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Let God Be God

This is part 2 of our interview with Michael McClymond. Read Part 1: The Opiate of the Theologians.


Is universalism merely a theological problem, or is it also a metaphysical and philosophical problem?

Many contemporary theologians have developed theologies of universalism on the basis of a non-biblical understanding of God. At the risk of becoming a bit technical here, let me explain something regarding what evangelical theologian Kevin Vanhoozer, in Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship (Cambridge University Press, 2012), has called the “kenotic-relational” view of God, which has gained ground among academic theologians since the 1980s.

The kenotic-relational theologians have diminished divine power. In their view, from the moment that God created the world, God had to become self-limited so as to “make space” for creatures such as ourselves to choose and to act. In creating the world, God had to “back off” so that human beings could “have space.” This way of thinking errs by drawing God down to the level of creatures, so that God competes with them for space and vies with them for mastery. As John Cooper comments in Panentheism: The Other God of the Philosophers (Baker Academic, 2013), this newer view conceives of God as “a large disembodied human person relating to much smaller beings,” rather than an “infinite Other who has graciously made us finite analogies to himself.”

Theologians who insist that human beings occupy a “space” where God does not or cannot intrude seem to be serving an agenda of creaturely autonomy. Kenotic-relational thinkers affirm that human beings are essentially self-determining, while Biblical faith in contrast rests on a profound awareness of human dependence on God. The prophet Isaiah declares: “Stop regarding man, whose breath of life is in his nostrils; for why should he be esteemed?” (Is. 2:22); and again, “all flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field” (Is. 40:6).

A depotentiated or diminished God is not only unwilling but also unable to exercise judgment against sinful creatures—sending Lucifer into the lake of fire, or excluding unrepentant persons from heaven. One might compare this diminished God with an unfortunate high school teacher, who is not allowed to expel anyone, but who faces unruly or even criminal behavior in the classroom. She might give students a time-out and yet find herself compelled to readmit even the worst offenders, regardless of what they have done. Though the troublemakers kindle a fire at the back of the classroom, destroy property, do drugs, or engage in sexual behavior in class, they still remain students in good standing. If this is the way that God relates to creatures, then God is simply unable to inflict the punishment of hell or separation from himself.

It should be clear that this way of thinking about God has little in common with the biblical picture of a holy and majestic God, who created all things from nothing, and is rightly referred to as Lord, Master, and King. The diminished view of God fails to consider that creatures’ self-chosen sinning is profoundly offensive to God and threatens a permanent rift between a holy God and sinful creatures. Though it might appear as small in our own sight, sin is no small thing in God’s sight. The thinking underlying this contemporary view of God is human-centered. Baldly stated, it is the idea that God will save everyone because God needs to save everyone. And God needs to save everyone because God needs everyone. Every creature matters, and I matter. God needs me to be God. Without me God cannot be God. Some contemporary theologians go so far as to speak of human beings as “co-creators” of the world with God—even though, in the Bible, only God is ever said to “create” anything. Many people who are not scholars likewise carry limited notions of God in their hearts, mentally raising themselves to God’s level or else lowering God to their own. Many people who are not scholars likewise carry limited notions of God in their hearts, mentally raising themselves to God’s level or else lowering God to their own. Click To Tweet

In response to the errors of contemporary theologians, and to the meager notions of God in contemporary culture and even among professing believers, my brief response is to say that we must return to biblical teaching and so let God be God.

What would you say to those committed to scripture but unsure where to turn in scripture to respond to the arguments for or against universalism?

Universalists have always struggled to support their views with Christian scripture. Many have chosen simply to ignore the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation, adopting a canon-within-the-canon for the Bible as a whole. Others have created a canon-within-the-canon for the Pauline texts, insisting that certain verses point toward universal salvation (1 Cor. 15:28) while others plainly do not (2 Thess. 1:9). Perhaps the foremost Pauline scholar alive today, N. T. Wright, has clearly said that the Pauline texts do not support universalism. Certain passages in the Gospels seem to exclude salvation for all: “And someone said to him, ‘Lord, will those who are saved be few?’ And he said to them, Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able’” (Lk. 13:23-24). For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Mt. 7:14). “I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction [i.e., Judas Iscariot]” (Jn. 17:12).

Universalists often apply microscopic analysis to individual verses or even to single words (e.g., aionios) while they miss the larger themes that are woven through the whole of the Bible, e.g., the “two ways” motif, in which differing ways of life lead to differing outcomes. Psalm 1:5 states that the righteous person will be blessed by God, while “the wicked will not stand in the judgment.” In Isaiah 1:19 the prophet declares: “If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be eaten by the sword.” Neither passage speaks of heaven or hell, but these early texts suggest differing outcomes for differing groups. The Son of Man’s separation of “sheep” from “goats,” and their consignment respectively to “eternal life” and “eternal punishment” (Mt. 25:31-46), ought not be read in isolation, but needs to be interpreted canonically. Universalists often apply microscopic analysis to individual verses or even to single words (e.g., aionios) while they miss the larger themes that are woven through the whole of the Bible. Click To Tweet

The Books of Exodus and Revelation suggest another biblical theme that is missing from the universalist repertoire: that evil does not always yield to gentle suasion, but sometimes must be overcome by divine power. Pharaoh is not finally persuaded but crushed by Yahweh’s might. So, too, the Beast, the Devil, and the False Prophet are not dissuaded from evil but are seized and cast into the lake of fire. In such cases, the exertion of God’s power to defeat evil is a good and not an evil thing.  The heavenly saints cry “Alleluia!” when the monstrous wickedness of Babylon is fully and finally brought to an end.

Finally, we must consider the biblical portrayal of Satan. Scripture never represents the fallen angels as persuadable in any sense, and they are never commanded to repent. The demons represent a limiting case of the creaturely will that recalcitrantly rejects God, and so they end up in “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt. 25:41). The Christian churches, in their formal liturgies, pray expectantly for the salvation of abandoned sinners, but never even once, it seems, have they ever prayed for Lucifer. This is a clear sign that Christians, through the centuries, have not anticipated the salvation of Satan and the demons. Based on Scripture and on the church’s historic teaching, it appears then to be quite certain that some intelligent creatures are finally damned.

Another line of argument against universalism emerges when we consider that Scripture consistently presents eschatological teachings with a practical or pragmatic intent. Biblical teachings on eschatology blend future expectation with missional urgency, spiritual exhortation, and calls for self-denying discipline. When Jesus spoke on the Mount of Olives (Matt. 24), he combined discussion of the end times with a call to “keep watch” and a warning regarding the unfaithful servant caught off guard by the master’s return (Matt. 24:42–51). This chapter links Jesus’ return not only to the theme of moral and spiritual preparation but also to the theme of evangelism: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached to the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (v. 14).

Likewise, the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Matt. 25:1–13) stresses the need to be ready for Jesus’s return. When the apostles ask Jesus after the resurrection whether he will “restore the kingdom,” he directs them to evangelize, once again linking his return to the present-day mission of the church (Acts 1:6–8).

Revelation represents God’s people as the “bride” to be joined to Christ as the “bridegroom.” It tells us that “his bride has made herself ready” with “fine linen, bright and clean,” which is “the righteous acts of God’s holy people” (Rev. 19:7–8). First John connects eschatological hope with spiritual purification: “But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure” (1 Jn. 3:2–3). In light of the world’s coming dissolution, 2 Peter exclaims, “You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming” (3:11–12). And Paul’s letter to Titus connects our “blessed hope” (2:13) with a summons “to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age” (2:12).

These passages suggest the appropriateness of evaluating eschatological teachings in terms of their practical effects. And it is exceedingly hard to see how the biblical call to self-denial, godly living, and toilsome evangelism can flourish on the basis of a universalist theology. Who would need to work at being alert or prepared if final salvation for all were already known in advance? And can one imagine any Christian evangelists going out to preach to hostile people-groups—even at the risk of martyrdom—if they believed that those people-groups were already bound for heaven? Earlier Christian universalists—including Origen himself—acknowledged this problem and they suggested that universalism should be kept secret from the masses and disseminated among only a few mature believers.

So even if universalism were biblically supported (as it is not), and even if sound theological or philosophical arguments made it believable (as they do not), then universalism could still not become the official, public teaching of the Christian church without undermining the church’s own moral, spiritual, and missional foundation.

*Read the entire interview in the latest issue of Credo Magazine: Will all Be Saved?

Michael J. McClymond

Michael J. McClymond (PhD, University of Chicago) is professor of modern Christianity at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri. He previously held teaching or research appointments at Wheaton College, Westmont College, University of California-San Diego, Emory University, Yale University and the University of Birmingham (UK). He is the author of The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism (Baker Academic, 2018), Familiar Stranger: An Introduction to Jesus of Nazareth (winner of a Christianity Today Book Award), and Encounters with God: An Approach to the Theology of Jonathan Edwards (winner of the Brewer Prize from the American Society of Church History). He also coedited and contributed to The Rivers of Paradise: Moses, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, and Muhammad as Religious Founders and coauthored The Theology of Jonathan Edwards.

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