"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Friday, May 13, 2011

Do Our Decisions Matter?

This comment was recently made on an old blog post that touched on the buzz about Rob Bell’s new book a couple months ago: The Growing Universalism Conversation. I liked the question and thought my response worth posting. The length of my response also didn’t really fit into the comments section. :)

Hi Matt. I've read Love Wins and it sounds like a really good deal. Everybody gets to go...everybody gets in! Except, what if it's not really true? The part about not having to make a conscious choice in this life, that we'll get to make our choices when we come face to face with our Creator, when there is no room for doubt (no room for faith), I think that's where I get stuck. I don't want anyone to think...hmmm, I'll take my chances and wait to see what's what after I die. Or am I not understanding Universalism clearly...which is entirely possible. :)

My response:

Nice timing…just had a conversation yesterday with someone about decisions/choices and why or why not they matter. I liked your comment! I haven’t actually read Love Wins, so I might be a little uninformed. Here are some hopefully helpful thoughts inspired by your comment. I don’t think I’m offering an answer that will really satisfy your questions, as much as sharing with you how I have wrestled (and continue to wrestle) with the same questions.

1) I’d guess you probably do understand universalism correctly. Though some might state it like “everybody is in” rather than “gets in.” Others might say "everybody eventually will be in.” All kind of mean something slightly different, I think.

I also try to be careful about the language of “who gets in” in general. I think it runs the risk of reducing the point of this life to something like a tryout or audition. I’m not saying you mean that…just that this is where this mindset can lead. This seems too simplistic to me, as if we proclaim the good news of God’s love simply to get people through a couple hoops that will secure their destiny. Maybe that’s unfairly reductive of me, but it feels like the case sometimes in the way we talk.

2) I think it’s important to not discount the seriousness of God’s judgment. Our warm, fuzzy friend Jesus talks a lot about judgment, in the tradition of Old Testament prophets whose warnings and pleadings to repent and live rightly were very serious. I think my choices matter greatly, as I am going to be judged.

But I don’t believe in an angry God that loves to punish; I believe in a God who is a refining fire, committed to healing and making whole and restoring. I kind of wonder if maybe I won’t get into heaven “easily,” if I may have to experience some suffering or pain or sorrow before I’m truly healed and made whole and “ready” for heaven. But I don’t know. Maybe this idea of pain I’m suggesting belittles the belief that Christ has taken our place, belittles how we think about grace?

As for now, I have made the choice for Christ and continue to make choices because I want to honor the God to whom I owe everything, and because Jesus has given us enough warnings about our actions and the way we live that—while I believe in grace—I don’t ever want to take my salvation for granted. Avoiding a guilt- and works-based religion is the challenge in that though, for sure.

3) I often wonder if we Christians run the risk of being like the older brother in the story of the prodigal son. Do we feel like we are more entitled to unending life with God in heaven than others? Would it really be so awful if God showed mercy to someone who arrives at the "gates of heaven" and says, “oh, now I get, now I see…yes, I choose God.” Not saying God will, but if what if God did? Do we feel resistant (if we do) to this because it doesn’t fit the character of God or because it feels unfair to us and conflicts with some kind of self-righteousness we possess?

4) I don’t think fear of hell should be a motivator for evangelism. Actually, I’m not sure it’s all that effective. Maybe initially for some, but I imagine most non-Christians who are told heaven and hell are on the line in regards to making a decision about Jesus, don’t think Jesus matters that much anyway, and may not even believe in heaven or hell, thus having little motivation to make a decision.

While I don’t think we should use “motivators” to encourage people toward decisions but should present the truth as truthfully as we are capable, I think motivators like hope—for a better future for the world, for our own lives, and for what lies beyond this life—and love—the accepting, persisting, convicting, inspiring, healing, and comforting love of God—are better motivators than heaven/hell.

5) Many inclusivists would probably say that some people will still reject God forever, and that God allows them that freedom, that freedom is a part of love. I think you could argue we overemphasize “freedom” when we talk about love and our human choice, but regardless, maybe some people will see God and still doubt, still want nothing to do with God. Sad, but maybe true.

6) I am a Christian now because I believe what Jesus said and what others said about him, because it feels right, because it’s logical and coherent to me even if it defies rationality in some ways, and because it feels like when I love, hope, feel joy, show compassion—live the way of Jesus—it feels like I’m living how I was made to live. Like my actions are lining up with my true nature and identity. I’m not a Christian now because that’s what needed to happen to secure my destiny after this life, though maybe that was a partial motivation when I was younger.

I don’t want people to “take their chances and wait” either, but not because I believe eternity is at stake—because I believe now is at stake. I so believe in what I believe that I want others to experience it or something like it. And I think what I believe has universal relevance; it's not just true for me, but for all people. I guess I assume that's what belief requires...that we see our view of "how things really are" as relevant and significant for all people, not just for ourselves (which seems more like relativism, or just opinion/preference).

7) Finally, I think I trust in what I believe to be the character of God more than in some of my theology. My theology is probably somewhat in error. I try to hold my convictions with a healthy balance of confidence and open-mindedness. At times, I feel like I don’t really know how hell works, or the atonement, or the dual nature of Christ, etc. But I believe that God is good, and right, and whatever happens, I will eventually see that God’s way was and is the best. Am I certain about all my beliefs? No. I think certainty is overrated and often something we use to assuage our doubts and need to be in control. Doubt and faith and hope are a part of life.

So “what if it’s not true?” you asked. Great question. And a question that could be asked about a lot of matters of faith. What if the implication of the exclusivist Christian message that all those who aren’t Christians are probably going to hell is not really true? How might this change how the Church does mission, how people throughout the world understand the character and love of God, or even the amount of war and conflict and suffering present in our world?

Hopefully some of that helped more than harmed. :) This is just my two cents. And I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m putting words in your mouth; some of what I’m responding to here came from a very recent conversation, and from extensions of points you were making, not necessarily what you said. Anyway…thanks for giving me the opportunity to reflect and learn!


Ian said...

As always, awesome and thoughtful and wonderful. Just had lunch with a friend and we discussed some of the above, as we both have recently read Love Wins.

Thanks for your thoughts. :)

Matt Boswell said...

Thanks Ian. Maybe I'd better read the darn book already.

Sarah Mazur said...


I wish I would have read your BLOG when I was responding to Love Wins this spring. Your explanations of a universalism applied to Christianity are thought-provokingly presented.

Here is my question:

If God, in His sovereignty, willed that all be saved (period), how do you address Biblical texts that describe Him (God) telling those who did works in His name to take a hike (that's my remixed phrase for "depart, for a knew you not")?
Mt. 7:21-23

While I cannot know ultimately how God will judge the hearts of man, I can't help but be grieved that those who reject a relationship with Christ on earth may very well miss out on the richness of God's grace poured out both now and into eternity.

Thanks again for boldly sharing your thoughts. It's good to dialogue and I'm very much looking forward to how this discussion at large affects the next 20 years of theology and church doctrine.

Sarah Mazur

Matt Boswell said...

Hi Sarah,

Your question reminds me why I’m bothered when people ask “what does the Bible say?” in a manner that assumes the meaning is always obvious to anyone who would just go and look. I don’t think we’d have so much disagreement by very intelligent and well-meaning people if the meaning was so obvious. :)

Quick point of clarification:
-universalism—all are saved to eternal life
-inclusivism—more than just Christians will be saved to eternal life (or, “Christians” and “saved to eternal life” are not synonymous)
-exclusivism—only Christians are saved to eternal life.

I mention this because, ironically, Matthew 7 seems to undermine both exclusivism and universalism, but maybe not in way you’re suggesting. Your point in your 2nd paragraph is that God is going to exclude some people; in your 3rd paragraph, you identify those people as those who “reject a relationship with Christ”…right?

But I as I understand the whole of Jesus’ sermon here, the issue here seems to be about character. Not faith identification. Jesus warns about judging others when we have our own shortcomings (v 3). He talks about true representatives of God being identified by “fruit” (v 16). Then in v 21, I understand Jesus to be favoring those who do God’s will (the nature of which is laid out in chapters 5-6) over those who simply identify with Jesus (“Lord” is clearly about Jesus here, as he says “me”). Which, pertaining to today, seems like a slam on people who call themselves Christians but don’t display Christlike action. In v 22, people are lamenting about their use of the name of Jesus. In v 23, Christ rejects Jesus-associated people who were actually “lawless” (NAS).

This sermon is warning against bad character and inaction, not against not having a personal relationship with Jesus. Christians might be excluded (but not you Sarah, don’t worry, you’re cool). If anything, those who are Christians should be scared by this message, not non-Christians! The most likely meaning to me—other than a warning not to be too sure of “who’s in” and who’s out”—is that how you live your life and what kind of person you are and are becoming is what is emphasized here.

I also tend to think that Jesus might be speaking more in line with the tradition of OT prophets, who I don’t believe were making predictions about the future as much as trying to scare the sh** out of people on behalf of God. I think Jesus, similar to his words recording in Matthew 25 about sheep and goats, is trying to make people a little nervous, shake them out of complacency, and warn them his message about “feeding the hungry, caring for the needy, etc” is not just an option but the essence of being on God’s “good side.”

So you’re right…this passage doesn’t help universalism seem more credible, though I don’t think Jesus is trying to give a guide for what’s going to happen, so that we could then start identifying the destinies of others. I have problems with universalism because it seems to impinge on my freedom (though that comes from an American who probably overvalues “freedom”). But I don’t think the passage you cite discredits universalism, unless Jesus is saying it’s only the character-less Christians who are “out”, and everyone else is “in”; but that doesn’t seem right, either. :)

To put it perhaps provocatively: I think God will probably forgive those bad-fruit-producing Christians on the last day, who maybe just have experienced a lot of personal wounds that led them to a destructive, selfish, love-less life, and will show them grace, who, after all, did get the “Jesus part” right. In the same way, I think God will probably forgive those who lived marvelous, selfless, love-filled lives, for getting the “Jesus part” wrong in this life.

Does that mean all will be saved? Maybe not, but that would be pretty great (understatement). Does that mean no one will be saved? Hell no. Or, no hell. (Sorry, second question just a setup for a bad joke.)

Hope that helps.