One of the most common criticisms directed at the Emergent Church concerns its handling of the Biblical gospel and, in particular, its tendency to promote the dangerous heresy of Universalism. In the words of one of its most popular advocates, Universalism is the belief that “in the end, all men will be gathered into the love of God” (Barclay, 1977). Although it has been presented in many guises throughout 2,000 years of church history, it has not been widely accepted. But due to its natural appeal to the sentimentality of human nature, it has never finally disappeared, experiencing strong resurgence in the liberal theology of the Pentecostal Latter Rain Movement (1940s & 50s) and, most recently, within the Emergent Church. Despite this assertion writers, such as Brian McLaren and Steve Chalke, have stayed sufficiently distant to avoid being directly labelled “Universalist.”
That is, until the March 15th 2011, when Rob Bell published his latest book, Love Wins, aiming to get “at the heart of life’s big questions.” Using the popular tactic of the Emergent Church, he asks a number of questions designed to implant a seed of doubt in otherwise resolute minds, and take aim at essential gospel truths such as righteousness, judgment, heaven, hell, faith, repentance, conviction of sin, conversion, and the new birth. He says “Of all the billions of people who have ever lived, will only a select number make it to a better place and every single other person suffer in torment and punishment forever? Is this acceptable to God? Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish? Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God?”
In the promotional video for the book, Bell goes further: “If that’s the case, how do you become one of the few? Is it what you believe; or what you say, or what you do, or who you know—or something that happens in your heart? Or do you need to be initiated, or baptized, or take a class, or be converted, or born again—how does one become one of these few?”
Although Bell is careful to steer clear of making any overt statement directly supporting traditional Universalism, it would be mere semantics to deny its presence. Bell’s brand of Universalism is a kingdom here upon earth where human beings “belong before they believe,” and need only to opt into God’s vision of a “desired future.”
In the first of two articles considering the issue of the Emergent gospel, and the particular issue of Universalism, we shall assess some of the questions that Bell asks, not necessarily by answering them (they have been deliberately biased to deliver specific conclusions), but by examining the propositions contained within them. First, what is the purpose of the gospel, and how is this in keeping with the character of God?
“Make it to a better place,” or “torment and punishment forever?”
The manner in which Bell speaks of eternity should be noted. He refers to the purpose of the gospel disparagingly, speaking of the “select making it to a better place,” and the remainder “suffering in torment and punishment forever.” These carefully worded phrases are seeking not only to undermine the reality of a future destination (Matt 7:13-14; Luke 16:23; John 14:1-3), but also its eternality (Matt 25:46). By removing the true purpose of the gospel – being brought into an eternal relationship with God, and saved from hell and the lake of fire – Bell is also undermining the Biblical doctrine concerning the depravity of the human heart. We should be clear: the impending judgment of God against the sinner is because of sins that they have committed, born out of a corrupt and defiled nature (Rom 1:18; 2Thess 1:7-9), and is in no way a nasty or vindictive strike at people who choose not to become one of the “select few.” Care should be taken to note the propensity to describe infinite punishment for sins committed within a finite lifetime, as injustice. This is a misnomer: sin is against God, and God is eternal in His character. His holiness and righteousness are infinite. While Scripture clearly teaches differing degrees of eternal suffering for sin (Rev 20:12), the time period is always the same: eternity.
In a chapter entitled “Here is the New There,” Bell all but removes the distinction between time and eternity, making hell a living reality, something experienced now as a consequence of bad choices, while heaven is the result of living a life in tandem with God. Neither is eternal. In this interpretation God is reduced to merely having a “desired future.” Thus He is no longer sovereign. Instead, He has chosen to allow human beings to contribute to the destination of history. Despite sharing some of the characteristics of Postmillennialism, this is defined by Brian McLaren as “participative eschatology” (New Kind of Christianity).
Emotional examples of hell on earth are used to corroborate the point, such as the genocide in Rwanda, but the logic is flawed. In this case the “hell” that an innocent victim experiences at the hands of genocidal murderers is not just. They did not earn it; they are simply citizens of that country. This is totally out of line with the Scriptural truth of personal accountability for sins (Rev 20:12-13). But in the Emergent gospel there is no mention of universal guilt or personal sin and transgression. Instead, we are presented with vapid platitudes such as the suggestion that how you act is more important than what you are. While behavior is deemed important by Scripture, the cause of that behavior is always, and only, the wicked heart of man (Rom 5:12; Mark 7:20-23).
One of the most alarming themes throughout the book is that at any point one can opt out of their choice of a personal hell and choose God instead. The logical reasoning here is ambiguous, but one would assume that if it is possible to opt out of hell, it is just as easy to opt in as well. The truth of Scripture should be presented clearly; salvation is an eternal act, with eternal consequences. Not only will a true believer never entertain the possibility of opting out, but it is also a spiritual impossibility (John 10:28).
Does God get what He wants?
Having blurred the distinction between time and eternity, the literalness of heaven and hell, and the essential nature of the human heart, the next step in Bell’s strategy is to question the character of God. As mentioned earlier, when speaking of eternal punishment, Bell asks “Is this acceptable to God? Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish? Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God?”
Most believers have grappled with these issues at some point, but the answers are contained within Scripture, and are based on a Biblical understanding of the character of God. It is precisely at this point that Bell seeks to employ logic to prove his point. However, this logic is based on a human understanding of the character of God. In a chapter devoted to this subject, entitled “Does God get what He wants?” he posits his argument: “Will all people be saved, or will God not get what God wants?”
This question is actually a thinly-veiled deductive syllogism, which can be set out as follows.
Major premise: God is God and therefore must get what He wants.
Minor premise: God wants all people to be saved.
Conclusion: All people must be saved.
While the truth presented by the major premise is redoubtable, the minor premise has been deliberately narrowed to ignore all but the will of God in relation to the salvation of mankind (1Tim 2:4), or more succinctly, all but His love. But Scripture also attests to God desiring justice (Psa 33:5), and righteousness (Psa 11:7; 33:5), and holiness (1Peter 1:16), and never one at the expense of another. If Bell was to continue to quote Paul, he would find that a qualifying clause follows: “and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.” The truth incorporates not only the love of God, but His righteousness, justice, holiness, and sovereignty. There is no salvation that excludes any facet of the truth.
When the character of God is understood Biblically, asking whether eternal punishment is acceptable to God, or if God can allow it and still be called loving, is not the right question. The better question is, “How does God declare His love while maintaining the full panoply of His character?” In Romans 3, Paul establishes that the cross has demonstrated the love of God in the salvation of guilty sinners, without compromising the righteousness or holiness of God. What a truth we have contained within Scripture: “to declare, I say, at this time His righteousness: that He might be just and the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus” (Rom 3:26).
The Emergent Church is clever in its strategy. By changing the focus from eternity to time, and emphasizing only the loving attribute of God’s character, it has laid an erroneous foundation for an all-out attack on its real target – the death of Christ upon the cross.