Rob Bell, Robin Parry, and ‘Evangelical Universalism’

*Here is something I posted originally in May of this year. It seems this topic has gone quiet, and so I thought I would bring it up again.

Honestly, I’d never even heard of Rob Bell before his promo video broke for his now infamous book Love Wins! His book thrust something that I would imagine “most” Christians didn’t even take seriously (me included) into the forefront: Universalism (the idea that all people will end up “saved”). Of course Bell is not as forthright, and not even really willing to self-identify as a “Universalist;” but he is. His version of Universalism (as sloppy as it is) is akin to what can be called Evangelical Universalism. The reality is, is that Bell isn’t the real deal though; if you want to seriously be challenged by a “Christian-Evangelical-Universalism” from Scripture, then you must read Gregory MacDonald’s (that’s his pen name, his real name is Robin Parry) The Evangelical Universalist. He provides a cogent, razor sharp exegetical proposal for what he has rhetorically called Evangelical Universalism. Parry’s basic thesis is that in the end all people (“all nations”) will bow the knee to Jesus as Lord (not as judge, but Savior).

As I cracked his book, my curiosity was piqued, and I was ready to see how Parry was going to make his case (I didn’t think he could). There were a few crux interpretums I had in mind as I entered his book; a couple of those were found in some locus classicus ‘Hell Texts’ in the book of Revelation. As I worked through his book I came to chapter 5 where he worked through these passages (with the preceding four chapters laying a framework wherein these difficult texts could be re-interpreted through a Universalist lens). I want to give you an example of how he gets around the idea that ‘Hell” in these texts represents a place of Eternal Conscious Torment (the trad view). But before I do that I should provide this caveat: Parry’s version of ‘Evangelical Universalism’ still holds to a literal ‘Conscious Tormentuous’ Hell, he just believes that it is temporary (with the purpose of being an educative [convicting/convincing] place, and not a purifying place [like a Roman Catholic purgatory]); even though he believes its temporary, he still believes its a terrible terrible place to be avoided! With that caveat in place lets look at how he interprets Revelation 20:10-15 (of course I won’t be able to provide but a taste of his thinking, even so, the following quote is going to be a bit lengthy):

However [in response to his the apparent problem that chptr 20 poses for an Universalist interpretation], John moves on to a vision of the New Jerusalem in 21:9ff., and it is here that we find what looks very much like a universalist hope. 21:12-21 give a very elaborate description of the walls of the City. In the ancient world the walls of a city were essential for the protection of the inhabitants, but that this is not the function of these walls is clear from the fact that the wicked are no longer in a position to attack the city, and thus the gates are left open perpetually (21:25). So what is the wall for? Rissi maintains that it serves as a boundary marker between those inside the City (the redeemed) and those outside the City (who inhabit the lake of fire). This interpretation is supported by 22:14-15, in which the risen Jesus says: “Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.” To be outside the city walls is to be in the lake of fire (21:8); and nothing and nobody unclean can enter the city, but only those written in the Lamb’s book of life (21:27). It is the City wall that marks the boundary between the two: “a sign of separation.” So far, this hardly seems encouraging for the universalist; but then we read in 21:23-27:

The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut (indeed, there will be no night there). The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who dose what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Now we have a vision in which the nations, whom we have already established have been thrown into the lake of fire, enter the New Jerusalem via the permanently open gates! There is a continuous flow from outside of the City (clearly the lake of fire in the light of 21:8; 21:27; 22:15) into the City. In John’s visionary geography there are only two places one can be located — within the city enclosed in its walls of salvation (Isa 60:18) or outside the city in the lake of fire. The gates of this New Jerusalem are never closed. Given that those in the city would have no reason to leave it to enter the lake of fire, why are the doors always open? “In John’s interpretation of the prophetic message [of Isa 60] by means of the Jerusalem vision the motif of the open gates is given a quite new, and positively decisive significance for his entire hope for the future. . . . John announces nothing less than that even for this world of the lost the doors remain open!” In the oracle of Isaiah 60 on which this vision is based we read that the gates were left open for the purpose of allowing the nations to enter (60:11), and that is the case here too: the open doors are not just a symbol of security but primarily a symbol of the God who excludes no one from his presence forever. [first set of brackets, mine] (Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, 114-15)

Prior to this, MacDonald has already provided an elaborate biblical theology of the Old Testament; in it, he provides a few distinctions (which also then end up appealing to a chapter where he does a biblical theology of the New Testament). It goes Israel, the Church, the Nations; without providing too much detail: Israel is chosen to mediate salvation to the nations (of which they are apart) — they fail — but a single Jew rises up from among them (Jesus) and provides salvation to them and the Nations; out of the Jews and the Nations (in the present era, since Pentecost) we end up with the Church (those who believe pre-mortem). Parry identifies the Church as the “first fruits” of Christ’s resurrection; this “first fruits” idea carries into the eschaton. In Revelation the Church are those people representative of every tribe, tongue and nation; but they are just samples from the Nations, the Nations are the rest of the world now condemned to Hell (in Revelation 20). Picking up on a motif that MacDonald has already established from his work in the O.T., the Nations all eventually get saved (see Isaiah 45:21ff and cf. with Philippians 2:8-10); which then coincides with the quote I just provided from Parry above. The Nations all finally come into and through the “open” gates of the New Heavens and Earth, the New Jerusalem (the idea from MacDonald, is that eventually, over time, each person in Hell will be convinced [just as many of us are now] of their need of a Savior — at this point they will bow the knee in faith [Parry argues that no-one ever has said that Jesus is Lord by force nor without the Spirit cf. I Cor. 12.3] and be welcomed into Heaven).

This is just to barely touch Parry’s proposal. He works through most and any of the Texts you could ever think of, and he anticipates very well; I found myself (as I was reading) thinking of objections, and I’d flip the page and he was addressing those very passages or objections (I kid you not, that happened multiple times as I read). This isn’t John Hicks (pluralist universalism), it’s not J.A.T. Robinson’s (Christian Universalism), it’s definitely not Rob Bell’s version (Parry’s work makes what Bell is articulating sound like kindergarten, I’m trying to be nice 😉 ). If you want to denounce universalism, for my money (which I don’t have a lot of), you have to work through MacDonald to do so. I’d like to see The Gospel Coalition deal with MacDonald’s stuff (you know, the “Meatier” stuff).

What do you think?

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13 thoughts on “Rob Bell, Robin Parry, and ‘Evangelical Universalism’

  1. Bobby-

    Robin will be at ETS on a panel discussing “evangelical universalism” and I think it should be simply fascinating to see the reactions of those that actually attend. I hope there is actually some substantive conversation and not just vitriol from the side that disagrees with him. John Franke is also on the panel and I’m actually not sure where he falls in relation to these matters, but I know that he is a fair, even-handed, intelligent conversation partner. Are you going to make it down to SF?

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  2. Love never fails. God will never fail. If He truly loves people, He wouldn’t torture them for all of eternity. Love & eternal torment cannot go together. God is just, yes, but He is not cruel.

    1 Tim 4:10- This is why we work hard and continue to struggle, for our hope is in the living God, who is the Savior of all people and particularly of all believers.

    1 John 2:2- He himself is the sacrifice that atones for our sins—and not only our sins but the sins of all the world.

    http://www.whatthehellbook.com/the-book/

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  3. Hi Jackson,

    Ultimately, I do not think it can be sustained from Scripture that hell is not eternal conscious torment. Jesus believed and taught that it was, and that is enough for me. To use “our” sense of what is cruel (or not) cannot be the ultimate standard; especially when we walk by faith and see through a glass dimly—and esp. when the “secret things belong to God, the things revealed belong to us” (Deut 29.29).

    I am not sure how those universalist passages necessitate a causal universalist reading. They simply note the extent of the atonement, and the intensity of God’s salvation for all who believe (see I Tim 2.4). There is an urgency to proclaiming the good news, part of that urgency is because it is appointed for man to die once, and then face the judgment.

    I have read Parry’s book, which I consider to be the strongest and most cogent exegetical argument available for Evangelical Universalism; and yet I am left unpersuaded, in part, because I think Parry’s exegesis requires some “fine” turns to be followed if one will concluded the same as he does in regards to all the exegetical points he argues.

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  4. Jackson,

    If anyone’s book was going to convince me of Evangelical Universalism it would have been Greg MacDonald’s (Robin Parry’s), and it hasn’t.

    I’ve read through the Bible (and continue to) multiple multiple times; I have studied it biblically theologically, systematically, and dogmatically. In other words, I am aware of every single passage of Scripture (in both its Hebrew and Greek form); and I remain unconvinced of your position. Btw, coming to your conclusion, or mine, involves much more than appealing to Bible verses; there is a theological grid and supposition through which we undertake our interpretation of Scripture. It is this prior commitment (hopefully that spirals out of the Text) that will shape one’s exegetical conclusions. I have been through this process (still am), and I am more persuaded now than ever that hell represents ‘eternal conscious torment.’

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  5. Jackson,

    Also, I mean no disrespect for the work that you’ve done for your book; or your position by saying if anybody’s book was going to convince me it would be Parry’s. The only reason I said this about Parry’s book is because it represents the best and pinnacle of exegetical scholarship in this area (from an ‘Evangelical’ perspective). I am sure your book is excellent (and at some point I will have to read it, do you have any review copies available—I could do a review of at the blog here). I have wrestled with this issue myself, but my position remains ‘Trad’ on this issue; and I cannot see it changing (if it was going to, it would’ve changed about 6 mos ago now).

    Thanks.

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  6. There’s also Jan Bonda’s “The One Purpose of God” and von Balthasar’s “Dare We Hope – that all men be saved?” I think it boils down to how we piece scripture together. Universalists can not wrap their minds around the teaching that God (whose name is The Lord Saves and who creates ex nihilo) ended up with a system where eternal damnation is necessary and no amount of wishing on His or our part will change that. But there are lots of other Christians who can’t imagine both heaven and hell not being eternal. (sort of like love and marriage, can’t have one without the other…;). Anyway, about Jesus’ teaching on hell, he told the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man and gave the dire pronouncement that no one can cross the divide and even if one were to return from the dead, it won’t help. Well, HE crossed the divide. He descended into hell. He rose again. He defeated death. And we believe because other people testified of the one who came back from the grave.

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  7. Hi Caroline,

    Yes, there is much more; there is J. A. T. Robinson’s “Christian Universalism” there is John HIck’s Pluralistic Universalism; there is dogmatic, hopeful etc.

    What is your point, Caroline; or what do you believe?

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  8. I was born again after reading Evangelical Universalist [insert tongue-in-cheek emoticon!] The author is a hopeful Universalist and I’m more hopeful than he is. I only know him through his books and facebook. It’s funny that he comes across as more of a serious guy than Rob Bell when he is a total goof on facebook.

    I’m also a Calvinist – but a 4 pointer; I believe in unlimited atonement. I was leaning towards Universalism because of what the Torrances’ teach about atonement. Someone (MacIntosh?) said we must come as close to Universalism as possible without crossing the line. I read TFT saying it was taking logic too far. After reading EU, I had to ask, “Pourquor pas?”

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  9. Caroline,

    Why don’t you become an Evangelical Calvinist then too 😉 ? Just eschew the whole substance metaphysics that funds Calvinism (even 4 point) and join the kind of “Calvinism” or “Calvinianism” that TF Torrance articulates (as do we).

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