Intellectualism, Arrogance, and Peaceful Theology

Or, “Why arrogance has no place in a peaceful theology

Getting a Handle on Intellectualism

One of the early issues I began wrestling with during my education was the prevalence of anti-intellectualism in the evangelical traditions I was familiar with.  Marva Dawn’s Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down and offerings from Robert Weber helped me articulate the irony of the banality of contemporary worship songs, shallow preaching and religious practices, and a people more informed by Fox News than by solid biblical and theological training, but who still acted and spoke with a supreme sense of certainty about their rightness about social issues and religion.  I felt that the Church I was seeing reveled in self-certain ignorance.  And I wanted to change it.

Anti-intellectualism (being a symptom of right-leaning politics as well) is a worldview that reacts to new learning or new information which challenges the status quo by assuming that the new information is suspect, biased, a corruption of “traditional values,” or (in religious circles) a lie of the devil. 

Of course, it’s always selectively so.  Science is a liberal, socialist plot foisted by the “elite” when it presents evidence for its theories on origins or warns about the dangers of climate change.  But we’re generally all grateful for science when Aunt Mildred needs a heart transplant.  Similarly, all university professors are atheist, liberal, socialists trying to brainwash our youth when our youth outgrow their parents’ worldviews, but we don’t question whether our kids need to go to college if they’re going to be successful capitalists. 

Such were the ironies of anti-intellectualism.  But I actually am not writing about that today.   My intent, instead, is to introduce anti-intellectualism as a springboard to criticize an equally problematic -ism, intellectualism.[1]  But first, another analogy:

In the same way that anti-intellectualism holds hands with anti-science, I want to suggest that  scientism (which my good friend Paul wrote about some years ago) is akin to intellectualism.[2]  Whereas, science is a precise system for studying phenomena (i.e., physical reality), scientism is an extreme view pervasive in some segments that elevates science to something solipsistic, either answering questions (noumena, metaphysical) that it cannot and should not be expected to answer, or dismissing those questions as irrelevant outright. In that way, scientism perverts the scientific discipline into something other than it is.[3]

Similarly, while I like to think that most intellectuals may not be the demons that anti-intellectualism has made them out to be, intellectualism happens when intellectuals elevate reason and learning to something unhealthy, or even obscene.   The danger (as with scientism) is that, in becoming an intellectualist, the intellectual forgets that there is more than one kind of intelligence, and the intellectual collapses into a type of epistemological solipsism, where all the relevant questions and solutions are asked and resolved through a specific process of inquiry available only to the intellectual.  Another name for this is “the Ivory Tower.”

Like all things, science and intellect are good, even marvelous things, in the context of the whole of human endeavors.  But they are perverted into something cold, cruel, and evil in isolation.

The damage and resentment that this kind of solipsistic intellectualism causes is illustrated brilliantly in Wendell Berry’s Remembering.  In it, Andy Catlett, a late-mid-20th century Kentucky farmer, laments the industrialization of farming that happens when the academy and the corporation are applied to agriculture.  In this brief quote, Andy, who has had enough intellectualist pontification, speaks out at a farming convention:

I don’t believe it is well understood how influence flows from enclosures like this to the fields and farms and farmers themselves.  We’ve been…hearing about the American food system and the American food producer, the free market, quantimetric models, pre-inputs, inputs, and outputs, about the matrix of coefficients of endogenous variables, about epistemology and parameters—while actual fields and farms and actual human lives have been damaged.  The damage has been going on a long time.  The fifteen million people who have left the farms since 1950 left because of damage.  There was pain in that departure….

I think that bill came out of a room like this, where a family’s life and work can be converted to numbers and to somebody else’s profit, but the family cannot be seen and its suffering cannot be felt.[4]

Andy Catlett

For Andy, the issue is that there are other types of intelligence, other interests besides profit, which in this case the intellectuals and the profiteers seem to have forgotten.  Their own assumptions are too solipsistic.  They’ve collapsed into themselves; and harmed the people around them.

What does that have to do with Forging Ploughshares?

Peace Theology Against Intellectualism

I’d propose that if, when asked the question, “What do you think has happened in American culture and politics to bring us to the Trump/post-Trump era?” your first response is to quote some obscure piece of text from Bernard Lonergan instead of asking questions about the reality of people’s access to health care, clean water, or food, then…it may be time for some reflection.  If people’s satisfaction with their work or their lives, or how and why they feel left out of cultural conversations, or their debt and financial woes, or the opioid crisis, or how they have been exploited and tossed aside doesn’t seem as relevant as Hans Urs von Balthasar’s work on theological aesthetics, you may be approaching the line separating being an intellectual from being an intellectualist.  In other words, it’s possible that some of us, even some of us who are contributing to Forging Ploughshares, aren’t operating with the rest of us here in the real world.  And sometimes I get the feeling that we like to hear ourselves talk.

How the Universalism fad has made it worse

Years ago, the pop-theologian Rob Bell wrote his own little treatise on universalism: Love Wins.[5] In it, Bell argued for the position that all people will, after dying, be offered unlimited second chances to come to belief in Christ so that, eventually, all people will “go to heaven.”  Bell certainly wasn’t the first to argue such and wasn’t the last.  Yet, at most the effect of the book was a momentary blip on the theological radar.  Here and gone.   Why did Bell not unleash the floodgates of the current universalism obsession with Love Wins?  Why no movement?  We’ll get there.

For my own part, I remember thinking Love Wins was a little flaky, but still thoughtful.  But, because my foray into William Hasker’s emergent dualism had led me to annhiliationism (please read the footnote),[6] I remember also feeling a sense of kinship with Bell and I kind of rooted for him a little.  I get it.  He was offering up an alternative.  I could appreciate it because he seemed honest, sincere, and I found dialogue was still possible with the people who read it. 

It feels important for me to restate that before the David Bentley Hart thing, I didn’t really have a problem with universalists.  I have had many conversations with people who wear that label and maintained friendship!

The latest form of universalism, though, established by Hart’s That All Shall be Saved, has a far different mood.  In terms of academic seriousness, Hart is, far and away, light years beyond Bell’s argument.  But, substantially, I take that to be the extent of the difference.  The eschatology is the same as Bell’s: all people, after dying, will be offered unlimited second chances to come to belief.  Hence, all will “be saved.” 

So, why the movement after Hart?  The difference, dear friends, is intellectualism.  What do I mean?

Hart’s Universalism is an Intellectualist Universalism

The problem that Hart presents is essentially that human will is incapacitated by the failure to understand the Kingdom of God.  Being lost is being intellectually challenged (a restatement of Calvinistic original sin) from seeing God’s right way.  There is no evil, just foolishness and misunderstanding.

The solution?  As I was told while recording a podcast recently, “once people understand the Gospel, they WILL accept it.”  Once their intellect is corrected or restored (whether here or after death), they will choose it (merely reworded irresistible grace). 

This, of course, precludes the possibility that someone might actually understand salvation and still reject it.  It also would seem to rule out the notion that someone might not fully understand it and still choose it, if the issue is simply an intellectual one.[7]  I’ll get to what I take to be a problem with that momentarily.

And that is the point I am attempting to make without belaboring: this view of universalism is predicated on an intellectualist understanding of what sin and salvation are.  The whole thing is merely a problem of the intellect which is solved by a correction of the intellect.  Is it any wonder it’s found such popular acceptance among intellectual progressives who want to reject their evangelical roots and feel intellectually superior?  I attest that what has risen in the current universalist mood is an intellectualist arrogance that is nearly unbearable for those of us who think differently.  Why?

Hart’s Intellectualist Universalism is arrogant and his followers are, too

An honest conversation with anyone who has read even a section of Hart’s book elicits a response that Hart is, at least harshly critical of people who disagree with universalism.  Others have described it as being downright cutting and hostile to those who disagree.  And it’s not hard to see why.

To begin, might I, for a moment, comment on the ableism of Hartian universalism?  Might I point out that the arrogant assumption of sin as merely a failure of the intellect to properly understand the gospel implies that those who do not accept it are mentally impaired?  Does this not also imply that those with mental or intellectual disabilities are more sinful by virtue of the fact that sin is no more than the fallen inability to understand truth?  Is this not the height of power and arrogance that Jesus meant to undo in the Gospels? 

And furthermore, does this not imply a hierarchy of intellect in which the universalist is at the peak?  I think, ultimately, this is the arrogant, undeniable conclusion of this recent form of universalism. 

In fact, Hart’s universalism is expressed best (as it is expressed by Hart) with a generous helping of condescension and disdain, a general sense of certitude that “this position is the ‘informed’ one and that all others are simply backward, ignorant, small-minded: or foolish.  If all sin is, simply, foolish misunderstanding, it follows that people who don’t understand it that way are simply not as intellectual as the universalist.  And that assumption tends to emerge anytime I end up in dialogue with someone who follows Hart, as these recent interchanges went:

  1. “Universalism is undeniable, once you understand it.”
  2. In response to a previous article of mine, “His Christology is good, but I don’t think he understands universalism.” 
  3. “I think your understanding that God can only work with someone on this side of death is crude and small-minded.”

To be a universalist along Hart’s lines is to believe not just that sin is a failure of intellect and salvation is a restoration of intellect.  It is to believe that those who understand this are of the highest intellect, and that all objections are intellectually inferior to this position.  In other words, if people don’t choose the Gospel (which is understood to apply to everyone once they understand it), it’s because they don’t understand it—including those of us who reject their universalism (we just don’t understand it—if we understood it, we’d accept it). 

This form of solipsistic intellectualist universalism comes packaged with an obnoxious, self-sustaining pretense that has made reasonable dialogue impossible.  It mocks questions, rolls over objections, commandeers honest conversations, and shouts down dissent.  It is self-righteous, self-important, and it has hurt honest, seeking people who just don’t see it the same way. 

I argue that Milton, hardly the keeper of eschatological orthodoxy, was right when he said that there are will always be people who choose: “It is better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.”  And, if you want to know the truth, the desire to reign is what I feel has emerged when discussing “universalism” with Hartian universalists. 

Say what you will about Rob Bell’s book on universalism; at least he wasn’t a pretentious d*ck about it.  But the more I talk to Hartian universalists, the more convinced I am that the pretentiousness is the attraction for smug progressives[8] who are completely certain that they’re more intellectual than you are.  For them, the Good News is that, someday, God will make sure the rest of us lowly cretins agree with the universalists so that, in the end, the only people in heaven will be the universalists.  Then we’ll all know…they were right.

And the more I talk to Hart’s followers, the less I find their position comports as a peaceful theology.  It feels, instead, more like people trying to win arguments and prove their superiority.  It feels less like the cross and more like people struggling to overpower their enemies.

[1] Here, I want to be careful to note that I am using the standard suffix “-ism” to imply an extreme or dogmatic position. 

[2] What my friend Paul does not know but that I still talk about was how many of my science friends and my theological friends both took exception to that article—for the same reasons, but from different viewpoints.  It was fascinating.

[3] For my part, aside from the obvious advantages for the military in the Department of Education’s interest in STEM over and against the liberal arts in education, the best reason I can see for doing STEM and de-emphasizing literature, history, art, music, home economics, and shop class is that science and technology are achieving religious status.  The questions that other disciplines answer are superfluous at best.  Hence, scientism. 

[4] Wendell Berry, Remembering: a Novel. Counterpoint, Berkely, CA. Pgs. 19-20.

[5] Perhaps the benefit of this outing for universalism was that it acted as a “fuzz buster” (you’d have to be a child of the 90s to truly appreciate the reference), exposing objections from folks like John Piper, who, famously, said “Farewell, Rob Bell.” 

[6] If, unlike non-physical persons such as God or angels, what we call soul or spirit is a product of our physical being, then it makes no sense to say that there can be life for us apart from that physical being.  For this reason, I began to explore an earthier sense of what Jesus’ Kingdom was all about; and my view of resurrection became a restored physical life on a restored physical world.  For that reason, an eternal hell apart from a resurrected body ceased to make sense.  This means, though, that neither does the option of making the choice to follow Jesus “after we die” unless that person is also raised to physical life in the resurrection.  And how, in a resurrected world in which everyone is raised, regardless of whether they chose not to follow Jesus, would that resurrected world be any different from the world we live in now (except being more crowded and, thereby, more broken)?  And, if that resurrected world is no different than the one we live in now, why should we think that those who refuse to follow now would choose to in the next world?  Most “universalists” have blocked me, invited me to leave the conversation, or walked all over me before I could even set up my question.  Their intellectualist assumption won’t allow for alternative objections other than the ones they feel Hart has already debunked: and that is precisely because their certainty is established by the assumption of intellectual superiority.  The problem with we who disagree is that we just…don’t understand.  God will prove them right, someday.

[7] For my own part, I take the story of the rich young man in Mt 19, in which Jesus explains that he must relinquish his power and wealth to be a part of the Kingdom and he walks away disheartened to be a story not of someone who rejected because he did not understand.  He rejected because he did understand.

[8] As someone who has considered himself some type of “progressive” for a while now, I know we can be smug.  But we needn’t be.

On the universal necessity of our crosses

Being saved is participation in the cross of Christ—undoing evil by living a cruciform life in the face of that evil. And, for this reason, it is the only real-world answer to the real-world problem of evil.

The faith I grew up with had a singular notion of the meaning of the cross: it was simply the necessary price that someone had to pay in order to satisfy God’s need to punish us for our sins. This “vicarious” sacrifice ensured that God’s retributive justice was satisfied so that his forgiveness could be extended on an individual basis to each sinner. As such, it was done for me as something I could not do for myself. Jesus “took your punishment,” he “lived the life he lived and died an innocent man so you don’t have to.” Anselm of Canterbury’s Cur Deus Homo established for us this principle: Jesus is God become human because no mere human could do what God could do, but a human must do it–hence “why God became man.” And, because he did something which was not possible for us, we reap the benefits at no personal cost.

My oversimplification here is intentional. At Forging Ploughshares, Paul and the rest of us who have contributed have written, interviewed, and podcasted extensively on the problems of penal substitutionary atonement.

To my mind, though, the brilliance of penal substitution as it is developed in the centuries post-Anselm is its simplicity and ease. The problem Jesus came to solve? Well, we’ve committed “sins,” actions God didn’t want us to do that, once done, irreversibly give us a mystical mark as “sinners,” prohibiting our entry into heaven and destining us to eternal suffering or destruction. The “defeat of death” in the resurrection spoken of throughout the New Testament is simply the promise of eternal life, post-mortem in heaven purchased entirely by someone else.

Because of the mystical nature of what this salvation is, the real question for the reformers who ran with Anselm’s initial theory was always “what then must be done to apply the effects of Jesus’ death and resurrection to the individual sinner?” And, because of their rightful distaste for the corrupt Roman Catholic church of their day, they became convinced that nothing was required but a nebulous “faith.” Ultimately, while Luther and Calvin transitioned Anselm’s initial medieval analogies to more contemporary court analogies, the thrust remained the same: Jesus had done something for you that you are incapable of doing.

As far as I could tell from my conservative (one-step-removed-from-Reformed) Bible college education, the only issue left for the church to resolve was to kibitz over the details of who qualifies to receive the mystical “salvation.” Is it anyone who repeats the magic words “I believe?” Are there other requirements, such as baptism? How many sins can I still commit before I lose that salvation? Can it be lost? Are there just a few people who are saved? Or, does it sort of automatically apply to everyone, universally?—an idea that has experienced a bit of a renaissance in the past year or two. From the perspective of a Gospel predicated on something Jesus does for us, the people who argue all of these positions must feel that concepts like universalism and infernalism are polar opposite. But they are both predicated on the same assumption: that the problem of evil and death is mystical, otherworldly, and that it is defeated by someone else for you.

About fifteen years ago (around 2005, give or take a year), my friend Paul Axton began to drop hints to me that there were other ways to look at the cross. Maybe the cross wasn’t something that was done for us, but something that we were invited to share. It’s still not entirely clear to me whether to thank Paul or curse him, because the question changed everything for me—and there is no doubt in my mind, it did so at great cost to both of us.

What happened for me was a shift to what I now consider a much more practical, physical, and human understanding of the point of the cross. I no longer believe that the cross solved some mystical problem for God that prevented him from allowing us to live with him forever after we die. The removal of the sting of death has literally nothing to do with moving on to a disembodied heaven. The problem of sin isn’t that it prevents escaping the planet. The problem of sin is that it corrupts God’s good creation.

This means that the problem the cross resolves is more complicated than “going to heaven.”

In the creation narrative, we are told that humans were created to live and thrive on this planet as physical “images,” representations of the divine creator who made it. In this story, God is portrayed creating the universe through a cosmic speech act (he speaks and it comes to being). When people (the images) are created, he calls them to mimic the speech act by naming what is created. Thus, the role of the images of God is to partner with God in the ongoing work of caring for one another and that creation, to be co-participants, co-creators in the ongoing creation of the universe. As John Walton has stated, God’s “resting” on the seventh day is his sitting on his throne in his new cosmic temple so that the real work of partnering with his new friends in the joyous work of his kingdom could begin.

In the story, the created “images” weren’t satisfied with their image-hood and chose to know what was not for them to know. They chose to decide for themselves what is good and evil, to be other than little copies of God—and in fact, to make God in their own image. And, since they were no longer living as God’s images, they began naming things improperly. The earth, its creatures, and one another were all named for exploitation. For this, they were cursed—but we must carefully understand this.

The curse, of course, was death. But this was not the carrying out of some divine ultimatum or threat. He didn’t kill the people in the story. All of God’s statements in the fall narrative seem to be God’s observations about the state of things, rather than punishments. That they would now “die” seems to have deep implications: rather than having work to do, they would now have to work simply to survive. Rather than having loving relationships like the persons in the trinity, they would rule over one another. Rather than having access to the Tree of Life, their lives would be predicated on, and ruled by, their deaths. All of life had now become a competition to avoid death, a zero-sum-game of chasing power through violence. As a symbol of this new defining characteristic, they were now even clothed with death.

And there it is. The problem of sin and death isn’t some mystical problem which must be undone in the mind of God to allow entrance to heaven after we die. The problem of death is that it has become the defining characteristic in our lives. And sin is the violence we do to the world, to the people, to ourselves, and to God in order to try to get as much life lived as we can in view of our death, even if it means killing someone else, before we ourselves die. This, we call “evil.”

Again, the problem of death isn’t about what happens after. The problem of death is always the evil we are doing before because of our impending deaths. The problem of death is real world evil. Something that is intended to be resolved before we die, not after.

Enter Jesus into this understanding and you find the core problem which penal substitution attempts to resolve is dismantled. Jesus is not solving some meta-cosmic problem, but the real world problem of evil. His death on the cross is the undoing of the necessity of power by the acceptance of death made possible by the resurrection. As such, the cross was the ultimate undoing of the pursuit of power through violence. How so?

If the problem of evil is the attempt to escape death, salvation from evil is the acceptance of our own death–the acceptance of the cross and a cruciform life.

Death isn’t defeated in such a manner that we no longer have to die. No, we are promised that we all still die. Death is defeated in that it no longer rules over us while we live.

Which means, Jesus didn’t “do it [die] so that you don’t have to.” He died to restore to us the image of God by our acceptance of our death by participation in the cross. Jesus restored divine image-hood by demonstrating death’s defeat and calling us to follow. When Jesus bore the cross, he was saying, “Here is God.” When he quoted Psalm 22, crying, “why have you forsaken me” he was calling to mind the psalm’s own solution: he hasn’t forsaken the suffering one. He is here in the suffering with us because he has always been a suffering God. To be like him is to suffer, with him. And being like him is the entire point of this.

Salvation is not a status purchased for us. Salvation is the lived reality of the cross. It is the return to true human image-hood by the mimicking of God. On the cross God was showing us that this is the God he is—and to be human is to be like him. Therefore, his call for us is to pick up that cross and follow. “If you want to be my disciple, you must pick up your cross.” “You will share in his glory, if indeed you share in his suffering (Ro 8).”

Being saved is participation in the cross of Christ—undoing evil by living a cruciform life in the face of that evil. And, for this reason, it is the only real-world answer to the real-world problem of evil.

This is the entire point: dying on our crosses is salvation, not a mere eternal destination. Salvation is the lived reality of a restored image-bearing done by sharing the cross of Christ. That means that Jesus’ cross wasn’t the only one that is necessary to “be saved.” Carrying our cross is what being saved is.

If, then, as some are saying, “Jesus defeated death for all, no matter whether they share the cross of Christ or not,” they are actually saying Jesus has not defeated the problem of evil and death in this world but in the next world. If it is not necessary for us to bear our crosses, then we are left with some mystical understanding of what Jesus died for, and we are left with the same problem of real-world evil and death.

In fact, real world evil is ultimately dismissed by the universalist’s claims as nothing more than “foolishness.” This, I take to be a denial of even the necessity of the cross of Christ. Was it merely people’s foolishness that crucified Jesus? Were they just tricked? If the problem in this world was nothing more than foolishness, could it not have been cured by a divine critical thinking skills course? No, on the cross, Jesus faced true evil. And we face it as well on our crosses.

Again: to deny the necessity of carrying our cross is to deny the real-world solution to the real-world problem of sin and evil that murdered Jesus. It is to say it was not necessary for 2nd and 3rd century Christians to face the lions in the arena. It is to tell the martyrs that their sacrifice was in vain, that it was unnecessary. It is to say to me and my friends who’ve lost jobs and dreams and livelihoods that, “You didn’t have to do that. It was done for you no matter what.”

I am frequently told that unless I believe that all people are saved regardless of their participation in the cross, I am just not loving or “hopeful.” But a mystical escape from the world is simply not the kingdom my imagination has been taken captive by–I find no hope in it. My hope is in a kingdom defined by a people who are willing to bear the cross of Christ. This I take to be a beautiful kingdom of those willing to live like God by dying like God. It is a kingdom with a real solution to real evil right here in this real world. And a resurrection peopled by those who never understood the cost of this cross would be a resurrection of the fallen earth in which we currently reside.

And in this real world, where millions of people who call themselves Christians are willing to cause harm to anyone else in the name of “freedom, security, and the economy” the notion of changing that theology to one that says “You actually can be his disciple (or share the benefits of the cross) without carrying the cross,” is one I gladly, wholeheartedly, and passionately–even angrily–reject.

When I Am 64 – Life’s Lesson

Today, on my birthday, Jason and I had a long discussion about the nature of salvation – sort of a meaning of life lesson. I must admit that David Bentley Hart’s universalism makes perfect sense at one level and at another seems to empty the world, humanity, and the particulars of our individual history of meaning. Jason, my earth bound, Wendell Berry loving, poetry making friend, sent me back to a strange reminiscence. I was relating the simple story of Wacky Cake, my traditional birthday cake, and its meaning (which I warned him I was making up). Then he began to question if my mother really was a Mississippi shrimp boat captain and I realized the key element of our discussion is how we see meaning woven into our own lives and history.

At birth, like baby Moses, they put me in a Singer Sewing Machine lid as we floated out of Kansas City, stopping for a time at a trailer court on Dixie Highway in Louisville Kentucky. A few blocks away a missionary family, the Maxey’s from Japan, kept a small house for furloughs and Pauline Maxey gave birth to my wife. Faith and I must have crossed paths at the local Safeway, where I would have nodded and cooed, “I will be back.” Our ancestors had sailed from Maxey and Harlaxton, only a few miles apart in England, to converge in both Virginia and Kentucky and our lives would eventually merge to produce an ongoing stream.

But my father had called the trip a “vacation” and a trailer court along Dixie Highway did not fit the bill. We moved on to Biloxi Mississippi to the Ever Breeze trailer court where Mama ran a shrimp boat and Dad headed back north while we vacationed – the next four years. Hinkle, a family friend, owned a cypress shrimp trawler named “Shirley,” built in 1928 and requiring three crew members captained by my mother. They hired a young man out of the Air Force, Jim Slayton, who could nurse the engine along, and a very religious first mate, Joe Dee, whom my father said devoutly made the sign of the cross on all important occasions – according to Mom he must have “double crossed” when stealing the days catch and tools . High winds beached the Shirley just out of Gulf Port. My memory is of hard rain beating down on a flimsy trailer roof along the wind-swept coast. Luckily, the hurricane of 59 sank the Shirley before Joe Dee could completely bankrupt the family and before my mother was lost at sea.

So, we headed to Page, Arizona where my father would build the Glen Canyon Dam (it was not clear to me if he required help). We were leaving the “gween gwass” of Mississippi for a miserable desolation, and my only consolation, as I explained to my mother, would be in catching a small Indian. Dad wore a hardhat and carried a metal lunch pail with a thermos, so as to build the dam. My first memory of a present, I presume it was my fifth birthday, was a miniature pail with a miniature thermos, my Rosebud. Objects invested with a weight of meaning, a magic C. S. Lewis describes in his boyhood garden contained in a dish, from which Narnia would spring.

At 7 I acquired a beagle who was my own hound of heaven. My father was running for mayor, promising to close down all gambling in Parsons Kansas and promising to rid the town of its arch villain, Ed Thompson. Ed was a political operative all over Kansas and my father was in the basement printing off anti-Ed literature when huge Ed Thompson knocked on our door at midnight, and my father at about 5 feet 4 inches confronted the meanest man in Kansas. Ed followed my father to the basement and helped create more anti-Ed Thompson literature and helped run Dad’s campaign, which my father won.

Much later, my father and I met Ed downtown, and I remember feeling important that I was in on this special meeting, which was about Mr. Magee, Ed’s beagle. For some reason Mr. Magee wanted to abandon political life with Ed, and required a country home. Ed and I walked with Mr. Magee and I noticed the dog was eating grass and Ed explained the medicinal effects of grass. Meeting Ed and his dog became a warm memory – a living sort of magic.

Mr. Magee, who would politely wipe his feet when coming inside and could open his own cans of dog food, became the center of my life. I remember a long morning in which we had a rabbit trapped in a pipe and I was trying to slide the rabbit my way to rescue him from the jaws of death at the other end of the pipe. After hours of struggle I grabbed the rabbit by the ears and took him home as a pet – but something happened that morning.  Part of it was that Mr. Magee must have gotten the point, as he later gingerly carried a baby rabbit unharmed and set it at my feet. The patterns of memory I have with this dog are tinged with a deep spiritual sensibility. My first great trauma in life and my first religious experience, prayer, occurred when Mr. Magee disappeared.

Could it be that this little piece of history, trivial, nearly nonsensical, bears meaning?  Isn’t the world and our passage through it somehow enchanted? Is there one point where we can say, here eternity intersected time, so that this moment is weighted forever as part of the life of God and it now pervades all things. If the cross, the life of Christ, the resurrection, is such a moment in time, then why not a similar significance interwoven throughout life. The old woman hidden behind a mound of plastic flowers whom I have come to help make artificial flowers at age 7. Her small kindnesses, our quiet conversation, the sheer delight of my first ice cream sandwich, my salary. Hours and days spent alone on the Texas prairie; are they empty or lost or woven into my eternity.

What weight does any history bear and what dignity? Aren’t we to be about creating, constructing, weaving eternity throughout the moments of time? We are not simply the passive recipients of the divine future presence, but are to be conduits of eternal purpose as co-creators here and now. The great danger in notions of post-mortem universal correction is that creations purpose is denied its eternal weight – its intersection with the divine worked out in the history of the cross and all history. Justice will amount to nothing. None of it will have mattered one way or another. The devil will be saved according to Origen, and Hitler, Himmler and Stalin are on the same level as Mother Teresa.[1] The world enchanted by eternity, or left un-created, unmade, unfulfilled, is part of the weight borne in the responsibility of Imago Dei.

[1] Clifford Dull in correspondence. See the Patheos article by Geoff Holsclaw

The Limitations of Infernalism, Annihilationism, and Universalism

It is not entirely clear how justice might be rendered and the world set right but this is the Christian hope. By “not clear” I mean that the proper understanding of the biblical images of a narrow way, cosmic redemption, punishment of the wicked, eternal fire, the defeat of sin and death, etc., does not resolve into anything approaching full explanation and, I presume, is not supposed to. Part of what hope consists of, in its admitted (and by definition) incapacity to see, is that there are impenetrable categories posing resolutions to overwhelming problems that escape finite imagination and articulation. Biblical imagery of heaven, hell, and the intermediate state of the dead, is simply that – imagery not meant to serve as exhaustive explanation. It is not only that the abyss runs white hot and cold (outer darkness) or that its opposite includes the entire cosmos (all, everyone, everything) narrowed down to a few select individuals, but these categories made to bear too heavy a weight corrupt the explanation, clarity, and primary point of the Gospel. The New Testament is focused on a practical, present tense explanation of salvation, inclusive of an ethic – life in the body – and an insight into the human predicament, which is evacuated of meaning when the primary focus is put on future categories whatever they might be (which is not to deny the necessity of better understanding these categories).  This is clearest in the case of infernalism (eternal, conscious, torturous existence) but the same point holds for every position regarding the future estate.

Infernalism is connected to various images (it is mistakenly connected to hades – which is the place of the dead) but usually with gehenna or the lake of fire. The problem is, the New Testament nowhere describes the Cross as addressing the category of gehenna or the lake of fire. Yet conceived as the primary human problem, Christ is thought to bear eternal suffering in hell on the Cross.  This makes suffering and death otherworldly spiritual categories, and since Christ’s suffering in this understanding is inward (eternal, heavenly/hellish suffering for and before God) he could undergo this spiritual suffering without incarnation. To follow this logic will land one just short of the antiChrist position of denying that Christ came in the flesh – here he simply need not have come in the flesh.

Though the innate immortality of the soul need not be posited along with infernalism it usually is, for obvious (and less so) reasons.  To imagine God simultaneously sustaining and torturing in hell forever may be disturbing to those not weaned on Calvin’s understanding that God’s love is an anthropomorphism of the saved, trumped by his hate toward the damned.  Indestructibility is apparently our fall back position as portrayed in both the Bible and psychology. Though the serpent or Satan is behind the idea (in Genesis, Hebrews, Romans), better (so goes the lie) to bear a spark of immortality rather than to imagine God alone is immortal (though Paul says as much to Timothy). Freud maintained there is no mortality in the human unconscious.

Infernalism displaces the biblical focus on Christ’s actual death and his encounter with real world evil of the human kind (that killed him). Salvation, love, heaven, election, or nearly any other key biblical term will bear a very different semantic load if God is eternally angry and salvation is from his wrath for a few luckily chosen or choosing individuals. The goodness of this God is suspect and the redemption proposed would be blissful only for those who delight in the torture of others.  In hell, as eternal torturous existence, wrath is on a continuum in the divine nature coexisting forever with love, though Scripture tells us just the opposite.[1]

Annihilationism is an improvement, in many respects, over infernalism: Jesus speaks of a final judgment primarily employing metaphors of annihilation like the “burning of chaff or brambles in ovens,” or the “final destruction of body and soul in the Valley of Hinnom.” Paul indicates as much: “Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him” (1 Co 3:11–17). Peter concurs: “But these, as natural brute beasts, made to be taken and destroyed, speak evil of the things that they understand not; and shall utterly perish in their own corruption” (2 Peter 2:12, KJV). The predominant O.T. picture is of the wicked being brought to nothing (a few examples must suffice): “For they will wither quickly like the grass and fade like the green herb” (Psalm 37:2). “Evildoers will be cut off . . . the wicked will perish . . . They vanish—like smoke they vanish away” (Psalm 37:9,20).” “‘For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff; and the day that is coming will set them ablaze,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘so that it will leave them neither root nor branch’” (Malachi 4:1).

Annihilationism fits into a continuum with the living death of sin, with death as a visible result of the Fall – finalized in the annihilation of judgment and Christ’s defeat of death. Infernalism creates a cosmological dualism in which the victory of Christ brings resolution for some but leaves evil and rebellion in place in hell. The eternally burning inferno would seem, as Calvin supposed, to make God’s wrath primary and to throw into question the “cosmic” fullness of Christ’s victory. Augustine proposes that it was a necessity to have an eternal torturous hell so that one could understand the difference of being in heaven. Tertullian, before him, speaks of the saved relishing the sight of the destruction of the reprobate.  Aquinas asserts that the vision of hellish torments increases the beatitude of the redeemed. As Augustine describes it, looking upon the punishments they have evaded helps the redeemed to more richly realize divine grace. It seems there is no place for mercy, pity, empathy, or human decency in a heaven dependent upon hell. Strangely, none note that it is precisely this knowledge built on difference (the knowledge of good and evil) that is fallen.

 With annihilationism, death as being cut off from life with God, has its definitive end in Christ’s defeat of death or in the obliteration of dying. Is there a contradiction though, in saying death is definitively defeated if some are dead forever? One might object that annihilation partly shares in the problem of infernalism, in that Christ’s victory cannot be said to be decisive and complete for all. God might be said to be “all in all” (I Cor. 15:28) but not for all. Perhaps nonexistence is not a counter to all in that it is a discontinuous category, though this doesn’t seem to quite work.

This leaves the option of universalism, which would seem to have its support in the continual New Testament refrain that salvation has come to all: God is the savior of all people (I Timothy 4:10). “For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all” (Romans 11:32). “So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men” (Romans 5:18). “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men” (Titus 2:11). “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive” (I Corinthians 15:22). “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself” (John 12:32). “. . . making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:9-10, ESV). There are some 40 verses that clearly indicate the cosmic, universal, all-inclusive nature of salvation. Some form of universalism would seem to be undeniable, and I do not mean those forms that squeeze “all” down to a few. 

The danger with universalism is that it would seem to reduce to insignificance the struggles, suffering, choices, and injustices, involved in the reality of life. Certainly, a fluffy, cheap universalism, which would overlook the oppressive nature of evil for bromides of sentimental morality reduces the Christian religion to chicken soup for the soul. Wouldn’t it have been better to save the candle of human struggle if the flame of salvation brightens all? What is the point, the explanation, the reason? Universalism may set forth some sort of soul-making explanation – a grand lesson with no real consequences – but this will not do.

My point with annihilationism and universalism is not to simply dismiss them as inadequate. Infernalism, annihilationism, or universalism (either the cotton candy gnostic kind, or a morally responsible kind), are certainly not equal and need to be sorted out, but the danger is that the imagery of future things is made to bear explanatory weight where the New Testament offers imagery and not explanation. There is progress to be made in recognizing the perversion entailed in infernalism, the role of annihilation, and the clear teaching of a cosmic/universal salvation. The danger though, is to confuse a more just biblical imagery of future eternal categories with explanation. A better understanding may explain more but it is not the role of any image of the future estate of the damned and saved to sum up explanation and understanding.  In fact, a key criterion in arriving at the best understanding is that it allows for the fulness of the biblical focus on a lived salvation.

The end of discussion on the teaching of the New Testament about the intermediate state of the dead, future rewards and punishment, the extent of salvation, should not confuse a better understanding with a full understanding or imagine that this sums up the focus of the New Testament. For example, it may be that one concludes that annihilation is the primary teaching of the New Testament and better fits a loving image of God and best explains biblical imagery of final destruction. This may be a better explanation, but does annihilation provide final resolution to issues of justice or play the role of a theodicy? Does universalism serve any better? The death of six million Jews in Hitler’s gas chambers is not going to be explained, justified, or understood, whatever future estate you might imagine for Adolph, be it conscious torture in hell forever, annihilation, or redemption. Meningitis, rat lung worms, tooth decay, cancer, the suffering of the innocent, the existence of evil, or Hitler, do not fall within the spectrum of understanding and practical action which is the primary explanatory point of the New Testament – though it may touch on all of these issues. Of course, this practical salvation is best served by correctly delineating end time imagery but this image does not serve in place of a lived deliverance from the shackles of sin.

[1] “For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you. He will not always chide: neither will he keep his anger forever” (Isaiah 54:7-8). “In an outburst of anger, I hid My face from you for a moment, but with everlasting lovingkindness I will have compassion on you” (Psalm 103:9,17). “He will revive us after two days; He will raise us up on the third day, that we may live before Him” (Hosea 6:2).

The Narrow Way to Universal Salvation

The Bible tells us two things about salvation which do not seem to fit together: the way is narrow and few find it and salvation is universal, inclusive of the cosmos and all peoples.  Two sorts of Christianity have developed emphasizing these two ways. One focuses on biblical passages which describe a narrow path to salvation and a broad path to destruction, with the presumption that all who do not find the first path will burn in hell forever. This group is focused on evangelism, personal salvation, and going to heaven. In its harsher forms (both Roman Catholic and Protestant) no mitigating circumstance enters into consideration (age, mental capacities, opportunity to hear the Gospel), so that all those who have not accepted the Gospel are consigned to hell. Francis Xavier and Hudson Taylor might be described as commendable examples of those who have attempted to bear this heavy load. Xavier dies of exhaustion and Taylor suffers mental collapse in the course of trying to rescue as many as possible from the wrath of God.  Luther’s picture of the redeemed enjoying the sight of family members roasting in hell and Calvin’s notion that large portions of hell are populated by fingerling size infants (no larger than a cubit), would seem to point to a less commendable “bent” of mind (but bent or broken seems to be the implication).  The other brand of Christianity focuses on biblical passages describing universal salvation and assumes everyone is eventually saved – by various means depending on the sect. This group is not so focused on evangelism and is relieved of some of the harsher strictures of its fundamentalist twin. In its more fatuous form this universalist faith reduces, in the words of one of its more famous purveyors, to the lessons learned in kindergarten: “Hold hands when crossing the street and remember, imagination is stronger than knowledge, myth is more potent than history, and dreams are more powerful than facts.” This Pee Wee Herman sort of playhouse Christianity demands no strength of mind nor exertion of moral effort. Continue reading “The Narrow Way to Universal Salvation”