Volume 43 - Issue 2

Apocalypse Now: The Neo-Bultmannian Universalism of David Congdon’s The God Who Saves

By Michael McClymond


In The God Who Saves (2016), David Congdon seeks an elusive synthesis of Karl Barth’s dogmatics and Rudolf Bultmann’s hermeneutics: he integrates Bultmann’s insistence on the concrete historicity of individual human experience with Barth’s stress on the universal salvific significance of Christ. Despite his “demetaphysicizing” rejection of a substantive God and a Chalcedonian Christ, Congdon propounds universal salvation based on a universal “cocrucifixion” with Christ that may occur in nonreligious experience (e.g., in viewing artwork, watching a baby’s birth, etc.). His intricate argument shows little theological coherence and a lack of grounding in scriptural exegesis or empirical observation.

Universalism has been a hot topic among Christian writers and readers since the start of the new millennium.1 The most famous of the recent books may be Rob Bell’s Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (2011).2 Bell’s book became a New York Times bestseller and provoked a Time magazine cover story during Holy Week that was emblazoned with the question: “What If There’s No Hell?”3 Yet Bell’s book was not alone. Over the last twenty years a large number of popular books have addressed the question of universal salvation. Taking a favorable—or mostly favorable view—of universalism have been Thomas Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God (1999), Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist (2006; 2nd ed., 2012), Carlton Pearson, The Gospel of Inclusion (2006), Doug Frank, A Gentler God (2010), Sharon Baker, Razing Hell (2010), Ted Grimsrud and Michael Hardin, Compassionate Eschatology (2011), and a couple dozen more works.4

This flood of recent titles suggests a surge of interest among scholars and laypersons alike. The pace at which new titles are appearing seems to be increasing.5 In response to the literature just cited, a number of authors have suggested that the current support for universalism, in Christian terms, is biblically and theologically mistaken. Appearing about fifteen years ago was Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson’s edited volume Hell under Fire (2004). Works responding to Rob Bell and questioning his seeming support for universalism include Mark Galli, God Wins (2011), Brian Jones, Hell Is Real (But I Hate to Admit It) (2011), Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle, Erasing Hell (2011), Michael Wittmer, Christ Alone (2011), and Larry Dixon, “Farewell, Rob Bell” (2011). Laurence Malcolm Blanchard’s Will All Be Saved? An Assessment of Universalism in Western Theology (2015) is one of the few theological surveys that takes a critical stance toward universalism.

There are many schools of fish swimming in the universalist pond. A shared belief in universal salvation does not imply any wider agreement on doctrine. In fact, the universalists themselves are in sharp disagreement on God, the Trinity, Christ, human nature, the nature of salvation, and eschatology. The self-described “evangelical universalist,” Robin Parry—who published the book, The Evangelical Universalist under the pseudonym “Gregory MacDonald”—affirms his own Christian orthodoxy, highlights his points of agreement with evangelical Protestantism, and seeks to show that the entire Bible can be interpreted in a universalist way.6 Yet Parry is an outlier, and most contemporary universalists engage with the Bible in a more limited way than he does.

One of the most recent—and most unusual—works of Christian universalist theology is David Congdon’s The God Who Saves (2016), which develops the universalist implications of arguments in Congdon’s The Mission of Demythologizing (2015)—a major monograph on Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976).7 During the early 1920s, Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann were generally regarded as theological comrades-in-arms, embracing a common “dialectical” approach to theology, and sharing a common aversion to the German liberalism epitomized in the writings of Adolf von Harnack (1851–1930). Yet during the 1920s and 1930s a chasm opened between them, as Barth increasingly aligned himself with the theological orthodoxy of the early church and later Reformed scholasticism, and Bultmann developed a way of thinking—inspired in part by the philosophy of Martin Heidegger (1889–1976)—which sought to reinterpret the Christian message as a call to authentic human existence that did not depend for its validity on the historical facticity or actuality of Jesus of Nazareth.

Describing the intellectual distance between them, and their inability to communicate, Barth in a 1952 letter compared Bultmann and himself to an elephant and whale (without specifying who was which animal): “It is clear to you how things are between us—you and me? It seems to me that we are like a whale … and an elephant, who have met in boundless astonishment on some oceanic shore…. They lack a common key to what each would obviously so much like to say to the other according to its own element and in its language.”8 In The God Who Saves, Congdon seeks to bridge this gap, and to achieve an elusive synthesis of these two, by integrating Bultmann’s adamant insistence on the concreteness and historicity of individual human experience with Barth’s equally adamant stress on the universal salvific significance of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Whether or not Congdon has taught the elephant to swim or the whale to walk is an open question, though the effort is instructive.

In his Church Dogmatics, Barth distinguishes his own mature theology from that of Bultmann by contrasting his objective approach to salvation—centering on the event of Christ’s life—with what Barth saw as Bultmann’s subjective standpoint:

There have been many attempts to make the history of Jesus Christ coincide with that of the believer, and vice versa…. But we can approve and make common cause with it neither in its earlier forms nor in that authoritatively represented today by R.[udolf] Bultmann.… Christian faith takes note of [the history of Jesus Christ], and clings to it and responds to it, without itself being the thing which accomplishes it, without any identity between the redemptive act of God and faith as the free act of man.… What takes place in the recognition of the pro me of Christian faith is not the redemptive act of God itself, not the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, not the presentation and repetition of His obedience and sacrifice and victory…. It [is] impossible to make what took place eph’ hapax [Greek, once for all] in Jesus Christ coincident with what takes place in faith.9

Congdon’s The God Who Saves is based on a premise antithetical to that of Barth in this passage. Rejecting the distinction between objective and subjective aspects of salvation, Congdon wants to create—in Barth’s terms—an “identity between the redemptive act of God and faith as the free act of man,” to make what happened in Christ “coincide” with what happens in faith, and to interpret faith as a “repetition” of Christ’s sacrifice.

Congdon states that his “starting point had to be the saving event itself rather than God, and this saving event had to be simultaneously objective and subjective, or rather it had to dispense with the distinction between objective and subjective altogether.”10 For Congdon, “the being of God as an isolated metaphysical entity in itself … does not exist.” What exists as a topic for theology is “the concrete being of God for us…which is deity as such.”11 Throughout The God Who Saves, a blurring of distinctions between objective reality and subjective experience generally works in favor of the latter. “Talk of God is always also talk of the human subject and her historical situation,” writes Congdon.12 He rejects any notion of an “essence” or “nature” (Greek phusis), whether the term is applied to God or to humanity. “With the exclusion of all worldviews goes the exclusion of all talk of permanent natures or essences in theology. ‘So-called “deity” can no more be interpreted as a phusis than humanity.’”13 He adds: “Theology is therefore necessarily and thoroughly actualistic … because the truth of the Christ-myth, which is the norm for both form and content, is itself an active occurrence and relation.”14

In describing his own intellectual development, Congdon speaks of his conservative Protestant background, and “my complicated, often antagonistic, relationship with my evangelical heritage.” In adopting universalism, he acknowledges the influence of Robin Parry, though he says that “I never shared MacDonald’s particular view” of universalism. On Barth’s influence, he comments that “Barth taught me to see Christ’s save work as the actuality of salvation and not merely its possibility.”15 It was “initially quite a shock” for Congdon to encounter Bultmann’s 1959 essay—“Adam and Christ”—which repudiated Barth’s claim in Christ and Adam of a universal participation of all human beings in the humanity of Christ. Congdon explains: “The problem with universalism—as well as any notion of pretemporal election—is that it makes a judgment about the individual without regard for her particular historicity and is only, at best, indirectly related to personal existence. Reading Bultmann thus validated an instinct I had inherited from my evangelical upbringing.”16 He adds that “I would gradually internalize Bultmann’s insights into the historical nature of both God and appropriate talk of God.… The result was a deep internal tension—a tension between a Bultmannian methodological starting point and a Barthian soteriological conclusion.”17 Congdon is thus self-aware concerning the tensions within his own theology.18

Congdon’s argument in The God Who Saves is many-sided, with various lines of reasoning juxtaposed rather than connected in sequence, and so it may be helpful to begin by unpacking with a few of his summary statements. In the epilogue to his work, he says that he presents a “soteriocentric theology … arguing … that God acts savingly and definitively in the historical event of Christ’s crucifixion … [and] that the Spirit of God repeats this event in each new elemental interruption of existence.” For Congdon, “each person participates in this event through an unconscious act of cocrucifixion that places us outside ourselves in solidarity with others in the apostolate. Salvation is thus a reality rather than a possibility.” He adds: “The result is a version of Christian universalism that has been hermeneutically reconstructed in a dialectical and postmetaphysical way so as to avoid general categories that render salvation abstract and ahistorical.” In this way, Congdon “locates salvation in the act of human faith without making it contingent upon a conscious decision of faith—a universalism without universals.”19

Congdon is highly critical of mainstream theologians who have “wandered off into abstract speculation” on such matters as “the notion of an immanent trinity part from the economy [of salvation],” and “pointless conundrums regarding problems like predestination and free will, apologetic exercises, and the like.”20 He writes that “the single divine act that elects, justifies, reconciles, redeems, and reveals makes possible by bringing human beings into an encounter with God.”21 Congdon’s “single divine act” of salvation in effect collapses the history of redemption in the world, and God’s work in the lives of individuals (traditionally described in the ordo salutis), into a single divine now that then becomes identified with the human now that occurs within each individual moment of experience. “If a person’s nature is historical,” writes Congdon, “that is, if there is no human essence beyond one’s concrete actions and decisions—then the question of salvation cannot be decided apart from the particular moment in which a person realizes her historical existence.22 Congdon’s theology is thus not centered on history, but rather on historicity. There is for him no history of redemption as such, but rather a God-event impinging on human experience. Congdon seemingly does not make room for any development of salvation in the lives of individuals. Everything is collapsed into a divine now that is also a human now.

Congdon explains that his intent in writing The God Who Saves was “to develop a nonmetaphysical conception of the atoning work of Christ, which means that the ancient substance ontology is done away with entirely,” resulting in a “universalism without metaphysics.”23 The definition of metaphysics that Congdon uses is highly pejorative—“a mode of thinking that constrains rational inquiry from the outset with abstract, ahistorical presuppositions.”24 On this basis, Congdon sees it as useless, and indeed as mistaken or even harmful, to speak of God as “being” or “substance,” or to accept the ancient Christology that defined Jesus as “two natures” in “one person.” He comments on “the internal coherence of Chalcedonian christology.”25 Condgon’s theology seeks to make a clean sweep of metaphysics, while at the same time intending “to develop an account of participation” that “does not require recourse to a substantival ‘logic of assumption.’”26 Congdon rejects the idea of “human nature,” and for this reason his presuppositions will not allow for Christ to “assume” human nature or then to act in behalf of other human beings, in the way that was assumed by classical Christian thinkers.27 In cleansing the gospel from all vestiges of metaphysics, Congdon advocates a theological liberationism that he refers to as a “demetaphysicizing,” “detheorizing,” “deconstantinizing,” “deideologizing,” “desacramentalizing,” deinstitutionizing,” and “delegalizing” of Christianity.28

More a radical than a liberal theologian, Congdon shows little interest in hedging or compromising with earlier traditions. His project is a “demythologizing theology…[that] attempts to think with and beyond Bultmann.”29 His “demythologizing” includes as a matter of course a repudiation of biblical authority. The Bible cannot serve as the norm of theology, but must itself be criticized.30 Congdon is also a thoroughgoing critic of incarnational Christology. He speaks of himself as among “those of us today seeking a postmetaphysical christology beyond ‘the myth of the incarnate Son of God.’”31 He brushes aside as irrelevant the classical Christological debates: “Trying to puzzle out how deity and humanity can coincide in a single person is a false metaphysical dilemma.… Deity simply is his humanity in its eschatologically interruptive mode of existence.”32 As Congdon states in his study of Bultmann, the task of demythologizing not only requires the theologian to rethink certain extraneous or peripheral aspects of the Christian message, but also the very concept of God.33 In the perspective known as “soteriocentrism,” Congdon explains that “the starting point had to be the saving event rather than God.”34

One of the unusual elements in Congdon’s argumentation lies in his doctrine of “unnature.” So strong is he in rejecting substantialist metaphysics and ideas of “being,” “substance,” and “nature,” that Congdon embraces an antithetical notion of “unnature.” God did not create a natural world or natural order, but creation itself is “the apocalyptic event of unnature.”35 He develops what he calls “a soteriocentric theology of the creature as eccentric, unconscious, and unnatural,” declares that “the apocalyptic event of cocrucfixion puts an end to nature,” and that “a faith constituted by the apocalypse is acosmic.”36 Such statements often reappear. After a positive reference to Judith Butler’s gender theory, Congdon states that “the apocalypse queers the creature,” and near the conclusion of The God Who Saves states that “the infinite God is the queer God who unsettles all norms and traditions.”37 Congdon’s emphatic affirmation of “unnature” gives a gnostic flavor to his theology. It is as though the universal cocrucifixion with Christ were a hidden reality not known or knowable through the natural world. But somehow Congdon himself knows it, and is able to write about it. In a world of “unnature,” without “nature,” “being,” or “substance,” where all that exists is a flux of experience, one wonders what basis there might be for an affirmation of universal cocrucifixion with Christ.

In his effort “to think with and beyond Bultmann,” Congdon’s theology is reminiscent of that of Fritz Buri (1907–1995)—who agreed with Bultmann’s initiative, but felt that Bultmann himself had not gone far enough. In place of “demythologizing” the gospel (German Entmythologisierung), Buri called also for “de-kerygmatizing” (German Entkerygmatisierung), implying that the core or substance of the Christian proclamation (Greek kerygma) needed itself to be reinterpreted, and not merely the terms, concepts, or symbols in which the proclamation is made.38 In the same vein as Buri’s work is Charley Hardwick’s Events of Grace (1996), which argues that “God”-language may be wholly reinterpreted in terms of human experiences of transcendence or transformation.39 Congdon might resist such a reductive account of his own argument, and yet his rejection of a metaphysically substantive “God” raises the question of whether his “God”-language simply denotes elements or aspects of human awareness.40 The radical theology of The God Who Saves might be read as a form of religious naturalism.

The reader may be forgiven at this point for wondering: What does all this have to do with universal salvation? Congdon’s answer in short is that all human beings attain salvation because all human beings without exception participate—by an “unconscious cocrucifixion”—in Christ’s crucifixion which is itself an experience of abandonment by God.41 Congdon’s renews the paradox of the Lutheran theology of the cross, in which Father’s embrace of the suffering Christ is tantamount to abandonment, and the Father’s abandonment a form of embrace. “This death [of Jesus] … is saving because it is a death in God abandonment.”42 In context, the “saving” death Congdon refers to is that of Christ, but in his exposition the distinction between Jesus’s death and our own “death”—i.e., a comparable experience of abandonment by God—often becomes blurry.

This line of argument evokes the question of whether human beings are saved by Jesus’s death, or by their own death-like experiences. Congdon anticipates this objection, and insists that “cocrucifixion is not coredemption. Cocrucifixion occurs where and when our existence corresponds to the cruciform existence of Jesus.”43 One of the ironies in Congdon’s argument is that he rejects “magical-mythological belief” in “the efficacy of animal sacrifice” as well as “evangelical crucicentrism,” even as he insists on the centrality of Jesus’s death as a model of kenotic self-giving.44 While the argument of The God Who Saves is cross-centered, it affirms salvation by our imitation rather than salvation by Christ’s representation.

Much like Jürgen Moltmann, Congdon views Jesus’s death as a signification of something eternal in God. Jesus’s resurrection therefore does not reverse or counteract suffering, but rather extends and intensifies the alienation of the cross: “The resurrection takes death up into the very life of God. Rather than giving assurance of some escape from or end to the offense of the cross, the resurrection instead intensifies the offence by eternalizing it … [and] we will always encounter the event of God’s own self-distancing in death, which distances us from ourselves and so crucifies us with Christ.”45 Here Congdon’s theology approaches the gnostic conception of an inherently suffering God, with its “eternalizing” of “God’s own self-distancing in death.”46

But how is it that everyone is “cocrucified” and shares in Jesus’s death in God-abandonment? Congdon’s argument “entails locating the saving event of divine action in a prereflective present tense moment—namely, in the unconscious.”47 It should be noted that Congdon’s idea of the “unconscious” remains rather ambiguous and in need of further clarification. He states for example that “Christianity loses sight of the eschatological horizon of the gospel…whenever it fails to remain conscious of Christ’s interruptive incursion into our unconscious existence.”48 But how is someone supposed to one remain conscious of that which is said to be unconscious?49 When one reads Congdon’s various statements in context, it becomes clear that “unconscious cocrucifixion” with Christ is not divorced from human experience as such, and so cannot be unconscious in all respects. Otherwise, Congdon’s argument would be much like Barth’s doctrine of universal election, and it would be tantamount to the claim that all human lives are determined by something that lies beyond all human experience (i.e., a divine decision or determination). What Congdon seems to mean is that there is a general human experience of “death in God abandonment,” and though it is a conscious experience for all who undergo it, it is generally not understood by most persons as related to Christ, to God, or to religion.50

At this point, the argument takes a strange twist, in which an unconscious connection to Christ is said to be superior to a conscious connection. Congdon comments that “a soteriocentric theology of the creature will prioritize unconsciousness over consciousness as the defining locus of personal identity.”51 Using the terminology of Karl Rahner’s theology, it is as though the anonymous Christian were the true Christian, and the conscious Christian were barely a Christian at all. Congdon follows up his valorization of unconscious Christianity with an attack on conscious, deliberate, professed faith in Christ: “Conscious Christianity is a turning in upon oneself to care for one’s own spiritual health and relationship with God. Conscious faith, in other words, is not genuine faith, but rather the objectifying gaze of religion, which turns divine action…into an idol.”52 Congdon cites the atheistic novelist Philip Pullman’s inverted interpretation of Matthew 25:1–13, in which the wise virgins who go into the feast are actually the outsiders to God’s kingdom, while the foolish virgins, who are outside the feast, are insiders to God’s kingdom. Congdon writes: “The ‘real gospel’… is not that God’s saving apocalypse is available to those who consciously believe, to those who enter the wedding banquet, but rather that the inbreaking of Christ’s reign is a reality for those excluded from every banquet and feast.”53 Salvation is for those who—like the foolish virgins—consciously reject Christ. Here Congdon is on the verge of abandoning his own universalism, by turning his sheep into goats and his goats into sheep—reversing their roles rather than embracing both groups.

Unsurprisingly, Congdon is no fan of the institutional church, though he develops a notion of the “apostolate,” which includes those who in some sense bear witness to the reality of death-abandonment by going outside of themselves to identify with, and to serve, the poor and the marginalized. This “apostolate” is not as a self-conscious or self-bounded community, since identification with Christ for many or most in this group remains unknown. The “apostolate” must include those would never imagine themselves as such. Congdon’s community serves an ethical aim, by giving individuals the opportunity to serve: “Communal Christian existence, when and where it truly occurs, provides space for people to be placed outside themselves—that is to say, space for ongoing cocrucifixion with Christ.”54 Another line of argument in Congdon pertains to the Holy Spirit, who is said to be the agent who makes effective everyone’s participation in Christ.55 Congdon believes that it is not possible to distinguish Christ from Spirit, and so he collapses these two together into what he calls the “Christ-Spirit.”56

In one remarkable passage, Congdon specifies more fully how he understands the range of human experience that might be understood in terms of “cocrucifixion” with Christ:

The eschatological event of salvation thus belongs to those who are placed outside themselves by the powers and principalities of the world—that is, to the poor, the imprisoned, the social invisible, the culturally foreign, those who are vulnerable and disposable. Salvation belongs to them irrespective of their acknowledgement of Christ or their participation in conscious Christian faith. And while the unconscious participation in the apocalypse belongs to them first, we can be confident, based on the logic of the kerygma, that every person has been or will be an unconscious Christian. For some, unconscious faith might only occur in a moment or literal unconsciousness—at birth or at death, where we are placed wholly outsider ourselves. Others will encounter eschatological existence in a moment of pure being-for-others, such as at the birth of a child, in the ecstasy…of love, or in the ethical encounter with a neighbor in need. Still others will be placed outside themselves through the aesthetic experience of the beautiful…. However it occurs, each person will at some moment, participate in the authentic existence promised by and actualized in the eschatological kerygma. Insofar as they are placed outside themselves, faith recognizes that it is Christ himself in whom they are placed.57

A number of things come into focus in this passage. The poor and the marginalized, for Congdon, are closely—though often unconsciously—related to God. The wealthy and the privileged must align themselves with the poor, in order to share in the poor’s spiritually advantaged though material diminished state. Congdon’s opens the door to experiences of “unconscious faith” occurring at one’s birth as well as at one’s death. Aesthetic as well as moral experiences count as participation in Christ. Finally, in truly sweeping terms, Congdon states that “we can be confident, based on the logic of the kerygma, that every person has been or will be an unconscious Christian.”

Participation in Christ happens by means what Congdon calls “the nonidentical repetition of Christ’s death in God-abandonment.”58 The Holy Spirit functions as the agent of this repetition. On first glance it seems that Congdon’s theology seems simply repeating the Pauline emphasis on cocrucifixion with Christ (Rom 6:6; Gal 2:20). Yet Congdon rejects the idea of Christ as a corporate personality representing humanity as a whole, which is arguably the position implied in the Pauline texts, in the early church, as well as in Barth. So what significance then does Christ’s death have for humanity? Congdon uses the term “cocrucifixion” more literally than do other theological authors. It does not merely mean that individual human beings by believing in Christ share in the benefits of his death. It means instead that I have to be crucified too—i.e., to undergo some experience of my own that is comparable to the experience of cross. I must undergo a kenosis of my own, replicating in my own life what happened in Christ’s life. The underlying argument is not a logic of participation (despite Congdon’s use of that term) but rather a logic of repetition (as suggested in the references to Giorgio Agamben and Gilles Deleuze). Congdon’s Christ is in no way a representative of humanity but is an exemplar for humanity, and you and I must both suffer as he suffered, in a fashion that Oswald Bayer has aptly termed a “natural theology of the cross.”59

There is another line of reasoning in The God Who Saves, and this is what we might call the apocalyptical-eschatological argument. In short, “the saving event is an existential apocalypse.”60 Congdon attributes to Barth’s universal election doctrine a “protological universalism,” and then distinguishes this from his own position, which he calls a “universalism effected by God, but effected eschatologically.”61 He believes that his own position “giv[es] greater attention the subjective or personal dimension as playing some kind of role.”62 Yet this argument is muddled at this point, because Congdon’s eschatological universalism is, as he says, “effected by God,” just as any protological universalism. It is not clear what is accomplished if one identifies God’s effective action toward humanity as occurring eschatologically rather than protologically. One ends up in either case with the classic theological dilemma of explaining how God’s gracious initiative is related to the human response to God, or vice versa.

Congdon’s understands God’s apocalyptic presence in the world as an “inbreaking,” “interruption,” or “disruption.”63 These are all positive rather than negative terms. Sometimes the author seems to get carried away with his own rhetoric, as when he declares that “Christ is the divine anarchist.”64 God’s act both dissolves and reconstitutes the world: “The God who acts is the eschatological God who annuls the world within the world and who establishes the new creation within the old creation.”65 Following Bultmann and the German liberal tradition generally, Congdon interprets the history of the early church as “the failed parousia,” with no return of Christ, thus leaving Christ’s followers to “translate the apocalyptic proclamation of Jesus into a sociopolitical message of shalom.”66 So faith itself must become the subjective, inwardized substitute for apocalypse: “The decision of faith is the eschatological event: what Paul still hopes for in the future is now already present to believers. Faith is the ultimate apocalypse.”67 In the New Testament, “both Paul and John … interpret the message of the gospel in a way that no longer depends upon a literal return of the Messiah.68

Congdon recognizes his own difference from Barth who wrote of Christ’s “future advent” in a way that was “highly minimalist,” while he still insisted that it was “essential to the gospel.” Yet Barth’s “denial of a literal existence beyond death seems to suggest that we should deliteralize the future advent as well.”69 Here Congdon quotes Barth to the effect that the final eschatological moment will be “the eternalizing of our ending life,” and “nothing further will follow this happening” and there is “no continuing into an unending future.” Barth himself rejects “pagan dreams of all kinds of good times after death.”70 There is an ironic twist in the “Epilogue” to The God Who Saves, because here Congdon acknowledges this his version of universalism does not embrace the idea of continuing, conscious experience after death. Everyone is said share the same experience in the present life (i.e., “cocrucifixion” with Christ) but not a common experience beyond this present life.71 So one is forced to ask: Is Congdon teaching a form of universalism, if the outcome for all is the extinction of conscious experience? Or is it a form of annihilationism?

Congdon summarizes his apocalyptic gospel by saying that “to be crucified with Christ is…to share in the cosmos rupturing incursion that took place in the death of Jesus.”72 There is apocalypse now—an eschaton immanentized in each believer:

The imminent advent of Christ … occurs in the existential apprehension of its embarrassing otherness, which is ultimately the otherness of God…. Salvation is not salvation from suffering, from oppression, from the final judgment, from eternal torment, form annihilation, from the devil, from mortality—from any of these traditional threats. It is a salvation from ourselves…. The apocalypse of salvation is, in a sense, our death—the death of existentially secure world that we build around ourselves.73

We cannot and need not sustain belief in a literal cosmic apocalypse in the chronological future.… The proper starting point is to see the apocalyptic event in Christ as simultaneously and paradoxically both a past occurrence in Jesus and a present encounter in the believer.… We must say that the apocalypse is wholly past, wholly present, and wholly future.… The apocalypse is necessarily existential and paradoxical…. We come to participate in the apocalypse through our cocrucfixion in faith.74

The reference to “faith” at the end of this second quotation is surprising, since Congdon so strongly emphasizes the unconscious rather than conscious aspects of someone’s connection with Christ and the of “unconscious faith,” though occasionally mentioned, remains unexplained. In the end, Congdon is convinced that “every moment of existence—religious or nonreligious—is potentially the site where God’s saving apocalypse invades one’s existence.”75

In one startling passage, Congdon offers his most concrete word-picture of what final salvation might mean for the cosmos as a whole. He uses the image of a sun or star flaming outward, in a supernova event, as his model for the coming consummation:

Creation reaches its end, its telos, in the cross, in the undoing of the cosmos.… The saving event ripples outwards from the cross deep into the invisible, unconscious underside of history, interrupting all creatures, human and nonhuman alike, in its eschatological wake until the sun, in the ultimate eccentricity, expands beyond itself and consumes the earth in the conflagration of its cosmic communion with the crucified one, offering itself as a final perishable testament to imperishable grace.76

Final salvation is tantamount to final destruction. Is this universal salvation or universal annihilation?

As an exercise in dialectical theology, The God Who Saves is an intriguing work, though its proper Sitz im Leben might be a German theological seminar in 1956 rather a North American publication in 2016. Congdon’s New Testament interpretation seems frozen in time, prior to the newer studies of the historical Jesus, the Jewishness of Jesus and the Gospels, and Second Temple Judaism as the context for understanding early Christianity. Congdon’s neglect of contemporary biblical scholarship and his existentializing interpretation of the Bible render his work retrograde rather than avant-garde. This book is a time capsule. It embodies an unfortunate tradition—associated with Bultmann—of interpreting the Bible without due regard to the geography, customs, society, and history of biblical times.77

As an exercise in universalist theology, The God Who Saves presents an exceptionally weak argument. Congdon announces his commitment to universalism in the second sentence of the prologue—a commitment that drives him to assert a universal experience (i.e., cocrucifixion) that is shared by all persons without exception.78 Yet he fails to present an argument in his book to justify his key assumption that every human being who has ever lived participates in a common kenotic, ecstatic, or self-transcending experience somehow linking them to the experience of Christ. As if by fiat, Congdon makes a sweeping statement that “we can be confident, based on the logic of the kerygma, that every person has been or will be an unconscious Christian.”79 The critic asks: Why should the Christian gospel be applicable to everyone? And does it make any sense to speak of this universal application as unknowing or unconscious? There seems to be nothing in scripture or in earlier Christian tradition to support such an idiosyncratic interpretation of the gospel. Beyond this, there is the further question as to why anyone should accept the gospel in the first place—an issue brushed aside with a dismissive remark on apologetics.80 If Congdon wants to be taken seriously in claiming that the Christian message applies to every human being without exception, then he seemingly must offer some rational or evidential basis for such a claim. Congdon briefly mentions “the uniqueness of Jesus” but does not link this to the church’s affirmation of Jesus’s sole divinity, and so the significance of the statement remains unclear.81

Not least of the problems in The God Who Saves is the self-contradiction in its argument, which makes a generalized claim regarding human cocrucifixion with Christ, while equally asserting that “we cannot speak in general and in the abstract about the particular histories of those who are included objectively in Christ.”82 But what is Congdon’s argument, if not a “general” and “abstract” claim about what must be the case in the experience of each individual human life? No rationale for universal salvation can effectively be established unless one presses beyond the flux of individual experience and somehow asserts what is true in human experience-in-general. The effort at a demetaphysicized and deontologized “universalism without universals” is ultimately a failure, because the argument for universalism requires Congdon to make generalizations about universal human experience that he himself states that no one can make.

The idea of Christ as a universal human representative seems on its face to be less problematic than the notion that all human beings share any specific experience that is common to all. Congdon may be showing that he is aware of this problem when he speaks of many kinds of experience—identifying with the poor, the experience of one’s own death or birth, the enjoyment of beauty, experiencing sex, etc.—as all possible links to Christ in cocrucifixion. Yet the argument at this point becomes exceptionally vague. How is watching a beautiful sunset, seeing a baby born, or having sex tantamount to being cocrucified with Christ? On this basis, simply living and breathing as a human being would be enough to connect one with Christ. One may as well reintroduce the rejected notion of the Son of God’s “assumption” of “human nature” as a way to explain the universal connection between Jesus Christ and all other human beings. In any case it is clear that the idea a universal though unconscious experience of cocrucifixion contains a number of difficulties. Since the words “conscious” and “experience” generally imply one another, the notion of an “unconscious experience” might be self-referentially incoherent, as though one were speaking of “unconscious consciousness.” Moreover, as just argued, Congdon’s argument has broadened the idea of cocrucifixion with Christ in everyday life to the point where it loses all form and content. When Paul wrote that “I have been crucified with Christ” (Gal 2:20), he surely had something specific in mind, and was not using the phrase to refer to the everyday experiences that everyone shares.

[1] This article is adapted from Michael J. McClymond, The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018), 841–57, 938–40. Used by permission.

[2] Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (New York: HarperOne, 2011).

[3] The Time magazine cover (April 25, 2011) read, “What If There’s No Hell?—A Popular Pastor’s Best-Selling Book Has Stirred Fierce Debate about Sin, Salvation and Judgment,” while Jon Meacham’s article (pp. 38–43) bore the title and heading “Is Hell Dead? Rogue pastor Rob Bell’s argument about salvation and judgment has Evangelicals in a fury—and a young generation rethinking Jesus.” For an overview of the debates in the wake of Bell’s book, see John Sanders, “Raising Hell about Razing Hell,” PRSt 40 (2013) 267–81.

[4] For a listing of Christian universalist titles since 1999, and discussion of their themes and arguments, see McClymond, The Devil’s Redemption, 937–97.

[5] Also noteworthy is an edited volume that explores the historical lineage of universalist thinking from the early church period to the present time, Gregory MacDonald [pseud. for Robin Parry], ed. “All Shall Be Well”: Explorations in Universal Salvation and Christian Theology from Origen to Moltmann (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011).

[6] Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, 2nd ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2012).

[7] David W. Congdon, The God Who Saves: A Dogmatic Sketch (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2016); and Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015).

[8] Karl Barth, to Rudolf Bultmann, December 24 1952, in Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann, Briefwechsel, 1911–1966, 2nd ed., Karl Barth Gesamtausgabe 5, ed. Bernd Jaspert (Zürich: Theologischer Verlag, 1994), 192; cited in Congdon, Mission of Demythologizing, 3 (trans. Congdon).

[9] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 14 vols., edited by G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1942–68), IV/1, 767. Abbreviated hereafter as “CD” with part-volume and page number.

[10] Congdon, The God Who Saves, xv. He writes that “the problem is Barth’s sharp distinction between the objective and the subjective, which…perpetuates the metaphysical notion that reconciliation applies to us even though it does not concern us existentially” (ibid., xv, n4).

[11] Ibid., 24, emphasis original.

[12] Ibid., 48.

[13] Congdon, Mission of Demythologizing, 833, citing Rudolf Bultmann, “Das christologische Bekenntnis des Ökumenischen Rates,” in Glauben under Verstehen: Gesammelte Aufsätze, 4 vols. (Tübingen: Mohr, 1933–1965), 2:258–59.

[14] Congdon, Mission of Demythologizing, 833.

[15] Congdon, The God Who Saves, ix, emphasis original. While Congdon is large uncritical of Bultmann, he is more critical than appreciative of Barth. He writes that “Barth tends to make election a one-time decision in pretemporal eternity, which abstracts election both rom the lived historicity of Jesus Christ and the lived historicities of human persons here and now” (ibid., xiv). Just as Congdon reinterprets objective reality in terms of human subjectivity, and so too his mediation between Barth and Bultmann reinterprets Barthian universalism in the direction of Bultmanninian existentialism, rather than vice versa.

[16] Ibid., x.

[17] Ibid., xi. “Christianity is rooted in a concrete historical event.…This is the beating heart of Christianity’s rejection of docetism” (ibid., 35). This statement exists in tension with the Congdon’s statement that “reconciliation … is always a contingent event within each person’s concrete history” (ibid., xvi; Congdon quoting himself from Mission of Demythologizing, 833–34).

[18] Congdon’s theology has varied affinities. Its theological sources lie for the most part in German-language authors who wrote between 1917 and 1968, apart from the references to Eberhard Jüngel (b. 1934) and to Bruce McCormack—a Barth scholar currently at Princeton Theological Seminary and one influenced by Jüngel. Congdon comments that his is a “dialectical systematic theology … in the consistently actualistic sense represented by a synthetic reading of inter alia Barth, Bultmann, Ebeling, Gollwitzer, and Jüngel” (The God Who Saves, xviii). We see Congdon’s dialectical approach in statements like the following (italicized in the original): “The God who is not an object of science becomes an object of science without ceasing to be the God who is not an object of science” (ibid., 27). Another dialectical statement is the following: “The nonoccurrence of the parousia [i.e., return of Christ] is the fulfillment of the parousia itself, because the purpose of eschatological expectation is the unsettling of the believer” (ibid., 127n85, emphasis original). Just as Bultmann prevails over Barth in Congdon’s work, so too the Lutheran element (Bultmann, Jüngel, Gerhard Ebeling, Helmut Gollwitzer) triumphs over Barth’s more Calvinistic influence. He writes of how at Princeton Seminary he learned for the first time of “the Lutheran ‘theology of the cross,’” which he says “remains normative for my thought now” (ibid., xx). Yet Congdon does draw from Barth as well as from the German Lutherans. He takes from Barth the key idea that “faith is not the condition for one’s reconciled status before God” (ibid., 10), which differs from the position of Bultmann, for whom the human response to God’s call is determinative of one’s relation to God. In another side of his thought, Congdon’s emphasis on “preflective, unconscious experience” (ibid., 189) reminds one of Friedrich Schleiermacher and Karl Rahner. Congdon’s idea of “unconscious cocrucifixion” with Christ (see below) allows him to affirm the unconscious affinity of non-Christians with Christ, making them something like “anonymous Christians” in a Rahnerian sense.

[19] Congdon, The God Who Saves, 260.

[20] Ibid., 50–51.

[21] Ibid., 50.

[22] Ibid., 18, emphasis original. “Reconciliation is not first a transaction of change that occurs ‘above us,’ so to speak, in relation to some general human substance (a universal humanum) in which we all participate; it is always only a contingent event within each person’s concrete history” (ibid., xvi).

[23] Ibid., xiv, 10.

[24] Ibid., 20. “To accept the problem of historicity is to reject the Platonic ontology…Each person is a historical being whose being is thus only ever in becoming” (ibid., 18).

[25] Ibid., 105. He writes, “I do not accept the assumption that the ecumenical councils determine what counts as authentically ‘Christian,’” adding that these councils “are only authoritative insofar as they embody and bear witness to the norm of the gospel that stands always beyond them” (ibid., 3n5).

[26] Ibid., xiv.

[27] Ibid., 207.

[28] Congdon, Mission of Demythologizing, 831.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Congdon reads scripture as a historical text and not as authoritative: “We must…face the fact that the scriptures are thoroughly historical documents of their time. There is nothing directly divine or inspired about the suzerainty treaty. It was simply what the Hebrew tribes knew” (The God Who Saves, 16n22). Congdon says he is “refusing to participate altogether in the ongoing attempt to ‘normalize’ the faith by identifying a particular creaturely artifact (e.g., scriptural text or creedal formula) with God’s revelation” (ibid., 24). “The gospel…resists all attempts to turn it into propaganda,” and this means that “orthoheterodox multivocality is not opposed to the gospel” (ibid., 24). Congdon rejects Paul’s “heteropatriarchal culture” (ibid., 230). He uses the German technical term Sachkritik (critique of content) to defend Bultmann and to explain his own methodology: “Bultmann interprets all texts in light of the norm that stands beyond every text” (ibid., 39n39, emphasis original; cf. 40–41n41, 232).

[31] Congdon, The God Who Saves, 124; citing Ernst Fuchs, “Jesus Christus in Person: Zum Problem der Geschichtlichkeit der Offenbarung,” in Zur Frage nach dem historischen Jesus (Tübingen: Mohr, 1960), 39. Congdon adds: “If we dispense with the mythology of a Son in pretemporal eternity who then takes on human flesh in the incarnation, we can interpret Jesus’ statements about coming from the Creator as also eschatological in character: Jesus comes from the Creator in the sense that his existence is divinely authorized and so eschatologically paves the way to the Creator” (The God Who Saves, 252). This statement might mean that Jesus leads us to God, but Jesus is not God. Consider also the statement: “The God who saves has no given likeness.…This God is utterly hidden from sight, present to us only in absence” (ibid., 235). Such an unqualified statement of God’s absence seems to exclude a doctrine of incarnation. Congdon speaks of Jesus as prophetic rather than messianic: “While the Gospels … focus on the person of Jesus, this transition suggests that the Jesus of history was himself focused on the coming reign of God. He was primarily a prophetic rather than messianic figure” (ibid., 116n41).

[32] Ibid., 129.

[33] Congdon, Mission of Demythologizing, 835.

[34] Congdon, The God Who Saves, xv. On “soteriocentrism” generally, see ibid., 21–58. Congdon goes so far as to say that our human experiences are “constitutive” for Christ’s identity: “Our concrete experience of abandonment is constitutive of Christ’s being as the Abandoned One” (ibid., 157–58).

[35] Ibid., 201.

[36] Ibid., 207, 227, 228; cf. 233. “God is a denaturalizing event and the world is the unnatural place of this event” (ibid., 237). “The apocalypse is the inbreaking of unnature” (ibid., 248 n. 17).

[37] Ibid., 229–30, 258.

[38] Fritz Buri’s works include the following: “Entmythologisierung oder Entkerygmatisierung der Theologie,” in Kerygma und Mythos, ed. H.-W. Bartsch (Hamburg: Herbert Reich, 1952), 2:85–101; Theologie der Existenz (Bern: Paul Haupt, 1954); Dogmatik als Selbstverständnis des christlichen Glaubens, 3 vols. (Bern: Paul Haupt, 1956–78).

[39] See Michael J. McClymond, Review of Events of Grace: Naturalism, Existentialism, and Theology, by Charley D. Hardwick, TS 58 (1997) 14–16.

[40] Congdon’s professed affinity for atheists might suggest that he sees some affinity to his own position. He comments that “genuine Christian theologians may find that outspoken atheists are actually their strongest and closest allies in the pursuit of truth” (The God Who Saves, 35n26).

[41] The only potential “canon within the canon,” for Congdon, that would apply “to all Christian soteriology is Galatians 2:19–20” (ibid., 81).

[42] Ibid., 85.

[43] Ibid., 88.

[44] Ibid., 52. He writes: “Crucicentrism cannot mean that the crucifixion in itself ‘does’ something—whether to God or to ourselves. It is not some divine instrument for redeeming the world from sin, any more than slaughtering a goat is really capable of cleansing people from impurity” (ibid., 53). He rejects the “zero-sum logic that requires the death of one creature in order to gain life for another” and the idea that “blood-shedding has the capacity to propitiate a deity” (ibid., 64). He speaks of the need to get beyond “a sacrificial mode of thinking” (ibid., 123–24).

[45] Ibid., 128.

[46] The linkage between ancient gnosis and contemporary ideas of an inherently suffering God are a focus in Peter Koslowski and Friedrich Hermanni, eds., Der leidende Gott: eine philosophische und theologische Kritik (München: Fink, 2001).

[47] Ibid., 90, emphasis original. Congdon appeals to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s notion of “unconscious Christianity” (ibid., 93).

[48] Ibid., 176–77.

[49] In another passage, Congdon writes of “the notion of unconscious Christianity, in which faith is primarily and normatively an unconscious act of existence” (ibid., 261). This phrase “unconscious act of existence” is not adequately explained.

[50] “If faith is an act of participating in the crucified Christ, and if this participation occurs in those who are placed outside themselves, then this…can be understood in a universalistic way” (ibid., 96 n. 120). “The truth of the gospel is that the apocalypse occurs in the unconscious actus directus of being placed outside ourselves … [in] kenotic death in God-abandonment” (ibid., 97).

[51] Ibid., 215.

[52] Ibid., 96. Later Congdon softens his position: “Conscious Christianity may be, by nature, an exercise in idolatrous unbelief, but it is at least conscious of its idolatry” (ibid., 99). Another passage, in need of clarification, states: “Conscious faith is not in itself saving; it is a contextual interpretation of unconscious faith” (ibid., 261).

[53] Ibid., 102, citing Philip Pullman, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2010), 142.

[54] Congdon, The God Who Saves, 99.

[55] For Congdon, “the Spirit is what makes crucifixion into cocrucifixion” (ibid., 142), and this Spirit acts universally, “the eschatological Spirit of this liberation empowers acts of faith and witness that cannot be circumscribed by the tradition, culture, state, policy, or doctrine” (ibid., 171). The act of the Spirit is the “nonidentical repetition of interruption” (ibid., 249, emphasis original).

[56] Congdon writes: “The reconciling work of the Christ-Spirit is already final for each person” (ibid., 263). “The apocalyptic approach to salvation that I am developing here is one that necessarily unites Christ and Spirit in a single event” (ibid., 66–67n26). On “Christ-Spirit,” see also pp. 189, 254. The obvious question here is whether Congdon has rejected Trinitarian theology in favor of some form of modalism.

[57] Ibid., 97–98.

[58] Ibid., 144, emphasized original. The key discussion of the theme of repetition is on pp. 143–46, referencing Soren Kierkegaard and Giorgio Agamben.

[59] The phrase theologia crucis naturalis appears, with ironic undertones, in Oswald Bayer, Gott als Autor: zu einer poietologischen Theologie (Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1999), 258–59.

[60] Ibid., 138.

[61] Ibid., 11.

[62] Ibid., 12.

[63] In The God Who Saves there are many references to “interrupt” or “interruption”—pp. 83, 129, 145–47, 155, 185, 196, 210, 212, 234, 238. For “disrupt” or “disruption,” see pp. 38, 47, 76, 99, 141, 230, 245. Note Congdon’s reference (ibid., 230n16) to an essay on “interruptive” ethics: Laurie Zoloth, “Interrupting Your Life: An Ethics for the Coming Storm,” JAAR 84 (2016) 3–24.

[64] Ibid., 187, emphasis original.

[65] Ibid., 26–27.

[66] Ibid., 67n29. Congdon agrees with Käsemann’s view that “this hope [in Jesus’s return] proved to be a delusion” (ibid., 68). Citing Ernst Käsemann, New Testament Questions of Today (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969), 106. He adds that Käsemann shows, “justification is apocalyptic since it proclaims the truth ‘that God is only “for us” when God shatters our illusions’” (The God Who Saves, 70). Congdon revels in the paradox of the non-return of Christ that fulfills the promise of Christ’s return: “The nonoccurrence of the parousia [i.e., return of Christ] is the fulfillment of the parousia itself, because the purpose of eschatological expectation is the unsettling of the believer” (ibid., 127n85).

[67] Ibid., 71.

[68] Ibid., 72.

[69] Ibid., 74n45.

[70] Ibid., citing Barth CD III/2, 624–25, translation revised by Congdon.

[71] The “Epilogue” (pp. 260–74) to The God Who Saves is devoted to the question of the afterlife. Congdon maintains that the Christian hope “is not a hope for a conscious existence beyond death.” For every New Testament statement “about our creaturely future is a statement about Christ” (ibid., 270). Congdon favorably quotes Eberhard Jüngel: “Finite life will be eternalized as finite. But not through endless extension—there is no immortality of the soul—but rather through participation in God’s own life. Our life is hidden in God’s life. In this sense the briefest form of resurrection hope is the statement: ‘God is my beyond’” (ibid., 273, emphasis original, citing Jüngel, Death: The Riddle and the Mystery, trans. Iain and Ute Nicol (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), 120). Congdon explains that resurrection means “the eternalizing of our lived history” that that “God remembers us for eternity” (The God Who Saves, 273).

[72] Ibid., 82.

[73] Ibid., 79–80.

[74] Ibid., 85.

[75] Ibid., 258.

[76] Ibid., 239–40.

[77] Bultmann made it his principle not to visit the sites of the Holy Land—in the words of Martin Hengel, “a bad old German tradition with dangerous results.” Richard Ostling, “Who Was Jesus?” Time, August 15, 1988, 38.

[78] “In 2006 … I came to the realization that universal salvation was the only account of Christianity that I could find credible” (ibid., ix). It is not surprising that this initial statement of Congdon’s universalism is not explained in his prologue. Yet it is surprising that, after reading through the book, one still does not know what led Congdon to believe in universal salvation in the first place.

[79] Ibid., 97–98.

[80] Ibid., 50–51.

[81] Ibid., 6. The deeper issue here is a lack of clarity on the question of theological authority. Congdon writes that “heterodoxy is intrinsic to Christian faith. It is an essential dimension of the freedom for which Christ has set us free” (ibid., 58). He proposes “jettisoning the dichotomy between orthodoxy and heterodoxy by speaking instead of an orthoheterodoxy” (ibid., 24; cf. 57). For Congdon, “the God revealed in Jesus Christ unsettles our assumptions about what is self-evident and disrupts our self-assured attempts to secure our existence” (ibid., 38). While God is disruptive, the New Testament itself is involved in “protecting and perpetuating a purported orthodoxy,” but Congdon does not see this as “some kind of Christian virtue” (ibid., 55). Citing a number of New Testament passages, he writes that “what we see in these ancient Christian texts is a community deeply concerned about protecting its authority. Here we see a magisterium in the making” (ibid., 55). “There is … something deeply perverse about the way the early Christian community quickly retreated into a fortress mentality” (ibid 57). “The norm is not a fixed set of propositional claims but rather an event irrupting into each new situation, calling for new modes of thinking and speaking about God” (ibid., 57). Congdon says nothing regarding any continuity of belief or tradition. His continual stress on discontinuity suggests that for him there is no doctrinal norm properly speaking, though he occasionally speaks of the “gospel”—an undefined norm, derived from scripture, but not identified with scripture. Congdon embraces the idea of a theological plurality of contradictory voices, and writes that Pentecost is “not the overturning of Babel…but rather the consecration of Babel” (ibid., 57–58, emphasis original). The outcome of all this would seem to be a theological anarchy that just as surely undermines Congdon’s affirmation of universal salvation as it would any affirmation of particularist salvation.

[82] Ibid., xv, n4.

Michael McClymond

Michael McClymond is professor of modern Christianity at Saint Louis University and is author of The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism.

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