A hopeful universalism
Of the various responses to Rob Bell’s Love Wins, two struck me as particularly important. On one side, a number of prominent conservatives opted for splenetic denunciation. For Bell to extol God’s transformative love in prose that both charms and exasperates—well, OK. No harm, no foul. But a gentle nod toward universal salvation? Absolutely not. John Piper’s much-publicized quip on Twitter (“Farewell, Rob Bell”) was probably as much a prediction of Bell’s postmortem standing as an anathematization. On the other side, little more than a bored, smug shrug emanated from mainstream academics and mainline Protestants—so bored it hardly amounted to a shrug, so smug it implied that those still opposing universalism were no more than reactionary Neanderthals. This (non)reaction barely registered, but that’s all the more telling. In certain circles, universalism is no longer the preserve of theological radicals. It’s gone mainstream.
Although these reactions merit consideration (what does it say about contemporary Protestantism that limited salvation is a test of faith and irrelevant?), the concern of this essay is theological: How might Christians think better about universalism? Given that many of us are neither ardent proponents of double predestination nor so confident in our knowledge of God’s saving actions that we know, beyond a shadow of doubt, that everyone will gain admittance to the heavenly kingdom, what should we say about the scope of salvation? After Love Wins, where do we turn for guidance?
In Erasing Hell, Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle offer an evangelical riposte to Rob Bell. There is no scriptural support, they argue, for the belief that God will save each and every one of us. On the contrary, the Bible insists that an absence of faith has terrible consequences. Jesus himself described “hell as a horrifying place, characterized by suffering, fire, darkness, and lamentation”—and did so “to stir a fear in us that would cause us to take hell seriously and avoid it at all costs.” How, then, might one escape a fate worse than death? By committing and recommitting oneself to God, who offers salvation through Jesus Christ. And this must be done straightaway. “The door is open now—but it won’t stay open forever.”