Rob Bell, pastor of a large Evangelical Christian church in Michigan (Mars Hill Bible Church) sure has stirred up a bee hive recently. He published a book entitled “Love Wins” in which he suggested that it just might be that everyone will eventually go to heaven – whatever heaven turns out to be.
I haven’t read the book; but I did watch a couple of videos Rob put out. One of them was a short preview clip advertizing the upcoming book; the other was a much longer interview with Mr. Bell concerning the views he expressed in the book. From what I can understand, he didn’t aggressively insist that everyone will certainly be saved – many other people have done that, including yours truly – he just presents it as a hope with good Biblical grounds. He points out that in the vision of the “new Jerusalem” in Revelation 21 and 22, the gates of the city never close (21:25). So even though nothing impure can ever enter the city (21:27), it would appear that the possibility of repentance is always open – and the repentant sinner can then enter into the city through the always open gates.
Despite the fact that many another person has unhesitatingly insisted on the certainty of “universal salvation” without causing a great uproar, Rob Bell’s suggestion of the possibility has created a national (and perhaps international) furor. Time magazine just published a lengthy article about him and the opposition he’s getting. Even before the book was published, it had created a national sensation. I became aware of it through a Christian blog I like to read (the Pangea Blog). At this time, there are 161 comments on that original blog article (several other articles followed) –some of them approving, and others highly critical.
Recently, even a Muslim doctor and Imam in the Chicago area wrote an article about the controversy – and I am glad to say that he strongly approves Rob Bell’s good hope in the conquering love and mercy of God. He commented that he used to preach fiery sermons about the punishment of hell; but he no longer does so and has no intention of ever again doing so. He essentially takes the same position that Rob does: hopeful expectation in God’s surprising mercy, without dogmatic assertion of the certainty of universal forgiveness.
I have written several articles about Christian Universalism (Christian Universalism; Christian Universalism, Part 2; and Everlasting Punishment?) as well as several articles on reincarnation; so I won’t use this article to again attempt a detailed defense of the “larger hope”. In brief, my arguments were essentially that the word “punishment” itself refers to corrective discipline, not mere vengeance; “fire” is a symbol representing trial and purification; and the Biblical Scriptures specifically and emphatically state God’s intention to bring everyone in heaven, on earth, and under the earth into voluntary and heartfelt allegiance to Him.
As those of you who have been keeping up with my blog know, a bit more than a year ago I started ‘investigating’ Islam to see if the accusations that it is a violent and hateful religion were really true. I almost immediately fell in love with the Qur’an (Koran); and today I am essentially a Muslim – although I still have not ever gone to a mosque (shame on me! 😀 ). A few days ago a couple of Qur’anic verses caught my attention, which appear to me to beautifully teach this very concept of God’s corrective ‘fiery’ punishments. Somehow they had not made an impression on me when I initially read them last year; but because I had just been carrying on an e-mail discussion with some staunch fundamentalist Christians about Universalism versus “eternal punishment”, those verses ‘jumped out at me’ this time around. Here they are in Muhammad Asad’s English rendering:
[13:17] [Whenever] He sends down water from the sky, and [once-dry] river-beds are running high according to their measure, the stream carries scum on its surface; and, likewise, from that [metal] which they smelt in the fire in order to make ornaments or utensils, [there rises] scum. In this way does God set forth the parable of truth and falsehood: for, as far as the scum is concerned, it passes away as [does all] dross; but that which is of benefit to man abides on earth. In this way does God set forth the parables [13:18] of those who have responded to their Sustainer with a goodly response, and of those who did not respond to Him. [As for the latter,] if they possessed all that is on earth, and twice as much, they would surely offer it as ransom [on the Day of Judgment]: a most evil reckoning awaits them, and their goal is hell: and how evil a resting-place!
I believe this is a key passage in understanding the teaching of the Qur’an about “hell fire”. God sends guidance by His Prophets (especially the Qur’an through Muhammad – peace be upon him), which is like refreshing rain which fills dry river beds, stirring up and dispersing the “scum” in those who respond favorably to this guidance. His Revelations expose our ‘corruption’ and guide us in getting rid of it.
For those who refuse to follow God’s kind guidance, however, there are more drastic means of getting rid of that corruption or “scum”. Such people become like metal which must be heated in the fire to melt away the “scum”. Yes, the fire to which the metal is exposed is “a most evil reckoning”, and an “evil resting place”. The end result, though, is that useful “ornaments or utensils” are able to be made from that metal! 🙂 That, my friends, is “universal salvation”, and it’s taught in that supposedly ‘hateful’ book, the Qur’an!
As the very first Sura (chapter) of the Qur’an says (Yusuf Ali’s version): 1. In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. 2. Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds; 3. Most Gracious, Most Merciful; 4. Master of the Day of Judgment. The “Master of the Day of Judgment” is He who is “Most Gracious, Most Merciful” and “the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds”. He is the One who knows how to be just while showing mercy, and be merciful while rendering justice. All praise is due to God alone. God is Great/Greater/Greatest (Allahu Akbar)!
Thank you, Rob Bell, for being willing to stir up the hornet’s nest. I expect many people will be reevaluating their concepts of God’s justice after reading your book.