07 January 2009

Nobody believes in hell anymore.

In recent weeks, the topic of universalism has come up with enough frequency to jar me out of my erstwhile glazed ham-induced haze of Christmas cheer. Though there may be a technical distinction that I'm missing, I assume Christian universalism to mean the belief that through/in Christ, all people are saved and will go to heaven; if there is a hell at all, it is empty.

A couple years ago, a good friend told me that he'd come to believe that hell is not real, but rather has been fabricated in literature and in church tradition. For my money, I tend not to dwell on the afterlife very much, because it is so thoroughly unknowable. That being said, I had (and have) a difficult time conceiving of the purpose of church or the life of faith if we are not judged for our actions and rewarded accordingly. On top of that, I'm inherently rather conservative when it comes to the church, and I viewed universalism as a jarring departure from orthodox theology.

This summer, someone gave me a copy of If Grace is True, by James Mulholland and Philip Gulley. This 2003 book is subtitled "Why God Will Save Every Person." Pretty straightforward, pretty bold. I have only read the introduction and the first two chapters, so I can't really engage with the text. When I find the time to finish it, I will, because I'm interested to see how the authors make their case. It looks like it will dive into Scripture, but it regards Scripture and church tradition as derivative of particular people's particular experiences with God; what we need to do is begin "trusting our experience with God." And while the church told these authors that God condemns people to hell, they have experienced a God who is loving.

Then, I was listening to a December episode of This American Life entitled "Heretics". It tells the story of Rev. Carlton Pearson, a prominent Pentecostal megachurch leader in Tulsa who lost most of his church, his friends, and his prestige when he began to consider the doctrine of hell, and found it incompatible with the God he knew and loved. His turning point, he says, came when he was watching televised coverage of the Rwandan genocide, and God told him that even though they did not know Christ (actually, Rwanda is overwhelmingly Christian), they would not go to hell: God would not condemn those who suffer on earth to suffer also in the afterlife.

So, the prevalence of Christian universalism in America has kind of crept up on me. It came into sharp relief with two Pew Forum surveys in 2008. It turns out that 52 percent of American Christians believe at least some non-Christian faiths can lead to heaven. To be clear, this is not universalism per se: they are just saying that they believe a "good" Jew, or Muslim, or Hindu, might show up in heaven. A New York Times opinion piece gave a decent overview of the later, more specific study. Over half of white mainliners and white Catholics (plus more than a quarter of white evangelicals) even believe that people with no religious faith can get into heaven. There are even hints in this theological direction in William P. Young's wildly popular The Shack

The reason I'm suspicious about this trend is that we shouldn't draw conclusions about what God must do based on who we think God is. In other words, we know God to be purely good and unfailingly loving. We know that in Jesus's incarnation and atoning sacrifice, redemption has been realized for both Jew and Gentile. We know that the magnitude of God's grace exceeds the magnitude of our rejection of God. But none of that leads necessarily to the conclusion that God wills for all to be saved, or that God needs all of us to be saved in order for God to be complete, or happy, or something like that. On the balance, I think the Bible discourages us from making that kind of leap.

The real challenge for our faith is to imagine that some people, and possibly we ourselves, will go to hell, and yet to maintain the confession that God is good, and just, and righteous, and loving.

To reiterate, I take this kind of stuff pretty lightly. We can't even say that we see through a glass darkly on this one. And I know, a lot of what we believe about hell today comes not from the early church, but from men like Milton, Dante, and Jonathan Edwards. Furthermore, some people I really respect, including Karl Barth and Sam Wells, could (arguably) be described as "hopeful universalists". But even they would acknowledge: when we talk about the afterlife, we're engaging in extreme speculation. It will always be a mystery, and I'm pretty glad for that.


Keith DeRose said...

You may like If Grace Is True, but I don't think the view it expresses is what you're calling "Christian Universalism." You write:

I assume Christian universalism to mean the belief that through/in Christ, all people are saved and will go to heaven

It comes out especially in Chapter 5 of IGIT that they don't believe it's only through the saving work of Christ that any can be saved. IGIT also takes the Bible more lightly than many Christian universalists do. As I recall, they do have a list of universalist scriptures, but you won't find a scriptural case being made, where common scriptural arguments against universalism are dealt with, etc. -- if that's the kind of thing you're looking for.

If part of what bothers you about universalism is that it's a "jarring departure from orthodox [Christian] theology," then IGIT probably isn't the best choice for you, because, in general, it departs more radically from OCT than do Christian universalists.

In case it might be of any help, here's what I wrote (from the perspective of a Christian universalist) about IGIT (at http://pantheon.yale.edu/~kd47/univ.htm#RB ):

Though I found this book quite valuable, I do disagree strongly with parts of it. Most of my strong disagreement is with the material in Chapter 5. Most relevant to the concerns of this web page, Gulley & Mulholland seem to reject the position I've been calling "exclusivism" -- the view that it is only through Christ that people are saved. They seem to think that the denial of exclusivism follows directly from universalism [see pp. 124-5] and in any case give no other reason I can see for their denial. As I've been at great pains to stress here, universalism can co-exist with what I'm here calling exclusivism, and even with strong exclusivism -- and perhaps even with fervent exclusivism. Perhaps G&M would agree that universalism is compatible with exclusivism. Perhaps their claim would be that while universalism is compatible both with exclusivism and with non-exclusivism, it fits in better with non-exclusivism. They write [they adopted the literary device of writing in the first person singular, though there are two of them]: "When I became convinced God would save every person, I tried to hold on to traditional Christian formulas -- the trinity, the incarnation, and atonement theology. I wanted to pour this new wine into old wineskins. I quickly learned why Jesus recommended against this: the old wineskins always burst. Just as fermenting wine causes old leather to rend and tear, my expanding view of God strained the credibility of my childhood theology" (pp. 125-6). Perhaps exclusivism, too, is part of that old wineskin that G&M now find not to fit in well with the new wine of universalism -- maybe they even intended to include exclusivism in the quoted passage, as part of the "atonement theology" of their childhood. If so, my experience has been completely different. The Christian theology I grew up with seems quite similar to what G&M were taught. But I had always found it puzzling, given the relevant elements of this theology, why some would not be saved. If salvation is won through Christ's sacrifice, and is then God's free gift to us, why would this gift be given only to some? Of course, there were answers that were typically given to this question, but with one exception they struck me as implausible. (The one reason that seemed plausible was that only some accept the gift, but that raised the question, at least in many cases, some of which made the question quite urgent, of why the offer wouldn't be made under more favorable circumstances.) When I accepted universalim, I found it to fit in better with the other relevant elements of the theology of my childhood than did the denial of universalism. So far from being new wine that strained and burst an old wineskin, universalism seemed to me like something that made a lot of previously puzzling elements of my childhood theology finally come together and make sense.

Keith DeRose said...

P.S. Maybe this is just me (or just my computer, or just my browser), but the background of your blog is too dark for me to be able to read it, given that the writing is in black. (I was able to read it by highlighting the text.)

Keith DeRose said...

Oh, and for a positive suggestion: If you haven't already come across it, Gregory MacDonald's (pseudonym) The Evangelical Universalist may be more what you're looking for. GM wrote a shorter piece that you can try out first, if you'd like. It's posted here:

Dave said...

I appreciate your comments, and the suggested reading. This isn't a topic I've given much prior consideration, and I regret that my use of terms is a bit imprecise.

If I'm following your first post correctly, I think you are saying that while you looked at some of the puzzling aspects of Christian theology and found that things fit together better once you adopted a universalist belief, Gulley & Mulholland looked at those perplexing parts of theology and decided to abandon them more fully in making their move towards a universalist theology.

My question has to do with the underlying expectation that I think you share with M&G: that the mechanics of God's redemption of humanity must be "plausible" or rational to us. This attempt to pin God down to some human standard of reason is present in a lot of atonement theology, including Anselm. This strikes me as misguided; my inclination is to let God be God. I do believe there is grace sufficient in Jesus' sacrifice to redeem all of humanity, and I even dare to hope that all people will be saved. But I think Scripture denies us the luxury of throwing out hell altogether, and I don't see what other grounds I could have for declaring the church's traditional teachings on the afterlife to be "old wineskins".

Keith DeRose said...

My question has to do with the underlying expectation that I think you share with M&G: that the mechanics of God's redemption of humanity must be "plausible" or rational to us.

Hi, Dave. Yes, but it's plausibility in light of what God has revealed about Himself. So...

This attempt to pin God down to some human standard of reason

...It's not an attempt to pin God down to some human standard. Of course, we have to use our own human minds in understand & interpret as best we can what God has revealed, but there's no escaping that, and the attempt (in my "Universalism and the Bible") is to arrive at our best possible understanding of what (if anything) God has revealed about the matter.

This strikes me as misguided; my inclination is to let God be God.

By all means, let God be God. That's what I'm trying to do. My worry is that God tries likes the dickens to let us know what's what, but warped human ideas of justice and punishment are so deeply ingrained that we end up not letting God be God precisely in accepting various nasty doctrines of hell.