So the number of permanent residents in hell is on your mind? I’m gonna guess it wasn’t a few weeks ago until Rob Bell solicited a few twitter-bombs from some conservative dogma police. Since then it has been really popular to blast Bell for being un-biblical, heterodox, and all other sorts of bad stuff. That’s cool if you are interested in getting into someone’s head, supplying their intentions, and making judgments on behalf of the truth (which these individuals have undiluted access to!!). BUT if the conversation has got you thinking…is ‘love wins’ really a dramatic deviation from the church’s tradition and just some sexy packaging for liberal theology I would like to introduce you to a few Early Church Fathers who could introduce you to a ‘love wins’ way to read the Bible: Clement of Alexandria (ca. 160-215 C.E.), Origen (ca. 185-ca. 251 C.E.), and Gregory of Nyssa (331/340-ca. 395 C.E.)
These fellas are not just minor voices who should be ignored but essential for the develop of the doctrine of the Trinity (ps…it’s a big deal doctrine). I will avoid a discussion of the Trinity and their brilliant philosophical modification of Platonism to simply say that the nature of divine love articulated in the Trinity led them toward affirming God’s universalism. (1) But more than the Trinity it was the Bible that got’em!
Don’t believe me? Then try it out! Remember these three things and read some Bible to see if Biblical universalism is jiving with you.
Here are some of these three fellas favorite Bible passages…John 12:32; Acts 3:21; Romans 5:18-21, 11:25-26a, 32; 1 Corinthians 3:12-15; 15:22-28; 2 Corinthians 5:19; Ephesians 1:10; Philippians 2:9-11; Colossians 1:20; 1 Timothy 2:4; Titus 2:11; 2 Peter 3:9; 1 John 2:2. For serious play-by-play through these Church Fathers’ readings of the Bible see Steve Harmon‘s book Every Knee Should Bow: Biblical Rationales for Universal Salvation in Early Christian Thought. (2) But before you read them check out these three features of Biblical Universalism and see if they help frame your Bible reading.
1) God is Love….this means that there is nothing about God, in God, or comes from God that is not love. Love is not something God occasionally does or engages in but is the very essence of God. To say ‘God is Love’ is to say that the great mystery of God is a mystery in which every depth that is yet to be understood or revealed is another depth of love. God is love. Love known and unknown but nothing but love.
2) Love requires freedom…..this means that God’s actual goal for creation, to bring it to fruition within the divine love (Paul’s ‘all-in-all’), requires creation to have genuine freedom. Even Calvinists pretend its true in their daily lives. For example, when two lovers consummate their marriage in a passionate act of sweet love making, freedom, vulnerability, and risk is what made the actual act – intercourse – making love and not rape. The freedom to give oneself to another and to receive the other as other is not a human contaminant to love but essential. Because the God who is Love desires to love the whole world and genuine love involves freedom, the creatures of the Creator have received the gift of freedom to love God as a result of God’s own free decision to create and love.
3) Love Wins….God’s love wins. Why? Because the God who is Love is the one and only true God. The infinite Creator of all the universe who is love, is infinitely committed to loving and living in love with the world. This finite world and every finite person within it will remain for all eternity an object of the pure divine love. So both the Creator and creature’s freedom can never be compromised for premature victory. This means a). No one can or ever will be forced into loving God for the very love God desires requires freedom & b) Nothing, including one’s death or present state of response, can force the infinite God of Love to quit pursuing any and every part of God’s creation.
I hope you can see how this is NOT universalism of the blank check variety. The only thing universal here is the scope and reservoir of God’s love. The eschatological optimism is not about anyone, anything, or any action other than the God revealed in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It is precisely that very particular vision of God that can lead one to be optimistic, hopeful, and excited about the future. Why? because the world’s future is God.
1. The Trinity still opens one’s theological imagination in an eschatologically optimistic direction. There is of course Karl Barth but a Greek Orthodox Priest who is a friend told me he saw all these ‘love wins’ posts on facebook and read enough quotes from the book to think it sounds like a pretty normal idea in Orthodox circles.
2. This book is really excellent and was personally transformative for me in undergrad!