By Be Scofield
Writing in the early 19th century, Hosea Ballou argued for a version of Christianity that offered salvation to all people. As an early Universalist, Ballou stood against the Calvinist teachings that dominated his era. Universal salvation was a heresy at the time (and still is to many) but Ballou offered a thoughtful and careful analysis of his positions. He used both armchair philosophy and reason to counter some of the most basic doctrines of dominant Christianity. He built his argument on scripture, citing Biblical passages and quoting Jesus. And he offered new interpretations of sin, God, the meaning of the atonement and what we need to be saved from. Speaking to the common people of his day, Ballou hoped to liberate them from their “carnal mind.” This fear-based mentality was, according to Ballou, the main culprit for the creation of a vengeful and angry God. Ballou contrasted the gospel of hellfire and damnation with an ultra-universalism that promised salvation for all regardless of denomination, religion or location.
In a “Treatise on the Atonement” published in 1805, Ballou walks the reader through a very simple but thorough analysis of the problems with the traditional hellfire and damnation understanding of Christianity. His brilliance is his simplicity. Using common sense examples Ballou reveals the absurdities of the premises that the core Christian doctrines are built upon. Ballou uses a fictional example of a neighbor who borrows money from him which he cannot repay when it is due. A friend is concerned for Ballou’s loss but Ballou assures him that he has a plan to recover the entire amount of money. He tells his friend that he has the entire amount of money right beside him and decides to pay the obligation before the interest gets any larger. This he compares to the gospel plan of sending Jesus as the payment for humanities sins. Next Ballou tackles the injustice of executing an innocent man in place of the guilty. He gives an example of a foreign government who sends a person to murder the president of the Union and many of the first officers. This person succeeds in killing many of the government officials but then falls short of killing the president. Ballou asks if it would be just for the President to be executed for the crime while the murderer is set free. He then wonders why God raises the President from the dead when he could have easily carried out this scenario on the criminal. The President in this example is of course Jesus and the criminal represents the sinful or guilty nature of Adam and mankind. In another powerful example Ballou identifies that the traditional interpretation of God’s goodness is based simply on the power to act. He uses the example of a man who designs a plan to murder someone for his money and fails. However, the sin lies in the fact that he did not have the power to fulfill the plan, not in the design of the plan itself. In another example the man succeeds in killing the person but there is no evil because goodness simply comes from the ability to carry out the design of the desired plan. Ballou states,
On this principle, everything that can be done is moral holiness; and everything that cannot be done, is sin, or moral evil….Power moving on in front; exhibiting tyrannic majesty in every action; and meager justice in the rear, obsequiously pronouncing all right! If these things be so, our senses are nothing but mediums of deception; and all our experience has served us no other purpose than to make us more ignorant...I have never heard or read any argument to prove the propriety of the disputed proposition. It is a begged proposition, and stands without the least shadow of evidence from scripture or reason; but it requires no great ingenuity to see what the chimera was invented for; without it, the whole plan and scheme of atonement, which I am now examining, would fall forwant of foundation. [i]
I quote Ballou at length here because his critique of God’s sovereign power is the heart of his argument about the atonement. As he states at the end of this quote, Ballou recognizes the necessity of applying our own reason and rationality to understanding evil. In other words if we could critique the death of Jesus as murder and wrong, we would upset the entire notion of God’s power.
Ballou’s argument is based on logic and reason, but he provides simplistic and accessible examples that allow the reader to grasp the full consequences of the doctrines. Ballou is providing a service for the common good. While Ballou would hope to transform the reader from a fear based God to a more loving God, his arguments help the reader to examine what s/he may have never before. The real life examples force a serious reflection upon the meaning, consequences and logic of the doctrines. Most Christians of his day and many today have never been confronted with such direct questions. Nor have they thought to reframe and apply their cherished doctrines to real world examples of every day life as Ballou does. As I have engaged in dialogue with fundamentalist Christians I know the textbook answer that they would reply to Ballou. They would say you couldn’t compare God to humans. Everything God does is good, no questions asked. We simply can’t understand his higher logic. To use the examples that Ballou does is misappropriating God. You can’t put God in fictitious human situations because God doesn’t play by the same rules. To compare the death of Christ to the death of a U.S. president is blasphemous. Jesus is the Son of God, sent here for a particular reason. And on and on…Ballou of course counters this and wonders how it is that we are supposed to understand the world, God or the Bible if we cannot apply our reason or logic. He states, “Perhaps my opponents may say, we are not to use our reason in matters of religion. I answer, if we are not to understand the things of God, by scripture and reason, I am at a loss to know how to come at them.”[ii]
Ballou then critiques the meaning of Jesus’ death. That the blood of Christ resolves man’s guilt is of “carnality and carnal-mindedness,” he states. He questions why we must take passage, “Except ye eat my flesh, and drink my blood, ye have no life in you” literally. The death of Jesus is to be seen figuratively not literally according to Ballou. The body of Jesus and its death represents the destruction of the “letter of the law” while the resurrection represents the power of the spirit. Jesus is an example of divine love. His purpose is to reconcile us to this love. So if the resurrection is deconstructed as Ballou demonstrates, what saving power does the gospel have? Ballou states that the gospel is simply the spirit of law put into words. It is a cosmic or universal truth manifest into words.
For Ballou love is the most powerful force in the universe. He states, “There is nothing in heaven above, nor in the earth beneath, that can do away with sin, but love; and we have reason to be eternally thankful that love is stronger than death…”[iii] Love is thus the highest reconciliatory force and it is not bound by any particular religion, location or denomination. Even while Ballou is writing in the context of Christianity he is clear to state that the power of love is not limited to any tradition. “The divine efficacy of this atoning grace may be communicated to the most vile and profligate person in the world, and stop him in his full career of wickedness; it can show the sinner, in a moment, the deformity of sin, and the beauty of holiness.”[iv] For Ballou the sin of Adam is not infinite, to believe so is to be in error. Rather, sin is finite and limited. Since sin is finite then punishment must also be. Thus punishment is delegated to the earthly realm alone. Whereas if sin were infinite Ballou states that goodness could not be ever present. How could you reconcile both?
So if love and universal salvation are the cosmic truths, what is it that we need to be saved from? Ballou would answer simply; our carnal minds. What is the carnal mind? It is what led to the creation of a vengeful, angry and violent God. This carnal or fleshly mind operates on the fear of punishment and hope for reward, thus distorting our understanding of God. We end up worshiping a false or idolatry version of the true God which is genuine love and grace. This fear-based mind is what disconnects us from our true self and is what prevents us from feeling whole in both the body and spirit. What does it mean to be saved? For Ballou being saved is to be “happified.” He states, “Happiness always was, and always will be, the grand object of all rational beings…”[v] It is also to recognize that God is merciful, loving and compassionate. To realize this is to break from the alienation and separation due to our carnal minded creation of a fearful and vengeful God.
Ballou’s theology is liberating and transformative. He offers a new perspective on the power of God’s infinite love and saving Grace, which carries both social and political implications. If all are saved and social hierarchies are abolished this promotes an egalitarian view. His emphasis on the spirit of renewal through the beauty of life is inspiring. If the universe is founded in love then we can experience the healing and transforming power from moment to moment. Additionally, Ballou’s focus on the attainment of happiness can lead to the re-orienting of our priorities toward justice, friendship and community. His theology is still however rooted in a form and language of spirit/body dualism that was common to Christian understanding. This of course can be critiqued but it is important to note that there are different understandings in Christian history about the body and spirit. He also uses the term “carnal mind” which refers to the feminine or women, which I find problematic. And lastly, Universalism was born out of Calvinism; the idea that the world is controlled and ordered by God upon which we are all dependent. This thread is present within Ballou, albeit a modified version. Ballou’s modified Calvinism however emphasizes community, wholeness and connectedness through a sovereign and loving God. But his understanding is still based upon a dependence of God as the controller and creator of the universe. Thus, Ballou emphasizes the need to conform to the will of God. This is powerful in that it opens us to the presence of the divine within in the moment but its dependency upon God may limit freedom or agency for some.