The Post You NEED to Read about Universalism

It resides at Keith DeRose’s site.  Keith, often referenced by me, is a philosophy professor at Yale.  Keith has written publicly for years in defense of Christian Universalism, and he regularly corresponds with me privately on the subject.  Rob Bell, at least according to the New York Times, is unlikely to answer many questions on this topic in his forthcoming book:

Judging from an advance copy, the 200-page book is unlikely to assuage Mr. Bell’s critics. In an elliptical style, he throws out probing questions about traditional biblical interpretations, mixing real-life stories with scripture.

Much of the book is a sometimes obscure discussion of the meaning of heaven and hell that tears away at the standard ideas. In his version, heaven is something that begins here on earth, in a life of goodness, and hell seems more a condition than an eternal fate — “the very real consequences we experience when we reject all the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us.”

No such worries with Keith.  Keith deals straightforwardly and forthrightly with the biblical passages that affirm universalism, and those that contradict it.  No beating around the bush here.

I have taken a brief respite from blogging about the possibility of Christian Universalism as I put the finishing touches on my dissertation (due next Tuesday!).  But when I return to this topic, I will be thinking through the biblical witness on this topic, and I’ll use Keith’s manifesto as my ur-source.  So if all the Rob Bell brouhaha has gotten you thinking about Universalism, read this paragraph, and click through to the rest of Keith’s writing: [Read more…]

Christian Universalism: Cosmology

Being that I’ve been to Italy a dozen times, as a student, a tourist, and a tour guide, I’ve seen lots of creepy, medieval depictions of Hell.  The most arresting may be the doors of the Duomo in Orvieto, a detail of which is shown above.

Each of these depictions, however, is based on a cosmology that has long since been abandoned by Western intelligentsia.  We now look someone curiously at earlier cultures, in which people believed that there was a physical place populated by damned souls and governed by demons.  No longer can we say that Hell is “down” and Heaven is “up.”  Whether you accept a theory of chaotic inflation of the universe or a cyclical model in which the universe repeatedly contracts to a single point and then explodes outward again, it’s impossible to think of Heaven and Hell as places in the universe as we know it.

Some get around that by thinking that Heaven and Hell are places outside of the present universe, while others argue that both will only really exist at the end of time, when God (re-)creates them.  Until then, these latter folks argue, people who have died are in a state of “soul sleep.”  Both of these conclusions once again raises the metaphysical problem.

But it raises an exegetical problem as well: Jesus held an incorrect cosmology. [Read more…]

Christian Universalism: The Problem of Metaphysics

“It’s not easy to say what metaphysics is.”

So begins the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on metaphysics.

The Mighty Wikipedia sayeth,

Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world, although the term is not easily defined. Traditionally, metaphysics attempts to answer two basic questions in the broadest possible terms:

  1. “What is there?” and
  2. “What is it like?”

The reason I’m confronting this issue right off the bat in my series on The Possibility of Christian Universalism is because I think most of us in the West are caught between the biblical classical world, steeped in myth, and the postmodern world, after the “death of metaphysics.”  I’m also chastened by David Opderbeck’s comment on last week’s post, in which he wrote, [Read more…]

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?