’s view, is one of a temporary place of torment. This is because of his idea of justice – the punishment must fit the crime. Therefore, according to MacDonald, there is no way that God would punish someone for ‘eternity’ since a finite being can never do something that would demand infinite torture.

He then moves on to the scriptural and theological points. ‘We must be open to the possibility that we have misread the Bible’ (pg. 35). This is how he starts off Chapter 2, ‘Universalism and Biblical Theology’. He makes a very good point, right from the start, that a universalists position is ‘ruled out a priori and thus not even considered’ when examining the Bible. This is exactly how I remember it. I have even used the argument, ‘Well, we know that everyone will not be saved so this must be referring to . . .’ fill in the blank. But, one thing that has be a constant in my biblical studies is the idea of re-reading the texts again and again; of having the idea that yes, maybe I have misread the Bible. This is very liberating and a little more than scary. I will say, though, some of the greatest illuminations have come from just this type of re-reading. If we think that we have understood all there is to what the Bible has to say, then we are naive. Now, I will also add, that there are a few convictions that I will not let go of, but everything else is on the table for debate and, if needs be, change. The idea of God rescuing all of creation has become one of those things. I mean, what could be harmful of having that idea? Other than, of course, the ‘church’ stating that I’m a heretic (again). I’m used to that.

So, this chapter was very refreshing. I followed a lot of his points. He even goes so far as to state that all views (including traditional views like Calvinism and Arminianism) hold firm their faith ‘in spite of some awkward texts’ (pg. 37). So must the universalist. Just because there are texts that, at first reading, appears to speak of ‘eternal’ torment, the universalist must hold to her view. The over-arching story of the Bible, according to MacDonald, is of God creating and then ‘redeeming’ the cosmos – not just part of creation but all of it. I agree on this point but never pushed the envelope because I always held the traditional view of ‘hell’ and ‘punishment’.

MacDonald states that the two basic views are based on either God’s justice (traditionalism) or God’s love (universalism). While aspects of both views are found in the opposing ones, those are the controlling grids that each perspective uses to read the scriptures. One of the passages that MacDonald wrestles with is Romans 5.12-21 (NLT):

When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned. Yes, people sinned even before the law was given. But it was not counted as sin because there was not yet any law to break. Still, everyone died—from the time of Adam to the time of Moses—even those who did not disobey an explicit commandment of God, as Adam did. Now Adam is a symbol, a representation of Christ, who was yet to come. But there is a great difference between Adam’s sin and God’s gracious gift. For the sin of this one man, Adam, brought death to many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of forgiveness to many through this other man, Jesus Christ. And the result of God’s gracious gift is very different from the result of that one man’s sin. For Adam’s sin led to condemnation, but God’s free gift leads to our being made right with God, even though we are guilty of many sins. For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ.

Yes, Adam’s one sin brings condemnation for everyone, but Christ’s one act of righteousness brings a right relationship with God and new life for everyone. Because one person disobeyed God, many became sinners. But because one other person obeyed God, many will be made righteous.

God’s law was given so that all people could see how sinful they were. But as people sinned more and more, God’s wonderful grace became more abundant. So just as sin ruled over all people and brought them to death, now God’s wonderful grace rules instead, giving us right standing with God and resulting in eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

I have to admit that this passage has always been a problem passage for me, whether I was an Arminian or a Calvinist. Paul’s use of ‘many’ and ‘all’ has always thrown me and, quite honestly, all of the hoop-jumping back and forth of the interpreters never really set right. But MacDonald makes the case that ‘many’ refers to the Gentiles and ‘all’, obviously, refers to both Jews and Gentiles. What is clear is that those whom Adam represented are the same ones that Christ represented as verse 18 makes clear, ‘Adam’s one sin brings condemnation for everyone, but Christ’s one act of righteousness brings a right relationship with God and new life for everyone’ (emphasis added).

The one thing that I had to wrestle with is the evangelical part of it. That is, the author holds that God will indeed punish people in ‘hell’ (whatever that is) until they repent. This, claims MacDonald, is so that God’s justice can be met. The problem I have for this is the evangelical emphasis on the atonement. While I understand MacDonald’s point, if Christ died for our sins, if God justice was poured out on Christ for the sins of the world, then why would anyone need to be punished? MacDonald believes that this punishment is for those who don’t turn and embrace the love of God in this life. The idea is that there has to be some kind of punishment but it can’t be eternal. The punishment has to be equal to the crime for justice to be served (in our understanding, that is).

Like I said, this is a hard part for me just because of the idea of the atonement. If Christ died for all creation (as the NT authors thought), and through that death, God reconciled creation to Godself (Colossians 1), then why do people have to be punished? The passage goes on to state that God ‘made peace with everything in heaven and on earth’ (1.20b). So, if God is at peace because of the ‘Christ’s blood on the cross’, then why would there need to be any type of punishment? Is this thought supposed to make us feel better? That is, for those of us who have been wronged (and wronged deeply), do we feel we need to have some kind of punishment for the wicked – that they owe us for what they did to us? Doesn’t that borderline on revenge and not justice? Isn’t that just a twisted form of what justice really is? I mean, if what we do to each other is what we do to Christ, and that ‘debt’ has been paid (or canceled, see Colossians 2.14), but we still need to have someone suffer for what happened to us, doesn’t that become our sin? Don’t we then become the older child in the story of the prodigal son?

All in all, this is a very good book. It stretches one in just the right ways. I know that I will be thinking about this one for a while.


~~~
In the Grace of the Three in One,

Jack

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