Hey Everyone, We’re All Going to Heaven!
[This is a long one. Sorry.]
Caddy Shack references aside, the question of universalism is one that has, from time to time, been extremely debated in many circles of the Church. Many people snub it as a heresy, while many others insist that it’s the only way a truly loving God can be true to his own nature. Thankfully, it’s a debate that hasn’t dominated the public sphere lately (instead, we’re stuck with the trivial, banal, and downright stupid debates over inerrancy and evolution). But, recently, Rob Bell, everyone’s favorite walking controversy, seems intent on dredging this debate up again with a new book entitled Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Rob’s even been good enough to create this scintillating promo video:
(Seriously, watch it)
Harper-Collins, the book’s publisher, has put out this equally scintillating blurb:
“Fans flock to his Facebook page, his NOOMA videos have been viewed by millions, and his Sunday sermons are attended by 10,000 parishioners—with a downloadable podcast reaching 50,000 more. An electrifying, unconventional pastor whom Time magazine calls “a singular rock star in the church world,” Rob Bell is the most vibrant, central religious leader of the millennial generation. Now, in Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, Bell addresses one of the most controversial issues of faith—the afterlife—arguing that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering. With searing insight, Bell puts hell on trial, and his message is decidedly optimistic—eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts right now. And ultimately, Love Wins.”
But, despite the fact that Bell’s information is fairly vague thus far (the book won’t be released until March 29) members of the more conservative factions of the Church are already prepared to label him a heretic. Despite the (well deserved) pot-shot at penal substitution, Bell leaves us with more questions than answers. This video is a marketing tool (and an effective one, judging by the buzzing in the theological blogosphere), not a statement of faith or doctrine. I for one plan to not brand anyone a heretic until I actually hear what they have to say. Could you imagine someone burning you at the stake for just asking questions? Wow.
But this is bigger than Rob Bell (and it almost always is). Like Bell says in the video, this idea represents something bigger. How we understand redemption is the key to how we understand God. Is God the cosmic judge, demanding payment for every wrong thing ever done? Is he, like most of Bell’s detractor’s seem to think, a cosmic feudal lord who demands satisfaction for wrongs done to him? Is he that petty? Or is he Love?
I know that there are a whole bevy of scriptures that support many different ways of understanding atonement, but Rob Bell is not the first, and will certainly not be the last, to suggest that the love of God is so radical, that it might be that everyone eventually finds their way to heaven.
You don’t realize it, but you’ve probably insinuated it yourself. It’s deliberately placed in the ecumenical creeds of the Church. In the Apostle’s Creed we find “He will come again to judge the living and the dead.” The omission is important. There will be judgment, yes, but the writers of the creed fail to mention any notion of heaven or hell. We also find “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.” Never once does it say that any of these things are only for Christians.
Likewise, in the Nicene Creed you can see that Jesus came “for us men, and for our salvation.” There is no limiting factor on this statement. Jesus didn’t come for us Christians, but for us men (well, for humanity. 325 wasn’t a good year for gender equality. Sorry, ladies). The 381 text goes even further, speaking of “life in the world to come” and describing the Spirit as “the Lord, the giver of life.” Again, the Creed is not exclusive but inclusive. Christ came for us, for humanity, and the Spirit gives us life. There is no notion of believer and unbeliever in these ancient documents. Ironically, these Creeds were created by the very men who worked out the canonization of the Bible, men who also happened to be universalists. If we have a problem with universalism, do we also have problem with scripture?
Because the reality is that many scholars believe the vast majority of the early Church held to a form of universalism. Origen believed in the return of the soul to its origin, which is God, and that in the end, God would fully be “all in all.” Indeed, many insist that the entire Alexandrian school, and not just Origen, were universalists. Gregory of Nyssa once said that Christians can legitimately hope even for the redemption of the Devil. This point of view faded, many claim, with the ascendancy of Rome, which was the only major theological center that taught an eternal punishment. And yet even George Whitfield privately confessed that “all damned souls will hereafter be brought out of hell.”
Whatever the history of the movement (and trying to determine the theological camps of dead people is quite tricky at times) universalism is alive and well today. John Hick, for example, views God as so radically other than humanity that to describe God in religious systems is ultimately a very poor attempt. He likens it to three blind men describing an elephant by touching it in three different places. All three are right, and each is convinced of the other’s wrongness. And yet the reality is so much bigger than they know. Likewise, there are some, like Karl Rahner, who teach that the devout of other faiths are what he calls “secret Christians,” and while Rahner may not be a strict universalist, he casts the net much wider than many.
But this is all historical background and interesting facts about people I’ve never met. Let me try and bring this home in a more personal way. I’ll agree with Hick in that God is so ultimately other that we cannot truly understand God on any substantial level. But we can know things about God through the person of Jesus. He came to reveal a bit of the Father to us, and in Jesus, we can start to understand little bits of the Father. Jesus says, for example, that he has come to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, to set the captives free. Jesus’ primary mission is one of reconciliation and justice, and true justice is not content with simple punishment. True justice desires the return of that which was taken, the restoration of that which was destroyed. The true justice that God seeks involves the reconciliation of all things, as the book of Colossians testifies (1:20). Who is to say that God’s pursuit of that which is broken ends at the end of a person’s life? Indeed, Jesus is described as the Lord of the living and the dead (Rom. 14:9). So who arbitrarily decided that when we die, we are no longer loved by God? Who decided that the dead cannot anymore be loved? I can find no place in scripture where it says that God stops loving us when we die. Could he not also pursue us even then?
What about Hell?! I hear you scream. How can all be saved if there is a hell? Jesus does indeed describe hell, but I wonder if maybe we look at hell too narrowly. It is a place of punishment, to be sure, but since when does God punish without the intent to discipline? Perhaps hell is place where those who die in sin can be purified. Perhaps the judgment of hell exists for the purpose of disciplining and correcting. Does not Malachi describe the Day of the Lord as a refiner’s fire (3:2)?
God is so much bigger than all of this, than all of us, and we need to learn to understand that. I’m not saying I’m necessarily a universalist, but I am trying to convince you that universalism is not a random, knee-jerk reaction to the eternal torment many people gloat over. There’s evidence, and there’s precedent. And there’s the bigness and wildness of God. He delights in doing new things, in surprising us. Why do you think he sent a baby to be our king and a man to be our saviour? Why do you think he used men like Peter and Paul and Matthew? God exists beyond our comprehension, and I for one am not willing to say that I know totally and completely what he’s got planned for all of eternity.
I heard a lecture my freshman year of college that radically changed the way I thought about these things. Dr. Keith Putt, of Samford’s philosophy department, challenged everything I thought I knew when he asked this question: “When I get to heaven, I suppose I might see Adolf Hitler there. And then I’m faced with the question, do I leave heaven because Hitler’s there, or do I fall on my face in abject worship of the God who is good enough and powerful enough to save even Adolf Hitler?” It’s a disturbing thought. And that’s why it works. Because God is disturbing. He disturbs our daily lives with his love and mercy.
But let’s bring this back to where it began, with Rob Bell, condemned as a heretic for asking questions, questions that God is big enough to handle, questions that Jesus may very well have some answers to. I think these are questions that many people are asking, myself included. And yet here we are, dealing with people who want to declare him a heretic (under whose authority? I might ask of these fervent Protestants) without even having read his book. I pray that we stop this madness before we’re left with a Church afraid of even asking questions. I suppose the big lesson we can take away from all of this is don’t be so damn sure. Don’t be sure that when people begin asking tough questions, they’ll immediately come up with answers you don’t agree with. Don’t be so sure that they don’t have legs upon which to stand. Don’t be so sure that you know the mind and purposes of God as well as you think you do. Don’t be so sure that God won’t do something new and revolutionary. Leave room for God to be God, and he might do something surprising and disturbing, but rest assured that whatever he does, it will be revolutionary.
[By the way, if I wasn’t broke, I would have pre-ordered this book the moment I saw the video.]