Monday, July 27, 2015

Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed

I've recently read Adam J. Johnson, Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: T&T Clark, 2015). I quite enjoyed it. I think this is one of the best books on the atonement that I have read in my time. What I particularly appreciate about Johnson's work is his inclusive methodology: rather than looking at atonement theories as competitors, seeking the one definitive way of speaking about the reconciling work of God in Jesus Christ, he instead insists that we see them as complementary analyses of the manifold salvation we have been given. Theories such as Christus Victor (which perhaps is better understood as a broad group of theories, rather than a single theory) and penal substitution and moral exemplarism are -- to various degrees, and in various formulations -- complementary and accurate (though not exclusively comprehensive) descriptions of the way in which Christ's work saves us.

One of Johnson's central metaphors to describe is work is that of riches. The salvation of God in Jesus Christ is a treasury of riches to be mined by the theologian for her own benefit and for the benefit of the church. Johnson remarks that it is also quite difficult (if not impossible) to discern which among [theories of atonement] is pre-eminent (3). Rather than supposing that a single theory underlies and informs all the rest, Johnson maintains that the theories complement one another and should not be ordered in a hierarchy. He says: We reject the pursuit of the one theory of the atonement that is at the heart of the biblical witness (5).

One might wonder whether this is quite possible. For example, Johnson points to Athanasius's explanation of why Christ died by crucifixion: this was so that, through his outstretched arms, he might symbolically prefigure the union of the Jews and the Gentiles in his embrace, forming a new humanity (cf. Eph 2.11ff.). So Johnson concludes: Christ died so as to reconcile all peoples with God and with each other (9). Certainly that is true, but it is not obvious how his death, in itself, accomplishes this; further explanation is needed. My suspicion is that further explanation would entail describing some aspect of Christ's death in line with a certain theory of atonement -- for example, he dies cursed by the Law and yet in obedience to it, so that with his resurrection the age of the Law has passed; he recapitulates the history of the Jewish race and also of humanity, so that with his resurrection, he assumes a resurrected state and existence which lies beyond the domain of the Law; etc. Here then it would seem that some aspects of the atonement are clearly more basic than others; some theories derive from others. This doesn't by itself prove that there is a single base theory of the atonement, but it is suggestive -- at least to me.

Johnson is right to note that various atonement theories have been affirmed by theologians throughout the whole history of the Church: ...we have theologians from the early, medieval and Reformation periods of the Church, each holding to a range of explanations of the atonement (4), Athanasius offers something of a satisfaction theory, Calvin speaks of the exemplary elements of Christ's death on the cross, and so on. It is facile and ultimately inadequate to suppose that the patristic sources all held to a Christus Victor model, the medievals and Reformers to a satisfaction model, etc. The actual history is much more complex, and these various aspects and understandings of the atonement have been affirmed from the start.

I especially appreciated Johnson's discussion of the nature of faith in relation to the theologian's task. He writes: According to Augustine, faith is by nature a relationship involving a motion towards its object through understanding or 'full vision' . . . Faith is the kind of thing that moves towards a goal -- in this case, movement towards God, through knowledge and understanding. Faith embraces understanding because that is its end, its goal (14). Thus the theologian engages in theology and tries to mine the riches of the atonement of Christ because he believes in it, and therefore because he always desires a fuller understanding. While I am not an expert on Polanyi's epistsemology, it seems to me here that Johnson appropriates a point from Polanyi's thought on scientific methodology: a prior faith [in some theory, some hypothesis, some vague intuition of the truth] leads one to further investigation. On the other hand, Johnson writes against those who would reject the theological task: The alternative, to rest content with what little knowledge of God we have, would be to violate the very nature oft he faith we have been given -- to disdain the complex simplicity, which we are offered to delight in both now and in eternity (15).

There is very much worthwhile material in Johnson's book, more than I can deal with in a short blog post. But as a universalist reader, one thing in particular stuck out to me: Johnson regularly emphasizes the universality of the atonement, drawing his principal understanding of the event from Paul's words at Col 1.15ff. and 2 Cor 5.19. The atonement is indeed cosmic, affecting the angels, humanity, the animals, and perhaps even the demons in some ways. All things have been reconciled to God through Jesus Christ -- that is Paul's gospel, and that is how Johnson understands the atonement work of God in its most basic form.

I think some remarks of Johnson's are quite suggestive of universalism, though certainly he doesn't ever come out and affirm the doctrine himself. For example, Johnson writes about God's self-imposed commitment to the creation as one of the motivations for which God incarnated and worked atonement. Indeed, though we often think that the atonement was done for humankind's sake, Johnson argues persuasively that there is also a sense in which the atonement was done for God's sake. Drawing from Athanasius and others, Johnson suggests that God's own character and identity were in trouble because of the apparent failure of his purposes vis-a-vis the creation. God had created humankind to share in the life of the Trinity, to share in his identity, but humankind had gone astray in sin. Thus God's very identity and integrity as our Creator is in danger. Johnson writes:

God is deeply affected by our sin, for the plight of the creature, without ceasing to be the real and deadly concern of the creature, is simultaneously the plight of the creator -- just as the plight of a rebellious child is simultaneously the plight of the parents that love her. In the act of creating, God puts his honor, power and wisdom on the line, both to be glorified and to be tested. Sin brought into question not only God's justice, but his wisdom and patience . . . in fact, the whole character of God -- for God's goal was to share the fullness of his character with us in such a way that we might know and rejoice in it. To fail to share himself in this way, would be for God to fail in terms of his freely expanded identity -- the identity he took on as our Creator, as the God who covenanted with us, and as the God who names himself by his actions with and towards us. But as Thomas reminds us, God's purpose cannot fail! (148).

I think this line of reasoning is very fascinating and very compelling. It is reminiscent of Jon D. Levenson's work in Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (1988). Notice that it is a short step from this line of reasoning to the doctrine of universal salvation: for if God's purpose was for all human persons to enjoy life with him, and if his purpose remains this albeit mediated through the Godman Jesus Christ (cf. Eph 1.10), then it would seem a failure on his part and a compromise of his self-expanded identity for God not to accomplish this.

There can be no quick and easy (or rather facile) appeals to human freedom at this juncture, either. For if God's purpose and identity was compromised by the first free sin, then why should it be any different in the case of later free sins? On the other hand, if human freedom is always a condition of God's purposes being accomplished, and if human freedom means that God cannot ensure the outcome he wants, then God could have refused to atone for the salvation of human persons in the first place and his identity and purposes and wisdom would not have been compromised. In other words, if God's identity and purposes are not compromised by the free rejection of his salvific work in Christ, then neither were they compromised by the free rejection of life with him in paradise by the first humans -- in which case this can no longer be a serious motivation for the atonement.

You regularly read people saying that there is no biblical justification for the doctrine of universal salvation, that we have no basis to hope for all people to be saved, etc. Totally apart from the universalist exegesis of certain key texts (e.g., Rom 5, 1 Cor 15, Col 1.15ff., etc.), we can see in Johnson's book that the doctrine of the atonement itself -- with all its richness and variegated splendor -- strongly suggests it, perhaps even directly entailing it. So I heartily recommend Johnson's book to those interested in the question of universalism.

Perhaps Johnson won't appreciate the twist I've taken with this book review here. But on the other hand, he concludes his book with a meditation on the question of reading theologians with whom we disagree. He finds this project useful for a number of reasons, one of which is: we may inadvertently develop lines of thought the connections of which we do not fully appreciate (182). He also says: this makes theological works with which we disagree one of the most promising avenues for further theological development, for such works are far more likely to take up lines of thought we minimize or fail to see altogether (183). So consider my universalist musings and appropriations of Johnson's work an invitation to think further about the implications of what he has written. :-)

In general, I find Johnson's work to be eminently worthwhile. I will certainly make use of it in my future studies, and refer back to it regularly to clarify my own thought about various riches within the treasury that is Christ's atonement. There is so much material in the book that I have not even mentioned: on the connection between atonement and the Trinity, on the atonement in light of the whole life of Christ (pre-crucifixion, crucifixion, death, resurrection, and ascension); on atonement and its consequences for the whole of the created order (angels, humans, animals, demons); etc. I recommend the book with enthusiasm to all others who are interested in the question of atonement theology.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The self-destructive nature of sin

There are a number of reasons why a person should not sin: first, out of true love for God and neighbor which make it impossible for him to sin; second, out of fear of divine punishment; and third, because sin has a self-destructive, irrational nature. Some persons (e.g., Jerry Walls, drawing from Soren Kierkegaard) think that sin can play the role of a unifying principle of a person's personality ad infinitum. That is to say, a person may make a lifestyle out of sin and go on living that way indefinitely. This implies that sin does not lead intrinsically, of its own nature, to the destruction and sabotage of the human person. But I think the biblical teaching is otherwise.

Consider what John says about Cain and Abel:

We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous (1 John 3.12).

Cain's first sin -- his initial evil deed -- mixed with his ego problems to produce a murderous potion. There is no reason Cain could not have responded differently to the rejection of his sacrifice by God. For example, he could have repented; he could have consulted Abel to see how he might sacrifice properly; he could have asked God for forgiveness. But to my mind it would seem he had an ego issue. He saw his brother righteous and accepted by God, he saw himself wicked and rejected by God, and refusing to accept this reality, he instead opted to murder the source of his self-esteem issues -- his own brother. Realizing what he has done, he fears for his own life (Gen 4.13-4), and only God's special intervention keeps this crime from being the end of him.

Sin therefore worked progressively in Cain's life to produce utter death; he goes on living only becaus God vows to protect his life through a threat of retribution. And we can see many other occasions throughout the scriptures in which sin works the ultimate undoing of the person who does not resist its temptations and inclinations. For example, look at the religious officials' response to Jesus' parable of the tenants (Mark 12.1-12). When Jesus tells the parable, it ends on a bad final note: the wicked tenants (who represented the religious officials of Israel) are destroyed by the vineyard owner. Mark tells us their reaction:

When they realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away (Mark 12.12).

Though they are told that the murder of Christ will be their doom, yet in their sinfulness and hard hearts, they go on irrationally towards destruction. Christ is here foretelling the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 A.D., a devastation which the Christians avoided by fleeing the city, in obedience to Jesus' warning, but the Jews and religious leaders were killed brutally. The sin within them compelled them further and further headlong into destruction.

These few examples tell me that sin has an irrational, self-destructive impulse. If we give in to it, we are liable to pay the penalty sooner or later -- and that penalty is death (Rom 6.23). This is something we see in real life examples as well: alcoholism turns into cirrhosis of the liver or cancer; addiction to pornography turns uncontrollable, making a man impotent in real sexual encounters; an unfriendly, bitter attitude leads to utter social isolation; and so on.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

What is love?

I said in an earlier post that the essence of the Christian message and life, at least according to 1 John, is love: God is love, and out of his great love for us, he saved us from death and sin through the self-sacrifice of his Son Jesus Christ; and he calls us to live in this same love for others. On a Christian metaphysics, the rock-bottom of reality is not an impersonal metaphysical Absolute, or pure consciousness, or anything of that sort, but rather Love. To paraphrase Isaac the Syrian, it is Love that brought the world into existence, and it is Love that leads the world towards a glorious end -- despite all appearances to the contrary!

But of course, it is typical that the devil and evil people, in the perversion of their thoughts, should distort the one purest and most godly thing there is. So these days, people have all manner of mistaken conceptions about what love is; more than that, they may even feel a love which is distorted, disordered, and positively unnatural. In all these ways, they take what is good and pervert it. 

What is love? Some persons think that love means: Baby, don't hurt me. In other words, to love a person is not to do anything which might discomfort the other person, not to do anything that doesn't send a message of approval to the other. "If you loved me, you would do this -- you would get me this -- you would understand -- etc." Consider the present controversy over gay marriage. Some persons reason thus: Jesus teaches us that we are to love our neighbors; consequently, loving our gay neighbors means welcoming and accepting the life that they choose to live, the sexual partners they choose for themselves, etc. (I am not hereby saying that a person chooses to have gay sexual attraction; but it is obvious that a person chooses to be sexually active with persons of the same sex.) 

But it seems to me this is mistaken. Look at what John says: We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another (1 John 3.16). For John, love is understood eminently through the self-sacrifice of Jesus. What does this sacrifice teach us?

In the first place, it teaches us that love does not mean an unconditional acceptance or affirmation of the beloved person's interests, desires, beliefs -- even the most dearly held ones. It would be foolish to think that Jesus accepts us as we are, and even celebrates all the things we celebrate, and yet dies for our sins. After all, many of the things we celebrate -- our pride, our arrogance, xenophobia, hatred, selfishness, etc. -- are the very sins for which he died! Why die for them, if our sins are not worth punishing? Why should he have given himself in our place, if God celebrates all those things, too, out of love for us?

Rather love is acting for the other person's good, even at the cost of extreme self-sacrifice. But this is a good that they might not know or appreciate themselves. This is implicit in the reality of Christ's self-sacrifice for us while we were still sinners (Rom 5.8). We thought our lives were going along just fine, until we learned that Christ had to die for our sins in order for us to be reconciled to God in his goodness and holiness. Thus, through Christ's crucifixion, we learn that the human situation is by far worse, much more profoundly worse, than we might have imagined. As Stephen Westerholm says, But once [Paul] was convinced that Jesus was, after all, God's messiah, then Christ's crucifixion, far from discrediting messianic claims on [Christ's] behalf, had to find a place in the divine plan for messianic redemption. It follows that humanity's predicament must be more desperate than [we] otherwise imagined (Justification Reconsidered, p. 33).

Of course, in this day and age, it sounds rather paternalistic and patronizing to speak like this. "Surely I don't need you to tell me what's good for me! I can handle that myself, thank you very much!" This is a sentiment that we ought to avoid provoking, because it can convince people that your love for them is really just an attempt at showing your superiority over them. But at the same time, we cannot agree with this modernist/postmodernist notion that everyone can determine for himself what is right and wrong, and no one can tell another person what is good or bad. After all, the Christian is not imposing her own moral standards on other people so much as calling them to live in accordance with what (she believes) God has revealed in Jesus Christ.

So there is a tricky balance between acting on the basis of our concern for the other person, which may require us to confront her about the life she has chosen for herself, and trying to avoid coming off as patronizing and arrogant. This can be done, I suspect, by speaking less and acting more -- that is, acting in a manner such that the other person can unambiguously discern our genuine goodwill for her.That might mean helping her in concrete ways that she can appreciate but which have nothing to do with the problem about which you want to confront her. In general, we have to establish trust with other people, so that they can see love for love, rather than for patronizing paternalism.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Praying for the salvation of free agents

In a previous post, I suggested a path to a universalist faith by way of the Bible's teachings about prayer. The apostle Paul calls us to pray for the salvation of all people, and says that this is an essential part of godliness, since God wants all people to be saved (1 Tim 2.1-4). Now in various places throughout scripture, we are called to pray to God with faith, expecting to receive what we have asked for, if it be God's will. Moreover, we are told that a righteous person's prayer is powerful and effective (Jas 5.16), and as a person grows in righteousness, she is more and more concerned for the salvation of others, just as Christ himself the Righteous (1 John 2.1) intercedes on behalf of sinners and died for them. So it would seem that we can and must pray for the salvation of all, believing that God will grant this prayer!

Now a problem arises: what about human freedom? Perhaps we can pray for God to do things, for example to heal a sick person, but can we pray to God that other free agents do something, at least with any confidence? Are we not permitted to pray with confidence about our prayers to God for the salvation of another person?

Notice that if we answer 'Yes' to these questions, we are put in a very uncomfortable position. After all, we may pray confidently for a number of things about which we are uncertain whether God wills them -- e.g., that a sick friend be healed and spared from death. Jesus teaches us to pray confidently and persistently, but this not always a guarantee that we will get what we want, because sometimes our will does not align with God's will. Yet in the case of Paul's injunction, we are told precisely that it is God's will for every human person to be saved, and to pray for this end. So we are not in ignorance about whether God's will is the same as our will in this particular case; rather we are as sure as of anything else in the scriptures! Why, then, should we not have confidence that this prayer will be answered?

Suppose I pray that God provide for me a woman to be my wife, and that I live together with her in a happy and fruitful marriage, but as a matter of fact, I marry a devil-woman and my marriage is a wreck. One way to think about this is that God wanted my marriage to go well, but he had no control over it, and so my wife on her own chose to live disastrously and ruined it. This is a miserable position, however, because if God lacks that kind of control over my future, there's no sense in praying to him for such a thing. Why pray to God for a happy future life together with another person, if God has no way in principle of guaranteeing that such a thing could take place? Can I take my devil-woman of a wife to be God's answer to my prayer? In that case, was God playing a joke on me? Or should I think rather that God has nothing to do with my personal life, since he has no control over the free choices of human beings? If that's the case, then just what does God do anyway? Why pray to him about anything?

Another way to think about this scenario is that it wasn't God's will for me to have a happy marriage. Perhaps he allowed that I suffer through this because it was critical to his greater providential plan, both for myself and for my wife and for the rest of the world, that I suffer in this way. Perhaps you will say that this compromises God's goodness, but not necessarily. After all, if God is good, he would allow this to happen only if he had an adequate reason; and God is good, and he has allowed this to happen, so therefore he must have an adequate reason. The logic here is impeccable, so at the end of the day, it comes down to whether we are willing to admit that God, being good, can nevertheless allow that disastrous things happen.

I don't think this a unique problem for the theologian who understands God's providence a bit more "deterministically" than others. After all, if God foreknew that disastrous and evil things would happen in the world and yet created the world anyway, how is he any better off for that fact? None of those things would have happened had God never created the world, regardless of whether he determined that they would happen or not. In that case, it seems you're no better off whether you affirm that God implements these sorts of tragic events as a part of his providential plan or else he simply foreknows them and lets them happen independently of his control. In either case, God's goodness is compromised or not. The real problem, however, is that if you take the view that human freedom is outside of God's control, you might quickly run into disastrous problems understanding God's providential control of the world. You would have to allow the possibility that the world turn out incorrigibly wretched, as in Hard to be a God.

I know what it is like for a desperate parent to plead before God with utter abandon and exhaustion for the salvation of her wayward child. This is a common enough reality, if you are in a large enough church community. Can you imagine saying to such a person, I'm sorry, you can pray for your son's salvation all you want, but don't pray with any confidence or hope or expectation that it will happen. After all, your son's got free will, he can do what he likes, and he may reject God forever. That's a reality you'll simply have to accept. Aside from the philosophical and theological problems such a conception of divine providence creates, this kind of thinking is pastorally disastrous. That is hardly the way you would console a mother whose very sense of the meaningfulness of her life is hanging by a thread since her six children are all wayward criminals, this close to ruining their lives forever.

It seems to me that we can and must pray for the salvation of others with confidence. If we cannot pray for this, then our conviction that God works all things for good (Rom 8.28) will fall apart. If God has no control whatsoever over the actions of human beings, then it is hardly worth praying to God about anything in our lives -- for a job, for a happy marriage, for the salvation of our children, etc.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Response to Jeff Cook, 3: Universalism and human freedom

Jeff Cook has posted the final installation of his series on universalism at Scot McKnight's blog. Here, as I have done and promised to do, I will respond to his arguments from a universalist perspective. Nota bene: this is a long one.

Jeff opens with an interesting question:

Given Universalism, one cannot possibly choose death, cannot choose to live apart from God or God’s community. No one created by God has real options about their destiny, but is this a problem for Universalism?

But he leaves this question and goes on to other matters. I will have to address this question at greater length in a future post, but I want to leave some brief remarks on the matter first. It is a commonly thought in Christian thinking that humanity was created for fellowship with God. After all, in numerous places in Scripture, we find the affirmation that all things (including all people!) were created by, through, and for God and Christ (e.g., Rom 11.36, Col 1.16). Now if God has created all people for fellowship with himself, then the minimum of rationality demands that he create human creatures with a structure that inclines them to search after him. And that is exactly what Paul affirms in his sermon to the Areopagites: he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth . . . so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him (Acts 17.26-7).

Now how might we understand this structural disposition towards God? The classical universalists, as Ilaria Ramelli has demonstrated in The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis (Brill, 2013), affirmed a particular theory of agency called ethical intellectualism. On this view, the will does not act autonomously, independently of the intellect and its judgments. Rather, the will has an intrinsic subordination to the intellect which simultaneously confers upon it a particular teleology: the will is inclined towards the good as understood by the intellect. An agent acts in accordance with her beliefs and convictions (which might not be what she takes herself to believe!) about what is good, about what will bring her good. Now the true Good is God himself, so that human beings have this disposition towards God himself naturally. They learn about God through their experiences, and so discover whether the things they had previously thought would confer the good, i.e. make them happy -- e.g., licentious living, the will to power, etc. -- would actually satisfy their intrinsic appetite for goodness or not.

Now obviously nothing can satisfy this intrinsic desire for happiness except God. That is Augustine's famous point: our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee, O Lord. Consequently human agency is ultimately and always a search for God, even if particular human persons do not realize this. And a life apart from God inevitably will not satisfy a person's longing for deep, eternal happiness, because nothing apart from God can possibly give that. So the universalist does believe that people do not "have a choice" about their ultimate destiny, in the sense that no one can forever put off living in communion with God because there is an object of human agency as such, namely the good, and people will find out that they cannot find the good apart from God. And this is not particularly problematic, because after all, this is what human beings are made for! There's nothing problematic about a human finding out her true destiny, her true identity!

The problem with many theologians is that they are more existentialists than Christians when it comes to the question of freedom of the will. They think that freedom means defining yourself and your own destiny, choosing between alternatives placed before you. This implies that the human person does not have her identity given to her naturally through her creation by God, but rather she constructs it for herself. I think you would be hard pressed to find any Christian theologian who thought this way prior to perhaps Kierkegaard, and certainly this picture has no scriptural support at all. Scripture permits that people become wicked, certainly, but it never supposes that the wicked are not acting unnaturally and contrary to their constitution and creation by God for doing so. On the contrary, a life in godliness in obedience to Jesus Christ is a life lived in obedience to the truth (cf. Rom 2.8). Beyond that, the existentialist picture makes no sense of the fact that human agency per se has an object -- namely the good, or happiness as Aristotle defines it in Nicomachean Ethics. The fact of the intrinsic teleology of the will goes to show that we do have a prior nature, that we are not mere blank slates. (This is to say nothing of the obvious facts of our biological identity which place limits on what we can be!)

Now if it is true that the will is subordinated to the intellect in pursuit of the good, then this teleological conception of volition carries along with it its own definition of freedom. Rather than freedom being the power to choose between mutually exclusive opposites, it would seem that freedom, true freedom, is the power to choose on the basis of knowledge of the good. We may have moments where opposing alternatives seem equally open to us, but that is because of our ignorance about the true good of the matter, and this is a sign of ignorance, and hence of unfreedom.

Does this conception of freedom allow for libertarianism? Maybe, maybe not, but in any case, libertarianism is not that hot a theory of freedom anyway. I don't understand the obsession some theologians and Christian philosophers have with libertarian freedom of the will. Some libertarian theories are arguably incoherent and make free choice impossible -- as some compatibilists have argued. But in any case, I remain neutral on the question of libertarianism and stick to my ethical intellectualist guns, because this is the way of the classical universalists as well.

So to return to Jeff Cook, he considers that the universalist says something like this: God looked at the various possible worlds he could have created, and determined to make a particular world F in which he foresaw that all persons would be freely reconciled to him. Jeff raises a number of problems and questions about this picture.

The first is this: it may be the case that given all the possibilities World F does not exist. 

The problem here is that I do not think of possible worlds as things that have some sort of existence independently of God, as if God merely 'is given' a set of possible ways he could create things and has to make due with what he has. This is an absurdity to my mind, because it is not as if things have existence independently of God's power to create them; after all, for all things except God, to exist is to be created (and sustained in existence) by God. Thus, I take it that God defines which worlds are possible, not anything else, and certainly not worlds which have no existence at all since they are merely possible! The direction of definition goes from God to world, not from world to God. Thus I don't see any problem here. Why shouldn't there be a possible world in which all people are freely saved? Is such a thing made impossible from God's own nature and power itself? Surely not!

There is yet a further argument the universalist may make here. It is an unimpeachable principle of modal logic that if X is actual, then X is possible. After all, if something were not possible, it could never have been actualized; therefore what is actual must also be possible. Now the universalist thinks there are very good reasons for supposing that as a matter of fact, all people will be saved. Consequently there is a possible world in which all people are saved -- namely this one!

Finally, I take it that the above-described conception of human freedom along ethical intellectualist lines is broadly compatibilist in spirit. After all, human freedom is principally about acting on the basis of knowledge about the good, rather than about choosing between compossible but mutually exclusive alternatives, and so on. So God could simply create a world in which he has determined that all persons will freely come to be saved. Now here's the kicker: Jeff cannot simply assume that free choice means libertarianism. That begs the question against compatibilists. Further argumentation has to be given, and he needs to deal with the responses compatibilists have made to libertarian arguments (e.g., the Consequence Argument).

The second is this: assuming for a moment that a good God could allow or initiate the annihilation of an unjust soul, it may be the case that God could actualize a world in which all are redeemed, but that those worlds lack other beauties which a world with some ultimately annihilated contain. Yes of course the salvation of all is a great good, but universal salvation may make other great goods impossible.

It is difficult to see why anyone should believe this. Cook considers that in world F (in which all are redeemed/saved), it may be that Christ does not die for the salvation for the world. But how is anyone saved, and from what, if Christ did not die for them? So I think Jeff here is a bit confused. But this minor point is a quibble and not worth spending much time on. The real problem is that Jeff, once more, is considering that possible worlds are just 'given' to God, independently of what he wants, and he merely has to work with what he's got. I don't accept this picture, I don't think any of the classical universalists thought about things this way, and certainly Jeff hasn't argued for it.

The third is this: Thirdly, it may be the case that in a possible world (like World F) where all come to faith—you and I may not be included. That is, it could be the case that in every possible world where you and I exist, we do not embrace God or his community. We will call this “transworld irredeemability.”

The same problem mentioned above applies here as well: Jeff continues to argue about possible worlds as if they are merely given God, rather than determined by God's own power itself.

There is a further problem with the notion of "transworld irredeemability." In the first place, it is an absurd notion. Suppose God creates a world in which he implants a person with a deep knowledge and awareness of relevant factors regarding salvation: first, that God is the only source of lasting happiness; second, that sin inevitably leads to misery and suffering; third, that it is within her power to repent and to live in communion with God, as God offers so very clearly. I don't see why such a world is not possible. But if this person is transworld irredeemable, then she would still choose to live in sin. It is arguable that this would not be a choice at all, at least not a free choice, but rather evidence of serious cognitive malfunction, as if she were acting out of some kind of irrational compulsion. Furthermore, this is only a conceivably possible scenario if we do not accept the ethical intellectualist picture I described above, along with its teleological conception of volition. But I don't see any hope of making sense of human agency as we actually experience it in the world apart from that picture. Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics took it as obvious -- and everyone else in the debate did too -- that there was an ultimate goal of human agency, and he even argued for this conclusion in case some perverse persons were not yet convinced. So if there is something we are always seeking, and if we are made to see where we will get it, then we will go for it -- simple as that. No person could in principle be transworld irredeemable and remain a rational agent with functioning volitional faculties.

Jeff also argues that God would not be doing any wrong in creating a person knowing that she will eventually be annihilated. He says: Imagine again that God foresees that you and I will never choose to embrace God. Unredeemable souls like us do not deserve to exist. Unredeemable souls will never participate in the robust life God offers—but God being utterly gracious makes you and I anyway, and our temporal existence is a grand, temporary gift to people like us. What could miserable souls like you and I who reject God’s love in every possible world, do to deserve to be alive? And yet here, in creating us, God extends grace even to those with transworld irredeemability—those who God foresees will never be a blessing to others or to Himself.

I don't find this plausible. Suppose someone lives a life of utter misery and suffering: abused by his parents, victimized by his neighbors in the rough neighborhood where he grew up, taken advantage of by people as he grows older and tries to make a living, rejected and hurt by various women with whom he tried to have meaningful relationship, and eventually he dies slowly after being stabbed by a mugger. He is resurrected and is offered a chance to enter into God's kingdom, but out of resentment and hatred for God for having created him in the world, he incorrigibly refuses and is eventually annihilated.

Did this person experience a "grand, temporary gift"? Did God create him in order to show him how much he loved him, knowing how miserable his life would be and that eventually he would reject God definitively? Does it make sense that God would create a person like this out of great love for a potential that will never be realized? All of this is absurd to me!

Furthermore, I don't see how, on this picture, God is not engaging in some kind of naive, perhaps masochistic nostalgia, akin to a guy who continues to make advances at a woman he knows will reject him every time, and in the end definitively, giving her gifts and doing nice things for her which she will never recognize and for which she will never express gratitude. It's weak! It's pathetic! This doesn't seem to me to be the God about whom it was said, I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted (Job 42.2). This is a kind of weak, romantic God that makes no sense given the way we see the world. Christians and Muslims are decapitated by ISIS soldiers; men and women are kidnapped, tortured, and their corpses eaten by psychopaths; teenagers make each other's lives a living hell until one of them commits suicide. Do you want a world like this run by a God who can't guarantee the end will be a good one regardless? Do you think those persons were worth creating, if in the end they are nevertheless annihilated?

Now certainly Jeff will question my own view of things. I think most Christians are libertarians because they want to maintain a critical distance between God and the evil things that take place in the world, especially the evils that human beings do to one another. I should start by saying that not all the scriptural writers shared this concern, but I won't press that point. Is theological determinism that bad? Is it really worth avoiding at all costs?

I think not. It depends what kind of person is doing the determining, to what end everything is headed. If the person doing the determining is good, and if perhaps we have some kind of convincing confirmation of his goodness (say, in his willingness to be crucified for our sins), then as bad as things may seem at times, we are within our rights to be convinced of God's goodness nonetheless and to trust that there's reason -- perhaps unknowable to us -- why things are the way they are.

Jeff will insist: if God could have just created a world with free agents and ensured that no one would commit any evil, why wouldn't he have done that? I will use the words of a friend in answering: doing this may make other great goods impossible.

Perhaps God wants the world the way it is for this reason: the happy ending to a story is better when there has been conflict and trouble and toil along the way. The Lord of the Rings is so fascinating and so captivating because they don't simply teleport to Mt. Doom to destroy the ring; rather they have to go through numerous struggles, a long and perilous journey, fighting with others and with themselves along the way. In the end, the peace that comes upon the land after the defeat of evil is that much more profound precisely because they remember what it took to get there. So also mutatis mutandis with our present world.

Imagine reading a novel that at times took some twists and turns for the worse, and you could not see how the author will get the main characters of out of the trouble they're in. Yet, somehow, surprisingly and pleasantly, all the pieces of the puzzle fit together in the denouement and suddenly you could see why everything had to be the way it was. Whereas the experience was previously arduous and even hopeless at times, now it all makes sense, and your pure pleasure at knowing this is indescribable. Perhaps that's the kind of world God wants to create -- a world in which, somehow, in some way I do not know (in Origen's words), even the worst sinners and all of humanity are saved through God's dramatic intervention in Jesus Christ. But to create such a world, there has to be evil.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

More on ethical universalism: prayer by faith

Some persons, when hearing for the first time about the doctrine of universal salvation, respond with incredulity, as if there could be no basis for such a thing in Christian scriptures and tradition. Of course, those who know better and are more informed are aware of the various arguments universalists of various stripes offer for their position. What I am lately interested by, however, is a different sort of argument and a different sort of universalism which is grounded solely in Christian ethics and spirituality -- more specifically, in the Christian practice of prayer.

I suppose I want to make my point by asking a few questions.

1. Is it a Christian duty to pray for the salvation of all people?

The answer for this, of course, is: Yes! This is what Paul tells Timothy in his letter: First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone [ὑπὲρ πάντων ἀνθρώπων] (1 Tim 2.1). Paul considers this sort of prayer a part of godliness (2.2), that is, a part of our development into the character and likeness of God, because "God our Savior" desires that all persons be saved [πάντας ἀνθρώπους θέλει σωθῆναι] (2.4).  We pray for the salvation of all people, in other words, because this is a part of being like God, who likewise desires that all persons be saved.

2. Are we Christians to pray confidently?

The answer, once more, is: Yes! James teaches us that a person who prays in a manner full of doubt and uncertainty can't expect to receive anything from the Lord at all (Jas 1.7-8). Indeed, the Lord Jesus taught us: Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive (Mt 21.22). Praying with confidence and faith is an essential element of Jesus' teaching on prayer, since his goal in everything seems to have been to urge people to trust in God above everything. Thus he teaches us on numerous occasions that we should be persistent in our prayers because God, more than we are aware, is willing to give us good things (Luke 11.13).

3. As Christians grow in godliness, do they desire the salvation of all more fervently?

This seems certainly true. One of the central elements of Christian ethics is selflessness and a concern for the other person in need -- in short, love. John makes the point all throughout his first epistle that the essence of the Christian message is the love of God in Jesus Christ, which motivates us to live in love. Consider, then, when John says: we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him (1 John 3.22). God's commandment was, first, that we believe in Jesus Christ his Son, who gave himself for the sins of the whole world (2.2), the savior of the world (4.18), and second, that we love one another (3.23). Recall, too, that John teaches us to understand love through Jesus' self-sacrifice on behalf of sinners inimical to him (3.16; cf. Rom 5.8). Suppose, then, that one has developed in the commandment to believe in Jesus, the savior of the world, and to love others, especially sinners whose spiritual poverty becomes all the more evident and devastating (cf. 3.17 -- who loves a poor person, who doesn't provide for her needs?). It would seem clear enough that such a person would be moved also, out of her great love for all sinners, to pray for the salvation of all persons.

4. Can Christians therefore expect this prayer to be answered?

The obvious inference from all that has been said thus far seems to be: Yes! Indeed, as James says, The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective (Jas 5.16), whereas John says that we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him (1 John 3.22). A righteous person prayers for the salvation of another, and not for his damnation, just as Jesus Christ the Righteous (1 John 2.1) intercedes for sinners.

This sort of argument, it seems to me, is exceptionally powerful, most specifically because none of the pieces of the puzzle can plausibly be denied, whatever your denominational affiliation may be. This is an argument drawn simply from ethical principles about prayer no one could reasonably deny, to my mind. Even a Calvinist such as Oliver Crisp answers 'Yes' to the first question, and I don't imagine he would deny anything else I've suggested in questions 2-4.

This is an ethical universalism, not a dogmatic one. It's not taught as an undeniable exegesis of any particular dogmatic passage, but it's prayed for and expected with faith, on the basis of the teachings of the scriptures. Of course, it has to say something about the various passages which speak of the future judgment, and it can also be strengthened by the typical texts which are supposed to affirm universalism (Rom 5, 1 Cor 15, Col 1, etc.). Still, on its own, it seems to me a reasonable enough position that one could hold, even in light of the ecumenical councils of the Catholic and Orthodox churches. St. Catherine of Siena, for example, Doctor of the Church, also prays for the salvation of all in religious fervor at one point in her works. It is an eminently Christian practice; why shouldn't the hope that our prayer will be answered be legitimate, as well?

Saturday, July 18, 2015

God as primordial Love

I have been reading through 1 John lately, and the essence of the letter's message, to my mind, is this: God, being Love himself, commands all people everywhere to live in love, following after and believing in his Son Jesus Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us. Love is essential to Christianity, because its message of salvation is only possible thanks to the love of God in Jesus Christ.


Out of love for us, God gave us the distinct privilege and honor of being called his children (1 John 3.1). For sinners, children of the devil, the Son of God came to free them and to take away their sins, undoing the work of the devil (3.5, 8). Indeed, we know what true love is, love which perfectly represents the essence and existence of God as Love, because the Son of God gave himself for our sins (3.16). Just as philosophers and theologians throughout the ages have understood God as the Truth, or the Good, or the Beautiful, so also -- John would insist -- we must understand God to be Love.

Because God is love, and because Jesus Christ is pure love, therefore he can give us no other commandment than this: that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another (3.23). God wants us to become like he is; Jesus Christ wishes to transform us into his own glorified state (3.2), which means we must purify ourselves of everything that stands in the way of our living in true love (3.3).

The measure of our relationship with God is our belief in Jesus Christ and our love for others: Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love (4.8). It doesn't matter what you believe; it doesn't matter what doctrinal statements you affirm wholeheartedly; it doesn't matter what confession you grace with your loyalty. If you do not live in love, the true revealed love of God in the self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the sake of sinners and for the whole world (2.2), then you do not know God. If you have hatred in your heart, if you are angry with others and this anger defines your life and your thinking, if you don't wish well for those around you who are suffering, then you do not know God. He is still a stranger, as far as you are concerned.

God is Love, and so anyone who knows God must also love others. Jesus Christ, who alone knew the Father (Mt 11.27, Luke 10.22), reveals to us the great depth of his love through his death for all the sinners in the world. This the very essence and core of the Christian message, and those who meditate and who are transformed by this message, this truth, this reality will find themselves filled with the same love which God has for all and every.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Friendship according to Friends

I've finished watching the series Friends on Netflix. I quite enjoyed it. The characters are very sympathetic, and early on you develop an emotional attachment to them. Each one has his or her own idiosyncracies and quirks: Joey is a struggling soap opera actor who likes women and food but is not the sharpest tool in the shed; Rachel is a spoiled girl trying to make it on her own in the big city of New York; Ross is a professor of paleontology trying to advance his academic career as well as recover after his divorce from his first wife; and so on.


The show is most obviously about friendship. It is about the development of the friendship of these six characters in New York, as they grow and meet with life's struggles: death, romance, heartache, economic difficulties, personal problems, etc. What is interesting to me is the conception of friendship which the show's writers try to get across throughout the series.

To my mind, the writers of the show understand friendship like this: to be friends means to be committed to the happiness of each other, even at the expense of one's own desires and preferences. There are a few times throughout the series where one character has to sacrifice something very dear to him or her in order to see another character happy and fulfilled. Friendship, then, is a kind of non-egoistic commitment to be there for the other person.

Importantly, there is no sense in Friends that friendship is about moral encouragement and transformation. A number of the problems the characters have throughout the series are due to petty personal shortcomings and character flaws. For example, Ross's hot temper and quick mouth get him into all kinds of trouble, which he later has to rectify painfully. If he simply learned to keep his calm and to listen before he speaks, he would never have any of these problems. (Of course, in that case, there wouldn't be a show, either!) Yet none of the characters ever suggest to him that ought to be a better person, that he ought to have more self-control, that he ought to develop this particular virtue.

Likewise, Joey lives a rather meaningless life. He works as a soap opera actor, though he'd like to move ahead in his career. He can't because he is not that good of an actor, but none of his friends tell him this. He sleeps with many different women, but he never maintains a lasting, meaningful relationship with any of them. It's typically one date, not followed by a call-back. None of his friends, even after they get married and experience the unique joys and beauties of a committed relationship with one other person, ever suggest that he ought to change his ways.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that Friends is totally amoral. There is a unique morality of friendship, and the characters do their best to fulfill it. One important general virtue of friendship on this show is (we might call it) an attitude of hospitality, by which I mean accepting your friends into your life as they are. The protagonists of the show do not make efforts to change one another, or to refuse fellowship on the basis of their vices; they accept one another as they are, and work with each other as they can. They are there for each other and support each other's endeavors.

Moreover, forgiveness plays an important role in Friends. There is seemingly always the assumption that the group will forgive each other, whatever the crime may have been. It may be a difficult process, it may be that the forgiveness takes a long time, but in the end they end up back together. It would almost feel unnatural for them not to forgive each other, because they have such a rapport and such history with one another! The question is not if they forgive but when they forgive, and it inevitably happens.

The value of Friends, I think, is in entertainment. It is an eminently enjoyable show, and the characters are very sympathetic. It seems to me that this is more or less the conception of friendship that "millennials" have in our present times: commitment to the other person's happiness, within the broad bounds of popular morality.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Christian life as continuous purification

The ethical emphasis in John's first letter is quite strong, and it is always grounded in his Christology. Jesus Christ, who alone is truly righteous (1 John 2.1), will judge the world at his coming in accordance with his true righteousness. Every person will get what is coming to them, since the judgment and repayment is according to works.

But this doesn't mean that Jesus Christ is totally removed from us, a distant and cold judge who is disinterested in the outcome of the judgment either way. On the contrary, Jesus as the revelation of the eternal life from the Father (1.1-3) gave himself for our sins; indeed, he is the propitiation for the sins of the entire world (2.2) and he came to take away our sins and to destroy the works of the Devil (3.5, 8). So he performs his work—indeed, his work is what lies beyond our power to accomplish for our salvation—but there remains a work for us, as well.

Yet even in our work, Christ is not totally removed. John commends all his audience to maintain fellowship with Christ, because in this way they will not be ashamed at his return (2.28). The implicit premise is that, if a person is to have any hope at the judgment (which will be according to deeds!), she must maintain fellowship with Christ. This fellowship in the Holy Trinity is what transforms us and turns us, with our cooperation, into images and likenesses of Jesus Christ the Righteous.

For this reason, all of a Christian's life in anticipation of the return of Christ is a continual purification. John says: all who have this eager expectation will keep themselves pure, just as he is pure (3.3). This purification is never removed from Christ's grace and intercession on our behalf (1.8-2.2). But we must always remember and spur each other on to living in this transforming fellowship with the Son of God.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Response to Jeff Cook, 2: Our inadequacies

Here's the second post in Jeff Cook's series on universalism at Scot McKnight's blog. Cook's argument this time around has to do with the adequacy of the present world for our moral development. He writes:


If we assume Universalism, then the world we experience does not adequately fulfill one of its primary jobs: creating the environments in which human souls become sons and daughters of God and share his likeness.

The idea that the refining fire will be increased for those who need it after death invites the question: why has God done such a poor job constructing this world? Why does our pre-death experience lack the fires necessary for requisite soul-making and drawing all to Christ?

If God created our world only as a purgatorial sphere, Robin Parry calls this “torturing people into heaven” but I don’t think that’s how a Universalist like John Hick would think of it. The refining power of our world is at times severe and necessary for a human soul to share the “likeness of God”.

But here’s the problem: why think the purgatorial fires experienced in this life are insufficient for every soul to experience the vile weight of sin and its repugnant fruit? Why think the grace of God experienced in this life daily is insufficient to draw every human soul willing decisively into the arms of Christ?

They are not—and this makes Universalism less likely.


Is there much that the universalist can say in response? Yes; in fact, I don't think this particular objection is very difficult to answer.

Let me start by noting that it is not unique to the universalist to claim that this world is the theater of rational agents' moral development. Anyone, whether a universalist or annihilationist or traditionalist, could accept this claim, and simply motivate their eschatological stance accordingly. They all have to answer the question: if this world is the theater for the moral development of rational agents, then why aren't they all perfected by the time they die? But for this reason, the universalist could more or less make use of any response the other views' adherents could use.

It is debatable whether Athanasius was a universalist (I happen to think he was, following the suggestive evidence brought forth byIlaria Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis (2013)), but let's suppose for the moment that he wasn't. This is how he describes the creation of humanity and its purpose:

Grudging existence to none therefore, He made all things out of nothing through His own Word, our Lord Jesus Christ and of all these His earthly creatures He reserved especial mercy for the race of men. Upon them, therefore, upon men who, as animals, were essentially impermanent, He bestowed a grace which other creatures lacked—namely the impress of His own Image, a share in the reasonable being of the very Word Himself, so that, reflecting Him and themselves becoming reasonable and expressing the Mind of God even as He does, though in limited degree they might continue for ever in the blessed and only true life of the saints in paradise. But since the will of man could turn either way, God secured this grace that He had given by making it conditional from the first upon two things—namely, a law and a place. He set them in His own paradise, and laid upon them a single prohibition. If they guarded the grace and retained the loveliness of their original innocence, then the life of paradise should be theirs, without sorrow, pain or care, and after it the assurance of immortality in heaven. But if they went astray and became vile, throwing away their birthright of beauty, then they would come under the natural law of death and live no longer in paradise, but, dying outside of it, continue in death and in corruption. This is what Holy Scripture tells us, proclaiming the command of God, "Of every tree that is in the garden thou shalt surely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil ye shall not eat, but in the day that ye do eat, ye shall surely die." "Ye shall surely die"—not just die only, but remain in the state of death and of corruption (On the Incarnation, 4).

For Athanasius, then, humanity was created in an environment hospitable for its further moral development, assuming that they made use of their freedom to reflect the image of the Logos and enjoy interminable life in fellowship with God. But if they should misuse their freedom and choose wrongly, then their context would change, and barring any sort of intervention on God's part, their environment would become miserable, inhospitable, one in which they continue in death and in corruption. (By the way, if Athanasius says that the sinful continue in death and corruption, this implies that 'death' and 'corruption' are not utter annihilation but a kind of miserable, lifeless continued existence.)

This is the way a universalist could happily answer Cook's objection. Our world was initially adequate for the development of our characters into the image and likeness of God, but human sin changes things somewhat. It's not that the world is so obviously inadequate for the task God set it to. Rather, human beings can make use of the opportunities given them or not, and if they do not, then more drastic measures are taken in the next world.

The problem with Cook's argument is that it doesn't take into consideration the reality of human choices, which are sometimes wrong and misplaced. Indeed, he describes the universalist scheme so mechanistically that there seems to be no room for choice at all; but the universalist doesn't need to accept this.

It may be that this world offers us plenty of opportunities for moral development, but it is also up to us to make use of them accordingly. And if we don't, it is not at all surprising that some persons die without being made into the likeness of God. Yet God, not wanting any to perish, gives these persons further opportunities in the next world -- drastic measures, perhaps, for the worst of them -- so that his purposes in creation would not come to naught. Athanasius argued that it would be unworthy of God and a compromise of his goodness if his creatures, made rational in the image of the Logos, should be destroyed -- whether deservedly or undeservedly (On the Incarnation, 6). So therefore he takes every measure to ensure the salvation of all.

In brief, then, the response may be this: this world is adequate, but it is up to us to make adequate use of it. And for those who do not take advantage of the opportunities this life affords them, there is a solution in the next world. Yet the next world's solution is a drastic and painful one, and therefore we are motivated to take advantage of our time here.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The misunderstood Origen

Origen is perhaps one of the most unjustly misunderstood and calumniated theologians of Christian history. His case is particularly tragic because, among those who had actually read his work in great detail, he was perhaps the most appreciated and widely praised thinkers of ancient Christianity. Athanasius, the Cappadocians, and others sang his praises, and their thinking is deeply influenced by his works. Indeed, Jerome at one point said that Origen was the second teacher of the Church after the apostles. But at some point, certain heretical groups became inextricably associated with Origen's name, and he became a victim of this deadly association.

Sometimes Origen is denounced as an allegorizing Platonist who rejected the use of the literal sense of the Scriptures, believed in the transmigration of the soul, thought that human souls preexisted their embodiment, and so on. Panayiotis Tzamalikos, in his Origen: Philosophy of History & Eschatology (Brill, 2007), actually argues against these claims, which are quite easily disproved by reading Origen's works themselves. Tzamalikos insists, on the contrary, that Origen's thought is fundamentally and essentially anti-Platonic in numerous respects.

Take, for example, the question of the transmigration of the soul. The Platonists believed that the soul could exist disembodied, and that in went through a series of embodiments (or reincarnations) throughout an age, depending on its desert and merits. If the soul was wicked, perhaps it was reincarnated as an animal or some other creature, and so in this way souls would be purified of their sins.

Origen's thought is opposed to this. He refers on occasions to "the false doctrine of transmigration" (τῆς μετενσωματώσεως ψευδοδοξίαν) and "the heresy of transmigration," a notion that he flatly rejects (Tzamalikos 2007, 50). Indeed, Origen rejected that the soul could ever exist outside of the body, on its own; rather, everything existed in some embodied way except for the Godhead itself (ibid.).

Rather, for Origen, the human soul always exists embodied, although it may not always exist in this body. This current body, with which I am typing and eating and so on, will some day die, and though my soul will continue to exist, it does not exist entirely disembodied. Rather, it exists in a different sort of body, which likewise exists in this world of God's but on a different plane, perhaps. In any case, the principle holds true for Origen that a soul must always be in a body that is specially suited to the environment in which it exists. He writes: We know that when a soul, which in its nature is incorporeal and invisible, is in any material place, it is in need of a body, the nature of which is adapted to that place (Tzamalikos 2007, 57). So the soul, when the human person has died, occupies a body that is specially suited for the plane of existence in which the dead are located.

Interestingly, Origen argued for this view because he thought that the Scriptures taught it. Consider the example of the transfiguration of Jesus: there Moses and Elijah are present, apparently embodied and not disembodied, and in bodies of a different sort than Peter and James and John had (ibid.). This view makes a lot of good sense of the ways in which dead people are depicted in Scripture as being embodied: for example, Dives asks for a drop of water as he is tormented in Hades, and the souls of dead saints are given robes (Rev 6.9-11).

Origen thus denies the transmigration of the soul, denies that retribution for sins takes place through this transmigration, and denies that the human soul can (let alone should) exist disembodied. In these very important ways, his thinking is fundamentally opposed to Platonism and grounded in Scripture rather than in philosophy. (This is true even if you might disagree with his exegesis.)

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Christian exclusivism in 1 John

John writes to his audience about 'antichrist' in 1 John 2. Actually, he makes the point that there are multiple antichrists, but they have something in common: they deny that Jesus is the messiah, the son of God.

These persons were probably (to my mind, anyway) Jews who had denied Jesus as the messiah in the persecutions and difficulties which affected the Jewish synagogues after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. After the destruction of the temple, the Pharisees took a very hardline stance against the "Nazarenes," the followers of Jesus. Because of this, many Jews had to choose between the fellowship of the synagogue or else following Christ in rejection by their communities. From what I have read, the majority may have chosen the synagogue and the social stability it offered over Christ.

So John writes:

Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ?This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; everyone who confesses the Son has the Father also (1 John 2.22-3).

He has to write to his audience to assure them that, though they are perhaps refused and excommunicated by the local synagogue, they are nevertheless enjoying fellowship with God. Why is is this? Because they have accepted his Son, Jesus the true Christ.

And in the middle of his exhortation and consoloation, John actually espouses quite a strict exclusivism: the relationship between humanity and God is mediated through his Son, Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Tim 2.5), so that whoever rejects the Son whom the Father had sent, such a person also rejects the Father. Apart from the worship and the acceptance of Christ, there is no fellowship with the Father.

This is quite a strict stance to take, especially in light of contemporary ecumenical relations and the impulse to interfaith dialog. John goes so far as to call the Jewish deniers of Jesus anti-Christs, who have neither the Son, nor the Father. Their relationship and fellowship with God has been utterly severed because of their rejection of God's Son whom he sent to them for their salvation.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Preaching the gospel without threats

Notice what John says here:

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world (1 John 1.1-2).

John's stated purpose is to write to his audience so that they do not sin. But what kind of language does he use to accomplish this? Does he threaten them with hell-fire, motivating them with fear? Does the threat of God's wrath motivate their righteousness, in his mind? Not at all!

Indeed, John has no trouble admitting that, even if they should sin, provisions have made for their forgiveness. During their entire lives, they have an advocate with the Father, namely Jesus Christ the righteous -- the true and only righteous one. A righteous man's prayers mean much in God's eyes; James says that the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective (Jas 5.16). How much confidence should we have, then, knowing that Jesus Christ who alone is truly righteous intercedes for our sake with the Father? John goes so far as to say that he is the atonement for our sins; his entire life and continued existence, not merely his death, is the atonement for our sin.

John does not threaten or make use of hell-fire to motivate holiness in his listeners. He even goes so far as to say that, if they should sin, they have every reason to be confident that they will be forgiven. Now in the minds of so many people, preaching like this is dangerous and perhaps foolish. Won't people take advantage of God's goodness? Won't they understand God's willingness to forgive them as providing license for their sinfulness? Evidently John sees no problem here. His concern is not to produce fearful disciples, motivated by the terror of punishment, but rather loving disciples, who will love God and love each other, just as God himself is love. This is the whole of John's epistle in a nutshell: God is love, and Jesus taught us that we ought to love all, as well.

Consider what David Bosch says:

To evangelize is to communicate joy. It conveys a positive message; it is hope we are holding out to the world. Evangelism should never deteriorate into coaxing, much less into threat. . . . People should turn to God because they are drawn by God's love, not because they are pushed to God for fear of hell (Transforming Mission, p. 423).

Monday, July 6, 2015

Response to Jeff Cook, 1: Why death?

Jeff Cook is posting a series of articles on Scot McKnight's blog; the first one is here. His stated purpose is to push Universalists to a more complete theory or move them toward a preference for Annihilationism. I want to offer a response to each of his articles as they are released.

The first article concerns the question of the purpose of death on the universalist scheme. He raises the question:

What purpose does death hold on Universalism? If the soul is immortal and redemption will happen eventually, why does God create the twofold experience of life, then death, then a different form of life?

His suggestion is that there is an argument to be made on grounds of parsimony that annihilationism fares better than universalism when it comes to the question of death. He writes that because of death, on this former view, the weight of our moral choices are elevated and have more significant consequences. Given how human beings function and the seductive nature of some sins, death is a spur for right living.

I don't think, however, that death poses a particular problem for the universalist. There may not be only one particular function or purpose of death; perhaps God allows death for a number of different reasons. I will try to elaborate on some of these reasons by drawing from the classical universalist tradition as described in Ilaria Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis (Brill, 2013). (Incidentally, I think this book, alongside her Terms for Eternity co-authored with David Konstan, is essential reading for anyone who wants to comment on the doctrine of universalism intelligently. This is not to say that Jeff Cook is not commenting intelligently! I think it is (for now) the reference work for anyone who wants to understand the classical doctrine of universalism and its scriptural, philosophical, philological, and traditional evidences.)

To begin, Clement of Alexandria affirmed that God's providence orders all things for the sake of universal salvation. Likewise Isaac the Syrian affirmed that everything that God does to us and permits in his world is dictated by his love, grace, and mercy -- even if it may seem otherwise to us. Thus the first thing the classical universalist must say is that death functions for our salvation in some way. The universalist need not know exactly how this is true; after all, we are talking about God's purposes in permitting evil things to happen, and I think I stand with most Christian thinkers these days that we have no reason to suppose these reasons should be clear or even possible for us to discern. But we may go further, nevertheless.

Some of the classical universalists thought that the imposition of death after the sin of Adam and Eve was an act of grace on God's part. Because they would die, therefore the sins of humans would not go on infinitely and their guilt could not be compounded ad infinitum. There was a limit put to their sinning and therefore also to their guilt. Theophilus of Antioch and Gregory of Nazianzus affirm this interpretation. Indeed, Gregory of Nazianzus goes on to say that the apparent curse of death turned out to be an act of philanthropia, love for humanity, and he affirmed that he was convinced that this is the way in which God punishes.

Isaac the Syrian further suggested that death was a hidden grace because through death, our mode of being can be changed: we go from our present accursed and fallen state, by resurrection, into a glorious, redeemed, and immortal state. The implicit premise is that human nature, once cursed by sin, could not be totally transformed and redeemed unless it first died and was resurrected. Evidently, as Tupac says, "That's just the way it is." Consider that Jesus' pre- and post-resurrection bodies were quite different: for example, Paul affirms that Christ is no longer subject to mortality after his resurrection (Rom 6.9). Likewise Paul writes in 1 Cor 15 that our resurrection body is quite different from the present body: this is a fleshly one, whereas that one will be spiritual (1 Cor 15.44). Because our present cursed bodies are doomed to die, we would be hopeless without the possibility of resurrection; but there can be no resurrection apart from a prior death! Thus, death is the means by which we leave the cursed conditions of the fleshly body and later are resurrected into the spiritual body.

Importantly, however, I think the universalist is perfectly within her rights to hold that death is a punishment for sin. This is true even if God, in his goodness, also acts so that this punishment will not be the final word for human beings. It is no less true for Athanasius, for example, that death is the imposed punishment for sin, even if thanks to Christ and God's goodness, death is no longer a condemnation and a punishment for us (cf. Athanasius, On the Incarnation 6). God established this punishment for sin, first so that the desperately wicked might not live on forever, ravaging God's creation (imagine if Hitler never died!); but also because it is the way that God punishes us for our sin -- by taking us away from each other, from the people and things we love, from the life we know. Even if there is a sort of spiritual, quasi-embodied intermediate state -- which I do affirm; cf. the appearance of Elijah and Moses at the Transfiguration -- it seems that the reality of resurrection proves that the natural and appropriate state for the human person is embodied on Earth. We are taken away from our home as a punishment for our sin.

Now the classical universalists affirmed that in God, his goodness and his justice were the same thing; they both sought after the same end, which is the deification of humanity. But they also thought that for all of us, the goodness and the justice of God are unavoidable. Knowing that all would be salted with fire, they consequently sought to have salt within themselves (cf. Mark 9.49-50), rather than to suffer punishment needlessly because of laziness or negligence. So the classical universalist could say (I don't know if any of them did say this) that our death is a punishment for our sin, which we all suffer because God's justice cannot be avoided. But this punishment is not suffered the same way by someone who knows that it is for her good, and that it will come to an end with the transformation of her character, and who desires that transformation and vows to contribute to it voluntarily.

The New Testament describes the death of Christ on the cross in two ways: Christ in Mark and Matthew is rather agonized, crying out at the moment of death that God has abandoned him; Christ in Luke and John is confident and full of trust for God, entrusting himself to God and proud that his mission has been accomplished. Perhaps these two depictions represent the two ways that human beings will inherit the kingdom of God; for the righteous, they will trust God even in their sufferings and in their death; for the wicked, their death will be an agonized one of apparent abandonment by God.

Finally, I think the universalist can make use of death for the same reasons that Jeff Cook proposes for the annihilationist. I must first note that Cook has it wrong when he describes the universalist as affirming two worlds: this world, and then a purgatorial world after death. There is only one world, the world created by God and inhabited by human beings, whether living or dead. The intermediate state is not another world but merely another way of living in and experiencing this world. The resurrection state is not in another world but in this one, in a transformed quality. And all of life in the world is ultimately purgatorial, whether life takes place here or later, after death. However, not all life is equal, and not all sorts of life offer the same opportunities for growth.

In this life, God gives us (generally speaking) the freedom and peace to seek moral development and life in fellowship with him on our own. Even if at times we are chastised by the Lord, still these chastisements take place in this life in conditions of general peace, and if we repent we can escape them. But the punishments of the next world for those who refused to repent and to orient themselves towards God in this life are unanimously described in the New Testament in terrible, awful terms. Perhaps this is because a person who lives her whole life in opposition to God in this life, unwilling to repent despite the numerous occasions she has been given, will (de)form her character in such a profound way that only severe punitive measures can prove to help her. This is the character they have chosen for themselves, and therefore the Physician has to treat the patients as they are.

The universalist can affirm that death functions as a limit on the opportunities this life affords us to develop our characters and to turn towards God. If the punishments of the impenitent after death are inevitable, and if they are terrible, then the reality of death puts urgency on the call to repent and turn to God with all of our hearts and souls. The punishments in the afterlife will not go on indefinitely, nor will they result in the sinner's annihilation, but that doesn't make them any the less terrible; and their inevitability after death is what makes death such a serious and grave thing.

So then, here are a few things the classical universalist can say about death:

1. Death is a phenomenon ordered by God for our salvation.
2. It is a hidden grace, in that it puts a limit on our guilt.
3. It is a hidden grace, in that through it we can be freed of our cursed, fleshly bodies and attain to the resurrection body.
4. It is a punishment for our sin, which we cannot avoid because God's justice is inexorable.
5. It puts a limit on our opportunities for repentance here, whereas the punishment of the impenitent in the next life is unavoidable, and so gives our moral choices weight and significance.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Spiritual interpretation of the Old Testament

Typically the universalist will read texts about the destruction of the wicked on the day of the Lord's judgment in a kind of spiritual way: what will be destroyed is the wicked personality and sinfulness of the sinner, though certainly the agent herself will experience a kind of ruin; however, she will not be utterly annihilated. Origen gives the example of Paul: the informant and persecutor is destroyed, so that the apostle of Jesus Christ comes to life. It is not a death or destruction of the person as substance, but rather in terms of her social identity, constructed in opposition to God and his persons. Think of 2 Cor 5.17 as a positive analog of this: the Christian becomes a new creation -- not literally a new thing, but she adopts a new identity in relation to God.

Now traditionalists and conditionalists will want to know why such a spiritual interpretation of the threats of destruction is warranted, if the context of the judgment texts does not seem to suggest it. There are a number of ways to answer this question, but I will try to offer one particular line of reasoning.

Throughout Christian history, Jesus Christ has been taken as the interpretive key to Scripture -- not sociohistorical context, not rabbinical tradition, but Jesus Christ who is the fulfillment of all the scriptures. Thus Jesus is regularly portrayed in the church's iconography as holding the Bible in his hands; this is because he, as the Logos of God, guides its appropriate interpretation and no one else.

Now because Christ is the guiding principle of interpretation, he at times applies texts to himself which never would have been understood in this way in the original context. The most extreme example, perhaps, is Christ's words to his disciples at the last supper:

You will all become deserters; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee (Mark 14.27-8).

This is a citation from the prophet Zechariah, whose words originally referred to something else altogether. In Zech 13 LXX, we find the following prophecy:

Awake, O sword, against my shepherds, and against the man who is my citizen, saith the Lord Almighty: smite the shepherds, and draw out the sheep: and I will bring mine hand upon the little ones. And it shall come to pass, that in all the land, saith the Lord, two parts thereof shall be cut off and perish; but the third shall be left therein. And I will bring the third part through the fire, and I will try them as silver is tried, and I will prove them as gold is proved: they shall call upon my name, and I will hear them, and say, This is my people: and they shall say, The Lord is my God. (Zech 13.7-9).

You do not get the impression at all, reading Zechariah, that he is speaking about the death of the messiah. There is no reason within this context to suppose that the striking of the shepherd(s) of God's people -- perhaps understood as the false prophets accused in vv. 1-6 -- is in itself salvific or remedial or redemptive, except insofar as they are removed from the populace. On the contrary, you only get the suggestion that it is an act of judgment akin to the judgment of Judah by the Babylonian captivity previous to this. The king and prophets and priests would be killed, many of the people would be killed, but a remnant would survive. This would be the way in which a fountain shall be opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity (v. 1).

Christ finds himself in this passage and interprets himself as the shepherd which is stricken. But there is nothing in the context of Zechariah's prophecy to suggest this. Yet Christ is the interpretive principle of the Scriptures; they speak about him and their meaning is informed by what happens to him and what he does.

The universalist engages in the same sort of thing when he interprets the threats of destruction of the wicked in spiritual as opposed to substantial terms. Christ died for all; his death is the propitiation of the sins of the entire world (1 John 2.2). His act of righteousness will make all human persons righteous (Rom 5.18-9). He will bring all people to himself (John 12.32) and will present all people in obedient submission and worship to the Father, so that God may be all in all (1 Cor 15.28). He is the Savior of the World (1 John 4.14), who brings salvation to all people (Tit 2.11). God's purpose is to unite everything under Christ (Eph 1.10). Jesus Christ is the savior of all people (1 Tim 4.10). Because Christ has died for all, all persons have therefore already died (2 Cor 5.14). 

In light of all this, seeing what God has explicitly revealed about his purposes through Christ, the universalist is perfectly within her rights to interpret the destruction of sinners prophesied about in the Old Testament (and New) in spiritual terms -- even if the context does not ask for this nor permit it.

More should be said, and some day I will say it.

Friday, July 3, 2015

God's message in Jesus Christ

John defines the gospel message of Jesus Christ this way:

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us (1 John 1.5-10).

It appears to me that an important element of this gospel message is its rhetorical and ethical function. Jesus' message is intended to put the hearer in a state of critical self-evaluation. Of course, God is light does not tell us much at all; John is merely abbreviating and summarizing what Jesus expounds in greater detail in his gospel. The point, however, is this: the person hearing Jesus' message has to consider his own life and ask himself the question, Am I in the dark or am I in the light?

Too often people simply live life on auto-pilot, not thinking about what they do, not evaluating or questioning their motives. They assume that whatever they feel or want to do in the moment is right. But Jesus' message is a resounding denial of our unthinking acceptance of ourselves. Implied in this message is that inevitably, there will be some darkness in our life. Thus John informs us that part of Jesus' message is this: if you say you have no sin, you're in the darkness and you are turning God into a liar.

Yet part of the message is also God's willingness to forgive. John says that if we only confess our sins -- if we only admit that we were in the wrong, that we judged wrongly and that we have not been living the sort of life that God wants of us -- God is happy to forgive us and cleanse us of all our sins on the basis of that act of recognition. We do not have to perform any costly acts of atonement; Christ himself has given himself for our sins! All we must do is acknowledge that we goofed, and learn from God what is right, and we will have fellowship with him.

Interestingly, John says that God is faithful and just to forgive us. He is faithful because it is his promise and also his character to forgive. He doesn't change who he is; therefore we can trust that he will forgive us if we admit fault. But also, God is just or righteous [δίκαιος] to forgive us if we confess. I think this is radical stuff. Typically we understand forgiveness as a kind of supererogatory act of grace, one that a person in principle could not be obligated to perform. Yet John here says that it is a part of δικαιοσύνη, a part of righteousness or justice, to forgive the person who confesses his sins. This presumes a different ethical understanding. Perhaps this is a part of the way that God is in the light yet we are in the darkness: we think of forgiveness as optional, whereas God loves to forgive and it is a part of his righteousness as such to forgive.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

You get what's coming to you

According to this article, ISIS fighters were executed by members of another extrimist jihadi group in Syria. These other jihadis also have a sense of ironic humor: they dressed up in orange jumpsuits, like the ones ISIS's beheading victims wear, and killed ISIS fighters dressed in black, the usual combat and execution uniform.

Obadiah 15 contains a principle of divine justice that my father emphasized to me many times as I was growing up:

As you have done, it shall be done to you;
  your deeds shall return on your own head.

So also James says: For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy (Jas 2.13).

Perhaps some of these fighters beheaded Christians or Yazidis or others before being exterminated themselves. They chose a life of violence, a life of the sword, and they fell victims to this very same life. They got what was coming to them, at the hands of other persons just as wicked as they are.

If you commit violence and kill, you will end up a victim of violence and will be killed. That is why in scripture we also find the injunction to be merciful: Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy (Mt 5.7). A person who acts from goodness and from benevolence knows that eventually, he too will get good, even if for the moment he should suffer. This is the justice of God's world: you choose the kind of life you get, one fitting given the choices you make and the values you uphold.