Waiting for Rob Bell

Whether evangelicalism was paying attention or not, it is now. Universalism, or at least the prospect of it, is the single most significant issue running through the undercurrent of evangelicalism today. This all became clear Saturday when some decided to accuse Rob Bell of universalism on the basis of excerpts of his (not yet released) book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived and on the basis of a video and the book’s description at HarperOne. So, while this new story is about Rob, I want to contend it is even more about the significance of universalism.

My own estimation is that somewhere near 75% of my students, many if not most of them nurtured in the church, are more or less (soft) universalists. They believe in Jesus and see themselves as Christians but don’t find significant problems in God saving Muslims and Buddhists or anyone else on the basis of how God makes such decisions. The Baylor Study of Religion, if my memory is correct, asked a question or two that reveals that an increasing number of American evangelical Christians think the majority of humans will be saved. That’s the issue and Rob Bell had the moxie to write a book about it. He’s rattled cages with his promo video and he will undoubtedly stir the waters in the book.

Many in the evangelical church have happily lived as if universalism is not an issue for good ol’ evangelicals. Those of us with our ears to the ground know better, and that is why I addressed this issue in a chapter in my book One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow. I called that chapter Eternity.Life. I begin by saying I believe in hell, but I want to believe in hell the way Jesus does. And I believe in heaven, but I want to believe in heaven as Jesus does. What Jesus believed about heaven and hell diverges at times from what many Christians think about heaven and hell.

As I wrote that chp and as I listen to this new round of volleys, some of them embarrassing and some of them so over the top and so many of them without having read one word of the book, I keep thinking we need once again to define some terms so I want to sketch a set of simple options. (Then I’ll say a few things about Rob Bell. By the way, we won’t know which of these categories fits Rob until we can read his whole book.)

Which of the following views do you think are “unorthodox”?

Universalism is the general belief that all will be saved, regardless of religious beliefs. The Muslim and the Christian are on the same basic path – and for universalists all will be saved.

Universalism needs to be distinguished from pluralism though as I have sketched “universalism” above there is precious little difference. Pluralism focuses on the legitimacy of each religion and belief system and that each of them prepares a person for final existence with God. For pluralists, there’s no unique saving place for Jesus Christ.

Christian universalism is a bit different: Christian universalism denies pluralism and balder forms of universalism by contending that all can or will be saved, but only through the saving work of Jesus Christ. While many who advocate this fail to recognize that those in other religions simply don’t believe such a thing, and in fact may say they don’t want to be saved through Christ, the Christian universalist confidently trots out the idea that whether they know it or not, God saves through Jesus Christ. But the big point here is that all can and will be saved through Christ.

Evangelical universalism is newer on the block and argues that God saves exclusively through Christ and that those who deny Christ, or who have not heard of Christ, or who have rejected God’s natural revelation to them, will be judged and will experience hell. In other words, these folks believe in hell – though they believe “less” (or as they might say “more”) than the traditionalist. But they believe hell is not eternal but instead temporary and once one has experienced judgment for one’s sins one will have, by the grace of God and through the merits of Christ, the opportunity to respond to the gospel – and this news is so good and God’s offer so gracious that eventually hell will be emptied and all will find redemption in Christ to enjoy God’s salvation forever.

There is yet another version: annihilationism or conditional immortality. This view is traditional in its appeal to evangelism and to the gospel of salvation through Christ alone – it is an exclusive claim – and that those who don’t respond to the gospel will be judged and will experience hell, but that eventually their punishment will run out and they will be utterly destroyed and annihilated and cease from existence. Here one has both a traditional view of hell and, at the same time, some kind of correlation between temporary sins – say 75 years of utter rejection of all things pertaining to what they know of God and Christ – and the experience of justice. When that justice runs its course that person will be utterly extinguished. Instead of an eternal consciousness of separation from God, these folks believe only in an eternal consequences.

Then there’s the traditional view: those who reject Christ, and some believe God’s mercy will be wide enough to include those who have never heard of Christ but have responded to the light they have comprehended (inclusivism) – and there’s latitude here for variations of several sorts, will be judged on the basis of that light. For traditionalists and some inclusivists their number is few so that billions who have not responded to Christ will suffer eternal and conscious separation from God. Some inclusivists would contend that many, if not most, humans will be finally saved.

The pressing issue today is both to comprehend the absolute seriousness of the Christian claim, to realize that the ground has shifted in that many who are associated with evangelicalism simply don’t believe the traditional view and have embraced some kind of universalism, and we need also to understand the options so we can all, one more time, go back to the Bible, to our church traditions, and study all over again —  as if for the first time – what to believe.

Now a word or two about Rob Bell. I don’t know what Rob thinks and I won’t know until I read his book. Too much of what I’m reading on the internet is speculation.

I’m grateful to God that Rob Bell is opening this after-life door and, from what I’m hearing, he’s only looking inside the door to see the prospects of universalism, asking you and me to realize both that we have some thoroughly unbiblical ideas and that we need to rethink this stuff all over again. I don’t expect Rob Bell to say one thing new, though I expect him to say what he says well enough to grab our attention.

Friends, this is an old discussion, and there are some great studies out there. Rob Bell is almost certainly not adding something new, but he’s pushing the door open and saying, “Folks, this vast and massive room of universalism and what’s awaiting us when we die are things we must take much more seriously. The next generation of Christians are pressing upon this door and we better stop and listen and think it through one more time.”

My contention is this: the approach to this generation is not to denounce their questions, which often enough are rooted in a heightened sensitivity to divine justice and compassion, but to probe their questions from the inside and to probe thoughtful and biblically-responsible resolutions. We need to show that their questions about justice and God’s gracious love are not bad questions but good questions that deserve to be explored.

I’ve not read the book, and I don’t trust blurbs or excerpts. Nor do I trust my own judgment of watching a provocative promo video and think I know where he’s going. Nor do I trust those who say they have read the book or parts of the book.

But I’ll tell you this:  Rob Bell is asking my students’ questions on that promo video and then, as you watch the video, he walks away. Rob and his people are artists, and you can read that walking away any way you want – but I’ll wait until I read that book for myself. I hope you do too.

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  • Thank you Scott for a well thought out post
    bless you mate

  • Great stuff! Thanks for organizing the perspectives, Scot. This is a very important issue and I’m glad that it’s being brought to the fore of evangelical circles.

  • Robert A

    I too am awaiting the book from Rob…but I’ll check it out from the library so not to feed the publishing beast that the smart marketing department has developed. 🙂

    As a theologian, I am an exclusivist and happy to talk about why.

    But given the incredible fog around this from conjecture, hyperbole, and marketing I will withhold my thoughts on Rob until I can either talk with him or read his book…clearly its the latter. 🙂

  • Fish

    I don’t know about orthodox vs. unorthodox, but before I was a Christian the traditional concept of Hell was a huge stumbling block. It did not square with my conception of a loving God and seemed to be more based on our inherent human tendencies to join together in groups/societies/organizations and say bad things about the people who aren’t in there with us. It was part and parcel of the hypocrisy I identified as inherent to Christian culture: evil people go to heaven because they were in the club, while good people suffer torture for eternity because they weren’t.

    Part of my journey / decision toward Christ was learning about universalism in its various forms. Geography is destiny, and I’d wager that many of the devout Christians I know would be devout Muslims had they been born in Saudi Arabia. I’m sure they’d disagree, however.

  • Charlie Clauss


    Has anyone taken into account the renewed emphasis on New Creation in the discussion about Hell? Seems like the idea of a New Creation leaves little rooms for some of the older ideas regarding Hell.

    I must admit that my thoughts about New Creation lead me to adopt a conditional immortality. And philosophically, how can we “exist” if we are completely separated from God?

  • Scot, I found this post particularly helpful. Defining these terms in a well thought out manner is very helpful at this point. I plan to read the book and hearing your explanation of these categories will be particularly helpful. Even more important, your reflections are helpful in light of this issue which is important to many people.

  • bbaltrus

    I wrote this yesterday in another blog, but thought it might be helpful here as well. I too will wait for the book.

    I hope that people give a listen to the sermon that Rob gave in 2007 Titled Love Wins (http://sites.google.com/site/curtisklope/RobBell-lovewins.mp3) I try to listen to it at least one or twice a year to re-ground myself.

    If the book is anything like the sermon. There will be a lot of apologizing to Rob.

  • Scot, thank you for writing this post. It is much needed in this conversation. You just saved me an hour writing my own. Well said and well framed.

  • Scot, great overview of the matter… I agree, I believe this is going to be an issue/question that defines the younger Christian community. But most importantly, I appreciate your focus on the “posture” towards this generations questions/concerns. Those that are writing Rob Bell off are simply encouraging and enabling a divide amongst orthodox Christianity and… in a bit of irony, are doing so without any resemblance of “love”. Thanks for continuing to create space for exploration/conversations here and beyond… (and thanks for lunch yesterday) 😉

  • Scot

    THANK YOU for saying this! I don’t know if I’ll agree with Rob or not on this, but I have become so sick and tired of people denouncing other Christians before having heard them. Regardless of what Rob Bell does or does not assert on this issue, there is a bigger issue of charity among believers that is also being aired out.

  • Darryl


    Your contention (bold-print section) is spot-on. Thanks for that.

    And just for kicks, here’s a blurb from someone who HAS read the book. Thought you might be interested.


  • Kenton

    Un-ortho-dox means “not correct thinking” yes?

    So all of the ones I disagree with are “unorthodox”. 🙂

    I’m closest to the Evangelical Universalist, but I wouldn’t define it quite the way you did. I would avoid the term “hell” because of the connotation of fire, demons and pitchforks. “Hell” to me is closer to “purgatory” which Peter Kreeft defined as being heaven’s shower where one cleans up.

  • E.G.

    Annihilationism v. Conditional immortality… I think that there is a bit of a subtle, but important, distinction between the two.

    Annihilationism assumes that the human soul is naturally immortal, so in the end God extinguishes the souls of unbelievers.

    Conditionalists assume that the human soul is naturally mortal, so without Christ the soul/body head to their natural state. God does not act as the destroyer of unbelievers, but the nurturer of believers.

    Am I correct?

  • thank you for this, Scot!

    Will you be covering some of the ground for these arguments later, throughout the week? I want to be able to have a space where Evangelicals can kind of lay out the cards and say, “Is there a biblical and orthodox approach to alternative (“non-traditional”) views of hell?” To that end, I’m trying to get some other Evangelical bloggers to participate in a bit of a blog-a-thon on the subject of the afterlife, from an Evangelical perspective.

    If anybody’s curious, please hit me up at jasdye@gmail.com or leave a comment at http://leftcheek.blogspot.com

    Thanks! And thanks, Scot, for giving us laity this space to better think our theology.

  • “Rob Bell is asking my students’ questions”

    Yes he is!

  • Dave E

    Thanks Scott!
    There’s way too much speculation on Rob Bell’s belief before the book is out or he makes a statement. He is an artist and has done some great teaching and videos.

    Thank you for taking the high road.

  • Dana Ames

    Scot, for clarity, would you please define “saved”?

    Thank you.


  • As always, thanks for bringing a more civil, thoughtful and open perspective to this very important topic.

    On a similar vein, I wrote a short review of the movie Hereafter – http://jeffkclarke.com/2011/02/13/exploring-the-hereafter-looking-for-answers-behind-the-scenes – starring Matt Damon. While there are aspects of the movie that I disagree with, i.e., mediums that have an ability to speak with dead people, the fact that the movie forced the audience to at least consider the reality of death and the possibility of an afterlife, caused me to give the movie two thumbs up.

    Death and a possible afterlife are two themes that many in culture, and maybe even the church, do their very best to either ignore or deny. The movie pushed us towards reconsidering these realities and discussing them more openly.

    I frame Rob’s book in a similar context. He is forcing us to reconsider the important topics of the afterlife, heaven and hell. And, to ask serious questions about something that was central to the message of Jesus. I for one am looking forward to reading his book.

    Let the games begin 🙂

  • From what I’ve seen (including the reviews from those who have received advance copies of Rob Bell’s new book), I will disagree and probably disagree strongly with Bell. However, as I posted today, I’m not sure that I understand the ire of evangelcal leaders at Bell when they tolerate numerous megachurch leaders who claim to believe in the necessity of Christ’s death and imputed righteousness but never speak about it. I will at least give Bell credit for being honest.

  • Michael Bowers

    This is for sure the most thought out article I have read regarding Rob’s new book. Thanks for posting. Not only were the beliefs of universalism (and different types of universalism) well articulated, but more importantly a reason why our words should remain in our mouths until the book is released was laid out for us. May we keep the words of James in mind, in that we should be slow to speak and quick to listen. Thanks.

  • Thanks for the response. Now comes the waiting until the book is actually released….

  • Steve Wehrheim

    I enjoyed this article but have a problem with your contention. That we should be open to questions and be be thoughtful and biblical in our response. I agree and I don’t think you would find many of us on the traditional side of this in disagreement. What is at issue here IS NOT whether we are open to questions about justice and grace. The issue is if one believes that the Bible is God’s error free word or if each “believer” can stretch it or redefine it in a way that fits the current generation. We are told to preach sound doctrine in Titus. We are told to be on the look out for false teachers. I am not labeling RB as a false teacher until I read his book. But the fact that the Bible tells us to be on the look out means they will be present. So when you have teachers who bring relativity to what many of us believe to be the error free word of God, a la McLaren, we get a little concerned.

    Now….no doubt much of this teaching…emergent church, etc…..is rooted in the fact that much of the American church has strayed from Jesus’ example of love and service. I agree with much of the concern in this. We have abdicated much of the work that we are commanded to do. But this does not mean that God’s word is open to however you want to make it fit what is most comfortable for you.

  • Scot,

    Entirely grateful. Well-thought out.

    It’s gonna be a fun ride.

  • I believe that Jesus, who is Lord, Logos and Light, gives light to everyone who comes into the world. I do not think that began at the Incarnation but at the Creation. Everyone is accountable for the light they receive, no more and more less, and I believe that everyone has been given sufficient light. So I tend toward an inclusivist position, but I do not suppose that the number of saved will be few. I also believe that all who are saved, however much light they have been given, are saved on the basis of Jesus the Messiah and His atoning work.

  • Thanks Scot.
    This whole fiasco seems to be missing the point about salvation in this life. Evangelicals are obsessed with what happens in the afterlife – who gets in, who gets about. Christianity is about salvation in this life. Christ didn’t save us from this life, right?

    Do all religious paths offer a realized eschaton in this life, like Christianity?

  • Thanks!
    Your summary of the various views of our final destination encourage me to do further study. Anyone have some good suggestions on where to start?

  • Alex

    I don’t know anyone who has yet to accuse Rob Bell of being a “universalist.” Some have stated that they believe this is where he is heading with his new book, or that content from that book seems to indicate so, but no one has made the proclamation you are basing your post on.

    If we want people to be generous to Rob Bell and wait for him to speak, maybe we should do so in kind to those who have expressed concerns.

    BTW, Scot, this has to seem like Deja Vu somewhat as you and others kept championing on here to wait for McLaren’s book to arrive and wait for Doug Pagitt’s book to arrive before even speaking about their theology, and then when their books came out they said exactly what those who had concerns thought they would say.

    If anything Emergent history seems to tell us how this story is likely to end…

  • One person, who I can only assume would fit into your “conditional immortality” bracket above, posed an interesting question that I’ve never quite been able to answer.

    If only God is self-sufficient, then doesn’t it follow that our own souls cannot be immortal unless God actively sustains them? (This was intended to apply both to eternal salvation–hardly controversial–and eternal damnation, which is the more radical thought)

  • The issue is if one believes that the Bible is God’s error free word or if each “believer” can stretch it or redefine it in a way that fits the current generation.

    Every interpretation of the Bible is situated in some cultural and historical context, including yours. If you choose to use a 16th century context, that’s fine by me, but accusing those whom you have a disagreement of distorting scripture is unfair and uncharitable.

  • Randall

    This was probably your best post to date. I know we sometimes have our differences and understand some things differently; but, Rob Bell is provocative and intentionally so. I too thank and praise God that He allows us to seek and search out His ways even though we may not attain to all the understanding we hope to. I don’t believe the scripture solves this one like most everyone thinks. I believe the scripture and Christ was intentionally vague here for reasons I don’t have to understand. I trust Him with it.

  • So appreciate your thoughtful treatment of this topic! It is a conversation going on all around us. I saw the immediately critical blog posts and tweets, then watched the video, and was amazed at two things:

    First, I was amazed at how good Rob Bell is at provoking a conversation. He did what every communicator hopes to and tries to do in their opening illustration. Can’t wait to read the book.

    Second, I was also amazed at how quickly so many watched the same video and instead of seeing his comments as a provocative way of stirring a conversation, heard them as confirming a universalist theology. My guess is that it is the classic case of seeing what you expect…and not what is actually there.

    Thanks again Dr. McKnight!

  • Taylor G

    It seems that Scot is tiring of this issue a bit. Instead of Farve fatigue it’s…

  • Richard

    Thanks for this Scot. I did chuckle at “inclusivists” and “exclusivists” being strange bedfellows under the “traditional” view.

    Any view that denies the necessity of the work of Christ (creation, incarnation, death, resurrection, judgment, and new creation) is out of bounds imho. As I read those options, that only rules out “All Dogs Go To Heaven.”

    I would also echo the question above – how does a renewed emphasis on a Renewed Creation (pun intended with extra cheese) influence our understanding of what we’ve traditionally called, “hell”?

    As an aside, what are the odds that any of the Gospel Coalition gurus walk back their statements or apologize, if necessary, once they actually read the book?

  • Rick

    Good post Scot, although I was a bit surprised that you wrote about it so soon after the weekend storm, and before the book comes out. I guess that is a reflection of the urgency of the issue.

    “watching a provocative promo video and think I know where he’s going”

    How much responsibility does Bell, and his publisher, have in the critical responses? The video was not just about asking questions. It was asking them in a way that was leading towards an apparent direction.

    The critics should have held their powder. But was that criticism really based on nothing?

    Finally, if he ends up not advocating universalism, would Bell then be guilty of being misleading?

    Until the book comes out, I am more concerned about how this whole thing was handled, by BOTH sides.

  • Well-said Scot.

  • Dana Ames

    Scot, again asking for a def of “saved”. I know you’re probably in class at the moment, but I don’t want you to miss this request. You know I intend no trap – simply don’t want to assume anything before I comment.


  • Richard

    @ 33

    “The critics should have held their powder. But was that criticism really based on nothing? Finally, if he ends up not advocating universalism, would Bell then be guilty of being misleading?”

    Rob’s MO is to dance around the edges and pull back. Whether or not he does in this case remains to be seen. Where it seems most were frustrated with Taylor, etc. wasn’t that they voiced concerns, it was that they voiced certainty in those concerns in a matter that it was impossible to be certain about since the book hasn’t been released yet and there are multiple views that those questions could lead to, not just universalism.

  • Sean

    I attend a Christian & Mission Alliance seminary – just today my paper was due on this book: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0310212685 : Four VIews on Hell. One of my professors edited it. Literal, metaphorical, purgatorial, and conditional perspectives are shared and debated. It was a great into, and with Bell in mind I plan on doing my big research paper on Universalism.

  • normbv

    It seems that conditionality and annihilationist go together, in that if man is mortal by nature until he embraces eternal life, then failure to believe faithfully in God renders one separate from God by definition and ushers in one’s own natural ending.

    The question arises because the first believers in the OT [Gen 4:26] believed in one God called YHWH and yet we find that these are included in the saved ones described in Hebrews 11 along with those who believed in Christ. How are the ancients who never saw or experienced Christ saved by Christ? Now it’s postulated that they saw Christ from a distance and had faith in the Day of the Messianic salvation but did all of them grasp this significance from Heb 11? Some postulate that Christ is the equivalent of the saving Ark as demonstrated during Noah’s time of judgment and once this period of Judgment is over then the time of salvation from their times has passed and a New Day has Dawned. Some would postulate that this was the changing of the old covenant to the New covenant during the first century and that today we exist wholly in the new covenant of Grace.

    Does the new covenant of Grace require that we adhere to strict legal law abiding rules about salvation or does it require the simple faith in God of the earliest believers found in Gen 4:26 and included in Heb 11?

    The eternal destination of the faithful man seems to be a question that the Jews wrestled with often themselves.

    Ecc 3:18-21 ESV I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts. (19) For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. (20) All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. (21) Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?

  • Adam

    Out of all the heaven and hell ideas presented, how many of them require that a person’s decision be made while they live on the earth? I think that our views of heaven and hell should include the Revelation of Jesus Christ. I think we should include in our thinking, the idea that Jesus has not been fully revealed yet and a person’s final destination hinges on that point.

    What would you call a philosophy of heaven/hell that relies solely on Jesus as the Way/Truth/Life and admits we haven’t been given the whole answer yet?

  • Rick

    Richard #37-

    “it was that they voiced certainty in those concerns in a matter that it was impossible to be certain”

    Taylor backed off of the certainty. However, he and DeYoung seem to be clear they are basing their stances on the info the publisher/Bell provided.

    As DeYoung wrote, speaking of the video:

    “…he is saying something. Don’t think for a second the questions don’t communicate something. These are not “let’s explore together and see what the Bible says about these hard issues” kind of questions… He is not unaware of the effect of these three minutes. Words mean something and words do something. Whether the sentences end in question marks or not, the force of these sentences is to undermine—nay, to ridicule—the reality of eternal conscious punishment, the wrath of the God, and penal substitutionary atonement.”

    “…if Bell ends up espousing a traditional view of hell, the wrath of God, and penal substitution, that would mean McLaren’s blurb was misleading, the publisher’s description was misleading, and Bell’s video was misleading”

    I think DeYoung has a good point, and it brings up the question of how Christians should handle marketing.

  • Vicki

    Thanks for a thoughtful post in a reactionary environment.

  • E.G.

    @normbv #39: Thanks for that.

    However, I still think (and I could be wrong… I don’t contemplate this stuff to much, so I thank Bell and Piper for bringing it to my brain) that:

    Annihilationism depends on an assumption of an immortal soul, with God ultimately destroying the immortality of some souls.

    Conditionalism depends on the assumption of a mortal soul, and without sustenance from God, it withers.

    It seems like a minor distinction, but I think that it has some large ramifications in terms of personal eschatology.

    Now, I could be wrong about all of this. So, I’d appreciate someone setting me straight if need be.

  • DRT

    I now count myself as one of Scot’s students though my only access to him is through the internet and his books, and I am certainly asking that question.

    Thanks for taking the time Scot.

  • Terry

    …Love believes all things…

    I always thought that meant believing the best of/for another in the love of Christ; apparently this means believing whatever you want to be true from all the things you want to think or read on the Internet–especially if you’re afraid. Sadly, in my experience, people will still largely see whatever they want once the book can actually be read, which then means that there will be defenses rather than confessions, and posturing rather than apologies. The end result: more of the same division and cannibalism we’ve come to expect; more of the same pathetic witness to all of those asking the questions.

    Scot, thanks for the different tone, the civility and the sanity.

  • Brian

    @Rick #41 I find the “we’re only responding to the video excuse” pretty lame. Don’t you think Taylor and DeYoung, essentially, have reviewed a movie based on the trailer? The video was designed to generate interest in the book. Of course he’s not going to give it all away!

    They’ve defended their actions based on the premise of protecting folks from “false teachers”. Serious question: if you call someone a heretic (and 20,000 or so believe you and link to you) and you’re wrong, doesn’t that make YOU the false teacher?

    I think Scot is right on here: let’s hear what Bell has to say. If he’s off we can weigh in in an appropriate manner.

    The sad thing is, Piper knows how to do this the right way. He and Wright have vigorous disagreements but they don’t approach the dismissive tones that these have. (At least I’ve not seen it if that’s the case.) The whole mess makes me sad.

  • Kenneth McIntosh

    I haven’t had time to read through the responses, but AMEN to Scott’s original post.

  • dopderbeck

    Scot — I appreciate your advocating patience with respect to Bell. However — ‘m sorry, but I think you are significantly and very unfortunately muddying the waters with this post.

    In my view, “Universalism” is not the belief that all “can” be saved in the end. Rather, Universalism is the belief that all necessarily will be saved in the end.

    There is a vast difference between these two perspectives. Muddying that difference will not help the conversation that evangelicals so badly need to have on this topic.

    Universalism as I have defined it is unorthodox because it denies both human freedom to rebel and God’s freedom to judge.

    The belief that all people can be saved and the hope that all people might be saved is, if properly formulated compatible with orthodoxy, — and is perhaps even required by orthodoxy. It is the official view of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox churches and of most protestant denominations apart from very conservative evangelicalism. Both Catholic and Orthodox theology, however, condemns “Universalism” as I have (I think, properly) defined it.

    Moroever, most “inclusivists” are not nearly so narrow as you suggest. Even John Stott has suggested that he believes the majority of humanity will be saved.

    In addition, you are unfairly prejudicing the discussion by suggesting that “Christian universalists” (many of whom are really “inclusivists” that you incorrectly label as universalists) “confidentently trot out” an idea that people can be saved against their will. This is not how leading proponents of this approach, e.g. Balthasaar and Rahner as well as many Eastern Orthodox thinkers, would express their own views.

    So I’m glad for the word of patience with respect to Bell’s work, but honestly I’ll be incredibly disappointed if the “evangelical” conversation about this doesn’t rise above this level of analytical sloppiness.

  • THANK you Scot, for discussion. Nothing is (or should be) too scary or threatening to discuss. If God is real, He will be real. Why are folks so afraid of thoughtful and (hopefully) ultimately strengthened faith through discussion and discovery.

    Also, you are such a great mentor for my husband. I just wanted to say that. More than you know you have been a great ear and voice for him over these few months.


  • Let’s be very clear. The problem isn’t really universalism or “Christian universalism.” It’s henotheism and unitarianism vs. Trinitarianism.

    Rob Bell hit the nail on the head. The question that lies under all of this is “What kind of God is that?”

  • My initial reaction is that a view that describes any eventual state as “eternal and conscious separation from God,” could only be called ‘traditional’ in a pretty truncated sense of tradition.

    I find the question, “Who could love a torturer?” a good one from which to begin. I also find a God who would shower some with gifts and torture others more like a return to the capriciousness of some of the ancient pagan gods. That would be one of my objections to annihilationism as well. A God who begrudges his creation existence is not a constant God of love.

    I would object to annihilationism and conditional immortality alike from the basis of the efficaciousness of the Incarnation and Resurrection. Either Jesus truly joined the divine nature, life itself, to our common, shared human nature and in his death and resurrection defeated death and healed that common nature, or we are all still slaves to death.

    Though we seek non-existence, it’s a non-existence we cannot achieve. We will all experience the unveiled reality of God and the fire of his love. Like a fire, God’s love is light and warmth, but it can also be a consuming fire. Still, I’m incredulous at the idea that even the coldest and most twisted heart could not eventually be warmed by the love of God. I admit it as a fearful possibility, but find it hard to believe.

    I remember seeing a video of a Romanian monk a few years ago. 0ne thing has always stuck in my mind. At one point he said (according to the subtitles) something like, “All will be saved and I alone will be damned.” It struck me for a number of reasons. It expresses the humility and honest evaluation of our own condition. It’s hard to be honest about our selves and, even when we confess that we are the worst of sinners, rarely do we really mean it. I know I’m often more like the Pharisee the in parable than the publican. It acknowledges our own participation in the sin and brokenness of the world. The evil we do spreads through reality in ways we do not perceive and cannot control. And finally, it struck me as something we can pray truthfully and without pride. I think as soon as we look at others and decide that God will not save them, we are walking on very treacherous ground indeed.

    At any rate, I think that at least some of my thoughts are actually more “traditional” than what the post outlined as the traditional view. For what they are worth (which isn’t really all that much) …

  • Chris

    I’m betting the book will ask more questions than give answers, at least that’s what I hope. I’ve had large doubts about the “traditional” view of eternal security because of the sociological impact religion (belief systems) has on a person from birth. To me, the traditional view doesn’t seem fair, and Molinism or Determinism only supports its unfairness.

    I think there is a lot of unknowns between the ontology and epistemology of salvation, which is where I hope this book has the discussion.

    Perhaps the book is about implicit faith?

  • Scot…

    I am admittedly one who made some “hopeful guesses” about the trajectory of the book. On this issue of hell, that was especially influenced by the book’s endorser: Greg Boyd. He has preached sermons on Christian conditionalism and enthusiastically endorsed the book. My guess was mostly based on the connection that they share (I am a ‘podrishioner’ of both churches and their views seem quite similar). All that to say that what you have done in this post was the direction I was trying to take people. To recognize that Eternal Punishment was not the only viewpoint that evangelical’s have on the table.

    Here is what I said in my “Rob Bell Controversy – Q & A” followup post today:

    “Kurt, did you watch the video clip? How can you hear his statement about Gandhi and not think he is a Universalist?

    Here is an important quote from the video:

    “Will only a few, select, people make it to heaven? And will billions and billions of people BURN FOREVER in hell?”

    If you come to this video believing that the only evangelical option is eternal torment, then you will hear this question and apply it to universalism. The problem is that the option of conditionalism could be a more logical conclusion to come to. In such a view, the reality of hell – separation from God for all eternity – is still the judgment of God against such a person. The only difference is that such people will not “burn forever in hell” but will “perish” for eternity.”

    Thanks for bringing this to the large scope of your readership. I think it is imperative that we lay out all of the options rather than pigeonhole perspectives into “either/or” categories. My motivation is pastoral, not simply theological (I have more to say about that in my post today as well).

    Finally, I think that the second we move into universalism(s) that we may be crossing the boundaries of orthodoxy…

  • JoanieD

    To Darryl in #11: thanks for the link to the review by somoene who HAS read the book. I appreciated seeing there the quotations from Peterson (whom I love)and Boyd (whom I like). I will read his book when it comes out.

  • dopderbeck

    BTW to follow up on my comment, Scot you didn’t mention “accessibilism,” e.g. Therrance Thiessen, and “post-mortem evangelism / accessibilism” ala Donald Bloesch, which asserts that anyone “can” be saved but not that all “will” be saved. This is not “universalism” and the distinction should be made clear.

  • Taylor G

    Dopderbeck – Thanks for your comment. When I initially read this I thought to myself, Scot is putting some of us in the universalist camp who should not be properly be defined that way. In my mind there is a huge difference between believing God WILL save everyone and God CAN save everyone.

  • Clay Knick

    Scot, You get an “A+” today, professor! Great post.

  • normbv

    Christ taught and reaffirmed that the essence of the totality of the OT Law was bound up in the Great Commandment. If this was the essence of faith and obeying God then how do we discern whether a person is outside of this realm of faithfulness?

    Mat 22:37-39 ESV And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. (38) This is the great and first commandment. (39) And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

    It was the calling of the faithful old and it is the calling of faithful in Christ and today. Again I ask how one separates the faithful old from the faithful new. If the faithful of old sought God and placed their faith in God/Allah alone and do not have murder of their neighbors in their heart; is that a saving eternal faith from the biblical definition?

    Adam as representing the faithful of old appears to have been taken from the world of pagan darkness and given the potential of eternal life by walking with God. His approach of walking in the commandments of Law demonstrated the mortal weakness of his position and left him essentially back in the same plight of the pagan world that knew not God. His way was supplanted by Christ who brought faith seekers who want to walk in Gods way back into relationship by living not a rote rule abiding life but one intimately intertwined with the God of all.

    The bible simply doesn’t address much post mortem except to tell us that we will live eternally. For those who murder and refuse His Graciousness then it seems they simply refuse the abundant life for themselves and its eternal implications.

    We need to be careful trying to qualify the eternal existence of the faithful of God, as that is a higher pay grade than we may have been fully endowed with. We also need to be careful of applying completely every instance of NT applications sweepingly as that was a special time of transition that has passed and the literature of the NT reflect this conversion that was going on and may not always apply once the Kingdom was fully established. This is especially true concerning being thrown into Gehenna [mistranslated Hell] as representing Eternal Conscious Torment. This was a physical place of disposing of dead bodies outside Jerusalem during the siege of Titus when Judgment came upon the Jews physically and was a judgment declaration upon their plight if they failed to heed Christ and get out of the city when armies approached. It illustrated ones turning their back on God through Christ.

  • Jason Lee

    I agree with dopderbeck. I also found the categories in the post out of sync.

  • William

    Actually, I have read a fair amount literature on the issue and Dr. McKnight’s definitions ring truer than doperbeck’s. It sounds like he is trying to say a universalism that says everyone “must” be saved is unorthodox because it negates grace and God’s freedom. But this is simply untrue. One can believe that God WILL save all and that God is free in this (see Barth-and Oliver Crisp’s recent article on the subject).

  • dopderbeck

    William, all I’m saying is that “universalism” properly means the belief that all WILl be saved. The belief that all CAN be saved is not (or should not) properly be called “universalism” because there are lots of scenarious in which all CAN be saved — e.g. accessibilism — but not all necessarily will be saved.

    Whether what I’m calling “universalism” can be orthodox really is a different question that maybe I shouldn’t have introduced. (Do you have reference for Crisp’s article BTW?)

    Maybe I’m being persnickety but I think it’s very important to clearly define terms when an issue like this heats up. Personally, I suppose I’m an accessibilist of some sort, and I do not want to be labeled as a “universalist.”

  • #61 Doperderbeck

    I like your accessibilist distinction. That fits me better. As to who will be saved, I suspect it is more than traditionalists think and fewer than the universalists think.

  • dopderbeck

    BTW, Crisp’s definitions in his article “Augustinian Universalism”:

    “Contingent universalism”: “although it is possible that some people might end up in hell, as a matter of contingent fact, no-one will end up there.”

    “Necessary universalism”: “given the essentially benevolent nature of God, it is inconeivable that anyone will ever end up in hell forever. In fact, given divine benevolence, God will necessarily save all people.”

    Both of these obviously are very different than accessibilism, which is the view that everyone has a real opportunity to be saved from hell, but not everyone will be saved in the end.

  • DRT

    dopderbeck, I cannot comment as to whether you are technically correct or not, but I think it would be a mistake to use your definition and recommend we don’t.

    I don’t know about others, but before I became involved in some of the nuance of these conversations, my reaction to the phrase universal salvation clearly meant to me that salvation was universally available and in opposition to restrictive salvation where it is not available to all. The distinction I am making and advocating here is use where the most bang for the buck is and is the most important issue to our world today.

    Whether or not there are people who are willing to let Hitler into heaven is a rather corner of the board play and it does not even deserve to have a word associated with it.

  • Kristen

    As usual, I basically want to be dopderbeck when I grow up.

    His slight modification/clarification of the relevant terms also seems to fit more with what I’ve seen and generally understood. I generally say that (1) “through Christ” does not necessarily mean “through Christianity” and I fully expect in heaven to be hobnobbing with a bunch of people who to their dying breath on this earth were Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, secularists, etc., but still (2) it is possible — difficult, because we’re wired for God, but possible — to reject God AND SOME DO.

    I’d like to be wrong on those very last three words, but at least for now, this is where I end up.

    As Scot outlined categories, it seems like the closest one is “Christian Universalism” but I don’t think I fit there. Fellow traveller, probably, but not universalist.

  • DRT

    Let me try again, I think the definition dopderbeck is advocating is a academic definition and this subject is no longer going to be academic. Whether it is right or not is immaterial when we are embarking on the journey we are about to take. Clarity to lay people should figure high on our scale of acceptability.

  • DRT

    Kristen, watch out! You may get what you wish for and we better talk to his wife before you think that!

    My dad had a saying, behind every great man is a woman saying, he ain’t that great!

    I the the accessibility word great, but not in substitute for universally available. Yes, one could say that salvation is accessible to everyone, but that has the downside of the comeback “accessible to those who believe in Jesus”. People will go down that path. Saying that the offer of salvation is universal likely to be interpreted correctly, imo.

  • DRT

    I can’t keep my mouth shut.

    The big payoff in this whole conversation is in relation to those outside of Christianity. The big thing in this is not the theological point of splitting hairs, it is the big issue of whether we will, as Christians, be reaching out to those outside of the Christian faith and warmly welcoming them into our midst, and possibly above us in our afterlife. This is a big deal for that reason and we should approach the language with that standpoint in mind.

  • Rick G.

    At first I puzzled over why neo-calvinists would be so hot and bothered about his video. Then, after reading some of their posts, I realized that they hold strictly to the PSA model of atonement, and questioning hell could (in their mind) remove the whole reason Christ died –They can’t conceive of another atonement model.

    In a society (Europe) that believes that a severe one size fits all punishment may actually be unjust, and no longer believes Justice = Punishment; I wonder if any could believe in a Gospel will hell at the center, as Rob Bell put it.

  • Rick

    DeYoung is hedging his bets so he and the rest don’t have to apologize. If Bell comes out as a universalist… he gets to say “I told you so.” If Bell remains orthodox and holds to a traditional view of hell… then he gets to blame it all on bad and misleading publicity. And by muddying the theological waters he and Taylor can still call him a universalist, even if Bell is actually an inclusivist or something else. Either way they win. The Christian thing to do is simply admit wrong and apologize, and realize that calling someone a “universalist” and a “false teacher” on the internet is simply a poor choice. The Christian thing to do, would have been to carefully critique the video and then engage the questions and theological positions available, just like CT and Scot (above) have done.

    Seriously, Christian bloggers need to think how their words can wound people and cause internal division and strife needlessly, before they post claims that are potentially damaging and damning.

  • Kristen

    Hmmm. When talking about these issues, I sometimes get pushback that evangelism along the lines of “Well you could be a ‘real’ Christian or you could be an ‘anonymous’ Christian. It doesn’t really matter. Up to you!” fails entirely. When Jesus called us to preach the gospel to all the nations, that doesn’t do it.

    I agree with that. Entirely. And I have conversations with non-Christians all the time and never once has it gone that way.

    The issue, as I see it, is not “What does evangelism look like?” but “What kind of God are we talking about?” I would never invite someone to be an anonymous Christian as after all that’s “good enough” — but what kind of God am I inviting people to follow? And can I be hopeful that maybe there is more going on than these people see or would articulate?

    Explicit Christian faith is still richer and fuller and all-around better than implicit faith or anonymous Christianity or whatever other language you want to use. No argument. Extraordinary means of grace are Extraordinary. The possibility that God has a Plan B does not mean we disregard Plan A! Plan A is still preferable — that’s why God made it Plan A!

    But that doesn’t mean God has necessarily limited Himself to Plan A. He’s a persistent sort of fellow.

  • Doug Lewis

    I suspect in the end that Rob Bell’s book and his views will reveal more about John Piper and Justin Taylor than they will reveal about Rob Bell. I agree that he will not likely say anything all that new. It’s not a new discussion. Not a new controversy. Piper’s hyper-acute reaction says more about himself (and possibly his fear of losing hold of THE thing gives him leverage, that being the threat of hell)than it says about anything else.

    I grew up in a Nazarene pastor’s home and am the only person in all of my extended family who is not either a Nazarene pastor, married to a Nazarene pastor, or working for a Nazarene entity or school. I gave up on Nazarene doctrine about 5 years ago mainly because I found myself governed by a belief that, exactly as Rob says it in the promo video, Christ saved me from God because what God really wanted to do was send my evil soul, along with the rest of humanity and except for a few Nazarenes who managed to maintain their sin-free existence, to and eternal hell. That just didn’t feel right to me, and I believe that Christ sent his Spirit to dwell and commune within me, then I have to learn to trust that working within me. So I’ve been deconstructing my faith and rebuilding it and Rob Bell’s work has been instrumental in helping me to do that. I have learned to trust his judgment and how he reads and interpret scripture and am fully confident that whatever he has to say in this book will contain an immense amount of God directed truth. I like the slogan of the United Church of Christ: “God is still speaking.”

  • Scot McKnight

    I’m tied up but I disagree. Universalism is often used in biblical scholarship for the extension of the gospel to all so all can be saved. That’s what I meant and I could take it out. I don’t get into the nuances like accessibilism. That would go beyond the broad categories.

  • Susan N.

    If Rob Bell can reach out to those with questions about Christianity, by boldly confronting the issues that confuse and/or discourage many from the invitation to believe in Christ, more power to him. Questions are a good starting place. And, I also agree, that for those of us who identify as Christians, it is good to have an attitude of teachability. I plan to read Rob’s book. I have read another excellent book on the issue of pluralism, universalism, exclusivism vs. inclusivism, and how particularity in Christ figures in — ‘Who Do You Say That I Am: Christians Encounter Other Religions’ (Calvin E. Shenk), which did an excellent job comparing the various views. The thought occurred to me, reading this blog entry and comments, that this would make a great topic for Scot’s next book! The subject is complex and important enough to our times that an entire book is definitely warranted, imo… I too appreciate that Scot has the integrity to be gracious, even to those with whom he does not agree.

  • If anyone is interested, Tim Perry (Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics and Providence Seminary [the one in Canada]) had written some helpful thoughts on what universalism is NOT:


  • Kristen #71,

    I agree. The commission King Jesus gave to the Church still stands: Make disciples of (not just preach the gospel to or in) all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to observe all Jesus has commanded. As a postmillennialist, I believe that that Church will not fail in that but that the Great Commission will be fulfilled: All nations will be discipled, baptized and following King Jesus.

  • Ben Wheaton

    To answer your questions, Scot, I would say that the only orthodox positions listed in your post are annihilationism and the traditional view. “Christian universalism” is a contradiction in terms.

    But I agree with your conclusion that the proper response to questioning Christians, especially young Christians, is to affirm the good points in their understanding and try to work out good, orthodox answers.

    However, what do we do about long-time Christians like Rob Bell, when people like him endorse universalism of any sort (whether pure, “Christian,” or “evangelical”)?
    I think that a stern rebuke is necessary; followed by, if he remains unrepentant, excommunication.

    Exploring the topic of hell and working through its difficulty is an excellent thing to do; but conclusions must be reached eventually, even if they are provisional, and these conclusions have consequences. Excommunication being one of them, if the conclusions are particularly heretical.

  • Wise guidance. It is true that while people may not express these questions verbally they struggle with them internally, subconsciously almost always.

    It strikes me that you have not expressed the conditionalist viewpoint very well.

  • Dana Ames

    Scot, when you get untied, would you please put up your definition of “saved”?


  • Hannah

    You are derailing this post and your sarcastic language is inappropriate for this blog. Your sarcasm is not what this blog community is about. Please control yourself or else excuse yourself from this community.

  • Scot McKnight


    Simply put: reconciled to God for eternity.

  • Ben Wheaton

    I suppose you and I disagree on the greatness of John Paul II, dopderdeck. I can’t excommunicate anyone, obviously, but I can make judgments about whom I will consider truly Christian, and about whom I will associate with as a Christian.

    However, if “accessibilism” is what you say JPII held, then I would say he is not worthy of excommunication, being a kind of inclusivism (and therefore, using Scot’s rubrik, a form of the “traditional” view).

    However, the Catholic Church’s disturbing trend towards universalism is deeply troubling, and one of the reasons why I am hesitant about things like “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.”

    But then, you and I don’t agree on the basics of the Christian faith, so I don’t expect this conversation to bear any fruit.

  • As I interact with students as a campus minister on a secular college campus, the number one issue/stumbling block for young people looking into the faith is the issue of the traditional view of judgment and hell. This is an issue we MUST deal with honestly and delicately if we are to reach the next generation for Christ.

  • Charlie Clauss

    So, 1) does New Creation have any berring on the subject of Hell? and 2) Is the human immortal apart from God?

  • Charlie Clauss

    bearing, that is

  • Jorge L

    John Paul II explicitly rejected even von Balthasar’s “dare we hope that all may be saved” variant on Origen. It’s in _Crossing the Threshold of Hope_ when the journalist asked him about Hell.

    John Paul names Bulgakov and von Balthasar (I think). Since otherwise admired von Balthasar’s theology, his rejection on this point is very significant.

    AND the basis for the rejection is very simply the literal words of Jesus about eternal fire, fire that does not go out.

    There is no creeping trend toward universalism in Catholicism–not in any formal or dogmatic manner. There are a lot of Rahnerian epigones who turn his anonymous Christian into something it is not. Ben W. may be confusing the enunciation of the possibilty for people outside Christianity to be saved with universalism, but it’s not. It’s simply the same principle as Justin Martyr enunciated: all truth is God’s truth so where truth truly is found, even in other religions, it’s God’s truth and those who truly, authentically pursue it can be saved. It’s nothing other than C. S. Lewis’s Emeth character in the Last Battle.

    That individual Catholics may deny the existence of Hell and so on and so forth merely means that there are people who claim to speak for the Catholic faith who do not so speak. The question was posed to John Paul precisely because some Catholics are pushing the envelope on this as on women’s ordination and clerical celibacy and all the usual suspects going back 500 years.

    But when asked, John Paul could not have been more clear and he did it precisely on the basis of the ipsissima verba of Christ in Scripture.

  • Ryan

    Dana I would answer your question in being “saved” as being born-again, since this is how Jesus spoke of the matter in John 3.

    You look at Ezekiel, and many other parts of the NT and they speak of getting a new heart and becoming filled with God’s Spirit. There is a new birth that takes place as you are being conformed to the image of Jesus (Romans 8).

    This is what confuses so much of this discussion about Hell here and the idea of universalism. Universalism actually seems to be more deterministic than Hyper-Calvinism, as it will force people who don’t want salvation or anything to do with God to eventually be “saved” and spend eternity with him. If like Bell you boil getting into Heaven just having the right beliefs than I can understand the unease at people going to Hell. But when you understand the miracle of new birth that God has to do in a rebellious human heart as he reconciles us to him, things make more sense.

    Odd that universalists would be more Reformed/deterministic in soteriology than anyone else!

  • Ben Wheaton

    Jorge L,

    If that is the case, great. But even that lesser “inclusivist” view is, I believe, an error, even if it’s not a heresy. I love C.S. Lewis, especially (strangely, given this topic) the Great Divorce, but here he was wrong.

  • DRT

    Ben Wheaton#77, Excommunicating people for voicing opinions is so Medieval.

    Are you really there? Do you really want everyone to simply believe what the older folks say without being able to express an opinion?

  • DRT

    …to add on to my #89, we don’t really even know what Rob Bell’s opinion is, and Scot was clear in saying that.

    I wonder if the worst by Wheaton’s standards became true if he would vote for excommunication.

  • Ryan

    “we really don’t know what Rob Bell’s opinion is…” Not sure about that DRT.

    In fact questions can often function as statements. Imagine a Tea Party person saying, “We really have no idea if President Obama was born in the United States do we?” Obviously, by even asking the question we can tell he is raising a point that he thinks is valid.

    Would you really try to say that we would have no idea what the Tea Party person thought about the birth place of Obama?

  • “Reconciled to God” strikes me as an incomplete definition of salvation. After all, in Romans 5 we are reconciled to God through Christ’s death while we were yet sinners, ungodly, and enemies of God. For God’s part, we are all reconciled to God. But then Paul goes on to say that having been reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. I mean, I grasp how the limited atonement folks interpret that passage. But other than their interpretation, wouldn’t we have to say that God has reconciled all humanity to himself while we were yet sinners? And then salvation is the experience of the divine life? Salvation as union with Christ I understand a little bit. Salvation as reconciliation with God, not so much.

    Ryan, how would you suggest that we escape a God in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17) and in whom all that is subsists (Colossians)? I would say that God will not make us love him, but there is no place we can go to escape his presence. In the Christian understanding at least, there is nothing, no-one, and no place that is uncreated or self-existent other than God.

    I would say that many of the things we say about ‘hell’ often describe aspects of the God in whom we believe. And I don’t think all those images are congruent or consistent with the others.

  • Soren McMillan

    I am not sure what to make of the term “unorthodox”, or what is implied by it (e.g. the necessity of excommunication, rebuke, etc.). However, I would say that a view that confidently asserts that all will definitely be eternally reconciled to God to be seemingly at odds with Jesus’ description of the quest for eternal life in Matthew 7:13-14. Jesus describes “eternal life” as something that requires effort to find. Indeed, it is something that few will find, while many will fail to do so. I am sure that there is a good inclusivist treatment of this Scripture, but, nevertheless, it is a hard saying of Jesus that gives me pause.

  • Percival

    Just wanted to say that I don’t think you have been sarcastic or inappropriate, just at times you are … um… intense. 😉 I appreciate your voice here and often learn something from you.

  • Dana Ames

    Thanks Scot.

    (Appreciated, Ryan. Since Scot wrote the post, I wanted his definition; as you can see, it’s not quite the same as yours. That’s exactly why I wanted Scot to articulate it. Sometimes we say things and think “everybody knows” what we’re talking about. I think the term “saved” has become one of those things, so I asked Scot to clarify.)

    When I read that definition, the first thing that came to my mind was what Scott Morizot said: we are already reconciled to God through Christ’s death. The Cross was the display of God’s forgiveness for all. Generally, I agree with what Scot said in both his comments.

    Since I am Orthodox, I accept the teaching of Orthodoxy that humans are free to reject God, and God will judge everyone. As you know, Orthodox do not believe in a place called “Hell”, but rather, when Jesus returns, the fullness of the presence of the resplendent love of God, the consuming fire that is the Eternal One, will be light and joy and refreshment to those who want God and have spent their years on earth learning how to love and so can be receptive to it, “full strength”.

    [And all of these folk may not be baptized Christians; God is free to save whom God will. But salvation – the union of humanity with God in safety, wholeness and freedom without the deficiencies of death, corruption and unfulfilled desire (C. Yannaras), and so perhaps somewhat of a parsing of your definition – only is attained because of, in and through Jesus Christ.]

    For those who have spent their time on earth rejecting love and communion with God (as they understand God) and with others, who have turned away from learning how to love and have encased their hearts in a shell of self-protection, when the deep, unchanging light of God’s love washes over them it will be so confusing, so alien, so painful, so hellish… But I hold on to the hope that God could not allow such a state to be permanent, as it is his character to bring about, because of his compassion and through his love, that reconciliation to himself for all eternity.

    Alongside the strong sense of judgment in Orthodoxy, there is also the strong sense of God ultimately rescuing **everything** and making everything right. Another paradox… All shall be well, all manner of things shall be well… As I said before, I will stand with Isaac the Syrian and Gregory of Nyssa – and Julian of Norwich.

    Met. Kallistos has written that we may hope that all will be saved – in terms of either definition.

    From “The Inner Kingdom”, pp 214-15:

    “How are we to bring into concord the two principles, ‘God is love’, and ‘Human beings are free’? For the time being we cannot do more than hold fast with equal firmness to both principles at once, while admitting that the manner of their ultimate harmonization remains a mystery beyond our present comprehension… Our belief in human freedom means that we have no right to categorically affirm, ‘All *must* be saved.’ But our faith in God’s love makes us dare to *hope* that all will be saved… Hell exists as a possibility because free will exists. Yet, trusting in the inexhaustable attractiveness of God’s love, we venture to express the hope – it is no more than a hope – that in the end… we shall find that there is nobody there. Let us leave the last word, then, with St Silouan of Mount Athos: ‘Love could not bear that… We must pray for all.'”

    That’s Orthodox 😉


  • Bob #83: Good perspective. This is clearly who Bell has in mind: the secularist who has only heard some well-meaning Christians explain that the basic message of Christianity is that God loves you, and shows you that love by threatening to torture you for all eternity if you don’t accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior. Huh? Yeah, sounds like a really great guy.

    While I do often get frustrated with some of Bell’s fuzziness, I appreciate his willingness to take risks for the sake of the lost. I hope people will simply read his perspective and figure out whether they agree or disagree, rather than dismissively labeling him a “universalist” and discounting anything else helpful he may have to say.

  • Randall

    Yeah, I’m with the Orthodox folk regarding reconciliation. God has already reconciled the world to himself apparently without our input. Not everyone knows it, hence this discussion. Being saved might be termed accepting the fact of reconciliation; but, the acknowledgement doesn’t add one whit to the fact of it.

  • not having really studied up on the various views of hell i came across this good summary of most of the major views including lewis’. hope it’s helpful to those still investigating. i really appreciate the humility with which the author wrote.

  • Julie Youngblood

    As a mom of a 26 year old son that has followed Rob Bell go down his road of skepticism, doubt, and questioning of traditional biblical truths (proven track record), I must admit this latest “shock value” book of Bell’s that I believe purposely preys on young believers that are searching for clarity, has me a little sick to my stomach and a “lot of bit” heartsick. As Mr. McKnight suggests however, after much prayer, I am going to refrain from “making judgements” on Mr. Bell’s beliefs until after I read the book.
    I would like to respond however to Blogger #70, who states: “Seriously, Christian bloggers need to think how their words can wound people and cause internal division and strife needlessly, before they post claims that are potentially damaging and damning.”
    Yes perhaps, but here’s a thought: might Rob Bell be doing the exact same thing (for monetary gain no less, i.e. selling more books), by releasing excerpts from his book and releasing the precursor video? I’m just sayin! Grace & Blessings to all.

  • Dawn Finch

    I find all this discussion very white, middle class. It is a luxury to debate theology. Meanwhile there are kids living in the inner city without jobs, fathers, or futures. They live in a war zone where they actually have to avoid getting shot on a daily basis.
    How about if evangelicals took all the effort they put into theological arguments and decided to do something to help these kids in their own country who die a little everyday?

  • Rick


    In the old days, before the internet, if you wanted to write something and get it published that critiqued another theologian or a book, you had to send it in to a journal or magazine and have an editor look over it, and then they publish it. There was oversight, and no self respecting editor would publish a critique of a book that the writer hadn’t even read yet, that included claims of “unversalist,” “false teacher,” and “false gospel.”

    Everyone from CT to half the blogosphere have pointed out that DeYoung and Taylor haven’t even read the book, and have rightly criticized them for this. Instead of issuing an apology or a retraction, DeYoung maintains their stance by blaming it on the video and an apparent blurb by McLaren (guilt by association). The people who have actually read the book (see the CT article here) state that Bell stays within orthodoxy. Apparently even Eugene Peterson is endorsing the book. So what you really have is a knee jerk reaction, that is simply wrong.

    The Christian world is not FoxNews, or MSNBC or the political blogosphere. There is much more at stake, and I wish that Taylor and DeYoung had considered that before they pressed “publish post.” My concern is that no one sat down to consider Rob Bell in all of this, and how being called a “false teacher” would affect him and his ministry. Why are we even throwing this term around wily nilly? This is a serious accusation.

    I would hope that Taylor and DeYoung would think twice before making such claims about a fellow brother in Christ, indwelt by the same Holy Spirit, and part of the same body of Christ.

    I think it would be fair of them to critique the video, and share their concern about where Bell might land on the topic, and use that as a segue way to discuss the topic at hand. But, to judge a man and his book before you have even read it, is simply poor scholarship and poor form.

    I hope that Taylor and DeYoung will issue an apology, and I hope that someone at the Gospel Coalition will stand up and clarify the problem. I certainly hope that if Bell’s book is solidly in line with Christian orthodoxy that they will issue him an apology. Forgiveness and grace are at the core of the true gospel and I think it would be important for Christian leaders to model this and not hide behind the digital wall.

    Personally, I don’t think it is fair to assume (or hint at) that Bell is doing this for attention and money, any more than Taylor or DeYoung could be. I assume that Bell has a book and an idea that he is passionate about, and as a communicator and preacher he wants to share that with people. I can’t see into his heart, but I do know that in the past he has donated proceedings from his tours to charity.

    In the end, the video asked some deep questions… provoking for sure! But, Bell didn’t ask these questions, and as McKnight has pointed out, there are questions people are asking.

    My guess is that Bell is arguing more from an attitudinal perspective here, in that in all reality we don’t know who is in hell or how many people are there or are going to be there. We do know that hell is for the enemies of God, though. We can affirm that there is a hell, and it is in line with God’s justice and plan, but we need to be careful not to make ourselves God by deciding who is going to be thre. And I assume that Bell will land in a kind of iclusivist hopefulness, with out focus being on the reality that good and love ultimately win the end. Love does win in the end, or to be sure, love has already won. So my prayer is that in light of that truth I can love Bell and Taylor and DeYoung in the power of the Holy Spirit, and they can as well.

  • Robin Parry

    Thanks so much Scott for this nuanced and helpful comment

  • Alan K

    Dawn #100,
    Doing theology or caring about the world is not either/or. You seem to suggest that the nature of this thread arises from social location, that money and skin color and culture determine the nature of questions discussed. You need to seriously ask yourself if this thread and the plight of the kids you spoke of is all related. If God is about the business of saving the world then the war zones and the places without jobs, father, and futures actually matter. There is an array of views on Jesus Creed, but I’ve never read anything that says “I just don’t care. The war zones of the inner city are somebody else’s problem.” Theology a luxury? No. It is the very thing that enables the church to see the New Jerusalem invading the places you describe, the very thing that says God is present in the war zones. Shame transforms nothing. Theology transforms everything.

  • Susan N.

    Rick @ #101 – well-spoken.

  • Pdr

    Theology transforms everytthing

    Sometimes, in my own life, I wonder if theology transforms much of anything. I am beginning to believe that God’s love (in all of its mysterious forms) transforms everything, sometimes in spite of my theology, sometimes possibly even slowed by theology. Hopefully his love overcomes even that.

  • Ryan # 91,

    Interpreting declarative sentences is much more straightforward than trying to interpret questions as being declarative. When you try to interpret a question as a a statement, you have to make a number of assumptions. What we have been given this book trailer is a “teaser” with the aim of getting people to read the book to understand the questions in a much fuller context and see how Bell actually answers them — instead of merely trying to guess how he answers them (and judging him on that basis).

    The release date is less than a month away. Surely, people of sound discernment and good will can wait a little bit before trying to unload on him, or excommunicating him, flipping him off with a “Farewell, Rob Bell.” Everyone should wait to read the book before they do so, lest they be found guilty of answering a matter before they have actually heard it, which is not wisdom.

  • EricW

    A scholarly book on hell worth reading; it might challenge some settled beliefs: http://www.amazon.com/Formation-Hell-Retribution-Ancient-Christian/dp/0801481317/

  • In the list of options above it seems there is a missing choice which Rob may advance, and that is that Jesus Christ may save those he wishes and is not constrained to any of our formulas.

    Given the way the New Testament speaks of those “saved”, it seems men and women are falling into the kingdom in all kinds of different ways. Will some consistently choose not to be united to Christ’s life? I’m not sure that is knowable.

    What is the ontological nature of a human person after death? Again, I’m not sure this has been disclosed in full, and as such to claim salvation will be embraced *only* by a specific set I think may be over reach.

    In the end it seems quite clear to me that it is up to Jesus what he wants to do with his world and the soul of each man woman and child, for he alone (and not our detailed theological opinions) are what shall judge in the end.

  • Taylor G

    Jorge L, Are you aware of what the current pope has said of of the theology and legacy Von Balthasar? And also that he was elevated to the cardinalate? I am a fan of Von Balthasar, his theology, and was encouraged to know that Ratzinger praised him. This is, at least, my lay understanding of some of this matter. Also, at the end, it is my understanding that John Paul praised the theology of Von Balthasar and concluded that he was in fact right. Can you address these points?

  • Ryan

    @ Julie

    Very wise words and I want to thank you for reminding us that our teaching has very real consequences in the lives of people. I believe Bell knows this and that is why I have a hard time thinking he is just trying to be provocative for the sake of selling books.

    @ Jeff Doles

    I think in large part we agree. We should wait to read the book (though JT and Burk have actually read some of it) before we go to far in our opinions of it. But trailers are meant to communicate and I think one can reasonably say they have concerns about a book by watching a trailer that poses questions that seem to make statements as well. As I said before asking questions, does function as a way to make statements…even if in a more subtle fashion.

    @ Randall

    I wonder if it is a matter of tenses but has God really reconciled the world to himself already? Maybe I am miss understanding you here and if so I apologize. Yet as I look at this world it is still being reconciled to God. And that reconciliation comes through the miracle of what Jesus call the new birth. That he has to take out our heart of stone and give us new life. We need to become a new creation in Christ. This is also why I have trouble understanding how people argue for all being “reconciled” to God, but this seems to mean he will force people to be born again and filled with His Holy Spirit, even if they do not want to be. This seems radically deterministic to me.

    Just some thoughts…

  • Brandon


    Could you give us an annotated bibliography for each position?

  • scotmcknight

    Sorry Brandon, let me recommend you read T. Tiessen’s entry on Universalism in the Global Dictionary of Theology.

  • Alan K


    Is not what you are doing in your post precisely theology, and very good theology at that? Is it not a beautiful thing to realize that Jesus Christ has overcome everything, even our incorrect thoughts and belief and unfaithfulness by his own faithfulness? Makes me want to worship and sing!

  • Jeremy

    As a PK, I’ve always been taught that good speakers lead with a problem to be solved. This should be something done in a way that gets the listener interested, but doesn’t necessarily give away the conclusion. Bell is a very good speaker, so a teaser that raises eyebrows and gets the reader thinking about the topic before engaging it is an excellent way to get them interested in the answer to the question. His questions don’t necessarily show his cards, but they definitely have a whole lot of people very interested in what he has to say. There is nothing inherently immoral or deceptive about this.

    Besides, sometimes people NEED to be shaken up. It always seemed that offense at bold questions says more about the listener than the speaker.

    Julie – As a former 26 year old that was thoroughly disillusioned with the church and Christianity, I would like to encourage you to pray and trust that God has it under control. I would be less quick to blame Bell for what’s going on and consider it more the journey many of us in this generation are on. Ultimately, your son may not agree with all of your conclusions regarding the Biblical truths, but to be honest, that’s ok. You most likely disagree with your parents as they did with their parents and their parents before them. Pray that rather than he see things your way that God leads him to a fuller understanding of who He is than you have and gives him faith that can survive the big questions.

  • Randall

    Ryan, I appreciate the question and can sympathize with the difficulty you are alluding to. I honestly think the New Testament teaches the already accomplished reconciliation as a done deal that emcompasses everyone. It’s also true that it admits this isn’t apparent to the unbeliever while the beleiver accepts it on faith, NOT sight. I didn’t say it looked like that to me, I said I believe it based on scripture. Could I be wrong? Sure, but I can’t understand the scripture as teaching something else the way it’s written. Caveat here, that you and I both need to remember, our eyes, sight, understanding, aren’t the arbiters here. We walk by faith, not by sight. I don’t think the scriptures are intellectually comprehended in a way that can ever satisfy, they aren’t meant to, they reveal the incomprehensible. I think fallen man’s reason is a lot more limited than we generally want to believe. Deterministic???? Then God’s a determined God. That was a pun. Determinism/ freewill discussions are black holes.

  • Elaine

    Labeling someone a “heretic” is a serious matter. Doing it before all the facts are even known is unconscionable in my opinion. Sadly, we humans often over-react due to fear.

  • Ryan #110,

    Trailers indeed communicate, but it is the nature of promotional trailers to tease, to ask questions and raise curiosity and create interest so people will buy the book (or see the movie). The communicative purpose of a trailer is not to give away the answers and announce the ending.

  • Jorge L

    Taylor G., I am a bit confused by what you wrote. How could you have read what I wrote and not know that I know that John Paul II admired von Balthasar?

    Yet, on p. 184 of _Crossing the Threshold of Hope_ he wrote, after noting that a number of theologians have proposed a final apocatasisis and naming several (certainly Bulgakov and, I think von Balthasar but not Barth):

    “But the problem remains. Can God, who has loved man so much, permit the man who rejects Him to be condemned to eternal punishment? And yet the words of Christ are unequivocal. In Matthew’s Gospel He speaks clearly of those who will go to eternal punishment (cf. Mt 25:46).”

    He went on to ask, “who will these [who go to eternal punishment] be?” And answers, we don’t know the Church has always refrained from implying that we know. He says it is a great mystery.

    John Paul II REJECTED any sort of apocatassis, on a purely Scriptural basis, against the theologians.

    He named von Balthasar. Now, von Balthasar is widely damned by traditionalist Catholics as having taught an actual apocatastasis. He did not and John Paul II knows that. Von Balthasar merely asked whether we may hope that all may be saved and answered yes.

    But John Paul II went out of his way to mention vB here knowing that some accuse von B. of apocatasis. John Paul obviously wanted to be very sure that someone like you did not come along and say, but, but, but Holy Father, you like vB and vB thinks all will be saved so even though you denied that on the basis of Scripture, I bet you really, really believe it.

    I don’t know how John Paul could have been more clear about affiring (1) that eternal punishment is real and (2) that we can’t say anything beyond that about the fate of any human person.

    He went on to say that in addition to Scripture, reason requires a definitive (eternal) punishment IF we are convinced that we are truly free creatures. If that is true, then we must be FREE to totally and finally reject God. And Hell is alienation from God which is what rejecting God is.

    If God were to refuse us the possibility of totally and finally rejecting him, we would not be free.

    So both limited atonement and double predestination on the the one hand and “a loving God could not condemn to eternal hell” on the other hand deny free will.

    And if you know anything whatsoever about John Paul II, you know that he affirmed free will, really, really, really, because Catholic theology does so.

    But a consequence of that, he rightly pointed out, was that we must also be free to reject God definitively. Adovcates of one form or another of final restoration by the love of God intend to hold high the love and mercy of God, but they do so at the expense of full human freedom. Perhaps it’s a worthwhile tradeoff. John Paul, Catholic theology, and I personally, think it’s a bad bargain.

    Besides: Jesus Christ himself said there’s an eternal hell. I’d think he knew what he was talking about.

  • pdr

    Alan K,
    Thanks for your gracious response. I agree, what I am doing is theology. And that was in some ways my point. What I do, think, understand, and discuss about God is theology. I have recently begun to realize that this isn’t the key thing, though i have long thought it was. It has taken a while and the help of friends, counselors, and that mysterious love of God for me to come to tis place. I am sure my own journey made me interpret your comment about theology transforming everything, as I did. Anyway, I am not sure i added anything to this specific thread, but would love to discuss further if you would like. Feel free to e-mail at pdrhwr@gmail.com.

  • Jorge L

    Here is the full paragraph:

    “The problem of hell has always disturbed great thinkers in the Church, beginning with Origen and continuing in our time with Sergey Bulgakov and Hans Urs von Balthasar. In point of fact, the ancient councils rejected the theory of the “final apocatastasis,” according to which the world
    would be regenerated after destruction, and every creature would be saved; a theory which indirectly abolished hell. But the problem remains. Can God, who has loved man so much, permit the man who rejects Him to be condemned to eternal torment? And yet, the words of Christ are
    unequivocal. In Matthew’s Gospel He speaks clearly of those who will go to eternal punishment (cf. Mt 25:46). Who will these be? The Church has never made any ronouncement in this regard. This is a mystery, truly inscrutable, which embraces the holiness of God and the conscience of man. The silence of the Church is, therefore, the only appropriate position for Christian faith. Even when Jesus says of Judas, the traitor, “It would be better for that man if he had never been born” (Mt
    26:24), His words do not allude for certain to eternal damnation [for Judas].”

  • Jorge L

    Ahd here’s the next paragraph on the rational case for hell:

    “At the same time, however, there is something in man’s moral conscience itself that rebels against any loss of this conviction: Is not God who is Love also ultimate Justice? Can He tolerate these terrible crimes, can theyvgo unpunished? Isn’t final punishment in some way necessary in order to reestablish moral equilibrium in the complex history of humanity? Is not hell in a certain sense the ultimate safeguard of man’s moral conscience?”

  • Neil

    What does universalism do with Matthew 7:13-14? 13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

  • Taylor G

    Jorge L, You and I are not all that different my friend but to even bring up the word apocatassis confuses our discussion, (even if you admit VB didn’t accept it). Apocatassis is not even on the map of VB’s thinking. Would you disagree that John Paul took the church in a more optimistic direction? Are you aware of what Ratzinger said of VB at the his funeral?

  • Jorge L

    This is not about vB in general. It’s about a specific point: hell.

    John Paul stood fast on Jesus’s unequivocal words in the Bible.

    John Paul and optimistic direction is irrelevant to the matter at hand. I could say much about that, having studied both vB and JPII extensively. It’s not about optimism and pessimism. It’s about whether there’s an eternal hell or not. If we start doing theology according to optimism and pessimism we’ll end up in hell on earth.

    I brought up apocatastasis because it is commonly brought up in relation to vB. I pointed out that vB doesn’t believe it.

    The original point was the claim that JPII was soft on hell.

    He wasn’t. He was very biblical. ‘Nuff said.

  • Taylor G

    Jorge L, Forgive me for continuing with this, but how is less people going to hell i.e., optimism, not pertinent to a discussion on hell? Hell is a real place and a real threat. Not I, nor did VB ever deny this reality.

  • Jorge L

    Taylor G.,

    John Paul is neither optimistic or pessimistic about how many people are going to hell. Did you not read the quotes? He says we can’t know who’s in hell but there is a hell. Why do you have a need to label him more optimistic? Precisely because he respects free will, he knows that no one can know the state of a man’s heart at death. He has no felt need to penetrate the veil over who’s in hell but he’s resolute on the existence of hell, in both cases because of free will.

    And this has always been the Church’s teaching, regardless what this or that theologian or this or that visionary or this or that blogger has said.

    If John Paul were simply a theologian, who knows what exactly he might do under the proper framework of theological speculation? But he was pope. And people on this thread claimed he as pope had abandoned belief in hell. I refuted that.


  • Ryan

    @ Jeff

    To assume someone is conveying a middle finger by saying “farewell” is just as egregious in over-reading as your are accusing some of doing to Rob Bell. This cuts both way bud.

  • Ryan #127,

    It was as precipitous, as ungracious, and as abusive to twit “Farewell, Rob Bell” as it is to flip someone the digitus impudicus. Though I ceased being a fan of Piper a while back, he really dropped in my estimation with that entirely gratuitous act.

  • Regarding Matthew 7:13-14, there is no indication that it would ever and always be the case the few would find the narrow road. Indeed, I find evidence to the contrary, that there will be many who find it.

    Before He ascended to His throne in heaven, Jesus announced that all authority in heaven and on earth had been given to Him. With that authority, He commissioned the Church to make disciples of all nations (not merely preach the gospel in all nations), baptizing them, etc. I believe that commission, authorized by King Jesus and guaranteed by His presence (“and lo, I am with you always”), will not fail but will succeed, and that all nations will be disciples and baptized. To me, that sounds like most will find the narrow way. Further, as a postmillennialist, I believe that satan is now bound so that he can no longer deceive the nations and prevent them from the gospel. The gospel of King Jesus the Messiah will prevail.

  • Ryan

    I guess we will just have to disagree, but I have a lot of trouble in seeing the equivalency in a tweet and the middle finger.

    Just don’t think it helps the rhetoric on either side to try and establish this as a comparison.

  • Neil

    Jeff #129
    But not all are disciples or baptized and perhaps nations can’t be prevented from hearing the Gospel, but people still choose weather or not to except it. Many of every nation will die today who have not become disciples or baptized. Yes, one day every knee shall bow and every tongue confess and yes Jesus will prevail but not every who says Lord, Lord will enter the Kingdom.

  • Taylor G

    Jorge L, I wish you would have understood that I was trying to have a discussion not a debate. I guess you “win”. Either way no one here, nor I or dopderbeck ever suggested that PJPII ever taught that hell didn’t exist or that the Catholic church taught universalism.

  • Jorge L

    Dear Taylor G.,

    Dopderbeck did not mention John Paul and carefully guarded against a claim that Catholicism was drifting into universalism.

    Ben Wheaton brought JPII into it and associated him with a “disturbing trend toward universalism.”

    I replied to Ben Wheaton to clarify that John Paul strikingly dissociated himself from vB on this one point.

    You entered at that point with a general praise of vB (which I and JPII both share). If this was to be relevant to the what I wrote in response to Ben Wheaton, then I can only interpret it as initiating a debate. I did not attack vB, merely noted that the pope, while otherwise admiring him, was emphatic about hell. The thread is about hell’s existence. You addressed me directly and wondered whether I might not be ill-informed about Benedict’s and Ratzinger’s admiration for vB. If this was not an attempt to find some approval in either pope for vB’s “dare we hope” non-univeralism, then what was it? I took it to be an attempt to reassociate JPII and vB. That’s simply incorrect, so I was more specific with my evidence _on the one specific point_.

    I now have no idea what you were trying to accomplish with your initial comment.

  • Julie Youngblood

    to Jeremy #114, Thanks for the reminder, I appreciate your wise words. God bless. :-)After all, Our God is not one who fits in any “theological box”, He is totally sovereign, and He is full of righteousness, grace and justice, and His Word will stand: “I am God and there is NO other; I am God, and there is NONE like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do what I please.” (Isaiah 46:9b-10)

  • Edward Vos

    Thank you Scott. I can’t wait for the book and hope to read it like you. I have been to Mars HIll and have had the pleasure of hearing Rob Bell preach several times. My daughters attended his church while going to Calvin.

    One thing I know for certain is that Rob Bell preaches in parables much like Jesus did. Raising more questions then answers sometimes. Kind of like the many parables that Jesus spoke concerning the Kingdom. One that comes to mind is the story of the vineyard where those who worked an hour got a full days wage. Could this also be a twist on the normal rule following Jews and Christians that the Kingdom doesn’t conform to our world view of justice!

  • Mary

    “However, the Catholic Church’s disturbing trend towards universalism is deeply troubling, and one of the reasons why I am hesitant about things like ‘Evangelicals and Catholics Together.'”

    This kind of claim is too simplistic when describing the Catholic Church. It is certainly the case that many Catholics in the pews hold universalist views of some kind. It is also true that many Catholics in the pews don’t know the teachings of their own church (and I say this as a Catholic).

    The nice thing about the Catholic Church is that they issue a catechism that contains their official teachings. That doesn’t preclude debate within theological circles in the Catholic Church, but it can give us a good indication of what the church seeks to officially teach. In paragraph 161, it states, “Believing in Jesus Christ and in the One who sent him for our salvation is necessary for obtaining that salvation. ‘Since ‘without faith it is impossible to please [God] and to attain to the fellowship of his sons, therefore without faith no one has ever attained justification, nor will anyone obtain eternal life, ‘but he who endures to the end.'”

    In paragraph 846, we get the affirmation that there is no salvation outside of the Church. At the same time, Vatican II broadened out its definition of the Church. Paragraph 847 picks up on this by quoting Lumen Gentium, “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of conscience–those too may achieve eternal salvation.”

    This comes from Karl Rahner’s idea of the Anonymous Christian, but the Vatican II fathers defined it more narrowly in Lumen Gentium, by making it clear that we are talking about those who do not know of Christ or the Church (though having an full understanding of what it means to not know of Christ or the Church would be helpful). They are clear though, that individuals in that category are ultimately moved by grace to seek God, even though they don’t explicitly know of Christ. This hardly seems to be a “disturbing trend towards universalism.” Rather, it is some version of inclusivism. It is not without its own set of problems, but it simply isn’t accurate to call this universalism as it has been traditionally understood.

  • Whatever Mr. Bell says, I just hope it’s well-researched and well-thought out. I’d hate to see another “Dust” debacle where Rob decides he can overturn 1800 years established interpretation seemingly on a whim. Otherwise, he does so well 90% of the time.

  • Jeremy

    “Dust” didn’t get a fair shake. He was offering a different way of looking at it, and aiming at a specific message. The NOOMA videos are terribly short, but most of the criticisms I saw were either completely missing his point or from people who already thought he was a heretic.

    I’m guessing his book won’t be as undeveloped as his short videos.

  • As far as I can make out, it seems that the much of this sort of theological scuffle (or in this case, potential scuffle) in the evangelical world flows from rather differing senses of purpose.

    I am no avid consumer of Rob Bell ideology, but he seems to have a gifting at speaking to and drawing in Christians, particularly male Christians, on the fringes–the sort of twenty and thirty-somethings who have grown rather disillusioned with the traditional churches they were raised in. To reach this demographic, Rob Bell must care about the questions these individuals raise, and has to ask them himself, while furnishing answers rather less rigid than those provided in the most conservative of sanctuaries.

    For the many already beginning to stir with outrage over Bell’s attempted cultural translation of eternal questions, their sense of purpose seems to be more the posture of defending true doctrine, removing debris from the straight and narrow.

    Perhaps it requires deep grace for the shepherds over the ninety-nine to refrain from condemning the shepherd who runs after the one unruly sheep that is prone to get lost in the first place. As one who is nearer to functioning as the latter, I treasure such grace when it is extended my way.

  • Steven

    I just can’t imagine our Lord sending out the apostles, the first church and countless believers since, to spread the gospel knowing full well that many would pay with their lives, if “universalism” whether it be christian or other were true. I think that many have forgotten or perhaps never understood the utterly dire situation that mankind had brought upon themselves. We must be very careful not trivialize the seriousness and gravity of the situation we were in without Christ. There are many topics in scripture in which we simply have not been given sufficient information to answer definitively. We must humbly teach those things which God has made clear in His Word and resist the temptation to pretend we know things that have simply not been made known to us in the word, however much we might wish them to be true.

  • As far as is known, paradoxes don’t exist. Therefore, upon reaching an apparent paradox by sound reasoning, check your premisses; one or more of them of them must be wrong. In the present case, the most likely erroneous premisses are the assumptions that gods and afterlives exist. Eliminating those assumptions, the paradox of a loving god punishing people for eternity instantly disappears. QED.

  • John Broman

    Scot, I would like you to comment on this issue by including the insights of the Mission Covenant tradition as well as the Pietistic tradition. Thank you!

  • Thank you for this insightful post. This moves the discussion forward, which is exactly what we’ve been missing for so long.

    Please count me in as someone who thinks now is the time not for blind hammering of doctrines (which I hear often as a reactionary defense against postmodernism and relativism), but for promoting open, honest, and humble discussion of what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ.

  • renee armand

    Scott; I have never been able to understand why anyone would believe in hell or even want to. Punishment, original sin, separation, pain, terror, condemnation – we have quite enough of it all right here and now. Why perpetuate it? All the big and little arguments lead us away from the Sermon On The Mount, and away from the peace of God, which passeth all understanding.

  • The pressing issue today is both to comprehend the absolute seriousness of the Christian claim, to realize that the ground has shifted in that many who are associated with evangelicalism simply don’t believe the traditional view and have embraced some kind of universalism, and we need also to understand the options so we can all, one more time, go back to the Bible, to our church traditions, and study all over again – as if for the first time – what to believe.

    – Amen and amen. Lead the way, Scot.

  • L. Russell

    It is not courage or wisdom that leads one to deny Jesus. For a “Christian” leader to express the view that one needs not to be born again, is the work of the evil one. I pray Mr. Bell repents. The Bible is clear about those in authority and the responsibility they have been given.

    A God that is not just is not loving. God came in grace and truth.

  • G. Borgeson

    Being a 4th generation Covenanter, I’ve been rooted in the simple phrase “Where is it written?” Of course it makes us feel better to think that God, being all-loving, could never send anyone to hell, but that then begs the question: “Who is God?”

    So many in the world choose to create their own god rather than believe in the inerrant Word of God, cover-to-cover. God revealed who He is in the Bible and no where else. The dweller of hell, Satan, is far more ingenious than anyone would like to believe and the argument that everyone is saved, or that “all religions lead to God” clearly are devices of the enemy that has been very effective in drawing millions away from our very foundation.

    Where is it written?

  • Dawn McDaniel

    THANK YOU for withholding judgement until the book has been read – too many of us jump to emotional conclusions before all the facts are known.

    As we each read Rob Bell’s book, we MUST keep in mind that this newest round of discussion/searching/speculation/questioning will not necessarily solve anything. As long as we are confined to these mortal, limited minds & bodies, the True Nature & Plan of God’s will be beyond our full understanding. Yes, He has created us with minds & He expects us to use them, but the #1 thing is still to win all to Christ, or as many as we can reach, until the day He returns. The fate of each & every soul rests in His hands, not in our debate. So read the book, dialogue, debate, wrestle, as much as you need. Then go out and LOVE as many into the Kingdom as you can!

  • Chuck

    I had not heard of Rob Bell until last night. I had heard of the emergent Church but never looked into the belief. I have stayed on the patch of Knowing God. As a father I understand when my children on in error that I must discipline them. However with God we are given an entire lifetime to know him. If there is light there is darkness. If there is truth there is the lie. With God he indeed is loving, but do you actually thing that he will just let us slide and into heaven we go? Isn’t he as the scripture says a just God. Well that would imply that God is also our Judge. Jesus did not come to save us from God and his wrath. He came to seek and save the lost. That would imply somewhere somehow the person got off the path with God and lost his way. If however the person does not have a personal relationship with God through Jesus it is of his own accord and therefore the Scripture says in Hebrews 9:27 “And just as it is appointed unto men once to die, after that comes judgement.” You must answer to God for your life, not me and not Rob Bell. Be careful not just what you listen to, but what you choose to believe.

  • Scott, thanks. I’m praying that yours and other posts like yours help to bring healing to the hole in the heart of the Kingdom. I, too, am waiting.

  • stumpy

    I enjoyed your article. I just can’t see what is so destructive about believing God through Jesus Christ’s work on the cross is big enough to ultimately reconcile everyone to himself. Any thinking person reading their bible has to have questions. In Revelation after the Lake of Fire (second death), we find the fearful, unbelieving, ect. without the marriage supper of the lamb. I thought they were in the lake of fire! We base the bulk of this theology on English bible translations written in the 1600’s where torture and burning people at the stake were considered orthodox. Folks I don’t know I’m about as conservative as they come but, studying the passages in scripture where we draw our doctrine of eternal punishment, in their context, with an understanding of original languages(koine), will give us a better understanding of the true interpretation of these things. I’m tired of people trying to paint people who believe in universal reconciliation as heterodox, when we basically believe just as any other conservative Christian with the exception of conscious eternal punishment. Are we just defending sacred cows and the traditions of men? Jesus said that he who knew his masters will and did not perform it will be beaten with many stripes, while he who did not know his masters will and failed to perform it will be beaten with few stripes. So the guy who knew his master’s will and did not do it will get we’ll say a 100 stripes lasting FOREVER. Whereas the guy who did not know his master’s will get we we’ll say 50 stripes lasting FOREVER. In the end what is the difference? You are still being punished FOREVER. Has the Lord ever let you go through a trial forever (sometimes it feels like it I know)?

    Study for yourself and draw your own conclusions, I’ll leave you with a just a few of the toughest questions that ultimately led me to believe this way:
    1) God never issues a warning of eternal punishment in the Old Testament, why not?
    2) Paul teaches a lot about judgement but never, explicitly warns about eternal punishment, why is this?
    3) Jesus talked about everlasting punishment explicitly in one passage, the Greek word translated everlasting is aonios what does this word actually mean?
    4) I would hope that everyone believes that God is just, in light of this for what crime or sin would unending punishment be justified?

  • Helpful post, Scot. Thank you.

  • Thanks for the post – wise, informative, and mature.

  • Scott Courey

    Will humility prevail on either “side” of this debate? I have 6 children between 13 and 23 and they are asking life-shaping, honest questions. Thank you Scot for honoring the vulnerability of adolescent spiritual formation. They need neither side to demean their ambivalence with cocky, presumptuous counterattacks. For those of us who do believe that God’s wrath is as terrifying as his glory then let us offer that belief with respect and humility. And let us compassionately pray for anyone we believe may miss out on experiencing His Eternal Glory. If God will, in fact, bring terrible punishment, then how about if we let him take care of that part and in the meantime, state our convictions with humility and compassion?

  • “Rather than the other…” The bible does not portray *uni*versalism, but it *does* portray *re*versalism. (Mt 7:21-23; Lk13:22-30; Lk 18:9-14). Don’t replace reading with sitting and soaking.

  • Pam

    This showed me that if you don’t understand meanings of words – keep reading the author just might explain what he is talking about. Very helpful article – most of us Christians aren’t aware of what others are thinking until suddenly they let us know and then we may not be as prepared as we think. We are shocked because we have never heard of this belief. We need to understand who we are wittnessing too and be prepared.