Universa-what?

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: