My friend and one of my pastors, Hunter Ruch, sat me down after lunch not too long ago to record two sessions for the Williamsburg Community Chapel Institute. The Chapel Institute is a ministry of the Williamsburg Community Chapel, in my hometown, Williamsburg, Virginia.
Just a few comments about what you will see and hear. First, Hunter introduced me as the senior networking “director” of IT at the College, which is not accurate. I am more properly a “senior network engineer,” part of a team of IT staff, though my main responsibility is in the area of architecture and design. Secondly, I got a little lost halfway through the second segment, explaining some of the problems associated with “Christian universalism,” but hopefully I got back on track!! Please let me know what you think in the comment section below.
When two theological heavyweights clash with one another, the ensuing dialogue can be fireworks. But one can learn a lot about the state of the church from such disputes.
The immensely erudite and (apparently recently) idiosyncratic Eastern Orthodox David Bentley Hart published an extended essay, Tradition and Apocalypse: An Essay on the Future of Christian Belief (Listen to this summary in Hart’s own words). Hart has been one of the greatest theological voices undermining the pretentiousness of the New Atheist movement. In exposing the fault lines of thinkers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, Hart’s Atheist Delusions has been regarded as one of the finest polemical works against early 21st century atheism.
Alas, Hart’s star has since fallen after his That All Shall Be Saved, a bold and dogmatically absolutist defense of a Christian universalism, which argues that while there is still a future hell and divine judgment, that experience of hell is ultimately purgative and redeeming, such that none are ultimately lost in the very end.
Like what former megachurch pastor and now California surfer and podcaster Rob Bell strongly hinted at, and what the author of the evangelical blockbuster novel, The Shack, William Paul Young finally came out and admitted, at least to a certain degree, the brilliant and exceedingly well-read David Bentley Hart has whole-heartedly endorsed a theological position that has historically been condemned by the vast majority of Christians. Hart does not care. Anyone who disagrees with him about universalism is effectively morally challenged, in his view, and he is not afraid to unload condescension on his critics.
That was just a few years ago. Now that this previous storm has passed, he has yet again triggered even more controversy.
Philippians 2 includes some verses that advocates of universalism often quote to argue that every human individual will be saved in the end. Let us take a look at that claim, and see if it stands up under scrutiny. First, here is the passage, Philippians 2:4-11:
4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (ESV).
The highlighted part, in verses 9-11, has phrases that puzzle many readers of the Bible, like “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,” and “every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
What does that really mean?
Time magazine’s April 25. 2011 cover was inspired by former megachurch pastor Rob Bell’s controversial book Love Wins, with a revisionist look at the classic doctrine of hell, that eventually led to Rob Bell leaving the pastorate.
What is “Christian Universalism?”
Now, before we dive any deeper, it is important to define what is meant by “universalism.” There is a popular form of “universalism,” embraced by those who have only a shallow knowledge about the Bible, which basically argues that there is no such thing as hell. Instead, when any and every human dies they are automatically ushered into the presence of “God,” and warmly received there.
This is essentially a typical “man on the street” view of what life after death looks like. However, this rather generic view of the afterlife is to be distinguished from a specifically “Christian Universalism,” that actually engages the Bible and affirms a doctrine of hell, but that frames the experience of the afterlife in terms that are quite different from what most other Christians believe.
Advocates of “Christian Universalism” make the claim that Philippians 2 teaches that, in the end, every human individual will eventually find salvation in Christ, because this passage teaches that everyone will ultimately make a profession of belief in Jesus. In other words, even those who do not make a profession of faith in Christ in this life will eventually be won over to the Gospel in the next life.
Not all “Christian Universalists” articulate their argument in exactly the same way, but there is a common thread of logic: A “Christian Universalism” perspective argues that the experience of hell, in the afterlife, does not have a purely punitive effect. Rather, hell has a purgative effect, of redeeming the lost sinner, who has refused the Gospel in the earthly realm, only finally to be united with God, once the experience of hell removes their rebellion and hostility towards God. At the risk of oversimplifying the position, a “Christian Universalism” is basically an attempt to treat the medieval doctrine of purgatory as being applicable to all human beings, where God will ultimately sanctify every person, ranging from your kind yet eccentric uncle or aunt, who spouts atheistic sentiments, to the most terrifying persons, like an Adolf Hitler and a Joseph Stalin.
Cautions About Prejudging Any Discussion Regarding Universalism
It is necessary to say a couple of more things, before diving into the Scriptures regarding this passage. First, it must be acknowledged that over the years of the Christian church, outspoken advocates for a “Christian Universalism” have made their case for this particular point of view. Back in the early church, those like Origen, and perhaps(???) Gregory of Nyssa, have promoted some form of universalism. In the 19th century, the famed Scottish fantasy writer George MacDonald wrote in favor of a “Christian Universalism,” while others have made the claim that the great Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, did so, too (albeit in a rather obfuscated way).
In other words, let those who believe in eternal damnation be damned themselves.
While some may find such a view of eternity as attractive, accompanied by a sigh of relief, it must be stated that “Christian Universalism” has been a minority view in the long history of the Christian church. More often than not, Christians over the centuries have typically viewed such purveyors of “Christian Universalism” with contempt.
Some Christians have believed that all historically orthodox Christians should shun such “Christian Universalism” proponents as being nothing more than pure heretics, that deserve full-on condemnation and the utter rejection of all of their writings and teachings. However, we should be careful not to sanction a blanket dismissal of such persons. Consider just a few of these things:
Origen wrote the first Christian systematic theology, in defense of a Christian worldview, in the early church of the 2nd century. After Saint Paul, we owe pretty much the entire intellectual development of a “Christian mind” to the seminal writings of Origen.
Gregory of Nyssa championed both the doctrine of the Trinity as well as being one of the first persons to advocate for the elimination of slavery, hundreds of years prior to the Atlantic slave trade of Africans to America.
George MacDonald’s fantasy books played a large role in bringing the well-known apologist C.S. Lewis out of atheism to having faith in Christ.
Karl Barth has been credited as almost single-handedly recovering the doctrine of the Triune nature of God, for 20th century Christians, back in the day when many Christians were ready to abandon the Trinity.
David Bentley Hart, one of the world’s most prominent theologians, has written perhaps the most lucid, extraordinarily witty, and highly acclaimed critiques against the “New Atheists,” Atheist Delusions.
One can respectfully and strongly disagree with someone on a very important point of doctrinal controversy without having to feel the need to completely throw that other person without mercy under a bus. Christian Universalists can still be quite orthodox in other doctrinal matters. Christians can learn even from those who have heretical tendencies, on certain doctrinal matters. Or to put it another way, if you have a Christian friend who believes in universalism, it is okay for you to let your friend be wrong.
Secondly, very few thoughtful Christians relish the idea of the doctrine of hell, and for good reason. The doctrine of hell raises really difficult questions, that even the most devout Christian struggles with from time to time.
The late J.I. Packer put it this way:
“No evangelical, I think, need hesitate to admit that in his heart of hearts he would like universalism to be true. Who can take pleasure in the thought of people being eternally lost? If you want to see folk damned, there is something wrong with you!”
Likewise, I want the universalists to be right. I do not want people, for whom I deeply love and care for, to perish eternally separated from God. Even if universalism was not true, and yet there was still a way for people to somehow have an opportunity, post-mortem, to come to faith in Jesus (as some have argued), I would want that to be true. Better yet, I would want everyone to come to know Jesus, in this lifetime!
But just because I want something to be true, does not make it true. If the Bible teaches something that I have a difficult time accepting or understanding, that still does not give me the liberty to pick and choose what to believe, from the Bible. If the Bible really teaches that not everyone will be saved in the end, a viewpoint which I will argue is indeed found in the Holy Scriptures, then it is incumbent on me to be willing to submit to that teaching, out of obedience to God. If the evidence found within the Bible points towards a particular direction in establishing a doctrinal truth, then I need to hold onto that, and not waiver, even if from my limited point of view, I do not like it.
Sure, there are difficulties, such as the fate of the unevangelized, that every Christian reading the Bible needs to deal with. But one answer to that would be for Christians to be gripped with the urgency of the missionary enterprise, and do everything we can to make disciples of all of the nations. One of the biggest criticisms aimed at the “Christian Universalist” position, is that it undercuts the impetus behind world evangelization.
Alternatively, by taking seriously the Great Commission, we demonstrate obedience towards following the commandments our our Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:16-20). Still, when all is said and done, it is one thing to hope for and pray for God to make a way for someone to come to know Jesus, in a manner that might completely defy our understanding. But it is quite another to dogmatically assert a belief which can not be wholly be reconciled with Scripture (I will have to save any discussion of conditional immortality, or annihilationism, as a possible alternative to the doctrine of conscious eternal torment to a future blog post).2
Thirdly, what makes “Christian Universalism” so attractive to many is that it is perceived as a solution to one particular aspect to the problem of evil. Therefore, one can share empathy with such a concern on an emotional level without giving into a denial of sound doctrine. Here is the objection: For if God so loved world that he gave his Son for us, why would God not also just save the entire world, with every person in it? The doctrine of hell, in this context, comes across as triggering a sense of unfairness, that begs for an answer, for many non-believers and believers alike. In many ways, “Christian Universalism” addresses yet another dimension of any supposed unfairness being imposed on humanity by God. However, this is where Christians need to tread carefully, for what might appear to be unfair from a human perspective many not accurately correspond to what God deems to be unfair. A truly Christian view of God requires us to have the confidence that God is indeed right and good in ways that we as humans do not fully understand.
The bottom line is this: I am called to put my trust in God, and his goodness, and therefore I must accept the judgments of Scripture, and not defiantly question the Scriptures themselves as our authority. I may have doubts and struggles, and even honest questions, but I do not have the freedom to outright reject the truth of something taught within the pages of the Sacred Text, if I truly consider myself to be follower of Jesus.
Medieval depiction of purgatory, Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (credit: Wikipedia). For “Christian Univeralists,” the experience of hell is real, albeit in a disputed sense, but not eternal. Rather, it is the rough equivalent to the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory. Those who do not accept Jesus in this life will eventually be purged of their sins in hell, before becoming ultimately reconciled to God in the next life.
So, What About “Every Knee Shall Bow” and “Every Tongue Confess?”
Now, with those introductory remarks out of the way, we can explore what Philippians 2 is teaching, with more clarity. Contextually speaking, Paul in Philippians 2 is making a case for the incarnation of God, as expressed through Jesus Christ. What is true of God the Father is also true of God the Son. Furthermore, we need to follow Christ’s example, in his humility in becoming human, for our sake, considering others better than ourselves. It is through this humility that Jesus the Son of God is, in turn, lifted up to be given honor and glory, just as the Father is.
What then does this “every knee should bow” and “every tongue confess” regarding the Lordship of Jesus really mean? Some advocates of the doctrine of hell, in the form of eternal conscious torment, suggest that Philippians 2 is teaching that the sinner, separated from God in hell, will ultimately offer some begrudging acknowledgement in the superiority and/or worshipful-status of Jesus as Lord.
The problem with this interpretation is that in just a few verses later Paul urges his readers at Philippi to “do all things without grumbling or disputing” (verse 14). Yet this would be a strange thing to say, if indeed in a couple of prior verses Paul teaches that this form of acknowledging the Lordship of Jesus would include those who do so under duress, in a begrudging manner. Why would Paul teach this “begrudging” view of Christ’s Lordship, only to flip the application upside down a few verses later to warn against “grumbling or disputing?”
Some reinforce this “begrudging” view by suggesting that those “under the earth,” in verse 10, will included Satan and the powers of evil. But the phrase “under the earth” need not necessarily refer to such evil powers. It could just as easily refer to those who have died, including those who are buried; that is, “under the earth“, who are awaiting resurrection and salvation, upon the Second Coming of Jesus.
Still, a case might be viable for a “Christian Universalism,” at this point, if this “begrudging” view is to be rejected. But is this really what the Apostle Paul had in mind? A better answer would be to consider where this language of “every knee should bow” and “every tongue confess” actually came from.
The key is to remember that the mind of the Apostle Paul, as a Jew, was saturated in the world of the Old Testament. The language of “every knee should bow” and “every tongue confess” can be found in Isaiah 45:23:
By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.’ (ESV)
In other words, Paul is forcing the reader to look back at what the prophet Isaiah was talking about, and that this gives us the clue as to what Paul is really after here. When Isaiah was writing this, he was referring to Cyrus the Great, the Persian ruler, who ended the Babylonian Exile, for the Jews in 6th c. BCE, and instructed the Jews to return back to their Promised Land (Isaiah 45:1). The favor that Cyrus extends towards the Jews in Exile is a sign of God’s faithfulness to the Jews, and therefore, the people should bow in reverence and allegiance to the God of Israel.
Interestingly, this passage of Isaiah also makes reference, not just to the restoration of the Jewish homeland, but a calling to the Gentile peoples to repent and come to know and worship the God of Israel (Isaiah 45:20,22 ESV):
“Assemble yourselves and come; draw near together, you survivors of the nations! They have no knowledge who carry about their wooden idols, and keep on praying to a god that cannot save….
“Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other.
In other words, the prophet Isaiah is talking about “every knee” and “every tongue,” not the sense of “every individual,” but rather, in terms of “every kind of person.” For Isaiah, this means that God is interested having “every kind of person,” including not just Jews, but Gentiles as well, including all “the nations,” coming to know the God of Israel.
Furthermore, Paul argues throughout nearly all of letters for a view of salvation, that not only includes Jews, but Gentiles as well. This ties in perfectly with the message of Isaiah, that Paul has brought to mind in Philippians. He specifically brings up the Jewish/Gentile issue in Philippians 3. Therefore, it is more consistent and exegetically responsible to say that the “every knee” and “every tongue” in Philippians 2 is about “every kind of person,” including not just Jews, but Gentiles as well, acknowledging that Jesus as the Son is just as much divine as the Father is.
However, for the sake of the argument, what if the “Christian Universalist” is right, by suggesting that “every knee” and “every tongue,” in this passage, is about “every individual,” as opposed to “every kind of person,” both Jew and Gentile? While this case is not likely, it is important to consider briefly what else Paul might be thinking regarding the permanence of hell.
It is true that the Apostle Paul never talks about hell specifically in any of his letters. But this does not mean that he does not address the topic. In 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10, Paul writes that at his Second Coming, the Lord Jesus will inflict “vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” Regarding the permanence of this punishment, he goes onto say that “they will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord,” which indicates a certain finality to the eternal judgment against those who reject the Gospel. It is just really difficult to imagine how anyone can read this passage, while still making a compelling argument for “Christian Universalism,” though some have tried. While Paul admittedly focuses on the message of eternal life for those who do know the Lord, by always urging his readers to believe the Gospel, he never ignores the sad reality of God’s condemnation of the lost.
You really can not get away with trying to make a case for universalism from Philippians 2 without running against a central argument that both Isaiah in the Old Testament, and Paul in the New Testament, are trying to make. When we allow our “wishful thinking” for something to be true to distort our evaluation of the evidence for or against a particular doctrine, we end up creating a situation that creates more problems than it solves. In other words, “Christian Universalism” may sound like a great thing, and some might still hope for it, but you really have to bend over backwards with awkward exegetical somersaults and hermeneutical handstands to try to “make it work” with the Bible. Instead, we should soberly accept that the failure to acknowledge Jesus as Lord in this life has eternal consequences that lead to an ultimate separation from God.
To summarize the points of this post, readers might want to view the following video interviewing Dr. Russell Moore, public theologian at Christianity Today magazine. After that, for a quick summary as to why “Christian Universalism” does not work with the teachings of the Bible, take a few minutes to listen to Old Testament scholar, Dr. Michael Heiser.
2. In Christian circles, there are basically three views regarding the doctrine of hell: (1) the doctrine of conscious eternal torment, the most traditional view, (2) the doctrine of conditional immortality, whereby the wicked are annihilated in hell, once they have fully experienced God’s judgment against them, and (3) Christian Universalism, whereby all people are saved. There has also been a revised interest in purgatory, among some evangelicals, in recent years. Obviously, this relatively short blog post is not the place to advance any sustained argument regarding any particular view of hell. Rather, my aim here is to address one particular objection raised by “Christian Universalists” regarding one particular Bible passage, by examining the larger Scriptural context for that one Bible passage. ↩
David Bentley Hart is one those theological minds that I have hesitated to dive into deeply.
It is not as though he is not erudite (which he is), nor that he is not polemical in the most insightful way (which he also is). It is because he is so well knowledgeable and so marvelously incisive that I think it almost impossible to explain the penetrating power of his intellect to the average evangelical lay person. Why waste all of the effort? Let the academics have at him, and leave the rest of us mere mortals alone. But alas, Hart’s latest book is extremely difficult to ignore. So this is fair warning that this blog post will sound quite dense and geeky. Here we go….
David Bentley Hart. Astute critic of the New Atheism, who has now tasted the confusing allure of universalism, and amazingly finds it satisfying.
Long time Veracity readers will know that I greatly benefit from the pithy, enjoyable, and learned blogs posts by Reformed charismatic pastor, Andrew Wilson, of Kings Church of London, England, at the Think blog. Just about anything Andrew writes about, I try to read. He is that good. Andrew got his blogging start working his way through Hart’s Atheist Delusions back in 2011, which offers an excellent summary of the high points of Hart’s argument (#1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8, #9, plus a follow up essay, #10). Andrew’s blogs are a good place to start to get a taste of what David Bentley Hart is like.
But while Hart has served as a masterful champion of demolishing the New Atheism, in service to the greater Christian tradition, Hart has also applied his rhetorical, polemical skills against fellow Christian thinkers he finds to be petty and annoying. He can be over the top in some respects, but his criticisms deserve thoughtful responses. For example, he dismisses the greater classic evangelical Reformed tradition, embodied most broadly by the folks at The Gospel Coalition, as hopelessly fundamentalist, who are most likely guilty as “moral cretins.” That is a bit harsh, but for some on the far side of hyper-Reformed thinking, Hart may not be too far off.
Hart’s bristling does not end there. I am convinced that David Bentley Hart utterly despises N.T. Wright. While Wright, a British Anglican, who is perhaps the most well known New Testament scholar living today, may have captivated an entire generation of millennials, in seminaries, over the past twenty years, Hart will have none of Wright’s “idiosyncratic” style of New Testament translation methodology. Along with other critics, Hart believes that N.T. Wright’s enthusiastic embrace of the so-called “New Perspective on Paul” has led Wright down the path of injecting a false dichotomy into Paul’s doctrine of justification, a core doctrine in New Testament thought. Sample just this biting, scathing sentence from Hart’s rejoinder to an earlier critique by Wright, regarding one another’s work in doing New Testament Bible translation:
Regarding, for example, [Wright’s] insistence on rendering “dikaiosyne” by the cumbersome phrase “covenant righteousness” (a special hobby-horse of Wright’s, which he takes out for a gallop around the paddock whenever he can), I would be only one among legions in pointing out that this arbitrarily isolates a single dimension of a term [within] a far larger range of possible meaning in the text.
Wright’s translation of the New Testament could hardly be any more different from D. B. Hart’s version of the same (which is why the committee approach to how the English Standard Version, the New International Version, and the Christian Standard Bible were able to produce such excellent work, inviting millions of Christians to feast on their presentations of God’s Word, is far superior than any translation done by a solitary scholar…. but I digress).
Nevertheless, it is Hart’s latest volume That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell and Universalism that has caused the greatest amount of controversy. Here, Hart has moved away from the very center of Christian tradition, causing shockwaves among today’s theological intelligentsia.
Hart’s thesis here is built on the speculative work of the 4th century Cappadocian, early church father, Gregory of Nyssa, who advocated for a type of Christian universalism, that the doctrine of hell actually serves a more redemptive purpose, suggesting that, in the end, all humans will be saved. Unlike popular forms of universalism, that blithely claim that all humans bypass hell, Hart channels Gregory of Nyssa to say that, yes, there is indeed a hell, but its purpose is more like that of purgatory, a process after death whereby all sin is to be purged from every human, thereby ultimately resulting in everyone’s final reconciliation with God.
David Bentley Hart, familiar to readers of these pages as an intellectual pugilist who floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee, has entered the ring for the Big Fight. Armed with his recent translation of the New Testament, he is ready to prove that no one suffers eternal damnation. Almost the entire Western tradition, backed by much of the East, is in the other corner. In his corner are fellow followers of Origen, the evangelical universalists, and a motley crew of sparring partners from the gyms where he has trained. As he approaches the ring, he strikes a Luther-like pose. Of course he wants nothing whatever to do with Luther, or any other product of the Augustinian stable. But he will stand where he must stand; he can do no other. The Church has backed the wrong man. She is about to be taught a lesson.
The man in question is Augustine, the bête noire of universalists everywhere. He wears the black trunks. Hart is in the white trunks, standing in for Gregory of Nyssa, the man the Church ought to have backed and didn’t…..
The once brilliant theologian Hart has now gone rogue, reframing a theological argument that got the early church father Origen, for all practical purposes, branded as a heretic, at least regarding his views on the doctrine of hell. The conscious eternal torment view, embraced by a majority of Christians (though not all), through Christian history, is to be rejected by Hart, as being ultimately “unChristian.” Apparently, according to Hart, this great majority of Christian believers, across the centuries, never got the memo.
Furthermore, though viewed by many as suspect, in a less obtrusive manner, the conditional immortality, or annihilationalist, approach to hell, as offered by thinkers like John R.W. Stott and Edward Fudge, is left off the table as a viable alternative to either the traditional conscious eternal torment view, or a universalist view, for Hart. No, David Bentley Hart will have none of that. Hart has planted his flag firmly in this universalist camp. Hart is now placed in the column marked “beware.” A theologian of David Bentley Hart’s stature and intellectual talents can not be ignored. But his thesis in That All Shall Be Saved makes him highly suspect, a good example of what NOT to do, when doing theology.
What is most disturbing about Hart’s thesis is that he pretty much accepts the New Atheist complaint about the Old Testament at face value. For the New Atheist, the God of the Old Testament is capricious, unjust, and vindictive, and therefore, not morally worthy of being God. This is not an aberrant view, but rather an all-too-common criticism among learned, skeptical readers of the Bible today. A quick glance at EvilBible.com shows just how pervasive this New Atheist complaint has reached into our culture.
Consider the great flood of Noah. As much of traditional interpretation indicates, Genesis would have us to think that the vast majority of humans perished in that catastrophic event, a sign indicating that God takes judgment against human rebellion quite seriously. Ah, but observers will point out, this would presumably include small children, and mothers, pregnant with child, who were among those who drowned in the rising sea of God’s judgment. To critics, this would be genocide, with divinely sanctioned abortion built-in.
But the New Atheist secularizes Hart’s argument, agreeing with Hart, and concluding that, yes, God can save no one, as such a God can not be ultimately trusted. Dawkins, Hitchens, and others, can easily respond: Why even bother with universalism? Just get rid of the whole concept of hell altogether, and the whole notion of final judgment, and be done with the whole problem…. while you are it, save yourself the trouble and deny the existence of God.
Even Douglas Farrow concludes his review of Hart thus, “Hart makes clear in conclusion that if Christianity requires belief in eternal punishment, then Christianity is false. Which prompts from this reporter an unhappy observation. If he really believes that, then the New Atheists, to whom he gave a thorough thrashing in earlier books, should demand a rematch. This time they might well win, and that by default. ”