Romans, Barth, and universalism

I have no plans to read Rob Bell. But the good and bad being said about him gives me something I ought to say, which is about universalism. And being me, I have to connect it to Barth and Romans.

I'm about to give a presentation on the doctrine of creation, as story since it's the kind of thing I'm into now. And I've said elsewhere that the doctrine of creation is not a primary evidential claim about God -- it's ascribed to God by faith in response to salvation. This is the sort of thing that faith does, when faced with a God so good and gracious and fundamentally just in ways that blow our judgmental notions of justice out of the water. God's self-revealing, in exactly the saving ways it happens, is the sort of thing that blows open our concept of the world. And we give that world to God, because we have seen past the ways it appears to work, to the real logic. And this is exactly what John 1 says, when it makes Christ the divinely given logos behind all creation. Whoever appears to be in charge, however the game appears to be played, even and especially when it seems like you're losing -- that's not the way it really is. Creation is apocalyptic in this way. It is a radical claim (literally -- radix means root), a counter-factual except by faith. And faith sees that this is how the world actually works out -- Second Isaiah is a fantastic example of this, edited as it is to read Cyrus as the messianic deliverer.

Given this kind of view of God, especially as it works into a history of the expanding peoples of God, of the inclusiveness of God's salvation and adoption (which is always set alongside a limiting, consolidating history -- see Ezra-Nehemiah in contrast to the Ruth narrative, or the Pastorals as contrast to the genuine Paul), how could we tell a story that wasn't in some way universalist? Having ascribed to God the whole of creation, and the genuine and ultimate order underlying all others, how should we tell a story where we then cut out some part of it? Now, apocalyptic gives one answer to the question, since the creation apocalyptic is always told in opposition to an enemy order of the world, one that does not evince God's will and saving regard for God's chosen people. Judgment (God's no) falls upon the oppressing enemy. Judgment falls on the false game. In the prophets, judgment even falls on God's own, when they play the false game, when they are the oppressing enemy. So there's a basis for distinguishing where the "no" of God falls. But is it a basis for division of eschatological salvation? (Whether or not I believe in the idea is another question!)

I want to point to a particular passage in Romans 2 where Paul is talking about the perfect judgment of God. Romans 2:5-11:
In accordance with your hardness and unrepentant mind, you store up for yourself wrath on a day of wrath, and of the revelation of the just judgment of God – the judgment God will give to each according to their deeds. To those who, according to persistence in good deeds, are seeking glory and honor and incorruptibility, God will give eternal life. To those who, out of rivalry, both distrust the truth and assent to injustice, God will give wrath and emotional suffering. Oppression and straitened circumstances for every human life that does evil, to the Judean first and also to the Hellene, but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Judean first and also to the Hellene – for there is no partiality with God.

Look at what the blessings are here: eternal life. Glory and honor and peace. And the curses? "Wrath and emotional suffering" -- my translations for orge and thymos. "Oppression and straitened circumstances" -- my translations for thlipsis and stenochoria. Now, it may be obvious that eternal life is an eschatological reward. (It isn't, necessarily, but we'll go with it.) Doxa, time, and eirene are not. Sure, they may apply to the "everlasting reward," but these are gifts of God for good behavior here on Earth. In the same way, there is no pressing reason to see the four words used for the curses, as in any way otherworldly or eschatological. Let's start with wrath -- I won't argue that the original reference for this in Romans is about the wrath of God. And apocalyptic gives us every reason to see God's wrath properly directed here, outside of the antithesis to Paul's mission that is Romans 1:18-32. But it is worked out in this world, not some other. Thymos, which I've glossed as emotional suffering, is a very specifically this-side concern. As for oppression and restriction, apocalyptic gives us every reason to see these as the hope of the people of God, the turning of the tables upon the oppressors, and a hope for the suppression of those who would do harm in this world.

None of these are in any way an eternal punishment of any sort. There is no hell here. And in point of fact, there need be none, since what is being countered here (from 1:18-32) has no eternal dimension either. God hands over the idolatrous sinner to a subordinate authority for punishment, but punishment meet to the temporal nature of the crime, meant to counter the error -- dishonoring what has been falsely honored in place of God. And it is fitting that in no place in Romans is God's judgment of sinful creation any form of eternal condemnation. In fact, in the closest place to that sort of thing, Paul explains what God could do, and in fact does not because of justice -- because of goodness and restraint and patience, not destroying vessels that could have no other purpose but to be destroyed, but honoring them instead. And this is the story of the Gentile converts in the audience, to whom Paul speaks in chapters 9-11 -- they are those about whom 1:18-32 are commonly said, but not by God. They are those whose lives rest in the family tree planted and cultivated by God, whose strength is in the root of Abraham because of Christ. And who were never supposed to wind up there! Who could easily find themselves outside again, standing in the august company of Ishmael and Esau, and whose destiny is with God because God has acted to graft them in.

The next place I have to go after that is always Barth's re-ordering of the "orders of creation." How, in the face of that purity of gospel about the actions of God, can we move to a story that upholds any eternal judgment against our brother or sister? That stands on God's "no" as though it were not in every case a "nevertheless" -- as though it were instead a final word? No; in the face of this God who does this sort of thing by nature and choice, we are obligated to a different sort of worldview. It is in no way unusual to put humanity before God, but it accords well with both Paul and Matthew to place human beings level with one another before God. As high, and only as high, as the least among them. Which is at the same time exactly as exalted as Christ, our brother. There is no room, between "man and fellow-man," for judgment and condemnation -- for elevation and deprecation. Only the goyim believe in such things. (Again, not a terminal judgment, just an observation -- they're mistaken about the ultimate order of things. And Jesus says, don't you make the same mistake. Don't play that game.)

We are level before God in judgment, too, and that is as much an article of faith for Paul's audience as for ours. But the justice of God is revealed adjacent to that judgment. In a space contiguous with that of judgment, a space that does not abolish judgment, but a space that God has chosen as preferable when it comes to dealing with creation in Christ. A space witnessed to by both the law and the prophets. And here's the trick -- this space is not judgment according to deeds, which is our usual justification discussion, but it is also not judgment according to identity. Just as God's perfect judgment has no preferential option for anything but doing the good, God's perfect justice in Christ has no preferential option for anything but trust. It has no room for the presumption that anyone is excluded from that space in Christ. Nor does it have any room for the presumption that anyone is necessarily included in that space!

So: universalism. I can't stand uncritically on the assumption that everyone is automatically in, but I can't countenance the assumption that anyone is necessarily out. And I refuse to let human choice creep in; God made the choice in Christ for the whole of creation. "For" as in "in favor of"; "for" as in "in place of and binding upon." The choice was made while we couldn't choose it. The choice was made while we wouldn't choose it. And that salvation, already accomplished and constantly, inevitably working out, is our epistemology underlying the doctrine of creation. And every person who hears that gospel, and trusts in the God who does this sort of thing by nature and choice, is one more person who sees the kingdom of God as the way things are. In view of this, double predestination is a foolish approach to the world. It takes the unconditional election of God and assumes that it has a dark side. It assumes that God plays the false game with us. Whether or not every universalist perspective is correct, universalism is certainly a more appropriate approach to this new world where God has set salvation in motion in ever-widening paths.


  1. Matt,

    I think this is good stuff! I don't really have any critique other than a tangential point; I don't believe Cyrus is a later redaction to the text of Isaiah, I believe it is predictive which fits with the intratextual theme of prophecy in the book itself (i.e. as predictive as vindication of Yahweh's fiduciary word). Like I said tangential, and not a point worth debating.

    Like I said at my blog, to you; Suzanne McDonald's book (diss.) "Re-imaging Election" leaves things open on the question of universalism; she simply qualifies things in a way that require that in order for personal salvation to inhere that Spirit and personal faith must be present in the individual's life. She constructively argues for the category of "Election" to function as "representation," which in some of your accounting above finds corollary---I think you move more towards a dogmatic account than McDonalds ends up doing, and so I appreciate the moves you make in your consideration here.


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