The Evangelical Universalist

Many bloggers have already pointed to the appalling way in which a church in North Carolina handles those they disagree with. An AP video shows an interview with the pastor of this church who plans a bonfire on Halloween for all translations not the KJV, as well as many other books the pastor deems heretical (i.e., anyone who doesn’t agree with him on everything – for a full list, see his website. There will also be Bar-be-que chicken.)

So, it is good to hear a debate where the two parties disagree on what can be a very divisive issue and still keep the conversation civil. Premier Christian Radio (an online and digital Christian radio station in the UK) has a weekly programme each week (called ‘Unbelievable‘) normally dedicated to Christians and non-Christians discussing topics civilly, but this past week (17 October 2009) they asked the question ‘Can an Evangelical be a universalist?’ The two panellists were: 1) upholding the ‘traditional’ view that sees some going to ‘heaven’ and others hell is Laurence Blanchard, pastor of Charter Oak Lighthouse; and 2) Robin Parry, a theologian who wrote a book (under a pen name) called The Evangelical Universalist. Please go to the Unbelievable website or iTunes and download the discussion (as of today, it’s on the front page).

Of course, for only an hour it can’t give the attention that this topic needs. But, the most amazing thing was no one shouted. No one called anyone a heretic. No one threatened to burn anybody’s books. In fact, both said they saw the other as a true Christian. Dialogue the way it was meant to be.

I am in general agreement with Robin Parry’s arguments, whilst I don’t typically call it ‘universalism’. The way he reads Revelation is similar to the way N.T. Wright interprets it in Surprised by Hope, i.e., that despite all the apocalyptic images of horrible torture, there seems to be a finish to the punishment and  hope for people beyond that. Unlike Wright, the conversation revolved around the age-old (but incorrect) question, ‘Who goes to heaven?’ rather than a question of the resurrection of the dead and the new creation.

Because of their focus on the ‘final destination’, I may veer from Parry a little. The focus of the conversation, perhaps driven more by Blanchard, was very individual focused. I think this has a tendency to happen when we look at ‘heaven’ (i.e., disembodied souls leaving this old world behind and going to our home in the sky) as the primary goal rather than the New Testament hope of a restored creation (in which all creation is restored). It is to this new creation that Christians point, and in doing so we, by the Holy Spirit, bring God’s new creation in spots around the world. Mission, then, is the work of the Holy Spirit bringing in bits of what God will do definitely when Jesus returns at the final resurrection. Mission is spreading the gospel (good news) that Jesus is the world’s true king, and that announcement does in some since divide the world into those who would accept it and those who won’t. Unlike Parry, I do not see hell as a ‘place’ that one goes to after death (but, like Parry I would describe it more as a state, though after the general resurrection).

Where I see this making some difference is in the why. I read somewhere, but not sure at the moment, that God gave the 10 commandments not so you would be a better person (though that may happen), but so your neighbour can have a better life. Similar here: mission and it’s call to conversion for the world brings the kingdom God is working out. God is working for a world that goes back to the intention he made for it.

Where I rejoin Parry is that I do not believe that one must make the decision before one dies. God does not give some sort of mandate that all must worship him, but the work continues on in the new creation somehow (I am following Tom Wright here, who reminds us that we will have new tasks in the new creation – it’s not just sitting around). Could that be the continued mission to those who still cannot accept what God is doing and relegated themselves to some sort of state in which they live in their existence outside the New Jerusalem?

I hardly have all of this figured out. And maybe this should have been more than one post!

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21 thoughts on “The Evangelical Universalist

  1. It is to this new creation that Christians point, and in doing so we, by the Holy Spirit, bring God’s new creation in spots around the world. Mission, then, is the work of the Holy Spirit bringing in bits of what God will do definitely when Jesus returns at the final resurrection. Mission is spreading the gospel (good news) that Jesus is the world’s true king, and that announcement does in some since divide the world into those who would accept it and those who won’t.

    Love this. Fantastic. Really well-expressed. Thank you for a thoughtful post.

  2. Thanks, Pam. Am still trying to work this out a little. I want to emphasise the work of the Holy Spirit and our witness to it, but not in such a way that suggests we are merely observers of the culture. I think John Meunier had a post on this some time back (under the ‘Duke ecclesiology’ or something.

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  4. Will

    Thanks for your kind words and helpful reflections. One point of clarification on my own view: For many years I have taught that Christian future hope is not for going to heaven but for new creation (an embodied future).

    I have not read Tom’s book. Perhaps I should. Tom’s only published pieces on universalism were strong refutations so I’d be interested to see his evolving thinking. He has profoundly influenced my thinking over the years.

  5. John’s post regarding “Duke Ecclesiology” was interesting in the light of a conversation I’d had a few days earlier to the effect that we should trust the Church for taking care of our healthcare needs and not look to the government. And as I’d understood the argument, it was very much that “this is the way the Kingdom will be and so we should act this way now.”

    Personally speaking, I’m NOT looking for the fullness of the Kingdom to come because the Church Universal becomes more and more holy. I’m actually looking for an eschatological Second Coming/General Resurrection/whatever you want to term it.

    I may not be understanding “Duke Ecclesiology” correctly because I actually don’t know what it is; it’s just John’s pointing to it that has cause me to become aware of it. But what bothers me about how I’ve seen people “using” it is that there seems to be a very strong connection between Church/Kingdom/God such that people seem to think and act as if the Church is God or as if the Church always manifests God’s will. Two ideas that I’m strongly opposed to.

    In recent weeks, we’ve had a strong message that giving to the Church is to be equated with giving to God and that giving to charity is “in addition to giving to God”.

    I’m totally willing to be corrected if I’m wrong about “Duke Ecclesiology”. But it doesn’t seem to give enough credit to the idea that the Church often (usually?) acts sinfully.

  6. Interesting post Will. For me Parry’s (I only knew the penname) book was one of the most liberating and helpful books I have read. It helped me greatly on this subject.

  7. Robin: Thank you for your comment, and for your civil discussion on Unbelievable. I thought I had read your view of embodied future somewhere, it just didn’t come across in the programme. I would be interested to hear more about your view on the individual/corporate salvation. The individual side seemed very important to Blanchard and when it went toward the corporate, he pulled it back. (I hope I am not being unfair to him – I just grew up as an American evangelical and this seems to be the emphasis!)

    As far as Wright, where I still think he wouldn’t take up the ‘universalist’ title. But, like you he focuses on ‘the nations’ in Revelation. He talks of the river that flows out of the New Jerusalem and it is for the ‘healing of the nations’. That’s where I heard the similarities.

    Pam: I went to Duke and still don’t know exactly what ‘Duke Ecclesiology’ is! I remember hearing a talk involving Richard Hays and Stanley Hauerwas (among others) and both said they do not vote. Their not isolationists, but focus on the witness of the community. It’s hard to hear where they see engagement with culture. I think in another post I described one of the fundamental differences between, say, Hauerwas and NT Wright by their main images: Hauerwas is ‘resident alien’ and Wright ‘dual citizenship (Wright, I don’t believe, uses that phrase, but he makes a great deal about Paul’s Roman citizenship – something Hauerwas ignores for the most part).

    Paul: Thank you for your comment. I also appreciate Parry’s commentary on the radio and his blog (I have to admit not having read the book). I think this is a topic evangelicals need to be thinking about.

  8. I listened to that on podcast on my way down south the other day. I turned it off about half way through because I felt, as you rightly noted, they cannot do justice to the topic in an hour, and the American guy was annoying me with his minor objections to the British guy’s statements. I agree also that the debate had too much to do with some future place disconnected from now. I suppose they had to make the debate more black and white for ratings or something, but at least they don’t fall prey in Britain to the O’reillyificaiton of a show that gets its ratings by yelling and shouting.

  9. ‘…as the primary goal rather than the New Testament hope of a restored creation (in which all creation is restored). ‘

    Hebrews 1
    In the beginning, O Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands.
    They will perish, but you remain;
    they will all wear out like a garment.
    You will roll them up like a robe;
    like a garment they will be changed.

    I think I understand this clothing metaphor.

    The creation will be restored in the same way that we throw out old, perished worn out garments, changing them for new ones.

    Every time I roll up my worn out old clothes, throw them away, and buy new clothes to replace them, I have restored my clothing back to the condition they were before they became worn out and perished.

  10. Sally: Thank you. I have appreciated your posts on the subject, too!

    Danny: Thank you for your comment. I also wondered if they were keeping it simple. If not for ratings, at least because they didn’t want to introduce another contoversial topic in one programme. I do think the ‘minor objections’ you mentioned showed the difference in the way the two read the Bible – the American as isolating verses and then Parry trying to read the story of the Bible as a whole.

    Stephen: Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure if you’re saying this in support of what I said or if you’re arguing with me. So, I will say that that even Paul uses the clothing metaphor, but what I am arguing against is the belief that when we die we go off as a disembodied soul to heaven. Even the clothing metaphor suggest an embodiment of some kind. But, I don’t believe it’s a total cast off of what was ‘old’. In 1 Cor 15 (the longest treatise on resurrection), Paul assumes that the ‘stuff’ of this world will be used in the new – and not just humans but all creation.

  11. ‘In 1 Cor 15 (the longest treatise on resurrection), Paul assumes that the ’stuff’ of this world will be used in the new – and not just humans but all creation.’

    Well, Paul certainly does not think of disembodied souls. He thought of spiritual bodies – bodies made of spirit.

    As for Paul thinking that resurrected beings will be made from the dust that corpses become, he trashes that idea thoroughly in 1 Corinthians 15

    ‘The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the man from heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven. I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God….’

    As the Christian converts in Corinth still seemed to labour under the delusion that resurrected beings would somehow be made from earthly materials, not heavenly ones, Paul writes a second letter to them, putting it more clearly.

    ‘Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.’

    Not built by human hands is a short hand for materials that are pure – heavenly materials.

    It has to be remembered that celestial objects were considered to be made of purer materials than earth,different materials than those found on Earth.

    Elsewhere Paul likens creation to a mother giving birth.

    Which is not a metaphor for a restoration of the mother’s body….

  12. ‘But, I don’t believe it’s a total cast off of what was ‘old’.’

    Take that up with the author of Hebrews who chose a cast off of old clothing metaphor , precisely to invoke such an image.

  13. Steven, yes, but Paul also uses the metaphor of the seed to explain some sort of continuity. I agree that Paul isn’t simply talking about a resuscitated corpse, but that doesn’t mean that what is good about the creation is not in some way used (whatever that might mean). I don’t think that any of the verses you mention necessarily negates what I am talking about. The conversation between Paul and the Corinthians talks more about what ‘powers’ the new creation (i.e., the Holy Spirit) rather than what it’s made of. Also, and in response to your second comment, Paul talks about the resurrection being our basis for our labour now not being in vain. There is some continuity (as with the seed), so everything can’t be cast off. Paul also uses the image of the fire that burns away the bad and keeps the good.

    I’m on holiday and don’t have the time to write this as thoroughly as I want to at the moment! So, please forgive me if I can’t respond in depth to each of your comments.

  14. Nope, people thought the seed died.

    There is continuity in so much as the seed is a marker telling God what to create.

    Plant wheat and God creates wheat.

    Plant corpses and God creates resurrected beings.

    The seed is ‘naked’. It has no material of its own.

    ‘When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body.’

    You do *not* plant the body that will be. God gives it a body.

    How can God both give it a body and also use the body it already has?

    (Bearing in mind that many corpses have turned to ash, smoke or been eaten by fish)

    If I give you something, is what I give you ‘continuous’ with what you already have?

    If the money in your bank account goes into the red, and I give you some money, do you claim the money I give you is continuous with the money you once had in your account, because it is the same bank account?

    Remind me never to give you any money, as you will claim you are just getting back the original money you once had.

    What part of ‘destroyed’ would you like more help with in 2 Corinthians 5?

  15. OK, first, as regards to the seed: as you say, you plant wheat and it won’t produce a pine tree. It will remain wheat (I don’t know about it telling God what to create, but if that’s the way you understand it, OK). There is continuity with what is planted and what comes out. That’s my main point.

    I don’t understand your point about reminding you to never give me money. I think you’re trying to insinuate I’m stupid.

    As far as destroyed: Paul says ‘if’, and then says we don’t wish to be unclothed, but further clothed. The mortal will be swallowed up by life. I don’t hear the complete destroyed that you do.

  16. There is continuity just as much as if the money in your bank account goes to zero, and you put new money in, it is still the same bank account.

    Paul obviously thought it was the same person in and out. But just in a totally different body.

    That is why he calls the Corinthians foolish for discussing how corpses could be raised. They did not understand that resurrection did not involve corpses being raised.

    He tells them straight ‘You do not plant the body that will be’. What goes in does not come out. What goes in, dies. It is dead. It has ceased to be.

    Hence he goes out of his way to point out how heavenly things are made of different materials to earthly things, that Jesus became a spirit, and that resurrected beings will not be made from the dust of the earth that our present bodies are made from.

    He gives examples of things which do not turn into each other, fish, the moon, the sun, birds to show that things of different material do not turn into each other.

    To Paul, resurrecting a corpse would be like turning a fish into the moon. So foolish as not to be worth discussing.

    Paul does say ‘if’ our present body is destroyed.

    Because the fate of the present body is totally irrelevant.

    We will be stripped of that body and clothed in a heavenly body.

    Then the mortal , vulnerable bit, rendered naked and vulnerable by the removal of the present ‘clothes’ will then be reclothed in a heavenly body. The mortal being swallowed up by the ‘life-giving spirit’.

  17. Stephen: I think we have a different starting point somewhere in here, but I can’t figure out where. Perhaps we’re not far apart and I am misreading you.

    Josh: You’re welcome! Thanks for your comment!

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