- "...We can see and understand only a little about God now...but someday...I will see things clearly" (I Cor. 13:12)
"But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves whom you will serve...." (Joshua 24:15).
"Since they hated knowledge and did not choose the Lord...." (Prov. 1:29)
"...When I called they did not answer. When I spoke they did not listen. They deliberately sinned-before my very eyes- and chose to do what they know I despise." (Isa. 66:4)
"...Those who choose their own ways delighting in their sins...." (Isa. 66:3)
I believe that many of us inclined towards a view of a wider hope in the gospel have a problem. It deals with a certain internal inconsistency with our theology. On one hand, we find fault with traditional Calvinism. As informed by St. Augustine, this view espouses the notion that God, out of love, has sovereignly chosen to save a few (the elect) and has, in like manner, not chosen (not elected) the many. We have trouble with this, since it limits God's love. Yet we have embraced an illegitimate form of the very notion we claim to deny. Stuck with the problem of wickedness in the world, many of us have concluded that God must elect, and that God's election is sovereign. God's decrees must be fulfilled. We have adopted a kinder more Barthian view that God elects the whole human race. God decrees that all will be saved. The Augustinian/Calvinistic theory of irresistible grace is embraced. God will "compel them to come in." For, "no one resists God's will."
This view, from my perspective, ignores many plain statements such as "Choose for YOURSELVES this day whom you will serve…," "WHOEVER comes to me I will in no wise cast out," "AS MANY as received him…," There is a "whosoever will" about the gospel. Sin and salvation by definition contain a volitional element. God calls all. Is it really a case of election or of, "those God FOREKNEW God also predestined?" Is free will just an illusion? Must we accept the apparent view of Karl Barth that all are saved because all are elected and really have no say in the matter?
Clark Pinnock has pointed out the primary flaw in Augustine. His error was the same as the Jews who came to see election in terms of privilege as opposed to mission.
I, for one, am not ready to concede to God responsibility for all decisions made. I don't think God wants it. Did God really drive the actions of Hitler? Is God responsible for evil, as some would say? Did God decree the events of September 11, or the devastation of the Palestinian population of Israel, or suicide bombers? Are we just pawns in God's hands?
Now, certainly, I do recognize that Augustine was absolutely right about one thing. We were made for God. As he says, "All hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee." We were made a certain way. Many years ago, The New York Longitudinal Study found that people are born with certain temperaments. One inclination I propose we are born with is a need for God. Each of us, being created for fellowship with God, will be empty without God in our life. But, like a child, born with a tendency to bond with his/her mother, and yet who will reject and at times terribly hurt her, so we may deny the need for God residing within each of us and go our own way. The story of the prodigal shows that God will sadly give us up to our own will.
Being inclined to Arminianism, I am not at all ready to abandon free will. We can and do make choices and our choices have consequences. They are not always in accord with some vast, eternal plan. Say God permits evil, if you will. But never that God creates or commits evil. I am not at all ready to accept that. The Old Testament prophets picture God as suffering with God's people. When they were led astray into evil and away from God, God sadly let them go. Still, God suffered and sought to bring back God's own. A mother may forget her child, the prophet writes, but rest assured God is not that kind of mother or father. The gospels show that Christ takes up all the evil in the world, all the worst that evil can deal out. Did God kill Jesus? Was that God's perfect will? NO!!! A thousand times no! God saved us through Jesus, because we would accept no other way. It was love that offered him up and evil that crucified him.
So, what then of universalism? The "so-called" orthodox answer to this is that God objectively died to save the world, offering the gift to all. However, the subjective experience of salvation is only available to those decreed to come (Calvinism) or who accept the gift in this life (Arminianism). God does indeed foreclose on our opportunity to become friends with God. This life is the only opportunity for decision. Is there a way out of this dilemma?
Neal Punt, has cooked up something called "biblical universalism," (Unconditional Good News, 1980, Eerdmans). Punt is a Calvinist who has trouble with the traditional view. He identifies biblical universalism as the "unconditional good news." I call it nice news. This view says that God has elected almost everybody. Many of a more universalist persuasion see the problems here. They opt for a God elects all view.
An Arminian View of Soteriology
There is a way out. It is quite simple. People can be lost! We may not like to hear it, but it is true. People can say no to God. It's simple. It's biblical.
But so is God's love. Is God's love tempered by God's justice, or is God's justice directed by God's love? What does the apostle say? "Mercy triumphs over judgment." "God is love." But what is love? What is mercy?" By definition, mercy is good and understanding offered to us that we do not deserve. Love is well defined in I Corinthians 13. It doesn't count wrongs. It doesn't act rudely. It doesn't insist on its own way. It always hopes, always believes, and always endures. It never fails. That is quite an accumulation of superlatives. I am left with two conclusions. First, God (love) doesn't give up. God's love extends eternally. Second, God respects our decisions. We may resist eternally. We don't ever have to come to God. We may choose separation. To say this is not true smacks us right back into twisted Calvinism. Moltmann makes the case well, "In God himself love outbalances wrath, for God is angered by human sin not although he loves human beings but because he loves them. He says No to sin because he says Yes to the sinner.... It is not his anger which is everlasting; it is his grace: 'His anger is but for a moment and his favor is for a lifetime....'" Still, he continues, "The surpassing power of God's grace is not a force of destiny, nor is it a compulsive power which disposes people without asking them. It is the power of love which calls men and women to the gospel and entices them to free decision.... In Christ and through the gospel he apparently descends to human beings to the very point of making his will to salvation dependent on their decision for faith.... He is apparently dependent on mutuality (respecting) their faith and their unfaith too," (The Coming of God, 1996, Fortress).
So I Ask Again...
What about universalism? Now, here is where we must pay close attention. It's an old argument, but an important one. "Those whom God foreknew, God also predestined." Predestination is deeply bound-up with foreknowledge. They are not the same constructs. They are similar but they differ.
Now the apostle declares that Jesus reigns until all enemies are subdued. Death (the wages of sin) is destroyed. Then he hands the kingdom over to the Father and God is all in all. All in all! How can it be if we can choose? We do well to hearken back to Augustine and temperament. "All hearts are restless…." All hearts. The world is filled with restless hearts. God's being all in all is not a decree. It is a prophecy. It is the foreknowledge of God. God does win but not because God has to win. God always loves, and offers salvation. Our hearts, our hearts… that is the answer. God never forecloses. God cannot remove human freedom. God wins because God's love never fails and because God lovingly respects our freedom. As Berdyaev points out (The Destiny of Man, 1960, Harper), we may choose non-existence. Still, we have reason for a larger hope. Our hope is based not in a decree of God but because we cannot finally bear to be without God. We need Christ. It is hard to be lost. We must foreclose on God; God will not foreclose on us.
So, objectively, Jesus dies for all and is the Savior of all. Subjectively, we must freely choose God's friendship because of our hearts, not because of God's irresistible grace (but certainly influenced by God's previenient grace). Prophetically, we know that God will be all in all. It would seem that that implies a complete victory. Does this imply that "all" will be saved (1 Corinthians 15)? In dealing with the nature of "all," Romans 5 may be instructive. Paul uses the terms "all" and "many" so interchangeably that it truly is impossible to either limit the salvation of God or to declare with certainty that "all" are saved. It seems clear that there must be no such blot on eternity as the commonly understood notion of eternal punishment. Without denying that humans can finally reject God, nor making any statements about the intermediate state, this is certainly a call to a larger hope. When in time do we say an everlasting "No" to God? What constitutes a decisive no? It would be presumption for any human to say. Who knows the heart? In this matter, indeed, God alone knows.
One Final Thought
If I read George MacDonald correctly, maybe we ask the wrong questions. We certainly should not become overly dogmatic about any of this. To figure it all out is to not really understand it at all. God is bigger than any of us, and God certainly will not fit into any of our little systems. And, indeed, God is very big, and our systems are exceedingly small. Sheol, by definition implies hiddeness. One point, however, is clear. God certainly doesn't expect us to have a character more upright, loving, or forgiving than God possesses. Is it possible that some will not be saved? While we certainly see no basis for the notion of eternal punishment, we must allow for the reality that one may say no to God. God's love and respect demand it. To love humanity is to prize humanity's freedom. To say no to God implies a cessation of life, since God is the source of life.
For the early church, the measure of Christianity was certainly contained in the Sermon on the Mount. Read it. That's all that I can say. What kind of character are we called to? Surely it must not surpass the loving character of God.
Not long ago, I was admitted to the hospital with some serious heart problems. But, the doctors couldn't quite define the nature of the difficulty. I asked the cardiologist about this. He replied, "The human body is very complex. We perform tests. We try treatments. But in the end, diagnosis and treatment are a lot like trying to play darts in the dark." Surely, I've tossed a few when I couldn't see. I felt pretty confident of "airtight" systems. God is too big for our systems. St. John of the Cross wrote of faith as a "Dark Night of the Soul." God is found in a cloud of unknowing. But I think we can sing one simple child-like song with confidence, not in our astounding wisdom, but in the character of the Lamb. "Jesus loves me this I know; for the Bible tells me so." Maybe that's all we are really supposed to know.