Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Is Christian Universalism an Option?

Mark Galli's review of Rob Bell's new book on caught my eye yesterday, especially since I'd just worked up some material on universalism. Yes, Bell's new book Love Wins flirts seductively with universalism--the concept that all will be redeemed, and hell emptied, by the end of all things.

Don't get me wrong. Yes, I think Bell's an interesting and effective communicator. Yes, he states the gospel in fresh and compelling terms. But he's a middling theologian, and it shows in this book.

Believers have been intrigued by and drawn to various versions of universalism for centuries. But it's a concept that just can't be squared with Scripture. The following is modified from my notes from the upcoming class I'm teaching at California State Christian University in Fullerton.

Rise and Fall of Universalism

Christian Universalism (distinct from liberal or non-Christian universalism) teaches that (1) Christ’s death on the cross will lead to the eventual reconciliation of all persons and that (2) after death, or at or after the judgment, all non-believers will be reconciled and will spend eternity with God (some would say, after some form of purgatory-like suffering.

Christian Universalism has always existed as a minority position, but gained strength in America in the late 18th century until the early 20th century, when it was quietly absorbed by liberal Christianity.

“Biblical” Universalism Texts

Matt 25:46: “eternal” there is interpreted as long-lasting, not eternal

1 Tim 4:8: Paul’s phrase “especially of believers” refers to the “penumbra” of eventual salvation of all. Jesus is seen as saving all—in due time.

1 Tim 2:3-4: Paul says that God wants all to be saved; what God wills must come to pass (cf. 2 Peter 3:9).

But many texts clearly state that not all will be saved:

Matthew 7:13-14

13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

Matthew 22:14

14 “For many are invited, but few are chosen.”

Luke 13:22-30

22 Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. 23 Someone asked him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?”

He said to them, 24 “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. 25 Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’

“But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’

26 “Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’

27 “But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’

28 “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. 29 People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. 30 Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.”

Romans 9:27

27 Isaiah cries out concerning Israel:

“Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea,
only the remnant will be saved.

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