Friday, March 25, 2011

Misconceptions About Universalism Part 1: Introduction

Before I begin this new series, I just want to say: yes, I am aware that I have not yet completed my last series, Religion vs. Science. I have attempted several times to write the final post, but each effort has been thwarted by writer's block. Therefore, I have decided to initiate my next series early in the hope that focusing on a new and different topic awhile will cure the writer's block.

The past couple months, universalism has been an extremely heated topic in conservative Christian circles, all because of one book: Love Wins by Rob Bell. The controversy began when Bell released a promotional video for his book. Many who watched the video believed Bell was promoting universalism. Even a full 6 weeks before Bell's book was released, fierce arguments transpired on social networking sites, especially Twitter, and condemning articles were posted on a multitude of Christian sites. Ironically, those individuals blasting Bell's book the heaviest are doing nothing but procuring more attention for it, which will probably just result in much better sales.

Unfortunately, in conservative Christianity, universalism is considered one of the most atrocious heresies to embrace. Anyone who professes a belief in universalism is immediately shunned and exiled. It is irrelevant if you hold this belief but remain orthodox in every other doctrine or if your universalism has transported you to a more liberal theology; you are rejected just the same.

An example of this is Bishop Carlton Pearson. He was the pastor of one of the largest churches in Tulsa, Oklahoma (sometimes referred to as the Buckle of the Bible Belt), which, at its height, had over 6,000 members. After publicly announcing his belief in universalism, membership at his church rapidly declined and the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops declared his teachings to be heresy. As Pearson writes in his book, The Gospel of Inclusion:
I was slandered and libeled every day-and still am by some of these paranoid religious zealots...[who said] "He's crazy. He's of the Devil. He's the Antichrist. He's a heretic. He'll lead you into hell."...Five or six thousand people walked away from the community we had built. I basically lost my ministry. I lost everything. (p. 269)
For my readers who are not universalists, please do not think those kinds of insults are a rare phenomenon. I, as well as most of the universalists I know, have been subjected to them at one time or another.

Bell's book was finally released last week. I received my copy Monday and quickly read through it. So, is Rob Bell a universalist? Based on what's in the book, no, he is not.* While Bell does advocate an extensively inclusive theology and his book is loaded with universalist themes, he stops just short of claiming that all souls will be saved in the end. Honestly, I was not surprised by that in the least. If Bell did cross the line into universalism, few, if any, conservative Christians, who are his target audience, would have even picked up the book. By staying a step away from universalism in Love Wins, Bell has a substantially higher chance of reaching conservative Christians who are having doubts about a supposedly all-loving God who throws His children into a perpetual eternity of conscious, unimaginable torment if they were not fortunate enough to be born into a conservative Christian family. 

*N.B.: I am not the only universalist who has arrived at this conclusion. Brian at The Beautiful Heresy agrees with me in his book review of Love Wins. Richard from Experimental Theology briefly concurs in passing while discussing evangelicals.
What frequently aggravated me in the countless disputes over Bell's book were not the cruel insults towards universalists. I am mostly used to those. It was the shameless misrepresentations and  misconceptions of what universalism is by church leaders and/or prominent theologians in the conservative Christian community, many of whom wrote articles for major publications, in print and online, concerning the universalist themes in Love Wins. Outright lying to disparage a group's beliefs because it bolsters your own viewpoint and/or attempting to disprove a group's theology of which you are entirely ignorant is shallow, malicious, and, if done from a position of power (e.g. a church leader or a theologian), unethical and unprofessional.

It is these misconceptions I desire to address and correct in this series. I will concentrate on the six I estimate are the most prevalent and pervasive. These are:

  • Absolute Inclusiveness: Universalists believe that all life paths are equally good and that every single path leads to God. 
  •  No Hell: There is no hell of any variety, including eternal conscious torment, and every single person immediately goes to heaven after they die, no matter how evil there are.
  • No Justice: Since there is no hell of any variety, including eternal conscious torment, evil people are never punished for their sins, and there is no justice for their Earthly victims.
  • No Incentive to be Good: Since there is no hell of any variety, including eternal conscious torment, and everybody goes straight to heaven, individuals have no reason to choose good over evil. 
  • Why Believe?: Since there is no hell of any variety, including eternal conscious torment, and everybody goes straight to heaven, why believe in any particular religion and/or spiritual philosophy?
  • Un-Biblical: Universalism is not supported by the Bible.
Each color corresponds to one post in the series. In each post, I will explain the misconception(s), disprove the misconception(s), and examine why the misconception(s) is/are so prevalent and/or harmful.

I hope that all my readers, regardless of their religious beliefs (or lack thereof), will find this series is enjoyable and insightful.

1 comment:

  1. (I'm a universalist myself.) I think whether Bell's book should count as expressing universalism is a tricky call. Here's what I wrote to a friend who asked me about it:

    Have now received & read the book. On whether it teaches universalism....
    I wasn't trusting Bell's self-classification, when he denied in interviews after the book that he was a universalist, because he seemed to be being too demanding (in ways having to do w human freedom) on what it would take to be universalist. The book reinforced that lack of trust in his self-classification, because he's stressing the freedom-based *possibility* that some will never be won over, and I'm suspecting he thinks that as long as he accepts that possibility, he's not a universalist.

    I think freedom folks should still be counted as universalists if they think it's very probable that all will be saved (& esp. if they think it's **V*E*R*Y** probable that all will be saved), but they shouldn't be counted as universalists if they don't believe in that high probability, either a) because they think the probability isn't that high or b) because they have no view on what that probability is. The passage on p. 115 you quote I think can be read as tending toward the b)-version of that non-universalist position, but there are other places that seem to be tending toward the universalist position on this matter....

    Consider the middle of p. 98. It's done through question rather than assertion, so this isn't conclusive, but the questions seem to be asked so as to invite the answers I'll supply in brackets:

    Will all people be saved, or will God not get what God wants? [Um, the former?]

    Does this magnificent, mighty, marvelous God *fail* in the end? [Um, no?]

    Anyway, the whole bit from there thru the middle of p. 103 is sounding to me to be tending toward it being quite probable indeed that all will be saved.

    Also, on pp. 150-1, it sounds like *Jesus* is pretty confident that he'll get everybody:

    Within this proper, larger understanding of just what the Jesus story even is, we see that Jesus himself, again and again, demonstrates how seriously he takes his role in saving and rescuing and redeeming not just everything but everybody.

    He says in John 12, "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself."

    He is so sure, confident, and set on this: All people, to himself.

    But I spose that if universalism were a heresy (which i guess it isn't) & Bell were on trial for it (which i guess in a way he is), you couldn't really rightly convict him.