Monday, August 18, 2008

How Universalism Has Impacted my Life

Denver raised a good point. He wrote:

"Your autobiographical sketch in TEU stops at your 'conversion' to universalism. How have you changed since believing in universalism? How has your relationship with God changed (especially since before your shift you found yourself unable to worship God)? How has it affected your daily life?"

Here are a few reflections off the top of my head.

It has impacted my understanding of God and thus also my prayer life and worship life. The vision of God and his purposes that I now hold is inspiring and makes me want to worship. The final paragraph of the book sums it up for me:

In conclusion, let me ask you to hold in your mind traditional Christian visions of the future, in which many, perhaps the majority of humanity, are excluded from salvation forever. Alongside that hold the universalist vision, in which God achieves his loving purpose of redeeming the whole creation. Which vision has the strongest view of divine love? Which story has the most powerful narrative of God’s victory over evil? Which picture lifts the atoning efficacy of the cross of Christ to the greatest heights? Which perspective best emphasizes the triumph of grace over sin? Which view most inspires worship and love of God bringing him honor and glory? Which has the most satisfactory understanding of divine wrath? Which narrative inspires hope in the human spirit? To my mind the answer to all these questions is clear, and that is why I am a Christian universalist.

This God is amazing! Exciting! Awesome! I have a stronger sense of his love, his soverignty, his purity, his integrity, his fidelity, his power to save, his grace, and his mercy than I had before. And I do not have doxological crises on the Hell issue now (though, being honest, I still have them for other reasons periodically, e.g., why God commanded the slaughter of the Canaanites).

It has increased my joy for the future. I find that when situations look bleak I can draw hope that history is the the hands of this omnibenevolent, omnipotent God with these good and cosmic purposes. I have a much stronger sense of the final victory of God and this takes the edge of the sometimes tragic events in life.

Oddly, the reality and importance of Hell impresses itself upon me more now than it did before I was a universalist. Perhaps because ECT was so very terrible I tried not to think about it and tended to sideline it in my theology (and my experience of lots of Christians is that they do the same). But I am now freed up to accept Hell and I feel that the church needs to recover the place of divine judgement in our theology and praxis. Ironic, huh?

I have found it to be pastorally helpful. Recently someone close to my family died after a painful and protracted illness. He was a wonderful man but not a believer and I was asked by his family to speak at his funeral. Before becoming a universalist I confess that if I was honest I would have thought his chances of being saved were very slim indeed. Just possibly he found faith in his final moments. Just possibly God might let him through (because judgement is in God's hands and not ours). But let's be honest, he had not accepted the gospel and that is that. He's missed his chance. That kind of message is little consolation to a grieving family. But my universalism allowed me to hold out solid hope of resurrection and salvation for him without in any way compromising the imperative of embracing the gospel message.

It has not impacted my evangelism in the sense that I do not present universalism to people when I explain the gospel. I do not have any formula for how I present the gospel (like the 4 spiritual laws) but I still address the sin issue and, when the situation is right, I speak of Hell and judgement. I do not tell people that Hell is not the end (though, if it was appropriate in a specific situation I would do so). Like Jesus and the prophets I would want the utter seriousness of the coming judgement to impact people and I would urge them to avoid it. The number of those saved in the end (i.e., all) is not part of the gospel message itself and some people might use it as an excuse not to take the warnings seriously. I am open to mentioning it but only in the right circumstances. So if you heard me explaining the gospel you may well not realize that I was a universalist.

Pax

Gregory

15 comments:

James Goetz said...

"This God is amazing! Exciting! Awesome! I have a stronger sense of his love, his soverignty, his purity, his integrity, his fidelity, his power to save, his grace, and his mercy than I had before."

Gregory, Amen, Amen.

"And I do not have doxological crises on the Hell issue now (though, being honest, I still have them for other reasons periodically, e.g., why God commanded the slaughter of the Canaanites)."

I also still struggle with the occasional old covenant devotion of prisoners, but it doesn't compare to my former struggle with unconditional, never ending damnation for evil deeds during a temporary earthly life. I cannot completely comprehend the ancient cultural context of devoting Canaanites and Amalekites while I'm glad that God doesn't ask new covenant believers to do that. The church will help judge angels for sentences in temporary hell (1 Corinthians 6:3), but no more old covenant devotions. And I'm glad to know that all of the devoted Canaanites and Amalekites eventually heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. Praise God! (I'm sorry if I discussed this without enough sensitivity.)

"I have found it to be pastorally helpful. Recently someone close to my family died after a painful and protracted illness. He was a wonderful man but not a believer and I was asked by his family to speak at his funeral."

I agree with your pastoral concerns. I could never again suggest to a mourner that his or her lost loved one who died has no chance of liberation from hell. Or I could never again suggest to a newly saved Christian that lost loved ones who died are lost forever without conditions.

"It has not impacted my evangelism in the sense that I do not present universalism to people when I explain the gospel."

My gospel sharing never starts with any hint about the gospel in hell. But many times when I've shared with people one-on-one or in small groups, I get questions about the lost who died. Since I discovered that Christ preaches the gospel in hell, I feel good about my answers. Unfortunately, I currently don't have the amount of time for outreach that I did a few years ago before I believed the gospel in hell, but I trust God will restore my time and finances for outreach.

dan said...

I think universalism does impact our evangelism. Following the example of Jesus, I think that it is the proclamation of forgiveness that enables repentance and not vice versa. What we often see is Jesus offering forgiveness to people who are not asking for it -- but it is this initial, unconditional proclamation of forgiveness that leads people to stop living as sinners and start living as disciples (i.e. it leads people to repent).

Consequently, it is universalism that makes sense of the ways in which Jesus and the Spirit empower the disciples to 'forgive anyone his [sic] sins' (cf. Jn 20.21-23). This, then, is what it means to be sent in the same way that the Father sent the Son: we go forth proclaiming forgiveness -- letting people know that they already are forgiven, and they already are God's beloved children. It is this proclamation that then enables them to confront their prior actions, it enables repentance without the fear of (divine or other) rejection, and it enables them to begin to live a new life in Christ.

Universalism shows us where our traditional evangelism has gotten it wrong. We don't offer conditional forgiveness (i.e. you need to repent and accept Jesus so that you can be forgiven), we proclaim forgiveness as something already accomplished (through Christ) and thereby open the door for new life.

James Goetz said...

Dan, on the other hand, my universalism is based upon conditional redemption while I believe that everybody will eventually repent by God's grace to meet the conditions for redemption.

Bobby said...

Gregory,
Thanks for responding to Denver’s question on the blog! This is the kind of stuff we’re all looking for…how and where universalism impacts your life! You, James and Dan have all been impacted by UR, but in different ways. That fits well with the idea of demonstration…we don’t all play the same roles!

I’m personally more comfortable with Dan’s perspective, but that certainly doesn’t make it “right” for everybody.

Auggybendoggy said...

GM,
I resonate so strongly with your post. I have never grown in Christ the way I have since understanding God's character.

When I realized that God's wrath breaks us of our arrogance and his kindness leads us to repentance it was like drowning in a sea of obedience to law and suddenly finding that my future (drowning) was not in my own hands to suddenly learn how to swim, but upon his ability to keep me from falling.

I was very much like GM in that I believe I thought ECT was so HORRIFIC I imply truly did not believe in it.

It's been said that if people truly believe it is ECT then why are they not on their hands and knees, bleeding and pleading with sinners to be reconciled to God.

Indeed I feel that same way. As I began to understand the character of God I then began to speak of hell to my friends who don't believe. Suddenly the metaphors began to take shape...
"light yourself on fire and see if you like hell or not then you can decide where you wish to go."
"cut off your arm piece by piece and see then if hell is what you like"

These metaphors TRULY took a serious shape for me when I had children. I NOW REALIZE, I would rather be chopped into pieces than to have my children abducted never to see them again. I would rather experience ECT than to know my children have been taken from me and never to be reconciled again.

THERE ARE WORSE THINGS THAN ECT.

But these metaphors took shape in that I realize they are the story of EVERY SINGLE PERSON.

That is we have all been abducted and bear a different image than what we were created for.

People who only think about themselves CANNOT connect until they learn to love something more than themselves. Children seem to do this to us. (unless your a calvinist LOL)

I feel UR has put so much more into perspective for me than anything I had before.

Auggy

Jason Pratt said...

Ditto everything in the post, Greg.

To which I would add that my understanding of sin has been sharpened, too, in the process (though I don't have much time this morning to talk about that.)

JRP

Anonymous said...

Acts 3:21" (20) And he shall send Jesus Christ, which before was preached unto you, (21) whom the heavens must receive [dechomai, "accept, receive, take"] until the times of the restitution ["restoration"--NASB] of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began."

Universalism, as you know, is a hard word to swallow for evangelicals. Seems that the pupose of God is "restoration" and though this implies universalism...it goes beyond.

Restoration was the purpose since the world began and clearly we see through scripture that judgment came out of God's love for the purpose of restoration.

Anonymous said...

The Evangelical Restorationist...

jdc said...

I'm wondering if Gregory, or some other person can answer a question I was thinking about as I mowed the lawn this afternoon!

What was the Jewish view of life after death, or life, after life after death at the time of Jesus and His early followers, including Paul?

I'm a Christian lay person and therefore this may seem very elementary but I'd appreciate it if someone could point me in the right direction.

Thanks in anticipation!

John

Gregory MacDonald said...

jdc

There was no single Jewish view of life after death. Some Jews believed that death is the end. Others believed in resurrection of the body. Others believed in the immortality of the soul. Belief in resurrection of the body was shared by Jesus with, amongst others, the Maccabean Martyrs, the author of the book of Daniel, and the Pharisees.

I would recommend the chapters on Jewish beliefs about life after death in N. T. Wright's book "The Resurrection of the Son of God". That will give you a good overview

Gregory MacDonald

jdc said...

Dear Gregory

Thank you for your helpful reply to my post.

Do you know whether those Jews who believed in life after death (whether in the resurrection of the body or the immortality of the soul) held a "universalist view" of the "new life"?

John

Gregory MacDonald said...

John

they did not

Gregory

Denver said...

Gregory,
At the funeral that you mentioned, did you express your universalist perspective when you gave the eulogy? If not, how did it affect your words? If so, what did you say? And, if you did, was that a surprise to your friend's family? I'm a teacher a Christian school and I'm often wondering when and if my views ought to be expressed. I'm not planning on revealing them because I fear I would run the same course as yourself: namely, that because of one difference in theology, people would consider the rest of my ministry questionable.

I guess, I was curious about whether you would reveal your universalist views in something so public as a funeral, considering that you've gone so far as to use a pseudonym to write your book (which I entirely understand).

Anonymous said...

So what about all those Scriptures that speak explicitly about hell (Hades and Gehenna)?

Jason Pratt said...

We consider those verses to be interpolations foisted into the texts by Constantine in the 4th century...

{g} No, I'm just kidding with you.

I consider those verses to be damned important (so to speak); and I know Gregory does, too. Most orthodox/evangelical universalists take the hades, gehenna, tartarus, abyss, and (more broadly) punishment references very seriously. It's a massively huge topic, though, OT and NT both.

I'm pretty sure Gregory's book is searchable for free at Amazon, if you wanted to find out how he deals with particular texts.

JRP