Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Power to Save or the Risk to Love

One of the greatest philosophical questions that is often asked is, “Can God create a rock so big that God cannot carry it?” The point of the question is to suggest that there may be some things that God himself cannot do. If a person is to believe that some people will be eternally separated from God, then that person must be able to live with the fact that God cannot save every person. This is an argument some Universalists make in defense of universal salvation.

The argument for universalism can be stated two ways. First, Gulley and Mulholland, in their book If Grace is True, claim that if God desires the salvation of every person then surely God has the power to do what God desires to do. Gulley and Mulholland say those who believe people will ultimately spend eternity separated from God either believe (A) “God doesn’t want to save all his children “or (B)”that God can’t save all his children.[1]

The second way to state the same argument is to state three contradictory premises as Thomas Talbott’s book The Inescapable Love of God does. (1) God’s redemptive love extends to all human sinners equally in the sense that he sincerely wills or desires the redemption of each one of them. (2)Because no one can finally defeat God’s redemptive love or resist it forever, God will triumph in the end and successfully accomplish the redemption of everyone whose redemption he sincerely wills or desires. (3) Some human sinners will never be redeemed but will instead be separated from God forever.[2]

Tallbott maintains that there is sufficient evidence in Scripture to warrant a belief in all three of these premises, yet one of them must be false. Calvinist would have to reject premise 1 and conclude that God did not desire to save every person. Arminians would have to reject premise 2 and conclude God could not save every person. Gulley/Mulholland/Tallbott conclude both premises 1 and 2 are true, making 3 false. That is, they believe that since God desires the salvation of every person and has the power to accomplish anything that God wills to do, then all people will be saved.

The Calvinist tradition accepts premises two and three, rejecting premise one. They hold that God surely accomplishes God’s purposes and redeems those that God wills to redeem. However, it is clear that not everyone is redeemed; therefore, God must not extend redemptive love to everyone. Calvinists claim God does not want to save every person. I think this type of belief, although it has strengths when dealing with the sovereignty of God, poses serious problems to the character of God.

Daniel Strange attempts to deal with this problem by suggesting that we have altered the meaning of God’s love. God exists for the very purpose of glorifying God’s self; therefore, the definition of sin is failing to bring glory to God. Since God’s glory is the thing which is at stake, we must view God’s character as relating to God’s glory. In order to keep God’s glory intact, God must punish sin and those who sin. The reason God punishes sin is because God hates it and it is in God’s nature to punish it. You may ask, “What about God’s love?” Strange goes on to define God’s love primarily as God’s love for God’s self through the Trinity. He adds this: “To say, as Universalists do, that God must endlessly pursue reconciliation for him to be good is an attempt to subvert God into humankind’s servant.”[3]

Strange’s attempt to redefine God’s love within the framework of the Trinity does not help his position. As Jerry Walls and Joe Dongell point out, “The doctrine (of the) Trinity above all shows that God necessarily exists in an eternal relationship of perfect love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God’s will must always be understood as an expression of his essential nature of perfect love.” Just as Strange uses the Trinity to explain that God’s love exists for the purpose of God glorifying God’s self, Walls and Dongell point out that the Trinity shows that God’s nature is to love others. God is glorified not in self love, but in redemptive love. God shows the same love within the Trinity as God shows for God’s creation.[4]

I also want to suggest that God is not glorified by choosing certain people for salvation by overriding their freedom, but rather God is glorified in bringing people into a relationship with God that they have freely chosen. What kind of love would it be to force people to love us? I know that I would rather allow people to freely choose to love me and risk them rejecting me than I would in forcing others to love me. I believe this is God’s choice as well.

This brings me to the second option regarding our premises. Instead of rejecting premise 1, we could reject premise 2. This position holds that God desires the salvation of every person, but some people will ultimately be separated from God for eternity. This is called the Arminian position, named after Jacob Arminias, who rejected the Calvinist teaching of individual election for salvation. The main criticism of this move is to say that this position places limits upon the power of God to achieve God’s purpose in saving the world. Universalist and Calvinists claim that this makes God a failure.

John Sanders defends the Arminian position by admitting that there are times in which God desires a certain outcome and that outcome does not happen. This will inevitably be the case when God gives creatures freedom to choose or reject God. Obviously the World Trade Center incident was not God’s will. God’s will was rejected, causing a devastating tragedy. Likewise, it could be held that God preferred that Israel follow Jesus instead of crucifying him. Here is the crucial point though: “God does not fail in his overarching purposes.” Sanders claims that it was God’s overarching purpose to establish the conditions which humans could experience the love of God and respond to it freely.[5]

The Universalist, and Calvinist attack of the Arminian position is that it places limits on the power of God to save all that God desires to save. In response to this, I want to note that in reality, God was free to create any kind of world that God wanted to create; however, God created a world where we are given the freedom to make a moral choice for or against God. A quote from C.S. Lewis may help.

God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go either wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a world which was free but had no possibility of going wrong; I can not… Why, then did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. [6]

I believe that God felt free will was so important, that God was willing to limit God’s own power so that free will could be possible.

We may wonder why God would choose to create a world like this where God could be rejected forever. John Eldridge says, “God is the person who takes immense risks.”[7] God gave us the freedom to reject God, which brings with it heart break, suffering, and devastation. However, with Eldridge, Lewis, and other Arminians, I believe the risk God took is the only thing that would bring about true love. Eldridge goes on to say, “God wants to be loved. He wants to be a priority to someone.”[8]

Jerry Walls reframes the original three claims made by Tallbott in a way that I believe makes sense of the world that we DO live in. He says, (4) Since God’s eternal nature is perfect love, he sincerely extends his grace to all his human creatures and does everything he can to elicit from them a free response of trust and love. (5)Although free creatures can decline God’s love, his ultimate purpose of glorifying himself cannot be defeated since his love is demonstrated whether it is accepted or rejected. (6) Some sinners will never accept God’s love and will forever be separated from him.[9]

God can show love to people and have them reject it without detracting from God’s will. God has achieved God’s purposes in that God loved even those who reject God. This is not to say that God does not desire salvation for all, however, God’s ultimate desire is to love all and be loved by all. This love relationship can only happen where freewill exists.

I believe it is God’s desire, because God truly loves us, to form our characters in such a way that we become more like God and we become fulfilled in our lives. God cares deeply about the quality of the relationship. In order for this to take place, we have to freely cooperate with God in the process. This means that some people no matter what God does, will not cooperate and will freely reject God. This does not diminish God’s power, because God is more concerned with the quality of the relationship than God is the quantity of people who become Christians. This means that God’s love is still universal, but that this love transforms our lives.

I have been challenged by knowing that God is a risk taker. Not only is God a risk taker, but God has chosen to take a chance on me. I think modern Christianity has become so complacent because we are afraid to take a risk. We are afraid to invest in relationships because we fear that we will be hurt. We are afraid to invest financially because we are scared we will loose our investments. We are afraid to involve ourselves in ministry because we are afraid of failure.

Knowing that God is a risk taker should change the way we look at the world. If God is willing to take risks with the universe, we should be able to trust the God of the universe to be with us when we take risks. One of my former preachers, Wayne Sparks, said it like this. “In Christianity today, we only want to ride a bike with training wheels when God wants us to be riding a motorcycle.” I do not mean that to be taken literally, but we have to be willing to take some risks in life because that is when we find that we can trust God and be fulfilled.

[1] Philip Gulley and James Mulholland, If Grace is True (New York: Harper Collins 2003.) 91. This argument is set up in the chapter entitled “The Will of God”
[2] Thomas Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God (Universal Publishers: Salem, Oregon 1999) This argument occurs in chapter 4 entitled, “The Pictures of God”
[3]Daniel Strange, Universal Salvation: The Current Debate ed. “A Calvinist Response to Talbott’s Universalism” Ed. Robin Perry and Christopher Partidge ( Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003)
[4] Why I am not a Calvinist, 217-221. Dongell and Walls conclude their book by arguing that the real issue in the debate between freewill and predestination is not the sovereignty of God (God’s power), but rather the character of God (God’s love). The issue, they say, is whether or not God loves everyone. They conclude that the Arminian position (freewill) is the better option.
[5] John Sanders, Universal Salvation “A Freewill Theist’s Response to Talbott’s Universalism”
[6] CS Lewis, Mere Christianity (Harper San Francisco: New York, 1980) 47-48.
[7] John Eldridge, Wild at Heart ( Thomas Nelson Publishers: Nashville 2001) 30-31.
[8] Ibid., 36.
[9] Jerry Walls, Universal Salvation “A Philosophical Critique of Talbott’s Universalism”

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