On Grace and Anthropology: A Defense on Behalf of Rob Bell

It is curious that so many people are so upset about the mention of the possibility of Salvation for all. Why is that? What is so threatening to these sorts of people about the possibility that God’s gracious love might triumph over the limited sense of justice and mercy that humanity has appropriated? Rob Bell, the well-known Christian minister — perhaps best known for his Nooma videos — has found himself at the center of a rather lively and at-time heated discussion about theology. The impetus for this recent uproar is his forthcoming book, Love Wins: A Book Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (HarperCollins 2011).

The New York Times even picked up on the attention that Bell was receiving, largely through social media such as Twitter, Facebook and the numerous Blogs that deal with Christianity, and published an article titled: “Pastor Stirs Wrath With His Views on Old Questions.” The article begins:

In a book to be published this month, the pastor, Rob Bell, known for his provocative views and appeal among the young, describes as “misguided and toxic” the dogma that “a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better.”

Such statements are hardly radical among more liberal theologians, who for centuries have wrestled with the seeming contradiction between an all-loving God and the consignment of the billions of non-Christians to eternal suffering. But to traditionalists they border on heresy, and they have come just at a time when conservative evangelicals fear that a younger generation is straying from unbendable biblical truths.

In a sense the subject matter at hand is a combination of classical theodicy and the question of Salvation. And although Bell is receiving some excellent publicity for his upcoming book (HarperCollins, I’m sure would affirm that there’s no such thing as ‘bad publicity’ when selling a book now labeled ‘controversial’), the text itself seems to be lacking the truly universalist thrust Bell’s critics accuse him of advancing. The New York Times explains:

Much of the book is a sometimes obscure discussion of the meaning of heaven and hell that tears away at the standard ideas. In his version, heaven is something that begins here on earth, in a life of goodness, and hell seems more a condition than an eternal fate — “the very real consequences we experience when we reject all the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us.”

While sliding close to what critics consider the heresy of “universalism” — that all humans will eventually be saved — he never uses the term.

While I have not yet read the book — although I likely will once it is released — I can say that the reaction against Bell strikes me as overstated and unnecessary, especially in light of the Time’s depiction of the rather less-than heretical content of the text itself. But Bell has been the subject of scrutiny by Evangelical and other Christian communities for some years now.

What Bell offers his readers/viewers/congregants is a take on Scripture and the Christian Tradition that focuses more on the grace of God already at work in the world (my phrase, not his) and an anthropology that is not mired in the exclusive focus of sin and depravity that has been so common in some traditions.

There is much to be excited about in this sort of reading of the tradition. For one, Bell is correct to assert the correlation between what we say about ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ and the way we understand God. Provocatively, Bell asks “is Gandhi burning in hell?” Well put. Perhaps I’m too much of a Rahnerian in this regard, but the notion of the transcendental dimension to the free response humanity is capable of making to a God who offers us a free address needs to be taken into consideration.

What sort of God would limit the redemption of such a relatively small portion of the human population over the course of all of history (comparatively, a tiny fraction of all the humans that have ever lived have been Christian). Along with Gandhi, we would have to include Joseph of Nazareth, Moses, Abraham, Sarah, and anyone else who was not or is not a Christian (whatever that means, for its definition varies from community to community) as counted among those ‘burning in hell.’

Yet, I am convinced that such an assertion, such a negative view of theological anthropology and limited notion of Salvation (which is more properly described as all of Creation being brought back to God) is equally heretical as confidently claiming that all humanity enjoys eternal happiness in the presence of God. How can anyone assert that, with certitude, this is not the case?

Perhaps these self-asserting Christians who take issue with Bell’s rather generous reading of God’s overabundant gratuity (I agree with Bell when he says that God’s self-disclosure in Revelation, that is Scripture, is far more generous than we would otherwise like to allow) need to focus their energy toward ending the injustices of the world and a rightful living of Gospel life instead of attempting to calculate who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out.’ Oh, and for the record, Jesus was most certainly ‘out’ as were those with whom he most closely associated.

So, by all means, continue to consider yourself ‘in’ while excluding others. That is exactly what Jesus Would Do…right?

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6 Responses to “On Grace and Anthropology: A Defense on Behalf of Rob Bell”

  1. Thank you your post, Dan. I really enjoyed it.

    It’s funny, as a child, I remember my cousin (who is a deacon) saying that if one person went to hell, Satan would have a kingdom. It seems to me that he was implying everyone went to heaven, but I’ll have to follow-up and ask him.

    The Church teaches that no offense is so grave that forgiveness is impossible. We learn from our faith that Christ goes looking for the lost sheep out of love for creation. A God who is Love, would appear to me to be embracing of all humanity without exception and welcoming of all to his heavenly kingdom.

  2. Thank you so much for this thoughtful piece. I have wondered, reading all the heated response to the advance publicity for Bell’s book: what is so threatening to these folks in the notion that God might choose to save everybody? It seems that much is at stake for those who deem themselves, if not gatekeepers, in possession of the “correct” set of beliefs. For me, neither the threat of hell nor the promise of heaven is a compelling reason to follow Jesus Christ. Rather, the utter truth and goodness of his message, the absolute witness he bears (in his body) to God’s eternal, self-sacrificing love for us– these compel me, whether there is a hell, or a heaven, or neither.

  3. This reminds me of one of Kim Fabricius’s recent “Doodlings” over at the “Faith and Theology” blog: “There are Christians who reject universalism not because it is unbiblical but because, were it true, it would disappoint them.”

  4. I can find no where is Scripture where Jesus gives His Body up for a select few. I can only imagine how he feels when we decide who he died for. I can, however, find many warnings about our judgement of others. I think we should be very careful. I can only say that as a mother, I love my children and want them to be with me for all eternity. And, my love is conditional…God’s is unconditional.

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