Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
In the opening scene of the film classic The Day the Earth Stood Still, shortly after the eerie hum of a theremin sets the stage, a strange visitor from another world, looking very much like a normal human being, walks toward a frightened crowd in a ballpark in Washington D.C. In his hand he raises a gift, mysterious and foreign, which immediately causes a soldier to fire a shot at the stranger. As the visitor lay on the ground he says, “it is a gift to the people of earth...with it you can cure diseases...”
It’s a familiar meme in science fiction. A powerful Being from “somewhere else” enters our average lives; our first reaction is one of fear and suspicion. Of course we think what is different and unknown to us is likely to be hostile towards us, or at the very least must surely want something we are not ready to give.
In their companion books, If Grace is True and If God is Love, Quaker pastors Phillip Gulley and James Mulholland stirred up a little mini-controversy in some Christian circles several years ago by re-examining the ancient concept of Christian Universalism - the idea that everyone will see the salvation of God. The controversy is a very old one. Proponents point to statements in Scripture from Jesus to the Epistles of Paul; the belief that “every soul shall be saved” has been defended from Origen to William Penn. What Gulley and Mulholland argue is that what God wants, God gets, and what God wants is the redemption of every single person. Even if it does not happen in this life, God is patient and has all eternity to wait. Eventually, even if it takes a very, very long time, “every knee shall bow,” not out of fear or subservience, but out of love for the Grace of God.
Now I can dig this. Sign me up! I’m a “convinced Christian Universalist (Quaker)” and want (someday) to hop on board this Soul Train to Heaven that (eventually) everyone will join! That is, of course, after all those really, really bad people do all that really, really heavy duty repentance and penance...well, they have to, right? I like to imagine it might be something like a Dickensian kind of review of our lives. All the bad or wrong or evil things we’ve done, all the hurt we’ve caused other people, will be played back to us and we will see it all through God’s eyes and the eyes of those we’ve hurt. Our repentance will be the pain reflected back at us, one at a time, just like with Scrooge’s visitations.
But Gulley and Mulholland are talking about a Grace that is bigger than that. “At the Great Banquet,” they write, “we will see a fundamentalist Christian embracing Gandhi, a humbled Hitler washing the feet of a Jewish Holocaust victim with his tears, [a Pearl Harbor victim] shaking hands with a Japanese pilot, Jesus kissing Judas...you know who will be seated next to you.” This is really big.
In fact, it’s all too much.
Maybe it was my childhood love of science fiction that either developed or devolved into a fascination with stories of near death experiences. These stories are everywhere. I had an aunt who was convinced she had such an experience. You can find all sorts of books on it in the book kiosks in many airports (which is kind of scary when you think about it). The Near Death Experience Research Foundation has a website with over 3,000 “testimonials” by people who claim to have had near death experiences. Whether they come on operating tables or car crashes or a simple slip in the bathtub, they all share some similar elements. They often have some kind of white light, or long tunnel, or unknown compulsion to move forward...and they nearly all describe an overwhelming sense of peace and love, unlike anything anyone has ever experienced “back on earth.” And there’s another thing these narratives share. There are no reports of a “judgement.” No Saint Peter at the Gate separating the wheat from the shaft, no God waiting to welcome some and condemn others.
Even though I don’t know if I believe these thousands of experiences are true, I’m still curious about that last part. Did every one of those many thousands manage to “get back to earth” before the judgement part? Is there a point of no return, so we have no witnesses, or could it even be possible that there is no judgement at all?
Now this is really too much!
Isn’t it odd how we welcome the Graciousness of God when we think we are the beneficiaries, but we have this tendency to attach strings to that Grace when it comes to others, like “those really bad people.” Isn’t it interesting how we develop elaborate theologies and doctrines to explain the “rules” God has to work under? We’re not really very comfortable “drawing near with confidence to the throne of Grace (Heb 4:16),” are we?
If we can imagine a God of limitless forgiveness, God is far beyond that. If we can even claim a God of endless love and of boundless Grace...God is way, way more than that. If God even wants to give the most joyful gifts to people who are suspicious and fearful and want to kill him, well, that’s some pretty amazing Grace, isn’t it?
Now - cue the theremin.