Rev. Rob Bell is minister (and founder) of Mars Hill Bible Church, a non-denomination Evangelical Christian church in Grandville, Michigan, which has about 10,000 members and something over 7,000 people in attendance every Sunday. (But we don’t need to get into that.) In 2007, the church put on an art exhibit, around the theme of “Finding Peace in a Broken World”, and someone included a picture and quotation from Mahatma Gandhi; a nice touch, and hardly controversial, one would think.
Apparently not. A visitor to the exhibit felt compelled to attach a note next to Gandhi, which read: “Reality check: He’s in hell.”
“Really,” Pastor Bell thought when he read the note. “Gandhi’s in hell. He is? Someone knows this? Someone is certain of this? Without a doubt? And that somebody decided to take on the responsibility of letting the rest of us know about it?”
Out of this experience came a book, published earlier this year, called Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. The book has been quite a bestseller, even cracking both the New York Times and Amazon.com Top Ten lists for a while. It has also ignited a raging battle in Evangelical Christian circles, with some people defending Bell; others criticizing him—and still others hurtling at him that most damning of epithets: of all: “Terrorist”? No. “Pedophile”? No. “Cannibal”? No. Worse.
Bell is, they say, a universalist!
This is because Rev. Bell has had the audacity to question some of the central tenants of an exclusivist Christianity which divides all of humanity into camps of good guys and bad; “Christian” and “Heretic”; “Saved” and “Unsaved”. As Bell himself writes:
“Of all the billions of people who have ever lived, will only a select number ‘make it to a better place’ and every single other person suffer in torment and punishment forever? Is this acceptable to God? Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish? Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God?... What kind of faith is that? Or more important: What kind of God is that?”
In reawakening the age-old question within Christianity of “Who’s In?” and “Who’s Out?”, Rob Bell has earned the ire of the Evangelical establishment, big time. Ministers have been fired from their positions for defending his book. Churches—even whole seminaries—have called special meetings to denounce it (no book burnings yet, as far as I know; but I wouldn’t be surprised). The president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary called the book “theologically disastrous”. “When you adopt universalism and erase the distinction between the church and the world,” he continues, “then you don’t need the church and you don’t need Christ and you don’t need the cross.” And that, he says, represents a major theological cataclysm.
(Because everyone knows, of course, that God is a card-carrying Christian—and maybe even a card-carrying Evangelical, to boot!)
This controversy has raged since Love Wins first appeared. A well-known Christian blogger denounced Bell as a “universalist” in one of his postings, and so many people responded and tweeted about it that it became one of the top trending topics on Twitter that day. Imagine that: “universalism” at the top of the Twitter “what’s hot” list! Who would have ever thunk it? Not us, that’s for damn sure!
“Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing, people,” one Christian writer warned his readers not too long ago. “I notice that in recent days, Universalism has been running more and more rampant,”
I suppose that makes us, who actually claim to be Universalists, the most rabid wolves of all. You wouldn’t know it to look at us, would you?
But Universalism does offer a direct challenge to the dark and depressing theology of mainstream Calvinism in America. It always has, and always will.
Around the same time this church in Stoughton was founded, way back in the 1740s, something was going on in the northeastern part of the Colonies called the “Great Awakening”—a great religious revival in which people were turning back to religion, back to Christ. Among the leading preachers of the day was Jonathan Edwards, and his sermon, “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” is considered a masterpiece of the era:
“That world of misery, that lake of burning brimstone is extended abroad under you. There is the dreadful pit of the glowing flames of the wrath of God; there is hell's wide gaping mouth open; and you have nothing to stand upon, nor anything to take hold of… Your wickedness makes you … heavy as lead… and if God should let you go, you would immediately sink and swiftly descend and plunge into the bottomless gulf [of] …hell… The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours… [and] nothing that you can do [will] induce God to spare you one moment… your punishment will indeed be infinite.”
As Rob Bell writes:
“And then there’s the ... question of ‘what is God like?’ Because millions and millions of people were taught that the primary message, the center of the gospel is that God is going to send you to hell unless you believe in Jesus. And so what gets subtly taught is that Jesus rescues you from God. But what kind of God is that, that we need to be rescued from this God? How could that God ever be good? How could that God ever be trusted? And how could that ever be ‘good news’? This is why lots of people want nothing to do with the Christian faith. They see it as an endless list of absurdities and inconsistencies and they say, ‘Why would I ever want to be a part of that?’”
To Bell, a lot of Christian preaching is that old “bait and switch” routine. We are told that God is love, that God offers us the gift of grace, freely given. But then, if you don’t do what He says—vote the way He wants you to; marry and love whom He tells you to; lead your life according to His particular little rules and regulations—then your “loving” Father God threatens to torture you forever in hell!
How can it be anything less than blasphemy to create an image of God as small and petty and mean-spirited as the worst of human tyrants? “If there was an earthly father who was like that,” Bell says, “we would call the authorities. If there was an actual human dad who was that volatile, we would contact child protection services immediately.”
Why should God be any less loving, any less compassionate, any less merciful, than the best of our human race, of our human potential, of the best that is within all of us, when we live up to whom we would be, and live in accordance to the divinity within our souls? Our religion ought not to give us nightmares and scare the Jesus out of us. No, it ought to inspire the Jesus inside of us—inspire that which is most like God within us.
One day back in the early 1800s, our Universalist forbear Hosea Ballou was having a heated theological exchange with a Baptist minister, who was trying to implore Ballou how eliminating the threat of hell and eternal punishment, as the Universalists suggested, would lead to rampant immortality and across-the-board wickedness.
“Brother Ballou,” the Baptist minister said, “if I were a Universalist and feared not the fires of hell, I would hit you over the head, steal your horse, ride away and leave you for dead, and still get to heaven.”
To which Father Ballou replied, “My friend, if you were a Universalist, the idea would never occur to you in the first place.”
It was amidst the Calvinist theological despair of its own day that American Universalism took root—and offered a hopeful and courageous and liberating vision to the people of its day.
Universalism dared to declare that God was Love—in practice, no less than in theology; and that a loving God would not rest until all His creation was restored to full harmony and happiness—if not in this life, then in the next. In the face of the misanthropic view of Calvinism that taught the total depravity of creatures supposedly created in the image of God, Universalism insisted that every man, woman, and child would eventually be restored to God, for all eternity there to dwell.
And it would be God who would do the choosing—who would choose who was in and who was out. Not proponents of one particular church; not advocates of one particular view of salvation; not those who want to draw a circle which excludes certain members of our human family because they don’t conform to this or that narrow social teaching or this or that particular lifestyle or perspective.
As the Universalist poet Edwin Markham wrote:
He drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!
God wins, Universalism declared. Because Love wins, in the end. Because there is a power of Love beating at the heart of the universe from which no human power or principality—no human error or sin—can ever, ultimately, estrange us.
Well over 200 years ago, John Murray, the founder of Universalism in America, declared that there is within the most ordinary of men and women—within everyday people like you and me—a shining light that can pierce the darkness of our lives, and pierce the darkness of our world:
“Go out into the highways and byways of America, your new nation,” he commanded, in words never since matched in their eloquence. “Give the people, blanketed with a decaying Calvinism, something of your new vision. You possess only a small light, but uncover it, let it shine. Use it in order to bring more light into the hearts and minds of men and women. Give them not hell, but hope and courage. Do not push them deeper into their theological despair, but preach to them the kindness and the everlasting love of God.”
Way back in 1770, John Murray reminded us that the true work of religious faith lay not in haunting children’s dreams with imaginings of hellfire and damnation, in divvying up the world into “saved” and “unsaved”. No, the work of true religion lies in trying to bring more understanding and warmth into the lives of those with whom we share this world.
We possess, individually and as a church, only a small light. Such a very tiny light. We don’t get tweeted about very often on Twitter; we’re not even very good at blowing our own horn, if the truth be told. But now, more than ever, we need to uncover the light of the Universalist gospel. We need to let it shine.
The people around us don’t need any more hell in their lives. There are too many preachers of hell in this world, and too many things in this world which are hellish and depraved and evil. But there are many things, too, that are honorable, and just, and true, and lovely. It is on the side of those that we need to stand.
We don’t need to add to the voices of despair and selfishness in this world; there are already too many of those. We all need hope and courage, today more than ever.
Hope and courage: this is the calling of our particular community of faith, blessed with this name of cosmic proportions. We possess only a small light, but may we uncover it in all we do, and let it shine. When it flickers and fades and even goes out, let us have the tenacity and the patience to light it, again and again. For it is still a light which burns forth with the possibilities of a new world. It is a light which burns eternally, our small and steady refraction of God’s love, the illimitable light of the universe itself.