Tag Archives: universalism

10 old traditional and/or biblical Christian ideas that are sometimes mistakenly seen as ‘progressive’…


Foto0067Before we close the year with some lists of the most-read stuff of 2014 and an evaluation of my project of demodernisation (and de-Americanisation, see also here) I will post this one last long and maybe to some controversial blogpost. This time we’ll talk about certain basic Christian ideas or at least ancient minority positions within Christianity that are sometimes regarded as new and ‘progressive’ ideas and thus tied to a new and ‘progressive’ form of Christianity which is incompatible with either the old-fashioned nonsense of the past or the true ‘conservative’ Christianity, depending on which side of the false dilemma one finds themselves. Which is very problematic actually…

I’ve seen the combination of the words ‘progressive Christianity’ gain more and more influence over the last years on the English-speaking internet. The term itself is like other words including ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ a term that I find utterly unhelpful and quite ambiguous .  I’ve also seen a lot of very different and sometimes quite contradictory interpretations of what ‘progressive Christianity’ is supposed to be, some of which were interesting to me, and others which weren’t at all… It seems that the expression became more popular (at least in the blogosphere) when the ’emergent’ brand lost its prominence, and that it also took over some of the content of that label, especially in the form of its ‘updated protestant theological liberalism’ (which frankly doesn’t interest me at all as a moderate anti-modernist).

(The main reason that I’ll never use the word ‘progressive’ to describe myself is that I completely reject the modernist myth of ‘progress’, which seems to be the root of the whole idea of contemporary progressiveness. But that’s another story that would only derail this post)

All of this does not mean that ‘progressive Christians’ don’t  have a lot of interesting things to say. A lot of the stuff that progressive Christians believe in and want us to talk about (but not all!) is very important to me too, or at least stuff I agree with… The problem here mostly the false dilemma that some see that I’ve mentioned already: the mistaken idea that ‘progressive Christianity’ (or ’emergentism’, or liberal protestantism, or…)  is a new and better and modern thing (or postmodern or contemporary or whatever word  is used to describe both their chronological snobbery and modern-Western cultural imperialism/neo-colonialism) , something completely distinct from what came before disconnected from it, and better than anything before it anyway.

While the opposite is true: most of the prophetic things that ‘progressives’ have to teach us are quite old, and they are important truths that have a long history within Christianity. Some as a minority-view, some as the majority-view in other times or other Christian traditions. Some normative outside of modernism even…

Let’s also talk here  the confusion of terms with some of the other words besides ‘progressive’ before we start. I’ve written before about the term ‘conservative’, which only means an impulse to conserve a certain tradition. For example the American use of the word ‘conservative’ has nothing to do with ‘conservative Christianity’ as some kind of ancient basic orthodoxy, but with some fairly recent (last 200 years mostly) forms of protestantism tied to the political old-school liberalism of the founding fathers and the American constitution (which has nothing to do with Christian orthodoxy at all!)

Fundamentalism as a Christian movement has not much to do with a basic Christian orthodoxy either. It’s more an early 20th century reactionary antithesis to liberalism, emphasizing not at all the core of historical Christianity but some areas in which they disagreed with liberal theology of that time, which gave a very unbalanced view of what the ‘fundamentals’ of Christianity were that did not follow basic Christian orthodoxy at all. So while fundamentalism might be a photo-negative of classical liberal theology, it still is thoroughly modern in a lot of ways.  (see also this post for my problem with the bad photo-negative copy of it in American anti-fundamentalism, which is itself tied completely to what it tries to escape from)

So let’s list some of the ideas that are rejected by some or all American conservatives and fundamentalists, while embraced by progressives and thus seen as ‘progressive’ (or ‘liberal’)  by a lot of people. Those ideas are not new nor progressive nonetheless but have been part of the rich and diverse history of Christianity from the early days and can be traced back to the bible itself.   Most of them can be solidly defended from a basic orthodox reading of the bible.

(Note also that some of the things that are very important to the current ‘progressives’ are absent from this list because they just don’t fit in the list. Some are new for the modern age or just repackaged old heresies or non-Christian philosophies adopted by liberal Christianity. Rejecting the supernatural -spirits, angels, the afterlife- for example is not a new idea that people  could only come up with after evolving to a new step and entering the modern age. The Sadducees, who were more conservative than the Pharisees, already taught this and Jesus and the NT writers could have easily followed them, but they rejected it in favour of the views of the Pharisees…
But my exclusion of certain progressive ideas from this list doesn’t have to mean that I either agree nor disagree with any of them, just that I did not include them. I probably have forgotten a lot of stuff that could fit in this list….)

1. pacifism and Christian non-violence
I always assumed that pacifism or at least a tendency to non-violence were part of basic Christianity from my reading of the gospels, and especially the sermon on the mount. (I say this as a pentecostal kid living in a post-Catholic Belgian culture btw.) I know that some see it as an ideal that doesn’t always work, but even then, with enemy-love as one of Jesus commandments I could not conceive of Christians who would completely dismiss the idea in favour of militarism.
Great was my shock when I explored the internet as a young twenty-something and discovered Christians (mainly from the US) who completely dismissed the idea of Christian non-violence as dangerous and naive and placed it under the category of ‘liberal nonsense’. Such a view is completely a-historical and completely ignorant of the words of Jesus himself.
Christian non-violence does have a long history. It was prominent in pre-Constantinian times and while it wasn’t the majority position in later times (Even with ‘just war’ doctrine most wars would be seen as illegitimate btw… You can’t defend any of the American wars of the last half century with just war theory for example!) it has popped up regularly in the history of Christianity among groups or people who wanted to take Christ seriously. We see it appear already with the first Christians -who rather died that killed for their faith- over St. Francis of assisi -who went to meet the Sultan unarmed to talk about Christ in the middle of a crusade- and the line goes all the way to the Quakers and Anabaptists, and the modern Christian peacekeeper teams.  Christian non-violence is a deeply biblical idea that has been held in different degrees by a lot of people who took the New Testament and the words of Christ very seriously!

2. Anticapitalism
Recently the pope said some things about capitalism that were not received well by some American evangelicals. But contrary to what some people thought he did not say anything new and did only reword catholic doctrine that was already popetrickleaffirmed by the popes before him. What he said was quite logical for most non-American Catholics and other Christians also. I’ve never understood why capitalism is such a holy cow to certain (mainly American) Christians. It is a very modernist economic idea that has not much to do with classical Christianity but is tied to historical liberalism, and it can devolve very easily into economical and social jungle-law Darwinism, which is the opposite of anything a Christian could ever defend. So while it cannot be linked to the bible being a modern invention, it also goes counter to some Biblical and historically Christian ideas. Look at this list of quotes from the church fathers for example.
I once wanted to write a series about Christianity and capitalism but never got further than this first post  I also have written a post called Abundance is the enemy of capitalism. starting from the biblical idea of abundance as a part of shalom, which is opposed to the capitalist basic principle of scarcity…

I can also add that there is nothing new or ‘liberal’ about vaguely ‘socialist’ ideas and ways of living. The church of Acts was quite ‘communist’, as well as most monastic orders.
And let’s not forget that the only false god that is called by name in the gospels is Mammon, of with Jesus says that he cannot be served together with God…

3. ‘Green’ lifestyles and ecological awareness
If God is Creator (which all Christians including all evolutionary Creationists affirm – as far as I know) , and we are to love God above all, some respect for His creation seems to be very logical to me. Taking care of creation is also a commandment in genesis (unless you see ‘ruling’ as a very oppressive dictatorship, but I would say that we aren’t to do anything to nature we wouldn’t want rulers to do with us…) It always was logical to me that Christians should have a lot of respect for nature as the work of Gods hands, although it might be that this impulse was fed more by my (almost post-)catholic teachers in school than in my pentecostal upbringing.

Premodern people did live a lot closer to nature. Jesus spent a lot of time in nature praying and meditating throughout the gospels. Our modern disconnect with nature is far removed from the world of the bible, but respect for nature as Christians is a tradition that goes back at least to (again) Francis of Assisi, and probably the Celtic Church.
There is no good reason for us to condone destruction of Gods creation in favour of our idols like ‘the economy’ or ‘progress’. None of these does have to have any of our allegiance as followers of Christ…

I could also refer to Pope Francis here, who is rumoured to write an ecological encyclical in 2015  and repeat that there’s nothing progressive at all about conserving nature. If there’s anything at all that deserves to be called ‘conservative’ if that word has any meaning at all, it’s conserving the creation in which God has put us…,
(The same is true for most of the other ‘progressive’ views of Pope Francis. They are -like most things in this list- not new at all and actually quite ‘conservative’ in that they have a long biblical and traditional history)

4. Not taking the first chapters of genesis as literal history
And then for something completely different: I can’t be the only one who has noticed that the debate about a literal reading of genesis does mainly live in fundamentalist and evangelical circles, while it is more of a non-issue in most other classical orthodox denominations, including the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church. Which already should say something about how ‘progressive’ the idea of a  non-literal reading of the first chapters of the bible actually is I guess.
There have been a lot of readings of the Creation story throughout church history, some of which were literal while others were completely allegorical. Augustine for example, while writing about ‘the literal interpretation of genesis’ assumes that the seven days where metaphor and that the whole cosmos was created at the same moment…

Even Charles Darwin himself did not think that his ideas of evolution were incompatible with his Christian faith. He did lose it over the cruelness of  nature though.

5. Rejecting the idea of hell as eternal conscious torment for all non-Christians
Another debate that is as old as the history of the Church is the fate of those not in Christ. While universalism has always been a minority position, belief in hell of some sorts seems to be a majority position, the details vary a lot throughout church history. Some of the church fathers seem to tend to very generous inclusivism or even in the direction of hopeful universalism, with some like Origen even arriving at full universalism. (Which means that Christ in his death and resurrection was able to save all from hell, not at all that all religions are the same or so…)
Another part of the discussion is the nature of hell. C.S. Lewis seems (in line with more orthodox church fathers) to see hell as being cut of from God, the Source of all life. Other orthodox thinkers see hell as the same place as heaven, where the undiluted presence of God is unbearable to those who hate Him.

Another alternative idea about the fate of the wicked is Annihilationism (the wicked are just annihilated and cease to exist after the judgement), and old and in origin Jewish idea that has been made popular in more recent times by the seventh-day adventists (also followed by the Jehovah witnesses by the way) for mainly biblical reasons.

6. Rejection of an exclusively ‘penal substitution’ view of the atonement in Christ
And another important discussion, but here the evangelical default itself is historically a more recent minority position: penal substitution atonement as we know it (Jesus saved us by taking Gods wrath upon Himself on the cross) is only as old as protestantism. For the other 1500 years and in other traditions very different ideas existed about how Jesus saved us by his life, death and resurrection. We even see this in the famous Narnia story, where Lewis follows a classical ransom-version of Christus Victor atonement: the sinner (Edmund) is freed from slavery to death and sin (the witch) because Jesus (Aslan) took his place and defeated death and sin in the resurrection… Note that this still IS substitutionary atonement, but not at all penal substitution. (If I understand correctly the idea of penal substitution as some protestants teach it is regarded as abhorrent and even heresy by a lot of Eastern Orthodox thinkers)

I am of the opinion myself that no theory of atonement will ever explain everything that happened so we need a lot of them together to have a more complete picture. Some popular versions of penal substitution, especially when elevated to the level of ‘gospel’ do sound very troubling to me though…

7. Egalitarianism in marriage and women preachers
As a Charismatic I became convinced of egalitarianism between the sexes for biblical reasons. I don’t see how a couple can be ‘one flesh’ as genesis says and still have one who always have to lead and another who always has to follow. I also am convinced by the bible more than by Christian tradition  of the importance of women in every role in the church., Jesus is quite ‘feminist’ (anti-sexist might be a better word) himself compared to his culture, like in the story of Martha and Mary for example, and the early church had a lot of women in a lot of positions, up to the female apostle Junia and the businesswoman Lydia who had a house church in her house.

It’s nonsense to put this kind of egalitarianism away as ‘liberal’ or claim it as solely ‘progressive’. I’ve seen women preachers in African pentecostal churches, and you can say a lot about those, but ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ did in no way apply to them. I’ve never had any interest in the liberal ‘we moderns know better than those dumb bronze-age desert people’ reasoning, and it still doesn’t convince me at all.
I do believe in the need of equality and mutual submission in marriage though for biblical reasons and from experience. I’ve met a lot of women who were used by the Holy Spirit through preaching, and denying that would feel quite a lot like blasphemy against the Holy spirit. God does use women in a lot of roles, and calls individuals for very different things, regardless of their sex.

(Let’s also repeat here that I don’t believe that any idea about ‘biblical manhood’ that does not fit with the fruits of the Spirit as described by Paul has any legitimacy at all. None of that stuff is biblical, it’s just unhealthy cultural stereotypes that are made legitimate by abusing bible verses.)

8. Rejection of the idea of the ‘rapture’ (and of dispensationalism as a whole)
Let’s be short here: the idea of ‘the rapture’ isn’t even 200 years old, so it’s from the same time as a lot of liberal theology. Traditionally most Christians have been amillenialist but there are more interpretations of biblical eschatology that make more sense than the dispensationalist one.
Nothing progressive about rejecting the rapture or dispensationalism, it’s just what every Christian before the 1800’s and most non-evangelicals since then did, whatever their eschatology was…
Some forms of dispensationalism do seem to border on heresy for completely different reasons too though.

9. ‘Mysticism’
Mysticism is a hot word in certain circles, and one that has a lot of different interpretations. The most basic meaning is to experience the presence of God yourself as a believer. It’s nothing new though, there runs a deep mystic tradition through both Eastern and Western Christianity which was already very important in the first centuries of Christianity with the desert fathers and mothers.
What does seem to be new and endemic to certain corners of contemporary progressive Christianity is that mysticism does in some way exclude the idea of supernatural beings. This is completely contrary to a lot of older Christian mystics who did encounter angels, demons and other ‘supernatural entities’ as if it were the most normal thing one could do…

10. Not framing the trustworthiness of the bible as ‘inerrancy’
The bible is very important for Christians for a lot of reasons, and it is one of the means through which we can encounter God. The bible is a library of books that are seen as inspired by God by Christians (‘God-breathed’ according to Paul in a very well-known verse) but the fundamentalist notion of ‘innerancy’ of the literal text of the bible goes further than how Christianity classically saw the bible. It did not by accident come into being around the same time  as the Catholics invented papal infallibility, a time when modernism eroded any faith in trustworthiness of the bible, the Christian tradition or Christian authorities.

This went further than the trustworthiness that premodern Christians ascribed to the bible, and gave rise to the modern ‘new atheist’ reading of the bible which is as far removed from the message of the bible as the fundamentalist one. (They are closely related anyway as purely modernist traditions)

So while I do affirm the trustworthiness of the bible (something that isn’t in the historical creeds btw!) I don’t think we should go looking for scientific or other details that are just not there. And we should not fear contradictions or paradoxes. God can speak truth through things that are not 100% historical as well. We have differences in the 4 gospels, and different theological agendas, even the church fathers knew that, but it wasn’t a problem until modern times (and it still if for the Orthodox and most Catholics…) so maybe we want the bible to be something that it isn’t meant to be.

In the end, the Word that became flesh is Jesus Christ, and the bible is here to point at Him, not at itself… It isn’t a paper pope and if it becomes an idol that distracts from God it’s really sad, not?  We should always seek God and Jesus in the bible, otherwise studying it won’t be of any worth, as Jesus says to the Pharisees somewhere…

So we come to the end of my list of things that are  not at all new to Christianity and can’t be claimed to be exclusively tied to ‘progressive Christianity’, whatever that even may be. Note again that the list is by no means exhaustive, and that I probably overlooked very important ones…

(I didn’t include much that goes against the republican ‘Americanist synchretism’ that some  American conservatives seem to believe in, with America as some holy entity that is more special for God than other countries or cultures. For non-Americans like me such things are too irrelevant and illogical to even address… Neither did I address double predestination for example, which is seen as heresy by the Eastern Orthodox and rejected by most non-protestants…)

So what do you think?

peace

Bram

The scary consequences of baby universalism…


In my last post I  spoke about certain weird forms of well-meaning but rather merciless Christian inclusivism, which posits that all those ignorant of Christianity will not be sent to hell, but those who know  must become a Christian or go to hell. The unavoidable conclusion of these doctrines is that it would be actually better to not evangelise to people than to evangelise them…

The same problem applies to the in a way very related idea of ‘baby universalism’, (a term coined by Greg Boyd) as Sarah noted in the comments of my last post:

[We] were just talking about the related idea in evangelicalism (and now catholicism apparently) that babies go to heaven automatically. Taking into account the idea of a literal, eternal hell, we decided that from this standpoint, abortion is the most merciful act in the world. Why let a baby live if there’s even a miniscule chance that it will spend eternity being tortured? That theology can’t come to any other logical conclusion which is one reason why I can’t believe in it.

If you’re in a tradition that is scared of hell, this sounds like a very merciful idea: all babies (or all those who did not reach the ‘age of accountability’) will go directly to heaven. And it does actually make more sense to me than the idea that all babies are depraved sinful beings that deserve to go to hell, as some fundamentalist ideas might imply, and one could derive from harsher versions of the dorctrine of original sin. (But I don’t know that much about those things)

The combination of a completely legal framework of salvation, which is furthermore mostly seen as ‘getting out of hell’, and the idea that innocent children are by default saved gives us  an even more scary consequence than the inclusivism of our last post. Not only is it better not to evangelise, but also is the inevitable conclusion that it’s better to abort or kill babies, since that’ll send them directly to heaven without having a chance to sin or loose the faith later in life and so go to hell…

Yes, I’ll repeat this: the most merciful thing you can do is abortion or killing children, it’ll guarantee them for 100% a spot in heaven and keep ’em out of the hot place. What is scary is that people have actually made that conclusion. Greg Boyd, in the essay where he coined the term baby universalism, quotes Paul Copan from his book ‘is God a moral monster’ asking that question, and gives a raather technical deconstruction of the idea:

“Why not kill all infants to make sure they are with God in the hereafter” (194)?  Paul answers his own question by noting that the Israeli soldiers killed infants only because God told them to do so. When anyone commits infanticide without God’s permission, Paul adds, they are sinning, for only God the giver of life has the right to take life (or command others to take life). Paul concedes that a murdered baby automatically receives a “heavenly benefit,” but he insists this is not to the credit of the killer and thus cannot be used to justify their killing. “The killer neither causes these [heavenly] benefits nor is responsible for them” (194).

I can easily see why, within the doctrine of baby universalism, a baby killer should not be considered the cause for the deceased baby’s heavenly benefit or held responsible for the deceased baby’s heavenly benefit. But it seems to me that the baby killer must still be viewed as the occasion and means of the baby’s heavenly benefit. Most importantly, it seems we must accept that the baby killer is the means by which the baby’s heavenly benefit is made secure. The baby killer in effect saved the baby from the possibility of hell! While this still wouldn’t remove the sin of infanticide — for it still violates a command of God — it does renders infanticide reasonable, if not loving and courageous — if one accepts that baby universalism is true.

But there is more: If our clumsy inclusivism of my last post had some scary outworkings, the combination of baby universalism with exclusivism (all non-christians go to hell)  as it exists in some circles is even able to create even more scary consequences: inevitably the only way to not go to hell for someone who gets born and lives in the wrong place and circumstances to ever hear the gospel (which includes catholic and orthodox places for some fundamentalists btw) would be to not get born at all, or to get killed before reaching a certain age of accountability!

(Yes this would for example give a  free ticket for Americans to bomb as much muslims including children and pregnant women, since killing them before reaching the age of accountability would be more merciful than let them become adults.  I sincerely hope that no one will ever uses this reasoning…)

Combining very rigid excluisivist ideas about hell with complete amnesty for certain groups just does not work, sorry. It will always have horrible consequences…

Now, I don’t pretend to know everything about the afterlife, but I do know that Jesus came to save not only individuals from sin, death, destruction, evil and so on, but the whole of Creation. How everything works I do not know, yet I know that God wants none to perish, and I trust that God, who is love, will save as much as possible. Let us just trust in His mercy, and believe that the good news is better than we can imagine. Death and hell are beaten, Christus Victor!

what do you think?

Bram

do we need a hell in order to forgive our enemies????


Reading up on the universalism controversy I was kinda shoqued by a blog post by a bloke called Kevin DeYoung, of whom I don’t know anything, but it seems that he’s a rather vocal (neo)calvinist. I have no idea if he’s known or not, and frankly I don’t care at all, the inner kitchen of this kind of aggressive calvinism is as far from my spiritual bed as are the pope and the magisterium…

Now the guy, in a response to Rob Bells alleged ‘universalism’, quotes 8 reasons why we need hell and eternal punishment (or more precisely Gods wrath), which he seems to quote straight out of some book he has written. I don’t think I completely agree with one of those, but I was kinda repulsed by and utterly disagreed with the second one:

we need God’s wrath in order to forgive our enemies. The reason we can forgo repaying evil for evil is because we trust the Lord’s promise to repay the wicked. Paul’s logic is sound. “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19). The only way to look past our deepest hurts and betrayals is to rest assured that every sin against us has been paid for on the cross and or will be punished in hell. We don’t have to seek vigilante justice, because God will be our just judge.

Maybe I’m outing myself as an anabaptist now, but I find this reasoning to go against the message of Jesus himself, since this goes against the commandment of enemy-love, and against Jesus’ last prayer ‘Father forgive them, for they know not what they do’, which was echoed in the last words of the early church’s first martyr stephen ‘Lord, lay not this sin to their charge’. I think those two examples of enemy-love show us that we need Love in order to forgive our enemies. We are to want forgiveness for our torturers at our moment of dying. I suppose that such a thing requires the help of the Holy Spirit, but the whole thing is that we need to have the mind of Christ!

(and I think the Rom 12 passage is exactly about that btw. )

I don’t agree at all that the fear of hell as motivation will ever lead to loving God more. It might scare people into some kind of conversion, but I’m not convinced it will be able to make people love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. We should have a positive gospel, not a negative one: Jesus is Lord, death, sin and evil are conquered, and He’ll make all things new. A gospel that says that we are saved from God by Jesus, as some versions of penal-substitution-only does not at all sound like a loving God to me.

The bible says God is love, not God is wrath, and love is more important than faith and hope says Paul, so his wrath will be in function of His love. Surely, if God loves us he will have a lot of whitehot wrath; He will be pretty mad at the things that are going on in this world, and causing destruction in our lives and all of his loved creation. If He’s to make all things new a lot of things are to be erased, in my life, and in the whole of the world. But the good news is that Jesus is doing that, and that in the end the whole of creation will be renewed. At the final judgment all evil will be erased. And probably some creatures will keep on hating God and not be able to live in this renewed world, or even cease to exist if all evil is erased from them. If God will allow them to exist outside of His love or if they will annihilate in His presence I do not know. I do know he wants none to be lost.

So we need some concept of hell, unless we do away with human free will and say that in the end everybody will bow and accept Jesus as Lord. But I’m not calvinist enough to be such a Christian universalist, sorry… And if we ‘accept Jesus’ out of fear and not out of love, we might still be in problem if we have to spend an eternity with God in all His glory… I don’t think we win anything with converts who are more interesting in escaping hell than in following Christ and being reconciled to their savior. What you with then with is what you win them to…

shalom

Bram

would universal reconciliation make the gospel worthless?


My last post was about Christian universalism. I am not at all a Christian universalist, but sometimes I’m amazed at how some Christians really hate the idea that the cross of Jesus would be able to save all in the end. I don’t share the universalists optimism (and I won’t be dogmatic about any position on the afterlife) but why do we definitely need the wicked to be tortured forever in a conscious state of mind to have a ‘good news’? Wishing other humans to be tortured for eternity goes counter to the great commandment to love our neigbor and our enemies by the way!

One important rebuttal of Christian universalism (to some) is that the idea that everybody will be saved invalidated our need for the gospel, or at least the need for spreading the gospel. If everyone will be saved in the end, why would anyone need to have the gospel? Why do we need to share the gospel if everyone is going to get saved in the end?

The question is what gospel we are talking about. If we narrow the gospel down to some points we have to believe in to not go to hell, then it is important that we give this information to every human being, so that they can accept it. Not doing this gives us the responsibility that everybody who doesn’t know is going to hell.

But I don’t see any biblical reason to narrow the gospel, or good news, of Christ down to a ‘get out of hell free while all others will burn’ card when you believe in a set of doctrines about God and Jesus. Nor can the gospel be equated to accepting the idea penal substitution atonement. The gospel is bigger than only our afterlife.

The gospel is the good news that Christ is Lord, the good news of the Kingdom of God. This good news has (at least) 2 dimensions: The first one is that the coming age of Gods Kingdom is breaking in into our current situation, and that Jesus saves us here and now, and transforms our lives and through us the world. The second dimension is that after this life we will be with God forever. But we shouldn’t forget that eternal life is first and foremost life with an eternal quality, which begins here and now already, and goes on beyond death and beyond the final judgment when all evil will be erased.

Another problem is that the gospel is about saving the whole creation (see Romans 8), not just about the saving of individual souls. The gospel is good news regardless of us. In the end it will fill all of the earth, and there will be no place for anthing that doesn’t align with it… This is good news, and it’s a lot bigger than the idea that we do not go to hell after this life.

So the conclusion would be that universal reconciliation only makes an incomplete gospel worthless. But a gospel that is made worthless if Jesus would save all in the end might not be a real gospel at al, if our good news depends on us being saved and others being lost we’re not at all Christlikel.

But all of this does not mean that we as Christian are not supposed to spread the good news of the Kingdom of God, through our lives as light and salt, and through our words. We are to live out that salvation, and share it with the lost. We hope that the salvation of Christ will save as much as can, and we will align our lives with that!

Vive la revolucion

Shalom

Bram

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…

Shalom

Bram