All People

Thanks to Bishop Spong, Marcus Borg, Rob Bell, and others, there seems to be a growing universalist trend among moderate to liberal Christians these days.  I’m a long-view universalist, in that I tend to believe that at the final judgment, when everyone has the chance to experience the overwhelming love of God, no one will be able to choose to walk away from it.  As Bell more succinctly put it, “Love Wins.”  While universalism isn’t a new theological concept, there has, over the past 100 or so years, been subtle liturgical changes which have invited it into our common prayer.

A recent example can be found in Enriching our Worship I where in Eucharistic Prayer I it substitutes the word “all” for the more traditional “many” in the Institution Narrative.  “Drink this, all of you: This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is poured out for you and for all for the forgiveness of sins” (p. 59).  In the notes, the SCLM explains their decision, “The use of ‘all’… in the institution narrative emphasizes the forgiveness of sins is made available to all through Christ’s sacrifice.  While the Greek word is literally translated “many,” biblical scholars have pointed out that in the context of the passage it means that the sacrifice is made not just for a large number of persons, but for all humanity… New eucharistic prayers in both the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church us ‘all’ rather than ‘many'” (p. 77).

The prime example,and one timely to this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, is the third Prayer for Mission in Morning Prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.

This prayer was written by the Rt. Rev. Charles Henry Brent and published while he was Bishop of the Philippines.  It certainly doesn’t assume that everyone is getting into heaven simply because God loves them, but it does take Jesus’ promise in John 12:32 very seriously.  “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  Unlike the gymnastics the SCLM has to do in their notes, the underlying Greek word here is very simply the word for all or everything or in common parlance: all the things.

As we approach Holy Week, the magnitude of Jesus’ death will come into focus.  We should take time to consider that Jesus died for me, and for you, but more so, he died for all (2 Cor 5:15).  As Bishop Brent’s Prayer for Mission suggests, this realization should be our motivation to share the good news far and wide, to let the whole world know of God’s saving love for all people, everywhere.

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Love Wins – a post about the word “the”

Jesus said to [Thomas], “I am the way, the truth and the life.” (John 14.6a)

Several years ago now, Rob Bell wrote a book entitled, “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.”  The book raised the ire of many an Evangelical leader because of Bell’s seemingly Universalist stance (In the midst of the brouhaha that lead up to the launch of his book, Bell denied that he was a universalist).  None other than leading Evangelical John Piper tweeted what was essentially the 21st century version of an anathema, excommunicating Bell for modern Evangelicalism and forcing him into the Oprah speaking circuit, effectively ruining him as a theologian (a post for another day, perhaps).  Many [former] Mainline Christians received Bell’s book with no more than a yawn, noting that this is really nothing we hadn’t heard before.

One can read the Bible cover to cover and reasonably conclude one one hand, that everyone is saved by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus or on the other, that God has elected only a select few to be saved and will send the rest of the reprobate to eternal damnation, or on any number of other hands, some gradation in between.  So, I don’t presume to speak the definitive word on this subject, mostly because anybody who argues that there is a final word on it is either a heretic, a liar, or insane.

I bring this matter up because Sunday’s Gospel lesson gives us the line I’ve quoted at the beginning of this post, with that pesky word “the” included three times.  Attempts have been made to soften the blow of Jesus’ claim by suggesting a translation that reads, “I am a way, a truth, and the life” or some such thing, but the Greek of John’s Gospel very clearly a definite article before each of the key words: way, truth, and life.  It is unambiguous that Jesus is making a very exclusive claim, which is clarified in the next sentence, “No one comes to the Father except through me.”  It seems clear, at least in this oft cited portion of John’s Gospel (cf John 12.32), that Jesus is making a very narrow claim about the salvation of God.

Let me suggest another reading, however.  What if Jesus’ exclusive claim that he is the only way to the Father is actually very inclusive.  Radically inclusive, even.  What if love really wins?  It seems clear in the Scriptures and in our Creeds that there will be a final judgment “of both the living and the dead.”  A final judgment infers that there will be a time between now and the end.  What if, in that interim period, the overwhelming love of God continues to work on the souls of those who have departed this life?  What if, the gift of grace continues to be offered again and again and again?  Sure, there is a chance that some will reject it, flat out, no matter what, but more likely, in my opinion, is the possibility that love will prevail; that in the end all will come within the reach of Christ’s saving embrace.  It won’t be forced or coerced, it’ll be nurtured and cajoled.  What if Jesus really is the only way to the Father and that ultimately everybody finds that way?  What if there is a hell, but in the end, it’s empty?

Like I said, I don’t have all the answers, and surely something in here has made me a heretic, but this is what comes to mind every time John 14.6 comes up.  Love can win, even with the word “the.”