What is the best possible ending for the biblical story?
More specifically, does universal salvation provide a better ending for the story than the more common view of limited entrance into the eternal Kingdom of God?
I have to say at the outset that, despite my arguments against universalism, I feel the force of the question and at times find myself drawn toward a more universalistic anticipation of the future. Those thoughts are driven, not by a denial of how badly humans have gotten God’s story wrong here on earth, but by an affirmation of the largess of God’s saving grace: if saving some is good, how much better is saving all?
But when I step back from this, I consider that the better ending of God’s saving story is not numerically universal in scope. (If I use the term “universalism” in this discussion, it will mean “every human being who has ever lived entering into the eternal salvation, in resurrected bodies upon the new creation, that was accomplished in Christ.”)
I have two main thoughts about why a limited final salvation, which seems to me to be better attested in scripture than its alternatives, is a better ending to the story than universalism. Both of these thoughts have to do, in some respect, with the idea that stories are immanently more compelling when their scenes are connected and related to one another.
In the end, deus ex machina renders the antecedent story irrelevant.
Life Echoing to Eternity
Jesus’ first words of public proclamation are, “Repent, for the Reign of God has drawn near!” The Reign (or Kingdom) of God is sometimes depicted as what is arriving with Jesus’ advent, and sometimes as what we wait for in the restoration of all things.
With this, we catch a clear indication that the present as it has been inaugurated in Christ is inseparable from the future that God is bringing about through him. Or, in the words of Maximus the Gladiator, “What we do in life echoes in eternity.”
This connection between the works of this life and our eternal destiny is a consistent theme in the message of the New Testament in general and in Jesus’ teaching in particular. The famous sheep and goats scene of Matthew 25 speaks of a final judgment in which visiting the prisoner, feeding the hungry, and giving drink to the thirsty are indications, on earth, of being children of the kingdom—which means entering the kingdom of the king for all eternity.
Two things are worth pointing out here, as we’ll return to the second point in a bit. The first is the connection between this life and the next. The second is that despite the continuity the final judgment comes as a surprise to everyone
The idea that there is drastic, dramatic discontinuity is more Gnostic than Christian. In this particular discussion, I am presenting what is probably perceived by most as a more “traditional” or conservative position on the world to come. But the idea of continuity is one that folks to my right are guilty of as well. The idea that we are saved by faith alone has often borne fruit in a theology that says what we do while on earth does not matter for the final judgment—we are saved solely by the work of Christ. The idea that God introduces dramatic discontinuity between this world and the next has borne fruit in the notion that what we do to the earth we are on does not matter—the earth will have to be remade completely.
Both of these non-Christian ideas derive from a failure to recognize the continuity between this life and the next. And, the plea for universalism indicates a similar failure. The way the Christian story works, as all good stories do, is by a measure of continuity between one scene and the next – even when we recognize the presence of a hero who comes in and rescues people from what would otherwise be the natural course of their actions.
So reason one why I am not a universalist is because the story indicates a continuity between this life and the next such that there are those who demonstrate themselves to be children of the kingdom and those who are demonstrating themselves to not be so (re)born.
Freedom and Responsibility
A second reason I am hesitant to see universalism as the outcome of the story is that I see it coming together with one other popular idea to validate what I see as a typically western, especially American, mentality.
One of the foundational theological premises of popular western, especially American, theologizing, is the notion of free will. It doesn’t matter that the phrase “free will” is never spoken of as a determining factor in a person’s relationship with God in the entire Bible or that election and predestination are so invoked on numerous occasions, the basic premise of Bible-believing Christians is that we have free will and God doesn’t control us, make us puppets, etc.
I thus find it interesting that from the people for whom free will is a non-negotiable in all our dealings with God that universalism is an increasingly popular option. It seems as though we want to eat our cake and have it. After asserting that everything is entirely up to us, that God would never force anyone to choose God or love God, in the end we are not willing to accept that there might be grave, even eternal consequences to this act of freedom. In the end, we are asking for God to overcome our freedom by a mighty act of universal election.
If we are going to so stridently insist on a God who is willing that his creatures choose or reject God in freedom, I think we need to have the courage to posit a God who is willing to live with the consequences of that freedom—a God who, in the end, is willing to say to us who have rejected God, “Your will be done.”
We’re approaching this question of universalism by asking what makes for the best ending to the story. I think that we want our stories to have continuity. I have not focused on the issue of justice in the sense of avenging wrongs that go unpunished in the world. One might also raise the question of whether it isn’t our position as essentially empowered people that gives us the luxury of not demanding a setting of all things to rights by exclusion of some from God’s kingdom at the End. I do believe that is important, but that it is only one facet of a larger storyline that will issue forth in some sort of continuity between this age and the age to come.
Having said all this, however, I want to return to a point I made above.
I anticipate that the end will be a time of surprise. Surprise endings are the stuff of good stories. Continuity does not entail predictability. The only thing I think we can predict with safety is that the actual playing out of “the End” will be unpredictable.
As a New Testament scholar, I am regularly made aware of how the first coming of Jesus caused his followers to reread the Old Testament and to provide new interpretations to the old texts. I anticipate that the same is in store for us in the future.
One such surprise, I think, will in fact be the breadth of those who are embraced into the quintessential human task of glorifying God. The appearance at the end of Revelation of the kings of the earth, bringing in the glory of the nations, perhaps provides a hint that the judgment will not leave behind anything so neatly circumscribed as “the church.”