I have dear Christian friends who believe in Universal Salvation—the idea that in the end everybody will get to heaven. I have heard their arguments, read many books and articles and, as a result, have modified my own views on the subject of hell: away from Endless Conscious Torment, but not all the way to Universal Salvation. I subscribe to what has been called Conditional Immortality. My touchstone verse in this regard is John 3:16, specifically the phrase "...whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life."
But let's admit that there are problems with every theory regarding the final destiny of humans after death. There are always scripture passages that seem to contradict a theory, despite the many verses marshaled to support it. So a little humility might be expected when debating this topic...and Mr. Bell's new book Love Wins, is modestly subtitled "A book about heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived."
First I must admit that something about Mr. Bell has rubbed me the wrong way ever since his face began showing up Sunday mornings on video screens at my church (and some others I visited). He has been the featured presenter in the "Nooma" mini-movie/sermon videos that became all the rage a few years back. Some of my reaction had nothing to do with Bell himself—I wondered what, exactly, we were paying our pastor for if he was just gonna show a video of some other guy preaching.
But after watching a few of these clips—which are very well-produced, in case you haven't seen one—Bell's schtick began to wear thin. First thing was how often he'd toss off little asides about "sustainability" and "racism", never developing these themes, but referring to them as if his audience of course holds the correct view—his view—on socially controversial matters. Bell would always undercut traditionally-held evangelical beliefs and always land on the oh-so-trendy, culturally-progressive view of the day. I got the feeling watching him that he was driven to remedy whatever his favorite secular writers had criticized about Christianity. And I really, really get that feeling in Love Wins.
Rob Bell has a public speaking technique that reminds me of Apple founder/CEO Steve Jobs. They both create in their presentations what has been called a Reality Distortion Field. But Bell also manages to achieve the effect in his writing! This book made me feel woozy—because in trying to hang onto his chain-of-logic, Bell's tone-poem cadences and beat-inspired, rhythmic phrasing kept shoving me off the scent. He's the opposite of a lawyer building a case—he writes more like a hypnotist or magician. And the layout of his text on these pages differs from e.e. cummings only in capitalization.
The rhetorical flourish that towers above all others in Love Wins has got to be Bell's interpretation of Jesus' famous no-man-cometh-to-the-Father-but-by-me line: "And so the passage is exclusive, deeply so, insisting on Jesus alone as the way to God. But it is an exclusivity on the other side on inclusivity." Wow. What? Bell explains:
"What [Jesus] doesn't say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn't even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him."
Let me walk you down Bell's inclusivity logic-path: because Moses got water from a Rock and Paul identified that Rock as Christ, but the Israelites had never heard the name of Jesus, therefore you can be saved by following Buddha—because when you get to heaven he'll take off his mask and disclose that he was really Jesus all along.
Yes, as reported, Bell muses aloud that Jesus is "saving everybody." But he never once utters the word "universalism," and when his book ends—abruptly in my view—Bell hasn't explicitly endorsed universal salvation. His goal in this book is an effort to "leave plenty of room for all kinds of...possibilities." Which, of course, leaves plenty of opportunity to tweak and dig at evangelicals: "As soon as the door is opened to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Baptists from Cleveland, many Christians become very uneasy..." Oh, I see: those who worship another God named Allah, who worship the creation rather than the creator, who worship themselves—all of which are explicitly condemned in the New Testament—those folks are on the Jesus road to God just like Baptists from Cleveland. Who knew?
Despite my unwillingness to sign up as a follower of Rob Bell, I agree with him that God will not deliberately keep billions of people alive forever just to torment them. That concept is, in my view, un-Biblical—but not just for the philosophical and cultural reasons Bell puts forth. He seems to think evangelicals believe in everlasting torture because they are haters.
Nope. They believe it because the Hellenistic concept of natural immortality has been swallowed whole by church leaders going all the way back to Origen and Augustine...who didn't seem to take seriously Jesus' warning to "fear him who can destroy both body and soul in hell." Rob Bell actually quotes that passage, then swats it aside because Jesus used the word Gehenna for hell, which was the name of a valley near Jerusalem, long used as a dump. As if Jesus was just jokin' around, just kidding about that whole "destroy" thing. But Jesus couldn't be serious, because everybody knows all souls are immortal. Although St. Paul did tell the Romans that "the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." If you bring to the Bible your presupposition that all souls are immortal, then you're amenable toward endless-conscious-torment. But upon the concept of natural immortality rests the weird concept of eternal life in hell for most folks.
Nowhere does Bell even hint that many evangelicals oppose Endless Conscious Torment without embracing Universalism. He simply lays out two stark choices: you're either a hater or a lover. All of which leads me to believe Bell is far less interested in understanding the Christian doctrine of hell than he is in dressing Christianity up in better clothes.
Sure, it's always fun to portray evangelicals as backward rubes—since so many smart, secular, progressive folks turn up their noses at the concept of judgment. And the sentiment wishing for everybody to be saved is very Christian. Universal salvation truly is a pretty thought. But to "open the door" to the idea without actually stepping through and endorsing it comes very close to cynicism.