Why Universal Salvation is an Evangelical Option… Sort Of ("Friendly Friday" post: David Bunce)

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Whispers have reached Scotland that Rob Bell has written a new book. Something to do with salvation and hell and heaven. The word on the street is this new book (which I gather suggests that the Christian God is known for his love and mercy) has upset a lot of Christians and they have written a lot of angry things about it. Nice to know some things don‟t change in the Christian world, isn’t it. When all around us goes bottoms up, we can at least depend on the availability of an angry Christian.

I’ve dealt with the controversy surrounding the book a wee bit on my own blog, and to be honest, as I said at the time, the whole thing bores me ever so slightly. I didn’t think it was a terrible book. I didn’t think it said anything particularly new that I hadn’t read before. It‟s not even a line of argument I would personally follow. The main credit to Rob Bell (whose work I admire a lot) is that he raised the topic on a popular level and encouraging people to talk.

I would, however, like to comment on one sentiment that I have seen floating around the conversation from people who disagree with Bell. The sentiment is this: Universalism doesn’t take the life and work of Jesus seriously and therefore, by extension, he has left aside all credible evangelical faith and become a hippy pot smoking liberal who strokes cats whilst hugging trees. In the nude.

Now, I will leave aside for now the fact that Rob Bell is definitely NOT arguing for Universalism in Love Wins. Instead, I want to suggest as a recovering evangelical myself that Universal Salvation can indeed be a credible evangelical option precisely because it is rooted in the life and work of Jesus Christ.

Being a good Scottish theology student, it is of course obligatory that my answer draws, however obliquely, on the Holy Trinity of Scottish Reformed theology: Paul, Karl Barth and T. F. Torrance. Therefore, I pray you will indulge me whilst I talk a little bit about the centre of atonement: the Incarnation.

The Incarnation as the centre of the atonement? Yes, I know. The centre of atonement is surely the cross? That‟s where Jesus did the dealing with sin stuff, right? Well, yes and no. Therefore, I beg you to put down the stones long enough to hear me out.

You see, when we are dealing with the life and work of Jesus, the first thing we have to start working out is how the two natures of Jesus (fully God and fully Man) work together. Traditionally in Scottish Reformed theology, two words are used together to explain this: anhypostasis and enhypostasis. Great. Lots of jargon and Christian language that no-one understands. Surely the Lord summons us to cry out mightily against such abominations. Well, not quite.

These two words say a lot about the way God is and what this means for how we get saved – they are summed up in Athanasius’ declaration that “God became man that man might become God.”  St Paul in his letter to the Corinthians points out that “God made him who had no sin to become sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Anhypostasis is the idea that Jesus was fully God. It’s not that there was just some bloke called Jesus walking around 1st Century with an extra God accessory. The whole of Jesus’ humanity was fully God and fully Man. When we look at Jesus, we see what God really looks like. This means when we see Jesus on a cross, arms wide in embrace – this is what God really looks like within eternity. It also, bizarrely, means that God is fully revealed in the image of a crying infant who needs his nappy changing. For whatever reason, God chose to become dependent and vulnerable.

The result of all this is that Jesus lived the whole of humanity on our behalf and in our place. Jesus was the perfect Second Adam who perfected humanity where we messed it up. He offered up a baptism of repentance in our place. He was tempted on our behalf in the Wilderness and overcame the temptation where we failed back in the garden of Eden. He entered into the loneliness of the separation of sin from God, suffering it all the way to death on the cross and took up our cry as he shouted out in our place on our behalf “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

And because God became human, the whole of humanity is lifted up with him into the Godhead. God entered into the world to save the whole world, as St John‟s gospel (John 3.16) reminds us. The whole of humanity. The whole cosmos.

At this point, we are verging on something that looks like Universalism. The idea that all humanity is saved in Jesus as a corporate sweep. However, there is another pearl of wisdom in St John‟s gospel – Jesus is the good shepherd through whom the sheep are saved. It‟s the other Greek jargon term – enhypostastis. Jesus was a single, real, individual human being. He existed in a concrete moment in history as the decisive revelation of Godself. He wasn’t just generic humanity – he was a person.

Therefore, theologians argue, we are not just saved as a cosmic sweep of humanity as Universalism might want to say. We are saved as individual children, known uniquely by our heavenly Dad and brought into relationship with him, invited to take the step of faith that means we wake up and see the salvation that we already have. After all, as C. S. Lewis reminds us – human beings are notoriously good at damning ourselves through our inability to accept God’s story and instead try and rely on our own.

God has said “yes” to us in Christ. That is the glorious, life-affirming message of the Incarnation, Cross and Resurrection. Though there is a definite “no” in the Christian faith, it rests upon this much louder “yes.”

Where does leave us then? As the representative human, the Second Adam, Jesus lived the perfect life and restored the righteousness of God to humanity. More than that, he took up humanity into the Godhead and gave us the gift of participation in the life of the Trinity. Christ died for all (2 Corinthians 5:14-15) and therefore all have been raised with him.

Yet Christ was also an individual human being who welcomes us as individuals. Our salvation comes from meeting the crucified and risen Christ – the gift of God is the gift of eyes to see, the gift of faith that transforms our mind and allows us to step into this reality of salvation that we already have and participate fully in the life of God through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Is it possible to say no to this, to refuse the initiative of divine love to participate in the life of God and instead try and do things our own way? Well, here is not the time to discuss in detail the doctrine of hell, but as a broad brush stroke, if we believe God takes human freedom seriously, we have to say that he allows people to refuse to step into the reality of the ‘yes’ given in Christ.

Hell, then, looks something like the dwarves at the end of C. S. Lewis’ “The Last Battle” – surrounded by good things but unable to perceive them because of their choice to not believe Aslan’s story about their life. Possible, yes. But the sort of possible that grieves God for all eternity with the grief of a lover scorned.


David Bunce is a theology student at St. Andrews in Scotland.  He also is a blogger and involved in web design.  You can catch up with him on his site.

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  • Charlie

    I dunno, Kurt, I am struggling with a few of Mr. Bunce’s conclusions which he drew from specific scriptures, like the idea, “because God became human, the whole of humanity is lifted up with him into the Godhead”.  I prefer the two step axiom that is presented in a lighthearted fashion but has deeper, stronger implications: 1) God truly exists.  2) You’re -not- Him.  I think, taking all the apostle Paul wrote as a whole, Mr. Bunce’s proposition, “St Paul in his letter to the Corinthians points out that ‘God made him
    who had no sin to become sin for us, that we might become the
    righteousness of God’ (2 Corinthians 5:21)” takes Paul seriously out of context.  I do -not- think Paul was writing that we actually become Jesus and therefore we become part of the Godhead, even with the declaration that we are the ‘Body of Christ’.  That phrase has a different theological meaning other than we are part of the Godhead.  We are not, and I do not think Paul was writing that, much less believing it.
    But, that said, and as I have not read anything by the Mr. Bell mentioned as the center of this controversy, it was interesting reading and gave me a little better idea, I think, of what the Universalism concept currently being ‘discussed’ is about.  I respect Mr. Bunce’s opinion and think he wrote some interesting things, but I cannot agree with the over all premise of the piece.



    • Kumoyuki

      nevertheless Charlie, we are the body of Christ. That would seem to me to indicate that, in some mysterious way, we *are* Him (and the plural is not rhetorical). Surely the mystery of Godliness is great 🙂

  • I really do have a few issues with this as well. Long response short, the author ignores in my opinion a few of Jesus’ own words in the Gospels.

    However, it is possible he may be taking the position that if there are any in hell it is because they have locked the door from the inside, rather than God having it locked on the outside. If this is the case, I’m not sure he made a very good point of it. The author seemed more focused on trying to explain a Reformed version of theosis rather than universal forgiveness.

    If the position the author was trying to take was in fact the latter, then I really only have issue with how it was worded and poorly explained. I request an explanatory follow-up post. 😉

  • John

    Jesus of course was not in any sense a Christian. Nor were any of his direct disciples.

    Nor did he found the religion ABOUT him, all of which was created by others after his death – even very long after.
    He certainly could not have created the “death-and-resurrection” dogma/belief that became the centre-pole of  Christian belief.

    Corpses are incapable of creating religions!

    Jesus was a radical Spiritual Teacher who taught and demonstrated his Spirit-Breathing Way of Life  on the margins of the tradition of Judaism, as it was in his time and place.

    While he was alive he taught and demonstrated a universal, non-Christian, non-sectarian, Spirit-Breathing Way of Life. Summed up in the great calling to love God absolutely, then on that basis alone, to practice self-transcending love in all relationships and under all conditions.

  • Kurt et al., you may want to take a look at my own perspective on Universalism that just went up at NTD…

  • Charlie

    John, responding to your observation, “Corpses are incapable of creating religions”, I would say yes, precisely, and that was also believed by Jesus’ first Century followers.  They knew dead, and they knew corpses did not get resuscitated, as did most of the pagan religions also in Palestine at the time.  But it was believed among many Jews of that time that eventually, God would raise the righteous in Him from the dead at the end of time.  The surprise to Jesus’ followers was that he did exactly that in what was, to them, the middle of time.  They quickly came to see Jesus not as a new religion, but as the beginning of the New Creation in the path of their own Jewish faith.  As to ‘long after’, the Gospel of Mark is now placed between 60 and 30 years after Jesus’ resurrection, and many of Paul’s letters to the early churches earlier than that.  Jesus was truly a teacher, but he was also much more than that, as written in the N.T.  He taught much more than a ‘way of life’.  He taught that if we believe in him, we are a part of God’s New Creation.  There’s much more to it, of course, books and books. But I wanted to respond particularly to your proposition that corpses aren’t capable of creating new religions.  True.  But the resurrected Jesus created more than a religion, he started the whole New Creation.