More Rob Bell, Universalism, Heaven & Hell

Rob BellImage by feyip via FlickrAhh...the conversation about Rob Bell and Universalism.  The conversation continued yesterday in Sunday School with "Hey, did you hear about Rob Bell?"  It was a question asked in a soft tone with a head shake. 

Implied in that question and head shake was a whole lot.  What was really asked was, "Did you hear about Rob Bell, the one whose videos we used and loved, and how he's a heretical teacher and we really need to pray for his salvation and wash our hands of all that we heard from him?  It's just too bad.  He seemed like such a nice guy."

You know, I really need to read the book, the Love Wins book at the heart of the controversy.  I've been asked too many questions to keep prefacing any discussion with "I didn't actually read the book yet.  I've only read reaction to it." 

Sunday School was on a different topic and it was hard to address this bombshell with any depth.  One of the problems is that asking the question about whether hell will be full or empty is a deeply theological one.  It's not as simple as "good people" go to heaven and "bad people" go to hell.  And it's a conversation that talks about extremes in order to make points.  If love wins, is Hitler in heaven?  If one must be a Christian to go to heaven, is Gandhi in hell?  I don't think that part of the discussion is particularly helpful.

Anyway, as I was once again thrust into the discussion, I found a blog post I had started on over a month ago and thought I'd finish it up here.  It's more information for the debate discussion. 

Chris LaTondresse over at Sojourners has a blog post about Rob Bell and universalism that gets at a lot of stuff.  Chris puts out a few principles to guide the debate that I think are helpful.  Here's a snippet of each.  Please check out the original post for more.

1. Christians should hope that all people can be (and will be) saved.
Those who believe God modeled the ultimate example of true love in the person of Jesus — and who, therefore, aspire to love their fellow humans as they love themselves — should also believe that, in the end, God’s love will win the day. So is it really that radical to suggest that this belief should accompany the earnest hope that it is actually within the scope of God’s sovereign power and unrelenting grace to reconcile all things to himself?

He includes two great quotes from Richard John Newhaus from 2001:

The hope that all will be saved is precisely that, a hope. It is not a doctrine, never mind a dogma. But some respond that we cannot even hold the hope, since it clearly contradicts the revealed truth that many, if not most, will be eternally damned. A different and much more troubling objection is that it makes no sense to be a Christian if, in fact, one can be saved without being a Christian. In this view, the damnation of others, maybe of most others, is essentially related to the reason for being a Christian. The joy of our salvation is contingent upon the misery of their damnation. If it is possible that all will be saved, it is asked, why not eat, drink, and be merry?

Such a perverse view is also more than a little like that of the laborers in the vineyard who complained that those who came at the last hour received the same reward as those who had worked all day. The master replies, “Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity? So the last will be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20). Some of the critics of the hope for universal salvation do indeed seem to begrudge the generosity of God entailed in that outcome. Theirs is a position of resentment dressed up as a claim of justice. “What was the point of my working so hard and so long if God is going to let in the riffraff on equal terms? It’s unfair!” The eschatological upsetting of such attitudes (the last will be first and first last) is a constant in the teaching of Jesus.

Then on to the other two points:

2. Jesus draws dividing lines, but his lines are different than our own.
Anyone reading the gospels will see that Jesus not only responds to the “lines” drawn by the religious leaders of his day; he draws lines of his own. But Jesus’ lines are almost always different than the lines drawn by the religious leaders, and even more startlingly, his lines are different than the lines Christians draw today.

We pick our favorite biblical passage, where Jesus’ vision for “who’s in” includes people like us, and excludes people who aren’t, meanwhile, we ignore other passages that redraw the boundaries that would force us to change in order to be included in Jesus’ “in-group.”

3. Millennials don’t resonate with the stupid battles Christians fight.
For a generation harboring increasingly negative perceptions about (and is distancing itself from) Christianity, there’s no question that controversies like these have played a big role in making these trends worse. When asked to describe present-day Christianity, the second most reported description of young people (ages 16 to 29) was that it is “too-judgmental”, with 87 percent of young non-churchgoers and 52 percent of churchgoers holding this view

....people in the real world who are struggling to negotiate their relationship with God in light of the brokenness of the world (and too often the brokenness within Christianity) are put-off by these debates. That’s not necessarily a reason not to debate, but we can’t ignore basic virtues like love, charity and empathy in the process — at least not while following the biblical call to be salt-and-light and ministers of reconciliation.
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