Divided by Hell? An Assessment of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Heresy, Orthodoxy & Final Judgment – Part III
What is Universalism and is Rob Bell a Universalist?
First, I want to address a common charge that has been made about Rob Bell – that he is a universalist. Some say he is. In his interviews, Bell claims he isn’t. Which is it? What is universalism and is Bell a universalist?
First, it can be slightly complicated to define universalism, because not everyone holds tightly to the same definition. Ted Peters, a professor of systematic theology at Pacific Lutheran Seminary, sees the difference as two paths or one. “According to the double destiny positions, when we die we enter one of two everlasting realms, heaven or hell. According to belief in universal salvation, only one destiny awaits us beyond death, namely, salvation in heaven” (Placher 2003:361). Peters defines universalism as the idea that, in the end, by the time we get to final judgment, all will be won to Christ, thus hell is not the final destiny of any human being.
The Global Dictionary of Theology, edited by Dyrness and Karkkainen, define it this way: “Universalism is the belief that eventually all human beings will be saved” (Dyrness, 2008:914). That seems consistent with what Peters has said. But then they go on to make a distinction between hopeful universalism and convinced universalism. They say, “Hopeful universalism finds reason in Scripture to be hopeful that everyone will be saved, but they do not believe that we can be certain of this. Convinced universalists, on the other hand, are certain about this, despite of the fact that Christians have traditionally believed that the Bible clearly teaches that some will be eternally condemned” (Dyrness 2008:914). They mention a number of significant theologians who fit into a hopeful universalism. When it comes to Protestants, they put Kierkeggard, Blumhardt, Maurice, Farrar, Barth, and Brunner in this camp, as well as reformed pastor Jan Bonda and evangelicals such as Donald Bloesch. When it comes to Catholics, they mention Balthasar and Rahner.
So are there two kinds of universalists or just one? I spoke to Dr. Marèque Ireland, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge, about this matter, since she teaches on ecclesiology and eschatology. When I mentioned the term “hopeful universalist” to her, she didn’t find it very helpful, because in her understanding the primary distinction between a universalist and a non-universalist is that, ultimately, a universalist does away with human choice. Thus when it comes to defining a universlist, the best definition for a universalist is that there is only one ultimate destiny.
So what does Rob Bell teach on this matter in Love Wins? If we understand universalism as “the belief that eventually all human beings will be saved,” that “only one destiny awaits, namely, salvation in heaven,” then Rob Bell cannot be called a universalist. In Love Wins, Bells passionately declares that God’s love is universal, yet he never does away with people’s freedom to choose, because he states that love “can’t be forced, manipulated, or coerced. It always leaves room for the other to decide. God says yes, we can have what we want, because love wins” (Bell 2011:119). Since God is love, and love requires freedom, Bell continues to hold to the fact that people have a choice. So Bell teaches the universality of God’s love without becoming a universalist. In this regard, he seems to live within the Biblical tension.
The next flashpoint that arises from Bell’s book Love Wins is: Does God’s love and mercy extend beyond the grave? This is a more complicated issue that we will take a little more time to dive into in the next post in this series.