Thursday, March 3, 2011

Universalism In The News (The "Heart of Christianity"?)

This time it's Rob Bell.

A taste:

Universalism, in its broadest terms, preaches that everyone goes to heaven and that there is no hell. Critics say it represents a break from traditional Christianity, which they say holds that heaven and hell are very real places. In most Christian circles, universalism is a dirty word.

Perhaps it's my studies of the universalism of the Founding era that leads to this criticism. But, yes, SOME universalism holds there is no Hell; OTHER universalism holds there is a place of TEMPORARY punishment, whether we call it Hell, Purgatory of whatever. In fact the universalists of the Founding era were kinda hardcore in this regard. A typical "term" in Purgatory for many of them, I've read somewhere (forgive me for not getting you the footnote) was one thousand years.

As Benjamin Rush, a Trinitarian Universalist put in "Travels through Life," his autobiography:

At Dr. Finley's school, I was more fully instructed in those principles by means of the Westminster catechism. I retained them without any affection for them until about the year 1780. I then read for the first time Fletcher's controversy with the Calvinists, in favor of the universality of the atonement. This prepared my mind to admit the doctrine of universal salvation, which was then preached in our city by the Rev. Mr. Winchester. It embraced and reconciled my ancient Calvinistical and my newly adopted Arminian principles. From that time I have never doubted upon the subject of the salvation of all men. My conviction of the truth of this doctrine was derived from reading the works of Stonehouse, Seigvolk, White, Chauncey and Winchester, and afterwards from an attentive perusal of the Scriptures. I always admitted with each of those authors future punishment, and of long duration.

Heretofore I've operated under the assumption that though belief in universalism was some kind of "heresy" in orthodox Christianity, the issue wasn't as central as, say, belief in the Trinity. Indeed, a trinitarian-universalist could still be "Christian" according to orthodox standards whereas a unitarian-universalist could not. So for instance, even though Benjamin Rush and John Adams were both universalists and both THOUGHT of themselves as "Christians," Rush was a "Christian," but Adams was not. I still believe this (though for personal reasons, I don't determine who is a "Christian," who isn't; if you call yourself one, you are one, regardless of WHAT you believe or how you live your life).

But apparently, not all operate under the assumption that eternal damnation is less central than the Trinity in determining "real Christianity."

As Justin Taylor of The Gospel Coalition was reported saying:

"We’re talking about the big things here, things that have been historically defined as orthodox, " he said. "I have a high degree of confidence in what God is saying and what we can understand."

Though many things that separate Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians, “this isn’t one of them," Taylor said. "We’ve historically agreed on many things, the person of Christ, heaven and hell. This isn’t a peripheral academic debate. What Rob Bell is talking about gets to the heart of Christianity.”

I know the idea of some kind of rewards and punishments is at the heart of orthodox Christianity, but I have a hard time believing Hell, eternal damnation (as opposed to a LONG time) is one.


Tom Van Dyke said...

The logical problem with universalism---that everybody goes to heaven eventually---is that many Christians and also Jews say that God is just, and there's no justice about Hitler in heaven, and God is just.

Hitler in Heaven. This is a very difficult thought.

Jonathan Rowe said...

The old Hitler-Ghandi reductio poles in universalism. I'd say after a millions years or whatever Hitler suffered enough. Perhaps if he has to internalize all of the pain he caused others -- however much/many years that would be, cosmic justice is done.

What I struggle with is according to orthodox notions of salvation Hitler could have a deathbed conversion, be forgiven and be in Heaven immediately upon death where all the Jews (assuming the overwhelming majority of them) who didn't have such a conversion end up in Hell forever.

I haven't seen ANY non-universalist sufficiently answer this. And until they do, which I don't think they can, orthodox ideas of eternal damnation will forever be a no go for me.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Though I did give one out for orthodox notions of salvation. Perhaps Hitler gets the horrific Hell experience and Christopher Hitchens gets to enjoy himself drinking, smoking, fornicating, and blaspheming for all eternity separate from the perfect happiness of being in God's eternal presence. That's the closest I could come to buying into eternal damnation for ordinary, non-Hitler types of sinners. And I understand, accordingly, why Hell would be a self chosen, doors locked from the inside, destination for the Hitchenses of the world.

Jason Pappas said...

If Dante is right I believe I qualify for the 1st rung of hell. I'm looking forward to it: "Limbo includes green fields and a castle with seven gates to represent the seven virtues, the dwelling place of the wisest men of antiquity, including Virgil himself, as well as the Islamic philosopher Averroes and the Persian polymath Avicenna. In the castle Dante meets the poets Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan, the Amazon queen Penthesilea, the mathematician Euclid, the scientist Pedanius Dioscorides, the statesman Cicero, the first doctor Hippocrates, the philosophers Socrates, Averroes, and Aristotle, and many others, including Julius Caesar in his role as Roman general ("in his armor, falcon-eyed"[7]), Electra, Camilla, Latinus, Lucius Junius Brutus, and Lucretia. Interestingly, he also sees Saladin in Limbo (Canto IV). Dante implies that all virtuous non-Christians find themselves here, although he later encounters two (Cato of Utica and Statius) in Purgatory and two (Trajan and Ripheus) in Heaven." (from Wikipedia)

I'll have to learn Latin and Greek but there will be plenty of time for that.

Jonathan Rowe said...


Me and you both.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Wasn't it the Catholics who came up with "Purgatory?"

A million years of torment for Hitler before he can enter Heaven sounds about right.

It would take that long for him to get his head and his heart straight.

If ever...

craig2 said...

a more conservative approach would be to examine his heart with an infallible microscope but verify...a million years and your in as a policy is sort of like basing affirmative action solely on race

Brian Tubbs said...

Universalism is tremendous emotional appeal. The Hitler caveat notwithstanding (and, btw, there are other mass murderers who killed far more people than Hitler), most people want there to be a point in the eternal timeline where God grants a pardon or a second chance and welcomes everyone into heaven (or at least ends their eternal suffering). I myself can't deny the emotional appeal of this.

Truth, however, isn't based on emotion. Truth is what corresponds to reality. And, when it comes to the supernatural / spiritual realm, God determines Truth. We don't.

Randy said...

Watching this discussion reminds me again how obvious it is that religion is a human creation.

"when it comes to the supernatural / spiritual realm, God determines Truth. We don't." I find this pretty amusing, considering the enormous variety of gods/truths that men have come up with over the ages.

Man up and deal with the real truth: There's no hell, there's no purgatory, there's no heaven, and there's no life after death waiting for you any more than you had life before your arrival. You are responsible here and now for your own right actions, and you won't get a second chance. Use each day wisely.

Anonymous said...

Ah, instead of universalism, the previous poster states his certainties about the rest of us, clearly implying character flaw. Odd logic and self serving. Obviously, the millenia of thought and faith is easily seen through by a poster happening upon a commentary on faith.

For what it's worth, the fate of Hitler, your neighbor, your spouse, your child is not your story. Nor is it mine. The question I think is of prime importance is how is my life with God. We don't get to know each others stories. So, why worry about it? Are we simply guessing or are we attempting to judge God? Live in love.