Spring 2012, Vol. 14, No. 1

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Spiritual Politics
Mark Silk's blog
on religion and politics 

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
   It's Baaack...

Religion and the Awakening

Repaving the Arab Street

Bishops in the Dock

Faithless Ireland

No Love for

The New Dominionist Politics


Without Benefit of Clergy

Cirque d'OCA

No Standing for It



No Love for Universalism
by Shannon L. Smith   










Theological debate over the eternal persistence of hell doesn’t make the mainstream news every day, but that’s what played out when Rob Bell, the popular and charismatic pastor of the Mars Hill megachurch outside of Grand Rapids, published Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Released in March,  the book triggered heated debates within Baptist and wider evangelical circles, eliciting news coverage by the New York Times and ABC News, and a Time magazine cover story that ran with the headline, “What if Hell Doesn’t Exist?”

What stirred the pot was not so much whether hell exists but who goes there and do they stay forever?

The answers, for Bell, are, hopefully, they don’t. According to Love Wins, there is hope that even those who have rejected Jesus Christ during their lifetimes will have the chance to be saved, even after death. This is a view that many evangelical leaders call “universalism” and it is, in their eyes, heresy.

Like many of the liveliest religious controversies of recent years, this one began in cyberspace, with prominent evangelicals condemning Bell’s book on their blogs and Twitter accounts even before Love Wins was released.

On February 22, Bell posted a promotional video for the book on the video-sharing website Vimeo that explained the inspiration for his questioning. His church had hosted an art show that showcased works on peace-making, and one of the paintings featured a quote from Gandhi. One day, an anonymous viewer posted a note to the painting, “Reality Check: He’s In Hell.” This jab expressed the bedrock evangelical belief that salvation comes only to those who accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior.

Over images of swirling paint hues and brushes striking canvas, the video shows Bell walking along a snowy path in a turtleneck and glasses that wouldn’t be out of place on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The he stops and asks the audience: “Gandhi is in Hell? He is? And someone knows this for sure? And felt the need to let the rest of us know? Will only a few select people make it to heaven? And will billions and billions of people burn forever in Hell?”

After asking what it takes to be among the select group of the saved, Bell offers a critique of the central evangelical message: “What gets subtly sort of taught and caught is that Jesus rescues you from God. But what kind of a God is that, that we would need to be rescued from this God?”

Bell doesn’t consider this “good news.” The real good news, Bell explains as the video ends, “is that love wins.”

A few days after the promotional video was uploaded, a blogger for the evangelical online network Gospel Coalition named Justin Taylor put up a post that began, “It is unspeakably sad when those called to be ministers of the Word distort the Gospel and deceive the people of God with false doctrine.” Taylor went on to charge Bell with being a “full-blown hell-is-empty-everyone-gets-saved” universalist.

That same day, the prominent pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, John Piper, linked to Taylor’s blog post via Twitter with the snide message, “Farewell Rob Bell.” As far as Piper was concerned, Bell’s universalism was grounds for excommunication.

Theological debate may be difficult in a format that limits contributions to 140 characters, but Piper’s tweet generated an outpouring of responses, with “Rob Bell” eventually becoming a “trending topic” on Twitter. According to a February 26 Christianity Today blog post by Sarah Pulliam Bailey, within 24 hours, 12,000 people had shared Taylor’s post on Facebook, and it had received over 600 comments.

Bailey noted other pastors’ responses to the Piper tweet and the Taylor post. John Harris of Covenant Life Church also linked to Taylor’s blog post on his twitter, but with a slightly more compassionate message, “There is nothing loving about preaching a false gospel. This breaks my heart. Praying for Rob Bell.”

Not everyone agreed with Piper’s reaction. Christian blogger and author Matthew Paul Turner tweeted, “For a moment I was afraid that Rob Bell had died. But then I realized it was just a few Calvinists hating him into a trending topic.”

Turner’s tweet named and blamed a resurgent Calvinism within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), still the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. As instituted by the 16th-century French reformer Jean Calvin, this theology dominated American Protestantism until the end of the 18th century, but has been a distinctly minority view since then.

Calvinist thought upholds double predestination, the doctrine that an elect group is predestined by God to salvation, while the rest are predestined to damnation. In this model of God’s relationship with humanity, human beings are seen as “totally depraved” and sinful, but God’s mercy and grace are irresistible to those whom God has chosen to give it. 

It’s a model that doesn’t leave much room for human free will, emphasizing instead God’s omnipotence and omniscience.  A theological idea that far predates the Protestant Reformation, it is powerfully associated with the 5th-century theological titan, Augustine.

Predestinarian Calvinism was a foundational theology for American Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Baptists (all “Reformed” Protestants), and even many Anglicans. But as the Great Awakening revivals took hold at the end of the colonial period, so did the idea that humans have a capacity to respond to God’s grace and accept salvation.

The first great generation of revivalists, led by Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, were Calvinists, but as revivalism underscored personal affirmations of faith along with Jesus’s “Great Commission” to make disciples everywhere, doubts about very limited atonement and predestination took hold. The growing consensus was that God intended to save not a few, but very many.

By the early 19th century, most American Protestants had rejected or modified the doctrines of Calvinism that would limit human free will and stand at odds with evangelism. Some, like the Methodists, did so entirely. Others, including Baptists, did so more selectively, retaining such elements of Calvinism as the doctrines of total depravity of unredeemed sinners and the “perseverance of the saints” (the idea that a genuinely converted Christian cannot and will not slide back out of salvation).

At the far end of this movement, some even began to preach that God intended to save everyone; hence, universalism. Very few American Protestants were willing to go that far. The hope that Bell himself expresses is that God will save everyone out of the abundance of his love, not as a matter of doctrinal fact.

In fact, in recent years, an acceptance of full-blown Calvinism in the SBC has been growing far faster than universalism in the SBC—especially in its seminaries. In February 2008, Christianity Today noted that while only 10 percent of SBC pastors identify as Calvinist, almost 30 percent of recent seminary graduates do.

Though many prominent Calvinist Baptists, such as John Piper himself, also consider themselves to be “evangelical,” the debate about how to reconcile God’s sovereignty and human free will has been brought back to the forefront. It is now fought on questions like this: “If God has already elected a select few for salvation, then how does Jesus’s command to ‘make disciples’ fit in? If humans have the ability to choose salvation for themselves, then doesn’t that limit God’s power and authority?”

Such questions were stewing in the SBC when Rob Bell entered the arena and proclaimed, “Love Wins.” For Bell, the capacity of human free will to respond to the gift of grace is crucial. Hearing the good news of Jesus Christ may be essential, but he was also led to ask, “What happens if the missionary gets a flat tire?”

All those involved in the controversy turn to Scripture to answer their questions. As with many theological debates, however, the problem is that the vast compendium of the Bible includes many different passages concerning hell, salvation, and eternity. Some suggest that salvation is for a tiny remnant, others call all to conversion.

As has happened repeatedly in the history of Christian thought, when forced to choose, religious thinkers like Bell have tended to argue that the best way to summarize what is known about God and his disposition is to say we have grounds to hope that eventually all have the opportunity to be saved. Bell is willing to go so far as to say he hopes and expects that God will do that even for people who reject Jesus in this life.

For neo-Calvinists that’s outright heresy: Salvation can only come from God and it must be made manifest during a person’s lifetime. So it is hardly surprising that Calvinist Baptists, already on the alert for “liberal” attempts to soften the stark realities of the divine-human relationship, should be quick to issue condemnations.

Echoing John Piper’s contemptuous tweet, the anonymous blogger behind “The Contemporary Calvinist” simply dealt Rob Bell out without any theological debate. On March 16, he (or she) wrote, “The fact that this man is taken seriously by professing Christians boggles my mind.” Then, on April 4, the blog linked to a spoof of Bell’s promotional video in which a Bell impersonator pontificated, “I know I’m a pastor and all, but I could make a lot more money puzzling over silly questions than I could preaching actual answers.”

Others put in their own theological two cents. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville—a seminary Christianity Today called a “Reformed [i.e. Calvinist] hotbed”—found Bell’s alleged universalist views “a massive tragedy by any measure.” In a March 16 post on his blog entitled “We Have Seen All This Before: Rob Bell and the (Re)Emergence of Liberal Theology,” Mohler argued that Bell had drifted away from the “evangelical circle” and now “moves solidly within the world of Protestant Liberalism.”

Mohler portrayed Bell as picking and choosing among Biblical passages to form his arguments, replacing the doctrine of hell with something he sees as better, and creating a gospel he believes will be more attractive to nonbelievers. “Rob Bell takes his stand with those who have tried to rescue Christianity from itself,” Mohler wrote.

Kevin DeYoung, pastor of the University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan, and another blogger for the Gospel Coalition, was also harshly critical of Love Wins in a March 16 blogpost titled “God is Still Holy and What You Learned in Sunday School is Still True: A Review of Love Wins.” DeYoung read Love Wins as appealing to those in the evangelical community who have difficulty resolving the doctrine of hell with their liberal world-views.

He saw this as part of an important and lamentable trend in the modern evangelical movement, writing, “Love Wins has ignited such a firestorm of controversy because it’s the current fissure point for a larger fault-line. As younger generations come up against an increasingly hostile cultural environment, they are breaking in one of two directions—back to robust orthodoxy (often Reformed) or back to liberalism. The neo-evangelical consensus is cracking up. Love Wins is simply one of many tremors.”

Both Mohler and DeYoung equate “universalism” with “liberalism,” but are they correct in doing so? Throughout his many interviews, Bell never strays from his evangelical roots, especially when it comes to emphasizing the role of Jesus in personal salvation.

Real “liberal” theology tends to begin by de-emphasizing Jesus’s divinity and eschewing literal interpretations of Scripture. Bell still puts Jesus first. In a March 6. 2011 interview with George Stephenopoulos on ABC’s Good Morning America, Bell responded to accusations of heresy by saying, “I am actually deeply compelled and fascinated by Jesus, and I think the orthodox historic Christian tradition is a vast diverse conversation that’s been going on for thousands of years and I think Jesus can handle the discussion.” 

And indeed, a lot of influential evangelicals don’t view Bell as a heretic.

Richard J. Mouw, the president of Fuller Theological Seminary-—Bell’s alma mater—defended Bell and discredited accusations that he is a universalist in his blog, “Mouw’s Musings.” On March 15, in a post entitled “The Orthodoxy of Rob Bell,” Mouw compared Bell’s “generous orthodoxy” to that of Billy Graham.

“Billy Graham is no universalist,” he wrote. “But he has come to a theology of salvific generosity, a perspective that he combines with a passionate proclamation of the message that Jesus alone is the Way, the Truth and the Life. For me—and I am convinced for Rob Bell—it doesn’t get any better than that!”

It didn’t take long for the commotion on Twitter and in the blogosphere to be picked up by larger media outlets. On March 4, Erik Eckhold of the New York Times contributed “Pastor Stirs Wrath With His Views on Old Questions,” which summarized the Internet buzz surrounding Taylor’s blogpost and Piper’s tweet. Bell’s “book comes as the evangelical community has embraced the Internet and social media to a remarkable degree, so that a debate that once might have built over months in magazines and pulpits has instead erupted at electronic speed.” Eckhold wrote.

The following month, Love Wins was on the cover of Time. In the story, author John Meacham called Bell a leader in a movement within Christianity that is “less judgmental, more fluid, [and] open to questioning the most ancient assumptions.” As Bell said to him, “I have long wondered if there is a massive shift coming in what it means to be a Christian. Something new is in the air.”

The Time cover drove Mohler back to his blog to worry about the church’s response to the new universalist threat. “The real question is now whether the church has sufficient biblical conviction to resist this doctrinal seduction,” he wrote. “Otherwise, it may well be that Rob Bell’s ‘massive shift’ is the shape of things to come.”

Never one to ignore a cry that the sky is falling, the SBC immediately ginned up a damnation-affirming resolution for its annual convention in Phoenix in June. With the temperature outside reaching fire-and-brimstone levels, the delegates in the Phoenix Convention Center voted to designate Hell as an “eternal, conscious punishment.”

As for Bell, on September 22 he announced that he would be leaving Mars Hill, where he had spent the previous 12 years preaching, in order to reach a “broader audience.” First up was a seven-city “Fit to Smash Ice” tour in November.

Like the release of Love Wins, “Fit to Smash Ice” drew its share of criticism. “Speaking tours feed the ego—all applause & no responsibility,” tweeted evangelical superstar pastor-author Rick Warren. “It’s an unreal world. A church gives accountability & validity.”

Whether or not Rob Bell has truly sniffed something new in the air and can capitalize on it, the controversy he has stirred up points to the divided self of America’s largest Protestant denomination.

In its leadership cadres, rising Calvinism testifies to anxiety that the SBC is losing its doctrinal edge, that too many of its members are succumbing to the view that religion is more about what feels good to you than what gets you into heaven. But at the same time, shrinking numbers have created an urgency to freshen the brand and step up the outreach.

In February, a denominational task force charged with considering a change of name—the “Southern” in SBC had been deemed too parochial—decided against so radical a move, but nonetheless proposed authorizing members to identify themselves as “Great Commission Baptists.” Like it or not, that pushes back into Rob Bell territory.


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