Tony Jones is exploring a topic within theology that I find fascinating – Christian Universalism. I prefer to think of it as “Christocentric Universalism,” because what he’s really writing about is whether or not all human beings are ultimately saved through Jesus. He’s not considering Unitarianism, or as I call it, “all roads lead to home.” And he’s not really considering pluralism.
He’s asking whether or not what God has done through Jesus is enough to save all humanity.
His piece in the series today argues that Jesus’ cosmology was wrong, that we need to acknowledge that, and we need to abandon that faulty cosmology in light of what we now understand (however incomplete).
But it raises an exegetical problem as well: Jesus held an incorrect cosmology.Yes, of course our cosmology is probably wrong as well, or at least incomplete, but that doesn’t make Jesus’ cosmology any more right. Both Jesus and John the Baptist seem clearly to have embraced the ancient Hebraic belief in Sheol/Gehenna/Hades — i.e., a physical place of fires that the bodies of the damned are thrown. It seems merely wishful thinking when Aquinas, arguing that Jesus had full and perfect knowledge of all things, wrote, “Christ perfectly knows all human sciences.”
So we’re left with this conundrum: What do we make of Jesus’ teachings on Heaven and Hell if he believed that he existed in a geocentric universe and lived on a flat Earth? This is not unlike the conundrum regarding the Gospel writers (and Jesus) diagnosing “Legion” with demon possession, when today we would most likely consider him beset by schizophrenia.
The only option I see is to relativize Jesus’ (and Paul’s and the Apocalyticist’s) teachings on Heaven and Hell. By that I mean we must put their teachings in conversation with what we now know about the nature of the universe and the cosmos. We have to make them relate to our current understandings. ”Relativize” is a big, scary word to some Christians, but it’s exactly what we do whenever we take an ancient, biblical teaching and apply it to a modern setting.
I, for one, agree with what he’s saying here, and it isn’t theologically uncomfortable for me. If we take the doctrine of the Incarnation seriously, we must acknowledge that Jesus was fully human, and thus, he was susceptible to the “science” of the first century. So to “relativize” Jesus’ cosmology isn’t problematic for me. Jesus operated under all sorts of assumptions that no post-modern Western assumes today, and cosmological assumptions are just one easy example.
The rub for some, though, will be the implications of the cosmological shift, i.e., are Evangelical Christians willing to accept that hell – as an actual place in the Universe as we understand it – is a nearly nonsensical concept? I don’t think so.
But frankly, I’m very interested to see what you think. For those of you who are believers, were believers, or have knowledge about the Christian faith (or even other faiths!), what do you think of the arguments and questions Tony is posing?
One thought on “An interesting series on Christian Universalism”
Wasn’t the literal hell (Gehenna) a perpetually simmering trash dump outside of Jerusalem? Not knowing all the textual nuances or etymology of “hell” as given in the Gospels, it nonetheless seems that there is some room for interpretation as to what hell actually is, if it is anything. Several times over the years I always heard of sin being described as that which separates us from God. If the ultimate consequence of sin is complete separation from God (hell), it seems to me the most competent manifestation of that is to no longer exist. To be completely absent from God one must be completely absent, period. Just a thought.