The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Wesleyans as Universalists?

Gregory, my apologies for being slow to begin the conversation. I appreciate the prayers of those associated with “The Evangelical Universalist.” My health situation is stabilized at present, but my situation is such that I have little control over future difficulties. Living in the interim as I do, then, I thought it helpful to move ahead with the conversation.

Let me begin with a straightforward question that has to do with my theological tradition (and less, then, with explicit exegesis of specific NT texts): ***Isn’t the universalist position reserved for those lacking a robust sense of free will? *** That is, isn’t the claim that no one can finally persist in refusing God’s love tantamount to claiming that human free will is, after all, a ruse?

Of course, you might reply that I need to disown my Wesleyan heritage, with its emphasis on the prevenient grace that enables everyone to say Yes but makes room for anyone to say No to God – i.e., that I need to keep at least one pedal from the TULIP flower. If so, though, it would be useful to get this onto the table.

By the way, when I was being interviewed during the discernment process related to my ordination in The United Methodist Church, I was asked about my views on universal salvation. Having affirmed my hope in universal salvation, together with my desire that all persons be saved, I went on to note my incapacity to affirm universalism, since this would require my dispensing with free will – a pillar of Wesleyan faith. :slight_smile:


Thanks. We are praying for your health.

Your question is excellent. Indeed, it is perhaps the key theological/philosophical reason given for rejecting universalism by non-determinists.

I must confess to being somewhat agnostic on the issue of freedom. By that I mean that whilst I affirm that humans have freewill I am not entirely decided on whether it is compatible with determinism (compatibilist notions of freedom) or not (Libertarian notions of freedom).

I am interested that you have raised this issue. I was actually going to ask you about freedom. Having thrice read the chapter on sin and freedom in your excellent new book *Body, Soul and Human Life *I was asking myself the question, “Is Joel Green a determinist?” I guessed that as a good Methodist you could not be, but it felt to me that the chapter at very least flew close to the wind. The chapter did not resolve the issue but it did raise the question for me.

Be that as it may - I think that a good Methodist who rejects determinism can also be a universalist (obviously a determinist can be one so I’ll say no more about that). My reasoning is set out in chapter 1 of the book.

On the one hand, I would say - and this is simply a fall-back position - that whilst God values human freedom and allows us to make disastrous decisions, I do not think that our Libertarian freedom is *so valuable *that God would allow us to eternally damn ourselves just in order to preserve it. This is an argument that Marilyn Adams makes with great rhetorical force. I think - and this is a theological value judgement - that if the only way for God to stop one of his beloved creatures eternally damning itself was to temporarily override its freedom then God would do it. I do not have in mind here God compelling someone to embrace him when they do not wish to, but God enabling someone to want to embrace him.

But that is simply a fall back position. In fact, I think that God will not need to do this. My arguments are drawn from Tom Talbott and Eric Reitan.

Tom explains that the kinds of freedom that we consider to be valuable involve rationality. He asks us to imagine a boy putting his hand into a fire when he has
(a) no reason whatsoever for doing this, and
(b) every reason not to.
If we saw the boy behaving in this way we would not think him free but suffering from some mental problem.
Choosing to reject salvation is analogous. The truth about the situation is that all people have
(a) no good reasons to reject salvation (if they really understood the nature the the choice), and
(b) every reason not to.
Of course, most people have various degrees of misunderstanding ragarding this gospel-choice. They fail to appreciate the goods of choosing the gospel and the dehumanization that rejecting it leads to. So choosing to reject God is not nuts because they are not making a fully informed choice. But whilst God may have good reason to allow such ignorance for a time he no obvious good reason to allow it permanently. All God has to do is to make the reality of the choice clear to people. As the ignorance is banished it makes less and less sense to imagine someone freely choosing to reject the gospel. And in the extreme case that someone is *fully informed *about the choice I think that any continuing rejection of the gospel would not be free but simply insane. The free act would be the gospel-affirming one.

If one thought that even a fully informed person, to be free, must be capable of rejecting God in theory - even though they have literally no reasons to do so and every reason not to - then I guess that we are talking about ‘freedom’ as random, non-determined actions. I see *no value whatsoever *in God preserving *that kind *of freedom. Nevertheless, even if God did do so it would only be a matter of time before the random choices of the irrational stragglers would randomly choose God (Eric Reitan develops this argument based on prabability theory).

So in sum: I think that God has ways of bringing people to the situation in which they freely (in a non-determinist sense) choose to accept him. I think most people would choose to accept God long before they were fully informed. Perhaps some would not and only an full realisation and conviction of the reality of the choice would impact them. One might not think such people totally free (if choosing the opposite was psychologically impossible) but I would suggest that not preserving the psychological possibility of choosing damnation in such cases presents no obvious problem for a Methodist.

A final thought: I sometimes wonder if the notions of freedom that we work with in such discussions are not more determined by the Enlightenment than the Bible. Freedom, for Paul, is not the ability to reject God. That is slavery to sin. Freedom is the freedom to obey God - to be, ironically, a slave of God. So ‘freely rejecting God’ would be a very odd - indeed incoherent - notion on a Pauline notion of ‘freedom’.


Your responses raise a number of questions, so let me respond to two or three issues.

(1) I am a Methodist, but regard my tradition’s view of freedom as overdrawn. I make this claim based on both biblical and neuroscientific (and neuro-philosophical) considerations.

(2) I am not a determinist. However, I am convinced by the neuroscientific evidence that most of what we do as humans we do at a pre-conscious level (and thus at a level that does not rise to the level of the exercise of free will). I regard the biblical evidence as congruent with this understanding, and the material I discussed in Body, Soul, and Human Life suggests why this is so.

(3) It is at this point that I begin to wonder about your view, however. If human beings are sculpted in an environment that is itself not committed to the prayer that the will of God be done on earth as it is in heaven, then they will themselves be shaped in ways that do not reflect an orientation toward serving God’s redemptive agenda. But if this is the case, then in what sense does it make sense to say that they are “saved”?

To use terms more at home in your own argument, your view seems to turn on the assumption that human beings have no good reason to reject salvation and every reason not to do so. This assumption is itself the problem, since it requires that people have in mind rejecting salvation (or not). But is one’s rejection or acceptance of “salvation” such a consciously reflective, cognitive event.

Your view also assumes that people, were they not to be saved, would need to choose damnation. This entails two further assumptions – first, a rather anemic view of salvation; second, that people actively consider and embrace all of the consequences of whatever decisions they make. Regarding the second assumption, we have only to consider the fact that people choose, say, to smoke or to drive while intoxicated to see that a more sophisticated argument is required. Maybe someone will say, “Give me damnation!”, but I imagine that most folks would never consciously choose or reject damnation per se (though they might maintain a course of distancing themselves from God that could apparently lead only to further distancing themselves from God). Regarding the former, is salvation really nothing more than the opposite of damnation. Does soteriology not speak to the reality of embracing the good news of the kingdom of God and reorientating one’s life in the service of God’s salvific project in this world as well as the world to come?


Please accept my apology for the delay in getting back to you.

First, let me thank you for the clarification on your views regarding freewill and determinism.

I think that I may need to clarify my own view. I understand salvation to refer to the action of God taking a human being (situated in a community) warped by sin and, through Christ and in the power of the Spirit, transforming that person (situated in community) into the image of Christ. This will involve forgiveness but also moral transformation and the resurrection of the body (along with the resurrection of the whole created order).

When I speak of someone choosing salvation I mean something like this:
a person is enabled by the Holy Spirit
to see something of their plight (it is not necessary to see all of it),
to see that in Christ God has acted decisively to redeem creation (it is not necessary to understand everything about this redemption - or even very much at all),
and to turn towards God, trusting in Christ

That person is saved, is being saved, and will be saved. Salvation is about God ‘glorifying’ our humanity in Christ.

Now any human who rightly understood their situation (in Adam and in Christ) would have excellent reasons to accept salvation in Christ and no good reasons not to.

If I understand you correctly, you worry that the choices that people make that have the effect of damning them are not usually (if ever?) direct choices about savlation or damnation. People do not think, “Shall I choose salvation or damnation? Hmmmm. That’s a no-brainer - damnation for me every time!” You are correct. The choices that people make that damn them are everyday choices that come from ‘the flesh’ and thoughts of salvation or damnation are probably nowhere in sight.

But my point is simply this: God desires the salvation of all people and so God will work towards achieving that end. This requires people to, as you say, embrace the kingdom of God and reorientate their lives in God’s service. So *I believe that God will bring each person to face up to the challenge of that kingdom and bring them to the place where they can and will embrace it. *I believe that he continues to work on that project even in Hell.

None of this requires that the choices that damn people are explicit choices for damnation or explicit rejections of salvation. All that it means is that at *some *point God will bring all people to explicitly face that choice. And it means that he will work to bring greater clarity, over time, regarding the true nature of that choice. The greater the clarity the harder it becomes to resist embracing the kingdom. I doubt that many people (if any) would require the level of revelation that would make rejecting the kingdom psychologically impossible but I see no moral or theological problems with God providing that level of revelation if that was what was needed.

Now, of course, the more a person’s character is shaped in ungodly ways through environment and through past patterns of behavior the harder it will be to recognize the call of God and to respond to it. However, here is where I think that one needs a strong pneumatology. No human person has the image of God *so degraded *that the Holy Spirit has nothing to get to work on. There is always enough of that divine image that the Spirit can open blind eyes, soften hard hearts, and make the dead live. This prevenient grace is what gives me hope that no human person is ever beyond redemption. No will is so debased that it cannot be drawn back to God.