Universalism: Rob Bell and Paul Dean

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Even before the release of his latest book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, Rob Bell set the blogosphere ablaze. The biggest charge against Bell is that of him being a universalist. In a recent interview with Newsweek’s Lisa Miller, Bell first states, with qualifications, that he is not a universalist. Then, moments later denies the charge again. (Thanks to Denny Burk’s partial transcript.)

Miller: So this sort of universalism that you are preaching that’s exclusive and inclusive…

Bell: That I just denied? Yeah, that one. Okay.

Kevin DeYoung does not agree. In his 20 page review of Love Wins, he states:

So why do I say Bell is a universalist if he believes in hell? Because he does not believe hell lasts forever. It is a temporary “period of pruning” and “an intense experience of correction” (91). Bell’s hell is like purgatory except his “period of pruning” is for anyone, not just for Christians who die in a state of grace as Catholicism teaches. For Bell, this life is about getting ourselves fitted for the good life to come. Some of us die ready to experience God’s love. Others need more time to sort things out. Luckily, in Bell’s scheme, there is always more time. “No one can resist God’s pursuit forever because God’s love will eventually melt even the hardest hearts” (108). Bell does not believe every road leads to God. He is not a moral relativist. You can get your life and theology wrong. Heaven is a kind of starting over, a time to relearn what it means to be human. For some this process may take a while, and during the process their heaven may feel more like hell. But even those who get everything wrong in this life, will eventually get it right over time in the next life. In Bell’s theology, ultimately, everyone will be saved.

Who is right? It seems that DeYoung (and many others) are correct. Even Lisa Miller understood Bell to be advocating a form of universalism. Some of Bell’s positions seem to be in-line with those of universalist evangelist Paul Dean (1783-1860).  According to the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society:

Dean believed in justification by faith. He understood “the elect” as a growing group of Christians dedicated to the task of saving the rest of humanity. Most could not achieve salvation during a mortal lifetime. People would experience educative punishment during an intermediate state between their death and Judgment Day, when all would be brought before God. An extended process, easy for those already prepared and more difficult for others, would ultimately bring universal restoration.

This sounds very similar to Bell’s position on hell. Paul Dean gave a series of lectures defending his position which were published in A Course of Lectures in Defence of the Final Restoration. Below are some quotes from Dean’s lectures. These quotes seem to further indicate that Bell’s position lines up with Dean, an “evangelist” whom universalists claim as their own.

THE question to be considered this evening is not whether there will be endless or no future punishment? nor whether future punishment will terminate in annihilation or be extended without end? – but this is the question, whether future punishment Will be endless, or limited in degree and duration, according to the character of the impenitent, and so result in their restoration to happiness (57).

From this course of reasoning, we arrive at the satisfactory conclusion, that although the sinner must necessarily occupy a place suited to his nature and mode of being while he suffers, yet that his sufferings will not proceed from the place, but the state of his character; and consist in a sense of shame, regret, remorse, and fear, inflicted by the righteous Judge of all, upon the awakened conscience. There is therefore nothing in the character of the Judge, the requirements of the law, the circumstances of the agent, or the nature and tendency of the punishment, which would necessarily or naturally incline us to the belief that it will be endless; (62 – 63).

…we will now close with a short reference to the reasons for believing that future punishment is limited in degree and duration, by the number and aggravations of the crimes for which it is inflicted.

We believe it to be thus limited, because it harmonises much better with the infinite love and goodness of God, as revealed in the gospel and attested by the Holy Spirit within us; because it accords much more perfectly with the general scope and design of the gospel of Christ, and the numerous means which it employs for the salvation of the world: because it is perfectly consistent with that justice which lies at the foundation of divine government, prescribing equal laws, and securing the rights of God, and the rights of mankind: because it is the only view of punishment, which can render it salutary to men and conducive to the willing subjection of all minds to the will of God; and lastly, because it harmonises with all the attributes of Deity, the promised triumph of Christ over sin and death, and will issue in the ascriptions of glory and praise to the righteous Judge of all the earth, by the happy millions of the human race (83-84).

These prophetic promises, (for so we view them) give assurance that the kingdom of Christ will continue its growth, until it embraces in its bosom all people, nations, and kingdoms of this world not only, but all who have passed to the world of spirits, each being of one faith, and perfect in Christ (150).

The happiness of heaven therefore, like the happiness of the present world, is social, and to be perfect, must be mutual, and to be mutual, all who share it must have the same qualifications. If then holiness be necessary to heaven, all who are admitted there, must possess it; and if they are equally happy, must he equally holy. If repentance and faith be prerequisites to holiness, then those who leave this world in unbelief and impenitence, are unholy and unprepared for heaven. Yet the felicity of heaven, to be perfect, must be universal, and hence those that are not prepared in this life, must be qualified for it in another and future, i.e. an intermediate state. And for this purpose, the means of grace and repentance must as necessarily extend through the intermediate state, and the age of judgment, as does the kingdom of Christ, who “is Lord” and Ruler “of the dead and living,” to whom all that die in unbelief must bow, according as we have shown in a previous lecture (184-185).

But, I forbear — Christ having wept over a fallen world in the arms of death; God will wipe tears from off all faces, that the followers of the Lamb may henceforth forever “rejoice with them that do rejoice.” Here no mother will lament a daughter lost; no father grieve over the ruin of a prodigal son. Here every soul will have felt the evil of sin, its need of a Saviour, and its obligations to divine grace ; it will have passed the scenes of bitter repentance, stood before the judgment seat of Christ, plead guilty before God, sought and obtained pardon in the name of Jesus. Here each will wear the robes of a Saviour’s grace, and be crowned with a Saviour’s righteousness ; and all be united in perfect love to God and each other, and in celebrating the fadeless glories of redemption (188).

So is Rob Bell promoting universalism in his new book? It seems so. Does it matter? Well, that reminds me of a story…

On one occasion Col. Robert G. Ingersoll, the agnostic lecturer of the last century, was announced to give an address on hell. He declared he would prove conclusively that hell was a wild dream of some scheming theologians who invented it to terrify credulous people. As he was launching into his subject, a half-drunken man arose in the audience and exclaimed, “Make it strong, Bob. There’s a lot of us poor fellows depending on you. If you are wrong, we are all lost. So be sure you prove it clear and plain.”

No amount of reasoning can nullify God’s sure Word. He has spoken as plainly of a hell for the finally impenitent as of a heaven for those who are saved.
– H. A. Ironside, Illustrations of Bible Truth, Moody Press, 1945. 40.

 

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jeff Ling April 5, 2011 at 12:56 pm

Mark, thanks for the comment on my post and the link to yours. Love the Ironside story at the end! You could conclude Bell is a Universalist – for me, I thought he fell short of a pure universalistic ideal in that he required acknowledging Christ as the final move to heaven (no matter how long it took!) rather than the idea that all spiritualities lead to the same place. I need to amend my post to reflect that. Thanks! Enjoy your tweets and comments. – Jeff

2 Mark April 5, 2011 at 10:42 pm

Hi Jeff, I thought that Paul Dean also believed one must ultimately go through Christ for salvation. So if Dean can hold to this position and be held to be a Universalist it seems Bell can too. Maybe I’m reading Dean wrong. Either way, Bell’s theology is troubling.

Thanks, brother.

3 Mike Snow April 21, 2011 at 1:11 am

The bigger danger is not the confusion in Bell’s position but the confusion about basics like love, even among many Christians. We really need a ‘back to basics’ movement, emphasizing things like ‘Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way ‘ [J.I. Packer’s book].

‘In Testaments of Love, Leon Morris asks, “How do we harmonize the assurance that ‘God is love’ with the assertion that ‘our God is a consuming fire’? Most of us never think about such problems, and in the end our idea of love is indistinguishable from that of the world around us.”1…

From Love, Prayer and Forgiveness: When Basics Become Heresies http://tinyurl.com/y9p4vez

4 Mark April 21, 2011 at 9:44 pm

Mike, agreed. It sure does seem like an attempt by people to create God in their own image.

Thanks.

5 Jackson Baer October 4, 2011 at 10:41 pm

It’s funny how the Apostle Paul took time to write about men having short hair and women remaining silent in the church but he never talked about Hell. He talked about judgment and punishment for sins but he never used the word Hell. It’s amazing the things we believe our loving God will do to those who reject Him. Does His love & mercy endure forever like the Scriptures teach or not?

http://www.whatthehellbook.com/2011/10/04/gehenna-the-grave-and-the-invention-of-hell/

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