It may be hard to believe, but this little video sparked a minor explosion over the weekend. Though Rob Bell’s book is not even out yet, it is already being denounced as heresy with surprising vehemence. Justin Taylor’s response, which well-known pastor John Piper linked with the tweet “Farewell Rob Bell,” drew over a thousand comments and a quarter million pageviews, and at one point “Rob Bell” was even a top ten trending topic on twitter (where not a few folks had @robbell confused with @realrobbell). CNN has a good summary here, and Christianity Today has compiled a number of other reactions.
The crux of the controversy is the doctrine of universalism, and specifically whether it is acceptable for a Christian pastor to publicly doubt hell. According to Taylor and many other folks, Bell’s questions in this video border on heresy, as belief in universalism is simply incompatible with Christian orthodoxy. As Taylor puts it, “this video from Bell himself shows that he is moving farther and farther away from anything resembling biblical Christianity.”
I’ve written quite a lot on this topic, especially as part of a “bloggersation” that occurred a couple years back on whether non-Christians can be “saved.” As argued in this post, I’m rather partial to universalism myself, but am not sure I can quite accept it, for reasons detailed further here. I’ve also long been a fan of Rob Bell’s, and used his Nooma videos in our home group one year. There is a lot that’s debatable about Bell’s views as expressed in those videos (I’ve not read his books), but I love his ability to ask good questions. I find it ridiculous that asking such questions should be enough to get you denounced as a heretic, especially when it is not even clear that Bell does in fact accept universalism.
But my interest today is with a post Taylor linked in his response. In To Hell with Hell, Kevin DeYoung offers eight reasons why he believes universalism is unacceptable, focused primarily on the issue of God’s wrath. I would like to respond to each point in turn:
First, we need God’s wrath to keep us honest about evangelism.
I’ve noted before that whether it is possible to be saved without being a Christian should not prevent us from sharing Christ, but I find this focus on the wrath of God unhelpful. Evangelism should be about inviting people into a relationship with God, not threatening them with punishment, and I fail to see how hell being empty should make the call to love God any less appealing or important.
Second, we need God’s wrath in order to forgive our enemies. The reason we can forgo repaying evil for evil is because we trust the Lord’s promise to repay the wicked.
I find this completely wrong-headed. It assumes that the only reason that we shouldn’t avenge ourselves on our “enemies” is because we know God will do it for us. Frankly, this doesn’t sound like forgiveness at all. It’s like a bookie “forgiving” someone’s debt only because he knows the mob will break the man’s legs for him.
Third, we need God’s wrath in order to risk our lives for Jesus’ sake.
This is simply false. One need only look to the very first Christian martyr, Stephen, who echoed Jesus words by praying “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60, see also Luke 23:34). That is, he died praying that God would not punish his enemies, not trusting that God would.
Fourth, we need God’s wrath in order to live holy lives…. Sometimes we need to literally scare the hell out of people.
Apart from the fact that we ought to be loving God for who he is rather than from fear of punishment, my main problem with DeYoung’s claim here is that it assumes that God cannot condemn our sin without condemning us to eternal punishment. This is patently false. Unless DeYoung believes that God only saves those who have never sinned, then he must admit that it is possible for God to condemn a person’s sin without sending them to hell, as this must be true of every single Christian. The inclusivist or universalist simply holds out the same hope for non-Christians as well.
Fifth, we need God’s wrath in order to understand what mercy means.
I actually agree with this point, but simply deny that it necessarily entails that God’s wrath needs to be eternal. That as sinners we deserve hell does not require that anyone end up there. That God might save everyone truly would be “amazing grace”!
Sixth, we need God’s wrath in order to grasp how wonderful heaven will be.
This is like saying that my kids cannot fully appreciate living in my house unless they know that I’m willing to throw them out on the street if they disobey. With Bell all I can ask is: “How can anyone call that good news?”
Seventh, we need the wrath of God in order to be motivated to care for our impoverished brothers and sisters.
To be sure, fear of hell could motivate one to love and serve “the least of these” (and this is perhaps the best reaction to belief in hell), but it is hardly necessary or even a particularly effective means to motivate charity. To say nothing else, I would simply note that some of the folks who give the most to help the poor are not Christians at all, much less motivated by fear of hell.
Eighth, we need God’s wrath in order to be ready for the Lord’s return. We must keep the lamps full, the wicks trimmed, the houses clean, the vineyard tended, the workers busy, and the talents invested lest we find ourselves unprepared for the day of reckoning.
This last point perhaps best captures the problem with DeYoung’s approach and the worldview it represents. Here he alludes to several of Jesus’ parables, the first of which is the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13), which contrasts those wise bridesmaids who kept their lamps lit awaiting the bridegroom–even though he was late in coming–and those ill-prepared ones who were absent when he came and so missed the wedding. This certainly emphasizes the importance of being prepared, but the motivation for all involved is not fear of being shut out but rather the desire to join in the wedding banquet. So also, it is not fear of hell that should motivate us to follow God, but rather joyful expectation of living with him.