'Will we be able to say a final ‘No’ to God?'
The Reverend Mark Birch Minor Canon and Precentor
Sunday, 16th August 2020 at 11.15 AM
In a Radio 4 interview several years ago now, there was a most unusual occurrence. Between the final question and the final answer of the interview there was a long pause—‘dead air’, as I believe it is known. But this air was as far from being dead as could be imagined. The interviewer had just asked whether, in the end, all people will be saved. The interviewee had asked for a few moments to think about it. This ‘air’, this pause, was alive with anticipation—anyone listening would have leaned in closer, me included.
To my shame, I can’t remember who the interviewer was, but the one whose answer we eagerly awaited was, (who else) Rowan Williams, the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury.
His answer, as ever, rumbled up out of the depths of his learning (and I’m afraid I have to paraphrase, as, search as I might, I couldn’t find a transcript anywhere). He said something like: ‘I just wonder whether, ultimately, in this life or beyond it, we will be able to say a final ‘No’ to God—that seems to be the question here.’
Some people might have found this a frustrating, equivocal answer –not a clear yes or no, but ‘I wonder.’ Someone who is far less equivocal on the question of whether or not everyone will be saved is the American Orthodox philosopher and theologian David Bentley Hart. Last year he published a book with the quite unambiguous title: ‘That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, hell and universal salvation’
He argues, with great style and pulling no punches, not only that everyone will be saved, but that to maintain a doctrine of eternal punishment for the ‘unsaved’—what he calls ‘infernalism’—is so flawed, philosophically, scripturally, and morally, as to render the Gospel utterly incoherent, and no longer in any sense ‘good news’, not even for the redeemed.
How, he argues (against Aquinas, no less), can heaven be true bliss if we know that others are in agony? Does God lobotomise us so that we are no longer aware of it, or are we just so busy being blissed-out that we don’t care anymore? Either option is at least, he argues, morally questionable.
The book is a tour de force—as parts of it were being read to me on a recent trip down the M4 it had me striking the steering wheel with the sheer exhilaration of it.
Bentley Hart is, unequivocally, a Universalist—the logic of Christianity; the incarnation, the atoning work of Christ and the sharing in the Divine Life by the Spirit, requires that everyone must be saved—as he puts it:
God is not a god, and his final victory, as described in scripture, will consist not merely in his assumption of perfect supremacy “over all,” but also in his ultimately being “all in all”.
In the United States, a country deeply formed in Calvinist theology; where being saved or not, being one of the elect, or not, is a constant and troubling question, despite, on some accounts being something you can do precisely nothing about—it’s not surprising then that Bentley Hart’s view is quite controversial.
But today’s readings certainly seem to push in a universalist direction.
Israel understood herself as a chosen nation—distinctive, unique, holy—and yet, as we heard this morning, her prophet Isaiah tells them that, at the last, foreigners will join themselves to the Lord, will keep the Sabbath with them; and God’s House will become a ‘house of prayer for all peoples.’ I can’t help wondering how that kind of message would have been received by those who were used to keeping a very clear distinction between Jew and Gentile, between those inside and outside God’s covenant with Israel. Isaiah seems to be saying that, at the end of the day, on the day of the Lord, such distinctions will pass away.
St Paul was dealing with almost the opposite problem in his letter to the Romans. There appears to be a hint of supercessionism in the air, which Paul is compelled to address. The new, predominantly Gentile Church thinks it has taken the place of the Jewish nation in God’s affections—the divine covenant has shifted from the old Israel to the new.
Well, Paul will have none of that. The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable, he reminds them. You gentiles were the disobedient ones to start with—he tells them—and now the disobedience of the Jews has won you God’s mercy. Everyone has been proved to be disobedient, one way or another, which has only served to show that God’s mercy is for everyone.
And finally, in the gospel, can the Canaanite woman, the hated foreigner, claim a crumb of the mercy promised to the lost sheep of the House of Israel?
This is a notoriously difficult passage, and the behaviour of Jesus appears to us, quite rightly, to be absolutely shocking. He calls the woman a dog—an even more appalling slur, coming, as it does from the mouth of a Jew. You’re not one of us, he seems to say, you don’t deserve my attention, let alone healing for your daughter.
Jesus does not come across well here. Some say, wanting to defend his divine omniscience, that this is a subtle piece of didactic posturing, a bit of play-acting—he is saying what his disciples would be thinking, in order to model, to show them the astonishing change of heart that he desires towards this outcast and her daughter.
Another approach, doing more justice perhaps to Christ’s humanity, might be to say that this is a genuine moment of transformation in the ministry of Jesus—that there was a change in the human heart of Christ—that this is a seminal moment, along with the Samaritan woman at the well, the Centurion and his slave; moments in a developing narrative of inclusion, of salvation, that is for all, not just for some.
Could it be that just as we only discover the truth of who we are through our relationships with others, especially the unexpected others who we do not choose, so it might have been for the Son of Man, who discovered something about the true scope of his nature and mission through the unbidden intervention of this outsider?
This discovery, this narrative of a widening, including mission re-emerges especially in the apostolic ministry of St Peter (remember the sheet descending from heaven, and God declaring all things clean); a narrative with which St Paul just runs and runs in his pioneering ministry amongst the gentiles.
Many would argue, me included, that the inclusion of women in the ordained ministry of the Church, and the arguments for the open inclusion of other marginalised groups within the Church’s life and ministry are just the latest chapters, the latest discoveries, the most recent emergence of this same, extraordinary narrative. This salvation is for all—even for the most unlikely - those we find a bit disturbing—those we might rather exclude—beginning with this wretched and importunate woman, gate-crashing the Rabbi’s house-call.
In an exhilarating moment of noblesse oblige, Jesus almost appears to stand back, talking largely in clichés, letting the woman, and her astonishing confidence take centre stage. She is the undoubted hero of this encounter, coming back again and again, refusing to let her faith in Jesus be shaken, no matter what he says to her.
We can imagine the looks of astonishment on the face of the disciples, and perhaps even on the face of Jesus himself, as he exclaims
‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.
If this woman could claim a share, a crumb of the mercy, the salvation that is in Christ, can anyone really be beyond its scope?
But while I am exhilarated and greatly comforted by Bentley Hart’s conclusions, part of me is still drawn to the Archbishop’s pause—the hesitation between the question and the answer. Because, while there is no limit to God’s mercy, God’s salvation, we must all be aware that we say ‘no’ to God quite a bit—that is our sin—and we live in a world that says ‘no’ to God rather a lot—and we cannot be complacent about either. But the call to repentance, for us and for the world, need not be predicated on the fear of hell, the anxiety of election, but on the kind of confidence we see in the Canaanite woman - confidence that in Christ we can be included, lifted up again and again, into the ever-expanding company of the redeemed—lifted up by the Spirit into the life the Risen Christ and into the love of our Heavenly Father.