This Rob Bell discussion on universalism is not a new conversation in the history of the church. This discussion has not only been going on for centuries in historic Christianity, it’s been going on within the academic halls of evangelical Christianity as well. The real question is, why such a big fuss? and why has this discussion polarized evangelicalism instead of carrying it further into the Kingdom – God’s Mission in the world?
I have always viewed the differences between Arminian evangelicals with a wider view of God’s mercy (someone like Clark Pinnock) and American Reformed evangelicals (someone like R C Sproul) as an issue of percentages (please read a dry tone of humor here). They believe basically the same things, the percentages are just different. In other words, R C Sproul sees God condemning about 97% of the world’s populations over its history. Clark Pinnock, I’d say would estimate it at about 3%. For me the latter provides more motivation for mission. But fundamentally they believe the same things (just different versions) in relation to hell, universalism, the exclusivity of Christ, and the post-mortem experience.
1.) They both believe in hell. They may disagree about the issue of whether hell is eternal torment versus annihilation, but both sides believe in hell. But let’s be clear that there has always been a legitimate theological discussion within historic Christianity over the nature of hell. In our current day, historic respected Christian pastors/leaders/theologians including evangelical icons like John Stott, Alasdair McGrath, C S Lewis among others have dared to assent to some version of annihilationism in regard to hell. Last I heard, they are still accepted within the family for evangelicals. As for my own life, I choose to avoid either option :).
2.) They are both exclusivists. Both sides unequivocally say Jesus is the only way! But to say Jesus is the only way does not define what that way looks like, right? In the European medieval period of the church, including the Reformed/Lutheran churches you did not make “a decision.” The singular decision of faith was an American innovation (I would say a good one since I’m an Arminian 🙂 ). In Medieval Europe faith in Christ looked differently. You were basically born a Christian, baptized as an infant and you were saved through a life of faith/discipleship in the church that centered around the Eucharist and liturgy. As opposed to the individualist cognitive receiving of forgiveness and renewal of the Spirit by a person’s individual personal faith, they received it regularly through the proclamation of the Word and receiving the Eucharist by faith. But everyone still believed in Christ as the exclusive way through faith.
Granted, there has always been a disagreement over whether those outside the church can receive faith in other ways that acquire the merits of Christ’s work for their lives. In this regard we evangelicals are the liberals because we believe a simple decision regardless of one’s communal practices initiate one into restored relationship with God in Christ. But there’s legitimate room for debate as to whether the Holy Spirit is working for all men and women’s salvation outside the church (even in other faiths?). But even for the most liberal inclusivist – he/she still maintains that Jesus Christ is the only way. And even for the most conservative exclusivist, most of us agree God is at work outside the church in non-believers bringing them to Himself.
3.) They Both Believe in Some Form of a Post-Mortem Experience. The idea of a postmortem (after death) opportunity to return to God has always been within the Christian conversation. At one time the post-mortem experience was Christian orthodoxy as Catholicism generally accepted the doctrine of purgatory. Does anyone remember Dante’s Divine Comedy, one of the greatest apologetics for Christian discipleship yet? But of course in Dante’s Divine Comedy pergatory after death is all the more reason to get one’s life in order in the present time. And Dante certainly did not skimp on hell. Today, even the most Reformed evangelical believes in the “age of accountability” where a baby dies before having the opportunity to respond to the claims of Christ. Here there is a postmortem encounter with Christ, right? Others, like Pinnock, want to extend this version of postmortem to all those who never had that opportunity. Whichever the case it is, it seems to me both sides of this debate in some way have accepted a version of postmortem in some way.
Then Why Are We Splintering Over Rob Bell?
Yet for some reason, it seems, we cannot have this conversation as the church emerging from evangelicalism in America without calling each other heretics. Frank Turk, in a well written open letter to me, suggests that I take sides in this debate in my blog post here. Not really Frank. For in my piece you refer to, I blame Rob Bell for this inflammatory mess (along with his publisher) because of the excessive bating and provoking all in an obvious attempt to attract attention to his book. This is no way to pastor I say. This is no way to lead. (but it does sell books). On the other hand, to be even handed, I blame people on the Neo-Reformed side as well, people like Kevin DeYoung. Sorry Kevin, I know you mean well but when you do a 20 page review that largely argues out of an incredibly narrow view of orthodoxy with little to no appreciation for history before the 1920’s, it comes off as defensive and parochial. For both sides, the tactics reveal a lack of a place to engage this issue productively for the furtherance of the Kingdom beyond our own personal enclaves (or ambitions). And yet discussing this issue is essential in order to be shaped for a posture for Mission that has been lacking amongst the traditional evangelicals, the church I am part of and remain committed to.
Evangelicalism is Cracking!
There is one thing that Kevin DeYoung has said that I find searing and I applaud. I quote:
“As younger generations come up against an increasingly hostile cultural environment, they are breaking in one of two directions—back to robust orthodoxy (often Reformed) or back to liberalism. The neo-evangelical consensus is cracking up. Love Wins is simply one of many tremors”
As I said previously, and as I have said in my new book The End of Evangelicalism?, evangelicalism is at a tipping point. We are cracking. The emergent conversation started by Brian McLaren et. al. has not produced theological leadership (it seems Love Wins is another case of this). The herds of disenchanted evangelicals are left to either wander or head for the newer coalitions of the Neo-Reformed. Yet as I’ve said here, this isn’t going to take us into Mission. Based in the impulses in both of these movements, we need an alternative place for the work of theology and mission. Without it – it is questionable whether these much needed conversations can place. Without an alternative coalition (that can bring certain parts of these existing factions together into conversation with the Holiness, Anabaptist Missionals), the aftermath of traditional evangelicalism is going to devolve into defensiveness and fail to produce a missional movement. There’s some of us working toward that end (of nurturing an alternative theological coalition). In the meantime, this for me, is the lesson of the Rob Bell fiasco.
Tell me, where have I got this wrong.
Note For Clarification: To be fair to Kevin DeYoung, he does give a brief historical treatment of the above issues in his blog post. This treatment of history however appears to be a blanket disregard of the diversity within historic Christianity (unless you consider all Catholicism for all its history to be outside Christian orthodoxy). He seems to ignore the diversity on these issues even within the well established trajectory of historic evangelicalism. Am I off or did this seem dismissive seeing history through the narrow lens of post-1920’s evangelicalism?