James K.A. Smith weighs in on evangelical universalism

In his response to an article on the Rob Bell debate, Jamie Smith raised a couple of important points. First, he summarized the “hermeneutic” of evangelical universalists (those that argue that all people will be reconciled to God through Christ, regardless of their faith in this life) as having two basic commitments that shape their view of God:

  1. “I can’t imagine” that a God of love would condemn Gandhi to hell.” He notes that this is close to a justification by works approach and points to a good column by Catholic New York Times Ross Douthat on this subject, and notes that “The “I-can’t-imagine” argument makes man the measure of God, or at least seems to let the limits and constraints of “my” imagination trump the authority of Scripture and interpretation. I take it that discipleship means submitting even my imagination to the discipline of Scripture. (Indeed, could anything be more countercultural right now than Jonathan Edwards’ radical theocentrism, with all its attendant scandals for our modern sensibilities?)”
  2. “I don’t know if all will be saved but I hope this will be true.”

It’s Smith’s response to this second claim that makes his brief post one of the best responses that I’ve read in this controversy:

The “at-least-I-hope” strategy might seem less problematic. Doesn’t it just name what all of us secretly desire? Indeed, wouldn’t we be quite inhuman if we didn’t hope in this way?…

But whence this hope? Can our hopes ever be wrong? Let’s try an analogous example: I love my wife dearly. She is the best thing that ever happened to me, and our marriage has been an incredible means of grace in my life. I can’t imagine life without her; indeed, I don’t want to imagine life without her. And I want to hope that we will share this intimacy as a husband and wife forever.

But then I run into this claim from Jesus: “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Matt. 22:30). Should I nonetheless hope that marriage endures in eternity? Should I profess that I can’t know this (since Scripture seems to suggest otherwise), but nonetheless claim that somehow hoping it might be true is still faithful? Or should I submit even my hopes to discipline by the authority of Scripture?

The new universalism is not the old universalism. Fair enough. But those of us who reject even the new universalism aren’t gleeful about it. We might even wish it were otherwise. But we also recognize that even our wishes, hopes, and desires need discipline.

Smith’s post also contains this passage. I just like the phrase “theological Burkean”:

Are these hopes and imaginings sufficient for me to set aside centuries of the church’s theological reflection on these matters? Is my chronological snobbery warranted? Just how do I think my hopes and imaginings are somehow more faithful and merciful and just than the generations upon generations of my forebears in the Christian faith? (I’ll confess to being a kind of theological Burkean: it’s very hard for me to imagine that I am smarter or better than Augustine or John Calvin or Jonathan Edwards. I’m not generally given to whiggish theology.)

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3 comments

  1. “it’s very hard for me to imagine that I am smarter or better than Augustine or John Calvin or Jonathan Edwards.”

    And yet the paradox is that every single Protestant alive does just that. They don’t believe anyone identifiable who lived before 1500 really understood Scripture like they do. Heck, what Augustine believed to be Scripture is so anathema to modern Protestants that a publisher can’t even print a authentic reproduction of the original King James Bible for the masses. A recent “facsimile” reproduction of the King James Bible to celebrate its 400th anniversary dropped the deuterocanonicals, yet included 100 pages of genealogies and other front matter.
    http://www.amazon.com/Holy-Bible-1611-James-Version/dp/0310440297/
    I saw this “exact replica” at Walmart and was floored to find that it wasn’t so exact… until I saw the publisher and realized who the target audience is. Still, it is disappointing to see history whitewashed in this way.

    I don’t know whether Mr. Smith thinks he is better or smarter than Augustine, but I’d be surprised if I couldn’t find dozens of examples (similar to the above) of Christian doctrine and practice where Mr. Smith thinks he has a better understanding than Augustine, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Cyril of Alexandria et. al.

  2. It is a shame to nominally reproduce the original King James Bible with parts missing. It’s like they are trying to obviate critical thought on the topic.

    “Can hope be wrong?” seems to setup a straw man since it’s evident that truth trumps hope (or imagination or theory). But do we define that truth by tradition or our own exegesis? Even orthodoxy is still hermeneutics that has grown over time.

    Too bad we can’t simply define truth by objective, empirical, and reproducible experiment; derive it from the reality that is constantly in our faces. Yet even then it has taken humans thousands of years to identify usable models (a.k.a. truth) and we don’t blame our ancestors for not recognizing it sooner.

    I agree with Smith insofar as it is perilous to ignore God and His Word, but it can be just as perilous to stop at an interpretation that leaves us with an inconsistent view of God or a morality we do not understand, because we will then reason and extrapolate from our lack of understanding even unto the most grotesque results.

    Ross Douthat makes a great point about free will: “If there’s no possibility of saying no to paradise then none of our no’s have any real meaning either.” But I wonder if he isn’t over-simplifying — must paradise be the only option if an eternally torturous hell doesn’t exist?

    Similarly, if free will is so essential as I believe it is, after Smith and his wife are resurrected could they not choose to be together forever?

    Or perhaps it’s not important to have such answers yet.

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