Why I am not a Universalist

Friday, September 15, 2006

I've noticed that many proponents of Penal Substitution see it not simply as one theory of the Atonement, but as the Gospel, meaning that to deny it is the same as saying that there is no problem of sin or separation from God. I've noticed the exact same assumption from people who call themselves Universalists: they talk of Christ's work meaning that everyone is automatically saved already.

Now I am all for the thought of God making everything right in the world and "wiping away every tear", but I have seen too much injustice and misery in the world to believe that sin is not real and everything is fine. I don't believe in an imaginary problem where God is angry from some unknown trivial legal transgression that we did. I'm sure you've heard this before: God is holy, and so if you have lied to your mom or cheated on a test ever then you are condemned to eternal Hell, and even if you didn't Adam did so you're literally damned if you do and damned if you don't. In this scenario the Gospel becomes telling a person this "bad news" of how they are condemned to the severest of penalties imaginable (eternal torture) for a petty infraction, but that this same God who made this judgment wants have a loving trusting relationship with them(!)

This is an "imaginary problem" because it is not based on real human need or lostness, but on some transaction in heaven that we would never be aware of if someone did not tell us the news. The problem of sin is real. It is not detached from our experience but dominates it. My wife is a social worker and works with the homeless and the addicted. She sees people at their lowest and most broken. People who are dying alone, people who are enslaved to a life of drugs and degradation. This is the most obvious manifestation of lostness, but if you dig a little deeper you will find suffering and brokenness right next you. That person siting across from you in the pew struggles with thoughts of worthlessness and suicide. The nice woman you see at the supermarket is going through a messy divorce. One you really get to know the people around you, you will find stories of pain, injustice, brokenness, and regret everywhere.

The reason I object to a legal understanding of the Atonement is not because I think sin is not real, but precisely because I do. Because it is real, a mere legal acquittal will not solve the problem, it will not break people out of their bondage and cycles of being hurt and hurting others, it will not restore what has been lost and broken. That is what we need. If being a universalist means trusting that despite our helplessness, sinfulness, and stupidness that God can overcome all of that and find a way to really heal our real problems of sin, suffering, and lostness... yes I place my hope in that and work towards that by fighting injustice, caring for the broken, and showing the same compassion and mercy to others that I so desperately need. What I object to is the kind of universalism that leads to a "don't worry be happy" inaction in the face of human need.

It seems people have a need to think that they are fine, and so God loved them and they have worth. But we know that we are not fine. The "good news" is that God loves us even though we are not fine, and in fact tells us that he has a heart for those who are not "ok". That means that we can be real, and it gives us a basis for compassion.

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3 Comments:

At 11:17 AM, Blogger Joshua C. Foreman said...

You are a brilliant writer and close to the heart of God. I've been studying Universalism lately and have some feedback on this issue.

I object to 'that kind' of Universalism as well. And while some in the Universalists camp do become don't-worry-be-happy Unitarians, this doesn't negate the teaching of scriptures which clearly testify that Christ will save all mankind. He will bind the strong man and plunder his house. He will set the captives free. He will search for and bring back every lost sheep. He will search for His lost coin until He finds it. Christ shows people the Father. If they do not see the Father in this life they will after death when "every knee shall bow and tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father."

Sin is very real and Christ offers salvation from it in this world. If we are not saved from it here, it will have to be burned out of us in the lake of fire. Remember the baptism by fire prophesized by John the Baptist and fulfilled in Acts? This baptism by fire brought salvation. Hell is cast into a lake of fire. Those who's names are not written in the Book of Life are cast into the lake of fire. Another baptism of fire. Would it make sense that it's eternal pointless punishment, or a salvific work unto glory, burning away the wood, hay and stubble. If only the translators would translate the Greek word 'aion' as 'age', like they do almost everywhere else in the Bible unless they are referring to God, heaven, or hell. Why do you suppose they do that?

Here's my take on it if you're interested.

http://joshuaforeman.blogspot.com/2006/08/testing-some-heresies-part-4-so-what.html

 
At 1:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The reason I object to a legal understanding of the Atonement is not because I think sin is not real, but precisely because I do. Because it is real, a mere legal acquittal will not solve the problem, it will not break people out of their bondage and cycles of being hurt and hurting others, it will not restore what has been lost and broken. That is what we need.

I agree that a mere aquittal apart from the transformative grace of the Holy Spirit will not change a thing, and like you find such a stress on judicial justification to really miss the point where sin is concerned.

But I will say this, man does what he does not only because he is messed up inside, but often times because he is separated from any kind of real relationship with God. Knowing that God loves you, has the best in mind for you, ect. goes along way in restoring that relationship, and thus restoring one's relationship with other people. In other words, for a person, who through guilt, or whatever thinks that God is angry with him, going to send him to hell, or whatnot, an aquittal, that is God's word of forgiveness, can transform that person's life like nothing else.

 
At 9:32 AM, Anonymous sharkie said...

cheryl,

I completely agree with you. But your argument seems to me to be a relational one rather than a legal one. Forgiveness is a relational term. People are separated from relationship with God. So I think all this is best expressed in a relational rather than legal paradigm. In a relational paradigm I think even penal substitution can make sense.

 

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