The Shape of Our Hope

Christ-Descent-into-Hell

Without a compelling vision of salvation in real human communities, without robust communal practices of reconciliation, what is the function of talk about universal hope? What is the connection between the abstract idea of one day being reconciled to God, and the everyday experience of being a fallen human? If there is no connection, then for me this view carries no more hope than any view which presupposes eternal torment. Vague optimism can not deal with realities like capitalism and genocide. This essay sketches out why I think the political embodiment of reconciliation in the church is the anchor of, and best possible argument for, the universal Christian hope that God will be “all in all.”

Many arguments for and against the Christian universal hope are shaped by what George Lindbeck refers to as a “cognitive-propositional” epistemological model. Put simply, these often take the form of “apologetics,” and truth becomes something abstract, absolutized, and fundamentally disconnected from lived reality. Experiential-expressivist models seek to correct this idea by connecting truth to the experiences of real people, but truth then becomes something shaped by our interpretations of life and the world around us. Both in their own ways seek a shallow unity. Neither are fully able to reckon with the complications that arise from competing cultural narratives and experiences. Thus a cognitive-propositional argument gains consensus and eliminates discord by imagining that the theoretical conclusions we arrive at through study of Scripture are the only possibilities. Experience may contradict this, but should not be allowed to shape our pristine truth concepts. Thus cognitive-propositional discussions can be a simple intellectual exercise, the goal of which is to arrive at some level of certitude and assent to the same ideas. Through the history of Christendom we have seen this assent most easily procured through force, or appeals to authority. Scripture is used as a bludgeon, and often heterodoxy is discouraged through both complex systematic explanation and appeals to divine revelation, science, or other revelations similarly inaccessible to those who have not yet been convinced.

The issues of accessibility and power create paradoxes and inconsistencies that make room for a different approach shaped by what Lindbeck calls a “cultural-linguistic” framework. What if truth is being spoken by someone in a position of marginality, ie. someone who is not a skilled exegete or debater? What about communities where words like “salvation” have meanings that might be completely foreign to Western Christendom? In these cases, simply arguing for a proposition is not enough. The “out there” truths must be linked to communal practice, and this often takes place in the form of narrative. Through the witness of a community whose politics and shared life bring the story of God and Israel into the present in meaningful ways, “truth” is made accessible for those functioning outside this paradigm. Christians believe this truth is universal, but is not universalizing in that it does not ignore the particular ways God is present in different cultures and communities. There can still be debate with those outside, but this does not form the basis of dialogue. Instead interactions with “outsiders” are shaped by discursive and non-discursive practices that serve to witness rather than merely manufacture consent.

From this particular body of believers, exclusive claims may be made, but not without it. To say “Jesus is the only way to salvation” without any evidence that Jesus is really at work saving people calls for a serious reassessment, and leads to the vague hope of inclusivism and Christian pluralism. This kind of hope takes the form of an intellectual and sentimental exercise. Practices of reconciliation through the church change the conversation, moving it from “how are people theoretically saved?” to physical evidences of Jesus at work saving people according to the will of the Father.  Salvation thus can no longer be a question only (or at all) about the afterlife, but is evidenced in a people who are being saved. This is an in-breaking of the kingdom, a revelation that is attested to in human history. In this context, saying Jesus is the only way to salvation is not an attempt to limit salvation, but to make it real. Criticisms from inclusivists or Christian pluralists that “exclusivists” (people who affirm Jesus as the only way to God) have a narrow understanding of salvation must be heard. “Exclusivism” does not (and cannot) mean a provincial account of the body of Christ that places us in a position of power. But ultimately it shows attempts to locate salvation outside of Jesus are nonsensical, because it is clear that in the body of Christ salvation is really happening.

The tension and relationship between particularity and universality are also present in differing accounts of atonement. If we are looking at a particular community as being the limit of God’s salvation (ie., no salvation outside the church), then forensic models are sufficient. But if these sites are evidences of God’s will for all humanity, then we must go further. When in the context of a real community of people, sin and death are revealed as having been defeated, one might come to the conclusion that sin and death are also defeated everywhere else. There might still be a temptation to link the work of God to the persons who are involved in his work, as if they are chosen in ways that those outside are not. But like the healing ministry of Jesus, in which the healings of particular people demonstrated his power and his will towards the sick, particular instances of salvation and reconciliation can be placed into context as evidences of the reality that sin and death are fully defeated.

In healing the blind, and the lepers, and the demon-possessed, Jesus made it clear that his will was for men and women to be made whole. The reality that some have not been made whole does not contradict this, and it is dangerous to begin our doctrinal formation with this evidence. As usual, Barth puts it best:

We believe in the Word of God and it is the word of our salvation. The kingdom, the glory, the resurrection, the life everlasting, each one is a work of rescue. Light pierces through the darkness, eternal life overcomes eternal death. We cannot “believe” in sin, in the devil, in our death sentence. We can only believe in the Christ who has overcome the devil, borne sin and removed eternal death. Devil, sin, and eternal death appear to us only when they are overcome.[1]

In the church, as light pierces through the darkness, and as eternal life overcomes eternal death, we begin to believe in light and in eternal life. Eternal conscious torment as a fate to which God has consigned humanity is called into question. As people are being saved, as reconciliation is happening in real time, can we say that there is a limit to the goodness of the God who is accomplishing this? Annihilationism is also called into question. If God were a God who was content to allow man to choose against him, then what sense can be made of the story in which God chooses people for the work of reconciliation, in spite of the choice which has already been made against Him? God is not content to allow man to devolve into inhumanity, and this can be known not as a disembodied theological doctrine, but in the everyday practices of reconciliation in a community shaped by this conviction. Barth puts it this way:

The righteousness of God in His election means, then, that as a righteous judge God perceives and estimates as such the lost case of the creature, and that in spite of its opposition He gives sentence in its favour, fashioning for it His own righteousness. It means that God does not acquiesce in the creature’s self-destruction as its own enemy. He sees to it that His own prior claim on the creature, and its own true claim to life, is not rendered null and void.[2]

There are plenty of reasons to believe in the damnation and destruction of humanity. But none of them arise from the story that Christians tell about ourselves, the one in which from the time of the fall, God has insisted upon the reconciliation of his creation. So we may have doubts, and we may wonder how God’s work will ultimately be accomplished. But like Barth, we don’t have to believe in universalism, but our communities of reconciliation shape us into people that do believe  in “Jesus, reconciler of all.”[3]

The church as a political reality brings an urgency and a practical meaning to analytical discussions that can be so easily disconnected from the life of ordinary congregants. Accounts of the individual, the self, and monolithic traditions are called into question by a gathered community of people with different backgrounds and experiences who are consciously being formed by a common narrative. Abstract arguments about salvation beyond death lose their importance when salvation is being made explicit.

In some parts of today’s evangelical church, you may believe in eternal damnation, and you may even believe in annihilationism, but universalism is unacceptable. The given reason for this is simple: “it’s not what the Bible teaches.” I think we must dig a little deeper at what is being said there, and I think if we do so we might realize that the biggest obstacle to universalism is not “what the Bible teaches,” as if the Bible were self-interpreting, but what the church teaches. The teaching I am referring to, however, is not our creeds or catechisms. The reason we can’t believe in universalism is because we have not had the necessary faith, discipline or imagination to really believe in reconciliation. We buy into the dualism of damnation and salvation as being equal and opposite, and speak of light and darkness “in the same breath.” Both are inevitable realities that we confront, and this confrontation is framed as happening in a neutral space.

In a gathered community of reconciliation this neutrality and duality are both exposed as insufficient. When total commitment and priority are given to Christ, reconciliation is the only option. In this space, “devil, sin, and eternal death appear to us only when they are overcome.” In this space, the idea that some may be lost forever cannot exist as an inevitability and may not be much more than a useless hypothetical. In this space, the “yes” of God to humanity may actually be heard, and may be allowed to be the final word.

 

[1] Karl Barth, The Faith of the Church: A Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed According to Calvin’s Catechism (Wipf & Stock Pub, 2006), 171–174.

[2] Karl Barth, The Doctrine of God, Part 2, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance. (Edinburgh: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 1957), 34.

[3] Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts (Philadelphia: Fortress Pr, 1977), 394.

 

Nathaniel Grimes

 

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