Satisfying Our Craving for Universal Justice
In the wake of the Rob Bell controversy over universalism, I’ve been trying to fumble my way off of the horns of the Eternal Conscious Torment vs. Christian Universalism dilemma. I borrowed Edward Fudge’s fine work, The Fire That Consumes, a Biblical and Historical examination of the doctrine of final punishment. I’ve heard that Brother Fudge is releasing an updated version soon, with more notes and information. I don’t have a lot to say about it at present – I won’t be posting a review or anything like that. But the book definitely has several things going for it – Exhaustive research, readability, honest wrestling with the text of Holy Scripture, and avoidance of the horns of the dilemma mentioned above.
To be honest, here’s what I wrestle with. The universalists tend to devalue free will and seriously underestimate the poisonous power of sin. The ECT people seem unwilling to really stare that doctrine in the face and let the full horror of such a condemnation wash over them. If it is true, it is true, regardless of how horrifying it is – but if you believe it is true, how can you spend another cent on entertainment while there are people on earth in jeopardy of such a fate, simply because no one got around to telling them about Jesus?
There are a few New Testament Scriptures, though, that have been bouncing off of each other in my head today. I don’t expect this blog to be very coherent, nor is it trying to be persuasive about anything, except perhaps the seriousness with which we should take eternal things.
NT Wright recently brought Matthew 2:1-12 to mind for me.
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, in the time of King Herod, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem saying, “Where is the one who is born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was alarmed, and all Jerusalem with him. After assembling all the chief priests and experts in the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born.
“In Bethlehem of Judea,” they said, “for it is written this way by the prophet:
6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are in no way least among the rulers of Judah,
for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod privately summoned the wise men and determined from them when the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and look carefully for the child. When you find him, inform me so that I can go and worship him as well.” After listening to the king they left, and once againt the star they saw when it rose led them until it stopped above the place where the child was. When they saw the star they shouted joyfully. As they came into the house and saw the child with Mary his mother, they bowed down and worshiped him. They opened their treasure boxes and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
After being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back by another route to their own country.
Three things stand out to me:
- The magi came, not because a preacher told them about Jesus, but because his star rose in the sky. This doesn’t mean that it climbed up the sky the way the sun appears to, but rather an astrological rising – a coming into prominence in its relationship to other cosmological bodies.
- The star – and thus their own spiritual system of understanding reality – wasn’t enough. It only got them to Jerusalem, where the scholars in the Hebrew Scriptures had to be consulted before the wise men could go on the next step of their journey.
- The wise men were the only ones in the story (so far) interested in actually following the God-given signs to Bethlehem. The scholars in the law seem too convinced of their own brilliance to think that three pagans could spot the work of God before they could, and Herod isn’t interested at all until his self-preservation instinct kicks in and he sends out the death squad.
But God was working to spread the gospel of the world’s savior, in ways apart from the wisdom of His dedicated believers. This should in no way inspire apathy, but rather awe and thanksgiving and an increased desire to get in on what God is already doing.
That passage made me think of this one:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel from faith to faith, just as it is written, “The righteous by faith will live.” For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness, because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give him thanks, but they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless heartst were darkened. -Romans 1:16-21 NET (emphasis mine)
The magi spotted that God was up to something because they were looking. When they obeyed what God revealed to them, through nature and Scripture, they found the Christ and worshiped Him. Then, because they would have been in grave danger from God’s people, he helped them escape via a different route. GOD IS STILL WORKING TODAY. Look around, and you might spot it!
And those passages together pointed the way to this one.
And you were at one time strangers and enemies in your minds as expressed through your evil deeds, but now he has reconciled you by his physical body through death to present you holy, without blemish, and blameless before him – if indeed you remain in the faith, established and firm, without shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard. This gospel has also been preached in all creation under heaven, and I, Paul, have become its servant. Now I rejoice in my sufferings for you, and I fill up in my physical body – for the sake of his body, the church – what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ. I became a servant of the church according to the stewardship from God – given to me for you – in order to complete the word of God, that is, the mystery that has been kept hidden from ages and generations, but has now been revealed to his saints. God wanted to make known to them the glorious riches of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. We proclaim him by instructingt and teaching all people with all wisdom so that we may present every person mature in Christ. Toward this goal I also labor, struggling according to his power that powerfully works in me. – Colossians 1:21-29 NET (emphasis mine)
The traditional interpretation I’ve always heard of the passage above is that either Paul means the whole Roman world, not the whole wide world, when he says “all creation,” or that somehow, in some way that history completely missed and archaeology still fails to uncover, God sent missionaries to every single person on earth at that time to preach the gospel. I’ve had trouble with both of those interpretations, because the phrase “all creation” encompasses more than just the Roman world, and more than just humanity on the third rock from the sun. It can mean every single thing that has been created, and Paul isn’t given to great flights of rhetorical expansiveness – his language is typically pretty precise.
So… where does that leave me right now?
- The magi heard the gospel preached to all creation under heaven.
- Science led them to Scripture.
- Scripture led them to worship.
If that line of thinking leads someone to rest on their laurels because God’s still working (so they don’t need to), then their heart hasn’t been grasped by the power of God unto salvation.
If that line of thinking leads someone to trust more fully in the universal justice of the One True God, because Scripture testifies that the church is not the only way God reaches out with the message of Jesus (but Holy Scripture is still integral to God’s work of salvation), then God be praised for the riches of His glorious grace!
in HIS love,