Rob Bell stirs things up

March 1, 2011

Rob Bell’s publisher couldn’t ask for better controversy. Apparently, some evangelical leaders got hold of a promotional video for Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, and have gone crazy denouncing a book that they haven’t read. They fear that Bell has become a universalist.

I am not a universalist (as I have discussed elsewhere—here, for instance) for the following reasons: I believe that God revealed God’s self definitively in Jesus. Everything we need to know about God, we can learn from him. There are no additional revelations necessary. Jesus is identically equal to God. Moreover, I believe that reconciliation with God is available only through Christ. I’m not surprised or threatened by the fact that other religions have truth and value, but where there are competing truth claims between the Christian faith and other religions, I side with Christianity.

The above paragraph makes me not a universalist. (Is there a word for that? Exclusivist?) The question of hell and who goes there, however, is a separate question.

And on that question, I’m not nearly as firm as Bell’s critics would prefer (and for all I know, Bell’s book will struggle with the same question). I believe that hell exists. I don’t know, based on scripture, who goes there. I know for certain (at least as certain as faith can be) that through Christian faith and baptism, believers will be saved.

As for everyone else, I don’t know. I don’t have to know. I don’t have to judge. Fortunately, judgment is God’s business, so I’ll leave that up to God.

But I agree with Slacktivist Fred Clark’s exegesis of the Big Three hell proof-texts (Luke 16:19-31; Matthew 25:41-46; Revelation 20:11-15) over at this post. (Fred is firmly in the anti-hell camp.) I’ve made this point before plenty of times. I like this paragraph, in particular:

What one finds in all three of these passages, instead, is a seeming Pelagianism. All that matters in any of these scriptures is deeds and actions. Not a word anywhere here about grace or faith or the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Deeds and actions and those alone are what determines the eternal fate of everyone in each of these passages. They couldn’t be any clearer on that point — the main point of each passage above. What determines if someone is to be cast into Revelation’s “lake of fire”? The dead will be judged, Revelation says, “… according to their works, as recorded in the books. … according to what they had done.” Who are the accursed “goats” on Jesus’ left hand who will be consigned to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”? Those who did not feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked or comfort the lonely. And why was the rich man in Luke’s gospel sent to Hades? Jesus never quite says, but he seems to suggest that the rich man went to Hades because he was rich just as the poor beggar Lazarus goes to Heaven justbecause he was a poor beggar.

Awkward, that.

I also share Slacktivist’s puzzlement on the larger issue: “The odder, larger question is why the members of Team Hell so very much want this imagined eternal torment to be true.”

As I’ve said in sermons before, I hope that God shows everyone the same love, grace, and mercy that God has shown me. Why wouldn’t I? What did I do to deserve it? But God isn’t going to force God’s self on anyone—and that alone is a sufficient reason for hell’s existence.

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