Archive for the ‘Eschatology’ Category

Anna and SimeonI am late to the game, but Joel Willitts has been posting Advent reflections from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

So Was Fulfilled


At One with the Suffering and Joy of His People

The Message of Advent…Repentance

In the Face of the Manger

My own reflection on this season came as I discovered that indeed Advent has historically functioned as a season of self-reflection and repentance. Where one gives themselves to restraint, self-control, and seeking the holiness of God. It is preparatory. Our modern participation in this season has tended towards excess, self-pleasure, parties, and shopping.

The Lord has continued to challenge me that I would live in a manner ready for his soon coming. This is a call to holiness, self-control, and indeed, a life yielded to the Holy Spirit. After all, it was those saints of old (Simeon and Anna in Luke 2) who, led by the Spirit, were prepared in holiness to see the first coming of our Lord. They were righteous. They were patient. They were continually given to the work of the Lord. They were endowed by the Spirit. May it be so for us.

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Well, I can’t say I’ve been a faithful contributor to this blog. I’ll do my part today, but I’m afraid it’ll be by returning to an old chestnut: Christian universalism. I’m not as obsessed with the subject as I have been in the past and am quite happy living with some of the Bible’s internal tensions on the subject, but every now and then questions arise which get me thinking again. Forgive me if I’ve brought this up before.

A common response to the universalist position is the question of justice. Will justice be done if, for example, the unrepentant rapist-murderer is saved anyway? I understand the question and it makes a great deal of sense to me. But…

A number of questions come to mind in response:

We always couch this question of justice in terms of the worst case scenario from our perspective: rapists, murderers, Hitlers, Stalins, etc. Does the question have the same gravitas if we were to ask “Will justice be done if that unrepentant and somewhat misguided twenty-something who’s otherwise a pretty good person is saved anyway?”

Someone might say that the question isn’t fair, because we’re weighing justice in human terms rather that God’s terms, that to us there’s a huge difference between Hitler and a misguided young man with a penchant for partying, but that to God both people are in rebellion against him and deserving of death.

I get this, but it is this very point that seems to be a problem no matter which way you approach it. We’re all in one way or another judging things in some finite, human sense of justice. On the one hand, there are those who might say, “Why does the misguided youth get the same punishment as the rapist-murderer? It seems highly unbalanced. Unjust, even!” On the other hand are those who might say, “Well, why should Hitler get off scott-free with no effort or will of his own? He should pay for his crimes! It’s not fair! Unjust, even!” It seems to me that both concerns make a great deal of sense from a human level.

But again, they’re both approaching it from the human perspective. But the fact is that the Cross doesn’t make a whole lot of sense from a human perspective either. How is justice served by the cross of Christ covering the sins of a person simply because they repented? The fact is, repentance was an option for Hitler, same for the rapist-murderer. Is justice done if they repent? Is it just that they are saved simply by turning to Jesus?

We accept this fact (however theoretical it may be in any one case, whether Hitler’s or the rapist-murderer’s), because justice was in one way or another done on the cross. That, it seems to me, is the locus of justice in God’s terms, even if it largely remains a seemingly irrational mystery.

And I think this changes the game a bit in this discussion. We really don’t have a crystal clear picture of the whole scope of the effect of the work of life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. God’s justice never makes sense from the worldly, human perspective, whether for the pagan or the believer. Does it make sense that the cross deals with my rebellion? Not really. Certainly not in any comprehensive, concrete sense. But I accept it as truth in faith. Would it make any less sense for the cross to deal with the rebellion of an unrepentant person? I’m not sure. We can talk about shutting ourselves out of heaven or inside hell (a la C. S. Lewis) — I get that. But it seems to me that this is never really at the root of this discussion, but merely another convenient “out” (and anyway, that approach raises other questions).

I’m not saying that this is an argument in favour of Christian universalism. But I think it does say something against the pat “Well, justice has to be done” response to the question of Christian universalism.

(In my brain, and perhaps yours too, a whole host of other questions are raised by this. But I won’t go there today.)

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According to theologian Roger Olson, yes, he was. Or, rather, his doctrine of election logically leads to universalism.

Roger Olson just published an essay on his blog on this question (“Was Karl Barth a Universalist? Another Look at an Old Question“), after a year or so digging into Church Dogmatics. He says “I do not claim that this article contains anything previously undiscovered or unheard of. However, I do not know of anything in print that covers precisely the same ground (e.g., including Barth’s views regarding free will).”

Olson states that Barth was quite coy on the subject (and denied being a universalist), but that

I will argue here that Barth’s doctrine of God’s gracious election necessarily, logically requires a peculiar kind ofuniversalism. To say the things Barth said about it and then deny universalism was, or would be, a logical contradiction—something that makes any system of thought incoherent and thereby nonsensical. But I will also argue that Barth did not explicitly deny universalism. What he denied was the necessity of universal salvation—that God must save everyone.

For the nearly uninitiated, such as myself, Olson provides a great overview of Barth’s doctrine of election. I won’t even attempt an overview of Olson’s overview, I’ll leave you to read his essay. (Which is really the point of this post, to direct you there. The rest of what follows here is filler. 🙂 )

Quite frankly, I’m not in a position to comment about Barth’s views on election. I will, however, highlight some material that stood out for me and some thoughts arising from it.

1. Barth’s doctrine of election begins and ends with Christ, which Olson sees leading inevitably to universalism. I’d like to see him connect the scriptural dots, as it were, on his view, so I guess there’s another reason for me to get into Dogmatics. Having said that, it does make a great deal of sense to begin and end with Christ, and the way Barth goes about it (as explained by Olson) makes a great deal of sense viz-a-viz universal salvation. And, if I may get a little subjective here, it’s quite theologically and spiritually moving. There are, of course, some tensions or paradoxes that neither Barth nor Olson clear out of the way, but on this subject in particular I think paradox is almost a given, no matter what position one takes.

2. Barth argues that Christ is the Elect (in whom all humanity is elected), even in the double predestinarian sense of being also the one who is rejected (or takes on that death and rejection on our behalf). That sentence doesn’t quite do Barth (or Olson) justice. Let me quote Olson (who, incidentally, needs to learn about blockquotes to make a clearer distinction between his own words and Barth’s) in a couple of places I was particularly struck:

What singles [Jesus] out from the rest of the elect, and yet also, and for the first time, unites Him with them, is the fact that as elected man He is also the electing God, electing them in His own humanity. In that He (as God) wills Himself (as man), He also wills them. And so they are elect “in Him,” in and with His own election. (Emphasis mine.)

and (definitely quoting Barth):

“The rejection which all men incurred, the wrath of God under which all men lie, the death which all men must die, God in his love for men transfers from all eternity to Him in whom He loves and elects them, and whom He elects at their head and in their place.” (p. 123) [in CD II/2]

This understanding gives Jesus’ teaching that “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” a whole new (or deeper) meaning: greater love has no one than God in Christ who took on damnation on behalf of his friends. (Perhaps a bit strong, but that’s where this seems to lead.)

3. Barth understood the term “salvation” on two levels:

One is what happened for all people in Jesus Christ, in his election and reprobation, in his incarnation and atoning death, and in his resurrection. It is finished—for everyone. The other is coming to know it and live in the new being of it—which is what makes one a Christian. But, for Barth, being “saved” in the first sense, objectively reconciled, forgiven, justified, is a “done deal” for all people in Jesus Christ whereas being “saved” in the second sense—something to be sought and found—corresponds to actualizing salvation in knowing, living and witnessing.

Perhaps not two understandings of salvation, rather one understanding of salvation with a subcategory of those who are aware of the salvation which is theirs (that is, Christians). Thus we have the saved (everyone?) and we have Christians as a subcategory of the saved.

This leads to this:

Barth argued that a person who fully understands his or her unworthiness for election cannot look upon anyone as rejected by God:

The believer cannot possibly confront the unbeliever with the suspicion that the latter is perhaps rejected. For he knows who has borne the merited and inevitable rejection of the godless, his own above all. How can he possibly regard others as perhaps rejected merely because he thinks he knows their unbelief and therefore their godlessness? If he does what becomes of his own faith? What of his own election? (p. 327)

Quite a wonderful insight, if you ask me, a grounded reason for not having an “us and them” view of the world.

4. I think this is also a good response to the common evangelical concern with universalism, namely, the Great Commission, the call to witness, to make disciples, to preach the Gospel. Does not the idea of universalism make the Great Commission, the notion of proclamation, of the call to make disciples sort of a moot point? If all people are saved anyway, why bother with proclamation?

The Great Commission is not nullified by a universalist doctrine. In fact, one can still speak of “converts” when holding a universalist position, but in the context of converts to the truth of the world, namely, that Jesus has saved and is saving. I see echoes here in Bonhoeffer in Ethics, at least as far as I can recall: you are saved, embrace that reality! This, it seems to me, is equally good reason to proclaim the gospel as the traditional urgency about hell and damnation, etc. The message is effectively the same. The difference is that the threat of hell is essentially erased in the Barthian (as explained by Olson) position. But why is the threat of hell a necessary part of proclamation of the Gospel (note I say the threat of hell, not hell itself, in which existence Barth appears to have believed)? It need not be (and some argue that the hell piece is not ultimately part of the Gospel proper, such as McKnight in The King Jesus Gospel).

5. Finally, I found it odd throughout this essay to hear of Barth scholars insisting on denying universalism in his thought. The impression I get is that they’ve rejected universalism already and then insisted that Barth couldn’t possibly be a universalist, because universalism is “heresy”. It seems to me they (and we) should take Barth on his own words, whether or not universalism is “heresy”, to see if what he says has the ring of truth to it. In the end, the feeling I get (again, from Olson’s representation of things) is that Barth scholars are looking for even the tiniest hint of non-universalism in Barth simply because they’re of the opinion that universalism is bad, not because Barth is clearly not a universalist. They’re trying to “save” Barth from something he doesn’t need saving from. He thought what he thought.

Those are some of my thoughts. Olson’s essay is a long (but enjoyable) one, with lots of material from Dogmatics covered, and there is much more worth commenting and reflecting on that I’ve already forgotten! (A shortcoming of reading online [no underlining] and me not taking notes as I read the article on my iPhone.)

Go, read the essay. Tell me what you think.

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N.T. Wright just has a way with words.  Regarding the “work of salvation, in its full sense,” he summarizes that it is

“(1) about whole human beings, not merely souls; (2) about the present, not simply about the future; and (3) about what God does through us, not merely what God does in and for us.” (Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, NY: HarperOne, 2008, p.200, original emphasis)

Salvation is not simply about any notion of saved “souls”, but about saved “wholes” (p.199) [make sure that one is read and not simply heard…or its homophone might make for a humorous aside].  God is working out the redemption of creation…not simply disembodied “souls” nor even simply of some chosen, but removed few.  The whole world (cosmos) shall be renewed, even as it is already underway through the reconciling work of Christ by His indwelling, empowering, life-giving Spirit.

In relation to this, he discusses the “kingdom” and thus God’s reign over all which is being carried out in the present (though awaits final consummation and revelation).  He writes,

“God longed…to re-establish his wise sovereignty over the whole creation, which would mean a great act of healing and rescue.  He did not want to rescue humans from creation any more than he wanted to rescue Israel from the Gentiles.  He wanted to rescue Israel in order that Israel might be a light to the Gentiles, and he wanted thereby to rescue humans in order that humans might be his rescuing stewards of creation.  That is the inner dynamic of the kingdom of God.” (p.202, original emphasis)

This is salvation…the work of the kingdom now as foretaste of the kingdom come.  The salvation of all we are…the salvation of creation groaning for redemption and the “revealing of the sons of God” (Rom.8:19).

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I’ve nearly finished with N. T. Wright‘s Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the ImageMission of the Church (HarperOne, 2008) and have indeed been surprised.  I wasn’t sure what I’d discover in this volume, but Wright has once again offered an accessible, significant and timely book.  This volume should be required reading of pastors in particular as we think through more carefully our theology of “heaven” and the Resurrection.  I discovered (to my pleasant surprise) that he essentially posits (of course in a far more developed and articulated fashion) what I wrote elsewhere about “abandoning heaven.”  The pop-theology notion of “heaven” is utterly deficient as any form of Christian belief or hope.

I believe his message (and the one that has been stirring in me of late) must be taken seriously especially in my own fellowship (the Assemblies of God) wherein we seem to hold to an escapist notion concerning both death and the “rapture of the Church.”  The good news is transformative…it is redemptive.  It is not escapist.  The world (indeed the whole cosmos) belongs to the redemptive plan of God in Christ.

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I just read a wonderful article  by John Dunne (thanks to Mike Bird’s link) that discusses the contributions of NT Wright and asks why there are so many theologians within the Evangelical tent that oppose his work on several counts.  I found it a helpful summary of Wright as well as why Wright’s contributions should be  embraced by Evangelicals of all stripes. (I only wish I had written it 🙂 ).

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I suppose it’s time I contribute something here. It has nothing (directly) to do with Barth or any particular theologian. But it is theological. The truth is, I had for the moment forgotten about this blog, because this post rightfully belongs here. But I’m not a big fan of the confusion cross-posting can cause, so I’m going to give you a taste and then redirect to my blog. Hopefully that’s okay by you. I won’t make a habit of it.

It’s pretty common in film and television to see people who are functionally atheistic or non-religious to turn to God when it suits them. For instance, a character who under normal circumstances does not profess belief in God or practice any sort of religious observance, will begin to pray when there is an in-flight emergency or when they are up for a big promotion. I’ve been watching through the Seinfeld series again and noticed an unusual twist on this theme.

In the season 4 episode entitled “The Pilot, Part 1″, NBC finally confirms that they will begin shooting the pilot for the sitcom George and Jerry have been writing. George begins to panic about what might happen, so he visits his therapist. They have the following conversation:

George: What if the pilot gets picked up and it becomes a series?

Therapist: That’d be wonderful, George! You’d be rich and successful!

George: That’s exactly what I’m worried about. God would never let me be successful–he’ll kill me first! He’ll never let me be happy.

Therapist: I thought you didn’t believe in God?

George: I do for the bad things!

This is a clever observation about how we approach the subject of God. When bad things happen, the question of God inevitably arises. Under normal circumstances–when things are “good”–God rarely comes to mind…

Read the rest at The Eagle & Child.

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