A Probing Tribute for My Cousin, Dana: The Reality of Salvation (Universalism & Particularism)

If evil is to be permanent in any part of the universe, then God is there foiled and the Cross of Christ of none effect…. So long as evil lasts there will be Hell. If evil should cease Hell would be burned out. Now if Christ’s cross means anything it means the destruction of evil everywhere and for ever. The work of the cross is not done while there is a single soul unwon to the mastery of Christ and uninfected by his spirit…. If we believe in the cross then we believe there will come a time when evil shall everywhere cease and sin no longer be.[1] P.T. Forsyth

God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.[2] T.F. Torrance

danaWe have, somewhat, two competing accounts from two different Scottish theologians; P.T. Forsyth and T.F. Torrance. Forsyth presents us with a picture and a belief that in the end all will be eternally ‘saved’ through faith in Jesus Christ; that the cross of Jesus has vanquished evil from existence, and established God’s lovely holiness the world over. On the other hand, Torrance focuses on the same reality, but by emphasizing God’s being for us as the ground of our life, independent, as it were from our positive or negative affirmation of him and his work and life for us at the cross. For Torrance what is important is that God has chosen to be for humanity, in and through the vicarious (or representative) humanity of Jesus Christ, in a way that whatever we choose to do with that reality, we will always be held in position by God’s life of love; and that we will never be able to escape his presence whether we choose life or death.

I wanted to open up this post in the way that I did as I begin this tribute for my cousin, Dana Rook– who took his life (just a few weeks ago, at the writing of this post) just recently as a result of brain trauma he suffered from his time in Afghanistan as an infantryman, he was only 23 years old–to identify a nagging concern that many Christians encounter as we grieve the loss of a loved one, or grieve the loss of any life. For some of us, we might comfort ourselves with the idea that our loved ones were ‘saved’ at an early age, and even though they may have had a troubled time after that decision, the decision still holds. Others of us will look at the lives of our loved ones, and we will be concerned about the state of their lives at the time of their passing; we will try to pry into the depth of their hearts by attempting to access their hearts by an empirical process of reconstructing their lifestyles, words, and posture towards others (so we will look at their personal morality, speech, and profession of belief or unbelief in Jesus Christ at the time of their passing, and attempt to discern their eternal standing and destiny from there). And still others of us will follow the theo-logic offered by P.T. Forsyth, and we will claim that the Christian Scripture, and implications of God’s revealed life at the cross necessitate Christian Universalism (the idea that all of humanity will ultimately be ‘saved’ and hell we be completely emptied of all of its inhabitants; so the idea is that all will be so overcome by the beauty and grandeur of God’s love, that each and every person will ultimately bow the knee to Jesus and confess that he is Lord in a salvific or ‘saving’ way). And yet others will find refuge in the fact of who God is for us (love) in Christ, and hold that God’s presence is inescapable, even in hell (so Torrance). We will hold that the ground of the human life, in general, is Jesus Christ’s humanity, and so in a mysterious way, we will recognize that even if someone chooses (in this life) to reject the love of God in Christ for themselves, that God will never reject his love for them even in damnation; because all of human life is covered (objectively) by God’s pledge of life for them in his Incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. This latter view (forwarded by Torrance) could be synthesized with Forsyth’s view of Christian universalism, but Torrance himself did not take this final step.

The reason I am proceeding this way, in thinking of my cousin, Dana, is because he struggled deeply with his relationship to God in Jesus Christ; so deeply that at the end of his life he claimed to be an atheist (but I know firsthand, that he was still battling all of this). And yet, early on in his life he made a profession of faith in Jesus Christ, and showed evidence of that throughout his (at least, as far as I know) early teenage years by reflecting on Scripture, memorizing Scripture, and thinking about God’s handiwork in creation and the great outdoors (he loved nature, especially reptiles, as I recently found out). So for some, especially if you are third party (and not family, or a friend), folks might look at the outward realities in Dana’s life at the end of his life, and conclude that he was not ‘saved’; some might try to build an empirical case from looking at his life and argue that based on how Dana was leading his life, that he is not with Jesus. But I think this is very premature!

My view is somewhere between what Forsyth had to say, and what Thomas F. Torrance has written. I hold that God is for all of humanity in his Son, Jesus Christ; and that human being is given its ongoing reality by the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. It is this pledge of life where Dana’s life rests, independent (objectively construed) of Dana’s choice (or any of our choices) to be for God in Christ. Dana, nor anyone, can escape the fact that God in Christ (because he is love) did for us what we would (nor could) ever do for ourselves; God in Christ chose all of humanity (in and through Christ’s humanity) to be for him and not against him. Dana’s life is grounded in Christ’s life then for all eternity.

Torrance held to the idea that hell was an eternal reality (as does the traditional teaching of the Christian church).  Forsyth held to the idea that hell was a reality, but a temporary (vs. eternal) reality; and that the cross of Jesus Christ as a demonstration and establishment of God’s holiness in a sinful world ultimately rendered sin, and thus hell, eternally vanquished and annihilated. Torrance’s view leaves the door open for Forsyth’s view though; it is possible for Forsyth’s Christian universalism to dovetail with Torrance’s idea that God’s love is a reality that will never let anyone go. Forsyth sounds pretty dogmatic about his view (but in the end he is not); Torrance is dogmatic in his view, but he finally falls back on mystery a bit. My view, using some of the theological categories offered by Forsyth and Torrance is that God’s love is indeed inescapable, and the cross of Jesus Christ establishes the biblical reality that God’s glory, his holiness will cover the earth like the waters cover the seas. I believe that God’s human being in the Incarnate Christ grounds the human being of each and every person who has ever been conceived; which implies, again, that no human being will ever or could ever be out of the reach of God’s life of love and eternal hope. I believe that consistent with this, then, that even post-mortem (physical death), it is highly possible that God could surprise each and every one of us by bringing all of humanity finally and ultimately into his presence where there is fullness of joy (even if they leave this life without a ‘saving’ relationship with him then).

I believe that no matter what state, then, my cousin Dana was in when he passed from this life, that there is ultimate hope; because God is hope, and Dana’s life, as are all of our lives, is/are grounded in Jesus Christ’s life for us. Dana made a profession of faith in Jesus Christ early on in his life, he walked with Jesus (as Jesus walked with him), for many years following his profession of faith. Dana is in the hands of the God who is hope; even though Dana had fallen on hard times, even in his walk with Jesus, the grace of God continued to fund Dana’s life even into eternity. The point is, is that Dana’s life was not contingent upon himself, it was and is contingent upon God’s life for Dana, in Christ. No matter what way we look at it, Dana is in the hands of a God who is love and eternal hope; who is full of grace and mercy, and who is more present with the broken-hearted than he is with the self-righteous (and he is even present with them).

There is always hope with a God of hope. I personally believe that Dana entered into the presence of God in Jesus Christ at the point that he departed from this earth. He was a brokenhearted kid who Jesus promised never to leave or forsake. Beyond this, if you have a loved one who has passed, and who did not have any kind of relationship with Jesus Christ, I still hold out the possibility that there is ultimate hope along with P.T. Forsyth; and yet I hold this in a hopeful and not dogmatic posture. God is love, God is hope, full of grace and mercy; I have to believe at some level that this is the reality that will endure throughout eternity, and that it will shape God’s life towards his creation without end.

RIP, Dana.

 

[1] Peter Forsyth, “The Bible Doctrine of Hell and the Unseen,” 4 cited by Jason Goroncy, “The Final Sanity Is Complete Sanctity: Universal Holiness in the Soteriology of P. T. Forsyth (1848–1921),” in ed. Gregory MacDonald, “All Shall Be Well”: Explorations in Universalism and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 305.

[2] T. F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 94.

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4 comments

  1. My deepest condolences, Bobby:(

    I was in the spot that you’re in theologically for a while. I know and understand why Barth (concerns for the freedom of God) and Torrance (forcing a logical-causal relation between the atonement and escathology) both avoided universalism, but I just cannot conceive God failing to do what He’s worked for: the salvation of all. In this regard, I find St. Isaac the Syrian’s view most satisfying.

    I am a universalist. How hopeful or dogmatic is irrelevant because universalism will be found to be true or not apart from what we believe. I entrust the salvation of all to him, and believe that he will save them all, including your cousin.

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  2. Hi Juan,

    I can understand your position, but I think there is further nuance available, for theological reasons, between what Oliver Crisp calls a necessary universalism and a contingent universalism. I will have to post on this at a later date.

    And thank you for the condolences; it is a really hard situation, even with the hope of Christ … there is still much grief involved with this last enemy of death, and in particular, with my cousin’s!

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  3. I look forward to reading further on this nuance you speak of. And thanks once again for so deeply resourcing my theology through all your posts on Torrance’s work. I am deeply indebted. I am doing all I can to advance the Evangelical Calvinism he espoused;)

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