Thursday, March 17, 2011

Wherein I, like everyone else, talk about Rob Bell and universalism

So I bought and began reading Rob Bell's book yesterday. I'm in the middle of his chapter on heaven, which sounds (if I recall correctly) very much like N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope. It's certainly a this-worldly conception of heaven and, consequently, is very different from much of what you hear in blandly evangelical churches. It does not, however, strike me as "dangerous". Of course, the controversy centers on his view of hell, which I'll read about in the next chapter.

The most troubling thing I've encountered in his book so far is his tendency to format paragraphs
Like verse.
Apparently in order to
Call out,
Draw attention to,
His points.
And he loves him some adjectives.

But until I make my way through the entire book I thought I'd link to some of the better blog posts addressing universalism. First, Eric Reitan addresses some of the "pat responses" to universalism. I've not followed much of the debate (I'm not on Facebook or Twitter during Lent) but some of the statements made by critics of universalism show that they have no interest in really engaging in a debate (ahem, ahem). It's useless to talk with people who insist caricatures are reality.

Tony Jones says this article by Kevin DeYoung is what you NEED to read about universalism. Though I haven't read it yet.

I say what you NEED to read is Richard Beck's series. The posts to date are:
  1. Universalism and the Open Wound of Life
  2. What C.S. Lewis, N.T. Wright, and (Maybe) Rob Bell Get Wrong
  3. Volitional Integrity and Hell as Groundhog Day
  4. God Damn It
  5. Why I Rejected Annihilationism
  6. Rejecting Death-Centered Christianity
  7. Why Universalism is More Biblical
The most essential posts, for me, are numbers 3 and 6, where he addresses prophetic/apocalyptic language and the meaning of "eternal". He discusses Matthew 25:31-46 and concludes that Jesus is using prophetic language which reveals to us God's view of the present situation. Those guilty of not visiting the sick, prisoners, etc, are under God's judgment and will be punished. (Beck does not believe God is too nice to punish sinners. He just doesn't think it will be unending punishment. This is pretty typical of the universalists I've read, proving that those who think all universalists believe in a teddy bear God are simply wrong.) This prophetic message is and must remain "the leading edge of gospel proclamation". Jesus confronted his hearers with God's judgment on their behavior and we must do the same. "Consequently, a universalist can and should scream hellfire and brimstone with the best of them."

The difference between the universalist and the traditionalist comes down the road - after the punishment. The traditionalist doesn't believe there is anything after the punishment because it is unending. Beck-style universalism believes that the punishment is educative, not retributive, and all will eventually repent of their sin and turn to God. To summarize:
And so this is why 99% of the New Testament reads the way it does. The language of God's pathos, the language of judgment, heaven and hell, dominates. As it should. What we need, right now, is the Divine perspective, the view of heaven. And that is what the New Testament is preoccupied with communicating.

But in the remaining 1% of the New Testament we do get a glimpse of The End of the story. The story after the story in Matthew 25. ... There are places in the New Testament where The End is glimpsed, if only fleetingly. And when The End is glimpsed you see the universalist vision, that in The End "God will be all in all" (1 Cor. 15.28). That the fullness of Creation--all things seen and unseen--will be reconciled to God in Christ (Col. 1.19-20). That God "will have mercy on all," on everyone He bound over to a prior disobedience (Rom. 11.32). That through Adam all have died, but through Christ all shall live (1 Cor. 15.22). That in the end everyone will confess that Jesus is Lord (Philippians 2.11).
This is for me a profoundly satisfying way of reconciling the difficulties surrounding this issue. The threats of punishment are real. At the same time, the glimpses of a fully reconciled creation are also real and do not require explaining away. This doesn't mean universalism is the slam-bang obvious position. There are difficulties. But there are difficulties (much difficulter difficulties, I'd say) with the traditional doctrine. Thank God for Rob Bell opening up this conversation for us.

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About Me

I'm Rachel's husband and Darcy's daddy. I'm a Hoosier, an accountant, and an Episcopalian. Politically, I'm a progressive who believes in the preferential option for the poor. I use the blog as a sort of journal - to interact with my reading and sketch out ideas.