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:
- “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?)”
- “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.)