Monday, August 17, 2009

Eduard Schweizer on Universalism

There are passages in the New Testament describing the group of the blessed and that of the cursed ones (as in Matthew 25:34-41), and there are other passages declaring that "all men have been consigned to disobedience that he (God) may have mercy upon all" (as in Romans 11:32). We certainly need the warning of Matthew 25 that there is a dimension of eternity in which all our living on earth has to be seen. We also need, equally urgently, to be reminded of God's grace (as in Romans 11), from which nobody and nothing can separate us, which is stronger even than our disobedience. This twofold message is the word of God, as it has to live among us. But if we tried to build up a doctrine of an indispensable belief in hell or of universal salvation, we would put ourselves above God, since we would pretend to know exactly how he would have to act on the last day. How he will really act in the last judgment is beyond the threshold of human knowledge, and nobody is allowed to pass this threshold before it is revealed in the parousia of Christ.

From "Colossians 1:15-20", Review and Expositor, 87 (1990)



At 8/18/2009 6:18 AM, Anonymous Edward T. Babinski said...

Schweizer seems perfectly calm with his interpretation that "it's a mystery." But to me it seems like he and the Bible are leaving the most momentous question of all simply hanging, i.e., whether or not some will be eternally separated from the rest (husbands from wives, parents from children, sibling from sibling, best friends, etc.)

The Scriptures also lack clarity as to the exact criterion for such separation (that is, if "separation" itself is a true doctrine).

What exactly are the criterion for "salvation?"

Conversely what exactly are the criterion for "damnation?" (For instance, doesn't Catholicism teach that missing mass deliberately on Sunday with no good excuse is tantamount to a mortal sin? A monk told me that.)

At 8/18/2009 11:51 AM, Anonymous Gregory MacDonald said...

I understand Schweizer's reasoning for the position that he takes. It is a sincere attempt to do justice to a real tension in the biblical texts.

However, I do balk at his strong claim that devout agnosticism is the only theologically faithful way of handling this tension.

The vast majority of Christians throughout the history of the Church have handled the tension by either reading the Hell texts in the light of the universalist texts (the minority view) or vice versa (the majority). According to Schweizer most Christians past, present and (presumably) future have been putting themselves above God and 'pretending' to know what we do not know. That is rather harsh.

The fact is that these Christians - the majority and the minority - sincerely believe that they are simply affirming divine revelation regarding the future of the world and not attempting to go beyond what is written. Everyone agrees that the hidden things belong to the Lord but if one sincerely believes that the destiny of humanity is something revealed is one presumptuous to believe what one things God has made known?

I am a convinced universalist (i.e., someone in the minority tradition) but I honestly do not think that I am either putting myself above God nor pretending to know what I don't. Sure, I might be wrong but what else can I do apart from say it the way I see it?

I also wonder what Schweizer thinks that the parousia will reveal about this tension. Will it show us which texts were right and which were not? After all, on his reading presumably they cannot all be right - we just don't know which ones are. And was God then trying to keep us humble by directing us in two contradictory directions to keep us on our toes?

I think there is some merit in ES's approach and I really do understand that desire to let the texts be themselves and not to prematurely synthesize them. Perhaps a more satisfactory way of doing that is the way mapped out by John A. T. Robinson in his little book, "In the End God". I do recommend that volume even though it is not the way that I myself try to handle the tension.

Thanks for all your ongoing reflections on this tricky issue Chris

At 8/18/2009 12:14 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Thanks Gregory for your hugely helpful comment. Indeed, a strong point is that a perspective which tries to hold both without collapsing in either one direction is new, while the traditional and universlaist approaches have a longer history. This gives me real pause for thought. Ta!

Edward, one way of responsing to your question is to read Gregory's comment.

Another way is to pose you a question: why is it that you have the criteria you do, that you wish the bible to "live up to"? I find that faith in God is not about having a sorted criteria through which I can theologically compartmentalise and box the living God, but rather God is the one who puts the question to me.

When I read your comments (which I always appreciate), I get the feeling you hear the address of God, the question of God in your life. Are you like a Jonah running away from Ninevah, from the kind of faith from which to continue your questioning, rather than hide from it?

Further, I am not sure that what you call "the most momentous question" actually is the most momentous. It may be worth asking why our perspectives lead us to think that it is the "most momentous" - and perhaps answering this may open up a window of insight.

Warmest greetings to you both,

At 8/18/2009 1:13 PM, Anonymous Hjalti said...

So god will maybe send all people to hell?

At 8/18/2009 11:23 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

That wasn't the other option Schweizer was entertaining, no!

At 8/21/2009 12:55 PM, Anonymous Jason Goroncy said...


I'm with Moltmann on this one when he says that 'Christian eschatology doesn't talk about the future as such ... but about Jesus Christ and his future'.

One of the difficulties I have with the Schweizer text you cite is that the charge of 'put[ing] ourselves above God' is contrasted with a possibility that the God of the parousia might really at the end of the day be different or other than the God who has self-unveiled in Jesus Christ. Who is this God behind Jesus Christ, the brother of all, and especially of those who believe? It seems to me that Schweizer needs to allow the last three words of this citation - and particularly the last - to have greater control over what he wants to affirm about final judgement. 'How [God] will really act in the last judgment is [not] beyond the threshold of human knowledge' precisely because this God is the God of Jesus Christ, who is the fullness of God in bodily form. It is because the coming One is Jesus of Nazareth who is the revelation of God in whom we have seen God's glory that we can be confident that the final judgement will be part of God's good news - for God, for creation, for me and you, for the Judases.

This is not to obviate the 'warning' passages, for in the economy of grace, these too are part of the good news and indeed make no sense if divorced from it. Certainly there is an urgent realism in Christ's preaching which warns against deferring repentance until tomorrow. The opportunities that grace affords ought not be marooned. But again, there is no future apart from Jesus Christ. This is the warning.


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