A few months ago Rob Bell put a universalist coloured cat among the evangelical pigeons with the release of his book “Love Wins”. In chapter 4 he quotes from church web sites that say people who don’t believe are going to be separated from God and punished forever and asks how this is compatible with a good and loving God, full of grace and mercy, who created everything in the first place, and for whom everything is possible and whose plans cannot be thwarted.
He continues with more questions that ask to be answered in the negative by taking the moral high ground:
“Will all people be saved or will God not get what he wants? Does this magnificent, mighty, marvellous God fail in the end? …Is his arm long enough to save? p98
He seems to say, or imply that Psalm 22 “all the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD” means every single person who has ever lived will be saved, rather than many people from all places.
He continues that Jesus’ parables teach that God searches until he finds and asks if we get what we want (life without God) while God does not get what he wants (everyone to be saved)? In relation to the view that there is a second chance after death to accept Jesus he quotes Martin Luther as saying “who could not doubt God’s ability to do that?”. The immediate context is:
It would be quite a different question whether God can impart faith to some in the hour of death or after death so that these people could be saved through faith. Who would doubt God’s ability to do that? No one, however, can prove that he does do this.
Luther’s point was the necessity of faith. In arguing strongly for it he says God could even give people faith after death if he wanted, but he is clear to say that there is no evidence he does so. His point, therefore, is not that he thinks post mortem faith is an actual possibility, but that faith is an absolute necessity. Our best bet is to go with what the bible does say and that is the emphasis on people responding to the gospel in this life.
He then says, and this is at the heart of the book although it is introduced as something that “others then say,”:
“why limit it to just one more chance, why not keep the time frame open until God melts every heart? “Clement of Alexandria and Origen affirmed God’s reconciliation with all people. In the fourth century, Gregory of Nyssa and Eusebius believed this as well. In their day, Jerome claimed that “most people”, Basil said the “mass of men” and Augustine acknowledged that “very many” believed in the ultimate reconciliation of all people to God… to be clear, an untold number of serious disciples of Jesus across hundreds of years have assumed, affirmed and trusted that no one can resist God’s pursuit forever, because God’s love will eventually melt even the hardest of hearts”. p107
“Which is stronger and more powerful, the hardness of the human heart or God’s unrelenting, infinite, expansive love? Thousands through the years have answered that question with the resounding response “God’s love, of course”. p 109
Is that true? Did Origen affirm that God saves everybody ? (the technical term for this seems to be apokastastasis). The internet (after a few googles) says “yes”, but “everybody” includes Satan and demons! Each soul, Origen said, after endless opportunities for repentance would eventually return to its original pure state. Historians say that his thinking was heavily influenced by Platonic ideas of things emanating from God/pure form and coming back to God. His teachings were apparently condemned at a council in Constantinople in 543 and possibly again in the ecumenical council of 553, although that is less sure (I am only going on googled info at this point). At any rate Augustine refuted universalism and influenced the majority of thinking from that point on.
Biblical support for Rob’s thesis that “God melts every heart” (and that is the argument in the book, even though it is argued for in the form of leading questions and “others have said”) is found in the great statement: “Love never fails” 1 Cor 13
“At the centre of the Christian tradition since the first church, have been a number who insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God”. p 109
“May people find Jesus compelling, but don’t follow him, because of the parts about “hell and torment and all that”. Somewhere along the way they were taught that the only option when it comes to the Christian faith is to clearly declare that a few committed Christians will ”go to heaven” when they die and everyone else will not, the matter is settled at death, and that’s it. One place or another, no looking back, no chance for a change of heart, make your bed now and lie in it….forever. Not all Christians have believed this, and you don’t have to believe it to be a Christian” p110
But it was the compelling figure of Jesus who taught most about hell. If hell is just an experience you move in and out of as you decide to move to and from God and not a terrible punishment for evil and rejecting God, then why did Jesus use the “thrown” language in relation to hell:
Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (ESV) Mat 3:10 (Mat 7:19)
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. (ESV) Mat 5:29
the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (ESV) Mat 8:12
And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. (ESV) Mat 18:8
And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire. (ESV) Mat 18:9
Hell is not pictured in the bible as some sort of open prison where you can come and go as you please. Hell is not locked, as some have reassuringly suggested, on the inside.
And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (ESV) (Rev 20:15)
But Rob writes:
“Telling a story in which billions of people spend forever somewhere in the universe trapped in a black hole of endless torment and misery with no way out isn’t a very good story. Telling a story about a God who inflicts unrelenting punishment on people because they didn’t do or say or believe the correct things in a brief window of time called life isn’t a very good story. In contrast everybody enjoying God’s good world together with no disgrace or shame, justice being served, and all wrongs being made right is a better story. It is bigger, more loving, more expansive, more extraordinary, beautiful, and inspiring than any other story about the ultimate course history takes” p110
I find hell very hard to process and cope with and believe, but the question is not whether it makes a good or bad story but whether it is true. In any case, I suspect truth does make the best story if we have an appreciation for its beauty, but our faulty subjective response to a story cannot be the sole arbitrator of its truthfulness.
“to shun, censor, or ostracize someone for holding this belief is to fail to extend grace to each other in a discussion that has had plenty of room for varied perspectives for hundreds of years now” p111
We need to extend grace to each other regardless of the truthfulness of another’s opinion. The challenge is of course to be full of both grace and truth. To be respectful and gracious to someone in the way you clearly disagree with them.
Another great Rob Bell quote:
“we can have all the hell we want” p113
He points out that the gates of the new cityare “never shut” so people can come and go as they please. I think that is more to do with there being no threat to a city so it doesn’t need to defend itself rather than people being free to leave and enter at will. “Just popping outside to be bad for a bit, then I’ll be back for lunch”, or “after a billion years of sin I’m ready to give holiness a go now”.
“will everybody be saved or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices?” 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 the freedom that love requires” p115
He says that “see I make everything new” means we can’t rule anything out in this new creation.
“hard and fast, definitive declarations about how God will or will not organise the new world must leave plenty of room for all kinds of those possibilities” p116
A better question than “does God get what he wants?” he says and one that we can answer is “do we get what we want?” and the answer is “a resounding, affirming, sure and positive yes. Yes we get what we want. God is that loving. If we want isolation, despair, and the right to be our own god, God graciously grants us that option”. Is he saying that hell is God’s grace? I think that blurs grace and justice too much.
You could say that it would be even more loving for God to change what we want, if what we want is not good for us and actually I think he goes on to say that God does that through various means but it just takes time.