Tag Archives: universalism

The Paradox of Universalism/Exclusivism

Hopeful Universalism lives with an unresolved tension. It recognizes that some parts of scripture point toward an exclusive kind-of salvation that is found only in Jesus, leaving some on the “outside.” But it also recognizes that other parts of scripture point toward a Christ who is reconciling “all things” to himself, looking to a day when every knee bows and every tongue confesses. This strange paradox is captured perfectly in I Timothy 4:10, which speaks of “God, the savior of all men, and especially those who believe.”

Hopeful universalism neither explains away nor over-emphasizes either of these two voices. Rather, it chooses to acknowledge the paradox, to live with it, and to trust that, even if universal reconciliation is not to be, all things are still moving toward a resolution that is “too wonderful to know” (Job 42:3).

Universalism as Prayer

I am a hopeful universalist, or, to put it in slightly more provocative terms, a universalist sympathizer.

What does that mean? It means, as I recited in a prior post, that I’m not a universalist, but I suspect that God might be.*

Hopeful universalists can be contrasted with what we might call dogmatic universalists, who believe and teach the certainty of universal salvation (i.e., the concept that all people will be saved…which usually means that they will eventually be saved, after a period of time in hell).

For the dogmatic universalist, universalism is a matter of theological certainty/necessity. For the hopeful universalist, it is instead a matter of possibility. Hopeful universalism, then, is best characterized as a particular attitude of prayer, rather than a strict academic or theological teaching.

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*I adapted that statement from this video of NT Wright, which was the subject of a prior post. Wright, it should be noted, didn’t really adopt this statement (it was made by someone else). However, he used it to point out the flexibility and play that is at issue in the universalism debate.

Another Rob Bell Interview on MSNBC

 

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I am astounded by the interest the mainstream media has in Bell and his new book. As I’ve said before, Bell isn’t offering anything new (he says it himself in this interview); he is just doing a better job of making it understandable… and, by complaining, the folks who don’t like what he is saying are only increasing his visibility and influence.

The down side of all the publicity: the book is selling like hotcakes, and Amazon hasn’t yet shipped my copy (which I preordered)!

Bell and Bashir on MSNBC–Wow!

As I was browsing my Facebook feed tonight, I stumbled across a link from Curtis – one of our readers – to this YouTube video, which I think is best characterized as a carefully laid ambush of Rob Bell on his new book, Love Wins:

 

The video title – and comments that follow – say that Bell “squirms” during the interview. They also say there is a lot of inconsistent double-talk. I am not sure I agree with that assessment. He is obviously uncomfortable and caught by surprise, but his answers – which deal with fairly complex theological and scriptural issues – come across to me as quite coherent. Then again, I’m already familiar with Bell and his views, and the interview moves at a fairly quick pace, so I can see how others might struggle to follow him.

Many of the comments that follow (I glanced through 50+ pages before I gave up reading them) are – to put it mildly – vicious and dismissive. And surprisingly, there is very little substance to most of them. Many of them seem to do little more than celebrate the fact that Bell seemed uncomfortable. One commenter made a dismissive remark about Bell’s “God is love” philosophy, citing two passages that he claims contradict it. This was bizarre to me because that phrase – exactly – is a central theme in the Gospel of John and in 1st and 2nd John.

Commenting on this same controversy, Scot McKnight recently said that: “I find some people can get intoxicated on wrath and it can lead them in a triumphalist dance of anger.” Makes sense to me. If you think you live in a universe where “wrath wins” for the vast majority of humans, then…well, that cosmic view is going to come out in the way you respond to this stuff.

I expect Bell can deal with this adversity. My worries are about all of the people in fundamentalist and reformed churches who have questions about this issue, and who are listening to the harsh absolutism that is coming from their peers, pastors, and leaders. Their questions are going to continue to go unasked because this sort-of tone is intimidating and silence-inducing. No one wants to be branded a heretic or dismissed from their church with a curt “farewell.” Better to keep your questions and anxieties to yourself.

And one final note: I haven’t read the book yet, but based on the interviews I’ve seen, it sounds like Bell is not saying much of anything that is different from NT Wright, CS Lewis, and even the aforementioned Scot McKnight. If he is on shaky ground, he is not alone, and if you want to prevail in a debate over the issue, it isn’t enough to simply discredit Bell. You’re also going to have to take on a classic Christian writer and one of the most highly respected New Testament scholars of our day.

An Overview of Evangelical Universalism

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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.

Rob Bell and Hell: What is at Stake?

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:

LOVE WINS. from Rob Bell on Vimeo.

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.

The Universal Message of Christmas

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For many years, now, I’ve been one of those people who is notoriously cranky about the commercialization of Christmas. I believe we’ve turned what ought to be a sacred holiday into an excuse to spend a lot of money – money that we often have to borrow. On top of that, we place unreasonable expectations on the holiday aspect of the season that it can never meet. The Norman Rockwell Christmas doesn’t exist, but people feel obliged to try and make it happen every year (often, more than once in order to avoid offending family members) regardless of how much stress it creates or how forced it feels.

Having said that, there is something that I am coming to appreciate about the way our culture has embraced the Advent and Christmas season: its theme. If you ask someone – anyone – to tell you what the themes of the season are, you will get two things:

  • Hope for the World (mostly an Advent-related theme)
  • Peace on Earth (mostly a Christmas-related theme)

The thing that makes these two themes so appealing to me is that they are simultaneously material and universal. By material, I mean that they focus on the needs, trials, and struggles of those who inhabit our world in the here and now. They are not concerned with abstract atonement theories, or what might or might not happen to people in some ethereal realm. When these themes are in focus, salvation is something that happens to our world. It is something that addresses the needs that show up on the evening news and your home page every day.

I also love the Advent/Christmas “message” because it is universal. One of the great tensions of scripture rests between texts that seem to limit God’s salvation (for example, “No man comes to the father but by me…” in John, or “Narrow is the way that leads to salvation, and few there be that find it” in Matthew) and those which seem to espouse a universal salvation (God as “the savior of all men” in 1 Tim 4:10). Orthodox Christianity has long downplayed the universal texts in favor of the limited ones, but the universal ones continue to intrigue me, if for no other reason than because they seem to fit more closely with the character and nature of God, as it is portrayed in the New Testament.

At Christmastime, it feels as if we are unleashing, for a short time, the idea of universal salvation. The Christ child, we proclaim, brings hope for all of us – not just the few who fall within the orthodox Christian tradition. Thus, in the Christmas Eve Eucharist at my Church, my pastors will invite “all who seek to live in peace” to join in the feast. There are no borders to this type of Christianity. It reaches out to all.

And that, of all strange things, is why I feel myself a little less grumpy about Advent and Christmas each year. For a short time, the central message of Christianity seems to “fit” a little more than it does for the rest of the year.

Paul and Hell Revisited

One of the odd things I’m learning about moving to a new blog is that the old one doesn’t really die unless you completely pull it down. Even after I publicly announced that my WordPress.com blog was dormant, people – mostly, I’m guessing who linked to it via search engines and blogrolls that haven’t been updated – continued to read and comment. Today, someone named Mannik left a comment on one of the more heavily-commented posts on my old blog – entitled Paul, Hell, and Universalism. Interestingly, that post is now three years old, almost to the day.

Mannik’s comment was extensive and somewhat personal, and I want to respond. However, I want to do it in a forum where more people can be exposed to the conversation, so I decided to shift my response over to this post. (I’ve linked to this post after Mannik’s comments so that, if he continues to monitor the comments, he can read what I have to say here).

I plan to eventually revisit the subject of Hell, salvation, and universalism on this blog in considerably more detail. However, for the time being, a Cliff’s Notes version of the prior post will have to do.

My 2007 post points out that, while mainstream Christianity seems to have a fixation on the doctrine of hell and the way it fits into our belief systems, the Apostle Paul himself had – literally – nothing to say on the subject. Paul often talks about God’s wrath and judgment, but he never discusses it in terms of the image of the valley of Ghenna, the word has evolved into “Hell” in our language. Also, with the exception of one somewhat cryptic passage in a letter to Timothy, one that some don’t even attribute to Paul – there is nothing in Paul’s writings that suggests the idea of eternal “punishment” for sins.

I then quoted from several texts in Paul’s writings that include themes of universal salvation (or, what some call universal reconciliation). My point was that, in the debate between Exclusivism (the idea that all non-Christians will go to Hell) and Universalism (the idea that all people are ultimately “saved”) everyone has to pick and choose which texts they want to focus on. Universalists put emphasis on these texts and “play down” others. Exclusivists do the same thing.

This was part of a series of posts on Hell. In those posts, I pointed out that I am not, strictly speaking, a believer in universal reconciliation. I do, however, fit into the odd-ball category of the hopeful Universalist. That is, I believe that universal reconciliation is possible, and I therefore hope and pray for it. I am also a believer that – whatever Hell/Ghenna may be – the Bible writers didn’t understand it as a place where all non-Christians will end up. But sorting all of that out will have to wait for future posts.

Responses to the Paul, Hell, and Universalism post have been very emotional. Some commenters felt strongly that universalism is inconsistent with Christian beliefs and with the Bible. Others weren’t sure why its a big deal to talk about the possibility of universal reconciliation. One even linked to some of his own thoughts on the subject.

Today, Mannik made this comment (I don’t believe that Mannik’s native language is English, so I’ve edited it slightly):

I came from a Hindu background and gave my life to Christ [many] years ago. My parents were very strong in their religion and I as a youngster [did] the same. However when I was exposed to the Truth of the gospel and saw the Grace of God as compared to idolatry, karma and reincarnation etc, I knew how wrong all these were. So at the cost of being expelled, ill-treated and rejected from my family and village, I chose Christ. My decision broke the heart of my mother and my family. My mother would cry night and day, and I know she suffered a lot.

Universalism must make many people feel comfortable, but not so with those like me, who have caused [grief] to our own.

I would be more than happy [to] know that at some point in eternity my parents will come to the Lord, but I could have remained in my religion and in my family without causing any distress, and breaking my mum’s heart. IF I [HAD KNOWN THAT] ALL ARE ULTIMATELY SAVED, then WHY [WOULD I GO THROUGH ALL OF THIS] FOOLISHNESS, in light of the Universalists’ belief. Really, I [would] always regret knowing the simplest way was to STAY IN MY EX RELIGION, if Universalism was true.

I realize that all of that is a lot just to get to a response that is relatively short, but I hoped to give everyone a feel for the context of Mannik’s remarks and my own. So…to Mannik, I say this:

I have a couple of things that I hope you will consider.

First, I hope you will consider whether things ever could have been any different. You’ve described an experience that dramatically changed the way you look at the world. Even if you had known that, “in eternity,” as you say, God will wait patiently for your family to see the universe as you, would it have made sense for you to go on living as if your own view of the world hadn’t changed? I think that, if you reflect on it, you’ll see that continuing to live as if your view of the world had not changed would not have made much sense.

Second, I hope you’ll consider whether an approach to Christianity that removes Hell from its center might have helped you – and may could even now  help you – to stay in relationship with your family. I know nothing about the particulars of your situation. However, my experience has been that people don’t react well to a message which indicates that God intends to do violence to them simply because they don’t have a correct view of their world. That sort-of message isn’t consistent with the central Christian assertion that God is good. On the other hand, I wonder if they would be more open to staying in relationship with you if you have a faith that declares that God intends to make all of our world – including many, maybe even all, who do not fully understand God – whole and beautiful and eternal. I’m not saying that would have been – or could be the case – with you, but I think that it can make a big difference in many situations.

Anyone else want to comment?