Monday, March 14, 2011

Hell, Universalism, and the Evangelical Church

This week, a book is being published that may have a monumental impact on the Evangelical church over the next few years. I pray that its impact will be minimal but, based upon the initial reviews, my fear is that large segments of the church will be influenced by the age-old heresy of universalism—the belief that all will go to heaven, whether or not they ever placed their faith in Jesus Christ during this life.

The book is entitled, Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, by Rob Bell. I encourage you to check out this review of the book by Kevin DeYoung:

That so many would consider this book part of mainstream Christianity is appalling. It reveals much about the lack of theological and biblical understanding of the Evangelical church.

I look forward to talking more about this book with you in the future.


Matthew said...

Huh, I never really agreed with Bell's work in the past (Megaphone guy), but I'm still extremely surprised / disappointed by his latest easy beleivism Gospel.

Nicolas said...

Dear Brother in Christ:

re " the age-old heresy of universalism—the belief that all will go to heaven, whether or not they ever placed their faith in Jesus Christ during this life."

please know that very few have ever advocated this kind of universalism.
Maybe John Hick is the only example!

All other Christian Universalists place salvation as being "through Jesus Christ".

I think the best modern expressions of this are from the pen of evangelicals like Thomas Talbott , Robin Parry -- and Randy Klassen's lovely short book "What Does the Bible Really Say about Hell?"

To avoid misrepresenting what Christian Universalism is really about, we need to know the content of books like these.

I hope you can find time to read at least one of them!

re "in this life", as if the moment of our death cuts off the loving mercy of God. Surely judgement and punishment isn't the end of God's mercy. Where does the Bible clearly say such a thing?

In Christ,


Daniel J. Bennett said...

@Matthew: This isn't even easy believism... it's no believism.

@Nicolas: Thanks for the gracious tone of your post.

You mention that few universalists have ever advocated the type of universalism as I define it, but in my opinion the universalism you go on to describe is the same as the one I just defined: entrance into heaven apart from an individual consciously placing their faith in Christ.

I'm not denying that (some/most) Christian Universalists believe that salvation is "through" Christ, i.e., possible because of His work on the cross. I tried to acknowledge that in my definition.

Three interesting components to this discussion: 1) Bell denies he's a universalist. I wonder if other universalists would agree? 2) This shows that the nature of the term "universalism" is somewhat fluid. 3) Interestingly, if you watched Bell's interview with Lisa Miller from Newsweek, she noted that she, as a Jew, was not offended by his universalism but rather by his belief that Christ is the mechanism by which people are saved. But Bell is reluctant to even state that truth confidently.

Now, regarding whether or not the Bible clearly teaches the doctrine of hell, even liberal scholars who deny hell acknowledge that the Bible teaches it. That's a hard argument to win.

Scripture clearly presents two options for the eternal destiny of the human soul: heaven and hell (Matt 10:28; Hebrews 9:27; Rev 20:15). If one isn't everlasting, then neither is the other.

An excellent resource is chapter four of John Piper's book Let the Nations Be Glad, entitled, "The Supremacy of Christ as the Conscious Focus of All Saving Faith."

Thanks for your post, Nicolas.

nick said...

Pastor D,

I think you might find both of the following articles to be interesting arguments for religious exclusivity. I believe they are both aimed at the more developed views of Hick, though, rather than the "lite" version that Bell alludes to (and at any rate, Bell's writings pale in comparison to the dangerous allure of Hick).

Gavin D'Costa, "The Impossibility of a Pluralist View of Religions," Religious Studies 32 (1996)

Alvin Plantinga, "Pluralism: A Defense of Religious Exclusivism" in The Rationality of Religious Belief and the Plurality of Faith, ed. Thomas Senor (Cornell, 1995)

If you're already familiar with them, then no worries!

nick davis

nick said...

Pastor D,

I think you might find both of the following articles to be interesting arguments for religious exclusivity. I believe they are both aimed at the more developed views of Hick, though, rather than the "lite" version that Bell alludes to (and at any rate, Bell's writings pale in comparison to the dangerous allure of Hick).

Gavin D'Costa, "The Impossibility of a Pluralist View of Religions," Religious Studies 32 (1996)

Alvin Plantinga, "Pluralism: A Defense of Religious Exclusivism" in The Rationality of Religious Belief and the Plurality of Faith, ed. Thomas Senor (Cornell, 1995)

If you're already familiar with them, then no worries!

nick davis

Nicolas Thomas said...

Thank you, Pastor Daniel, for your gracious dialogue. Apologies for not being clear. I should have emphasized that "salvation through Jesus Christ" certainly includes each individual throwing themselves on the loving mercy of God.

This returns us to the question of whether the moment of our death is a cut-off point, beyond which the loving mercy of God is no longer available.

You mention Heb. 9:27. Yes, that's right: after death comes "judgement" as the text says. Indeed, we'll all be judged. And many of us (myself included) will only get through it "as through fire" (1 Cor 3:15).

So I don't think we can take the word "judgement" in Heb 9:27 simply to mean "never ending punishment".

Your comment " If one isn't everlasting, then neither is the other" is often used with Mat 25:46 (eternal punishment/eternal life).
Yes, both words must mean the same thing. But I think it should be better known by now that aionios is not about "how long" (quantity) but about "what kind" (quality). It means the two categories of people go forward to the punishment and life of the age to come. The word aionios isn't giving us any information about length of time.

I just want to share with you how the conclusion to the whole Bible has a very universalist ring to it all -- a hope that (in the words of Isaac Watts) “… if any criminal in Hell shall be found making a sincere repentance, I cannot but think that the perfections of God will contrive a way of escape …”

Throughout the book of Revelation, the “Kings of the Earth” and their “Nations” have been the enemies of Christ and the Church (6:15, 11:2, 17:2 &18, 18:3 & 9 & 23, 19:15 & 19). In chapter 19:19-21 they are destroyed and presumably end up in the Lake of Fire.

And yet, in Rev. 21:24-26 these former wicked Kings of the Earth and their Nations reappear in the New Jerusalem, coming in through those ever-open gates. And the leaves of the tree of life (we are told) are “for the healing of the nations” (Rev 22:2).

In Rev 22:14 there is the seventh and last of the seven benedictions in Revelation, giving a completeness to the message. It describes a process of post mortem conversion, with washing robes, healing from the leaves and entry in through the ever-open gates of the New Jerusalem.

As if that wasn’t enough, Rev. 22:17 has the Spirit and the Bride (Church Triumphant/Elect) inviting the thirsty (in the Lake of Fire) to receive the water of life without price.

Indeed, the wicked and impenitent cannot enter the New Jerusalem, as it repeatedly says (21:27, 22:15). But the post mortem process goes on, inviting the thirsty, and there is indeed “Hope beyond Hell”. Shouldn’t we cherish such a hope, and pray that it can be completely successful?

This is the wonderful message of hope in the Bible which inspires me with love and praise. This is the reason I want to share the Good News and ask people to respond, the sooner the better.


Daniel J. Bennett said...


I must confess that I am not completely familiar with your particular brand of universalism, so I won't make specific comments regarding your overall system. I don't want to assume you believe certain things when that may not be the case.

I do feel more confident in addressing your handling of the biblical text. Therefore, let me just quickly address your biblical defense of your position. Your understanding of the passages you referenced (1) is not consistent with the historical interpretation of orthodox Christianity and (2) strains the text in rather significant ways.

Regarding the first of these objections, let me admit that simply because the majority of Christianity thought one thing about hell, that doesn't make it correct. But to take such a significant departure from mainstream Christian thought should certainly give one pause. To force a reading on a text that contradicts the historical consensus understanding of a doctrine would be highly troubling to me.

Regarding the second, let me just take one example of how I believe your system imposes a theological system on a text instead of being derived from the text.

Your handling of Revelation greatly surprised me. You are making several significant assumptions: (1) that the kings of the New Heaven and New Earth are the same kings as those who rebelled and were cast into the lake of fire. The text explicitly puts the old kings in the lake of fire and has emphasized that this New Heaven and Earth is a wholly different realm. There is nothing to indicate that these are the same kings.

Furthermore, there is nothing in Revelation 22:17 to indicate that the invitation is being made to those in the lake of fire. Instead, the text indicates it is being made to the current readers of the epistle so that they can get on the winning side and avoid the fate of those who will suffer in the lake of fire!

Thanks for your comments. It should be obvious that I believe your position to be in contradiction to the clear meaning of the text.

Nicolas said...

Thank you for your gracious reply. I’ll just add a few more short explanations, not to convert any body, but at least to share how Evangelical Universalists understand it.

The Greek phrases for “the nations” (ta ethne) and “the kings of the earth” (hoi basileis tes ges) all through Revelation are exactly the same as used in Rev 21:24. For a quick check, compare 18:3 and 21:24 where both have both terms together. It would be very odd if St. John the Divine were to suddenly change the meaning of these words here at 21:24 without any warning.
In his commentary, Robert H Mounce quotes with approval Glasson’s comment that the words “the nations” and “the kings of the earth” are not entirely appropriate. He also quotes Rist that John has failed to modify them to suit his own views.
I don’t think we need to be so negative! Let’s just take John at his word.

The whole book seems to run in cycles with each additional cycle adding more information. In fact one cycle seems to end with a strong universalist note at the end of ch 5. Another ends that way with 15:4. And so the whole book in ch. 22.

So it seems quite normal for there to be another dip back into the vision at 22:14ff. And it’s interesting that while the saints of this age(7:14)have washed their robes, those in the vision of the age to come (22:14) are washing their robes (present continuous).

In Revelation, the term “Bride” has only been used of the Church Triumphant, not the Church of this world. They are calling and inviting … whom? Well, who else is there but those outside the New Jerusalem in the Lake of Fire? No wonder those invited are referred to as the thirsty!

Enough of me — God bless us all. We depend on it! Happy Easter.

Daniel J. Bennett said...

I think it's important to consider what Mounce himself believes regarding "the nations." In his commentary, which you cited, Mounce explicitly rejects your interpretation, saying that these who enter the city are not the wicked and deceitful, but those whose names were written in the book of life (see p. 355ff).

I agree with the cyclical nature of the book, but I where you see universalism, I see a triumphant focus on the saints that does not require universalism.

Regarding the invitation of the Bride, she is inviting those who are reading the book in the present to be delivered from the wrath to come. One of the primary themes of the book is that the overcomer will not have to experience the wrath of God.

Nicolas said...

Hi Daniel,

Yes, I agree that Mounce isn't advocating universalism, either hopeful or dogmatic.

What I wanted to show was that Mounce recognized the terms "Kings of the earth" and "the nations" in Rev 21:24 (coming into the New Jerusalem) are exactly the same vocabulary as used of the enemies of Christ throughout the book. But then, in order to avoid the plain sense of Scripture, he has to adopt the idea that John is being inconsistent and failing to modify the labels of his illustrations.

Do you agree with Mounce that J the D failed to be consistent?

I agree with you that the invitations by the Spirit and Bride are to us and to all who read the book. I wouldn't want to deny that.

And yet, isn't it strange how the end verses of Rev (22:6 to the end) spin all kinds of things together: the angel and Jesus both seem to be talking as one; the divinity of Jesus as God confirmed by 22:13; the offer of salvation to sinners - to us now AND to those outside the New Jerusalem.

I know that last bit goes too far for you, but it's based on what I shared in the earlier post. I also admit that this last section is challenging in more ways than one!

I'll end with a lovely piece of trivia. The first verse of the Bible has exactly seven words in the original Hebrew. The last verse of the Bible, as the earliest texts suggest, are also seven words in the original Greek. What a lovely symetary (how to spell?).

Nicolas said...

Ah, the internet; we try to do everything too fast! I missed the exact point you were making in your first paragraph.

I think you are agreeing with Beale, that "the nations" could be a term also used of the redeemed as per Rev. 5:9 and 7:9.

But this just cannot be. These two verses (5:9 & 7:9) do not refer to the saints as "the nations" -- but as a kingdom redeemed FROM OUT OF the nations.

In both texts, the term "nations" refers to the bigger, non-redeemed group out of which the redeemed come.

Or maybe I've jumped too far ahead ... ?

Daniel J. Bennett said...


I wanted to give you a heads up that I'm not going to continue posting comments on this thread.

I appreciate dialogue, but I don't have the time to continue discussing this issue in this format. I'll be addressing this topic on Sunday as our church looks at Luke 10. You can find that message on our website ( where I deal with this issue more fully.

Let me very quickly clarify my position:

1. My point in citing Mounce was that acknowledging that the same term for nations in chapter 20 is used in chapter 21 does not mean that John is referring to the same group of souls. You cited Mounce to show that the same term is used, I cited Mounce to show that even though the same term is used, it doesn't mean John is referring to the same group of people.

2. This doesn't mean John is being inconsistent. His point is on the establishment of a New Heaven and New Earth. New nations are a part of that. Mounce says that John is continuing to employ OT imagery, so I suppose that is a potential explanation as well.

2. I would admit that your reading (that every use of the term "nations" refers to the same group of unredeemed souls) is a potential reading. However, there are several insurmountable problems. First, John's argument in the book. Even in chapter 21, as things are made new, John makes the point again that the wicked will have no part of this new kingdom but will suffer the second death (21:8). Second, as I've already mentioned,I believe the rest of Scripture presents consistent warnings that failure to believe the gospel now has eternal consequences. Third, on what basis will these unredeemed souls be justified? The lamb did not redeem them (if it is the same group). . . He redeemed a group OUT OF the wicked nations, as you mention.

Thanks for your comments! Feel free to post in additional threads!