Friday, March 16, 2012

Why Would Christian Universalists be Motivated to Evangelize?

I post this not because I agree with everything in the essay (for one, I'm not a liberal Christian), but because I sat and thought about it for over 30 minutes. Anything that gives me pause to think is worth having others think over. I appreciate Eric's response.
The other day I received an e-mail from one of my students. As I finished writing my response, it occurred to me that readers of this blog might be interested in it. And so I’m including the relevant pieces of the exchange in this post. 
Here’s the question my student asked: 
I started to read Thomas Talbott's book The Inescapable love of God, and wanted to ask you something. Most Christians seek to convert others out of a desire to save them. As a universalist, would you still be concerned with saving and also converting other people? If so, what are you saving them from? Unlike most evangelists who claim to save the potential Christian from hellfire, a universalist would not be worried about eternal damnation. It seems then, the motivation for evangelism is at least partially removed by removing the fear/threat of eternal damnation. Unless you believe in some form of original sin, you wouldn't be saving the person from their depravity either. Perhaps you would be offering them the chance to a better, more fulfilled life. It seems the motivation for a universalist would be positive; trying to make someone’s life better whereas to others it would be more focused on saving them from Hell (removing a negative consequence). What are your thoughts? I know this might be personal, so you don't have to respond to this. But as a Universalist yourself, do you have a motivation and if so, what is your motivation, for “seeking souls” (so to speak)? 
Here is my [Eric's] reply: 
Speaking for myself, I have very little invested in converting people to Christianity (although I do have a great interest in convincing people who think otherwise that there are versions of Christianity that can be embraced by reasonable and morally decent people). That said, Christian universalists might experience an evangelical calling for several reasons. I can think of four off the top of my head. 
(1) The first is the one you touch on in your comment. Specifically, Christian universalists might believe that there are positive life benefits (in terms of subjective life satisfaction or happiness, and in terms of resources for moral improvement) that are possible in this life if and only if one opens oneself up in this life to the kind of relationship with God that Christianity claims has been made available through Christ's life and work. Desiring others to enjoy these benefits here and now, Christian universalists might take on an evangelical mission.
(2) They might believe that, while the salvation of all is inevitable, this is not because they don't think there is a subjective requirement for salvation but because they think it is inevitable that all will eventually come to meet this requirement. So, they may think that enjoying the blessings of union with God is only possible for those who have chosen to open themselves up to those blessings--and while it is certain that all will eventually open themselves up in the relevant way, those who do not do so by the time of their death will exist after death in a state of alienation from God that can only bring increasing misery the longer that it lasts (a finite "hell," if you will). These universalists might believe that the effort of human evangelists is one of God's means for hastening the salvation of all, and so feel it is their calling to be God's agents in this way. In the absence of those efforts, they might think that more people will experience the "hell" of alienation from God for a longer period of time before realizing their error and turning to God.
(3) In its original meaning "evangelist" means "good messenger." To evangelize is to share good news ("gospel" means "good news"). In the Christian context, the good news is typically taken to be that God loves us all with an unwavering love and that, on account of Christ, we have been forgiven all our transgressions. In short, it's not about conversion at all, but about declaring good news as widely as possible. In this sense, the motivation for evangelism is, at least in part, the same sort of motivation that would impel someone to call everyone they know as soon as they learn that their child has been cured of leukemia. They want to share their joy at this wonderful news. But in the case of the Christian gospel, the news also seems to be of a sort with beneficial pragmatic implications for those it is being shared with. If people are hunkering down in their cellars waiting for enemy planes to fly overhead and drop bombs, the news that the enemy has been defeated will mean that people can come out of their hidey-holes. In such a case, running through the streets shouting out the good news is not merely motivated by a desire to share a personal joy but to let people know that they no longer need to burden themselves in a particular set of ways.
(4) Christian universalists might be convinced that the Christian worldview makes the most sense of human experience, that it fits the pieces of our experience together into the most coherent whole, as well as offering pragmatic resources for living better lives. In other words, they might be convinced that by the most plausible ways of measuring the truth of a worldview, some variant of Christianity comes out as the worldview most likely to be true. In this case, what might motivate them is the same kind of thing that presumably motivates Dawkins to preach atheism--a belief that one has the truth (or at least the most rational worldview) combined with the belief that it's just good in itself if more people believe the truth (the most rational thing).
Let me dwell for just a moment on (1). My own thinking with respect to (1) is that what has the pragmatic benefits is not belief in Christian doctrine as such, but rather a certain kind of attitude of openness to being moved and transformed by a good greater than oneself. While the Christian narrative can inspire the relevant kind of openness, it doesn't always do so. In my judgment it depends a great deal on just how the story is told—and versions of the story that emphasize hellfire seem to me to be less effective in this respect. It also depends on the life history of an individual. Some have had such a poisonous relationship with Christianity that even the best versions of the story evoke all the psychological crud laid down by that relationship. In that case it is likely that the greatest pragmatic benefits will come from a different narrative altogether, one which hasn't been poisoned. And my experience (with friends who are Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, agnostics, religious naturalists, etc.) is that many different narratives can be effective in evoking the relevant attitude of openness. Again, it depends on just how the story is told. So, believing Christian teachings is neither necessary nor sufficient for bringing about the kind of openness to being transformed that, I think, has the clearest pragmatic value. 
I also think this openness will have to be the primary subjective component to any defensible view of eternal salvation--a fact which has clear implications for my understanding of (2). While I have thoughts on (3) and (4) as well, I suspect my arguments in my book and on my blog make my views on (4) pretty clear, and my thoughts on (3) would probably take awhile to formulate precisely. So I'll leave it at that for now.
Eric teaches philosophy at Oklahoma State University, and has written "Is God a Delusion" and "God's Final Victory: A Comparative Philosophical Case for Universalism." He has also contributed to "Universal Salvation? The Current Debate" with several other authors such as Thomas Talbott, Daniel Strange, and I. Howard Marshall.

For the original post and the subsequent discussion, Reitan's post.



  1. A very intriguing post, thank you. I do not have the ability or will to weigh in on "universalism" but I was struck by the thought that the dilemma posed to Professor Reitan by his student is the exact mirror image of the dilemma often posed to hyper-Calvinists (those who subscribe to "double predestination"):

    if God's sovereignty means He has pre-ordained *everyone* to ultimate salvation or reprobation, why bother preaching (or striving for anything) at all?

    Given this mirrored dilemma from opposite ends of the theological spectrum, my conclusion is that neither question is a useful or correct way to seek God's answer. Because, I think, neither view gives sufficient voice to Calvin's instructive beginning to his Institutes: "Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and [the knowledge] of ourselves."

    That is, both questions (to the universalist, and to the hyper-Calvinist) are merely logical constructs derived from a *partial* knowledge of God and of human being: both *assume* a particular content to God's will and plan, and both *assume* that human reason and effort are immaterial in God's ultimate equation. Although I certainly do not have the answers, I do have to believe that both of these assumptions are erroneous.

    Penn Hackney

  2. Hey Penn! Long time no type. Thanks for the comment.

    I'm not certain where Eric falls on the free will debate. Based on this, it sounds like he might lean towards a more compatibalist understanding. He would answer in the sense of utilitarianism, or to simply help people. Just because one is confident that their child can overcome the flu doesn't mean they want their child to become ill. Of course, this can go in a number of different ways, but I think you can see what I'm attempting to say. ;)

    I think Reitan would agree with Calvin in that, especially in the ideas of knowledge of God and of self. I think his answer takes care of both, though I do wonder if he addresses it anywhere else in greater detail.

    I'm also not certain that it is just hyper-calvinists and universalists who have to struggle with the dilemma. I think regular Christians of all stripes need to address it. Which is when theodicy comes in. Which is really fun!

    God bless, and thanks for the comment!


  3. A simple analogy helps to answer this question for me: If you knew some people who were starving due to a severe famine, but who would ultimately receive more food than they could ever imagine six months from now, would you help them now or simply wait for the promised food supply to show up? Of course you would do whatever you could to tide them over in the meantime. And that's exactly why I think Universalists are motivated to evangelize--b/c the Good News is something we all need desperately right now. To my way of thinking, if you even have to ask this question, I don't think you fully appreciate the true nature of the Gospel and how it holds forth the promise of a fundamental re-ordering of human society. Death has been defeated. Therefore, we no longer have to live as if death is running the show. That means we can get rid of our death centered religion, our death-centered social structures and our death centered ways of viewing each other. We can step out from under the shadow of death into the light of the resurrection. In the entire history of the Church, I think we've only ever seen glimpses of what this can actually look like. As G.K. Chesterton said, "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried." Again, I think the only person who would ask this question has failed to grasp the true nature of the Good News the apostles proclaimed.

    BTW: Great blog, Nick. I'm now a regular visitor.

  4. Hey Kevin. Nicely said.

    Thanks for the thumbs up! I totally snagged your "CS Lewis, Hell and Free Will" post a while back. Mostly because it had Thomas Talbott in it. ;-)