When you read all these online conversations about universalism, particularly in the wake of the publication of Rob Bell's Love Wins, you see people ping-ponging around between Calvinist, Arminian and Universalist soteriologies (Note: a soteriology is a theology of salvation, a theory about who is saved and who is damned).
In my opinion, as I've written about before, one of the best ways to compare and contrast these positions are the propositions of Thomas Talbott from his book The Inescapable Love of God and his essays in the edited book Universal Salvation?: The Current Debate. (These two books, along with Gregory MacDonald's (aka Robin Parry's) The Evangelical Universalist, are must-reads for anyone wanting to dig deeper into universalism as a biblical position.)
Talbott has us consider the following three propositions:
What is interesting about each proposition is that all three have ample biblical support. But, as Talbott points out, you cannot, logically, endorse all three.
- God’s redemptive love extends to all human sinners equally in the sense that he sincerely wills or desires the redemption of each one of them.
- Because no one can finally defeat God’s redemptive love or resist it forever, God will triumph in the end and successfully accomplish the redemption of everyone whose redemption he sincerely wills or desires.
- Some human sinners will never be redeemed but will instead be separated from God forever.
This is an interesting predicament which I think illuminates a lot of the debate about if universalism is "biblical" or not. Specifically, no soteriological position--Calvinist, Arminian, or Universalist--is an explicit teaching of the bible. Thus the continuing controversies and debates. Rather, each soteriological position is a composite view, a way of combining the biblical material into a coherent theory. But due the logical tensions inherent in the biblical witness, which shouldn't worry us unduly as the bible is more metaphor than theorem, the only way to create an internally consistent (logical) theory of salvation is to adopt two of Talbott's propositions and de-emphasize (either by rejecting it outright or fudging it) the third. And what all this means is that every soteriological position--Calvinist, Arminian, and Universalist--is equally biblical and unbiblical. Each position strongly affirms 2/3rds of the bible's soteriological material (that's their "biblical" part) while semantically fudging, ignoring, deconstructing, or outright rejecting the other 1/3rd of the biblical data (this is each position's "un-biblical" part).
According to Talbott here is how each position adopts two of of the propositions while rejecting the the third:
If you are long time reader I've walked you through Talbott's propositions before. But in light of some of the questions from my last post (Juliane's in particular) I thought I'd walk through Talbott's propositions in an autobiographical manner, pointing how how I accepted or rejected the various propositions to wind up where I am today. And as Talbott helps us see, this is really, then, just a story about how I wandered through Calvinism, Arminianism, and Universalism. A story told in three Acts.
- Calvinism: Adopt Propositions #2 and #3 above. God will accomplish his plans and some will be separated from God forever. This implies a rejection of #1, that God wills to save all humanity. This conclusion is generally expressed in the doctrine of election and double predestination (i.e., God predestines some to be saved and some to be lost).
- Arminianism: Adopt Propositions #1 and #3. God loves all people and some people will be separated from God forever. This implies that God's desires--for example, to save everyone--can be thwarted and unfulfilled. This is usually explained by an appeal to human choice. Due to free will people can resist/reject God. Where a Calvinist sees God's grace as irresistible (if a our Sovereign God wants it He gets it), Arminians see God's grace as resistible.
- Universalism: Adopt Propositions #1 and #2. God loves all people and will accomplish his purposes. This implies a rejection of #3. A universalist agrees with the Calvinist that God's grace is, ultimately, irresistible. However, the univesalist rejects the doctrine of election, agreeing with the Arminian that God wills to save everyone. Consequently, the universalist has to reject the belief that hell will involve an eternal separation from God.
GROWING UP ARMINIAN AND ENCOUNTERING MY FIRST CALVINIST IN A DORM
I was raised in an Arminian tradition. So I began my life accepting Proposition #1. I was raised believing that God wanted to save everyone.
Growing up I just assumed this was the only coherent thing to say about God. Of course God wanted to save everyone. Who could object to that? Well, I discovered in college there were some guys in my dorm, who described themselves as "Calvinists," who did object. I never knew people walked around which such crazy ideas in their head. Really, God doesn't want to save everyone? God is just choosing to save the elect? And God knew this from the beginning of time?
Shocked, I pressed these Calvinists. Where in the world did you come up with this stuff? They promptly flipped their bibles open to Romans 9 and read how God had predestined some to be "objects of wrath prepared for destruction" while some of us were predestined to be objects of mercy. And the kicker was the predestination part. Who is going to heaven and who is going to hell was foreordained by God from the beginning of time
Good Lord, I thought. Is that really in the bible? Yes, yes it was. I was shocked and didn't know what to say. I think I eventually said something like, "Yes, I can read those words. But they can't possibly mean what they appear to mean."
But why would I say that? I honored and loved the bible. Why not just read the bible for what it says? Well, because growing up as an Arminian I knew a lot of Scriptures that had convinced me that God really does want to save everybody. For example, I knew passages like Titus 2:11: "For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people."
So I was stuck. I couldn't get my head around the Arminian material I found in the bible as well as the Calvinistic material pointed out by my dorm mates.
This was my first real experience with Talbott's propositions. I'd stumbled upon a contradiction. Like the faith versus works debate. So I had to choose. Or fudge. And growing up Arminian you can predict what I did. I fudged the Calvinist material. I just concluded that those passages couldn't possibly mean what people think they mean. Was that unbiblical of me? I guess so. But my only other option would have been to go with the Calvinist material and start fudging on passages like Titus 2:11. Something was getting fudged.
And so it was that my Arminianism survived my first encounter with Calvinism. But my early biblical naivete was shaken. I was moving forward but I was now aware that there was material in the bible that bothered me, namely because some people, who seemed very smart and sincere, were taking those passages very, very seriously while I, on the other hand, was going to dismiss or ignore them. And I hated anyone telling me that I wasn't taking the bible seriously. But what was I to do? I started realizing that this "being biblical" deal was very complicated. I got a hint that there was no single way of "being biblical." That "biblical" people could disagree and that the bible would support a whole host of theories, doctrines, and church expressions.
WHERE MORAL LUCK KILLS MY ARMINIANISM AND I ACTUALLY START TO AGREE A BIT, TO MY GREAT SURPRISE, WITH THE CALVINISTS
So I rejected Calvinism. My encounter with the doctrine of election caused me to double-down on my Arminian endorsement of Proposition #1: God wants to save everyone. And I've never wavered from that commitment. It is the foundation of my soteriology and how I understand the phrase "God is love."
But as college progressed I started to worry more and more about Proposition #3, particularly as it related to Proposition #2. Specifically, if you are Arminian you believe that God's love can be defeated, that God's grace can be resisted. Generally, the mechanism that makes all this happen is free will. God wants to save everyone, this is God's Sovereign desire, but God also grants us freedom. And some people will use this freedom to reject or rebel against God. By contrast, some of us will use our freedom to accept God's free gift of grace. And be saved as a result.
Now all this just drives Calvinists crazy. For two reasons. First, it suggests that God's Sovereign will can be thwarted. That God doesn't get something God wants. As it says in Romans 9, if God wants to save someone God saves them and if God wants to damn someone God hardens their heart. And God can do this over our objections because God is God and we are not. As it says in Romans 9, can the clay object to the Potter?
The second reason Calvinists hate the Arminian soteriology is that the mechanism of salvation hinges upon human volition, a choice we humans make. Human choice is privileged over God's election. Consequently, is this choice a "work"? Something we do to save ourselves, to earn salvation? This is a very old debate, going back to Augustine versus Pelagius through John Calvin versus Jacobus Arminius and down to the present day.
But my particular worries about Arminianism weren't driven by these concerns. I wasn't going to adopt the doctrine of election to save a vision of God's Sovereignty. No, my worries were about free will, death, and eventually, suffering.
Again, according to classic Arminianism the reason you wind up in hell is because you made a free choice to reject God's grace. You're not in hell because God predestined you to be in hell. No, you're in hell because you never accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior. So the only one you can blame for being in hell is your own sorry self. God loves you but you rejected it.
Prior to college this theory seemed right to me. But as college progressed I started to worry about the limits of free will. I'd lay awake at night wondering, "Did I really choose to be a Christian? I was raised by Christian parents in a Christian nation. Of course I'm a Christan. But what if I was raised by kind and intelligent Muslim parents in a Muslim country?"
It's not that I denied free will as much as I began to suspect that some people begin their "race to God" with significant headstarts. Huge headstarts. I, as a Christian kid, had a great headstart. So I was going to get go to heaven. But that Muslim kid? Well, he's got his work cut out for him. Somehow he's got to overcome all that Islamic teaching he's heard since he was a baby, rebel against his loving and supportive parents and, hopefully, encounter a Christian missionary who is semi-intelligent, Christ-like in character, and isn't a theological wackjob.
In short, I've got a 100-meter sprint to God, with the wind at my back, and this Muslim kid's got an Iron Man triathlon in front of him.
And then I wondered about the timing of death. Given the triathlon ahead of him that Muslim kid is going to need some time. But what if he doesn't have any time? What if he's run over by a bus? Gets cancer? Or just takes a wrong turn and misses his one chance to meet that Christian missionary?
All these questions, and many others about how God deals with suffering and pain like in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, boiled up and over in college. And a faith crisis set in. If God loves everyone how can he allow such unfairness to happen? Particularly given the stakes involved. Eternal torment and all that.
And as I pondered all this it started to dawn on me that the flaw in the Arminian theology I held was how death was functioning as a moral stopwatch. I realized that that Muslim kid was in a race against death. Hopefully he'd make it. But given his lack of a headstart I wasn't optimistic about his chances. I mean, how likely would it be for me to convert to Islam? That's just not going to happen. And yet, given the symmetry of the situation, it's going to be just that hard for the Muslim kid to convert to Christianity. So if it's not happening with me, it's not going to happen with him. So Death is going to outrun and catch that Muslim kid. Death is going to win.
Well that sucks, I thought. I thought Death had been defeated. That death no longer had a sting. And yet, everywhere I looked, Death was stinging the hell out of everyone. The only way it seemed death could be defeated is if you had a headstart, if you got lucky. If you got lucky you didn't have to worry about the stopwatch. Your Christian parents dropped you off at the finish line with a Capri Sun in your hand on the way to soccer practice.
And so I started to wonder if the Calvinists might have been on to something with Proposition #2. Maybe if God wants something God will get it. That nothing could defeat God. Not even death. And if that was true, well, God's love would continue to pursue us even after death. And Love, being love, would never, ever give up on us.
I'd never loosened my grip on Proposition #1, that was unshakable, but slowly I was growing more and more convinced about Proposition #2. I was coming to agree with the Calvinists that God would get God's way. That God's will is Sovereign and that humans cannot thwart or defeat God's purposes. That God's grace is irresistible. And if this were true--if God wills to save everyone and God's will cannot be defeated--Proposition #3 had to be rejected. True, that meant I had to start rethinking all those texts about "eternal punishment." These are Talbott's Propositions after all. But this was nothing new. I knew, from my first encounters with Calvinism, that everyone was fudging some part of the bible.
And this wasn't just a shift that helped me with a soteriological puzzle. As I've written about before, my most pressing questions at the time (and today) were turning toward the problems of pain and horrific suffering. Will God be good to the victims of horrific pain, abuse, disease, famine, tragedy, and torture? I became convinced that God would not let their stories end in that manner. God was still in their future. Love awaits.
WHERE I ADOPT UNIVERSALISM, FOR YEARS PEOPLE THINK I'M CRAZY AND NOW, SUDDENLY, IT ALL SEEMS LIKE ITS BECOMING MAINSTREAM
And so I rejected Proposition #3. And I soon found myself among some really wonderful and exciting people. I joined a great throng of saints and Christ-followers. I began with C.S. Lewis, but soon found George MacDonald, Gregory of Nyssa, Julian of Norwich, and Origen. As I've written, finding MacDonald was huge. The real tipping point. And in recent years I've been encouraged by the work of Thomas Talbot, Robin Parry, Keith DeRose, John Hick, Marilyn McCord Adams, and Jürgen Moltmann. Along with other people who are theological resources for univeralists: like Miroslav Volf and Karl Barth. And now, it seems, we have Mr. Rob Bell as a friend.
In the early years, I was largely alone in my beliefs. Living life among Arminians who rejected Proposition #2 while I, secretly, endorsed it. Isn't it sad, they would say, that these people died without knowing Jesus? It is sad, I would say, but I don't think God can be defeated by death. I don't think God is limited by any stopwatch. As Rob Bell says, I think God's love will win in the end.
Here and there, when I could trust people, I would let them know I was a universalist. When I came to ACU I remember "coming out" to some trusted colleagues. I think they thought I was crazy. And they still make fun of me. I'm the token universalist. We'll be talking about something and they'll say, "Oh, but you don't believe that. You're a universalist." It's all in good fun. But I told them, you just wait, just wait, my generation and those following are moving in this direction.
And guess what? Look what's happening. A book like Rachel Held Evans' comes out and captures the struggles of a generation. Scot McKnight, a leading voice in evangelicalism, thinks universalism is "the most pressing question facing American, Western Christianity." Robin publishes The Evangelical Universalist. College students are discovering George MacDonald. And, now, we have Rob Bell's Love Wins:
All the sudden, I don't feel so lonely anymore.