This morning, I was reading part of John Wesley’s “A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion.” In this work, he includes plea to sinners who rush headlong and continuously away from God and into sin.
Think a little for once. What is it you are doing? Why should you destroy yourself? I could not use the worst enemy I have in the world as you use yourself. Why should you murder yourself inch by inch? Why should you burn yourself alive? O spare your own body at least, if you will not have pity for your soul! But have you a soul then? Do you really believe it? What, a soul that must live for ever! O spare thy soul! Do not destroy thy own soul with an everlasting destruction! It was made for God. Do not give it into the hands of that old murderer of men! Thou canst not stupify it long. When it leaves the body, it will awake and sleep no more. Yet a little while, and it launches out into the great deep, to live, and think, and feel for ever. And what will cheer thy spirit there, if thou hast not a drop of water to cool thy tongue? But the die is not yet cast: Now cry to God, and iniquity shall not be thy ruin.
I am reminded in reading this that Wesley’s ministry and passion was stirred by a clear and specific theology, one that is not in favor in many Christian gatherings in the United States today. Wesley, in short, believed in eternal torment of the damned.
Now, an NT Wright would point out to us that Wesley’s picture of souls disembodied misses the good news of resurrection. A Rob Bell will attempt to drive us with beautiful questions to doubt that anyone would ever be condemned for eternity. More than a few United Methodist pastors I know would point out that Wesley had bad relationships with women and was a dictator in the Methodist movement.
All these are worthy of note, but they also all seem to miss an important point.
When we look at Wesley’s ministry, we cannot fail to be impressed by the sheer intensity and energy with which he set about his task. Here was a man driven by the conviction that men and women all around him were leaping into eternal torment, and he must do everything he could to pull as many back from the pit as he possibly could.
Many among us these days might make fine arguments about his theological or psychological faults, but I wonder how many of us would dare compare our energy and passion with his.
We United Methodists say that experience informs our theology.
When we are being less faithful to our own Wesleyan roots, we mistake “experience” for revelation and act as if whatever we happen to feel or think must be on par with what God has revealed via Scripture. When we are being more faithful to our roots, we recall that Wesley stood with the historic church in viewing experience as way of confirming the truth of theological commitments. What we believe plays out in how we live and therefore adds credence to the truth of our beliefs.
Athanasius would approve of this use of experience as a theological tool.
He wrote in On the Incarnation about the experience of Christians as confirmation of the truth of the resurrection. If Jesus was not alive and death had not been defeated, he wrote, how could anyone explain the behavior of Christians who embrace martyrdom and show no fear of death?
Of old, before the divine sojourn of the Savior, all used to weep for those dying as if they were perishing. But since the Savior’s raising the body, no longer is death fearsome, but all believers in Christ tread on it as nothing, and would rather choose to die than deny their faith in Christ. … human beings, before believing in Christ, view death as fearsome and are terrified at it. But when they come to faith in him and to his teaching, they so despise death that they eagerly rush to it and become witnesses to the resurrection over it effected by the Savior.
I love the boldness of this vision of Christianity. This is an experience that confirms the truth of our beliefs, only if Jesus were really alive would people be able to live like this.
I was talking with a pastor colleague not long ago when he recounted a story about an unpopular funeral sermon. The gist of the story is that the funeral was for a man who was not a believer or member of a church and in the sermon he raised just a bit of doubt about than man’s eternal destiny.
As you might imagine, that did not go over well.
If you’ve been a pastor for any time at all, I expect you’ve met someone who is anxious about the salvation of someone they love. The question comes up as something like this: “My (cousin, brother, daughter, mother, etc.) does not believe in God or go to church. I’m afraid what will happen to them if they never come to faith. What do you think, pastor?”
Here is the answer I sense people want. “I’m sure they will be with you in heaven.”
There is great pressure for pastors — and other Christians — to go along with the comfortable universalism that pervades our culture. No one wants to tell a fried that Aunt Maude is bound for hell. Few church people want to contemplate a kingdom of God without the people they love.
And while I would never presume to declare the eternal destiny of any particular person — that is Jesus’ job not mine — I do find the pressure to adopt a de facto universalism serves to undermine most of the rest of my ministry. It reduces the point of what we do in the church to a kind of do-gooder society with covered dish meals. You can get a lot of praise and a fairly comfortable life leading a do-gooder society — and the covered dishes are often quite tasty — but it can be an uneasy life if you read the Bible much at all.
Do you ever sense this tension? How can pastors and lay members better resist the pressure toward universalism in the church?