* Updated 03.02.2011
One of the things that the Rob Bell saga is doing is shining the light on the encroachment of universalism in the sphere of biblical orthodoxy. I have no idea whether Rob Bell is a universalist or not, but my guess is if he is, then universalism will de facto become a cool and acceptable tenet by virtue of Bell’s dominant influence among those in his wide domain. I even saw where Matthew Paul Turner (Jesus Needs New PR) on Twitter making the claim that “Jesus universalism has deep roots in Christian history” and has “been around since the beginning.” Additionally, Scot McKnight argued, “My own estimation is that somewhere near 75% of my students, many if not most of them nurtured in the church, are more or less universalist.”
Reading the responses not so much in defense of Bell as much as a defense of “Christian universalism” (an oxymoron in my book), I was taken back to a quote by Ajith Fernando about “closet universalists.” In his chapter on “the decline of hell,” he wrote the following:
“Many in the church today have universalism simply as a hope. Though they may not preach it dogmatically, they don’t eliminate the possibility that all will be saved in the end. We may call them the ‘wishful universalists.’
I have been told numerous times that there are many ‘closet universalists’ in evangelical churches today. These are people who believe that all will be saved, but are afraid of being public about this belief as it is considered a heresy in orthodox Christian circles, and also because the idea that all will be saved could add to the spiritual apathy of this generation.
Related to the above question is that of evangelicals who are ashamed of hell. They are bound to believe everything the Bible explicitly teaches, so they believe in an eternal hell. But they wish that they did not have to believe it. If they speak about the topic, which is not very often, they do so with a sense of shame, as if it were something very unjust, and they keep saying that they wish it were not true.”*
Methinks that if universalism gets the positive PR of Bell and Turner (among others), there will likely be many who “come out of the closet” with their abhorrence of hell and conviction that all will be saved. If Bell writes a book and communicates it with such eloquence and oratory skill that he is known for, perhaps many people will no long be “afraid of being public about this belief.”
As I stated elsewhere, I believe that universalism is the sentimentalism of the unregenerate heart searching for hope, riding on the clipped wings of (a form of) love that is not generously sacrificial because God is not appreciated as supremely holy and just.
In one sense, I am glad that the attention is being drawn to the subject of universalism, because if Fernando is right, there are many who silently adhere to dangerous heresy and could be greatly helped with a better and more accurate understanding of God and salvation. In another sense, it grieves me how quickly and easily biblical orthodoxy is subjugated to the theological whims of our weightless generation. May God help us hold the line on the character of God and His gospel message, openly proclaiming the public scandal of the cross where love is demonstrated and justice is vindicated in the substitutionary death of Jesus.
*Ajith Fernando, Crucial Questions About Hell (Wheaton: Crossway, 1991), 22-23.