Friday, April 1, 2011

On Universalism and Love

Warning: this post is very specific regarding the book "Love Wins." If you haven't read it yet, go read it before reading this post.

I wrote a review recently for Rob Bell's book "Love Wins." This will be the third post inspired by that particular book. However, as you can see from the post, I'll also be talking about Universalism, which many other reviewers have decided to write about, and I have yet to.

So, Bell writes his fifth book, after being largely left alone aside from the occasional heretic or false teacher accusation since his first, and the result is nothing short of spectacular. People are mad before it even comes out, writing scathing reviews with many implications regarding him as a person, his church, etc. People are also raving and excited about it from before it comes out, and all of this craziness is still continuing. Some people are still writing scathing reviews and talking about how Christianity is in danger, and some people are still writing in defense of Bell's book. The funny thing is, the groups tend to talk past each other, and in the cases of direct engagement, they're passive aggressively, often condescendingly, hostile toward each other.

So, let's try to make sense out of one particular of this, shall we?

One of the things you'll hear in every negative review and almost no positive reviews is the accusation of Universalism. What's interesting (and ironic) is that this term itself is ambiguous, as it refers to many different movements and a whole array of theology.

In its' most basic form, Universalism is a Philosophy or Theology with implications for everyone. For example, most Christians tend to hold to a Universalist view on sin, that is all have sinned, universally.

So let's narrow this down then. Obviously, we have a book regarding Christianity, religion, God, spirituality, etc, and it talks about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person that has ever lived. Most criticism tends to come from the view presented of the afterlife, or of the existence of good and evil in a metaphysical/eternal form. So, the Universalist accusation most specifically refers to someone's fate in relation to God, usually after death.

The problem is, this is still simplistic. What does any of that mean? Does it mean that everyone will be in this realm called "Heaven," no matter what they do or what kind of a person they are? Does it mean that universally everyone will end up in the same place, whether that's heaven, hell, or neither one? If so, does that mean physically, spiritually, or in some other ambiguous form? Or does it perhaps refer to something besides the typical conception of Heaven and Hell being one of two destinations after death? Could it refer to a present reality? How would universalism fit that?

Here's the problem with this accusation.

The Reformed/Conservative/Negative reviewer states that "Love Wins" downplays God's Wrath by getting rid of Hell. They insist that God can only be brought full glory and honor by conscious, eternal torment of those that do not accept Jesus. They speak constantly of life after death, and they speak of this life as the only opportunity to make that decision.

The Emerging/Postmodern/Positive review states that "Love Wins" brings us back into focus with who God is, and states that God can only be brought full glory and honor by insisting on his power and Love, and speaks of Heaven and Hell in present terms, usually leaving ambiguity for what happens after we die, after the Eschaton (End of the Age), and such.

As you can see, both of these views not only have ambiguity, but they are talking past each other. This is classic because it speaks not only of two groups with two different ways of reading the Bible, but it speaks loudly of differing Philosophical Presuppositions.

The focus of present reality vs. future reality. Potentiality vs. Actuality. Love vs. Wrath (though both groups strongly emphasize that they take both into account). Most importantly, however, we are looking at an attack on the Western, Enlightenment spawned, mindset by a Postmodern/Eastern understanding of how things are.

The truth is, regardless of theological claims, both groups are well represented in the Church, and have been for a long time (many centuries at least). Both groups also had ancient predecessors that lead up to the Postmodern group, the Enlightenment group, the East and the West, and all of the other groups.

Obviously, I am simplifying something very complex for the purpose of discussion. There are not only two sides to this issue, there are as many sides as there are people. However, when a revolution happens, an old philosophy comes under scrutiny by a new one. That is the context of our discussion, and it's been happening for years.

The Enlightenment crowd need not be so shocked that a book like "Love Wins" came out. It's been a long time coming.

Now, in light of this, let's come back to Universalism.

To the Enlightenment thinker, Universalism means that nothing matters in this life, because everyone goes to Heaven. That is the emphasis, and that is dangerous to them.

To the Postmodern thinker, Universalism means that we're talking about an old category. That's why none of them mention it: it's simply not relevant to the discussion. To them, old thought patterns are what is dangerous, so of course Universalism is dangerous.

This is why Rob Bell is not writing Universalism. He is not speaking of the Classical Liberal movement, nor is he speaking of a life where nothing matters. His thoughts have come to shape and be shaped by many Postmodern Christians, because that is the way he speaks and writes.

Heaven and Hell do not mean what you may have heard them to mean in this work, they mean something different. Universalism cannot apply to that, and when it comes to life after death, things become very mysterious very fast. Bell speaks in definite terms regarding his theology, regarding what is happening right now in this world, regarding the clear and present Kingdom, and the present realities of Heaven and Hell.

Salvation is no longer defined intellectually, because it never has been. It's a matter of the whole person, and it's nearly impossible to define, and yet it is so simple. The Enlightenment definition, the Sinner's Prayer, the need to intellectually affirm certain points, those things are fading as a definition of Salvation.

It totally makes sense to me that a lot of people are threatened by the movement that "Love Wins" represents. However, to label it as Liberal or Universalist is to completely miss the point of what it is. If Bell wrote that everyone definitely comes to God, goes to Heaven, and the physical domain of Hell is emptied, then I think Universalist would be a good definition. Instead, he writes with hope, speaking from his understanding of God (an understanding coming from Scripture and the historical and cultural Jesus), and says what he believes about it (which people have been screaming for for a long time). Could it be wrong or unbalanced? Sure. But it is what it is, and no amount of swords desperately stabbing straw men of it will change that.

However, one thing is clear: Universalism, Liberalism, Conservativism, Evangelicalism...these words will all become memories or be redefined by necessity in the coming years, and Philosophically, we will move on, hopefully to a better place.

Opinion Section: I have believed for a long time in a Theology of Love. When I look at Jesus, it is the only thing that makes sense. To me, this book was a breath of fresh air, an affirmation that all of the years of being misunderstood/having to hide so I could get a break from accusations of heresy were worth it. Like Bell, I will say I believe in the historic, orthodox Christian faith, and I'd very much rather call it the "New Humanity," the way all humans can be what we were made to be. The Kingdom is Renewal, and I do my best to be a part of that. I'd like to think that even my Enlightenment brothers and sisters are trying to do that as well, and regardless of backlash, criticism, or anything else, I will continue to think the best of them. Love is not about who agrees with you, nor is it about how you are treated. It's an action, and a way of life, that I choose to call "Heaven," and I'm trying to figure out how to bring that around me as much as possible.

What's your story?


  1. Which Afterlife?

    In his new book "Love Wins" Rob Bell seems to say that loving and compassionate people, regardless of their faith, will not be condemned to eternal hell just because they do not accept Jesus Christ as their Savior.

    Concepts of an afterlife vary between religions and among divisions of each faith. Here are three quotes from "the greatest achievement in life," my ebook on comparative mysticism:

    (46) Few people have been so good that they have earned eternal paradise; fewer want to go to a place where they must receive punishments for their sins. Those who do believe in resurrection of their body hope that it will be not be in its final form. Few people really want to continue to be born again and live more human lives; fewer want to be reborn in a non-human form. If you are not quite certain you want to seek divine union, consider the alternatives.

    (59) Mysticism is the great quest for the ultimate ground of existence, the absolute nature of being itself. True mystics transcend apparent manifestations of the theatrical production called “this life.” Theirs is not simply a search for meaning, but discovery of what is, i.e. the Real underlying the seeming realities. Their objective is not heaven, gardens, paradise, or other celestial places. It is not being where the divine lives, but to be what the divine essence is here and now.

    (80) [referring to many non-mystics] Depending on their religious convictions, or personal beliefs, they may be born again to seek elusive perfection, go to a purgatory to work out their sins or, perhaps, pass on into oblivion. Lives are different; why not afterlives? Beliefs might become true.

  2. Hi Ron, thanks for reading and offering input! Those are some interesting quotes regarding mysticism. How did you go about your research?

    When you ask "Which Afterlife?" I have a difficult time answering that question, because it has many implications and many questions implied in it. Will our bodies be reset to a certain age, and if so, what age? Will age or bodies as we know them be a factor? Where will we be? Will it be in a different physical location? What does one's conception of God or the gods have to do with this? And I think most relevant, is Afterlife really just a question regarding what happens after death?

    To me, what matters most is who we are and what is happening now, and when I'm asked about what happens after death, I can honestly say I have very little, if any information about it. In my opinion, the question of Afterlife is more about the here and now than some would want to admit. After all, now is our frame of reference, this reality is what we understand, and the questions we ask come from our context. I like your second quote, mentioning how to be what the divine essence is here and now. Though I wonder what that means exactly, it strikes a cord with me, as I think the divine is right here in front of us, in everything.

    I think Rob Bell's assertion that it is not necessary to condemn people to eternal Hell really has to do with a theology focused on Salvation as something more than an intellectual decision or a question of affirming the right things, and more even than what religion one affirms, right down to who a person is, and the acknowledgment that God is the one that knows that best, so it's left in His hands, and since He is Love and holy and all powerful, there can be some pretty good guesses made about how things come out.

  3. Dan, I agree. Here and now are more important that speculation on an afterlife. For a true mystic, however, it is the "infinite here" and "eternal now" there is no need to worry about death. Does that make sense?