There has been a bit of talk about Rob Bell the past few days. Actually, that is putting it mildly. Rob even took much of the internet’s attention from Charlie Sheen. Rather than commenting on Rob (for now), I wanted to post something brief about the underlying topic: Universalism.

Now, Rob didn’t actually use this word in his video, but this is the concept he seems to be promoting. At a minimum, he has raised the issue – which it seems is what Rob does best.

I’ve had a few conversations with people who didn’t really understand what the issue was, so for this post I just want to throw out some very basic definitions.

There are 4 primary views on the final state of souls.

Exclusivism holds that only those called by God will be saved. An unfortunate name in a way, because “excluding” people sounds contrary to our call to evangelize and disciple. It’s not. Think of exclusivism in a way similar to how you think of an exclusive club. In such a club, you would need membership card or a nod from the club’s owner for the guy at the door to let you in. Same deal. God gets to set the terms, and Jesus is his criteria.

Inclusivism says that there is salvation in Christ alone, however because of God’s grace and mercy, he will include the majority of people. Some take this as far as to say that while Christ provided the means for salvation, trust and even belief in Christ are not strictly necessary. This is a touchy subject, because it can sound contrary to the bible. The liberal side of this group will be very nearly Universalist. The conservative side will say that those “included” without belief are those such as the unborn, children who are not old enough to make a decision for Christ, the people in the jungles who have never heard… you get the idea.

Pluralism says that all religions ultimately lead to God.

Universalism says that everyone will be saved – even those with no religion at all. Some Universalists believe there is a hell that is something like a temporary penalty box, while others believe hell is empty. Regardless, at the end of the show, every human who has ever been will be in God’s presence. Christians who hold the Universalist position believe that a God who is loving would not allow people to be forever separated with him. A nice thought, but it makes one wonder what was the purpose of the cross, and where does God’s justice figure in.

Very complex and divisive issues, and each has its subgroups, but these are the basic delineations.

Exclusivism and Inclusivism fall generally within orthodox Christianity, though there are exceptions on the periphery. Pluralism and Universalism simply do not square with the bible. Pluralism is contrary to scripture in every way. However, one can see where a Christian could have Universalist leanings. I don’t think this is a closed-hand issue necessarily. In other words, belief in Universalism does not in itself make one a nonchristian or condemn them to hell. Jesus is the sole criteria for that. However, holding heteroorthodox or unorthodox views on this topic will have serious implications on how you work out the rest of your life. For instance, if I will go to heaven no matter what I do, then why should I live any differently on earth? Similarly, if everyone else is going to heaven, there is no need to spread the gospel. Universalism is simply bad news.

I’m by no means an expert on this issue, but hopefully this will help clear the fog so you can understand all these debates people are having this week.

Finally, check out Tim Keller’s brief thoughts on the topic:

  • Jeremiah

    I am not an expert on this issue either. Not even sure what my own views are, honestly.

    Wanted to address this, though:
    ” For instance, if I will go to heaven no matter what I do, then why should I live any differently on earth? Similarly, if everyone else is going to heaven, there is no need to spread the gospel. ”

    I think most universalists would argue that the kingdom of God is on earth, and there’s much joy and happiness to be found in trying to live a Godly here and now. Saying “why should I live any differently on earth” makes it seem like the only point of your salvation is fire insurance. Shouldn’t our salvation mean a little more for our life on earth, rather than just having an effect on our afterlife?

    Not saying that’s how you meant it, but that is the way it comes across in some circles. Just say the prayer, get saved, and then look forward to eternal life after you die. What about your new life here on earth, though?

  • That’s often how the extreme edge of the so-called “once saved, always saved” people take it. What is done between “the event” and your death is immaterial, according to many.

  • You may have a point Jeremiah. I’m not familiar enough with their beliefs about heaven vs. earth. I would have to hear a Universalists take on it. (Though, this is not exactly a cohesive bunch. There are a lot of variants.)

    Here’s the main problem as I see it. What was the point of the cross? Why did Jesus come? Why did he die? If we all ultimately meet the same destiny, then I don’t know what purpose he served.

  • You may have a point Jeremiah. I’m not familiar enough with their beliefs about heaven vs. earth. I would have to hear a Universalists take on it. (Though, this is not exactly a cohesive bunch. There are a lot of variants.)

    Here’s the main problem as I see it. What was the point of the cross? Why did Jesus come? Why did he die? If we all ultimately meet the same destiny, then I don’t know what purpose he served.

  • Jeremiah

    Well, without the cross, none of us would be going to heaven.

    Good questions though. I hope people stop writing off Rob Bell as a heretic, and that this book actually serves to promote conversation on the issue.

  • Well, that would depend how you’re defining heretic. He may well be a heretic, or he may just be an incredibly liberal Christian. Neither is a good thing. At an absolute minimum, though, I’d say Bell isn’t helping. I’m on the other side of this argument. I think Bell is actively deconstructing Christianity, doctrine by doctrine.

  • “if I will go to heaven no matter what I do, then why should I live any differently on earth?”

    Salvation isn’t supposed to be based on works.

    If you really are interested in learning more about Christian Universalism, I’ve collected lots of articles over the years on my site: http://www.ChristianHeretic.com/hell

  • Very true. Salvation isn’t based on works. I wasn’t intending to suggest salvation though. What I am saying is, why should I do anything differently? Why should I accept Christ? Why should I tell others to do the same? If there is not salvation from something, then what exactly does a Universalist mean by “salvation”?

    I’ve read a lot of people’s defense of Universalism, but I’ll check out your link. Thanks for taking the time!

  • You’re welcome. Thank you for the gracious response (most non-Unies are a lot less gracious, in my experience, when it comes to the subject). In response to your questions, us Unies do believe in salvation, just not necessarily from eternal hell. If the articles there don’t answer any of your questions in particular though, I will be happy to answer them in more detail. πŸ™‚

  • No problem. Just because I disagree with you doesn’t mean we can’t have a discussion. πŸ˜‰

    I’ll ask you again though – salvation from what?

    Also, I have skimmed some of the articles you’ve linked to. If you want to build a persuasive case though, I’d recommend pulling the articles that fundamentally misrepresent the bible. For instance, your first article mentions 1 Tim 2:4 and quotes it as saying “[God] will have all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” (emphasis mine). The verse actually says that God’s will is for all to be saved – not that he will cause it to occur. That is a complete rewriting of the text.

  • You might want to re-read 1 Tim 2:4 in the KJV. πŸ™‚

    Regarding your question, many Unies would say salvation includes being saved from an age in hell, but I think we’d all agree it includes salvation from the power of sin. There are also the various “levels” (for lack of a better word) of salvation to keep in mind: ontological, noological, and sacramental.

  • Yep. Read it there. And a pile of others: http://bible.cc/1_timothy/2-4.htm
    It’s talking about God’s desirous will – not his decretive will. God willed the earth and all that is in it to be created. This was not his desire that it take place – this was his decree. That’s not the will spoken of in 1 Tim. (Check out the definition of the Greek word here: http://bit.ly/ijSnt3)

    The 1 Tim passage is very much like 2 Pet 3:9. Here also, Peter says “[God] is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” But look at the next verse: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.”

    The use in the paper by Ken Allen is a misrepresentation of the text.

    As far as salvation… So under your paradigm, the Christian is saved simply from the power of sin. Here’s a question: What if I don’t care? What if I am happy living with the consequences of “living it up” in this life, understanding the temporal ramifications of sin? Is there any compelling reason I should not live in such a way?

  • Oh, I’m aware of what 1 Tim 2:4 means, I was just pointing out that what Ken Allen quoted was an actual quote from an actual translation of the Bible (as faulty as the KJV might be). Still, while I can’t actually know his intentions, I’m also not convinced he quoted it disingenuously. He very well might have meant exactly what the passage meant in that case. Anyway, UR doesn’t stand or fall on one passage, and my view is that God will get what He wills in this case, for all men to be saved. πŸ™‚

    Also, I didn’t say that salvation is only from the power of sin. That’s only one of the many benefits of salvation. Most Christian Universalists do believe in “hell,” however. In fact, they believe in hell more than Christian traditionalists do, as traditionalists only believe in one hell (plus the lake of fire, if they’ve taken the time to realize they’re two different things), while Unies generally believe in all three “hells” mentioned in New Testament: Hades, Gehenna, and Tartarus (plus the lake of fire, of course).

    But, to answer your question, if you don’t care, that’s fine. If you’re happy “living it up,” as you put it, no Unie is going to insist you have to convert any more than I’m going to insist you live a crime free life. If you choose not to live a crime free, you might have to spend some time in prison, not to mention suffer the negative emotional consequences many crimes bring, both to the criminal and their victims. But you will still get out of prison eventually, whether due to serving your time or due to death. But it’s still preferable to enjoy the benefits of a crime free life if you can help it. πŸ™‚

  • I agree that most Christians are not aware of the distinctions between the various places rendered “hell”. But that fact doesn’t go toward or against Universalism – it just is.

    So, you’re conceding my point? IOW, if Universalism is true, I could be a Christian or not, and the only difference is how I spend 70 or so years here on earth. After I exit this mortal coil, it’s all the same regardless how I lived and whether or not I chose Christ. Is this an accurate representation of your view?

  • Not at all. Accepting Christ (or not) will still affect what’s going to happen to you after death, it just doesn’t mean that what will happen is everlasting torture. There are always be consequences for the way you live, both while you’re alive and after death. You reap what you sow and all that. πŸ™‚

  • or at least its nice to think so.

    Living in a moral and compassionate way goes much farther I think without the ‘taking a side’ ,so to speak, in regards to any religion.

    Last couple blog posts have made me think quite a bit btw.. thanks!

  • Torture is not a biblical concept. I presume you are referring to torment. Setting that aside…

    The biblical teachings on heaven and hell are not terribly specific in detail – I’ll grant you that. But that does not mean that hell doesn’t exist, or that we can make it mean whatever we want. Jesus spoke more on hell than anyone, and did so to warn people from it. Jesus refers to it in metaphors that should give us a clear enough picture so as to avoid it! For a few examples: “the outer darkness”, where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth”, an “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” where the condemned will also go,, “eternal punishment” (as contrasted with eternal life), a place of torment, a place of anguish, a place with no rest, the place from which “the smoke goes up forever and ever”. In short, hell is a place of eternal conscious punishment for the wicked.

    I understand your arguments, and have read refutations of all the verses I just mentioned. I am not unaware of your position, I just don’t find it at all compelling from the text.

  • Glad to have you Todd!

    Living in a moral way does have its benefits apart from religion. Let me ask you this though – without belief in a personal God, where would you suggest morality comes from?

    (We’re going to have to find a new way to do this. Disqus is ccramping this thread!)

  • I think that would be the willingness to the right thing by your ‘neighbor’, maybe to balance the scales, or even let nature take its course.
    Maybe I don’t subscribe to the ‘old man in the sky’ but I sure do subscribe to the Universe, which very well could and may end up being exactly the same thing.
    The whole morality thing breaks down to that Humanities question of ‘Are humans basically good, altruistic/compassionate or basically evil self serving bastards or is it half full or half empty, really.

    In the end, morality is just a word for a action or choice of some kind based on the intent.

  • I don’t believe that anyone in Scripture ever mentions “eternal punishment” or “eternal life.” I prefer the translations “eonian chastisement” and “eonian life.”

    Anyway, since neither of us will convince the other, I’m not sure what else to say, so I guess I’ll leave it at that. πŸ™‚

  • I’ve been waiting for aeonios to come up. I’ve never had a Universalist wait this long before playing that card. πŸ˜›

    Here’s my answer: aeonios is used in two ways. One is to communicate eternity, the other is to communicate really, really long time. Your side will say Jesus meant hell would last for “ages”, while mine will say he meant eternal. As you said, neither of our minds are likely to be changed, but I’ll offer this as a challenge for any theology nerds still following along. πŸ™‚ If the punishment is not eternal for the wicked, then you have to be consistent and say that life is not eternal under Christ.

  • You used the word “right”. What is the “right” thing? The very concept requires an absolute “rightness” by which all other opinions are measured. So to what do you attribute this “rightness” or “goodness”? To use the morality verbiage.. why is morality uniform? Why do we agree that returning a lost wallet is noble, and murdering babies for fun is evil? Where does that come from?

  • Heh. I generally don’t bring it up because I normally consider it irrelevant to the argument. That said, I, and most Unies, agree that eonian life doesn’t refer to “eternal life” any more than eonian chastisement refers to eternal punishment. Will we live forever? Sure, there are other parts of Scripture that talk about immortality. But eonian life is more likely referring to something else altogether.

  • Fair enough. As we can’t really go anywhere else useful with this, it’s probably a good place to stop. More than enough info is available to anyone who is following along and wants to understand both sides. I’d welcome emails from anyone who is trying to work this out, and I’m sure Drew would as well.

    Thanks for the conversation. Glad you stuck around. Don’t be a stranger!

  • Absolutely. πŸ™‚

    On a completely unrelated note, have you ever considered using WPTouch instead of the mobile Harrington theme you currently use? I’ve been finding myself stuck on the mobile theme a few times now here on your site when using a full browser on an actual computer. I’ve never seen that happen on the WPTouch theme. No, I don’t make any money off this, it’s just something that crossed my mind when I couldn’t see your standard theme. πŸ™‚

  • Not familiar with it. I added the mobile plugin I have based on a recommendation, but I’ve not used it myself much. I’ll check out the one you mentioned. Thanks!

  • Thanks for covering the topic. I was considering this topic myself (on my own blog) and you seem to cover the basic meanings well. I may link to this post (if that’s okay) once that is complete.

    As for my view on the subject, the whole thing lingers on the question… “Why Would Jesus Die”, or more interest, why would he die in such spectacular fashion, if all he needed was to die to cover all sins (regardless of our participation in choosing). Universalism and/or makes me think of the beginning, not the end. Why were we created, are we participating in our purpose, if not why not, and what can be done so that we do participate in our purpose. The pea in the mattress of universalism is choice. Free will. Freewill is the annoying principle that clouds the purpose of a universal position, at least to me. Why freewill? If God “wills” (makes it so) all to salvation, why give us a choice at all. Why faith, why death, why why why? Universalism solves the only issue we have with God and love, but it opens up the asking of so many other questions that an alternative worldview offers biblical answers for.

    Anyway, I won’t get into all the ins and outs of my own thoughts, you’d have to check the blog when it comes. But it is a hot topic right now, so thanks for commenting.

    Oh, and I really appreciate the exchange you had above with the poster. I love good conversation.
    google: candid christian conversation

  • Hey Antwuan,

    Of course you can link to this! If you do write on it, send me a link so I can check it out.

    You have a lot of excellent questions. These are my primary objections as well. As to those who resonate with Bell’s phrase “Love Wins”, I have to ask: as opposed to what? Consider a woman whose child is kidnapped, abused and killed, and the guilty party eventually apprehended. What is the loving response to this criminal? We could show mercy. That sounds like love after all. However, what does that say to the woman who has lost a child? Further, what does that tell the perpetrator? If love is taken as pure mercy without consequence, I don’t think any of us would want a part in that. That is not love at all. We’ve all seen children whose parents have chosen this toothless “love”. Who wins? No one. Without justice, love has no meaning. To extend this, I think a salvation message that starts by talking about God’s love for the lost is lacking. If we don’t start with God’s perfect creation, his desire for relationship, our treason, and his perfectly justifiable wrath, the love we talk about is much less valuable. So, does “love win”? Sure it does. But not in the way Rob is framing things.

    BTW, I really enjoyed the dialog with Drew too!

  • Joe

    That is an interesting observation. Having grown up in a very antinomian environment like the one you are describing, I can tell you that there are a lot of people who consider evangelism calling someone to pray a “sinner’s prayer” rather than calling him to repentance unto life.

    I even heard a pastor say that if that “belief” only lasted an hour (followed a lifetime of rejection of the Gospel), the individual would still be saved. That, in my view, is not too terribly far from universalism in its approach.

  • Joe R. – a lot of people do represent salvation in the way you describe. Here’s my question though: if they “believed” for only an hour, did they really believe? I’d argue not.

    I don’t think that a statement of belief is evidence of anything except that you are able to repeat words. Whether someone truly believes something is evidenced by whether there is any material change evident in their life.

    James did a better job at explaining it:
    “What good is it if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, β€œGood-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.”