On the new universalism: a response to James K. A. Smith

Thanks to the likes of Rachel Held Evans, Rob Bell, Gregory MacDonald/Robin Parry, and many others, the debate over universalism is all the rage today. In a recent blog post, Calvin professor James K. A. Smith has weighed in on this new development. He begins with the following promising description:
This ain't your Grandma's universalism (if your Grandma was, say, a Unitarian). The (relatively) old universalism was a liberal universalism of "many-roads-to-God-who-is-a-big-cuddly-Grandpa" (or, more recently, Grandma). Such a universalism was generally embarrassed by Christian particularity and any claims to the divinity of Christ. Instead, Jesus was a kindly teacher like so many others pointing us all to that great kumbaya-sing-along in the the "beyond." 
In contrast, the "new" universalism is an evangelical universalism, a Christocentric universalism. If all will be saved, they will be saved in Christ, because of the work of Christ as the Incarnate God who has triumphed over the power of sin and death (the new universalist Christ is a victor, not a redeemer).
We can let the overly simplistic typology slide for the moment. The notion that there are two universalisms—a liberal Unitarian version and an evangelical christocentric version—is historically dubious at best. I’ve been reading the new special edition of John A. T. Robinson’s 1950 classic, In the End, God . . . , and I’ve been struck by how evangelical this text really is. Robinson is (in)famous for his provocatively liberal work from 1963, Honest to God (which has gotten a far worse reputation than it deserves, in my opinion), which questions the traditional realist conception of God. But his earlier work is badly in need of new readers. It is a perfect example of how the liberal-evangelical binary is entirely unhelpful. Robinson really breaks those stereotypes, and Trevor Hart’s new introduction very helpfully shows why T. F. Torrance’s rejection of Robinson’s universalism was mistaken on basically every point. Robinson is just as christocentric—and in some ways, even more so—than the new evangelical universalist. I recommend this work highly. Nevertheless, Smith’s basic point is valid: the new universalism is centered in Christ in a way that pluralistic forms of universalism (such as that of John Hicks) never were. The particularity of Christ’s claim to be the way, the truth, and the life is firmly upheld. That much Smith gets right, and it’s a crucial observation.

But problems emerge already at this point, for what could Smith possibly mean by the statement that “the new universalist Christ is a victor, not a redeemer”? Is there an either-or here? Does Christ-as-redeemer require rejecting universalism? How is the triumph over sin and death not an act of redemption? This is the first of many theological problems with Smith’s post. The ambiguities and assumptions continue to mount from here. See what Smith writes next:
The question, then, is just what compels one to be an evangelical universalist? Some resort to prooftexting, operating with a naive, selective reading of Scripture. I'm going to do the evangelical universalist a favor and ignore such a strategy, only because I think it can be so easily refuted. (Many of these evangelical universalists would pounce on such selective prooftexting in other contexts.) 
No, the motivation for evangelical universalism is not really a close reading of the Bible's claims about eternity. Instead, it seems that the macro-motivation for evangelical universalism is less a text and more a hermeneutic, a kind of "sensibility" about the very nature of God as "love" (which includes its own implicit sensibility about the nature of love).
The problem with Smith’s emphasis on psychological motivation—and the implied notion that universalism is a pathological condition—has already been dissected by Halden. I want to raise the issue of Smith’s bifurcation between exegesis and hermeneutics. Notice that he says evangelical universalism is motivated by a “hermeneutic” rather than “a close reading” of biblical texts. This, of course, is naive at best. Every act of exegetical interpretation is itself already an exercise in hermeneutical understanding. The close reading of scripture is inseparable from a hermeneutic that guides this reading, even if it is never actually articulated or reflected upon by the exegete herself. What the evangelical universalists ought to “pounce on” is not the claim that they are proof-texting—which is frankly just silly and is not borne out by any of the representatives of the new universalism—but rather the even more egregious claim that their position is not grounded in the text at all but remains at a macro level of abstract analysis.

The truth is that the opponents of any kind of Christian universalism are more often than not the ones engaging in proof-texting. They tend to be the ones who point to Matthew 25 or (if they really aren’t paying attention) John 14:6 as if these are somehow knock-down arguments against all versions of universal reconciliation. The non-universalists are equally guilty, if not more so, of a “naive, selective reading of Scripture.” When you take into account works like The Inescapable Love of God and The Evangelical Universalist—as well as the collection, “All Shall Be Well,” to see that universalism has a long history in the church—it becomes plainly obvious that there is deep textual analysis going on, at a level that many of their opponents simply cannot match. So that whole charge is a moot point, and Smith should not have raised it in the first place. It’s a cheap shot that he then condescendingly leverages, by way of doing the universalist “a favor,” into rhetorical brownie points, in the form of an ironically supercilious ethical appeal (“I’m so magnanimous that I will overlook this flaw to make my opponent’s case appear stronger”).

In fact, not only are non-universalists often guilty of proof-texting passages about hell and eternal judgment—but Jamie Smith himself is guilty of such proof-texting a little later in his post. In the context of discussing why one’s personal hopes have to be governed by the authority of scripture, he relates a hypothetical situation regarding his hope for marriage in the afterlife. He then cites the following statement from Jesus, “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Matt. 22:30). Talk about proof-texting! Smith just quotes this passage and says that his hope has to be disciplined by the truth of scripture. But where’s the exegesis? Where is the careful analysis that contextualizes this passage? Where is the hermeneutical reflection to ground one’s interpretation? Answer: it’s non-existent. This is a perfect example of what I criticized Mark Galli for in his review of Rob Bell’s book in Christianity Today: shifting the goalposts. Like Galli, Smith seems to think that he is “above” such criticisms, that he can attack proof-texting when it leads to universalism (even though none of the universalists I know actually engage in such proof-texting), but he can freely do it himself because he is maintaining some “orthodox” position on salvation and damnation. This is a recurring problem among conservatives. They allow themselves more liberty because of what appears to be a misguided sense of moral and intellectual superiority, while those who propound “radical” views are placed within far stricter limits. (There’s an analogy here to various disparities within the American justice system, but that’s another topic for another time.) The delicious irony here is that many of the universalists already recognize these higher standards and freely place themselves within them in order to bolster their argument!

But we’re not done here. Look at how Smith uses the word “hermeneutic”: as a “sensibility.” This is a subtle instance of begging the question, in that he has loaded his description of the universalist position in such a way that his critique is already included within it. Where is the argument that the theological hermeneutic of the new universalists is merely a “sensibility” (which reads with an air of snobbish disdain) that God is by nature “love.” (Why the scare quotes on “love”? As if only sentimental, bleeding-heart liberal universalists make such silly statements, and not the author of 1 John?) Is there any proof that the new universalists do not have a robust theological hermeneutic? Is it really true that they do not have a consistent, clear way of understanding how competing passages ought to be interpreted? Is it really just a matter of personal feeling about who God is? If Smith’s outlandish claims are to be even remotely acceptable, he has to actually make some concrete arguments. Making abstract assertions about a general group of scholars and pastors, with no actual argumentation in sight, is irresponsible. One could more justifiably charge Smith with being guided by a “sensibility”—a sense that these universalists are just woolly-minded liberals with no real theological sophistication. It’s always a lot easier to attack inner feelings, motivations, and sensibilities than actual texts. With the former, there’s no way to disprove your statements. Of course, there’s no way to prove them either.

The rest of Smith’s post is full of more assertions about  “imagination” and “hope” as the two strategies or sensibilities determining the new evangelical universalism. One says that “I can’t imagine” so-and-so being in hell, while the other says that “I hope” this is how things turn out. Halden has already deconstructed the first notion as a bogus charge, since the implied converse—“I can’t imagine so-and-so being in heaven”—is “no less anthropocentric and Feuerbachian than the (imagined) argument it is designed to counter.” It’s also worth pointing out the strange path that Smith has taken in this post. He began by saying the new evangelical universalism is not like the old liberal universalism because it is “christocentric.” And yet now he is leveling the charge of being “Feuerbachian” at the new universalists. You can’t get much more liberal than that!

This further reinforces the oddness of the whole piece. Smith begins and ends by stating that the new universalism is not the old one. Fine. But I challenge anyone to lop off the beginning and the end and read only the main content of the post. I doubt there is anyone with any knowledge of the subject-matter who would not summarize the thesis as: the new universalism is exactly like the old one. It appears to me, rather, that the qualifications at the start and end of the post are more examples of a rhetorical posturing on the part of Smith in the attempt to win a favorable hearing among readers. But the whole thing is a sham, because he does not actually provide any material support for this qualification in the body of the post. In fact, he seeks instead to undermine it at every turn. So he draws the reader in by making this distinction between old and new, only to subtly tear that distinction down with no actual argumentation or textual analysis to back it up.

For example, he states up front that the evangelical universalists are christocentric: all are saved in Christ. That is true. But if that’s the case, then why is there absolutely no reflection on christology and soteriology anywhere in the post? Why does he then claim that certain personal sensibilities are what drive the new universalists? Does he think that their christocentric claims are disingenuous on their part? Does he think that all universalist claims are inevitably based on psychological motivations, regardless of what they may say about Christ and scripture? Or does he simply find the reference to Christ meaningless in itself, such that Smith is simply unable to understand what christocentrism even means in this case? One has to wonder where the pathology really lies here.

The other charge, regarding hope, is even more befuddling. First, has no one told Smith that to hope for everyone’s salvation is not actually universalism? This would seem to be a rather elementary point. The very definition of universalism is the knowledge that all will be saved. To not know is to not be a universalist. Would Smith accuse Hans Urs von Balthasar of being a universalist simply because he affirmed that we can indeed hope (but no more) for the salvation of all?

But the real error of Smith—what makes it clear that he has no grasp of what it means to be christocentric—is how he handles the nature of universalist hope. He writes:
I'm firmly committed to the particularity of Christ, the evangelical universalist will emphasize. I just hope that God's salvation is not so particular that he only saves some. And it is precisely God's love and mercy that make me hope in this way.
This betrays a fatal misunderstanding of the new evangelical universalism. Smith, putting words in the mouth of a universalist, sets up a completely erroneous competition between the particularity of Christ and the hope for universal salvation grounded in God’s love and mercy. It is precisely this kind of thinking—which places John 14:6 in conflict with Rom. 11:32—that the new universalism seeks to overturn. Only the old universalism could place hope for salvation in conflict with Christ’s particularity. The new universalism makes them coterminous: it is precisely Christ’s particularity that grounds our hope for all to be saved, because Jesus Christ himself, crucified and risen, is the love and mercy of God. He is the concrete actualization of God’s judgment against sin and God’s mercy and grace unto new life. In the same way that Christ does away with all competitive conceptions of love and justice—since the judgment of sin on the cross is the eternal love of God for the reconciliation of the world—so too does Christ abolish all competitive conceptions of particularity and universality. For the evangelical universalist, the universal hope that God is “making all things new” is posited not in spite of but rather only because of the particular claim that Jesus is the exclusive source of salvation. Jesus is the new reign of God irrupting into the world for the sake of its radical—and radically inclusive—transfiguration.

So when Smith says, “Let's stop making this just about passages that mention ‘hell;’ [sic] at issue here are all passages that discuss judgment,” I can only respond: Yes, let’s. It is the claim of Christian faith that all such judgment has to be understood in and through the particularity of Jesus as the once-for-all judgment of God for the reconciliation of the world. Jesus is himself the hermeneutical key for understanding the biblical texts about judgment and hell. To extract these texts from the larger canonical-messianic context is thus to engage in the kind of selective proof-texting that Smith rightly disparages. Understanding these texts christologically—i.e., christocentrically—is not to replace exegesis with a hermeneutic or sensibility; it is instead to read these texts rightly, that is, theologically, within the broader scriptural witness to God’s covenant action in Christ for the sake of the world. Because, to repeat my earlier point, there is no such thing as exegesis without a hermeneutic, no interpretation without a method (however implicit) for making sense of a text.

The question is not whether a person is submitting to the authority of scripture. That much, I think, we can all agree is essential. The question is rather: which hermeneutic is operative in one’s theological reflection and biblical interpretation? The evangelical universalists have a very clearly christocentric hermeneutic. It may be articulated in different (not always compatible) ways, and it may be employed for different (not always compatible) ends, but the basic hermeneutical conviction remains the same: Jesus Christ is the subject-matter of Christian faith, and we only know God’s love and God’s justice in him, in the particular event of his crucifixion and resurrection. Our knowledge of divine mercy and divine righteousness is grounded solely in the saving-event of Jesus Christ. All other sources for such knowledge have to be subordinated to this critical norm of our faith and mission. It is the reconciling self-disclosure of God in Christ that makes one a universalist—and that alone. No other reasons are finally determinative, and therefore no other reasons are worth addressing. Smith’s entire post is a distraction from the real conversation about universal salvation. He misses the point altogether, and the result is an abstract attack on “straw men” of his own fabrication.

Where is the meaty, substantial debate over atonement and the efficacy of Christ’s death? Where is the discussion of passages like Romans 5? Where is the historical-grammatical analysis of the Greek words for “hell” and “eternal”? Where is the hermeneutical debate over theological presuppositions? Where is the nuanced discussion of divine and human freedom? Where is conversation about the relation between christology and pneumatology? Where is the analysis of the logic of hell and damnation? Where is the theological reflection on the nature of God as attested in the canonical biblical witness and its relation to questions of eschatology? Where are any of the actual questions driving the dialogue about universal salvation today? When compared with the real issues in the debate, Smith’s post appears misinformed and superficial. It hovers in the realm of the hypothetical and fictional, and never actually touches the concrete conversation “on the ground.”

Here are suggestions for future critics of the new evangelical universalism:

  1. Lay bare your hermeneutical presuppositions. When you confront the conflict between universalist and dualist texts in scripture, what drives your interpretive conclusions?
  2. Explain the relation between Christ and salvation. Is there a difference between reconciliation, salvation, redemption, and other concepts? In what sense is Jesus our savior? What is the relation between past, present, and future? Is salvation finally realized in the cross and/or resurrection, in a pretemporal act of election, in the present-tense decision of faith, in some future eschatological act of God, or in some other way?
  3. Get your terminology and distinctions correct. Christian universalism is different from pluralistic universalism, but evangelical universalism is not the only version of Christian universalism. There are various ways of articulating a Christian universal salvation, and the evangelical model is not the only “new universalism.” If this is news to you, then start to read up on the debate before you make pronouncements that might come back to hurt you.
  4. Stop with the overly simplistic and superficial dichotomies—for example, exegesis vs. theology, text vs. hermeneutic, love vs. justice, particularity vs. universality, grace vs. judgment, etc. These are the theological equivalent of biblical proof-texting. They are a sign of, to borrow from Eberhard Jüngel, an “unwillingness to read and an inability to think.”
  5. Recognize the distinction between the old and new universalisms—but don’t treat it as a meaningless distinction. Recognize that the differences are crucial, that the basis for the new universalist claims is not the same as before. But at the same time, open yourself to seeing ways in which even the older liberal universalists were a lot more biblically- and theologically-nuanced than perhaps you were led to believe. Not every liberal universalist is a Unitarian, in case that’s news to you.
  6. Finally, for the love of God, please stop breaking out the old rusty hatchet that claims universalists are unwilling to be disciplined by scripture or that they do not recognize the authority of scripture. This is bogus and frankly offensive. It impugns the faith of brothers and sisters in Christ and shuts down any possibility of meaningful dialogue.


Stephen Krogh said…
Hi David,

I am curious as to how you might respond to what I take is the historical consensus of the church against universalsim. Of course, one can read scriptures however she pleases, and one can even read the history of the church however she pleases, but it does seem that universalism (of any stripe) runs in the face of what most Christians have believed, including many of holy memory (e.g. St. Augustine and those present in the second Council of Constantinople). Do you deny that this is the case? Or, do you accept it, and argue that they were incorrect? If the latter, then perhaps you could point me to some of your work justifying this claim (I assume you've written on it). Your thoughts are appreciated. Thanks!

Pax Christi,


That's a good question. Unfortunately, my official response to this issue is still being written; it will be part of a book that I'm under contract for, which will hopefully appear in a few years.

My short (and thus a bit simplistic) answer is that the tradition has only a relative authority. Scripture alone is our norm and guide. Theology can and should begin again at the beginning. This doesn't mean that church history is completely unimportant, but it does mean that no perceived consensus is binding for the future work of the church.

In this sense, I am a radical Protestant. I also strongly believe in the hermeneutical nature of theology, by which I mean that the task of theology is to interpret and understand the gospel anew in each particular context. Put differently, I reject the notion that there is such a thing as a single, universal Christian worldview. While I hold on to the notion of a transcendent norm, I also believe that this norm is infinitely translatable and can never be fixed and universalized as a timeless worldview. So even if the church consistently held to a certain view of hell and damnation, that does not mean the gospel is bound to this interpretation. It has to be understood anew today.

In short, I have no problem saying that the church fathers were wrong about a number of things. For example, I believe the church was wrong in its belief in God's impassibility. The historical consensus about this was largely governed by philosophical presuppositions imported into their interpretation of the biblical narrative of Jesus. Scripture compels me to say different things about God than the tradition.

Read this recent post of mine in which I propose an "orthoheterodoxy." That will give a taste of what I am after.
Stephen Krogh said…
Hi David,

Thanks for your response. I realize that you are currently quite busy writing a dissertation and, from the sounds of it, a book; nonetheless, I hope you will indulge me a bit.

I think I may have set up my question in the wrong way. I did not intend to imply that a historical consensus from within ecclesial history concerning a position implies that one ought to accept that position from the consensus alone; rather, I think the historical consensus serves as evidence in favor of the position (assuming a hermeneutic of charity when approaching church history, something I assume all honest people of good will apply to their inquiries). Thus my question was how you respond to the evidence of the proposition that all will not be saved viz. the consensus from within ecclesial history. Thus, I hope you will agree that claiming that the tradition has only a relative authority does not answer my intended question. Even relative authorities (by which I take you to mean as opposed to firm, or perhaps even absolute or final authority), it seems, can contribute to evidence for a proposition. I hope that makes my question clearer. I am sorry for the initial ambiguity.
You response raises another question I hope you might clarify for me. You say, "I also strongly believe in the hermeneutical nature of theology, by which I mean that the task of theology is to interpret and understand the gospel anew in each particular context" My question regards the nature of the relationship between the "hermeneutical nature of theology" and the gospel, and has two horns. The first is: how do you ensure that the gospel is guiding your hermeneutic and not the other way around? One seems to bring so much to a text before she even opens it, that such a robust hermeneutical approach might lead to her guiding the gospel–almost like a hermeneutic Ouija board–rather than allowing the gospel to guide her hermeneutic. Of course, I am not saying that this problem is irreconcilable, and I am not accusing you of having fallen victim to it. I would just be interested to see how you ensure that your authority is higher than you are. The second is: how do you make an "infinitely translatable norm" relevant to someone? The fruits of an infinitely translatable (translated by however many hermeneutics) norm, it seems, run the risk of being anything to anyone, and thus could be nothing to someone, nothing more than the ambient background radiation of the day such that one could not only fail to miss it, but be completely incapable of realizing it, neither in a position to accept nor reject it.
Thanks in advance for whatever answers you give. I hope I am not taking too much of your time. I'm generally interested in these questions as a Catholic and a Thomist who has been an outside observer of this and similar recent controversies since my undergraduate days at Calvin College where I studied under the influence of Jamie Smith, and Kevin Corcoran, whose general views are sympathetic with yours. Keep on keepin' on!

Stephen Krogh said…
I am sorry for the formatting issues on that last question, by the way. I am not sure why it all came out as one difficult to read paragraph.
Thanks, Stephen, for the clarification. I guess I'm not convinced that any historical consensus counts as "evidence." I take my previous comment to be a response to your clarification as well. Let me try to flesh this out a bit more.

I am perfectly willing to say that the biblical writers, at least in the NT and perhaps certain Second Temple texts, believed in the reality of a hell or a future separation between the righteous and the damned. This kind of view is, however, not at all unique to Judaic-Christian thought, and in fact it's highly likely that it was imported into Hebraic theology during its period of exile along with the conception of the "satan." These views were radicalized and revised among the various Jewish groups, and the Christian church was born in the midst of a highly apocalyptic period in Jewish thinking.

The question is this: is this view about some future separation between the righteous and the damned consonant with (i.e., does it follow from) the logic of the gospel of Jesus Christ? Now, this requires that we gain clarity regarding what the gospel actually is, and that is of course the crucial question. But what I want to say, in agreement with the likes of Barth and many others, is: no, it's not consonant. Put differently, the gospel as transcendent norm stands over against scripture itself, even is scripture is itself the normative witness to this norm. What I am getting at is that the hermeneutical key to Christian self-understanding is not identifiable with the biblical text but is rather a kind of "canon within the canon" or "norm within the norm." I've written about how I define this inner norm, and I can go into more detail about it if you want. But I just want to clarify first the methodology or the logic by which I am operating.

The key question, again, is this: does such and such a view follow from the scandalous logic of the gospel, that is, the kerygma of the crucified and risen Christ as testified to (primarily) by the Pauline epistles? That is the question that basically determines how I approach matters. If it runs counter to the entirety of the tradition, then so be it. God's Spirit is not bound to what has been said. The Word is living and active today.
Stephen Krogh said…
Thanks for your thoughts.

From the sounds of it, you don't seem to think that the history of the church has relative authority, but that it has no authority. Fair enough. Thanks for the time you've offered to answer my question.
dopderbeck said…
David -- good post. I too was disappointed in Jamie's post, and I am not even a universalist. What really bugged me is that he completely ignored the "middle" positions that many (most?) Christians of every sort (evangelical, Catholic, Orthodox, etc.) have found persuasive and that are part of the Tradition -- e.g. some kind of inclusivism. The arguments he makes against universalism also apply against any sort of inclusivism. In fact, his arguments seemingly would apply against any sort of claim to "know" anything about God from personal experience or from increasing experience with the broader world.
ofgrace said…
Hi David,

Fellow suburbanite in Chicagoland here. This is an old post of yours, so I don't know to what degree you are still interested in this topic. I look forward to seeing the books you have written when they come out. In the meantime, on this issue of a Christocentric theology of "Universal Reconciliation" and the consensus of Church history, you might find this post interesting (along with a number of others at the same site): https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2015/01/27/the-canons-of-the-synod-of-constantinople-543/

An interesting difference between the Eastern Orthodox world to which I belong now and the Evangelical one I used to belong to, is that, for the most part, the most conservative Evangelicals were ready to declare Rob Bell a heretic after the publication of "Love Wins," whereas Gregory of Nyssa and Isaac of Ninevah are officially Saints in the Eastern Orthodox communion, despite its equally official rejection of at least one particular version of Universalism ("Origenism").