Just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.
I didn’t got to church yesterday. But if I had, I might very well have heard that passage read. It is part of the Epistle lessen from Romans from the Common Lectionary for the first Sunday in Lent. It is one of several passages where the Apostle Paul seems to have at least wrestled with the concept of what some Christians call “universal salvation.” Of course this was not Paul’s only word about “the end of the world.” In the very same Epistle he warns, “Because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.” And of course, no one talked more about judgement and hell than Jesus.
Like nearly every subject addressed in the Bible and important to Christians, there is enough there to support and defend multiple contradicting views. A detailed excursion of how I evolved from Christian “exclusionism” to “annihilationism” to “inclusionism” to “universalism” and the Bible verses I held dear at various points, the orthodox and “heretical” theologians I read along the way, the pit stops I made at “open theism” and “panentheism” would be a laborious task and probably quite boring for most people.
So if your still reading after that sentence, thank you. I will tell you about when the story – and all of the multiple choice endings – began to make less and less sense to me. In January of 2009, when my daughter was about 8 weeks old, I went to India for an “intercultural immersion” course for seminary. India is the cradle, the birth place of Eastern religions. It is to Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and other Eastern religions as Jerusalem is to Judaism, Christianity, Islam and all of their splintered sects and spin offs.
Becoming a parent will change you (if you let it). As I sat on the footsteps of a shrine on Vindhyagiri hill, I watched silent Jains travel up the 400 feet high hill to worship. And all around me I observed children playing. I couldn’t imagine punishing my child for being born at the wrong place in the wrong time. I couldn’t imagine letting her fate rest in the hands of others to convince her everything she knows is wrong and teach her a better way. And I couldn’t imagine that any god would treat these, his children, any worse than I would my own and still be properly called just.
For years after that I would cling to one form of universalism or another until I came to question omnipotence and divine intervention itself. If god was going to come back and somehow, someway put everything right someday what was up with the millennium upon millennium of pain, suffering, and injustice? In the meantime, why did god help some people find their car keys or a parking space when they were running late for a meeting while sitting back as children were forced to kill their own parents and be kidnapped, raped and brainwashed for war in Uganda? According to legend, a prisoner at the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp in Austria wrote on the wall of a cell, “If there is a god, he must ask me forgiveness.” If this is not historically true, it is still a sentiment that resonates with many who have trouble making sense of a god that is said to be both benevolent and omnipotent, especially when faced with the realities of genocide, torture, murder, rape, hatred and cruelty in all of its malignant forms.
Yet this is why the Jesus story still intrigues me. That passage so often overlooked by pastors, except for during Good Friday services rings in my ears (and heart): “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?”
Christians too often want it both ways. They want to blame the cruelty and ignorance of Hitler, Joseph Kony, David Berkowitz or Donald Trump on human freedom but still want a god who will impose upon human freedoms and consequences to “save” their atheist sister or heal someone dying of lung cancer or help them find their goddamn car keys. I literally heard a sermon by a youth pastor once all about how god helped him find his car keys, forgive me if I harp on this too much.
I guess this is why I still find Christian universalism – especially in its earthiest forms – to be a compelling (if not literally true) narrative. Paul at his best (in my opinion) looked forward to a day when “God may be all in all.” For For Irenaeus, it was all about “recapitulation” in Jesus, god “became what we are, that god might bring us to be even what he is himself.” But perhaps it is the fierce 14th Century mystic, Julian of Norwich who articulated such ideas most beautifully. In her “Revelations of Divine Love” she wrote,
And in this he showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed to me, and it was as round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought: What can this be? I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that because of its littleness, it would suddenly have fallen into nothing. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God.
Maybe, just maybe, heaven is not our home. Or maybe as Jesus so often said, “the kingdom of heaven is upon you.” Maybe, just maybe that nagging hope for peace and justice that pervades the universe wants to make saints of people like you and me, right here and right now. Maybe this little hazelnut, that is the third rock from the sun, needs us to start caring about fracking, carbon emissions and all sorts of folly and injustice. Maybe, just maybe it is not suspended in a divine hand that is going to intervene with a divine sword to exact vengeance on the enemies of justice or – in the best versions of the story – wipe tears away from every eye and cause the lion to lay down with the lamb, the corporate criminal to make amends with those he swindled out of pensions or forced out of homes. Maybe we are the hands that will hold it together or crush it. Maybe it could last, if we love it.