A Question about Penal Substitution

from Wikicommons

So, in the wake of all the Love Wins kerfuffle, I received an email from someone who listened to the radio interview I did with Michael Horton.  And the question he asked was this: Are penal substitution and universalism mutually exclusive?

Here’s how we got there.  On the interview, I asked Mike if understanding the atonement via the penal substitutionary theory was essential for a person to be considered a Christian.  He answered that yes, it is.  Other metaphors that explain the atonement are important, and even biblical, he said, but the penal substitutionary understanding is the most widely attested in scripture.  It is necessary and primary.  All other metaphors explaining the atonement take a back seat.

OK, let’s say, hypotehtically, that Mike is right about this.  Let’s say that Jesus did die as a sacrifice, to mitigate God’s wrath against every human being, wrath that was kindled because our sins of disobedience against God.

Couldn’t a penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement also be championed by univeralists?  Couldn’t a universalist affirm that Jesus did, indeed, die to take the stain of Original Sin from us, to appease God’s divine sense of judgment, and to open the gates of heaven to all people?

The obvious counter to this is that Paul said that one must believe in her heart and affirm with her lips, “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9-10).  But universalists have to answer for this verse regardless of how they understand the atonement.

So, I put it to you, are penal substitution and universalism mutually exclusive?

Rob Bell Is (Not) a Universalist – Part One

I’ve now read the book, thanks to Tripp Fuller, who gave me his copy (Tripp listened to the Audiobook version at 3X speed).  Next week, I’ll have a series of posts on the book, with both my affirmations and my lingering questions.

And that’s in advance of my turn at guest hosting Doug Pagitt Radio on Sunday, April 10, 12-2pm CDTI’m committing the entire two hours to a discussion of Rob’s book and of Christian Universalism.

I’ve already booked two guests — in the first hour, Keith DeRose, a philosopher at Yale University; and in the second hour, Michael Horton, a theologian at Westminster Seminary-California.  Keith is an outspoken Christian Universalist.  Mike is, well, not. :-)

I’ve also got a request in for Rob Bell to call into the show.  Rob speaks the next day in the Twin Cities.

I like the book — that will surprise no one.  I’ll get into the substantive issues of the book next week.  Here are my thoughts about the trivial ones:

In the past, I’ve been mildly critical of Rob’s writing style, but in this book it grew on me as I read.  The one-sentence paragraphs and many rhetorical questions still irk me at times.  But what many other writers could not get away with, Rob can, and it’s obviously an outgrowth of his speaking style.  It actually became endearing as the book went on.

Why a san-serif font?!?  I’m always baffled by this.

[Read more...]

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...]


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