Why we should sometimes talk like universalists

Why do I sometimes write things about Jesus that make me sound like I might be a universalist? (One who, in evangelical lingo, thinks everyone on earth is going to be “saved” without doing anything at all, not even asking for it.)

Yesterday, I wrote a post about the wonder and outrage of Jesus not condemning the women obviously caught in adultery in John 8. It would have been nice if, in the text, this forgiveness were coupled with a contrite heart before and reformed living afterward, but we are given none of those tidy things – only the unilateral excuse the creator.

This sort of reading of the gospels always makes more than a few folks squirm. Am I denying the existence (or at least MEANINGFUL existence) of sin? Am saying there is no hell? At least I must be very nearly implying that it’s OK for us to ignore the law that grace may abound. (Romans 6). And because of the theological danger of this position or at least this emphasis, I must be genuinely foolish to speak this way. Now, my writing is not very public – only a few people read this blog. My preaching is not particularly public either – it is infrequent and at a relatively small church. But whenever I talk like I did in the previous post, I get some push-back. Someone is always a bit upset.

So why DO I speak like this? Even yesterday, only an hour after I wrote that reflection, I read this excellent comment by Alastair Roberts in an unrelated thread:

The Christ who weeps over Jerusalem is also the Christ who brings dreadful destruction upon Jerusalem in AD70. The Christ who stands silent before his accusers is also the Christ who stops every mouth as the judge of the world. The Christ who performs a symbolic test of jealousy upon the woman caught in adultery and does not condemn her is also the Christ who performs the most dreadful judgment upon the adulterous Babylon. The Christ who hangs powerless on the cross is also the powerful Christ of the resurrection and ascension who rules with a rod of iron until all enemies are put under his feet and who treads out their blood in the winepress of God’s wrath. We need to hold these two parts of the picture together.

So when I write something like I did yesterday, it seems that I’m not holding the two parts of the picture together. Whenever I or anyone else quotes Robert Capon, it seems the same thing is going on. The same could be true for writings of Brennan Manning, Tullian Tchividjian, Richard Rohr, and some other suspicious characters. We should know better (and we DO know better!) than to talk so “one-sided” about the nature of the holy God.

Well, here is my answer to this query:

The reason for talking this way, for OVER-stating the grace of Christ, is because you have already heard the flip side a hundred times more frequently, both in explicit teaching and cultural cues. Having grown up in church, I estimate I have easily heard in excess of 2000 sermons in my life – the bulk of them closely and carefully tied to specific passages of scripture. And I reckon that fewer than 5% of them have successfully articulated the boundless love of Christ. The rest, 95%+, though often shooting to strike some kind of balance, have been heavily lopsided in the other direction.

Jesus loves you BUT “true repentance”. Jesus loves you BUT “victorious Christianity”. Jesus loves you BUT “know a tree by it’s fruit”. Jesus loves you BUT “parenting well is REALLY important”. Jesus loves you and has a wonderful plan for you to get your act together, etc. We have plenty, PLENTY of this sort of thing, even in Christian communities who, on paper, have a wonderfully complete and holistic confession filled with a high-proof elixir of grace. It doesn’t seem to matter. They are all awash in this kind of crushing news. It creeps in everywhere.

And so, speaking like this, with the grace “turned up to eleven”, is a remedy for a very real and destructive problem. Properly informed Christians get all upset when they read something from (for example) Robert Capon that sounds “universalist” and dangerous, but they forget that he is not there to write a systematic theology. The language is calculated. It’s provocative on purpose, not by accident. It’s not just for anyone, but for people in a certain context – one soaked in too much conditional love. And even though it sometimes causes confusion, I think that at the end of the day, it works. It effectively serves as a corrective. So look for more of it here on occasion and don’t be so quick to freak out when you see it elsewhere. For some, it may be brand spankin’ new GOOD news that wakes them up.