Universalism – Everyone goes to Heaven? What?
Calvinist theologian John Piper set off a firestorm recently when he “tweeted” “Farewell, Rob Bell” in response to Bell’s upcoming book Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Since Piper has a track record of throwing fellow Christians under the bus if they don’t agree with his theology, people took his comment as un-gentle and un-gracious (see Colossians 3:12). Bell’s book has yet to be released, so I don’t know what’s in it, and I’m not sure how Piper does either, but in any event, what would rile him is that Bell may have talked aboutUniversalism. Since Bell’s book will propel this doctrine into the limelight, I figured I’d fill you in a little about what it means.
Now, various Christian universalisms have been around since the beginning, although they haven’t historically been the majority view. Christian ideas of universal salvation are not generic universalism. “Generic universalism” is the idea that all religions essentially teach the same thing and are pointed at the same goal, so any religion can get you to heaven. (By the way, all religions do not teach the same thing, all religions do not aim at the same goal, and no religion gets anyone to heaven, including Christianity).
The various versions of ‘Universal Salvation’ (also called ‘Universal Reconciliation’ or ‘Universal Restoration’) in Christianity are not the idea that any religion will get you to the same place. No, Universalism in Christianity was the idea that the atonement of Jesus is so profoundly powerful that, in the purposes of God, when all is said and done, every human who has ever lived will eventually and finally turn to God. (This may be what Bell’s title refers to: Love Wins.) Here’s another way it has been summed up: “All human beings will ultimately enjoy redemption and the presence of God forever. Some find the abundant life on this side of the grave — they are called “the elect,” "the saints" and “the firstfruits.” Others may face a fearful judgment and retribution, either in this life or the next. But in the end, they will join the company of the redeemed.” (http://www.auburn.edu/~allenkc/universal_restoration.html)
Most Christian versions of this doctrine include hell of some sort, usually as a limited-duration remedial punishment (get their attention so they want God more than rebellion). While it hasn’t come down to us as the majority view, there were times when it was common (as late as the 5th century Jerome said ‘most people’ and Augustine said ‘many people’ believed it). The idea has been believed, or at least considered quite possibly true, by many sincere followers of Jesus down through the ages, including some pretty heavy hitters: St. Origen, Clement of Alexandria, the Alexandrian fathers, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great, Peter Boehler, William Law, Sundhar Singh, G.K. Chesteron, Karl Barth and John Neuhaus. (I had a larger list and at present can’t find it). Needless to say, the list of heavy-hitters who did NOT believe in this doctrine is far, far, longer. The fact that the greatest evangelist of the 20th century, Rev. Billy Graham, has expressed hope in the doctrine of Universal Salvation ought to indicate that it doesn’t undercut evangelism, as some of its critics claim.
Christians who believe in Universal Salvation basically build their arguments around the following ideas:
- the God who told us to forgive our enemies wouldn’t turn around and set His on fire for trillions of years (this idea has also given birth to the doctrine called ‘Annihilationism’: the idea that Hell is brief and then “the wicked vanish like smoke” and cease to exist (Psalm 37:20).
- modern English tends to obscure the nuances of Greek words regarding hell, and we tend to assume the words hell, gehenna, Sheol, punishment, judgment, justice and wrath all mean the same thing, which they don’t
- the Greek words for punishment associated with hell in the New Testament are words with ‘remedial’ meanings, indicating the punishment is so people will do better next time
- Jesus said some will be ‘beaten with few blows’ or ‘punished lightly’ (Luke 13:48). How could this possibly be describing trillions of years of torment?
- 1 Peter 3: 19-20 and 4: 3,5 describe Jesus preaching to those who had died without knowledge of God’s ways during the time of Noah. Universalists figure something will apply to others who fit the same description.
- It is against the nature of God, who is “kind and loving toward all He has made” to set people He created on fire for trillions of years. Endless torment is disproportionate punishment for a crime committed in a limited scope on earth.
- Paul calls Jesus “the Savior of all men, especially those who believe” (1 Timothy 4:10) and “reconciling all things on heaven and on earth” (Col 1:20 .) Jesus said “If I am lifted up I will draw all men to me” John 12:32. David declares “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.” (Psalm 22: 27) These are by no means all the verses Christian Universalists use, but they are representative.
- ‘Universal Salvation’ was never condemned by any Ecumenical Council during the formative Patristic Age (first 5 centuries), even though some tried to have it condemned. St. Augustine considered those believing in Universal Salvation, (though he did not), still to be genuine Christians.
C S Lewis, in his beloved Chronicles of Narnia approaches this subject by describing a man who had grown up worshipping an idol/false god, finally meeting Aslan (who represents Christ). When Aslan says ‘come here my son,’ the man falls down on his knees expecting to be killed. When Aslan doesn’t kill him, he can’t understand: “I served Tash - a false-god - all my life, and now I see that YOU are the Truth….” Aslan replies “You acted in ignorance. Whatever vows you kept to Tash I credit as vows kept to me. Whatever vows you made to Tash and broke, I count as vows broken to me.” (I summed it up: for more detail, see The Last Battle, chapter 15).
Now, I am not trying to sell you on the idea of ‘Christian Universalism.’ Even with the fact that the assumptions we bring with us to the Bible (the “lenses we read through”) all affect what we think the Scripture is saying, Universalist interpretations still have a lot of questions to answer and a lot of Scriptures to deal with. There are many strong arguments for the Greek meanings pointing to the traditional view of hell. You are already familiar with those Scriptures and traditional view, so I’m not going to go into them here, my point is to say that people advocating Christian Universalism do not need to be categorized as heretics or wild-eyed nut jobs. I think it safe to say you can be a fervent and genuine Christian and believe in universal restoration. To be clear, the stance of the International Church of the Nazarene, placing us squarely in the 'traditional camp', currently reads:
20. We believe in the resurrection of the dead, that the bodies both of the just and of the unjust shall be raised to life and united with their spirits—“they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.”
21. We believe in future judgment in which every person shall appear before God to be judged according to his or her deeds in this life.
22. We believe that glorious and everlasting life is assured to all who savingly believe in, and obediently follow, Jesus Christ our Lord; and that the finally impenitent shall suffer eternally in hell.
(Genesis 18:25; 1 Samuel 2:10; Psalm 50:6; Isaiah 26:19; Daniel 12:2-3; Matthew 25:31-46; Mark 9:43-48; Luke 16:19-31; 20:27-38; John 3:16-18; 5:25-29; 11:21-27; Acts 17:30-31; Romans 2:1-16; 14:7-12; 1 Corinthians 15:12-58; 2 Corinthians 5:10; 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10; Revelation 20:11-15; 22:1-15) This topic is going to come up more and more in the years to come and how we act toward fellow Christians, discussing it calmly and with ‘gentleness and respect,’ is going to demonstrate our Christianity far more than fiery declarations and yelling. A young person blogging over the weekend said it very well, in my mind. He wrote:
“I have no doubt that people like John Piper earnestly believe they are doing their own cause a favor — imagining that God’s Kingdom is well served by the mere act of standing up for truth, no matter the means, method or tone. But even if John Piper is right about everything, shouldn’t he be all the more careful about how he broadcasts the truth?
….For a generation harboring increasingly negative perceptions about (and is distancing itself from) Christianity, there’s no question that controversies like these have played a big role in making these trends worse. When asked to describe present-day Christianity, the second most reported description of young people (ages 16 to 29) was that it is “too-judgmental”, with 87% of young non-churchgoers and 52% of churchgoers holding this view….
I’m not saying there’s no place for robust conversation within the body of Christ about important theological matters. However, we also need to realize that people in the real world who are struggling to negotiate their relationship with God in light of the brokenness of the world (and too-often, the brokenness within Christianity) are put-off by these debates. That’s not necessarily a reason not to debate, but we can’t ignore basic virtues like love, charity and empathy in the process – at least not while following the biblical call to be salt-and-light and Ministers of Reconciliation.”