The Apologetics of Universal Grace (Acts 17:23b; I Pet.3:18b-l9; John 14:17)

by Ronald Goetz

Dr. Goetz, a Century editor at large, holds the Niebuhr distinguished chair of theology and ethics at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, June 13-20, 1990 p. 595, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The traditions of both Paul and Peter were driven to say things about the universal implications of Christ’s death that the historical Jesus as a first-century Palestinian Jew would not and could not have imagined.

. . . I found also an altar with this inscription, "To an unknown god." What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you

For Christ also died . . . that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison . . .

. . . even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees nor knows that Spirit; you know that Spirit, for that Spirit dwells with you and will be in you

Paul correlating the Christian gospel with pagan agnosticism -- our apologetic passage from Acts is something of a rarity. In general the Bible takes an exclusivistic and revelational tack. The John text speaks for much biblical thinking in its claim that the "Spirit of truth" is not some generally available power that just anyone can plug into or that pagans seek after without knowing. The Spirit "whom the world cannot receive" is known to those with whom and in whom the Spirit chooses to dwell.

We have here more than a faint aroma of predestinarianism. Why indeed doesn’t everyone embrace the truth of Christ, which, at least in our best moments, seems obvious to us? Is it that they lack the eyes to see or the ears to hear? Have we Protestants drifted so far from the Reformation that Luther’s theology of revelation no longer strikes a responsive chord?

I believe that I cannot of my own understanding and strength believe in or come to Jesus Christ my Lord, but that the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel and illuminated me with His gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in the true faith . .

The revelational rap against apologetic theology is that it either engages in a sellout to the "world" (the self-disclosure of God being so utterly relativized by human wisdom that Christians are unable to tell atheists anything that they don’t already know), or it is an exercise in various intellectual imperialisms, such as: "We can prove the existence of God" or "If human culture really understood itself, it would find that it is striving toward that which we already have." Yet if Luther was right and humanity cannot storm heaven with its understanding and strength, then doesn’t the mystery of glorious light -- "the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel and illuminated me with His gifts" -- take us into a predestinarian darkness?

As if the seeming predestinarian "logic" of revelational theology (so fundamentally alien to the apologetic mindset) were not problem enough, there is the harsh apocalypticism into which Jesus is reported to have so deeply dipped his hands. In the synoptics the terrible sayings of Christ the Tiger far outnumber the words of mercy from the sweet and gentle Jesus. In many such sayings life before God is pictured as a brutal prospect: "It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell . . ." (Mark 9:43b) .

The Gospels portray’ Jesus as torn between his fierce outrage over human sin and his profound sympathy for the frailties of the ostracized in his society. Jesus rejected the heavy burdens that ritualistic legalism laid upon the poor, but in its place he demanded an ethic of drastic self-sacrifice that leaves most of us shattered. Christendom has seen various attempts to lead Christianity back to the "religion of Jesus," eschewing the "high" christological impulses of the New Testament. The "religion of Jesus" strikes me as often terrifying.

The son of God didn’t come into the world preaching the true religion. Nor was he a teacher of a self-evident, benign and livable ethic. Indeed, he didn’t come into the world bearing all the answers. He came to bear the pathos and the burden of all the questions. The answers that the "historical Jesus" gave to the questions of existence were crucified with him. They came under the various judgments of both God and humanity. "Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered" (Heb. 5:8) . It was by his humiliating suffering that the Jesus, the imperious apocalyptic ruler, was "made perfect" (Heb. 5:9) .

Thus the traditions of both Paul and Peter were driven to say things about the universal implications of Christ’s death that the historical Jesus as a first-century Palestinian Jew would not and could not have imagined. They declared that even the pagan reaching blindly toward an unknown God is witnessing to a reality greater than he or she realizes. In these traditions there exists no unbridgeable chasm between the saved and the damned. In its place is the recognition that all religious longing is grounded in an impulse that is validated and redeemed by Christ’s cross. In Paul’s own writings this universalism becomes explicit if the once rabidly exclusivistic Paul was moved by the work of Christ to anticipate elements of rationalistic liberalism in his apologetics and universalism, Peter was driven to "remythologize" apocalyptic Judaism. Thus for Peter, Christ has preached Good News even in hell. Not even hell can resist the good will of God.

How else but universally could the unreserved, suffering commitment of God in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ be understood? Having suffered his own and human wrath in Christ’s suffering and triumphed over both wrath and suffering in Christ’s resurrection, it becomes difficult to grasp just why God would want to remain eternally alienated from a reprobate humanity -- especially since God has been able to use such reprobates as Paul, the religious fanatic, and Peter, who denied Christ, and ourselves as the instruments of his peace.

What an awful responsibility such universalism places on Christians. How easily it degenerates into cheap grace. Only by living lives of self-giving love can our words about the glorious triumph of God’s love have any credibility. Otherwise our words seem for all the world like fantasy wish fulfillment. Bonhoeffer was right in insisting that it is not abstract argument but concrete example that gives power to the church’s word. Example is always the most credible apologetic.