Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Universalists, Gatekeepers, and Fear

Among the many blogs I read regularly, Mouw's Musings is one that I comment on with perhaps the most care. Because Richard Mouw is the president of Fuller Theological Seminary, he is someone I could easily think of as my "boss" (I suppose more accurately, he's my boss's boss's boss, but I digress).  Agree with him too readily, and it can rightly appear as though I'm brown-nosing. Disagree in the wrong way, and I could be in real trouble (Mouw has always struck me as, if nothing else, a fair and careful leader, but even saying that easily strays into the brown-nose territory, doesn't it?). My only recourse is to lay those cards all on the table, and hope that a careful analysis of any comments I make--both here and on Mouw's blog itself--will allow the careful reader to decide how seriously to take anything I have to say.

In his latest entry, Mouw reflects on the ongoing "Rob Bell is a universalist" debate. Bell's book has now (as of today!) been released to stores, and so a few folks have had a chance to actually read what he has to say and make more informed comments about the work. Judging from his comments, I assume that Mouw has an advance copy (as scholars occasionally do). I think that it is interesting that so many of us--Bell, Mouw, and myself as well--feel the need to distance ourselves from the "universalist" label. Whatever it is that we may actually believe, and whatever being a "universalist" really is, many of us have this strong sense that being a "universalist" is a bad thing. And there's something about that realization that bothers me.  What is it that we are resisting?

Naturally, there is a strong part of me that wants to rush to say that I (and, I assume, others who distance themselves from being called "universalists") simply cannot get around those passages of the Bible that suggest (I'll say this in decidedly non-Biblical terms) "some people get in, and others don't."  But while that's certainly true, I'm not sure that's the entirety of my concern not to be called a "universalist."  Truth be told, I'm a bit scared of being one of those who "don't get in" myself.  I'm not so much concerned about not getting into heaven (I feel secure in God's promises on that score), but about being considered "less than Christian," or worse "anti-Christian."  There are certainly no shortage of would-be gatekeepers that are quick to suggest such things.  As Mouw tells of one of his own experiences:
In a book I wrote several years ago defending the basics of a Calvinist perspective, I told about an elderly rabbi friend who struck me as a very godly person. He would often write to tell me that he was praying for me and my family. When he died, I said, I held out the hope that when he saw Jesus he would acknowledge that it was Him all along, and that Jesus would welcome him into the heavenly realm.

Some folks zeroed in on that one story to condemn me as a heretic.
But why should I care what other people think?  I serve God, not those other people, right?  Certainly, that's the kind of language I often hear the "gatekeepers" using.  On this count, at least, surely they have something right.

One question I've started asking myself about these kinds of theological debates lately is "what's at stake?"  I'm already aware that some of those with whose position I disagree would argue that "what's at stake" is the eternal salvation of those who might never turn to Christ because they hear a false message that says, in essence, they don't have to.  I'm not convinced that this is what's really at stake in this argument, at least in part because I don't think that someone coming to Christ purely out of a fear of hell has truly made the kind of unreserved commitment to Christ that Christ desires.  That's not to say that I disagree with the potential for "what's at stake" to have eternal consequences, so much that I'm not afraid of people failing to come to Christ for the reasons the gatekeepers are.

I'm afraid of people failing to come to Christ because the only Christ they know is one who serves a petty and vindictive God.  Such a God would hardly be worthy of our devotion and service, and thus I can hardly blame anyone for refusing to follow such a God or such a Christ.  I'm convinced that this is exactly the image of God that people hear from those who insist too loudly and insistently that "universalists" are wrong.  Even if they are right on the theological point that there is indeed judgment, this is not the way we should evangelize.  Evangelism is, quite literally, about sharing good news.  Why are we trying to scare people out of hell and into heaven (which most people see as being a "future" kind of thing) when we should be sharing the good news of what Christ has already done for us, and which impacts us here and now?

So, no, I'm not a "universalist," but if someone wants to insist that I am, may I have the courage not to care.


  1. "I'm not convinced that this is what's really at stake in this argument, at least in part because I don't think that someone coming to Christ purely out of a fear of hell has truly made the kind of unreserved commitment to Christ that Christ desires."

    Well said.

  2. " I don't think that someone coming to Christ purely out of a fear of hell has truly made the kind of unreserved commitment to Christ that Christ desires."

    I used to believe that. And i told people that who said otherwise... until I began to meet people who came to faith in Jesus and identified their deep deisre to be rescued by God as a result.
    Their life relationship with God is now deeper and fuller than that original moment motivated by the thought of hell. I cannot argue against the proof of their life for their commitment to Christ... how can anyone else? Do you not know anyone who began their life of faith from this perspective? I know very many...

  3. Thanks, Michael, for commenting, and Duane, you make an interesting counter-point. I suppose that this must be true on some level, and I certainly don't mean to suggest that person who came to Christ purely out of a fear of hell has somehow failed to escape hell simply because they came to Christ out of fear rather than out of love.

    Even so, I cannot help but feel that evangelistic techniques that focus on escape from hell are very much missing the point, and generally do much more harm than good.

    But God works through all kinds of ways to reach people, so the idea that God can use even such fear tactics should by no means surprise me.

  4. Does it really matter whether people convert out of fear of hell or because they're so moved by what Christ did for them? As long as they get SAVED! The apostle Paul and Peter often preached in such a way that "people were cut to the heart and asked, "What must I do?" Would you criticize their style (Peter totally guilt-tripping his Jewish audience in Acts 4:10 ('The man YOU crucified!') I don't think we should worry about packaging so much and criticize preachers for failing to achieve that. Jonathan Edwards for example preached from the heart without good eye contact and would have probably failed Fuller's preaching class. Yet there are souls in heaven because they heard him. You can't always go by the uneasiness of your listeners. The gospel is by nature offensive to the human heart.

  5. If people, by virtue of their style, are causing more people to turn away from Christ than to follow Christ, is that not worthy of criticism?

    Ultimately, this is all up to God, and our own efforts are all for nought without God, anyway.

    I won't argue against positive results, but to the extent that we see that not all results are positive, I think there's still room for discussion about methods.

  6. btw I am a gatekeeper. I get real concerned when i sense doctrine that Paul probably would have called a false teaching. I know that's a strong charge in the ears of many. But I know from my own heart and those of others that gatekeepers are people who have a sensitivity toward anything that leads astray from the true gospel. I don't see that as something that should be scolded. because the concern is rooted in people being led off the path that leads to God, to eternal life. the motivation is not to keep people out; quite the contrary, it's to see them arrive.

  7. i just hope we draw the line at methods that edit out vital parts of scripture. Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks of cheap grace, and what Dr. Mouz lauds as generous grace could easily slide off into being cheap grace. So as long as everyone totally knows how to navigate their methods with the Holy Spirit, yeah, no problem.

  8. I appreciate your honesty. I do think the "what's at stake?" question is very much at the heart of this. What do we lose if we listen to "false teaching"? Perhaps a great deal (as I'm sure you would agree).

    But, and I can't emphasize this enough, we are not (indeed can not) be saved by the rightness of our theology. If it were so, none of us could ever be saved. We strive to know God as accurately as possible, and that does mean correcting teachings that are false, but we must always do so with the humility that recognizes that some "falsehoods" will remain.

  9. "Does it really matter whether people convert out of fear of hell or because they're so moved by what Christ did for them? As long as they get SAVED!"

    ...I'm going to have to take issue with this. I would agree that, from the Christian perspective, the important thing is to get people into Heaven.

    However, I do think that the approach matters. And I see (at least) two problems with the idea of scaring people into belief.

    1. It's likely to be counterproductive. If you say "you must believe or else you're going to burn forever"... well, that's pretty threatening, and some people are going to react badly to being threatened, even if it's in their best interest to hear you out.

    2. It emphasizes an "ends justify the means" mentality which can easily slide into bullying and other unChristian behavior. While it might be possible to bully someone into belief and get them saved, I can't imagine that Jesus would approve of that.

  10. I wonder why anyone would seek to bully someone into heaven. That would show that that person themselves is not in Christ. A passionate plea can be a little intense for the hearer but I always go under the assumption that people are driven by a genuine concern for another's soul, and not a need to bash them using God's word, or a desire to be right. In the end, it is the Holy Spirit who convicts and changes heats, not us. Paul talks about not shining in front of people with human wisdom and human words but those of the spirit. My question to Rob Bell is, do we really need to criticize those who are actually brave enough to share their faith, splitting hairs about how they do it, shaming them if they don't result in conversions? I don't see a fire-and-brimstone problem, I see a biblical illiteracy and timidity problem in our churches today. Making it the fault of a Christian if they "turn people off" is not edifying but rather can sound like the voice of the accuser of the brethren.

  11. It's certainly not an either-or proposition; I don't mean to indicate that any time you make a passionate plea, you're going to slide into bullying. On the other hand, I have run into some would-be evangelists whose insistence on doctrinal correctness seems to come at the cost of loving your neighbor as yourself. (Also, in the process, they managed to make the Almighty look like a bit of a... butthead... which I'm pretty sure was not the goal of their efforts.)

    And yes, that would seem to show that they were not in Christ... at least, not in this area of their lives... but they were absolutely certain of the truth of their understanding and the righteousness of their words.

    And so but anyway, insofar as the human actions involved in sharing the Gospel make any difference to the outcome, I do think a gentler approach is generally better.



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