Is Universalism Heresy?

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.”

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5 responses to “Is Universalism Heresy?

  1. I could see the idea of the combination of the ideas of Calvinists and Arminians, however, we are still left with the problem of seeing so many die that have shown no evidence of contrition, repentance, or salvation. If we took the two understandings combined as Talbott believed, then wouldn’t we see all become Christians on their death bed if not sometime prior in their lives?

    C.S. Lewis’ Great Divorce was a good book, but, I don’t think he was portraying his understanding of what hell is, or that after death any can eventually repent. While, I haven’t researched anything he said about the book, I took the book to be him telling a nice story with the intent of leading people to repent. Just like I don’t think the Chronicles of Narnia accurately portray his beliefs. He definitely shows principles he held to, but he weaved them in as pieces of the fictional story. That being said, I may be wrong on Lewis, and if I am then I question the value of his books as they could be misleading if everything he portrayed in his fiction was taken to be accurate as to his beliefs.

    You stated at the beginning of this post that you believe universalism would come from a deep misreading of Scripture. What is the dividing line between a misunderstanding due to misreading, and heresy?

    • Perhaps I overstated myself in talking about “Lewis’s version of universalism,” but he does make a specific reference in The Great Divorce to the “seeming universalism of some of Saint Paul’s writing,” to which the George MacDonald guide figure basically responds, “Don’t trouble yourself with the details, laddie.” Of course, Lewis was strongly influenced by MacDonald, who was excommunicated from the Scottish Anglican church for preaching universalism. MacDonald in his sermons described the afterlife just as it’s depicted in Divorce, with the eventuality that everyone will eventually pass through hell.

      As for heresy, I think Chris is exactly right, below. I think of heresy as that which we cannot consider without simultaneously considering whether or not we will remain Christian. Things like the divinity of Christ, the resurrection, or original sin, where if we take them out of the equation, we haven’t modified Christian belief but undone it.

      The most disturbing thing to me lately has been how cavalier we can be about our doctrine. N.T. Wright tells his students when he lectures, “I am certain that 2/3 of everything I say is wrong. I just don’t know which 2/3.” I think that’s true for all of us, and requires both carefulness and humility in response. I have no problem with people disagreeing with Rob Bell, with whom I disagree plenty. But I see a lot of people throwing around the term “heretic” in such a way to prevent any actual discussion from taking place.

  2. Is what Lewis put forth in tGD really a hint of universalism? I thought it was more the opposite–there were people in Hell, not everyone in the end will be saved, because not everyone in the end will choose to be saved (despite its free offer).

    @Tom — Not all of his fiction is directly representative of his own beliefs, no. We can tell this in the case of Hell simply because you have two different versions. On the one hand, you have The Great Divorce, in which the inmates of Hell are freely able to enter heaven, are freely able to choose to surrender to God even after death, but most of them *choose* not to. On the other, you have Emeth, the Calorman who entered Aslan’s Country and the New Narnia, whose service to Tash was counted as service to Aslan despite Emeth’s deceived allegiance.

    They can’t both be true, but I think they do reveal this about Lewis: that he felt that there was *some* mechanism in place by which one who was not Christian in life could enter heaven after death. He didn’t necessarily think it worked like either of these models, the after-death last-chance choice or the credit-sincerity-to-your-account surprise. But he seemed to think that, whatever that mechanism was, that entrance to heaven was not as simple as grouping those-who-said-the-sinner’s-prayer in one pile and those who didn’t in another. I have to say, on this I tend to agree with him–I believe in the existence of Hell, of the damned, and I believe that Jesus is the only way to God, but I don’t know the mechanics, and am sure (because of what I know of the nature of God) that whatever those mechanics are, they are both infinitely just and infinitely merciful.

  3. As regards that blurry line between misunderstanding and heresy, doesn’t it all boil down to those few core issues that we don’t have the liberty of rejecting while maintaining the name of Christian? The nature of Jesus is one of those issues. Our need for salvation is one of those issues. But pragmatically speaking, I don’t think the permanency of Hell is one of those issues, because it isn’t our business. That’s a question to which God only gives us a Job answer: “Where were you when I put the universe together?”

    I think theological error regarding who God is and what our job is, those are far more important to get right than metaphysical questions regarding how the afterlife is put together. We can get dizzy telling Sheol from Gehenna, Tartarus from Hades. But I am confident that the one who is in charge of such things is one who doesn’t make wrong decisions–and in that I can rest.

  4. That was an interesting point about “Talbott’s construal of universalism is simply TULIP Calvinism with the L left out.” And, I was going to say something, but the idea has currently deserted the writer….

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