A week ago, ex-evangelical blogger Sarah Moon wrote a post titled: “When my abuser is welcome at the table, I am not,” taking aim at the presumptuousness with which some progressive Christians champion a table where everyone is welcome. A friend had told Moon that she should be grateful Jesus died for the man who raped her and she should accept him as her fellow forgiven sinner. Though Moon wasn’t necessarily writing about life after death, the pain she shares illustrates the problem with universalism. Wouldn’t God be lacking in mercy for the victims of abuse to force them to spend eternity in communion with their abusers?
A couple of years ago, I read two important books that have done a lot to shape how I think about heaven and hell. They were Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace and Hans Boersma’s Hospitality, Violence, and the Cross. Both of these works argue that God has a duty to those who have put themselves under the protection of His mercy to keep them safe from those who would harm them. God must exclude in order to embrace.
As the host of a colossal party for all of humanity, God’s goal is for every guest to be perfectly welcome. The problem is that in order to have a perfectly hospitable space, sin cannot be welcome because sin creates an inhospitable environment. This means that people who have locked themselves into a defiant self-justification of their sin cannot be welcome for the sake of those who would be hurt by their sin.
Obviously, it wouldn’t be hospitable for God to allow brawls to break out on the dance floor in heaven. But what about gossip and snubs and evil eyes and the saccharine malicious banter that Southern Belles are so good at? Will it really be a place where everyone is welcome if God unconditionally accepts any of these “civilized” forms of wickedness that make people cry and want to leave the party early?
Somehow I will have to be transformed so that all my sardonic, condescending thoughts about other people that arise from my insecurity are simply wiped out, leaving me a genuinely good-natured person instead of someone who makes spiteful cynical assumptions about genuinely good-natured people. The word that’s used in the Bible for the radical transformation that I need is glorification.
The universalists are basically saying that God will glorify everyone into genuinely good-natured people, whether they want to be or not. So it would essentially be a spiritual lobotomy. I don’t think that God is going to make such a unilateral dictatorial move on us after a lifetime of letting us decide to what degree we will trust Him and follow His will. If someone has been lobotomized into “niceness” by God, how is that person even a real person? How is that any different than those scary movies like Pleasantville in which people are basically robots of good-naturedness?
I don’t think God will force glorification on us; I think He will glorify people who want to be glorified. And to want to be transformed in that kind of way, you need to know that you’re not okay just the way you are. The way that I became okay with the fact that I’m not okay is because Jesus gave me a cross where I can take my sins whenever they are brought to my attention.
If I didn’t have a means of dealing with my sin, I wouldn’t face it. I would just come up with spin-doctored explanations of my interactions with other people that preserve my infallibility at all costs. I’m still a cantankerous, inhospitable person even though I know that Jesus has won victory over my sins; I can’t imagine what a jerk I would be if I didn’t know that.
I haven’t studied other religions like Buddhism or Islam in any real depth. I don’t really have time to do so. Perhaps they have a means of preparing the human heart to be purged of the sinful dispositions that would make us rotten party guests at God’s eternal gala. I don’t know. I do know that the taste of freedom I’ve received from Jesus’ cross makes me ache for the day when God will burn off everything that makes me an obstacle to the welcome that He wants others to experience at His party. And I feel confident that God cares deeply about victims of abuse like Sarah Moon and He is absolutely committed to making His table a safe place for them, even if it means that some people get left out of the party.
None of us have the authority to tell anybody else who they’re supposed to forgive, in what way, and under what terms. I do not have the authority to declare redemption and reconciliation over abusers who have done horrible things to other people. Only the one who was raped by Roman nails has the authority to do that, and He doesn’t love abusers more than their victims. So I’m not sure that a sinner’s prayer or any other supposedly guaranteed hand-stamp forces Jesus to let you into His party with the people that you hurt.
The flippancy with which evangelicals understand “getting saved” reveals how profoundly Protestant ethics has been damaged by our lack of a sacrament of penance. There are plenty of supposedly “born-again” Christians who don’t look anything like Galatians 5:22 fruit. Though I don’t have the authority to say they can’t go to God’s party, I don’t have the right to proof-text verses from Romans at God if He shuts some of them out.
All that being said, I don’t think it’s wrong to hope that in some ridiculously wonderful way, God can transform everyone into whatever they need to be so that nobody is unwelcome at His party. The closer we grow to Christ, the more fervently we should pray for God’s reconciliation and healing for all people, though we should never presume to declare with certainty what can never be more than an absurd hope. One thing I trust with much greater certainty based on the promises of scripture is that God will do whatever it takes to make His table safe for everyone: every victim of rape, torture, abuse, murder, or any other horror. He will not betray those who have put their trust in His mercy.