William H. Willimon’s newest book, Who Will Be Saved?, is an extended sermon in praise of the height, width, and depth of God’s love for the cosmos. As such, it is a staunch reaction to any concept of Christian salvation that would limit God’s loving reach for all by dictating “who’s in and who’s out.” As a recovering Southern Baptist accustomed to extended altar calls and evangelism training that stressed a personal relationship with Christ based on human faith, belief, or response, Willimon’s thoughts on Christian salvation, steeped ever so deeply in Scripture, are a joyous celebration of God’s work for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Throughout his book, Willimon tackles questions like “Who will be saved” or the hypothetical Evangelism Explosion question, “If you died today and Jesus asked why he should allow you into heaven, what would you say,” and explodes them for their misguided soteriology and anthropocentrism. Willimon consistently argues that “Who will be saved” is not nearly as interesting of a question as “Who saves?” By focusing on God, fully revealed in Jesus, implications of damnation or the unsaved begin to whither away.
There are three significant tensions throughout Willimon’s book: 1) the tension between God’s eternal “Yes” to us and the “necessity” of our responsive “yes” to God; 2) the tension between universal salvation and, well, non-universal salvation; and 3) the tension between different faiths and their various soteriological claims.
Throughout scripture, we read about a God that continually says “yes” to Israel and eventually opens up that “yes” to include the Gentiles (everyone else). This opening up is made particular and unique in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In Jesus, God has reached out to us and said “yes” to all of us. In Jesus, God has made both a way to us and a way for us to God. God desires that we say yes to this way so that we may experience, ever more fully, salvation and that we may share it with others.
Willimon, like many other theologians and ministers who seek to swing wide the gates of heaven, is often accused of being a universalist. He rejects this label not because he believes some people will be eternally damned in hell, but claims that universal salvation doubly denies the free will of both God and humanity. On the other hand, arguing that God will or has to eternally punish “evil-doers” places limits on God as well. Therefore, like Barth, who he consistently references, Willimon conceives of hell as an “impossible possibility.” It is possible because one might continually reject God’s salvation. However, in the end, the “hound of heaven” (as C. S. Lewis puts it) will hopefully, eventually overtake him. Here, Willimon introduces a purgatory for Protestants…or at least the possibility of one. He questions whether we should look at hell, as traditionally conceived, as punitive or formative. What if the “fires of hell” are for refining rather than punishing and are not really fires at all but the recognition of how we have wronged God and one another throughout our lives.
Finally, and perhaps Willimon’s greatest challenge, at least for me, is his discussion of Christianity’s unique claim to salvation in Jesus Christ vis-à-vis other faiths or nonbelievers. In this section, Willimon strongly critiques modern religious pluralism, claiming that it is an invention of politicians and intellectuals to downplay religious (not just Christian) truth claims and, particularly, Christianity’s emphasis on the Kingdom of God. He rejects pluralistic metaphors that see people of different faiths climbing up different paths on the same mountain to ultimately reach the same destination (Marcus Borg). Willimon argues that for all he knows of Christianity and other faiths, we are climbing up completely different mountains. He asserts, for example, that Buddhists and Christians mean completely different things when speaking about salvation. To level the soteriological playing field, so to speak, is both unfaithful to Christianity and an insult to other faiths. In the end, Willimon claims, “The internal logic of Christian theology gives us our best hope for fruitful relationships with other faiths” (105).
Willimon’s latest book does a great service to Christians everywhere. It is deep and thoughtful without getting bogged down in academic, theological language. It is inspired by Scripture to the hilt. Willimon takes exclusivist proof texting and turns it on its head by taking conservatives’ favorite verses and reading one verse more to uncover “inclusive bombs” like Jesus’ saying, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold” (John 10:16). Frustratingly, I still find myself pushing against those old questions that just won’t die: but what about those sheep? Thankfully, Willimon’s thoughts are inspiring me to ask a much more important, and joyous, question: what does God desire?