Random Thoughts on what Universalism is NOT

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.

17 thoughts on “Random Thoughts on what Universalism is NOT

  1. Very well put, particularly #2 and #3, points which people seem to miss in this discussion.

    Regarding #6, I would suggest as well that universalism does not necessarily deny the existence of hell (but maybe that’s implied in what you said).

    Regarding the notion that “the cries of Abel, and every other victim of evil ultimately go unanswered” if hell does not exist, some form of which inevitably comes up in this discussion (it’s N.T. Wright’s basic reasoning towards the traditional view in Surprised by Hope). I wonder: isn’t that what the cross was about–an answer to the evil and injustice in the world? The “justice must be done” line of reasoning applies equally to those sinners who are saved. A murderer who while in jail becomes a disciple of Christ is seen as legitimately among “the saved”. Do the cries of that murderer’s victims victims also go unanswered? We would say, “No”, precisely because of the cross. Would we think differently for Stalin, if he had had a last-minute change of heart? Logic would tell us we shouldn’t–again, because of the cross.

    If this is so, why, then, does the work of Christ on the cross not come into play when we consider the salvation of, say, an unrepentant despot or rapist? If they are saved in the end anyway, we say victim’s cries go unanswered, despite the cross. (Of course, a universalist might argue that in the end everyone will repent and believe.)

    Isn’t this inconsistent? And doesn’t it imply that justice is somehow found in the faith/repentance of the murderer/tyrant/rapist rather than in the work of God in Christ?

    (Or do I misunderstand you–are you instead saying that the *possibility* of eternity in hell is all that is required for God’s justice?)

  2. Tim, I appreciate your thoughts on this controversial topic. And I am waiting for the book (or a reliable post-distribution precis) to be available before commenting on Rob Bell’s specific dealing with the matter.

    Two things you said draw me to comment.

    First, the concept that “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).” Granted, I have not gone hunting for technical definitions, but I have never thought of pluralism as quite that nefarious. I’ve tended to view it more as the peaceful co-existence of various religious traditions, with each having the freedom (within the rule of law) to exercise its beliefs – such as Trudeau envisioned for Canada (I’ll leave that one alone, too). And as such, my understanding of pluralism, like yours, is decidedly not universalistic.

    Second, your final thought that universalism is “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” is a pleasing and, better, I think a Scriptural hope – but not one necessarily held by many people who say they are universalists. Too often, I have the impression that those who claim to be universalists are simply unwilling to engage in the thought process of the implications of a rather more complicated soteriology. That is, my impression of many of the universalists in my scope of acquaintance are lazy thinkers. May God deal with me if I am wrong.

    I, with Paul, would love to see all come to salvation! But because I have no certainty of this, my commitment to the Great Commission continues, in the same nominal tradition but perhaps in a slightly different vein than that of the deacon cited by Lucy Maud Montgomery in her “Among the Shadows”: “The deacon’s prayers are an infallible index of his health. When he is feeling well they are cheerful, adn you can tell he has his own doubts about the doctrine of reprobation; but when he is a little under the weather his prayers are just like the old lady who said, ‘The Universalists think all the world is going to be saved, but we Presbyterians hope for better things.'”

  3. Hey Tim,
    I enjoyed the comments here, but wonder if you have not so over-limited “heresy” to the doctrine of Christ that this may actually be too narrow of an orthodoxy? I think it is far too common that “heresy” is thrown around without consideration for what it actually means or should mean and is used FAR too broadly by most, but should it really only be concerned with the doctrine of Christ? I do note that you mention that it may be “choosing to opt out of accepted Church teaching generally”, but what does that include? Has not the Church (East and West; Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant) essentially always embraced some form of eternal conscious judgment of the wicked? Or am I really mistaken in my reading of historical theology on this? This aberration has apparently only ever in the history of the Church been held by schismatics or those condemned as “heterodox” or “heretic” as far as I can tell until recent times. I would say that may constitute a fairly ecumenical stance on the issue one way or another. While there may be MANY distinguishing factors between the various congregations holding to eternal conscious torment…there is an amazing agreement concerning the reality of this confession.

  4. I’m with Marc here, on all points.

    It reminds me of when, in a class discussion on capital punishment, I brought up the notion of the substitutionary death of Christ and you asked if, in light of that, I would let Colonel Williams go free. I was flustered, and didn’t respond, but I think that – given the nature of grace – I’d have to, or else be a hypocrite. If I didn’t, I’d be the prodigal son’s older brother, or the worker hired at the first hour, who are upset that others receive grace greater than their own.

    That’s not to say that I’d let him into the street – public safety and all that – and I recognize that capital punishment and hell aren’t exactly the same thing, but there’s a common thread here.

  5. It was my understanding that Origen was considered a heretic not because of universalism, but because he held beliefs that anticipated and perhaps precipitated Arius’.

  6. The pluralism I am talking about, Jeff, is the pluralism of John Hick and Peter Byrne and other philosophers of religion. It is a theory attempting to explain the fact of religious plurality. I am not commenting, one way or another, on the cultural pluralism-as-peaceful co-existence (but which I do in fact think is a fine idea).

  7. Thank you, Tim. General agreement from me.

    I agree especially that using hell as a motivation for missions is not primarily biblical, but pragmatic. Two biblical motivations are the motive of obedience (you cited the great Commission) and love (Paul: “The love of Christ compels me …”). Fear of hell is not generally used in the scriptures as a motive for missionary proclamation.

    So far as pluralism goes, I think you and Jeff are referring to different kinds of pluralism. Pluralism as social policy allows for a variety of positions to be held by people who engage in social discourse together. Pluralism with reference to salvation is — as you say — the idea that each religion is a true way for salvation in the terms taught by that religion. So Hinduism brings one to moksha, Islam brings the faithful to Paradise, Buddhism brings one to the extinction of Nirvana, and Christian faith takes us to Heaven. It is indeed a non-Christian position, which relativizes Christian faith in a way that changes Christianity at its core.

    Thanks for a good post!

  8. The word of the cross does indeed speak a better word than Abel’s (cf. Hebrews). I am not thinking of the potentially penitent psychotic–e.g., Ted Bundy, who did claim a sort of repentance before he was executed. And I will not comment on any real people. I will say simply that we remain the same people after we die as before. There is no reason that death is going to somehow magically make one more open to the word of the cross if s/he were deaf to it when alive. Those who insist on rejecting God’s yes, as I said, choose death, destruction and hell.

  9. Heresy, as I understand it, is a term ultimately bound to the creeds and that is where it belongs. Hence my citation of “He will come again. . . .” Eternal conscious torment is the dominant position in the West following Augustine. It is not the dominant position in the East. Further, it is an error in logic to to say that if a heretic believes in x, x is a heresy–which is what you seem to be saying toward the end of your post. By the way, I’d be really careful about using the word schismatic, since, as a Protestant, you are one. (As am I)

  10. Fair enough.

    I wonder, though–how can you understand and support the notion of hell being empty (#6 above) while at the same time arguing this position, since it stands to reason that some people have gone to the grave rejecting God’s “Yes”?

    Also, is it possible that seeing Christ face-to-face might change a person in a way that the proclaimed message would not? I guess I wonder who is included in the “every” in “every knee shall bow, etc.” is.

  11. On your question, I said nothing about post-mortem encounters with Christ, for example, which is a pretty standard part of Lutheran Orthodoxy. I wouldn’t be at all surprized to find that a face-to-face might change someone. RE: Phil 2:5-11, every knee and every tongue confessing does not mean that the kneelers or confessors will like it. One thinks, e.g., of the conquered powers. Finally, being sympathetic to hell being empty and holding to it as a hope, does not mean I secretly believe it and have ironed out all problems with it.

  12. I didn’t mean to suggest that you “secretly believe it”. I just wasn’t sure how all of the things mentioned in #6 work together.

    Reading it again, I see you posit the existence of hell, but also the possibility of it being empty in the end. Is this right?

  13. Sorry, one more thing.

    I see what you are saying re: the conquered powers. I wonder, can we draw any lines between “If you confess with your mouth you will be saved” (John 1) with the Philippians passage (“and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord”)? Just a hypothetical question.

  14. I understand myself to be a “schismatic” according to the Roman See, but it is something quite other to recognize that despite this we together affirm (and have always affirmed) what I have already said. I would find it quite unlikely that a modern “orthodoxy” might suddenly come up with something this profound against all who have gone before with the notable exception of not simply “schismatics” in the sense of the Protestant Reformers or even of the “schism” of the East-West, but of groups who have held to teachings that fall well outside of orthodox teaching concerning other issues that are far clearer in the creeds. Certainly it is possible that this could be a corrective that the Church has missed all along…but is this really the most likely explanation? Have only a few sects ALL throughout Church history ever embraced some form of this “new orthodoxy”? Or has the Church always generally affirmed something for which our post-modern world decries as “unjust” or “unloving” and therefore certainly not the God they encounter when they read the Bible?

    I do note, interestingly enough, that the Athanasian Creed (while not affirmed by most of the East) reads specifically: qui vero mala, in ignem aeternum “they who have done evil, into everlasting fire”. That doesn’t seem to suggest something other than eternal damnation of the wicked. While any creed is not determinative…nor Church history…it is certainly helpful in the pursuit of how the Church has heard the Spirit through the reading of the Scriptures.

    I do really appreciate your thoughtful post here Tim.

  15. As I understand it, Rick, while eternal conscious torment has always been the main position, there has been no shortage of people who disagree throughout history. Other common views include annihilationism (i.e. eternal fire is qualitative, like eternal life, or even lasts forever, but in either case actually consumes the wicked); different versions of universalism based on an emphasis on God’s sovereignty and the salvific efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice; and, of course, the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory in which we are all able to continue to grow in grace after death, a doctrine which easily allows for an empty Hell.

    All have much historical precedent, though I think pluralism as Tim has described it is a very recent thing.

  16. Actually Jeff…the Catholic teaching of “purgatory” is not in place of “hell” despite its usually being misunderstood as such by many Protestants. It is not considered to be the abode of ALL who die, but only of certain who have not fallen beyond redemption. And annihilationism in its many permutations has been rejected by all traditions as outside or orthodoxy throughout Church history until our own era and the ‘evangelical’ take of the likes of the late Clark Pinnock. And universalism likewise has only become en-vogue of late in its variant evangelicalized forms (not to mention the controversial Roman form of a Hans Küng), but it remains to be seen how this is congruent within the wider scope of orthodoxy per the Church’s common reading and reflection of Scripture.

Leave a Reply