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?