Rob Bell is a very effective teaching pastor who was at the cutting edge of Evangelical theology. He founded and led Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan. In 2011 he published Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell And The Fate Of Every Person Who Ever Lived. The broader Evangelical community in general and his congregation, in particular, reacted with the verdict that he had gone too far beyond the boundary of Evangelical theology. Rob Bell left soon after.
The church’s name Mars Hill is a deliberate reference to the place in Athens where the Apostle Paul interacted with philosophers on the Areopagus, the original name in Greek. This encounter is told in Acts 17. The Greeks worshiped many gods and even the unknown god. Paul proclaimed he knew who that unknown God is, and in him, we live and move and have our being. This known God commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world by the man he has appointed. We know he was referring to the Messiah, the Christ in the person of Jesus. John records Jesus proclaiming, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
The issue Rob Bell was dealing with and we conservative Christians face has the name particularism, the opposite of universalism. It is very presumptuous to say that our God in Christ is the only god that counts. It is scandalous to have to look an unbeliever in the eye and tell him he is going to hell. Do we really want to and have to be so particular?
This issue became real to me as vice-chancellor of a major university when the Jews for Jesus came to campus to evangelize students. The heavily Jewish student body reacted angrily. Yet the university highly valued openness to all ideas, like Mars Hill today. We finally worked out a compromise that the Jews for Jesus could make their presentations at a specific place at a specific time. Many of my colleagues were Jewish and I respected them highly. Were they really condemned to hell?
Thank God I did not have to live with that pressure for long when I moved on to a Christian university and an Evangelical seminary. The issue moved from the particular to the theoretical. I can understand the pressure Rob Bell felt when he published Love Wins. American Protestantism is divided between conservative and liberal. Liberals rejected strict particularism in one form or another and opted for some form of universalism where love is all that matters.
I was relieved to discover a distinction that arose from the foreign mission field. That is between bounded set and centered set. At what point does a person become a saved believer? Traditional thinking envisions a line that a person has to cross to be “in.” That’s a bounded set. In centered-set thinking the line becomes fuzzy. What counts is that the person is looking at Christ, centered on him. In Muslim countries, the penalty for openly confessing Christ is high, including possible death from the embarrassed family. The strictest conservatives would insist on crossing the line of making a public confession.
Many very conservative thinkers will also take a hard line on the fate of children who die without faith. I am thankful for the Old Testament concept of the family unit in which children are included in the family faith. This extension is exemplified well in the tradition of infant baptism. What about those children who are not in a believing family? That’s best left to God, whom we know is loving and full of grace.
Consider Jesus’ parable of the sheep and goats. I noticed in Haitian neighborhoods that goats roam on their own freely. After coming back from lunch one day, I asked the class why sheep get to go to heaven and the goats have to go to hell. Their answer was immediate. Sheep are herd animals while goats go off individually. Somehow the togetherness of community fits into the formula of who’s in or out.
When you look closely at the parable in Matthew 25, you will notice that the separation is not on the basis of beliefs, but rather of actions. Those on the right took care of the hungry, thirsty, the sick, and those needing clothing. Those on the left did not show concern. The parable ends with the judgment that those on the right will have eternal life and those on the life will go away to eternal punishment. The subject of eternal life and eternal punishment deserves a separate essay.
I believe God wants to extend his love as far as possible and looks favorably on those who recognize the biblical Christ in some form. Yet Jesus does proclaim that he is the way, the truth, and the life. This tension is between particularism and universalism is best approached with humility in terms of what it means in practice today.
Does God’s love for all people mean all are saved?
Jim Otte says
“those who recognize the Biblical Christ in some form” casts a pretty wide net – depending on what you mean by “recognize.”
I’ve always interpreted Matthew 25, not as a parable, but as a narrative. I supposed my starting point is different than yours. The moment of separation is based on the faith of those present. I suppose you could argue, that we all start out as goats in life, until by God’s grace, we become sheep! But, the question of the actions is not raised until after the separation based on faith.
It’s indeed a hard thing to look an unbiever in the eye, or to contemplate the prospect of one’s friend, family member, or colleague headed for he’ll. All the more reason to walk alongside…
Keep me thinking, David.
Paul Koehn says
Good work again, David! Wish I had more time to comment and read and digest your writings but this is one that I am printing out for use in a Bible class! Thanks!
Lee Larsen says
God’s word is clear that while He loves everyone not all will be saved.
2 Peter 3:9 The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
1 Timothy 2:3-4 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
Mark 16:16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.
Romans 10:9-10 Because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.
John 5:24 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.
John 3:36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.
Matthew 7:21-23 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
Matthew 24:13 But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
John 6:65 And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”
John 6:44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.
Acts 4:12 And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
Hebrews 10:26 For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins,
2 Thessalonians 1:8 In flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.
Michael Burmeister says
Did you write this or copy somebody else?
Curious what was it that drew you to studying thus topic and how you came to your conclusions.
I’m not familiar with the label of “particulars” or the reasons you mentioned to mot tell someone about he’ll. Also the reference to “family faith”.
Would love to know your resources
Thanks so much
Neel Grantham says
This was an interesting article. Thanks for causing us to ponder on the Word and the things of God. One thought I had about the sheep and the goats is that while actions are definitely the focus, it’s being attached to the Vine and the work of the Spirit that produces the fruit. That’s being in Christ, and then more.
Thanks for your good work.
Rev. William F. Mugnolo says
In response to this article, I would like to offer my following theses for you to consider:
1) In view of the depths of our rebellion against God (Genesis 3:1-24, 8:21; Isaiah 59:1-2; Jeremiah 17:9) we all deserve the same fate as the fallen angels–that is, no possibility of redemption (Jude 1:6).
2) When asked how many would be saved, Jesus, while He gave no “percentage figure”, spoke of the saved as being a minority (Matthew 7:13-14, Luke 13:23-30).
3) Indeed, a minority of only eight were saved through the Flood. The rest were doomed to judgment (1 Peter 3:19-20).
4) It is therefore a miracle–a supreme act of mercy in Christ–that anyone is saved (Matthew 19:23-26).
5) While the saved are in the minority–and possibly even a small one–the question remains, “Just how narrow is the narrow door?”. While “faith comes by hearing” (Romans 10:17), might there be those who haven’t heard in this “traditional sense” who are numbered among the saved–the “anonymous Christians” spoken of by Karl Rahner, S.J.?
6) While many of them still ascribe to a “limited atonement”, the Reformed, in effect, must realize the possibility of “anonymous Christianity” because they believe that the Lord’s operation cannot be limited to the visible Means of Grace.
7) But for we Lutherans to “widen the narrow door”, we must admit that the Lord is somehow able to save apart from those visible means of the Word and Sacraments.
8) We Lutherans do not entirely deny this possibility. There was the faith of the unborn John the Baptist given directly by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:15). We also have believed that infant Jewish girls in Old Testament times were saved apart from the visible means of circumcision. We also believe that infants of Christian parents, who die before being able to be baptized, can be saved.
9) There is also the possibility of being saved by believing in the promise of God to send a Savior–even if that promise had been corrupted within a Gentile environment (John 4:25 [the Woman at the Well], Matthew 2:1-2 [the Magi]). (See also the CPH Book: Genesis and the Mystery Confucius Couldn’t Solve).
10) There may also be those “God fearers”, like Cornelius (Acts 10:1-2), who, while not yet confessing the Christian Faith, inwardly trust in the one true God.
11) Hebrews 11:6 speaks of “whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and rewards those who seek Him.” Might this general statement of faith, which makes no explicit reference to Christ, serve to “widen the narrow door”?
12) Nevertheless, all possibilities of a widened narrow door must be balanced against the strong words of Ephesians 2:12 where Paul says to those of Gentile background, “You were at the time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”
Philip Meinzen says
God desires that all would be saved, but mankind has been given a free will that, in its natural state, is contrary to God. However, it is by Grace that we are save.md. Unpack this gift of God in Christ, a mystery made sure in The Holy Spirit, and you have your answer
Stefan Smart says
I love the judicious way you picked a path through this minefield – in particular your thoughtful exposition of the sheep and the goats. Some might accuse you of embarking in an extended theological exercise in sitting on the fence, But I think that would be unfair. A large degree of uncertainty and caution in these matters is completely appropriate given the ultimate mystery of God’s nature and goodness, which, let’s face it, is far beyond the ability of mere human beings to delineate.