Sunday, March 06, 2011

Will Bell’s Universalism Matter?

In case you haven’t heard Love Wins the latest book of Christian author, speaker and church leader Rob Bell will probably be about Christian Universalism – the idea that everyone gets to heaven in the end. I say “in case you haven’t heard” because so many people have heard. I have seen it mentioned recently on lots of blogs and facebook statuses. I say “probably” because it isn’t released until later this month and the publishers aren’t giving the whole game away yet. Will he argue for evangelical universalism, conditional immortality or something else? We just don't know. In the meantime Rob Bell has managed to stir up some controversy across the internet and so generate a lot of publicity for his up and coming book.

So what is the book about? Love Wins is subtitled “a book about heaven, hell and the fate of every person who ever lived”. In his YouTube trailer for the book Rob Bell asks some hard questions about the afterlife such as “Will only a select number get to heaven and billions burn forever in hell?”, “How do you become one of the few?” and “What does this tell us about the nature of God?” He sets up his book as an attempt to answer these questions and to show that the good news is better than we’ve been told. But what he will say is still unclear. He is playing his cards close to his chest.

The publisher’s blurb does make it a little more explicit than his trailer though. It tells us Bell argues “that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering”. And it goes on to say, “With searing insight, Bell puts hell on trial, and his message is decidedly optimistic.” This makes it appear that Bell will reject the traditional view of hell as a place of eternal suffering. A lot of people are increasingly convinced that Bell is going to argue for a Universalist position that ultimately everyone gets to heaven leaving hell empty, if he thinks such a place exists at all.

A lot of conservative evangelicals are getting hot under the collar about this. Yes, this book has got Christians talking – especially evangelical Christians. Some refer to Rob Bell as one of the most influential evangelicals in America – especially among young people. But others question whether he is evangelical at all seeing him as having more liberal leanings. I’m not sure how Rob Bell would refer to himself but the fact that he has got so many people talking indicates that he is certainly worthy of the accolade of influential. But I do worry what message some of the less than gracious debating sends about Christianity.

I also wonder why so many who hold the traditional idea of hell appear to fear so much the thought of others being misled by Bell. Do they actually think that he will persuade so many about this? Perhaps so. Rob Bell is an excellent communicator after all. When I read Velvet Elvis I found his words capturing my imagination. But ultimately I don’t think his strength is in teaching Christian doctrine. It might be interesting to see what his position is but I suspect that I will find Bell’s book frustrating. On such a difficult subject as this I would prefer a detailed argument based careful exposition of the scriptures. But perhaps that’s not the case for most Christians.

One of the best books on this topic that I have read is The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory MacDonald (a pseudonym of Robin Parry). This caused some debate but it was nothing like the controversy I am seeing Bell’s book making now. The Evangelical Universalist set out a case from the scriptures that ultimately you can read the Bible as teaching that everyone will be saved in the end. It is well written, thorough and made it clear, to my mind at least, that universalism is a respectable Christian option.

However personally I didn’t quite feel that I could accept the position as there were still some problem passages that left me wondering. In the 80s I had read the chapter of Evangelical Essentials where John Stott outlines ‘conditional immortality’, the idea that hell is annihilation rather than everlasting torment. I found this a more convincing argument and even though the Evangelical Universalist went into more depth I still ended up leaning towards conditional immortality rather than full blown universalism.

Ultimately I am somewhat bemused by the furore over Rob Bell’s book. Having already read these more intellectual offerings I would see both conditional immortality and universalism as just as much possible interpretations of the Biblical teaching of hell as eternal suffering. If I had to plump for one it would be conditional immortality but I wouldn't want to be too dogmatic about that. And whatever Rob Bell argues for, though I may find his writing inspiring, I doubt that his more rhetorical style will cause me to modify my basic understanding of this topic. But I'm sure he will persuade some.

Update: The first review of this book by someone who has read it!