Universalism and the gospel

“Although an earthly mother may possibly allow her child to perish, our heavenly Mother Jesus can never allow us who are his children to perish.” –Julian of Norwich

I don’t know much about Rob Bell. It seems he’s kind of a big deal in the emerging/emergent church movement (or “conversation” as some folks prefer to refer to it). Bell has kicked up a bit of dust with his forthcoming book Love Wins, which reputedly defends a form of universal salvation. This has already led to Bell being denounced by, among others, ultra-Calvinist preacher John Piper. Bell has been accused of teaching “false doctrine” and preaching “a different gospel.” He’s been the object of much anathematizing on Twitter, along with the usual Christian passive-aggressive behavior (“I’m praying for Rob Bell”). All this over a month before the book is even published!

Now I obviously can’t comment on Bell’s specific arguments, but there’s a reason that universalism is a persistent minority report throughout Christian history. It’s because that’s the direction the logic of the gospel seems to point. After all, the distinctive message of Christianity is that God is a God of boundless grace who loved us “while we were yet sinners” and descended to the darkest depths of the human condition to unite us to Godself. God is portrayed as a loving father who rushes out to embrace his prodigal children before they have even made their repentance. This is, to put it mildly, hard to reconcile with the view that God will sentence some (in some theologies most) human beings to everlasting punishment and suffering. It requires a certain cognitive dissonance to believe both that God loves me without any merit on my part and that God may well condemn me to unending torment.

Christian theology has generally tried to hold onto both horns of this dilemma in one of two ways: either it makes God’s love conditional upon something we do, even if that something is “believing in Jesus”; or, it makes God’s love capricious, with one’s salvation or damnation entirely a matter of the inscrutable divine will (as in the odious doctrine of double predestination). The first approach always teeters on being a form of works-righteousness, while the second has a hard time maintaining that God genuinely loves us. In both cases, the lesson is that we can’t depend solely on God’s grace for our salvation.

Not everyone will be convinced by this argument (I’m not even sure I am).* But, at the very least, if hell is central to the “good news” you’re preaching, you’re probably doing it wrong.
*It should be noted that universalism doesn’t necessarily rule out some form of penultimate judgment or punishment.

10 thoughts on “Universalism and the gospel

  1. ‘course it’s always possible that Hell is a matter of personal exile – a person deliberately choosing to resist God’s love. It’s not like the father could force the prodigal not to go live with the pigs. That would be a matter of disrepecting the prodigal’s free will.

    Rather than worrying about “works righteousness”, perhaps it’s the other way around: “works damnation” – i.e. people have to try really really hard to damn themselves. Mind you, some of them just might succeed.

  2. Nate

    Schleiermacher makes essentially the same argument. He argued that doctrines around eternal damnation drift into one of two different heresies, i.e. either Pelagianism or Manichaeism.

    And yes, free will tends to be overrated since it doesn’t seem to account for the Pauline notion that you gotta serve somebody.

  3. By “ultra-Calvinist” I simply mean those who make Calvinism into a kind of theological system that provides a litmus test of orthodoxy. My impression is that this description fits Piper.

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