I am a hopeful universalist. I believe that all persons will eventually be healed, liberated and transformed by the unconditional love of God. And yet, I must concede that given the nature of human freedom there is no way to be sure of that outcome. I do not believe that the invitation into a transformative relationship with God ends with death. I believe in an afterlife, and I believe the invitation to participate in the divine-human relationship extends well beyond this life into the next.
Do I believe in divine judgment? I do, but certainly not in the traditional sense of banishment and exclusion. I believe that whatever form divine judgment takes (in this life as well as the next), it’s for the purpose of healing and restoration, not condemnation; it’s for the purpose of redemption, not retribution.
The question is: Can persons become so calloused, evil and hardened that no manner of discipline (judgment) or new experience can turn them from evil to good? I have to concede here that there is no way to know with any certainty, though I believe that ultimately love will win and that all persons no matter how evil will repent and be changed.
There are, of course, many unanswerable questions: What experiences will it take to reach unfeeling, hardened evildoers? How much time will it take? For those who have abused and harmed others, will restitution be required? What will it look like? But I am hopeful that love will have the final word and that all manner of evildoers will eventually be transformed by God’s grace. As in the parables of the shepherd who searches for the lost sheep, and the woman who searches for the lost coin, both of whom search “until he/she finds” what is lost, I believe God searches until God finds, and God will find us no matter how lost we may be.
So, as a hopeful universalist, do I believe in evangelism? Most definitely, but clearly not in the traditional sense as taught and practiced in evangelical churches.
God’s standard way of interacting with humanity is through humanity. One of the great truths Christianity has given to the world is the teaching of incarnation. God becomes incarnate in human beings and works through human beings to bring healing, liberation and transformation to our evolving species.
When the church is truly being church then the church serves as the body of Christ in the world, embodying in word and deed the compassion, love and justice of God so beautifully materialized in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
I certainly do not believe there is any need to save people from eternal damnation, but there is a great need to be God’s instruments and agents in seeking the lost. We are all lost, by the way, in different ways and in varying degrees. Some days I’m the one who needs finding and saving. To be “saved” basically means to be healed and liberated from some oppressive power, which can be from without (systemic injustice) or from within (our own self-serving, sinful attitudes and actions). Salvation has social, political, psychological, physical, mental and emotional dimensions. It is both communal and personal. And salvation in all these different facets is always spiritual.
Here’s what I shared with my congregation one Sunday at the close of our worship service:
In 1977 I walked into Dr. Coker’s New Testament Introduction class at Campbellsville College with my New Scofield Reference Bible, having all the answers. Dr. Coker didn’t like my answers. He kept challenging me to ask better questions and let God out of my little box, but I wasn’t ready. Some days I would walk out of his class angry and at the end of the school year, I transferred to a different school. If I could have walked into that same class 10 years later, I would have thrived in that environment.
There are people who visit our church who know nothing about us. I can usually tell by their facial expressions during the sermon that this is not what they were expecting from a Baptist preacher. I know they will not be back. They are not ready to let God out of the little box they have God locked up in. And that is perfectly okay.
But you know, sisters and brothers, there are some who are ready to let God out of the box. There are some who are ready for a larger God and greater vision of life. They are ready to grow and become more than what they are. Chances are you will interact with some of these folks at some point in your lives. They may be members of your family, work colleagues, friends in your neighborhood association, and so forth. I encourage you to be intentional in inviting them to our church. Tell them about us. Paint a picture of what they might learn about God here and how they could grow here.
We will never be a large congregation, but we have an important place in this community. And there are some folks out there who would thrive in this community of faith.
This is my version of evangelism. We don’t need to save people from eternal perdition, but we are called to incarnate God’s invitation into a life of human-divine interaction and participation in God’s will to heal and transform our individual lives, communities, societies and world.