In the latitudinarian climate of contemporary Evangelicalism, universalism is becoming an acceptable option. And among modern proponents of universalism, Richard Bell may be the most erudite. Here are two summaries of his position:
“Richard Bell, a New Testament scholar and priest formed in the evangelical Anglican tradition, has developed his earlier Pauline studies to argue in a recent paper on Romans 5:18-19 that since Paul believes all human beings participate both in Adam’s sin and Christ’s ‘righteous act,’ a universal salvation is affirmed there. This is, claims Bell, ‘the natural reading of the text and the context supports it.’ Indeed, Bell goes on to suggest that these two verses do not bear an isolated witness to universalism: as he puts it, ‘2 Cor 5:19 speaks of God being in Christ, reconciling the world to himself [and] Phil 2:11 says every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.’ Bell concedes, however, that such universalist teaching is ‘clearly at variance’ with other parts of Romans—most notably 11:25-32, which implies the condemnation of at least some Gentiles, even while affirming a full salvation of Jews,” R. Parry & Christopher Partridge, eds. Universal Salvation? The Current Debate (Eerdmans 2004), 236-37.
“Bell concludes regarding Israel that ‘the whole nation, including every single member’ will be saved by faith in Jesus at his second coming (261-65). Moreover, he argues that ‘Israelites from every age will believe in the Christ when they see him coming again in his glory’ (265).”
“As for material that appears to contradict his conclusion, Bell argues that ‘the views expressed in 1 Thes. 2.13-16 on the Jews cannot be reconciled with Romans 9-11’ (61), that Paul changed his mind on Israel between Galatians and Romans (176 n. 95) ‘from a substitution model to one where Israel’s election remains firm’ (315), that Galatians implies ‘a substitution model . . . that the Church of Jews and Gentiles replaces Israel’ (179), that ‘2 Corinthians, like Philippians, does not seem to put forward an explicit substitution model’ (184), that Romans 2:25–29 does not support a ‘substitution model’ because ‘Paul is not concerned with Christians but with pious Jews and Gentiles’ (196), that while ‘Most of the New Testament seems to support a substitution model’ (313) this is not the ‘mature’ (315) view presented in Romans 9–11, ‘But after Romans the tradition history “degenerates.” So Ephesians is clearly a development of Pauline theology…But on the Israel question there appears to be a regression’ (317)...In response to the progression-regression he sees in the Pauline materials, Bell writes, ‘some form of Sachkritik (theological criticism) is going to be inevitable’ (320).”
This is noteworthy in several respects:
i) If this is the best case that such an erudite scholar can make for universalism, then what does that tell you about the fortunes of universalism?
ii )Apropos (i), he can only make his case by admittedly pitting one set of verses against another. Put another way, he can only affirm universalism by denying the inerrancy of Scripture.
But that’s a pretty pyrrhic victory. If you can only argue for universalism from Scripture by rejecting the inspiration of Scripture, then universalism cannot claim to be a revealed truth. It’s merely Paul’s opinion, and not even a consistent opinion at that.
iii) That said, “Evangelical” universalists are unwittingly performing a service to the truth. And that’s because they’re edging out the Arminian option. Arminians have their prooftexts for universal atonement, but they can only quote their prooftexts by driving an artificial wedge between universal atonement and universal salvation.
Arminian exegesis represents a mediating position, an intellectual compromise, and universalism is putting the squeeze on that unstable halfway measure. The Arminian is the only one without a chair when the music stops.