I’m just a small voice, but I have a two cents to add to the pot on this whole “Rob Bell Universalism” controversy.
Before his book is even out, folks are making all kinds of assumptions about what it says. And there are probably enough indicators in the youtube preview of “Love Wins” that you can say a whole lot.
But I want to back the question up a little bit.
What I think Bell is pointing out is that soteriology matters. What we believe we are saved from is important. Who is saving us means something. What that process of redemption entails determines a whole lot about how we treat other people and how we live our lives.
If God has already condemned all of us to a place called Hell because of the actions of a man and a women in a garden thousands of years ago… and then God saves us from that condemnation… we might think and act and worship a certain way.
If, however, our actions then and our continued actions now are themselves “hell-making”… if we are creating the conditions of hell each and every time we hurt one another through our action and inaction and if we dishonor our relationship with our Lord by turning towards the darkness rather than the light… then salvation looks different. Then, maybe Christ saves us from ourselves… and then the Spirit empowers and sanctifies us to live the way God intended.
There are subtle differences in those two concepts (and they are only two among many!), but the differences are important.
Historically we have at least three major ways of understanding what Christ does for us: Christus Victor, Substitutionary Atonement, and the Moral Example theories of Abelard. All three have a basis in scripture. All three say something very different about what is wrong with humanity, about what hell looks like, and about how salvation is imparted into our personal and corporate lives.
Last summer, my congregation and I explored these various understandings of atonement and found all three of them interwoven in the book of Hebrews. Christ is the priest who lays down his life as the final and perfect sacrifice. Christ is the prophet who calls us to a different way of life. Christ is the king who triumphs over the lesser kings of this world and conquers for us.
It gets complicated… but it matters. Where we end up on these questions of salvation change how we interact with our brothers and sisters in this world. It changes our relationship with the one who does the saving.
And, I might also add, our inability to fully understand and agree about salvation ultimately says more about us than it does about God.
Jurgen Moltmann once said in regards to claims he might be a universalist:
I’m not a Universalist because there are some people I don’t want to see again – but God created them and would certainly like to see them again. Universalism is not only to speak about all human beings, but to speak about the universe, the stars and the moon and the sun and the whole cosmos.
If I were to summarize Moltmann’s statement it would go: I’m not a Universalist, but God might be.
Moltmann reminds us that at the end of the day, this is God’s story… not ours. Who are we to tell God who can be saved and who cannot? Who are we to limit the story of salvation to humans or a sharp distinction between a place called heaven and a place called hell?
When I read Revelation and Isaiah and whole host of other scriptures… I find a story in which not only people, but the whole creation groans for salvation. I am invited into a story of recreation, of redemption, a story where a new heaven and a new earth are realized and where God dwells among us. And the way I read the story… love does win.
How we get there matters… but what really matters that the one who made us wants to redeem us… and has the power to do so.