The Wide World of Universalism



The margin of distance between universal atonement and universal reconciliation can be quite small. Those who follow the logic of the former often drift towards the latter. This is why I have recently argued in Altar to an Unknown Love  (Now at Monergism Books ) that there should have been no surprise when Rob Bell revealed his deference towards Universalism, or at least, potential Universalism.[1] Like many advocates of universal atonement, Bell assumes that each mention of the word “all” or “world” is necessarily universal in its scope:

So this reality, this forgiveness, this reconciliation, is true for everybody. Paul insisted that when Jesus died on the cross he was reconciling ‘all things, in heaven and on earth, to God. This reality then isn’t something we make true about ourselves by doing something. It is already true. Our choice is to live in this new reality or cling to a reality of our own making.[2]

It is for this reason that I say that the margin of distance between universal atonement and universal reconciliation is rather small. By logic alone, the connection of reason seems simple enough. If the texts which speak of Christ’s atonement are universal in their application, then might we assume the same for passages which speak of God’s reconciliation with the world? This is the core logic presented by Rob Bell in Love Wins. Consider this relevant excerpt from Altar to an Unknown Love:

Universal Reconciliation: This view takes the thought of Universal atonement to its next logical step and sees the work of Christ as being universally efficacious. Therefore, "…the death of Christ made it possible for God to accept man, and he has done so. Consequently, whatever separation exists between man and the benefits of God’s grace is subjective in nature; it exists only in man’s mind." Additionally, men must accept practically the reconciliation that is theirs positionally. This form of thinking is, in part, contained within the argument which Bell posits; however, Bell does not go so far as to say that there will be a practical reconciliation for all men without exception: "Can God bring proper, lasting justice, banishing certain actions-and the people who do them-from the new creation while at the same time allowing and waiting and hoping for the possibility of the reconciliation of those very same people? Keeping the gates, in essence open? Will everyone eventually be reconciled to God or will there be those who cling to their version of their story, insisting on their right to be their own little god ruling their own little miserable kingdom? Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices? Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires."[3] By refusing to resolve the end result of God’s supposed universal reconciliation of mankind, he shelters himself from the charge of holding to the traditional view of Universal Reconciliation – just as Lewis does. Bell’s partial use of Universal Reconciliation is most evident in the 7th chapter of his book – The Good News is Better than That, where his retelling of the parable of the prodigal son is embedded in the idea that the father’s love and forgiveness is already established, but the sons needed to discover and embrace that which was already theirs. His application of this is then applied to the whole of humanity. The Lord has already forgiven all,[4] but all do not yet understand and believe this. Their failure to believe and embrace this makes their lives hellish.[5] I would defer to Erickson at this point: "The message man needs to be told, then, is not that he has an opportunity for salvation. Rather, man needs to be told that he has been saved, so that he may enjoy the blessings that are already his."[6] The contradiction which Bell resultantly produces is that there will be, potentially, saved and forgiven people who will remain in a state of hellish abandonment: "This makes what Jesus does in his story about the man with the two sons particularly compelling. Jesus puts the older brother right there at the party, but refusing to trust the father’s version of his story. Refusing to join in the celebration. Hell is being at the party. That’s what makes it so hellish."[7] By leaving the future open, as he does, he grants himself the license to slip away from the question of the eternal state of those who are "in Hell" – that is, Hell by Bell’s definition. In some sense, Bell’s arguments reveal a kind of worst case scenario of what can happen when universal atonement/reconciliation and human free will arguments are given complete reign. However, reconciliation, when used in a salvific sense, is clearly the propriety of God’s chosen[8] and redeemed[9] people, as a gift of His grace. Had Bell presented more in the way of exegesis, he would have been delivered from his own logic:

Bell argues for an unbounded universalism of Christ’s atonement for, and reconciliation of, all men. His theology is based upon the reckless, but repeated argument: “all means all, all of the time.” Sadly, many argue thus, but it is easy to see that such thinking would produce a world of exegetical confusion throughout the Bible.[10] For example, when Paul said that he could “do all things through Christ” who strengthened him, he was not indicating an “all” which included the deeds of wickedness. The “all things” to which he refers is constrained by the domain established within the context: “all things through Christ.” Such contextual considerations are essential, but are consistently missed by Bell and others who argue like him – especially when dealing with texts which speak of Christ’s work of atonement and reconciliation. One text worth our consideration is 2 Corinthians 5. Those who argue for universal reconciliation will often consult verses 14-15 in conjunction with verse 19 in order to justify their position, but the context cannot be missed:

2 Corinthians 5: – 1. For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2. For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven, 3. inasmuch as we, having put it on, will not be found naked. 4. For indeed while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed but to be clothed, so that what is mortal will be swallowed up by life. 5. Now He who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave to us the Spirit as a pledge. 6. Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord— 7. for we walk by faith, not by sight— 8. we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord. 9. Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him. 10. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. 11. Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men, but we are made manifest to God; and I hope that we are made manifest also in your consciences. 12. We are not again commending ourselves to you but are giving you an occasion to be proud of us, so that you will have an answer for those who take pride in appearance and not in heart. 13. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are of sound mind, it is for you. 14. For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; 15. and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf. 16. Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer. 17. Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. 18. Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, 19. namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. 20. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21. He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. [bold, italics mine]

As already noted, the verses normally employed for the justification of universal reconciliation are found in verses 14 and 15, along with verse 19: “…one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf…God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.” The universalist sees the words “all” and “world” and concludes that such expressions must be taken as an absolute universal expression, rather than having some contextual limitation. But the reader should observe that the expression “…one died for all, therefore all died…” raises some serious questions, especially for the proponents of Universalism. The often missed inferential particle (ara) gives us an important clue concerning Paul’s argument. Paul uses this particle rather sparingly, with only three occurrences in 2 Corinthians – one in our chapter in question – chapter 5. When Paul uses this word he is pointing the reader to a very central point in his broader argument, especially concerning what follows it: “therefore [ara] all died.” Should we skip over this expression, we would be bypassing Paul’s central thrust. And so we must ask – what does this expression mean, and can it refer to some universal idea such that all men (without exception) have “died” in some relation to Christ’s own death. Consider the following observations:

  • When Paul speaks of the universality of death, he credits Adam for this, not Christ (Romans 5:12-19, 1 Corinthians 15:21). However, when he speaks of the death of men with respect to Christ, he normally refers to believers who have died with Christ (Romans 6, Col 2:20, 3:3, [Peter argues this as well in 1 Peter 2:24]). Such references to death speak of the believer’s conversion, transformation, and sanctification as a new creature in Christ: Romans 6:6: – “…knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin.” The reader should note that this concept of the believer’s mortification of sin as a new creation is thematic in Paul’s argument in 2 Corinthians, particularly chapters 4 and 5. We can trace this as far back as 2 Corinthians 4:10 where he indicates that as a disciple of Christ he was “…always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body.” As he further develops this idea of dying to self, he establishes an important basis for it in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” It is this very passing away of the old along with the coming of that which is new in the resurrected Christ that is also emphasized in 2 Corinthians 5:14-15. The consistency of Paul’s reasoning on this is compelling, and leaves the Universalist with the question: what justification is there to argue that Paul has all men (without exception) in mind when he says “…one died for all, therefore all died.” A better understanding of this is that the reference to “all” points to all Christians whose “old self was crucified with Him.” The power of his reference to “all” in this context reminds us that there are not two classes of Christians, but only one: we are all new creations in Christ. 
  • In keeping with the previous observations, the pronouns of 2 Corinthians 5 must not be missed either. Paul’s central emphasis is on the believer’s present endurance and sanctification in this life, which is made even more evident when we consider Paul’s references to “we,” and “us” as well as “you” when referring to the church itself. In other words, the principal community to which he refers is the community of confessing Christians. More specifically, verse 14 provides a key context that is often ignored: 2 Corinthians 5:14. “For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; 15. and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.” The premise of these verses refers to believers alone: for the love of Christ controls us.The word control [sunexei] speaks of the act of holding something together so that it won’t fall apart. In context, this idea of the believer being kept from falling apart in worldliness harmonizes with his conclusion in verse 15 whereby believers (who have died with Christ) “no longer live for themselves but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.” All of this gives us the central essence of Christian discipleship: to serve the Lord, in love, living for him and not for ourselves. This is the very essence of the foremost commandment[11] and it is something that is entirely alien to the unbeliever apart from conversion – apart from their dying to self through faith in Christ. Until such conversion takes place, there is no sense in which it can be said that unbelievers have “died” with reference to Christ’s death.
  • When we consider the broader context of this passage, along with its precious detail, we find no substance for any version of universalism – whether universal atonement or universal reconciliation; instead, what we find is that the application of Christ’s death and resurrection is very real for all Christians – not just for Paul and his companions. Paul’s use of the word all should be seen in view of the contextual limitation supplied. Just as we wouldn’t say that Paul could do “all things [universally] through Christ” – to include acts of wickedness – neither can we say that “all [universally] died” with reference to Christ’s death in contradiction to Paul’s use of this expression elsewhere. What Paul is saying is that all who are in Christ (for there is no distinction) have died with Him, and therefore they should “no longer live for themselves.” The fact that he had to explain this to the Corinthians is important, for their licentious conduct needed much correction. It is not that some Christians live for Christ, while others don’t, no, all who have genuinely died with Christ live for Him – no exceptions.

Overall, conversion is a transformative work of God’s grace which kills our worldly eros-love of self-centerdness, and transforms us with the precious constraint of His agape-love through our union with Christ. Sadly, Bell’s message to the lost is that they already have experienced an atonement for their sins, and therefore they have been reconciled with God. Clearly, reasoning like this guts the Gospel of its urgent and relevant message.

Such is the wide world of Universalism.

[1] The reader should note that I have not called Bell a Universalist per se – his theological commitments are too vague to warrant such a specific label.
Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis, p146.
[3] Bell, Love Wins, p. 115.
[4] "Jesus forgives them all, without their asking for it." Ibid., p. 188.
"…Jesus puts the older brother right there at the party, but refusing to trust the father’s version of his story. Refusing to join in the celebration. Hell is being at the party. That’s what makes it so hellish." Ibid., p. 169.
[6] Erickson, Christian Theology, p. 1017.
[7] Bell, Love Wins, p. 169.
[8] Colossians 1:1-2.
[9] Colossians 1:3-6.
[10] For a more extensive treatment of the scriptural uses of “all,” “mankind,” and “world” please consult – All Nations Under God.
[11] Mark 12:28-31.

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