Hello Rev. Micheli,
My name is Matthew _______, I’m an enormous fan of your work.
I was reading Rob Bell the other day and was a bit disturbed by this line: “It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief (in hell as eternal, conscious torment) is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus.”
Would you say it is a common view among evangelicals that the *belief itself* in universalism warrants Hell? That even if the person believes Jesus saves, the additional belief of universalism amounts to rejecting him? (This could just be Bell’s hyperbole regarding the word “essentially”.) Can one be a Christian and believe that all will be saved?
I was wondering what your take on the matter might be.
Quite obviously you’ve read a sufficient amount of my writing to guess that flattery was a good gamble to get a response from me. I thank you all the same, and I’m being truthful when I say that I’m humbled not only by your kind words but more so by your trust in me with such a significant question.
I think a word like “trust” is absolutely the right word to use in this matter for the stakes explicit in a doctrine like the— supposed— doctrine of eternal conscious torment are too high for the sort of callous, unthinking certitude with which many Christians comment on it. On the one hand, I know far too many liberals who attempt to posit universal salvation by resorting to sloppy analogies about spokes on a wheel. “Different religions are just different paths to the same destination,” is a mantra many are conditioned by the culture to repeat. Seldom do such people realize the presumption behind what they surely take to be a humble position; after all, just as only God can reveal God, only God can know which paths might produce the destination that is God. Likewise are those who want to iron over differences between the faiths of Abraham by dismissing them altogether with “We all worship the same God, right?” We may indeed all worship the same God, but such a dismissal ignores that the central tension in scripture is not over having or not having a generalized belief in God but in whether or not God’s People worship God rightly.
Any account of universal salvation, therefore, must arise not from the secular impulse to undo what God does at Babel and eliminate difference, for the difference God does at Babel is the way in which God blesses the world.
The elimination of difference, Babel teaches us, comes from our sinful inclination to be gods in God’s stead. Often I think Christians of a certain vintage insist upon the notion of eternal hell because those Christians adovcating for universal salvation do so in a way that seems insufficiently Christian; that is, Christianity seems incidental to the sentiments that prompt their universalism.
Incidentally, I believe this is also why so many liberal Christians are unpersuasive to other Christians on LGBTQ issues. “Love and welcome for all,” for example, is a principle with which I concur, but it is a principle. Principles, in principle, do not require a crucified Jew for you to discover them.
Any argument for universal salvation then must be one that emerges from the particular revelation given to us by God in Jesus Christ, and, frankly, the argument from those scriptures is much easier to execute than many brimstone-loving evangelicals seem to realize. Certainly there’s sufficient scriptural witness to disqualify any characterization of eternal conscious torment as an essential Christian belief. As Jesus tells Nicodemus, his coming comes from God’s love for the entire cosmos and what God desires is that all the world will be saved— the word there is healed— through him (Question: Does God get what God wants in the End? If not, wouldn’t what frustrates God’s eternal aim, by definition, be god?) In that Gospel, John makes explicit in his prologue and in his Easter account that the incarnation is God’s way of constituting a new creation not evacuating a faithful few from the old creation. The cosmic all-ness of Christ’s saving work is the thrust of Paul’s argument in Romans where even the unbelief of the Jews Paul attributes to God’s own doing: “God has consigned some to unbelief so that God may be merciful to all.” He puts it even plainer in Timothy: “Our savior God . . . intends that all human beings shall be saved and come to a full knowledge of the truth.”
Where hell is mentioned in the creeds, which, remember are the only means by which Christians evaluate who is and is not a legitimate believer, hell is mentioned because Christ harrowed it, rescuing the dead from former times from Sheol.
Even in Christ’s own parables—Hell is never a realm that lies outside the realm of grace.
Whenever we separate the person and work of Christ, which an accomodated Church in Christendom is always tempted to do, we abstract discipleship (a life patterned after the person of Jesus) from faith (confession in the work of Christ), leaving “belief” to play an outsized role in how we conceive of what it means to be a Christian. Faith then becomes a work we do— when we don’t want to do the things that Jesus did— a work by which we merit salvation rather than a gift from God to sinners. Understand— this insistence on eternal conscious torment is ungracious all the way down. We’re the agents of it all. It turns Christianity into a religion of Law instead of Grace.
To answer your question, though, I’m not sure that I can answer your question. I don’t know how many evangelicals believe that belief in universalism itself warrants eternal conscious torment. If they do believe that believing all shall be saved is a surefire way not to be saved, I’m not sure what Bible they’re reading. Karl Barth, for instance, who was an evangelical, wrote that while the Bible does not permit us to conclude without qualification that all shall be saved, the Bible does exhort us to pray that all will be saved— because the salvation of all is God’s revealed will. Just as I’m not sure what Bible such evangelicals could be reading, I’m also unclear about what God they could worshipping.
Such dogmatic insistence behind belief in eternal conscious torment and the alleged justice that requires such a doctrine grates against the justice God reveals to us in crucifixion of God’s own self for the ungodly.
When it comes to questions of eternal punishment, we mustn’t let the world’s sin obscure the fact that Jesus, crucified for the ungodly, is the form God’s justice takes in the sinful world.
While I’m not sure how many evangelicals believe believing in universal salvation yields damnation, I do believe many evangelicals lack an helpful awareness that belief in universal salvation is more than a meager minority voice in the history of the Christian Church. There have been universalists as long as there have been Christians. In the first half the Church’s history, they were so numerous that Augustine had a sarcastic epithet for them (“the merciful-hearted”). The Church Father Gregory of Nyssa, whom Rob Bell basically ripped off, was one. He argued that since Adam and Eve were types who represented the entire human community whatever salvation meant it meant the redemption of all of humanity. You need not agree with Gregory but to suggest Gregory is not a Christian seems to indicate the plot has gotten lost.
As David Bentely Hart notes:
“[universalists] cherished the same scriptures as other Christians, worshipped in the same basilicas, lived the same sacramental lives. They even believed in hell, though not in its eternity; to them, hell was the fire of purification described by the Apostle Paul in the third chap- ter of 1 Corinthians, the healing assault of unyielding divine love upon obdurate souls, one that will save even those who in this life prove unworthy of heaven by burning away every last vestige of their wicked deeds.”
Back to your question— Would you say it is a common view among evangelicals… that even if the person believes Jesus saves, the additional belief of universalism amounts to rejecting him?
Again, I’m not sure what evangelicals believe about the dangers of believing in universalism, but if any do, then we should pray for them. How sad to think that it’s possible for Christians in America to have turned the wine of the Gospel into water.
A Gospel where, in the End, sinners get what they deserve— that’s water not wine.
It’s religion; it’s not the justification of the ungodly.
A Gospel where those who err by believing too much in the triumphant mercy of God will be banished to eternal outer darkness— that’s worse than the plain old water of religion. What’s more, it puts the right-believers outside the party standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the older brother pissed off at the prodigality of the Father’s grace. A week from Good Friday we’d do well to remember it was such begrudgers who pushed God out of the world on a cross.