Briefly interrupting the blogging hiatus to show you this t-shirt, which I ran across tonight:
In a discussion on the subject of universalism, it can be helpful to distinguish between several varieties of universalism. Among those varieties are:
- Unitarian Universalism, which holds that all faiths are more or less all equal ways to find God; and
- Christian Universalism, which holds that the Christian God is the “true” God, but that God saves all of human kind. In this view, scriptural references to hell are often ignored or treated as a metaphorical description of the current human condition.
Because they don’t understand the difference, critics and proponents of universalism often conflate these two concepts, which serves only to confuse the conversation. Whether you agree or disagree with universalism, its important to distinguish the difference in a conversation on the subject. Most Christians who talk about universalism are Christian universalists, not Unitarian universalists.
The criticisms of Christian Universalism come in many varieties, but the two strongest ones are…
- It ignores texts that talk about hell (after all, why talk about a place where no one will ever go?); and
- It leaves people with no incentive to “evangelize” others (again, if no one is going to hell, what is the urgency in following the Biblical imperative to make disciples of all nations?).
In recent years, however, a new stripe of universalism has been emerging, it is called Evangelical Universalism. Espoused by Robin Parry, writing under the pseudonym George Macdonald in this book, Evangelical Universalism attempts to address the two criticisms listed above by articulating a theological framework for universalism that is consistent with with a respectful understanding of the Christian scriptures.
Here is the short version of how it works:
- At the end of our age, Jesus does in fact return, and all people are judged;
- As a result of this judgment, many people are consigned to hell;
- However, hell is not a permanent state of punishment, nor a place of literal fire, but merely a location “outside” of God’s world where people are continually given an opportunity to embrace God and join the redeemed;
- As a result, over time, all of humanity gradually emerges out of the anguish of hell and into new life;
- Thus, eventually, “every knee bows” to Jesus, and “all things” are brought back into God’s fold (to borrow two phrases from Paul’s writings).
Under this framework, the word “eventually” is the key: all people are eventually saved. Hell exists, and – because it is apart from God’s world – it is a terrible place. Christians therefore have every motivation to evangelize. However, because it is not a “forever-and-ever” phenomenon, we can still envision a future in which all people are saved.
Does this make perfect sense out of every text on hell and judgment? Not quite, but I think it does a better job of dealing with the New Testament as a whole than the traditional six-line narrative that is familiar to most Christians.
I should also add that I am not, strictly speaking, myself an evangelical universalist. However, my own perspective does draw on this approach quite heavily.
The main reason I like it is because I think that conservative and evangelical Christians who are struggling with issues involving God’s love and hell can find hope in it.
The net was abuzz last night over a video from Rob Bell that promotes Love Wins, a book that will be released at the end of March. Here is the video:
In the video, Bell asks a series of questions about the doctrine of hell, the most pointed of which is this: will the vast majority of humanity will suffer conscious, eternal torment?
The questions alone seem to be enough to hit some hot buttons. Commenters on Vimeo, for example, are quoting scripture back at Bell, as if his complete teaching was laid out in the video (its not). Likewise, noted Christian leader John Piper has now famously tweeted “Farewell Rob Bell,” linking to a blog post by Justin Taylor which suggests that Bell’s teachings on the subject are “false doctrine.”
The general tone of the critics has been something like this – “Okay, we’ve seen the video, we now know that Bell is a universalist. Now that he has come out in the open, our suspicions of his heresy are confirmed.”
Scot McKnight has thankfully weighed in on the subject, cautioning us to wait and talk about Bell’s ideas after the book is actually released. Likewise, Tom Batterson, who has actually read an advance copy, has quoted from segments of it. The snippets Batterson quoted do not suggest to me that Bell is a universalist, but his apparent rejection of the teaching that people’s fates are “sealed” at death will not win over many of his critics.
The flurry of emotion over the entire subject is, I think, itself somewhat telling. For better or worse, Bell has hit a note that marks a significant break between Christians in our culture.
Often, in heated debates, I think it is helpful to try and understand what is going on behind the scenes. Why is this a message so many people want to hear? Why are people so upset over what amounts to nothing more than a series of questions in a promotional video?
To set the right tone for a debate of this magnitude (and make no mistake, once the book is released, such a debate will occur), I think its important to get in touch with why we are all so emotional about it. That helps us to keep our cool while we try to understand where the other side is coming from. So lets work through that for a minute.
From the perspective of traditional evangelicalism, and even moreso from the reformed perspective, the gospel is first (and, to some, exclusively) about being “rescued” from hell. Jesus’ work on the cross, his atonement, is an act that allows those who believe in him to avoid an eternal fate in hell. This is a perspective on the gospel that Brian McLaren has characterized as a “soul sort narrative.” Ultimately, everything you read in the Bible is about saving people from hell.
If we come to believe that hell doesn’t exist, or that it doesn’t affect all nonbelievers, or that “good people” who are nonbelievers can be saved, then this entire perspective falls apart. The entire understanding of the gospel is built on the premise that we need to be “saved from hell.” Take that “need” away, and the whole thing collapses like a tower of blocks. Kevin DeYoung, for example, has more or less said this. He can’t make sense of anything in the Bible if his concept of hell is challenged. And I believe he is sincere.
So it’s a scary thing. If the tower collapses, then you either have to say it was all a fraud to begin with, or you have to pick up the pieces and try to put them together in another way. Either way, your entire worldview must go through a dramatic, jarring shift.
Its also worth mentioning that reputations of leaders are on the line here. If they are getting the hell question wrong, then it follows that there are problems with a lot of other things that they have said as well. That could be really embarrassing. I am sure that many leaders who disagree with Bell are going to do so with great (and appropriate) humility, but there may also be some egos, and some pride, involved on the part of his critics.
That is one side of the debate. What about the other?
For others of us (and I include myself in this group), the tower of blocks looks pretty wobbly to begin with. The notion that, ultimately, the vast majority of humanity will spend eternity in eternal suffering just doesn’t jive with all of the Biblical talk about God’s love. Something seems deeply wrong with this scheme.
This is what is at stake for the other side: What is God really like? How can God’s essential nature be trusted as one that is loving, if it is God’s intention to do this act of (to us) unimaginable horror? We don’t really want to see the tower stand as it is, because it presents its own, frightening view of cosmic history.
Thus, some of us are eagerly (and silently) waiting for someone to come along and, like the child who observed that the Emperor was naked, finally yank out the block that pulls down the tower. We think that Bell is going to do that for us.
But pulling this block is a very serious thing. If we hold any respect for scripture, we are going to have to account for God’s judgment and wrath and, yes, the Biblical texts that refer to hell. In other words, the “hell” block may not fit well at the foundation of our faith, but – when we eventually rebuild the tower – its going to have to fit into it somewhere.
While the “traditional” side is frightened that no new worldview can emerge once we pull the block, the opposite side of the debate may underestimate how difficult its going to be to put together a new tower. We need to approach the subject with sobriety, and respect for the prior generations who handed this perspective to our own.
To summarize, then, here is what I think is at stake: We aren’t just arguing over a few minor points of doctrine, we are arguing over a key component which is central (even essential) to the faith of a large number of Christians. A great number of things depend on how we answer the “hell” question.
This storm has been brewing for a long time, and – as you might expect – some are spoiling for a fight. Lets not allow the tension to cause our discussion to spiral out of control, into name calling, mischaracterizations, and dismissiveness. This means a great deal to all of us. Lets address each other with (1) a genuine desire to understand what people are saying and why it is important to them, (2) mutual respect, and (3) humility.
As followers of Jesus, it is the very least we can do.