Posted by: Jack Brown | March 26, 2011

Heavengate

You can know nothing of the end of all things, or nothing expressible in those terms.  It may be, as the Lord said to Lady Julian, that all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.  But it’s ill talking of such questions.”

“Because they are too terrible, Sir?”

“No.  Because all answers deceive.”

C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

This whole Rob Bell thing began with a question: “Has Rob Bell become a Universalist?”  The promotional materials for Love Wins indicated a shift in that direction, and that was all it took.  I haven’t seen an onslaught of negative response from the evangelical community like that since The Da Vinci Code came out, only this time the target wasn’t a formulaic thriller novelist with a bitter grudge against the Catholic church (who still manages to keep me turning pages)…this time the target was one of our own.  And the vitriol was just about as nasty as it could be.

Part of the problem, as I see it, is that the word “Universalist” has at the same time a very simple meaning and a very complex meaning.  The very simple meaning is that it’s a belief everyone will make it into heaven: nobody gets left behind (somewhere, Tim LaHaye just shuddered a little bit).  The more complex nuances of Universalism kick into gear when you start talking about how everyone eventually makes it into heaven.  There are actually quite a few different ways to understand that. Here are just a couple of possibilities:

  1. All religions are equally valid ways to seek God, therefore all people will be welcomed into heaven on the basis of their earnest and sincere desire to follow God.  Additionally, atheists and agnostics will be excused for their lack of faith, and perhaps even applauded for their lack of conformity, so they will also “make it.”
  2. Jesus Christ is the way to eternal life, and after death some people will find themselves separated from God by their own choice to reject him.  The good news is that God will continue to pursue them even there, and eventually they will find it impossible to resist that love.  Sooner or later everyone embraces Christ and is welcomed into the kingdom.

In the end, both of these scenarios end up the same (heaven:full, hell:empty), but the differences are worth noting.  Option One is a broad, multi-faith Universalism.  Option Two is what could be termed “Christian Universalism.”

What’s interesting about this second option is that you can still hold to Christ as the unique revelation of God and the only way to the kingdom, and also still hold to the hope that everyone will eventually will find their way to faith.  That’s different than an “all faiths (even lack thereof) are valid” approach.  As I said, it’s a “Christian Universalism,” which may sound oxymoronic but has actually been around for some time.  And when people first heard “Rob Bell is a Universalist,” my guess is they jumped to the first definition and assumed that Bell teaches in Love Wins that all faiths are equally valid and God just scoops everyone up into heaven when they die.  That’s not where Bell is coming from.  In fact, he openly rejects that line of thinking.  Instead, he suggests option two as a “better story” than the traditional Christian theology of heaven and hell.

That language…a “better story“…is an interesting choice by Bell.  He doesn’t really “teach” Christian Universalism in this book.  What he does is more subtle: he suggests it.  He points out that it’s been around for a long time, and that many in the historic faith have held to some form of it.  He says things like “There is a long tradition of Christians who believe that God will ultimately restore everything and everybody” and “At the center of the Christian tradition since the first church have been a number who insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God.”  He doesn’t come right out and say “This is the way it works,” or “This is what I believe.”  Instead he suggests it, he longs for it (as have people like Billy Graham and Pope John Paul II), and he points out that he thinks it’s a much more appealing version of Christianity than what most churches seem to proclaim.

On top of that, Rob Bell also holds out the possibility that some might never respond to God, even if given all of eternity to do so.  He writes: “So will those who have said no to God’s love in this life continue to say no in the next?  Love demands freedom, and freedom provides that possibility.  People take that option now, and we can assume it will be taken in the future.”  A strict Universalist, I think, would not hold out that possibility.

So is Rob Bell a Universalist?  He certainly talks like a Christian Universalist, and he makes it pretty clear that he finds it more attractive than other options out there.  But he stops short of endorsing it fully and signing his name on the dotted line.  It’s like he takes you to an art museum, drags you over to a particular painting on the wall, describes it in really appealing terms, then asks you, “Isn’t that the most beautiful painting you’ve ever seen?”…all without explicitly stating if he likes it our not. That may be a strategic move on his part, or maybe it simply reflects an honest understanding that we can’t figure out all the answers in this life, as Lewis suggests in The Great Divorce.  I don’t know…I can’t see into Rob Bell’s heart.

But I can see into my own.  And like Bell and many others, I also long to believe that all humanity will be reconciled to God.  But when I read the words of Jesus himself, I can’t bring myself to embrace a theology of Universalism, Christian or not.  When I turn to Matthew 25, I find a picture of eternity that indicates not everyone is welcomed into the kingdom.  And when I turn to history and look at names like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Amin…the list goes on and on…I find myself strongly resisting the thought that everyone is welcomed into the kingdom. And I am very much aware that such thoughts have serious implications and raise serious questions about who God is, how God works, and how I talk about God. My next post will dive into that as we examine how Rob Bell talks about God in Love Wins.

Before I close though, I feel I should entertain one more question about this whole eternity thing: Could I be wrong?  Absolutely.  I’d be a fool not to admit that. After all, to quote one of my favorite movies, Rudy:

Son, in 35 years of religious study, I have only come up with two hard incontrovertible facts: there is a God, and I’m not Him.

In the end I have to trust that judgment, eternity, and the scope of kingdom welcome are in God’s hands, not mine.  Any answer about eternity I try to achieve while bound here in time will ultimately deceive.  And I can live with that.  For now.

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