Going against the grain of their evangelical roots, authors Philip Gulley and James Mulholland offer a controversial “Yes” to the question of whether heaven will be the eternal destiny of everyone from Hitler to Gandhi to Mother Teresa.
The authors’ universalist conclusions have understandably stirred quite a bit of debate among evangelicals. Gulley, a popular writer with Multnomah Press, lost his contract with the Christian publisher over the project. He also was charged with heresy by his own Quaker denomination, although no verdict has been reached. Mulholland, a Baptist by background now serving a Quaker meeting, also has been challenged about his theology. Both writers have received hostile letters questioning both their theological beliefs and their eternal destinies.
They understand the skepticism, acknowledging how their conclusions challenged their own traditional religious backgrounds. Although the book responds to critics, it really chronicles the authors’ spiritual journey toward embracing universal grace. The two became so united in their belief in grace that they wrote the book in the first person with a single voice.
As pastors, the two offer stories from their ministry of how they found the traditional theology surrounding salvation unable to fit their ministry experiences. Where people who, at first glance, seemed far from God, the two pastors discovered God’s grace was at work in surprising ways, forcing them to enlarge their understanding of how God might be at work in our lives.
Their experiences led them to a new theological formula that “God will save every person,” meaning that every person will ultimately be “freed of every obstacle to intimacy with God.”
While critics charge that it’s shaky to build a theology out of one’s personal experience, the two authors counter they are on solid ground. They note that much of the Bible is a record of such experiences and that the theology of the Bible grew and changed through such encounters. As one of several supporting scriptures, they cite Peter’s encounter with the gentile Cornelius as an example of how Peter’s experience broadened his understanding of grace beyond his own personal borders of belief.
“He trusted his experience with God, though it challenged a belief of his religion and contradicted certain scriptures,” write the authors. Like Peter, the authors have had their understanding of grace enlarged. “I no longer believe God’s grace is limited to the Christian,” they write. “I don’t believe God’s grace is limited at all.”
Their experiences drove them to the Bible, where they found numerous Old and New Testament passages with unversalist themes. They also cite writings of early church leaders, including Clement, Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, who espoused the doctrine of universalism.
The authors root much of their theology in the nature of God as a loving Father. “Being a father is one of the experiences that has made it impossible for me to accept the idea that God will annihilate, abandon or eternally punish any of his children,” they write.
Through his inclusive approach to ministry, Jesus continued to reflect the universal nature of God’s love, they add. “The world needs to know that God’s eternal, extravagant love is not part of the gospel. It is the whole gospel,” they argue.
Because God’s love is not bound by anything, it will persist in transforming us–a process that will continue even after death, they claim. “If God’s love is not eternal, then we indeed have reason to fear,” they write. But, they add, “God knows his love will outlast every evil and overcome all resistance.” Even our own.
The authors deal with critics objections fairly, noting how the same questions had once been theirs, too:
–How can God’s holiness and the need for justice square with universalism?
–How could a fair God possibly reward the wicked with the bliss of heaven?
–How can the authors ignore or dismiss the Bible passages that speak of hell?
–While God may desire every person’s salvation, doesn’t free will give people the right to refuse God’s gift of grace?
–If everyone will be saved, then what was the point of the cross?
–How can one believe Jesus’ words of “no one comes to the Father except by me” and still accept that even people of other religions are “in”?
Be prepared to have your theology challenged and stretched as the two writers continually urge readers to “consider the possibility that God is gracious beyond your expectation.”
While their message is compelling, there are still theological concerns in their rejection of centuries of traditional Christian theology. They focus on scriptures with universalist themes but neglect to wrestle with the biblical texts about judgment, hell and the need to respond to God’s love in this lifetime, not in some after-death experience.
While the idea of universalism may rankle many Baptists, the book is not without merit. The authors celebrate God’s extravagant grace in ways that can remind us anew of the amazing thing we so often sing it is.
And, in their surprising vision of heaven, the authors offer a caution to those who seem so firm in their belief that grace is only for a select few.
“On our right will sit the person whom we have harmed the most,” they suggest. “On our left will sit the person who has done the greatest evil to us. We will be seated between grace received and grace required.”
In the end, they conclude, from the worst to the best, whoever is in heaven will be there only by God’s grace. Which is why, they claim, God the Father won’t give up on any of his children until everyone has come home.
Michael Tutterow is senior pastor of Winter Park Baptist Church in Wilmington, N.C.
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