First of all, apologies for the long unannounced absence. Personal matters and all that. Won’t happen again, unless it does. And in fact, it probably will.
On to business.
Rob Bell has a new book coming out, and the word is that it preaches universalism. Also that it contains heresy. Sometimes these are explicitly linked, and other times not.
Now, I don’t know what version of universalism Rob Bell’s book contains, so I can’t speak to whether or not Rob Bell’s book preaches heresy. But implied in that sentence is the belief that not all forms of Christian universalism are heretical. There is a wide difference between the universalism of John Hick, the universalism C. S. Lewis hinted at in The Great Divorce, and the universalism espoused by Oprah or the Unitarian Universalist church. But is it the case that there is an account of universal salvation that is within the bounds of Christian teaching?
I believe so, for twin reasons, one theological and one philosophical. The first is that scripture is not altogether clear on the issue of universal salvation, and the second is that at least certain forms of Christian universalism are composed of beliefs held by orthodox Calvinists or orthodox Arminians, and unless we are to condemn either of these as heretical (radicals from either camp might, of course), these forms of universalist belief must also remain within orthodoxy.
But before I go on, a working definition of Christian universalism. The universalist does not need to be a relativist or believe that all religions are equally valid or deny original sin or (even) the doctrine of hell. Christian universalism is simply the belief that through Christ all people will, in the end, be saved. In some accounts hell is metaphor, hell is a very real destination of the demons but nobody else, hell is the real punishment from which we are saved, or (as in George MacDonald) hell is seen after the fact to have been purgatory all along.
Now, as to the first, there is an in-depth and overlong account that I won’t get into (but see Across the Spectrum by Boyd/Eddy, Universal Salvation? The Current Debate by Parry/Partridge and No Other Name by John Hick for the full argument), but suffice it to say that some passages seem, on the surface at least, to anticipate that in the end, all will be saved by Christ’s death. Take, for instance, the formulations in Romans 5, that just as death came to all by way of Adam’s sin, so life will come to all by way of Jesus’s faithfulness.
Now, I do not read the New Testament as teaching that all will be saved. I think that is a deep misreading of scripture. But I also find deep misreadings of scripture in many denominations and congregations whom I would not accuse of heresy. The issue at stake here is whether a universalist can in good faith claim to be reading scripture rightly. John Hick and Thomas Talbott, among others, have demonstrated that this can be done.
And now, second, for the philosophical reason. The belief that all eventually go to heaven can’t be deemed heresy on its own. It is a belief composed of other, underlying, beliefs that have to be dealt with. Thomas Talbott summarizes the issue well.
When I first began interpreting the New Testament along universalistic lines, I was struck by how many regarded such an interpretation… as utterly unreasonable and heretical as well. I found that a good many of my [Calvinist] friends, who did not regard the Arminian view as heretical (only mistaken), and a good many of my Arminian friends, who did not regard the [Calvinist] view as heretical (only mistaken), were united in their conviction that universalism is both mistaken and heretical
But why should this be so? Why should Calvinists view universalism as any more heretical than Arminianism? And vice-versa? Talbott noticed this as well, and was further confused to notice that in his own interpretation he was always either working out the writings of a prominent Calvinist scholar or a prominent Arminian scholar. And “the remarkable thing,” Talbott says, is this:
If you simply take the [Calvinist] idea of God’s sovereignty in the matter of salvation – that is, the idea that the Hound of Heaven cannot be defeated forever – and put it together with the Arminian idea that God wills or desires the salvation of all, then you get universalism, plain and simple.
Talbott’s construal of universalism is simply TULIP Calvinism with the L left out. Unless we hold that all Christians who reject Limited Atonement are heretics, on what grounds can we call Talbott’s universalism heretical?
In sum, this is not to say that everything goes and universalism is on the same playing field with traditional doctrines. There is a weight of tradition against this reading of scripture, and the clear onus is on Bell, Talbott and others to explain their position thoughtfully and humbly. Likewise, the onus is always on the traditionalist (and I count myself among them) to engage in genuine dialog, rather than shutting up the minority with a word like “heretic.”