Wednesday, March 9, 2011

On universalism, heresy, and the "Rob Bell controversy"

A confession: before an intra-evangelical controversy erupted late last month after promotional materials for Rob Bell's forthcoming book Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived made some suspect that Bell would endorse a doctrine of universal salvation, I'd never heard of Rob Bell. I now know that many, many other people have heard of Rob Bell, the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan and a popular speaker and author whose previous books include Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith (the title of which I do recall registering in my mind sometime since its 2005 publication).

A disclaimer: I am not a universalist. Exegetically, a settled doctrine of the ultimate salvation of all persons seems difficult to reconcile with the clear teaching of many passages of Scripture. Theologically, a necessarily universal salvation seems to contravene both the freedom of God and the freedom of humanity. I will not be surprised if I discover in heaven that the God revealed in Jesus Christ has indeed in the end reconciled all people to God, but I cannot presume that.

While I am not a universalist (and won't be able to determine whether Bell is a universalist until Love Wins is published on March 15), I have written a few things about early Christian expressions of universalism, some (but possibly not all) versions of which have historically been deemed heretical by the church. I've also written a bit about what actually qualifies as heresy, a charge made by many contemporary Christians against other Christians without proper nuance or care. In this post I'll restrict myself to calling attention to some of what I've already written along these lines that may be of relevance for determining (1) what sort of concept of universalism Bell may prove to be at least entertaining, and (2) whether it actually constitutes heresy.

My first book Every Knee Should Bow: Biblical Rationales for Universal Salvation in Early Christian Thought (2003) explored the manner in which Clement of Alexandria (ca. AD 160-215), Origen (ca. 185-ca. 251), and Gregory of Nyssa (331/340-ca. 395) appealed to Scripture in developing rationales for their concepts of apokatastasis, the hope that all rational creatures will ultimately be reconciled to God. I revisted my work on Gregory of Nyssa--whose March 9 feast day happens to be today--in the chapter on Gregory I contributed to the recently published volume "All Shall Be Well": Explorations in Universal Salvation and Christian Theology from Origen to Moltmann (2011) edited by "Gregory MacDonald." The paragraphs below excerpted from the final couple of pages of that chapter (pp. 61-63) offer my theological evaluation of the hope of universal salvation as maintained by Gregory of Nyssa and others:

In its efforts to clarify this not insignificant ambiguity in the plot of the biblical story of God’s salvation, early Christian theology offered three major readings of the manner in which the story concludes for those who have not responded positively to the divine work of salvation during their earthly lives. The majority reading, represented by Tertullian and Augustine, understands the eschatological punishment of such persons as eternal in duration—the everlasting torment of separation from God. Some of the second- and third-century apologists, represented by Justin Martyr and Arnobius, offered what was ultimately a minority reading in which punishment is eternal in effect rather than duration—following the resurrection, the wicked are destroyed, evil therefore ceases to exist, and God is “all in all.” The other minority reading is represented by Clement, Origen, and Gregory—punishment is eternal in effect rather than duration, but its effect is not destruction but transformation. It is possible that these three early Christian readings of the biblical portrayal of the destiny of the impenitent might not be mutually exclusive. If we may theorize that it is possible for God in the eschaton to save, say, Adolf Hitler (or any other fallen human being)—and “for God all things are possible” (Matt 19:26)—such a salvation would require the destruction of the evil person he had become in his earthly life (cf. Justin Martyr and Arnobius), the painful transformation of who he had willingly become into what God intended him to be (cf. Clement, Origen, and Gregory), and the torment of knowing for eternity the tragedy of what was irrevocably lost in his refusal to participate in God’s salvation during his earthly life (cf. Tertullian and Augustine).

Is belief in an ultimately universal salvation heresy from the perspective of the tradition of the community of faith across the ages? One certainly cannot claim with J. W. Hanson, a nineteenth-century Universalist (of the American denominational variety), that universal salvation was the consensus position of the patristic church. While it remained a minority viewpoint throughout the patristic period, one may argue that in its basic outlines universalism contradicted neither creed nor council. It affirmed belief in the coming of Christ “to judge the living and the dead,” “the resurrection of the body” (the speculations of Origen excepted), and “the life everlasting.” Even in the anathemas against Origen associated with the Fifth Ecumenical Council, the objection seems not to have been with a universal
apokatastasis per se but rather with the protology presupposed by the Origenist version of the apokatastasis, as Anathema I suggests: “If anyone asserts the fabulous pre-existence of souls, and shall assert the monstrous restoration (apokatastasis) which follows from it: let him be anathema.” It is significant that Gregory of Nyssa, who developed a concept of apokatastasis virtually identical to that of Origen sans Origen’s protology, was never condemned by council or synod, was revered by the later church as a staunch defender of Nicene orthodoxy, and was canonized as a saint with a feast day on March 9 (although doubts of later copyists of Gregory’s works about the orthodoxy of his eschatology are reflected in their emendations of a number of passages in which these ideas are expressed).

Implicit in this traditional criterion of a proper protology for assessing the orthodoxy of eschatological proposals is a healthy aversion to deterministic theologies that negate divine and human freedom, for “the monstrous restoration which follows from” a doctrine of the pre-existence of souls is deterministic in its requirement of a cyclical return to the beginning. This concern is the rationale behind Karl Barth’s denial of dogmatic universalism, even though the logic of his doctrine of election points in that direction: if God must save humanity and humanity must be saved, then neither God nor humanity would be free.

Those who find themselves attracted to Gregory’s hopeful eschatology must also consider Origen’s own reservations about making it the customary public teaching of the church (c
. Cels. 6.26). In this connection there is much wisdom in the words of the nineteenth-century German pietist Christian Gottlieb Barth: “Anyone who does not believe in the universal restoration is an ox, but anyone who teaches it is an ass.”

The church is right to guard against a dogmatic universalism in light of its experience. Universal salvation as a foregone conclusion can lead, and has led, to indifference toward evangelistic endeavors and easy cultural accommodation rather than transformative engagement with culture. On the other hand, a hypothetical outcome of universal salvation ought not to detract necessarily from the urgency of the mission of the church. In such a case, failure to experience God’s salvation in one’s earthly existence would be an eternal tragedy both for that person and for all those to whom that person relates, a tragedy that the church should be urgently concerned about preventing. As I sometimes tell my students, “I will not be surprised if I discover in the resurrection that the God revealed in Jesus Christ has saved all people, but in the meantime we should not count on that.”

In the meantime, God does wish to save all people (1 Tim 2:4). Whether all will be saved must remain a mystery of divine and human freedom—as it seems to have remained for Gregory of Nyssa.

In my most recent book Ecumenism Means You, Too: Ordinary Christians and the Quest for Christian Unity (2010), I address the question of precisely what qualifies as heresy in the course of discussing the relation between early Christian debates over heresy, the loss of the church's unity, and efforts to repair it:

A heretic is not merely someone who holds ideas that the powers that be in the church consider wrongheaded. It’s not quite that easy to be a heretic. In 1 Corinthians 11:18-19 the Apostle Paul addresses the “divisions” that have occurred in the church at Corinith. In verse 19 he uses the Greek word haireseis, which in transliteration supplies our English word “heresies,” as a near synonym for the “divisions” mentioned in verse 18 (Greek schismata, the source of the English word “schisms”). The nearly identical meaning of the two words is reflected in the translation of schismata in verse 18 as “divisions” and haireseis in verse 19 as “factions” in several English versions, but there is also a shade of difference in meaning so that heresies qualifies the nature of the schismata. The Corinthian divisions resulted in part from heresies, which are self-chosen opinions that divide the church when they are introduced into the teaching that takes place within it.

In light of the Paul’s use of the Greek word for “heresies” in this passage and in light of the nature of early heresies in the first few centuries of the church, it seems that one has to fulfill three criteria in order to be a heretic in the fullest classical sense of the word.

First, a heretic is someone whose account of the Christian story is so dangerously inadequate that it’s really an altogether different story than the biblical story of the Triune God. One such radically different telling of the Christian story was Gnosticism (from the Greek word gnosis, “knowledge”), which by the second century claimed a secret insight into the true nature of Christianity that was really rooted in a Platonic dualism between the good realm of spirit and idea and the evil realm of matter and flesh. Gnosticism met this criterion of heresy because according to its version of the divine story, God could not have anything to do with an essentially evil material order and humanity could be saved only by escaping it. Arianism was a fourth-century heresy that maintained that the Son’s divinity was of a different and lesser order than the Father’s divinity. The teachings of Arius (d. AD 336) and his followers also met this criterion because they too distanced the fullness of God from the work of redeeming humanity through the incarnation, delegating the work of salvation to that which is less than the fullness of God.

Second, one must also teach this alternative version of the Christian story as an authoritative teacher in the church—or at least as someone who wants to be recognized as a teacher. Many people entertain ideas that would be heretical if they were taught, but not everyone teaches them.

Third, to be a heretic one must insist that this dangerously inadequate telling of the Christian story be regarded by the church as acceptable teaching and through this insistence threaten to divide the church. Heresy is therefore not only about problematic theological ideas. It also involves divisive behavior toward the church. Heresy is therefore as much a matter of ethics as it is of doctrine
(pp. 19-21).

I hope everyone with an interest in the "Rob Bell controversy" keeps these things in mind. And that's all I have to say about that (apologies to Forrest Gump).


  1. Thanks for this post, Steve. It puts things in a historical perspective that hopefully some might consider when evaluating what Rob Bell says when we are able to read it.

    One small point about Origen that is worth mentioning, I think. The Fifth Ecumenical council proscribes the TEACHING of Origen but not Origen. He was not only a holy man his entire life, a confessor, and on every other matter of faith a faithful teacher of the church. The horrible stories about him, as Henry Chadwick I think rightly points out, were all told much later by those seeking to discredit him. All this to say that in the judgment of history, Origen was NOT Arius. And I suppose as we read what Rob Bell says we might keep that in mind.

  2. Quite right, Curtis--thanks for adding that necessary and helpful qualification.

  3. "Universal salvation as a foregone conclusion can lead, and has led, to indifference toward evangelistic endeavors..." If I were a universalist, I could argue that salvation as a present reality should be the prime motivator toward evangelistic endeavors, not salvation beyond the grave. Focus on human agency would emphasize free will.

    I'm going to play Rob Bell and ask questions (if you watch the video, most of what he does is ask questions in plain language, and he doesn't actually propose any changes in doctrine):

    Is it possible that in the absence of eternal damnation (but still taking the Gospel seriously), one would have to reinterpret salvation as challenging the status quo and working toward reshaping the world with a vision of wholeness?

    Is it possible that eternal damnation could therefore be a distraction from challenging the status quo, since the emphasis is on what happens later rather than right now?

    Is it possible that conservative Evangelicals focus on eternal damnation because it allows them to be distracted from challenging the status quo? They don't have to worry about the problems of the world since they know their final destination.

    Is it possible that influential religious leaders, politicians and business leaders like this distraction from the status quo because it means they can benefit from it?

    Is it possible?


    Here's a link your readers may find interesting.

  5. Many thanks to the Christian Century for featuring this post on their Theology page in the "What We're Reading" secion:

  6. Like most people at the top, Rob Bell has been labeled many things, adding universalist to the list. Rob would never admit to being one it he was indeed one, which I don't believe he is one. I like Shane Claiborne's term "Ordinary Radical." We all want to ask the difficult questions but guys like Rob and Shane come out and attack them and I think that is what draws readers like myself to read their works. Read them for yourselves and draw your own conclusions, I seriously doubt you are going to hurt their feelings, heck Rob pastors what might be the largest congregation in the Country if not world. Check out the "Nooma" series Dr. Harmon, they are very popular with College students and they are all hosted by Rob Bell.

  7. Steve! Thanks for taking time to post this. The information and context you provide is invaluable. I have plans on writing my own consideration of the controversy and will probably reference your work. My post will be more about the need to think critically about any and all teachers/theologians and not broadly discredit one because of a single doctrine with which you disagree. -- Paul Irby

  8. Hey Steve, have you had a chance to read the book and give any more reflections? This might make a GREAT break-out session at the CBFNC assembly.

    What do you make of this explanation of Universal Reconciliation? Is it accurate?

  9. Does "Every Knee Should Bow" actually cost $43? That's what is listed on Amazon. I would like to get a copy, but I can't afford $43.

  10. Yes, the price listed by Amazon is correct--the book is a revised doctoral dissertation with narrow market appeal, thus the price (which is actually rather inexpensive for the genre--some book series that publish revised dissertations have list prices in excess of $100 per volume!).

  11. No, I've not yet read the book. I'm actually doing a breakout workshop session at the CBFNC meeting next week, but it's on local grassroots ecumenism--"Ten Things You Can Do for the Unity of the Church"--drawing from my Ecumenism Means You, Too book.

    I've scanned the Wikipedia article, which, though detailed, seems dependent on a limited number of secondary resources. Several characterizations of possible patristic expressions of universal restorations are wrong, I think. A better resource is the recently published volume "All Shall Be Well": Explorations in Universal Salvation and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann (Cascade Books, 2011)--see link under "Books to Which I've Contributed Chapters" on the right side of the blog.

  12. Thanks for the insight Dr. Harmon.

  13. that's a great historical summary to give context for reading Bell's new book. i'm glad i stopped here first!

  14. Great read. However, I think the discussion of free will is a bit overstated in this debate regarding Christian universalism (as I've written about here: Also, the notion of the "freedom of God" is absurd to me. That would be like saying, as a parent, I am free to love one of my children more than another. I might be "free" to do so, but it certainly would not be right or just in any sense.

    I agree that believing that God will save all is based upon some forgone conclusions. Allot of our biblical hermeneutics is based upon such. I'm okay with it, however. I simply can not sleep with a portrait of a God who would be more barbaric than I. So, yeah, in that sense, my belief that all will be saved in the end is based upon presumption. I would argue, however, that it is more gracious to the God we proclaim than other version, all based upon their own presumptions about God.