I love eavesdropping on Facebook (TM) conversations. I learn a lot. Today, for example, two independent threads on Rob Bell’s alleged universalism taught me that this is, according to my friend, Scot McKnight, “the biggest issue facing evangelicalism today.” And to think I had not heard that it was. Anyway, this, along with a question personally directed from one of my students, got me to putting on my theologian hat and offering here, my thoughts (which are rather random).
(1) Universalism is NOT a doctrine. It can be–Origen’s (in)famous apokatastasis in which everything and everyone (Satan included) will be reconciled to God is such an example. But wiser heads have held that there simply is not enough consensus about the teaching of Scripture to proclaim is as doctrine.
(2) Universalism is NOT pluralism. Both affirm a happy ending (for lack of a better phrase) for every human being, but do so in radically different ways. Pluralism affirms the religions as independently authentic ways of salvation/liberation and advocates a strict agnosticism with regard to the doctrinal particularities of every religion (except of course, its own agnosticism, about which it is absolutely dogmatic). Universalism says simply, Jesus saves everybody. Think Paul–as in one man all died, so through one man, all will be made alive. The point is not to parse Paul here, but to advise caution when labelling positions. Universalism is a minority position in the history of Christian thought. Pluralism is, simply and by its own admission, not Christian (though there are Christians who hold to it. That is a story for another day.)
(3) Universalism is NOT a threat to mission. Or it shouldn’t be, anyway. As you go, make disciples, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded and baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That’s the commission. It does not come with an ultimatum: or else they will go to hell.
(4) Universalism is NOT anonymous Christianity. Advocated by Karl Rahner, this is a theory about how the Christian God might be thought to work through other religions until the coming of the Gospel to a particular culture or people group.
(5) Universalism is NOT, strictly speaking, a heresy. Strictly speaking, heresy has to do with choosing to opt out of accepted church teaching generally, or denying the deity, humanity, and unity of the person of Jesus Christ particularly. The Church does not have a final position on the afterlife beyond “He will come again to judge the living and the dead.” Origen’s condemnation had more to do with his particular kind of universalism, than with universalism in general (and, frankly, with a lot more than just that).
(6) Universalism is NOT necessarily the happiest possible outcome. Sometimes Universalism is expressed in incredibly naive ways. It sometimes denies human freedom–that God will finally overcome every human no. More significantly, it sometimes denies God’s justice–that some heinous wrongs will be simply washed over in divine love. I can understand and support such notions as hell may be locked from the inside by humans wishing to be rid of God and that hell may be empty. But if hell does not exist, then the cries of Abel, and every other victim of evil ultimately go unanswered. Then God is neither merciful nor just.
(7) Which brings me, at last, to what I think Universalism is. It is, based on my understanding of Paul in Romans, Ephesians and Collosians, an eschatological hope that the vastness of the love of God disclosed in Christ will, in the end, triumph in a way that reconciles everything and everyone. But it is just a hope, and one held alongside the affirmation that anyone and anything who sets themselves against God’s Yes to the world in Jesus Christ chooses wrath, death, destruction, in short, hell.