Rob Bell and Universalism

There’s been quite the dust-up among Evangelicals about Rob Bell’s new book, in which, according to HarperOne’s marketing, “With searing insight, Bell puts hell on trial, and his message is decidedly optimistic—eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts right now. And ultimately, Love Wins…”

Here’s Christianity Today’s take on the controversy.

Rob Bell, for those who don’t know, is pastor of Mars Hill Church, and has produced a wildly popular video series, entitled NOOMA. The series was used for a time by a group at my former parish. Many of those in attendance found him inspiring. Maggie Dawn judges his genius in his ability to communicate rather than in the depth of his theology.

As Dawn points out, universalism is not particularly rare in the History of Christianity, nor even among evangelicals or conservatives. As examples, she cites no less an orthodox figure than C.S. Lewis. It’s an issue that continues to fascinate people, just as it continues to rouse the ire of many. In part that’s because the notion of a loving God who condemns people to hell for eternity seems an oxymoron and is an issue which for many thinking people lies at the center of their discomfort with Christianity.

It’s a question that often comes up in my random encounters with people. Sometimes it’s couched in terms of whether adherents of other religions can be saved. Sometimes it’s phrased as I did it above, as a problem in the nature of God. In either case, it is almost always asked by someone who is sincerely struggling with the issue and is seeking guidance or clues on how to begin to think about the question in such a way that helps them make sense of their own experience and deepest values, as well as their experience of God.

When I respond to them, I try to honor their experience, values, as well as their understanding of God and try to explore with them the full implications of belief in a loving God, and what might limit that love.