The recent brouhaha over Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, reminds me of why I’m not at home among exclusivists or universalists. If forced to choose, I would sit at the hearth of exclusivists any day of the week, as their message does a better job of cohering with the scandal of the gospel.
The universalist message, by contrast, conforms to “the pattern of this world” (Rom. 12:2), tickling the ears of all those who want to hear about how “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross," as theologian H. Richard Niebuhr observed 75 years ago in Kingdom of God in America.
What is the core claim of exclusivism? Catholic theologian Paul Griffiths answers: "belonging to the home religion is necessary for salvation. This . . . is to deny salvific efficacy to any alien religion. But it is not to assert salvific sufficiency to the home religion; exclusivists may or may not add to the core claim the view that belonging to the home religion is sufficient for salvation." Those who add to the core claim are restrictivists. Those who relax their understanding of what it means to belong to the home religion are usually called inclusivists.
"Inclusivism is, in its deep logical structure, either simply a form of exclusivism or a position closely derived from it," says Griffiths. " Both positions answer the question of how religion provides an advantage to be had in no other way. Exclusivism . . . makes belonging to the home religion essential for salvation, but it also, in some of its variants, offers a relaxed understanding of what it might mean to belong to the home religion. Inclusivism in its most common form simply makes this relaxed understanding explicit by saying that consciously (publicly, explicitly) belonging to the home religion is not necessary for salvation." I welcome inclusivism as a happy alternative to restrictivism and universalism.
In case you missed it, the “Bell vs. Hell” controversy was an epic boxing match, exercising the Evangelical imagination for weeks. Bell is the pastor of Mars Hill in Grandville, Michigan and the bestselling author of Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith and Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections Between Sexuality and Spirituality. (I didn’t read either book because of their dopey titles.)
HarperOne promoted Bell’s latest book with an ambiguous but provocative description, video, and endorsement from Emergent Church guru Brian McLaren. And exclusivist backlash occurred when Gospel Coalition blogger Justin Taylor emphatically named Bell a universalist and suggested he's a servant of Satan, invoking the warning that “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light" (2 Cor. 11:14-15).
Not having read Bell’s book, Taylor later deleted the scriptural text and softened his strong claim, saying that Bell lays “his cards on the table about universalism.” Taylor’s original and subsequent posts have generated extraordinary Internet traffic, so much so that if you were only reading the Gospel Coalition website you might be forgiven for thinking "Bell vs. Hell" was the most alarming news in the world–not the earthquake in Japan or uprising in Libya. Well-known Reformed pastor John Piper went so far as to excommunicate the heretic by tweeting, “Farewell Rob Bell.” All this hellabaloo only reinforces the importance of the afterlife to this life.
Exclusivists and universalists are presumptive demographers: The former claims hell is crowded and the latter that hell is empty. By contrast, inclusivists are agnostic about the population in hell, refusing to name and number the individuals who inhabit the place of torment. God alone keeps the statistics. There’s a family resemblance between exclusivists and inclusivists insofar as they both affirm the existence of hell and believe “there is salvation in no one else [Jesus Christ], for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). The feud relates to how this salvation gets worked out.
Exclusivists require a public and explicit confession of faith in Jesus Christ and a life marked by good fruit. Inclusivists acknowledge that faith and good fruit are hallmarks of Christ-followers, but are reluctant to make judgments about the destiny of ignorant or impossible souls, emphasizing that “with God all things are possible” (Mt. 19:26) and that “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). By “ignorant” I mean the unevangelized and by “impossible” I mean the unrepentant.
According to inclusivists, God’s rescue operation is for the entire cosmos (John 12:32, 2 Cor. 5:18-19, 1 Tim. 2:4). This doesn’t mean that all people are saved, as universalists claim, but that all are invited to the eternal banquet. People respond to the invitation with acceptance, rejection, or apathy. What happens to the rebels, fence sitters, and oblivious? While the Bible informs us that “the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10) and specifically names “the works of the flesh” that bar admittance (Gal. 5:19-21), no Christian occupies the seat of judgment that belongs to God.
There may yet be opportunities, either in temporal life or postmortem life, where individuals can encounter and receive an optimal presentation of the Gospel, “not a mixed message of joy and terror, salvation and damnation,” as Karl Barth railed against in Church Dogmatics.
“In itself,” Barth said, “[the Gospel] is light and not darkness,” though he recognized it throws a shadow. Universalists err because they deny the shadow, as Bell’s sunny title—Love Wins—implies. If and when exclusivists err, it’s because they dim the light in their stinginess about God’s mercy. Each one of us responds to the light we have. Professing and practicing Christians respond to the light as if it’s high noon. Spiritual seekers respond to different intensities of light, as if the sun is rising or setting.
The inclusivist option has been embraced by John Wesley, C. S. Lewis, and Billy Graham. Hints of it can be found among some of the early church fathers and Reformers. I sense an inclusivist attitude in Athanasius and Karl Barth, who offer the contemporary church an ancient-future voice. For them, the key verse in understanding election is 2 Corinthians 5:14: “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died” (emphasis added). All human beings are included in the death of Christ, not just potentially but actually. When someone comes to the Christian faith, it’s not a transition from being an outsider to an insider.
We’re all insiders—whether we realize it or not. Christians are simply awake to the reality of being already accepted in Jesus Christ. Barth rejects the false alternative between “all are saved” (Origen, Gregory of Nyssa) and “not all are saved” (Augustine, Calvin). All are saved insofar as the Christ event is efficacious for humanity, but how that gets worked out among individuals is entrusted to the perfect mercy and justice of God. Barth leaves the question about human destiny open in hope, a position that George Hunsinger calls “reverent agnosticism.”
Reflecting on the Apostle’s Creed in Dogmatics in Outline, Barth offers the most succinct and salient teaching I've heard on hell when he comes to the line “He [Christ] descended into hell”:
In the Old and New Testaments the picture of hell is somewhat different from what developed out of it later on. Hell, the place of the inferi, Hades in the Old Testament sense, is certainly the place of torment, the place of complete separateness, where man continues to exist only as a non-being, as a shadow. The Israelites thought of this place as a place where men continue to hover around like flitting shadows. And the bad thing about this being in hell in the Old Testament sense is that the dead can no longer praise God, they can no longer see His face, they can no longer take part in the Sabbath services of Israel. It is a state of exclusion from God, and that makes death so fearful, makes hell what it is. That man is separated from God means being in the place of torment. “Wailing and gnashing of teeth”—our imagination is not adequate to this reality, this existence without God. The atheist is not aware of what Godlessness is. Godlessness is existence in hell. What else but this is left as the result of sin? Has not man separated himself from God by his own act? “Descended into hell” is merely confirmation of it, God’s judgment is righteous—that is, gives man what he wanted. God would not be God, the Creator would not be the Creator, the creature would not be the creature, and man would not be man, if this verdict and its execution could be stayed.
But now the Confession tells us that the execution of this verdict is carried out by God in this way, that He, God Himself, in Jesus Christ His Son, at once true God and true man, takes the place of condemned man. God’s judgment is executed, God’s law takes its course, but in such a way that what man had to suffer is suffered by this One, who as God's Son stands for all others. Such is the lordship of Jesus Christ, who stands for us before God, by taking upon Himself what belongs to us. In Him God makes Himself liable, at the point at which we are accursed and guilty and lost. He it is in His Son, who in the person of this crucified man bears on Golgotha all that ought to be laid on us. And in this way He makes an end of the curse. It is not God’s will that man should perish; it is not God’s will that man should pay what he was bound to pay; in other words, God extirpates the sin. And God does this, not in spite of His righteousness, but it is God’s very righteousness that He, the holy One, steps in for us the unholy, that He wills to save and does save us . . . . God’s mercy and God's righteousness are not at variance with each other.
In two paragraphs Barth covers a lot of ground. He defines the existence of hell as a self-chosen place of separation from God. He also navigates a middle way between the exclusivist tendency to focus singularly on God’s righteousness and the universalist tendency to focus singularly on God’s mercy. Christ is at the center of Barth’s attention, descending into hell when we deserve to be there. His descent doesn't empty hell of its occupants, all of whom lock the door from the inside, but it does show—without equivocation—that the Cross achieves plenitude of being and eternal peace for each one of us.
Tragically and unfathomably, individuals will elect against their own election in Christ, choosing poverty of being and eternal torment instead. Even though God has put us to rights, some don’t want to be “disentangled from the birdlime of concupiscence,” as Augustine puts it in Confesssions. We’re all invalids by the pool of Betheseda, but some will answer the perennial question of Jesus in the negative, “Do you want to be healed?” (John 5:6). No living person has undergone the descent of Christ into hell, and therefore we must never count who is there. What makes the hell-counters of Westboro Baptist Church so odious is that they feign the Cross’ knowledge without undergoing the Cross’ torture.
The American philosopher William James has persuaded me that much of our philosophical—and I would add theological—theorizing is shaped by temperament. Using his categories, it seems exclusivists are “tough-minded” whereas universalists are “tender-minded.” The inclusivist is a mediator between these extremes. Barth finesses the dialectic:
The final word is never that of warning, of judgment, of punishment, of a barrier erected, of a grave opened. We cannot speak of it without mentioning all these things. The Yes cannot be heard unless the No is also heard. But the No is said for the sake of the Yes and not for its own sake. In substance, therefore, the first and last word is Yes and not No.
We might even say the exclusivist is a Cassandra whose fire and brimstone vision overwhelms the wideness of God’s mercy, and the universalist is a Pangloss whose cheerfulness about humanity underestimates the exactitude of God’s justice. If the former preaches “Wrath Wins,” the latter declares “Love Wins.” Neither sermon gets it quite right, and that's why we need to hear the inclusivist’s message of “Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God,” which preserves the dialectical tension in the Gospel: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).
We cannot know the fate of every person who ever lived. For those impossible and ignorant souls, we’re better off adopting a posture of “reverent agnosticism” about their outcome rather than assign them to a circle of hell; otherwise we shall incur condemnation for usurping the seat of judgment from its rightful occupant.
Christopher Benson writes for The Weekly Standard, Books & Culture, and Christianity Today. He blogs at Bensonian.org.
Sarah Pulliam Bailey: “Rob Bell’s Upcoming Book on Heaven & Hell Stirs Blog, Twitter Backlash on Universalism”
Mark Galli: “Rob Bell’s Bridge Too Far”
Harper One’s Love Wins publicity page
Paul J. Griffiths, Problems of Religious Diversity
Dennis L. Okholm & Timothy R. Phillips, Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World
Terrance L. Tiessen, Who Can Be Saved?
John Sanders, No Other Name