Warning: the following post is me in my slightly more assertive and provocative mode. I hold those who take different views from me (i.e., almost every other Christian theologian in the world) in high esteem. So the following comments are intended as constructive and not critical in any hurtful way. I fully appreciate why those who differ from me hold the view that they do.
I have a theological worry about the idea that the end of the story for some/many human beings will be eternal destruction, whether that be annihilation or eternal conscious torment.
Setting the Scene
As Christians Jesus Christ is the starting point and the ending point for our theological reflections. He is the definitive revelation of God and of God’s kingdom purposes. And thus all our eschatological reflections and speculations must be utterly reconfigured around Jesus.
Christ, as Second Adam, represents all of humanity before God. He is the eschaton made flesh. The “Last Things”—the coming of final judgement and resurrection—have erupted into the present in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
So eschatological speculations on the final state of humanity must take Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, as definitive. In his risen body the destiny of humanity is revealed.
My theological worry is simply this: to me, the suggestion that some (indeed, many or even most) people will never experience salvation sounds very much like the claim that something other than Jesus Christ is definitive for the shape of the future.
The suggestion that God’s final victory will involve the irreversible destruction of many/most people sounds to me like something other than the resurrection of Christ is being allowed to govern our understanding of “God’s triumph.” The idea that God can “reconcile” some creatures by forcing them to acknowledge that he is the boss and then destroying them is, to me ear, a call to allow the understanding of “reconciliation” to wander free from its anchoring in the gospel.
The proposal that we need to allow God the “freedom” to decide the “end of the story” and that universalism is a presumptuous attempt to snatch such freedom from God sounds to me like an exhortation that we find another God “behind the back” of Jesus Christ. God has already shown his hand in the story of Jesus. He has already chosen, in his freedom, to “be our God.” (And what kind of “freedom” are we being asked to allow God here? The freedom to damn people he could just as easily redeem? To me, this sounds like the “freedom” for God to be someone other than God. Such a “freedom” is, to my mind, an imperfection and unworthy of God).
As an aside, and with all due respect to all my friends who are “hopeful universalists,” I will now explain my theological problem with “hopeful universalism.”
Whilst I can appreciate that hopeful universalists seek to be humble before God and before mystery (and I am very much in favour of humility and mystery), I do think that such hesitancy is problematic. To say, “My hope is that God will save all but I cannot say with certainty that he will” sounds to me like the following:
“I hope that God will utterly triumph in the end but I cannot be sure that he will”;
“I hope that God will be all in all—it is a live possibility—but we cannot be dogmatic.”
To me such “hopeful” universalism sounds like the worry that perhaps God’s reconciling action in Christ will, in the end, fall short for some reason.
Eschatological universalism is nothing more than a claim that the end of the story cannot be anything other than an empty tomb. Anything less is not a divine triumph but a divine failure because on any other scenario the future of the world is being shaped, not by the redeeming action of God in Christ but by sin; not by the Second Adam but by the First.
If we wish to know the future of humanity we look to the risen Lord. End of story.