Flames of Love
I have just finished reading Flames of Love: Hell and Universal Salvation (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2012) by Heath Bradley, a United Methodist elder in Arkansas.
It is a very well-written defence of Christian universalism with the middle-level reader in mind. Bradley engages a set of common objections to universalism and uses them as a means of exploring what universalism does (and does not) entail, of showing why it does not fall foul of the objections, and of arguing that it actually has the advantage over the more mainstream views of hell.
After a helpful introduction in which Bradley sets out the reasons why we need to revisit the question of hell (namely, that the mainstream ideas in the tradition are deeply problematic for a whole host of reasons) he considers are the following objections to universalism:
1. Universalists don't believe in hell
2. Universalists don't believe the Bible
3. Universalists deny human freedom
4. Universalists think all religions are equally true
5. Universalism undermines evangelism
6. Universalism undermines holy living
With a gracious manner, an engaging writing style, and clear thinking he makes a good case for his conclusions.
I especially appreciated his generous and sympathetic treatment of religious pluralism (a view that he argues is deeply mistaken). I would have been more inclined to blast it but I felt corrected by Bradley's gentler, though uncompromising, engagement with it.
I also really breathed a sigh of relief at his recognition of just how limited and hemmed in our freedom really is. It seems to me that theologians often seem to work with some idealized notion of human freedom that does not take seriously enough the experienced reality of our freedom and its limits. (Echoes of Marilyn Adams on this same issue.)
I did not agree with everything in the book. For instance, I do not think that Bradley is correct to claim that universalism must be inclusivist rather than exclusivist. In part his conclusion on this matter is based on too narrow an understanding of what exclusivism is. To my mind exclusivism is simply the view that one must explicitly place one's faith in Christ to be saved. That view is compatible with universalism. But Bradley understands exclusivism to also include the claim that one must place one's faith in Christ before death in order to be saved. Obviously that view does exclude universalism. But I see no reason why an exclusivist HAS to add the "before death" qualification (even if, in practice, most do).
This is not to say that I am an exclusivist — in fact, I am very sympathetic to inclusivism (though open to the possibility of exclsivism) — merely that I think one could be an exclusivist and a universalist.
But that was a minor issue.
In conclusion: a clear, engagingly written, well argued, heart warming, and pretty convincing defence of Christian universalism. Recommended.