"Bell's Hells: seven myths about universalism"
by Robin Parry
You can be a good evangelical without believing
in eternal punishment, writes Robin Parry
On Tuesday February 22 2011, Rob Bell - the
influential pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids,
Michigan - posted the promotional video for his new book,
Rumours started spreading almost immediately
that Bell's forthcoming book advocated universalism and, unsurprisingly,
the Internet went white-hot. On Saturday February 26 Justin
Taylor, a well-known neo-Calvinist, posted his provisional
reflections about Bell as a universalist on The Gospel Coalition
blog and, reportedly, by that evening about 12,000 people
had recommended his post on Facebook.
That same day Rob Bell was in the top 10 trending
topics on Twitter. And from there the number of blog posts
exploded. Overnight, universalism went from being a marginal
issue that most evangelicals felt that they could ignore to
being the next big debate.
Feelings are running high at the moment and
a lot of strong language is being used. I think that if the
church is to have a fruitful discussion on this matter (rather
than a bad tempered battle-to-the-death) then it is essential
that we have a clear understanding of what Christian universalists
actually believe. A lot of myths about universalism are informing
the current debate and I want to explore seven of them very
To begin it will be helpful to have a quick
definition of Christian universalism. Christian universalists
are (mostly) orthodox, Trinitarian, Christ-centred, gospel-focused,
Bible-affirming, missional Christians. What makes them universalists
is that they believe that God loves all people, wants to save
all people, sent Christ to redeem all people, and will achieve
In a nutshell, it is the view that, in the end,
God will redeem all people through Christ. Christian universalists
believe that the destiny of humanity is 'written' in the body
of the risen Jesus and, as such, the story of humanity will
not end with a tomb.
Myth: Universalists don't believe in hell
Many an online critic of Bell has complained
that he, along with his universalist allies, does not believe
in hell. Here, for instance, is Todd Pruitt: 'Rob Bell . .
. denies the reality of hell.' Mr BH adds, 'To Hell with No
Hell. To Hell with what's being sold by Rob Bell.'
Nice rhyming but, alas, this is too simplistic.
Historically all Christian universalists have
had a doctrine of hell and that remains the case for most
Christian universalists today, including Bell. The Christian
debate does not concern whether hell will be a reality (all
agree that it will) but, rather, what the nature of that reality
will be. Will it be eternal conscious torment? Will it be
annihilation? Or will it be a state from which people can
be redeemed? Most universalists believe that hell is not simply
retributive punishment but a painful yet corrective/educative
state from which people will eventually exit (some, myself
included, think it has a retributive dimension, while others
So it is not hell that universalists deny so
much as certain views about hell. (To complicate matters a
little there have even been a few universalists that believed
that hell is an eternal, conscious torment! An unusual view
for a universalist but possible - honest.)
Myth: Universalists don't believe the Bible
One does not have to read Bell's detractors
for long before coming across the following sentiments: Universalists
are theological 'liberals' that reject the 'clear teaching
of the Bible'. Surely all good Bible-believing Christians
will believe that some/many/most people are damned forever?
'If indeed Rob Bell denies the existence of hell, this is
a betrayal of biblical truth,' says R Albert Mohler. David
Cloud, concerned about Bell's questioning classical conceptions
of hell, writes, 'It is evil to entertain questions that deny
So, are universalists really Bible-denying?
Historically, Christian universalists have been
Bible-affirming believers and that remains the case for many,
perhaps the majority, today. The question is not 'Which group
believes the Bible?' but, 'How do we interpret the Bible?'
The root issue is this: there are some biblical
texts that seem to affirm universalism (eg Romans 5:18; 1
Corinthians 15:22; Colossians 1:20; Philippians 2:11) but
there are others that seem to deny it (eg Matthew 25:45; 2
Thessalonians 1:6-9; Revelations 14:11; 20:10-15).
At the heart of the biblical debate is how we
hold these two threads together. Do we start with the hell
passages and reread the universalist texts in the light of
them? That is the traditional route. Or, do we start with
universalist passages and reinterpret the hell texts in the
light of them? That is what many universalists do.
Or do we try to hold both sets of biblical teachings
in some kind of tension (and there are various proposals for
how we might do that - some leaning towards traditionalism,
others leaning towards universalism)?
There is also the question of wider biblical-theological
themes and their relevance. For instance, biblical teaching
on God's love, justice, punishment, the cross-resurrection,
covenant, etc. How might reflection on those matters influence
our theology of hell?
This is not just about finding 'proof texts'
to whip your opponent with (both sides are capable of that)
but about making best sense of the Bible as a whole. And when
we follow the big plotline of the scriptures, which ending
to the story has the best 'fit'? Universalists believe that
the ending in which God redeems his whole creation makes the
most sense of the biblical metanarrative. Traditionalists
My point is that this debate is not a debate
between Bible-believing Christians (traditionalists) and 'liberals'
(universalists). It is, to a large extent, a debate between
two sets of Bible-believing Christians on how best to understand
Myth: Universalists don't think sin is very
Blogger Denny Burke thinks that Bell's 'weak'
view of hell if based on a 'weak' view of sin which, in turn,
is based on a 'weak' view of God: 'Sin will always appears
as a trifle to those whose view of God is small.'
Universalists 'obviously' think that sin isn't
something to get too worked up about - after all they believe
that God's job is to forgive people, right?
Once again we are in the realm of mythology.
Propose a view on the seriousness of sin as strong as you
wish and you'll find universalists who would affirm it. Does
sin affect every aspect of human life? Is it an utter horror
that degrades our humanity and warrants divine wrath? Does
it deserve eternal punishment?
Universalists could affirm all of these things
so long as they believed that God's love, power, grace, and
mercy are bigger and stronger than sin. Universalists do not
have a low view of sin, they have a high view of grace: 'Where
sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.'
Myth: Universalists believe in God's love but
forget his justice and wrath
Here is Britten Taylor's response to Rob Bell:
'God is love. But, He is also just. God pours out His mercy,
but He also pours out His wrath.' The implication is that
universalists overplay divine love and forget that God is
also holy and just. Right? Wrong.
Christian universalists have a lot to say about
God's holiness, justice, and even his wrath. Typically they
think that God's divine nature cannot be divided up into conflicting
parts in such a way that some of God's actions are loving
(eg, saving sinners) while others are just and full of anger
They see all of God's actions as motivated by
'holy love'. Everything God does is holy, completely just,
and completely loving.
So whatever hell is about it must be compatible
not simply with divine justice but also with divine love.
Which means that it must, in some way, have the good of those
in hell as part of its rationale.
Universalists feel that one potential danger
in traditional theologies of hell is that while they make
much of God justice and anger they appear to be incompatible
with his love and, as a result, they divide up the unity of
Myth: Universalists think that all roads lead
Here is Kevin Mullins' definition of universalism
in his discussion of Bell: 'Universalism - the belief that
everyone, regardless of faith or behavior, will be counted
as God's people in the end. All roads lead to Him. All religions
are just different expressions of the same Truth.'
That idea is what underlies crparke's comment
that, 'If Rob Bell denies hell then he denies the need for
a "savior" and makes the sacrifice of Jesus irrelevant.'
Here our Internet conversation partners have
confused universalism (the view that God will one day save
all people through Christ) with pluralism (the view that there
are many paths to God and that Jesus is simply one of them).
But Christian universalists deny pluralism. They insist that
salvation is found only through the atoning work of Christ.
Without Jesus nobody would be redeemed!
Now there is a disagreement between Christians
about whether one needs to have explicit faith in Jesus to
share in the salvation he has bought. Some Christians, called
exclusivists, think that only those who put their trust in
the gospel can be saved.
Others, called inclusivists, think that it is
possible to be saved through Christ even without explicit
faith in him.
Thus, for inclusivists it is possible to be
saved even if, for instance, you have never heard the gospel.
Inclusivists would maintain that if someone responds in humility,
love, and faith to the truncated divine revelation that they
have received then God can unite them to Christ and they may
be considered as, perhaps, 'anonymous Christians'.
But we need to be careful not to confuse the
discussion between exclusivists and inclusivists with the
issue of universalism. Many people make that mistake. The
former debate concerns how people can experience the salvation
won by Christ while the latter concerns how many people will
be saved. Two different questions.
Thus, some universalists are inclusivists (eg,
Rob Bell) but others are exclusivists, maintaining that only
people who trust in the gospel can be saved. (Obviously exclusivist
universalists have to believe that salvation is possible after
But whether one is speaking of exclusivist or
inclusivist universalists, neither relegate Jesus to the sidelines.
Myth: Universalism undermines evangelism
Here is Matt: 'I do think the Scripture is clear
that salvation at least has some limits. If it doesn't, then
preaching and evangelism are ultimately wasted activities.'
And R Albert Mohler worries that, 'If indeed Rob Bell denies
the existence of hell, this . . . has severe . . . evangelistic
consequences.' Why, after all, would anyone bother to go through
all the effort and struggle of evangelism if God is going
to save everyone in the end anyway?
So must universalism undermine evangelism? Not
at all. There are many reasons to engage in mission and evangelism,
not least that Christ commands it. And it is a huge privilege
to join with God in his mission of reconciling the world to
himself. The gospel message in God's 'foolish' way of setting
the world right so, of course, universalists will want to
Fear of hell is not the only motivation for
mission. And, what is more, the majority of universalists
do fear hell. Whilst they may not view it as 'the end of the
road', they still consider it to be a dreadful state to be
And historically universalists have not run
from mission. Here are the words of an eighteenth century
Baptist universalist, Elhanan Winchester, who was himself
an evangelist: 'There is no business or labour to which men
are called, so important, so arduous, so difficult, and that
requires such wisdom to perform it [as that of the soul-winner].
The amazing worth of winning souls, makes the labour so exceeding
important, and of such infinite concern' (sermon on the death
of John Wesley, 1791).
Myth: Universalism undermines holy living
Here is Frank: 'Oh thank goodness Rob Bell is
here to explain that we can do whatever we want because (drum
roll please) . . . there's no consequence, there's no hell!'
And Frank is not alone. During 17th, 18th and 19th centuries
many Christians were especially worried that if the fear of
hell was reduced people would have little to constrain their
sinful behaviour. Thus universalism, they feared, would fuel
But the fear of punishment is not the only motive
for avoiding sin and, even if it were, universalism does,
as has already been mentioned, have space for some such fear.
But far more important for holy living - indeed the only motive
for heartfelt holy living - is the positive motivation inspired
by love for God.
Who, after all, would reason, 'I know that God
created me, seeks to do me good, sent his Son to die for me,
and that he will always love me...so I must hate him!'? On
the contrary, the revelation of divine love solicits our loving
response (1 John 4:19).
Clearly there is an important debate to be had
but if we desire more light and less heat we need to start
by getting a clearer understanding of the view under discussion.