Is it possible to take seriously the unique, “once and for all” saving work and person of Jesus Christ, while also respecting the views of friends from other faith traditions and engaging in genuine interfaith dialogue? Is it feasible to have a high Christology and a robust soteriology, without treating every interaction with a Jew, Buddhist or agnostic as another “come-to-Jesus-or-else-eternally-burn-in-hell” moment? These are my questions lately.
And, if a big part of real dialogue with people of other faiths is withholding judgment about their eternal destination, then it would seem by extension from a reading of Paul Dafydd Jones, who teaches in the religious studies department at the University of Virginia, that it is indeed possible to answer “yes” here. Dafydd Jones’ “hopeful universalism” is an answer to intonations of, on the one hand, what Dafydd Jones calls “populist neo-Arminianism” in Francis Chan’s recent work, “Erasing Hell”- namely, the notion that a decision of faith on our parts is “needed to complete the salvific process that God initiates;” and, on the other, the Augustinian-Calvinist understanding of “limited salvation,” by which God in God’s sovereignty chooses and predestines some for salvation and some for eternal punishment.
In their place, Dafydd Jones proposes a biblically rooted account of God’s love and sovereignty that succeeds in simultaneously taking sin seriously and emphasizing the cosmic significance of the life and death of Jesus Christ. He does this by first appealing to a term familiar to those of us steeped in more Calvinist, Reformed traditions- that of “election”:
Following the later Barth, I favor an account of God’s love for humankind that identifies Jesus Christ as the “electing God” and “elected human.” These terms, I hasten to add, aren’t a tip of the hat to ardent Calvinists. Talk of election helps to connect the doctrines of God, Christ and salvation. It’s a way of saying, specifically, that God’s loving advance toward us, realized in Christ, has ramifications for human being as such. The incarnation makes a difference to who we are. It renders us people who bear the image of “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of creation” (Col. 1:15); it marks us as those whom God “can choose . . . in Christ before the foundation of the world [and] destined for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ” (Eph. 1:4–5).
This allows Dafydd Jones to enlist a very high view of Christ’s work and person that also takes the problem of sin and evil seriously:
Christ, on this reckoning, isn’t merely a focus for Christian thought and action (although he is certainly that). Christ is the basis for a soteriology that delights in the fact that none of us are the sum total of our awkward, sinful and frequently disappointing lives. Through Christ, God has bound Godself to us, and us to God, in the most radical way imaginable. And this binding is not occasional or temporary. It cuts to the heart of who we are, while speaking volumes about the person that God is and the actions that God undertakes. Precisely because the scope of the Son’s intercession is as broad as the humanity that he assumes, precisely because Jesus is “exalted at the right hand of the Father” (Acts 2:33, cf. Acts 7:55–6 and Mark 16:19), there is good reason to suppose that God’s saving work has no limits. It’s not theological overreach to hope that salvation will come to all. Such hope follows directly from an awareness of God’s love and power, articulated by Christ and distributed, mysteriously, by Christ’s Spirit.
The next step is to say plainly that Christ’s engagement with sin—an engagement that encompasses Christ’s life, death and resurrection—is such that sin has no future. I don’t want to suggest here that sin is no longer part of human life. It clearly is, and the world in which we live often shows signs of getting worse, not better. My point is this: in light of Christ’s person and work, sin no longer sets the terms for our relationship with God and God’s relationship with us. On the cross, specifically, Christ draws the full weight of human sinfulness—past, present and future—upon himself, rendering himself the one in whom all sin is overcome.
There really is a “consuming fire,” then, as Edward Fudge supposes. But this fire doesn’t await sinners in the future. This fire—the fire of God’s holy love—concentrates itself in Jesus’ own suffering and death. And because Christ takes to heart the entire shocking history of our sin, sin is wholly burned up, whollyfinished, when Christ breathes his last. Is this not the meaning of Jesus’ cry of dereliction? Doesn’t this cry show that God has accepted Christ’s thoroughgoing identification with sinners and that God’s contestation of sin has run its course? And with the fire of God’s holy love burned out, doesn’t the resurrection show God relating to God’s children in a new way?
Hopeful universalism, on this reckoning, does not require the Christian to downplay the past, present and future fact of wrongdoing. It requires only that the Christian acknowledge the nearly unimaginable price that Christ paid for our salvation: being the sin that God condemns and rejects, so that those who live “in him” (that is, all of us) might receive the blessings of God’s favor.
[Correction: Dafydd Jones' article, "A Hopeful Universalism," appears as the cover story in the current issue of "The Christian Century." I originally posted the article in full, but because it is behind a subscription wall, have decided to take it down and excerpt it in a few key places instead.]