"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Growing Universalism Conversation

There’s been a lot of buzz about Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins, generated in part by a video Bell posted a couple weeks back where he seemingly acknowledges that his book will reveal a Universalist stance on salvation. The book hasn’t come out yet, but a lot of people are talking. There are some who think, including me, that this issue will only continue to confront Christians and challenge us to reflect and dialogue on the matter.

Bell is one of several others in recent years to “come out of the closet.” It seems there are many who are “closet universalists” and a bit hesitant to confess their feelings for fear of being ousted or frowned upon by their Christian—often Evangelical—communities. There was actually an author who wrote a book about universalism a while back using a pseudonym, I think because he was nervous his denomination would reject him for his outspokenness.

First, a clarification of terms. The theological perspective in question is distinctly Christian. Christian Universalism suggests that because of God’s actions in Christ, all humankind has been reconciled to God (not simply those who “actualize” that reconciliation/salvation by conscious choice). At the end of all things, God’s love will prove too irresistible and all will be saved, regardless of choices in this life; none will be forever lost. Christian Universalists acknowledge the essential work and person of Christ, but extend the effects of that work beyond the Church. The other kind of Universalism, maybe better called pluralism, suggests all religions or faiths have equivalent “saving” power and deny the uniqueness and necessity of Jesus.

I’ve provided some links here from various blogs I visit, as a resource for whoever has a free morning and wants an alternative to sports or cartoons or Matt Lauer. I especially recommend Richard Beck’s articles for a good summary of universalism…

From Tony Jones: http://blog.tonyj.net/2011/02/whats-up-with-rob-bell

From Richard Beck at Experimental Theology:

From Keith DeRose, a Yale professor: https://pantheon.yale.edu/~kd47/univ.htm (this one’s a little more academic)

From Julie Clawson at Sojourners: http://blog.sojo.net/2011/03/03/in-the-end-love-always-wins/ (more a response to Bell)

I think it’s important for Christians to be educated about this matter, because like a lot of hot-button issues, I sense a lot of fear and defensiveness. I think it’s human to react to things which are a threat to our way of thinking and living. And when it comes to various perspectives on science, or morality, or theology, it’s easy to go on the defense when confronted with something new.

And, often, I think it’s because we just don’t understand it. Maybe it’s not even solely our fault, but due to the leadership or authors/teachers we trust who often guide us toward what they deem right belief (or just tell us what to believe). But be it a Buddhist or a Baptist, I think it’s important to consider seriously the claims of others.

I’ve been wrestling with this issue for some time, and would consider myself still searching. There are things I find interesting about the debate, from those on each side, and a few things I’ve learned about universalism. Some quick observations:

• Not only were many of the early church fathers were Universalists (e.g. Origen, Clement of Alexandria, John Chrysostom), but many in the last 100 years either hold or at least appear to have held such a stance (e.g., George Macdonald, Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Jurgen Moltmann). It’s a thread that’s been present in Christian theology since the beginning.

• Despite my previous assumptions, Universalism is not unbiblical or simply a product of Liberalism or Romanticism—an effort to create a theology that “feels good.” Our conclusions about the meaning of a passage often reflect what bring to the text. There are a lot of passages in which, if you come to the text looking for a more exclusive view of salvation, you’ll find it; and vice versa for a more inclusivist approach. Both Universalists and non-Universalists seem tempted to proof-text their points of view.

• Contrary to my prior assumptions, most Christian Universalists seem to believe in hell. Where they differ is not on the reality of hell but the nature, purpose, and duration of it.

• Many Universalists don’t see death as the final chance for repentance. In other words, rather than have someone’s fate rest solely upon choices in this life, there seems to be a sense that after death people will still have the opportunity to repent or turn to God.

• Universalists don’t deny God’s justice. But they seem to understand justice less in terms of a necessary punishment that God is obligated to place on individuals, but is instead God’s effort to “fix” the world and restore shalom—right relationships and harmony—as a means of setting things right. Justice is not retributive; it is restorative.

• Universalists seem to emphasize our communal nature more than non-Universalists, seeing human sin not solely as something each individual is guilty of, but rather showing how the human community is a whole is sick, a broken system, and that we are guilty together, not just individually. Related to that, they don’t seem to prioritize free choice to the same extent as do other perspectives, but acknowledge that our freedom is limited (see esp. Beck on this) because much of our life is actually informed by factors out of our control (genetics, environment, family, culture, etc.). Hence the feeling that a Christian should not be more entitled to eternal life than a non-Christian, simply because of the Christian’s apparent “choice.”

• Universalists seem more Calvinist than non-Universalists. The divergence is that instead of believing that, in God’s complete providence God damns some to eternal torment, God chooses to save all people. What God wants, God gets, essentially—which is the salvation of and relationship with all people.

• What’s the point of evangelism? Despite this concern, Universalists seem compelled to evangelize. My guess is that it’s the same reason many non-Universalists evangelize—because they have really, really good news to share, news of love and hope, news that can transform individuals and communities here and now, and they want every person to know what they know and experience what they experience.

I think it’s worthwhile to seize this moment as an opportunity for reflection and deeper study. Often times the Church’s choice to stick to its more orthodox beliefs and practices has kept it pure, holy, and honoring to the work and ministry of Christ. Other times it’s needed to break from the theology and practice of the moment in response to new discovery (or re-discovery) and new reflection. This seems like one of those crossroads to me.


Tom said...

Right on, Matt. See my essay supporting a kind of universalism in http://www.amazon.com/Universal-Salvation-Current-Robin-Parry/dp/0802827640. Thanks for your well-spoken and gentle blog. My blog is at tfj1943.blogspot.com

Bethany Dirksen said...

Thank you for putting this together. I have started reading through some of the Beck articles and are already finding them very helpful. I am currently not in a community that provides any kind of spiritual discussion or fellowship, so it is nice to have some good resources to read on my own. Looking forward to delving deeper.


Matt Boswell said...

Also relevant: http://recoveringevangelical.com/2011/03/why-love-rarely-wins/

Good article about our difficulties responding to other theological perspectives within the Church.

Ron said...


I'm so proud of you. You are courageous, smart, and earnest, and I love what you are doing. How rich I am for knowing you.


Matt Boswell said...

Thanks Tom, Bethany, and Ron...appreciate the kind words, and glad to be of any help I've been.

salmypal said...

Hi Matt. I've read Love Wins and it sounds like a really good deal. Everybody gets to go...everybody gets in! Except, what if it's not really true? The part about not having to make a conscious choice in this life, that we'll get to make our choices when we come face to face with our Creator, when there is no room for doubt (no room for faith), I think that's where I get stuck. I don't want anyone to think...hmmm, I'll take my chances and wait to see what's what after I die. Or am I not understanding Universalism clearly...which is entirely possible. :)

Matt Boswell said...

Sally, working on a response to your comment that I may post in a new blog, as you've inspired some good reflection. Hope that's okay...

salmypal said...

Oooooo, I like.