Monday, April 11, 2011

A Beginner's Primer on Universalism: The Thought Processes that Lead to Belief In It

The Internet has been abuzz with defenses of, reviews for, and comments about Rob Bell's new book Love Wins. Some have seen the book as evidence of an evangelical shift away from an orthodox view of hell into an unorthodox view of heaven. Others have championed the book as a refreshing reinterpretration of the Bible's teaching of redemption. Both sides, those against the book and those for the book, agree that Rob Bell's teaching looks much like "universalism" - the belief that, in the end, every person in the universe will be saved from the just penalty of sin by the love of God through Jesus Christ.

Yesterday in one of our small groups a testimony was given about a family member who took the time to read Love Wins. This person, after years of professed atheism, said to our church member that the book led him to reconsider God's existence. The family member was ecstatic and the story sparked a discussion regarding "universalism" in a couple of different small groups. A few did not know what universalism meant, so I thought I would give the readers of this blog a brief primer on the subject of universalism. I will close with a powerful Scripture text (one of many that could have been chosen) to show why universal salvation cannot be possible.

The Universalists' Universal Presuppositions

Every universalist you meet will always begin with two assumptions that, at least in the universalist's mind, cannot be denied by anyone. These are called a "presuppositions." A presuppostion, by definition, is "a thing tacitly assumed beforehand at the beginning of a line of argument or course of action." Here is what every universalist assumes:

"It is God's redemptive purpose for the world, and therefore His will, to reconcile every single sinner to Himself."
The thought or notion that God might actually choose not to deliver sinners from the just retribution or penalty due their sins is something not even considered possible to the universalist. Whether the Bible teaches that God "has mercy on whom He will have mercy" and that He has not chosen to excercise saving mercy on every sinner is debated by many, but the universalist has closed his own mind to any such debate. The second of the Christian universalist's presuppositions is as follows:

"It is within God's power to achieve his redemptive purpose for every single sinner. "

The Christian universalist has come to the conclusion that the cross actually saves. In other words, redemption is effectual--the cross accomplishes its purpose. "You shall call His name Jesus for He shall save His people" (Matthew 1:21). Jesus doesn't hope to save, nor does He wish to save, He shall save. God's power secures the salvation of every sinner through the effectual work of Jesus Christ on behalf of every person who has ever lived. The universalist assumes this to be true.

Interestingly, throughout Christian history evangelicals have disagreed over the universalists' two presuppositions stated above. Those called "Calvinists" disagree with the first presupposition. Those called "Arminians" disagree with the second presupposition. The Christian universalist assumes both presuppositions to be true, and so he or she arrives at the ultimate conclusion that God's love will ultimately win. Hell will not be populated for eternity, according to the universalist, because God redeems every sinner through Christ. How each sinner comes to see his own personal redemption in Christ is part of the "mystery" of God's grace. However, to the universalist, when the Bible says "every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord," it is simply stating what every universalist deeply believes to be true--every single sinner in the history of man will one day be redeemed by God's love.

A Definitive Objection to Universalism

I have no problem stating that if I ever came to believe that the Bible teaches the first presupposition above, that God's intention is to exercise saving mercy for every sinner in human history, then I would be a universalist. I have much too high a view of the power of God, the effectual work of Christ at the cross for His people, and the eternal separation of God's just punishment from those He redeems to ever believe that someone for whom Christ died will ever be in hell. My problem with the universalist is that I believe the Bible explicitly teaches "His people" includes sinners from every tribe, kindred, tongue and nation but not every single sinner from every tribe, kindred, tongue and nation.

Who misses out on Christ's redemption?

I believe the Bible tells us. For a detailed explanation of who misses redemption, I would encourage you to listen to the podcast message The Danger of Drifting from the Gospel. The message will give you the background, the logic, and the powerful argumment of the writer of Hebrews who had the un-universalistic audicity to write:

"How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?" (Hebrews 2:1-4).

In closing, let me hasten to add that I am not one of those who would call Rob Bell a heretic. Though I strongly disagree with him on the intention of God to save every sinner, I admire his very biblical view of the deep love of God, the unconditional grace of God, and the eternal kindness of God. I just disagree with him over the extent to which, or maybe it is better said "the sinners to whom,"  God has chosen to show His love, grace and kindness. Compared to the legalistic, horn-blowing, man-oriented "free-will" redemptionist who views God as weak and impotent to effectually redeem anyone, and then calls upon everyone to "nail down your decision," or "re-commit your life," or any countless number of tactics to keep the sinners' eyes pointed to himself and not God's love in Christ, Rob Bell's teaching of the unconditional love of God is refreshing.

Keep showing 'em the deep love of God, Rob! Just be careful to also show that there no escape for those who continue to ridicule and mock the work of Christ. If every single transgression and violation of the Old Covenant law received a just penalty, how shall anyone escape who neglects so great a deliverance given to us in Christ. If God truly loves a sinner and has the power to save, then He can open the eyes of that sinner to the beauty of Christ before the sinner dies.

To leave a sinner to believe that God will open the sinners' eyes after death is at best a false hope, and at worst, a deadly hope.