Friday, March 04, 2011

Is Universalism Heresy?

The internet is abuzz with news of Rob Bell's forthcoming book, Love Wins, in which it appears that Bell will refute traditional Calvinist teachings on heaven and hell. Based on a recently released Love Winspromotional video for the book, it seems fair to conclude that Bell probably doesn't believe that God has preordained the damnation of billions of non-Christians. By Calvinist standards, this would make him a universalist - and many big names in neo-Calvinism are ready to cast him into outer darkness.(1)

But before we start talking about what it would mean for Rob Bell to be a universalist, we need to take a step back. Definitions. What is Christian Universalism? Among Quakers, "universalism" is often used to mean a belief in the transcendental equivalence of all religions: "All roads lead to the top of the mountain." Radical universalism, as is sometimes found among the Liberal branch(2) of the Quaker denominational family, rests on the premise that all religious perspectives are simultaneously valid and yet incomplete. There is a general sense that human beings are innately good, and that all religions present legitimate paths to enlightenment and/or the Divine.

Christian Universalism is another animal altogether. Unlike the transcendentalist universalism of some Liberal Friends, Christian Universalism does not deny the lordship and divinity of Christ. Instead, the Christian universalist asserts that the love and mercy of Jesus will eventually transform and redeem all people, even if this process takes longer than our earthly lifespans. Christian Universalism is the conviction that the love of Christ will eventually overcome all rebellion, hatred and selfishness. This perspective cannot conceive of Christ's final Rob Bell - credit Gaylene Tretheweyvictory as including even one person writhing in eternal torment, alienated from God.

In the mind of the Christian universalist, the existence of eternal separation from God would represent a less-than-complete victory of the Lamb. Christian Universalism looks forward to the complete reconciliation of all things and all people to God through Jesus Christ - even if it takes a very long time. There are a variety of nuanced Christian Universalist perspectives, as a little bit of research will reveal.(3) But the basic idea is simple: The eternal alienation of anyone from God would represent a less-than-complete victory for the love and self-sacrifice of Jesus.

With this very brief explanation in mind, I want to examine a question that has been on my mind for quite some time, long before Rob Bell announced his new book. The question is: Is Christian Universalism heretical?

Most of us haven't been called to read lengthy volumes on Church history and theology, so definitions are once again in order. In popular usage, "heresy" is often used as a shorthand for teachings that religious authorities consider wrong. However, when I ask whether Rob Bell is heretical for (possibly) holding Christian universalist views, I am not simply asking whether he holds erroneous views. I am asking if Christian Universalism fundamentally undermines the Christian faith.

This is a live question for me, because - truth be told - I like the idea of Christian Universalism. While I believe that God has given human beings the free will to accept or reject God's love, it is horrible for me to contemplate any of God's children being eternally separated from right relationship with their Creator. I know from personal The Last Judgmentexperience that hell exists in this life, and it may well exist in the afterlife, too.

But eternal hell? That is a tough pill for me to swallow. In fact, it is precisely the majority of the Church's teaching on damnation that led me to reject Christianity as a teenager. I was terrified of dying in sin and being condemned to eternal, unimaginable punishment. One thing I can certainly agree with Rob Bell on: No one should be told that the Good News is that "Jesus died to save us from God."

And yet, I still ask the question: Is Christian Universalism heretical? Does the insistence that God will save every person - whether they like it or not - undermine the Christian faith? As we think about this question together, let me share some major heresies that confronted the early Church. One, called Arianism, was the idea that Jesus is a creation of God - not God himself. Another, called Docetism, claimed that Jesus was not human at all, his apparently human form being a mere garment that concealed his deity. Another early heresy was Modalism, which held that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were three different "modes" in which God operates. Opposite this, there were a number of thinkers who were accusedEcumenical Church Council of "Tritheism," or the idea that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are actually three separate deities.

Heresies often come in pairs, each one making a diametrically opposed claim to the other. One thing that these heresies have in common is that they break the dynamic tension that is present in our faith. Is Jesus human or divine? Is reality material or spiritual? Is salvation through works or grace? Is God One or Three? At the end of the day, we must accept both as being somehow simultaneously true. Faced with paradox, the orthodox Christian must humbly confess, "I do not understand, but I affirm the God of these mysteries!"

Does Christian Universalism break the paradox? Does it violate the mystery? Does it impose human understanding on that which we are unable to comprehend? I pray that the Holy Spirit will tender the teachers and theologians of the Church to hear clearly the voice of Christ in our midst, and to respond with humility, patience and love.


1. For more on this, read: Thoughts About Rob Bell, John Piper and Justin Taylor

2. For more information about the family of churches and faith communities that have emerged from the early Friends, take a look at the Brief Introduction to Quakerism on

3. In fact, the teachings of the early Friends could be considered Christian Universalist in the broadest possible sense: George Fox and the Valiant Sixty believed that Jesus Christ was universally available to all people, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, the early Friends did believe that some would reject Christ's "day of visitation" and suffer spiritual death as a result.


For further reading:

Heaven, Hell and Rob Bell: Putting the Pastor in Context - Christianity Today


Marcus said...

"In fact, it is precisely the majority of the Church's teaching on damnation that led me to reject Christianity as a teenager. I was terrified of dying in sin and being condemned to eternal, unimaginable punishment. One thing I can certainly agree with Rob Bell on: No one should be told that the Good News is that 'Jesus died to save us from God.'"

Sometimes I feel like I might be your long-lost, jaded twin brother...

Anonymous said...

Is universalism Heresy? If I judge simply by the creed, no. If I want to make the case that it is, I would appeal to the council of Constantinople of 553 AD, which among other things condemned Origen. Fortunately my case would be weakened by other views which they did not condemn.

My struggle with Christian universalism is a free will issue. Some people reject God, love justice and goodness -- some people want hell so much, they try to create it where they are (watch the news). Are we pre-destined to accept Truth, or does God allow us to choose what we wants instead of forcing God's will upon us?

I know from scripture, that if God gets what God wants, all will be saved... but, I'm not convinced that all of humanity wants salvation.

Sisterlisa said...

You presented some good facts here about CU. I'd like to ask you to reconsider the doctrine of "free will". Here is why:

God smote the people at the Tower of Babel with various languages, they didn't choose that. Adam chose sin for us, we didn't choose Adam. Romans 9 clearly shows that God chose Pharaoh for a purpose. Also Romans 11:32, 2 Thes 2:11, Proverbs 21:30, and there are numerous other passages that clearly indicate that mankind does not have the kind of "free will" they have been taught that they have. The hard thing is for mankind to admit that they can be wrong, be used for evil (for God's divine purposes) and it makes it difficult for them to be truly thankful to God who creates all things for his pleasure. The OT Law gave mankind a view of each other that led them to desire vengeance against one another and in turn they now seek vengeance against God. Their pride has been so puffed up that they think they have control when God is the one who is in control. But to truly submit to God's Will be done, they have to submit even when he leads them to do very hard things. When we can really rest in His ultimate sovereignty then it becomes easier to understand just how absolutely perfect his inclusive love really is.

Drew Costen said...

Christian Universalism is indeed a heresy, at least to traditionalist Christians, and that's one good reason to believe it's true. :)

Sisterlisa said...

oops commenting again to subscribe to comments :)

Bill Samuel said...

You have hit on something important and true where you talk about the "dynamic tension" in the Christian faith. Some things that we have trouble in our limited human minds finding compatible seem to be part of the Truth.

We need to have humility on this. We don't completely understand these things. And not being God, that should be expected.

Can we really solve the tension between the universality of Christ's love and desire for our redemption, and the idea that we make choices with eternal consequences? I don't feel clear about this, and wonder if in fact we are called to live in the tension rather than answer the seeming paradox.

But I don't think it is wrong to wrestle with these things. We might be uneasy about accepting what Rob Bell or Quaker Phil Gulley say about their wrestlings with this, but perhaps we should not be too ready to fling them into the outer darkness.

Ganeida said...

Where I come unstuck is on Jesus teaching in Luke 16:19~31. Jesus Himself seems to clearly teach there is a place of torment separated by a great gulf & once in one or the other there is no crossing over. He also said even if the dead returned to warn people they would not be believed ~ & ain't that the truth?

Christianity is full of paradox. That we can have free will yet be known & chosen from before the beginning of time & our good works pre~prepared for us seems to be another.

Anonymous said...

Dear Micah, I am very doubtful about Universalism, but I have no doubt about predestination: simply put, it can not be true. I do not believe in it at all. It is a perverse idea that has nothing to do with God's love. If God is love, such as John said, He can not choose some people and reject others. Regarding Universalism, maybe people has the right to choose whether or not to be in the presence of God once they die. But, on the other hand, it is hard to believe that even one single person can be condemned to an unending suffering. Maybe the hell could be understood as something different from the ideas we have about it.

GraceAnn Love said...

Drew said
"Christian Universalism is indeed a heresy, at least to traditionalist Christians, and that's one good reason to believe it's true. :)"

Haha! Love it!

The story of Lazarus and the Rich Man is often used as 'proof' of heaven and hell, but it is in fact a parable, where the rich man represents Israel and the poor man the gentiles. The language and symbolism used would have been understood by the Jews, but is taken in a much more literal way by us modern westerners

Ken Silva said...

"Is Christian Universalism heretical?"


It undermines the Gospel of repentance and forgiveness of sins in Jesus' Name, by God's grace alone, through faith alone, in the finished work of Christ alone on the Cross.

Jeff said...

How delightfully odd! I bookmarked something on this just last night. Universal Reestoration was a type of Christian Universalism popular among one of the other historic peace churches -the Brethren a century ago. Here's a nice apology for it


Scott Wells said...

@Jeff. A trace of those Brethren descendants survive as Universalists in a thin line of churches from the middle of western South Carolina to Mississippi. The old families still have anglicized German names, like Bowers and Halfacre. It was my pleasure to pastor among them.

Anonymous said...

@Ken Silva

And what would you say about the doctrine of eternal Sonship? Is it important that Jesus eternally exists as the Son [of God], or can you say otherwise without damaging the doctrines of Christ's finished work?

I ask, because your blog uses Dr. Walter Martin as an example of orthodoxy, even though he taught that Christians who used the Nicene Creed were wrong about Jesus.

Danny said...

Hi Micah,

Perhaps before trying to answer whether or not Christian Universalism is heretical, we need to back up a step and ask the following: What does it mean to be heretical?

Was Jesus a heretic? Was Paul? Was George Fox? Arminianism is heretical in the eyes of Calvinists and Calvinism is heretical to Arminians. Aspects of Protestantism are heretical to Catholics and vice-versa. Perhaps its safe to say that everyone is a heretic in someone else's view.

If that is the case, then heresy only means something from the perspective of those whose doctrine is being deviated from--those who consider themselves quite orthodox (yet are, no doubt, viewed as heretics by someone else).

Perhaps a more interesting question might be this: Does Christian Universalism have what it takes--theologically, historically, scripturally, philosophically--to be a viable alternative to Calvinism and Arminianism?

Are you familiar with the work of Thomas Talbott? In his book 'The Inescapable Love of God' Talbott sets forth three theological propositions which most Christians--if they were presented with any of the three individually--would tend to agree with. However, when the three are presented together, a contradiction becomes apparent:

Proposition #1: God, being omnipotent, is able to accomplish His will.

Proposition #2: God's will is that none should perish, but that all would be saved.

Proposition #3: Many will not be saved.

If one accepts #1 and #3, they must logically reject #2. This would make them a Calvinist: God has sovereignly decreed that only certain "elect" individuals are predestined to be saved (which, by implication, means that He has also predetermined that the remainder will not be saved). Those who were not predestined for salvation will either go to a Hell of eternal conscious torment or will be annihilated, depending on which doctrine of Hell you subscribe to. Quakerism was, in part, a reaction against the implications of 17th Century Calvinism.

If one accepts #2 and #3, they must logically reject #1. This is the Arminian position: God would like to save everyone, and sent Jesus to do so, but His will in the matter is trumped by man's free will. God can only offer the opportunity for salvation; man must decide whether or not to accept it. If people reject it, (despite God's will) they will go to Hell or be annihilated (again, depending on one's belief about Hell). Calvinists argue that Arminianism denigrates the sovereignty of God, since God's intentions can be thwarted by man's will.

If one accepts #1 and #2, they must logically reject #3. This is the view of adherents to Christian Universalism. This view preserves the sovereignty of God (God has accomplished what He intended to do) without making Him out to be the monster that Calvinism does. Arminians would argue that Christian Universalism denigrates man's free will. I have to wonder about that though: If a parent changes their child's behavior--through persuasion or punishment--have they violated the child's free will? If a blind and wretched sinner rejects Christ, how informed of a decision is that? Conversely, if one were to see God has He truly is--in all of His love and glory and majesty--could one then choose, in full awareness, to reject Him?

It seems to me that Christian Universalism ought to at least be considered on a par with Calvinism and Arminianism as a doctrinal option. But one could go a step further and see both Calvinism and Arminianism as two different attempts at rationalizing the same extreme doctrine: Hell. In that light, Christian Universalism could be seen as the more moderate approach.

As I understand it, the Eastern Orthodox church teaches that Heaven and Hell are the same place: in the presence of God. Perhaps the paradox is that somehow, once enveloped in the consuming fires of God's love, Hell turns into Heaven.

Anonymous said...

Hi Danny,

Thank you for your very insightful and helpful post.

briank said...

Great Post!
When looking at Christian Universalism it would be good to check out George MacDonald. CS Lewis called George MacDonald his "Master". George MacDonald supported the idea that hell is locked from the inside. That Jesus can make his way to our souls even after death, but the only way to God (& out of hell) is thru Jesus. George MacDonald has been called a Dogmatic Christian Univeralist. I tend to allow more Mystery in Salvation.
This Mennonite has really been enjoying your blog. Keep up the Good work. peace.

Bill Samuel said...

The question that grabs me is Does this life really matter? Any form of belief in predestination, whether of the Calvinist variety or the universalist variety, tends to cast doubt on the importance of what we do in this life. That bothers me.

Micah Bales said...

@Marcus I'm glad that my post connects so well with your own experience.

@Michael I think you make a good case that Christian Universalism was not condemned by the early church councils. As you say, the anathemization of Origen is most frequently pointed to as proof that Christian Universalism is heretical, but it is my understanding that Origen's teaching was condemned for other reasons (i.e. His view of the eternal preexistence of the soul, denial of a final and lasting bodily resurrection, etc.).

The issue of free will is indeed a point of tension with Christian Universalism. Are there some who, at the end of the day, really prefer selfishness and pride so much that they are willing to endure eternal separation from God to cling to it?

@Sisterlisa Thanks for your comment. You're right that there are many passages in the Bible that describe God as making choices for humanity. On the other hand, there are so many examples of God being frustrated by human free will! There are endless examples of this during the Hebrews' wandering in the wilderness; God wanted so much to gather the children of Israel together as a holy nation, but they resisted God's grace time and time again.

One clear example (and there are many) from the Old Testament is 1 Samuel 8, where God's desire is that Israel be directly ruled by him. Yet, the people deny God's will, saying that they want a human king, like the other nations that surround them. God relents, telling Samuel: "Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you that they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king" (1 Sam 8:7).

Another clear example, this time from the very lips of Christ, comes in Luke 13:34. Jesus laments Israel's rejection of him and his Father, saying, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing." It was Christ's (God's) will to gather the children of Israel together, but they would not be gathered!

I do agree, though, that human free will is a choice between doing what is right and pleasing to God - or not. It is not a choice between two equally acceptable options; instead, it is the ability to freely choose that which is evil or that which is good. I agree with you that submission to God's will is essential.

Micah Bales said...

@Drew For you to suggest that heresy is a good thing indicates to me that I have failed to communicate one of the central points of this post: That heresy is a terrible thing, because it denies the Truth of God by choosing instead a particular, limited human interpretation of reality. Heresy fails to see the world as it truly is.

@Bill I couldn't agree more.

@Ganeida It is a pickle indeed! I hope we can continue to embrace the tension and wrestle with the mystery of God's love, grace and sovreignty.

@Luís I certainly agree with you that total predestination must be false. That is, I do not believe that the universe is a wind-up toy that simply plays out the instructions that God has given it. For some reason, God has given humanity the ability to shape the course of history, even if it is within certain parameters that God sets.

@Graceann I'm not sure about what you say about the passage of Lazarus and the Rich Man, but it is my understanding that many first-century Jews had a fairly developed apocalyptic sense, and did believe in an eternal afterlife where human beings would be rewarded or punished, based on their deeds. You may try to argue that Jesus used these beliefs as metaphors to communicate deeper truths, but I don't think you can explain away that Jesus really was talking about a paradigm that his contemporaries believed in.

@Ken Thanks for your input.

@Jeff Thanks for passing on this additional resource.

@Scott ;)

@Danny As I stated earlier, questions like these make me feel like I failed to communicate some of the basic points of my post. For the purposes of this post, I have defined heresy as being something that breaks the essential paradox and mystery of the Christian faith, instead preferring a limited human understanding. When we commit heresy, we choose pat answers over the astonishing and mysterious Truth of God that we cannot ultimately explain.

The propositions that you posit are good examples of human doctrines that fail to capture the majesty, power, mercy and love of God in Jesus Christ. We can't sum the Lord up in neat propositions, and the attempt to box God in through the logic that God gave us is as nonsensical as a small child believing that he beat his father at a game of tug-of-war. Clearly, if we think we can confine God to propositions, we've missed the point.

All Christian theological reflection must be founded in the person of Jesus Christ, who shows us God's true nature in a human life. Jesus defies your three propositions. He was all-powerful, and yet he submitted himself to the cross, being put to death by those he came to save. He desired wholeness and peace for all, and yet he did not force his peace on the world. In Jesus we see who God really is: An all-powerful divine Parent who willingly sacrifices omnipotence in order to give us the opportunity to love him by our own free choice. This God is not an abstraction, not a set of propositions, but a real (though unfathomable) personality who loves us, and yet will not force himself on us.

Perhaps Christian Universalism does qualify as "heresy," in my definition of the word, because it seems to break the same paradox that Calvinist predestinationism does. It presumes to limit God to human categories, and instead of leaving all judgment to Christ, it seeks to pre-determine the outcome of this cosmic dance we find ourselves in. Both Calvinism and Universalism are understandable: they are ways that we try to pin down a mysterious God whom we do not ultimately comprehend and cannot control. But I think that perhaps both of these human philosophies are unfaithful to the mystery and power of God in Jesus Christ.

@Brian I agree that I prefer to leave more room for the mystery, though I must confess that I, like all people, often try to lock things down and put God in a box. It feels safer to have a God that we can define and control. But God is wild, unpredictable and beautiful!

Danny said...

Hi Micah,

Thanks for your response. I failed to mention in my previous comment how much I've enjoyed your blog.

I can see where, by starting with different definitions of what the word 'heretical' means, we end up in different places. But this is a theological discussion, right? Shouldn't we standardize on the definition of terms that we use?

Is it possible to ponder and discuss theology (and, in doing so, to leverage such God-given tools as logic) without losing the sense of majesty, power, mercy and love of God in Jesus Christ? Are the two options really mutually exclusive or is that a false dichotomy?

Theology is often defined as "faith seeking knowledge" (I prefer "love seeking knowledge"). But if to seek knowedge and understanding--to ask "What does this mean and how does it affect the way I see the world and live in it?"--is merely trying to "sum the Lord up in neat propositions, and the attempt to box God in...", then why even bother engaging in theological thought and discussion? Why not just live the mystery without any parameters?

Of course Jesus defies Talbott's three parameters. They were never intended to define the person or ontological nature of Christ, but merely to delineate how people have typically dealt with an apparent contradiction (or paradox) in one aspect of God's actions and intentions. Isn't that what a great deal of theology is about? In your own definition of "who God really is" you yourself have set forth a set of propositions (that God is an all-powerful divine Parent, that He will not force Himself upon us, etc.) which could be construed as an attempt to pin God down and adhere to a particular doctrinal viewpoint. We all do it. We all try to understand God and God's activities. It seems that the only way to avoid appearing as if we're trying to "pin down a mysterious God whom we do not ultimately comprehend and cannot control" would be to just not ask questions or think too much about it. But we're way too interested in God to settle for that!

The danger, perhaps, is dogmatism. That would be an interesting topic: Is there such a thing as healthy dogmatism?

It seems to me that the central question in both Calvinism and Arminianism is "why?". Why did God set it up so that so many go to Hell? Calvinism says "Because He's God and He can." Arminianism says "Because He places such a high value on human free-will." In Christian Universalism the question isn't "why", but "how". We can understand *why* God would reconcile all of humanity to Himself ("For God so loved the world...")--and, in fact would say that this *why* is the essence of the Good News--but we struggle with *how* He's going to do it (or has already done it), especially if the *how* bumps up against our existing theological presuppositions.

But I think you've brought up a really important topic (as has Rob Bell), because this is one of those places where the rubber really meets the road: Our theology--how we think about God--affects how we view the world and how we live our lives. And we all possess and engage in theology--accepting or rejecting propositions about God and God's intentions and God's activities--whether we admit to it or not.

Dale Graves said...

I have just recently found QuakerQuaker, and, through it, some really thoutht provoking postings. I am finding the ideas presented absolutely fascinating, especially since the folks who post and those who comment really seem to respect the other's opinion. Fascinating!
Micah-your writing of the tension contained in a paradox speaks to my condition.

Jim714 said...

Dear Micah:

First, I want to compliment you on even using the word 'heresy' in your post. These days that is a word that is so charged that it is difficult to even bring up the topic.

Second, I want to comment on the tensions inherent in Christianity that you touch on. I have a friend who is an Orthodox Christian Priest. One day he was speaking to a group about Orthodoxy. In his talk he touched on the trinity, which is central to the Orthodox Church. A questioner started asking analytical questions about the trinity and the Priest interupted him and said, "No, no, no. You have to fall in love with Orthodoxy, then it all makes sense." He said this with a twinkle in his eye. The comment helped me to understand why Eastern Orthodoxy has never felt a need to generate systematic treatises on the trinity in the way the Western Church has.

This was a kind of turning point for me. When you love someone you accept them as a whole; both the good and the bad, the benign and the short-sighted. I think something similar is at the heart of Christianity; when you fall in love with this tradition it all makes sense, both the easy parts the problematic parts. Just as falling in love with someone is a mystery and often doesn't make sense to outsiders, so also falling in love with Christianity has an element of mystery to it and doesn't make sense to those who don't have that relationship to it. I'm not saying that Christianity is nonsense, only that on the field of love its inherent tensions are resolved.

Best wishes,


Rich in Brooklyn said...

I can't add much to this excellent discussion except a small quibble with one of the ways you posed the problem. You asked:"Does the insistence that God will save every person - whether they like it or not - undermine the Christian faith?". My quibble is with the implicit assumption behind the phrase "whether they like it or not". Granting that we have free will and that in our current state of understanding some people might not "like" to be saved, I would still argue that it is possible those people will come to "like" it as they grow in knowledge of the Lord, and that they will do so freely.

Anonymous said...

It is a mistake to think of events like Babel as God undermining freewill. If someone decides to hit another person and that person ducks or blocks the punch (frustrating their intent) have they taken away the aggressor's free will? No.

In my experience, which saved my life quite literally as well as in so many other ways, I met something much different. I met a God that held up a mirror to me, a perfect mirror. I saw all of myself in it and that was both wonderful and terrible. I found some of the ways I thought myself terrible and unloveable were untrue, and some of the ways I thought myself wonderful were untrue. It was terrible pain to look at the "real me" and yet this God loved me absolutely and without reservation. What a terrible thing to be so loved in the face of the evidence that a lot of me didn't merit it!

The truth is, we judge ourselves, but we judge ourselves looking in God's perfect mirror...and we are a harsher judge of ourselves than God ever is. What lengths we go to even in life to avoid facing the truth about ourselves and now we are quite trapped with all our flaws facing us.

Imagine being caught doing something wrong by thy favourite person in the world, the person thee most admires and wishes to impress...thee almost wants them to shout at thee so thee can take refuge in anger rather than feel so ashamed. Now multiply that by hundreds, at least.

Anonymous said...

Julian of Norwich believed that there would be a final great miracle and all would finally be saved.

Saint Therese of Lisieux is reputed to have said, "I believe in Hell and I believe that it is empty."

Paul L said...

This is one of the best Quaker-related theological discussions I've read in a long, long time. Thanks to everyone.

My position is that Jesus had unlocked everyone's prison doors and cut the shackles. Everyone's. And no one will put them back on or lock the door ever again. No one. But only some will believe it and walk outside into the light.

I do not speculate on how long it will take those who cannot or do not accept their freedom to come around. Maybe they simply stop being and die in darkness and oblivion. That makes sense to me and seems to give free will its due. Or maybe they stay in darkness until those on the outside bring the light inside. I don't know.

If I may, I am reminded of a New Yorker cartoon. It depicts Satan and one of his minions talking, with hundreds of poor souls suffering in torment around the fiery pits in the background. Satan is saying, "You know, we do pretty well considering that people are basically good."

Anonymous said...

Is Universalism Heresy?
I haven't heard it mentioned yet, but what a person thinks happened in the atonement of Christ lends quite a bit of light on the answer to the question.
If you take it literally that every sin of the whole world was laid on Jesus then it must follow that Universalism is true, but if the atonement does not include every specific sin, but an offering more than sufficient to satisfy the divine law that had been broken, allowing God to forgive man upon repentance and faith, keeping man's free will intact, than the answer is yes, Universalism is heresy.
Micah, what conclusion did you come to?

Steven Davison said...

So far the discussion seems to focus pretty much on Christian universalism. I'd like to discuss Quaker universalism for a minute. Quaker universalism is, I believe, one of the most valuable distinctive contributions of Quakerism to Christian tradition.

If I've got it right, Friends believe—presumably because they have experienced it themselves—that the Light has come to enlighten everyone who is coming into the world, to paraphrase the prolog to the gospel of John. That there is that of God which hungers for life and truth in everyone, and that what is required is turning toward that Light. Christ knocks on the door of every heart and if you open, he will come in and sup. This is true regardless of whether you have heard the gospel as such. The story usually raised up to illustrate this faith in universal salvation is Fox's encounter with the Native American man in his journal, whom he queried: is there something in you that guides you toward right action and that remonstrates with you when you do wrong? (Here we get into the subtle arguments about the difference between the conscience and the work of the inward Christ, which I'll let be.)

Now, once you've heard the gospel, I think early Friends, at least, believed that accepting the gospel was necessary. This seems to me to represent a retreat toward the outward form and away from the inward turning, to need a name tag on your experience to make it past the gates.

It's the gates that really define the matter. The question of heresy comes up because of the belief in judgment, in a God who's defining quality is will, whose defining roles are lawgiver and judge, whose love, ultimately, is conditional. The question of heresy comes up because the human believers feel the need to build their own courtroom because there's no live video feed from God's courtroom: we can't agree about what God's will is and yet we desperately need to know because our souls are on the line. So we make our best attempt at defining the laws ourselves, ceaselessly multiplying our religious traditions because we disagree about what they should be. Then, once we've codified our laws, we naturally start indicting and convicting people.

It's a vicious cycle: How can you believe in a judging God without trying to figure out the basis on which you will be judged? Once you've done that, what's the point of having laws if you don't apply them?

So of course, the primary question is, why believe in a judging God in the first place? The superficial answer is that scripture is pretty clear on this point. But this only raises a bunch of other questions about the character and necessity of biblical religion: Why would a judging God wait tens of thousands of years to clarify the law with a lawbook? Why would this God then take another fifteen hundred years or so constantly revising the lawbook, only to leave us with at least three distinct sets of laws in the Tanakh alone, let alone the confusion of an all-new testament with its own contradictions? And the ultimate question: if the Book is to be the ultimate authority on the terms of judgment and salvation, on what authority can we trust the Book? Do we need a lawbook because we need an outward courtroom, or do we need an outward courtroom because we have a lawbook?

All of this fussing about the externalities of judgment, including the question of heresy, stem, I think, from the initial retreat from inward experience. The genius of Quaker universalism lies in the insistence on the primacy of inward experience. God is spirit and we worship God in spirit and truth. As soon as we measure someone else's experience with some external ruler (usually our interpretation of the Bible), we get tangled in the shadows and lose the substance.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to comment on Danny's three propositions, by adding a couple more:

#4 God, in his love, sometimes allows His creatures to do things that are not His will.

If this were not the case, we would still be in Eden. And if it is the case, Danny's first three propositions can all be true at once.

#5 Logic and time are tied up with matter, part of creation. As such they are not necessarily applicable when applied to the eternal realm.

I agree with Micah that eternal truth can embrace opposites in ways that seem impossible within creation.

Dan Treadway

Anonymous said...

Here is an article on Hell from the Taize website that people may find useful:

Micah Bales said...

@Danny Thanks for your very kind and thoughtful response.

I didn't mean to imply that we should step back from theological reflection, nor that the use of logic is incompatible with faith in a mysterious God. I guess I was reacting against what felt like the ridiciously limiting nature of the three propositions that you offered.

I think that Dan Treadway did a much better job than me in articulating this concern. He points out that there are other propositions that we could throw into the mix. The additional propositions that he offers are:

God, in his love, sometimes allows His creatures to do things that are not His will.


Logic and time are tied up with matter, part of creation. As such they are not necessarily applicable when applied to the eternal realm.

Both of these are propositions that Armenian (non-Calvinist, non-Universalist) Christians do accept, and they break the false contradictions of the first three.

I agree that we have to find a path between neat theological statements that do not liberate, and a total lack of theological reflection that atomizes the Church and leaves it defenseless against heresy. Quakers tend to err on the side of not doing systematic theological reflection, and this often gets us into trouble.

Not only do I have the traditional Quaker dismissal of non-narrative theology to work through, but I am also a person who almost failed Geometry because I often knew what the answer was but refused to write out sequential proofs. Why explain things when I intuitively know the answer? Systematic theology often takes the same kind of discipline that I found so unappealing in high school math. It takes some getting used to.

@Dale Thanks for the encouragement! I'm glad to know you're finding the online Quaker conversation enlivening!

@Jim Yes, I knew that by bringing out the word "heresy" I was opening myself up to a lot of confusion (and even controversy), but I believe that heresy is an important concept and that the word is worth redeeming. The idea that there are some ideas that fundamentally undercut our faith as Christians is important.

I relate very much to your experience with the priest and the idea that we must fall in love with (Christian) orthodoxy before we can truly understand. I might want to frame it slightly differently and say that we must fall in love with Jesus - both as he is revealed in Scripture, as well as in our daily lives and communities. I believe that orthodoxy, in its truest and most beautiful sense, comes out of a relationship of great trust and intimacy with Jesus Christ. None of these theological questions matter at all without that!

@Rich Yes, that's fair. Over extremely long periods of time, it seems theoretically possible that even the most hardened enemies of God might turn back and humble themselves of their own free will.

Micah Bales said...

@Anonymous That is a very powerful description of heaven and hell. It seems entirely possible to me that both heaven and hell might be the experience of the presence of God - which would be heavenly to those who love God, but hellish to those who hate and resist God's truth.

@Paul Any talk of what happens in the afterlife seems like a lot of speculation to me. Jesus spoke mysteriously about the afterlife, and he seemed to condemn the speculation that was going on in his own day. (I'm particularly thinking of Matthew 22:23-33.) Probably better to focus on how to embody the Kingdom in this age, and let God take care of the next phase in our journey.

@Anonymous I'm rather confused by your comment, because I believe that both of those things are true. I believe that Jesus took all sin upon himself - past, present and future - in his sacrifice on the cross. I also believe that his sacrifice on calvary is totally sufficient to reconcile all of creation to God. Jesus blazed the trail for us and now the Holy Spirit is poured out on every woman and man, and it enters into the heart of whomever will receive it.

The question is, I suppose: Will all people one day receive Christ into their hearts; will some resist eternally; or will there be a time when it is too late to accept Christ's gift of mercy and some face eternal condemnation?

I don't think there are easy answers to these questions. The vast majority of the Church has held the latter opinion, but it seems there has always been a faithful minority that held a different view. I'm not prepared to label them heretical solely on the basis of their believing that all will eventually choose Christ over sin.

@Steven I think the question of heresy comes up because we are not a collection of atomized individuals. Our beliefs matter, and they have effects on the wider Body of Christ. Heretical beliefs are precisely those beliefs that have a definite harmful effect on the Body of Christ, attacking the intellectual foundations of our faith. I agree with the overwhelming opinion of the Christian Church that our intellect, too, must be made a servant of Christ.

Of course, I agree with you that all things must be grounded and rooted in the immediate teachings of the Holy Spirit of Christ. No true revelation can come apart from that. But the dogma of the Church arises out of the immediate spiritual revelation of Christ to his Body, and we should take it very seriously. (Another scary word! "Dogma" is a word that refers to the foundational, essential beliefs of the Church - dogma is the opposite of heresy.)

Contrasting the "inward" spiritual teaching of Christ to the "outward" rites, ceremonies and creeds of the Church is an old Quaker theme. But frankly, this line of thinking is only legitimate if we're talking about dead forms and beliefs that have been prioritized over and above the direct leading and life of the Holy Spirit. Rites, ceremonies and dogma, when inspired and embued with life and power by Christ's Spirit, are beautiful and powerful. We have a lot to learn from our liturgical brothers and sisters.

@Dan Thank you for your excellent comment. You did a better job of addressing those points than I was able to!

@Anonymous Thanks for the Taizé link!

Anonymous said...

Micah, I agree that what we believe matters and that wrong beliefs do great harm. I don't see in what way Christian universalism has ever harmed Christianity, though. Since I am a Christian and a Quaker universalist, I'm concerned about that. I would like to know if it had.

To me Bill's question is the most important one. Does this life matter? It's a question that becomes more and more interesting the more you think about it. Why does it matter? How does it matter? Surely there's more to it than just God giving people the opportunity to say yes or no? And Christians have been trying to answer the question all along. The medieval Pearl poet, for instance, imagined young children in heaven--answering the question why God would create people and then not give them the chance to say no. Considering why the rest of us have to suffer, Keats described this life as a "vale of soul-making."

I like this answer right at the moment: it's from an exchange in the Robinhood movie. A child asks Morgan Freedman "Did God paint you?" Freedman's character, who is a Muslim, says "Yes." The child says, "Why?" And Freedman answers, "Because Allah loves wondrous variety."


Will T said...

Robert Barclay did not consider Calvinism to be heresy. He said it was a horrid blasphemy against the love of God. In his view Calvinism proposed a system in which, if you were predestined to damnation, you were told to live a virtuous life yet nothing you did could save you. A loving God would not require of you things you could not do or reward your best efforts with punishment. We tend to see early Friends as a rather austere bunch but their experience and theology was firmly rooted in a loving God. Barclay also explicitly refutes the notion that the Bible is the absolute rule to be followed. The indwelling Spirit is the guide, the Bible is secondary to that. The indwelling Spirit,if followed, is sufficient to salvation and it did not matter what name was used. He firmly believed that non-Christians could be saved. I think that the Quaker idea of the Day of Visitation was a way to emphasize that our salvation is a joint effort between ourselves and God and also to reconcile their notion of a loving God with the empirical evidence before them that there were plenty of people who were clearly not on the path to salvation.

Thank you Michah for your article and to all of the thoughtful commentators.

Will T

Aaron W. said...

I'm not a theologian but I have always struggled with Universalism. God, who created a single man (Adam), allowed this man to make the choice (freewill, limited freewill) - ultimately a choice that effects all of mankind - then, sent Jesus to redeem man from this prison of sin only to hold each individual to a choice to receive His gift (Adam made the 1st choice to sin for us all but we as individuals must make the decision to accept redemption). Furthermore what about those before Christ, when do they get to make the choice to accept Christ?

Rich in Brooklyn said...


You wrote "While I believe that God has given human beings the free will to accept or reject God's love, it is horrible for me to contemplate any of God's children being eternally separated from right relationship with their Creator. I know from personal experience that hell exists in this life, and it may well exist in the afterlife, too. But eternal hell? That is a tough pill for me to swallow.

In fact, it is precisely the majority of the Church's teaching on damnation that led me to reject Christianity as a teenager."

In view of this, it would seem that at least in your case it has been the doctrine of eteranal damnation for sinners that has most threatened and undermined your embrace of the gospel. So why are we focussing on "universalism" as the possible "heresy"? Surely a doctrine which inhibits unfeigned love of the Lord is more dangerous to faith than a doctrine which offers hope of salvation to all?

- - Rich A-E

Tmothy Travis said...

The real heresy is the thinking, in the first place. Propositional belief is not faith in God but in a set of ideas about God. Protestant Christianity is as much a rationalistic ideology as libertarianism or socialism. It shares the limitations of our bounded rational capacities and it's why it ties us in knots.

Faith in God means developing one's ability to hear from God, directly, and then having the courage to act on that.

the bicycle thief said...

I wouldn't take anything written by Paul as guide ... you also need to increase the margin between the text and the photos in your emails/blogs.

Excellent stuff anyway ... I'm starting to look forward to your emails.

Anonymous said...

I'm a lifelong Quaker who has journeyed from liberal universalism to a nuanced christ-centered universalism. I question whether early Friends shared a clear sense that eventual eternal damnation for some souls was part of the creator's "plan". I would guess that some bought in to that Calvinist view but that many did not, either rejecting that outright or just not knowing and trusting in God's love for humans to lessen not increase torment.

It seems clear to me that God's power is made manifest in the creation (large and small) in ways that are not fully comprehensible to the human mind. Things like the reality of a human afterlife or reincarnation or souls reaching Nirvana are all just concepts that may help people accept their own place in the cosmos but probably don't come close to describing the "elephant" in a meaningful way.

Bill Samuel said...

To the last Anonymous comment, you can certainly find a number of statements in early Quaker writings about everyone going to either eternal reward or eternal punishment after death. That seems to have been the normative view, although my understanding is that there were some with a more Christian universalist view.

We have to accept that the eternal hell view as one legitimate Quaker view. But we still need, IMHO, to wrestle with the implications of that and how we understand God's love for all. And I think we need some humility. I think it is better to say that a view is my best grasp at the moment, but that I don't understand it as God does.

Sword of ManticorE said...

Wise words from Simon and Garfunkle.

"A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest".

If you combine a carnal view to scripture with fear, blind ego, self-righteous pride, a hidden desire for vengeance and spark the religious engine with a pharisitical spirit. You get a determined believer of hell. To suppose that God would bring beings into existence for both His purpose and pleasure who He knew in advance without mercy would be infinite losers by that existence, is to charge him a hypocrite with the utmost malignity. So much for Jesus turning the other cheek.

Unknown said...

I have struggled with the same things, and have deeply sought God on this matter of hell. In my journey, I have come across the writings of Ilaria Ramelli, a noted scholar, and probably the top scholar, on the early church during the Patristic Era (33-590AD). She shares that a huge number of Early church fathers and Christians adhered to the doctine of apokatastasis- which means the ultimate reconciliation of all people to God.

She also mentions a few key words that were mistranslated from Greek to Latin in the Latin Vulgate. These mistranslations make room for what I believe is the false doctrine of an eternal, punitive hell.

I have come to believe in the ultimate reconciliation of all to God, and I also believe that salvation is by choosing Christ. I just believe that given enough time, enough purification, enough pain, everyone will come to choose Him. God knows how to work in the heart of each and every one of his children (all humans) to bring them to understand and see his love and his care for them, and their value to him, and also to bring them to understand and be convinced that life is futile and empty without him. Each one is created in God's very image. At some point they will come to see the truth, because they are made in the image of truth.
It may take eons, but I believe that God can and will bring all his children to experiential understanding of his reality and his love for them personally. It is always by choice. God never crosses anyone's will. But he never gives up on anyone either, any more than I would ever give on on any of my kids.