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).