They say for people who are considering suicide, one of the most helpful things we can do is simply ask about about it. It brings the hidden agendas of the mind into the open and makes them concrete, along with the consequences that may be unconsidered at such a drastic desire. We often feel that by talking about it, the person might feel more compelled to consider it as a valid option. The data appears to show the opposite is true.
Similarly, I think talking about dangerous—perhaps spiritually suicidal—doctrines is a way to prevent our shifting to them purely out of a desire to resolve tensions in the Christian life. Airing the desires that pull on human hearts is part of why confession works. Desire is what leads us towards sin (James 1:13–15). Desires burned up in the light of confession keep us safe.
There are two doctrines I have re-engaged with in this last year that I realize I feel a natural desire to move towards. The first is universalism: a desire to believe that there is no hell and that all will be saved. The second is related insofar as it helps make possible the first: a denial of the depth of human depravity. Who, when considering the horrors of eternal punishment, would not rather not believe in such a place? Who would not want to believe in the basic goodness of one’s fellow man or, more importantly, one’s own self? Both of these positions appeal to us as fallen human beings. Both “doctrines” seek to lessen or remove our need for a savior external to ourselves. Both say to us just like the snake in the garden, “Did God really say there was hell to pay?”
I think this is why universalism has constantly infiltrated the evangelical ranks. It is, as Michael McClymond says, “the opiate of the theologians.” Universalism eases the pain of the thought of eternal human suffering or the angst in this life over our own eternal destiny. We most often care about erasing hell in the face of our own damnation, of those we love, or of those who we deem not to have offended some abstract sense of ethical responsibility. This latter category might be children, the disabled, or the native on an island without gospel contact. Surely those people are not guilty before God?
This is where we also feel the desire to let go of the complete depravity of human nature. Denial of total depravity in the classic Calvinist sense likewise eases the burden of guilt or incapacity. It ironically feels like it would give more dignity to God’s creatures. Evil is an indignity and it is “undignifying” of humans and nature alike. If we wish to suppose a transient evil which comes and goes at times in each of us, then perhaps we aren’t so bad after all.
At the same time, when it comes to “real offenders,” the criminals and all-around bad eggs of society, we are perhaps less willing to dismiss punishment or depravity, at least in greater quantities. Each of us has a longing for justice to be done. The riots which rocked the Twin Cities this past summer show us what a tinderbox injustice creates. And underneath that are the micro-injustices we commit every day. The only way the long arc of the moral universe “bends towards justice” is if there is a putting wrongs to right. We can argue that forgiveness is the higher road, the better way of love (as some would interpret 1 Cor 13), but that does not count as justice. Forgiveness without restitution is an absolving of injustice. Justice is a legal category, an accounting for wrongs done. Neither Universalism, nor a limitation of the depravity of humanity resolves the crux of our problem.
But what we find is that God’s forgiveness and the forgiveness he requires of his people (Matt 6:12–15) is not a simple absolving of wrongs. It came at the cost of God receiving the punishment for evils done past, present, and future on himself.
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are justified freely by his grace [how?] through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. God presented him as the mercy seat [the means by which God’s wrath is satisfied sot that mercy can be extended to evildoers] by his blood, through faith, to demonstrate his [i.e. God’s] righteousness, [why?] because in his restraint God passed over the sins previously committed. God presented him [Jesus] to demonstrate his [God’s] righteousness at the present time, so that he would be just and justify the one who has faith in Jesus.
The cross solves both the problem of justice and forgiveness. God cannot be unjust by simply forgiving sins. That would leave wrongs un-righted. That would leave God himself open to the charge of injustice. And so, God himself also paid the price of forgiveness of evils committed by giving full vent to his wrath towards himself so that for those who trust in that act as the payment for their own evils, however “small,” would be granted forgiveness. And in turn, the forgiveness we can now offer to others may be done 1) in the knowledge that God has forgiven much more, and 2) that God will still someday put to right debts we are called to forgive. The center of the “overcome evil with good” passage emphasizes the fact that God will repay all imbalances of justice:
Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
(Rom 12:17–21 ESV)
We could summarize it like this:
A. Do not return evil for evil B. Instead live peaceably with all C. Because God will repay injustice B'. So instead, be gracious A'. Which is how evil is overcome rather than returned.
Our response surrounding God’s final work of judgement is to give honor, live peaceably, provide for those who are our enemies. Good overcomes evil by enduring the sufferings of injustice in the knowledge that God will repay. Neither Universalism nor the dismissal of total depravity can offer hope or satisfaction in this way. We cannot suffer in hope if justice is not done because there is otherwise no means by which the arc of the universe is bent back to justice. We must agree wholeheartedly with those who shout “no justice, no peace.” Peace is found in the justice of God and the justice of God is found only by faith in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.
May God keep us (especially me) from accepting or denying anything which might undermine the good news of the just and justice-restoring God.
Michael J. McClymond, The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018), 1034. ↩︎
Martin Luther King Jr. is most often credited with the quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” However, its origins more likely trace to a message delivered by Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister (prior to the merging of Unitarians with Universalists). The original quote is, “Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice” (Theodore Parker, Ten Sermons of Religion [Boston: Crosby, Nichols,and Co., 1853], 84-85. For more details, see Garson O’Toole, “The Arc of the Moral Universe Is Long, But It Bends Toward Justice,” blog, Quote Investigator, 15 November 2012, https://quoteinvestigator.com/2012/11/15/arc-of-universe/. ↩︎