Justin Taylor ignited the inital wildfire over Rob Bell’s supposed universalism and fires continue to burn across the blogosphere. In fact, just search for the keywords: Rob Bell, Hell, and Universalism on Google and you’ll be amazed at the fresh content that has landed on the web since Justin’s short post was published on February 26th. And I can only guess that Justin was able to read enough of Rob’s book to formulate an opinion that he can defend later, because Rob Bell: Universalist? was an uncharacteristically scathing article from the normally cool-handed Justin.
Personally, I’m going reserve judgment on Mr. Bell’s book until its release. I’m not an expert on Rob Bell, his theology or his views of hell. And given how vague he’s been on the topic of hell over the years, I don’t think that anyone can claim to be an expert on Rob’s tightly guarded views. But I do think that if Rob can generate such an amazing amount of publicity over a YouTube video that says essentially nothing about his views on universalism or hell, that the man should be allowed to release his book before any serious criticism is unleashed.
But what I can’t reserve judgment about is the dangers that universalism poses to the modern Church. Today, a functional universalism is everywhere. Many, if not most, Christians hold that Muslims, Hindus, Atheists, Mormons, and Jews are all on equal spiritual footing as the faithful – even as far as the Gospel is concerned. The emerging view (if not already the prevailing view) among those who consider themselves to be a Christian is that everyone is going to heaven (with perhaps a few notable exceptions) and that hell is either place for really, really infamously horrible people or it simply isn’t a place at all.
Universalism undermines the Gospel. It isn’t just that universalism extinguishes hell from its pages and takes the teeth out of its message. It invalidates the cross and any seriousness about sin. Said differently, hell is God’s ultimate and final response to sin. Remove hell and you remove the seriousness that God perceives sin and the means that he uses to justly punish sin.
And if you remove a real and serious consequence for sin, you remove the need for a Savior altogether.
Hell is mentioned numerous times in Scripture and Jesus spoke about hell frequently. It is called the lake of fire. It is described as place of outer darkness and where condemned souls are tormented forever. The language of Scripture is clear when it speaks of hell. There’s no special divination or deductive reasoning required to determine what the Bible means when it says: “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). The Bible uses direct and plain language to impress upon us its seriousness about such a terrible place.
Universalism doesn’t draw its appeal from the logical progression of what the Bible says about hell, but from an emotional appeal to what a God of love supposedly looks like in the eyes of the modern world. Universalists believe that in order for God to truly be loving, he can’t send anyone to hell and still maintain the label.
But people who hold to universalism for the sake of keeping God’s hands pure have it backwards. For only a God of love could be sensible enough to create a place of perfect justice and then have the wherewithal to send those that spurn his overtures of love, the greatest of all possible loves, to a place they deserve (and in most respects want) when they reject him. Love isn’t tolerance of sin at any cost. It’s pardon of sin at great personal cost.
The real quandary for universalism is the cross. The cross makes absolutely no sense without hell. Why else would God expend so much divine capital just to send his Son to earth to die in such a way? To set a good example? If God simply wanted a good example, why would he cut Jesus’ life short at the age of 33? Why not have Jesus live a long-life devoted to good political causes or worthy social justice issues like a Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr.?
And what good is a good example if we all just die in our sins anyway?
God didn’t want to just send us a good example, but a perfect example who came and died and paved a way that allows participants to escape the wrath of hell. God sent his Son to shed his blood to pay for our place in hell. It is this core Gospel truth that universalism threatens to rob from the Church and to leave it with a hollow view of God. It is this view that offers no credibly remedy to our deepest spiritual needs for the sake of making people feel better about Jesus and ultimately better about themselves.