In his latest entry, Mouw reflects on the ongoing "Rob Bell is a universalist" debate. Bell's book has now (as of today!) been released to stores, and so a few folks have had a chance to actually read what he has to say and make more informed comments about the work. Judging from his comments, I assume that Mouw has an advance copy (as scholars occasionally do). I think that it is interesting that so many of us--Bell, Mouw, and myself as well--feel the need to distance ourselves from the "universalist" label. Whatever it is that we may actually believe, and whatever being a "universalist" really is, many of us have this strong sense that being a "universalist" is a bad thing. And there's something about that realization that bothers me. What is it that we are resisting?
Naturally, there is a strong part of me that wants to rush to say that I (and, I assume, others who distance themselves from being called "universalists") simply cannot get around those passages of the Bible that suggest (I'll say this in decidedly non-Biblical terms) "some people get in, and others don't." But while that's certainly true, I'm not sure that's the entirety of my concern not to be called a "universalist." Truth be told, I'm a bit scared of being one of those who "don't get in" myself. I'm not so much concerned about not getting into heaven (I feel secure in God's promises on that score), but about being considered "less than Christian," or worse "anti-Christian." There are certainly no shortage of would-be gatekeepers that are quick to suggest such things. As Mouw tells of one of his own experiences:
In a book I wrote several years ago defending the basics of a Calvinist perspective, I told about an elderly rabbi friend who struck me as a very godly person. He would often write to tell me that he was praying for me and my family. When he died, I said, I held out the hope that when he saw Jesus he would acknowledge that it was Him all along, and that Jesus would welcome him into the heavenly realm.But why should I care what other people think? I serve God, not those other people, right? Certainly, that's the kind of language I often hear the "gatekeepers" using. On this count, at least, surely they have something right.
Some folks zeroed in on that one story to condemn me as a heretic.
One question I've started asking myself about these kinds of theological debates lately is "what's at stake?" I'm already aware that some of those with whose position I disagree would argue that "what's at stake" is the eternal salvation of those who might never turn to Christ because they hear a false message that says, in essence, they don't have to. I'm not convinced that this is what's really at stake in this argument, at least in part because I don't think that someone coming to Christ purely out of a fear of hell has truly made the kind of unreserved commitment to Christ that Christ desires. That's not to say that I disagree with the potential for "what's at stake" to have eternal consequences, so much that I'm not afraid of people failing to come to Christ for the reasons the gatekeepers are.
I'm afraid of people failing to come to Christ because the only Christ they know is one who serves a petty and vindictive God. Such a God would hardly be worthy of our devotion and service, and thus I can hardly blame anyone for refusing to follow such a God or such a Christ. I'm convinced that this is exactly the image of God that people hear from those who insist too loudly and insistently that "universalists" are wrong. Even if they are right on the theological point that there is indeed judgment, this is not the way we should evangelize. Evangelism is, quite literally, about sharing good news. Why are we trying to scare people out of hell and into heaven (which most people see as being a "future" kind of thing) when we should be sharing the good news of what Christ has already done for us, and which impacts us here and now?
So, no, I'm not a "universalist," but if someone wants to insist that I am, may I have the courage not to care.