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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Move Over Bell, Now There's Something Meatier . . . [Evangelical Universalism]

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?