Reshaping the Gospel? The Current Rise of Ultimate Reconciliation

By December 13, 2018Articles

In the past ten years or so there has been a subtle shift occurring in many Evangelical and Pentecostal/Charismatic circles. This shift relates to the nature and essence of the Gospel. We are experiencing an attempt to ‘reshape’ the Gospel. If the consensus of the proponents of this claimed ‘corrective’ are right, then for the last fifteen-hundred years the Church has propagated an incomplete Gospel message. This issue is one that needs to be addressed. Those advocating the change sincerely believe that they are ‘restoring’ the nature and content of the Gospel.[1] My contention is that they are endeavouring to ‘reshape’ the Gospel. If this is correct, then we are possibly entering into the territory of Paul’s concern as he expressed to the Galatians, (Gal.1:6-10). The change that I’m referring to is that of what is known as, ‘Ultimate Reconciliation’, Christian Universalism’, ‘Inclusionism’ or ‘Apocatastasis’.[2]

This shift is a paradigmatic, hermeneutical and theological shift of mammoth proportion. The move has encompassed the academy (theological colleges and universities), the Church and popular Christian culture. The fundamental teaching of Christian universalism is that all humans will eventually be saved. Some see this as a ‘post-mortem’ event whereby those who died without believing in Christ will believe and see Christ for who He is and thereby be reconciled to God. Others who adhere to Christian Universalism believe that humans do not need to actively repent since, unknown to them, they have been reconciled and redeemed through Christ. There is a third group who believe that those who do not repent and believe in this life will need to be purged of their sins and through that process will come to accept Christ’s work on their behalf. Whichever view of Christian Universalism one holds to, the end is the same – ‘all humans will ultimately be reconciled to God’.[3]

Christian Universalism can be traced back to Greek gnostic roots whereby it was believed that all things emanate from God and therefore eventually all things would return to God. This was also the teleological perspective of some of Greek Platonic philosophical schools. The church father Origen was one of the earliest and most vocal advocates of an ultimate reconciliation of all things and taught a return to the unity of God. Origen’s view can be seen as a process: Unity (creation) – Separation (sin) – Unity (restoration, reconciliation). Thereby, all things will, in the eschaton, return to relationship and harmony with God. Origen labelled this ‘apocatastasis’ – a Greek word that means ‘reconciliation’.[4] Subsequent to Origen, other church fathers supported the teaching of ‘apocatastasis’. Importantly, Origen’s teaching on ‘apocatastasis’ was eventually declared heresy by Justinian in 543 CE and by the Church at the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553 CE. Origen himself was excommunicated from the Church during his lifetime.[5]

In recent years, there has been a resurgence in the study of Patristics (the church father from 2nd Century to the 6th Century CE). With this has developed a growing interest in Origen and his contribution to biblical studies and theology. In 2013, Italian scholar Ilaria Ramelli wrote a monograph with the title ‘The Doctrine of Apokatastasis’.[6] This work is 890 pages long and is a defense of Origen and the teaching of Christian universalism. Many of the present day supporters of Christian Universalism look to Ramelli’s work as providing an historical, theological and biblical basis or support for their teaching.

In addition to Ramelli’s work, there have been a number who have contended for Ultimate Reconciliation (UR).[7] Rob Bell implied Ultimate Reconciliation in his book, Love Wins.[8] Also, the best selling Christian fiction book by William Paul Young, The Shack,[9] was filled with Ultimate Reconciliation undercurrents. Other books promoting Ultimate Reconciliation include Gregory MacDonald (aka Robin Parry), Evangelical Universalism;[10] C. Baxter Kruger, The Shack Revisited;[11] Christian philosopher Thomas Talbott,  form of U;timate Reconciliationsalism: God’ey Hanson, Universalism: The Prevailing Doctrine of the Church Hope.arris, ).s an esInescapable Love of God;[12] John Kronen and Eric Reitan, God’s Final Victory: A Comparative Philosophical Case for Universalism.[13] To this, many, many more books could be added that have appeared in recent times.

Where does the danger lie in following the path of ‘reshaping’ the Gospel so that it becomes a declaration of Ultimate Reconciliation? In the first instance, UR teaching has substantial implications in relation to the doctrine of God. Many advocates of UR teach that God’s attributes come under His love and thereby effectively reduces God’s essence to love. In response, the Bible teaches that God is complete and all His attributes are essential. There is no hierarchy amongst God’s attributes. God is equally loving as He is just, pure, holy, good, true, righteous, and so on. It is not a question of ‘love wins’ but ‘God wins’. The vindicatory love of God provides a response to the relationship between love and justice.[14] We are too quick to define love in human terms but since God is love, it is God who defines love. Therefore, from a divine perspective bound together with love is truth, justice, holiness and goodness. Additionally, the completeness of God comes into question with UR. Some of the teachers of UR believe that God needs to be completed by the inclusion of all of humanity into the intimacy of the Trinity’s perichoresis. This throws into question the aseity of God, i.e., God is complete in Himself, which is declared in the Bible when God says, ‘I am that I am’ Exodus 3:15.

The doctrine of the atonement is also a point of contention. UR teaches that since Christ died for all, all will be saved – this is very linear in its logic. It is on this point that another tributary feeds into UR and that is Barthianism. Karl Barth was questioned on the conclusion of his teaching that Christ is the Elect who represented all humanity and therefore logic would have it that all must be saved in Christ. Barth’s response was that he could not take that logical leap, but that it was correct to understand the implication of his teaching being a type of Christian Universalism.[15] Many adherents of UR accept Barth’s view of Christ as the Elect and all humans being elected in Christ as the Second Adam.[16] The question of human free agency, volition and personal responsibility appear to be nullified by UR.

Disconcertingly, there are some who hold to UR who do not believe in the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ and the biblical concept of propitiation.[17] The concept of propitiation requires God’s just anger or wrath to be appeased. In opposition to this, some within Christian Universalism would have it that it was solely the anger of the Jews and Romans that placed Christ on the cross – the Father could not have placed His Son on the cross to quench His righteous anger against human sin.[18] But this is the biblical mystery of the atonement – love and justice meet on the cross – a paradox! Yet through this, Christ as our penal substitute, has paid the price.

There are many adherents of UR who believe in a type of purgatory that will be a part of restorative discipline. This, it is claimed, will be needed to make those who do not believe to be brought to a fit state to accept Christ.[19] Now, even though they call this a restorative act, it seems to diminish the worth of Christ’s atonement. To deny vindicatory justice results in UR adherents of purgation having to do theological acrobatics in order satisfy some sense of justice.

This brings in the matter of Christian anthropology which includes the will, sin and human responsibility. UR effectively redefines sin and reduces its absolute heinousness. One Puritan said, ‘There is no such thing as a little sin, since there is no little God to sin against.’ A key aspect that is part of Christian anthropology and used by many supporters of UR is the image of God (imago dei). Accordingly, many believe that, on the basis that all humans are God’s ‘image bearers’, all are included in God’s restorative plan. The fact that humans are made in the image of God becomes the basis for the essential return to God.[20] Such a view does not take into account consequence of sin and thus fall far short of what is taught in the Scriptures.

How does one account for this ‘reshaping’ of the Gospel? Part of the answer can be found in the influence of a post-modern ethos, where a multitude of views are held as being equally valid, and where there is an ethic of civility so that it is impolite to offend anyone. Added to the mix is an increasing rejection of authority and the metaphysical.[21] The transcendence of God is being slowly reduced as sin is redefined and accountability becomes ‘unfashionable’.  Along with this theological revision comes a new hermeneutic which reinterprets the Bible with the lens of UR. The metanarrative of the Scriptures is tweaked by concluding the narrative with all being restored and redeemed (and with some who believe that even the Devil himself will be reconciled to God) and thereby, ‘Christ will be all in all’.

There are undoubtedly pastoral and evangelistic consequences that flow from the ‘reshaping’ of the Gospel. The moral law becomes less significant and an incipient brand of antinomianism creeps in. Evangelism takes on a new form and has a diminished impetus since it is not an imperative but an informative declaration.

Christian Universalism traverses a broad range of views from a relative conservative Evangelical form, to a Roman Catholic expression,[22] an Eastern Orthodox brand,[23] all the way to Liberal and Unitarian forms. Doctrinal perspectives that have been used to help build the UR message include new trinitarianism,[24] an apocalyptic reading of Paul,[25] dominionism,[26] Barthianism and ‘hyper-grace’.[27]

Besides there being innumerable websites,[28] blogs,[29] books[30] and YouTube videos advocating UR, there is a denomination dedicated to promoting an evangelical form of Christian Universalism[31] as well as associations[32] and independent congregations.[33]

In 2016, David Congdon’s systematic theology of Christian Universalism, The God Who Saves, was published.[34] This work expounds a unique brand of Christian Universalism which, although linked to a Protestant tradition, does not adhere to what would be acknowledged as Evangelical Universalism. Still, this work is touted as a strong case for Christian Universalism.

Additionally, the Mirror Bible translation[35] specifically highlights a UR interpretation of the Scriptures. This purported translation is actually more of a commentary. Only select sections of the New Testament are included in the translation. François Du Toit, the ‘translator’ of the Mirror Bible is intending to add to the work over time. Those familiar with advocates of UR will know of Du Toit and his teaching on Christian Universalism. The Mirror Bible has been subjected to criticism even by adherents of UR mainly on the basis that it has been advertised as a ‘Bible translation’ and is actually comparable to a paraphrase at best, and closer to a commentary.[36]

 

This article does not attempt to be an exhaustive critique and refutation of UR. It serves to bring to the attention of Bible believing Evangelicals and Pentecostals a growing movement that is infiltrating churches and academia. The encroachment is subtle and pervasive, and requires perception in order to detect its incursion. Romans chapter twelve verse two says:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

The Greek literally says, ‘Don’t be conformed to this age’. This is a warning not to allow the spirit of this present age to mould us. The Greek contrasts this with, ‘but be transfigured by the renewing of the mind’. This has application to the Church today – it is a warning against being slowly drawn-in to what typifies ‘the spirit of this age’. It would seem that the movement that is fostering the ‘reshaping’ of the Gospel is falling into the trap of such conformity. In the shifting sands of contemporary Western values, the Gospel must stand as ‘the truth unchanged, unchanging.’

 

About the Author: Damon Adams is a Senior Lecturer in Theology, Biblical Studies & Church History at Alphacrucis College, based in AC’s Hobart campus.

 

[1]  On August 5-7, 2016 in Denver there was held ‘The Forgotten Gospel Conference’ with speakers: Prof Ilaria Ramelli, William Paul Young, Dr C. Baxter Kruger, Dr Robin Parry, Dr Brad Jersak, and Pastor Peter Hiett which was substantial a conference centred around the message of Ultimate Reconciliation, http://www.mercyuponall.org/2016/09/14/the-forgotten-gospel-2016-session-videos/

[2] For the most thorough examination of all the different facets of Christian Universalism, including a critical analysis, see Michael J. McClymond, The Devil’s Redemption: A New history and Interpretation of Christian Universalism, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018). McClymond’s work consists of two volumes 1325 pages. This work provides the most exhaustive examination to date on this topic, and is an essential reference on this controversial topic.

[3] It needs to be noted that there are those who do not declare themselves to be Christian universalists but hold out for what they term ‘a strong hope’. Interestingly, many within this category are often explicit in teaching ultimate reconciliation. Effectively, within the Christian context, it is not inappropriate to be inclusivistic and treat them as part of the UR movement.

[4] Origen’s primary work in which he elaborates on ‘apocatastasis’ is Peri Archon (Greek) also known as De Principii (Latin).

[5] See Richard Bauckham, ‘Universalism A Historic Survey’ Themelios 4.2 (September 1978), 47-49.

[6] Ilaria Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis: A Critical Assessment from the New Testament to Eriugena, (Brill, 2013).

[7] The abbreviations UR (Ultimate Reconciliation) and EU (Evangelical Universalism) are used by those with the movement, see https://forum.evangelicaluniversalist.com/t/evangelical-universalist-church/1158

[8] Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, (New York: HarperOne, 2011).

[9] William Paul Young, The Shack, (Newbury Park: Windblown Media, 2011).

[10] Gregory McDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, (Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock, 2012).

[11] J. Baxter Kruger, The Shack Revisited: There Is More Going On Here than You Ever Dared to Dream. Foreword by William Paul Young, (New York: FaithWords, 2012).

[12] Thomas Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God, (Eugene OR: Cascade, 2014).

[13] John Kronen and Eric Reitan, God’s Final Victory: A Comparative Philosophical Case for Universalism, (New York: Continuum, 2011).

[14] For a detailed discourse on vindicatory justice/love see John Owen, A Dissertation on Divine Justice: The Claims of Vindicatory Justice Vindicated, (CreateSpace Publishing, 2015).

[15] See M. McClymond, The Devil’s Redemption, 791-812, and John Colwell ‘The Contemporaneity of the Divine Decision: reflections on Barth’s denial of Universalism’ in Nigel Cameron (ed.) Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell, (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1992), 139-160. Roger E. Olson discusses the matter of Barth and Universalism at length in, ‘Was Karl Barth a Universalist? Another Look at an Old Question’ http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2013/03/was-karl-barth-a-universalist-a-new-look-at-an-old-question/

[16] The renowned theologian Jürgen Moltmann is a Christian universalist who closely follows Barth on the concept of the Elect being Christ, see Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004) and Nicholas Ansell, The Annihilation of Hell: Universal Salvation and the Redemption of Time in the Eschatology of Jürgen Moltmann (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013).

[17] For a thorough discussion and explanation of the biblical concept of propitiation as it relates to the atonement see Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, (London: Tyndale Press, 1965), 144-213.

[18]  J Baxter Kruger provides a good example of the move away from the biblical teaching of ‘propitiation’ when he recorded the following in a blog:

just read an essay on Jesus “absorbing the wrath of God” on the cross. It almost made me throw up. With such ease and passion and not a little patronizing the writer split Jesus’ Father into two different persons, and then ripped the Father-Son relationship apart, apparently without even knowing it, or caring. What madness. I suppose the Holy Spirit just stood there dazed wondering whose side he was supposed to join. There is something sinister about the need to have the Father vent his rage upon his own Son. And even more so when one then tries to call such an act “glorious grace.”  April 2, 2010 https://www.perichoresis.org/good-friday-2/

[19] Robin Parry (alias MacDonald) discusses the UR explanation of the fires of purgation as opposed to an eternal hell, Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist (Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock: 2012), 106 – 155.

[20] For a detailed explanation that includes the redemption of both humans and demons (as well as Satan) see Sergius Bulgakov, Apocatastasis & Transfiguration: Including his essay “On the Question of the Apocatastasis of the Fallen Spirits” (New Haven Conn.: The Variable Press, 1995), 7-30.

[21] See, David W. Congdon, The God Who Saves: A Dogmatic Sketch (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2016), 201. Congdon rejects substantialist metaphysics. For a detailed analysis see, Michael J. McClymond, The Devil’s Redemption), 847-848.

[22] The theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar is an example of a Roman Catholic promoting UR as seen in his book, Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? So large is the increase in Catholic scholars support of Ultimate Reconciliation, Ralph Martin, a Catholic lay theologian, has published, Will Many Be Saved?: What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization, as a biblical and dogmatic corrective.

[23] Metropolitan Kallistos Ware advocates Ultimate Reconciliation in ‘Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All?’ The Collected Works Volume I The Inner Kingdom, (New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press Crestwood, 2001), 193-215.

[24] C. Baxter Kruger is one of the major advocates of the new trinitarianism which supports a form of UR (highly hopeful) https://www.perichoresis.org/

[25] Key advocates include Douglas A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2008) and J. Louis Martyn, Galatians – The Anchor Yale Bible Commentary (Yale University Press, 2004).

[26] Currently there is a renewal in dominionism – an eschatological teaching of the Latter Rain movement within Pentecostal and Charismatic circles. John Crowder is not only a proponent of UR he also actively propagates donimionism, see Sons of Thunder https://www.thenewmystics.com/Articles/1000129593/Home_Page_of/Articles/A_Kingdom_of.aspx

[27] See Michael L. Brown, Hyper Grace, (Lake Mary: Carisma House, 2014).

[28] Here are a few websites: Tentmaker Ministries http://www.tentmaker.org/aboutus.html; Christian Universalism http://www.christianuniversalism.com/ ; Epochalypsis http://www.epochalypsis.org/christian-universalism-treatise/ ; TRUTH.INFO http://www.truth.info/future/universalism.htm; God’s Love Wins http://godslovewins.com/index.htm ; George W. Sarris http://www.georgewsarris.com/index.php, ; Relentless Love http://relentless-love.org/relentless/ ; The Evangelical Universalist Forum https://forum.evangelicaluniversalist.com/ Keith DeRose http://campuspress.yale.edu/keithderose/ ; Perichoresis (C. Baxter Kruger) https://www.perichoresis.org/ ; What the Hell http://what-the-hell-is-hell.com/about/ ; God is Love http://frimmin.com/faith/godislove.php ; Mercy Upon All http://www.mercyuponall.org/; Reforming Hell https://reforminghell.com/

[29] The following is a sample of blogs supporting Christian Universalism: Hope Beyond Hell, http://www.hopebeyondhell.net/ ; God’s Love Wins, http://godslovewins.com/blog.htm ; Brian Zahnd, https://brianzahnd.com/ ; The Theological Scribbler, http://theologicalscribbles.blogspot.com/2009/08/i-am-evangelical-universalist.html ; Evangelical Universalist, http://evangelicaluniversalist.blogspot.com/ ; Perichoresis, https://www.perichoresis.org/blog/ ; Sola Scriptura Christian Liberty, http://solascripturachristianliberty.blogspot.com/2017/07/my-evangelical-universalism-does-not.html

[30]  Due to space, only the author and title are provided. Brian Zahnd, Beauty Will Save the World; J Baxter Kruger, The Great Dance; Gerry Beauchemin, Hope for All; Jan Bonda, The One Purpose of God; George W. Sarris, Heaven’s Door; Richard H. Goyette, Christian Universalism; Gary Amirault, Hope for All Generations and Nations; George Hurd, The Triumph of Mercy: Redeemer of All Through Jesus Christ; Bradley Jersak, Her Gates Will Never Be Shut – Hope, Hell and the New Jerusalem; John Wesley Hanson, Universalism: The Prevailing Doctrine of the Church; Eric Stetson, Christian Universalism: God’s Good News for All People; Peter Heitt, Eternity Now; Francois Du Toit, The Logic of His Love; Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgement

[31] Grace Communion International upholds a form of Evangelical Universalism. The denomination supports the new trinitarian perspective along with an extended form of Barthianism. Many within the UR movement have appeared in video interviews produced by Grace Communion International. See https://www.gci.org/about-us/  There is also, The Evangelical Universalist Church of America (EUCA), http://www.angelfire.com/mt2/universalist/

[32] The Christian Universalist Association, https://christianuniversalist.org/

[33] The Universal Life Church, http://www.universalchurch.org/about-us/; Word of Life Church, http://wolc.com/ ; The Sanctuary, http://www.thesanctuarydenver.org/

[34] David W. Congdon, The God Who Saves: A Dogmatic Sketch (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2016).

[35] François Du Toit, The Mirror Bible (U.K: Mirrorword, 2017).

[36] See the Evangelical Universalist Forum https://forum.evangelicaluniversalist.com/t/the-mirror-bible/3287