Review: Flames of Love

March 24th, 2013

Is universal salvation a watered-down, anti-biblical concept that strikes at the core of Christian life and practice? Or is it a legitimate alternative to the doctrine of eternal damnation?

Pastor and author Heath Bradley embraces a “hopeful belief” that the latter is true. With Flames of Love: Hell and Universal Salvation, he ventures into hotly contested territory, exploring from a mainline point of view a topic popularized by evangelical authors such as Rob Bell and Francis Chan.

But universal salvation—the notion that God will ultimately bring into his eternal kingdom every person who has ever lived—is not, as some suggest, a novel concept created by weak-stomached liberals. It is, according to Bradley, a possibility advanced by a number of early Christian leaders, including Origen and Gregory of Nyssa. Those who point to “tradition” as a primary reason to reject universal salvation ignore the diversity of belief that existed before Christianity was incorporated into the Roman Empire.

On this foundation, Bradley builds the argument that universal salvation is not only far from heresy, but also the most sensible conclusion when faithful readers examine the Bible both carefully and logically. He does not deny the reality of hell, whether on earth or as some form of temporary punishment. Rather, he denies the finality of hell for those created by an all-powerful God characterized by all-powerful love.

Bradley seems well aware that his view is not the majority opinion, nor is it the only valid possibility. He also cites annihilationism (that non-Christians are given no afterlife) and eternal conscious punishment (a real and eternal hell) as rational interpretations of the Scriptures and Christian tradition. And, more importantly, he acknowledges the passionate backlash by many modern Christians against universal salvation. Still, he asserts, the latter is the most coherent option among the three.

Once he has made his argument for universal salvation, Bradley addresses six major charges often levied against his view, including the arguments that universalists reject the Bible and deny human freedom. He responds to each of these charges not with fiery rhetoric or accusations, but with respectful conversation that fairly explains his detractors’ position while still holding firm to his own.

Bradley’s ability to balance his passion and keen intellectual insight with his commitment to respectful conversation is one of the greatest strengths of Flames of Love. He models the kind of fair-play debate lacking in much of American life—including church life. In the end, his concern is not so much winning everyone over to his interpretation, but in convincing his readers that universal salvation is a concept that should be taken seriously by thoughtful Christians.

Although Flames of Love is an intellectual book heavy on logic and philosophy, Bradley’s prose is clear and quite readable. Small groups and individuals may have to expend more energy to understand this book than they might for lighter studies. However, the payoff in expanded knowledge and challenging ideas is more than enough to make Flames of Love a worthy read.

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