Today’s topic, from Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, is the one of the big ones — is Rob a univeralist? — and our post begins with a prayer. I am asking that you pause quietly and slow down enough to pray this prayer as the way to approach this entire series:
O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing:
Send your Holy Spirit and pour into my heart your greatest gift,
which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue,
without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you.
Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God,
now and for ever. Amen.†
What “category” do you think Rob fits into when it comes to his view of how gets in and how many get into The Age to Come? Do you think there’s biblical grounds for “second chances”? What texts would you use in this discussion? Do you think it is right and good to hope for the salvation of all?
I will say this again: what Rob is asking in this question is one of the most important questions being asked today. Will God’s grace and love eventually compel all to turn to him or not?
The chapter is titled and it begins with this question: Does God get what God wants? Of course, this all depends on what “wants” means, and Rob narrows God’s “wants” to his desire, found in 1 Timothy 2:3-4: “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”
Others might define God’s “wants” in ways that permit other factors, but this is Rob’s book and this is what he focuses on. He asks some almost facetious questions – like “How great is God?” – meaning is God great if he doesn’t get what he wants and what he wants is the salvation of all. By Rob’s own logic, though, and this needs to be listened to, as this chp unfolds God doesn’t necessarily get what he “wants”.
Bell opens up the universalism question here, which means that all humans — every last one of them in the past, present and future — will in the end be saved. He quotes passages in the Bible that have both “gospel going to all people” and reconciliation of all themes. The verses can’t be denied. Colossians 1 can’t be ignored: “and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” But that’s not the end for Rob Bell in this chp.
Yes, he has some “Is history tragic?” questions and some “Will God shrug God-size shoulders?” And then discusses various options beside the universalism option.
1. We have one life and one life only to decide, and then eternity is settled. It’s rooted in freedom and God won’t override human freedom. That’s standard exclusivism.
2. Another view can be called diminishment to the point of dissolution.
3. Others believe after death people will get a second chance, and he misuses Luther here but that’s been pointed out by others already. Some, not many, do believe in second chances. (The Roman Catholic view of purgatory, though, is not about second chances.)
4. He offers yet another option: endless opportunities to choose. Endless second chances. And given enough time, everyone will choose. This is a kind of compatibilist universalism with God’s grace being just too good to resist eternally.
Bell then trots out some theologians who have been more or less universalist, including Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Eusebius, … and observes that others (like classic Reformed theologians of the 19th and 20th Century) think many if not most will be saved, like Jerome and Basil, and Augustine said at his time many thought this way. [I’ve not seen this in Augustine but would appreciate a reference if someone knows it.]
1. There is diversity in the church on this one. He’s right, but I’d appreciate it if he’d say very few have been universalist and many of them got into hot, hot water for it. It’s not as simple as variety. Exclusivism has ruled, with other options but they are minority with various degrees of trouble for proponents.
2. A theoretical point, one not often seen as theoretical by Bell’s readers, is his view that the story of some going to hell forever is not as a good a story as everyone going to heaven.
3. Whatever view you have, it is “fitting, proper and Christian to long for” the better story. [I recently talked with a significant Christian evangelical leader in the USA who said this to me: “If you don’t long for that, you need to spend more time with God.” And he was most decidedly not a universalist.]
This leads him to Revelation, and it is here that I will engage him a bit:
First, “But the letter does not end with blood and violence” (112). Well, I’m unconvinced because Revelation 20 is part of the end of this book and it is “violence” if you consider being thrown into the Lake of Fire violence. So there are two ends in Revelation: the Lake of Fire end and the New Heavens/New Earth end. But it is true that the final ending in Revelation is the New Heavens and New Earth.
Second, the new creation of Revelation 21 eliminates murder, destruction and deceit. He goes back to his freedom theme here, and I can’t tell if he’s ignoring the elimination of those who reject God in Rev 20 or leaving open the option for those in the new creation to choose against God. It appears to me he’s assuming the validity of the endless second chance theory. (Without arguing for it.) But he asks here how someone could not leave the old ways … and suggests some will/can choose that option.
Third, this is where I believe Bell overtly denies universalism: “So will those who have said no to God’s love in this life continue to say no in the next?” [Again, he seems to avoid what happened in Rev 20.] He goes on: “Love demands freedom, and freedom provides that [to say no to God] possibility. People take that option now, and we can assume it will be taken in the future.” This is non universalist. Universalist is an option for Bell, but it’s up to humans. And since they have freedom, one can’t know for sure.
Fourth, the gates of the new heavens and new earth — the new Jerusalem — are open. He sees choice in these open gates, but I disagree: the gates were for protection, and open gates means there is no need for protection. Why? Because the New Heavens and New Earth are Shalom, everywhere, forever. Again, leaving the gates open is caused by Rev 20, the elimination of those who reject God and do evil. But Rob wonders if people can be banished — he doesn’t say where but perhaps he means in the Lake of Fire (it’s not clear) — and at the same time there can be gates open for them to return. He goes on…
Fifth and here we have another non universalist position: Rob Bell says we can’t know. “Will everybody be saved…? Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for freedom that love requires” (115). Love wins. This is definitely not universalism. Bell is open to it, he hopes for it, but it’s up to humans to decide. If you can’t know, you can’t be universalist because universalism knows.
Sixth, and I like this one: the new heavens and the new earth are full of endless possibilities and potentialities for God. It will be new and keep on being new.
Finally… he answers does God get what God wants? This is the universalism question. His answer: the question is not Does God get what God wants but “Do we get what we want?” The answer to that is “a resounding, affirming, sure and positive yes” (116). We get what we want.
This is not universalism. It is pure emphasis on libertarian free will. In the heart of Grand Rapids, Michigan.
For other posts, see Tony Jones, Greg Boyd.
Jeff Cook compares Rob Bell with C.S. Lewis.
Early Rob Bell reviews.