This is the third post of a series I will be writing over the next few months in which I reflect on my theological journey through Evangelicalism and “out the other side.”
I never did much like the idea of Hell. Eternal fire. Unending punishment. Torture, even, perhaps? No second chances. Make the wrong choice in this one life you have, and you’re cooked.
But no one likes the idea of Hell, right?
Remember when Rob Bell lit a fuse, set off a firestorm, and nearly burned the house down, when he suggested that possibly–quite possibly–there is enough hell on earth already and that maybe, just maybe, God will not throw people into the fiery furnace forever? Bell dared suggest that love wins and that in the end Hell will be empty and all will be saved. Could God’s grace and love be that powerful–that good–that universally effective?
The response by many Evangelicals–theologians, pastors, talking heads of various sorts–was swift and virulent (some might say violent). He was lambasted and chastised on blog after blog, and was famously “fare-welled” on Twitter. It seems he was even finally run out of the church that he started, due to the conflict raised by his daring to even raise the question–the potential, the possibility that God might eventually get what God wants–the salvation of everyone.
The response amazed me, though it didn’t necessarily surprise me. Clark Pinnock’s Wideness in God’s Mercy was something of a precursor to Bell’s Love Wins. In that book, Pinnock didn’t take a universalist
position, but he broadened the typical Evangelical perspective to incorporate a wider view of God’s saving love and grace. He represented an inclusivist position–suggesting that perhaps there are people who haven’t known Christ by name or by narrative in this life, who will know him (and be saved by him) in the next. This was reminiscent of Karl Rahner’s “anonymous Christian” notion–the idea that many people might be “Christians” without realizing it. They could be Buddhists, Muslims, agnostics, etc., and know God by faith. One day (even after death) they will realize that God is defined through Christ.
With inclusivism (contra exclusivism), the tent gets wider, God’s saving grace is expanded to incorporate more people under the possibility of salvation. Pinnock had distinguished his inclusivims from universalism (the belief that all people will be saved through Christ). Bell didn’t make that distinction, even though he also didn’t declare that all will be saved. He just hinted at it. But the very suggestion at the possibility of God’s grace universally applied was enough to get him basically kicked out of the Evangelical club (though he fell into the loving arms of Oprah, so there’s that).
But many Evangelicals are quick to remind folks like Bell that Christianity–and theology–is not about what we like or don’t like. And that is true.
I was teaching systematic theology at an Evangelical seminary during the “Love Wins” controversy. I had also already been teaching Christian universalism as one of the historical options in Christianity. If you don’t believe me (that it is a historical option in Christian theology), see All Shall Be Well: Explorations in Universal Salvation from Origen to Moltmann, by Gregory MacDonald (his real name is Robin Parry). Or, if you want something quicker, check out this blog post. I also began sharing with students that there are (and were) evangelicals who are universalists, and I did this by teaching from the aptly titled book The Evangelical Universalist (also by Parry, aka MacDonald).
Many of my students were regularly relieved by the very fact that universalism is actually a legitimate option within historic and contemporary Christianity. I shared with them Parry’s distinction between dogmatic (theologically convinced) and hopeful (theologically open and existentially/personally hopeful) universalism. Over the last several years, I had come to embrace a hopeful universalist perspective, and it greatly helped my own spiritual life and my ability to relate to God as love. Even just raising the prospect of universal salvation as an “article of hope” with my evangelical students, I could sense a relief come over many of them, as they were given permission to believe that God might not be as monstrously frightening as they may have assumed–and far more unbending than they themselves would be, were the eternal state of precious souls in their own hands.
But some (actually only a few relative to the others) reacted with passionate, convicted disagreement. Here are some of the major questions:
But doesn’t universalism undermines the work of Jesus? Most Evangelicals see the Gospel through the lens of “penal substitionary atonement” theory and thereby believe the work of Christ on the cross is only really efficacious and significant if it is limited to those who have come to accept Christ, or in Evangelical parlance, to “accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior.” So, for many Evangelicals, universalism appears to undermine the work of Jesus on the cross. The value of the cross, in this perspective, seems inversely proportional to the number for whom its saving work applies. But more specifically, if the mechanism which is required to access that saving power is removed (i.e. the requirement of human “acceptance” and repentance), then Christ’s work of effecting the possibility of salvation on the cross somehow becomes meaningless. And it is very important for many Evangelicals that this mechanism, this economic exchange, happens in this life–which is our “once chance.” Otherwise, again, the value of the source of the exchange (the cross) diminishes. (There are problems with this single atonement theory as explanatory of the gospel, but I’ll address those in a later post).
But really? Does the universal application of Christ’s saving work really diminish the work of Christ, or does it rather expand and intensify it? Is the cross more “effective” if some sinners are saved or if all sinners are saved? Is God’s grace more profound if it’s applied to some sinners or to all sinners? Is God more worthy of worship and devotion if only some are reconciled or if all are reconciled? God doesn’t have to wait till we are not sinners to save us: But God demonstrates his love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8).
But don’t we have to “accept,” “trust,” “repent,” “believe,” and so on? Isn’t the ball in some way in our court?
Yes. There are things we must do to appropriate the grace of God. Christian universalism does not deny this. It simply suggests that this life we live is not our only opportunity to do this. It simply suggests that at some point, everyone will eventually do these things, receive the saving grace of Christ, and be reconciled to God and to each other. Parry, as an “Evangelical Universalist,” even believes in the reality of Hell. He just believes that Hell will one day be emptied of inhabitants, because everyone will eventually accept the forgiveness of Christ and repent of their sins. …that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth (Phil 2:10)
Ok, so what about free will? How can God ensure that “every knee” will bow, and that everyone will (freely) accept Christ’s salvation?
Did you really just ask that? First, five-point Calvinists aren’t even allowed to ask that question, since they don’t really believe in free will anyway. Second, are we really supposed to think that there are people so wicked, so “bent in on themselves,” so evil, that they would eternally refuse to repent and receive God’s love? Ok, it’s conceivable. But really? Might not the “appearance” of Christ in his beauty and the effusive power of the Spirit and the love of God in its grandest expression be an effectual draw for everyone who has ever lived, regardless of the “hardness” of their heart?
Ok, so then what’s the point missions and evangelism if everyone is going to be saved anyway? What’s the point of personal sacrifice in this life for the sake of Christ and the gospel? Why not just eat, drink, and be merry?
Well, that’s pretty easy, I think. Why not? If God’s love is as great as we say it is, and if Christ’s work on the cross is as profound as the gospel of universal forgiveness implies it is, why not share the message of love? Why should this gospel not issue in a life of self-sacrificial love for all the people of God in the world–including those not in our own religious clubs? Now, Christian universalism does change the nature of the gospel that is preached. It is no longer driven by an anxious need to proselytize people to the institutional forms of Christianity. It changes evangelism and mission–but in a good way; a way that can affirm the inherent goodness of all humanity and that is motivated by genuine love and by a real and living hope.
But doesn’t universalism emphasize God’s love over God’s justice?
But remember, Christian universalism doesn’t deny God’s justice. God’s justice has been accomplished on and through the cross. God concern, as we are told over and again in the gospels, is that justice be done on the earth–and it will be. But God has already reconciled with the world through Jesus. God is just waiting for us to accept that work of reconciliation. Instead of seeing God as some kind of split entity, keeping “justice” and “love” in a strained tension, universalism brings justice and love together into a unified God–which is what Christian theology has always insisted about God, anyway.
In the end, we should at the very least ask whether it might be possible that God will get what God wants: the universal salvation of everyone.
This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For
there is one God;
there is also one mediator between God and humankind,
Christ Jesus, himself human,
who gave himself a ransom for all (1 Tim. 2:4)
Might God be so loving, Jesus’ salvation so effective, and the gospel compelling that, in the end of all things, this cosmic, universal reconciliation of all things (and of all people) will actually happen?
Might God actually get what God wants? Could we be so brazen to believe this?