As a part of the lively Internet discussion surrounding the publication of Rob Bell's Love Wins, I started a series of posts entitled "Musings about Universalism." There were ten essays in all, most of which were focused on a Frequently Asked Question about the doctrine of universal reconciliation. I'd like to gather all ten essays into one location so that I can archive the posts on my sidebar and allow others to link interested parties to this page rather than having readers dig through the blog archives.
As I expect this post to have a long shelf life, and to set the mood, readers who missed it might like to start with the provocative Love Wins video that stirred up so much discussion on the Internet prior to the publication of the book:
How did you end up adopting the doctrine of universal reconciliation? And how does that doctrine relate to the Arminian and Calvinistic approaches?
Answer: I grew up in an Arminian tradition, believing that it was God's will to save all humanity. I've never wavered in that belief. Eventually, however, due to problems I had with free will, moral luck, and the death-centered nature of Arminian theology, I adopted a Calvinist belief--a strong view of God's Sovereignty. Those two beliefs--it is God's will to save everyone and, as Rob Bell puts it, "God gets what God wants"--combined to create a sort of theological version of 1 + 1 = 2 leading me to the doctrine of universal reconciliation.Question 2:
Universalists don't believe in hell, right?
Answer: I do. Hell plays a very important role in my theology. My main contention is that to understand the apocalyptic imagination of the New Testament you need to master the prophetic imagination of the Old Testament. When you do this you come to see that God's love and justice are not opposed.Question 3:
How do universalists deal with God's justice? Will God honor the suffering of victims?
Answer: Universalism is deeply committed to God's justice and God's honoring the cries of victims. In fact, where universalism embraces God's justice, making justice a central and guiding belief, we often find in traditional views of hell a worrisome rejecting of God's justice.Question 4:
Do universalists really care about the bible? I mean, how do universalists get around the biblical passages about eternal punishment?
Answer: There are two parts to this answer. First, we need to face up to the scholarly consensus that the word "eternal" is a qualitative rather than a quantitative term. But more importantly, the surprising answer is this: Universalists don't "get around" the biblical texts about eternal punishment. Universalists like me read those texts just like traditionalists do. But what universalists won't do is allow those texts to trump other texts that point to the reconciliation of "all things." By allowing both texts to stand on their own, and by connecting the language of heaven and hell to the prophetic imagination, the universalist reads the entire biblical witness in a beautifully coherent fashion. Interestingly, traditionalists are often less biblical, picking and choosing the texts about eternal damnation and reading them against the visions of universal reconciliation.Question 5:
But if God is going to save everyone isn't God going to have to force people into heaven? What about God respecting human freedom?
Answer: First of all, I have some worries about overly optimistic visions of what human willpower can do. Have you ever tried to lose a lot of weight and keep it off? Hard, isn't it? Christ-like living is even harder. The point being that I find it hard to accept strong "free will" based visions of salvation. More, I think it's a bad theological move. That said, the point is well taken. So yes, I reject any notion that God will force anyone into heaven. God's love demands respect for the volitional integrity of humans.Question 6:
Aren't all these debates about the afterlife kind of silly and missing the point? Doesn't Jesus want us to focus on today, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked?
Answer: Totally agreed. But it's important to point out that the traditional doctrines of hell, due to their death-centeredness, are causing all of this other-worldliness. So if the other-worldliness is bothering you you shouldn't punt or complain. What you need to do to combat the other-worldliness with an Easter-based vision of salvation that creates a this-worldly spirituality and missionality. That is what universalism is trying to do, pushing back on the death-centered other-worldliness inherent in much of Christianity.Question 7:
Why adopt a radical vision like universalism when you can adopt something like annihilationalism?
Answer: I once endorsed annihilationism. And among all the options out there it's certainly not the worst. Annihilationism, to its credit, is trying to wrestle with the problems inherent in the traditional doctrine of hell. However, I rejected annihilationism for three reasons. First, annihilationism is still death-centered. Death continues to separate humans from God making Death the prime mover in human affairs. Second, annihilationism still isn't dealing with the problem of moral luck. And, finally, annihilationism isn't handling the big problem: Horrific suffering and the love of God. Universalism, by contrast, addresses all three issues. Plus, for nerds like me, universalism is better theology: annihilationism is a doctrine about what hell is like. Universalism is a doctrine about what God is like.Question 8:
But if everyone is getting to heaven, what happens to Christian evangelism and mission?
Answer: Nothing! You keep proclaiming the Good News about what God has done and call people to participate in the Kingdom of God. The main change here is motivational, shifting from a fear- and death-based motivation to a joy- and Easter-based motivation. I called this the urgency of joy.Question 9:
But doesn't universalism reject the cross, the atonement and the necessity of the death of Jesus? Isn't Christ unnecessary in universalism?
Answer: People seem confused on this point. Christian universalism is perfectly compatible with every view of the atonement, objective and subjective, even penal substitutionary atonement. More, the Christology of Colossians 1 shows how universalists see Christ at the center of God's reconciling "all things." Universal salvation comes through Christ.Question 10:
What are you trying to do, convert me to your opinion?
Answer: Not at all. However, like Rob Bell I think a lot of people are struggling with the traditional answers about heaven and hell. And if these people need a different set of answers to keep them in the fold, answers rooted deep in the Christian tradition and church history, well, I offer up the doctrine of universal reconciliation for their consideration. Join wonderful saints like Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and George MacDonald.
But even if you don't agree with me, my larger goal in writing these essays is simply to seek the right hand of fellowship. You don't have to agree with me. Nor am I seeking that. But I would like you to see me has a fellow Christian and brother in Christ.
And if I've been hard on you, polemically speaking, in these essays, it's not meant to be mean-spirited. The style and bombast is just a means to get a hearing, to get a seat at the table at your church, to make you think, and perhaps to get you to wonder if there might be something to this great, grand and awe-inspiring vision of the irresistible love of God.