Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Three Categories of Universalists

Chan divides universalists into categories….

There are the pluralists.

these people believe that Jesus is one of many ways to salvation. Pluralists believe that all religions present equally valid ways of salvation—Christianity is simply one among many.

There are the “hopefuls”

They believe that Christ is the only way, but they hold out hope that God will end up saving everyone through Christ in the end. But they go beyond simply hoping this will happen (don’t we all?). They’re hopeful, and they see strong biblical support for this view, though their view is often tempered with caution.

And then there are those spiritual daredevils…the “dogmatics”….

The least cautious Christian Universalists call themselves dogmatic Universalists. Like the previous group, they believe that Christ is the only way, but they go a bit further and say that the Bible clearly teaches that all will be saved. They find the view not just possible, but the most probable: They believe that the Bible clearly teaches that all will be saved through Jesus in the end.

So I’m guessing that someone who writes an essay and calls it “I Am a Convinced Universalist” would fit in the dogmatic category?  The guy who wrote those words….in his autobiography… in a chapter entitled just that ….I Am a Convinced Universalist…was William Barclay.

Professor of Divinity and Biblical Criticism at Glasgow University and the author of many Biblical commentaries and books, including a translation of the New Testament, "Barclay New Testament," and "The Daily Study Bible Series."

Very. Mainstream. When I typed his name into the search engine at, about 90 or so results came up.  He was a prolific writer and his books line the book cases of many mainstream Christians worldwide.  Many (most?) aren’t aware of his pronouncement of a “dogmatic” belief in universalism since many of them….no way/no how would read the writings of a universalist. Universalism is one of the biggest, fattest heresies there is…

Brian McLaren said:

In my theological circles, universalism is one small step removed from atheism.  It is probably more feared than committing adultery, and to be labeled universalist ends one’s career.  Decisively. 

But William Barclay declared it…flat out.  He didn’t skirt the issue or talk around it….or make vague references to it.  He wasn’t coy about it.

I am a convinced universalist. I believe that in the end all men will be gathered into the love of God.

And he gave several reasons for his beliefs….

First, there is the fact that there are things in the New Testament which more than justify this belief.

Coming from a New Testament scholar/Bible translator/Professor of Divinity…that should carry some weight. 

Second, one of the key passages is Matthew 25:46 where it is said that the rejected go away to eternal punishment, and the righteous to eternal life. The Greek word for punishment is kolasis, which was not originally an ethical word at all. It originally meant the pruning of trees to make them grow better. I think it is true to say that in all Greek secular literature kolasis is never used of anything but remedial punishment.

And to be fair…Chan did include this quote in his book.  Okay…so it was in the footnotes….but it was there if one was inclined to dig a bit.  But he never mentioned Barclay’s popularity, or prolific writings…or the…you know…Convinced Universalist part. 

Third, I believe that it is impossible to set limits to the grace of God. I believe that not only in this world, but in any other world there may be, the grace of God is still effective, still operative, still at work. I do not believe that the operation of the grace of God is limited to this world. I believe that the grace of God is as wide as the universe.

There is of course the verse that (in my mind) definitively declares that death cannot separate us from God….

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

And the fourth reason…

Fourth, I believe implicitly in the ultimate and complete triumph of God, the time when all things will be subject to him, and when God will be everything to everyone.

Then Barclay goes on to muse about God as Father…and how it might be considered a triumph to wipe out His enemies or to torture them in hell forever if God were simply a judge or a king but God is also a Father

..he is indeed Father more than anything else. No father could be happy while there were members of his family for ever in agony. No father would count it a triumph to obliterate the disobedient members of his family. The only triumph a father can know is to have all his family back home. The only victory love can enjoy is the day when its offer of love is answered by the return of love. The only possible final triumph is a universe loved by and in love with God.

So will God be able to pull this off? 

Chan describes this belief in his book:

At the heart of this perspective is the belief that, given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence. The love of God will melt every hard heart, and even the most “depraved sinners” will eventually give up their resistance and turn to God

So….will God be able to turn the hardest heart back to Himself?  To bend the stubbornest knee…and loosen the most reluctant tongue?  Will all mankind bow and joyously proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord?  It says so….three times no less…in scripture.  (And…it is a joyous proclamation that is implied in the original language.  Not a grudging concession before being cast into hell or obliterated…but a joyous proclamation)

And surely God has ways that I cannot even begin to fathom. Is anything too hard for Him?  Is His arm to short to save?

"I am the LORD, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me? Jeremiah 32:27

Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. Isaiah 59:1

I don’t know how he will accomplish it but as I ponder, I am reminded of a quote by Anne Lamott. I saved it in my files a few years ago when I read through all of her books, one right after the other.

The quote was in a book (name escapes me) that was written after 9-11.  She was very upset with the war and the political atmosphere.  She was very angry.

My Jesuit friend Tom once told me that this is a good exercise because in truth, everyone is loved and chosen, even Dick Cheney, even Saddam Hussein. That God loves them because God loves.

This-- more than anything does not make sense to me,” I said.

“Because you are a little angry,” Tom explained. “But when people die, they are forgiven and welcomed home. Then God will help them figure out how to clean up the disgusting messes they have made. God has skills and ideas on how to do this.”

So God has skills and ideas on how to do this. Is that just too simple?  Somehow it seems that there will be at least an era of ”weeping and gnashing of teeth” for some of us.. as God works on us and in us and makes us willing to clean up the disgusting messes we’ve made in this life. 

Or perhaps after we die and leave these fleshly bodies behind…when death has taken off the mask (William Penn) we will be able to see clearly.  It won’t be the same playing field we find ourselves in here, in this life. 

More on God as Father (not Judge) in an upcoming post.  And more thoughts on whether our last breath is indeed our last chance. 

1 comment:

Kansas Bob said...

Loved the Greg Boyd piece that you sent me a link to Cindi. I wonder why so many embrace the idea that all humans are immortal at birth? That idea creates the need for both theologies - one that posits hell and one that posits no hell. Each theological point of view has the same foundation. Only the Annihilation view rejects that foundation and still affirms the glory of heaven.