I’ve been following the buzz about Rob Bell’s book Love Wins and whether or not he’s a universalist. Upon reading Mark Galli’s article on it all in CT I’d like to offer a few thoughts on the nature of salvation and eternal punishment.
My job puts me in the proximity of the mentally ill, the chronically homeless, drug and alcohol addicts, and many who are severely depressed. This means I am faced every day with a lot of promises that don’t go very far. Knowledge of the next right thing to do is not the same as acting on it again and again. When some talk of “unbelievers” being “wicked” and deserving punishment I think to myself, “So this means that believers never waiver in their faith, are never disobedient, and somehow are lucky enough not to be among the 4.5 billion heading for eternal punishment.” I have a friend who so associates traditional orthodoxy with the abuse he knew growing up in church that it can’t possibly be true. But he’s honest and always admits that he can’t penetrate the mystery and so will continue to pursue his Higher Power’s will even without certainty. God has been honoring his effort and he manages to stay sober one day at a time.
I am more afraid for those certain theologians who know how it all works and go about preaching God’s wrath and exclusion, than I am for those who can’t figure out God’s ways but want only to know His love. I want the same kind of relationship with Jesus my friend Earnie has. He’s mentally ill, living on a fixed income, and asking for bread to feed the birds. He’s in church three times a week and prays every day “if there are any sins I can’t think of charge it to my brain and not to my heart.” I can be moving through the lobby at fifty miles an hour and he’ll yell out, “Slow down Rev. Chris!” If knowledge were the ticket to heaven I wouldn’t want to be there. Faith involves using our head, but thank God, it’s more than that. Faith is about togetherness.
I think that anyone ready to cite numbers and percentages when it comes to eternity has already stepped into the judgment seat themselves and has become disobedient for the sake of their theology. It is because I believe in hell and I fear the judgment of God that I refuse to speculate about the extent of His mercy. Universalism and Annihilationism are both examples of posturing. It’s just not enough to obey God ourselves we have to do God’s judging job for him.
It is because I have known so many believers who could not seem to be faithful because of mental illness and addiction, and because of my own personal history of disobedience that I am so averse to speculating over the lost. The hope of the gospel is in God’s relentless grace, not just for believing individuals, but for a believing Church. As every church knows, public proclamation is so much easier than personal piety. Saving faith, lives that glorify God, churches that do the gospel in all its fullness, these are all the fruit of God’s Spirit at work.
When we think we know humans and communication so well that we know just how to market the gospel to reach everyone the world over and get the job done, we have lost humility and touch with reality. Belief involves honesty, not just acknowledgment. To think that anyone with the moniker Christian among the world’s billions in population is somehow exempt from hell is to assume too much. People go to church for a lot of reasons. We are all a mixture of motives. There is no easy way of quantifying the earth’s faithful.
It’s best to focus on simply living it out rather than stopping to count who will burn. Rest assured God’s will is being done on earth as it is in heaven. I just want to be an ambassador of God’s reconciliation in the world.
Somehow God’s love and reconciliation is big enough for judgmental counters. Those who cast the sideward glance. And yes, God knows, that includes me. Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on us.