This week's Big Christian News is that trendsetting preacher Rob Bell is a universalist. Or so one would understand from any one of dozens of blog posts and their reposting on social media.
Bell's latest book, Love Wins, is the object of prepublication publicity that says/hints/teases that the author denies the reality of eternal punishment for unbelievers in hell.
SWNID is no big fan of Bell's. We've spent too much precious SWNIDish time telling students that if they want to refer to rabbinic tradition, they ought to confirm the quotations before repeating what Bell has famously said. He tends to make stuff up to illustrate his points. Not that in doing so he totally misrepresents the ancient material. He'd just be well advised not to call something a quotation that isn't.
But in Bell's provisional defense, we have wondered whether he was denying everything people said he was denying. The available quotes are brief, and the promotional blurbs have obvious ambiguities about them. Publishers, even Christian ones, aren't above heightening the controversy to boost sales. Whatever. Time will tell. And we haven't the time to preside over Bell's heresy trial.
But enter into the discussion another iconoclast of evangelicalism, Scot McKnight. His post on Bell notes well that evangelicals these days, especially younger ones, have all kinds of revisionist positions on who gets punished and how. And before we oldsters start boiling tar and gathering feathers, McKnight rightly points out that these revisionist views have as more to do with the struggle to come to terms with difficult issues of justice and mercy as they do with sitting lightly to biblical authority or the historic views of the church. Many folk question whether, as they would put it, God can be just in torturing people without end. There are substantial ways to respond to that objection, but it remains a substantial objection for many, and by its nature one that ought not be taken lightly.
But SWNID would like to add something to McKnight's helpful caveat about lightly bifurcating or dismissing the controversy. It is this: these various theological "alternatives" to everlasting punishment in hell all present something that, in light of what the gospel offers positively, is utterly tragic, repugnant, fearsome and awful to contemplate. The life that God gives in Christ is too great and precious to miss out on, even for a little while. Whether its annihilation or temporary punishment or both--or the traditional notion of everlasting torment--that awaits the person who doesn't receive the gift, it is terrible, terrible to consider.
SWNID cannot bear the thought of ceasing to exist. It is hopelessly miserable. There is nothing to celebrate in the idea that death is the end of consciousness, or that there's some end to consciousness beyond death. Only when life has become death already is there anything there to embrace, and it crushes our spirit even to consider such a thing.
SWNID cannot bear the thought of being excluded from blessedness offered, even if that exclusion will one day end. Who wants to be outside the party looking in, especially this party?
We applaud those who claim the bravery to face such ends with equanimity. And we smirk as we do so, because we don't believe their bravado.
Note well what we say. Professionally and personally, we don't think that the Bible is concerned to tell us exactly what the unredeemed experience in eternity in a way that settles the current discussion that McKnight nicely describes. We do think that the Bible describes that reality well enough to make clear that no one would ever, ever want to experience it, whatever it is. On top of that, the gospel's blessing is so good--so very good, now and forever--that we don't need more information or more of a threat to embrace it and celebrate it.
Chill, Christian peeps. The likes of Rob Bell, whatever he actually says in his book, isn't changing the balance of the situation. God's life is so good that its loss is the worst that we can imagine, however we understand it.