Has one of contemporary Christianity’s most popular writers really come out as a universalist?
Rob Bell, pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church, Michigan, best known for his Nooma DVDs, defies categorisation. He refuses to hitch his wagon to any particular theological system and aiming to go where the Bible takes him. But his evangelical critics don’t always like where this leads. They will doubtless write him off following Love Wins, which fails to tick the boxes expected on heaven and hell.
But context is all-important. Even if you, like me, don’t agree with Bell’s conclusions, it has considerable merit as a discussion about these key issues, and as a necessary challenge to some of the approaches taken.
Bell reconsiders the classic message preached in many churches, pointing out that ‘a staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance of anything better.’
He asks uncomfortable questions of those who accept this view. Heaven is often said to be ‘somewhere else’, when in fact the biblical picture is of eternal life beginning now in our relationship with Christ, and leading us to the new heaven and new earth where God comes to live (Revelation 22).
Bell also challenges the eternal torment view of hell. Do we really believe that God, who welcomes us home as a loving father, suddenly becomes a sadistic torturer if someone doesn’t trust Christ? He points to the incomplete and shadowy concepts of the afterlife in the Old Testament. Hell is mentioned just 12 times, 11 by Jesus, and not to threaten the non-believers but often as a warning to the religious.
He writes in his engaging, shortsentence questioning style, persuasively asking us to seriously consider what we believe. His reasoning is, in places, quite brilliant.
The controversial part comes in Chapter 4. He considers the existence of hell in the light of a God who is sovereign, loving and not willing that any should perish. He outlines how scholars respond to this tension, including ‘Christian universalism’, that maybe God will eventually through Christ reconcile to himself all things, including those who have rejected him in their lifetime. He states: ‘Whatever objections a person might have to this story and there are many, one has to admit that it is fitting, proper and Christian to long for what God longs for.’ In other words, wouldn’t we all love it to be true that ‘love wins’ rather than countenance eternal hell for those who reject Christ? Then later: ‘Will everyone be saved or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices? Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions that we are free to leave fully intact.’
Many will be horrified that he suggests ‘tension’ at all. Presumably the ‘many objections’ include key texts such as 2 Thessalonians 1:8-10, Matthew 25:46, Revelation14:11 and 20:10,15, which suggest that this life’s choices are definitive for the next. The book would be much stronger if he had offered an opinion on texts that seem to many to suggest the finality of hell.
It would be sad if Bell was written off for asking such questions, when Christians from Augustine to CS Lewis have also made suggestions that are not so different. I hope he is seen as an ally, not an enemy, who gently challenges us to reconsider whether the gospel we preach is really the one Jesus preached. I don’t believe he has the answer, but equally, I think his critique of some evangelical approaches to this issue is spot on. He asks for grace to be extended to those with the courage to consider these things. Let’s hope ‘love wins’ when it comes to responses to this book.