Archives For Universalism

Hello Rev. Micheli,

My name is Matthew _______, I’m an enormous fan of your work.

I was reading Rob Bell the other day and was a bit disturbed by this line: “It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief (in hell as eternal, conscious torment) is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus.”

Would you say it is a common view among evangelicals that the *belief itself* in universalism warrants Hell? That even if the person believes Jesus saves, the additional belief of universalism amounts to rejecting him? (This could just be Bell’s hyperbole regarding the word “essentially”.) Can one be a Christian and believe that all will be saved?

I was wondering what your take on the matter might be.

Sincerest,

Matt

Hi Matt, 

Quite obviously you’ve read a sufficient amount of my writing to guess that flattery was a good gamble to get a response from me. I thank you all the same, and I’m being truthful when I say that I’m humbled not only by your kind words but more so by your trust in me with such a significant question. 

I think a word like “trust” is absolutely the right word to use in this matter for the stakes explicit in a doctrine like the— supposed— doctrine of eternal conscious torment are too high for the sort of callous, unthinking certitude with which many Christians comment on it. On the one hand, I know far too many liberals who attempt to posit universal salvation by resorting to sloppy analogies about spokes on a wheel. “Different religions are just different paths to the same destination,” is a mantra many are conditioned by the culture to repeat. Seldom do such people realize the presumption behind what they surely take to be a humble position; after all, just as only God can reveal God, only God can know which paths might produce the destination that is God. Likewise are those who want to iron over differences between the faiths of Abraham by dismissing them altogether with “We all worship the same God, right?” We may indeed all worship the same God, but such a dismissal ignores that the central tension in scripture is not over having or not having a generalized belief in God but in whether or not God’s People worship God rightly.

Any account of universal salvation, therefore, must arise not from the secular impulse to undo what God does at Babel and eliminate difference, for the difference God does at Babel is the way in which God blesses the world.

The elimination of difference, Babel teaches us, comes from our sinful inclination to be gods in God’s stead. Often I think Christians of a certain vintage insist upon the notion of eternal hell because those Christians adovcating for universal salvation do so in a way that seems insufficiently Christian; that is, Christianity seems incidental to the sentiments that prompt their universalism. 

Incidentally, I believe this is also why so many liberal Christians are unpersuasive to other Christians on LGBTQ issues. “Love and welcome for all,” for example, is a principle with which I concur, but it is a principle.

Principles, in principle, do not require a crucified Jew for you to discover them.

Any argument for universal salvation then must be one that emerges from the particular revelation given to us by God in Jesus Christ, and, frankly, the argument from those scriptures is much easier to execute than many brimstone-loving evangelicals seem to realize. Certainly there’s sufficient scriptural witness to disqualify any characterization of eternal conscious torment as an essential Christian belief. As Jesus tells Nicodemus, his coming comes from God’s love for the entire cosmos and what God desires is that all the world will be saved— the word there is healed— through him (Question: Does God get what God wants in the End? If not, wouldn’t what frustrates God’s eternal aim, by definition, be god?) In that Gospel, John makes explicit in his prologue and in his Easter account that the incarnation is God’s way of constituting a new creation not evacuating a faithful few from the old creation. The cosmic all-ness of Christ’s saving work is the thrust of Paul’s argument in Romans where even the unbelief of the Jews Paul attributes to God’s own doing: “God has consigned some to unbelief so that God may be merciful to all.” He puts it even plainer in Timothy: “Our savior God . . . intends that all human beings shall be saved and come to a full knowledge of the truth.”

Where hell is mentioned in the creeds, which, remember are the only means by which Christians evaluate who is and is not a legitimate believer, hell is mentioned because Christ harrowed it, rescuing the dead from former times from Sheol.

Even in Christ’s own parables—

Hell is never a realm that lies outside the realm of grace. 

Whenever we separate the person and work of Christ, which an accomodated Church in Christendom is always tempted to do, we abstract discipleship (a life patterned after the person of Jesus) from faith (confession in the work of Christ), leaving “belief” to play an outsized role in how we conceive of what it means to be a Christian. Faith then becomes a work we do— when we don’t want to do the things that Jesus did— a work by which we merit salvation rather than a gift from God to sinners. Understand— this insistence on eternal conscious torment is ungracious all the way down. We’re the agents of it all. It turns Christianity into a religion of Law instead of Grace.

To answer your question, though, I’m not sure that I can answer your question. I don’t know how many evangelicals believe that belief in universalism itself warrants eternal conscious torment. If they do believe that believing all shall be saved is a surefire way not to be saved, I’m not sure what Bible they’re reading. Karl Barth, for instance, who was an evangelical, wrote that while the Bible does not permit us to conclude without qualification that all shall be saved, the Bible does exhort us to pray that all will be saved— because the salvation of all is God’s revealed will. Just as I’m not sure what Bible such evangelicals could be reading, I’m also unclear about what God they could worshipping.

Such dogmatic insistence behind belief in eternal conscious torment and the alleged justice that requires such a doctrine grates against the justice God reveals to us in crucifixion of God’s own self for the ungodly.

When it comes to questions of eternal punishment, we mustn’t let the world’s sin obscure the fact that Jesus, crucified for the ungodly, is the form God’s justice takes in the sinful world. 

While I’m not sure how many evangelicals believe believing in universal salvation yields damnation, I do believe many evangelicals lack an helpful awareness that belief in universal salvation is more than a meager minority voice in the history of the Christian Church. There have been universalists as long as there have been Christians. In the first half the Church’s history, they were so numerous that Augustine had a sarcastic epithet for them (“the merciful-hearted”). The Church Father Gregory of Nyssa, whom Rob Bell basically ripped off, was one. He argued that since Adam and Eve were types who represented the entire human community whatever salvation meant it meant the redemption of all of humanity. You need not agree with Gregory but to suggest Gregory is not a Christian seems to indicate the plot has gotten lost. 

As David Bentely Hart notes in his forthcoming book:

“[universalists] cherished the same scriptures as other Christians, worshipped in the same basilicas, lived the same sacramental lives. They even believed in hell, though not in its eternity; to them, hell was the fire of purification described by the Apostle Paul in the third chap- ter of 1 Corinthians, the healing assault of unyielding divine love upon obdurate souls, one that will save even those who in this life prove unworthy of heaven by burning away every last vestige of their wicked deeds.”

Back to your question— Would you say it is a common view among evangelicals… that even if the person believes Jesus saves, the additional belief of universalism amounts to rejecting him? 

Again, I’m not sure what evangelicals believe about the dangers of believing in universalism, but if any do, then we should pray for them. How sad to think that it’s possible for Christians in America to have turned the wine of the Gospel into water. 

A Gospel where, in the End, sinners get what they deserve— that’s water not wine. 

It’s religion; it’s not the justification of the ungodly. 

A Gospel where those who err by believing too much in the triumphant mercy of God will be banished to eternal outer darkness— that’s worse than the plain old water of religion. What’s more, it puts the right-believers outside the party standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the older brother pissed off at the prodigality of the Father’s grace. A week from Good Friday we’d do well to remember it was such begrudgers who pushed God out of the world on a cross. 

hell-5-views-3-638I often wonder if Christians are so beholden to belief in an eternal hell because they simultaneously assume that belief in the biblical account of creation requires images of brontosauruses reclining with Adam in the peaceable garden of eden. I wonder, that is, if believing in a fiery fate is part and parcel with affirming scripture’s aging of the earth. Certainly I think Christians can only insist that the story ends this awful way for some of us- or, to listen to them, a great many of us- because they mistakenly read its beginning in a particular way.

Belief in an eternal hell relies upon a literal, which is to say static, reading of Genesis. Only such a reading, where the  term ‘creation’ is circumscribed to the first six days, can make belief in a Last Day that begets eternal torment coherent.

To preach fire and brimstone of the ultimate variety one must first conjugate the Triune God’s deliberation (“Let us make humankind in our image…”) into the past tense.

When Christians erroneously suppose that the doctrine of creation refers to our beginnings, in the past, they not only get into misbegotten debates pitting science vs. scripture, they fail to realize that belief in an eternal hell is morally contradictory to belief in creatio ex nihilo, creation from nothing.

Christians do not posit creation from nothing as a claim about the origins of the universe. Nor do we mean it merely as a metaphysical one- that ‘God’ is the answer we give to the question ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’ Of course it includes both of those claims but creation from nothing is hardly reducible to either of them; instead, creation from nothing, as Church Fathers like Gregory of Nyssa saw clearly, does not refer to God’s primordial act but to an eschatological one which witnesses to God’s ultimate, as in teleological, relation to creation.

For Christians, the doctrine of creation from nothing is not a belief about what God did, billions or thousands of years ago. It’s a confession that necessarily includes what God has done, is doing, and will do unto fruition.

Creation from nothing isn’t so much a statement about what God did or what God does but its a statement about who God is. To say that God creates ex nihilo is to assert that God did not need creation. God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is, already and eternally so, sufficient unto himself, a perfect community of fullness and love, without deficit or need and with no potentiality. Creation from nothing confesses our belief that the world is not ‘nature’ but creation; that is, it is sheer gift because the Giver is without any lack. Creation is not necessary to God. It is not the terrain on which God needs to realize any part of an incomplete identity.

Creation from nothing then is shorthand for the Christian assertion that the Creator is categorically Other from his creation, that the Transcendent is absolutely distinct from the temporal. Simultaneously, however, creation from nothing requires that though- really, because– Creator and creation are ontologically distinct they are morally inseparable.

Precisely because God did not need to create, because creation is sheer gift, God ‘needs’ for creation to reveal his goodness.

Morally speaking, God is now bound to creation’s end because its beginning was not bound to him. In other words, for creation to be gift and the Giver to be good, then God ‘must’ bring to fruition his purpose in creation, “Let us make humankind in our image,” for all causes are reducible to and reflect their First Cause. If creation proves ultimately to be less than good (with an eternal torment for some of creation), then the Creator is no longer in any logical sense the Good.

As my teacher David Bentley Hart argues:

“In the end of all things is their beginning, and only from the perspective of the end can one know what they are, why they have been made, and who the God is who has called them forth.”

God’s creative purpose does not refer to Adam and Eve’s first day on the third. It was not fulfilled prior to the Fall nor would it have been without it. If, before their mistrust in the Garden, Adam and Eve already bore the fullness of God’s image then God is but a god, and it’s no longer intelligible what we mean by saying Christ is the image of the invisible God for the chasm between Adam and Jesus is only slightly less than infinite. What Christians mean by the imago dei is not immediate. It is, in fact, inseparable from what we call sanctification. Perfection.

God’s “Let us…” does not refer to the events of day 3 of creation but names the plot of the entire salvation story. Making us- that is, humanity, all of us- into the image of Father, Son, and Spirit is what God is bringing to pass in calling Israel, in taking flesh in Christ, in sending the Spirit, and, through the Spirit, sending the Church to announce the Gospel. As Gregory saw it, we can only truly say that God ‘created’ when all of creation finally has reached its consummation in the union of all things with the First Good.

Belief in an eternal hell is absurd then exactly because what Christians mean by belief in the imago dei is not immediate but ultimate.

It is, in fact, inseparable from what we call sanctification.

Perfection.

Creation from nothing for the purpose that humanity would bear gratuitously the image of the good God is what God began in Genesis, what God is doing now through the Spirit, and what God has promised to bring to completion in Christ. Eternal hell does not comport with this telos, this End, towards which God has created us.

Indeed belief in eternal hell, where some portion or multitude of humanity is forever lost and forsaken, contradicts belief in creation from nothing, for if God’s promised aim is that, in the fullness of time all of humanity will bear his image, the promise can never be consummated apart without all of humanity included in it.

 

 

quote-that-thing-of-hell-and-eternal-punishment-is-the-most-absurd-as-well-as-the-most-disagreeable-george-berkeley-16387-4I’m no aficionado of the Oxford Comma, as my friend Tony Jones knows,  so I can appreciate, I suppose, the way a sober dose of grammatical clarification can provoke patronizing tones. Last week my post on how Paul, once he’s properly translated, believes it’s the faithfulness of Christ- not our faith in Christ- that justifies us before God, inspired many a breathless rebuttal. According to the many rejoinders I received, to place “too much stress” upon God-in-Christ as the acting subject of salvation leads to an “abyss of false teaching” where it becomes necessary to affirm that which the New Testament already (inconveniently) does; namely, that the God who created all that is ex nihilo as sheer good gratuity, the God who is all and in all, is the God who desires the salvation of all.

“This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” – 1 Timothy 2.3-4

Apparently, if my critics, clergy and lay, are to be heeded to assert that God desires the salvation of all constitutes a “treacherous absurdity.” It’s a betrayal of the Gospel, I’ve been told in the not so hushed tones of all caps messages, to suppose that the triune God who announced his creative aim in Genesis 1 (“Let us make humankind in our image…”) will not forsake his endeavor until it has reached final consummation, that in the fullness of time humanity will finally bear the full glory of God’s image. Evidently, I take it from these Calvinists in threadbare sheep’s clothing, it’s better to confess that God-with-us may be our Alpha but he is not our End. At least, not for all of us.

Their sanctimonious caveats took me aback, warning me that my logic- which is but the logic of the New Testament’s witness- “could lead down a slippery slope” to (gasp) “universalism.” It’s amazing to me that those most vested- presumably- in protecting the gravity of sin, the majesty of salvation, and the authority of scripture ignore what scripture itself testifies about it and the nature of the God revealed therein. Spurred by my teacher, David Bentley Hart, I actually counted them up. The New Testament contains no less than 47 verses which affirm the ‘all-ness’ of God’s salvation compared to the 3 oft-cited but decidedly cryptic verses which may (or as easily may not) suggest eternal torments for the wicked.

47 vs. 3

What was obvious to the ancient Church Fathers, the totality of God’s salvific aim, has become so hidden it now sufficiently smacks of heresy to exile Rob Bell from the pulpit to the Oprah Channel.

A hero of mine, Karl Barth, famously said that as Christians scripture does not permit us to conclude that all will be saved but that as Christians we should hope and pray that all will be saved. Barth’s is a more generous sentiment than I hear from many Christians today, but despite his reticence I daresay logic permits us to say more.

If God desires the salvation of all it is a logical absurdity to assert that the transcendent God will ultimately fail in accomplishing his eschatological will.

The belief in an eternal hell where some are forever excluded from the ‘all-ness’ of salvation echoed by scripture- that is the absurdity which begets still other absurdities like the Calvinist notion that God predestined some to salvation and others to perdition.

Just as God cannot act contrary to his good nature, so too God cannot fail to realize the good he desires. To say, as scripture does, that God desires the salvation of all is to say simultaneously and necessarily, as scripture implies, that all will be saved, that all things will indeed be made new.

Consider the counter:

If not, if we in our sin (or, worse, in our “freedom”) thwart God’s will and desire, casting ourselves into a fiery torment despite God’s sovereign intention, God would not be God. Or, to put it simpler if more baldly, we would be God. Or, still more pernicious, evil, as that which has successfully resisted God’s creative aim though it is no-thing, would be God.

Evil would God.

Thus the belief in an eternal hell betrays the fact that it’s possible for perfect faith to be indistinguishable from perfect nihilism.

Just days after the slaughter in Orlando, it’s clear how offensive the ‘all-ness’ of God’s sovereign saving love can strike the moral ear. For that ‘all-ness’ must include the shooter too.

To suggest instead that even if Christ came for all and died for all only some will be saved better conforms to our calculus of justice, but it is a moral calculus that is not without remainder, for it makes of evil an idol and of (the once transcendent) God a liar.

Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. – Romans 5.18-19

For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all. – Romans 11.32