We can get there, beloved. We can get to the green pasture called unity. But to get there we have to take the hard path called honesty. Let us walk with one another. As sons, and daughters, and kindred of both former slaves and the sons, and daughters, and kindred of former slave owners, and all the rest of us also, let us promise to walk this path together.
H. Stephen Shoemaker is pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Statesville, North Carolina. He served previously as pastor of Myers Park Baptist in Charlotte, Broadway Baptist in Fort Worth and Crescent Hill Baptist in Louisville.
That All Shall Be Saved
I have been wanting to preach this sermon for a long time but did not feel free of mind and heart to do so. Today I want to talk about Universal Salvation, Heaven and Hell. The title “That All Shall Be Saved.”
That is the title of a new book by David Bentley Hart,1 a book which has given me new impetus to think more deeply about the subject and preach this sermon. For years I have been a hopeful and semi-secret universalist. I wanted to believe in Universal Salvation, hoped in it, but could not quite get there, nor articulate it clearly. I have suggested it here and there in sermons, as I did here in April, but I have never dedicated a whole sermon to it.
Early in my years at Myer’s Park Baptist I suggested in a sermon that God’s Salvation was broader than the Church or Christianity. The sermon found its way to the internet. Soon after, I discovered that if you googled H. Stephen Shoemaker the first thing that came up was an article with the headline: Shoemaker Destroys Souls. It quoted a passage from that sermon. It was not what I wanted to see first when my name was googled. And it stayed there on top for a good while. I felt a little better when I googled the religious organization who wrote it and discovered that Billy Graham was also considered too liberal.
I begin with two questions which Hart raises in his book. One, can a truly free and rational person defiantly reject the love of God? Two, can a God who creates a world in which there is eternal torment for some of God’s children be the infinitely good and loving God Christianity says God is?
As to the first question, Hart made me ask the question, Are any of us as free or rational as we think we are? We are shaped by an uncountable number of influences and experiences. We are finite human creatures who make the best decisions we know to make, but we all live with limited freedom and rationality. We are made by love for love but there can be impediments to accepting that love or living that love.
For reasons such as these, some reject the God of love revealed in Christ not because they are evil but because they are not able to say yes to God. Some reject God because the message about who God is has been so distorted that they are rejecting the kind of God that has been presented to them, not the true God of love revealed in Christ.
So we move to the second question. How can a God of infinite goodness, love and mercy consign to eternal torment those who were not able to say yes to God, or who never knew such a God? How is it right that an “unrepentant sinner” who has made terrible mistakes and cannot face them be consigned to everlasting torment?
What is the character of the God you believe in? Could you love such a God who designed hell as eternal punishment for some?
And what about the doctrine of hell that many have been brought up to believe in? Harry Emerson Fosdick, one of the greatest preachers of the 20th century and writer of the hymn, “God of Grace and God of Glory”, tells in his auto-biography of his boyhood fear of hell:
I was a sensitive boy, deeply religious…and the effect upon me of hell-fire-and-brimstone preaching was deplorable. I vividly remember weeping at night for fear of going to hell, with my mystified and baffled mother trying to comfort me.2
Have you ever felt this fear, or some residue of it? Have you worried about some of your loved ones ending up in Hell? Have you put away such thoughts and wondered if you were outside the Christian fold? Have you ever said, “O.K., I’d rather be in hell than with the God who created it!”
I have been taught through the years that “universalism”, the belief that all will be saved, was a heresy, and for most of Christian history, particularly Western Christianity, it has been. But Hart’s book introduced me to theologians in the earliest centuries in Eastern Christianity—and by Eastern Christianity I mean the churches that make up what is today Eastern Orthodox Christianity—who believed in Universal Salvation and to the fact that there were many believers, mostly in Eastern Christianity, who believed so.
Moreover, there have been theologians and Christians throughout the centuries, all over the world, who have believed in universal salvation. They have mostly lived just inside the outside of the circle of Christianity—and some have been cast out of the circle all together.
Did such people create such beliefs out of thin air? What about the Bible?, we might ask. These Christians were closely attuned to the New Testament scriptures and to the spirit of Christ.
So let’s look at the New Testament scriptures. Here are some.
1) I Corinthians 15:22. “For just as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”
2) I Timothy 2:3-6. “…our savior God, who intends all humans to be saved and to come to a full knowledge of the truth.”
3) Titus 2:11 “For the grace of God has appeared, giving salvation to all human beings….”
4) 2 Corinthians 5:19 “Thus God was in Christ reconciling the cosmos to God’s own self, not accounting their trespasses to them, and placing in us the word of reconciliation.”
5) Colossians 1:19-20. “For in him [that is, Christ] all the Fulness was pleased to take up a dwelling and through him to reconcile all things to him…whether things on the earth or the things in the heavens.”
6) I John 2:2. “And he is the atonement for our sins, and not only for ours, but for the whole world.”
7) I Timothy 4:10. “…we have hoped in a living God who is the savior of all human beings….”
8) I Corinthians 15:20-28. This chapter is Paul’s great sermon on the Resurrection. The Resurrection signals, he wrote, that God will overcome everything and everyone opposed to God, including death itself, so that, to use Paul’s beautiful phrase, “God will be all in all.” (v.28)
All through these passages one word rings throughout: “all”, panta. All, all, all, panta, panta,panta,panta! Here was the joyful cry: All shall be saved!
It is the church throughout the centuries who have decided that “all” does not mean “all”! But rather a certain particular “all”! My group. Some have even put a number to it.
So, ok, you might ask, those are the New Testament letters, what about the gospels, what about Jesus? So let’s take a look.
1) John 12:32. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw everyone to me.”
2)John 3:17. “For God sent the Son into the cosmos not that he might condemn the cosmos, but that the cosmos might be saved through him.”
3) John 10:14-16. “I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me….And I have other sheep that are not of this fold; I must bring them also.” There are, I believe, many more “flocks” than we can ever imagine. I hope this feels like good news to you.
4)John 10:27-28. “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; and no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, my Abba, who has given them to me is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of my Father’s hand.”
But what, we may ask, of Jesus’ words about a “final judgment”? He used metaphors of destruction, like the chaff burned away, like weeds thrown into the oven. And metaphors of exclusion, like the sealed door of the wedding feast. Or images of imprisonment, of being thrown into a jail. Or of isolation, as in cast into “outer darkness.”
But these are metaphors, that is, figures of speech which say, “It is like this, like this, like this.” They should not be taken literally. Gehenna, which is often translated “hell” referred to the valley of Hinnon outside the walls of Jerusalem where garbage was burned and was always burning. That’s a pretty vivid image!
I’ve heard mothers say to their disobedient children, “I’m going to skin you alive!” There was punishment of some kind ahead, but no skinning!
Here is my interpretation of these words and images. They did not refer to a place of eternal torment, but to a period in time, in historical time or beyond time when our sins will be burned away, where we will be purified and cleansed so that, then, we will be joined to God, see God truly and God will be “all in all”.
The early Eastern theologians saw judgment as the penultimate thing not the final thing, a process of purification and healing after which we would be swept up into the transfiguring glory of the love of God, where everything is transformed, reconciled, made new. “All ?!”, we might ask, with certain people in mind. Yes all, but not as they were but as they shall be.
Here’s an analogy. Think of judgment as a great holy sieve, not one that sifts out some and throws the rest out, letting the “good” people through and tossing the “bad” people away, but as one that cleanses us all, separating from us everything that has marred our lives and kept up from being the persons God created and intended us to be, so that we now stand before God joyous and free. God’s love is not a torment revealing to us how far short we have fallen from that love, but is now the light of the sun in which we will live forever.
Which leads me around the bend to ask, “What then is the meaning of salvation?”, and what have God and Christ done, been doing and will forever do to give us such salvation? First, I would say that this salvation is broader than personal salvation, though it includes it. It is the salvation of the cosmos, of all reality where everything will be healed, restored and completed.
It is a salvation that saves us, not from an eternal inferno but from all the hells we have made for ourselves and from all the hells others have made for us.
The salvation story of God and of God in Christ is God’s mission throughout time, from the foundations of the earth, to liberate us from bondage, heal us of all that harms us, and restore a broken creation. God descends into the abyss of all our hells to find us and lead us home.
And as for heaven? It is the realm of the Final Healing and Final Rejoicing. The Great Homecoming when we all will be gathered up in the love of God, where, to use the words of the woman mystic, Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well and all shall be well, all manner of thing shall be well”.
It is a heaven we can experience here too, in part, where now and then the love of God pervades us, broken things are mended, reconciliation happens and people are set free. And we with a lump in our throats to big to swallow see the glory of God at work.
This is a God of moral beauty. This is a God I can believe in. This is a God I want to believe in. And this is the God whose face Jesus revealed to us as the face of Love itself.
At the end of the novel and spiritual classic, The Diary of a Country Priest, the priest looks at his life and with his last words, the last words of the book, says, “All is Grace.” Tout est grace.3 Grace is all. If it is not all, if it is not for all, it is not grace.
- David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell and Universal Salvation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019) Hart is a philosopher and Biblical scholar who has translated the entire New Testament
- Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Living of These Days (N.Y.: Harper&Brothers, 1956)pp.35-6
- Georges Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest (N.Y.: Carroll & Grat Publishers, Inc.,1937),p.298.
Over the years I’ve learned a lot from Appalachian serpent-handlers. They are what we call “hot gospellers” who “get saved hard,” the ultimate biblical literalists, see Mark chapter 16. They’re not crazy, but they are rather weird. They taught me this: For serpent handlers, the sacrament is alive, and it can kill you. Every time you go to worship it is a matter of life and death.
All three books emphasize the pervading sense of white superiority common to our ancestors in the white world, and following their descendants into the “New World”
Would you take five minutes, and help Friends of Justice win $5,000 to fund our work? Friends of Justice has been nominated for the JusticeMakers Competition, which recognizes people doing innovative work for due process and human rights in the criminal justice system. This competition includes a “People’s Choice Award”, where members of the general public can rank the different nominees and determine who gets a $5,000 prize.
Would you sign in to the JusticeMakers website, and rank our proposal? While you’re at it, take a look at the other amazing projects out there! It’s sure exciting to see all the amazing work that folks are doing around the world to defend equal justice for all! I hope you’ll be inspired.
Friends of Justice is counting on you–our supporters–to put us over the top and help us win $5,000! For a small organization like us, that prize would make a big difference–it means that when some desperate parent calls us because their child is being wrongly prosecuted, we will have the resources to investigate their case and see what can be done. Sign in today at http://www.justicemakers.net.
Thanks for your support,
More information below…
I was just reading this passage from Romans 12 this morning, and I was reminded of the Saddleback Civil Forum. Rick Warren asked both candidates if there was evil in the world, and if so, what should we do about it.
Both candidates gave lame answers–which reveal the weaknesses of each political party. McCain said that evil existed, and we should “defeat it!” The crowd ate it up. Republicans pride themselves on recognizing the need to defeat evil.
Obama gave a long rambling answer, that only fed into popular stereotypes about Democrats–conservatives often accuse liberals of refusing to name evil. (I don’t think that’s fair, but it’s true that many of the liberals I know are generally uncomfortable with good-and-evil rhetoric.)
Later, Tony Campolo told us what both candidates SHOULD have said. They should have quoted Romans 12:21 “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” This morning, I found a great speech by John Paul II on this passage–I hope you find it as meaningful as I did.
And here’s the full passage from Romans 12:
14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.[c] Do not be conceited.
17Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. 18If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”[d]says the Lord. 20On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”[e] 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Conservative Christian blogger, Rod Dreher, alerted me to this Christian conversation about torture. In her RNC speech, Sarah Palin attacked Obama for worrying about such niceties. I’m glad more Christians are challenging Palin’s comments–shouldn’t Christians be the first ones to oppose torture? That’s not the message of the cross. Or maybe I’m misreading the New Testament–I’m forgetting that part when Jesus rises from the grave and says, “Ha–now it’s my turn to torture Y’ALL!”
Then again, there’s my favorite Bible verse: “Greater love hath no man, than he that tortures the living daylights out of his enemies to make Americans feel safer.”
Or that chapter when Jesus tells his disciples, “Torture your enemies, and hunt down those that persecute you. Lo, I send you out like wolves among sheep. Truly truly, I say unto you, bomb their village into the stone age, so that all the nations may know that the kingdom of God is at hand.”
Yes, that’s right, those godless liberals can’t pick and choose the parts of the Bible that they want to follow. Clearly, Jesus wants us to torture our enemies. That’s why I’m wearing a band around my wrist that says “Who Would Jesus Torture?” When someone asks me what it means, it gives me a chance to share the gospel with them…and then subject them to a good waterboarding!
Alright, enough of my sarcasm. Seriously, parodying the gospel takes me to a very, very bad place…because it’s so close to what some politicians are actually saying. Here’s Rod Dreher:
If you’re not reading Culture 11 daily, you’re really missing out. One of today’s best offerings there is Joe Carter’s “Open Letter to the Religious Right.” The whole thing is great, but this passage really caught my eye:
We religious conservatives must take a firm stand against the practice of torture. Yes, there is a legitimate debate to be had about what exactly is meant by that term. Let’s have that debate. Let’s define the term in a way that consistent with our belief in human dignity. And then let’s hold every politician in the country to that standard. As John Mark Reynolds notes, “Like slavery, it debases two people and one culture: the tortured loses his soul liberty, the torturer claims to be a god, and the culture condones an ugly and wicked act.” Our silence on this issue has become embarrassing; our apologies for such practices has become disgraceful.
Palin really should be pressed hard on this. In her convention speech, she had this line:
Al Qaeda terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America … [Obama’s] worried that someone won’t read them their rights?
What did she mean by that? Does this indicate that she cares nothing for legal principles designed to protect individuals from the state? Does this mean that she supports waterboarding? What is her thinking on this matter? More importantly, what’s John McCain’s thinking these days? I thought he was against torture once. This is an issue that Christian voters can’t afford to be unconcerned about.
Anyway, please do read all of the letter from Joe, a religious conservative of the Evangelical persuasion, and a Marine Corps veteran. There’s lots of wisdom there. If you’re a religious conservative, tell me in the comboxes which parts of Joe’s letter you found resonates most.
Here’s a great event coming up this Saturday in Austin, Texas:
BridgeBuilders “Can We Talk?” Guided Conversation on Race in America
Please join us on Saturday, May 31 in a guided conversation on Race in America inspired by the issues raised in Barack Obama’s speech on race in Philadelphia. Participants will enjoy dessert and coffee while focusing on specific questions in small table groups, followed by sharing and discussion by the whole group. Mr. Bill Adams, former Rector at St. James Episcopal Church in Austin, and Jennifer and Ashton Cumberbatch, long-time friends of the BridgeBuilders ministry, will be our facilitators for the evening. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. for meet and greet and refreshments. The formal program will start at 7:00 p.m. and end at 8:30 p.m. Location: Wesley UMC at 1160 San Bernard. For directions to the church, contact the Wesley church office at 478-7007 or visit the church website (http://www.wesleyunited.org/). BridgeBuilders member churches include Berkeley, St. Luke, St. Peter’s, University, and Wesley UMC.
Do you want to help lead a multiracial movement to build a justice system that truly serves all Americans? Friends of Justice is looking for a Summer Intern. Give us three months, and we’ll give you leadership experience that will last a lifetime.
Friends of Justice is a faith-based, multiracial movement working for democratic accountability in our criminal justice system. We’re concerned that mass incarceration is corrupting our democracy, compromising the equal citizenship of poor people, and aggravating social problems in local communities. Our solution is to rally the American public behind the “Common Peace agenda,” a new moral consensus that public safety must be built on a foundation of democratic problem-solving and equal justice under the law. We achieve dramatic impact with our innovative model of “narrative-based intervention.” We investigate cases of injustice, organize the affected community to tell their story, and generate national coverage about these unfolding cases that that dramatize the need for democratic accountability in our criminal justice system.
As a Friends of Justice Intern, you will travel with our Executive Director in Texas and Louisiana to investigate cases of injustice and to organize through churches in low-income Black and Hispanic communities. You would also gain experience in new media, investigating and writing stories for our nationally recognized blog. This internship would be excellent preparation for careers in law, public policy, ministry, and civil rights leadership. (more…)
OPEN LETTER TO MYCHAL BELL
From J. Michael Carr Jr., President and CEO, Fathers for the Future Foundation
It is an honor to reach out to you! Surely, thousands of people have sent letters while you have been unjustly jailed the past few months and continued to be held. After the rally in Jena and Alexandria on September 20th, I am confident that your correspondence has increased in volumes. So I had to think long and hard about writing a letter that would give you hope and internal peace in this time of introspection. Therefore, I have decided to share with you a personal experience from when I was your age.
My 20th high school reunion is next year. For high school, I attended a military academy in Aurora, Illinois. I was one of nine black students in a school with a body of 300 give or take a few. Most of my white classmates to this day remain my friends as much as you can say that after 20 years. One evening though, when I was a senior, a couple of my white classmates and I went to a keg party at a forest preserve in Cicero, Illinois, which is still known for its racial tension between blacks and whites. At this party, my friends were confronted by a few local party goers. Two white gentlemen approached my classmates and sternly asked, “Which one of you brought the NIGGER”! I immediately realized, through no conscience fault of my own, that I had made a mistake coming to this party and my life was in danger. I had heard stories about Cicero but thought, “this in 1988 and the civil rights movement was a fond memory of our parents used to lecture us about responsibility. Nobody was really going to hurt the little black kid from the south side of Chicago because I was from the street”. Mychal, I was wrong. As the two men pushed my classmates aside and took off chasing me through the pitch black forest, I had never wanted to live so badly in my life. That feeling of survival occurred later in my life, but for that particular moment, I was scared of living and scared of dying. The men used the headlights of their motorcycles to scour the forest with a noose screaming, “We should have lynched that nigger when we had the chance”! I prayed and prayed and prayed. Eventually after an hour of hiding a couple of feet up on a tree branch, I made it back to our car, and my friends were able to secure my stealth escape by covering me with a blanket in the trunk.
It wasn’t until I visited Jena did I understand God’s purpose for my high school experience, which is why I share it with you. Few know that happened to me, but its time for the world to know that extreme hatred and racism still exists. God has a unique and deliberate way of stretching us especially when we don’t want adversity in our lives. During these difficult times we tend to resent and resist the challenges placed in front of us.
The other instance I mentioned earlier when I didn’t know if I would be able to overcome a major obstacle that God put before me was in 2002. As a young, 32 year-old father of three, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. This manageable cancer has a 95% recovery rate in men, but the facts still didn’t help me with questioning why God could let this happen. The age old question, “Why do bad things happen to good people”. I was forced to change my lifestyle from being a heavy drinker and smoker, to being a positive vessel for peace and universal love so I could see my children become adults. After the surgery, radiation treatment, annual check-ups, and a brief stint with clinical depression, I have accepted the challenges in my life. In fact, from this tremendous ordeal, I was able to take my experiences and skills to create an organization dedicated to assisting young men, like you, with overcoming adversity. The Fathers for the Future Foundation is here for you and for all men in America that need that helping hand.
Now, like I have done and so many people who have had to overcome life’s bumps in the road, you will need to accept God’s plan for you too. On September 20th, you secured your place in history as a victim of national circumstance with Mrs. Rosa Parks (R.I.P). Mychal, you never asked for this level of celebrity or notoriety, and I’m sure that everyday you curse your jailers and the system from which they administer their unjust laws. I will not tell you to “turn the other cheek” or “love your enemies”, because that type of love requires a self-actualization that not even the most enlightened men (i.e. Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., El-Hajj El-Shabazz) in history could accomplish without practice. However, I will recommend you find peace in your circumstances as the catalyst for racial resolve in our country.
Reminiscent of the late 1960s, dark times are ahead for the United States. What happened to you in Jena is a reflection of the national climate for all black and brown men across the world. Racial tensions have started to elevate daily. The Jena 6 will be another chapter in the book of civil rights. As various people continue to immigrate to the United States, we will need to absorb their cultures. The continued fight for justice will be expanded to include peoples of other colors, nationalities, and ethnicities. Eventually, America will have to choose a side. The demarcation line will finally be drawn between right and wrong. And I am writing to say, I, as well as my associates, friends, neighbors, and this entire nation, will stand on the side of justice not intolerance and bigotry. We stand by your side. Please know that your plight is not in vain. The movement for civil, cultural, and human rights continues in you. So feel the love that surrounds you, and know in your heart that the challenges you must overcome will only build character and integrity. We love you brother! Thank you for your strength, courage, and fortitude.
Yours in the cause for peace,
J. Michael Carr Jr.
President and CEO
Fathers for the Future Foundation