Jim Hoag has highlighted an intemperate reaction by Justin Taylor on the Gospel Coalition blog to a yet unpublished book by Rob Bell entitled Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, and a response by Kurt Willems arguing that Taylor’s critique is premature, speculative, irresponsible, and possibly mendacious. Taylor’s accusation appears to be that since Bell argues either that there is no “hell” or that hell is empty, he must be a universalist. That is, of course, a very poor argument—even if on publication it turns out to be true. Kevin DeYoung also has something to say on the matter, which I may come back to later.
Willems thinks that Bell will take the “conditional immortality” line that death and destruction, rather than eternal conscious torment, are the final judgment on the human sinfulness, which certainly does not amount to universalism. I would agree with this, but I think his account of “salvation” needs tweaking in a narrative-historical direction.
In an attempt to second guess what Bell will say about the “fate of every person who ever lived” Willems suggests that he will advocate a fairly common evangelical position known as “inclusivism”, which draws on Paul’s argument in Romans 2 about the judgment of those who do not have the Law.
This is a belief that answers the question: “What about those who never heard the Gospel, will they be condemned or lost for their ignorance?” The answer from this viewpoint is a qualified “No.” Salvation is provided only through the atonement Jesus accomplished; but reception of salvation by an individual does not necessarily depend on knowing or believing this. In other words, the Inclusivist wants to keep salvation, ultimately in God’s hands. Please note, this is RADICALLY different than Universalism. Jesus is the only way to God and not everyone will in fact be saved into the renewed creation. It simply leaves open the possibility that God will deal with everyone in accordance to the knowledge and opportunity given.
A couple of comments here…
First, the judgment of the Gentiles in Romans 2 is not simply “in accordance to the knowledge and opportunity given”. It is a judgment on the basis of whether Gentiles have acted in accordance with what they know to be right and good. Judgment is according to works. I argue in The Future of the People of God that this is not actually a final judgment: it is a judgment on the pagan world that opposed, sometimes violently, the people of God; it is a judgment enacted socially and politically, as judgment always is in the Old Testament, which is why concrete outcomes matter. But it is important to keep in mind that the judgment of Revelation 20, which certainly is a final judgment, is also according to works.
Secondly, Willems makes the common assumption that salvation coincides with a final judgment and incorporation of the “saved” into the new creation—in other words, that the real purpose of salvation is to enjoy life after death. But salvation in the New Testament is not a final category. It is what happens to people and peoples in the course of history. Through his atoning death Jesus saves the people of God from final annihilation, from a final redundancy: a remnant through faithfulness is preserved. Gentiles are “saved” in that they escape from a pagan civilization destined for destruction and become part of the commonwealth of the family of Abraham (cf. Eph. 2:11-22). We are saved today in that we are liberated from the power of our ingrained sinfulness and incorporated through no merit of our own into a people that has found favour with the true creator God through Jesus.
Salvation is a historical experience, and what this forces us to prioritize is not the final destiny of every person who ever lived but the continuing, concrete existence and witness of the people of God. Willems’ approach is still stuck in a modern evangelical worldview that must always translate the contingent narrative categories of scripture into universally applicable abstractions.
Because we are a sinful people we are constantly and existentially in need to “salvation” in order to fulfil our calling, in order to live up to the standards of love and justice that have been required of us. The vicious caricaturing of people like Bell by the neo-Reformed is evidence that more often than not in the church love fails rather than wins. But we are all culpable, and I fear we will all be held accountable.