Monday, August 2, 2010

Why Would Christian Universalists be Motivated to Evangelize?

The other day I received an e-mail from one of my students. As I finished writing my response, it occurred to me that readers of this blog might be interested in it. And so I’m including the relevant pieces of the exchange in this post.

Here’s the question my student asked:

I started to read Thomas Talbott's book The Inescapable love of God, and wanted to ask you something. Most Christians seek to convert others out of a desire to save them. As a universalist, would you still be concerned with saving and also converting other people? If so, what are you saving them from? Unlike most evangelists who claim to save the potential Christian from hellfire, a universalist would not be worried about eternal damnation. It seems then, the motivation for evangelism is at least partially removed by removing the fear/threat of eternal damnation. Unless you believe in some form of original sin, you wouldn't be saving the person from their depravity either. Perhaps you would be offering them the chance to a better, more fulfilled life. It seems the motivation for a universalist would be positive; trying to make someone’s life better whereas to others it would be more focused on saving them from Hell (removing a negative consequence). What are your thoughts? I know this might be personal, so you don't have to respond to this. But as a Universalist yourself, do you have a motivation and if so, what is your motivation, for “seeking souls” (so to speak)?

Here is my reply:

Speaking for myself, I have very little invested in converting people to Christianity (although I do have a great interest in convincing people who think otherwise that there are versions of Christianity that can be embraced by reasonable and morally decent people). That said, Christian universalists might experience an evangelical calling for several reasons. I can think of four off the top of my head.

(1) The first is the one you touch on in your comment. Specifically, Christian universalists might believe that there are positive life benefits (in terms of subjective life satisfaction or happiness, and in terms of resources for moral improvement) that are possible in this life if and only if one opens oneself up in this life to the kind of relationship with God that Christianity claims has been made available through Christ's life and work. Desiring others to enjoy these benefits here and now, Christian universalists might take on an evangelical mission.

(2) They might believe that, while the salvation of all is inevitable, this is not because they don't think there is a subjective requirement for salvation but because they think it is inevitable that all will eventually come to meet this requirement. So, they may think that enjoying the blessings of union with God is only possible for those who have chosen to open themselves up to those blessings--and while it is certain that all will eventually open themselves up in the relevant way, those who do not do so by the time of their death will exist after death in a state of alienation from God that can only bring increasing misery the longer that it lasts (a finite "hell," if you will). These universalists might believe that the effort of human evangelists is one of God's means for hastening the salvation of all, and so feel it is their calling to be God's agents in this way. In the absence of those efforts, they might think that more people will experience the "hell" of alienation from God for a longer period of time before realizing their error and turning to God.

(3) In its original meaning "evangelist" means "good messenger." To evangelize is to share good news ("gospel" means "good news"). In the Christian context, the good news is typically taken to be that God loves us all with an unwavering love and that, on account of Christ, we have been forgiven all our transgressions. In short, it's not about conversion at all, but about declaring good news as widely as possible. In this sense, the motivation for evangelism is, at least in part, the same sort of motivation that would impel someone to call everyone they know as soon as they learn that their child has been cured of leukemia. They want to share their joy at this wonderful news. But in the case of the Christian gospel, the news also seems to be of a sort with beneficial pragmatic implications for those it is being shared with. If people are hunkering down in their cellars waiting for enemy planes to fly overhead and drop bombs, the news that the enemy has been defeated will mean that people can come out of their hidey-holes. In such a case, running through the streets shouting out the good news is not merely motivated by a desire to share a personal joy but to let people know that they no longer need to burden themselves in a particular set of ways.

(4) Christian universalists might be convinced that the Christian worldview makes the most sense of human experience, that it fits the pieces of our experience together into the most coherent whole, as well as offering pragmatic resources for living better lives. In other words, they might be convinced that by the most plausible ways of measuring the truth of a worldview, some variant of Christianity comes out as the worldview most likely to be true. In this case, what might motivate them is the same kind of thing that presumably motivates Dawkins to preach atheism--a belief that one has the truth (or at least the most rational worldview) combined with the belief that it's just good in itself if more people believe the truth (the most rational thing).

Let me dwell for just a moment on (1). My own thinking with respect to (1) is that what has the pragmatic benefits is not belief in Christian doctrine as such, but rather a certain kind of attitude of openness to being moved and transformed by a good greater than oneself. While the Christian narrative can inspire the relevant kind of openness, it doesn't always do so. In my judgment it depends a great deal on just how the story is told—and versions of the story that emphasize hellfire seem to me to be less effective in this respect. It also depends on the life history of an individual. Some have had such a poisonous relationship with Christianity that even the best versions of the story evoke all the psychological crud laid down by that relationship. In that case it is likely that the greatest pragmatic benefits will come from a different narrative altogether, one which hasn't been poisoned. And my experience (with friends who are Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, agnostics, religious naturalists, etc.) is that many different narratives can be effective in evoking the relevant attitude of openness. Again, it depends on just how the story is told. So, believing Christian teachings is neither necessary nor sufficient for bringing about the kind of openness to being transformed that, I think, has the clearest pragmatic value.

I also think this openness will have to be the primary subjective component to any defensible view of eternal salvation--a fact which has clear implications for my understanding of (2). While I have thoughts on (3) and (4) as well, I suspect my arguments in my book and on my blog make my views on (4) pretty clear, and my thoughts on (3) would probably take awhile to formulate precisely. So I'll leave it at that for now.


  1. Eric,

    I think universalists have a great advantage in this context: They have reason to spread the good news (and universalism is really good news), and also reason not to be too eager about it, for one knows that God will in the end reach everybody. So the universalist is apt to be a gentle evangelist.

    Incidentally, the gentlest and also one of the most effective ways to evangelize others is by the example of one’s own life. So it’s not like a person who lives the good life without teaching others about God is not spreading the good word.

    One last point: It may be the case that the connection that binds all people together is deeper than is often assumed. So I think that nobody will be saved unless all are saved. Why? Because, and this strikes me as obvious, perfect joy in God is simply not possible when one knows that even one soul remains far from that joy.

  2. Dianelos--Schleiermacher was an important defender of your last point. He held that the salvation of any depends on the salvation of all, since salvation involves perfection in both happiness and love, and since those who are perfected in love would be pained by the sufferings of the damned and hence less than perfectly happy. Thomas Talbott also has defended this position.

    When William Craig attacked it a few years back, I piped in with an article of my own, paying particular attention to Craig's idea that God might SHIELD the saved from any awareness of the sufferings of the damned. The article is "Eternal Damnation and Blessed Ignorance: Is the Damnation of Some Incompatible with the Salvation of Any?, but I think you may need to pay to access the full article (or access it from an institution that subscribes to the journal).

  3. Morally decent? I don't think you would get much argument about that one- that morally decent people can believe in Christianity. On balance, indeed, religion as a general instrument of social solidarity seems to induce better behavior than not. It isn't all good, but what social systems are.

    And "reasonable" is a tricky one. People can be perfectly reasonable about everything else but not about this issue. Who among us is all reasonable all the time? But is Christianity reasonable? There you would have an argument.

  4. Eric,

    That’s interesting. I had no idea that William Craig proposed such a strange idea as God actually shielding the saved humans, who are with God, from the truth. Doesn’t the Bible say somewhere that God *is* truth? And how would that shielding work exactly? Would saved humans forget that they once had parents, and siblings, and children - who are not anymore to be seen?

    And in any case, what about God Him/Herself? Surely Craig does not believe that God would shield Him/Herself too from the knowledge of the existence of suffering souls? But then is God’s joy perfect when knowing that there are souls that are suffering? It seems that Craig must answer yes. But if it is possible for joy to be perfect when knowing that others suffer, why shield the saved humans from that knowledge? It seems that the only possibility for Craig’s picture to make any sense is to claim that humans can’t be perfectly happy when knowing that others suffer, but that God, who in Christ is our very model, actually can. Or, in other words, that God's love is less true than our love. In conclusion, any way you cut it Craig's idea seems to make no sense at all.

  5. Actually, one of Craig's suggestions is that God endures ALONE the anguish of knowing that many of his creatures are damned--as Craig characterizes it, a kind of Christ-like suffering (for all eternity). My response is that this would entail that God is KEEPING something of great significance about Himself FROM the blessed--that He sets up a permanent wall between Himself and His creatures, a permanent restriction on intimacy. This seems at odds with the traditional view of blessedness.

    Jerry Walls, by contrast, quickly dismisses the problem by saying that divine impassivity entails that God cannot be negatively impacted by the sufferings of the damned even though He loves them--and that part of becoming blessed is coming to share in that impassivity. Not only don't I find divine impassivity to cohere well with a doctrine of God as perfect love, but it seems that if humans were to come to possess such impassivity we would thereby cease to be human. But blessedness is supposed to PERFECT our natures, not turn us into beings with a different nature.

  6. I think it necessarily follows that one's understanding of God--if only less remote and fractionally closer--results in respecting God more, which leads to acting in accordance with God and wishing others the beatific vision of truth. Is it not true that those who we understand, respect, and admire motivate us to be more like them? And why should we keep this secret when we genuinely believe that the truth benefits if nothing else the psychological state of the believer and does no harm in the process?

  7. The question was asked what we are saved from if not from eternal torment.

    The answer is that we are saved from sin and death. Jesus Christ overcame the world by remaining faithful and obedient even at great personal cost and sacrifice--He was sinless. He also rose from the dead and overcame the grave. He is the resurrection and the life with the keys to death and hades. He will abolish death(1Cor 15:26), for all will be made alive in Him.(1Cor 15:22)

  8. Great stuff, everybody. I agree with Eric's initial response very much. Thanks, Eric. A few thoughts:

    1. For me, the ultimate reason for evangelism should be that the Gospel is too good NOT to share (not that we have a ticking dilemma to foil)! As a universalist myself, I cannot help but share this gospel with others. I love to talk about God's will to save all (2 Peter 3:9, 1 Tim. 2:4)

    2. Universalism seems to make better room for eschatological salvation, and that changes our approach to evangelism.

    3. A Universalist approach not only changes WHY we evangelize, but HOW. For example, I think a universalist instigates a more holistic approach to evangelism, focusing on the needs of human beings here and now.

    I've written precisely on this relationship between Universalism and Evangelism here:

    Peace to you all.