In Search of a Coherent Narrative
Part 7: A Systematic Understanding of Universalism
All right, it has been nearly two years since I last added to this series. Thanks to a reminder from a reader on a previous part, I was reminded of the fact that I had not finished it! Life tends to get in the way, but hey, that is what life is about after all.
So far we have discussed problems with Arminianism and Free Will, problems with Calvinistic predestination, then we talked about the many scriptural evidences for Universalism as a viable option. Now I would like to look at how Universalism could work as a narrative.
As you can probably tell by reading through the series, I do tend to subscribe to a deterministic understanding of Universalism due to the many reasons outlined in previous posts. However I must note that many, many people who believe an evangelical Biblical-focused version of Universalism do accept the notion of Libertarian Freewill. But, how is that possible? I mean, if God does not have control over whether all people get saved or not, then how can you be a Universalist? Well, they basically say that although there is a lack of certainty that God will save everyone, they believe that in the aions of eternity God will not give up – His love for and pursuit for us is forever. Basically, if you roll the dice for infinity then you will eventually get the odds you were hoping for and all people will be convinced over to God’s side.
Anyways, that is not the type of Universalism that I will be talking about in this post. I don’t believe that Libertarian Freewill makes functional sense and therefore alternatively I will attempt to pull together an understanding of how a deterministic interpretation of Universalism could fit together.
Putting aside the Scriptural evidences for it in previous posts, Universalism for me provides a beautiful narrative that carries the hope that all people will be restored to God and that we can one day live in harmony with each other. It also makes philosophical sense in that Everything can be united in God and His goodness - the original Cause (this is probably another series in itself). Everything needs to have its beginning and end in God, for all things are from Him, through Him and for Him (Romans 11). It makes no sense to me that Evil and death would rule in a “Universe” consummated in God and His goodness. Universalism also can explain why evil could exist at the same time as God’s goodness without diminishing the power of God and His subjection to the will of man.
In short, The reason I subscribe to a deterministic understanding of the world (other than scripture) is due to my belief that a causal chain or web (“this” caused “that” and so on and so forth) is the most logical way to view the world. Eventually everything must stem from the uncaused Cause i.e. God. Libertarian Free Will as some kind of reality distinct from the uncaused Cause just doesn’t make sense in any way to me as illustrated in Part 3. The only alternative I see at this stage is determinism.
In this article I illustrate how a Deterministic Universalism narrative could work in three areas pertaining to Christianity. I have chosen these three distinct areas because they answer how I believe Universalism has a better way of narrating the world we live in than Arminianism or Calvinism. These three areas also address potential objections to Deterministic Universalism which you may find useful. These areas are:
- Molded Over Time. Looking at who deserves to be saved and who doesn’t, and exploring how God works on us over time.
- The Greater Good. Here I focus on addressing the “problem” of evil and why the existence of evil is necessary and valuable.
- Responsibility. Am I really responsible for evil if God caused me to be evil?
MOLDED OVER TIME
I would like to begin with a thought experiment - What or who defines who we are?
Are you the you 5 years ago? 10 years ago? Or are you the real you right now? Or are you the you of past, present and future forms of yourself all at the same time? Some people may consider others like Hitler (Yes I have heard it) never being worthy or able to be saved because of how horrible he was. Yet, who is “Hitler”? Hitler the boy? Hitler the adult? Or Hitler in 10,000 years-time, or something else?
My point is, only God our Maker knows the ins and outs of the fabric of our being, that is, who He determined us to be through the aions of time and also our potential. Who are we to say who at any point in their lives are not worthy of or able to be saved? Are we their Maker therefore knowing all their potential? Definitely not!
Could it be that God has designed people like Hitler to be a prime example to themselves and others as a recipient of grace and mercy in action - the greatest good? I mean, sometimes wicked people become the greatest helpers in history. Take the New Testament Paul or even people like John Newton. It is often their stories that inspire others to do and value what is good. Could not God be continually working on those not yet saved, through the aions of time, weaving their own unique story that only they could be the protagonist of?
Our unique strengths and weaknesses that make us who we are ensures that we are truly individuals as God has deemed us to be. If God only made the people with “good” characters, then there would be less diversity because the people with more “difficult” characters would not exist.
All people are worth saving, not just the “good” ones. Jesus said that he did not come for the healthy but for the sick. God made you… and me, as we are. We would not exist as we know ourselves if evil did not exist – we would not be us.
Romans 9 illustrates a helpful picture of how God works with us. God is seen as a potter moulding vessels (us) on a potter’s wheel. Some of us may spend a longer time on the potter’s wheel depending on the raw materials God has created our unique essence to be, but all are valuable. God has made us unique like none other. It is through a process of time, like a potter moulding clay, that God is forming us into His perfect image. It could be that our nature at creation will determine the methods and tools necessary that God will use to form us into the vessel He aims to make, with all the intricate detail that makes up who we are.
Basically, we ourselves would not exist as we know it (or not at all) if evil did not exist – we would not really be us – who we are today.
THE GREATER GOOD
I cannot talk about the above without talking about this aspect of Universalism. Yes, “the greater good” sounds like a catch phrase from Hot Fuzz, but it is something that we all implement in our lives. We sacrifice something for a greater good. Suffering can be much the same.
For the Arminianist, the greater “good” is that people have Free Will even though it fosters evil in themselves and those around them. Evil is seen as an unfortunate by product of Free Will. Free Will is the ultimate good, not “goodness”.
For the Calvinist, God’s sovereignty and symbolic judgement of evil is what is the greatest good. Although in some sense this is an apparently honourable view of God, like when Faramir bravely followed orders and rode against the hordes of orcs in the Lord of the Rings. However, it leaves much to be desired in order to be convinced that Faramir was in fact truly “good” for leading his soldiers on a suicide mission.
I have a rather different understanding of what the greater good could look like through Deterministic Universalism. It involves trust in our Creator, much like Faramir trusted his father, but not without attempting to understand what may be the reasons behind God’s actions in light of eternity.
Some of you may be thinking like the above section “If God wants to create robots that expressed His goodness then why not only create good people? Why make people with the potential to be evil at all?” Yet, If God is wanting the greatest expression of what is good, then in theory He would (by natural and necessary reflection of His nature) create a world where the greatest possible good can be a reality.
If you imagine a perfect world, it commonly would include a world without suffering and sadness… a world without evil. But, what is missing? In fact much is missing from this imaginary world. It is not just evil that is missing, but also good. Without the existence of evil, we would not have greater forms of good such as – Mercy, Forgiveness, Self-Sacrifice and love in the face of suffering etc. They would not even exist. We would not experience the sensation of being forgiven or forgiving others which can build deeper and more meaningful relationships with others.
Jesus said in Luke 6 “32“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them.33And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
Take one of the most popular songs (by John Newton) in the western world:
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see…”
Notice what Jesus and John Newton are expressing?
The song Amazing Grace was written by John Newton - an ex-slave trader - who when he realised what he had done wrote this song. It resonates in many of our souls today because we all have done things we regret and are able to appreciate the mercy bestowed on us by God… and others.
What I am saying is, is that it is NECESSARY for evil to exist for the GREATEST FORM OF GOOD to exist. We wouldn’t have the greatest love story of Jesus Christ dying on the cross as an example for us to live by if there were no evil. Through the existence of evil we now can experience the true value of goodness in our lives. We even see this in our day to day cares. We experience being hungry which can be an uncomfortable feeling. Only once we have experienced being hungry do we truly value eating food. Likewise, if we have never experienced evil, then how can we truly experience or value what is good.
So some of you may be wondering how we can be responsible for our wrong doings if God determined us to do them.
I think the problem comes with an age old understanding of responsibility in the context of Free Will. We tend to think that an evil act must be paid for because a person has freely chosen to do something evil and therefore must be punished in order to appease an abstract justice system.
I tend to interpret responsibility more as an identification of where something or someone has gone wrong. Instead of seeing an individual as having freely chosen to do an evil act, I must ask what brought them to choose to do such and act. Doing this will hopefully get to the root issues, rather than issuing justice through a form of using fear-based punishment. A more sincere world would be where people choose to do good because they saw the value in it and wanted it, rather than doing it because they have to.
So if we have done evil, then yes, we are responsible. Not because we freely chose to do it, but because it is something in our character that needs to be addressed. It may be that a form of punishment is necessary for correction, but not because of some arbitrary sense of justice that has to be appeased. Looking at human responsibility like this helps me to be more empathetic towards others, while at the same time not overlooking the need to change unhelpful behaviour.
The Universalism I am advocating pulls together the logical prowess of Calvinism, while also grasping the Arminianist understanding that God wants to save everyone. Which I feel provides us with the best of both worlds.
It may be difficult for many to come to grips with a deterministic understanding of the world, simply because of the cultural messages about Free Will/Freedom we have all been subjected to through various movies and songs. It may take some time for us to look anew at scripture passages that we have been taught to read in a particular way. It may take some time for us to explore for ourselves the possibility of Universalism being a reality – please do so.
I do not pretend to have wiped away all problems of evil. I do not know why God would allow certain horrible situations to happen where I cannot see a possible justifiable greater good to come from it, but it at least provides hope through the darkest of times.
Philosophers like Voltaire and Bertrand Russell may have a problem with this way of looking at things. They critiqued philosopher Leibniz’s idea that God has created the best of all possible worlds. They claimed things like – there is too much evil in the world to deem it as being the “best”; and if evil exists in the best of all possible worlds, then why should we even try to combat evil? After all, evil is a part of God’s best of all possible worlds.
Poignant thoughts… yet, on the contrary, believing that God created good and evil does not necessarily mean that I value evil (or the amount of it) in and of itself, but instead value the Process of overcoming evil which then allows the greatest forms of good to come into effect.
Seeing the world in a more deterministic hopeful way enables me to trust God more than I ever did before. God is not at the mercy of mankind’s Free Will, nor am I at the mercy of my own or other’s “Free “actions. Instead, I am free to be who God made me to be. It helps me to feel more compassionate for others and to remain more positive in negative situations. It also gives me more confidence to share the good news of the gospel, because I am not sharing it through a sense of imminent defeat. Ultimately, I can confidently do God’s work knowing that each and every small and large action, do actually matter in the grand scheme of things.
Thank you for reading, and I hope you have enjoyed the series. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask.