With the latest furore about Rob Bell’s book, that is so redolent of Steve Chalke’s book nearly 10 years ago (Lost Message of Jesus) in the UK, the issues of is the Gospel focused on penal substitution, and who goes to Hell has made a huge splash particularly in the USA.
Is Rob Bell a universalist? Best to read his book
and see the online statement
from his Church for that. You can also hear him speak in Cambridge with Maggi Dawn
leading a Q&A with him. I’m not going to critique his book, but instead take on the topic of Hell and from one particular angle. Reading some of the polemic on both sides, I was left wondering if we can talk about Hell anymore at all?
Some people seem to assume that anyone who believes in Hell, and a gospel that saves people from it, are some how psychologically malevolent, full of hate and spite, delighting in people entering eternal torment, as they worship their hate filled God.
Then others seem to assume that anyone who questions atonement theories, the nature of Hell, examining it afresh in light of a world that might be hearing something that is less than helpful, let alone true, are pilloried as heretics, and sinful liberals.
On both sides, various epithets are pejoratively ascribed within concomitant online temper tantrums, by people who should know better before making their puerile denouncements.
So some thoughts on this theme in no particular order, and more from a personal approach and pastoral one than an academic one.
Can we consider the topic of hell, no matter which side we are on, with an ensuing opprobrium of others? Perhaps Rob Bell and someone else concerned about his work, need to conduct a public conversation, that models a different way of disagreeing, for more light than heat on the topic.
Beyond political correctness are we really no longer able to talk about eternal consequences to how we live in this life, without Hell/penal substitution or liberal sentiments being the sine qua non, essential condition, for that conversation/reflection? Hell is too important for this polemical and polarized debate.
I think one of the best books on unversalism is by Robin Parry aka Gregory McDonald, ‘The Evangelical Universalist
’. Not only should people who call Rob Bell a universalist, read his Bell's before stating that, they should explore what universalism actually is (and I don't think rob Bell is a universalist). Talking with Robin Parry he told me that 1) universalism has never has been normative in Church history and orthodoxy 2) and it has never led to significant growth in Christian faith, with people converting to Christianity as a way of life and faith. At least that’s what I remembering him telling me.
The ‘voluntarism’ of our current western society that finds the idea of the subordination of our will to any being or agency anathema, needs little encouragement that I fear universalism functionally provides, to a way of life where we are the centre of life, not God. Before anyone argues that universalists can be ‘sold out for God’, I know they can. But if Hell and penal substitution can be viewed as hate filled Christians with an angry God, I think universalism can be viewed as a god, who does it all for us, with no consequences to how we live in this life. Universalism seems to fit a modern pluralist society's anxieties about how this life might affect the next a little too conveniently. And now may universalist will take exception to me.
Do we need a religious system where 99% of people I know go to hell? At least if you live in London, that’s what Hell within accepting Christ as savior through penal substitution seems to mean? Is my good news that an angry God killed his son to forgive me? Now that might not be what penal substitution is about, but how do we avoid communicating just that if we reduce the gospel to that focus?
Here is where I found Stanley Grenz’s book, ‘Renewing the Centre
’ so helpful for introducing the idea to me of inclusivism. Surely no-one gets into eternity save by the grace of God through the death and resurrection of Jesus. It’s the only basis anyone gets into eternity. If we can’t affirm that, why bother calling yourself a Christian? But surely there will be people in eternity, who didn’t pray the sinners prayer. Not just children and the mentally ill, and all those who came before Jesus. If I was brought in a muslim country, and never hear about Jesus would I really go to hell for that?
The problem with exclusivism is that it needs so many conditions for others, that it can stop being exclusive. So perhaps my role isn’t to present the Gospel as the scandal of getting into heaven or going to Hell. Instead it’s to ask how can we get through life without Jesus? And within that he is our hope in this life for what happens when this life is over. But it is also to present the scandal of the Gospel in a liberal consumer society that we aren’t free in this life to be whatever we want to be, but that we will never find out who we are until we explore who we are in Christ with others, and there are eternal consequences to that exploration.
I do believe something is at stake with concepts of heaven and hell, and salvation, that can’t be discarded. But I do suspect that Jesus is more ok with an exclusivist that loves and follow him devotedly, than them being a universalist who doesn’t, and vice versa. And in that I don’t think we’ve really begun to explore again, in our time and age what Hell is really about. And to that end I am grateful for Rob Bell, for trying to do just that.