I told the USA TODAY reporter that Rob Bell’s newly released Love Wins is a fine book and that I basically agree with his theology. I knew that the book was being widely criticized for having crossed the theological bridge from evangelical orthodoxy into universalism. Not true, I told the reporter. Rob Bell is calling us away from a stingy orthodoxy to a generous orthodoxy.
Let me say it clearly: I am not a universalist. I believe hell as a condition in the afterlife is real, and that it will be occupied. I think Rob believes that too. But he is a creative communicator who likes to prod, and even tease us a bit theologically. Suppose, he likes to say, we go up to someone and tell them that God loves them and sent Jesus to die for their sins. Accept Jesus right now, we say, because if ten minutes from now you die without accepting this offer God will punish you forever in the fires of hell. What kind of God are we presenting to the person? Suppose we told someone that their human father has a wonderful gift for them, offered out of love for them—and then we add that, by the way, if they reject the gift that same father will torment them as long as they live. What would we think of such a father? Good question, I think.
If I were given the assignment of writing a careful theological essay on “The Eschatology of Rob Bell,” I would begin by laying out the basics of C. S. Lewis’s perspective on heaven and hell. Lewis held that we are created for a relationship with God as human beings who bear the divine image. When we rebel against God and commit ourselves to evil ways, we move further away from this positive relationship with God—and, thereby, further and further away from our humanity. Our ultimate destiny, then, if we do not change directions, is to cease to be human: we end up as monsters who have chosen to live in an outer darkness, removed from God and from other humans.
So, here is Rob Bell: people who refuse a “vital connection with the living God” are given over to a “kind of life [that] is less and less connected with God” (Love Wins, 66). And this is no mere theoretical state of affairs, “because it is absolutely vital that we acknowledge that love, grace and humanity can be rejected”(my italics)—and if so, “God gives us what we want, and if that’s hell, we can have it” (72).
And I certainly do believe that some folks choose that hell. The Hitler types. The man who kidnaps young girls and sells them into sexual slavery. They are well on their way to hell, to becoming inhuman monsters. To be sure, as the hymn rightly reminds us: “The vilest offender who truly believes/ that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.” But for those who persist in their wicked ways, eternal separation is the natural outcome of all the choices they have made along the way.
In a book I wrote several years ago defending the basics of a Calvinist perspective, I told about an elderly rabbi friend who struck me as a very godly person. He would often write to tell me that he was praying for me and my family. When he died, I said, I held out the hope that when he saw Jesus he would acknowledge that it was Him all along, and that Jesus would welcome him into the heavenly realm.
Some folks zeroed in on that one story to condemn me as a heretic. I find their attitude puzzling. Maybe they think that folks like Rob Bell and me go too far in the direction of leniency, but what about folks who go in the other direction? I just received an angry email from someone who pulled a comment out of something I wrote a few years ago in Christianity Today. A prominent evangelical had criticized those of us who have been in a sustained dialogue with Catholics for giving the impression that a person can be saved without having the right theology about justification by faith. My response to that: of course a person can be saved without having the right theology of justification by faith. A straightforward question: Did Mother Theresa go to hell? My guess is that she was a little confused about justification by faith alone. If you think that means she went to hell, I have only one response: shame on you.
Why don’t folks who criticize Rob Bell for wanting to let too many people in also go after people like that who want to keep too many people out? Why are we rougher on salvific generosity than on salvific stinginess?
In August 2006, Newsweek did an extensive report on an interview with Billy Graham. Graham made it clear that he is still firmly confident that Jesus is the only way to salvation. When asked, though, about the destiny of “good Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or secular people,” Billy had this to say: “Those are decisions only the Lord will make. It would be foolish for me to speculate on who will be there and who won’t … I don’t want to speculate about all that. I believe the love of God is absolute. He said he gave his son for the whole world, and I think he loves everybody regardless of what label they have.”
Billy Graham is no universalist. But he has come to a theology of salvific generosity, a perspective that he combines with a passionate proclamation of the message that Jesus alone is the Way, the Truth and the Life. For me—and I am convinced for Rob Bell—it doesn’t get any better than that!