Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Rob Bell, Universalism and Hell

There's been quite a lot of controversy lately about Rob Bell's new book, which is probably a very well-done marketing campaign to make sure it sells lots of copies, which it will.

Rob Bell's past work (e.g. Nooma) is generally really really good at connecting with modern culture, especially the end of it that likes computers with fruit logos on. But he often leaves himself open to the accusation that he is so connected to modern culture that he has at some points lost connection with the Bible.

His new book is called "Love Wins", and sounds like it will be about the non-existence of Hell. Some condemn it outright on the grounds that it looks like it's teaching universalism - that everyone will be saved in the end. And others condemn those people on the grounds that it's a bad idea to attack someone on the basis of a book that isn't even out yet.

Anyway, I thought that Richaard Taylor got the balance about right on his blog. He explains why universalism doesn't work as an idea, then leaves it up to the reader to decide whether or not Rob Bell is teaching it.

Here are a few quick reasons why I don't think universalism works.

1. It downplays the seriousness of sin

In modern western culture, we tend to forget how much of a big deal sin is. Sin is us rejecting the God who made us. Sin is saying that we think we are better off away from the source of all life and love. Sin is ultimately attempted deicide - us trying to kill God - and part of the shock of the cross is that we managed it. Except that death couldn't hold him.

We tend to think that God treats sin like a benevolent old grandfather would, welcoming us in and gently ticking us off for occasional bits of naughtiness while actually indulging us. But sin is far more serious than that. Sin is trying to kill the rightful and loving ruler of the universe and put ourselves in his place. Sin is cosmic treason. God cannot and should not just shrug it off and say that it is all ok.

2. It downplays the dignity of human responsibility

Some people clearly reject God. They clearly say that they do not want God to be Lord of their lives - they want to run the show themselves. And in some cases, over time, those people come to change their minds. But what if they don't? What if they hard-heartedly persist in their rejection of God? Is he going to over-ride them completely, and drag them kicking and screaming somewhere where they do not want to go? Or is he going to let them choose to reject him?

3. It misunderstands the nature of heaven

Jesus said to God "this is eternal life - to know you, the one true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent." (John 17:3). The essence of eternal life is to know God, and to be in relationship with him. Heaven is not some beautiful existence with God as an incidental feature - it is seeing God face to face and knowing him fully in perfect communion with him. Everything else is secondary.

So what would it mean for those who persistently rejected God to be in heaven? Some people argue that heaven and hell are actually the same, and are experienced differently by different people only because of their attitude to God. And I'm not persuaded by that argument, but there's certainly something in it.

Imagine that you'd been bullying a kid in the playground, and then his dad becomes headmaster or Prime Minister. You'd feel pretty stupid, and scared. Now imagine that the God you had been persistently trying to dethrone as king of the universe, surpress, ignore and even kill - suppose that that God turns out to be the ultimate reality of the universe. How is that meant to be good news for you?


alienfromzog said...

Good post.

I sometimes say of myself that "I wish I could be a universalist but I can't" and moreover I think in someways God is the same - he wishes he could be a universalist... " As 2 Peter says: "not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance."

As you say, it is not necessarily constructive to criticize a book that hasn't even been released yet.

What worries me sometimes about my Evangelical friends (and I'm one too, shhhh) is that they often miss the heart of this. I cannot understand how anyone who follows Jesus doesn't struggle with the idea of Hell. It will be interesting to see if this book is an expression of that struggle or poor theology.


John said...

I think Tom Wright's take on Hell in "Surprised by Hope" is one of the best I've read...

John said...

And here's a review by someone who has read the book.

John said...

And here is a much more detailed analysis and critique.

John said...

And there's a good handling of some of Bell's arguments here.

alienfromzog said...

It looks like it's just poor theology.


And I really like a lot of Rob Bell's stuff.


John said...

Yeah - I think that of all the Christian preachers I'm aware of, Bell is just about the best at using new technology.

It's a shame.