Why I keep returning to the question of universal salvation in Christ

A week ago I heard about the broohaha about Rob Bell‘s upcoming book, a promotional video he released, and a blurb from the back of the book. There was an immediate outcry and dismissal of Bell as a universalist and even a heretic, even though the book is not yet out. I have now watched the video (here) and I don’t see the problem there–I think he asks a number of important questions that many people are asking, all of which he leaves unanswered (probably because he wants you to read the book). The alleged publisher’s blurb from the back of the book reveals more–at least, it does on the assumption that a book’s blurb is representative of its content, which I’m not sure is always the case.

I didn’t read all the posts and tweets written in response to the unreleased book. But I did post this question as my Facebook status: “I don’t understand why a Christian form of universalism (Christ saves all) is considered heresy.” That status received 57 comments–possibly more than any post on this blog at the height of its popularity (which, I grant, wasn’t all that high).

That distracting and exhausting discussion has me thinking about why I keep returning to this subject of universalism. Because while I am sympathetic to universalism and hopeful that it is true, I am not yet fully convinced of the position, simply because there are clear references to judgment and hell in scripture (though they are interpreted variously). Until I can make sense of the tension between scriptural references to judgment and hell and the clear scriptural references to God’s victory in Christ and his desire that none should be lost, I can’t take a stand either way. I don’t think defaulting to the traditional position is necessary (but neither is it a wrong choice), though perhaps the burden of proof is on the universalist side.

I was discussing this issue with my friend and colleague Rick last week and I told him that I do believe in the sovereignty of God. I do believe that he is both capable and perfectly within his rights, as author and sustainer of life, the universe, and everything, to allow or even send some to some kind of eternal punishment. Does this make God less worthy of worship? Not in my mind: this is not an issue on which my faith hangs.

So I began to ask myself why I persist in returning this subject. There are several reasons, but before I go there, I want to make three things clear:

1. The universalism I am thinking about is specifically Christian universalism. That is, it is a universalism which still believes that no one comes to the Father except through Jesus Christ. The catch is, that Jesus in the end saves everyone. Or, to put it a different way, if anyone is saved, they are saved through Christ. And the idea is that Christ’s life, death and resurrection work will extend this grace to everyone in the end. (I highly recommend Tim Perry’s post, “Random Thoughts on what Universalism Is NOT“, if you can’t quite differentiate what I’m saying here from secular pluralism)

2. This post is not an argument for universalism. This post is a reflection on what it is that keeps me coming to back to the question of who will be saved.

3. I recognize that there are many passages that point to judgment and punishment–even eternal punishment. I’m simply showing why I don’t think those verses should trump those that seem to indicate something else. There does seem to be a scriptural tension here–we can proof-text for both sides. I would be grateful for the tension to be broken.

On we go. Why do I keep returning to the question of universal salvation in and through Christ?

First, it is the lengths to which God has gone to reconcile us to himself. It seems that God’s love triumphs again and again in scripture–“God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”. God made the first move there, as he consistently does throughout history. He takes positive, redemptive action while we were still rebellious and sinful, while he had every right to damn us since we didn’t even have the trump card of belief to play. God moves first, and it is love–the basic, defining characteristic God has reveals is his–that motivates him. “Mercy triumphs over judgment” it says in James 2:13, and this has been the case from the beginning.

So it just doesn’t make sense to me that God goes through the whole business of incarnation and then the horror of crucifixion, but then stops salvation short at “…but only if you believe.”

Second: the passages of scripture which speak of God not wanting any to be lost (or perish) and of Christ’s work on the cross undoing the sin of Adam (Romans 5:12-21). Romans 5:18-19 says,

just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.

Adam’s sin gets passed on to us without us having any say in the matter. Yet through Christ, the New Adam, the one who we believe undoes everything Adam did wrong, we have to make a personal choice in order to undo original sin. This isn’t what Paul seems to be saying here. Again, why would God stop short at “…but only if you believe”? Isn’t this akin to me having to do something in order to be saved?

Third: the images of the Kingdom we get from Jesus. Jesus commands his followers (Luke 6:27-36) to “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” and then caps off that section with, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful”. Are these commands a reflection of the Kingdom life and the nature of God, or are they just commands for humans to follow, are they temporary? Jesus seems to be link loving your enemies and doing good to those who hate you with something in God’s nature.

In Matthew 18, when Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive someone who sins against him. Jesus replies with either “seventy-seven times” or “seventy times seven”. Either way, the point Jesus is making is that Peter should never stop forgiving this person who keeps sinning against him. Again I wonder, is this command a reflection of God’s Kingdom and God’s nature, or is it just a temporary, human command?

(I grant that one could ask about the person who persists in sin and doesn’t ask for or want forgiveness. However, here we aren’t told anything about what the offending person has asked for. We are just told about what Jesus expects of Peter, the one offended.)

Now, these passages don’t have anything directly to do with the question of salvation. But my point is that they may well deeply reflect God’s character. They do have an indirect bearing on the question of salvation, because they deal with questions of forgiveness and enemies.

I also have some questions about our conception of God’s justice. We seem to think that God’s justice is analogous to our modern “justice systems”, but I’m not so sure that’s accurate. However, I am less confident in these questions and I am not an expert on notions of justice in the Bible, so I won’t pursue that here. I don’t want readers to get hung up on a point that I don’t feel confident about myself.

God can continue to surprise. First century Jews thought they had the 411 on their coming Messiah; they thought they were on the up-and-up and knew what the what was. They thought they had interpreted the scriptures with what we might call scientific precision. They would know the Messiah. And they were quite certain that Jesus was not him. We may think we have God pegged and that we can therefore anticipate his every move, but I wouldn’t be so sure. I’m not saying God’s revelation isn’t true. I’m not suggesting that it’s unclear–at least in terms of the essentials. But I do think God is able to surprise. And we can hope. I believe hope for glory for all is a good and justifiable hope.

My friend Jeff wrote a blog post today entitled “The Wrath of God is Useful? in which he muses about a Kevin DeYoung quote in this article. That quote was gleaned from this post by DeYoung. DeYoung lists eight reasons why we need God’s wrath. It’s a very utilitarian list–things like “we need God’s wrath to keep us honest about evangelism” or we need it to be holy or we need it to be ready for Christ’s return. First, as I say, it’s a very utilitarian approach to God’s wrath, and rather circular in terms of argument. God is wrathful because it motivates us. Not: God is wrathful and that motivates us; but: we need God to be wrathful in order to motivate us. It doesn’t matter really what God’s nature actually is like, we simply need him to be this way. That seems like a weak theological basis for a wrathful God. And what would DeYoung say about 1 John 4:19: “We love because [God] first loved us”? But perhaps I’m misunderstanding DeYoung’s meaning. I’m certainly digressing from my point, which is this:

It seems to me that God’s wrath and a Christian universalist position can co-exist. This is why DeYoung’s post as a response to Bell’s (alleged) universalism doesn’t quite make sense to me. God’s wrath isn’t really the issue here. Often when people get up in arms about universalism they say, “Yes, but what about God’s wrath?” What about it? A person could be a universalist and still believe in God’s wrath–it’s just a question of to what degree God’s wrath was satisfied in the death of Christ.

There you have it. Why I keep returning to an exploration of universal salvation in Christ. More could be said, I’m sure. I recognize the tension in me as I read scripture to find the things there that I want to find there. This is a tendency in all of us–universalists or hellfire-and-brimstone-ists–we are all inclined to gather those around us to tell us what our itching ears want to hear (2 Timothy 4:3), even if those “people” are ourselves.

11 thoughts on “Why I keep returning to the question of universal salvation in Christ

  1. Toni

    “Until I can make sense of the tension between scriptural references to judgment and hell and the clear scriptural references to God’s victory in Christ and his desire that none should be lost, I can’t take a stand either way.”

    Good man.

    There are some issues that, like you, I’m not completely convinced about, and it’s much better (IMO) to therefore go with the orthodox view, yet looking for something truly genuine and convincing to shed light on the issue than to be unconvinced and insincere about it.

  2. Randall

    Ditto to Toni’s words.

    I too have my concerns about how grace and mercy and Christ’s provision come into play in our lives, and the “…but only if you believe” caveat always struck me as a little bit of what I can contribute towards being saved.


    Marc you’ve been doing some good hard work there in that trailer, and your posts are reflecting that. I really appreciate the time you’ve given to such thought processes, and you have communicated them so well.

    I also appreciate the guile-lessness with which you come at life and this stuff. It can be deep slogging sometimes, and as you say we are all inclined to gather those around us to tell us what our itching ears want to hear. But your pursuit has a simple honesty to it that is refreshing and will do you well in your future work.

    I value how you, with honesty and integrity, take these difficult biblical concepts and simplify them in language that is accessible to others.

    Keep going man.
    I like what God is doing in you.

  3. Jeff Wheeldon

    Well said, Marc – and Toni, too.

    I also tend to go with the orthodox view on things I don’t understand (at least on the surface, while inside my mind turns it over and over in a state of agnosticism seeking truth), but I think Marc captured an interesting phenomenon here: on this matter, our Christian hope and orthodoxy are somewhat opposed. This is the only issue in which I sincerely hope that the orthodox belief of the Church is wrong! What a conundrum!

    Marc, I really appreciate this post. In my own thoughts I tend to get hung up on questioning the orthodox view, without addressing the positive evidence for another view. I’m too negative, and I need positive approaches like yours to keep me going. Cheers 🙂

  4. Andrew

    Interesting post. I wonder if the notion of the soul as an infinite entity is a biblical notion itself? i.e., doesn’t the bible’s references to ‘eternal life’ reference it as a gift, and not an innate quality? Perhaps the ‘second death’ is just that; a death of the ‘soul’ after judgment.

  5. Marc

    Andrew: Good question. I don’t know. However, our “Being Human” prof here seemed to suggest conditional mortality for humans (but mortality for the rest of creation) even prior to the fall.

  6. Don Hendricks

    I have gone over to the hopeful side. I hope in my lifetime to get what Richard Beck over at Experimental Theology hopes for, a seat at the discussion table of various views of God’s ultimate purposes.

  7. Andrew

    I mean I see the value of judgment and punishment – I think it’s easy for me as a middle class citizen in an enormously wealthy, peaceful part of the world to minimize the need for judgment. It may not be so easy, e.g., for the Darfurian whose family is slaughtered by Sudanese militia. He might want to see some judgment ultimately, and some retribution.

    Conditional mortality seems much more plausible to me in terms of the tension between the various biblical references to the afterlife.

  8. Toni

    It might be that ‘death’ used in the context of judgement for a soul after physical death doesn’t mean annihilation, but being cut off from God, who is ‘life’ (it’s how I tend to read the ‘second death’).

  9. Andrew

    That’s of course one of the possibilities – though it surely doesn’t square with any sane sense of justice. And I can appreciate the ‘God’s ways are not our ways’ sentiments, but I’ve always associated the very notion of justice, the ability to know right and wrong, with the imago dei aspect of our humanity. In other words it seems incomprehensible that God’s justice would be so far removed from human justice as to make an infinite duration of suffering a just punishment.

  10. Toni

    The justice of that might be skewed from our perspective because of how we’ve been taught to view the world. So salvation isn’t just, but it is merciful. We may think that those around us who don’t know Jesus are just neutral, but from a heavenly perspective they might be viewed to be waging war against the kingdom of God. I’m putting this as ‘may’ and ‘might’ because I’m not totally sold on the idea, though I consider it more likely than the concept of people being basically decent, who would turn their lives over to Jesus in a heartbeat ‘if only they knew’. Often ‘decency’ is very circumstantial in people – down to how they feel at the time and who’s watching.

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