Thursday, April 29, 2010

Sigmund Wollman and the Wrath of God

The other morning when I got to my office, the first thing I did was listen to several impassioned phone messages from my friend and co-author—messages inspired by his reading of the most recent excerpt from our book that I posted on this blog, as well as by the brief exchange in the comments that followed it. At the emotional height of his monologue (interrupted occasionally when the answering service cut him off and he had to call back), he said something along the following lines:

“Please don’t take God’s wrath from me! I want to bathe in it and be cleansed by it, by this wrath born of love that cannot tolerate my sin. I don’t want some milk toast God whose love expects nothing from me.”

And because I’m in the midst of a series of community theatre performances of “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” (based on Robert Fulghum’s essays), I immediately thought of a scene from it in which I play a young hothead (based on a young Robert Fulghum) who flies off the handle when the owner of the resort inn where he works serves the employees the same thing for lunch—wieners and sauerkraut—for more than a week. My character’s fit is directed towards the night auditor: Sigmund Wollman, a survivor of Auschwitz.

As the scene is played out in our rendition of it, my character rages on and on until Wollman rises from his chair, gets in my face, and chews me out for not knowing the difference between an inconvenience and a problem. In a way, the scene is a study in anger—the young hothead’s anger, and Wollman’s. And the contrast between the two kinds of anger may be one of the most significant features of the scene.

Wollman’s anger is palpable—but unlike my character’s rage (which, because of its foolishness, generates nothing but laughter from the audience), Wollman’s anger has the force of moral authority. And although he is angry, there is nothing abusive about what he says or does. While my character’s outraged monologue is littered with put-downs and self-righteousness and absurd excess, Wollman’s responsive anger is focused, adding intensity and moral power to the words he speaks. That doesn’t mean it’s pleasant to be on the receiving end of it. But it is transformative. Its aim is not to destroy, but to repair, to redirect, and so to build up.

Even though I am an actor playing a role, I feel what it is like to be the target of that kind of moral anger. Here’s how Fulghum describes the experience: “Seldom in my life have I been hit between the eyes so hard with truth. There in that late-night darkness of a Sierra Nevada inn, Sigmund Wollman simultaneously kicked my butt and opened a window in my mind.”

It is a sign of maturity, I think, when we no longer run from such anger, no longer resent it, but hope that it will rain down on us whenever and wherever our own faults and failings warrant. To long for a God of wrath, in the sense in which my friend does, is to long for having truth hammered into us at those points where we most resist it.

Part of the truth that this sort of anger nails into us is the truth that we have an inherent dignity as persons that calls us to be better than we are. And so, to long for a God characterized by this sort of wrath is decidedly not about longing for a violent and brutal God, a God of put-downs and self-righteousness and absurd excess, one who casts sinners into the fires of an eternal hell.

Those who long for that kind of God (and there are plenty who do just that) don’t typically perceive themselves among the targets of God’s wrath. The God whose wrath inspires damnation is the God of us/them ideology, the God who loves us and hates them, and hence the God whose anger does not challenge us, does not force us to confront our own faults.

The God of hellfire’s wrath cannot challenge us, because a wrath that inspires damnation isn’t the kind of wrath we can coherently wish upon ourselves.* Its consequences are not transformative but destructive. And so, to believe in a God of wrath in that sense is to believe in a God whose wrath is a thing we must avoid at all costs. If that wrath turns towards us, it means our doom. And so those who believe in that kind of wrathful God are inclined towards justifying themselves in everything they do, scapegoating others, calling attention to the slivers in other people’s eyes rather than the planks in their own—anything to avoiding conceiving of themselves as the proper objects of God’s wrath.

It is easy to forget that anger can be about love, that being the object of someone’s anger is sometimes about experiencing their love in one of its most intense forms—in my co-author’s words, that its no can really be about a deeper yes. We forget this, I think, because for human beings anger has a dangerous volatility.

And it is volatile even when it is rooted in love. How many times have parents who adore their children lost their tempers and then been stricken with guilt over their failure to channel their anger in the most constructive way? I mean my children well, and my anger at them is born out of that love…but in my case the volatility of anger sometimes generates bursts of unhelpful sarcasm. For others, it can generate righteous lectures that berate the child so egregiously that every bit of transformative potential is lost. For some, it can generate physical violence.

Anger that is not only born of love but perfectly shaped and bounded by it, anger that is morally pure, is hard to find in the human world. If anger is a surgeon’s blade, then some of us use it to wound or kill rather than to heal. And even the most well-meaning of us more often than not wield it without the skill or discipline that enables it to do its healing work without causing damage. The best we can hope for is that the scars are small.

In the midst of this reality, it is easy to be afraid of anger, to see it as a threat. And so it may be hard to understand one who cries out, “Please don’t take God’s wrath from me!”—at least when what he means by that cry is not that he wants God’s wrath directed at his enemies, but that he longs to have it directed at himself.

What we need to remember is that those who, like my friend, long to be the targets of divine wrath are longing for a God who comes to us in the way that Sigmund Wollman came to Robert Fulghum, simultaneously kicking our butts and opening windows in our minds.

To desire such a thing isn’t incoherent or foolish--it isn't about self-loathing or some desire to be abused, but is rather an expression of our longing for the good. And in a world where even those who most long for the good aren’t as good as they ought to be, there is a place for anger—not the anger that tears people down, but the anger that nails us with the truth we most need to hear, right at the moment when we most need to hear it, and in a way that shocks us out of our ruts of self-deception and self-righteousness.

In a world where too many people pray, “God, destroy my enemies with your fiery wrath,” let us instead pray, “God, turn your cleansing wrath on me, and in other ways blanket me with your love.”

*Some of us can be caught in the grip of a self-loathing that inspires us to wish harm to ourselves. And so we seek out that which might destroy us--include God's hellfire. But when this happens, it is because we have lost sight of who we are at the core--the divine essence, the image of God, the beloved child of the creator. As such, this is not a coherent wish. We aren't wishing for the destruction of who we are. We've forgotten who we are.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Fourth New Book Excerpt: God's Love of His Own Majesty

I've been tinkering with a section of the chapter on "Species of Universalism," and it occurred to me that this section may be of interest to readers of this blog. Hence, I'm including it here. It has to do with God's love of His own majesty--a "holiness" that is often invoked as a divine motive for damning some sinners. We argue, on the contrary, that while there is a way of understanding God's love for His own majesty that is entirely consistent with a vision of God as defined essentially in terms of an agapic love or benevolence that wills the good of the other, this divine self-love would not serve as a motive for God willing that anyone be damned. On the contrary, it would favor universal salvation.

…on much traditional Christian theology, God’s love consists in more than benevolence, that is, in more than the sheer agapic love that is directed to creatures irrespective of their intrinsic worth, desiring to create good out of evil. God also has what has traditionally been called a “love of complacency”—that is, a love that is directly responsive to the merits of its object and that delights in what is intrinsically good. In other words, in addition to being a bestower of value, God is also a respecter of it. He recognizes and honors the intrinsic worth that something possesses because of what it is, because of its nature.

And while God’s benevolence is entirely directed outward, creatively bringing goods into existence and bestowing further goods on what He has created, His complacent love is directed to anything which has intrinsic worth. And while created things have such worth once they exist, the most intrinsically valuable thing of all is God Himself.

Let us briefly pause here to consider a possible misunderstanding concerning God’s complacent love of Himself. Specifically, there is nothing self-seeking, nothing egotistical, about complacent love. If God loves and delights in His own essence, it is not out of some sort of narcissism but because it is objectively right to do so. Part of what it means to be morally perfect is that one responds to that which is intrinsically valuable in the appropriate way—namely, by valuing it in proportion to its objective worth. But insofar as God’s objective worth is infinite, this means that it would be a moral failure on the part of God to fail to love Himself (with the love of complacency) with anything less than the most perfect delight and profoundest respect for His own merit.

We are convinced that all of this is consistent with holding that what renders God worthy of being the object of such limitless respect is, above all else, His boundless agapic love—that is, His perfect and unwavering benevolence, an overflowing, life-giving love that does not wait on worth. It seems to us that God would not be benevolent unless He valued benevolence itself. By implication, God could not be benevolent above all else unless He valued benevolence above all else, and hence valued its most perfect embodiment (Himself) higher than any flawed or restricted expressions of it. Hence, if God’s complacent love for Himself exceeds His complacent love for anything else, it is precisely because He values agapic love above all other things, and because it is God Himself who most perfectly embodies and expresses such love.

And to value something means, in part, standing up for it, insisting that its value be acknowledged and appreciated. Those who show disdain for or indifference to God (at least if they have anything approaching a proper understanding of God’s essence) are showing disdain for or indifference to benevolent love itself. God cannot be perfectly benevolent without being angered by such disdain or indifference to perfected benevolence.

These considerations lead us to the importance of including in a complete Christian account of DU some reference to God’s love of complacency for Himself. This love for His own perfection has been—and, we think, justifiably should be—considered a fundamental basis for God’s opposition to all sinfulness, insofar as sin involves a failure to value God as He ought to be valued. In fact, if God’s value is infinite, then any shortfall in the creature’s love of God must be an infinite shortfall. The failure to love God as one should is the failure to appreciate and value the ground of all love, all benevolence, all goodness. And it is a shortfall that is inevitably infinite in degree.

This offers, we think, the most plausible understanding of the traditional claim that sin is an affront to God’s majesty—not in the way that disobedience is an affront to the pretensions of a tyrant, but in the way enslavement is an affront to the real objective worth of a human person. To be in the presence of God while persisting in a state of sin is comparable to being in the presence of another human being, and yet to treat that person as if he or she were a mere thing to be used. It involves a failure to respond appropriately to the objective worth of the person with whom one is confronted.

This is something that a morally perfect being cannot tolerate. Hence, just as a morally good person becomes rightly angry when a human being is treated like a thing (just as I become angry when my child is teased or belittled; and just as I think my child ought to become angry on her own behalf when this happens), God becomes rightly angry when He is treated in a manner that falls short of what is fitting with respect to the ultimate source of all good and value. This may be the philosophical idea behind the ancient Jewish notion, captured in the following passage from Isaiah, that God will not allow the sinful creature to come into His presence until He Himself purifies the creature:

In the year that king Uz-zi’ah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a
throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the
seraphims: each one had six wings: with twain he covered his face, and with
twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto
another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is
full of his glory.

And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the
house was filled with smoke.
Then said I, Woe is me! For I am undone: because
I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean
lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.

Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand,
which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar: And he laid it upon my
mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken
away, and thy sin purged. (Isaiah 6:1-7)

This passage from Isaiah helps to highlight the key point we want to make in this section: While God’s complacent love for His own essence is often put forward as a reason God might be so wrathful at sin as to cast sinners into hell, we think it is more coherently invoked as a divine motive for responding to sin by purging it, by taking away the iniquity of sinners and so making them suitable for union with God--and it would be such a motive for each and every sinner, and so would be a motive for universal salvation.

We suspect that one reason why this implication is so frequently overlooked is because the notion of divine wrath is so often misconstrued in terms of our own confused relationship with human anger. Anger is a much maligned emotion, in part because it is so often associated with acts of violence. Those who abhor violence therefore will frequently extend their condemnation to anger itself--and, conversely, those who find their anger legitimate will often treat violence towards the object of their anger as justified.

But anger is not violent as such and need not be paired with violence. It is, instead, the emotional correlate of recognizing that a wrong has been done to someone (oneself or another). In ordinary human life anger also provides an impetus to respond to injustice. But the response need not be violent. That is, one can strongly say no to evil without doing violence to the agents of evil.

In fact, as Walter Wink has argued more than once, Jesus’ famous injunction to turn the other cheek can be understood as an example of how to take a firm stand against moral affronts to one’s person without striking back in kind. In other words, it is an example of how to express anger at injustice without doing violence. Wink thinks it is no accident that Jesus specifies that when one is struck on the right cheek (not the left one), one should present the other. The right cheek was the one that would, in Jesus’ day, be struck by a back-handed blow—the kind a master would deliver to a slave. To turn the other cheek would be to assert one’s dignity in the face of an insult to it, but without doing violence in kind.

Part of the point of responding to wrongs in this way is that this kind of response is more apt to work on the inner character of the wrongdoer. If I attack you and you attack me back, your counter-attack only tends to fuel my aggressive impulses, perhaps even causing me to see them as justified. If I attack you and you put up with it without complaint, or crumble before me, then I am inclined to experience contempt for you. My aggressive act presupposes that you lack the value of a person, and your response reinforces this false presupposition. But if I attack you and you take a strong, creative stand in defense of your dignity and worth, one that I cannot help but notice but which is not a counter-attack, my aggressiveness and contempt are challenged. I am called to question myself and how I am treating you.

Turning the other cheek, rather than striking out against the wrongdoer, strikes out against the wrong and the ideas and attitudes that lie behind it. And this, if we are to believe Jesus’ words, is the truly moral response to affronts to one’s dignity. We should neither let them stand unchallenged nor strike back in kind. Instead, we should repudiate the wrong clearly and powerfully and in a way that has the potential to jolt the wrongdoer into recognizing what he or she is doing as the wrong that it is. The aim is not to beat the wrongdoer down but to move the wrongdoer into a psychological place in which repentance and remorse become possible.

And if we think about it carefully, this aim only makes sense. If someone behaves towards me in a way that fails to show respect for my real value, this is a serious wrong against me, and I should feel justifiably angry about not being valued as I should. But if I respond by beating the wrongdoer to a bloody pulp, what will be the effect? Among other things, the wrongdoer will most likely become entrenched in a hateful or resentful attitude towards me that fails to show respect for my inherent dignity and worth. I have responded to the crime of someone failing to value me as I deserve by ensuring that this crime continues unabated in the wrongdoer’s heart. Such a response is incoherent—but the incoherence lies not with my initial anger at having been wronged, but in my violent response.

So what does all of this entail with respect to God and His complacent love for Himself?

If God loves His own essence, then He loves the love of it and hates the hatred of it (or even indifference to it). As such, God would have a powerful motive to expunge all hatred of His essence and replace it with love. That is, He would have a powerful motive to respond to affronts to His dignity in ways that inspire repentance and remorse—in other words, that bring about conversion. If God has a complacent love for Himself that stands opposed to all disdain for His value, then it seems God would want to convert every sinner, especially those who most flagrantly offend His majesty. As Thomas Talbott has pointed out, insofar as DH implies that the damned never repent and forever reject God, DH commits one to the view that hatred of God is never fully stamped out, but persists forever in the souls of the damned. This outcome would seem to be an intolerable affront to God’s love for His own majesty. That very love can therefore be thought to be a motive for His willing the salvation of all. Only when all are saved is God’s majesty respected as it ought to be.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Opening Night...

Tonight is opening night. I’m anxious and distracted and excited. I must confess, also, to caring a bit too much about how the audiences will perceive me. But I pray that these impulses will move aside for something more important.

Let me explain. For the last couple of months I’ve been rehearsing most evenings for a production of “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” a play based on Robert Fulghum’s bestselling books.

The play is really an evening of theatrical storytelling, combined with several musical numbers. Fulghum’s essays generally aim to extract practical wisdom—that is, how-should-I-live-my-life sort of wisdom—from familiar events. With humor and insight, Fulghum tries to find deeper meanings in ordinary events—or, sometimes, to use extraordinary events to draw out life lessons that can apply to all of us. In the play the actors slip freely between role-playing and narration (occasionally bursting into song) in order to bring these stories and their lessons to life. The actor’s words closely follow Fulghum’s original language, with some adjustments made for the theatrical format.

If the stories selected for the play share a unifying theme, that theme is captured in the final scene of the play, in which the entire cast shares the answer that philosopher and politician Alexander Papaderos gave when Fughum asked him, “What is the meaning of life?”

When asked this question, Papaderos responds by taking out a small mirror—one that he’s had since childhood. He explains that he found it at the scene of motorcycle wreck, the largest piece of a broken mirror which he made round by scratching against a stone. As he grew up he kept the mirror, and it became a game for him to try to reflect light into dark places—a game that became, as he matured, a metaphor for how he could live his life.

As recounted by Fulghum (and recited in the play), Papaderos concludes his narrative in the following way: “I came to understand that I am not the Light, nor am I the source of Light. But Light—truth, understanding, knowledge—is there, and it will only shine in many dark places if I reflect it. I am a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have I can reflect light into the dark places of this world—into the dark places in the hearts of men—and change some things in some people. Perhaps, others may see and do likewise. This is what I am about. This is the meaning of my life.”

I find this beautiful. I also find it deeply religious. This is not to say that secularists and atheists cannot hear these words, find them insightful, and live in a way that “reflects the light.” And I am deeply conscious of how some souls become darkened by doctrines and attitutes taught to them in churches--and who act in the name of faith in ways that seem to serve no purpose other than to block the light, to keep it from shining into the darkness.

But when I think of religion, what I think of first is a way of seeing the world, a way of being in the world, that acknowledges a transcendent mystery far greater than us, an ultimate reality which we open ourselves up to, and which can work through us to bring light into the darkness. What else but this lies at the heart of St. Francis’ exquisite prayer?

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Here, in the form of a prayer, is the very same message that Papaderos shared with Robert Fulghum, when the latter had the audacity to ask him about the meaning of life.

And it is the very same message that I and my fellow cast members will have the privilege to share with audiences over the next two weeks. Papaderos reflected the light that came into his life, sending it onward in profound ways; Fulghum captured a piece of it and sent it onwards. Now, in the words of a play, it has come to illuminate my little corner of the world.

And my prayer is that I will continue that process—that when I sing “Reflect the Light” each night, or play a Kindergartner given his wish of playing “a dancing, barking pig” in the story of Cinderella, it will be something more than a narcissistic exercise or an entertaining diversion. That somehow, even in a little community theatre, in some small way, we can help bring light to the dark places.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Most Saintly Thing the Pope Could Do...

In today's Religion Dispatches, Frances Kissling and I offer opposing views on the merits of the recent New Atheist call to arrest the Pope.

In my article, I argue that an arrest-the-Pope campaign, if it is launched by the avowed ideological enemies of all things theistic and religious (including, of course, the Catholic Church), will only inspire the Church to become more entrenched in its defensive "we-are-under-assault-by-the-forces-of-Godless-secularism" stance. And entrenchment in that stance can only hurt efforts to pressure the Church to take the steps that, morally, it must take. Frances Kissling, in her opposing piece, argues that the Church has proven itself incapable of the moral responsibility necessary to root out abuse, and will do what needs to be done only in the face of the kind of strong legal actions that Dawkins and Hitchens advocate.

I see and understand this opposing viewpoint. In fact, as I confess in my essay, I have had some arrest-the-Pope fantasies of my own. But I'm still convinced that a legal move like this will do nothing but harm unless (a) it is based on truly compelling evidence that the current Pope was in fact guilty of criminal obstruction of justice, and (b) the impetus behind the move originates somewhere other than among the most publicly recognized leaders of a movement defined by overt hostility to all things theistic and religious.

That said, however, I think there is something to be said for the Pope suffering the penalty for the unquestionable crimes--the widespread and horrific abuse of children and the equally widespread instinct to cover up and minimize the abuse--perpetrated by officials of the Church he leads. More precisely, I think there is something to be said for the Pope volunteering to take on this penalty.

The Roman Catholic Church embraces the doctrine of Vicarious Atonement--that is, the doctrine that Jesus, who was himself innocent, bore on behalf of a sinful humanity the punishment due us for our sins. As the supreme pontiff of the institution that takes itself to be the true inheritor and preserver of the divine revelation that took place in Jesus of Nazareth, the Pope of all people should follow in the footsteps of Christ. And those who would be followers of Christ are sometimes called to take up a cross of their own.

I think there is good reason to think that, as a Cardinal, Ratzinger was actually one of those in the Church who advocated for a stronger response to child abuse cases than the Church actually pursued. While I certainly won't claim that he was wholly innocent, I am confident that he did not molest anyone. But what would it say if the Pope presented himself to secular authorities, asking to be held legally accountable for the crimes of all those pedophile priests? What would it say if, motivated by his own moral horror at what has been done, Pope Benedict XVI took it upon himself to do penance, vicariously, for every priest in his fold who raped a child, for every bishop who quietly reassigned a pedophile and thus left him free to molest again?

In the face of what has been done, it might just be the most saintly thing the Pope could do.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

New Religion Dispatches Essay

For those interested, I have a new feature in today's Religion Dispatches. In the essay, I use the Soulforce Equality Ride and the recent legislative attempts in Oklahoma to block the force of the Matthew Shepard Act as a springboard to reflect on why some conservatives are so resistant to having gay bashing classified as a hate crime.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Third New Book Excerpt: Atonement-Based Theories of Universal Salvation

I am presently working on the chapter of That Damned Book in which we consider species of "DU" (the Doctrine of Universalism). Our strategy is to distinguish species of DU according to two parameters: first, in terms of what is taken to be God's motive for willing the salvation of all (or, in terms we borrow from the Lutheran Orthodox, in terms of God's "impelling cause" for saving all); second, in terms of the means God uses to bring it about that all sinners are reformed in the ways necessary for enjoying the beatific vision.

So, we divide this chapter into two main sections--one which distinguishes species of DU according to God's motives or impelling causes for saving all, the other according to God's means of saving all. The excerpt below falls in the former section. In that section we identify five sub-species of DU, which I will lay out here to provide context:

IU1: God is motivated to save all through His sheer benevolence
IU2: God is motivated to save all by virtue of Christ's Atonement
IU3: God is motivated to save all out of His "complacent love" for Himself
IU4: God is motivated to save all out of His "compacent love" for creatures.
IU5: God is motivated by several or all of the motives identified in IU1-IU4.

After discussing versions of DU that appeal to God's benevolence alone as the motive for God's desire to save all, we turn to IU2. In the earlier draft of this chapter, this section was substantially shorter, but I felt moved to expand it a fair bit (but still not nearly enough to provide a fully adequate exposition of the various species of Atonement Theory discussed). I share it here in part because it relates to some themes that come up in the first excerpt I posted a few weeks back. Since this is very much a work in progress, feel free to make suggestions for refining it.

The first and most obvious reason why IU1 might be incomplete, at least from a Christian perspective, is that Christians believe Christ’s Atonement plays a central role in salvation. Christians might therefore worry that appealing to God’s “naked” benevolence as the sole motive of our salvation, without reference to the Atonement, risks making Christ’s work irrelevant. Now we have already pointed out in Chapter 1 the problem with this worry. As we put it there, one may be convinced that a good God wants to save all, can do so, and hence will, without so much as considering the specific steps God might take or need to take in order to do so—and hence without considering whether the means He used (or had to use) are those Christians affirm.

And so it seems one might hold that God’s motive for saving all is nothing other than His benevolence, but then go on to argue that the Atonement is the necessary means of saving all, thereby ensuring that Christ’s work is not irrelevant.

But while this strikes us as correct as far as it goes, it is not the whole story because, on some of the most influential versions of Atonement doctrine, Christ’s Atonement can be taken as a “means” of salvation only in a very special sense. Specifically, it is the means whereby it becomes morally fitting for God to will the salvation of sinners. Rather than serving as the means whereby God actually brings about the salvation of sinners, the Atonement serves as the means whereby God becomes reconciled to sinners so as to be able to will their salvation as an end.

In the taxonomy of DU we’re developing here, when we distinguish species according to God’s means of saving all our focus will be on alternative ways that God might go about converting sinners (that is, bringing it about that they are subjectively capable of enjoying the blessings of heaven), not those means He might employ to harmonize His moral motives with respect to the sinner.

Now there certainly are important understandings of the Atonement which take Christ’s work to serve primarily as a means of converting sinners. For example, the “moral influence” view of the Atonement promulgated by Abelard and taken up by a number of later progressive theologians treats Christ’s life, crucifixion, and resurrection as offering a moral lesson intended to awaken sinners to the gravity of their sin and so inspire repentance. On this construal, the Atonement might well be understood as a means of bringing about the conversion and salvation of the sinner. But if so, either it is efficacious in the sense that it irresistibly brings about conversion (at least when God fully employs it by, say, vividly presenting to the sinner the full significance of Christ’s death on the cross), or it is resistible by the exercise of the sinner’s free choice and can only be used as one strategy among others to wear away at the sinner’s resistance over time. These alternatives exactly parallel the means of salvation we will explicate in the next section. Hence, if the Atonement is construed in this way, it can be readily folded into the means of salvation we discuss in the next section.

But the most historically influential theories of the Atonement have conceived of it, not as a causal means used by God to convert sinners, but as a means whereby God’s motives for rejecting sinners—motives which would otherwise impede Him from acting on His prima facie will to save sinners—are done away with. In other words, the most historically influential Atonement theories presuppose that God has morally compelling motives which conflict with the benevolent ones that would otherwise motivate him to save sinners. But while these Atonement theories posit such conflicting motives, they also conceive of the Atonement as a means of overcoming the conflict, and hence of clearing the way for God’s benevolence to operate unimpeded.

The point, in other words, is that there might be a distinctively Christian species of DU according to which (in the helpful technical terminology of the Lutheran Orthodox) God possesses more than one impelling cause for willing the salvation of all. In addition to the “internal impelling cause” of our salvation found in God’s sheer unmerited benevolence (IU1), one might take there also to be an “external impelling cause” found in the all-sufficient Atonement of Christ (IU2). What this external impelling cause does, however, is bring it about that a divine reason not to save all—what we might call a “salvation-impeding divine motive”—is done away with.

Perhaps the most dominant strain of thought on the Atonement follows Anselm in holding that the salvation-impeding motive in question is God’s need to meet the demands of retributive justice. Many if not most who ascribe to this Anselmian "penal-substitutionary" view conceive of God’s justice as a separate attribute from His love, one that places limits on the appropriate expression of it. Put simply (and overlooking differences of detail), the idea is that sinners come to deserve eternal punishment because in offending an infinite God they have committed a crime of infinite severity. The Atonement is God’s means of vicariously meeting the demands of justice, thereby sweeping away a moral impediment that would have otherwise barred Him from willing the sinner’s salvation. Because Christ was fully God, what He endured on the cross had the infinite worth necessary to atone for sins of infinite gravity. Because He was fully human, what he endured could be offered up on behalf of humanity as the payment for humanity’s sinfulness. And because Christ’s atoning work fully satisfies the demands of justice, God is free to act on His benevolent desire to save sinners without thereby offending the demands of justice (a reconciliation of motives that itself has its origins in God’s love).

Does this Anselmian doctrine, with its introduction of divine justice as a distinct trait separate from God’s love, rule out DU? On the contrary, we will argue in Chapter 4 that those who seek to justify DH by appeal to the demands of divine justice actually confront a compelling challenge to their view in the Anselmian theory of the Atonement and its later development (especially among the Lutheran Orthodox). We argue, in effect, that even if divine justice is taken to be a distinct motive apart from God’s benevolence that places constraints on the exercise of the latter, any view of divine justice according to which eternal damnation is the appropriate penalty for sin would actually call for something like a vicarious Atonement—which in turn would remove any impediment to God’s saving all stemming from the demands of justice. In short, we think there can be a distinctly Anselmian species of DU, one which holds that, because Christ satisfied the demands of justice on the cross, God is free to act on His limitless benevolence to pursue the salvation of all.

But to say that an Anselmian version of DU falling under IU2 is possible is not to say that such a version is the best Christian version of DU. In fact, there have been many Christian critics of Anselm’s understand of the Atonement, and as such many who would be loathe to accept IU2 if it meant allegiance to some variant of the penal-substitutionary Atonement theory.

Reasons for criticizing the Anselmian theory are numerous. Some reject it on the basis of its separation of divine justice from divine love, holding instead (with, for example, Karl Barth) that divine justice should be understood as an expression or manifestation of divine love. Others object to it because the theory makes the crucifixion into something orchestrated by God in such a way that we can no longer treat it as we ought to, namely as a wrong done by humanity to the incarnate God. Still others argue that this model of the Atonement is premised on the moral acceptability of retributive violence, and so is at odds with important New Testament themes testifying to an ethic of nonviolence.

While we have some sympathy with all of these objections, we also think it is possible to construct a variant of the Anselmian theory that avoids them—a variant we find nascent in some of the things said by Luther and later Lutheran theologians. On this neo-Lutheran theory, the key impediment to saving sinners is not that justice demands of God the infliction of retributive suffering. Rather, the key impediment lies in features of the moral character of reformed sinners.

The idea, roughly, is that sinners cannot come fully into God’s presence—which entails both truly understanding and aligning ourselves with the good—without both (a) becoming perfectly conscious of the full weight and magnitude of our past sinfulness (our guilt), and (b) becoming the kind of people who take responsibility for our past errors (who do penance—which is what divine justice really calls for, as opposed to the mere external infliction of hardship). That is, when we are morally perfected through the beatific vision, our past sins do not and cannot just go away as if they never existed. On the contrary, for sinners such as ourselves to become sanctified means, in part, coming to fully understand our guilt and feel a pressing moral need to make it right—and so to diligently pursue penance for the wrongs we have done.

But here is the problem: We can’t make it right, because nothing we as finite beings can do would be sufficient to atone for wronging the infinitely benevolent creator of all. And as such, the guilt we bear is more than we can bear. And so, in the absence of some kind of profound divine intervention, coming into the presence of God (which, of course, is the essential element of salvation) would lead us to care so much about the good and to take such responsibility for our sins that we would toil for eternity to make up for offenses we could never succeed in making up for. And so, paradoxically, for anyone who has sinned—in other words, for all of us—salvation would be hell.

Put simply, the guilt we have accrued for our sinfulness is too great for us to bear ourselves. And so God, in His perfect benevolence, finds a way to bear it for us on the cross.

It isn’t our purpose here to explain how Christ can vicariously bear our guilt and perform on our behalf the penance we’d otherwise feel compelled to attempt despite its fruitlessness. Our point here is simply to highlight another version of vicarious, “substitutionary” Atonement theory, one in which the brutality of the crucifixion is not conceived as something orchestrated by God on the grounds that penal violence is morally required to satisfy a divine justice divorced from His love. On this view it is quite possible to see the crucifixion as something that we humans do to Christ precisely in response to His sanctity and benevolence, precisely because we cannot bear the burden of guilt we would experience were we to truly internalize what it means to be as good as we ought to be, as good as Christ calls us to be, as good as we intuitively recognize Him to be. We reject and nail Christ to a cross rather than face the magnitude of our sin. This isn’t something God does to Christ to satisfy the demands of justice. Rather, it is something we do to Christ to avoid having to bear the burden of our sin.

What God does, in response, is turn our violence on its head, making of it a penance on our behalf. Because we cannot bear our guilt, we nail Christ to the cross. And Christ makes of that crime an opportunity to bear our guilt in truth. The ultimate sin of killing the Incarnate God is transformed, through a kind of divine moral jujitsu, into the sufficient atonement for that very sin. By deciding to treat our crime against Him as a penance for that very crime, Christ makes it possible for us to “wear His cloak of righteousness” over our own sin (to borrow Luther’s language) as we come into the presence of God, and so to experience the beatific vision without being overwhelmed by our own guilt.

There are many details which would need to be worked out in order for such a view of the Atonement to be wholly defensible. The point we want to make here, however, is that like the Anselmian theory, this neo-Lutheran variant holds that a vicarious Atonement clears away an impediment to God’s willing the salvation of all. For Anselm, the impediment is the moral demand that an infinite punishment be imposed in response to sin. On the neo-Lutheran view, the impediment is that sinners who become sanctified experience a responsibility and need for penance too vast to bear. The same divine love that inspires God to wish to impart the beatific vision also precludes Him from imposing on us a burden we could never conceivably bear—and that is what granting us the beatific vision would entail in the absence of a vicarious Atonement. What the Atonement does, then, is lift away a moral impediment to God’s willing that sinners be granted the beatific vision—an impediment rooted in divine love, conflicting with another urging of divine love, and overcome by divine love.

What this shows, we think, is that even those universalists who have serious objections to the Anselmian theory might nevertheless embrace a version of IU2 that takes seriously a kind of substitutionary Atonement. But there is even more to be said here, because the Anselmian theory is not the only Atonement theory which might ground a species of IU2. Specifically, we think a species of IU2 can be grounded on the oldest Atonement theory, endorsed by the early Church Fathers and sometimes called the “Ransom” theory, which views Christ’s suffering and death as a ransom paid to the forces of evil in order to liberate sinners from bondage to those forces.

While there are different ways of working out this theory, including Gustav Aulen’s “Christus Victor” approach, one possibility (metaphorically promulgated by C.S. Lewis in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe) is to see the forces of evil as having acquired a legitimate claim over sinners. One might imagine that sinners have, by an exercise of will, made a more or less metaphorical contract with the Devil. We have used the freedom God gave us, the freedom to make decisions about the disposition of our own lives, in the most self-destructive way imaginable: handing our lives over to das Nichtige (“the Nothingness,” Barth’s term for the palpable force of nonbeing that is God’s ultimate adversary) in exchange for ephemeral or imaginary goods. And insofar as God has given us a real right over our own lives, our act of giving those lives over to the forces of darkness thereby confers upon those forces a claim upon us that God cannot legitimately ignore.

To pursue our salvation in defiance of that claim (which an omnipotent God would certainly have the power to do) would be less than morally perfect. And so God, being morally perfect, becomes incarnate and offers Himself to be crucified in exchange for releasing humanity from bondage. And once we are released, the moral impediment which stands in the way of God pursuing our salvation is lifted. Once again on this view, the universalist could argue that this impediment is wholly lifted—thereby endorsing a species of IU2 according to which, by virtue of the ransom Christ paid for our souls, there is nothing that impedes God from willing the salvation of all.

In short, there are numerous ways of understanding the Atonement, several of which could be incorporated into species of DU falling under IU2—but not, we think, divorced from IU1. For even if Christ’s Atonement is conceived as operating on God’s motives (rather than serving as a tool to convert sinners), the way in which it does so is by clearing away a conflict in God’s motives such that God’s benevolence is free to act unimpeded on the sinner’s behalf.