A controversial new book is coming out soon by the man whom Time magazine once labeled “a singular rock star in the church world. The man is Rob Bell, pastor at Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan and creator of the popular NOOMA Bible video series, which were so widely applauded that they’ve been used in virtually every Christian denomination in America. The book is called Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. The reason this book is receiving so much national notoriety, weeks before it is even released, is because it promotes the concept of one very dirty word in orthodox Christianity – Universalism.
If you’re unfamiliar with the term, Universalism, in short, is the belief that there is no hell, God is too loving for that, and everyone, regardless of belief system, must go to heaven. Sounds nice, right? Everybody wins. The problem is not with its sentimentality, the problem is with its biblical inaccuracy. Universalism can be easily dismissed in two passages or less (although there are multitudes in Scripture that mount heaping evidence against it).
1) As Jesus spoke to his disciples about his departure from this world and plans to go and be with his Father in heaven once again, his disciple Thomas asked Jesus how the disciples could go too. To this, Jesus replied, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” (John 14:6-7) In other words, Jesus is saying that if you don’t know him (as God’s Son, your Savior, and the path to heaven), you won’t be in the Father’s home with him. It appears that you do not benefit from Jesus’ redemptive work without “knowing” him.
2) In chapters 24-25 of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus addressed the questions of his disciples regarding the end of the world. At the end of chapter 25 he described the miserable fate of all who would reject him. He says that when he returns he will say to them: “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…..Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matthew 25:41, 45). Hell is real. Jesus does warn of it in the Bible. A loving God not only can (but must) allow someone to go there if they have rejected his forgiveness, if he is to be a just God. And if that seems incompatible to you, look at it like this: If I write you a check for a million dollars, but you, for your own reasons, refuse to cash it, does that make me ungenerous? Obviously not. You won’t have that wealth, but there is no legitimate reason to call my generosity into question. This is the case with God’s grace.
The impact of modern universalist thought is certainly scary. If we take “universal salvation for all” to mean, as some do, that God is simply too loving to condemn anyone to hell regardless of belief, morality, or anything else, we’re denying the point of what Jesus came to do (i.e. pay for our sins on the cross) and turning God’s grace into permissiveness, indifference, and tolerance – or what the world today might call “loving and accepting your neighbor”. If we take “universal salvation for all” to mean, as some do, that everyone is saved through Jesus’ payment on the cross, regardless of what they believe, then we’re denying what the Bible teaches about the genuine faith.
That God’s Son died to universally take away the sins of the entire world is undeniable (2 Corinthians 5:14). But semantically, that’s not the “universalist” thought that’s being brought forth in the world today. The message is much different. The message is that NO ONE will go to hell, because there is no hell. And, for obvious reasons, that message is very dangerous.
The press video for Bell’s new book features him questioning whether Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu, is actually in hell, and not in the kind of sermon introduction way that is merely challenging you to think it through but invariably comes back to a biblical, orthodox Christian stance. Bell, with his 21st century hipster look and thorough Bible college credentials, comes across as very sincere and convincing when he actually suggests that neither Gandhi, nor anyone for that matter, will be sent to hell by a loving God. You can check out the intense promotional video yourself here if you’d like.
Now, you might say, “What’s the big deal? That’s not my church. And every true Christian will recognize the errors.” Unfortunately, that’s not the way that “wolf in sheep’s clothing” (Matt. 7:15) and “what itching ears want to hear” (2 Timothy 4:3) false doctrine works. Rather, it subtly deceives people. Universalism has become an ever-increasing destructive force in American Christianity in recent years because it’s like the religious partner-in-crime to the philosophical spirit of “tolerance” so prevalent in our world today.
Other prominent names in American Christianity like Brian McLaren and Bishop Carlton Pearson have been dismissed from their churches recently due to teaching universalism. The ELCA, which, by sheer numbers alone, is what many Americans recognize Lutheranism today to mean, had promoted universalism right on their national website (I had a link posted in a previous article, but the content seems to have been removed from their site. The point is, universalist concepts are everywhere, and are rapidly invading Christianity. And many long-time Christians are seeing the obvious departure from biblical truth, but what about children currently being born and raised in this climate?
No one is immune to the universalist spirituality of today. I can’t tell you how many Christian young people I’ve heard make comments about so-and-so being very “spiritual” or “religious”, not understanding that this means nothing. In the era in which we now live, “I’m spiritual” is quickly replacing “I’m a good person” as the most common unChristian reason for which people think they’re right with God. And even amongst lifelong Christians, perhaps sometimes from fear and denial, statements of hope are more regularly being made for those who have rejected the gospel, as though these souls don’t still need fighting for since God perhaps won’t send them to hell anyways.
Maybe one of the reasons why people are refusing to believe in the notion of hell is that they misunderstand what it most fundamentally is – the absence of God. Have you ever wondered how it is that God banished Satan (and the other fallen angels) to hell and yet Satan is apparently still prowling around “like a lion” (1 Peter 5:8) in the world today seeking to harm us? It’s because the Bible describes hell as both a local place and a state of existence. This is why, when Jesus was on the cross paying for the sins of the world and he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34) he was literally experiencing hell despite being on earth at the time. He was experiencing separation from God’s presence and its accompanying blessing.
Whether hell is filled with fire and tattered clothes and gnashing teeth isn’t the point, just as it’s not the point whether heaven is filled with streets of gold and diamonds and emeralds, etc. God is describing these existences in ways that human brains can process – really awful or really extraordinary. That’s because hell, in its most basic definition, is eternal separation from God and his blessing. Heaven, in its most basic definition, is the eternal blessing of being in God’s presence.
So, when someone throughout their lives, for their own reasons and in their own ways, has repeatedly said to God, “I don’t need the forgiveness of your Son. I don’t have time for your message of faith and reconciliation in Jesus. I don’t care about your will for my life. I don’t want you!”, God finally says to them, “Fine, you can have what you’ve wanted……you won’t have me.” And God eternally separates himself and his blessing from that individual. And this is hell. It’s not God arbitrarily throwing people he doesn’t like into a torture chamber. It’s God giving unbelievers what they have pursued their entire lives – freedom from him. And it’s the saddest, most horrific existence there could be.
Universalism questions the logic behind “a loving God sending someone to hell.” It also ignores the logic that a just and unchanging God will keep his Word and the logic that a loving God’s generosity can indeed be ignored.
I don’t like the thought of hell any more than the next person. But pretending like it doesn’t exist isn’t going to help a single one of the people in my life right now who don’t know Jesus. Much of the world today (increasingly) doesn’t agree.
Additional Notes: I preached on the this topic of “Would a Loving God Send Anyone to Hell?” back in November. Here’s a link to the sermon if you’re interested.