Let's end this series with some reflections on Christ, with a particular focus on the cross and atonement. Specifically, one criticism you often hear about universalism is that it throws away the cross. If everyone gets to heaven then why did Christ have to die?
So let's talk about that.
Why did Christ have to die?
Broadly speaking, there have been two approaches to understanding the atonement. Specifically, theologians talk about objective versus subjective theories of atonement. In objective theories of atonement Sin in an external predicament. That is, the problems associated with Sin are "out there," beyond the human agent. As a consequence, the "fix" has to be "out there" as well. Subjective theories of atonement suggest that the problem of Sin is on the "inside" of us. The "fix" in this case is to change, educate, and rehabilitate the human heart. As always, the bible points to both of these understandings but Christian denominations tend to privilege one sort of understanding over the other.
Historically, the two most influential objective theories of atonement are ransom theory and satisfaction theory. For a quick review see this post of mine. In both of these theories of atonement the problem, so to speak, is "out there," external to you or I. In ransom theory the problem is with the Devil (in classical ransom theory) or the forces of Sin and Death (in more modern Christus Victor formulations). Jesus, on the cross, has to defeat these forces for humanity to be liberated, to be saved. By contrast, in satisfaction theory the problem is in the heart of God, a conflict between God's love and justice. Jesus has to fix this conflict in God's heart, satisfying the competing demands of love and justice. By fixing this conflict in God's heart Jesus saves us, frees us from God's wrath. Note how, in both cases, the "fix" is external to you or I. We are on the sidelines as it were. As we watch the crucifixion we observe a cosmic battle between Jesus and Satan. Or we watch Jesus fuse and reconcile love and justice in the heart of God. But we are onlookers here, in the stands watching the atonement take place on the field. Our job, after the work of the Christ is done, is to "accept" this atonement. Usually by repenting and confessing that Jesus is Lord.
Summarizing, in objective theories of atonement Sin is seen as a problem external to human hearts. No doubt human actions created the mess, but the mess now has a life of its own and holds humanity captive. Or it creates a problem in God's heart that prevents God from accepting humans in any straightforward way. So Jesus comes to clean up the mess. As noted, theories differ on how, exactly, this cleanup operation worked, but there is broad consensus on the general point: Jesus "fixed" the problem of Sin and those found in Jesus have access to the salvation Jesus created.
Let's now turn to the subjective theories of atonement. According to the subjective theories we are the problem. Salvation isn't happening "out there" as Jesus battles the Devil or satisfies the justice of God. Rather, atonement is about you taking up your own cross as Jesus did. Atonement in this view is akin to discipleship, learning to lay down your life. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die."
Luke 14.27In this view, atonement is not happening "out there." Atonement is about calling us to the path of Jesus, the way of the cross. And if we die to self and take up our cross, as Jesus did, we are reconciled to God and move from sin into salvation and grace.
And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
Okay, after this summary of atonement theory--objective and subjective--what are we to say about how all of this relates to universal reconciliation?
To start, it should be obvious the universalism sits well with subjective theories of the atonement. That is, if atonement comes by us dying to sin by taking up our cross and following Jesus then salvation becomes about God's efforts--antemortem and postmortem--to bring this about in each human biography. In this view, Christ's death on the cross saves us because it blazes the path toward God. On the cross Jesus shows us how salvation is obtained. Give your life away and then you will find it. Salvation is taking up your cross and following.
I expect most Christian universalists tend toward subjective theories of atonement as these fit quite easily. But many Christians tend to privilege objective theories of atonement and they wonder if universalism can "work" with these ideas.
I think so and here's why. Recall, in objective theories Jesus is doing some work "out there." Jesus is defeating the Powers of Sin and Death or working out a kink between God's love and justice. Jesus accomplishes this work through this life, death and resurrection. Jesus creates something "out there" that we can participate in. Our job, in this case, is to step into the work of the Christ. And being found in Christ we participate in and enjoy the salvation he has created.
As seems clear, these objective theories tend to privilege a moment of decision. As none of us could have accomplished the work of Christ our only job is to "accept" his work. To step into the New Creation he's started. And when we make this decision we move over into grace. We are saved.
When looked at in this way it seems clear that there is no conflict between universalism and objective theories of atonement. Sin is an objective predicament that no human can escape on their own. Only by accepting the work of Christ can we be extracted from Sin and Death. And we can assume that this external predicament--the bible often compares it to a form of slavery--is in force antemortem and postmortem. That is, unless and until you accept the work of Jesus you'll be enslaved to the Powers of Sin and Death. You can't get out of that quicksand on your own. You need Jesus to pull you out.
Summarizing, the contention of objective theories of atonement is this: Sin created a real, objective problem that only Christ could fix. And Christ did fix it. So our job now is to embrace this work of Jesus.
It should be clear that none of this causes any problems for universalism. All the objective theories are saying is that Jesus has created a new reality that you need to participate in. Jesus has liberated you from the bondage of Sin and Death. Salvation comes by joyfully accepting this gift of grace. The mechanisms of all this--antemortem or postmortem--are exactly the same.
In short, the issue about the necessity of Christ's death--Why did Christ have to die?--has nothing to do with the timing of the human response. If sin created an objective predicament then Christ had to die. There was some sort of Cosmic Blockage that needed to get broken up. Some Wall existed between God and humanity. Christ needed to die because that Wall needed to be knocked down. And now, having knocked down the Wall of Separation, a path has been created toward God. Salvation comes by stepping through the hole Jesus made in the Wall. Yes, the timing of this movement is a point of dispute between universalists and traditionalists--Can a person accept Jesus after death?--but both groups agree on the necessity of Christ's death. A hole needed to be created in the Wall of Separation. Jesus died to create that hole.
In short, universalists and traditionalists see the atonement in exactly the same way. The only dispute has to do with how long we have access to the work of the Christ. Traditionalists, who have a death-centered theology, believe this access to Christ forecloses at death. Universalists, with an Easter-oriented theology, believe death has been defeated and, thus, contend that death cannot foreclose on your access to Christ. Both groups believe the atoning work of Christ is necessary. They only differ on if death forecloses access to Christ. And pointing toward this universal postmortem confession and acceptance of Jesus as Lord a universalist points to Philippians 2:
At the name of Jesus every knee will bow,In short, everyone comes to God through Jesus, everyone eventually makes the confession that Jesus is Lord.
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
For most of this post we've been dwelling on the atonement, upon the necessity of the death of Jesus. But there is more to say about Jesus. The work of the Christ is larger than what was accomplished at his death. Jesus wasn't just on a suicide mission. So I'd like to sketch out a fuller Christology as I think this will show how deeply Christ-centered universalism can be.
I'm taking my cue here from Gregory MacDonald's (Robin Parry) book The Evangelical Universalist. Specifically, MacDonald/Parry has us look at the Christology of Colossians 1:
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.We find here clear echos of John 1 where Christ is the Divine Logos, the Word that "created all things." But Colossians takes it further. It's not just that "all things" were created through the Word. "All things" are held together by the Logos. And, as a consequence, since "all things" are held together by the Logos, the work of the Christ is to reconcile "all things."
Created. Held together. Reconciled.
Past. Present. Future.
(I just went all Rob Bell on you with my writing style...)
The vision we have here is cosmic in scope. Colossians suggests that while we can be in rebellion against God we can't, strictly speaking, be "outside of Christ." All things exist and are held together in Christ. The work of the Logos, then, is to take this disordered Creation and bring it back into harmony and peace with God. The Creation flowed from the Logos, is held together by the Logos, and will flow back to God through the Logos where God will "be all in all." Beginning and end converge upon God with the work of the Christ making it all happen.
I wanted to end with this vision because while traditionalists might squabble with universalists about the atonement (pointlessly as I tried to show above), I'm keen to show how deeply Christ-centered universalism is. In fact, I'd argue that universalists tend to be more Christ-centered than most traditionalists. Because universalists take the claims of John 1 and Colossians 1 very seriously. Christ holds everything together. And, thus, Christ will reconcile "all things." Borrowing the words of St. Patrick's Prayer, this is how a universalist sees the world:
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,Christ is everywhere. All things hold together in the Logos.
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down...
And what this means is that you can be "Christ-centered" without even knowing it. Rob Bell in Love Wins (that's his new book if you've not heard of it) gives a nice example of this. In 1 Corinthians 10 Paul is discussing the Exodus of the ancient Israelites and their journey through the desert toward the Promised Land. Paul specifically discusses the events recounted in Exodus 17 where Moses strikes a rock that brings forth water to quench the thirst of the Israelites. And in discussing this event Paul makes an extraordinary claim:
For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.And that rock was Christ. It's hard to understand what Paul means by this. But what is very clear is that Paul saw Christ all through the Exodus story. Which is a startling claim. Paul is claiming that the entire Old Testament, Judaism itself, was Christ-Centered. Without, apparently, their even knowing it. Without their naming or recognizing it. That rock was Christ.
We are treading on some very mystical territory here, but I think with Colossians 1 in hand we can see what Paul was getting at. All things hold together in the Logos. And if that is so then Christ is everywhere. But often unnamed and unrecognized, like that rock in the desert. And if Christ was that rock where else might Christ be? And how many of these "rocks" will you kick, trip over, pass by or drink from today? How many times has Christ quenched your thirst and you didn't know it? It appears that Christ can be your "center" and "salvation" without your faith or confession. Just as Christ was the rock in the desert that saved the Jews.
To conclude, if "all things hold together in Christ" how could a universalist or a traditionalist not be Christ-centered?
You, I and your neighbor are centered on Christ...
...whether we know it or not.