First of all, I enjoyed J.R. Daniel Kirk’s essay very much. In particular, I strongly agree with the two features he describes about the “best ending” to the Christian story. I think any vision of universal reconciliation is going to have to incorporate these two features.
For example, I very much agree with Kirk’s point that the best ending to the Christian story has to involve continuity between this life and the next, that “what we do in life echoes in eternity.” I think that is exactly right. In fact, this is one of the reasons I eventually came to adopt a universalist position. As Kirk notes, many “traditional” soteriological systems introduce a radical discontinuity into the story – mainly because it’s always been a bit hard to get justification (a binary status) and sanctification (a continuous process) to fit together nicely. Traditional soteriological positions tend to lean toward the binary status inherent in notions of justification while universalist views will lean more heavily on the continuous process of sanctification. By emphasizing the process over the binary status universalist soteriologies keep a tight connection between our moral biographies in this life and the next. Thus, there will be a radical continuity between where you are in this life and where you find yourself in the next. And for many this means finding yourself in hell, to be “salted by fire” to use Jesus’s words.
Regarding Kirk’s second point, I also agree with his criticism of those espousing universalism who are placing too much weight on free will. I heartily concur.
I grew up in an Arminian tradition. I grew up believing that God’s Sovereign will was to save every human who had ever lived. To this day, that belief is the bedrock of my soteriology. Thus, I grew up rejecting the Reformed doctrines of election. My tradition taught me that if you ended up in hell it wasn’t because God wanted, elected or predestined for you to be there. No, you got yourself into that mess of your own free will.
But as the years passed my confidence in free will eroded. I worried about moral luck and social location. More, my training in psychology exposed me to neuroscience, behavioral genetics, cognitive science, developmental psychology, and behavioral analysis. I eventually concluded that humans were not radically free.
So a key part of my Arminian soteriology, a high view of human agency, had collapsed. But I still believed that it was God’s sovereign will to save every soul. How to make all this fit together? Well, by coming to see the power of a Reformed doctrine, a high view of God’s Sovereignty. That, as Rob Bell recently phrased it, “God gets what God wants.” Universalism, thus, is simply the fusion of the best within the Arminian and Reformed soteriological traditions (an observation I owe to the work of Thomas Talbott). Returning to Kirk’s observations, it was the untenable nature of my Arminian free-will soteriology that led me, in a rapprochement with Reformed theology, to my current universalist position.
Does this then mean that God is going to “force” people into heaven? Not any more than God “forcing” the elect in Reformed thinking.
That said, we come full circle as I reject visions of “election” and “regeneration” that introduce a radical discontinuity into our biographies with God. Rather, election, as found in the Old Testament, is about God’s covenant faithfulness. Election is the claim that “love never fails,” that “love is stronger than death,” and that God’s final word to Creation is the “Yes” of Jesus Christ.