Universal Salvation Through Resurrection: The Answer to an Unasked Question?

After many years in the classroom the questions of students on any given topic became so predictable so as to seem almost mechanical, indicating a certain predetermined orientation of thought. I came to see my role, in teaching theology, as necessitating a shift of focus in which a particular line of questioning is abandoned or at least suspended so as to raise an alternative perspective. Poorly conceived questions or questions which are secondary, when made primary, are not harmful because an answer may or may not be available but because the question and potential answer are misdirected.  Sometimes no answer or a suspended answer allows for a different emphasis. Questions about the problem of evil and suffering, the intermediate state of the dead, the necessity of violence, or available light, given the wrong focus or emphasis have the potential of impoverishing the Christian faith. As Thomas Kuhn has demonstrated, paradigm shifts occur not so much with the gathering of new data as with the rise of a different set of questions aimed at answering a different set of problems (the answers to which may in fact be inadequate in answering former questions). What we might call “contractual theology” is primed to provide a theory of evil, to explain suffering and the necessity of violence, what happens at death, and has an answer concerning those who have never heard the gospel, but the cost, as Douglas Campbell has shown, is an inherently unstable theology which cannot be completely reconciled with the New Testament. But the simplest criterion for testing the adequacy of a theological understanding, according to Paul, is bodily resurrection.

The test Paul provides (in I Cor. 15) for an authentic Christianity is the centrality of belief in the bodily resurrection. Denial of bodily resurrection, or even of its desirability, is the primary marker, in Paul’s explanation, of a futile faith worse than paganism and not worthy of the name of Christ. Some of the Corinthians have concluded bodily resurrection is not a necessity. Paul warns that a Christianity that would displace bodily resurrection as the core of salvation is a lie. Why would they, or maybe more pertinent, why do many Christians today believe in a Christianity in which bodily resurrection is a non-sequitur (even where acknowledged it is often only as an addendum to the saving work of the cross)? As Justin Martyr explains as early as the second century, in his debate with Trypho the Jew, there are “some who are called Christians. . . who say that there is no resurrection of the dead, and that their souls, when they die, are taken to heaven.” These are “godless, impious heretics,” Justin warns Trypho: “Do not imagine that they are Christians” (Dialogue with Trypho, 80). Justin continues, “I and others, who are right-minded Christians on all points, are assured that there will be a resurrection of the dead” [literally, resurrection of the flesh]. This heresy is probably the same that Paul is refuting (a Greek dualism of body and soul) and, of course, by this definition most of what is popular Christianity today is a false religion.

It may not be important in the contemporary scene to trace the cause of bias toward bodily resurrection – is it the influence of Greek philosophy, the same striving for wisdom (identity through difference evident in Corinth and a universal phenomenon according to Derrida), is it new ageism with its Eastern influences, or is it simply the natural human tendency? I have encountered it in a supposedly conservative campus ministry (the campus minister acknowledging it would not matter to him if they found the body of Jesus and the board, made up primarily of elders and ministers, concurring); it is obviously denied in certain strands of theological liberalism, and ever-present in fundamentalism (in more or less the form Justin condemns). The irony of the many post-evangelicals who have passed into various forms of neo-Gnosticism is that they have not changed their basic worldview. Reformed theology along with the many forms of disembodied Christianity presume that Christianity (like Gnosticism) addresses categories removed from death and the life-long orientation to death, such that resurrection would answer a problem they have not conceived.

To make the point that putting resurrection in the center constitutes an alternative Christianity, I summarily offer eight key ways (following Campbell, in part) in which a different emphasis on resurrection completely alters doctrine:

1. Epistemology – One reading of Romans is that God is known from the cosmos through reason and conscience. God’s ethical demands are clear to Jews through the law and innately by everyone else, so that reward and punishment are determined on the basis of keeping the law, which will happen on the day of judgment. Humans are sinful and everyone violates the law or fails to meet its ethical demands, and honest introspection reveals this fact so that everyone knows they are damned (all rational people are afraid and want a way out). Luckily, Christ offers a resolution to the double problem of knowing God in his omniscient justice, knowing the law, knowing of one’s incapacity to keep the law, and being afraid of one’s deserved punishment. One is able to attain to a philosophically sophisticated knowledge of God and yet there is a profound incapacity to do what one knows she should (a misreading, I would argue, of Romans 1-4 and 7).

The problem is this does not fit Paul, who testifies that his conscience was clear and that he kept the law perfectly prior to becoming a Christian. In twenty years in Japan, and I worked among cultural elites and every class of people, I failed to meet one individual that had either this natural understanding of God or of themselves. From my own education, I presumed that I would meet depressed people, agonizing over their sinful incapacity, and all I would need to do is show them a way out of their dilemma. In the entire history of philosophy and ethics it is not clear that the finest minds arrived at anything approaching what is often taken to be Paul’s starting point of human knowing.

The alternative to this misconstrued natural light is what Paul describes as resurrection knowing. As he describes in both Romans and Philippians there is knowing grounded in the law or what he describes in II Cor. 3 as knowing from ourselves and resurrection knowing. Apart from knowing the resurrected Jesus one is bound by sin and death (the law of sin and death) in which state one has believed a lie (Rom. 1:18ff, 7:7ff; Philippians 3:10-11).  There is no available light, no possibility of arriving at truth as one is given over to a lie. Resurrection knowing (knowing by the power of resurrection) is guided by the Spirit and Paul contrasts this with knowing according to the letter of the law which kills (II Cor. 3:6).

2. Anthropology – People in typical contractual theology are thought to be individualistic, rational, and cognitive, (perhaps innately immortal) and yet ethically incapacitated. The focus is on a spirituality or soulishness that is not dependent on the body. In this understanding resurrection either is not helpful or is an imprisonment in the body and the material world. In a theology in which resurrection is salvation, people are subject to death and futility and their apparent individualism is a symptom of sin. In this understanding people are not innately immortal, nor are they isolated individualistic souls. Bodily resurrection as salvation speaks of plurality (male/female, family) community and corporateness (as part of being corporeal). The incapacity of being subject to death is obviously holistic when we die – but death has a grip prior to physical death (prior to one’s actual demise) so that living out the resurrection now is equated with life in the Spirit.

3. Theology – In contractual theology God is known as a just, law giving, angry judge such that a theodicy (the answer to the problem of evil) is extrapolated (by Calvin) as flowing out of the character of God. Paul says, the death and resurrection of Christ is the vindicating act of God “who was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). God’s justice in this understanding is not focused on application of law but deliverance from death. God is deliverer, sovereign over chaos and death, and loving (the source of help and rescue and not the source of hate and anger).  The helper, the Holy Spirit, enables living out this alternative understanding.

In Christ’s resurrection God is Lord over the powers: “For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming, then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power” (1 Co 15:21–24, NASB).

4. Revelation – Where resurrection is the reconstitution of all things, including the human capacity to know, “natural revelation” (whatever that might be construed to be) is obscured by sin and death. There is no cognitive, philosophical approach to God. We know this because revelation is life breaking into death, light breaking into darkness, understanding breaking into ignorance, truth as over and against a lie. Revelation is retrospective from resurrection – from which we can see the grip death has had upon us (Rom 7); again, life in the Spirit leads into all truth as opposed to a living death based on a lie.

5. Law – Where resurrection is the answer to the problem law is not a primary category but secondary in that it pertains to death, the real problem in human orientation (the deception is to imagine there is life in the law). It is originally a marker, as with the Jewish law, of the covenant between God and Abraham. In the prohibition in Eden we can see that law is doubly obscured in that the knowledge of good and evil is a law unto itself, not referencing God or life but as Paul describes it, referring to that which comes from the self (II Cor. 3:6). Law in the lie is a means to life and this “life in the law” is a living death. Yet the economy of salvation in contractual theory is presumed to operate on the basis of law.

6. Atonement – Contractual theory does not explain (in any comprehensible manner) why Christ must atone as against other people or things, and especially, in place of the established temple cult. The atonement that is offered involves a legal fiction in which an innocent victim dies to satisfy God’s righteousness. As George McDonald describes it:

“Justice could not treat a righteous man as an unrighteous; neither, if justice required the punishment of sin, could justice let the sinner go unpunished. To lay the pain upon the righteous in the name of justice is simply monstrous. No wonder unbelief is rampant. Believe in Moloch if you will, but call him Moloch, not justice. Be sure that the thing that God gives, the righteousness that is of God, is a real thing, and not a contemptible legalism. Pray God I have no righteousness imputed to me, Let me be regarded as the sinner I am; for nothing will serve my need but to be made a righteous man, one that will no more sin.”

Paul says that apart from the resurrection of Christ you are still in your sins (I Cor. 15:17) because sin reigns through death and death no longer reigns only where resurrection has defeated death. Without the resurrection the redemptive, atoning, liberating effect of Christ’s death remains ineffective, for his death and resurrection are two sides of the redemption from the bondage to sin and death. New life (resurrection life) is the direct correlate of this delivery from bondage.

7. Faith – In contractual theology faith is a cognitive affirmation which somehow saves (the connection to salvation or deliverance is not clear). Resurrection faithfulness speaks of trusting obedience in the face of death. So, it is interconnected with a life giving, rather than a death dealing, ethic.

8. Soteriology – A Christian faith which poses the wrong problem (God’s anger), gives us the wrong answer (law is satisfied and law is the main thing), concludes death and resurrection are secondary to the main problem (God’s wrath), divides out ethics and says righteousness is merely theoretical and does not bring about a real or necessary change (it is imputed), does it deserve the name “Christian”? A religion which imagines God must punish the sinner, for justice requires it; then says he does not punish the sinner, but punishes a perfectly righteous man instead, and attributes the righteousness to the sinner, so that this is justice, I would say this is the devil’s religion that has been substituted for the Christian faith. Resurrection as the center of salvation makes it obvious that death and a death dealing lifestyle are the problem. Being saved is cosmic, apocalyptic, and not conditioned on our ability to bring it about.

The question is not whether Paul believes in a cosmic, all-encompassing, universal salvation, through resurrection. That is, we might debate exceptions, degrees of exclusion, or qualifications but such questioning and debate must be subsequent to understanding Paul’s primary and driving image of salvation. There are certain questions we must temporarily suspend lest they obscure or derail the main point: universal salvation through resurrection is the resolution to the problem of sin and death.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

12 thoughts on “Universal Salvation Through Resurrection: The Answer to an Unasked Question?”

  1. Oh, I’m so glad you wrote this! The centrality of resurrection is missed by folks both on conservative and liberal sides of that particular spectrum of thought.

    The thing I think I appreciate most is the piece dealing with a reorientation to the proper questions (which, of course, includes the aforementioned “liberal/conservative” issue).

    However, in addressing misconceptions about resurrection (the mind/body dualism or escapism inherent to “conservative” evangelicalism’s obsession with “going to heaven”), I think there is a whole other world of folks who also don’t believe in resurrection for DIFFERENT reasons: primarily that (as one friend told me) “a lot of the people at our church are very educated and it’s hard for them to believe that, so I don’t insist on it.” (paraphrased) In other words, “Really smart people are too smart to believe in that, so why does it matter as long as they’re going to church or something?”

    And, of course, the folks from Emory I’ve known in recent years have basically shrugged off any eschatological discussion in a classic liberal

    I wish this piece included a refutation of the more “liberal” perspectives on resurrection and eschatology as well as the conservative

    I’ve tried to argue for the centrality of the Resurrection for following Christ to the cross–that resurrection is the defeat of the powers and of death and violence, enabling us to go confidently to the cross rather than pick up the sword. This generally bounces off. In fact, when I told my friend that a person’s faith is HOPELESS without resurrection (I’m just quoting Paul) he insisted that “no it isn’t.” What do you mean, of COURSE it is! What are they hoping in?

    Believe it or not (and I feel relatively certain of this), the reason I think that liberals and conservatives both deny resurrection is the same: one way or the other you’re avoiding the cross.

  2. Paul,

    I appreciate the article as always. I am confused somewhat by the use of Universal Salvation. Just how do you mean that? certainly not Universalism. I agree with everyone rising bodily, but am confused by universal salvation.

    Thanks,

    Ray

    1. I mean whatever Paul means in his picture in both Romans 5 and I Corinthians 15 (in which all that happened in the first Adam is reversed in the second Adam), along with his use of the word “all” in many other places. That is, I wanted to suspend the questions in order to set forth the all-inclusiveness of what Paul means. Once we understand it is cosmic, universal, all in all, for everyone then we can address passages which suggest there are exceptions.

          1. I think Paul articulates a cosmic resurrection there. The universe is waiting eagerly for our final bodily resurrection so that it, too, can be released from bondage to decay.

  3. Something which has really hit me over the last few years is that there are many Christians who believe in a bodily resurrection but it is more of a proof text that proves they will one day go to heaven. I once believed this way. In this platonic view it is easy to build a contractual salvation. Yet when we see how the Resurrection plays into God’s whole restoration project I find it personally that it challenges many other cherished beliefs I once held.

    1. Resurrection is clearly Paul’s picture of the resolution which should tell us what the problem is. We can, given that sin is a lie, only understand the problem from the retrospective view of resurrection. To ask the right question we require the solution to a question we have not asked.