So on to the question of universalism. I'm actually going to step out and say that it's hard to tell if Rob Bell is a universalist in any traditional sense (that is not to say that his views are in any sense traditional or orthodox). He is so dogmatic that God never fails and that he wants to save everyone. He is also clear that there are second, third, and so on chances after death. And yet he is also dogmatic that the human will has the power to resist God forever if it so chooses. I will say that his doctrine of post-mortem salvation ought to be controversial enough in an of itself, questions of universalism being almost beside the point.
Sometimes he talks like a classic universalist. For example, in his chapter titled "Does God Get What God Wants?" he makes this argument (a lot less structured, of course).
1. God wants everyone to be saved (cue the many verses where "all" is always supposed to mean "all.")
2. God always gets what God wants (cue the infinite number of verses that say God's will cannot be thwarted, and no one can stay his hand).
3. Therefore... (he leaves you to fill in the blank.)
It's so strange. One minute, he sounds like Charles Finney or Origen, then literally in the next paragraph, he sounds like John Calvin:
This insistence that God will be united and reconciled with all people is a theme the writers and prophets return to again and again...He completely mocks the God of Arminian orthodoxy by heckling that their God is a failure if he doesn't save all, calling their God "not totally great. Sort of great. A little great" (98). I have done a little heckling like this, myself. Of course, my solution was that we understand God's power to be absolute, but His purposes to be different than the Arminian understands it. Bell combines the Arminian notion of God's intention with the Calvinistic (I use the word loosely here) notion of God's success in all His endeavors. Bell's Arminian readers will have to make a decision, if they want to deny the charge that their God is a failure. Either God is going to save all, or else he never intended, ultimately, to save all. The third option is that God is in fact, a failure, which most will want to deny; Bell certainly does.
In the book of Job the question arises: "Who can oppose God? He does whatever he pleases" (chap. 23). And then later it's affirmed when Job says of God, "I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted" (chap. 42). (Pg. 100)
There is an intentionality in Bell's words when he says, "The God that Jesus teaches us about doesn't give up until everything that was lost is found. This God simply doesn't give up. Ever" (101). If Bell is so insistent that "all" always means "all," then I don't think we should underestimate his words, here. Bell really means that God never gives up. God never fails to save, when He wants to save.
In this sense, we ought to see that Bell is teaching universalism. He believes that God will keep pursuing people, post-mortem, through all eternity. But at the same time he says that His God isn't a failure or a loser, he seems to ascribe so much power to the mystical notion of "freedom" that it may thwart God's plan through all eternity. He seems to suggest at times that some human wills may potentially never be reconciled to God.
The Bruce Almighty Doctrine
This is where we introduce what I call the Bruce Almighty doctrine. If you haven't seen the movie, then you won't get the joke.
Although God is powerful and mighty, when it comes to the human heart God has to play by the same rules we do. God has to respect our freedom to choose to the very end, even at the risk of the relationship itself. If at any point, God overrides, co-opts, or hijacks the human heart, robbing us of our freedom to choose, then God has violated the fundamental essence of what love even is (103-104).It reminds me of the scene in Bruce Almighty where he keeps looking at Jennifer Aniston's character and screaming, "LOVE me!" Then Morgan Freeman gives him a lecture on how God can do a lot of things, but he can't change the human heart. Yup, Rob Bell has Hollywood's view of human freedom. And yet this crucial doctrine for Rob Bell is NOWHERE hinted at in Scripture. Not even a little. It is a philosophical assumption that most freedom-loving Americans take as a given. But throughout the book, Bell shows that he doesn't really mind leaving his most central arguments unsubstantiated.
So, because of the Bruce Almighty Doctrine, Bell has it both ways. Love wins precisely because freedom wins. As long as God doesn't control or coerce us, then love wins, regardless of where we all end up. In my mind, this seems to cheapen what we think of when we hear the phrase "love wins." I got the strong impression that the many pieces of Bell's system do not fit together well at all. Which is it? Bruce Almighty, or God gets what God wants? Bell is clearly happy leaving aspects of his system in this sort of tension. If it were me, it would drive me crazy, like a house with a door that's too small for the frame that it's in.
But then again, remember that for Bell, where we end up is just a question of degrees of sadness or happiness. We're not talking about punishment or agony of any sort, because he is clear that those things don't bring glory to God in any sense.
To reject God's grace,I sarcastically commented in the margins, "Oh yeah, it sure sounds truly horrifying."
to turn from God's love,
to resist God's telling,
will lead to misery.
It is a punishment, all on its own (176).
So I say that he is also not a universalist. Because of the Bruce Almighty Doctrine, who knows what will really happen in the afterlife?
So will those who have said no to God's love in this life continue to say no in the next? Love demands freedom, and freedom provides that possibility. People take that option now, and we can assume it will be taken in the future (114).The question which I really want to ask Rob Bell is this: is it possible that those who are in heaven after death will pass back into hell? If not, then why? After all, what is preventing their powerful wills from overwhelming the grace of God as they descend back into sorrow and madness? I thought at some point before the end of the book he might address this important and (in my opinion) devastating criticism, but alas, he does not. Did he not see such a possibility at all, when he was writing this book?
Will everybody be saved,
or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices?
Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact (115).
I had hoped I might see him discuss Hebrews 9:27 (He would call it Hebrews 9) which reads, "It is appointed unto man once to do, and after that comes judgment." To my mind, this is a very definitive refutation of the "second chance" doctrine that Bell is absolutely dependent on.
Tomorrow in our final installment of this review, we will look at questions of Bell's scholarship and I'll wrap up my review. Part 3