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Thursday, September 26, 2013

Those Who Will Not Dance - Christian Universalism

Those Who Will Not Dance (Matthew 11:1-19)
Rob Tennant, HillSong Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Sunday, September 22, 2013

Philippians 2:9-11
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

In Colossians 1:15-20, the word is about Jesus.  We read … 
15 He (Jesus) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in[h] him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in[i] him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”

And then in 1 Corinthians 15:20-28
20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.[a] 21 For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; 22 for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end,[b]when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For “God[c] has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “All things are put in subjection,” it is plain that this does not include the one who put all things in subjection under him. 28 When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.

            From these verses, can we safely acknowledge that the New Testament affirms universal salvation, or at least the letters of Paul affirm universalism?  Of course Universalism refers to the doctrine that in the end, the very end, all people are saved.  Hell is empty because everyone, everyone, gets saved.  Everyone goes to Heaven.

            “At the name of Jesus every knee should bend … and every tongue confess that [He] is Lord.”  Every single one.
            “Through Him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things.”
            “As all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.”

            The thread of universalism weaves through Christianity going back to the earliest times.  There have been theological heavyweights who believed that all are saved.  The most notable in the history of Christianity is Origin, born in 185 AD in the Egyptian city of Alexandria.  Th0ugh he was not branded a heretic, succeeding generations rejected him as a trustworthy theologian because of his opinion that in the end all are saved.[i]
            Origin believed in Hell, but he believed the fires of Hell serve to purify, not torture, punish, or destroy.  This view is a fringe view, far from the most widely-held view that Hell is eternal, conscious torment inflicted by God as punishment for sin.  However, even though it is a minority position, many held it including Gregory of Nyssa.[ii]  One of the most renowned of 20th century theologians, Karl Barth, has universalist overtones throughout his work.  And more recently, there is the provocative book Love Wins by Rob Bell.  Bell poses questions more than he offers answers.  His questions could lead the reader, with Bible open, to at least consider the possibility of universal salvation.
            Some lesser known theologians, at least not as familiar to me, attempt to assert the case more forcefully.  I offer here a few of the arguments for universalism.  Already we have considered some scripture passage, all from the Apostle Paul, that indeed are suggestive. 
            To this, universalists add the argument for the character of God.  God is love.  This is seen in God’s actions throughout the Bible and is explicitly stated in First John, chapter 4, the second part of verse 16.  The nature of God is love and universalists argue that God will not violate God’s own nature.  To condemn people to Hell, an eternity of suffering, even when the punishment is deserved, goes against God’s nature of love.  God will not go against God’s nature.  I heard one pastor say it this way.
I love my children.  No matter what they did, no matter how they misbehaved, I would not sentence them to eternity in Hell.  God’s love is more perfect than mine and each person is a child of God.  God would not send his children to Hell for eternity.[iii]

            Universalists carry this sense of God’s love to their reading of Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep, found in Luke 15.  God is the shepherd who goes out to find the lost sheep.  Jesus clearly says there that the shepherd does not stop seeking until the lost is found.  The implication?  God is the good shepherd.  He will not abandon us to Hell, but will seek until each and every lost person is found. 
            The proponent of universalism would undoubtedly take the point further and add much in detail.  But I think we can see from what I have shared here a foundation for this doctrine.  The scriptures I mentioned from Paul’s writings declare Jesus has died for all and the case makes sense.  It is a logical argument.  So is the argument for the nature of God – that God is love and love cannot abandon people to Hell and still be called love.  Love seeks desperately for the beloved.  If God is the one seeking, well, God gets what God is after. 
            Bell asks a poignant question.  Does God get what God wants?[iv]  Listen to 2nd Peter 3:9.  At this point the letter is addressing scoffers who reject the notion that Jesus will come back and set the world right.  In response to any who reject Christianity because Jesus has not returned since the resurrection and ascension, it says, “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance.”  Not wanting any to perish … does God get what God wants?  God is, after all, God.  If God does not want anyone to die, will anyone die, eternally?
            Karl Barth came up short of saying that all would be saved.  Barth writes,
We died; the totality of all sinful [people], those living, those long dead, and those still to be born, Christians who necessarily know and proclaim it, but also Jews and heathen, whether they hear and receive the news or whether they tried and still try to escape it.  His death was the death of all: quite independently of their attitude or response to this event.[v]

Though this and many comments by him carry the potential for universalism, Barth would not commit to it.  In fact, late in life he confided to a friend that he had a dream about Hell as a vast, cold, utterly lonely desert.  The dream haunted him and he told the friend of it.  He said he knows about that place, Hell, and for that reason, he must preach Christ.[vi]
            Bell too comes up short of commitment to universalism.  He asks, “Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices?”  Bell’s response to his own question is “those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires.” [vii]
            I understand Bell’s quote, opaque as it is.  There is much about the afterlife and God’s plans we do not know and cannot know.  We do not know whether there literally is a book of life with names written or the idea of “book” is a metaphor that represents God’s mind.  Of course it is a metaphor, but we don’t know God’s method of record keeping.  There are many tensions in questions the Bible does not answer or does not answer completely or does not answer the way we wished it would.  I appreciate that.  I appreciate the logic of saying God is love and thus, God will not violate God’s own nature, and thus, God will not allow anyone to spend eternity suffering in Hell.  I see how that makes sense.
            However, in my own reading of scripture, I cannot accept universalism.  I am not offering here a standard traditionalist response that involves a listed of scriptures used to defend the idea of Hell.  You can find that argument on the internet or read authors like Larry Dixon or J.I. Packer, just to name a few of 100’s.  My response comes from my own sense of the New Testament.  I believe God is love.  God as the giver of perfect love and as the expression of perfect love implores us to choose to worship Him.  God does not force us.  We choose.  God is broken when we choose not to love and worship God.  But God knows some will make that choice.  When they do, God honors that choice.
            Consider Matthew chapter 11.  Jesus is addressing a crowd that had followed John the Baptist.  Now, John is wallowing in Herod’s jail cell, and the crowd has moved.  From one Messianic voice to the next, from John to Jesus, the crowd follows the wind.  Jesus confronts this fickle crowd with the truth. He says,
“What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
            who will prepare your way before you.’
11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. 13 For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; 14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15 Let anyone with ears listen!
16 “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,
17 ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
            we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; 19 the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

            When Jesus plays his music, there will always be those who do not dance.  There will always be people, made in the image of God, lost sheep, who ignore the shepherd’s voice.  The passage we read from 2nd Peter 3:9 says God wants all to come to repentance.  It does not say God will force all to come to repentance. Repentance is not something that can be forced.  It must be chosen.  Throughout the gospels, Jesus teaches, with urgency, that all people must repent of sin and turn to Him and there are consequences if they do not.  When he approaches Jerusalem prior to being crucified, he weeps saying, “You did not recognizes the time of your visitation from God.”
            Some did see him and chose to follow him.  Many others did not.  They cheered him when he rode into town, but they also cheered and jeered when he was on the cross.  Of those who rejected Jesus, a few came to faith after the resurrection.  His half-brother James is the most notable example.  Most others did not turn to Him in faith.  They chose to reject the salvation God offered.  It has been the same throughout history.  People choose to reject what God offers.
            God, I believe and I think the Bible shows, will honor that choice.  God will honor our decision to reject God and we can spend eternity without God.  That is Hell. 
            I will say more about that next week.  Today, I want to finish by saying, thankfully, that this one thing is most assuredly true.  God is love.  God is here for each and every one of us.  If we choose to turn away from our sins and turn to Him, God will receive us.  God will adopt us.  In Christ we become sons and daughters of God, beginning now, today, and living in His Kingdom for eternity.  For a time, we live in a fallen and broken world.  But God is going to redeem it.  The Kingdom we begin living in when we choose Jesus will become fully known at His Second Coming. 
            Jesus is playing His music.  You have the freedom to ignore it.  But life is on the dance floor.  So come to Him, the Lord of the Dance, come to Him for life. 

[i] Jonathan Hill (2003), The History of Christian Thought, p. 39-60.
[ii] Ibid, p.57.
[iii] Jim Dant ended his speech with this assertion of universal salvation.  What I wrote here is a paraphrase of his words that I am writing from memory.  He shared this at the workshop he led at the national meeting of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Charlotte, NC, 2010.
[iv] Rob Bell (2011) Love Wins.  Chapter 4 is titled, “Does God get what God wants?”
[v] Larry Dixon (2003), The Other Side of the Good News, p.45.  Dixon is quoting Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol 4, part 1, p.295.
[vi] Ibid, p.49.
[vii] Love Wins, p.115.

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