A few weeks ago, I wrote a post called “Heading towards heresy” in which I began to explore the idea that God could, in the end, reconcile everything and everyone to himself. I had so many interesting conversations after starting that discussion that I’ve asked a few friends to contribute guest posts on the theme of “Hope for everyone?” If you’d like to contribute a piece, from any point of view, do get in touch.
Today’s guest post is by Natalie King, a soon-to-be finalist at Oxford University. Natalie studies English, although her inner-theologian will win out one day. She successfully represents south London in Oxford and Oxford in south London, and manages to sound cool in both.
There are some things that get us really riled up.
Huge miscarriages of justice; human rights abuses that continue unchecked for decades; the exploitation of and abuse of children; systems of corruption and greed that wound the most needy; grossly violent crimes visited on the weak and vulnerable; genocide… the list goes on. And on.
The fact is, sin is a reality. Even in an age of perceived moral relativity and pluralism, few would be comfortable with declaring any such events as morally neutral.
Such crimes are repellent to us. They make us angry. They make us cry out for justice. Something intrinsic to our humanity demands that the perpetrators of such actions are made to feel the weight of the law, to undergo some sort of consequential punishment.
Is this strong desire for justice something God-given?
Is this how God feels, when he sees such crimes?
How does the moral depravity of a fallen world make God feel? The God of the Old Testament is certainly not shy about declaring his anger at worldly injustice.
In the book of Amos, God forewarns Israel of looming judgement due to their moral corruption:
“There are those who hate the one who upholds justice in court and detest the one who tells the truth. You levy a straw tax on the poor and impose a tax on their grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine. For I know how many are your offences and how great your sins.
There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts…
Seek good, not evil, that you may live… Perhaps the LORD God Almighty will have mercy on the remnant of Joseph.”
(Amos 5:10-12, 14, 15)
He isn’t shy about judging the nations surrounding Israel either.
I suppose the question I’m getting at is, does our theology of eternity encompass the judgement of a holy God?
I seem to be encountering more and more Christians that would fit into the category of ‘hopeful universalism’ – including myself… It is essentially an admission (and rightly so!!) that we don’t really know what eternity will look like, but that hopefully, non-christians won’t be excluded from eternal life because they didn’t say the sinner’s prayer and invite Jesus ‘into their heart’… Or because the idea of a God didn’t make sense to them… Or it did, but they were completely put off by organised religion… Or because they never even heard the message about Jesus in the first place…
It’s the hope that God’s grace ultimately extends to all. We all get to go to heaven/enjoy the new creation (depending on your theology). Whatever your faith, whatever your creed, whatever your belief…
It’s a comforting thought. We don’t need to grieve over numberless multitudes who have died without hearing, or accepting the gospel; over friends and family that can’t seem to get into this Christianity thing. Sharing Christ with friends, family and strangers becomes an invitation to start living full, eternal life in the here and now – rather than waiting for the end of time.
The thing is, hopeful universalism is a comforting thought when we’re thinking about our no doubt imperfect, but generally good friends and family members… But are we comfortable saying that the undiscovered paedophile who passes away peacefully in his sleep; the genocidal tyrant, who came to a tranquil end; or the CEO responsible for the exploitation of impoverished thousands, who quietly, and unrepentantly expired in his luxury mansion, gets this universal grace pass??
Where’s the justice in that?
Perhaps my idea of God’s grace is too small. Perhaps this is what makes God’s grace so amazing – that it extends to those that we would be quick to exclude… But that just doesn’t seem to sit right with me. And well… should it sit right with me? I return to the sense of injustice we feel at such crimes… the desire for ‘justice to be done’.
The God of the OT and the NT seems pretty passionate about ‘justice being done’.
One response might be that justice was done once and for all at the cross – but it’s not some sort of ticket to moral relativity, or licensed immorality. Paul says to the Romans:
“What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life… What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!”
(Romans 6:1-2, 15)
Rather, the cross seems like the doorway of opportunity to a new, holy life.
The fact is it’s easy to believe, or hope for universalism when we’re thinking of the small-scale sin (i.e. a cheeky theft/lie) that a non-christian friend is likely to commit…
But it’s not so easy when we’re talking about genocide, exploitation and abuse. Yet, we all know that no sin is worse than any other in God’s eyes. (I’ve purposefully used emotive crimes in this piece to drive home this very point…) The bible pronounces us all sinners:
“…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”
And to quote another classic:
“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
We might argue over what is meant by death here, but it seems obvious that there are consequences to sin.
It’s not been my aim here to advocate a disregard of Universalist thought, or propound a more conservative approach. I suppose I’ve simply wanted to highlight the issue of and the importance of justice in the judgement process.*
What’s the answer? De nada.
I for one, do not envy God the job of judging humanity. It’s a tough shift.
Tupac was right: “Only God can judge me”… and the rest of humankind for that matter.
* Arguably, I have been using an errant definition of justice and judgement in this piece. Matt Lynch’s post proffers a definition by Noel Moules, which may be said to diffuse some of the issues raised:
“…the centrepiece of universalism is judgement. Mishpat is the moral process of putting everything right, not a legal statement about who is right and wrong. It is a spiritual and practical process to make relationships right, not a legal mechanism to punish wrongdoers.”
(In Fingerprints of Fire … Footprints of Peace: A Spiritual Manifesto from a Jesus Perspective, by Noel Moules)