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Rob Bell’s latest book has sparked off a major controversy. Whether or not Love Wins (his title), it’s quite clear that Clever Marketing Wins Lots of Free Publicity, with vigorous discussion of the book before it had even been published. One of the points of controversy has been whether or not Rob Bell is a universalist, whether or not he believes that all will eventually be saved. Not yet having read the book I am not qualified to pronounce on that (though it doesn’t seem to have stopped many other people) but I can comment on whether or not universalism is a good thing.
Universalism has obvious attractions. It is comforting to think that all will be saved. Those who take this view often point to a few passages in Paul which, taken out of the context of the rest of his writings, can be read in a universalist way:
• Rom 5:18-19, 11:26 & 32; 1 Cor 15:22; Eph 1:9-10; Phil 2:9-11; Col 1:19-20.
There are, however, many other passages that make it clear that Paul was not a universalist:
• Rom 2:6-10, 5:17, 9:1-3, 22-23; 1 Cor 6:9f; Gal 5:19-21, 6:7-8; Eph 5:5-6; Phil 3:19; Col 1:23 & 3:5-6; 2 Thess 1:6-9.
While there are passages in Paul which can be forced into a universalist view, all the Gospels make it abundantly clear that Jesus taught that some would be lost:
• Matt 7:13-14, 12:31-32, 25:46; Mark 8:35, 9:42-48; Luke 9:24, 13:23-29; John 3:36, 5:25-29
So how do universalists defend their position? Several different tactics are employed.
• Some simply state that Jesus was wrong, that we know better.
• Another tactic is to state that the NT teaches both views and then to side with the universalist view. The problem is that this means siding with half a dozen ambiguous passages in Paul against twice as many clear passages and the unambiguous teaching of Jesus.
• Another way is to say that some will be lost and that hell is a reality, but that it is a place of temporary purification. Eventually all will move from hell to heaven. The problem with this is that the language used to describe the eternity of hell is no different from the language used to describe the eternal life of the saved. There is no ground for making the one temporary and the other permanent. It is hard to think how the NT could more clearly state that there is a final and permanent separation between the saved and the lost.
There is no sound basis for universalism in the Bible, and especially not in the teaching of Jesus. The problem is that it is only because of what the NT teaches about Jesus that we have the hope of eternal life. If this is not reliable, then what grounds have we for supposing that there is any hope beyond death?
Universalism has dangerous consequences. First, it undercuts the concern for evangelism. This may not happen at once for every individual universalist, but churches that teach it have soon lost their drive for outreach and have declined. Secondly, it trivialises this present life. If all will end up the same regardless of how they have lived, if Hitler and Mother Teresa have the same destiny, does it actually matter very much how we live in this life? As Paul might have put it, “Let’s eat, drink and be merry, for we will all be saved anyway.”
Finally, to reject universalism does not require us to say that all non-Christians will be lost. John 3:36 contrasts those who believe in Jesus with those who reject him, not with those who have not heard of him. The NT does not offer salvation to those who actually reject Jesus, but it doesn’t state that all who don’t hear of him are lost:
• OT believers had not heard of Jesus yet were saved
• Paul talks of God overlooking the times of ignorance (Acts 17:30 — cf. 14:16)
• Christians have always believed that infants, who cannot repent or believe, can be saved
We cannot assume, therefore, that those who aren’t meaningfully faced with the good news of Jesus are automatically lost.
Universal Salvation? The Current Debate, edited by Robin Parry & Chris Partridge (Paternoster, 2003)
Through No Fault of Their Own? The Fate of Those Who Have Never Heard, edited by William J. Crockett & James G. Sigountos (Baker, 1991)