Posts Tagged ‘universalism’

A hopeful universalism?

June 30, 2012

When I read Rob Bell’s book Love Wins, from which critics unfairly inferred that he was a universalist, I said on this blog and to others that this book wasn’t written for me. It was written for people who lean in a fundamentalist direction on the question of hell—who haven’t allowed themselves to consider the difficult questions that the doctrine raises.

As for me and my tribe, we need a book written from the opposite perspective: We need to be re-convinced that God could actually send someone to hell. We emphasize God’s grace to the point that we easily forget what it is about which God has proven himself gracious—namely, our sin.

With these issues in mind, you might imagine how I responded to the cover of a recent Christian Century magazine. (Note: the article hides behind the subscription firewall, but you can purchase the individual article.) I groaned. Here we go: as if the typical reader of the Christian Century needs more reason to doubt the doctrine of hell.

But the story itself—as opposed to the cover—wasn’t bad at all. In fact, it was quite good! The author of the cover story, Paul Dafydd Jones, nails my tribe perfectly when he describes mainline Protestant reaction to Bell’s book:

On the other side [of the theological spectrum], little more than a bored, smug shrug emanated from mainstream academics and mainline Protestants—so bored it hardly amounted to a shrug, so smug it implied that those still opposing universalism were no more than reactionary Neanderthals. This (non)reaction barely registered, but that’s all the more telling. In certain circles, universalism is no longer the preserve of theological radicals. It’s gone mainstream.

The author reviews a few books on the subject of hell, including Erasing Hell, a critical response to Bell’s book by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle. He liked it more than you might think. He writes that it’s a “respectful critique of different kinds of universalism, some decent exegetical work and a laudable resolve to connect faith and social justice.”

I haven’t read the Chan and Sprinkle book. (I read another response to the Bell book, this one written by Christianity Today editor Mark Galli called God Wins, as I’ve mentioned before.) But I’m completely sympathetic with this critique from Jones, who, in discussing surprising parallels he finds between Chan and Sprinkle and Karl Barth, writes:

Chan and Sprinkle’s commitment to thinking with Barth doesn’t go far enough… A good example of this comes late in the book, when the authors write that “Jesus satisfied the wrath of God . . . the same wrath that ultimately will be satisfied, either in hell or on the cross” (my emphasis). Why the either/or? Primarily because Chan and Sprinkle balk at one of Barth’s most profound intuitions: that Christ’s death is the death of sin as such; that, by way of the cross, God rejects and overcomes all wrongdoing. On this reckoning, the cross is a decisive articulation of God’s wrath—a decisive no against sin that ensures that the positive yes of grace sweeps slowly but surely and savingly toward each and every one of us. Indeed, isn’t this what Paul meant when he wrote that “as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (1 Cor. 15:21–22)?

In other words, if God’s wrath were only satisfied through Christ for those who place their faith in him—and all the leftover wrath, if you will, were satisfied through those in hell—then we’re back to Calvinism, with its vision of limited atonement: Christ died only for the elect, not for all humanity. No, I’m with Jones: if you go for penal substitution, go for it all the way. As he says later:

The next step is to say plainly that Christ’s engagement with sin—an engagement that encompasses Christ’s life, death and resurrection—is such that sin has no future. I don’t want to suggest here that sin is no longer part of human life. It clearly is, and the world in which we live often shows signs of getting worse, not better. My point is this: in light of Christ’s person and work, sin no longer sets the terms for our relationship with God and God’s relationship with us. On the cross, specifically, Christ draws the full weight of human sinfulness—past, present and future—upon himself, rendering himself the one in whom all sin is overcome.

I preached a couple of years ago that, because of what Christ accomplished on the cross, the problem in the God-human relationship now resides only on the human side. Through the cross, God has taken care of the problem on God’s side—namely, the barrier of sin. I’m still, in other words, with C.S. Lewis’s camp: ultimately, hell is God’s giving human beings want they most desire, and that the gates of hell are locked from the inside. (See “Hell,” from Lewis’s profoundly good Problem of Pain.)

I hope this doesn’t sound like some kind of squishy near-universalism on my part. I believe people’s sinful choices on this side of death have eternal consequences. A person’s active cooperation with sin in this life can cause them, as Jesus warned, to commit the unpardonable sin. As my man Wesley preached, if a person continually fails to respond to God’s grace, he or she may lose the ability to respond entirely, at which point what can only follow is hell. As Lewis would say, this amounts to God’s giving people what they want.

Again, speaking to my tribe, many of whom don’t want to imagine that God would endorse or approve of hell, Jones nicely points out the logical necessity of it: If God is not going to force himself on us—and you can’t coerce love, after all—then God will respect our wishes.

It follows, too, that while damnation is difficult to imagine, it cannot be ruled out. God will not bully us into the kingdom; God waits, patiently, for us to receive and embrace God’s grace. And that allows the possibility—an absurd, baffling, but conceivable possibility—that some will forever resist God’s gracious advance.

Universalists who fail to appreciate this point aren’t so different from Calvinists: God, they would say, simply runs roughshod over human free will and saves everyone, regardless.

I respect any hopeful universalist who, like Jones, correctly grasps the fundamental problem of human sin.

While we mustn’t ever lose sight of God’s grace, we are obliged also to acknowledge the gravity of sin. We cannot suppose that God’s love is permissive, that God overlooks or condones our myriad failings. Just as sin matters in human life, sin matters to God. It is an abrogation of the covenant. It is the very reason that God’s saving grace passes through the horror of Calvary. And since the Bible posits some connection between sin and postmortem existence, theologians should take note. In so doing, one faces a truth that Calvin, Luther and others never let slip from view. No one deserves to be saved, given a refusal of right relationship with God. That God favors anyone bespeaks a love of unimaginable intensity and power.

Don’t misunderstand: Bell might be a universalist, although there’s no way of knowing from this book alone. As many others have said, Bell doesn’t say anything about heaven or hell that hasn’t been said—better, I would argue—by great thinkers like C.S. Lewis. More than anything else, I fault Bell for often writing as if great Christian thinkers throughout two millennia of Church history haven’t asked (and answered) these same questions or objections.

No Methodist pastor was fired for agreeing with Rob Bell

March 25, 2011

My Facebook homepage was in a twitter (Ha! Notice what I did there?) this morning because of an online report about a pastor who was, according to the article, fired because he spoke up on Facebook in support of Rob Bell’s not-even-universalist-but-what-if-it-were new book Love Wins.

Here’s the lede:

DURHAM, N.C. — When Chad Holtz lost his old belief in hell, he also lost his job.

The pastor of a rural United Methodist church in North Carolina wrote a note on his Facebook page supporting a new book by Rob Bell, a prominent young evangelical pastor and critic of the traditional view of hell as a place of eternal torment for billions of damned souls.

Two days later, Holtz was told complaints from church members prompted his dismissal from Marrow’s Chapel in Henderson.

This is nonsense. I’m not surprised that the reporter got it wrong. Reporters usually get religion- and church-related stories wrong. But shame on my fellow Methodist clergy who believe it. At the very least, it means they didn’t pay attention (at all) in United Methodist polity class in seminary.

Granted, I slept through much of the class myself, but let’s be very, very clear: A local church cannot fire a United Methodist pastor. This is so fundamental to Methodist polity it almost can’t be emphasized enough. It’s one of the great strengths of our church, because in theory it gives pastors great freedom and security to proclaim the gospel with boldness.

If Rev. Holtz preached or taught something that his local congregation couldn’t abide, the local church, by means of the SPR, could recommend that the bishop send them a new pastor. If the bishop agrees, Holtz would be appointed somewhere else. He wouldn’t and couldn’t lose his job unless he were brought up on charges before the conference, tried, and found guilty of some serious violation of our Book of Discipline. The Executive Session (the clergy) of the Annual Conference would then have to approve the dismissal.

There’s probably more to the process than that, but to find out I would have to actually get out of my chair, walk over to my bookshelf, get my Book of Discipline out, and look it up.

The point is this: What Rev. Holtz says that he said is not a fireable offense by any stretch—but even if it were, he couldn’t be fired in the manner reported. This is a non-story. Who knows what actually happened, but he’s not being martyred by the church for boldly standing up for his convictions—even if he wants to portray it that way. Say what you will about us Methodists, we are sticklers for following the rules, and the rules come from our Discipline.

This part of the story is obviously true:

Gray Southern, United Methodist district superintendent for the part of North Carolina that includes Henderson, declined to discuss Holtz’s departure in detail, but said there was more to it than the online post about Rob Bell’s book.

Rev. Carlton Pearson and universalism

March 21, 2011

In light of the ongoing controversy surrounding Rob Bell’s new book, which critics are loudly and publicly denouncing as universalist (the belief that in the end everyone will be saved), I point you to an episode of This American Life about the Rev. Carlton Pearson, a formerly popular evangelical pastor who gave up the idea of hell—or more accurately, believes that Jesus’ death effects salvation for everyone, regardless of their faith.

I like this piece a lot. (Thanks to Kevin Hargaden and his fine blog for the heads up.) For one thing, it reminds me—a fan of old time radio—how effective radio can be at telling a story. And Rev. Pearson, whose story is mostly one of outgrowing the Christian fundamentalism of his youth and embracing a deeper vision of the gospel, is congenial, funny, and sympathetic. As I hope the story makes clear, there are many, many worse things than believing that in the end—out of an incomprehensible love for humanity that we cannot understand—the cross of Christ saves everyone.

Universalism is a belief that attempts to capture the magnitude of God’s love. Because of our experience of God and God’s love, we suspect that God’s love for us is bigger, more merciful, and more forgiving than we can imagine (or that we can even justify in terms of the Bible and church teaching). Universalism emerges from this suspicion, and I’m sympathetic.

But here are some of my complaints: The story could have explored whether or not Pearson’s version of universalism counts as “heresy,” not simply accepting the judgment of the Pentecostal denomination of which he was a part, but by interviewing scholars of Christian history. Haven’t there been many Christian thinkers throughout the ages—including biggies like Origen—who have espoused this kind of universalism?

Since Pearson’s beliefs about salvation would be welcome—and shared by many—in the vast majority of mainline Protestant churches, including the one of which I’m a part, Pearson’s universalism should hardly count as any kind of radical stance. Methodists are not radical!

Pearson said some things that should not have gone unchallenged. He said that the traditional belief in hell—by which he means a place of eternal torment for those who fail to accept Christ in this lifetime—is inextricably a part of Jesus’ teaching. I disagree. Strongly. Jesus mentions hell, to be sure. But as I’ve discussed elsewhere, what he actually says should make all of us uncomfortable—Christians included. Are we not the ones who often disregard the poor and fail to visit the sick and clothe the naked, etc.?

Pearson also espoused the same old clichés about the mean “Old Testament God.” Granted his point might have been that (simply) literal readings of the Bible are sometimes incompatible with the loving God revealed in Christ, in which case I agree. But it wasn’t clear. Whatever else we say about God in the Bible, we must also say that Jesus is God and perfectly reveals God to us. We ought to read our Bibles through the lens of Jesus.

Finally, the tone of the story overwhelmingly sides with Pearson—because he’s open-minded as opposed to narrow-minded, accepting of homosexuals, a paragon of liberal values, etc. (This is public radio, after all.) But not so fast… From Pearson’s perspective, Jesus saves everyone. Therefore everyone—Muslim, Hindu, Jew, atheist, Buddhist, Sikh, Zoroastrian, what-have-you—will end up being a Christian. As Pearson says in the piece, it’s still the cross of Christ that reconciles them to God.

Does Ira Glass, who is Jewish, want to be a Christian? (I wish Glass had asked Pearson about this!) How is Pearson’s winsome “gospel of inclusion” not also exclusive?

This is why I am openly exclusive. I make no secret of the fact that I want everyone to become a Christian.

“Father, forgive them…”: further reflections

March 13, 2011

We began a sermon series this morning in Vinebranch called “Seven Last Words,” which will carry us through the Lenten season. We have a bit of a problem, though: There are seven “words”—actually statements—and only six weeks of Lent. But I’ll do what I did in our Ten Commandments series and combine a couple. Check back here for a schedule, which I hope to publish this week.

Each week, we’ll look at (at least) one of the seven different statements Jesus makes while he is on the cross, roughly in the order in which (we imagine) he spoke them. Today, we looked at Luke 23:32-38, which includes Jesus’ remarkably gracious words of forgiveness, spoken of the people who put him on the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

There are a couple of challenges with this text. The first challenge, which someone following along in their Bibles this morning might have noticed right away, is a footnote (in both the NIV and NRSV) indicating that the verse isn’t found in the earliest manuscripts of Luke’s gospel. The NRSV even places double brackets around it, as if to say that its authenticity is highly questionable.

So… was the statement—surely one of the most beloved words from Jesus in all of the gospels—added to Luke’s gospel later, not by the evangelist himself? And if so, does it matter?

I’m concerned that our Bible translations be as accurate as possible. As we discover older manuscripts of the Bible, we should compare and revise our translations as necessary. When it comes to any ancient manuscript, it’s reasonable to assume that “older = more reliable.” In this case, however, I’m actually unbothered by the inclusion of Luke 23:34 in our Bibles. In fact, I think I’d want to fight anyone who tried to remove it! Read the rest of this entry »

Rob Bell stirs things up

March 1, 2011

Rob Bell’s publisher couldn’t ask for better controversy. Apparently, some evangelical leaders got hold of a promotional video for Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, and have gone crazy denouncing a book that they haven’t read. They fear that Bell has become a universalist.

I am not a universalist (as I have discussed elsewhere—here, for instance) for the following reasons: I believe that God revealed God’s self definitively in Jesus. Everything we need to know about God, we can learn from him. There are no additional revelations necessary. Jesus is identically equal to God. Moreover, I believe that reconciliation with God is available only through Christ. I’m not surprised or threatened by the fact that other religions have truth and value, but where there are competing truth claims between the Christian faith and other religions, I side with Christianity.

The above paragraph makes me not a universalist. (Is there a word for that? Exclusivist?) The question of hell and who goes there, however, is a separate question.

And on that question, I’m not nearly as firm as Bell’s critics would prefer (and for all I know, Bell’s book will struggle with the same question). I believe that hell exists. I don’t know, based on scripture, who goes there. I know for certain (at least as certain as faith can be) that through Christian faith and baptism, believers will be saved.

As for everyone else, I don’t know. I don’t have to know. I don’t have to judge. Fortunately, judgment is God’s business, so I’ll leave that up to God.

But I agree with Slacktivist Fred Clark’s exegesis of the Big Three hell proof-texts (Luke 16:19-31; Matthew 25:41-46; Revelation 20:11-15) over at this post. (Fred is firmly in the anti-hell camp.) I’ve made this point before plenty of times. I like this paragraph, in particular:

What one finds in all three of these passages, instead, is a seeming Pelagianism. All that matters in any of these scriptures is deeds and actions. Not a word anywhere here about grace or faith or the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Deeds and actions and those alone are what determines the eternal fate of everyone in each of these passages. They couldn’t be any clearer on that point — the main point of each passage above. What determines if someone is to be cast into Revelation’s “lake of fire”? The dead will be judged, Revelation says, “… according to their works, as recorded in the books. … according to what they had done.” Who are the accursed “goats” on Jesus’ left hand who will be consigned to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”? Those who did not feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked or comfort the lonely. And why was the rich man in Luke’s gospel sent to Hades? Jesus never quite says, but he seems to suggest that the rich man went to Hades because he was rich just as the poor beggar Lazarus goes to Heaven justbecause he was a poor beggar.

Awkward, that.

I also share Slacktivist’s puzzlement on the larger issue: “The odder, larger question is why the members of Team Hell so very much want this imagined eternal torment to be true.”

As I’ve said in sermons before, I hope that God shows everyone the same love, grace, and mercy that God has shown me. Why wouldn’t I? What did I do to deserve it? But God isn’t going to force God’s self on anyone—and that alone is a sufficient reason for hell’s existence.

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