Below is my transcript of Christianity.com‘s interview of Pastor Russell Moore and my comments on his critique.
Universalism is the belief that ultimately everybody will be saved. There are several different stripes of Universalists.
Some Universalists believe everybody has been reconciled to God through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. So you are reconciled to God—the gospel simply tells you something that’s already true—that you’re reconciled to God. And so the point of Christianity then is to tell people—who are already saved—that they are saved. But ultimately everybody’s going to be saved—that’s one kind of universalism.
It’s refreshing that Moore acknowledges that there are different types of universalism and that Christian Universalists believe that the reconciliation to God is “through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus“, rather than trying to dismiss them as pluralists—the “all roads lead to Heaven” cliché.
One of the challenges that anyone reading the Bible faces is that it frequently describes things as both “now/already” and “not yet”. For example, is the Kingdom already here or has it not yet come? Are we already seated with Christ or not yet? Is evil already defeated or not yet? (For more examples see inaugurated eschatology). Many non-universalist Christians have taught the “now/already and not yet” also applies to salvation, in which case, universalist Christians may agree, albeit extending the scope of that the salvation to all of Creation (e.g. Parry—Church: a foretaste of the age to come).
Another kind of universalism says, “No, there is a hell but God is going to ultimately redeem everyone out of hell”—and some versions of this even the devil and his angels—that the love of God is so persistent that God will not rest until he has wooed back to himself even the most hardened sinner.
Again, I like that Moore presents a fair description. At the same time, I wouldn’t just say that “universalism says this” but that throughout the Bible God is constantly redeeming people out of hellish situations. Whether those situations are seen as “natural consequences” of evil or God’s punishment, the point remains that the pattern and precedent is of God not resting until he has wooed sinful people back to himself.
Universalism is appealing and it’s appealing to people for very good reasons. I mean the Satan never tempts us with something that is in and of itself evil—he has to find something that we want to be true or we’re drawn towards for good reasons and to simply to twist it out into something evil.
I agree with Moore that Satan does try to tempt us by twisting good things—I just don’t think that’s the case for universalism. It’s also an unhelpful argument because it could be used about almost anything. For example, one could claim any grace, or indeed Christianity itself, is simply “appealing to our compassion.” Or one could even assert that “Non-universalism is appealing because we instinctively like to see enemies destroyed—that it’s taking advantage of our desire for revenge.” Whether that’s true or not, I wouldn’t try to dismiss non-universalism on those grounds.
And with universalism, that is the fact that we’re supposed to be broken about the reality of hell. We’re supposed to be heartbroken for our neighbors and our friends and for those that we’ve never seen or heard about—who are dying apart from Christ. No one should take the reality of Hell with a lightness or with a disregard. Jesus doesn’t—he weeps over Jerusalem. So I think there’s often a good impulse behind someone who’s drawn toward universalism.
I think many universalists would agree, that our hearts should ache when we see lives spiralling downwards, that we be concerned about their future. At the same time, we don’t think anyone’s future is ultimately hopeless, as Christ works through Christians and the Spirit—in this age and the next, as I believe the following verse alludes to:
Problem is, it’s not true. The New Testament explicitly denies universalism.
Where?? What about the explicit affirmations of universalism? For example, Colossians 1, Philippians 2, Romans 5:18, and 1 Corinthians 15:22.
Our Lord Jesus speaks repeatedly about the reality of Hell, about the gravity of judgment and about the eternality of Hell—that the fire doesn’t go out, that this darkness never ends. And that goes all the way through all the Apostolic writings, right up until the final book in our ordering of the Canon—the revelation that Jesus gives to John—in which those who are cast into the lake of fire… again it is—Revelation 20—an eternal suffering, an eternal punishment—the smoke doesn’t end.
As Moore said himself, many Christian universalists don’t deny the reality of Hell or the gravity of judgment. However, they believe that the Bible teaches that Hell is not everlasting—that many translations have mistranslated key words based on their theology (e.g. Is Aionios Eternal?).
Fire in the Bible is primarily a positive image. For example:
- Refining fire (Zec 13:9; Job 23:10; Ps 66:10; 1Cor 3:11-15; Mal 3:2-3; 1Pet 1:7). Even the destruction of Sodom may be refining as eventually Sodom is restored (Eze 16:53).
- Linked to repentance (Zep 3:8-9; Prov 25:22; Rom 12:20)
- A sign of holiness (Exo 3:2; Deut 4:11, 12, 15, 33, 36)
- Baptising fire (Luke 3:16b, Matt 3:11b)
- Holy Spirit (Acts 2:3-4; 1Thes 5:19)
- Something everyone will experience (Mark 9:49)
The fire being unquenchable is, therefore, a good thing—we never want to stop what God is doing (cf. Immortal Worms & Unquenchable Fire).
Similarly, darkness is sobering but the Bible never describes it as “eternal”, on the contrary, it frequently describes its demise. For example, John reassures us that:
(I look at each “outer darkness” passage in Fiery Darkness).
Regarding Revelation 20, universalists point to Revelation 21 where the same people appear to have been redeemed (see Book of Life).
So I think we have to have broken hearts about those who are lost but our broken hearts ought to motivate us not to denial but to action. That means we need to be taking the gospel with urgency to our neighbors and to those around the world. So that there’s a feeling behind our mission—that’s kind of summed up in what the Apostle Paul talks about in 2nd Corinthians chapter 5, “I am pleading with you, begging you—literally—as though Christ were begging through me be reconciled to God.” That’s the answer to the heart brokenness that we feel and the weight that we feel about the reality of hell. I wish universalism were true but Jesus tells me it’s not and he knows.
I admire Moore’s passion for the lost and the call for action now, rather than ignoring the plight of others. I think he is reflecting God’s passion and action (both on the Cross and through the Spirit) for each and every person. Encouragingly, in the same chapter Moore cites, the Apostle Paul says:
I wish universalism were true but Jesus tells me it’s not and he knows.
If we fallen humans wish that ultimately everybody will be saved, just imagine how much more our merciful Father wishes it—and as God never fails, He achieves it too. I sincerely wish that all Christians would hope and pray that this comes about soon. I’m excited that Jesus doesn’t just tell us he will achieve this amazing feat but actually demonstrates and guarantees this glorious future in his resurrection.
4 thoughts on “Engaging Russell Moore—Is Universalism compatible with Christianity?”
Personally, I think that the more fundamental problem with Moore’s approach is that it de-historicizes Jesus’ prophetic ministry. Jesus was warning His hearers about how they would perish if they persisted in their determination to redeem Israel by force of arms. His message was targeted at Israel, not at the Gentiles. I think that is the significance of the “gehenna”/”gei Hinnom”/”Hinnom Valley” warnings.
But to hold this view is like spitting into a hurricane. Post mortem punishments are simply too central to the Church’s self-conception, and perhaps too useful for keeping people in line.
Unfortunately, I think that the human race is going face some pretty bad news in the 21st century, and the Church’s (at least the Evangelical Church’s) pre-occupation with an a-historical understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ warnings will probably mean that it doesn’t awaken to this danger until it is too late for it to help deal with the problem.
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I agree that we should consider who Jesus’ immediate audience was and their historical context.
I appreciate his tone, however his logic amounts to more schizophrenic soteriology. Our hearts should be broken for lost people going to hell but its God sending them there and God saving them from there and its forever and he has no choice because of His justice so lets all work harder to get them to the altar before God gets a hold of them in the judgement and of course His love keeps fighting to overcome his justice and on and on it goes.
His statement declaring explicit rejection of Universalism in the New Testament still bears the whiff of dismissiveness so typical among infernalists. Its sort of like saying “Everybody knows that.” Its almost impossible for them to discuss Universalism without resorting to jedi mind tricks ala “This isn’t the gospel your looking for, move along.” The title “Is Universalism compatible with Christianity?” makes Universalism sound like another religion besides Christianity.
This video is a good sign. They know we more and more people are opening their eyes and the professional infernalists are running out of steam.
I agree that his sincerity and that it sounds like he’s actually talked to Christian Universalists before, are good signs 🙂
Yeah, the “explicitly denies” was the most puzzling thing he said. If one built a case on a translation that uses “eternal” and “forever”, I can see how that might be taken as “implicitly” denying universalism but “explicitly” is a far higher bar…