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Reflections on the Last Judgment

Reason_for_HopeIn the following paragraph from his book Reason for Hope: The Systematic Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg (1989) Stanley J. Grenz does a good job summarizing some themes in Pannenberg’s view of the final judgment:

On the basis of [the] function of Jesus’ message [as the criterion of God’s judgment]  and the New Testament emphasis on the all-encompassing love of God (e.g., Matt. 8:11; John 10:16), Pannenberg asserts that correspondence with the will of God as reflected in Jesus’ proclamation — that is, the command to seek first God’s kingdom and the double command to love — rather than an actual encounter with the Christian message, is the basis of final judgment (Matt. 25:41ff.). The step in this direction is prepared by a thesis, developed in the Christology and ecclesiology sections, that love for others entails participation in God’s love for the world. This understanding of the criterion for judgment means that persons who live in accordance with Jesus’ message will be included in the divine salvation, whereas nominal Christians may find themselves excluded. To the resultant question, If an encounter with Jesus is not the sole condition for salvation, what is the Christian’s advantage? he replies that Christians have the advantage in that they know what the standard of judgment is. Although he emphasizes the universality of the possibility of salvation in this manner and even moves the concept of eternal condemnation to that of a border situation, Pannenberg is unwilling to embrace universalism.

This resonates very well with the sense I remember getting from my initial reading of Volume 3 of Pannenberg’s Systematic Theology.

And, there is so much here to like.

This fits very well with the Wesleyan themes that: (1.) “without holiness no one will see the Lord” and that, in turn, (2.) the essence of this holiness is love to God and love for other people. It sets this theology apart from the common variety of evangelicalism which posits salvation either by creed or by a particular religious experience. Faith in Christ is the doorway into holy living. A faith that makes no difference in a person’s life is a dead faith — or, as Wesley would point out the faith of the devil and the demons! This is not saving faith. Faith brings a person’s life into ever-growing continuity with the will of God revealed in Christ.

Christ_ThroneThe proclamation of Jesus was “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15 NRSV). And, this also was the proclamation entrusted to Jesus’ disciples. It is a message which is moral to the core — it calls for a change in attitude and a change in life. It calls us to align ourselves with God’s purposes — for our lives and for our world. We turn. We leave the past behind. We begin anew. We seek God’s will and God’s Reign — however imperfectly we may understand, and however imperfectly we may see it realized. It is a call to change our ways.

And, we do not have the right to turn it into something else. How can it become merely “change your worldview” or “put a check-mark in this box” — when the call is to repent, and to believe and become a part of the redemptive work of God in the world?

Nevertheless, this understanding of the Last Judgment also calls us to look beyond the church itself — to God’s will and purpose for all the human race. Thus, it resonates well with the New Testament’s inclusive vision.

“For [God] will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.” (Romans 2:6-16 NRSV)

The God proclaimed by Jesus is not a parochial God whose concern is only for a small club or group. God’s purposes have to do with all humanity — and God’s Spirit has been sent upon all flesh. We know there is salvation and new life in the name of Jesus. All who know Christ must proclaim this — and what faith in Christ’s name will mean in the conduct of their lives. But, God’s purposes are greater than we know. And, God’s purposes in Christ are expansive. “… in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself….” (2 Corinthians 5:19 NRSV).

“Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.’” (Acts 10:34, 35 NRSV.)

The benefit of the death of Christ is not only extended to such as have the distinct knowledge of his death and sufferings, but even unto those who are inevitably excluded from this knowledge. Even these may be partakers of the benefit of his death, though ignorant of the history, if they suffer his grace to take place in their hearts, so as of wicked men to become holy.

— John Wesley, “A Letter to a Person Lately Joined with the People Called Quakers”

So, this is another reason I like the way this is formulated: it expresses an appropriate hope for all people. This is what I keep calling “Hopeful Inclusivism.” It is not a doctrine of universal salvation, but it is a hopeful doctrine of universal grace.

god-the-father-from-the-last-judgement-c-1585And, it reminds us that that religion per se is not that hope. All people are called to hear and heed the message of Christ — and that includes religious people. The name of Christ is no shield from repentance and faith. The name of Christ does not relax the urgency of God’s call to new life, to discipleship and service. Christ is our way into the life God calls us to live. I don’t think there is anything so obnoxious to God as false, unrepentant, religion.

And, yet, while affirming a universalistic hope, this is not universalism. It is not true that all will be saved. It is true that in Christ there is hope for all. It is true that in Christ we know that God is loving and just — and thus, will deal with all people with justice and fairness. But, we have no reason to believe that all will be saved.

In fact that’s one of the things that surprised me when I read the last part of Pannenberg’s Systematic Theology. As I read along I thought sure we were about to arrive at universalism — maybe on the next page. But, no! Surely, we can hope for the salvation of all. We would wish for it. But, is it likely? No. There are some who will resist God and God’s will and purpose — however expansively defined — even to the very end.

So, as I say, there is much to like (at least from from my admittedly idiosyncratic point of view) in this perspective on the Last Judgement. But, I do have some disagreements, as well. This (again, quoting from Grenz) seems terribly inadequate to me:

To the resultant question, If an encounter with Jesus is not the sole condition for salvation, what is the Christian’s advantage? he replies that Christians have the advantage in that they know what the standard of judgement is.

— Stanley J. Grenz, Reason for Hope: The Systematic Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg (1989).

There is salvation and life in the name of Christ. There is the growing experiential knowledge of God’s will — discovered through Scripture and prayer and service and worship and interaction with others. Through faith in Christ these things become Means of Grace to lift us higher into the life of faith. Through them The Holy Spirit works in our inner lives to bring us into conformity to Christ.

But, God’s will for the human race is that we come to reflect God’s character. “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” And, this is what God is seeking from beginning to end.



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