I haven’t read Rob Bell’s hot new book Love Wins (and I probably won’t) but we theologs owe him a debt for igniting a spark of interest in an old doctrine. When universalism makes the cover of Time magazine something is up (although does anyone actually read Time anymore?) And now newspaper covers consigning Osama bin Laden to hell have aroused more popular speculation.
Next month’s MCCM Barth pastors’ study session will take up the subject, and the Confessing Christ Open Forum list-serv conversation has been talking about it.
So now some thoughtful and edgy posts about the “new universalism” have flown about in the last few days, for example a lively critical one by James Smith here, and responses by David Congdon here, and by Halden Doerge here. Halden invites more serious theological reflection on the subject, so I thought I would put in my two cents.
My interest in the subject was renewed not by Bell’s book, but by a close reading of Jason Goroncy’s St Andrews doctoral dissertation two summers ago. His final chapter posits that the whole trajectory of P.T. Forsyth’s thought (centered around the holiness of God) should have led him to a doctrinal universalism but didn’t (Hope I got this right, Jason, your typescript was lost in my sewer disaster. I hope it will be a book someday!) Jason and I had some good back and forth on this, and he makes a strong case, but I suspect Forsyth knew what he was doing by exercising a theological humility about the final decrees of God.
I must confess that I may have a regional prejudice. Here in New England we have Unitarians and Universalists. We joke that the former hold that humans are too good for God to consign to hell, and the latter hold God to be too good to consign anyone to hell. The latter is better than the former but neither takes an adequate account of sin and evil. Gabe Fackre has taught me that eschatology (how it ends) must always be in conversation with theodicy (why is there evil?)
What makes the “new universalism” new is that Rob Bell is a card-carrying Evangelical, and his departure from orthodox evangelical notions of salvation and hell are what make him newsworthy. Various stronger and weaker views of universalism have been heard from mainline pulpits for nearly two centuries with nary a magazine cover.
My own view, influenced by Karl Barth, Forsyth and Fackre, is that because of the trajectory of the whole Christian Story (with its center in the atoning cross) we have a right to hope for and pray for a universal homecoming, but this can only be an article of hope and not an article of faith. This brings me short of a doctrinal universalism into what George Hunsinger once described to me as a “reverent agnosticism” about who will be saved. This keeps the proper Reformed safeguards against not taking sin, evil, and the sovereignty of God with utmost seriousness.
For a useful and thoughtful review of the issues see Gabe Fackre’s foreword to Universalism: The Current Debate, (Robin Parry and Chris Partridge, editors, Paternoster, 2003). Here is an excerpt, where Fackre talks about the 1954 World Council of Churches assembly theme, “Christ, the Hope of the World.” (I seem to recall that he was in attendance):
One meaning (of hope) . . . is the “sure and certain” noun usage. Given Easter, there will be an Eschaton. We need to get that message of hope out to a hopeless world. A second meaning of the word has to do with aspiration rather than accomplishment, the conditional rather than the unconditional. Here hope is often a verb rather than a noun, as in Paul’s comment on Timothy’s possible appearance in Philippi, “I hope there to send him as soon as I see . . .” (Philippians 2:23 NRSV). Karl Barth’s view of the apokatastasis is of the second sort, as in these words from Church Dogmatics IV/3/1: “We are surely commanded to hope and to pray . . . cautiously yet distinctly that. . . His compassion should not fail, and that in accordance with His mercy which is ‘new every morning’ He ‘will not cast off forever.” (Lamentations 3:22f, 31) . Of course this “universal reconciliation”is not a doctrine for Barth as is too often charged. He explicitly denies that: “No such postulate can be made even though we appeal to the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (477) It is not “an article of faith” but rather an “article of hope” in the second sense of that word. . . .
Of course it is an awkward position, violating the canons of Aristotelian logic. If all the world takes part in Christ’s humiliation and exaltation, as Barth argues, how can it be that everyone is not saved? The logic of Barth’s theology runs up against the firmness of his commitment to the divine sovereignty. At the end of the day, our rational standards are not the last word. Who is Aristotle to tell the majestic God what to do? At work here is a Reformed stress on the divine freedom that trumps our human logic.
So in the end we hope and pray for the salvation of the world, for what Fackre calls a “universal homecoming,” not because we cling to a doctrine of universalism, but because of the God of Holy Love whom we know in Jesus Christ.