Universalism, Rob Bell, and all that
Today I was asked a question on facebook. "Let me ask you plainly: In your understanding, can an orthodox Christian be a universalist?" I took some time writing out my answer. I offer it to you now in order to further the present discussion.
The Fifth Ecumenical Council declared Origen's doctrine of apokatastasis (universal salvation based on the atoning work of Christ for all people) to be heresy. Therefore, this belief is by definition not "orthodox."
The notion is either unsupported or denied directly throughout Holy Scripture. There are some Bible passages that may be used to make an argument for universalism, but these passages have to be isolated and manipulated while vast amounts of Scripture have to be ignored in order to make the case.
I am not going to get too excited about an individual Christian's personal belief about this. If someone personally thinks that universalism is something they are in to, I don't judge them for that. I disagree with them, and I would be willing in some circumstances to have that discussion, but I don't hold it against them personally. It is, after all, a belief that normally emerges from compassion, not from hate. I don't believe that such a belief will cause one to be outside of God's love or salvation, though I do think it will negatively impact a person's discipleship. It is wrong-headed, and reveals a fairly selective understanding of the Faith.
I do believe that a church, denomination, or leader who teaches universalism should be challenged and rebuked. If a universalist were an ordained leader in my body and I were their bishop, I would discipline them.
While a lot of the vitriol against Rob Bell has been pretty gross, there is nothing wrong with sharp criticism. St. Paul said he wished the legalists would emasculate themselves while trying to perform circumcision. (Galatians 5:12) That's pretty nasty.
I don't like the way Rob Bell and some of his followers have been talked to in this present debate. Love is the Christian's most important virtue, even in our disagreements. However, I would dare to say that heresy is much worse than strong language. Heresy, as Bishop Allison rightly said, is cruel. And, yes, I believe that universalism is heresy.
If I could take a moment and talk about Rob Bell directly. I think that the essential problem with Rob Bell is this. He sets up an essentially universalistic theological idea, and then defends it by basically saying that if God isn't like this then God isn't good. His use of the Bible is sloppy and his conclusions about salvation are not faithful to the text of scripture nor the history of Christian theology. Worse than all that, though, is that he sets himself up as God's judge. God defines what is good, not Rob Bell or anyone else. His arrogance in judging God, more even than his highly selective reading of scripture, reveals his heart. His most odious heresy is not, in my opinion, his universalism. It is his idolatry of himself.
So, can an orthodox Christian be a universalist? There are Christians who are universalists. However, that belief is not orthodox. In order for a Christian to fully embrace orthodoxy, they would need to abandon that belief. Further, a church body or leader who teaches universalism has moved into heresy and should be corrected.
If you are reading this as a note on facebook, may I recommend you visit www.ThomasMcKenzie.com for the full service version?