“Closet Universalists”

Tim Brister —  March 2, 2011 — 12 Comments

* Updated 03.02.2011

One of the things that the Rob Bell saga is doing is shining the light on the encroachment of universalism in the sphere of biblical orthodoxy.  I have no idea whether Rob Bell is a universalist or not, but my guess is if he is, then universalism will de facto become a cool and acceptable tenet by virtue of Bell’s dominant influence among those in his wide domain.  I even saw where Matthew Paul Turner (Jesus Needs New PR) on Twitter making the claim that “Jesus universalism has deep roots in Christian history” and has “been around since the beginning.”  Additionally, Scot McKnight argued, “My own estimation is that somewhere near 75% of my students, many if not most of them nurtured in the church, are more or less universalist.”

Reading the responses not so much in defense of Bell as much as a defense of “Christian universalism” (an oxymoron in my book), I was taken back to a quote by Ajith Fernando about “closet universalists.”  In his chapter on “the decline of hell,” he wrote the following:

“Many in the church today have universalism simply as a hope.  Though they may not preach it dogmatically, they don’t eliminate the possibility that all will be saved in the end.  We may call them the ‘wishful universalists.’

I have been told numerous times that there are many ‘closet universalists’ in evangelical churches today. These are people who believe that all will be saved, but are afraid of being public about this belief as it is considered a heresy in orthodox Christian circles, and also because the idea that all will be saved could add to the spiritual apathy of this generation.

Related to the above question is that of evangelicals who are ashamed of hell. They are bound to believe everything the Bible explicitly teaches, so they believe in an eternal hell.  But they wish that they did not have to believe it.  If they speak about the topic, which is not very often, they do so with a sense of shame, as if it were something very unjust, and they keep saying that they wish it were not true.”*

Methinks that if universalism gets the positive PR of Bell and Turner (among others), there will likely be many who “come out of the closet” with their abhorrence of hell and conviction that all will be saved.  If Bell writes a book and communicates it with such eloquence and oratory skill that he is known for, perhaps many people will no long be “afraid of being public about this belief.”

As I stated elsewhere, I believe that universalism is the sentimentalism of the unregenerate heart searching for hope, riding on the clipped wings of (a form of) love that is not generously sacrificial because God is not appreciated as supremely holy and just.

In one sense, I am glad that the attention is being drawn to the subject of universalism, because if Fernando is right, there are many who silently adhere to dangerous heresy and could be greatly helped with a better and more accurate understanding of God and salvation.  In another sense, it grieves me how quickly and easily biblical orthodoxy is subjugated to the theological whims of our weightless generation.  May God help us hold the line on the character of God and His gospel message, openly proclaiming the public scandal of the cross where love is demonstrated and justice is vindicated in the substitutionary death of Jesus.

*Ajith Fernando, Crucial Questions About Hell (Wheaton: Crossway, 1991), 22-23.

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12 responses to “Closet Universalists”

  1. Why do so many people give Billy Graham a pass when he seems to support universalism? And for that matter, why are so many evangelicals enthralled with Mother Theresa who clearly spoke for universalism. Sure, she was a GREAT humanitarian but her theology was not orthodox.

    • Sam:

      I would say that Graham is a closet inclusivist, not a universalist. I am not aware of Mother Theresa’s position, but if she held to Vatican II, she would also be an inclusivist.

      • What would you call this statement made by Graham? Universalistic or Inclusivistic:

        .”.. When asked whether he believes heaven will be closed to good Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or secular people, though, Graham says: “Those are decisions only the Lord will make.I believe the love of God is absolute. He said he gave his son for the whole world, and I think he loves everybody regardless of what label they have.” Meacham, Jon. Newsweek Magazine . 14 August 2006. Excerpt from interview with Billy Graham.”

        What distinction do you make between this and Rob Bell’s Love Wins?

        • We simply don’t know the position Bell takes in his book, but the use of the phrase “everyone who ever lived” in the promo material suggests universalism, whereas this Graham quote most likely indicates inclusivism. (Incidentally, Franklin Graham has explicitly rejected inclusivism.)

          As I understand it, the difference between an inclusivist and a universalist is that an inclusivist believes that all “good people” go to heaven, regardless of religion, provided that their heart was in the right place, they were truly devout in their particular faith, etc.

          Whereas universalists just think that everyone eventually ends up in heaven, even those who are most evil and most fervently reject God.

          And then there’s annihilationists who believe Christ is the only way to the Father, but that those who end up in hell will eventually cease to exist.

          • AStev,
            Thanks for that clarification. Even if we were to say that Graham is an inclusivist, isnt that heresy just the same as universalism because it denies Jesus as the only way to heaven?

            Which leads me back to my original question: Why is Graham given a pass while others are villified for having similar viewpoints?

          • Your definition of inclusivism is off a bit.

            An inclusivist believes that God *may* choose to save individuals who have not explicitly professed faith in Jesus Christ. The first example often cited by theologians is the person who never hears the name Jesus, never has the opportunity to put faith in Him, etc. Then, you move on to the example of a “good person” like Gandhi. That’s how I teach “about” inclusivism from a historical perspective to my students each semester.

            And I don’t think it’s accurate to depict Billy Graham as some closet inclusivist. The Reverend was definitely out of the closet. He didn’t use that term but what he was articulating was a popular form of inclusivism (which not surprisingly indicates the influence of mainline Protestant neoorthodoxy on Graham’s thinking).

            The fact is that many who get accused of universalism really aren’t universalists. Look at George W. Bush. Pretty sure he believes that Osama bin Laden is or will be in hell. But he also believes that there are multiple paths to heaven (Jews, Christians, Muslims). So, he’s a pluralist. President Obama’s theology is the same.

  2. BDW:

    Regarding Graham, you’re probably right. He wasn’t so much in the closet per say as his inclusivism was not well known. I know of only two places where his position is stated in print.

    I think a big difference between inclusivists and universalists have to do with the warrant for many/all people being saved. For the universalist, I would argue that the locus for their warrant is in their understanding of God, and for the inclusivist, I would argue that the locus for their warrant is in their understanding of the gospel and mission of the Holy Spirit (though certainly including theology proper).

    Most universalists will absolutize the love of God and say since God is love, all people must necessarily be accepted by God. Inclusivists will say indeed God is love, and only those who go to hell are those who outright rejected his loving offer, and even then they might ultimately be saved by post-mortem encounter/experience.

    As Scot McKnight pointed out today, however, there seems to be an adjectival parsing of the different versions of universalism. I’m not sure that all of it is valid, as some of it seems to simply be another way of talking about inclusivism, which again can lead to confusion.

  3. All I have to say is that if you brand Rob Bell as heretic for being a universalist (we don’t know if he is or not) then you will have to brand many of the church fathers as heretics, because many of them did espouse some sort of form of universalism (it is not the same as Unitarian thought, but it still held out hope for universal salvation). So if you are willing to tear apart the fathers right after the Apostles…go ahead and call Bell a heretic.

  4. Exclusivists are so determined that billions of people are going to Hell that they deny and attempt to explain away dozens of Scriptures that support that ALL creation is being and will be reconciled to God. One of the most explicit is 1 Timothy 4:10. “That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Saviour of ALL people, and ESPECIALLY of those who believe.” This passage clearly states all people are saved and suggest those who know Jesus will receive something extra.

    A great example of how Exclusivists deny what is plainly in front of them is the note in my NIV Study Bible. “Obviously this does not mean that God saves every person from eternal punishment, for such universalism would contradict the clear testimony of Scripture.” Okay then, what does it mean? They don’t even attempt an alternate explanation because THERE ISN’T ONE! If one were to do a count one would find that there are clearly more passages that support universalism than exclusivism. Words don’t lie, unfortunately, translators, commentators, theology professors, preachers and bloggers do! Though in most cases it isn’t lying, it is ignorance and blind faith.

    Universalism was widely accepted in the early church until Rome realized that the fear of eternal torment in Hell was a great motivator. Most of Christendom has never recovered.

    For a list of universalist support in Scripture look here: http://www.tentmaker.org/articles/unique_proof_for_universalism.html

    • Rev. David P. McAfee April 24, 2011 at 11:58 pm

      The Bible does not teach universalism or inclusivism. The clear testimony of Scripture is that “the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it.” (Mat 7:14 NAS)

      God is a loving God but He also hates the wicked:
      “The boastful shall not stand before Thine eyes; Thou dost hate all who do iniquity. Thou dost destroy those who speak falsehood; The LORD abhors the man of bloodshed and deceit.” (Psa 5:5-6 NAS)

      Pretty strong words, but those who say that the Bible teaches that all will be saved, make God out to be schizophrenic, a liar and unjust. His character requires that He judge the wicked. If He did not, He would be denying Himself which the Bible teaches He cannot do (II Tim. 2:13)

      There are plenty more examples that Jesus taught exclusivism. “I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. (Luk 13:3 NAS see also vs. 5)

      What Paul is saying in I Tim. 4:10 is that everyone is in some way a TEMPORARY beneficiary of Christ as Savior, because they receive the overflow of blessing from a gracious God. “..He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Mat 5:45 NAS)

      Those who believe however, are the recipients of eternal benefits.

      On the logical side, why would there be a distinction between the righteous and the unrighteous, the just and the unjust, the holy and the wicked? For what purpose would the Bible teach about Hell or the lake of fire. Why would Jesus lie about such things?

      To suggest that the Bible teaches universalism or inclusivism is to ignore large numbers of Scripture that teach otherwise.

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