It's Always Better to be More Gracious than God

The most-often-adduced "defeater" for soteriological universalisms is the idea that we're trying to be more gracious, more generous with salvation, than God is. That damnation is a necessarily real thing, a consequence of divine justice that cannot be overcome, and that by trying to minimize it, we crazy universalists risk falling foul of God's will in ways we wouldn't if only we'd agree to condemn the right people.

I'm not often tempted to quote the late Justice Scalia—a cut-rate Rhenquist without the propensity for learned moderation over time—but the brutality of his derision toward what he believed were arguments unfounded in anything but wishful thinking should be applied to this faux-juristic argle-bargle by which the majority opinion claims that it is better—more like God—to condemn than to reprieve. (I won't even mention the fact that this same historical majority tends overwhelmingly to extend reprieve, rather than condemnation, to privileged offenders while chastising their victims.)

This is a place where the typical Christian paradigm of OT-judgment/NT-grace fails spectacularly to account for the superiority of the Old Testament as a testimony to grace over against condemnation. The Tanakh certainly does contain the three successively-iterated law-codes of Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus. Its organization, which even our Old Testament preserves to this extent, privileges these codifications as "torah," or instruction. But we fail to understand them as what they were and are when we take these three brilliant narrative and legal mosaics (see what I did there?) as a compendium of rules governing the applicability of grace.

We habitually turn, in our ignorance, to these works as though they were rules that had at any time actually been, and therefore should today be, obeyed in practice. We extend so much credibility to the narrative verisimilitude of the frames around these codes as though it were compatible with our historicisms, when instead it is the structure of a thick hypothetical built on the injustice of the worlds of the authors and editors of each of these complex mosaics. These were three great speculative experiments in codifying a more just society against the abuses of the powerful, and a more faithful society than the surrounding nations, so that the people whose existence was pure grace might someday live up to it.

The coherency of each of these codifications within their narratives should be understood not as the basis for prophetic critique, but rather the further development of it. The problem is never that we fail the laws; the problem is that whatever the laws, we fail the god, and we fail our neighbors—which is still a means of failing the god. These laws, and any others we might come up with, and all the others we have already manufactured across our histories, are attempts we make to wrap fences around major points of societal failure—and none of them truly escapes the social formations in which it developed. They are revisionist social programmes that, while they retain the myriad points of failure too fundamentally basic to those societies to be seen as problematic, nonetheless strive to edit out those problems their authors were capable of diagnosing.

The worst of our abuses of these texts, from which spring our ideologies of damnation, come when we invert this reality and see a cycle of law, condemnation, and the refusal of grace instead of the real historical pattern: grace, forbearance with failure, abuse of that forbearance and of the means of reconciliation, prophetic complaint, and correction through punishment designed to restore rather than to destroy. We take laws to be the root of justice and the gate to grace, instead of as customs meant to push us to a justice that conforms to the reality of God's eternally prior grace. And then we emphasize the absolute worst parts of the law codes, because we use them to reinforce the injustices of our own social formations while labeling forbearance as the "real" cultural conformity.

This, and not any of the reasons that stand behind the accusations of "Origenism," is why universalism is widely declared a heresy. Universalisms in the extension of grace without merit violate the unquestionably basic injustices of our social formations. And with our false ideologies of law and order and only then grace for the culturally conformant, we perpetuate our judgments under the stamp of God's name. And we forget that this, of all things, is the most frequently condemned human act in the scriptures! We forget that God who is biddable can always be convinced to relent, can always be convinced to be more gracious, and has on many occasions been convinced in our traditions of stories to spare individuals, cities, tribes, and nations whose lives God has sworn to take for their offenses. And on the other hand we forget that God who is biddable in these ways is also entirely willing to respond to our wrath against one another with wrath—against us.

Scripture shows us evidence both for total and for partial soteriologies. Neither set of examples can be done away with convincingly in favor of the other. But the way it usually works when we ask God to be more gracious, and the way it usually works when we ask God to be more judgmental, should suggest to us that one of these paths is better than the other—and it's not the path of condemnation! It is always better to be more gracious than God, if such a thing is possible. If we are gracious, God will match our grace with grace. This is a desirable and scripturally-supported form of our gratitude for grace in itself: that we should choose to be gracious to others as God has been to us. We should not fear, especially if we believe ourselves to be holders of "the keys," that God will hold against them the sins of any we have chosen to forgive. But we should fear the possibility that, if we condemn others and pretend we could withhold grace where God has already given it, God will condemn us for our abuse of our neighbors and our failures to live up to the standard of gracious forbearance with which we have been gifted.

Think of it another way: Pascal's wager famously goes that it's better to believe in God than not, because if there is a God and God damns for unbelief you win, and if there isn't or God doesn't, you still win, which covers all four quadrants; but if you don't believe, you might be screwed. We are told as universalists of whatever stripe that if there's a god who damns, and we don't also damn in the same ways, and especially if we forgive things God condemns, we've failed a similar wager. But scripture suggests the opposite: if there's a God who forgives, and you condemn those God has forgiven, or you condemn those against whom God has no complaint, you have a problem—but if you forgive those you are inclined to condemn, as God has in fact forgiven you, you can avoid it. And here, in that quadrant where you forgive and God does not, it's not you that has the problem—it's God.

And frankly, I'll take that bet. Because if there is a god who damns and who will not show mercy, a god who will condemn for showing mercy, a god who is only partially gracious and so necessarily partially antipathic to creaturely concerns—a god who is more like us than the God of whom scripture speaks—I'd rather be damned.


  1. Nicely done -- and a clever way to frame the matter rhetorically. Whether I find myself "believing" in universal salvation or leaning toward a reverent agnosticism, I can say I "feel" the same as you do.

    1. Thanks! As a student of oratory I appreciate the compliment, while nonetheless hoping not to be knocked by opponents for "mere" clever rhetoric.


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