Universal Reconciliation: Some Questions and Answers

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:

LOVE WINS. from Rob Bell on Vimeo.

One clarification about my language below. "Universalism" is a vague and broad term. When I use the word "universalism" I'm referring to the Christian doctrine that "all things" will be reconciled to God through Christ so that God will be "all in all" (Col. 1.19-20; 1 Cor. 15.28).

Question 1:
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.

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22 thoughts on “Universal Reconciliation: Some Questions and Answers”

  1. Dear Professor Beck,

    I have loved every moment of your posting and the dialogging from others.
    Some of the language is a bit above me, having a less educated mind, but it has caused me to think.
    I have found myself embracing the definitions you have presented here and I do so with an inner peace.

    Three months ago I wasn't even aware of this topic, your web site, Rob Bell, etc.. The journey continues!

    May the peace of the Master, Jesus, be upon us all...

    Michael

  2. I think you're on the right lines here. We talk about Christ conquering death, but in fact in traditional Arminian Christianity, death conquers God. God can't force us into heaven - and I don't like using words like 'can't' of an omnipotent being - but death can force us into Hell. This worked in Wesley's day, when everyone he came across was more or less Christian, but the church was failing to reach many of them. People didn't question the existence of Hell, they went in fear of it. These days people do question its existence, and perhaps we do need to re-think.

  3. Thank you so much for the immense amount of thought you've put into these. Such a blessing!

  4. it seems to me, go is so gracious to tell us His Story, fully knowing our limitations,our proclivity to fight to be right,and in that mind set,we fail to see his story of how our father adjusted our future to not only expose his ability to bring about his goal,but also do this in such a way that that even today we are finding out just how ignorant we have always been when comprehending his purpose.
    to me this in it self is one of the greatest wonders when the greatest minds of the history of this last 2000 years because of our subjective cultural psychology wrapped in a tradition of exclusiveness.
    we missed the point time and time again.
    one of his promised blessings is seek and you will find.
    love one another!
    be wise as a serpent concerning good.
    and as Innocent as a dove concerning evil.
    how long does it take rich to finally figure out, until we get these intrinsic characteristics of loving kindness mercy and self forgetting of god integrated into ourselves we are a pretty screwed up bunch and as the teacher would say be grateful that you can be joyously free,if you allow God to do what he does best adjust our future for our good,and allow him to do the same for our neighbor if we will but learn to have a relationship with him as god in Christ has with us.

    may god give you and yours a joyful day

  5. I so appreciate this post. I have traveled a similar path and come to the same wonderful conclusions. There is no way that God could be satisfied with any part of His creation in an everlasting hell. There is no way that "free will" could ever trump the love of God. I love your phrase "the urgency of joy." That should be the title of your book that covers this topic. Thank you for sharing this part of your journey.

  6. I hope this doesn't appear to be too gushing, Prof Beck, I must confess I developed a bit of a man-crush when I saw some of your articles combining theological discussion with statistical analysis ;) (And your empowering article on emoticons).

    As recently as Christmas I was a disillusioned Southern Baptist Armenian who had grown quite cynical of church and religion. I had a sudden spark, epiphany, calling, enlightening, (whatever you want to call it) probably in connection to an Erwin McManus book I was reading, Barbarian Way. It spoke to me of a freedom and adventure within Christianity I was missing. I had no idea what I was missing, but it made me restless. Amazingly, my wife had a similar experience while reading a different book, Radical by David Platt. Over the last 4 months I've reread the gospels and spent countless hours searching the internet for infomation and other countless hours pondering. I was pleasantly surprised to see that Rob Bell was publishing a book that seemed to line up with some of the ideas I was developing. Then his book made the internet k-splode, and I realized that I was part of a larger mindset shift that is occuring in Christianity. Your blog posts have given further structure and focus to some of the ideas I've been considering. At this point I classify myself as a Hopeful Universalist. I'm trying to keep myself away from making definitive statements of theology because, as my friend points out, I have a tendency to put God into a box (as the old cliche goes). And once I have this box, I tend to argue and debate people in a mostly unconstructive manner. Your posts on self-awareness have further helped me to understand this tendency I have, and how I can further refine my thinking process.

    The thing that strikes me about my own journey is how accelerated it was by the internet. If I want a book, I order it on my kindle. If I don't understand a theological term, I google it. If I hear of an interesting author, I follow his blog. Knowledge that would have taken years (lifetimes) to acquire, I've learned in months. Intellectually, I can barely recognize the person I was in 2010. I see that you are starting a research project on mobile computing and the internet, iSRP. Perhaps I can suggest a future blog post related to a conversation I had with a friend. I'd be interested to see your take on any parallels between early Christianity & Roman roads/Greek language commonality; the Reformation & the printing press, and the modern (Postmodern?) Christian mindshift & the internet. I'd volunteer to be Bandit's research assistant.

  7. I've actually been think about something like that, something like "Letters to a Young Universalist."

  8. Thanks Justin. At the end of the day, we are all only hopeful. And I also fear putting God in a box. So I'd place myself between hopeful and dogmatic. Optimistically hopeful!

  9. So what happens if you take the subject back in time to the Apostolic Christians. My understanding is Universalism was an attempt to reconcile some basic tenets of Jesus' teachings with the layers of "Christian" denominations that evolved over time - or am I being too simplistic or naive?

  10. You should know: these posts have convinced me to move from Arminianism to Universalism. I was primed by a professor in my undergrad, but this series was the main cause.

  11. Dr Beck,

    I enjoyed very much your posts on universalism.

    I have read you several times stating something like: ' the scholarly consensus [is] that the word "eternal" is a qualitative rather than a quantitative term.'

    I would be happy if you could provide some references for this.

    Blessings
    Marc

  12. Thanks for this post and the series it sums up.  I look forward to you getting it summed up in your bar on right with a table of contents to unite the series so i can send it to others.  

    I've also been catching up on some of your other more recent posts.  Great stuff.  Thanks for your musings:)

  13.  The abc of eternal life:
    http://www.monachos.net/forum/showthread.php?8316-The-abc-of-eternal-life-in-few-minutes
    Eve lost it, Jesus brought it back and many Christian denominations may have lost it again. Read above.

  14. I have a forum which was set up to encourage Christians who have been rejected because of their universalism & also a place to discuss/learn more about it. Richard I would like to invite you to join as a featured guest (Robin Parry & Thomas Talbott are already there)? It wouldn't require much time, even if you only occasionally posted something, I'm sure you could challenge us & it would be very encouraging just to have you there :)

  15. Hi Alex. Thanks for the invitation. I would in interested. Shoot me an email at beckr@acu.edu so we can talk about it would involve, logistics, expectations, and vision-wise.

  16. Thank you Richard for these great FAQs. I posted them on my face book page. People are liking them. They are very well stated. Things I believe and agree with, but you have said these things so well, that I had to share them. Thanks, Brother.

    Keith Wells

  17. According the UR, one can worship anything they desire and in the finality make it to God, right?

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