Universalism’s Unimpressive Grace

Rob Bell may or may not believe that all people will be saved in the end (universalism).  And we may or may not have more clarity on this issue once his book comes out on March 15.  We’ll have to wait for further light (or more obscurity) on that question.

But one thing is sure.  Bell has already said this in his promotional video for his upcoming book:

And then there is the question behind the questions. The real question: What is God like? Because millions and millions of people were taught that the primary message, the center of the gospel of Jesus, is that God is going to send you to hell unless you believe in Jesus. So what gets subtly sort of caught and taught is that Jesus rescues you from God. But what kind of God is that that we would need to be rescued from this God?

And then he went on to say this:

How could that God ever be good? How could that God ever be trusted? And how could that ever be good news?

Bell is right about one thing: the question of eternal destiny is rooted in our understanding of God.

Bell may or may not be a universalist, but so far his questions give evidence of certain assumptions that he shares with universalists (of whom I have read a few).  The following statement appears to be the main assumption behind his questions:

The traditional doctrine of hell, wherein a large multitude of people will suffer consciously for eternity, is incompatible with the goodness of God.

Another way of saying this would be:

If God sends a multitude of people to hell, where they suffer consciously for eternity, then he is not good.  He is a vicious, evil monster.

Or, in other words:

God is morally obligated not to send a large number of people to hell.

There will be minor differences here and there, I’m sure.  Some theologians with universalist leanings will be okay if some people suffer in hell forever (Nero, Hitler, Pol Pot), but certainly not any ordinary people.  And then those who embrace full-fledged universalism will deny an eternal hell altogether.

It may seem, at first glance, that universalism magnifies the grace of God.  After all, more people end up in heaven in the universalist’s understanding.  However, far from magnifying God’s grace, universalism actually diminishes it greatly.  By arguing that God would not be good if he sentenced people to an eternal hell, universalists impose upon God a moral obligation to save all (or at least to save all ordinary people who are not really, really evil).  And what that means is that I am not really saved by grace.  I am saved because I am entitled to it.  If God did not save me, he would not be good; he would have failed to live up to his moral obligation.  He would be a moral failure, a vicious, evil monster.  This is actually the opposite of grace.

Universalists cannot say with any consistency, “I am saved by grace.”  Rather, they must say, “I am saved because God did his duty.”

Grace is always surprising.  We cannot come face-to-face with God’s amazing grace until we can admit, “I deserve to go to hell forever, and God would be well within his rights to send me there.  But because of his freely given promise in Christ Jesus, I will not get what I deserve.”  This is amazing grace, the very antithesis of entitlement.

Rob Bell asks, what kind of God is that that we would need to be rescued from this God? And I would answer that, when properly understood, the God who gave his Son to rescue us from his own wrath is the God who was in no way morally obligated to save anyone, and yet he chose to save a multitude that no man can number.  That kind of grace–the very opposite of entitlement–is simply amazing.

For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.–1 Thessalonians 1:9-10

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5 Responses to Universalism’s Unimpressive Grace

  1. arajrao says:

    One of these days I will have to check something. I wonder if there is a correlation between Western affluence and the rise of Universalism.

    I will wager that Universalism is given rise to in Christian countries characterized by affluence.

    Interestingly in India, if you found a universalist, the odds are that they are uber educated Seminary professors in liberal Christian or secular academic settings..

  2. Bill says:

    I like arajrao’s comment above a lot. But yet , I’m unimpressed and disappointed by Aaron’s continued caricatures of “opponent” positions on this blog. You are right in saying that a God who saves everyone because he “should” is an example of unimpressive grace. That, however, is not what a Christian universalist would argue, like say Barth or Moltmann to use some recent examples. Man, they would be scandalized by what you’ve just said – two of the greatest theological minds in the 20th Century, and you think they didn’t consider this? That’s not to even mention von Balthasar, who was not a universalist, but saw room to hope for it. They believe God could save everyone, not because he should, but because his love and mercy is that good! And this WOULD NOT be without first dishing out whatever necessary and punitive wrath and judgment is necessary to wrong all the rights and see SIN dealt with in accordance with God’s holiness and righteousness. That’s fine if you want to criticize univeralism on Scriptural grounds, but don’t try to do it philosophically. Doesn’t work. It’s can be imagined in a completely consistent way with COSTLY grace, not cheap grace. You can theologize it with substitutionary atonement and all the rest. Seriously Aaron, somebody needs to reign some epistemological terrorism on your blog. I guess I’m trying, though I’m sure I will fail.

  3. Bill says:

    ha, I meant “right all the wrongs” – please excuse any other typos.

  4. Bill, I agree with you. Barth’s universalism is completely different from Bell’s (quasi) universalism. That is why I would evaluate Barth rather differently. Few people have stressed the freedom of God more than Barth.

    I don’t see it so much in Moltmann, however, but that’s a rabbit trail I don’t think I’ll follow right now.

    This post was not intended to give theological nuance on the question of Barthian universalism versus other kinds. I am thinking primarily of the universalism of Thomas Talbott and those who follow him. I see many of the same kinds of statements in Rob Bell that I have seen in Talbott.

  5. Bill says:

    I understand, and thank you for that clarification. Moltmann actually does something similar (but of course different), and that’s fine if you don’t want to go there. My comments above however still apply to what Bell does, so in my view your explanation of unimpressive grace remains unrepresentative of Bell. I’m going to stop wasting your and my time here soon, I promise, but I’m just frustrated by the extent to which all of these posts are doing very little to constructively engage the conversation. You’ve said quite a lot before reading Bell’s book. You use terms like universalism generically so as to proliferate the confusion and division. You haven’t met Bell where he is. Instead, you’re descriptions and categorizations preserve the same theological ghettos that plague the evangelical landscape with poor communication between “camps.” I challenge you to not take a “guilty until proven innocent” approach next time something like this happens.

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