The internet has been abuzz this weekend with news of megachurch pastor Rob Bell’s latest book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. The book synopsis released by the publisher states that Bell is “arguing that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering.” In other words, he appears to be openly professing his belief in universalism, the belief that everybody ultimately goes to heaven regardless of what they believe.
To help you understand the position of universalism, it might be useful to describe a few positions held by theologians on the subject of how a person receives eternal life. Here are some definitions that you should know:
Christian exclusivism holds that a person can only receive eternal life through explicit belief in the name of Jesus Christ for salvation. In other words, in order for a person to go to heaven they must believe in Jesus alone. Most traditional evangelicals hold this position
Inclusivism is a position that argues that Jesus is the only one who provides salvation, but people who adhere to other religions can be saved if they respond appropriately to whatever truth they are given. For example, a sincere Muslim who worships Allah in a manner consistent with the values of Jesus could actually go to heaven. Inclusivists do not always believe that hell is non-existent or empty. Instead, they hold that explicit belief in Christ is not necessary to escape it. Interestingly, the famous 20th century writer C.S. Lewis was an inclusivist — if you read the final Narnia book, The Last Battle, you’ll see what I mean.
Universalism is the belief that everybody goes to heaven regardless of what they say, do, or believe. Universalists deny the existence of hell, believing that every person ultimately goes to heaven. They generally argue that the sacrifice of Christ was so extensive as to eliminate eternal punishment for everybody, regardless of their beliefs or acceptance of the Gospel.
Bell is being accused of holding to universalism. His book has not yet been released, so we need to be cautious about assuming too much based on the publisher’s synopsis. However, if he does indeed hold to universalism, it would place him outside the boundaries of traditional Christianity.
Jesus believed in hell. This is perhaps the most compelling reason to believe in it. Look at passages like Mt 10:28; 23:33; Lk 16:19-31. He clearly believed that hell was the necessary punishment for those who sinned against God.
Jesus’ death and resurrection accomplished forgiveness, but belief is necessary for salvation. Read John 3:16-18 again if you haven’t in a while. Jesus’ death and resurrection accomplished salvation, but only those who believe will receive it. Those who disbelieve are condemned. 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10 describes the penalty of “eternal destruction” for those who do not believe in the Gospel.
Finally, salvation is only found in the name of Jesus. I take Acts 4:12 to mean that a person must actually believe in Jesus for salvation.
How can He be loving and yet still allow people to spend eternity apart from Him? It comes down to the sacrifice of Jesus — in His love, God gave His only Son on behalf of humanity, to take the punishment for our sin so we don’t have to bear it. He extends to everybody the opportunity to believe — those who respond to God’s revelation in creation and in their own conscience are apparently given more knowledge leading to the truth (see Acts 8:26-40; 10:1-33). If they reject what God has provided, they are held responsible (Romans 1:18-32). Either way, God is proven just because He has given ample opportunity for men to believe.
If there is no such thing as hell, then Jesus’ death was either just a terrible tragedy or (even worse) the result of a cruel God punishing His only Son for no good reason. If there is no hell, it’s hard to say what we’ve been saved from.
In addition, God is now waiting for the day of judgment so that more and more will come to know Him — he doesn’t want men and women to perish, but to come to the knowledge of the truth (2 Peter 3:8-9). His patience demonstrates His love.
What are your questions and thoughts on this issue? How would you answer a person who believes in universalism?