evangelical universalism? (and Rob Bell)

Yesterday the controversial evangelical preacher and writer Rob Bell suddenly was a trending topic on Twitter. I had no idea why, until someone tweeted a blogpost of some bloke called  Justin Taylor from the (generally reformed) gospel coalition condemning Rob Bell as a heretic and an ‘universalist’, based on his new book Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. A book that isn’t out yet, and that hasn’t been read, but noneteless everybody is already reacting against it. But I guess that’s what Rob wants with his pre-release advertisement campaign anyway. A very interesting defense came from Kurt Willems, who argues that Rob isn’t advocating universalism at all, and if Kurts predictions are right I might agree with most of the book (just as I did with Velvet Elvis and sex God), and if I see that endorsement by Greg Boyd that Kurt quotes there’s no way it’s about fluffy ‘everybody gets to heaven’ universalism, but I know Boyd himself tends to conditional mortality.

But in fact I wasn’t planning on writing about Rob Bell, the guy is getting enough attention already, and I don’t feel like just being part of his expanding and emerging free advertisement system for his latest book… (Too late I guess; so before we go on to another subject I’ll link to this 2 posts by Carson Clark and Tom Batterson for those who are interested in Rob’s latest controversy)

What I wanted was to look at the word ‘universalism’, which is used by some to discredit Christian they don’t like, for various reasons. The problem is that the term can mean a lot of things,which are lumped together as of they’re all the same,  but they are in reality sometimes almost the opposite of each other. So the term should never be used to discredit someone without making clear which universalism we’re talking about, and why it is problematic. Unless we want to give false impressions and insinuations, which might be the same as breaking the commandment of bearing a false witness. I’ve seen that kind of tactics too much times in combination with logical fallacies as guilt by association arguments and worse…

So what is universalism when we’re talking about Christians? I’ll just point out 2 very distinct meanings here, though there are probably a lot more nuances and different versions.

Religious universalism
The first one is religious universalism, or the idea that ‘all religions are the same’ and ‘jesus is just one of the ways’ and ‘it doesn’t matter everybody ends up in heaven anyway’. It is sometimes linked to new age religion or integral spirituality consciousness stuff (of which I don’t know much), and I think the Unitarian Univeralists hold to this, but I’m not sure, so correct me if I’m wrong. I agree that this position is not a Christian position one at all, and far outside of any form of Christian orthodoxy. I know most people do think about this idea when they hear the world ‘universalism’, but that’s not what most self-identifying Christian universalists believe at all. I agree that this kind of universalism does not fit together with Christianity, with the Faith in the triune God and the Incarnation of God the son in the human Jesus, who saves us, trough his incarnation, teaching, example, and death on the cross and resurrection. (I’ll talk about just the cross further on, but I see the others as having part in our salvation too)

Universal reconciliation
The second meaning of Christian universalism is that of ‘universal reconciliation’, which does take the saving capacity of Jesus even more serious than most Christians: through the cross of Christ all will be saved in the end. This is in many ways the opposite, since it makes the cross and resurrection  of Jesus sufficient to save ALL of mankind in the end, so hell will end up being empty. This idea is as old as the first church fathers, but has always been a minority position in the church. This idea can be hoped for, or believed with a dogmatic certainty. And it IS an idea that can be defended biblically, as wel as annihilationism and the classical eternal conscious torment are defended biblically. (I’ve actually read the evangelical universalist by Gregory Macdonald and found it theologically solid and very biblical, though a bit boring, and I’m still unconvinced.)

I’m not at all a Christian universalist, not even  in the second meaning (and neither is Rob Bell btw.) even though on some days I do hope Jesus will be able to save all, and I don’t believe that can be wrong. But I’m afraid that our human free will make some of us into creatures that will never be able to enjoy being in Gods presence. I’m not sure on how all these things will work in reality (and I’m not sure if we can know!) but the old orthodox idea that the same presence of God which means heaven for some will be hell for others, or annihilation, like a shadow disappears in the full light of day. But I don’t know much about these things…[So, for Calvinists: yes, what keeps me from believing in universal reconciliation is our free will. If I’d be more Calvinist at that point I would probably have been a Christian universalist!]

So, while I reject the first universalism and do disagree with the second one, I still see the idea of hoping for universal reconciliation of all things and everyone to God (as for example some orthodox church fathers did) as not contradictory to biblical Christianity, and to be honest a it seems lot less problematic than ideas like double predestination… The dogmatic version I find a bit too much like wishful thinking, and too pushy towards God…

In the next post I’ll try to explore what the big problem is with ‘universalism’ and the gospel…



10 responses to “evangelical universalism? (and Rob Bell)

  1. Good post bro. I liked the spirit in which you write this but disagree with the wordage of you last line. That could be taken the wrong way: I still see the hope of universal reconciliation as not contradictory to biblical Christianity.

    Keep writing. I am interested!

    • I might be ambigous from time to time because I”m making too much complicated sentences in a language that’s not my first language. I’ve rewritten that last passage, do you disagree now, or has it just become clearer?

    • Kurt, Don’t know who you are but I completely agree with you and maybe beyond. I’m a retired Pastor and have come to see that I was wrong for 37 years in teaching a place of eternal torment for most people. I am a solid Universal Restorationist and see it all over and throughout the Scripture. God restores ALL THINGS. God opened my eyes in one week about 2 years ago, and since then I am so overjoyed at the Bigger Love of God I now see. I now can also love all people sincerely and practically whereas it was impossible before, even though I believed, taught and tried. I have studied and have preached, (where they will let me) on nothing else but Universal Restoration. I was so blind to it before and thought everyone was crazy as a loon for believing it. I”m ashamed as a Preacher, theologian, student of God’s word that I never even looked at the Key words in greek that are paramount to the teaching of Eternal Torment. Never, I just believed what I read, by the way in only six verses, where it is definitely the words Eternal or Everlasting and a place of banishment,punishment, or darkness . The Teaching hinges on the word in greek AION and it’s adjective, that has been translated ever since AUGUSTINE, as eternal or everlasting. It is also translated in english to World and Age. The problem is huge for World and Age are Temporary terms , the very Opposite of Eternal or Everlasting, which is timeless. In the Greek Culture from Alexandrian Greek about 325 BC until Augustines remarks concerning AION and his influence that resulted in the 543 synod of constantinople that pronounced an Anethema on Origen, and all other fathers who believed in Universal Restoration, the word Aion meant and was used in all literature and writings as Age. Never did it mean ETERNAL, TIMELESS!

      There is so much other scripture evidence that teaches God’s Plan to restore all people in New and Old Testaments. By the way there is no mention of the teaching Eternal Retribution in the entire Old Testament. not in the Law or the Prophet’s or at creation or before the flood…Amazing!!

      I found 44 verses that absolutely teach Restoration of all in the NT, verses 6 for Eternal Torment. Well there is so much more that could be said, that is why volumes have been written on this subject, even though few believe today. Look at TENTMAKER on the web for great scholarship on this subject that will give you much light. I recommend BEECHER, THAYER, JUKES, HANSON, AND ALLIN. BUT the best to begin with would be BEAUCHEMIN, a modern writing that is the best overall intro to the evidence of scripture.
      God Bless you…Rick (rickcoyne@gmail.com)

  2. Pingback: do we need a hell in order to forgive our enemies???? | Brambonius' blog in english

  3. Pingback: If Rob Bell is a Universalist, then maybe I am – along with many prominent evangelicals? (A response to Justin Taylor) | the Pangea Blog

  4. Nice post, Bram… not many are trying to explain just what this universalism business is all about. Just one thing, though… Universal Redemption has not always been the minority view. In fact, for the first few hundred years of the church it was the majority view. http://www.amazon.com/Universalism-Prevailing-Doctrine-Christian-Hundred/dp/1165797968

    But, you know, if there is such a ‘place/state’ as eternal torment in hell, than poor, insane Andrea Yates had it exactly right and all the rest are just B team player wanna be’s.

    The real issue is, what happens at THE END? The scriptures on my website GreatestStoryTold.com bear out that GOD WINS in the end through Christ Jesus. If there is a ‘hell’, it can not be ‘eternal’. End of story.

  5. Poor Rob Bell. He just can’t win. Some Christians condemn him for not having enough faith. Other Christians condemn him for having too much faith. The Evangelicals are mad at him for doubting the traditional hell with its eternal conscious torture. They really love the thought of hell — for the other guy. Have you noticed that an evangelical will fight like hell to save hell?

    In hell there grew a Judas tree where Judas hanged and died,
    Because he could not bear to see his Master crucified.
    Our Lord descended into hell, and found his Judas there,
    For ever hanging on the tree grown from his own despair.
    So Jesus cut his Judas down and took him in his arms,
    “It was for this I came,” he said, “And not to do you harm.
    My Father gave me twelve good men, and all of them I kept,
    Though one betrayed and one denied, some fled and others slept.
    In three days’ time I must return to make the others glad,
    But first I had to come to hell and share the death you had.
    My tree will grow in place of yours, its roots lie here as well,
    There is no final victory without this soul from hell.”
    So when we all condemn him as of every traitor worst,
    Remember that of all his men, our Lord forgave him first.*
    * Poem by Dr. Ruth Etchells: former Principal of St. John’s College, University of Durham.
    Is Judas in heaven? See the book entitled, “Judas Iscariot Revisited and Restored.” Authored by Ivan Rogers. Available from Xulon Press.

  7. For my response to Bell’s book LOVE WINS, go to http://www.evangelicalinclusivism.com and scroll down to FAQ 24, entitled “Three Observation About Bell’s Book, LOVE WINS.
    Peace, Neal Punt

  8. therooflesschurch

    I’ve spent this whole summer wrestling with Heaven and Hell. I’ve gone through “Love Wins” and Francis Chan’s, “Erasing Hell” several times each as well as both of Bishop Carlton Pearson’s last two books. I’ve also listened to hours of interviews, talks, and sermons on both sides of the fence in addition to reading books on missionary evangelism and on leaving people to discover God in their daily lives. After all of this I came to the conclusion that the only Universalism that exists is that everyone is universally having a human experience seeking the knowledge of the Divine. I’ve been in seminary for going on two years and it has become very clear to me that most of us do not have a concrete belief even though we might profess it. There are inclusive and exclusive dimensions to all of us and our attempts to define and categorize ourselves and others into these neat little segments is no less than a form of violence. None of us who are still here have been to a place “up there” called heaven or a place “down there” called heaven. We are just living in hope or in fear and we are projecting it onto an unknowable future. Faith is all we have. It’s our only evidence. And who can prove that this is not the product of imagination. We can’t. So I say live the truth as you understand it with sincerity and charity and don’t judge others, because no one is going up or down because of what someone else believes or doesn’t believe.

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