An obsession of mine ever since I read the sermon Justice by George MacDonald has been universalism, or universal salvation. (Anyone familiar with my blog will be aware of this.) Recently, I’ve come under the impression that universalism has been a major spiritual red herring for me.
I remember reading someone who said that debates about universalism–the idea that in the end, every single person and demon will be reconciled with God in a salvific manner–divert our attention from the kairos of today to the open and as of yet unknown future of God the “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28, Ephesians 1:23). It does not matter whether or not all are saved in the future if I am not willing to suffer for the good of others in the present.
Today, I still believe that universalism is a serious possibility for Christian eschatology. With folks like Origen of Alexandria, St. Gregory of Nyssa, Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Jürgen Moltmann, and David Bentley Hart, I wholeheartedly desire the salvation of every single creature; however, I will henceforth submit the outcome of the future to God and enter wholly into the task of loving the world with Christ now.
The Matthew 18:14 and 2 Peter 3:9 Alternative for All Christians
Every Christian can be a wishful universalist. Unlike “hopeful universalism,” which does not assert universalism but regards it as a possibility (something similar to my position), wishful universalism agrees with the heart of God in Christ as revealed in Matthew 18:14 and 2 Peter 3:9. God is “wishing that none should perish, but that all might reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). It appears that God is a wishful universalist! And we should all be wishful universalists, even if we have not the assurance or epistemic certification to consider it a realized or otherwise serious possibility.
One of the most important limitations of the historian concerns sources. Historians use ‘primary documents’ and ‘secondary documents’ in their studies. A ‘primary document’ is a document from the time period with which we are concerned. For instance, Codex Sinaiticus, one of the earliest complete Biblical manuscripts, would be considered a primary document from the 3rd century. A ‘secondary document’ is a source written about a source. For example, a history textbook about the life and theology of Paul–such as N.T. Wright’s wonderful recent work–would be considered a secondary document.
Christianity as a historical religion must be approached with an understanding of and a respect for history, for it is only through engaging with the historical narrative that we are able to understand the language and symbols in the Bible and the so-called ‘Church Fathers.’ It is also arguably critical that we make use of the literature and artifacts of the surrounding cultures to which the Christian movement was speaking and in which the Christian movement was living in order to better contextualize the message of Christianity. I think we as Christians ought to adopt a robust appreciation for the practice of a most honest history. N.T. Wright seems to me to have grasped this fundamental concept well. We would do well to imitate his example.
So what are our primary documents when it comes to the Bible? Well, textual experts recognize a number of Biblical manuscripts and fragments from which we are able to piece together the Bible. Strictly speaking, the Bible as we have it today is a composite of the whole collection of these manuscripts and fragments. We owe a profound debt to those throughout history who have preserved this wealth of information for us. I am reminded of the words of St. Paul in his letter to the Romans: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” (Romans 15:4 ESV.)
I believe that as we come to recognize these important realities in our approach to hermeneutics, the science of interpreting the Bible, we equip ourselves to be as faithful as possible to the message that was proclaimed in the past and therefore better able to apply it to our present lives and future hope.