Universal Salvation and the Loss of the Law
In my last article for Conciliar Post, I argued that teaching universal salvation from the pulpit—irrespective of whether one is convinced by the view—would likely have a negative effect on the spiritual well-being of most modern churchgoers. That would happen, I argued, because the logic of sin as harmful in itself to human flourishing has largely been forgotten. Over email following publication of that piece, a fellow CP contributor questioned whether, in making such an argument, I was driving a wedge between truth and goodness—that is, implying that some truths (hypothetically speaking) are not “good for us to know”—compromising the traditional Christian insistence on the unity of the transcendentals. This is a fascinating critique, and I thought it deserved a lengthier and more substantive treatment than I could realistically give it over email.
(As I wrote initially, I don’t believe in universal reconciliation. This article is narrowly focused on the question of whether, if one were convinced it were true, one ought to preach it—the same choice that faced pastor Carlton Pearson in the Netflix drama Come Sunday.)
The distinctive feature of Lutheran preaching is the centrality of the Law-Gospel dialectic: first, the people of God are reminded of the demands of God’s Law and their inability to satisfy it, and second, the faithful hear the joyous news that the Law has been satisfied in Christ. Typically, this takes place in the context of the lectionary. (I’ve never heard expository preaching in a confessional Lutheran church.) The meaningfulness and power of Law-Gospel preaching, naturally, is bound up with a logical relation between the Law that humans cannot satisfy and the Gospel that proclaims deliverance: if the preaching of the Law is unintelligible, the preaching of the Gospel becomes none other than Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “cheap grace.” And unfortunately, a distinct unintelligibility has infected the form of the Law that must be preached alongside any Gospel that speaks of universal salvation.
I recently wrote elsewhere about anthropologist Jonathan Lear’s book Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, which chronicles the struggle of the Crow Indians to maintain their identity in a time of rapid social transition. Lear’s work is a helpful illustration of how difficult it would be to rehabilitate the doctrine of sin necessary to any idea of universal reconciliation that is consistent with the Nicene tradition.
Lear begins his study by explaining that the Crow lived in a world where inter-tribal warfare was common (particularly with the hated Lakota, or Sioux). As a result, crucial aspects of Crow cultural identity were tied to individuals’ conduct during those routine conflicts. First, an essential feature of Crow maturation was the process of counting coup—touching one’s enemies with a special coup stick before striking them with a weapon. Obviously, counting coup was a highly dangerous act, since it required the Crow assailant to defer the fatal blow and give the enemy the opportunity to strike first. And so naturally, counting coup became associated with bravery—a young man who counted coup would be entitled to take a wife and be reckoned a mature warrior. Second, prior to battle, the Crow would plant coup sticks in the ground as a statement to their enemies: we will die before we are forced to retreat behind this planted coup stick. Cowardice—retreat behind the coup stick—constituted a fate worse than death among the Crow.
This cultural tradition was upended when incoming American settlers enforced a peace among the region’s tribes. Peace meant an end to the war rituals that allowed Crow culture to persist—and as a result, it meant that the meanings associated with counting coup and the planting of the coup stick were no longer intelligible to the Crow people themselves. This breakdown, Lear explains, is the true horror of cultural devastation: not simply a loss of power or status, but a loss of the frameworks within which individuals make sense of their lived reality. How does a Crow youth become a man when the rite of manhood no longer exists? Is he still a Crow?
In the context of Western civilization, the collapse of natural-law thinking—a process meticulously chronicled in Alasdair MacIntyre’s Whose Justice? Which Rationality?—constituted such a seismic “cultural catastrophe,” though one less obvious than the breakdown of Crow culture. For the overwhelming majority of Westerners, any sense of harmony between the concepts of is and ought is utterly lacking—which in turn renders natural-law thinking impossibly incoherent to most people. In other words, we generally cannot think as our forerunners in the faith once thought. It seems to me that most of us cannot now think of sin as a matter of “acting against our own nature and flourishing,” but only as noncompliance with external commandments.
In my last article, I discussed the necessity to conceive of sins not just as transgressions of specific rules (like speeding tickets) but as instances of self-destructive behavior (like drinking bleach). And this natural-law view of sin is the precondition for holding together any Christian teaching of universal salvation with a serious commitment to Christian ethics. On such an account, sin is framed not as God cracking down on petty rule violations, but rather as stop hitting yourself, stop driving yourself away from God. The result of such a synthesis can, when carefully drawn, be a coherent and faithful model of God’s salvific work (one is ably outlined by Taylor Ross here).
My (pastoral) argument against preaching universal reconciliation is simple: such a synthesis is almost never possible or comprehensible under contemporary conditions. And where the preconditions for grasping a truth in its fullness are not satisfied—such that any communication of that truth will inevitably result in misunderstanding—the proclamation of that truth will not have a salutary effect.
This decidedly does not entail an intrinsic disjunction between truth and goodness: any deficiency rests with the hearer. The Apostle Paul says something akin to this in 1 Corinthians 1:18, where it is written that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” To those outside the Church, the truth of the cross is nonsense, not “good” at all; to those within, the truth of the cross is the manifestation of an infinite Good. And likewise, to those habituated by modernity, whose minds can only think of sin as rulebreaking—rather than, more correctly, as ontological wounding—any doctrine of salvation that seemingly denies a final penalty for that rulebreaking will necessarily rob any moral exhortations of their force.
Viewed in the context of Lutheran preaching, this means that the form of preaching of the Law that would go hand-in-hand with any Gospel promise of universal reconciliation—sin wounds sinners, pushing them further away from God’s healing light—cannot be understood or received as Law under contemporary conditions. As such, it cannot form a constituent of the Law-Gospel dialectic that is core to the preaching task. Thanks to the West’s cultural catastrophe, and the submersion of the natural law in a swamp of legal positivism, a great deal of intellectual groundwork is required to simply articulate the core issues involved.
And that is why I maintain that preaching universal reconciliation—wholly apart from its doctrinal merits, or lack thereof—will almost always be pastorally inappropriate. The harm described here, however, is not rooted in the difficulty of the doctrine (in theory), but rather with the hearers—that is, us. We are hedonistic children of our age, and our souls decidedly do not need additional excuses to justify living as we wish.