My most recent two-week sabbatical study focused on the re-emergence of Christian universalism. No, I didn’t read Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. Instead, I read two books by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland titled If Grace Is True and If God is Love, as well as The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory MacDonald. The first two volumes are more accessible to general audiences, while the latter one is focused more toward theological, philosophical and hermeneutical arguments. While I’m not sure these three authors would always agree with one another on this topic, I did find some common threads that ran through all three volumes.
Clearly this view of salvation is still a minority view within contemporary Christianity. But it appears that there is a resurgence of interest and publicity around the idea, especially because of Rob Bell’s book. And one of the fascinating things I learned is that historically, it hasn’t always been the norm for universalism to be the “step-child” belief, or considered heresy. It was only at the Fifth Ecumenical Council (the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 CE) that it was determined that universalism was heretical. Up to that point there were three prevailing views of one’s eternal destiny. One who did not believe in Christ was condemned to eternal torment, one was condemned to torment for a period of time before being annihilated, or one had the opportunity after death (if they had rejected Christ before death) of making another decision and falling upon the mercy of God for salvation. (The other interesting side note on the 5th Council is that not all the Western church leaders attended because it was not called for or convened by the Pope. Instead it was established by the Emperor. Already division was becoming apparent between the eastern and western factions of the church.)
More to the point of today’s renewed interest in universalism, it is an attempt to reconcile the essential character of God — love — with the idea of eternal torment. There is the philosophical problem of proportionality of punishment that “fits the crime,” there is the theological problem of the several texts that appear to support a view that God’s salvation is for all persons across all time, and there are the hermeneutical issues of translations that sometimes appear to have been made primarily based on one’s theological presupposition about salvation rather than on the primary understanding or usage of the word as best as we can tell from our vantage point several centuries later.
While it was the “deepest” book to read, I found the MacDonald book to be most helpful in tackling all of these problems in a responsible manner. It was helpful to read how God’s wrath is not absent in a universalism, but rather it is subsumed under God’s love, just as are all other characteristics of God. This is not a cheap grace, because there is still a place for judgment. In the universalist view, those who do not choose to believe in Christ do not go directly to heaven upon death. But neither are they doomed to eternal punishment and damnation because they did not choose Christ during life.
Another important point MacDonald made was that he did not believe that one’s belief about this aspect of salvation is dogma, or central to Christian faith. None of the historic creeds preclude any of the three classical views of salvation, just as none of the historic creeds preclude one’s view of eschatology. While Mennonites are not historically credal believers, we do not oppose the creeds. MacDonald believes that the biblical witness is not entirely clear on many of these important, but not dogmatic, aspects of the faith. Therefore, it is appropriate to continue to study and pray and be open to God’s continuing revelation to all of us. For him, universalism is the most plausible belief that holds all the collective messages in the Bible together most cohesively. What do you think?