Is Universalism Heresy?

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Many people reject Christian Universalism out of hand as heresy, as something outside the bounds of orthodox Christianity.  Whether I would have labelled it as “heresy” or not, I certainly saw it in the past as an option no genuine Christian could take.  I’ve been researching universalism quite a bit lately, and I must say I’m now convinced otherwise.  The following thoughts are for the most part, taken from “Towards a better understanding of universalism”, the first chapter, written by Thomas Talbott, in Universal Salvation? The Current Debate.  I’ve sprinkled in some of my own thoughts and rewordings, but the ideas are mostly Talbott’s.

Consider the following three propositions:

1.  God’s love for everyone means that he sincerely desires the redemption and salvation of every single human.

2.  Because of God’s sovereignty and his irresistable grace, God will triumph and successfully redeem all those he sincerely desires to redeem.

3.  Some humans will never be redeemed, but will instead be forever separated from God.

Two things are important to note about these three propositions:

a)  One can find, prima facie (on first sight), support for all three of these propositions within scripture.

b)  These three propositions are exclusive in that one can believe any two of them, but not believe all three.  Believing any two of these statements requires that the other one is false.

So knowing that one of these is to be rejected, which one do we reject?  Calvinists reject Proposition 1.  The Calvinist believes that God predestined some to salvation, and also predestined the rest to Hell.  In the Calvinist view, God does not desire all to be redeemed.  The Arminian rejects Proposition 2.  For the Arminian, the free will given by God means that God will not achieve his desire of redeeming every human, as some will not find his grace irresistable and will reject God.  The Universalist, on the other hand, rejects Proposition 3.  The Universalist accepts that God desires all to be saved, and also accepts that God will be triumphant in all his purposes in the end, and therefore must reject the third proposition, that some humans will find themselves separated from God for eternity.

I find this to be a good framework to see how universalism works and is different than Calvinism and Arminianism.  However, it doesn’t quite demonstrate that universalism is not heresy, because if Proposition 3 is the most important of the three propositions to hold, then it could be argued that universalism is heresy.  However, my experience is this:

a)  Calvinists will not maintain that the doctrine of Hell is more important than that of God’s sovereignty – his ability to accomplish all his purposes.  Arminians will not maintain that the doctrine of Hell is more important than that of God’s universal love for all.

b)  Calvinists in general do not consider Arminians to be heretics, and Arminians do not in general consider Calvinists to be heretics.

If a Calvinist will not see an Arminian as a heretic despite the Arminian denying that God achieves all His purposes, and if an Arminian will not see a Calvinist as a heretic despite the Calvinist’s denial that God’s love for all entails that he desires all to be saved, then it only follows that neither Calvinists or Arminians can view a universalist as a heretic.  The Universalist is denying a doctrine that the Calvinists and Arminians do not see as more important than other doctrines that they do not see as heretical to deny, so calling a Universalist a heretic is inconsistent.

Here are a few of my own thoughts that come out of this:

1.  We should not be so quick to kick universalists out of our circle, whether that be Christianity, or evangelicalism, or whatever circle that may be (with the obvious exceptions of Calvinism and Arminianism.)  We need to look deeper into someone’s theology than just the universalist label before we tell them, “Farewell.”

2.  Universalism is not merely using a half dozen “universalist” texts as the lens to read all other scripture, but is instead a combination of affirming a doctrine that Arminians agree with, also affirming a doctrine that Calvinists agree with, and then coming to the inevitable conclusion that comes from it.  In other words, universalism is a belief that (like Arminianism and Calvinism) takes into account large, over-arching themes of scripture, as opposed to one that just looks at a few pieces of scripture out of context, or one that just takes our human desires and projects them onto our image of God, as it is often portrayed to be like.

3.  A surface level reading of scripture will not provide an answer to this debate.  We cannot just do a battle of proof-texts and come up with the answer.  We necessarily have to bring in philosophy, theology, tradition, and reason, to help us resolve it.  To just say, “But the Bible clearly says this” is to not understand the problem.

I should clarify that the point of this post isn’t to defend universalism as true, but to demonstrate how it theologically fits in with competing doctrines.  I find this particular framework incredibly helpful as I investigate universalism further, and just wanted to share.

Adventures in Universalism

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While I overall didn’t find Rob Bell’s arguments in Love Wins to be terribly convincing, it did open the door for me to investigate the doctrine of universal salvation further.  Within all the debate and hoopla surrounding the book, the voices of several cogent universalists started surfacing, and it became clear to me that there was more to this universalism thing than Rob Bell’s thoughtful questions and vague answers.  Since reading Rob Bell’s book, I’ve read through plenty of blogs and websites on universalism, and have now just finished reading the excellent book, “Universal Salvation?  The Current Debate.”  I haven’t landed anywhere as far my own decision in the matter goes, but here are some observations I’ve had so far:

1)  Most people don’t understand Christian Universalism.  I’m reminded of when a year ago I started investigating open theism.  After reading about and coming to a good understanding of open theism, it was difficult to find any good rebuttals to the doctrine, as barely anyone understood it, even those that had written full books refuting the idea.  It was frustrating trying to find good debate on the issue between people who both understood what it was about, and I find the same thing with universalism.  Most people don’t understand the difference between pluralistic universalism (all roads lead to Heaven) and Christian universalism (salvation is only through faith in Christ and his saving work on the cross, but all will eventually come to that faith.)  They don’t understand that Christian universalists have quite a bit of Biblical support, believe in Hell, God’s judgement and holiness, and that sin is a serious matter.  Thus, most arguments I see against universalism totally miss the mark, as they are not even targetted at Christian universalism, but some other quite different idea instead.  I would highly recommend the article, “Bell’s Hells: seven myths about universalism”, as it clarifies much of these misconceptions.  Certainly to label universalism as heresy is to misunderstand it.

2)  People think that universalism is too good to be true.  I’m finding that there are a large number of “hopeful universalists”, those that hope universalism is true but wouldn’t bank on it.  I’d say there are a lot more of these kinds of universalists than convinced universalists.  They see universalism as a real possibility, and see the road-markers towards it in scripture, but feel that (a) it’s too good to be true, and (b) what if they’re wrong?  I can totally understand this, and at the moment feel like that might be what’s primarily holding me back from embracing the belief, but in the end I really hope this isn’t what holds me back.  I don’t want to hedge my bets when it comes to my faith in God’s abilities.  If I really believe that God wants everyone saved, and also that God is sovereign, and that he eventually will be victorious in his plans, then I can’t chicken out and say, “I hope that means he saves everyone”, because if those two propositions are true, then it means he definitely does, and I should have the faith to speak on those convictions.

3)  That said, I find this to be a really deep, complex subject, and I might not be able to come to a conclusion.  While I empathize greatly with the emerging church movement, their philosophy of “living in the mystery” does not really appeal to me, I must say.  I like to survey all the available information, and then make a decision and stick with it unless and until I am convinced to change my mind, and am not comfortable feeling like I’m in the dark.  But in this case, it’s easy to come up with plenty of proof-texts for whatever view you want to espouse, whether it be eternal conscious torment, annihilationism, or universalism.  Digging through all of them and trying to come out of it with a coherent doctrine is not an easy task.  Regardless of what view one holds, I can only believe that the Bible is much more concerned with how we live life now, rather than what’s going to happen when we die, and perhaps it’s not trying to be crystal clear on the afterlife, and I shouldn’t demand clarity where (perhaps) it does not exist.

As I dig deeper into this topic, my next read is “The Evangelical Universalist”, by Gregory McDonald.  It is supposed to be the most in-depth, scripturally-based argument for universalism out there, and hopefully it will shed even more light on things.  One thing I can be glad of, and that’s that God is the judge, not me.  Whatever we believe about the afterlife, we must have faith, and be content that God’s justice, love, and mercy will rule and He will do exactly what is right.