By George Sumner

Strive to enter through the narrow gate.

Sometimes history and culture come to cast a question in a different light. The late George Lindbeck, my Doktorvater, once commented that in the pre-modern period Christians routinely assumed that the number entering would be few, while in the modern era they assumed that a gracious God would welcome many. He also observed that most of the great orthodox or “retrievalist” theologians of the modern era, such as Hans Urs von Balthasar, Karl Barth, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and others were some kind of “quasi-universalist,” perhaps in the mode of “dare we hope?” The driver for them was a strong sense of the scope of the victory of Christ, and not an optimism about humanity (which we consistently manage to disprove!).

The problem of course is that the evidence for two eternal destinies — salvation and damnation, sheep and goats — is strong and pervasive in the New Testament. This is why, to my mind, universalism is not a plausible conclusion. At the same time, there are countervailing citations. “God who wills that all be saved” (1 Tim. 2:4) was the locus classicus leading to reflection on such ideas as the harrowing of hell, implicit faith, and a post-mortem vision of Christ in Christian history.[1] One may also point to Paul’s argumentation on the old and new Adam, for in the former all have died so that in the latter all may be made alive (1 Cor. 15:22). Can we make sense of this  theme of collective humanity in a way that does not lead to universalism?

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At this point let me offer a thought experiment. What if we humans are a two-sided reality? We are indeed individuals, from which comes the responsibility and integrity entailed in being made in the image of God. But we are also one creature: the human, Adam, though we can see this only at times, imperfectly. What if, at the last, we realize that we are “organs” of one great creature: humanity? What if we are by our very nature irreducibly both individual bodies and a Body? What if the possibility of persons being representative of a greater whole is evident here, and yet clearer on the Last Day? How would that affect the question of salvation? Could it be that we will stand together as Adam restored, while at the same time, we will also stand as individuals, either frustrated or received by the Lamb on the throne?

It is after all, a mystery that a creature made by God for eternal joy in his presence, should rebel and choose the alienation and misery of sin. The vision of the kingdom of God at the end of Revelation is in one way the great repair, the intended consummation of creation. The throng praise the Lamb with one voice. But there will also be those who weep to look on him (Zech.12:10), wailing and gnashing their teeth (Matt. 13:42). All stand before him, where the goal for which they were all made is translucent, but some will be there in the eternal mode of resistance, the calcified frustration of their true nature. There will stand there new Adam, one and yet still in a bifurcated form. The “outcome” would be as twofold as is our nature, even there, though clearer. This does not remove mystery, but it relocates it.

There are other ways to resolve the tension. Take for example the solution of annihilationism. If the chaff were simply burned away the outcome would be more straightforward. Here in response we might recall Thomas Aquinas’s claim that it is better that the damned be (even in hell), since to be is itself a blessing. This is a hard benefit to imagine, but we can see how the logic follows.

My speculation about the human, corporate and individual leads readily to a comparison with the equally mysterious debate about Christ’s human nature, whether it has its own individual personality conceivable separately from his divinity, which question Chalcedon resolved in the negative. Christ, the new Adam, is at once an individual person — the incarnate Word of God — and humanity, because he has assumed the human nature. A both/and solution in Christology would seem consonant with a both/and hypothesis with respect to eschatological anthropology.

Where does all this take us? Are we dealing with angels dancing on an end-time pin? Heaven knows, the task of theology is not to accede to culture’s wishes. But, if we return to the observations of my teacher with which we began, there is something worth considering in this more optimistic modern cultural assumption. A twofold eschatology following our twofold nature could perhaps make sense of things, without the attendant problems of universalism. It would lead with the divine victory in Christ, without giving short shrift to the calls to faith and discipleship with which the New Testament overflows. Here realism, hope, and evangelism might add their assents.

The Rt. Rev. Dr. George Sumner is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas.


[1] The magnum opus is Louis Caperan’s Le probleme de salut des infideles (which I also learned about from George Lindbeck).

About The Author

The Rt. Rev. Dr. George Sumner, ordained priest in Tanzania in 1981, is the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. He has served in cross-cultural ministry in Navajoland and has a doctorate in theology from Yale. Bishop Sumner is married to Stephanie Hodgkins.

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Charlie Clauss

Lewis’ *The Great Divorce* is always a great source of quotes on this subject. One of my favorites: “”Aye, but ye misunderstand me. The question is whether she is a grumbler, or only a grumble. If there is a real woman — even the least trace of one — still there inside the grumbling, it can be brought to life again. If there’s one wee spark under all those ashes, we’ll blow it till the whole pile is red and clear. But if there’s nothing but ashes we’ll not go on blowing them in our own eyes forever. They must… Read more »

Doug Simmons

If we start with the understanding that all of Creation, including humankind, is emergent from and dependent upon the continuing creative work of God (Col 1:16-17) we can begin to consider the implications of being “cast out” away from the presence of God as the fate of the unbeliever or denier. Away from that presence the creative source which sustains everything in its existence is removed, and without the “holding together” element of God’s creative work that which exists begins to come apart. That would include whatever portion of the human “soul” has transcended death and, having been confronted with… Read more »