Recently I posted on Rob Bell and some of the ways he gets up the noses of many conventional christians. One of the biggest furores was caused by his book, Love Wins, which hinted at universalism – that everyone, regardless of belief now, would turn to God in the next life.
Has universalism got a strong case?
The argument for universalism
On of the best summaries of the case for universalism is Universalism and the Bible by philosopher Keith deRose. He makes the following main points:
Five New Testament passages
Keith draws on the following NT passages: I Corinthians 15:22, Colossians 1:19-20, Romans 5:18, Romans 11:32 and Romans 10:9 read in the light of Philippians 2:11. These passages mostly use the word “all” to describe who God will save – I Corinthians 15:22 is typical:
For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”
The meaning of “all” and “eternal”
Keith argues, correctly I believe, that “all” means exactly what it says, and “eternal” means “pertaining to an age”, and doesn’t imply everlasting at all. He thus undermines some of the arguments against universalism.
By Jesus alone?
He admits that the NT overwhelmingly teaches that salvation is only possible in Jesus, but argues that it isn’t clear that only those who consciously “accept” Jesus in this life will receive salvation. Thus he argues that all will be saved through Jesus, as 1 Corinthians 5:22 suggests.
The problems with universalism
There are many, many verses that warn of punishment in the age to come, especially from Jesus himself (e.g. Matthew 10:28 & 25:41,46). While Jesus doesn’t give unambiguous answers to these questions, and certainly offers hope and grace to all who approached him with humility, his statements condemning the religious leaders of his day are very strong (see Matthew 23).
It therefore seems we have a stronger case against universalism than in favour, but the matter isn’t clear.
Christianity is changing
Unquestionably, postmodern christians are increasingly uncomfortable with the old “hellfire” teaching of evangelical christianity. In this, I think they are correct. I offer the following positive conclusions:
Hubris vs humility
God has not made all these matters clear, so we should avoid thinking we know the mind of God. Humility and tolerance are needed.
I think if we don’t wish or hope that everyone will be saved, and instead are somehow pleased that God will condemn some people, there is something of God’s love missing.
I remain of the view that Jesus did not teach the conventional view of hell. God allows us to choose him and life in the age to come, or not, but there is no ongoing punishment – see Hell – what does the Bible say?
The grace of God
Whatever our conclusion, we must learn to ensure that God’s grace is not minimised in our teaching and evangelism. Paul didn’t ever mention hell, and the meaning Jesus gave it is not the meaning it has today. So clearly it isn’t necessary or helpful for us to talk about it either.
This post is part of a series on Christianity is changing
Good thoughts, unkleE. So much to think about, and so much we don’t and can’t know on the subject. The more I read and think, the less strongly I feel I need to hold ground on some of these more difficult subjects. Thanks for the post!
I really appreciate your tone and approach on this one. You and I may disagree about a number of things, but I think we’re sympatico when it comes to dogmatism. Saying “this is what I think” is so much better (and truer) than saying “this is the way it is.”
Keith deRose makes many excellent & accurate comments on
“universal-ism”: yes “all means all” & aionios means “relating to the Age (or Ages) to Come”. If you add just one missing NT fact: both zoopoieo in 1 Cor 15:22 (c.f. dikaiosin zoes, Romans 5:18) & sozo in 1 Timothy 2:4 (c.f. v 6 & soter in 1 Tim 4:10) …. refer to “future, universal resurrection for judgment/opportunity” (see John 5:29 c.f. Acts 24:15), & NOT to “universal-ism”.
I agree that universalism is not clearly taught in scripture, but universalism makes more sense cognatively. I guess I’m not 100% sure what is true, but I am pretty sure what is not.
Thanks for the comments.
Josh: CS Lewis wrote that modern people are less willing than we ought to be to remain in a state of honest doubt, or uncertainty.
Nate, thanks. Yes, we may feel quite psychologically certain, but we shouldn’t confuse that with being factually certain.
AlCo/Gihon: thanks. I think too many people look to the Bible for quite precise information on the questions we are asking, but the writers quite possibly were thinking differently to us.
I think what you describe is a pretty good place to be. I think God can cope with our doubts and uncertainties far more than our arrogance and certainty. We can see this in the life of Jesus, who helped a man who said “I believe, but help my unbelief”, but was very critical of the religious leaders who “knew it all”.
We need to be ready and wiling to trust the revelation God gives us through the Bible and the Spirit, but we also have to be willing to consider that the way we have interpreted and understood God may be in serious need of correction.
The challenge, I think, is to stay open enough to be humble and teachable, but faithful and confident enough to follow Jesus in our day-to-day lives.