Monday, April 11, 2011

A response to Wade Burleson's recent blog on Christian Universalism

Warning! Theology to follow....

I am not a person who thinks that the Bible is God's perfect, inerrant revelation. In fact, I think the Bible is 100% man-made, albeit one of the most important man-made books ever. And it offers us spiritual riches for sure, perhaps even an entry-point into certain kinds of deep truth. I believe in faith (when it means "trust" anyway) and I use God-language in describing reality and in my deepest thoughts and feelings. I think I am a reverent agnostic.

Anyway, this post is not to criticize or defend Scripture, but I wanted to be clear on my opinion of Scripture.

All that said, I also enjoy arguing for Christian Universalism (the idea that in the end, God will save all), even when it means accepting the premise that Scripture is wholly reliable and uniquely inspired in its communication about God. It's a premise that I disagree with, but one that I can accept for the sake of argument. Why do I care? Because I love Christianity and I would rather it exist as something that a reasonable person could hope is true, rather than in a form that any reasonable person should hope is not true.

Wade Burleson, in a recent blog post here talks about Christian Universalism, which is a hot topic thanks to Rob Bell's new book. It's called "Hell's Bells" I think. Oh wait. I mean "Love Wins" is the title! ;)

I would like to say that I enjoy discussing things with Wade quite a bit. He considers what his conversation partner is saying, he is polite and he is straightforward. I have always appreciated this. Wade does a great job of outlining the two premises that many Christian Universalists accept which leads them to the conclusion that God will save every person who has ever lived. He phrases the premises in the following way:

1. It is God's redemptive purpose for the world, and therefore His will, to reconcile every single sinner to Himself.

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

Wade states that if a person believes these two premises, then it will necessarily lead to Christian Universalism, for God has both the will and the power to save every person.

Wade agrees with premise two, but he disagree with premise one. This is the standard Calvinist position, in contrast with the Arminian position that accepts premise one but not premise two.

Wade believes that God does not wish to save certain people. He believes that God has created people that He does not love enough to save. Wade writes that while he agrees with Bell on God's love, grace and kindness, he disagrees "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."

God will withhold his life preserver from many, despite having the power to pull them out of the waves, and it is simply because He does not want to help them.

I may get into what I perceive as a deeper disagreement with Wade in a subsequent post, but first I look at the Scriptures Wade uses to justify His position that God does not wish salvation for all people.

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

First, the typical Christian Universalist maintains an exclusivist position. This means that they do not believe a person can come to God if he ignores salvation through Jesus Christ. Rather, the universalist simply believes that in the end every person will cease to ignore salvation and will be saved by God. So this Scripture does not seem to violate Christian Universalism at all. Secondly, if one looks at the context of this verse, then we see that there are consequences for ignoring God's salvation. Once again, this is certainly a view shared by the Christian Universalist. If being apart from God is suffering and being with Him is bliss, then this is obvious. The typical CU position I have run across is that people will certainly resist God's salvation, leading to their own suffering. But given the unending love of God, the extreme benefit to the sinner of coming to God, and the unlimited means at God's disposal (patience, time, etc.), then all will eventually come home. So the Hebrews verse presented simply says that a person cannot be saved if he ignores God's salvation. A Christian Universalist would agree but add that in the end God will accomplish His redemptive purpose by leading all people to stop ignoring this great salvation.

I could bring up Scriptures which state plainly that God does will the salvation of every sinner (1 Timothy 2:3-7 comes to mind). But it's not too hard to come up with a view and find Scriptures to support it. Many criticize the Bible for this, perhaps justly, but I also think it contributes to the richness of the Bible. It can be quite theologically ambiguous. Perhaps we must seek ourselves, using our ethical intuitions and our reason in determining a view of God that is (hopefully) truly worthy of praise. For his supreme power? Sure. But much more importantly, for His perfect goodness.

And my question to Wade must be - if God has the power to save, to reconcile, to perfect His creation, and yet He lacks the will to do so, then is God perfectly good? I imagine that Wade would respond that our sinfulness means that we all deserve eternal separation from God (presumably by God's own decree), and that God is not obligated to do anything for us in order to maintain His perfect goodness (I apologize to Wade if this is an incorrect guess at his view). But this seems odd to me. If one has the power to make something better, to sincerely convict the heart of the sinner, to bring about healing and redemption, and one does not do it, this does not sound like perfect goodness.

Then we might also ask why God wishes to create sinful creatures with a will counter to His own (yet He created them that way so is it really counter to His will?) if there is no ultimate purpose of redemption for them. The Calvinist response I have often read is something like - God has created some people not to save so that, in the interest of His own glory, he can display His justice on them for eternity. Their suffering will be a testament to God's holiness, righteousness and justice. And their suffering is God's intent.

But if this is what we use the label "good" for, then I am not sure I want to be "good".

I appreciate Wade's engagement with this issue. I will try to write a bit further on broader notions of love, justice and goodness. And I would love to read other's thoughts.


  1. Yes, Steven- God comes off as a rather weird fellow in either case, toying with us. I would send him to a therapist.

  2. Burk, sometime in the future I will outline a version of God that seems to work best to me. But yes, I agree, the traditional Western concept of God has many underlying problems. At worst, it's completely wrong and at best it is just another step in the evolution of theology that religious thinkers should move forward from. After all, that's how they did it in Scriptures. God changes from an anthropomorphic tribal god in the pantheon to the unseen, ONLY God in the universe.

    I realize that some may view "God-language" as more useful than others, but I think some theological discussions provide a great framework for really debating ideas like justice, love and goodness, and this is true even if one rejects the traditional notion (or any notion) of God.

  3. THanks for all the great writing Steve. it is always a joy to read this stuff. A question for you. . . . Do you ever wonder if a preacher like Wade might agree with you to some extent, but that preacher cannot admit it without fear of losing his job? Oklahoma can be tough on a preacher who keeps an open mind!

  4. John, I have had a great email exchange with Wade, and I am pretty sure he believes what he writes, but yes, pastors are people and they have doubts as well. And they may not have a very good forum for communicating about them, since they shoulder so much responsibility for others.

    However there are certainly many pastors and ministers out there who do not believe what they preach. I have seen studies on it. Often, they are not trained well for other vocations (or don't think they are), or they are getting along in their careers, or they still love the job itself, the people, etc. despite their changing beliefs. It can be quite a conundrum I am sure.

  5. Hey John,

    Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola conducted structured interviews with some clergy members who don’t believe. Here is a link to their paper "Preachers who are not Believers" [PDF].

    The topic of this paper was discussed by a large group of the Newsweek “On Faith” panel members. You can read what they have to say here: "Disbelief in the pulpit".


    Thanks for such a well thought out post (as always). I really enjoyed reading about this alternative version of Christianity that somehow escaped my Christianity education growing up. That is part of what I find so interesting here. Christian Universalism seems like it would be a very desirable way to interpret Christianity. Yet we see a backlash when someone like Bell openly discusses it.

    People will bend over backwards interpreting scriptures to damn some behaviors they find abhorrent. And I have seen great minds burn fantastic trails of logic working to show how loving God is or how he is the “ground of goodness” and so on. But when it comes to taking serious the idea that God wants and can deliver redemption for all, suddenly, it is as though this is an interpretation that has gone completely astray!

    I don’t understand all the ins and out of Christian Universalism and why it is not more fashionable. But it seems to me like this is one version that everybody can enjoy. Unfortunately, I suspect deeper reasons relating to desires of including some while excluding others are what keep this interpretation at bay. If only people would work as hard at justifying inclusion as they would at justifying exclusion...

    What your post really got me thinking about was why isn’t Christian Universalism more popular? Why is it that I was exposed to so many varieties of Christianity growing up (most of which focused on some aspect of love, forgiveness, etc.) and yet the idea of Universalism never made a prominent appearance? It seems like something is missing here.

  6. Hey Skyhook!

    Thanks, man. Yes, why is CU not as popular? It has always been around, and I think it was accepted as a fairly uncontroversial position by many in the early days of Christianity. It was in the 6th century when the church finally issued a proclamation against it.

    I think that we all read Scripture through the lens of the middle ages sometimes. Our visions of hell come from that period. And there are some Biblical passages that can be interpreted as promoting an everlasting Hell. Of course God's "wrath" is commonly referred to, but somehow it has become the equivalent of everlasting hell. A loving parent can certainly have wrath towards a child! The writers of the Bible had a very dramatic flair in their language, that is for sure.

    But mostly, I think that people feel the need to defend orthodoxy, the idea that the essentials of Christianity have been correct from day one. I think this idea gives people comfort, basing their lives on the perception of something that does not change. Even reformers in the church usually say that they are the ones who are returning the church to its roots. Interesting stuff.

  7. SH,

    I enjoy listening to a few select atheist podcasts each week, and I have found that the hosts are among some of the most learned biblical scholars around. They also adopt a philosophy of inclusivism that they argue adamantly the Bible disallows. I would argue that the vast majority of scholars (including the aforementioned atheist scholars) believe simply that Scriptur is clear on this point. I bring up the atheist scholars because I feel certain that their desires are not desires of exclusivism.

    Steven and Bell (an admitted agnostic with regards to CU) point to particular "all" verses which, if taken alone, could be used to promote this idea; however, I think that the "wrath" of God is expounded upon both by Paul and others enough that the exclusivist view is the more reasonable interpretation.

    Steven, if you're game, I'm happy to share our email chain with SH. I have enjoyed thearguments you have presented there thus far as well as the opportunity to respond in a forum that allows for sufficient detail to address the subject.

    Best Regards,

  8. I appreciate hearing from you guys who take these books more seriously.

    I get the impression that a straightforward reading of the Bible leaves one likely to favor an exclusive interpretation. And it is interesting to know that theistic and atheistic scholars alike tend to come to this conclusion. But this does not reach all the way to the heart of what I find interesting about CU’s small market share.

    I assume there are additional unsavory characteristics throughout the Bible other than God’s wrath that theistic and atheistic scholars are likely to agree upon. Maybe the treatment of women, the condoning of slavery, the problem of evil, …whatever. It seems to me that over time, theologians have come to the rescue on behalf of the Bible regarding these things; I wonder why hasn’t the time come for it to be fashionable for theologians to come to the rescue regarding everybody else?

    From this outsider’s point of view, it appears that theological rationalizations are offered with various intensities for many of the things that scholars agree the texts indicate, but do not obviously square with what we see as good. Maybe Bell and company are a sign of CU returning to fashion in the evolution of Christianity. Maybe not. I am certainly not in a position to make that call. But it remains interesting to me that issues like the problem of evil are addressed with such vigor while the problem Steven has written about here lies comparatively below the radar.

  9. I agree with Randy's comment concerning atheist commentators. However most of them are not concerned with trying to read the Bible as a systematic, unified statement revealing God's singular purpose. They can say, "this spot is inclusive and that spot is exclusive" etc.

    I agree with this sentiment, but I am adopting the premise that all of the Bible must be harmonized when I argue for CU from a Biblical perspective. And I must admit that when I adopt the mindset that the Bible must be consistent with itself (the inclusive and exclusive passage must be weighed in light of each other), new meanings of "God's wrath" begin to enter the picture. And it is wrath as an expression of love. This is not a foreign concept, for any child has experienced the wrath of his/her parent, and yet there is a security (hopefully) in the knowledge that the wrath of the parent is serving the child's ultimate benefit.

    That is a moral wrath. Immoral wrath, or at the very least amoral wrath, focuses on vengeance - tit for tat - without a broader overall purpose of improvement.