Musings about Universalism, Part 1: What C.S. Lewis, N.T. Wright and (Maybe) Rob Bell Get Wrong

Given all the speculation about Rob Bell's upcoming book and lingering questions from my post last week on universalism I thought I'd devote a few more posts to clarify how I approach the doctrine of universal reconciliation.

First, Rob Bell's book isn't out yet, so the speculation surrounding his book might be much ado about nothing. But the speculation I'm hearing is that Bell is going to forward a form of "universalism" that is closely associated with C.S. Lewis and, more recently, N.T. Wright.

The basic argument goes like this.

God's first and final word to all human creatures is grace and love. However, some people will choose to rebel against God, to resist God unto the bitter end. Perhaps even for eternity. These people are "damned," but not through the choice of God. These are self inflicted wounds. God simply gives these people what they want, an existence without God. And that is hell. A self-chosen hell. As C.S. Lewis writes in The Problem of Pain:

Finally, it is objected that the ultimate loss of a single soul means the defeat of omnipotence. And so it does. In creating beings with free will, omnipotence from the outset submits to the possibility of such defeat. What you call defeat, I call miracle: for to make things which are not Itself, and thus to become, in a sense, capable of being resisted by its own handiwork, is the most astonishing and unimaginable of all the feats we attribute to the Deity. I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.
Here is N.T. Wright's slightly different version in Surprised by Hope:
When human beings give their heartfelt allegiance to and worship that which is not God, they progressively cease to reflect the image of God...My suggestion is that it is possible for human beings so to continue down this road, so to refuse all whispering of good news, all glimmers of the true light, all prompting to turn and go the other way, all signposts to the love of God, that after death they become at last, by their own effective choice, beings that once were human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all. With the death of that body in which they inhabited God's good world, in which the flickering flame of goodness had not been completely snuffed out, they pass simultaneously not only beyond hope but also beyond pity. There is no concentration camp in the beautiful countryside, no torture chamber in the palace of delight. Those creatures that still exist in an ex-human state, no longer reflecting their maker in any meaningful sense, can no longer excite in themselves or others the natural sympathy some feel even for the hardened criminal.
The main difference between Wright and Lewis is that Wright believes that a continued and willful rebellion against God eventually degrades human personhood beyond recognition, beyond being human. And, thus, beyond pity.

I have a lot of problems with Wright's thesis but I don't want to get into those right now. I only want to point out the common thread with Lewis: Hell is something we choose. Hell is something we do to ourselves.

To repeat, I have no idea if Rob Bell is going to land his new book in this territory (often called "conditionalism" rather than "universalism"). But if he did, I'd just like to point out why he'd be wrong, right along with Lewis and Wright.

Let me first say what Lewis and Wright get right. Two things in particular. (They actually get three things right, but more on the third thing in the next post.)

First, they get God right. Which is very important and the best part of their thinking. In the conditionalist picture God is always a God of love. You damn yourself.

Second, they get death right. As I wrote in the comments a week ago, a big problem with traditional views of hell is how they view death. In traditional views of hell Death, the greatest evil, remains The Moral Clock of the Universe. Your moral fate is decided at the moment of death. Well, many of us wonder, how is Death being defeated in that view? It sure looks like Death is still running the show on earth, morally speaking.

By contrast, universalists (and conditionalists) believes Death has been, really truly, defeated. The Moral Clock, and that's what Death is, was smashed on Easter Sunday. In short, God became the Lord of Time once again, the Lord of human moral history. Death does not sever your moral biography with God. By extending our moral biography with God both universalists and conditionalists marginalize the death-event. Death is no longer the moral pivot of human history, collectively or individually.

So Lewis, Wright, and (maybe) Bell get both God and death right. But here's what they get wrong:

They get human freedom wrong.

To make conditionalism work you have to have a pretty strong belief in free will. Again, hell is a matter of choice. God can't be blamed for hell because humans freely choose it.

There are a couple of problems with this. The first problem is theological. Conditionalism is tantamount to works-based righteousness. If hell is a matter of choice then so is your salvation. You damn yourself. You save yourself. Salvation pivots off an act of human volition. This, as many of you know, is the classic criticism Calvinists make of Arminian soteriology. And, in my opinion, the Calvinists have a point on this score (though it pains me to admit it). Where is the active grace of God in this picture?

The second problem is psychological. Basically, to be blunt about it, there is no such thing as free will. I'm not saying we are automatons, just that "will" is highly contextual. You just can't make a plausible case for free will in this age of neuroscience, cognitive psychology, cultural analysis, learning theory, and behavioral genetics. Our choices are the product of genes, environment, nature, nurture, culture, reinforcement, and simply if we got enough sleep the night before. Who we are at Time 2 is highly correlated with (if not determined by) who we are at Time 1--historically, culturally, biologically, socially, and psychologically. We are embodied, finite and contingent beings. And so is our willpower.

The point is, I while I might choose, right now, to damn myself I don't damn myself by myself. There's a whole lot of context and history behind that damning. Cultural history. Family history. Genetic history. Personal history. All mixed up with a dash of randomness, quantum indeterminacy and chaos theory.

We can't, in short, localize human choice in space and time within the human actor. Human choice is deep, wide, and old. Human choice is a distributed and evolving matrix of which the individual is but one tiny part.

And if this is so, if there is no "ghost in the machine" driving human freedom, then the conditionalists are wrong. They would like to blame the person rather than God. And free will, it seems, would allow you to pull that off. And it would have been a nice solution were it possible or plausible. But, unfortunately, Lewis and Wright are describing a world that simply doesn't exist.

And now we'll wait to see what Bell does...

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29 thoughts on “Musings about Universalism, Part 1: What C.S. Lewis, N.T. Wright and (Maybe) Rob Bell Get Wrong”

  1. "Conditionalism is tantamount to works-based righteousness. If hell is a matter of choice then so is your salvation."

    Hi Richard, I'm not a Christian so I am suspect I am missing something here but I would have thought that if one sees the Kingdom or Heaven or Being-with-God as our natural state or our birth-right, which we have turned our back on, then salvation isn't exactly an act of choice so much as an awakening (through grace) and also the subjective experience of finding that one is embraced (or forgiven if you like) despite that turning away. If this outlook doesn't fit with Christian doctrine I'd be curious as to why not? Is it the because of a sense that 'fallenness' is more than a matter of gnosis but is something that very physical too?

  2. Sorry Richard, I practice in the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition where some of these questions are very pertinent but I don't have the same theological vocabulary so it is tricky to cross the boundary line and enter into dialogue.

    So are you are saying that the problem is not that conditionalism *necessarily* leads to works-based righteousness but that there is that danger?

  3. Perhaps it's better not to speak about the free and unfree will in this context, importing as it does a whole load of psychological baggage, and speak of the will being bound insofar as it comes to voluntarily choosing the things of God.

  4. Yikes. Without some clarifying modifiers, you have pithily articulated the modernist trap: there is no non-material reality. Will is [strictly] a product of [material] brain. "Disconnected from the world" is the kind of phrase that seems to rule out spirit as a category of reality. Do you really intend to go there?

  5. Richard,

    You wrote:
    "If hell is a matter of choice then so is your salvation. You damn yourself. You save yourself."

    This just doesn't follow. i'm perfectly capable of getting myself into a coma. That doesn't imply i'm capable of getting myself out of one. i'm definitely capable of choosing to kill myself. That doesn't mean i'm capable of resurrecting myself.

    You wrote:
    "You just can't make a plausible case for free will in this age of neuroscience, cognitive psychology, cultural analysis, learning theory, and behavioral genetics."

    (I think this assumes a great deal of scientific realism, but nevertheless...) Even if this is true, that doesn't necessarily mean the kind of freedom we do have is inconsistent with moral responsibility.

    You wrote:
    "The point is, I while I might choose, right now, to damn myself I don't damn myself by myself."

    And perhaps accountability and responsibility is not as individualistic as we make it out to be. i think the OT gives abundant examples of corporate and collective responsibility. Why think that changed?


  6. Richard do we take into consideration that at the time of the Christ Event,and the establishment of the new creation,by gods hero sent forth to DO his will,the effect BEING atonement, and that good news is the power of god to save, if when heard is believed,and then submit to his hero's commands, because the father accomplished the promised blessing of the restitution of His good and that power is realized by his hero's ongoing life as witnessed by the prophets and the law.showing gods good and severity.

    When gods own people were so Self deceived by there own tradition they couldn't see the one that they were looking for?


    i have enough trouble with the word nullify in EPH. AND ROM

  7. Richard, thank you for this post. I truly appreciate the way you frame this. Simply put, it's about free will. I like to argue that the vast majority of our theological battles are really about free will. Does it or doesn't it exist. It is the foundational disagreement to most of our theological disagreements in Christianity.

    Chrysostom argued from free will. Calvin argued that there was no such thing. Universalism/Conditionalism can stem from either position, of course. Still...I really appreciate you spelling this out.

  8. Lot to think about, and I've continued to mull over the last post on Universalism quite a bit. I see the context of history and environment as influential to decisions, but I can't see it as the sole factor. For example, Charlie Sheen. Is his ... condition ... merely a bad product of his own inescapable success?

  9. I'm not sure exactly where I stand on all this, but I have a thought. Is it possible that Lewis and Wright think that will becomes truly free after death? The full trueness and faithfulness of God and everything else is revealed and then the person would choose (and/or be chosen). I'm not really sure what the typical train of thought is here. I am curious.

  10. Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus road, on his way to doing "God's work" (murdering more Christians) - how much did "free will" contributed to his own about face? At least in this particular case,
    is seems God makes the first move, extending Himself via supernatural REVELATION ... THEN the PROCESS of restoration begins. Interesting that Paul was selected to become a champion of NT doctrinral writings.

    It appears Lewis and Wright (at least based on the above excerpts)
    quit on God (as do many of us). That is, we have a tough time believing God has the power, passion, and persistence to pursue, until He finally overwhelms one with His love, and ... changes one's "will" to love Him back and return home.

    Universalism wagers on God's ability to win the negotiation of wills, even if that "battle" must continue after death. The dignity of the individual's perceived "free-will" remains intact. Is it possible for God to be loving, powerful, and ingenious enough to CONVINCE and win one over in that negotiation?

    Gary Y.

  11. Richard-

    I may push back a little at your thesis later, but in the meantime, I wanted to point out that we do know a little about what Bell says in the book:

    From what I can tell, he is, in fact, a conditionalist along the same lines as Lewis and Wright.

  12. I realize that human behavior is shaped by conditions we did not choose ourselves but that does not eliminate free-will or else there is no love; no right or wrong; certainly no need for repentance or obedience unto God; and certainly no possibility for people to "live by the Spirit" rather than "gratify the desire of the [flesh]" (Gal 5.16, NIV). I understand that "Our choices are the product of genes, environment, nature, nurture, culture..." However, if those external factors eliminate free-will then not only is society wrong for prosecuting the person who murders a clerk in a liquor store robbery (since his behavior is purely a product of the mitigating factors of childhood) but God is also morally wrong for charging humanity with the charge of "sin" along with punishing various people for their sin throughout the biblical narrative.

  13. After several hours back-tracking through many posts on 'free will' (which for for me requires a dictionary and thesaurus), a reasonable conclusion to this discussion is that there is no free-will, no responsibility, no morality, no justice, no God, no salvation, and no hope.

  14. If I'm following Richard correctly here, I think I could be characterized as one of the "rehabilitationists" of conditionalism.

    The short version is - hell is not a place of punishment, nor a slow process of dehumanization - but itself an act of grace - a place on the "outside" of God's world where love and grace can continue to, well, rehabilitate the fallen until they are ready themselves to enter.

    Evangelical universalism (as articulated by Robin Parry, writing under the pseudonym Gregory Macdonald), goes on to say that this process is not complete until grace and love have won over "all things" - every knee bows and tongue confesses. Though that last step seems like a good "fit" from a textual standpoint, I am still not quite ready to make it. However, I do believe it is appropriate to pray for universal salvation.

    Ironically, despite my strong evangelical background, it is my respect for orthodoxy that keeps me from that last step.

  15. What I find so confusing is why this is such big deal, and why people get so angry about it.
    More thoughts here:

  16. While the logic of your argument is as close to perfect as humans can get, I cannot help but feel that this view of reality essentially shuffles the deck of good with that of evil. What use is there of a devil when God will do all the work? What purpose is there for temptation? One could almost question the need of salvation?
    Secondly, what you are saying takes millions of folks and assigns them the tag "Unfortunates", another million "Inclined Toward Wickedness" and then distributes the "Saved" tags to a select few of the "Unfortunates". This is all very neat and clean, but it is mostly armchair theology. One need not go to a leper colony in Africa to see that the reality of suffering, and wickedness, and salvation is far more layered and complex than mere logic can account for.
    While I may not be able to present a more logical solution to the "Problem of Pain" than you have, I can say that something in my spirit, and the Holy Spirit within me, twinges a bit at what you are saying. the world is full of real people, feeling real pain. What I must assign to them is the love of Jesus my Savior that is within me. That is a job enough for one man. And while the temptation to do so exists, I will resist the desire to spend the valuable seconds I have been given on this earth quibbling about a reality I can neither fully grasp, nor alter. That which is for us has been Written, and that which we must do is already known.

    Peace of Christ to all of you on this beautiful day,

  17. I think universalists should take care not stop the argument halfway. Otherwise universalism becomes like a fortunate loophole loophole in God's law that accommodates the continued belief in Him, in stead of a praiseworthy act of love stemming from the core of His divine nature. So when you confess that 'death is no longer the moral pivot of human history', you should recognise that it has implications beyond final judgement.

    Because theodicy arises from a real, current problem - the reality of suffering and evil. And simply plopping down universal salvation at the end of it, does not alleviate the pain or treat the wound. This is the one prong of the Christian message: the fall is real; sin is real; there is no getting around it.

    The other prong, from which universalism extends logically, is that grace is equally active and real, and unmerited. It is as real as God and as great as God. And his grace wasn't just stuck on at the tail-end of his justice; it physically allows life to live through the consequences, whether flood or fire. It is this Reality that entered history, confronted hell and conquered it, and whereby God arrested the natural, expected chronology - the 'logical' procession that ends with death. Jesus turned it into a victory procession.

    For those who 'get it', the attraction of universalism is that it removes the crude, child-like moral polarisation that believers struggle to outgrow. However, it is just as easy to repeat the error on this side. The ticking clock must stop for universalists, too. The line between heaven and hell is still being drawn, but here and now; not at some indeterminate future date. From a Christ-informed perspective, hell is as a current condition begging immediate attention, because people are suffering. Christianity then becomes a plan of action rather than a roadmap to salvation. And faith a ride that religion cannot even afford to buy a ticket for.

    Truly, then, the Kingdom of God will have come near.

  18. Hello Guy

    I suppose I see such prayers as the proper context for an honest heart to Heart - but I'd also hope to leave my contemplation with a different heart - one burnt pure of the need to broadcast my negative emotions on the worldwide web. By this shall everyone know that you're my disciples...


  19. As a philosopher I would say that we can at times make a bit too much of the Jew/Greek divide - as though Hebraic and contemporary neuroscience belong on one side of the column, and Greek and "Modernism" belong on the other. I believe that I have a lot of exegetical, historical, philosophical, and hermeneutical support behind my claims that (a) reducing "Greek" to "Descartes" is unhelpful, (b) Aristotle was not a dualist, and (c) neither was his teacher, and all the supposedly relevant texts are clearly embedded in a larger myth or story or poem, and so should not be read as one might read a Modern text, and certainly not as one might read a contemporary book on neuroscience. Not only that, but I also am suspicious of the assumption that Descartes' project can be reducible to the project of the contemporary hard/soft sciences. I say that because we should also be aware that the philosophical tradition called "phenomenology" (which is currently being taken quite seriously by many of the sciences) derives its most foundational insights and arguments from a hermeneutical retrieval of not only Descartes, but also "The Greeks."

    Now, I immediately have to apologize, for I have not taken the time to read your previous series of reflections - of which I am confident that I would greatly enjoy and stand in strong agreement with, as I seem to with the great majority of all your basic theses.

  20. Richard,

    I appreciate your thoughts, and jump in to read your blog here and there for the limited time I alot to blogs.

    I was surprised by the tone and declarative statements like "there is no such thing as free will," and "You just can't make a plausible case for free will...." I don't want to dig up your entire argument on this; just to say- there are many thoughtful, intelligent followers of Jesus now and throughout history who would disagree with you. So, make your arguments/case (which so often I find stimulating and insightful); but don't dismiss others in one swoop and close conversation.

    Besides that, I'm anxious to hear some of your further thoughts on this topic.

  21. Anyone yet noticed Mark Galli's very balanced take on Bell's new book at Christianity Today?:

  22. jgmrichter, I've taken particular notice to your comments in different posts throughout Richard's blog. I want to thank you for them. You're able to put cogent words to thoughts from outside the box (from my POV) - ones that, in the end, make me think to myself: "but of course!"

  23. guy,

    You wrote:

    You wrote:
    "If hell is a matter of choice then so is your salvation. You damn yourself. You save yourself."

    This just doesn't follow. i'm perfectly capable of getting myself into a coma. That doesn't imply i'm capable of getting myself out of one. i'm definitely capable of choosing to kill myself. That doesn't mean i'm capable of resurrecting myself."

    Richard doesn't mean that one can choose to damn himself and then save himself. The meaning was that the choice whether to save or damn himself is his.
    It makes sense.
    Furthermore, your example choice was incongruent with even the misinterpretation.


  24. The claim was that if one is a matter of choice then the other one is also. It doesn't follow that one has that feature just because the other one has it.


  25. YOU CONSTANT Calls on who gets it 'right' and who gets it 'wrong' paints YOU as the know it all who is unteachable! you seem to think YOU are the holder of all knowledge.
    I am not a universalist but i will read anything Rob Bell writes because he is not arrogant and does not claim to have all knowledge...he is about dialogue and ever learning...admitting he may change his beliefs as his journey progresses! - a delightful teacher
    You could well learn from this amazing communicator and realise there is a reason for his overwhelming popularity! This next generation are a breed of critical thinkers ... and your "I'm right and they are wrong" mentality will be lost on them.
    Your sentences would be better phrased "this is where I currently disagree with Rob" NOT "this is where Rob gets it wrong"
    Who made YOU GOd?

  26. I read Wright as holding that our fates *are* sealed at death in the passage you quote above, Richard.
    Isn't that what Wright is saying here?:
    With the death of that body in which they inhabited God's good world, in which the flickering flame of goodness had not been completely snuffed out, they pass simultaneously not only beyond hope but also beyond pity.

    You seem to pass beyond hope with your death.
    So I think Wright gets death wrong.

  27. I also wonder whether Lewis really held that there were further chances after death. The bit about being "locked from the inside" can be heard in different ways. It could just mean that the damned did it to themselves -- which cd be in virtue of pre-mortem choices.

    There are apparent further chances in the Great Divorce, but I wonder:

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