A New Year and Another Theological Thing: Universalism

Daffodils Keep Coming Back

It’s a thing. It’s a perennial. It’s a recurring fascination. Like Daffodils springing up along our local highways in February, some Evangelical somewhere escapes the bonds of fundamentalism, gains new insights and clarity concerning what Jesus and the New Testament actually taught about this or that long-held, cherished doctrine or confession. Then, rather than move along down the road to enlightenment and into their newfound freedom from a dark, dank doctrinal prison, these initiates feel compelled to set the rest of us straight and usher Christ’s church into the hidden knowledge that will set the captives free from dogmatism (such a shame, too, because as Dorothy Sayers once observed The dogma is the drama). These prisoners-set-free often metamorphize into 21st-century emancipators who seem unaware that hordes of vandals and neo-gnostics among us have already produced thousands of books, articles, podcasts, conferences, movements, and sects based on these novel doctrines over the centuries, claiming to unlock the mysteries of God. Right now, universalism has become a thing in our little town.

Back in the 1970s, it was the Battle for the Bible and the inspiration of Scripture. Then, Evangelicalism followed the wider culture into feminism and challenged the patriarchy throughout the 80s. The 90s brought us the open theism debate and lapsed or lapsing Evangelicals in the know gushed on about what God could not or did/does not know. That naturally led to speculation about the eternal destiny for those who haven’t embraced the gospel or good news that Christ came to save sinners. So, the neo-universalists, annihilationists, and conditionalists have come around once again after a brief hiatus following the dustup between Barth and Brunner that leavened Evangelical institutions.

It’s been my experience that the great truths, the weightiest doctrines, about God and the gospel create tension in our puny little human minds. We don’t like conflict around us on inside us. Rather, we humans like to relax and be at ease, so we attempt to relieve the stress caused by these Bible doctrines by falling off to one side or the other, rather than keeping our focus on the narrow path the Scriptures and historic confessions have marked out to guide us through the more difficult creeds and confessions the Church have affirmed down through the centuries.

When I encounter a challenging dogma or doctrine that has been held by the people of God over millennia, I like to imagine a bridge in my mind — a suspension bridge. The bridge is suspended by cables holding up the road surface, which are held in tension between two opposing poles or anchors. There is incredible energy exerted at each end or anchor, created by the weight of the bridge and the load it bears. If one were to release the cable at one end or the other with, say, a ton of dynamite the tension would certainly be relieved and the anchors would no longer be under any stress, at all. But, we would no longer have a bridge to take us where we want to go.

Now, back to those difficult, weighty doctrines presented in Scripture. If we choose to favor or embrace one pole or anchor over the other one in a doctrinal paradox or puzzle or enigma or mystery and we eliminate the offending anchor, that doctrinal structure will sag precipitously or collapse completely. Either way, the lop-sided bridge of our own design will no longer take us where we hope to go: life in the presence of God in Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Rather, we will remain on one side of the cataract, viewing God from afar. Certainly, that god we see across the chasm is a less fundamentalist or dogmatic deity, but he is also a distant, small, and impotent idol who really doesn’t demand or offer much in terms of love, power, or companionship.

So, when these doctrinal perennials appear over the years I begin to look more closely at them as they push up through the warm soil following winter. When they begin to bud, I wonder if they are a beautiful new variety of flower I’ve not noticed before. But, more often than not they spring into full bloom and I see them for what they really are: noxious weeds and invasive plants that can spread quickly, competing with the more beautiful and fruitful varieties in order to exploit and choke the life out of them. They often present a pretty flower and their tender green shoots appear pleasant against the background of dead vegetation from the previous year. But, left to grow, they may eventually take over and obliterate any well-cultivated, lovely garden.

After dealing with these kinds of theological eruptions over the decades, I would suggest a different direction for these newly emancipated neo or pseudo-Evangelicals. Rather than spend so much effort trying to reeducate or proselytize those of us who appreciate the drama of the dogma and the ancient paths of particular Evangelical doctrines leave the garden, find a new patch of soil, start a new movement — your own movement. Rather than sucking the life out of the Evangelical soil you once drew nutrition and life from, find new fertile ground somewhere else. In the end, we’ll be fine and you will be free.

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