I still have not read Rob Bell’s new book. But I’ve read a few reviews of those who have. And it looks like he may in fact hold to some form of Universalism. (Update: I am in the middle of Love Wins and am no longer sure I would call his position Universalism. It is more like Lewis’ picture in The Last Battle.)
This is neither fascinating nor worrying for me. I am not worried he will lead too many people astray. Heck, I kinda assume that most of the people he pastored were believing in some type of Universalism anyway. I mean, this is nothing new…young hipsters having trouble with ‘eternal torment’ and all. It is troubling to think about.
What fascinates and bothers me the most is how we talk about these things. And when I say ‘we’ I mean ‘me’ also.
I do believe it is loving in and of itself to talk about hell and warn people of God’s wrath against sin. And I agree, any lack of desire to be faithful in this as a pastor is derived from my own sin wanting to play nicely with the cultural milieu I find myself in. Maybe there are some people like talking a lot about Hell and how people are going there. Certainly there are. But we may also need to be careful of the tendency to downplay that element of the story. So I agree, hell is part of the gospel story and should not be mitigated.
But how we tell the story is also significant.
In a recent interview on MSNBC, Tim Keller alludes to this. Conservatives – theologically speaking – have a reputation for caring about the truth. Liberals on the other hand have a reputation for caring about kindness. Keller says Jesus does an attractive job of being both – the embodiment of speaking truth and being kind.
Usually the reply to such a statement is for someone to say, “It is loving and kind to be truthful with people about _______” Sure. But there is a reason why Paul called his people to speak the truth in love. Obviously there was the possibility of speaking the truth and not doing so in a loving way. The fact that this has to be pointed out – by Paul and by someone today – tells us something. It tells us we may be the kind of people who are prone to have truth so uppermost in our affections that we forget to be loving.
It makes sense that men and women of the faith would react to error with truth. But how many, when error raises it’s ugly head, see an opportunity to display lovingkindness to the world? I mean, if this is how we are supposed to be known as those who are his disciples, should it not be more of a concern to display the truth of the gospel of God’s love through love than through our our doctrinal convictions?
And I have doctrinal convictions that are not fuzzy. I love them and hold them dear. And would die for them and would debate them and grieve over the church’s loss of them. But Christians and non-Christians and those we might be unsure of will not be won over by our confidence in our convictions so much as their adornment in a love for men and women which reflects Christ love for those who were his enemies.
The cross is really a great place to see this truth and love on display. As he hangs there he is saying, “I am God. I am King. I am the Messiah. And I want you to be forgiven for what you do. That is why I hang here in shame and pain, enduring the ridicule.” If he were only about truth? Well, I think we can only assume, no cross.
The irony is we don’t want people to be fuzzy but clear on doctrine but we are libel to be very fuzzy in our love to them. But Paul is not only clear about the eternal fire but is also very clear on what love looks like. The unbeliever and the person we think may be drifting into doctrinal error will certainly question our love by our relentless pursuit of them to believe what we think to be true. But there has to be some kind of expression of love which they will recognize. We should be able to exhibit a love for each other and others that betrays to the world we are in fact disciples of Jesus.
I was actually talking about this very issue with a friend the other day. We were talking about a particular pastor’s response to Rob Bell. He called it “tough love.” I responded with something along the lines of “Funny, I don’t remember that being part of Paul’s list in 1 Corinthians 13. But ‘patient love’ is.” I actually assume tough love is sometimes needed. But the problem is only a few people will look at tough love and call it so. But patience and kindness? Maybe we theological conservatives should work on those a little more.
It is true that Rob Bell’s Universalism – if that is what he holds to – will possibly lead people into error. Maybe. Probably. However, I am more sure of this – an evangelical subculture that cannot muster up lovingkindness in a way that mirrors Christ and is recognizable to those we remain at doctrinal odds with will do far more damage.