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.

6 Responses to “A hopeful universalism?”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, this discussion is a little “fuzzy” to me, which may well be my own fault. I think as Christians we are to loudly proclaim hell as the eventual and definite destination of all who spurn God’s grace. Jesus spoke of hell more than anybody. Certainly if anyone would have known that hell was to be “obliterated” by the Cross, Jesus would have, but he sounded just like he believed the exact opposite.

    There may be some sense in which one might say hell is locked from the inside, as Lewis put it. However, we certainly have Jesus’ reference to the rich man and Lazarus to contend with there. Undoubtedly the rich man would have liked to have gotten out if he could. In fact, he did not want his brothers to wind up there. Hell is extreme punishment, and should never be “sugar-coated” in any respect.

    I don’t know exactly what Paul meant by saying that “all will be made alive in Christ.” But clearly he cannot be contradicting what that Christ himself said, obviously. Perhaps he meant that just as Adam brought eternal death into the universe for all who would follow in his footsteps into sin, so Christ brought eternal life into the universe for all who will follow in HIS footsteps (time being irrelevant).

    With respect to whether God has some wrath “left over” after punishing Christ on the Cross, again there is some superficial appeal or “logic” to saying, “No,” but also again there is too much clear scripture to the contrary to accept such a “syllogism.” I am not a Calvinist by any stretch of the imagination, but I do think that God’s wrath is only “appeased” as to those who will accept the sacrifice which was made for that wrath. This is not exactly an on- point parable, but consider the king who forgave a huge debt, but then subsequently “lowered the boom” once that individual did not in turn forgive a much lesser debt. HIs wrath was appeased initially, but blasted into rage ultimately. If I may be allowed a weak analogy, if God’s wrath is like the blazing of the summer sun, then only those who will come into the “shadow” of the Cross escape that heat. Christ died for all only in the sense that everyone has the opportunity to some to that “shadow”–he did not die, in the ultimate sense, to save those who would in recalcitrance refuse to do so.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Poor Tom! Of course this discussion is a little fuzzy to you. You weren’t educated at a mainline Protestant seminary, and/or you don’t read The Christian Century. I’m not saying that either of those things is bad, they just share certain assumptions about issues related to heaven and hell—including a strong bias against the idea that hell is real or that God sends people there.

      Lazarus and the Rich Man certainly seems on point. I’m not satisfied that Jesus isn’t saying something about hell (although many, many scholars disagree). Anyway, hell is all over the New Testament. It’s hard to get around it.

  2. Giles Says:

    I think you make the same mistake as all Arminian critics of universalism. You propose that a soul may hold out against God forever. But at no point will one be able to say “this soul has held out forever”. And one will be able to say “this soul will hold out forever” only if their free will is destroyed.
    You think people may be able to destroy their free will and lock themselves in hell. Very well. But don’t say that the problem with universalism is that they downgrade free will. Arminian Universalists differ from you in believing free will is indestructible and hence salvation inevitable. As long as your chance of repenting is greater than 0% over time period x it will be 100% over eternity.
    So they have a higher view of free will than you do, not a lower one. Reject Universalism on biblical grounds if you wish, but don’t pretend free will is the problem.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      Giles, two points. First, scripture does teach that it will someday be too late to change one’s mind. See Proverbs 1 (“Then they will cry out, and then I will laugh at them.”) Second, however, a choice is only really a choice if it has real consequences which will follow from that choice. If I choose to marry, then as a consequence (if I am true to my choice), I won’t be able to go after other women. So, to have a real “choice” for or against God, it is necessary that consequences follow. So Christians do really believe in free choice–but a choice once made cannot be “unmade,” even if one wishes later he had chosen something else.

      • brentwhite Says:

        Yes, and what we know for sure is that God has given us this life to respond to his invitation to salvation. If God’s time limit is our death, we can’t rightly accuse God of being unfair.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I had to re-read this post to see what you were talking about. Did I say all that much about free will? Regardless, I do believe that free will makes hell a logical necessity, as Jerry Walls argued nicely in his book on the subject. But whether it does or doesn’t is less important than the Bible’s clear teaching that hell is real, regardless how we reason it through. As the author implies, condemnation by God is the just deserts of our sin. That God saves any of us is incredibly gracious on his part.

      The truth of this sentence isn’t clear to me: “As long as your chance of repenting is greater than 0% over time period x it will be 100% over eternity.” Along with Wesley, I would say that our free will is not indestructible. Like a muscle that atrophies from neglect, the less we respond to God’s gracious overtures, the less we’re able to respond.


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