The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Hellbound? Talk Back: Part 4, The Patience of Love

Final post of four here and on my blog recapping some of of my talkback with filmmaker Kevin Miller after a viewing of Hellbound?.

This post is about love, power, eschatology and universal reconciliation in Christ.

The best conversation I had was actually after the Q&A, a talk with Caleb who had read my series “On Warfare and Weakness” on my blog (it can be found on the sidebar of Experimental Theology).

If you haven’t read that series in it I work with the notion (leaning heavily upon John Caputo) that God, being love, is a weak force in the world. Caleb’s question had to do with how I reconcile that notion–God is a weak, non-coercive force–with a vision of universal reconciliation in Christ. More specifically, if God is a weak, non-coercive force how does “love win” in the end, especially if evil is a coercive and violent force that will overwhelm the weak force?

Because it seems that if God is going to “make everything right” in the end some sort of top-down exercise of power is going to be needed at some point. Because if love is weakness then won’t evil just keep dominating?

How does love win if love is weakness?

It’s a great question that I told Caleb I’d been struggling with. In the “On Warfare and Weakness” series I bracketed questions of eschatology and focused on the quotidian, everyday existence. But my thoughts about universal reconciliation in Christ pull me into eschatology so I need to make some connections.

Here’s the question to be answered: Is force required to bring about the eventual reconciliation of all things in Christ?

Talking about this afterwards Kevin had a great analogy. He said that whenever people ask him if God has to force people into heaven to make universal reconciliation work his response is often “Does anyone have to force you to watch a sunset?”

The beauty of a sunset, any kind of beauty, is very powerful and forceful. But it’s not a coercive force. It’s something that breaks your heart and moves you. It doesn’t push you. It draws you.

The idea that floated through my head was that love is like the sun and the human heart a vast iceberg. Love melts us.

So I do think there are ways we can think of God drawing us, moving us, melting us in ways that aren’t acts of force and coercion. And if so, then the weakness of love may be powerful enough to win in the end.

But there is a catch I mentioned to Caleb. Love is slow. Everything we’ve just described is going to take lots of time. How long to melt an iceberg, to soften the hardest human heart? It’s going to take a long time.

The point being, love requires patience, an almost infinite patience. And if you can’t wait, if you want to fix stuff now, well, yes, you’re going to have to use force. You’re going to have to start knocking some skulls together to make the Kingdom come.

And I think that’s the key connection. If God is the weak force of love your eschatology has to extend the timeline of God’s salvific work almost indefinitely. Love, to remain non-violent, will require a lot of time. Because if there is a time-limit love will have to shift to force to make everything work out alright in the end. If you put love on a schedule you’ll end up with coercion. “Hurry up” is always going to marginalize love and produce violence.

Which is why I think soteriological systems that have timelines, like the moment of death or Judgment Day, are inherently violent. In these systems love hasn’t been given enough time to do its work, thus God has to step in with force to get the Happy Ending to come in on schedule. In these visions God has to knock some skulls together to make the Kingdom Come. Because of the soteriological deadlines love is rushed and abandoned for violence.

And what I think all this means is that the belief that God is love almost demands the infinite patience of a universalist eschatology. Grace–the slow, non-coercive unwinding of sin–is expressed temporally.

Love wins in the end because love is infinitely and gratuitously patient.

Beautiful and fascinating thoughts Richard. Thanks

I echo Caleb’s comment, Richard. A really illuminating post, thank you.

I wonder, have you read any Robert Farrar Capon? He is very big on the way God exercises - or doesn’t - his power. The following quote from Capon’s book Kingdom, Grace and Judgement: Paradox, Outrage and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus, gives a ready summary of his view of what he calls, borrowing a phrase from Luther, God’s ‘left-handed power’ (my emphases):

Thanks again