Dwight A. Moody
Last week, I mourned the death of Kris Hampton, gripped by depression and seized by an impulse. He is only one; but his name is legion, caught in the noose of pain or poverty, shame or guilt, disease or despair, loss or loneliness. It is all bad news and too often has no good end.
But into this silence of despair, God speaks a word of hope.
God the almighty and everlasting, maker of heaven and earth, redeemer of all there is and ever will be, a very present help in a time of trouble—this God, friend of sinners and saints and a comfort to all who morn, with enormous love and eternal purpose, unleashed into the universe a power sufficient to dispel the darkness of death with the brightness of life, and thus to fulfill God’s eternal purposes for the world.
God raised Jesus from the dead.
In this one solitary act, God triumphed over all that threatens the created order, all that sabotages the flourishing of God’s creatures, all that drains faith, hope, and love from any person, anytime, anywhere, all that pulls life into the dungeon of death.
The apostle Paul interpreted this event in this way: as in Adam we all died, so in Christ we all will live. In other words, what God did to Jesus, God will do for us all. By raising Jesus from the dead, God sent a signal to all creation: what is dead will be alive, what is dying will be living. Jesus the risen Lord is the sign of what is to come: the new heavens and the new earth.
This is the good news, the gospel. It is intended to bring hope to people everywhere, as the angel announced at the birth of Jesus, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.”
Christian people, however, camouflage this good news by limiting it to only some of the people: those who hear about Jesus or those who believe in Jesus. Unfortunately, these limitations are woven into the fabric of our faith. “No salvation outside the church,” one group proclaims; and another asserts: “No hope unless you confess Jesus as Lord.” Clearly, these announcements are bad news for most of the people of the world.
And they are bad news for those whose loved ones have never heard about Jesus or who have never followed Jesus in repentance, confession, and baptism. There are many such people, and they are near and dear to us. Their dying creates a crisis of faith for those who loved them.
In this crisis we wrestle with both scripture and tradition. We recognize that some texts in the Bible support this narrow understanding of salvation. “Whoever does not believe is condemned already,” one verse in John’s Gospel (3:18) reads. That’s pretty stark; and so is this: “Depart from me,” Jesus will say, “I never knew you” (Matthew’s Gospel, 7:23).
But these quotations are not all there is in the Bible; and in the final analysis, it is what we emphasize in the Bible that shapes our faith and practice. Moses knew this when he picked only ten rules out of 635 laws in the Hebrew Bible to serve as guides; we call them the Ten Commandments. Jesus also knew this when he responded to a question with these words: “The greatest commandment is: Love the Lord your God with all of your mind, heart, soul, and strength. And the second command is similar: Love your neighbor as yourself.” Clearly, Jesus understood that some parts of the Bible need more attention than others, that some teachings are central and others peripheral.
When it comes to the eternal destiny of people (including those who have never heard or those who have never professed), I find promises that sustain my hope for the salvation of all people. I find words of assurance, like these: “the grace of God has appeared bringing salvation for all people.” (Paul the Apostle, writing to Titus, 2:11). In writing to the church at Rome, the same apostle asserted that “just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people” (5:18).
The revelation of Jesus Christ to John records this hopeful statement of faith: “The Lord God almighty reigns.” (19:6) This assertion of the omnipotence of God means that God is able to do all that is necessary to fulfill God’s purpose that “all people be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” (Paul’s first letter to Timothy 2:4). On the basis of this, Jesus taught us to pray, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” a prayer that God will surely and truly answer.
Perhaps the most sweeping and comprehensive statement of the purposes of God is the hymn that opens Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus, in which Paul asserts that God “has made known to us the mystery of his will…which he purposed in Christ….to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (1:9-10).
When Christ died, he died for all us, not just for those who know Christ, or follow Christ, or confess Christ, as wonderful as that is. Long ago, Isaiah the prophet declared, “We all like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid upon him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). Centuries later, John the apostle wrote, “Jesus is the atonement for our sins, and not only for our sins but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:2). We are all in this together!
In a similar fashion, when God raised Jesus from the dead, God raised all of us from the dead: the good and the bad, the saved and the lost, the Jew and the Gentile, the living and the dead. The future of Jesus is the future of the world; the future of that one person Jesus Christ is the future of all people: the restoration of all things, the renewal of the world, and the resurrection of the human race.
From Irenaeus in the 2nd century to Barth in the 20th century, this universal salvation has been taught by great scholars and teachers of the church—not all of them, to be sure, but enough to constitute a substantial minority voice. This minority tradition resonates with my experience and coheres with my own understanding of things. It voices the truest and deepest hope of the gospel.
Yes, I still think people have a right to know the Jesus story. And people have a universal right to confess Jesus as Lord and follow Jesus as Lord. Surely, embracing the Jesus life and living free of greed, violence, pride, prejudice and materialism makes us the people we are created to be. And opening ourselves to the ever-present Spirit of God certainly fills us with generosity, hospitality, and trust, with goodness, gentleness, and faithfulness. Isn’t this the life we desire? Wouldn’t this create the human community God’s desires?
Our calling as Christians is to embrace this Way, confess this Jesus as Lord and Savior, and sustain this hope for the salvation of all people, especially those near and dear to us. This is a vital element of our vocation when those we love are burdened down by depression and despair and cannot hope for themselves. Faith, hope, and love, these remain always, the gospel declares, and the greatest of these is love. The greatest act of love is to keep hope alive. We hope in God and in the purposes and power of God.
We hope in God and also for the resurrection of Kristopher Hampton. Thanks be to God!