Can't buy me love
Pastor Rob Bell of Mars Hill Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan has been creating a stir in the United States with a book, Love Wins, that reportedly supports belief in universalism: the doctrine that God's love will save all. I first heard of it when a friend in the UK phoned and asked whether I had heard that Pastor Mark Driscoll had become a universalist. My friend had, of course, confused the Mars Hill Churches. Mark Driscoll of Seattle coming out in favour of universalism really would have been a story!
(A good account of the controversy is in fact available via a link on the Seattle Mars Hill web-site:
A Chronology of Rob Bell )
My own confusion, however, is different to that of my friend. I can't understand why anyone remotely familiar with Rob Bell would be surprised that he lent towards universalism. If you build your ministry on the idea that God welcomes everyone always, you are hardly likely to believe that he will change his attitude when you die.
My confusion extends to the reaction in the media, on blog sites, and facebook. Most Christians I know gave up believing in God punishing people after they die a long time ago. I don't simply mean us Anglicans whose God is just such a cuddly teddy bear he couldn't possibly hurt anyone - or do anything else for that matter - but even most evangelicals who lay claim to the Bible. I don't mean they have stopped believing in a God who judges in a theoretical sense, it's just that the belief has no practical implications for how they preach or minister. It's a belief that like Mrs Rochester is embarrassingly kept hidden away in the theological attic and is not allowed out or admitted to.
My suspicion, and it's just a suspicion, is that part of the commotion surrounding Pastor Bell's book is that he has stated in plain terms what most preachers and ministers pretend and imply to their congregations and the outside world that they believe. There is, in fact, a very simple test to find out whether we are universalists to all intents and purposes. It is to ask ourselves when was the last time we told someone that the consequence of not turning to Christ is that they will not be saved.
Whatever we think of Rob Bell's book, Rob Bell challenges us to be honest and to sign up openly to the universalism we imply by our lives and teaching to be true or to start telling it as it is.