Races I Don't Have a Horse In: Peri-Mortem Salvation

There are many races I don't have a horse in, to put it colloquially: arguments in which I couldn't care less who wins, because they're arguments I'm not interested in having. And then there are the special cases in which I don't have a horse in the race, but I run against the race itself, because the race is for the wrong goal. This is one of those.

I make no secret of the fact that I am a universalist, and a very particular one. I believe that the whole creation is in fact redeemed in Christ, without concern for moral change, ontological change, or "regeneration." Christian ethics can only therefore be a matter of one's conscious relation to others on the basis of one's own relation to the God by whom this reality has already been achieved. (This in no way replaces the demand for an ethics appropriate to our common life in society, in which moral action must respect the wellbeing of all together, especially those on the margins, without prejudice among the competing and arbitrary systems that we call ways of life. In neither case is religion the fount of morality!)

This makes me a hit at parties, let me tell you. But it also makes me disappointed in much of what passes for "universalism" in the wider world of arguments on the basis of Medieval scholastic principles. The key to so many of those arguments is that salvation is understood as a peri-mortem event, in addition to being a product of judgment at the final eschaton. A future concern, to put it simply. For which reason it is often presumed that universalism involves the irrelevance of all realities prior to salvation—human freedom, right action, wrong action, suffering, patience, evil, etc.—because they a) have been foreseen, b) will be replaced by a new final reality, or c) are simply gratuitous. Side effects, as it were.

The problem, of course, is a linear progressive view of history, from creation to final eschaton, during which eschatological matters are determined. This is, for that matter, the trap into which many predestinarian systems fall in accounting for the assertion that ethics must still matter. This is why the Arminians exist. The old Reformation trap: if it doesn't matter for salvation, does it matter? If it matters, doesn't it in some way relate to salvation? This is how faith becomes a work: not because it isn't in fact something we do, but because it adopts the same functions in the system, and the system never changed.

The only solution, as far as I can tell, is to change the system by removing salvation from the calculus of death and judgment. Until this happens, the system within which salvation is a peri-mortem (including post-mortem) concern will continue to make us the arbiters of our own salvation, even to the point of requiring God to override our self-arbitration in order to save.

This is absurd.

In the face of the absurdity of our superiority to God, God's abdication to us, or God's usurpation of our right, we must assert God's right as the indisputably free Lord of the indisputably free creation. Freedom is not the root of sovereignty, nor does it imply any particular capabilities. Freedom exerted by creatures in every possible direction is the foundation of the worlds in which we live, and the resulting complexity is the source of many of our restrictions. We are limited by nature, and still more limited by circumstance, but no less free.

What does this do to the problem of evil? It leaves it entirely in our hands. God is not the author of evil, nor does God subject us to evil for any good purpose, nor is evil simply gratuitous. Evil is what we have made it, in a world God has vowed never again to destroy. Sin does not produce order—but we most certainly do. The self-ordering creature, of which we are a part, is responsible for its actions, and the hells it makes in pursuit of its own personal heavens.

What does this do to the question of order and disorder in the world? It relativizes all arrangements of the world as designs of our own making, however good or bad. Order must be entirely disconnected from providence, and reconnected to agency. Some have called our activities "co-creation with God," but they are anything but that. We were given responsibility for the creature, for creation-the-noun, not for creation-the-verb. And we absconded with our responsibility, refusing to be accountable to God's design as components of it. And so God cast us out of the garden in which that design ruled, into the world in which it did not. There is no way back, no gracious path of declension from the act of creation that we could walk in reverse. Only the flaming sword, and us out on our butts, given the responsibility we presumed to take for ourselves.

Why should we believe that the path traced by the history of a world in which such an origin story made sense leads to salvation?

Why, for that matter, should we believe that salvation history, in God's intrusion into the worlds for which we are responsible, changes that path so that it does lead to salvation?

God is not accountable to history. History is accountable to God, and all of it fails by any absolute standard, but God has willed to save God's own creation, to which there can be no exception. If that salvation has begun with a part for the sake of the whole, here and there, again and again, it is never because the part is more valuable than the rest—nor does their salvation or ours provide one with superior truth, a fact that sects of the various parts routinely forget in their contests against one another. We are not better; we are called to be more responsible.

Some have suggested that such a perspective implies that history is not real, if the creation is simply redeemed and its reconciliation planned already, without its history. Again, the old Reformation trap, thinking that if it doesn't matter for salvation it doesn't matter. That if God cares about it, it must in some way affect our salvation. That if God is willing to condemn in time, God must be willing to condemn eternally. But we, along with all other living and non-living creatures, are actually here having this discussion. If salvation is already achieved, then salvation is not the goal of history. That does not void history of its importance, or us of our moral responsibilities. But it will change how we understand those responsibilities, and it must change how we relate to God and one another.