The blogosphere has rightly settled down from the fevered discussions on universalism occasioned earlier this year by, among other things, Rob Bell’s writings. However, distance has its advantages. In this case, the fact that universalism (or threats of it) is not quite the hot topic among evangelicals that it was six months ago has given me occasion to realize that, within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) circles that I frequent, the most striking fact about the discussions of universal salvation was how muted they were.
Based strictly on anecdotal evidence, my sense is that many ELCA pastors read Bell’s book (or at least articles about it), and most did so with approval. However, it is hard to avoid the sense that a prominent evangelical leader espousing the notion that hell might not exist and that all humans might be saved was, for the most part, a non-event in mainline circles. And it seems equally hard to avoid coming to the conclusion that this might be because universalism has become the default position for many pastors and theologians within the mainline Protestant traditions.
Plenty of ink, scholarly and otherwise, has been spilled in the enterprise of discussing the advantages and drawbacks of universalism as a theological position. However, it is worth reiteratingas many sociologists havethat trying to build evangelism efforts on a foundation of universalism places pastors and missionaries in a double bind that, not infrequently, becomes frustrating to the point of visceral pain. On the one hand, it is clear to any sober observer that the widespread decline of mainline Protestant institutions - congregations, seminaries, denominational governance structures, etc. - can only be halted by robust efforts at evangelism. On the other hand, the rather anemic notions of “salvation” (e.g. equality in distribution, authentic relationships with God, self, and humanity, and that ever-elusive shibboleth “social justice”) that inevitably arise once lackluster universalism becomes the default theological setting of a denomination are poor substitutes for the heavenly City for which the church’s martyrs died.
Now, to be sure, the Christian theological tradition encompasses a whole host of images - conceptual and otherwise - by which the nature of “salvation” might be expressed. Rigorous discussion of what resources mainline Protestant traditions might bring to the ecumenical table remains a genuine possibility. Absent such conversation, however, all the evangelism initiatives in the world will not solve the intellectual and gut-level conundrums faced by those modern evangelists who are not quite sure how important the message that they have been commissioned to carry to the ends of the earth really is.