Archive for March 2011 – Page 2

Is Universalism Heresy?

The internet is abuzz with news of Rob Bell‘s forthcoming book, Love Wins, in which it appears that Bell will refute traditional Calvinist teachings on heaven and hell. Based on a recently released Love Winspromotional video for the book, it seems fair to conclude that Bell probably doesn’t believe that God has preordained the damnation of billions of non-Christians. By Calvinist standards, this would make him a universalist – and many big names in neo-Calvinism are ready to cast him into outer darkness.(1)

But before we start talking about what it would mean for Rob Bell to be a universalist, we need to take a step back. Definitions. What is Christian Universalism? Among Quakers, “universalism” is often used to mean a belief in the transcendental equivalence of all religions: “All roads lead to the top of the mountain.” Radical universalism, as is sometimes found among the Liberal branch(2) of the Quaker denominational family, rests on the premise that all religious perspectives are simultaneously valid and yet incomplete. There is a general sense that human beings are innately good, and that all religions present legitimate paths to enlightenment and/or the Divine.

Christian Universalism is another animal altogether. Unlike the transcendentalist universalism of some Liberal Friends, Christian Universalism does not deny the lordship and divinity of Christ. Instead, the Christian universalist asserts that the love and mercy of Jesus will eventually transform and redeem all people, even if this process takes longer than our earthly lifespans. Christian Universalism is the conviction that the love of Christ will eventually overcome all rebellion, hatred and selfishness. This perspective cannot conceive of Christ’s final Rob Bell - credit Gaylene Tretheweyvictory as including even one person writhing in eternal torment, alienated from God.

In the mind of the Christian universalist, the existence of eternal separation from God would represent a less-than-complete victory of the Lamb. Christian Universalism looks forward to the complete reconciliation of all things and all people to God through Jesus Christ – even if it takes a very long time. There are a variety of nuanced Christian Universalist perspectives, as a little bit of research will reveal.(3) But the basic idea is simple: The eternal alienation of anyone from God would represent a less-than-complete victory for the love and self-sacrifice of Jesus.

With this very brief explanation in mind, I want to examine a question that has been on my mind for quite some time, long before Rob Bell announced his new book. The question is: Is Christian Universalism heretical?

Most of us haven’t been called to read lengthy volumes on Church history and theology, so definitions are once again in order. In popular usage, “heresy” is often used as a shorthand for teachings that religious authorities consider wrong. However, when I ask whether Rob Bell is heretical for (possibly) holding Christian universalist views, I am not simply asking whether he holds erroneous views. I am asking if Christian Universalism fundamentally undermines the Christian faith.

This is a live question for me, because – truth be told – I like the idea of Christian Universalism. While I believe that God has given human beings the free will to accept or reject God’s love, it is horrible for me to contemplate any of God’s children being eternally separated from right relationship with their Creator. I know from personal The Last Judgmentexperience that hell exists in this life, and it may well exist in the afterlife, too.

But eternal hell? That is a tough pill for me to swallow. In fact, it is precisely the majority of the Church’s teaching on damnation that led me to reject Christianity as a teenager. I was terrified of dying in sin and being condemned to eternal, unimaginable punishment. One thing I can certainly agree with Rob Bell on: No one should be told that the Good News is that “Jesus died to save us from God.”

And yet, I still ask the question: Is Christian Universalism heretical? Does the insistence that God will save every person – whether they like it or not – undermine the Christian faith? As we think about this question together, let me share some major heresies that confronted the early Church. One, called Arianism, was the idea that Jesus is a creation of God – not God himself. Another, called Docetism, claimed that Jesus was not human at all, his apparently human form being a mere garment that concealed his deity. Another early heresy was Modalism, which held that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were three different “modes” in which God operates. Opposite this, there were a number of thinkers who were accused Ecumenical Church Council of “Tritheism,” or the idea that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are actually three separate deities.

Heresies often come in pairs, each one making a diametrically opposed claim to the other. One thing that these heresies have in common is that they break the dynamic tension that is present in our faith. Is Jesus human or divine? Is reality material or spiritual? Is salvation through works or grace? Is God One or Three? At the end of the day, we must accept both as being somehow simultaneously true. Faced with paradox, the orthodox Christian must humbly confess, “I do not understand, but I affirm the God of these mysteries!”

Does Christian Universalism break the paradox? Does it violate the mystery? Does it impose human understanding on that which we are unable to comprehend? I pray that the Holy Spirit will tender the teachers and theologians of the Church to hear clearly the voice of Christ in our midst, and to respond with humility, patience and love.

1. For more on this, read: Thoughts About Rob Bell, John Piper and Justin Taylor

2. For more information about the family of churches and faith communities that have emerged from the early Friends, take a look at the Brief Introduction to Quakerism on

3. In fact, the teachings of the early Friends could be considered Christian Universalist in the broadest possible sense: George Fox and the Valiant Sixty believed that Jesus Christ was universally available to all people, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, the early Friends did believe that some would reject Christ’s “day of visitation” and suffer spiritual death as a result.

For further reading:

Heaven, Hell and Rob Bell: Putting the Pastor in Context – Christianity Today

Richmond, Philadelphia and DC – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #28

Dear Friends of Truth,

Since the fall, I have felt led to focus most of my energy and attention on the work here in DC. This has involved getting more deeply involved in nurturing Capitol Hill Friends, as well as participating in other ministry here in the city, such as Food Not Bombs in Congress Heights. It has also required me to carefully examine any travel that I might think of undertaking, since every day spent on the road is one where I am not building relationships in my local community. For the last six months or so, this new preference for local work over regional or national work has caused me to travel far less than in years past.

However, this month, I have been back on the road, visiting Friends in Richmond,Earlham School of Religion Indiana and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I was called out to Richmond to give a presentation on Earlham School of Religion‘s social media strategy at the Earlham College Board of Trustees meeting. I am part of a team that is collaborating to fashion ESR’s outreach online, including our presence on Facebook, Twitter, and a new blog, Learning and Leading, which we launched in late January. I’m particularly excited about the blog, which has been posting three times a week and which has drawn a significant amount of site traffic in its first month of activity.

The presentation felt like it went well, and after a few days of meetings with friends and colleagues in Richmond, I made my way out to Philadelphia. I think I had forgotten how far Philadelphia was from Richmond! I ended up making the trip in two legs, staying in western Pennsylvania one night, to avoid exhaustion. When I finally arrived in the Philadelphia area, Thomas Swain, clerk of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, was kind enough to open his home to me, and I stayed with him for a night. It was wonderful to catch up with Thomas, and I was very pleased that Seth Hinshaw, clerk of Ohio Yearly Meeting,ESR was able to join us for the evening, too. Spending the evening with the clerks of two Yearly Meetings – not too bad, I thought!

The next night, I attended the West Philly Worship Group, a Quaker community that has been meeting in the western part of the city for the last two years. The attendership is overwhelmingly made up of twenty-somethings, but there is a significant minority of older folks. The WPWG has become something of an attraction for many young adult Friends, with some Friends moving to Philadelphia, at least in part, to participate in this community. It was good to reconnect with a lot of Friends I knew from various YAF gatherings, as well as meet new Friends and better acquaint myself with how the Spirit of God is at work among the younger echelons of Quakers in Philadelphia.

For the rest of my time in Philadelphia, I stayed with Helene Pollock and her spouse Arlene Kelly, who graciously hosted me in their home in Germantown. The next morning, I joined Helene for a six-AM prayer service at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church. I was astonished at the depth and power of the prayer of this little group of perhaps half a dozen prayerCenter-city Philadelphia warriors. I was also struck by how similar their prayer service was to a Quaker meeting. The power of the Lord was strong among them, and I was blessed to be with them. I needed to take a nap in the mid-morning after getting up so early, but by the late morning Helene and I were in center-city Philadelphia, visiting folks at the Friends Center.

The next day, I spent a lot of time hanging out with Jon Watts. Jon and I have become increasingly good friends over the course of the last few years, and it was wonderful to reconnect with him and get a glimpse into his life in Philadelphia. Jon is a very gifted musician, and he is presently in full-time production of a new album that will focus on the theme of faithfulness and nakedness (!). Jon and I took some time to walk together and share our common struggles as we seek to be faithful to God’s leading in our lives. It is a great challenge to be obedient to the Inward Voice of God rather than the seductive voice of self-will, but with God’s help and the support of Friends, all things are possible.

Later that evening, Helene and Arlene opened their home for a called meeting for worship that included Friends from around the city. We enjoyed good fellowship, and we particularly felt the presence of the Holy Spirit over the dinner table. After the meeting for worship, I was able to share with Friends gathered about my call, the work that Capitol Hill Friends is doing, and the wider movement that we sense is afoot. Then, I invited Friends there to share their own sense of how Jesus is alive and active in Philadelphia. I sensed a greatPhiladelphia hunger among many of those gathered to go deeper in their walk with Christ. I pray that the Holy Spirit will accompany and guide Friends in Philadelphia, and that God will provide an opening for gathering Friends together in Christ.

The next day, Helene and I made a trip out to New Jersey to visit Martin Kelley and his family. He and his wife Julie have just recently had their third son, Gregory, and it was good to be with them and meet the new addition to their family. Apart from the simple joy of being with Martin, Julie and their kids (and Martin’s mom!), it was a blessing to see Martin and Helene connect. I believe that the most important work of my trip was to make connections between like-minded (and like-hearted) individuals. I trust that God has work for us to do together, and I am excited to see how Christ is gathering his people.

My trip to Philadelphia ended with a Sunday-morning visit to Middletown Friends Meeting. Middletown has a reputation for being one of the more Conservative-leaning Meetings in Philadelphia YearlyPhiladelphia Meeting, and from what I could tell based on one visit, this seems to be the case. It was a blessing to be among them. Following meeting for worship, I made my way over to nearby Pendle Hill, where my wife Faith had spent the weekend at Pendle Hill’s Board meetings. It was nice to be able to spend the car ride home with her after a week and a half apart.

Back on the home-front, things are going well here in DC. Attendance has been lower than normal at Capitol Hill Friends since Christmas, but worship has been good and relationships continue to develop. We are looking at changes to our meeting schedule, as some of our attenders can no longer come on Wednesday evenings. We may soon begin meeting on Sunday evenings. Please keep praying for our worship group, which is still quite embryonic and fragile. Capitol Hill is a hard place to plant a new Meeting – especially one that runs so contrary to the culture of formality, power and status that permeates much of our city.

Above all, please pray that God send more workers into the harvest field. There are so few here who have the time and energy to put into developing Christian community; and, as we all know, community takes an incredible amount of work! Please pray the Holy Spirit to call and release women and men for the service of building up the body of Christ here in DC, and throughout the nation and the world.

Your brother in Jesus our Lord,

Micah Bales