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