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Why Are Progressive Christians Attracted to Universalism?

How a Distorted View of God Distorts Our View of Good

Why does it seem progressive Christians are drawn to a universal salvation for all people? There could be several reasons, such as religious pluralism, on which everyone has their own interpretations of God (or, “religious reality”). The key to “salvation” on such a view is moral transformation, which is possible in all the world religions.

Still, there could be other reasons for this attraction. It might be a reaction against evangelicals’ exclusive claim that Jesus is the only way to God, which might strike some progressives as imperialistic. In addition, it might be due to shifts in their views of the nature of what is real regarding human beings, sin, our core need, and more.

Now, all these positions are involved with a particular group of progressives who used to be called “emergents,” namely, Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, and Rob Bell. Since the emerging church faded from evangelicals’ attention, their influence has morphed and actually grown. They now have greater platforms for communicating their views.[1] Moreover, they have embraced being progressives. I think their views can provide an example for us of why progressives are attracted to universalism.

To help explore this question, first I will sketch some of their newer, pertinent views that illustrate how they fit with universalism. These positions will include not only their epistemological views, but also, even more importantly, their shifts away from traditional, orthodox Christian positions of the nature of what is real to a holistic, panentheistic view of God and His creation.[2] Second, I will assess selected views, offering some suggestions for how to respond to these points.[3]

Emergents 2.0

McLaren and these former emergents argue that everyone has a particular standpoint from which they come to interpret and know the world. Moreover, we are shaped, or “situated,” so deeply by our cultural and familial upbringing, life experiences, historical location, and more that we cannot gain a universal, unbiased viewpoint and know reality as it truly is, even about the truth of Christianity. Instead, all people interpret what is real from their respective interpretive “grids.”

Religiously, then, Christians, as well as Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and everyone else have their own interpretations of God (or, “religious reality”), and no one has direct access to the truth (i.e., the way things really are) religiously. This view is much like that of John Hick, one of the founders of religious pluralism.[4] Though religions have their various interpretations, still, for Hick all religions aim at moral transformation, and so he redefines salvation as such. However, he claims Christians do not exhibit superior moral lives than that of other religious adherents. Thus, “salvation” is available in all the world religions.

For McLaren, moral transformation occurs as people live out Jesus’ story. As such, “salvation” is not limited to just those who identify as Christians. There can be Muslims, Jews, and Christians throwing a party in heaven; there can be Buddhist Christians; and more.[5]

In A New Kind of Christianity, Brian McLaren also claims the gospel we have received has been corrupted by Greco-Roman and modern influences.[6] One corrupting factor is the adoption of many dualisms, such as body vs. soul, heaven vs. hell, saved vs. unsaved, civilized vs. barbarians, and many more. According to him, Greek thinking introduced these many dualisms, and particularly body-soul dualism undermines what he sees as the Jewish emphasis upon the unity of the whole person.[7]

For McLaren, many Christians’ emphasis upon saving the soul so it goes to heaven when the body dies is linked to the (supposed) Platonic emphasis of the inherent superiority of the immaterial over the material.[8] However, these attitudes denigrate the body as God’s good creation, implicitly treating it as bad. Moreover, he thinks souls are static and therefore cannot grow, change, or have stories told about them.[9]

Instead of humans being a unity of body and soul (i.e., material and immaterial), McLaren and others adopt a holistic, physicalist view of humans. On this view, humans are made of one kind of thing, namely, physical stuff.[10] Instead of an essential nature (the soul) uniting all our parts, now our unity is found in our narrative, which is to be shaped according to the master story of the Christian community, the story of Jesus.[11] Unlike souls, our stories develop as we become more like Christ.

If humans are just physical beings, then several other core doctrines would seem to need to be changed. For instance, sin cannot be fundamentally a soulish problem that corrupts the entire person. Now, the Bible speaks of the heart (the core of our being; that from which we truly live, will, and more) as more deceitful than all else and desperately sick (Jer. 17:9). Moreover, the wages of sin is death, i.e., separation from God, and eventually physical death (Rom. 6:23). However, as Pagitt explains, sin is a matter of disintegration of relationships, of ourselves in relation to one another, creation, and God. For him and others, original sin is a mistaken doctrine.[12] It is not that sin separates us from God; instead, we are already “in” God. The universalism we have seen in progressives like McLaren and these “emergents” undermines the gospel and changes it into another gospel, one that is not even good news. Click To Tweet

This shift in our relationship with God reflects the rejection of another dualism, God vs. creation. Pagitt stresses that we are “in” God because we are physical beings in a holistic web. Moreover, he and Bell claim that God is energy, the life-giving force in all creation. Given Einstein’s equation that e=mc2, Pagitt makes the connection that the physical creation is embedded in God, who is energy/matter too.[13] This is a significant shift from a traditional theistic view to a panentheistic one.[14]

If we are not separated from God due to sin, then the solution to our sin must change too. No longer do we need an atoning, penal substitutionary sacrifice for our sins, for as Tony Jones rightly understands, this doctrine is linked to a view that we are a body-soul unity. Instead, if we are physical beings, and we already are in God, then we do not need to be born from above, by the Spirit (John 3:3-8; Ezek. 36:24-27). Instead, we need to work ethically now on our relationships and live out the story of Jesus. Therefore, Christ’s atonement can be redefined as an example to follow, or perhaps as something we imitate.[15]

McLaren also argues that Roman and modern thought stressed the superiority of one group versus another. This mindset led to colonialism and imperialism, and he believes it finds an extension even in Christians’ thinking that Jesus is the exclusive way to God. Just as nations sought to conquer and control others, so too have many Christians today sought to impose their interpretation of the gospel onto others. However, he finds this approach to be coercive and threatening, not loving, and even misguided.[16] A major reason is not just ethical. For him, heaven vs. hell is another dualism we have inherited that is deeply mistaken and imperialistic.

We can observe quickly two reasons for this rejection of hell as a place of eternal punishment. First, it makes no sense for God to destroy some people in hell if they already are in relationship with him, as we saw above. Second, it is immoral for God to be violent, according to Bell and McLaren.[17] They recoil at the prospects that a God who can be incredibly loving can suddenly, in a blink of an eye, become cruel and vicious. To them, God’s being able to torture people in hell is incompatible with God’s goodness.

Now that we have surveyed some of their mature thought and have seen how that leads them toward universal salvation, I briefly will assess those views.

Who are we really?

I think that McLaren and others rightly observe that Christians can be so focused on being sure that souls go to heaven when they die that they can miss out on the joy and power of living with him today. Unwittingly, this view can imply a more Gnostic kind of idea that the soul needs to escape the flesh, which is bad and unbiblical.[18]

However, if we are but physical beings, then there will be no hope of life after death. On this view, at any time, I am identical to the set of physical properties that constitute me. Moreover, for sets to be identical, they have to have the same members. Yet, the set of properties that constituted “me” ten years ago is not the same as “my” set now. I have changed, such as having less hair, and I have published a few books in that time frame. Thus, the one who was “me” ten years ago no longer exists, having been replaced by a new person.

The implications for the resurrection are vast. Though I trusted Christ in 1978 and received then the promise of eternal life, that person changed and therefore no longer exists. Instead, another person has replaced him. Therefore, the person who was promised eternal life will not be the one who receives it. Yet, suppose McLaren replies that the sameness of my story will enable me to be the same person. Still, that appeal will not work either, for a narrative is just a set of linguistic parts (sentences, paragraphs, chapters) that are used to tell the story of my life. If it does not have an essence (and nothing does on a physicalist view), then my story cannot preserve my identity and my hope of eternal life.

On the other hand, the soul solves this problem of one’s personal identity through time and change, and thus we can be resurrected and inherit eternal life. As my essence, my soul is my set of my essential capacities and properties. I cannot lose or gain any of them and still be the same person. However, as capacities (such as for deep, interpersonal relationships, being virtuous, rational, etc.), I can grow in them. So, the soul is not static; we can grow and change, yet that ability presupposes a fundamental, essential sameness about us, both of which are grounded in the soul.

Moreover, this view of sin as something compatible with the physical fails to do justice to our deep fallenness. No matter how much we work ethically on our relationships, there is a much deeper dimension to our sinfulness than this view allows (e.g., Jer. 17:9). It is precisely because we cannot live up to the standards of God’s righteousness that we need a Savior. I think this view of sin fails to grapple with the incredible depths of depravity we can see in both fellow humans and ourselves. For instance, there are many historical examples that beg the question: how can ordinary human beings perpetrate atrocities?[19] Clay Jones observes from his research on genocide that “every genocide researcher I read concluded that the perpetrators are ordinary people.”[20] Former Soviet gulag prisoner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn raises serious questions that point to the same conclusion:

Where did this wolf-tribe [i.e., officials who torture and murder] appear from among our people? Does it really stem from our own roots? Our own blood? It is our own. And just so we don’t go around flaunting too proudly the white mantle of the just, let everyone ask himself: ‘If my life had turned out differently, might I myself not have become just such an executioner?’ It is a dreadful question if one answers it honestly.[21]

Yet, in a physical world, it seems there is no room for evil. Evil is a way things morally ought not to be. Likewise, goodness is the way things ought to be. Both evil and goodness are prescriptive. However, physical stuff is fundamentally descriptive. By reducing evil (or goodness) to just something physical, we lose morality on this view. Both evil and goodness are prescriptive. However, physical stuff is fundamentally descriptive. By reducing evil (or goodness) to just something physical, we lose morality on this view. Click To Tweet

Worse, all people sin. Yet, on a panentheistic view, in which all people already are in God, sin is in God. That means that God is not truly holy or good. He not only has allowed evil into his presence; he has evil in his being.

Evidently, then, God can tolerate sin and not punish it. This means punishment of sin is optional for God. If so, God does not punish sin due to his nature as being holy and just. Rather, he would punishment only if he wills that. But, then, God’s justice is arbitrary. Unlike traditional orthodoxy, what God wills would not be based on his perfect moral character. Yet, such a “God” is not worthy of worship and even could be dangerous. This “God” could blow up in rage and violence, for there are no intrinsic restraints on what he could will as just and right.

A matter of interpretation?

What about the idea that we all work from our limited standpoints and have our different interpretations of God, and that our fundamental need is moral transformation? First, this depiction of our need misses what is actually the case, as I just tried to describe. Second, though, the claim that we never have access to reality as it is apart from our interpretations is demonstrably false. For one, if it were true, there would not be a way to get started with interpretations. For if all our access to reality requires interpretation, then there is nothing that simply is given to us – everything is interpretation. However, if so, what then are we interpreting? Another interpretation? In addition, what is it of? It seems if we cannot ever access something that simply is given in reality, then we are on a never-ending regress of interpretations, a process that we cannot even start.

For another, consider Saul of Tarsus and his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. If this theory is correct, Saul could not have experienced Jesus as Lord, for as a Pharisee, he had no such concept. Yet, he claimed that Jesus appeared to him, and as a result, Saul believed in Him as Lord. How could that happen? On this theory, Saul could not have shed his interpretive lenses and experienced Jesus for who he truly is. Where then did he get this concept that he is Lord? It seems it could happen in only one way: he saw the Lord for who he truly is.

Does this mean that Saul could have a perspective that was blind-to-nothing, or exhaustive? No, he still was finite and fallible. Yet, it seems he still could see Jesus for who he is, and on that basis, he formed the interpretation that he is Lord, and so he trusted in Him.[22]


Based on these emergent views, is the traditional, orthodox understanding of the gospel imperialistic or simply mistaken? Neither if our true need is that we are deeply sinful from our hearts and separated from God, and he is truly holy, just, and loving. Rather, the gospel meets our deepest need, to be forgiven by God and be reconciled to him. However, the Universalism we have seen in progressives like McLaren and these “emergents” undermines the gospel and changes it into another gospel, one that is not even good news.



[1] For example, they now write for major publishers, such as HarperOne, and not evangelical ones. Bell has been featured on Oprah Winfrey’s network, and Jones earned his PhD and teaches in theology.

[2] Panentheism is a view that creation is embedded, or integrated, in God’s being. It is not pantheism, in which everything is God.

[3] For a much more detailed treatment, please see my Authentically Emergent: In Search of a Truly Progressive Christianity (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2018).

[4] E.g., see his essay, “A Pluralist’s View,” in Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World, ed. Dennis Ockholm and Timothy Phillips (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 27-59.

[5] E.g., Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 63. See also his Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World (New York: Jericho Books, 2012).

[6] McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, e.g., 34-44. See also Doug Pagitt, A Christianity Worth Believing (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008) e.g., 41-45.

[7] On a traditional, Aristotelian-Thomistic understanding of body-soul dualism, we are a unity of body and soul, and the soul is our essential nature. For more, see J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 1st. ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), ch. 11, esp. 232.

[8] Brian McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 3, 78. See also Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 33, 40, 48, 51, 59. Also, see Pagitt, A Christianity Worth Believing, 114.

[9] McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, 43.

[10] They adopt this from Nancey Murphy’s work, as well as others. While they might have room for emergent, mental properties from the brain, these still are completely dependent upon the physical brain. See Scott R. Burson, “Apologetics and the New Kind of Christian: An Arminian Analysis of Brian D. McLaren’s Emergent Reconstruction of the Faith” (Ph.D. diss., Brunel University, 2014) 129; McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, 175-76; Bell, What We Talk About When We Talk About God (New York: HarperOne, 2013), 51-52, 58, 62; and Pagitt, A Christianity Worth Believing, ch. 8. See also Pagitt’s essay, “The Emerging Church and Embodied Theology,” in Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches, ed. Robert Webber (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 142. Moreover, in his e-mail dated February 28, 2006, Tony Jones remarked to me that he thought Nancey Murphy’s nonreductive physicalism is the best explanation for the Old Testament’s emphasis upon the unity of persons.

[11] See McLaren’s story about Kerry and God’s “re-membering” her story and moments in The Story We Find Ourselves In (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003), 154. See also Joel Green, Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 179.

[12] Pagitt, A Christianity Worth Believing, 124, 127; McLaren, Why Did Jesus? 108-9; Scott Burson, Brian McLaren in Focus: A New Kind of Apologetics (Abilene: Abilene Christian University Press, 2016), 138-41; and Tony Jones, A Better Atonement: Beyond the Depraved Doctrine of Original Sin, Kindle ed. (Minneapolis: The JoPa Group, 2012), locations 99-101, 106-7, 242-43, and 501-5.

[13] Doug Pagitt, Flipped: The Provocative Truth that Changes Everything We Know About God, Kindle ed. (New York: Convergent, 2015), 151. For Bell on God as energy, see Love Wins, 146.

[14] See Pagitt, A Christianity Worth Believing, 88, 90-91, and Flipped, e.g., 14, 151, 156, 159. See also Bell, What We Talk About, 108, 186-87, and Love Wins, 98, 155. For Jones, see The Church is Flat: The Relational Ecclesiology of the Emerging Church Movement. Kindle ed. (Minneapolis: The JoPa Group, 2011), 164-66. For a discussion of panentheism and McLaren, see my Authentically Emergent, 33.

[15] Compare René Girard’s imitation theory, which McLaren and Jones use to explain our sinful actions, and Jones uses for the atonement. See McLaren, Why Did Jesus, 108; Burson, Brian McLaren in Focus, 138-41; and Jones, A Better Atonement, locations 533–35. For Girard on mimetic desire, see his Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, transl. Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer (Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 1987), and his Violence and the Sacred, transl. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1979).

[16] For instance, see his More Ready Than You Realize (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), e.g., 41-42, 48, 148.

[17] Bell, Love Wins, 173-75; McLaren, e.g., The Secret Message of Jesus, 17, 18, 23. See also McLaren’s email to me, cited in Authentically Emergent, 48.

[18] This idea trades in part upon a confusion of two senses of the English word “flesh” in Scripture. “Flesh” can mean the real, physical body, as in Jesus’ coming in the flesh (1 John 4:2). However, that usage does not have any sense of something sinful. Yet, “flesh” also can mean the sinful propensities in human beings (e.g., Rom 13:14). These two uses must be clearly distinguished.

[19] For example, see Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 139. See also my discussion in Authentically Emergent, 143-47, and Clay Jones, Why Does God Allow Evil? (Eugene: Harvest House, 2017).

[20] Jones, “We Don’t Take Human Evil Seriously,” (2009), 11.

[21] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago: 1918–1956, Vol. 1 (Boulder: Westview, 1974), 160.

[22] There are other examples I have given to help show that we can have access to reality itself. E.g., see my In Search of Moral Knowledge: Overcoming the Fact-Value Dichotomy (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014), ch. 12.

Image credit: Michael Cheval: Lullaby of Uncle Magritte

Scott Smith

Scott Smith received his Ph.D. in Religion and Social Ethics from the University of Southern California and serves as a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University. He is the author of Authentically Emergent: In Search of a Truly Progressive Christianity (Cascade Books, 2018), and other books and essay. Smith has written extensively on the truth claims of the emergent church movement.

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