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Fear Wins?

Today was an odd day in the blogosphere. It seemed like every third post that came through the reader had something to say, or linked to someone else who had something to say, about Rob Bell’s forthcoming book Love Wins, and whether or not Bell has placed himself beyond the pale by declaring himself to be a universalist (you can start here, if you like, and follow the link trails). Like nearly everyone else offering commentary on this book, I have not read it. The main reason for this is because the book hasn’t been released yet, which makes the hysteria around what it might say even more grimly amusing. It’s interesting to observe how threatening some people find even the possibility that Bell might not believe in a very specific conception of hell.

At any rate, while I would not technically call myself a universalist (even if at times I secretly hope that it’s true!), I have a strong suspicion that God’s mercy is much wider than ours often is.  I like how Tomas Halík puts it in Patience with God:

Yes, to believe in a God we can’t see also means, at the very least, to hope that He is where we can’t see Him and often where we are absolutely convinced that He is not and could not be.

26 Comments Post a comment
  1. amen!

    February 28, 2011
  2. Paul Johnston #

    I don’t have a dog in this fight but from the outside looking in it seems a rather sorry state of affairs. Mr. Bell’s trailer seems more concerned with evangelical bashing than affirming the Gospels. The cruel caricature of people convinced that Gandhi’s in hell, that millions and millions have been taught that God is going to send them to hell and the implicit notion that all “their” cruelty and contradiction is responsible for faithlessness. Really Mr. Bell, love wins. Were you meaning to be ironic.

    March 1, 2011
  3. EDH #

    The way I see it, lots of people, including myself, have wrestled with this issue throughout a long span of time. And I don’t think the exclusive words of Jesus are particularly easy.. but I do find them to be clear. Between promoting the book, the publisher notes and the video, I don’t think I should hold my breath for an accurate or even orthodox interpretation on such a weighty matter. I think going against scripture and tradition, taking the easy way out, does warrant a little fear on behalf of the one who seems to be doing it in a smug condescending way. More over, I think the book is going to be feeding off of what a lot of itching ears want to hear. And since Rob Bell has a large sphere of influence, the net effect will be big. I think there is a substantial difference between Halik’s speculation and what Rob Bell seems to be doing. Teachers in the Church should have integrity, and I think Rob Bell is losing his credibility. It doesn’t mean he does not have anything good to say, but I really don’t see how this specifically should be tolerated (I guess we’ll have to see when the book comes out). His sensationalizing should be taken with much caution. I’m not saying whether he is in or out. But that on this issue, the Church shouldn’t tolerate a teaching that says you don’t have to be born again to inherit eternal life.

    March 1, 2011
    • I’m going to reserve judgment on whether or not Bell is losing his credibility, such as it is, until I actually read the book. From what I’ve read of Bell’s other works, I’m expecting a popularized version of N.T. Wright’s work (e.g., Surprised by Hope) which would not put him in the universalist camp. It would be more along the lines of the “Hell is locked from the inside” view that Jerry mentions below.

      While I appreciate that universalism is not a common view throughout church history, I’m not sure a move toward universalism necessarily represents “taking the easy way out.” For me, the most compelling motives for universalism by far are moral ones. Of course there are easy universalisms that just say everyone gets in, no questions asked, but at its best universalism seems to be grounded in the character of God and the comprehensive scope of Christ’s work in reconciling “all things” to himself.

      For a really concise summary of what universalism is and is not, I appreciated this post by Tim Perry. Also, Richard Beck has an interesting take on how the eschatology of Wright and, presumably, Bell, is flawed because it takes human freedom too seriously that’s worth reading.

      March 1, 2011
      • EDH #

        I found Beck’s article to be an interesting read, but I thought he took too many leaps. Particularly, when he takes NT Wright’s views of hell and critiques them based on soteriology and free will – does he forget that NT Wright is a Calvinist? I would be right along with him if he was critiquing that!

        On the other hand, he plays the “if you can reject God on your own will then you can accept him on your own will” card. But I don’t think that is true, much in the same way that if I chose to die, it doesn’t mean that I chose to be born. Perhaps, Beck’s whole point would be compelling against the decision theology of an Arminian, but I would also be right along side him if he was critiquing that also!

        I think the safest thing to say is that if a person is damned it is of their own doing, and that if a person is converted to life, it is not a result of their own will (it is in bondage to death), but purely the grace of God which converts the will. [Why does one person reject it and resist the Holy Spirit while another other person does not? Sure it’s a paradox, but then again so is the Trinity, so I’m ok with the tension.]

        So while some Christians take choice too seriously, perhaps Beck is staking too much in neuroscience here, and not leaving enough room for mystery and the Holy Spirit. I don’t mean to peg him on one post, but based off of the way he is arguing it seems like he sees God as a naturalistic deterministic deity. I suspect Beck might say that our life and thoughts, including conversion, are just a matter of chemical reactions working their course, therefore, we aren’t really responsible for what we do, good or bad, and God is going to clean everything up, because he already paid for it. But I think this somehow undermines our union with Christ here and now, since the power of the word isn’t left to chance and chaos (although it may appear so) but is the work of the Holy Spirit.

        March 1, 2011
      • EDH #

        I realize I probably should have withheld my speculation about Beck’s view of God as naturalistic determinism, as it is likely that I misread his post. In which case, I retract my fourth paragraph 😮

        March 1, 2011
  4. “..the Church shouldn’t tolerate a teaching that says you don’t have to be born again to inherit eternal life.” – EDH

    What if that teaching was: ‘You don’t have to be born again [before you die] to inherit eternal life? I’ve heard that Gregory MacDonald’s Evangelical Universalism allows for the existence of Hell, but claims that Hell will eventually be empty.

    March 1, 2011
    • EDH #

      I don’t think the Church should be teaching any speculative theology. Obviously some is not as bad as others. But I would assume if God wanted us to know something he would have revealed it to us through Jesus Christ and his apostles. If I believed God revealed new things through our own use of reason, I could just as easily start acquiring indulgences. In this respect, I don’t think God is calling us to use our imaginations. Furthermore, the warnings are great, “Behold I come quickly!”, and will the Son of Man find faith on earth? The parables which describe judgment, like the wheat and tares, the sheep and goats, lazarus and the rich man, they don’t describe any intermediate state; but display that judgment is final. We don’t have any promise of God to cling on to, so we would do better to leave it to him, and simply stick with what we do know.

      But I think the danger of heading down a universalist route is twofold: 1. Complacency or false comfort. 2. At what point do we stop saying “Did God really say, mean or do that?”

      March 1, 2011
      • Then, I suppose you’re not a fan of the kind of C.S.Lewis theology that says, ‘Hell is locked from the inside’? (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

        March 1, 2011
      • I’m going to offer somewhat of a defense of reason and speculation here, if only to say that the Bible does not interpret itself and we are always employing some version of these tools in discerning how Scripture ought to be applied to this or that situation or view.

        For example, many of the passages where Jesus is thought to be speaking about eternal punishment (certainly the parables) are fairly explicitly linked to people’s behaviour rather than their belief (e.g., Matthew 25:31-46). Yet I don’t often come across folks in evangelical circles who are eager to mark who’s in and who’s out at the final judgment based on Jesus’ criteria in this passage. Whatever the view, our eschatologies are always composite packages and reason certainly has a role to play in this.

        March 1, 2011
      • Tyler Brown #

        It is also worth noting that “I would assume if God wanted us to know something he would have revealed it to us through Jesus Christ and his apostles,” and ” If I believed God revealed new things through our own use of reason,” are based on reason.

        For the most part, as a human being, it is fairly hard to just emote…

        March 1, 2011
      • EDH #

        I do not mean to say that revelation is void of reason. Although, I do believe my statements to be scriptural. If the Church is to be apostolic it must confine itself to the teaching of the apostles. We cannot start spinning out new doctrines and pretend like Jesus taught them.

        March 1, 2011
      • Ken #


        Re: people’s behaviour rather than their belief

        As I understand it, for the most part evangelicals, American and European (don’t know about Canadian) follow the route of “reformed theology,” the way of Luther, even where not completely the way of Calvin. Faith, as in belief or trusting in the promises of God, is linked to salvation, not behaviour. Good behaviour is believed to come from the Holy Spirit where it genuinely occurs and this kind of good behaviour is seen as stemming from gratitude for salvation that has already occurred, a gratitude that we would not feel if not for the presence of the Holy Spirit. Matthew 25:31-46 does not pose a problem for this view for two reasons: 1) the least of these, the hungry, naked, etc. refers to Christians, probably missionaries, 2) the help is rendered innocently, without knowing, rather than deliberately. It would be uncharacteristic of the reformed tradition to speak favorably of good behaviour in any other way. It is consistent with the view that Jesus died for the sake of the elect. Matthew 25:31-46 is in this way consistent with the prophetic claim that God will bless those who bless his people and curse those who curse them.

        March 2, 2011
      • I’m simply saying that, for a significant portion of the evangelical world, the answer to who ends up in the “saved” and the “damned” bins at the last judgment is determined by who believes the right things about God. From my perspective, it is difficult to read the gospels and come to that conclusion. Jesus doesn’t say that correct understanding is insignificant, but he very often links salvation/entry into/participation in the kingdom of God with right behaviour (i.e., the story of the rich young ruler, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, etc). Of course, there are different ways of understanding how belief and behaviour work together, and Anabaptists and Reformed folks (among others) obviously have some differences here.

        March 2, 2011
      • Ken #

        I think this Anabaptist/Reformed is more than I had once realized.

        In the United States, the reformed emphasis on right belief may owe its origins to the Puritans. They were, of course, at the same time, as moralistic as any Christians have ever been. I think where an emphasis on right belief is found, it is generally accompanied by a concern for right behaviour. But the idea that Christians are judged by what they do or don’t do is not reformed. As Luther put it, God’s approval does not come to us by what we do. Instead of focusing on behaviour, as Luther saw it, “We should realize that we all carry in our hearts a horrible religious fanatic, who will destroy our faith with foolish delusions of good works.”

        It occurs to me when I read your writing about the judgment of Christ and compare it with Luther’s, that it may just be true that Anabaptists and Reformed Christians think each other is headed for hell. Perhaps this is why we should all pray for universalism to be true, or, at least, pray that there is no room left in hell:)

        March 2, 2011
      • Well I, for one, certainly do not think that Reformed Christians are headed for hell. I sincerely hope that nothing I’ve written here would lead to that horrifying conclusion!

        My point in bringing up the the issue of behaviour/belief was not to declare the criteria by which I think things will be sorted out, it was only to highlight the fact that there is complexity within Scripture itself and that all of us are employing reason and certain theological/hermeneutical presuppositions and tools in coming to our conclusions about eschatology.

        March 2, 2011
      • Ken #

        Oh, certainly not, I know you don’t think reformed Christians are going to hell. I was only joking about an old conflict between our ancestors and the continuing implications of the ways we confess our faith.

        These differences run deep. They do affect the reading of Scripture and the ways we lead our lives.

        I think our aim in these discussions is better understanding, even if we go our own ways spiritually to some extent.

        Even within me there is conflict, between the Roman Catholic me and the Presbyterian me. I don’t want either one to win, or lose. I am grateful for both, small as my faith may be.

        March 2, 2011
      • I think our aim in these discussions is better understanding, even if we go our own ways spiritually to some extent.

        It is a good aim, wherever our theologically-conflicted ways take us :).

        March 2, 2011
  5. Ken #

    Re: “a strong suspicion that God’s mercy is much wider than ours often is”

    That was Jonah’s suspicion. He was right, at least until later, as in Nahum, and as when Babylon became God’s instrument of retribution and conquered Assyria. Jonah probably felt vindicated.

    Does fear win? Or love? It depends on perspective. God wins, and his people (the ones he loves) win, according to the Bible. The foes of God’s people, of God, do not. That does seem to be an overwhelming promise in the Bible. Psalm 108 is an example of a prayer for God to “tread down our foes.” Luke says in Mary’s song and Zechariah’s prophecy that this prayer is answered in Jesus. And in John’s vision, Jesus appears drenched in the blood of the foes he had tread down.

    Habakkuk 3:16: “I wait quietly for the day of calamity to come upon the people who attack us.” This is waiting for the Lord. Waiting for the day of the Lord. This is part of faith. It is accompanied by “strong suspicion.”

    March 1, 2011
  6. Making claims about what Rob Bell’s book says or doesn’t say is useless, I will be reading it because of the theologians and authors who I trust and who have read the said book (pre-published) have said this:

    “In the current religious climate in America, it isn’t easy to develop an imagination, a thoroughly biblical imagination, that takes in the comprehensive and eternal work of Christ in all people and all circumstances in love and for salvation. Rob Bell goes a long way in helping us acquire just such an imagination. Love Wins accomplishes this without a trace of soft sentimentality and without compromising an inch of evangelical conviction in its proclamation of the good news that is most truly for all.” – Eugene H. Peterson, Professor Emeritus of Spiritual Theology, Regent College, and author of The Message and The Pastor

    “Love Wins is a bold, prophetic and poetic masterpiece. I don’t know any writer who expresses the inexpressible love of God as powerfully and as beautifully as Rob Bell! Many will disagree with some of Rob’s perspectives, but no one who seriously engages this book will put it down unchanged. A ‘must read’ book!” – Greg Boyd, senior pastor at Woodland Hills Church and author of The Myth of a Christian Nation

    March 1, 2011
  7. Ken #

    What does a universalist do with Romans 9, especially, for example, 9:13 which refers to God saying, “I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau.” And, for example, 9:15, which refers to God saying, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy.”

    March 1, 2011
    • Well, again, I’m not a universalist, so I don’t really know. I suspect they would appeal to passages like Romans 5:17-21, but more generally simply to ask about how comprehensive Christ’s victory over death and evil really is. If love and grace are stronger than death, then there should be none over whom death is ultimately victorious. Or something like that.

      It is an appealing view, certainly, but difficult to square with parts of Scripture.

      March 1, 2011
  8. Paul Johnston #

    The Bible is explicit that there will be a final restitution of all creatures, termed apokatastasis in Greek; consider the following scriptures.

    There will be a “restitution of all things”:

    “And he shall send Jesus Christ, which before was preached unto you: Whom the heaven must receive until the times of the restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began.” (Acts 3:20-21)

    It is “the mystery” of the will of God that all creatures be finally gathered in Christ, both angels and men. This gathering is certain because it is by divine predestination.

    “Having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself: That in the dispensation of the fullness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him: In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will.” (Ephesians 1:9-11)

    Again; it is the Father’s pleasure that all should be finally reconciled to Him through the Son’s redemption, both angels and men; thus Christ shall be the firstborn of each and every creature:

    “Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: … For it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell; And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven.” (Colossians 1:15-16, 19-20)

    Christ foretold that He would draw all things to Himself through the redemption:

    “Now is the judgment of the world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all things to myself.” (St. John 12:31-32)

    Hence the world is spoken of prophetically as reconciled with God through the redemption:

    “And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; to wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:14-15, 18-19)

    The final restoration seems also to be hinted at obscurely in reference to the precursor Elias as a figure and herald of the final coming of Christ.

    “And his disciples asked him, saying, Why then say the scribes that Elias must first come? And Jesus answered and said unto them, Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things.” (St. Matthew 17:10-11)

    “And they asked him, saying, Why say the scribes that Elias must first come? And he answered and told them, Elias verily cometh first, and restoreth all things; and how it is written of the Son of man, that he must suffer many things, and be set at nought.” (St. Mark 9:11-12)

    God Will have All to be Saved

    The Bible teaches that it is the will of God that all people should be saved in the final restoration of all things.

    “For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.” (1 Timothy 2:3-6)

    The reason why He has allowed sin is so that all might finally be saved:

    “For God hath concluded them all in disobedience, that he might have mercy upon all. O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!” (Romans 11:32-33)

    Again; it is His design that all should be saved:

    “But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” (2 St. Peter 3:8-9)

    It is His will only to have mercy:

    “But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (St. Matthew 9:13)

    God makes it Possible for All to be Saved

    Not only does God design that all are saved but He is able to effect that design.

    It is God who makes it possible for each to be saved.

    “When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved? But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:25-26)

    None may withstand the design of God that is to spare all.

    “For thou canst shew thy great strength at all times when thou wilt; and who may withstand the power of thine arm? For the whole world before thee is as a little grain of the balance, yea, as a drop of the morning dew that falleth down upon the earth. But thou hast mercy upon all; for thou canst do all things, and winkest at the sins of men, because they should amend. For thou lovest all the things that are, and abhorrest nothing which thou hast made: for never wouldest thou have made any thing, if thou hadst hated it. And how could any thing have endured, if it had not been thy will? or been preserved, if not called by thee? But thou sparest all: for they are thine, O Lord, thou lover of souls.” (Wisdom 11:21-26)

    None can hinder God when He intends to save and rescue from the fire:

    “At his commandment is done whatsoever pleaseth him; and none can hinder, when he will save… O Ananias, Azarias, and Misael, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever: for he hath delivered us from hell, and saved us from the hand of death, and delivered us out of the midst of the furnace and burning flame: even out of the midst of the fire hath he delivered us.” (Ecclesiasticus 39:18, 66)

    Compare the following two texts: we are told that it is guaranteed that our prayers will be answered if we make them with the correct disposition of Faith, which is surely to pray for the salvation of all: and we are urged to pray for the salvation of all; so it is clearly possible for all to be saved.

    “Jesus answered and said unto them, Verily I say unto you, If ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; it shall be done. And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.” (St. Matthew 21:21-22)

    “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.” (1 Timothy 2:1-6)

    Again; God is able to give all things necessary to salvation to those whom He wishes to show mercy:

    “According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue.” (2 Peter 1:3)

    “I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” (Philippians 4:12-13)

    Accordingly God is able to have mercy on whomsoever He wills to:

    “And he said, I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy.” (Exodus 33:19)

    “What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid. For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.” (Romans 9:14-16)

    Indeed, the Son is able to save whomsoever He wishes to:

    “For as the Father raiseth up the dead, and quickeneth them; even so the Son quickeneth whom he will. For the Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the Son.” (St. John 5:21-22)

    In fact saving grace appears to all:

    “For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men.” (Titus 2:11)

    All will be Saved

    As God wishes all to be saved and He is able to save whomsoever He wishes, accordingly all will be saved.

    Christ diligently seeks every last one of His sheep until He finds them all:

    “What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? … Either what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it?” (St. Luke 15:4,8)

    It shall be so that even as all were condemned in Adam, all shall be made alive in Christ:

    “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:22)

    Again; consider, it is “much more” to be expected that all are saved, all being reconciled. As all men were condemned in Adam, “all men” will receive the free gift of justification and will “much more” reign in life.

    “For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement. Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned… (For if by one man’s offence death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of justification shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ.) Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall the many be made righteous.” (Romans 5:9-12, 19-21)

    All shall be saved as salvation is effected through infallible predestination. As Christ died for us all, it is to be expected that He provide us all with all that is needed for salvation.

    “Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified. What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? … For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:30-32, 38-39)

    Hence God is the saviour of all men:

    “For therefore we both labour and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe. (1 Timothy 4:10)

    He is the saviour of the world:

    “The Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world.” (1 St. John 4:14)

    “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” (St. John 3:17)

    “Who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” (St. John 6:33)

    March 1, 2011
  9. Ken #

    Whether we think of ourselves as universalists or not, I think it is valid to pray that God will forgive everyone, will save everyone. I think it is really not so different from the prayer of Abraham for Sodom and Gomorrah or Moses for the people of Israel in the wilderness.

    Universal salvation is a good hope.

    March 3, 2011
    • It is a very good hope.

      March 3, 2011
    • James #

      I’d even say that universal salvation is God’s hope. “For God so loved the world . . . ” John 3:16

      March 3, 2011

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