Musings on Richard Rohr’s Universal Christ – a modern day gnostic?

The new edition of VOX is out, with all sorts of news and stories from around Ireland.

In my musings column are some thoughts on Richard Rohr’s latest book The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See Hope and Believe.

A good way into Rohr’s thinking in his own words is through the accompanying website ‘The Universal Christ’

Someone asked me did I get up on the wrong side of the bed and deIcide to have a go at Rohr. Actually no, I started reading Rohr with an open mind. I hadn’t read him before although many people I know had. Several people had asked me what I thought of him given his huge popularity.

After reading him I think it is fair to say that he is a modern-day gnostic.

Rohr claims privledged knowledge. He does not say where it comes from, he just asserts all sorts of things without even attempting to defend or explain them.

Just read again the full title of the book – it takes some chutzpah to publish a title like that. Just ‘everything’ will be changed by the unique insight that Rohr along has access to and writes to tell us what he alone knows.

Sorry I just don’t buy such hubris. His claims about Jesus are quite fantastic and dualistic.

But scepticism towards Rohr’s claims is only a partial response. And so in the column there are some musings on what challenges his popularity raises for churches today. Here’s the content of the musings column:

Richard Rohr’s Universal Christ

Richard Rohr is a best-selling author and teacher. His latest book is The Universal Christ: how a forgotten reality can change everything we see, hope for and believe (SPCK, 2019). This piece is not so much a book review as a flavour of Rohr’s beliefs[1] followed by some musings on his popularity.

Rohr says he represents an ‘alternative orthodoxy’ and his understanding of Jesus sure is alternative. The ‘forgotten reality’ – that Rohr uniquely seems to have access to – is that Jesus and Christ are not the same.

‘Christ’ is, for Rohr, not a ‘him’ at all, but a ‘universal principle of truth’. This means that everyone can experience Christ, who is a ‘cosmic, but deeply personal energy field, available to all – Jews, Greeks, and pagans’. So, according to Rohr, since it is Christ, not Jesus, who says ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14:6) this verse is not a call to belief in one person but ‘a mystery of Incarnation that can be experienced by all, and in a million different ways.’

Who, then, is Jesus? For Rohr he is the historical person from Galilee in whom God is seen to be personal and individual. Jesus is the ‘grounding wire that holds this huge force field of Christ onto the earth.’ We need Jesus to show us what love and forgiveness looks like, otherwise the Christian message is distorted to be ‘violent, exclusionary, segregationist, imperial and punitive.’

‘If Christ is like the kite, Jesus is the little boy flying the kite and keeping it from escaping away into invisibility … If Jesus is the little boy holding the kite string, Christ is the great banner in the sky, from whom all can draw life – even if they do not recognize the boy.’

That’s a taste of Rohr’s Universal Christ. If you are struggling to pin down what he means you are not alone. His arguments are little more than assertions and personal opinion. No serious biblical scholar would recognise his views of the Gospels or the rest of the New Testament. If a theology student was submitting The Universal Christ as a piece of academic research any reputable college would (or should) give it a fail. Ironically, for someone who champions inclusion, those that do not agree with his views are caricatured as being ‘primitive, exclusionary and fear-based’. In The Universal Christ sin is reduced to recognising that ‘I have never been separate from God nor can I be, except in my mind.’ The cross is reinterpreted as our ‘negative experiences’ and the gospel is psychologised as self-acceptance. There is little or no sense of the cost of discipleship. In other words, it is hard to read Rohr as a Christian author at all.

However, it would, I think, be too easy to dismiss Rohr as a false teacher telling people what their itching ears want to hear (2 Timothy 4:3). His massive popularity should make us ask what challenges does he pose to orthodox Christianity?

Rohr typifies the search to be ‘spiritual but not religious’ since organised religion is unspiritual and bad for your health. A challenge here is for churches to live up to their God-given calling to be Spirit-filled communities of love and justice.

Rohr effectively rejects themes like sin, repentance and forgiveness as negative and judgemental. A challenge here is for Christians joyfully to show that the gospel is good news that leads to a life of human flourishing – what we are for rather than what we are against.

In person and in word, Rohr displays a kindness, welcome, compassion and inclusion for everyone – yet at the cost of ignoring the power of sin within ourselves and our broken world. A challenge for the church today is to hold these two things together.

Rohr wants to make the Bible story simple, beautiful and attractive, yet at the cost of rewriting the script altogether. The challenge here is for Christians to know and communicate the Bible faithfully yet in ways that speak to people’s everyday lives.

And if Rohr’s success lies, at least in part, in how he taps into our culture’s obsession with self-acceptance and inclusion, a challenge for the church today is not to lose its nerve and continue to preach Jesus Christ crucified – however foolish that message may seem.

PS. An addendum. See this earlier post on Fleming Rutledge and gnosticism for her mention of Richard Rohr as a modern example.

[1] Sources used are from the book and material from the Universal Christ website

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (45) universal justification?

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

We are continuing in the concluding chapter. The title is designed to be arresting – we will explore what she means by it as we go.

Rutledge is leaning towards all distinctions that separate people from one another, in the very end, being overcome through the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. (577)

But how is such a universalist impulse compatible with how

“the Old Testament is packed with references to the woeful destiny of the ungodly”? (577)

Rutledge does not so much answer this as argue our understanding of the ungodly has changed. We tend to think of really ‘evil monsters’ like Hitler and Pol Pot and Mao and Stalin. But far more difficult are

“‘ordinary’ people who become involved in a network of sin and evil” (578)

She says when we look closer it becomes much harder to draw neat lines between the godly and ungodly

“How do we know which side of the that line, if there is one, we ourselves are on? How do we judge others?” (579)

She sees a move in the OT itself towards the erasure of all distinctions (Is. 64:5-7). She sees it in the NT as well – even in Romans 3:9-12, quoting the OT (Ps 14:1-3).

9 What shall we conclude then? Do we have any advantage? Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin. 10 As it is written:

“There is no one righteous, not even one;
11     there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
12 All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”

[I have to say this is difficult to be persuaded by. Paul’s diagnosis that all alike are under the power of Sin / are sinners, is hardly the basis for saying all distinctions will be erased. The story in Romans is towards the unique salvific work of God in Jesus Christ, universally available to all.]

She also goes to Ephesians and its talk of the reconciliation of all things:

“Only God can execute regime change in which the tyrannical Powers are displaced and overthrown. This is the story of the purpose of God, ‘which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (Eph. 1:9-10).’” (580)

Where Rutledge is becoming more defined. The ‘righteousness of God’, translated as ‘rectification’ is the putting right of all things. Even the Social Gospel and Liberation Theology, whatever their strengths, are inadequate, says Rutledge, in not being inclusive enough. They still draw lines between the guilty and the innocent.

As, does, argues Rutledge, the Christian Right in America, if on different issues. (582)

The argument is that all of us will try to justify and vindicate ourselves. We are all caught in a web of sin – and it exactly this sense of being trapped, that the righteousness of God addresses.

“This faith in the righteousness of God calls for a new view of human nature, one that refuses to make hard-and-fast judgments about who is godly and who is not.” (586)

All of us need ‘mending’, not just forgiveness.

So, as I read her here:

On the one hand

She is resolute in her defence of the need for justification / rectification – all of us need ‘put right’ and are under the power of Sin and act in sinful ways. We need justice and judgement rather than some watered down idea of ‘tolerance’. (587)

All of us, Jews (she gives two examples of contemporary sin/evil done by Jews), and Gentiles alike are in captivity to Sin and Death. Quoting Flannery O’Connor, “the biggest threat to your soul is you.”

Which is all very different indeed to “God accepts you just as you are!” (591)

On the other hand

She ties this to the

“promise of a complete transformation of human nature by Christ’s victory over the Power of Sin.” (593).

It seems to be all of humanity that is included in the redemptive actions of God:

“The righteousness of God, the dikaiosyne theou, burst from the tomb on the day of the resurrection of the Redeemer. ‘As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.’ The human race is redeemed, not by “acceptance,” but by death and resurrection. This is the fullness of the message of Easter Day.” (594)

How hold these tensions together? Penultimate judgment, Ultimate Rectification?

So, Rutledge is arguing for the utter incapability of humanity to redeem itself, alongside the dramatic intervention of God at the cross of Christ to effect righteousness and justice.

So, while, as in the OT, there is in the NT “a strong thread of condemnation for the ungodly” which should be “taken with the utmost seriousness”, Rutledge sees a ‘counter-thread’ that points to “seems to push the margins out toward some sort of universal vision.” (596)

She suggests this points to ‘Penultimate Judgement, and Ultimate Rectification’. There is judgement, seen at the cross. It is God alone who can put all things right:

“Therefore, we may extrapolate as follows: the God who is able to create out of nothing is able to create faith where there is no faith, righteousness where there is no righteousness, life where there is only the finality of death.” (599)

Rutledge comes at this argument with different illustrations and texts, but her overall thesis is clear at this stage. There will be a last judgement. All cases will be settled. All wrongs will be put right. And all this can only be done by God himself.

“Only the Word of God, incarnate in Christ, is able to ‘right all wrongs’ in a new creation. Only through God’s final judgment upon Sin and Death can they be annihilated as though they had never existed.” (600)

How persuaded are you by Rutledge’s argument, as summarised here? Does it ‘undermine’ her passionate defence of judgement and God’s justice against sin and evil if all, ultimately, are reconciled?

Universalism is, of course, is very much a ‘minority report’ for how the righteousness of God and final judgment has been understood in Christian theology.

Salvation, traditionally understood, is much more closely and explicitly tied to union with Christ through faith. It is ‘in Christ’ that forgiveness, new life, judgement on, and victory over, sin is effected.

Rutledge’s broadening of the scope of God’s rectification of all things to include everyone, presumably apart from their connection to Jesus Christ, raises the question of ‘What then is the role of faith? What of those who reject Christ?’

She is well aware of this and addresses these questions. It is to her replies that we will return tomorrow.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The Shack (2) Critique

A conversation with a dear friend this week about the release next Friday of The Shack in the USA, reminded me of a two part review that I wrote back in 2008.

So without any comment on or knowledge about what the film will be like, here is Part 2, unchanged.

PS: If you don’t want to know the story, stop reading now

Part 2: The Shack: a review article

Cracks in the woodwork

The sheer success of The Shack, combined with the controversy it has provoked, has meant that the book has been dissected, deconstructed, defended and derided by a phalanx of bloggers and commentators. One of the publishers (Wayne Jacobson) who had an active role in shaping the final script has issued a response to some of the main criticisms; presumably with the agreement of the author.[1]

So what is all the fuss about? First, a couple of alleyways we won’t venture down. Given that all art is subjective, to discuss whether the story works well as literature won’t get us very far. Some find the ending where the body is found and the killer caught far too neat by half. Others detest the book for being manipulative in terms of exploiting the deepest fears of parents of losing a child to a serial killer. Whether these reactions are fair or not, is ultimately a reader’s judgement. And since a fictional story of one man’s experience of God cannot be read like a theological textbook, I find criticisms that the book is not explicit enough on salvation, or the role of Scripture in the life of a believer, rather miss the point.

What is fair, and Jacobson welcomes, is a robust discussion of some of the theological ideas that are presented in the book. ‘Presented’ is the right word here. There is a definite agenda to communicate a corrective vision of an authentic relationship with God over against what the author perceives as the legalism, hierarchialism and institutionalism of much North American Christianity. This is where the story gets ‘edgy’ – it has a campaigning, anti-status-quo feel. In my opinion, the core theme of the book is that God desires people freely to choose to be in relationship with him. This is at once a source of some of its strengths (see Part 1) and its weaknesses. It’s the latter we’re going to look at now.

A reduced vision of God?

Young’s vision of a freely chosen liberating relationship with God has two sides. First, as Papa tells Mack, “True love never forces” (p.190). God’s love simply invites a response. Papa says “I don’t want slaves to do my will; I want brothers and sisters who will share life with me” (p.146). At one point Mack asks Jesus “So now what I am supposed to do?” and Jesus replies “You are not supposed to do anything. You’re free to do anything you like” (p.89 emphasis original). In talking about the cross Papa says, “Reconciliation is a two way street, and I have done may part, totally, completely, finally. It is not in the nature of love to force a relationship but it is in the nature of love to open the way” (p.192).

Second, this inviting love of God is the antithesis of duty, law and obligation. This is what Mack struggles to grasp and has to be set free from for healing to occur. Repeatedly Mack is told things like “I’m not a bully, not some self-centered demanding little deity insisting on my own way. I am good, and I desire only what is best for you. You cannot find that through guilt or condemnation, or coercion, only through a relationship of love” (p.126). Sarayu tells him “I give you an ability to respond and your response is to be free to love and serve in every situation” (p.205). To be genuine, this response must be completely free from the pressure to perform to earn God’s approval. Papa says to Mack, ‘Honey, I’ve never placed an expectation on you or anyone else … because I have no expectations, you never disappoint me.”

What should we make of this? The trouble is that it is at once absolutely right yet, at the same time, a damaging distortion. It is gloriously true that the heart of the gospel is about believers being set free in Christ from law and slavery (Gal. 5:1) and that the ‘only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love’ (Gal. 5:6) since love fulfils the law (Gal. 5:14). Since this relationship is based on grace, it cannot be earned, but is lived out day by day in thankfulness and joy. However, the repeated emphasis on our total freedom to choose this relationship by responding to God’s invitation leads to at least two problems.

First, God becomes dependent on human decision making. Jesus at one point is described as almost pleading with Mack. It is almost as if God is ‘waiting on the end of the phone’ for us to call and take up his offer of forgiveness and relationship. Young (and Jacobson) are obviously sincere and passionate about loving God. But I think that on this point they are more conditioned by the Western myth of the totally free individual making authentic choices than they realize.

Second, by focusing on only one aspect of God’s love, Young reduces God to having no expectations of Mack or anyone else. The real Jesus isn’t so undemanding!: “Take up your cross and follow me”; “If you love me, you will obey what I command”; “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Similarly, one of Paul’s favourite exhortations is “Live a life worthy of the gospel”. Despite the book’s claim that the word ‘responsibility’ is not found in the Scriptures, they are full of commands for God’s people to fulfil their responsibility of being in covenant relationship with a holy God. It is an over-reaction to equate works with law – we are created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Eph.2:10).

Church as optional extra?

It is also in the context of the absolute necessity of human freedom that the book’s controversial comments about the Church belong. On the one hand, Jesus tells Mack that he loves his bride, the Church, which is full of individuals in whom he delights. Yet, on the other hand, Young has Jesus say at one point “who said anything about being a Christian? I’m not a Christian” (p.182) and “I don’t create institutions, never have, never will” (p.179). This is obviously a deliberately provocative way to put it; the point being that, as Young’s Jesus puts it, the Church is a man-made system and “that’s not what I came to build” (p.178). Mack realises that his friends do love Jesus, it is just that they are at the same time “sold out to religious activity and patriotism.” (p.181). This sums up Mack’s negative church experience – and you get a strong sense the author is writing autobiographically here.

Of course what Young suggests here is not unique. Many have made similar criticisms of evangelicalism and undoubtedly there is truth to the charges. However, Young offers an overly negative way to interpret the terms ‘Christian’ and ‘Church’. He also buys into a popular – and mistaken – evangelical dualism about the Church as a body of genuine believers in opposition to being an organization. This sort of dichotomy would not only be foreign to the Reformers’ high view of the church, but it fosters a view of church as an optional add-on to personal faith – an attitude that would be baffling to Paul and pretty much all of church history. But, more seriously, this (very modern) sort of individualistic faith effectively detaches trust in God from the biblical narrative. For instance, apart from Jesus making a joke about his big nose, it appears virtually irrelevant for knowing God that a Jewish Messiah stands at the heart of God’s unfolding redemptive purposes for Israel and the world.

Is the God of The Shack too nice?

In response to criticism that God in The Shack is ‘too nice’, Jacobson points out that Mack is held to account for “every lie in his mind and every broken place in his heart.” This may be the case but it does not really address more important questions about the nature of God. Jacobson argues that God is “not the angry and tyrannical God that religion has been using for 2000 years to beat people into conformity”. Similarly, at one point in the story Mack asks God “Honestly, don’t you enjoy punishing those who disappoint you?” (p.119) Papa replies “I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it” (p.120). Now, yes, sin is deeply self-destructive and there is rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents. However, this is at best a partial view of God and sin. Is punishment really absent in God’s response to sin? Do we simply judge ourselves through our own bad choices? This cannot be squared with Scripture where God is the judge and it is unfortunate that both Young and Jacobson resort to presenting a caricature of a vindictive God who enjoys judging in order to reject the concept of his punishing sin. What then does God forgive us for if he only needs to cure our habit of making bad choices? It is the wonder of the cross that it is there that God’s wrath and God’s mercy meet. God’s judgement falls, not on us, but on the one who willingly gives his life, takes our place and dies our death. The problem with The Shack here is it ends up setting God’s love against God’s holiness – a nice loving God overcoming a nasty judgemental God. This will not do. God’s judgement is an act of love that establishes justice and gives hope. Without it, God is not God at all.


The Shack’s downplaying of God’s judgement inevitably means that there are strands within it tending towards universalism. The author’s attraction to Universal Reconciliation (UR) has been documented.[2] Jacobson candidly acknowledges that early drafts of the book leaned in this direction and the finished edition has corrected this error. Certainly there is a passage that explicitly rejects universalism. Jesus is asked by Mack do “all roads lead to you?” Jesus’ replies “Not at all. Most roads don’t lead anywhere [but] I will travel any road to find you” (p.182).

However, there are still strong traces of universalism within the fabric of the story. One is found in Mack’s meeting with his abusive, alcoholic father. The scene is a vision given to Mack by Sarayu of how God sees reality. Jesus is gloriously revealed as king of the universe, surrounded by his worshipping people. One of these is Mack’s father, with whom Mack is then reconciled. What is not explained, and needs to be, is what had happened to transform Mack’s father. The unspoken inference is of universal reconciliation with God. This implication surfaces again in Mack’s dialogue with Sophia when she shocks him by asking him to choose which of his children to send to hell. Mack cannot make such an awful decision and desperately offers to go instead. Sophia reassures him that his reaction is like God’s – a perfect self-giving love for all his children that costs everything. The message is clear: it is inconceivable that a God of such love could send any of his children to hell and that Jesus’ giving of his own life means that everyone is rescued from such a fate.

Trinity, Hierarchy and Women

Few issues are more significant, or hotly debated today, than the nature of relationships within the trinity. In Part 1, I argued that Young successfully helps us imagine the fellowship of mutual love between Father, Son and Spirit. Despite this, a couple of significant criticisms remain about other aspects of the book’s trinitarianism.

One revolves around the scene where Papa shows Mack the scars on her wrists remarking that at the cross “We were there together” (p.96 emphasis original). In one sense this is right; the Father does not abandon the Son to his fate. It is crucial to understand the cross as a triune work of salvation – otherwise you end up the gross caricature of a reluctant Son being punished by an angry Father. However, Young’s image is very misleading in that it blurs the distinction between Father and Son. It was NOT the Father who became the incarnate Word who was crucified at Calvary. This is a heresy called Patripassionism (the ‘passion’ [death] of the ‘patros’ [Father]). To be fair, I don’t think Young intends to say this. It looks like a case of pushing an idea (the unity of God’s saving action at the cross) too far.

The second idea, for which Young has been much more strongly attacked, is his insistence that the trinity is completely egalitarian, without any sense of hierarchy. Indeed, hierarchy is utterly foreign to God’s nature; it is a symptom of a human lust for power, control and independence:

“we have no concept of final authority among us, only unity. We are in a circle of relationship, not a chain of command … We don’t need power over the other … Hierarchy would make no sense among us. Actually, this is your problem, not ours … You actually rarely experience relationship apart from power. Hierarchy imposes laws and rules and you end up missing the wonder of relationship that we intended for you … You humans are so lost and damaged that to you it is almost incomprehensible that relationship could exist apart from hierarchy. So you think God must relate inside a hierarchy like you do. But we do not.” (p.122-4)

This flat denial of hierarchy within God is closely connected to Young’s simultaneous rejection of any notion of hierarchy between the sexes. Men and women, Mack is told by Papa, are also created for “a circle of relationship, like our own” in order to be “counterparts, face-to-face equals, each unique and different, distinct in gender but complementary” (p.148 my emphasis).

Now this is, of course, controversial territory. On gender, debates rage between ‘complementarians’ (affirming hierarchy between the sexes, the subordination of women to men, and leadership roles in marriage and church being restricted to men) and ‘egalitarians’ (who, like Young, reject all of those positions – although it must be said Young expresses a pretty extreme form of egalitarianism).[3] These discussions are closely connected to parallel ongoing conversations about whether the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father. Christian orthodoxy as outlined in the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds insists that Father, Son and Spirit are co-equal and co-eternal. This is not in dispute, but the question is can hierarchy co-exist with full equality? (as people like Wayne Grudem proposes in his influential Systematic Theology). Or is hierarchy within the trinity intrinsically incompatible with equality and may actually open the door to the old Arian heresy that the Son is lesser than the Father? (as Kevin Giles argues).[4]

Without getting deeper into what are complex discussions, the relevant point here is that these are very much ‘live’ questions without obvious ‘orthodox’ solutions. In lots of reviews of The Shack it is surprising to encounter the consistent assumption that what Young says here is obviously heretical. It is not! Many broadly agree with him here (me included) and it is historically and theologically wrong to dismiss his egalitarian views as unbiblical.


This has been a longer two part article than I imagined starting out, probably due to my verbosity! But it is, I think, also an indication of how remarkably, in a short narrative, the author manages to open up debates about a whole range of important theological questions. In my view, the biggest challenge the book poses is how can the thrilling reality of the triune God and the astonishing good news of the gospel be communicated in accessible, compelling ways to an Irish culture that appears inoculated against Christianity?  Yes, the book is deeply flawed, and certainly unorthodox regarding a number of core Christian beliefs. It needs to be read discerningly as a result. But it can also be taken as an invitation to think afresh about the God we worship. Certainly it is provocative – but if it provokes readers to go back to Scripture and wrestle with what it says about the trinity, human freedom, gender roles, the cross, judgement, and what it means to love God and be loved by God – then it is well worth spending some time in The Shack, cracks and all.

Patrick Mitchel

[1] Wayne Jacobson ‘Is The Shack Heresy?’

[2] James B De Young, ‘At the Back of The Shack: A Torrent of Universalism’. May 2008. De Young lists 12 tenets of UR more than a few of which surface in The Shack. Basically it teaches that God has already effected reconciliation at the cross and this reconciliation will be applied to everyone, either in this life or after death.

[3] For a good explanation of both sides, see Craig Blomberg and others, Two Views of Women in Ministry (revised edition). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.

[4] Kevin Giles, Jesus and the Father: Modern Evangelicals Reinvent the Doctrine of the Trinity. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006.

Curious goings on in England

Discussion between a radio presenter and the Bishop of Leicester about a person who has been dead 530 years

Presenter: “Is he forgiven, Bishop?”

Bishop “Of course he is forgiven. As we all ultimately are.” (or words to that effect, not sure of exact quote)

King Richard III ProcesssionThey were talking, of course, about King Richard III who is to re-buried in Leicester Cathedral on Thursday. About 35,000 people lined the route to the Cathedral y’day, via the Battle of Bosworth site, and thousands are queuing for hours today to view the coffin.

What do you make of this?

No shortage of interpretations and opinions floating about I’m sure: for me it seems to highlight what a peculiar and conflicted place contemporary England can be.

All in all a rather strange and eccentric mish-mash of sentiment, fuzzy theology, contemporary campaigns to recover the last Plantagenet King’s unjustly tarred reputation (had you heard of a whole movement of ‘Ricardians’?), historical tourism and search for English identity.

Sentiment: – people throwing white roses on the coffin: a sense of grief; some sort of emotional connection to a long dead king.

Fuzzy theology: as quote above. The Bishop seems to be advocating some form of ultimate reconciliation. The sub-text you pick up from wider coverage is that the Established Church’s assumed role is to baptise and bury everyone regardless of life and evidence of faith. For those holding to this sort of ecclesiology, normally then final judgement would be left in the hands of God’s grace and justice. But the Bishop is pushing this further: it appears that God’s role is to love and accept all since that is what he does? I wonder how Justin Welby who is officiating on Thursday will put things.

Contemporary politics:  I don’t know enough about English history to get how and why rehabilitating Richard III is so significant to a lot of people .. anyone help me here?

Historical tourism: as always in our ‘economist’ society, just under the surface is a barely concealed delight at the fantastic financial boon the finding of Richard III’s body will be, and is already, for Leicester. There is a whole tourist industry in the process of formation.

English Identity: every day English news and media is dominated by immigration, UK Muslim insurgents going to Syria to join ISIS, the loyalties and identity of the UK’s Muslin population; fear of Islamic insurgence and terrorism on UK soil etc etc. This sits starkly side by side with the Richard III story. I wonder if the fascination with Richard III is a sort of reassertion of English identity – a reconnection to the past in the face of a much more internally complex, global and uncertain future?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Descendit ad inferna (2) ‘Heaven may be hell for Hitler’


In the promo video for Love Wins, Rob Bell asked a very old question – what about those who die outside of faith in Jesus? Are they all damned to hell – even people like Ghandi?

Over 40 years ago Wolfhart Pannenberg also asked

‘What is to happen to the multitude who lived before Jesus’ ministry? And what will become of the many who never came into contact with the Christian message? What. Finally, is to happen to the people who have certainly heard the message of Christ but who …. have never come face to face with its truth? Are all these people delivered over to damnation? (The Apostle’s Creed in the Light of Today’s Questions (London: SCM, 1972) 94. Quoted in Laufer 201.

What Pannenberg did, and Rob Bell did not, was to turn to the descensus clause in the Apostles’ Creed to begin to answer his questions.

Laufer raises this because Pannenberg gives answers similar to those she is arguing for in Hell’s Destruction (clue in the title here).

Laufer (following Pannenberg) suggests that the conquest of death in Jesus points to the universal scope of salvation. It is universalism that ‘answers our demands for justice’ yet at the same time affronts our desire for right punishment for evil. (201)

What way is there around this impasse?

Laufer argues that Jesus’ death, descent and resurrection ‘proclaim that Christ has gone through death and hell for each and every soul ever created, and has been raised from thence.’ To believe that any are left behind seems to her to be ‘a denial of the efficacy of Christ’s death, descent and resurrection’

She does not deny the reality of hell. But hell here is reinterpreted to mean an experience of our own creation. Everyone will end up in the presence of God but “if one has lived one’s life in hate, in cruelty, in total opposition to love, then to be in the presence of perfect Love may be to experience hell. Truly ‘heaven may be hell for Hitler’ and his ilk.” 201.

This has echoes of, but is different from, C S Lewis’ image of the doors of hell being locked on the inside. Both have hell as self-chosen separation from God that leads to just (self) punishment.

N T Wright cautiously suggests something similar in Surprised by Hope: those who choose darkness eventually become so consumed by that choice that they lose their humanity of being made in the image of God. God’s just judgement collides with self-destructive choice.

It is, Laufer argues, what Eastern Orthodoxy has always said: God does not condemn the wicked to hell, but the wicked perceive the presence of God as hell while the righteous experience his presence as light, warmth and love.

She links to Moltmann’s universalist ideas that ‘through his sufferings Christ has destroyed hell’. Human will will not have the last word for no-one will be exempt from God’s redeeming grace.

I guess you could say that this is another way of saying love wins.

‘May we say that, as Christ descended to Hades and was raised from there, releasing the captives, so he will continue to be present in Hades until all are released, for he loves all?’ (206)

I’ve read these pages several times and it seems to me there is an unresolved tension in what Laufer is proposing. On the one hand, hell as an experienced reality exists (eternally in heaven?) for the impenitent. On the other hand, there’s a full-blown universalism that God’s love and grace conquer all and hell is empty. (The latter emphasis being much the stronger).

Comments, as ever, welcome

Evangelical Universalism (5) oxymoron?

The title of this post is the title of Robin Parry’s article in the recent Evangelical Quarterly.

His argument is for a ‘NO’. The two are compatible.

Derek Tidball doesn’t quite give a bald ‘YES’ …. but he gets close.

He rightly says it depends on your understanding of ‘evangelical’. If defined in primarily theological terms and as a bounded set, Parry’s proposal will be rejected. Universalism relies on substantial speculation, quite a bit of eisegesis and sits outside the tradition of classic evangelicalism.

But if you define evangelicalism in more fluid terms, a centered set, it’s more tricky to say where and when an idea has moved so far from the centre that it is outside the bounds. Certainly it is on these sorts of grounds that Parry is arguing.

Derek is circumspect here – but does say personally that he finds the way the Bible is being handled is contrary to genuine evangelicalism.  He also wonders if universalism is borne out of cultural accommodation, evangelicalism presenting itself as a civil faith.

So what do you reckon? Is ‘evangelical universalism’ an example of a diluted evangelicalism accommodating itself, even out of good missional intentions, to the culture?

As I said earlier, it would take a hard heart not to feel the pull of what Parry is arguing for (or is that statement itself an example of dilution?).And I do believe there is a surprising and generous ‘wideness in God’s mercy’ otherwise God would not a God of grace.  But I find his case, however well argued, unconvincing.

Evangelical Universalism (4) biblical material

So to Derek Tidball’s discussion of the biblical material in his answer to the question ‘Can evangelicals be universalists?’ in the  current edition of Evangelical Quarterly.


– talks frequently of the final separation at the end / terror of hell (Mt 5:22; 18:8-9; 25:41, 46; Mk 9:42-48).

– Gehenna (Mk 9:48) – rejection, destruction and everlasting fire.

– John’s Gospel; strong dualism of those with eternal life and those not

Tidball argues there is no hint in Jesus that God’s judgement is irreversible or temporary but rather final. Parry’s acknowledgement that no contemporary of Jesus would have thought he was any sort of universalist, Tidball says this should be conclusive.


Parry’s case depends on establishing two ‘strands’ within Paul’s teaching, let’s call them strand A and strand B

Strand A: two ways; two types of people; two destinations. Romans 1:16-17; 2:7-9. 1 Cor 18; 6:9-10; Gal 5:21; 1 Thes 4:13; 2 Thes 1:9 (“everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord”), 2:10-12.

Strand B: Language that talks of a God who unites all creation under his reign. 1 Cor 15:26-28 (God is “all in all”). Philippians 2:10-11 (every knee will bow and every tongue confess Jesus as Lord). Colossians 1:20 (all things reconciled). Ephesians 1:10.

Do such ‘strand B’ texts imply universal salvation – and somehow trump strand A?

Tidball argues no: the two strands are not in tension or contradiction. It does not work to use strand B to trump strand A because strand B does not imply universalism. Indeed each of the four texts above can be best interpreted as teaching the opposite. For example, in 1 Cor 15, God is ‘all in all’ when all things are subject to him his enemies are destroyed, not re-educated or converted.

Such texts have no mention of hell being a temporary place – to argue they do is to do eisegesis not exegesis. The ‘all’ that Parry builds much upon, is all who are in Christ, not all individuals without exception – see 1 Cor 15:22.

Romans 5 develops this exclusive theme – the ‘all’ of Romans 5:8 is all (Jew or Gentile) who are in Christ as opposed to being in Adam. To argue for universalism from this and other texts goes directly against Romans 2:6-16; 14:11-12; 2 Thes 2:7-10 etc.

The ‘best’ universalist text is perhaps 1 Tim 4:10 “we have our hope set on the living God who is the saviour for all people, especially of those who believe.” But, Tidball argues, it is best translated within a particularistic framework of the letter and Paul more generally. The ‘especially’ understood as explaining the precise identity of the ‘all’ – ‘to be precise, those who believe’.

General Epistles and Revelation

Tidball refers to Howard Marshall and N T Wright on a regular basis who both conclude that there is no hint of a second chance post-mortem salvation in the NT.

Hebrews 9:27 – death followed by judgement

2 Peter 3:9 (the Lord does not want anyone to perish but all to come to repentance). This is a key text in a universalist argument, but to extrapolate out from this verse a conclusion that, to coin a phrase, God must get what he wants, is to interpret the verse  contrary to the whole flow of 2 Peter 3 which talks of the ‘destruction of the godless.’

1 John 2:2 – Jesus the atoning sacrifice for our sins and also the sins of the whole world. But John is strongly a two kinds of people / two paths  guy (see 1 John 5:23). This verse needs to be interpreted as talking of one saviour for all (the whole world) – whoever they are, across all ethnic, racial, gender, social and religious barriers.

Revelation: Lot of ground to cover here. Parry sees 14 and 20 as speaking of judgement, but 15 and 21-22 holding out the triumphant hope of God’s universal triumph. The latter ultimately overcoming the former. The judgement of the damned in 14 or 20 is not necessarily ‘for ever and ever’.  The open gates of the New Jerusalem point to a welcome for the judged – they will not be excluded for ever. But, Tidball contends such a reading is forced and speculative. The open gates are symbolic of peace. The whole context is of ultimate victory and the utter defeat of evil and judgement of God’s enemies to a second death (21:8).

Some concluding discussion in the next post.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Evangelical Universalism (3) reflecting on evangelicalism

This is an extra holding post 😉 – some reflections on ‘evangelical’ on this Easter Saturday.

When it comes to ‘evangelical universalism’, the question is not so much whether traditional evangelical interpretations are beyond challenge, critique and perhaps significant reform (after all don’t evangelicals believe in semper reformanda?), but whether such reform can be sustained exegetically and theologically.

In theory, evangelicals can live with all sorts of grey areas but agree on the core essentials of the faith. In practice this isn’t so neat – just have a browse through this series to see how serious, Bible-believing Christians and scholars come to different conclusions about exactly what the Bible does teach on a whole raft of issues.

More importantly, they differ over the significance of those issues for defining core evangelical beliefs. Some people’s non-essentials are other’s core etc.

Christian Smith has written a book about such “pervasive interpretative pluralism” – and responses to it reflect that pluralism!

It seems to me that most of the big debates and hot topics (hell; universalism; women in ministry; penal substitution; moving beyond the Bible to theology – to name a few recent /ongoing ones) that cause big stirs within evangelicalism do so because, at least for some, they are pushing the boundary of evangelical orthodoxy.

For example, on women in ministry, it seems to me that there is a strong exegetical and theological argument to be made for ‘mutuality’ and a significantly weaker and inconsistent one for various forms of hierarchicalism. Some want to make that a core issue and pin the gospel to it in a ‘slippery slope’ type argument.

Evangelicals will ‘defend the core’ because they are passionate about the gospel. After all, if there is no agreed core, there is actually no such thing as Christian orthodoxy let alone evangelicalism.

Why mention this? Well, it seems to me that the Parry-Tidball debate fits exactly within the inherent ambiguity and fuzziness over how to define evangelical, and the difference of opinion over what is an essential or non-essential matter.

Parry is arguing that his ‘evangelical universalism’, whether you agree with it or not, should be a legitimate evangelical interpretation since it is coming at the texts and the issues within a recognisably evangelical theological framework: in terms of theological starting assumptions and hermeneutical methodology.

Tidball is defining evangelicalism more narrowly; arguing that unless Parry’s view can be sustained biblically, it hasn’t the theological weight behind it to be considered evangelical in any meaningful sense.

Parry’s proposal that universalism be considered an orthodox evangelical option is a massive paradigm shift both historically and theologically. But that is not the main reason the vast majority of evangelicals will, like Derek Tidball, be un-persuaded. It is because evangelical universalism is perceived as both ‘threatening the core’ (as Parry is well aware and responds to – see the first post) and resting on thin exegetical foundations.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Evangelical Universalism (2)

In the last post we sketched Robin Parry’s proposal for an evangelical form of universalism in the current edition of Evangelical Quarterly. Parry’s coming at this as an evangelical (former editor at Paternoster books). His tone is irenic, he’s not dogmatic, he’s not trying to dismiss traditional interpretations, nor is he trying to be provocative in order to sell loads of books … nough said.

He is, you sense, exploring the possibility that he would very much like to be true for pastoral reasons. He is a ‘hopeful dogmatic universalist’ without being too dogmatic.

Do you feel the weight of that hope? God himself desires all to come to a knowledge of salvation.  He delights not in judgement – in the OT it is often a last resort after numerous prophetic warnings and appeals. Jesus comes first as one who seeks and saves the lost.

By evangelical universalism, Parry means not a form of universalism by which all paths lead to God but one in which all eventually are saved through faith in the atoning work of Jesus Christ. His version includes a place for justice, judgement and hell. But, he speculates, hell is temporary not infinite, ultimately educative not endlessly retributive.

In other words, God’s judgement is not the final word; ‘love wins’. Sin and sinners do not have the last word in defying God, God’s ultimate aim of reconciliation of all things will triumph. God will be ‘all in all’.

Derek Tidball, in his response, summarises the components of Parry’s argument, considers the biblical evidence and offers his verdict. I’ll just discuss the components in this post.

The argument for evangelical universalism traces some familiar paths – nothing being said here is dramatically new, except perhaps the proposal that such a view is inherently evangelical in nature.

A moral component: an argument against the idea of God inflicting infinite punishment for finite sin. John Stott famously raised this objection in Essentials many years ago (1988). And it’s telling that he (tentatively) proposed an evangelical case for annihilationism not universalism. There is nothing in this moral argument that demands universal salvation for all.

A philosophical component: if God is truly God – all loving, all powerful, and willing that none should perish, how is it logically compatible to say that some have the power to resist him and will therefore be punished eternally?  Scripture, Tidball responds, simply does not resolve the issue and leaves space for the mystery of God. It also speaks of the victory of God over his enemies – ultimate judgement is not a failure of God to overcome those who resist him, but the opposite.

A theological component: This has several parts. The key one for Parry is that there are NOT two forms of God’s punishment: a disciplinary form for believers (e.g. Heb 12:6) and a retributive form ultimately endured by unbelievers.

The big idea here is that God’s justice will be restorative not retributive. This links together his love and his justice – eventually all will come to accept and know the love of God for themselves, it just takes longer for some to get there than others!  Tidball isn’t convinced by the exegesis or the culturally shaped assumptions about what constitutes love and justice.

A hermeneutical component: Parry and Tidball agree that our reading of Scripture is context bound – we don’t ‘just read the Bible’ and fool ourselves if we think we are objectively neutral. For this reason we need to read the Bible aided by reason, tradition and experience. But they differ over the implications. Parry thinks that reason and experience point to a universalist hermeneutic. Tidball points out that universalism has been rejected by mainstream orthodoxy throughout Church history.

Next post the biblical evidence.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Evangelical Universalism? (1)

A significant debate goes on within the latest Evangelical Quarterly between Robin Parry and Derek Tidball among others on whether evangelicals can also be universalists. Robin Parry is the (formerly anonymous) author of the The Evangelical Universalist. Derek Tidball is ex-principal of London School of Theology, author of Who are the Evangelicals (and coincidentally our current external examiner at IBI and my former PhD supervisor).

Parry’s argument here is not so much a detailed case for universalism (see his book for that), but an appeal for evangelicals who are universalists to be considered and accepted as authentic evangelicals – to see this as an inner-evangelical debate. In other words, to see this as a secondary sort of matter of interpretation and theology.

What do you reckon? Is the notion of universalism ‘out of bounds’ for authentic evangelicalism? What’s your reaction (emotional and/or theological!) to those like Parry arguing that universalism should have a respectable place at the evangelical table? Is such a project a sign of capitulation to an increasingly pluralist and inclusivist culture or a theological awakening prompted by currents within culture? Or something else?

[Rob Bell is close to Parry but Parry’s book is far far better than Bell’s – Bell is not quite all the way with Parry down the universalist path in that he (Bell) says people can freely choose hell]

Parry roots his case in a two part argument.

In Part 1 he asks and addresses 10 common objections to universalism within evangelicalism:

  1. Universalism in unbiblical – he argues the Bible can be interpreted in universalist-compatible ways. And evangelicals holding this interpretation do not cease to be evangelical. Universalism is not incompatible with core evangelical beliefs.
  2. Universalism undermines the seriousness of sin: he says not. Evangelical universalists believe in the seriousness of sin but God’s love is bigger and deeper than sin.
  3. Universalism undermines divine justice and wrath: see point 2.
  4. Universalism undermines hell: evangelical universalists believe in hell, but also believe redemption from hell is possible.
  5. Universalism undermines Christ’s role in salvation: he rejects the charge that his universalism is a form of pluralism. Rather he quotes Bell here on a universal salvation based on the unique and effective work of Christ.
  6. Universalism undermines the importance of faith in Christ: Parry affirms its importance – he just argues that in time, whether before or after death, all will come to such exclusive faith.
  7. Universalism undermines mission and evangelism: while Parry agrees this can well happen, it need not do so.
  8. Universalism undermines the Trinity: while there has been overlap between universalism and unitarianism, Parry again says this need not be so. There is nothing in evangelical universalism than requires unitarianism.
  9. Universalism was declared ‘anathema’ by the Church (especially Origen): he argues that universal restoration is compatible with the great Creeds and Councils of the Church
  10. Historically, evangelicalism has rejected universalism: He admits this is true but argues for the evolution and development of a living tradition, open to reform and change in light of the heartbeat of that tradition.

In Part 2, he proposes that evangelical universalism has historic antecedents within a narrow stream of evangelicalism and, more significantly, universalism grows out of theological reflection on core evangelical concerns. He has a creative line of reasoning here: combine aspects of Calvinism and Arminianism and you can get evangelical universalism – therefore there is nothing intrinsically ‘un-evangelical’ about evangelical universalism since both Calvinism and Arminianism fall within its orbit.

1. God, being omnipotent, could cause all people to freely accept Christ

2. God, being omniscient, would know how to cause all people to freely accept Christ

3. God, being omnibenevolent, would want to cause all people to freely accept Christ

(Premises 1 and 2 are Calvinist, 3 is Arminian)

4. God will cause all people to freely accept Christ

5. All people will freely accept Christ.

So he concludes

Evangelical universalists are christocentric, trinitarian, evangel-focused, biblically-rooted, and missional … what else does one have to be to be an evangelical?

Next post will be on Derek Tidball’s response.

Comments, as ever, welcome.