Trinitarian Universalism and Christian Hope
I am aware that the title of this article is very similar to another post I made on the matter of “afterlife,” which, while having been made well over a year ago, only appears as the second post down from this one due to my long blogging hiatus! In that particular post, I gave something of a review of Dr. Tom Wright’s Surprised by Hope, in which he expounds upon the resurrection from the dead as being the eventual transformation and restoration of everything in existence, as opposed to the more familiar view of there being some spiritual heavenly realm to which we ascend as disembodied beings upon death.
If you look back on that post you will see how Wright rejects, as do I, the latter view and instead sees the Kingdom of God as something which anunciates itself firmly into this world, in the here and now, and that such a view serves to energise Christians into mission in every level of public life, from serving the poor, to campaigning for justice, to being involved in medical service, to preserving the environment, etc. The reason being, that a heart understanding the Kingdom as being transformative of the present world rather than being separate from it, will lead us to engage with the struggles faced in the world and willingly join in God’s work to restore it.
I feel inclined to return to this subject for a few reasons, one being that, in the last couple of years, I have found myself thinking a great deal about the subject of resurrection and “salvation.” Also, last week, I had these thoughts somewhat rekindled through attending an informal discussion evening at the home of a couple of friends. They were hosting activist theologian Noel Moules, founder of the UK initative Workshop, which offers training in “applied Christian studies.” This curious evening gathering saw just over ten people huddled in a medium-sized living room for some light dinner as Noel, a gentle but obviously very mature and well-educated Christian, introduced the topic of Christian Universalism.
I have touched on this subject a few times here before, but I’m not sure I’ve ever explored it in great detail. For those who are unaware, Christian Universalism is the theological belief that, because of Jesus’ redemptive sacrifice upon the cross, all people will eventually be restored into eternity by the love of God. It is distinct from pluralism, which is the concept that all paths lead to God, and that the belief of each tradition is able to save regardless of how well it reflects objective truth. In its most orthodox sense, Christian (or Trinitarian) Universalism holds that all people find salvation only because of the active work of the Trinity in creation, and not because people’s individual beliefs, observances, or “inherent goodness” are enough to save them.
Without wanting to (or even being able) to get into all the details of Noel’s thoroughly interesting discourse, as well as the emerging discussion which followed, I was particularly intrigued at his point on the interpretation of God’s “judgement” in many areas of the Bible. He argues that the Hebrew word mishpat, translated to judgement, infers moreso an “ordering together of things” rather than the direct form of complete punishment it is often inferred to be. God’s mishpat in the Biblical narrative is then corrective and restorative, rather than being something which completely obliterates, and instead leads wrongdoers and their victims to be actively reconciled to one another. A process which, as he admitted, is often far from being easy and straightforward.
At the core of this argument is another central Biblical concept, that of shalom, translated very inadequately as “peace.” Shalom is far different from our modern understanding of peace as the mere absence (or even stalemate) of conflict, and is in fact moreso to do with wholeness, interconnectedness, and all things coming into harmony with one another. Shalom, even if the concept is more familiar than the word, is at the heart of why many Christians, myself included, have come to see nonviolence as a necessary and inextricable component of our commitment to the Gospel. It was intriguing, then, to hear that from this great Biblical vision of shalom could emerge the hope for all things (not just all people) to eventually be restored by the love of God in Christ.
And yes, not just all people either, but actually all things. Just as we explored in my aforementioned post, a holistic and accurate view of the eventual resurrection from the dead does not just involve people, but all dimensions of reality itself, both seen and unseen, immediate and outside perception; the redemption of creation is something of which we as human beings are a part, but not of which we are the centrepiece. This is abundantly clear in passages such as Colossians 1:15-20 and Romans 11:33-36, signifying that what awaits us at the end of time is not just the resurrection of a few faithful people, but the cataclysmic resurrection and restoration of all that possibly is.
To anchor this somewhat in a “real-life” context, I would often, within my time as an advice worker serving destitute refugees and asylum seekers, capture profound glimpses of God’s salvation at work in the present. What was (and still is) challenging to me was the almost overwhelming sense of God at work in and through the lives of those who weren’t necessarily Christians, and even those who didn’t have any expressible faith. Through seeing both the smiles and tears, the laughter and despair of those who are suffering, even I as a Christian seemed to learn more about the person of Jesus than I could ever hope to convey myself. As a follower of Christ in the midst of many different people from multiple cultures, backgrounds, and religious traditions, my own experience of faith there was not of a God who condemns, but of a God who willingly suffers alongside people in their despair, and resurrects them even as He Himself is resurrected. In such a context, for me to be obedient in “preaching the Gospel” seemed to involve no more than serving a person’s immediate needs and recognising the Image of God within them. My role at the drop-in centre last year gave me much more of a sense of God at work within all people than I could ever hope to gain from a textbook or even from the pulpit.
However, through all of this, it would be neglectful to omit any mention of Hell, or the “difficult” verses that would seem to fly completely in the face of Christian Universalism. I explored the topic of Hell somewhat at length elsewhere in The Progressive Prophet, most notably in my post from a few years back, Salvation and Damnation, in which I wrestled with the Biblical concepts of Hell and judgement from an “Annihilationist” point of view. My thinking has, naturally, developed since then, but one thing which has not changed is my belief that Hell as outlined in the New Testament is far different from the images of eternal pain and torment we have carried over from the legacy of Medieval times. Wanting neither to “cop-out” of this important component of any Christian discourse on eternal fate nor to become too detailed on aspects which have already received near-exhaustive deliberation elsewhere, I shall say that Jesus’ warnings of Hell in the Gospels had far more to do with judgement in this life than they had to do with judgement in the next (similar to the Kingdom of God). While this might be an overtly simplistic take on the matter, when Jesus alluded to Gehenna, the garbage dump outside Jeruslalem (such as in Matthew 5:22 or Mark 9:42-49), or to the fate of certain people “perishing” (such as in Luke 13:1-5), He is referring moreso to the very serious danger we invite upon ourselves if we insist upon trying to force the Kingdom of God through our own terms. Many of Jesus’ audience were violent revolutionaries who were, understandably, desperate to see Roman rule abolished by any means necessary in order for the emancipation of Hebrew people to be realised. Jesus Himself, however, understood much better than we do the futility of using violence as a redemptive tool, and knew full well that the Kingdom would not be ushered in by such sinful means. The call to “repent” (Greek: metanoia), then, was a calling to be changed in thinking, to undergo a revolution of the mind. It is a calling which means much more than sorrow shown for personal sins, and encourages us to move beyond the awareness of our broken selves to become a part of God’s transformation also for our broken world.
Of course, what these verses do highlight is that, in some way, judgement will be a far from smooth and easy process. Even if all people and all things are eventually restored, the warnings of those who face “wailing and gnashing of teeth” must be acknowledged and recognised. By no means should Christians downplay the reality and severity of God’s judgement, or the call to repentance as complete transformation. What is important to understand, however, is that this is not the full story or even the end result. We have every reason to fear God’s judgement, but it is nonetheless a loving judgement which seeks to burn away sins through fire while leaving the sinner intact. If judgement really is mishpat, then we should be welcoming it, as the necessarily if extremely painful re-ordering of things into harmony with one another.
One very interesting theme which came out of our discussion with Noel was that, in the Jewish tradition, our Christian concept of “confession” is thought to be very strange, since we tend to see all sins as having been ultimately committed against God (which they are), whereas people of the Jewish faith see confession and repentance as being done in relationship with both the offender and the victim. What a huge thing it is, then, to hope that one day all offenders and all victims will be brought together to face one another and be reconciled, however hard that will prove to be. This, I would say, gives context to our thirst to see justice for the oppressed, as well as due justice for their oppressors. One could easily argue that, in a Christian Universalist framework, those who have committed atrocious crimes, both against humanity and against God, “get off scot-free.” In actuality, I firmly believe that all oppressors as well as those who have willfully rejected God in some way will eventually have to answer for their sins, not just to the Lord Himself, but also to all of those whom they have wronged. This is justice in its real, Biblical sense, and a justice I would argue will necessarily involve exclusion before it ends in embrace. In fact, I daresay there are some people in this world who have turned so far away from the Image of God within themselves that whatever of them is restored in the last day will be almost unrecognisable. In that respect, “eternal destruction” seems to be every bit as real as “eternal life.” Just as I hope and pray for those people who are suffering, such as those I mentioned earlier, to have their oppression vindicated in some way, so do I hope that all of the people, systems, and structures responsible for their suffering will be brought to justice for their actions. It will, however, be a far different justice to the kind we know in law courts: firmer, perfect, more binding, and, above all, loving.
Additionally, we should never forget that, after all the terrifying warnings and visions of judgement Jesus put forth in the ministry of His life, His final pronouncement over all oppression, evil, and sin, were the words He spoke upon the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Nonetheless, we inevitably arrive back at the question of what use or difference this is to those of us who are already committed Christians in the here and now, and how it affects our mission in the world. Well, as with the understanding of the Kingdom as something which impacts and transforms the world in its present state, so too an understanding of Universalism should call upon us to effect and realise God’s justice and reconciliation, and to view ourselves not only as agents but also as witnesses of His action. We find ourselves in a cosmic tension, residing in the present and caught between the cross of Christ in the past and the eventual restoration of all things in the future; and it is to that future that we are all – human, animal, mineral, vegetable, atom and molcule, space and dimension – inescapably connected. With the vision of God’s shalom in our midst, as well as the hope of complete cosmic transformation, let us be put to work to contribute to that great vision by our hands and feet, as vessels of the Holy Spirit, and as humble people who work hidden in the background to reconcile our faith in the past and our hope in the future, into the reality of the present time.