Ted Grimsrud—April 3, 2011
Years ago I met a guy who pastored in Canada in the Mennonite Church. He struck me as a good person, seemed pretty gifted, someone I could easily imagine being successful in ministry. But he told me (and this was confirmed by others later) that he had gotten in trouble pretty often, even lost a couple of jobs. What was the problem? He was a universalist. He believed all people would find salvation, and he was willing to state that openly.
Ever since that conversation, I have noticed that for whatever reason, universalism seems like about the worst heresy there is. It seems like, at least in circles I’m familiar with, that it is much more objectionable for Christians to be too welcoming than it is to be too strict.
I have been aware of this dynamic surfacing again in controversy among North American evangelical Christians over a new book by a young superstar pastor named Rob Bell (the book is called: Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived; here’s one long highly critical review and a here’s link to the Google page for “rob bell love wins”). Before Bell’s book was even published, some of his theological enemies caught wind that he argues for a view that struck these thought police as dangerously close to universalism.
This debate about Bell’s book is fascinating, and has stimulated me to reflect a bit more on the universalism controversy as I have experienced it over the years—and to think some new thoughts about what I think may actually be at stake. I think the real issues that matter are a bit different than those generally discussed. And, I think this in large part because of what I understand the Bible to teach.
The focus of the debate seems to be on what happens to people after they die. One extreme would be to say only the elect few go to heaven and the rest are condemned to everlasting torment in hell. The other extreme would be to say everyone goes to heaven to be with God. Most Christians are somewhere in between, of course, with perhaps the most common view (at least traditionally) being closer to the few going to heaven and the majority spending eternity in hell pole.
It’s small wonder that people who take seriously belief in God’s love for the world would be troubled by the doctrine of eternal punishment in hell for the vast majority of humankind. But there seems to be a strong need for belief in some kind of literal hell for many Christians for most of the past 2,000 years. It’s worth reflecting on what the attraction is to this belief in hell. What does that particular conviction give those who hold it?
The focus in much of the debate seems to be on wrangling over specific verses in the Bible. As a rule, the literal hell people probably have a much stronger case based on prooftexts than do the universalists. However, the universalists are not without their own texts. We should remember that the “Universalist” half of the current Unitarian Universalist denomination in its beginnings was a biblicist movement that drew its convictions about universal salvation from a literal reading of the Bible.
However, theology by prooftext is always a problematic proposition. The Bible simply does not work very well when it is seen mainly as a repository of isolated verses that give us magical access to God’s truth. An approach that is much more coherent with the actual biblical materials sees the most profound meaning not in specific verses but at the opposite end of the list of possible reading strategies—the Bible as a big story that with all is complexities and diversity gives us a coherent plot with a beginning and end (my book that develops this point, God’s Healing Strategy: An Introduction to the Bible’s Main Themes, is coming out in a revised edition later this spring).
If we approach the question of universal salvation in light of the big story of the Bible, I do think we would have at least to recognize the appeal of universalism, even if we don’t fully embrace that stance. From the story of creation to the final vision in Revelation 21–22 of the completed healing work of God (and note the presence of God’s human enemies, “the kings of the earth,” inside the New Jerusalem), we get the picture of a God who desires salvation for all of God’s creation—and who works to effect that salvation.
However, a careful consideration of the big story of the Bible (and actually, a careful consideration of just about all the small stories that make up this big story as well) should make clear that the on-going debate about where human beings go after they die is missing the central concern of the Bible altogether. That is, the Bible is concerned with life in the here-and-now, not life after we die.
I find it highly ironic (and also worth some thought about why this might be) that those who claim to be biblical literalists, those who in the name of biblical authority scream “heresy!” so loud in relation to those who don’t share their convictions about hell and condemnation, miss so blatantly the basic message of the Bible. Again: The Bible from start to finish is concerned about life in the here-and-now, not life after death.
At the same time, I think we must also ask abut what kind of truth the Bible contains. Even if the Bible wanted to, could it give us definitive information about life after death? In a way this is an speculative question, because in fact that Bible does not try to give us such information. But what makes us think it could?
There is no argument about special revelation that is not either circular (that is, we say the Bible is special revelation because the Bible teaches that it is special revelation) or a projection of what must be rather than a conclusion based on evidence (that is, we say the Bible is special revelation because we believe that we must have special revelation to be able to function as Christians).
If we don’t assume some kind of magical intervention by God akin to a kind of fortune-telling, it is only logical to doubt whether people who have not yet died could write with any authority about what happens after we die. Of course, in the Bible itself even the rare occasions that writers to make statements about life after death, they have a different agenda than providing authoritative autonomous facts about the afterlife. They are always thinking in terms of the relevance of this information for life in the present. The “prophecy” always serves ethics. The warnings about the future always serve the call to present faithfulness.
Let me illustrate my points here by looking at the book of Revelation, certainly a central text for those who want to talk about the future, life after death, and the reality of a literal hell.
We may (with extreme over-generalizations) break down schools of thought concerning Revelation into four categories. The book of Revelation contains: (1) special revelation about the future and about life after death with a special concern with detailed predictions about the future [for example, Hal Lindsey and the Left Behind books—these folks tend definitely to be big on a literal torment-filled, everlasting hell]; (2) special revelation about the future and about life after death that is best approached through its first-century context with a special concern with giving ethical directives and hope amidst on-going persecutions [for example, a fine recent book by Mennonite biblical scholar and pastor Nelson Kraybill, Apocalypse and Allegiance: Worship, Politics, and Devotion in the Book of Revelation]; (3) interesting first century literature from a self-styled Christian prophet that is mostly paranoid ravings from a unreliable fanatic [for example, journalist Jonathan Kirsch's best-selling History of the End of the World]; or (4) interesting first century literature from a self-styled Christian prophet who has remarkable insights into the world as domination system and the relevance of Jesus’ message for creative peaceable responses to domination [for example, Walter Wink's Engaging the Powers (especially chapter five) and Mark Bredin's Jesus, Revolutionary of Peace].
This fourth approach is the one I take. In this view, Revelation then is not a promise of an already determined outcome—either the few are saved and most are punished amidst the Great Conflagration reading of Hal Lindsey or the peaceable end affirmed by Nelson Kraybill. I don’t believe that John of Patmos had any special knowledge of how things actually will end up. He doesn’t give us certainty of a happy outcome for the human project.
Rather, I read Revelation as portraying a method. If we are to achieve a peaceable end, Revelation gives us a vision of how we will do so. Revelation shows us the pattern of Jesus (faithful living in persevering love, death at the hands of the powers that be, and vindication) and asks us to imitate that pattern as the best strategy for dealing with the forces of domination. If those oppressive forces are to be defeated, Revelation claims, it will be only through the pattern of Jesus. And, should that pattern be embodied, we may hope that even God’s worst human enemies, “the kings of the earth,” will themselves find healing and themselves be transformed into peacemakers (Revelation 21–22).
This hope for the kings of the earth is the basic biblical message concerning universalism. Not a promise that after death they will make to heaven (or be sent to hell), but a call to live here-and-now in such a way as to contribute to their healing. We contribute to their healing by resisting their oppression, but doing so in imitation of Jesus’ style of persevering love (not in imitation of the Powers-that-be’s retributive “justice”). Such resistance allows for the kings themselves to change. The focus, again, is on the here-and-know. The visions of Revelation, like the big story in the whole Bible, mean to inspire faithful living—not provide information about life after death.
What’s at stake, then, in the debate about universalism is whether our beliefs about heaven and hell serve the biblical mandate to devote our lives to sharing God’s healing love with all those we can in the world we live in.