Monday, February 28, 2011

It is Finished...Well, Almost...Just in Time for an Evangelical Preacher to Steal Our Market Share

A couple of hours ago, I e-mailed the manuscript for That Damned Book to the editors at Continuum...all except the bibliography, which is close to finished but needs some final touches. I now tend my children at home and feel this sense of...almost completeness. Once my co-author puts the last touches on the bibliography and we can both review it for the inevitable infelicities, life will return to one in which I can pay attention to other things.

And, just as John and I are finishing our manuscript offering a detailed philosophical case for the conclusion that the doctrine of universalism fits more coherently with core Christian teachings than does the doctrine of hell, it turns out that a monstrously popular evangelical preacher, Rob Bell (founder of Mars Hill Bible Church), has now come out as a universalist in his newest book, inspiring outrage among some evangelicals, condescending "I'll pray for your poor benighted soul" condemnation among others, and openness among at least a few.

Of course, Bell's position is hardly new. It was taught by such early Church Fathers as Origen and Gregory of Nyssa. He isn't even the first modern evangelical to defend universalism.  A few years back, Robin Parry published The Evangelical Universalist under the pen name Gregory MacDonald--a wonderfully lucid and compelling case for universalism within an evangelical Christian context, which takes a very careful and serious look at the relevant biblical texts (that's right, universalism isn't unbiblical, as we spend a chapter arguing in our book). Bell isn't even the first pastor of a large and popular evangelical church to come out as a universalist. A popular evangelical preacher in Tulsa, Carlton Pearson, saw his huge church virtually evaporate when he had the courage to admit he was a universalist--only to be declared a heretic in 2004.

He may, however, be the first to make gobs of money from a book defending universalism--almost certainly FAR more money than we will.


  1. Hi Eric,

    Love your blog and tune in often. Just thought I'd point out that his name is Rob Bell, and he hasn't actually come out as a universalist... yet. The book isn't even out yet, but based on a promo video where he suggests that maybe we shouldn't be too quick to say Gandhi is burning in hell, his opponents have assumed that univeralism is what's coming...

  2. I hope i am wrong about Rob Bell but it will probably be some watered down we cant be certain, but wouldn't it be nice, probably could be true, but dont want to speculate type of "hopeful" Universalism. Is there anyone out there any more who believes that Universalism is integral to a proper understanding of the Christian faith?

  3. JH--Thanks for the name correction. I had it as "Bell" in part of the post but had inadvertently called him "Hill" once, probably because I was thinking of the name of his church, and then ended up correcting things the wrong way. Correction made.

    Also, the book promo I read certainly SOUNDS as if he'll be coming out as a universalist...but you're right. We'll have to see what he actually says.

  4. I've heard that Bell's view is more in line with N.T. Wright. Don't worry, the Good News is still bad news.

  5. Eric,

    New article out just now on the NY Times website about Bell... sounds like, whatever he is setting down in his book, it is not a philosophical defense of universalism. As a philosopher, I for one am still looking forward to the book you and your co-author are writing.
    Just out of curiosity, since I haven't been reading the excerpts, will you two be addressing notions of annihilationism and conditional immortality in your defense of universalism?

  6. Daniel,

    For most of the book, we offer what we call a "comparative" defense of universalism vis-avis the doctrine of hell--that is, we argue that universalism is more defensible within a broadly Christian context than is the doctrine of hell. But in the first chapter we mention other alternatives and offer the promise that our arguments set the stage for providing a comparative defense of universalism vis-a-vis other alternatives. In the final chapter of the book we return to this issue, taking up annihilationism and what we call "soteriological agnosticism," showing that in each case the arguments we gave for preferring universalism over hell extend to these alternatives as well.

  7. Thanks for your reply, Eric -- I've always been interested in these possible alternatives, as well as universalism (although I haven't settled -- for myself -- which one seems most plausible, given that [assuming that] there is some sort of life after death). In particular the odd quasi-annihilationism of Johannes Scottus Eriugena as presented in his Periphyseon (in which the evil in us is 'burned away like chaff'), as well as the vision of Spinoza in Book V of the Ethics (which seems to back a conditional immortality in a way, perhaps, similar to Maimonides), have always been fascinating to me. I look forward to reading your book and thinking more deeply about these matters.

  8. Thanks, now I know who "Gregory MacDonald" is!

    The (fairly) recent works of Jan Bonda, Thomas Talbott, Gulley & Mulholland, and Sharon Baker, though maybe not strictly evangelical, are also substantial treatments of Universalism that take the Bible very seriously.

    The ranks are growing. Definitely look forward to your upcoming book.