Shh. This Post is About Universalism

There is a decent amount of buzz surrounding a new book by Rob Bell called Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. The book has not yet been released, but Bell has put out this video promoting the book:

Most of the talk about this book that I have heard has been quite negative, painting Rob Bell as a universalist and saying that he has strayed from anything that can be remotely called “Christian.” Regular readers will know how much I dislike anyone trying to tell someone else whether he can or cannot label himself a “Christian,” for a multitude of reasons.

Bell’s book also coincides with a few requests I have gotten to speak to the topic of universalism on this site. I do intend to write a post (or two) about universalism in the near future, but before I do I would like to get two things from you.

  1. As close to a tabula rasa reaction to the above video (i.e. respond only to the video, not to claims made about Bell elsewhere by other people).
  2. Your thoughts and beliefs on/about universalism

10 thoughts on “Shh. This Post is About Universalism

  1. To be honest, I’ve never read anything by Rob Bell nor heard any of his messages. I have heard of people speak of him and, as you said, usually it is negative. But I’m strongly impacted after watching this video and hearing what he has to say. When he made the statement, “Jesus saves us from God…What kind of God is it that we need to be saved from Him?” it really put things into perspective. He’s effectively sold his book to me with this video.

    As far as universalism goes, I’m really trying to develop my beliefs on it, as you know. I find myself drawn towards the foundational beliefs of Lewis’ The Great Divorce. However, I think that given an infinite amount of time, everyone will eventually come to accept Christ in the afterlife. And so the grace, love, and mercy of Christ is extended well beyond death, yet people still have to choose to accept it. And in my thinking, how can anyone be stubborn enough to reject Christ for eternity?

    I will admit that at times I find a lack of “justice” in universalism, but at the same time I have to realize that we can’t love the same way God does; we can’t see humans through God’s “eyes.” I think that the “Us vs. Them” perspective Christians have really destroys the credibility of Christianity for many people. I find that Christians don’t like the idea that they may find themselves in Heaven (if they get to be present) with a rapist or serial killer, which can be understandable but at the same time doesn’t seem very forgiving or loving. I’m doing a paper on the topic for my Christian Theology class, and so hopefully in my research, as well as through your posts, I can develop a more solid belief system.

    Thanks so much for writing on this. I look forward to what you have to say.

  2. Thomas without going into a lot of details about it I would “label” myself as being a hopeful universalist.

  3. 1. The video: I believe Bell has certainly hit the nail on the head. Many people are reluctant to convert because of ‘fire and brimstone’ Christianity–notions that many will burn in hell. In fact, out of the two Christianities I was taught the notion of ‘hell’ was very much a deciding factor in which Church I ultimately chose to attend at age 13 (before then I went to each church–one on Wednesday, the other on Sunday). I had to select either Roman Catholicism or Pentecostalism. I selected the RC church because of its notion of Purgatory. Most people could go to heaven—you’d just have to go to a waiting area to repent for your sins and be punished first. Sounded like a better deal to me….

    2. I’ve always believed Hell was reserved for the worst of the worst. I still do. I think universalism is just another way for people to believe that.

  4. I’ll say this: it doesn’t matter what YOU think. What matters is the Gospel. Scripture clearly and concisely answers these questions. If you don’t like those answers, that’s a different issue.

    1. Despite our best efforts our thoughts/beliefs about God, the universe, and everything else are always interpretations. That is, you read the Bible and see “clear and concise” answers to certain questions while someone else reads the Bible and also sees “clear and concise” answers to the same questions, though the answers each of you found were quite different. So, you say, “what matters is the Gospel.” The problem with this statement is that you have something very specific in mind when you speak of “the Gospel.” In the same way, when I say, “the Gospel,” I too have something very specific in mind, though it likely differs with what you mean when you use the term.

      No matter what, our readings of the Bible are always going to be interpretations. That is, we interpret the text and context (both textually and historically) through our background, education, worldview, etc. before coming to a conclusion about the text. So, to speak of “what the Bible says” seems a bit disingenuous to me because I know that what we really mean when we say that is, “the conclusions I have come to about this text after living the life I have lived, listening to the sermons I have listened to, reading the books I have read, going to the schools I went to, marrying the person I married, having the family situation I have, and knowing what I know about the actual history of the time (be it a lot or a little).”

      This is not to belittle any of our interpretations, for that is all we have, I’m just trying to be open and honest about how we approach the text. We may well think that we read the Bible and get out exactly what was intended, but that is naive in all areas of literature, not just religious literature.

      1. Thought you might say that. I agree that all the intellectual study in the world might not bring someone to the Truth. Two individuals could study all the history, linguistics, anecdotal evidence, personal experience, and commentary they could get their hands on concerning a certain passage and arrive at different conclusions. Both of them could be wrong. One of them could be right. How do we know?
        Do you think that means there is not a definite interpretation (I’m talking interpretation here – multiple applications are part of the Bible’s beauty)?

        A metaphor – the same thing could be said about any poem, song, movie, painting … you name it. You and I may draw different conclusions about the meaning behind it. But the author had a specific interpretation at the time of its creation. You can ask the opinions of others all day long, but the only certain way to know is to ask the author.
        My belief: we can do that. That’s part of the relationship God desires. We have to approach it in humility, though. Knowledge can “puff up”, but God said, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.
        Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Corinthians 1:19-20)

        Do you really believe we cannot know God’s interpretation of a given Scripture? If so, what’s the point of it? Why does it claim to be something that it is not (God’s holy Word, alive and living, applicable to our lives, interpreted through intimacy with and guidance from the Holy Spirit)? Should we really trust it? How much of it? How is that determined?

        Study is important for understanding (hermeneutics, culture, context), but only the Holy Spirit can ultimately guide us into Truth. It’s not about opinion, but humble, Spirit-led methodology. Do you agree or disagree with that?

        (I realize the follow-up question is, “Well, I suppose you as a ‘Spirit-led’ Christian who knows the Author has all the answers, then?”
        No, I don’t have all the answers, and no two Christians agree on absolutely everything, but that is our fault, not God’s. I don’t have everything exactly right because I fail to ask , listen, and accept humbly and patiently sometimes. That’s why we have the Body of Christ, so we can sharpen one another.)

        1. another sidenote: I realize I’m not presenting anything new here – I’d just like to read your responses. I’ve never held your beliefs before so I don’t understand them, though I’ve had many of the same questions. I’d like to know how and why you arrived at the conclusions you defend.

          Even if I think I’m right about something, I’m not in a proper relationship to correct you. I am curious about what you’d say to such arguments, though.

          I appreciate the time you take to have this discussion.

          1. I used to argue passionately for authorial intent. We should be concerned with what Mark intended in this passage, for instance. I have since come to believe that to be a futile exercise. For one, I do not think that the author’s intent can ever truly be gleaned from reading a text, be that text a few decades old or two millennia old. The next step, then, in determining what a text “means” is to examine the text from various perspectives – as you allude to when you spoke of multiple applications – that can range in hermeneutical styles and principles. We can then get at a range of meanings for a text. I would then argue that all of these meanings are valid. Some may not be valid for me, but they are still valid meanings for others.

            Second, not all authors/artists/poets have a singular interpretation through which they view their work and many have no interpretation in mind. Take the letters contained in the New Testament. These authors were not writing their letters as pieces of literature to be read centuries upon centuries later and examined with a fine-tooth comb. While I think they certainly put more time and effort into letter writing than we do in our emails today, they were not aiming to write masterpieces, nor were they trying to speak to everyone the world wide, for thousands of years to come. They were writing letters to address specific situations.

            You said,

            “Do you really believe we cannot know God’s interpretation of a given Scripture?”

            Since I have a very low view of inspiration I would say that the authors of the texts we read were the human authors (and editors and redactors and so on and so forth) and not God (at least not in any way more than God inspires everyone at various times in various ways). So, given that I do not think it possible to ascertain authorial intent, I would, to a degree, say that we cannot know “God’s interpretation of a given Scripture.” However, wrapped up on all of this is what I said earlier about the multiple “meanings” of the text being valid. I believe that in many cases texts hold different meanings for different people and I think these are all valid and are all ways – I trust you’ll forgive me if I get too preachy here – that God speaks to people individually and personally.

            I think that answers some of how I have arrived at my view of the text and how and why I value others’ interpretations, even when they differ from what I may think is “right.”

  5. I’m confused. If the Bible is not God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (which it cannot be, if it’s merely written by humans with no supernatural intention in mind to be read centuries upon centuries later and examined with a fine-tooth comb to a worldwide audience, for thousands of years to come) AS IT CLAIMS to be, then why do you value its study more than, say, the Book of Mormon? Or do you?
    Why don’t you just teach from Shakespeare at your church? Or the Koran, or Dr. Seuss? What’s the difference?

    I can’t get past this: the Bible says it is the eternal Word (a Who, not a what, according to John) of God. You don’t believe that. Why do you believe any of the rest of it? Wouldn’t that mean its very foundation is a lie?

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