Musings about Universalism, Part 5: Rejecting Death-Centered Christianity

In the middle of these debates about the afterlife you often hear the following complaint: "All this talk about hell and the afterlife is a waste of time. Jesus' message was about TODAY, about God's will being done on EARTH. This entire conversation is a profound missing of the point!"

I understand, but here's the problem. You're complaining, not diagnosing. Yes, Christianity, as it is commonly practiced, is other-worldly. But what we need to do is to get to the root of the problem. We can't just complain about the symptoms. To gripe about other-worldliness gets us no closer to why Christianity is tempted in this direction. To say Christians are too other-worldly is descriptive, not explanatory. I want to know why we are other-worldly. So let's quit the complaining about other-worldliness and think. Think!


Hmmmm. So why are so many Christians other-worldly?

Well, when we die Judgment Day happens. And on that day my eternal fate will be decided for all time. Eternal bliss or eternal torment. End of story. No second chances.

Now, what effect do you think this belief might have upon people?

Well, it seems pretty obvious that people would start thinking and worrying about what is going to happen to them when they die and face Judgment Day. Will they wake up in Heaven or Hell? And once people secured the status of being Saved in this life (according to their denominational understanding) they would work real hard to keep Others (inside and outside their denomination) from mucking it up. In short, they would become other-worldly and display a fear-driven dogmatism.

And that makes sense. If everything hangs in the balance at the moment of death, where a one-time irreversible decision occurs on Judgment Day, then you can't help but build your entire life around the death-event. So, after thinking a bit, it looks like we have our answer:

The traditional doctrine of hell creates a death-centered faith that imports other-worldliness and dogmatism into Christianity.
This is so obvious I don't know why people don't talk about it more often. Everyone is running around complaining about all this other-worldliness when its the very predictable outcome of a very particular doctrine. Church leaders sit around wondering, why can't I get my congregation to be more concerned with this life? More concerned with justice? More concerned with structural evil? More concerned about caring for Creation? Well, I'll tell you why: They believe in the traditional doctrine of hell.

The traditional view of hell creates a death-centered faith. If everything is hanging in the balance at death then death drives the show. Death is in charge. Death becomes the center of gravity and everything orbits it, an orbit of other-worldliness (you may need to click on the slides to see the text):

Think about all these problems we lament within Christianity:
1. Privileging Justification over Sanctification:
Why do so many Christians consider salvation to be a status rather than the slow transformation into the image of Jesus? Why do so few Christians end up as committed disciples? Why do we privilege the cognitive decision of "accepting Jesus" over spiritual formation? Why is there, in the words of Bonhoeffer, more "cheap grace" than "costly grace"?

2. Privileging Then over Now:
Why do so many Christians have an over-realized and triumphal eschatology? Why do they think more about singing praise songs in heaven than about the hurt and suffering all around them?

3. Privileging Soul Saving over Social Justice:
Why has evangelism become dislocated from social justice? Why do so many Christians think "proclaiming the Kingdom come" means bible study but not digging wells or feeding the hungry?

4. Privileging Piety over Engaging the Powers:
Why are so many Christians focused on individual moral performance over social and political engagement with the structural evils and injustices in the world? Why do Christians worry about gays but not poverty?

5. Privileging the Soul over the Body:
Why are Christians so Gnostic in their approach to the body? Why are they not more sacramental and Incarnational? Why do they privilege orthodoxy over orthopraxy?

6. Privileging Heaven over the Earth and Creation:
Why aren't Christians more concerned over a Creation God declared "good"? Why do so many Christians think the earth can be used as big trash can? Or used up and thrown away?
As I hope you can see, all these problems are interrelated. Why? Because they are symptoms of a common illness. They are the runny nose, aching joints, and the fever. But they are not the virus causing the illness. As illustrated above, their relationship with each other is due to the common orbit they trace around a death-centered Christianity.

People have been talking about the problems I list above for a long time. Just about every book you read today about spiritual formation or the missional church deals with these problems. But these books fail, time and time again, to put their finger on the root problem. It's as if these other-worldly tendencies and temptations just fell out of the sky or something.

But the illness is easily diagnosed: It's the traditional doctrine of hell. This is the reason we find these problems within Christianity.

So what we need is a way to remove this death-fetish from the Christian faith. To replace a death-centered Christianity with a God-centered Christianity. The orbit of other-worldliness will only be broken by changing the center of gravity. You won't create this-worldliness by complaining about other-worldliness. You have to go to the root of the problem.

This is why Christ's victory over death is so central to Christian universalism. If death remains the moral pivot of your biography then the death-fetish remains firmly in place, along with its other-worldly obsessing. Universalism removes the death-fetish, creating a this-worldly orbit around God's love. A love-centered faith. As the bible says, perfect love casts out fear. We become liberated not only from death but from the fear of death. As it says in Hebrews 2.14-16:
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.
Christ sets us free from our slavery to our fear of death. Because of Easter Sunday death is no longer the Moral Stopwatch, tick tick ticking away. Easter removes the death-fetish and creates a Christ-centered, rather than death-centered, faith. Easter stops the orbit of other-wordiness.

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37 thoughts on “Musings about Universalism, Part 5: Rejecting Death-Centered Christianity”

  1. While I don't agree (yet?) with your conclusions, I find this series challenging and insightful. Thank you.

    I do have to question the logic of this particular article, though. "Belief in hell" = "Poor Christianity", therefore "Universalism is true"? It doesn't really follow. There are many out followers of Christ who, while believing in the traditional Evangelical idea of heaven and hell, still live out "Easter-Centered Christianity"; there are also other options other than universalism as well.

  2. Hi Jimmie,
    To be honest, I don't really want to convince anyone. My goal here is more about making room for universalism. To clear a spot at the table alongside other accepted views--the traditional view, conditionalist views, annihilationism, etc. All I want is to be able to espouse the position in church without people freaking out. At the end of the day, I'm aware of the problems associated with universalism. So I expect a lot of people won't be able to fully endorse the view as I do. But if I can help people "get" universalism, to help them see that it's a rich and coherent theological position, then I'd have achieved my goal.

    Regarding your point about if my argument is logical. My argument here is more psychological than logical. Thus, my observations are actually testable. Whenever we encounter the problems I noted in the post sooner or later, in debates about all this, the traditional doctrine of hell will show up trumping the debate. Thus, the doctrine of hell reveals itself to be the source of other-worldliness. Now you're right, that doesn't mean the traditional view is wrong, just that it creates other-worldliness. My point is simply that if you think other-worldliness isn't Christianity you might want to question the truthfulness of the particular bit of doctrine that is causing all the problems. That, or stop complaining about other-worldliness.

  3. ""Belief in hell" = "Poor Christianity", therefore "Universalism is true"? It doesn't really follow"

    You are right, it doesn't follow because that is not the argument Dr. Beck is proposing here. All he is saying is that the "traditional view of hell creates a death-centered faith which leads to other-worldliness and dogmatism" and how that would be problematic for a follower of Christ. That is the argument.

    So as I see it, you would have to wrestle with this argument before you can even start looking at the Universalism part of his post.

    Just my $.02

  4. Richard,
    Thanks for the clarification. And I agree - our traditional doctrine of hell does lead to other-worldliness.
    (I've made a similar point in discussions with others about other doctrines - if adhering to a particular doctrine leads us to un-Christlike behavior, then we need to examine that doctrine carefully.)

  5. Sorry, I guess I should have noticed that Dr. Beck reponded first. He said it much better than I did. :-)

  6. And again, I'm not trying to win converts. But if people are struggling with the faith they grew up with I'd like to give people some options. It doesn't have to be "believe this way or it's the highway." A lot of my students are walking away from Christianity for just this reason. But from the first days of the church there was a lot of diversity and difference of opinion on this topic. Rather than Christians torching each other about their views about the afterlife I think we need to embrace a big tent view of Christianity. We're not going to be uniform on this. We're going to look more like the Mad Hatter's Tea Party.

  7. I’d like to say first of all that I love your blog and resonate with much of what you have to say. I have much enjoyed reading about your journey of coming to believe in universalism, and I think you’re onto something with this death centered Christianity thing, too. Death is not the enemy, but part of the natural process of the renewal of all things. FEAR of death is the enemy. It is from fear of death that all sin springs. It is out of fear of death that we – if push comes to shove – will do anything to keep ourselves safe and secure; to preserve our own lives. The doctrine of hell has done nothing but add to that fear of death we were all already in bondage to. And so we have a self-centered Christianity in which we’re more concerned about saving our own skins than anything else. What if we didn’t have to worry about saving our own skins? What if we believed what was revealed to us in the Easter event - that resurrection is on the other side of death? If we believed in the ultimate goodness of God, we wouldn’t feel compelled to spend so much time and energy ensuring our own safety, and we’d be set free to help others.

  8. Richard,

    i've wanted to participate more, but have been swamped with school.

    i just wanted to say quickly--you're first chart seems fine. But i don't see why it's conclusion is "Therefore, there is no hell." N.T. Wright in Surprised by Hopes makes the same criticisms you're making there, but doesn't seem to need universalism to make them. Have you read that book?


  9. "The traditional view of hell creates a death-centered faith."
    "Christ sets us free from our slavery to our fear of death."

    Absolutely true, on both accounts. Now the task is to get the 'us' and 'our' correct and to realize that concern regarding the fears of the big tent, traditional Christianity you lament here is misplaced. The 'us' who are set free from the death-centered faith actually have trusted what He has done. The ones who say they have but haven't still fear and are wishing for 'pie in the sky, bye and bye' while dreading the hell they expect. The big tent view encompasses both types and since many more are death-focused, well, you understand .... Nevertheless, what anybody prefers or fears has nothing to do with the truth value of universalism.

  10. I haven't read much N.T. Wright. Just his book on Justification.

    You're right. Any view that marginalizes the death event can get at what I'm getting at. So this isn't move isn't unique to universalism. A suite of heterodox views move in this direction. My criticisms here are mainly about the traditional view and certain views within annihilationism.

    My problems with Wright (and Lewis) were articulated in Part 1.

  11. BTW, pray for the people in Japan.

    This may be obscene to draw attention to, and God forgive me if it is, because I'm not trying to score theological points as I am offering this up as a lament, but given that most of the dead aren't Christian we can see how a death-centered Christianity creates a host of theodicy problems.

    I believe God will be good...even to Buddhists.

  12. Let me also add that I think Lewis' view is better than Wright's view. I think Wright's view--this slow slide into a bestial non-human state--is horrible. But if the conditionalist view is simply that the door is eternally open just locked from the inside, that God will never foreclose on salvation, well, I don't have much quibble with that. I think that view is functionally a universalist position.

  13. OOPS

    sorry bro just couldn't resist

    the analogy, at least i am laughing....
    hope you got a smile

  14. Wonderful thoughts, Richard, challenging and clarifying. I try to think of 'life' as the emphasis in Christ rather than death...the life that transcends...not eternal life in the sense of how long it lasts after death (forever), but the life that is 'of the ages, of the ages,' as the Greek might express me that is a transcendent life that leads to more and more life, from faith to faith, fullness of life, defeat of death...the quality of life rather than the duration of life. So, since death is one of the last enemies to be destroyed, that can only leave life, right? 1 Cor. 15.26...and God will be all in all, where then is there any room for an eternal death? For God will swallow up even death...meaning/purpose in veils of light which casts shadows for the present that will be removed by the brightest light. Love your blog.

  15. Thank you Dr. Beck!
    Being third generation Japanese American and repeatedly hearing that Japan is one of the most difficult countries to evangelize (supposedly only 1.5% of the population is Christian), your bringing this up is at this time, within this discussion is greatly appreciated (therefore not "obscene"). The above example is one of several issues that have driven me to embrace universalism.

    Gary Y.

  16. This reminds of a sermon Robb Bell gave a while back "The Importance of beginning in the beginning". In the sermon he argues that we have to start our understanding of ourselves with the goodness of creation and not just simply jump to depravity of Gen. 3 without fully understanding the life giving beauty of gen. 1&2. He then connects it with Rev.20,21 of the New Jerusalem, showing this meaning & purpose of movement from garden to city and how we are called to be apart of that.

    Maybe you've already talked about this, I've been busy and have missed this series so far. Just a quick two cents. Anyway always love your thoughts.

  17. About a year ago we had a discussion about this at our church as we read through Wright's "Surprised by Hope." I supplemented the discussion with excerpts from MacDonald's "The Evangelical Universalist."

    I remember one person noting that the traditional view of hell as everlasting torment sure did seem to take hold quickly in the Christian mind. I find myself thinking the same thing about "death-centered Christianity." It seems as though Christianity was death centered at a very early point.

    Or perhaps I see it that way because the "orthodox" (victorious) Christians are the ones who get to write the history.

    What's your perception of this?

  18. Richard,

    Being naughty and taking a break from my midterms and studying for ph.d. qualifying exams:

    The recurring thought i'm having while reading your series, and the idea behind an earlier question to you is something like this: At the end of the day for me, i just want to know what the Bible does or doesn't teach. i grant you that's a very simplistic statement--it doesn't provide an account of what the Bible is or its normative function etc.--nonetheless i think that simplistic statement still expresses (however crudely) a belief in a certain structure of ultimate authority. Even if Jesus or the apostles teach something utterly contrary to my intuitions or notions of common sense, at the end of the day, i'm committed to saying the proper conclusion of that case is "so much the worse for my intuitions and common sense."

    The rationale in your posts at least appears to be the very opposite. --as though the Bible is either "not allowed" to teach anything contrary to your deepest intuitions or common sense and thus re-interpretation is in order, or else "so much the worse for the Bible."

    Granted this accounts for no important nuance, but does this at least get at an accurate description for the justificatory structure of your religion belief here?


  19. To me, it's more a matter of taking the beliefs that are taken for granted and holding them to the teachings of Jesus, as recorded in the Bible, and see it they hold measure. Is hell, as traditionally understood, really what Jesus taught? Since none of us were there when Jesus lived so we could ask questions and get absolute answers, and since God does not communicate through the senses by which we communicate with each other, this process of taking things apart to examine them really is the best any of us can do. Because if we don't, we've let ourselves becomes underling pupils to an authoritarian schoolmaster telling us not to think for ourselves. Jesus, however, did say to love God with one's own Heart, Mind, Soul and Strength as a primary priority. To love God with them would necessitate using them, including the mind God has given, asking questions and perhaps challenging the status quo, rather than merely deferring to others' conclusions. Just my thoughts.

  20. I just wanted to give a quick "thumbs up" to Guy's comment. One reason I visit this blog is because of Beck's great questions and insights (and those of his blogging audience). But I'm beginning to get this impression that one's ethical sense and intuition are trumping what I consider an authoritative text. I come from a background where my ethics and intuitions were to come under constant scrutiny from the Bible itself and I was to modify the most cherished of my beliefs as a result. I don't quite get the feeling that this is the process that's taking place here.

    As a quick illustration. If I were to come up with what I thought was the most beautiful picture of salvation that placed God in the most loving light, but found it did not square with entire major themes of the Bible...I'd be forced to scrap it, say "God's ways are higher than my ways," and leave the rest to mystery (or further study). Here at Experimental Theology, I get the sense that the Bible maybe being squeezed into the most psychologically satisfying framework rather than our frameworks being severely challenged by the matter how painful that might be.

    By the way, I think this death-centered post is one of the most illuminating posts, I mean it.

  21. To get the merciful religion you want, you might also have to give up the doctrine of heaven.

  22. I don't know a ton about church history. But I do know that the earliest views of atonement were ransom, Christus Victor in nature. That is, the defeat of death and hell through Easter was the earliest understanding. Along these lines the first Christians didn't have representations of the crucifixion. Those came hundreds of years later. I also like how the Greek Orthodox focus on the harrowing of hell at Easter. The point being, I think the earliest Christians were very life-oriented.

  23. Guy & Joseph O.,
    I appreciate these questions, and the spirit you offer them in.

    First, next week I'll devote Part 6 to how I read the bible as a universalist. My hope is to show you how very little "Scripture twisting" I'm engaging in.

    But let me make a larger, more abstract point. I think everyone is twisting the bible to fit their preconceptions. And if a person can't admit that they are seriously deluded. Case in point. Most people I know don't speak in tongues. And yet, the bible is full of it. And when the bible is read in places like Africa new Christians read those passages and start speaking the tongues. Pentecostalism if flourishing in the 3rd World. And yet in America, outside of Pentecostalism, we don't seem to even notice that we aren't being biblical. Aren't alarmed but that and don't feel the need to change. And if we are pushed on this point we have a few perfunctory responses that, upon scrutiny, are pretty flimsy and, well, unbiblical.

    So the only reason, I'd contend, that universalism seems "unbiblical" is that it is violating common background assumptions. Background assumptions just as "unbiblical" as most everything in American Christianity.

  24. I think that heaven and hell are indeed very real; very literal. But also that they are both here on this earth - present realities, states of being we can enter into here and now.

  25. Fair enough, but what can we say psychologically about the effect Universalism has on people? The traditional view provides some impetus to act, possibly on the wrong things, but act nonetheless. It would seem that the Universalist view cuts that off at the knees. If we keep the traditional idea of heaven, then Universalism says I can do whatever I want to now, and still get there just the same (as in predestination or Little Leagues where everyone gets trophies). If we do away with traditional heaven (perhaps for being too other-worldly) then what motivates us to suffer to become Christ-like; this becomes a very hard sell.

    This has nothing to do with whether or not Universalism is "correct", but I would like to hear your thoughts on the experimental flip-side to this story about the effects of Universalism on a church. Are they more desirable or less?

  26. This is why I think any Christian Universalism has to have very robust doctrine of God's judgment and hell. In fact, I'd argue that a Christian universalism with a biblical doctrine of hell is the most motivating view a Christian can hold.

    I mean, think about it. What, actually, does the classic "Turn or Burn" really motivate? It motivates a "decision" to accept Jesus Christ. But does it really motivate righteous living? Spiritual formation? Discipleship? Costly grace? I'd argue that the traditional view, a decision that "saves" you, has demonstrated itself to be a pretty demotivating doctrine. That is, once saved why push any harder? Jesus' grace covers you, right?

    By contrast, a Christian universalism like that of George MacDonald claims that you'll have to make up for and reconcile with others for every last thing you've ever done. A universalist reads Jesus' legalistic sounding language very seriously and literally. You will be forgiven as you forgive others. So if you sin, fine, but let's not pretend that you can duck it. There will be payment and judgment. As Jesus says, you'll pay the last penny. Any hole you dig is the hole you'll have to climb out of. But under the traditional view, one little prayer or dip in the water gets you an "imputed" righteousness, which, functionally, is a get out of jail free card. Universalists balk at that. In fact, I'd argue, the only Christians who really take sin seriously are universalists.

    To help understand this this see my post on The Real Emerald City which talks about George MacDonald's view of imputed righteousness and how a universalist thinks about sin and forgiveness:

    But at the end of the day, both views, traditionalist and universalist really face the same problem: Shall we sin so that grace may abound? And the answer, in both cases, is no.

  27. Just a thought about "convincing others." Traditional hell belief absolutely requires that you convince others that you're right, to persuade them to your idea of theological correctness in order for them to be saved from eternal hell. That is, another person not going to hell depends on your very salesmanship of your belief system. The very magnitude of that is overwhelming, and in traditional churches, that responsibility is routinely sold to impressionable children and teens in youth groups. It's not an omniscient, omnipotent God's responsibility to convict and clarify except in yourself -- it's your responsibility to make sure they "get it" or burn forever. And if they don't "walk the aisle" (ugh), make a "profession of faith" and/or get baptized, then they're just as lost as lost can be. God won't save them, because the message, as you understand it, never got through.

    By contrast, if it really is Jesus Who saves, then the good news really is good news. There's something good to tell. Death is overcome, the power of sin is really broken. And knowing this gives hope. If someone doesn't embrace the belief configuration as I understand it, God still has that person in His love. The reality that this life really does matter will define how I love him or her, because God has given me stewardship of one life in this time, just as He has given that other person stewardship of his/her own life. Both of us are accountable for how we use the time, talents, and personalities we're given. But salvation from sin depends on God alone.

  28. Nik Ansell has an interesting engagement with some of Jesus words traditionally associated with hell in article entitled "Hell: the Nemesis of Hope?" which you can find online at The Other Journal.

  29. "N.T. Wright in Surprised by Hopes makes the same criticisms you're making there, but doesn't seem to need universalism to make them."

    My impression of Surprised by Hope was that N.T. Wright pretty much makes the case for universalism — or at least conditional resurrection — but then backs off at the last moment and tries to salvage a case for a kind of hell. However, his description of hell as a sort of de-evolved state is a strange one, and I get the feeling he'd like to discard hell but can't because of all the furor it would raise among evangelicals, and perhaps his own Church of England too.

  30. I've read all the other comments, so I can't add much. I do, however, resonate those who've mentioned Wright's "Surprised By Hope". I was really impressed with the life contained in those pages and the way he dealt with the very same issues you brought up.

    You raise great questions, but your thesis, to me, is much too narrow. I fully agree that a traditional doctrine of hell and a death-centered faith CONTRIBUTE to other-worldliness and dogmatism in Christianity, but by no means do they comprise the very complex and incredibly nuanced issue. I understand that you probably don't assume that your thesis is the ONLY explanation for the problem, but one thing I've grown a distaste for is simple answers to highly variegated issues, and by your post alone I think it could lead a lot of people to assume that there is a simple solution.

    To add my 2 cents, I think Ernest Becker's "Denial of Death" among other existential ideas (like those of Fromm) have much to add to this conversation about why man is as he is. I think an account of this theological issue, without including existential ideas of finitude, creatureliness, and the psychological needs for heroism and death denial, will be far too narrow. There are simply too many moving parts to the machinery of the psyche to say that doctrines or faith alone comprise the other-worldliness of Christian faith.

  31. Richard,

    i don't doubt that many theological positions have to use strained and forced interpretations of scripture in order to map on to the text. But i don't really think that's the point. i think lots of people holding very strained positions can nevertheless believe in a certain authority structure. That is, they do believe that scripture (whatever it truly teaches) is the final court of appeals. Thus, it behooves us to argue from scripture whether a certain position is true or not. Now, again, we may still do a poor job of that.

    My point is (and i guess perhaps you may get to this in part 6) that so far it seems you have rejected traditional doctrines on grounds that have little or nothing to do with whether the Bible teach them, and at least appear to have everything to do with your own moral intuitions. If you come to the Bible saying, "my moral intuitions must be right, and therefore scripture must conform to them," this seems an obvious rejection of the authority structure of the Bible being the final court of appeals--at least in a way that mere strained interpretations are not.

    At the end of the day, do you believe there are things the Bible simply cannot teach because of your moral intuitions about the issue? In other words, does the Bible have the ability to falsify any of your moral intuitions?


  32. I see what you are asking.

    The answer I have is long, but, simply stated, no, I don't think the bible can falsify moral intuitions, not in any strong way. Moral intuitions are primary. Theological/biblical warrants are ad hoc rationalizations to justify those felt judgments.

    In short, as a psychologist, and in light of the moral psychology research, I side with Hume over Kant.

    As an example, I don't think the bible can be used to change anyone's mind on a topic like, say, gay marriage. Or even slavery back before the Civil War. People know what they know. I know of no credible accounts where the bible alone falsified anyone's moral intuitions.

    How's that for a provocative position? :-)

  33. Richard,

    i think there are two concepts being conflated. (1) Whether the Bible does or can falsify someone's moral intuition *in fact*, and (2) Whether any individual will ever experience the subjective state of giving greater credence to the Bible over against her moral intuitions.

    Seems to me you can say yes to (1) and no to (2). (Or you could say yes to (2), but still think it's highly unlikely.)

    i'm primarily asking about (1).

    (But of course if you favor Hume, you might think (1) is as mysterious a question as is the idea of necessary connection between cause and effect being metaphysically true of the world.)

    So at the end of the day, during any given theological debate, is Mr. X and Mr. Y simply saying nothing more than "My moral intuitions differ from yours" and there's no more fact of the matter than that?


  34. Richard-

    Kind-of trivial question here, but, in my conversations on this subject, it would be helpful to have "isms" that are used to describe death-centered and non death-centered Christianity. I think that some theological shorthand that adopts these concepts could add some much-needed clarity, if for no other reason than to provide a handy way to contrast them with "universalism.

    I'm wondering if you or your readers have you thought about this. Any ideas?

  35. I've been reading this for a few years and this might be my favorite post ever. At least, of what I can remember. A fab diagnosis, I think.

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