Wednesday, March 4, 2009

An Open Letter to a Conservative Christian Blogger

This post is a response to a conversation started on another blog, and takes the form of an open letter to the author of that blog. I was invited by a new acquaintance to read a blog post critical of Christian universalism (the version of Christianity which holds that all will eventually be saved, even if some must suffer in alienation from God before they finally accept divine grace). Among other things, the author of that post was under the impression that universalists emphasize God’s love at the expense of God’s justice and holiness. I responded to this in part by summarizing some arguments concerning justice and holiness that I have developed in philosophical articles. The blog’s author opened her reply with a comment that, to put the point bluntly, stunned me. This open letter is an extended reply to that comment. In brief, it is an attempt to highlight the need for approaching the Bible holistically and philosophically.

Those interested in seeing the (ongoing) discussion and debate at the blog site that sparked this entry, or want to read this post in the context of that debate, should go here.


You wrote:

On the issue of justice, if you believe (as I do and as Steven is arguing) that the Bible is the infallible Word of God, it is not necessary to argue about God’s justice philisophically (sic). What you have done is try to explain how God could or should punish or atone for sin. But in taking the Bible as absolute truth we know that “the wages of sin is death.” The Bible states over and over again that God’s punishment for sin is “death” as in eternal separation from Him, the opposite of life. It is not up to us to rewrite this simply because we do not agree with the length or severity of the punishment.

I want to make a few points in response to this.

That you think your theory about the nature of the Bible’s authority implies you needn’t think in a sustained and careful way on the matter of God’s justice (or attend carefully to those who do) is disturbing to me on many levels.

First, it’s just not true that a doctrine of biblical inerrantism has this implication. The complexity of the text (not to mention the apparent contradictions when every passage is read literally), the enormous difficulty of interpreting lines of thought whose language is often ambiguous, and the challenge of piecing together a theology from the raw material of a book that is often more about telling stories and exhorting believers in metaphorical and poetic hyperbole—well, all of these things entail that on any major issue, such as the construal of God’s justice, we will need to think systematically and deeply—that is, philosophically—in order to figure out which theological position fits best with the entirety of the biblical witness.

Second, the fact that so many who ascribe to biblical inerrantism are quick to abandon careful thought in favor of shallow proof-texting is just one more of the “bad fruits” of this theory (and yes, it is one theory among many concerning how to understand the nature of the Bible, its authority, and its relation to divine self-disclosure). For more bad fruits, see the chapter on “Divine Tyranny and the Goodness of God” in my book. I'd be interested in seeing how you would defend your inerrantist theory against my concerns raised there.

On this point, let me just briefly comment on you concluding remark, namely this: “I believe what God has revealed to me (to all of us) in His Word. To not do so is to not only limit Him but reject His very revelation of Himself.”

Of course, every theist, not to mention every Christian, should trust in God’s self-disclosure or revelation (no matter how difficult it may be to capture that self-disclosure within the limits of merely human concepts). The question is how the Bible is related to that self-disclosure. You seem to think the Bible is the ultimate self-disclosure of God. But I think the more clearly Christian view is to hold that Jesus is the ultimate self-disclosure of God in history. In fact, the Bible never calls itself “the Word” of God. In the opening passage from the Gospel of John, it is Jesus who is named by that title.

And as I argue in my book, there is good reason to think that God would favor revealing Himself in loving relationships with living persons over revealing Himself in the static pages of a text--the Word made flesh, rather than the Word made ink-and-parchment.

What does that make the Bible? Perhaps the Bible is a powerful human testament to God's self-disclosure in history, especially in the person of Jesus (but also in many other, lesser self-disclosures).

Like all human testimonies, if the biblical testimonies are merely human they will be prone to human error. Inerrantists, confronting this implication, are prone in my experience to leap to the conclusion that if one admits the possibility of human error in the Bible one needs to abandon all reliance on the Bible as a source of wisdom and insight into the transcendent. In their view, it's all or nothing: Either we accept the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, or we throw the whole thing in the flames.

But the Bible collects the testimonies of many witnesses, from many different times and places. The biblical accounts of the divine are written by people from different cultural contexts, who are therefore likely to bring different prejudices and biases to their understanding and interpretation of the divine self-disclosure (rather than having all the same biases). And all of this means that, if the Bible is a human testament to divine revelation in history, it may be extremely helpful in giving us insight into the divine, even if it's human authors are fallible.

A police officer can pretty effectively figure out what happened at the scene of an accident by interviewing fallible witnesses, assuming that there are enough of them, and assuming that he can discern their respective prejudices and biases, discounting what they say when those biases might be in play. Likewise, if the Bible is a human testament to divine self-disclosure in history, it is an extremely diverse one. Internal criticism and historical criticism can therefore be invoked in ways analogous to the methods used by the officer, to discern the common themes, the common thread of divine meaning which weaves through the whole. In short, on this view it isn’t isolated passages ("proof-texts") that carry the deepest insight into divine revelation, but rather the conclusions drawn from a critical, historically informed, holistic reading.

Reading the Bible in this way is hard work that demands we make use of all our intellectual powers. It requires, in short, that we be philosophical. And it may be that our insight into the divine may be deepened even more if we take into account the testimonies of other faith traditions, and bring those testimonies into sustained philosophical and critical conversation with the Christian witness.

But let's think about the challenges of interpreting the Bible and discerning its message in a more practical way. You say that the Bible states, "the wages of sin is death." But how do we understand this? Here is a theory drawn from a literal interpretation of Genesis: It is by virtue of Adam’s sin that death (terrestrial death) was brought into the world. On that reading, it has little to do with questions of the afterlife.

Of course, context may dictate against that reading, so here is a less literal but theologically orthodox interpretation: Sin in its essence is a state of alienation from God, which amounts to alienation from the source of life and all that is good. The natural consequence of such alienation, in the absence of some act to prevent it, is not just to lose touch with all that is good and hence be miserable and spiritually corrupted. It is, more profoundly, to go out of existence altogether. To die in the true sense. On this theory, “the wages of sin is death” is not about God’s justice but about the natural consequences of cutting oneself off from God, insofar as God is the source of all being.

Notice that, on this interpretation, if hellism is true (and by “hellism” I simply mean the doctrine that some of God’s beloved children endure eternal suffering in hell after death), then God intervenes to prevent the full wages of sin from being experienced by the damned. He preserves them in being, in effect not letting them achieve the full alienation from God that they seek. If he did let them, they would go out of existence, and the result would be annihilation rather than hell.

My point here is simply that we need to do a great deal of interpretive work to figure out exactly what this means, how it’s related to divine justice and other core biblical themes, etc.

But the challenges run even deeper. The Bible clearly states that the wages of sin is death. But the Bible is also clear that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And yet the Bible is also clear that not all of us endure the full wages of sin because of what God did through Christ.

To fit all these things together into a holistic understanding of the biblical message, we cannot interpret “the wages of sin is death” to mean that all sinners suffer eternal damnation. Instead, we have to take it to mean that “death” (however that is to be understood) is what happens to sinners barring divine intervention on our behalf. The question is about how broadly God’s salvific intervention extends.

The Apostle Paul argues that it extends to all. And yes, I know that hellists are habituated to dismiss and interpret away Paul’s universalism, but it’s there, plain as day.

One of the things that really struck me reading your original post was how you chastised universalists for taking a few biblical passages and ignoring the broader biblical context. But then you promptly did the same with Romans 9:27, which reads as follows: “Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea, only the remnant will be saved.”

The broad section of Romans in which this passage occurs is prefaced by such straightforwardly universalist statements as Romans 5:18-19: “Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.”

Romans 9:27 itself is a quotation from Isaiah, in which Isaiah talks about how a particular remnant of the nation of Israel—“the survivors of the house of Jacob,” to be precise—are saved from earthly calamaties (not from eternal damnation) when the rest of Israel is not. Paul uses this passage as a metaphor for what is happening to the Jews of his day, insofar as only a small percentage became followers of Christ.

Paul thinks that God has ordained this in order to more effectively reach out to and convert the Gentiles. In Romans 11:25 he makes it clear that “Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in.” Note that Paul speaks of the full number of the Gentiles. All but a remnant of Israel is kept out of the church as part of a project that will bring in all the Gentiles. All of them. And then what happens to the rest of Israel? Damnation?

Not according to Paul. In the very next passage, Roman 11:26, he tells us explicitly what will happen to Israel. What does he say? This: “all Israel will be saved.” In case anyone doubts the scope of God’s salvific plan here, Paul concludes this section of the epistle, in Romans 11:32, with the following statement: “For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” Not some. All. Not just the obedient. All. All are disobedient. All are the objects of divine mercy.

So, who is ignoring context here? The universalists? Or is it the hellists? And what do we do with the even broader biblical context, one in which God is depicted as being boundless in love and mercy, as desiring the salvation of all, and as being infinitely resourceful in getting what He desires?

Of course, these two biblical images of God do not make the case for universalism all by themselves, since there are other things God may want, the attainment of which is incompatible with saving all. One might suppose that, despite being infinitely imaginative and infinitely powerful and infinitely wise, God just won’t be able to creatively shape history in ways that will make it possible, even for Him, to attain all of his objectives. In the end, God will fail, and in some human souls (the damned) the power of sin will reign forever victorious over God’s redemptive efforts. One might suppose this, and hence embrace hellism.

But the point is that a holistic reading of the Bible gives us an interpretive framework that is, to put the point mildly, congenial to universalism. It is the hellist who needs to work at explaining why a God of extravagantly unconditional love and almighty sovereignty would fail to save all those for whom He died on a cross in mortal anguish. Perhaps this work can be successfully accomplished (perhaps by some kind of appeal to human free will, although the case for hellism based on human freedom is not nearly as easy to make as many seem to think). But let us not pretend that the holistic context of the Bible is friendlier to the hellist than it is to the universalist.

And let us not pretend that any of these questions of ultimate significance can be answered by simple proof texting, without philosophical struggle and reflection. The Bible doesn't spoon feed us answers to life's mysteries, even if it may provide resources for wrestling with those mysteries.


  1. Eric,

    Thanks again for your contributions to the discussion. Your reasonable views have greatly encouraged me!

    I hope that anyone reading the source blog will see how philosophical arguments are employed when they reinforce a previously held position, and then dropped as irrelevant when they challenge a point.

    Thanks again for your perspective on a holistic reading of the Bible.

  2. This is silliness.
    Universalism is the argument that ALL will be saved (unless you're using some alternate definition).
    Even one biblical passage that instructs us, in context, that some people will end up in Hell is enough to falsify it. And there are TONS to choose from.Matthew 7: 13"Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

    Matthew 7: 21"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' 23Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'

    Anyway, I'm'a pick up your book and see what I can see. Should help us talk further. I hope it's better than Meyers' recent offering - I read a couple chapters of it and it was truly atrocious, an offense to the muses of rhetoric.