The Possibility of Christian Universalism

Well, the issue of Christian universalism didn’t “pop” last year, as I had predicted, but Scot left a comment on another post saying that Rob Bell’s 2011 book will deal with the issue.  That will likely bring it to the fore of the conversation in American evangelicalism.  But I don’t want to wait till then to begin exploring the idea.

As with other theological issues I’ve addressed here — the atonement and same sex marriage, to name a couple — I don’t come in with my mind made up, although I am leaning toward it.  Nor have I spent any time reading or really even thinking about it.  But I do think that it’s important and deserving of ongoing consideration and theological reflection.

What I don’t think is very interesting to pursue is whether some individuals are submitted to eternal torment by God.  If you think that, then you interpret the Bible very differently than I do and we probably disagree on just about everything.  So this won’t really be a forum to debate what Hell is like, or even if there is a Hell or not — that’s ultimately irrelevant to the question, because there could be a Hell to which God sends no one.  Nor is this really about annihilationism as a possible solution to the God-wouldn’t-send-anyone-to-torment-but-God-can’t-remain-just-and-let-everyone-in problem, although we may have to address it.

It seems to me that the big question is, Can you be a universalist and still be a Christian?

This raises all sorts of question about what is a “Christian.”  And I suspect that we’ll also have to get into the metaphysics of “Heaven vs. Hell,” which will probably end up making this whole conversation moot (if, as I suspect, “Heaven” and “Hell” are concepts contingent on metaphysics, which I reject.

I’m sure that some of my readers have thought and read more about this than I have, so I ask you: have I got the opening question right?

  • http://LivingHope.info Rich Schmidt

    I’m less interested in the question, “Can you be a universalist and still be a Christian?” and more interested in the question, “Do Christian faith and the Christian Scriptures lead one toward universalism?”

    I want to follow the Way of Christ wherever he leads, not try to figure out how much of my own ideas and desires I can fit into my thinking and life and “still be a Christian.”

  • http://www.epochalypsis.org Trig

    Yes we can!

    I think the bible is pretty explicit that to be Christian is to be Universalist. I have no qualms telling people that I believe we are not fully realizing what it means to live “in Christ” until we embrace true universalism.

    I try to make my case for Christian Universalism in “Walking the Way of Christ” section on my blog: http://www.epochalypsis.org.

  • Paul Clifford

    I’m not sure right doctrine is necessary for a relationship with Jesus. That sounds a little like adding to the cross. I will say if you think Jesus is less than the only Son of God you probably don’t know the actual Jesus.

    I don’t think you can be a universalist and say you believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. I have tons of friends that disagree with me on creation or Calvinism who I believe are genuine Christians.

    I guess I think that other than cultic views of who Jesus is, grace covers a multitude of doctrinal errors–even universalism.

    Paul

  • http://www.thechristianwatershed.com Joel

    So you don’t want to talk about Hell, what happens to those who die without Christ, or the metaphysics of Heaven and Hell. This means Christianity is stripped of any metaphysical backing. If that’s the case, then how is Christianity NOT universalist? It’s be asinine to assert otherwise. It seems the conversation is really done if you follow everything to its logical conclusion. That is to say, the deck is stacked.

    Christianity can only be exclusive or even inclusive if there is a metaphysical backing.

    Of course, I would content that a Christianity without metaphysics isn’t a Christianity worth believing in…

  • Jim Folsom

    Hi Tony. I haven’t posted on your blog before, but I’ve read a fair amount of your writing with great appreciation. I think the answer to your question is probably ‘Yes, you can be a universalist and still be a Christian.’ As for the part about this being the right opening question…I’d say no, it isn’t. If we accept, as many of us do, that we can have lots of faults, doctrinal errors, misunderstandings of truth etc and still be a Christian, then the opening question doesn’t seem to take us very far. I think I have friends who oppress the weak as a result of their theology, but they are still Christians. It would be more helpful to correct the things that make them oppress the weak than to consider whether or not they can ‘get away with it.’ I suspect that your opening question will lead to a ‘can you get away with it’ discussion. I also think you will have to deal with annihilation in some way i.e. The wages of sin is death rather than eternal conscious torment. Having said all of that, I’m not sure what the opening question should be! I hope it is a fruitful discussion, though. :)

  • http://tothetuneoftim.blogspot.com/ Tim M

    I have thought about this a lot, had discussions with a couple close friends and one relative on the subject. The relative, my late-aunt, was a universalist, even as a spouse of an American Baptist minister. I can’t replicate her entire viewpoint succinctly here, but she continued to be a universalist in spite of having her son murdered and having to fight for parole to be denied for his murderer, yet knowing, and stating to me, that she will indeed see him in heaven. She views my cousin’s murderer as the younger son in the parable of the Lost Son, and that God will help him “come to his senses,” even if that happens after he dies. I believe she longed for him to “come to his senses” during her lifetime and seek her forgiveness, but that never happened and thus she pleaded for his sentence to continue until he did. She also believed that God does call to people via other religions, and cited Jesus speaking in the gospel of John that he has sheep of other flocks that hear his voice.

    For me, her convictions of universalist redemption despite such a painful experience are compelling. Rachel Held Evans’ argument of winning the “cosmic lottery” in Evolving in Monkey Town is also compelling to me. I’m leaning very strongly, I’m still not yet all the way there. I think gun to my head I would jump on that side.

    In short, yes, I do think you have the opening question right, but I don’t know if can really be answered without going through 20 other questions. My answer would be “yes” but I know it would be challenged by those 20 other questions. The discussion through them, however, is one that would be good for me.

  • Don

    Tony – I THINK you’ve got the first question down, but I think there needs to be some definition of universalism. In many ways, you can’t be anything BUT a universalist if you’re a Christian. A Christian – to my understanding – looks at God and Jesus Christ in terms of Jesus’ universal work. Some may differ on whether the atonement is “effective” for all, but if nothing else, all must agree that it has a universal bearing. So, you can’t be a Christian, to my understanding and not understand God in Jesus Christ, as Lord of all. We’re not talking regional deities. And obviously, God’s story in Christ in some way must include (not necessarily consume) all other “stories” that exist.

    That said, some understand universalism to mean “pluralism” in the “all roads lead to the same mountain top” type of thing. If that is one’s definition of universalism, I think it’s hard to hold that as a Christian. If one believes that God was particular in Christ in a way that has never been before, then it’s hard to be able to subscribe to the fact that other stories, other “paths” to God are equally true.

    I think the question comes down to whether you can hold to the concept of a universal work done by Christ that is efficacious for all humanity and still submit to the words of Christ that seem to contradict it. I’ve certainly wrestled with this too. My HOPE is that all will be made “right” in Christ on that “final” day – that judgment will be swallowed up in Christ, that death and destruction will be given the final NO of God and that humanity, will be completely redeemed in God’s YES… but it’s really hard to jive that with ALL of what I see in Scripture.

    But at the end of the day, I think holding to universalism as a Christian, as I “defined” it above, is no less possible than holding to the other options which would say that God “needs” to punish some or isn’t willing to “save” everyone.

  • Dan Hauge

    I guess I’m still a little unclear about how you define “universalism”. We’ve established that the discussion is not about ‘eternal torment’ (nope) or about annhilationism (apparently, nope), so are we are defininig ‘universalism’ as ‘everyone will be OK in some way after they die’, and then asking if that position can be called ‘Christian’?

    Or, is there a broader discussion about how different religions, beliefs, worldviews all have some kind of salvific power, and all reveal God and ‘lead to God’ in some way? I guess that’s usually called ‘pluralism’, so maybe it’s not on topic.

    I also like the way Rich frames the question. Tony frames the question more in terms of “here’s a theological idea that I resonate with. So can I think this and still be named on the ‘Christian’ team?” Looking at it from an angle of ‘how do the Scriptures and traditions of the Church encourage us to think about life after death’ puts us on a bit of a different trajectory, and a bit more open-ended than just saying yea or nay on one position. (I do think that framing in terms of Heaven and/or Hell is less sound, theologically, than talking about the nature of the New Creation, and how people will or will not be fully included in that)

    Having said all that, I’m still looking forward to the discussion, however it’s framed.

  • http://soulache.posterous.com Trey Lyon

    In the vein of Rich, I think “universalist” is normally used to describe someone who is either non-Christian or viewed as heterodox. I think that’s what leads you to ask the question the way you did–but I’m not sure it’s the right question.

    Universalism is a construct–in the same way any soteriology is a construct–that is then presupposed on the text. The reason universalism is so intriguing/terrifying to most of us is because so many people come to it from so many different ways.

    The humanist or atheist apologetic rejects a Deity who would knowingly subject people to anything less than the best a Creator could make. Barth, on the other hand, viewed the triumph of the cross to be so singularly powerful that nothing could overcome it–not even humanity’s willful bent to it’s own destruction. This idea is so peculiar precisely because people of such divergent backgrounds, theologies and methodologies inevitably all land at it at one point or another.

    For me, I am attempting to ascertain the way of Jesus–a way that leads to salvation. As to who, what, when (and what vocabulary) is or must be used by others I am in no way qualified to say. I simply have found what I believe to be a better way than anything else I have found and invite and seek to learn from all who would embrace a life oriented around the ways of Christ here and now. Eternity will I’m sure, be glorious, but I’d rather seek the reign of God here and now then fret about what is out there and who will or won’t be there.

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  • Kenton

    Since it leads to “what is a Christian?”, I’ll submit that a Christian is one who follows the teachings/way of Jesus (the “Christ”).

    So to address the question of can one be a Christian and a universalist, eventually we have to deal with what Jesus taught/did that got passed down to us with the conventional exclusivism.

    When I was younger the verse “And He who calls his brother a ‘fool’ shall be in danger of the fires of hell” (Matt 5 or 6?) used to freak me out. As though when my mouth would start to form the “F” of “fool”, God was listening intently with his hand on the furnace ready to turn it up and consign me there. I would quickly change it to “idiot” thinking that would get me off the hook.

    I see “fires of Gehenna” in that verse understanding the context of the verses surrounding it and what it meant in Jesus’ day and I laugh at my childhood understanding. If I was wrong about that, what about Lazarus/Dives, Sheep/Goats, “saved” in Eph. 2, etc.? Is it possible that the conventional understanding of hell/judgment comes from a string of such misreadings?

    That might be where I would start. I’m excited that the church is going to be addressing universalism. Brian’s book sort of breached the subject, but I think Rob’s book will do a lot to get the conversation rolling.

  • Steve

    Dr. Richard Beck over at Experimental Theology has done some of the best thinking (online, at least) about this topic. Here’s his summary defense of CU, but search “universalism” on his site for pages and pages of posts mentioning the topic:

    http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2009/12/universalism-summary-defense.html

  • http://www.interfaithspiritquest.com Sheila

    The thought is a serious, legitimate question. It smacks the Christian upside the head as if to say ‘wake up people – God loves all of us!’

    If there is a road to perfection, and we must traverse it, there is an eternity in which to accomplish this task. Our debts, our sins, will all be realized in due time, and once we become aware – we can proceed by correcting the error of our ways and continue down Perfection Road.

    Put another way, Hell is the idea that we are stopped on this road, going nowhere, and the only way we can take another step forward (in the issue at hand) is if we acknowledge our debts/sins, make amends where possible (now there’s a question), and change our ways moving forward.

    We are all moving on different levels and at different rates. Some of us are better in one area and worse in others. Therefore, we should all be patient with each other, help each other along the way, and love each other as we love ourselves. Better yet, love others as God loves us.

  • Scot Miller

    Since I’m a bit skeptical about any kind of self-conscious immortality (I’m not sure any consciousness exists apart from bodies, and I’m not sure who would actually enjoy eternal bliss if my consciousness was resurrected in some other body since I’m only conscious of myself within my body), I have no problem setting aside questions of Heaven and Hell and whatnot. Maybe your question is whether a Christian can remain a Christian (i.e., a follower of Christ) and acknowledge that non-Christians can have genuine enlightenment or “salvation” (or whatever term you need to use).

    While I like people like Joseph Campbell, who genuinely appreciates the value of competing religious traditions, I don’t think one can be genuinely religious in a non-specific way, or, as I’ve said in the past, you can’t free-lance it in religion. Human beings particularize their religious/spiritual experiences in very specific ways that are shaped by their cultural and literary traditions. (Which is why I’m a bit skeptical of people who are “spiritual but not religious.” They are not spiritual in some amorphous, indistinct way, but in a particular way. They accept some forms of “spirituality” and reject others. But I digress….) So I have come to organize my religious experience in Christian ways using Christian symbols. Because my religious experience has been shaped by the myth of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection, I am a Christian.

    I have no problem holding that if one wants to be a Christian, there is no other way than to be a follower of Christ. But if one wants to be a Buddhist, there is no other way than to become a follower of the Buddha. Buddhism doesn’t resonate with my experience in the same way as Christianity does, so I am a Christian. But I’m not so arrogant as to say that the Divine (or Ultimate Reality or Ground of Being or Absolute Nothingness) cannot work in any human life, regardless of their particular religious tradition.

    So if by “universalism,” you mean that all human beings have the capacity to encounter “God” outside the Christian tradition, the answer is YES. But the capacity to encounter “God” is not the same as actually having a genuine, living, transformative, authentic religious experience. Many (most?) Christians have yet to really be transformed by an encounter with God through Christ. So I am a “Christian universalist” who agrees with Jesus when he said, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matt. 7:13-14). “God” may be at work everywhere in every person, but few can actually find the narrow gate and the hard road that leads to life.

  • http://charlieschurchofchrist.wordpress.com Charlie’s Church of Christ

    I’ve long been of the opinion that the Scriptures aren’t really even interested in who’s in and who’s out questions, as well as trying to help us decipher the afterlife. I’m super interested to follow these blogs, you’re bold for even looking into the issue – expect to be thrown in the mud daily Tony.

  • http://taddelay.com tad delay

    didn’t the Cappadocian Fathers lean pretty heavily towards Universalism? They practically wrote the doctrine of the trinity… doesn’t get much more christian than that

  • dopderbeck

    It’s entirely the wrong opening question for a host of reasons.

    It’s basically a question-begging question — what is “Christian” and what is “universalism”?

    And the entire conversation is loaded or moot or something if you want to rule out “metaphysics” tout court. I mean, if you “reject metaphysics,” then there is no point to having this conversation, or any conversation, at all. Nobody who believes he actually exists in some reality can “reject metaphysics” because there is no such thing as actuality or existence or belief or reality without “metaphysics.” Perhaps you meant you reject the sort of Aristotelian metaphysics that underlie some classical Christian theologies of Heaven and Hell? That would make more sense but then you’re really begging some enormous questions about theological method.

    Finally, ruling out any discussion of annihilationism or the specific ontology of Heaven and Hell also hopelessly muddies and prejudices the conversation. There is a spectrum of historic views on Christian “universalism,” and those of the early Eastern fathers in particular depend on a detailed ontology of God, time, eternity, the human soul, heaven, and hell. It’s certainly possible to hold such a view and “be a Christian” — or else Origen, Irenaeus, etc. weren’t “Christians” — but it is not a view that can be held in a metaphysical vacuum. (Of course “be a Christian” isn’t a sufficient criterion in itself for holding a view).

    So, the proper starting question is the one you want to avoid: the metaphysical question about the ontology of creation, time, eternity, heaven and hell.

  • Josie Tolton

    My favorite explanation of heaven and hell I have found so far comes from Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn, and Matthew Linn in a book called Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God. As a matter of course I tend to think that if there is an afterlife, as many seem to believe, then it will be just as gloriously complex and confusing as this world.

  • http://ephphatha-poetry.blogspot.com/ Brian

    I think it would be helpful to have a discussion of terms. What is meant when we say the word/name “God”? What is the nature of God? What is salvation? What is atonement? How does God work in the world? How does God work in the world beyond the world? Who is Jesus? What did Jesus do? How is Jesus related to salvation, atonement, and the nature of God? Every person who reads these questions will probably have slightly different answers. And all of those answers will determine how a person answers this question: What is universalism? After answering all of that, I suppose we could answer the yes-or-no question: Can you be a universalist and still be a Christian?

  • Jalo

    I agree with others that the definition of universalism should be clarified. I’ll be following this discussion with great interest!

  • http://ephphatha-poetry.blogspot.com/ Brian

    What does universalism mean? That all people go to heaven? That all people gain salvation? That all people have a relationship with God? That all people worship God? That all people open themselves to the divine? That all people escape suffering? That all people gain enlightenment? That all people gain release from the cycle of rebirth? That all people achieve harmony with the universe? That all people live ethical lives? How universal is our universalism?

  • nathan
  • Ethan M

    Isn’t the question, “What does the Bible teach about the fate of all people?”

  • Dan Hauge

    Also, I’ll agree with other commentors in saying that the whole question of ‘rejecting metaphysics’ needs to be clarified before a discussion on ‘universalism’ can even make any sense. Are you operating from a materialist framework? Is God a ‘ground of being’ to the exclusion of any personal characteristics (in which case, talking about God ‘punishing’ or even God receing people into the kingdom are equally nonsensical). If we reject all metaphysics wholesale, what king of universalism are we even talking about?

  • Jeff

    I think any question that has “if you do x, y,” and “and still be a Christian” is pointless. Especially with universalism.

    “still be a Christian” has way too many 20th century cultural associations to have a fair discussion that will lead anywhere.

  • George

    Tony
    I think you have some good questions and the topic is “now”. I am having problems with the church period and it’s ways and actions. I call myself a Post Modern Christian, and I have a few of my friends wanting to know more because they have left their church for legalistic reasons. I can not fathom the thought of a God who would torment people, when the bible teaches all have gone astray. To me that leaves no hope for anyone with the view of a God who waits to torture people. It’s kinda like an ambush (sorry I am a Vietnam Veteran). The Jews tell us (Christians) we have it all wrong anyway and that the bible was meant as a character teaching process, through time, and that God is “One” for all who believe in the one God. I really am excited about following you on this topic. On universalism, didn’t Isaiah say that there was only One God, One Savior, and One Lord, and that it was He? And that if anyone just called his name he would hear them before they even open their mouths?

  • http://www.MannsWord.blogspot.com Daniel Mann

    I don’t think universalism can be harmonized with Scripture: http://mannsword.blogspot.com/2009/10/universalism-were-all-going-to-meet-in.html

    However, I do think that there are Scriptural alternatives to the idea of God literally stoking the fires of hell.

  • http://www.alexgamble.blogspot.com Alex Gamble

    I am.

  • Greg Gorham

    I don’t think that’s a bad starting question – although a study of Christian history will quickly show many prominent Christians from the past 2,000 years were universalists. So I don’t think it’s a bad place to start, even just to start to legitimize the idea for those who have only heard of universalism as a synonym for heresy. But a person really has to reject a good deal of Christian history (admittedly probably not the majority, for sure since Augustine, but a good amount) to answer no to your starting question.

    Thomas Talbott has a good book on the topic called “The Inescapable Love of God” if you’re looking for something that delves into the Bible and makes a Scriptural case for universalism. While I haven’t read anything from him, Karl Barth may be helpful here as well. He took Scripture as seriously as anyone could and arrived at universalist conclusions.

    It sounds like defining terms would be helpful too.

  • http://bengriffith.tumblr.com Ben Griffith

    That is definitely an interesting starting point. I think that it assumes that questions of theology are equivalent to questions of Christian identity (which in turn is done in the Christian community). As far as I’m concerned, a “Christian” can do or believe anything, so the real question is one of Theology: what kind of person is God, one who rescues everything in the end or one who punishes the wicked?

  • http://www.antechurch.com Joshua Jinno

    Universalism is a title, a piece of cultural capital. Used by some it means “you can be a part of our group” and used by others it means “you are an adherent of doctrine I hate, and the world would be better off without you.” The reality is that labels help us to categorize people into subsets, and sections. We as human beings engage in judgments based merely on “OUR” idea of what those titles mean. Usually we build those ideas we disagree with pretty weakly so that we can easily tear them down.

  • Ircel Harrison

    Nlo comment right now, but I appreciate your raising the question. The question I have been contemplating recently is, “Can you be a Christian and NOT be a universalist?” My definition of “universalism” is based on the grace of God and the desire that all might be “saved.” The first ensures the second.

  • ManiacMike

    It’s amazing how much talk of “Christianity” is thrown around with lots of opinion, but little to no Scripture. Christianity rises or falls on the Word of God. What does the Bible say?

    Revelation 20: 15- “Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.” Does that sound like heaven to you?

    Matthew 7: 21- “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” This is Jesus talking. He is clearly making a distinction that there will NOT be everyone in heaven. Why is that so hard to grasp?

  • http://LivingHope.info Rich Schmidt

    Mike, like you, I want to follow Christ where he leads, even if it’s not where I’d prefer to go.

    The verses you quoted have to be wrestled with. And so do verses like these:

    2 Peter 3:9 – “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”

    1 Corinthians 15:22 – “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”

    We have to make sure we’re listening to all of Scripture, right?

  • ManiacMike

    @Rick- thanks for replying. Read the rest of 2 Peter- including verse 10 (right after the verse you quoted), which starts with “But…” meaning “difference to what is previously considered” (verse 9). God is not willing that any should perish… but… Obviously explicitly teaches not everyone will be saved.

    Jesus said, “Not every one…” That is empatically clear.

    The rest of 1 Corinthians 15 also makes verse 22 clear- look at verse 23. It says “those who belong to him.” It doesn’t not say “everyone.”

    Hope this helps. Clarify verses that speak of hope and desire by verses that explicitly teach truth, not the other way around.

  • Greg Gorham

    I’d argue 1 Corinthians 15 is definitely universalist in leanings. Verse 23 refers to the order the resurrection of the dead is supposed to happen in. That’s why the sentence starts with “there is an order to this resurrection.” It doesn’t nullify what Paul wrote literally a sentence earlier. And if you keep going, it goes even further than everyone. Verses 27 and 28 refer to everything or all things. Resurrection isn’t just for everyone. It’s for everyone and everything else besides.

  • http://LivingHope.info Rich Schmidt

    @Mick (if you can misspell my name, I can misspell yours, right?) :)

    I wasn’t arguing for or against any particular position. I was just pointing out that there are verses and passages in Scripture that “lean toward” universalism just like there are verses and passages in Scripture that “lean toward” something else (exclusivism? not-everyone-will-make-it-ism?), and we have to make sure we’re accounting for all of them in some way or another.

    We also have to be careful when determining which passages “explicitly teach truth” and which passages “speak of hope and desire.” It’s always helpful to give that a fresh look, just to be sure we have “eyes to see” and “ears to hear” what’s really there, and not just what we’re used to seeing and hearing…

  • http://Taddelay.com Tad delay

    @mike. If you’ll allow me a Greek geek moment, the “but..” you hinge part of your argument of only exists in English. There is no “but..” in the Greek text. And also, about half the time you see a “but” or “and” in the NT, you can exchange either for the other (the Greek word “kai” can mean either, which changes how tons of verses an be read. But in 2Pet 3:10, it just begins “the day of the lord will come”

    There you have it everyone: my first snooty “actually, in Greek it says..” moment, brought to you curtesy of Fuller seminary Greek class (which I highly recommend)

  • jane smith

    Can Mr Jones tell us what he means by “metaphysics” and, specifically, the form of metaphysics he rejects?

    I think this would be a good start.

    Jane Smith

  • Jim

    @Tad

    Which text are you using? Mine has a “de” in verse 10, which isn’t a totally definitive “but,” though it is stronger than kai. I could be reading it wrong, my Greek is very rusty.

    In general I agree that terms need to be defined before the discussion can really proceed.

  • http://Taddelay.com Tad delay

    @Jim that may be. I’ll have to double check again. “de” can mean quite a few different connecting words as well. That’s what I’m hating about Greek more than anything- all the tons of small connector words that can have so many different meaning depending on how you choose to see the text!

  • http://disciplenext.wordpress.com Chad Davis

    Hi Tony,

    No, i don’t think the question is all that good. While Christianity, in all of our forms, postulate some kind of soteriology, in the end, God will save.

    God says to Moses, in Exodus 33:19, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. Paul quotes this in Romans 9.

    My point here is that “Who will be saved?” is a question for God to answer. I believe we are responsible to interpret the Bible as best we are able with the Holy Spirit’s aid. However, in the end, our Theology is just that, our Theology. It does not bind God. Our best soteriologies are not absolute, God is absolute. Our interpretations of the Scripture are not authoritative, the Scripture is.

    My copy of your book, The New Christians is on loan to a friend, but If I recall, one of the “dispatches” is about all theology being “local,” and “temporary.”

    I do my best to present clear theology, and do so in a representative ministry, but I recognize that ultimately, God is the arbiter of Salvation. If God chooses to accept some and reject some, save some and damn some, that is the prerogative of the Almighty. Universalism is, to my understanding, the idea that God will ultimately accept/save everyone. I don’t understand the Bible to teach this, but I love people who do.

    I’d like to hear your thoughts on this.

    Warmly,
    Chad

  • http://www.churchasart.org Troy Bronsink

    Tony:

    I think the more interesting questions would focus on relational-connectivity. Whom does/n’t God or the church touch with healing intent?

    The answers to this depend upon the following preliminary questions:
    (1) How is the God of Israel as revealed in Jesus Christ connected to the whole world verses any defined subset of that world? And/or (2) how can/should a self-defined religious tradition’s community/members rooted in the ethic of this God connect to those professing more or less than that tradition?

    Naaman, Ruth, Rahab, Nebuchadnezzar, the magi, the Syrophoenician woman, the thief on the cross, Cornelius, and the Ethiopian eunuch all offer interesting narratives into exploring these questions.

    These two come before your question since your phrase “still be a Christian” presupposes that either God’s or Xnity’s healing-connectivity is partial, depending on conditions (be they dogma, or what ever else).

  • http://www.chadholtz.net Chad Holtz

    I told some “friends” of mine a few years ago that their hero (and mine), Rob Bell, is a Christian universalist. They disagreed vehemently and, because I am, banned me from their site.

    I hope Rob comes out in this book and claims as much. I’ve swung the pendulum on this one – from hell fire and brimstone to believing that if the Gospel is anything, it must mean God’s desire that all will be saved will come to pass.

    I’ve written about this a bit on my blog here and elsewhere: http://chadholtz.net/2010/02/25/christian-universalism/

    Also, a book I recommend for everyone is by one of our own bishops, Will Willimon: Who Will Be Saved? I’ve blogged on that book some as well. It’s worth the read.

    grace and peace,
    Chad

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  • http://thepangeablog.com Kurt W

    Hi Tony,

    I am late in the game here, but simply wanted to say that while I disagree with my good friend Chad Holtz on this issue (myself leaning toward conditional immortality), I do not question his “salvation” (or should I say, his proclamation that Christ is Lord) :-) He is a genuine Christian. But, I am still not convinced that all will be part of the new creation. As NT Wright has talked about, when judgment comes, it will be like a purifying fire, and for some people they will not have anything left but metaphorical ash.

    I am very interested in this conversation and appreciate seeing the question raised… Hope to hear more on this topic soon.

  • http://wonderingtheologian.wordpress.com/ Philip Donald

    A fair question Tony. As many have mentioned, there are a few reasons not to keep out metaphysics and annihilation, but mainly because we often define things by what they are not.

    To a certain extent, I think that the concepts of heaven and hell are not well understood and as someone else mentioned, I wonder about consciousness apart from a body. Psalm 1 speaks about some not standing in the judgement and then we have the “All who call on the name of the Lord will be saved” of Romans 10:13 over against “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” of Matthew 7:21. It’s a paradox and I think we are all going to be surprised in the end, and I think that the end has more to do with a physical new creation that involves a resurrection. So perhaps everyone goes to some disembodied heaven, but only some are resurrected. Who knows?

    I think anybody can use the label Christian and many who do have no idea of who Jesus is and many who don’t live lives far closer to Jesus than many of his so-called followers. So if a person is a universalist, why can’t they too use the label Christian?

    The last question is, what about those who don’t want to carry on living and if there is a God they do not want to submit to him/her? I take the line of C.S. Lewis at this stage: “There are those who bow the knee and say to God, ‘Thy will be done.’ and those who refuse to bow the knee to whom God says, ‘Thy will be done.”

    Grace and peace
    Philip

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  • Don Boone

    There’s so much in the first 3 chapters of the Gospel of John which refutes the concept of universalism. But the best and most succinct response to universalism is found in John 3:18,19 “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” Here’s an interesting question to someone who believes that God is a universalist: Is free will an illusion? If God plans to save all of humanity whether we want to be saved or not, then it seems to me that God is not really interested in the very things that the Bible talks about: loving, trusting… things that require a choice on our part.

  • http://totallylike.me Elaine-

    i shall not try to sound incredibly intelligent on the subject, i have explored universalism a bit, but there’s not much ‘out there’ except the ‘REAL’ definitions of the word ‘hell’ in the Bible, and a list of scriptures that say ALL will be saved… some universalist websites are wild and wooley and i stop reading them after weird postulations on the devil and such… i think the Bible is really, i mean REALLY open to personal interpretation, and there’s in fact some pretty evil minded interpretations, and Christian Universalism i would hope is the best interpretation of the Bible… I think that mainstream Christianity just spends most of it’s time listening to preachers regurgitating the same old few things, and that’s where we get the ‘belief system’ from. Often, I’ll listen to a preacher scare me half to death and look up the scripture for myself later and find out it meant the exact opposite of what was being preached at me! Now was the preacher lying? or just interpreting it in some far out fashion? who can say, but i don’t listen to many preachers anymore, and as far as universalism goes, I’m going to read the Bible from front to back and decide for myself, and if I’m a universalist, I won’t tell anybody, and apparently, neither will Rob Bell….

  • Gary McNees

    You ask: It seems to me that the big question is, Can you be a universalist and still be a Christian?

    The word ‘universalist” is used by people to refer to many beliefs. If you mean by “universalsit” an Evangelical Universalist, as enuciated by for example, Gregory MacDonald (aka Robin Perry) and Thomas Talbot at The Evangelical Universalist cite: http://www.evangelicaluniversalist.com/forum/index.php
    Then definitely yes. However there are others who call themselves universalists, who are for example, unitarian, who basically deny most doctrine which Christians believe.


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