I think universalism is a minor heresy SO LONG AS it does not interfere with evangelism. (See my earlier post here about why universalism should NOT interfere with evangelism.) I also evaluate the seriousness of universalism by its context–viz., why does the person affirm it? If universalism is evidence of a denial of God’s wrath and/or human sinfulness, then it is much more serious. Barth’s universalism (yes, I believe Karl Barth was a universalist and I’ll post a message here about why later) did not arise out of those denials which is why he didn’t like the appellation “universalist.” The term is usually associated with liberal theology. In that case, as part of an overall liberal/modernist theology, I consider it very serious indeed.
I’m against universalism. Universalism is, in my opinion, if there is such a thing as heresy, is the very definition of the word. Why? Because in universalism which teaches that all will be saved, the point of teaching, growing, and reaching people – the very point of the Cross becomes muted to a dangerously low level, empowering the myth that all religions, like all people, are created equal.
I cannot call it a minor heresy, really, because it, in my opinion, dismisses the Cross of Christ and forces God into an action which He has no control over.
The hype devoted to this book was not worth it, and I suspect, had John Piper not tweeted his now-infamous tweet (Farewell, Rob Bell), not much would have been said about it. It was a poorly exegeted sermon full of half quotes, assumptions, out of context statements, proof texting, and hope. Bell barely scratches the surface of the Scripture and in the end, leaves us only with a few catch phrases which, as I put down the book, finished, they escape my attention.
The prose is simply beautiful. It is a sermon captured in poetic form, filled with stanzas, choruses, quotable quotes, and narratives and narrations. Love Wins is the fruit of a sermon delivered a few years ago at Bell’s Michigan church, and I would imagine much of it remains. If you have watched a video of Bell, or heard Bell in any way, his voice and delivery will be stuck in your head and as you read this work, often times, supplanting your own. This is a high point of the book, as it allows the reader to pick the book up, and within no time, reach the meat of the subject, find him or herself so enthralled with it, that before they know it, they have closed the back cover. Give Bell credit for his ability to spin words. His musical background comes forward well in his writing style.
There is nothing in this book which has not been covered before, either by early Christian writers, von Balthasar, Wright or Willimon. To compare Bell to Origen, however, is unfair, as what Bell has done is to take pastoral concerns and questions and instead of giving the answer of a seasoned theologian, sang a sermon. Where as Wright (not a universalist) supports his theological notions with exegetical work, Bell leaves much of his foundation as something to be assumed or guessed at. His ability to cite or source his thoughts is nothing short than a first semester seminarian. Noting his background at Wheaton and Fuller, I am surprised that he lacks what seems to be the ability to connect his thoughts and words to solid, supported, theology and give any support to himself other than pulls words out of thin air and placing them on paper (or, perhaps, a computer screen). For example, he mentions an ancient belief of universal reconciliation among such towering figures as Origen, Clement of Alexandria and Gregory of Nyssa (p107) and yet, there are not statements or sources of statements by those early Christian writers to judge Bell’s thoughts by. Further, on the opposite page, Bell quotes Martin Luther who is seemingly suggesting that God could, after death, give someone faith to believe and thus be reconciled to God. Yet, upon further research, this thought is adamantly opposed by Luther, not in another letter or work, but in the very same letter mentioned by Bell, and within just a line or two. We are led to just trust his Greek (p91) and history, especially when it comes to Gehenna. What is equally bothersome is Bell’s quoting of Scripture. Generally, it is a chapter. Not a chapter and a verse, but merely a chapter. When you issue ‘new’ theological statements or seek to challenge, at the very least, long standing ones, you must endeavor to be as scriptural and exegetically correct as possible. Finally, his use of Scripture amounts to little more than proof-texting, in which he gives lists of verses to support his stance, which is nothing more than a topical use of Scripture. Bell simply provides no support for his thoughts and again, I turn to the fact that this is not a theological work, but a sermon simply fleshed out and placed on paper for all to read.
As I have said, this book is pastoral. Rob Bell is, simply, a pastor. His writing exudes a pastor’s plight to deal with questions, prejudices, and misunderstandings of the Christian faith. As he notes in the introductory video and is found on the pages of this book, Christianity in the West has come to present the Gospel as a story in which Jesus rescues a small group of believers from a very wrathful God who has no other intention but to see people burn. This is not a fundamental aspect of Christianity, but it is our fault for not presenting Christianity properly. Bell is also correct that often times, we posit Christianity as an us-them, with the ‘us’ aspect of that relationship becoming a very arrogant stance. His care and concern for the Gospel and for people come across, but so does his refusal to take a stance on a very key issue in the debate on universal reconciliation, and that of the image of God. He only asks questions, which seems to be both the highlight and the methodology of his theological inquiry. Further, he is correct that Christians set boundaries which are not present in scripture, and most notable is that damnable prayer which many have taken as the be-all, end-all, of the Christian experience and the only boundary one needs. He expresses, more than adequately, the correct stance that often times the bible has confusing standards of what is required to be a believer, and that perhaps, he suggests and I paraphrase, we are more boundary specific than Scripture. Again, his pastoral concern is that we do not so easily set boundaries on who will be saved but allow that Christ may be working a mystery which we simply have no clue as to the end goal. Further, what he really expresses is that Christians will become Christians and show forth the love of God to every creature.
This book does not alleviate anyone from their sin or their final destination. The Gospel Coalition, John Piper, and others who so easily cast Bell aside for the mere title of this book have done a grave injustice to themselves and Bell, a Christian brother. Frankly, I was expecting justification for universalism or universal reconciliation. Instead, I found only the pastoral hope that Christ’s love is bigger than one set of doctrinal and dogmatic standards. What this book does is call for a relaxed understanding of the inclusivity found in Christ’s exclusivity. As a blogger who initially defended Bell against those who were accusing him of all sorts of heresies, I find that my original position was correct. Those who seek to make a judgment about Bell and his book should do so after they read it, and without any preconceived notions, as much as possible, about what Bell is saying.
This book will reach those who want something easy to read, but for those who seek something more in-depth, there are a host of books which deal with this topic more theologically.
In reading Rob Bell‘s book, Love Wins. he mentions Sodom as a symbol of how God’s purpose in destruction is redemption.
I will restore their fortunes, the fortune of Sodom and her daughters and of Samaria and her daughters (and I will restore your fortune along with them), that you may bear your shame and be disgraced for all the comfort you brought them. Yes, your sisters, Sodom and her daughters, Samaria and her daughters, shall return to their former state (you and your daughters shall return to your former state). (Eze 16:53-55 NAB)
So, here is the question then. If God promises to restore Sodom to her former glory, after of course, purging her, by fire, of all of her sins – as He did with Israel numerous times – can we count on sinners being purged and then being restored?
In his book, Love Wins, Rob Bell, quotes Luther’s letter is Hans von Rechenberg. Here is the text from Martin Luther’s letter to Hans Von Rechenberg. Bell’s Quote (108):
In a letter Martin Luther, one of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, wrote to Hans von Rechenberg in 1522 he considered the possibility that people could turn to God after death, asking: “Who would doubt God’s ability to do that?”
Luther’s Letter in Context
If God were to save anyone without faith, he would be acting contrary to his own words and would give himself the lie; yes, he would deny himself. And that is impossible for, as St. Paul declares, God cannot deny himself [II Tim. 2:13]. It is as impossible for God to save without faith as it is impossible for divine truth to lie. That is clear, obvious, and easily understood, no matter how reluctant the old wineskin is to hold this wine—yes, is unable to hold and contain it.
It would be quite a different question whether God can impart faith to some in the hour of death or after death so that these people could be saved through faith. Who would doubt God’s ability to do that? No one, however, can prove that he does do this. For all that we read is that he has already raised people from the dead and thus granted them faith. But whether he gives faith or not, it is impossible for anyone to be saved without faith. Otherwise every sermon, the gospel, and faith would be vain, false, and deceptive, since the entire gospel makes faith necessary. (Works, 43, ed. and trans. G. Wienke and H. T. Lehmann [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968], 53-54; WA 10.ii, 324.25-325.11)
Well, that’s a problem, Rob. Try as I might to like your book and you, when you take things out of context and actually use it wrongly, you lose me. Thus far, I have found Bell to be a poor exegete and a proof-texter. He is pastoral, no doubt, but for my mind, I need sources and supported thoughts. Don’t just tell me what the Scriptures say; tell me why you think they say what you think they say and further, tell me that you are not along in this.
You don’t have to agree with Luther to see that Bell took the quote out of context.
When I first began exploring the radical, scandalous, and often controversial theological position that God may in the end save everyone I was quickly, in short order, provided with all the scriptural reasons why this cannot and will not be the case. There are indeed many texts that would seem to suggest a limited salvation and a heaven with limited population without traffic woes. Many of these passages which restrict God’s universal salvation come from the book of Revelation. They are perhaps the most explicit and most dire in language and therefore make for good fodder if not succeeding in bringing all discussion on the matter to an abrupt halt. In the following paper I wish to discuss the two most compelling passages in Revelation that damn any hope of universal salvation. We will look at them through the eyes of a few interpreters, scholars from a wide array of theological moorings. By doing this it will be evident that there is room for honest disagreement here. Following a brief survey of these two passages I will suggest how these might relate to the many other passages which suggest the exact opposite – that God does indeed intend to save all of creation (passages that detractors of universal salvation rarely cite). What does Revelation as a whole tell us about God’s ultimate plan for the universe? That is a question worth a lifetime of reflection.
Unlike Mounce and others (LaHaye, etc) who see Revelation as providing doctrine, Caird, Boring and J.P. Sweet warn against using John’s prophetic imagery to construe a black and white world.
I tend to think it highly suspect when you lump Mounce in with the kind of garbage LeHaye puts out. I’m not saying that Chad is doing this on purpose, if placing LeHaye next to Mounce taints Mounce a bit. Further, whether you are using Revelation to promote hell, eschatology, the Gospel (my favorite), or universalism, you are using it for doctrine, even if you say you aren’t.