A Framework for Understanding the Rob Bell Controversy

It’s taking me longer than I had hoped to write my own review of the famously hip Rob Bell’s famously controversial new book, Love Wins, but in the meantime I wanted to offer what I hope is a helpful framework for understanding some of the issues at hand.  I happen to believe that only 10-20% of the controversy is really about universalism.  The greater part of the controversy is about the questions behind the questions — progressive accommodation to contemporary culture versus conservative holding-fast to inherited theological tradition, selective reinterpretation of the Christian message versus a profession of the whole counsel of scripture regardless of its offensiveness to modern ears, etc; the other, central theological issues Bell reformulates — the character of God, the nature of the person and work of Christ, and the means of salvation; and the way in which Bell thoroughly and repeatedly casts doubt on, caricatures, and condemns what has been the traditional teaching of the western churches for many centuries now.

Bell is to be complimented and thanked for some things, and criticized for others.  But more on that anon.

For now, it strikes me that people are wrestling with the question, “Is Rob Bell a universalist?” in part because the terms have not been sufficiently clear.  Some say Bell is clearly not a universalist because he says that God will not forcibly save everyone, and some may continue to reject God even in the afterlife.  Some say Bell clearly is a universalist because he strongly implies that God’s loving pursuit of every individual — in the present life and in the life to come — must eventually prevail.  Still others say that Bell should properly be called a Christian universalist or an evangelical universalist, because he believes that all (can?) (will?) be saved but through the intermediation of Christ.

The most philosophical nuance I’ve seen in the online discussion so far has been Scot McKnight’s post on the variety of universalisms, but even this is confusing because these are not all positions on the same axis.  Let me explain.  The colors red, yellow and blue are all at different points on the electromagnetic spectrum.  So I can make a list — blue, yellow, and red — in which all three elements in the list are differentiated along one axis (in this case the axis of wavelength).  But if I create another list that runs thus — blue, yellow, red, red apples, red cherries — then I have created a a typology with two axes (colors or wavelengths, and types of fruit).  If I were making a graph, I could not just create a one-dimensional line, and locate the colors at different points along the line; I would have to create a two-dimensional grid, with colors along one axis and kinds of fruit along another.  If I added another axis, I would have to create a three-dimensional cubic graph, and so on.

I hope this is clear so far.  If a child asked me to hand her a kind of paint, and I said, “Do you want blue, yellow, red, or red apples?” (not apple-red but actual red apples), the child would look at me curiously, because I would have just confused different categories.  Well, I find a similar confusion running through some of these conversations about universalism.  There are actually several different axes at play here.

1.  The SOTERIOLOGICAL axis: What is the mechanism of salvation?  Is it known and confessed faith in Christ (exclusivist) — or might a person be saved by a kind of pseudo-faith even if he or she does not know or confess that this is through Christ (inclusivist) — or can a person be saved by a variety of religions through their own mechanisms (call this soteriological relativism)?

What becomes clear at this point is that inclusivism and universalism are not on the same axis.  One is a statement about how people are saved, and the other  about how many are saved.  To this point, one would have to say that Rob Bell is an inclusivist.  He believes that people of all religious tribes and none, whether or not they confess Christ or understand Christ or have ever heard of Christ, can be saved by the redemption God made available through Christ.  While this is not traditional Christian doctrine, and has not been evangelical doctrine, it is not terribly heretical either.  The Roman Catholic Church has held to a doctrine of inclusivism ever since Vatican II.

(It’s worth noting that there are sub-distinctions in each of these.  Some have begun to call exclusivism by a different name, particularism, and distinguish different varieties of particularism.  So, for instance, one could be an “agnostic particularist” if one believes that those who never had the opportunity to respond to the gospel in their lives on earth will have an opportunity to respond postmortem.  Traditional particularists believe that there is no such postmortem opportunity, but others have argued that God knows how each person would respond if given the opportunity, and saves those who would have responded in faith.  My point is not to advocate one of these, but to say that there is a whole body of philosophical literature on this, and many options within the options.  See Collin Hansen’s post here for some other varieties.)

2.  The EXTENSION axis: How far does God’s grace reach in effective redemption?  Are all people ultimately saved (universalism) — are most people ultimately saved (majoritarian) — or are the saved a relative minority (minoritarian)?

A universalist can be an inclusivist (all people are saved through Christ) or a soteriological relativist (all people are saved through various means).  And an inclusivist can believe that all, most, or still a relative minority are saved through Christ).  Rob Bell clearly rejects the minoritarian view.  He calls it “tragic” and “crushing” and “unbearable.”  He also presents the minoritarian view as the mainstream teaching of the church for centuries.  In the infamous promotional video, Bell evokes an exclusivist minoritarian view and suggests that such a God could not be good, and that such teachings have led many to reject Christianity as “an endless list of inconsistencies and absurdities.”

So where does Bell stand on the extension axis?  It’s not entirely clear.  The question is whether he is a majoritarian or a universalist.  He clearly states that some people will presumably reject God in the afterlife just as they did in this life.  But will they do so ultimately, forever?  He says that God would not force people into redemption, because God respects our freedom to choose.  But if God has an eternity to reach out to them, will everyone eventually surrender to the relentless, salvific pursuit of God?   The FAQ made available by Bell’s church, Mars Hill Bible Church, is clearer than Bell himself has been.  It says: Rob is not saying that “all will be saved, regardless of faith” — but he is saying that “all could be saved,” since “the invitation to God’s grace may extend into the next life.”

There are other possible refinements.  A person could be an actual universalist or a potential universalist, for instance, believing that all people definitely will be saved (actual universalism) or that all people may well be saved (potential universalism).

3.  This brings us to a third axis, the FATE OF THE REJECTORS: What happens to those who reject God?  Will they be tormented eternally in hell, decisively separated from God (for lack of a better word here, traditionalist) — will they be destroyed (annihilationist?) — or will they have an eternity in which to repent (eternalist)?

If you’re a universalist, you cannot be an annihilationist or a traditionalist, unless you believe that none reject God.  But an inclusivist could be any one of these three, and an exclusivist could be a traditionalist or an annihilationist.  Some Christians over the years have chosen annihilationism, in the view that it would be more merciful for God simply to destroy the unrepentant than to consign them to eternal suffering.  Bell is clearly an eternalist, who holds open the possibility that hell will eventually he shut because all people will ultimately repent and take refuge in God’s mercy.

In my reading, Bell is certainly an inclusivist and an eternalist.  The question comes on the extension axis: I would suggest that Bell is both a majoritarian and a potential universalist.  In some places he seems to prescind from judgment on whether all will finally be saved — who can say, after all, what people will freely choose?  In other places he suggests that God would not be fully great, or love would not fully “win,” unless all people are eventually redeemed.  So this, I think, is where one should press for clarity from Bell.

Again, ultimately, the disagreements and differences run far deeper than these questions.  But these are exceedingly important questions nonetheless, and evangelicalism is coming to terms with the fact that different people who call themselves evangelical are passionately committed to different answers to these questions.  I hope that the above offers some sort of conceptual framework that might be helpful.

UPDATE: Added the note above regarding different forms of particularism/exclusivism.

About Timothy Dalrymple

Timothy Dalrymple was raised in non-denominational evangelical congregations in California. The son and grandson of ministers, as a young boy he spent far too many hours each night staring at the ceiling and pondering the afterlife.
 
In all his work he seeks a better understanding of why people do, and do not, come to faith, and researches and teaches in religion and science, faith and reason, theology and philosophy, the origins of atheism, Christology, and the religious transformations of suffering

  • http://www.epignosis.info Bob

    Thank you for this well put reference on the nature of the issues. It’s hard at times to have a clear concept of what is being debated since so many involved keep on “muddying the waters” so to speak by mixing the 3 up.

  • John

    Very helpful clarifications, Tim! Learned a lot from this post.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ReceivingRed Ray

    Thanks for the interesting read. I’ve been a born again Christian for 40 years. Only recently have I been questioning something that I was taught, taught, and believed for all those years, and it’s pivotal upon one thing. Can a person receive God’s gift of eternal life through Christ after physical death. There are scriptures that I assumed refer to this, but now I’m no longer sure my interpretation isn’t an assumption. I’m on a quest. I don’t believe I could be an inclusivist or believe in soteriological relativism, as I believe in absolute truth, and the absolute truth is Jesus said I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. But my crises of faith is, where in scripture does it say once a person dies they are lost for eternity? The story of Lazarus in Luke 16, Matthew 7:23, 25:41, and Luke 13 still lead me to the belief in hell as a place of torment with no way out and no relief, and further punishment in the lake of fire. I’m at a point of questioning if that’s my assumption or is it clearly stated in scripture. I appreciate any thoughts and scriptures that apply!

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Ray, the book I’d recommend is “Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World.” The good news is, I don’t think your salvation depends on getting all the details right. So while it’s certainly an extremely important question with profound consequences for each of us, I hope you can conduct your research with a sense of peace.

      There is a variety of exclusivism that’s called agnostic particularism (some theologians and philosophers prefer ‘particularism’ to ‘exclusivism’). According to agnostic particularism, those who never heard the gospel in the present life will have an opportunity to hear and respond in the next. Or some say that God would have knowledge of how such persons would respond anyway, and so saves those who would have responded affirmatively to the gospel if they had had the opportunity. Both of these views reflect a concern that it would seem wrong for God to condemn those who simply had no opportunity to hear the gospel, and so they hold open the possibility of a postmortem opportunity. William Lane Craig has done some fine writing on this issue.

      Hope that helps a little, at least. God bless,

      -Tim

      • Marv

        The argument many non-believers use is, “what about all the innocent people who have never heard of Jesus?” This statement implies that those who have not heard the gospel are innocent. The Bible says that ALL have sinned and ALL fall short of the glory of God. Think about this for a moment: if those people were innocent and could get to heaven by simply not knowing about Jesus, the worst thing we could do would be to share the gospel and give them a chance to reject it.

        I think Rob Bell is focusing solely on the love of God and rejecting the justice, and sovereignty of God. God is perfect justice, and perfect justice demands a penalty be paid for sin. Because we are all sinners, we all need atonement. Christ paid the price for our sin. If there was any other way to God than Jesus, why did he have to die? Rob Bell’s doctrine just does not stand up to scriptural truth.

        Thanks for writing this informative article. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

        Blessings,

        Marv

    • Caroline

      Bell does talk about Lazarus and the Rich Man and has a wonderful fresh perspective on their story. He said the Rich Man thinks he can order Lazarus to serve him. That is, he did not acknowledge their change in status. When the Rich Man understood how things are, he asked Abraham to warn his brothers (who are probably just as clueless). I always thought that showed love and decency in the midst of torment. Mind you, this story takes place before the crucifixion and resurrection. There is One who crossed from life to death and back again. He has defeated death and broken down the gates of hell.

  • http://www.jrwoodward.net JR Woodward

    Great thoughts. I just started posting a series in my review of Rob’s book on my blog. I’m calling it: Divided by Hell? An Assessment of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Heresy, Orthodoxy & Final Judgment – Part I: http://bit.ly/gQDJQZ

  • Timbo

    This is a very good breakdown of the possible views. I posted a link to this on my facebook page and was asked how C.S. Lewis would fit into this framework. My reply:

    Lewis would be an inclusivist, majoritarian, traditionalist. Bell is an inclusivist, a potential universalist (though this is not clear, according to Dalrymple), and an exclusivist. Since there hasn’t been a lot of uproar over other inclusivists (e.g., Alister McGrath) or annihilationists (e.g., John Stott), I suspect that it is due to Bell being a universalist (actual or potential) and an eternalist. Lewis affirmed that what one chose in this life had absolute ramifications, with some people ending up in heaven and others ending up in hell (the damned got there “on [their] own steam,” according to Lewis). Bell apparently denies that what we choose in this life has absolute ramifications. This, I think, is why people are so up in arms about it. Bell being an inclusivist isn’t the cause for alarm. Bell being an eternalist in denying that our choice in this life has absolute ramifications does sound the alarm.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Thanks for the great analysis. I like your point about people being up in arms about the eternalism.

      -Tim

    • Douglas

      I stumbled into this discussion and saw your comment on CS Lewis.

      In CS Lewis’ book The Great Divorce we see a story about people in hell taking a “Day Trip” to Heaven but are insubstantial or ghost like and they all end up meeting up with people that were important to them in life. Some of these people from hell end up repenting and start to become “solid” and head up into heaven. Lewis describes the scene as just before dawn – and it has been thus for a long time. The idea being that there is a finite moment, a time when the sun will rise and there will be no more day trips.

      So what does that make CS Lewis – in what way is that fundamentally different from Rob Bell saying “Love Wins”? Except perhaps the point about the “dawn”. Both CS Lewis and Rob Bell appear to say “After death there may be – must be – a mechanism for a loving God to reach everyone, to at least give them a chance.” I think that Americans don’t like that because then it makes it more about “God” doing the “Work” of salvation and less about Man “saving” his brothers. Or perhaps, it makes Americans uncomfortable because we seem to be so very found of condemning those not quite like us – hence a thousand and one denominations. Fools – we are all fools and a pit of vipers. We are all worried about the wrong things.

      For me, I have always been puzzled by the line in the bible “and every knee will bow” – presumably acknowledging God. What can we make of that? I do not know.

      Here is what I do know – the first “Christian” or believer in the salvation of Jesus to make it to heaven was the “Thief on the cross” next to Jesus. He got it, he saw it, and he professed it and asked for salvation. He was not worried about any other detail. He is my favorite person in the bible after Jesus. He is me. He is you. He is every one of us and we should all remember that.

      But we going on pointing fingers because we are all fools. Blind, ignorant and arrogant in our faith. Perhaps we should all drop the attitude of trying to appear “more holy than thou” and strive to actually be who we were called to be – little Christs – living out Gods infinite and incomprehendable love.

      • Timothy Dalrymple

        Thanks for leaving these thoughts, Douglas.

        I don’t view this as a round of mutual condemnation and self-righteousness. I view it as people who care about the Truth having an important conversation over what that truth is. Apart from some commenters leaving their comments on blogs, most of the conversation has been much more fair-minded than it has been described. I haven’t seen much in the way of ad hominem attacks. I want to say this very nicely, though: you speak of a fondness for condemning those not like us, but do you not do the same thing when you condemn us “fools” and “vipers”? I appreciate that you consider yourself in that “we,” but I do think you have a hyper-critical attitude on American Christendom.

        To your other points…”every knee will bow” does not necessarily mean that all people will be saved. It might mean that; if one is a universalist, one will interpret the passage in that way. But it’s not as though exclusivists have never run across this passage and never interpreted it. It’s generally proposed that when people are confronted with God in all His glory at the end times, the saved and unsaved alike will recognize him and acknowledge who He is. This does not mean that they acknowledged who He is during their lifetimes, much less that they cast their faith in Him and his redemption through Christ. So, again, the passage can be interpreted in a universalistic sense, but we shouldn’t pretend that it does not have a pretty persuasive interpretation from an exclusivist perspective too.

        Lewis raises possibilities but does not (1) assert positively that God will eternally extend a gracious invitation to those who reject him in the life to come, and does not (2) denounce the belief in a permanent hell as unbearable, tragic, toxic, and the like. Lewis by and large gives a clear, fair, charitable account of what Christians by and large have believed, even when he wants to propose, on occasion, different perspectives. I think that a big part of what bothers people about Bell is the way he characterized exclusivism, and failed to give either a fair representation of why people believe that or to flesh out the variations that can make exclusivism more explicable and palatable.

      • Bill R.

        My first thought when I came across the controversy in the Time Magazine article was of C.S. Lewis’ “The Great Divorce”. I have since been following the blogs and have read the book (this month’s book club read). Lewis held George MacDonald in high regard and said in the introduction to the book “George MacDonald” that he was his “master” and that he had quoted from him in every book he had written. The point I am trying to make is that Lewis did not throw MacDonald under the bus for teaching universal salvation. Perhaps I can best some up this reply but attempting to quote Lewis (through his guide MacDonald) in “The Great Divorce”; “that’s the great joke, we’ve been wrong all along. Once we realize that we begin living.” That may not be exact but it is at least close. My problem with this debate is the venom of many of the attacks from mainstream Christianity. Lewis admired MacDonald. That his doctrine was not strictly orthodox was not sufficient reason to not listen to what he had to say or to call him a heretic or worse. My guess is that Bell is inspiring many to seek a relationship with Christ. Having 100% doctrinal accuracy is not a prerequisite for that. God tends to use imperfect vessels to accomplish his purposes.

  • Erik

    I enjoyed this, Tim. Your critique offers a nice nuance of a difficult topic, even for those of us who have not read the book…yet.

  • Robin Parry

    I agree with your analysis. It is important to make conceptual distinctions of the kind that you make. A very useful presentation. Thanks

  • Caroline

    I think Rob Bell is an exclusivist in that people are saved by knowing Christ and confessing faith in Him as their Saviour. Bell is only adding that people can make that decision after they die and that they have eternity to come to faith (which is a gift of God anyway). A similar idea is found in Ray Anderson’s “The Gospel According to Judas” and its reprise “Judas and Jesus: Amazing Grace for the Wounded Soul” which tells about how the first book impacted some readers.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Well, that’s a good question to ask him. I actually read him differently – that it was possible, even in this life, for people who have never heard the gospel or who might have had the gospel perverted through, e.g., an abusive priest, to put their trust in God and receive the redemption that God offered to the world through Christ without ever knowingly confessing faith in Christ.

      But again, this is a very good question. It’s possible the book doesn’t quite make this clear, one way or the other. I am supposed to interview him soon, and I’ll ask him.

      -Tim

      • Caroline

        I guess it’s like C.S. Lewis’ “The Last Battle” when Emeth meets Aslan and thinks he’s a dead man because he had worshipped Tash his whole life. But Aslan counted service to Tash as service to Himself. Emeth does immediately recognize and worship Aslan as the True One. So it’s both inclusive (we all belong to God because He bought us with a price) and exclusive (every knee will bow and every tongue confess). The main difference between Lewis and Bell seems to be that the Dwarves refuse to see even when Aslan reached out to them. I think Bell would say even the Dwarves eyes will open and they will leave their hell.

  • David

    Ladies and Gentlemen, I’d recommend you read the Bible for answers to your questions. God revealed to us what he wanted us to know in his Word and its black and white. There is only one way to heaven and it’s through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, its not a free gift but one that cost Jesus his life. HE was the only one who could reconcile us to a holy God.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I would venture to guess that most people engaging in this conversation have indeed read their Bibles, and continue to do so. The Bible does take interpretation, however, not because we want to avoid what it says, but because we need to understand how the different parts fit together, what the terms mean, and etc.

      -Tim

    • Caroline

      David, amen to what you wrote. The question is can someone who did not know Christ during their brief lifetime on earth, meet Him after she dies and enter into a loving personal relationship with her Saviour. Now, you’re probably thinking about Hebrews 9:27 but what about verses that speak of the restoration of Egypt and Sodom to God’s grace? Isaiah 19:23-25 & Ezekiel 16:53-54. We assume that Hebrews 9 says the fate of the lost is sealed after judgment. What if judgment is meant to save and restore? After all, if we weren’t judged we wouldn’t know that what we did was wrong and if we didn’t know we were wrong, we would not be able to repent.

  • Dave

    I’m trying to get my head around this using, e.g., Sander’s “NO OTHER NAME: An Investigation into the Destiny of the Unevangelized”.

    Where would the following seeming inclusivist variant fit in this 3D space?

    Any human being who has ever lived may be saved if (and only if) they embrace, in this life, the revelation they’ve received. So, some member of an isolated tribe only has general revelation, but Gandhi had specific.

    Perhaps the “agnostic” (“naive”?) subdivision of the soteriological axis apply to points beyond than exclusivist/particularist?

    A related question is “what about those who die before or shortly after birth?”. I suppose the inclusivist view above would support an “age of accountability” by saying such individuals had received almost no revelation.

    • Dave

      As a follow-up to my Q above, my in-progress decomposition of the space:

      HOW is one saved?
      1. by faith informed by special revelation
      2. …or, by faith informed by general revelation, if special revelation is not received
      3. …or, by faith, even if not informed by received special revelation
      4. by faith, and there’s no such thing as special revelation

      WHEN is one saved?
      1. this life
      2. …or once post-mortem
      3. …or anytime in eternity

      WHO will be saved?
      1. some
      2. most
      3. everyone

      WHERE are the unsaved post-mortem?
      1. in torment
      2. in isolation
      3. no where

      My (still second-hand) understanding of Bell projects his view in this space to
      How:3, When:3, Who:2/3, Where:2.
      The “inclusivist variant” I sketched above is
      How:2, When:1, Who:1/2, Where:1/2.

  • Tom

    Thank you for this article, it’s very enlightening! I keep trying to find clarity from the different sides, since I’m so used to others tuning themselves up for apologetics while I’m left to catch up… So I often hear the same stuff over again. It’s nice to get a framework for understanding.
    I think certain concepts would help tie together some options in these axes. For example, on the soteriological axis, it seems that inclusivism would exclude eternalism on the fate-axis, since “pseudo-faith” would be an unnecessary luxury if grace could be manifested through an eternity of hell to repent toward the full knowledge of Christ. In fact, inclusivism seems to deny any after-life chance at all to come to Christ, since after the truth has been manifest in seeing Him on the throne and being judged, and experiencing the reality of that judgment, simply a “pseudo-faith” would be actually a rejection of what was clearly seen at the Judgment Seat. Full acknowledgment of Christ’s sufficiency and necessity for salvation would be necessary, it seems, if that was the extent one had seen and experienced firsthand… that is, if it is true that to whom much is given, much will be required.
    I also think that certain other beliefs can nullify options, or differences of option, on these axes. For a personally relevant example, I think that if someone has a belief in man’s decision arising from his nature — that the natural man does not understand spiritual things, and the spiritual man is only quickened by the Holy Spirit — this seems to negate the relevance of eternalism, since the nature of man would prohibit his ever coming to Christ after death unless the Holy Spirit decided to continue working on his heart in Hell, which is supposedly separation from God. That seems an impossibility in that definition. So eternalism and universalism do not fit into this understanding — eternalism would be rendered a moot point, and universalism would be invalidated.
    So while this is an extremely useful framework for understanding, I think we need to work on putting it into a bigger context to be able to understand or express it in a way that others can really benefit.

  • Anabel

    Dear David,
    thank you and I agree with you. We should all read our Bibles. However, what shall we do when the answer I come up with differs from yours?
    Also, can you please show me where exactly in the Bible it says that we must have a “personal” relationship with Jesus?
    I am new to this religion stuff, but would like to read it for myself rather than just be told.
    thank you!!

  • http://www.activefaith.wordpress.com Stephen Enjaian

    Hello Tim,

    Your framework of key terms and issues is badly needed. You have done a valuable service to this discussion.

    It has been observed that as we discuss salvation and eternal destiny, we must keep in mind those whom we are commanded to reach with the Gospel. With that reminder I offer the following thoughts.

    Rob Bell considers the teachings of final judgment and hell fire to be unnecessary barriers to the Gospel. Yet Muslims vigorously affirm these teachings and would be aghast at Christians who can’t decide whether they believe about them. I wonder if Bell has given any thought as to how his speculations can create barriers to Muslim evangelism.

    Bell’s speculations have brought to the surface a lot of confusion about judgment. This confusion is illustrated by Caroline’s question above, “What if judgment is meant to save and restore?” No disrespect intended, but I don’t know how one could ask that question in light of Romans 2:1-16 or Revelation 20:15. By definition, judgment is a final determination. If this confusion is not eliminated then many, especially Muslims, will hear the Gospel not as love, but as weakness.

    I am not implying that we should determine our doctrine based on who it will offend. But one does not have to read between the lines to understand that what is driving Bell’s campaign is embarrassment, the embarrassment that both he and his supporters express clearly and repeatedly.

    Are we lovingly seeking the lost for Christ as if we believed in the reality of their eternal punishment? Would it hurt anyone if we did?

  • DR

    Tim, Well done, but I wonder, and I hope you’ll answer…Here’s another possible axis: this is where the proposition is that Jesus and Paul, et al., are talking about the present and not the future, which would mean that to save or to be saved is misunderstood as heaven/resurrection and should have been properly understood as being with reference to fellowship with Christ here and now, abiding in him, righteousness in him, being ‘in Christ’ and walking in the light, etc. I don’t think that this axis avoids the issue or is a case of not answering the question. Every one of the 13 instances of Hell (NASB NT) could be interpreted as a present judgment by God upon a man or an angel to be experienced while alive on earth or in the heavenly realm (angels), in the same way that entering the kingdom of God is experienced in the present. Neither have a gate on them, as if they were an actual place, but one “enters” them as a consequence of their present relationship to God. Therefore, Hell is as real as heaven, but notice how heaven is best interpreted as simply the realm that is not earthly? Even heaven will pass away. Why will heaven and earth pass away and not Hell? Because heaven is a non-earthly-dimensional place or simply ‘a place for/of experience’ while Hell is an actual experience; experiences ‘end’ they don’t ‘pass away’; places pass away. Ever wonder why the great theological masterpiece of Romans has no mention of Hell and only two innocuous mentions of heaven? Even Paul isn’t concerned about heaven and Hell in the same way as American evangelicals are. To him you/we are talking about apples while he’s talking about oranges. And he might even say that our apples are tremendously missing the point because all this worry about after-life destinations takes the focus off the present life.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Thanks for this note. My take is this. One should distinguish between eternal life on the one hand and heaven on the other. Eternal life begins in the here and now, in the moment we enter into fellowship with God. When a person is joined to Christ, he has begun the True Life that will extend into eternity. This is a quality or condition or metaphysical fact about the live we live in Christ. And yet it’s distinct from the renewed heaven and earth where we will continue to enjoy fellowship with God after the resurrection.

      In the same way, one should distinguish the quality of a life separated from God, at enmity with God, from the place of hell. While there are 13 places where certain terms are used to discuss hell, there are many more places where the afterlife and judgment and etc are discussed. If one does a systematic study of them, it’s hard to see how we can conclude anything other than that Jesus believed in, and taught of, hell a distinct place where the unredeemed go after judgment.

      It’s almost always possible to come up with an interpretation that makes things come out the way you want it to — but that doesn’t mean the interpretation is right or persuasive. So I don’t doubt that people can make this case. But I don’t think it’s a strong one.

      I often hear people concerned that discussion off the afterlife takes focus off the present life. That may once have been the case, but honestly I don’t see a whole lot of that anymore. Jesus seemed to want people to be mindful of the eternal consequences of their actions, mindful that they would be called to judgment and some eternal destiny. That doesn’t detract from the present life; it gives it an even greater sense of significance and urgency, because our actions and attitudes in the present life echo into eternity. I think the better point is not that attention to the afterlife diminishes our sense of the present life’s importance; I know that people are concerned that Christians should focus on redemption of the world here and now. But the better point is that Christ calls us to that labor of redemption, calls us to serve the least of these, and these actions have infinite and everlasting consequences.

      My two cents.

      -Tim

  • http://pomoxian.com Henry Michael Imler

    Thank you Tim. This is helpful for a debate begging for nuance. I, like some others, think that the way you distinguish exclusivism (confessionalist?), inclusivist, and soteriological relativism needs more work. The inclusivist category is too wide, or at least misleadingly labeled, for you’ve structured it in such a way that it includes people who think the OT heroes of faith are reconciled to god as well as people who think they are worshiping Shiva but are really worshiping Jesus/God.

  • DR

    Tim, Thank you for your two cents. Might we interact further? I note that your last paragraph highlights everlasting consequences, but how does that square with your evangelical notion that faith in Christ relieves one from judgment, and wouldn’t you cite John 5:24? You rest on “eternal life” as if it’s a term with a narrow definition as you have described. Have you considered great breadth of ways of understanding “eternal life” in its 41 citations in the NASB NT? Often it is not described as a result of entering fellowship.

    Where would you say that “Jesus believed in, and taught of, hell a distinct place where the unredeemed go after judgment”? In the Lazarus and the Rich man parable, Jesus indulges in mocking the obtusely lost views of the proud & worldly. As the parable begins, the audience is probably laughing hysterically at the utter selfishness of the rich man utterly ignoring Lazarus, for even the very rich Sanhedrin would be somewhat charitable. And then in eternity, the worldly proud see themselves as widely [eternally!] set apart from the hoi polloi who are not them. But Jesus flips their view on its head and its the rich man on the short end of his own view! Jesus finishes the parable by saying how the blinders worn by such will not be removed even if a dead man comes back to tell them they’ve got it entirely wrong. The orthodoxy of the rich man is never up for grabs, it’s his lost view of the present that Jesus highlights by mocking his lost view of eternity.

    Please reconsider your definition of eternal life. I think it has multiple connotations. As you squeeze the definition into just one line of thinking, remember that it’s almost always possible to come up with a single interpretation that makes things come out the way you want it to — but that doesn’t mean the single interpretation is right even though it may sound persuasive.

    • DR

      Tim, I apologize for the last line. I shouldn’t “mimic” a line to make a comparative point. My bad.

  • rko

    I think I need a diagram for this post :)

  • Watchman

    There is some talk about people having the opportunity to receive Christ after death because they were never afforded the opportunity to hear about Christ before they died. Then, how do you explain the following verse which implies that we are given one opportunity only on earth before we die?

    “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20)

    Are without excuse about what? That they never heard or seen God? Although I can’t stand on this verse alone (maybe I can), it seems to me the Bible is clear that there is only one chance to receive salvation, and that is while we live on earth in our mortal bodies.

  • J. Lyon

    I believe you are reading too much into the verse to assert a claim that this is about salvation, and in particular, that it is a one-shot deal. The verse you quoted is Paul’s letter to Rome, a morally bankrupt society. From the standpoint of biblical hermeneutics, to suggest that “there is only one chance to receive salvation” is neither apparent nor biblically accurate in the context to which you described.

  • http://web.me.com/billemail/TESTIMONY/My_Life_On_the_Road.html Bill Gordon

    Dear Tim,

    Just discovered your blog.

    Excellent distinctions you are making.

    The Rob Bell phenomenon is extraordinarily interesting.

    Let me say at the outset that I have become increasingly sympathetic to what I would call Christian Exclusive Universalism over the past 10 years and prefer to call it simply the Greater Hope.

    As a philosopher you must have a look at Thomas Talbott (a Christian philosopher who is a Christian Universalist)) whose book The Inescapable Love of God (1999) lays down some very helpful criteria.

    Have a look at his website

    In his short paper Universalism, Calvinism, and Arminianism: Some preliminary reflections Talbott reflects on the following inconsistent set of propositions–each of which has much Biblical support.

    To quote

    (1) It is God’s redemptive purpose for the world (and therefore his will) to reconcile all sinners to himself;
    (2) It is within God’s power to achieve his redemptive purpose for the world;
    (3) Some sinners will never be reconciled to God, and God will therefore either consign them to a place of eternal punishment, from which there will be no hope of escape, or put them out of existence altogether.
    If this is indeed an inconsistent set of propositions, as I believe it is, then at least one of the propositions is false.
    Calvinists reject proposition (1); Arminians reject proposition (2); and universalists reject proposition (3). But in fact we can also find *prima facie* support in the Bible for each of the three propositions. So one day I sat down and, setting aside disputes over translation and sophisticated theological arguments, began to review the obvious………. “
    I must admit that reviewing the increasingly hostile and often derisive and contemptuous criticism of Bell and his new book Love Wins I am struck by the fiercely “tribal” nature of the response where the concern is not:
    ‘Is what Bell saying resonating faithfully with Scripture and a fruit his study of Scripture and growth in maturity and wisdom over the years” but:
    “How well does Love Win accord with our (evangelical or Calvinistic) Tradition. You do this yourself, above, where you suggest that the issue behind the issue is Bells failure to ‘hold fast to inherited theological tradition’ and you cast doubts on his motive by seeing Love Wins as simply one more example of ‘progressive accommodation to contemporary culture
    …which if course fits in nicely with attempts to re-align Bell with theological liberalism. But none of that amounts to any sort of serious argument or engagement with what Bell is saying but is clearly an attempt to discredit him and quarantine him so he cannot do further damage to the evangelical cause….Ahhh the Culture Wars again!
    You yourself notice that the kind of universalism Bell seems to be advocating does not conflict with Vatican 2 Catholicism but one could also add to that certain streams of Eastern Orthodoxy not to mention many more early Church Fathers than many evangelicals would be happy with.
    Could I recommend Steven R Harmon’s scholarly “Every Knew Should Bow: Biblical Rationales for Universal Salvation in Early Christian Thought” ISBN 0761827196. It is oh so much more than just Origen, there is also Clement of Alexandria,and Gregory of Nyssa..and there many exegetical issues over not just the Greek word “aeon” but also Apokatastasis. On closer inspection it also appears that Origen’s reputed ‘condemnation’ for being a heretic because of his Universalism is hearsay with no clear evidence to support it.
    I have to smile when I see evangelicals appointing themselves as the true and exclusive guardians of Christian tradition and correct doctrine when the movement is scarily 200 years old,
    But, anyway, why this appeal to ‘tradition’ as if clinging fiercely to their evangelical traditions is any sort of answer or substitute for prayerfully engagement with the biblical text.
    And if fresh light should breaks forth from God word ( a well-know Puritan hope) it will be the protestant evanglical traditionalists (like the Pharisees of Jesus days) who will kick up the biggest fuss and will do their best to stamp out by any and all means any new ‘destabilising’ readings of the ancient text which might challenge cherished Protestant traditions and current evangelical theology.
    It is also so much m ore than Rob Bell.There is a helpful evangelical Christian universalist site called Tentmakers which has been up and running for several years now and it has a useful “scholars corner” showing that this issue has been building since the mid 19th century and is not a fruit of theological liberalism but quite the reverse…..nor is it ‘heretical’ in spirit.
    I have often wondered (with Thomas Talbott) why evangelical Calvinists see evangelical Arminians as in serious theological error and wrong in their view of the sovereignty of God and yet do not call them heretics while evangelical Arminians see Calvinists in gross theological error over the issue of free will, a limited atonement and a double predestination and yet do not call them heretics, but both charge Christian Universalists with heresy…… not for denying the reality of hell and painful separation from God…because Christian Universalists like Bell do not do that…. but by suggesting that the suffering and separation will not be eternal and that one ‘Day’ after all the aeon of aeons which God has ordained Jesus will lay down His authority to the Father and God will be all-in-all. That is Pauline revelation and not that of the Book of Revelation.

    Keep up the good work.

    Love in Jesus,
    Bill

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Bill, thanks very much for these comments and thoughts. Good stuff. I’m pretty familiar with early Christian thinking on the issue, especially Origen, Clement and Gregory of Nyssa (my doktor-mutter was Sarah Coakley, who did some fantastic work with Nyssa). There is a rich tradition of universalistic thought in the early church, although some of it was condemned at the time and some of the rest was left behind.

      While evangelicals do not view tradition as bindingly authoritative, they do believe that it should be honored and, at least, thoroughly explained before it is repudiated. And although “evangelicalism” in its American form is only roughly 200 years old, it emerges from Protestantism which emerges from the RCC church and etc. It’s rather like saying that the Trappists are only X years old, when they emerged from the Cistercians, who emerged from the Benedictines. We all trace our history back to the early church. While I don’t see evangelicals claiming to be the sole curators of true doctrine, I also think that evangelical scholars have just as much right as anyone else to study historical theology and identify when something stands outside of the orthodox teaching of the church(es) over the years.

      As I’ve made clear elsewhere, I am not bothered by any of Bell’s positive claims. None of them are new, and I am deeply sympathetic at least to a hopeful inclusivist universalism (I am pretty much Barthian on this). What bother me are the flippant and irresponsible way in which he deals with scripture, and the way in which he never gives a charitable account of why Christians have believed in a permanent hell, never gives the slightest hint that Christians have responded quite well to many of the questions and challenges he raises, and very often ignores scriptures or doctrines or distinctions that would challenge his argument and support opposing arguments. This just isn’t how Christians should discuss important theological matters. If a person wants to suggest a doctrine that is different from the present orthodoxy, one can and should do so without throwing under the bus the people who believe in that present orthodoxy.

  • http://www.KickboxingHouston.net kickboxing Houston

    Muslims think that Lord finally sent Muhammad (Seal from the Prophets) to share the actual divine message to the world (to summarize and also to complete the term of The almighty). In Islam, the “normative” illustration of Muhammad’s existence is known as the actual Sunnah (literally “trodden path”). This example is maintained in traditions referred to as hadith (“reviews”), which usually recount his words, his / her actions, and the individual qualities. The classical Muslim jurist ash-Shafi’i (d. 820) pressured the need for the Sunnah inside Islamic law, and Muslims tend to be urged to imitate Muhammad’s actions within their daily lives. The Sunnah is viewed as essential to guiding decryption from the Qur’an. Six of the collections, put together within the 3rd century Oh (ninth century CE), discovered be regarded as as especially authoritative from the biggest group in Islam, the Sunnites. Another large group, the Shi?oh, features its own ?adith found in several canonical collections.

  • http://www.TheologyForums.org Theology Forums

    We would love to have you and your readers join our Christian forums here: http://www.TheologyForums.org

  • wc@wayneconley.com

    I am impressed that even the experts are unsettled on this topic. I am sure it, hugely important but ultimately, isn’t this a matter to God to settle? But, I am impressed with Rob Bell’s arguments about how badly we behave. It seems we are caught up in the fairness of God. It appears that many in church are angry with God, complaining as the prodigal’s brother about how good the bad son has it. It is so sad, we miss God’s heart and even a dear relationship with Him since we demand our own terms. Just for today, while in my flesh, I don’t want to waste another minute on self pity. I am glad, for the controversy being sparked and it is my hope more hearts, with become open to Jesus. But, I am guessing that many church leaders will be compelled to “defend” the faith against these heretics. Why now live in the moment, and let God take care of the past and future? We anaylse to paralysis spending more time in our heads when God wants to be with us and live in our hearts.

    Wayne

  • Bud

    Tim, thanks for your remarks. Now I have to read Rob’s book. My two cents? Pain, lotsa pain. I hope Rob’s book will provide a balm that I can embrace. Heaven knows the church hasn’t. “Followed Jesus” as a good boy in a Christian household, finally went to seminary, got an MDiv along the way trying to find my own…rather than someone else’s…answers. Mid-30′s, sin not the issue…at least not any more than your average Christian seeking Jesus – and couldn’t function on a day to day basis in this world. Concluded that being made and renewed in the image of God couldn’t produce that result. As the cracks appeared in all the “inspired” stuff I had heard from the pulpit, and had assumed even through the more rational approach of seminary, I decided God had it right, cuz he can’t be wrong, but Christianity and the Church didn’t know it’s proverbial patoot from a hole in the ground. NO ONE speaks with a “thus saith the Lord” authority….those who think they have got God wired are just a bunch of folks who find the depression, desperation, darkness, and dirt of the real world too hard to confront without some “higher-than-thou” means of escapism/avoidance. OK, so here’s what I boil it down too: I have a hard time seeing God as a Loser. Hard to imagine giving His only Son so that the devil can take away a big slice of the prize…that the darkness that all folks are born into gets to triumph…and so easily! Ya know, theology has produced three competing versions of Christianity that historically have sought to deny or kill each other. Protestants stand out more for their division than their unity. Some score card for a bunch of ivory tower, belly button, lint pickin comtemplators of the truth to point to when they have the audacity to tell some poor slob living in darkness and desperation that God’s brand of “love” pretty much leaves him screwed! Ask yourself this: how many erudite theologians do you know that were born on a mean street, got their theological education while staying on that mean street, and express their lofty erudite positions from a little hovel on that mean street? Same thing for all these “happening” pastors with the big churches who blaspheme God everytime they step into the pulpit and start with a prayer asking that God annoint their message…such audacity to presume they speak with His understanding, purity, clarity, authority, and unadulaterated purpose. In a temporal sense, I have recovered from my years of being “lost is Jesus” (no slur on Jesus, who I still think is the genuine article)…have a relatively healthy family and a sound career even in the midst of this financial debacle. But I still wake up everyday wondering what to tell my kids about this mess we call Christianity…which fails to speak to the real experience of our humanity finding it’s way back to the IOG. Whether Rob is right or wrong, I am glad he’s got the guts to to put his thoughts out there…and everyone who wants to deep-six him, well maybe you should take a hard look at yourself…cuz maybe God doesn’t think you’re so red hot, right on either. Hmm, does that make you question your salvation, or are you just a member of the “I made the right choices” club? Well lucky you…or should I say lucky, predestined you? Alright, this post will last about two seconds, but for those who do read it, maybe it speaks to the inclusion of God’s appreciation for the pain entailed in being lost in your theological calculations of who God is and what His love means. By the way, my name isn’t Bud.


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