In November, The Living Church published the article “Voices of Buchenwald.” It is a powerful reflection on the martyrs of the German concentration camps. When it asks the question (I am paraphrasing) “What would I have done?” I can only desperately hope that I would have had the courage to stand up for my faith with boldness and courage.
Likewise, when the author asks, “Can God forgive the ones who tortured and enslaved so many others, who crucified clergy for proclaiming words of hope?” I am challenged to wonder if I really understand the depth of God’s love for all people and all of his creation. Sadly, I too am tempted to let my anger have free reign when I am confronted by evil. Too many people, both in history and today, believe they are outside the possibility of God’s love. We must do better to make our message clear: all are loved by God.
The recent movie Unbroken tells the story of Olympian Louis Zamperini. During World War II, he endured forty-seven days at sea after his aircraft crashed in the ocean. He was then “rescued” by the Japanese navy and spent two and a half years as a prisoner of war. However, the movie did not show the struggles Zamperini faced once he was released. His hatred of the Japanese and his PSTD, along with alcoholism, nearly ruined his life. His wife encouraged him to attend a Billy Graham crusade, where he gave his life to Christ. He there began a journey that led him to forgive his captors, going so far as to visiting them in prison. In an arresting act, he ran as part of the Olympic torch relay for the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.
Inspired by his experience of forgiveness by God, Zamperini was able to forgive, even forgive those who tortured him. He knew that no one is beyond the love of God.
This point takes us to the edge of a longstanding question in Christian history. If God’s love is so expansive, so all-embracing, how could anyone fail to be ultimately brought into it?
And many Christians have dared to hope that, in fact, all will one day be saved. The Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote a book titled Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? (see the foreword to the new edition of the book here). With this kind of heavy weight on the “for” side, who am I to disagree? But let me make a few points.
First, universalism (I am using it in a somewhat nontechnical sense, simply meaning “all will be saved”) has a point. God’s love is so great that no one will ultimately be left outside its confines. I don’t believe, from God’s point of view, that there is anything “limited” about the Atonement. I take 1 Timothy 2:1-7 rather literally: God desires “all to be saved.”
Second, if universalism is true, it cannot be true apart from the Cross. Humanity is broken and needs to be fixed. G.K. Chesterton said, “Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved” (Orthodoxy, chap. 2). Christianity puts forward the Cross of Jesus as the only way forward for salvation, whether the number saved is small or large.
Third, universalism must deal with human choice. God did not create automatons. It is perhaps the greatest summit in the theological mountain range we call the theology of creation: that God would create creatures that could chose against him! In many a theodicy, this is the point where evil is explained. We chose to break our relationship with him. Evil then is given power, and we have suffered the consequences (Buchenwald is a ghastly example). God has gone to great lengths, even to the point of sending Jesus, to bring us back to himself. If it has cost God this much to give creation freedom, will he then trump our choice if, in the end, we choose not to follow?
Finally, what do we do with evangelism? Certainly the works of N. T. Wright, Scot McKnight, and others have greatly enriched our understanding of what the euangelion (“good news”) actually is — more than just a cosmic “get out of jail free” card. But there is a biblical mandate to proclaim that message (setting aside the exact nature of the message for the moment). “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of those who proclaim good news” (Isaiah 52:7). Does it matter that people hear and respond to the gospel here and now?
At the least, “Yes,” it would be better to start living with God’s power now. This is no small thing. In a world so devoid of hope, knowing the love of God now would make a great deal of difference. The power that brought back Jesus from the dead is somehow (I am intentionally vague) available to us now when we have heard and responded to the Gospel. This is the power that can make a difference where injustice, poverty, sickness, and despair reign.
But ultimately will it matter if people hear about Jesus? If, in the end, God will bring them in, why go? But what if a positive response to Jesus (again, I intentionally put that ambiguously because who knows the full scope of what “response” means?) is in the end necessary? At this point, there is much fear and trembling, for this seems to give us too much say in the matter. But God has entrusted to us the message of reconciliation. We must share this word! The question of “what about those who have never heard” is important, but is a bit of a red herring; you are the one hearing about Jesus, and you must decide what you are going to do about it. You are the one currently facing the choice.
To some degree, it doesn’t really matter whether you believe “all will be saved,” if, like Louis Zamperini, you have experienced personally the love of God and his forgiveness poured out on you. It will be natural for you to take that love and forgiveness out into the world. The process of discipleship (especially being a part of the community that centers around God’s love and forgiveness) that makes this work more intentional is a topic for another post on another day. Through you (even though you don’t think it is necessary) people will hear and respond to God’s love, and God will bring them in. In the final analysis, it only matters that people do hear and do respond.
So let us speak of the glorious love of God, a love that is beyond our knowing. It is a love that stands at the gates of a place like Buchenwald and does not seek vengeance, but rather gives place to martyrdom. But let us speak with some urgency because some are lost, and, in the mysterious economy of God, he will use our words to bring them home.
The featured image is NASA’s “Image of the Earth rising over the Moon form Apollo 8.”