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.

Descendit ad inferna (3) theological and pastoral questions

Catherine Ella Laufer’s book Hell’s Destruction: an exploration of Christ’s Descent to the Dead is a great example of how to use a narrow lens (the descent clause in the Apostle’s Creed) to magnify and expand a plethora of profound, important and controversial theological questions.

Whether you agree with where she ends up, she integrates the historical story of the descent clause and critical theological analysis with aplomb.

What she does do is raise big questions about hell, justice, grace and love. Christians need to be thinking about these things because these are big public questions floating around post-Christendom cultures.

What are your answers to these questions?

1. What is your theology of hell, universalism and the justice of God?

Can humans endlessly resist the redeeming love of God? Who will have the last word?

Rob Bell [she never mentions Bell, I’m just bringing him in as a conversation partner] had an empty hell as a strong possibility, but he had too central a place for absolute libertarian free will to say with any certainty that hell would be empty. If anyone was there, it was determinedly self-chosen and wasn’t God’s doing.

Similarly Laufer tends to distance God from hell rather than have an emphasis on the retributive justice of a holy God against evil and sin.

For me there is simply too much in the Bible about God’s retributive judgement of sin and evil to believe in universalism. Sin and evil aren’t just ideas, they are child soldiers, torture, rape, violence, exploitation, ruthless greed, hatred of the Other, cynical disregard for the poor and vulnerable, arms traders dealing in death,  ad infinitum …

She isn’t as strong as Moltmann on universalism but is sympathetic to his universalist image of God’s transforming grace emptying hell.

At one moment she says

‘If he [Jesus] has gone through death and hell for each and every soul ever created, and been raised from thence, then we can hope that ultimately, his work will be complete.’ (189).

This is optimistic universalism, not dogmatic universalism.

But this is vague on the basis of such salvation ….. how does each and every soul come to share in the complete work of Christ?  Is it some sort of endless post-mortem opportunity to come to faith? How does this fit in with very ‘terminal’ images of judgement in Revelation 20 and the final destruction of all forces of evil, death and sin? Where does the atoning work of Christ come in?

Yet she also speculates that the presence of God in heaven will be hell for the wicked. ‘The only hell is the hell of our own making’ (203)

I’ve a couple of problems with this. First, it seems to contradict her optimistic universalism. Second, it is proposed as a possible solution to the impasse between biblical texts that point to both universal salvation and eternal punishment.  I’m not convinced that Hitler & co experiencing heaven as hell actually solves the impasse. Hell still exists and God is still ‘on the hook’ for making possible the existence of hellish experience.

Linked to this is a second big question:

2. In the midst of suffering, what sort of God do you believe in ?

Christianity does not believe in a distant transcendent deity. I found Laufer really helpful here on the pastoral implications of how the descensus clause speaks of the real human death and suffering of the Son.

We do not suffer alone. Christ is with us. Laufer gives examples:

Heidelberg Catechism Question 44:

Q. Why does the creed add,
“He descended to hell”?

A. To assure me during attacks of deepest dread and temptation
that Christ my Lord, by suffering unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul,  on the cross but also earlier, has delivered me from hellish anguish and torment

Bonhoeffer: ” Only a suffering God can help”

Luther: In Christ’s descent to hell, we can know our hell is defeated

Pannenberg: ” But since Jesus dies, no one who lives and dies in communion with Jesus and in trust in him need die this death any more.”

Moltmann of course wrote The Crucified God and is opposed to notions of an apathetic God. Laufer quotes him in History and the Triune God as saying ” … the Son of God who died forsaken by God, helped me … in a messy concentration camp in 1945, tormented and forsaken by God ..” (123)

Laufer goes as far as arguing that ‘God’s presence in the grave’ is the controlling motif of the gospel. It is Christ’s descent to the dead, she argues, is the place to begin gospel proclamation in a broken and fearful world.

Well, I wouldn’t go all the way with her there, the gospel is the good news of the victory of God in Christ over sin and death and Jesus is the risen Lord. It is more than Jesus died our death.

But neither is it less than the good news of the immeasurable self-giving love of God who ‘died for our sins’.

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.