Allow me to take you back to the halcyon days of the early aughts. Wikipedia was new. Destiny’s Child was still together. The first Lord of the Rings movie was coming out. And I was re-reading the Old Testament. I think a lot of people have had the experience of re-reading something like the bible and realizing that you didn’t absorb any of it the first time through. This was exactly what was happening to me. As I read the bible again, I was a bit overwhelmed by a lot of the mucky stuff in it. The guy who sacrificed his daughter to fulfill a pledge. Lot offering his virgin daughters to a mob. Samson killing everyone and cutting off their foreskins. The cannibalism. The commands to kill men, women, children, babes-in-arms.
I think it was after reading the story of Jael who put a spike through the head of a man in her tent that I put the book down and asked God that timeless question: “WTF?” And I actually got an answer: “I work it all out.” I remember praying about it and when I was told that God works it all out, it carried with it a sense of totality. Everything gets worked out. Everything. And I was still thinking, “WTFudge?” I felt like a shark with a beach ball – I just couldn’t grab hold of the idea. It was too much.
Part of the problem was that at the time I was a pretty standard Evangelical. Which means that I was inordinately concerned with who is saved and who is going to hell. People who accepted Jesus as Savior went to heaven, everyone else went to hell, of course. Plus, I was (am) also a death-penalty opponent because of the Catholic notion that part of the reason that taking the life of someone is wrong (even if they deserved it) because it cuts off opportunities for repentance. And here were all these stories of people whose lives were being cut short – sometimes at the command of God. Of course, these were stories from before the time of Jesus, but I think that I had some notion that people who lived exemplary lives of love could be understood to have accepted Jesus unknowingly. At any rate, the idea that God could say, “I work it all out” about these crazy stories and thousands of lives that had been cut short didn’t make much sense to me. Did he ensure that those who would come to faith but hadn’t yet were spared? Did he say kill them all because he knew that none of them were going to be saved anyways? I know that the “right” answer is just to trust God and leave it be, but God wired me up to figure things out – and I couldn’t figure this one out.
At the same time that I was struggling with my beach ball, I was a regular participant on a “Faith and Culture” message board. One day someone posted a bible verse I had never noticed before:
“This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance. That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.” – 1 Timothy 4:9-10
Well, that didn’t fit with my beliefs, so I went to my handy interlinear bible and pulled out my Strongs/Vines Concordance/Dictionary and dug in. Perhaps there was a translation issue. It happens all the time. But the thing was that the verse is pretty straight-forward. It really does say that God is the savior of all people (or men, if you prefer), especially those who believe. So I checked out commentaries on the verse and found the standard explanation. It said that God is the savior of all people, but his saving action exists only as potential in our lives until we believe – thus the “especially” for believers. This struck me as a “what it really means to say” explanation. I don’t trust “what it really means to say” explanations. If that’s what it really meant, then why doesn’t it say that?
While I was still trying to puzzle out how to fit 1 Timothy 4:9-10 into my pre-existing theological framework, the same commentor put up 1 Corinthians 15:22:
“For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.”
And Romans 5:15:
“But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many.”
The person who posted these verses commented to the effect that if only those who accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior would be saved from hell, then the work of Adam has a greater effect than the work of the Christ. So God loses and the enemy wins. But scripture draws a direct line between the effect of the transgression of Adam and the redemptive work of Jesus. All die. All made alive. In fact, the effect of Jesus’ work is said to be greater than the effect of Adam’s transgressions.
Just as I was starting to get really uncomfortable (because the argument makes a lot of sense and was clearly being drawn from scripture) someone else on the board responded, “I’m getting sick of all this universalist crap.” Universalist crap? I had never heard anything about this “universalist crap”. So, wanting to know what he was talking about, I searched “universalist” on google and found my way to a site called Tentmaker. Over at Tentmaker I learned that “universalism” is the teaching that everyone goes to heaven – we all get “saved”. And not only did this Tentmaker sight claim that this was so, it claimed that this was the teaching of the bible and the ancient Christian church and that they could prove it. Now, clearly I’m not a bible illiterate – I know that the bible says some people go to hell forever. So I headed over to their “Scholar’s Corner” to see what such a claim could possibly be based on.
The Scholar’s Corner at Tentmaker contains thousands of pages documenting the basis for their claims. It contains entire books that had been laboriously scanned in by hand explaining in minute detail bible verses, translation issues, philosophical arguments, ancient writings, church history and more to make the case that the true teaching of Christianity really is that all are saved. Over the next few months I read almost all of it. I hunted down anything I could find from other sources to check and double and triple check the claims being made. I sought out the arguments of those who disagreed with universalism to assess the case against it. And I came away completely and utterly convinced that Tentmaker’s outrageous claim that the bible teaches the salvation of all men is actually true. What God had told me month earlier really was true – he works everything out. From that time forward, I have been a Christian Universalist.
As you might imagine, I was pretty excited at this new understanding and wanted to share it with others. I mean, the fact that the bible teaches that Jesus’ work really is complete and that all will be saved is really good news, I thought. Only what I discovered was that no matter how well I made my case or how much evidence I provided, no one wanted to hear it. No one could make a reasonable argument against what I said, but that didn’t matter. Some people couldn’t believe that God is that good. Others didn’t want to believe God is that good. I seemed to be the only one excited to hear that Gandhi wasn’t burning in hell and, at least in time, your Great Grandma Tilly won’t be either. Instead, I was accused of rejecting the clear teaching of the bible and becoming a heretic. I was afraid to say anything to the people I went to church with out of fear of being cast out. In fact, the reason I haven’t written about it here up until now was because a few years ago God specifically told me to leave the subject alone for the time being because there is already too much division in the body. It wasn’t my battle to fight.
But times are a-changing. Universalism is no longer such an obscure idea. People like Rob Bell and even Scot McKnight have started talking about the possibility that maybe our ideas about hell aren’t all that. And even if they don’t accept universalism, they are willing to allow that those who do aren’t automatically heterodox. As I mentioned yesterday - there’s even a film coming out this fall to discuss the topic. And at least two of the theologians invited to participate are Christian Universalists. So, the time has come for me to chime in as well.
Over the course of this week, I’ll be sharing the basis for my Christian Universalist beliefs and why adopting this belief has transformed my faith life. My (somewhat tentative) schedule for the rest of this week will be:
Tuesday - A Word With One Meaning or 30? Talking about aion and aionian – two Greek Words whose meaning is at the root of the problem.
Wednesday – Eternal Punishment or An Age of Chastisement Is there a purpose to hell? Or does God just want you good and miserable? And what about the lake of fire?
Thursday – What the Hell? Where did our ideas of hell come from? Are the consistent with what Jesus thought or have we just made a lot of crap up?
Friday – From Greek to Latin and Grace to Condemnation What did the early church believe about hell? When and why did it change?
Saturday – When the Gospel Becomes Really Good News I’ll talk about why Universalism has been such a benefit to my faith. And why fears that it makes Christianity and evangelism irrelevant are complete wrong. And other loose ends.
Bonus: Getting back to Hell Week A quick clarification on these posts. I’m sharing my conclusions, not making a comprehensive argument. I explain why and where to go if you want more proof for the claims I make in this series.
The links above will go live as I get each post up. I have gone back and forth over whether to enable commenting on these posts. My experience in trying to discuss this topic online is that people have a knee-jerk reaction and begin throwing out bible verses and saying goofy things without actually thinking anything through. Or listening. And like your teacher always used to say, you should hold your questions (and objections) until the end because they will probably be answered on the way. So, for now I’m going to moderate comments on these posts. If the comment is an objection that’s going to be answered elsewhere I’m going to take it donw and once that post is up, I’ll approve it with the link to the post with the proper information. On Sunday I will put up a final post addressing any questions or objections that come in which don’t get addressed in the posts listed above. Anyone who just wants to share what their own experiences or thoughts are about each post, I’ll just let those go through. Anyone who just wants to tell me I’m a heretic and dragging people down to hell with me, I’ll let those go through just so people can observe first hand the quality of the discourse coming from the other side. Sound fair?
*About Tentmaker: the people who run the site have a few, er, “quirky” ideas about a couple of subjects not related to Christian universalism, including Israel and prophesy. Fortunately, they have revamped their site so that such things aren’t listed out front with their arguments about the teaching of hell. I simply bring it up in order to say that if you dig something up, please do not come back and insist that the whole idea has been discredited by association. Or think that I’m supporting a political agenda along with the universalism. I’m not. A lot of the information I’ll be using comes right from their site simply because it’s they have the best collection of scholarly resources available in one place on the subject. Some of them are available only on their site (usually because they were the ones who scanned the material in from printed books by hand). Others are available elsewhere as well. But you really can’t do any better if you are interested in the subject than going to their site and digging in.