Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
October 7th, 2014 by Joel Watts

Universalism* in Sodom and Gomorrah?

The Destruction Of Sodom And Gomorrah, a paint...

The Destruction Of Sodom And Gomorrah, a painting by John Martin (painter), died 1854, thus 100 years. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I do not like the term “universalism” for several reasons.

  • It smacks of (Reverse) Calvinism
  • It smacks of white privilege
  • It doesn’t do justice to the wrath of God, judgment, and sin

However, I can’t think of a better term right now. So, universalism* it is.

In reading the notes in The Jewish Study Bible, I caught several statements (drawn from Jewish Tradition) that helped to highlight the text.

  • In Genesis 18.24, forgiveness and preservation for the several cities lead by the Twins is not found in the act of the sinners, but in the righteousness of the innocent.
  • This hope from God is found in Jeremiah 5.1 as well.

We can look at 1 Corinthians 7.14 in the same manner.

So, if a small measure of righteousness can ward off the wrath of God and save a city, what then can the wholly righteous act of the death of Christ do if in the Church the Body of Christ and the Spirit remains?

Joel Watts
Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians, as well as seeking an MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Comments

6 Responses to “Universalism* in Sodom and Gomorrah?”
  1. Joel,

    I actually want to comment on your caveat, rather than your post. What in the term “universalism” smacks of white privilege? There’s probably some baggage there I don’t know. I thought it was interesting that you say, “It doesn’t do justice to the wrath of God, judgment, and sin”. I’m not a universalist myself, there seems to be some irony here.

    In looking on your blog for why you don’t think Christianity is compatible with universalism, I found this:
    http://unsettledchristianity.com/2011/07/roger-e-olson-on-the-minor-heresy-of-universalism/

    I’m curious, do you draw a distinction between “soft universalism” (that all may be saved) versus “hard univeralism” (that all will be saved)? Do you find even the former to be incompatible with Christianity?

    Last thought: it seems like there’s a tension between the ideas above (that God may find a single righteous person, such as in Jeremiah 5.1) and the idea of total depravity (that there isn’t even an ounce of righteousness in us). I’ve been surprised to find, via the site search, very little on total depravity on your blog. Any chance that we could get a follow-up post, sometime down the road, with your thoughts on total depravity?

    • Eluros,

      1.) If you look at the concept of universalism, it allows for everything to be excusable. Granted, this may be a generalization, but in the end — look who is promoting this… those in positions of privilege.

      2.) I think to require God saves all is the same as saying God saves only a predetermined few. It restricts God in several ways, none of them healthy. I hope God will save all and indeed, I believe God will save many (and by many, I mean a few may simply refuse). I wouldn’t so far as to say hard universalism is incompatible with Christianity. I mean, Romans 5.

      3.) As a Wesleyan, I’m against total depravity. 😉 I believe humans were created by God and in God’s image, even if we have to attain to it — thus, we cannot be completely depraved. In regards to the “few” who may not be saved, I would say they have attained to something like total depravity.

      • Thanks, Joel.

        I certainly think that Christianity already has, baked into it, the idea that incredibly heinous sin can still be forgiven– in fact, any and every sin is capable of being forgiven and thus is excusable. The only difference between us and a universalist is the belief about whether those sins will, in actuality, be forgiven, not whether they can be. Fair?
        Fair enough, sounds reasonable to me.
        I’ve actually never heard this interpretation of Wesleyan theology. Looking at the sermons of John Wesley, it certainly seems like total depravity is in there:
        http://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-44-Original-Sin

        “They were wholly ignorant of the entire depravation of the whole human nature, of every man born into the world, in every faculty of his soul, not so much by those particular vices which reign in particular persons, as by the general flood of Atheism and idolatry, of pride, self-will, and love of the world.”

        Isn’t the distinction between “heathenism” and Christianity he makes that, while both acknowledge men do evil, Christianity acknowledges that men are “only evil”?

        “…there is in every man a “carnal mind, which is enmity against God, which is not, cannot be, subject to” his “law;” and which so infects the whole soul, that “there dwelleth in” him, “in his flesh,” in his natural state, “no good thing;” but “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart is evil,” only evil, and that “continually.””

        It sounds pretty straightforward to me:

        “Is man by nature filled with all manner of evil? Is he void of all good? Is he wholly fallen? Is his soul totally corrupted? Or, to come back to the text, is “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart only evil continually?” Allow this, and you are so far a Christian. Deny it, and you are but an Heathen still.”

        This (that Wesleyans affirm total depravity) seems to be backed up by some searching online.

        However, I may be conflating Wesley and Wesleyan theology. There are certainly lots of cases (e.g. Calvinism and Arminianism) where the original thinkers’ views aren’t necessarily reflected in the school of theological thought. If I’ve got this wrong, certainly be interested to learn more!

        • Let me clear up the TD bit – when I hear it, I usually associated it with the insistence that there is no hope for some/many. But, you are correct. TD is in Wesley, but he solves this problem with prevenient grace that is given to all. As T Tennent says, “Wesleyans believe that if the doctrine of human depravity is not linked to God’s action in prevenient grace, then it creates an untenable theological conflict which, at least potentially, makes God either unjust or the author of evil, neither of which fits with a biblical view of God.”

          So, while we are depraved (without God) we are all called to God.

          It is because of this view Wesley was accused of universalism and in fact, many 19th century universalists held Wesley up.

  2. Thanks, Joel. Makes sense to me, sounds consistent with other things I’ve read/heard elsewhere, and even helps to tie everything together (with your followup on universalism). Appreciate the response.

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