In 2011, Rob Bell, pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan, resigned from his post. The reason for his leaving was not the usual adulterous affair or crass political endorsement, but a book Bell wrote, entitled Love Wins, in which he advocates for uncertainty about the existence of hell and chides Christians for their emphasis on it. Though he embraced no particular view on the matter, Bell’s openness to universalism—the belief that all people will eventually be saved in the afterlife and go to heaven—made him a pariah in the evangelical community.
No matter your church, hell is not fun to talk about. Jesus speaks of it as “fire” (Mt. 18:9 NKJV). Revelation calls it “the second death” (21:8). 2 Peter 2:17 and Jude 1:13 both describe hell as “blackness.” Scholars generally accept that these are metaphors for the disintegration (fire) and blindness (darkness) of the soul in hell. Perhaps all we know of hell, or need to know, is that it is a state of separation from God. But does it last forever?
The Bible is adamant that Christ is the only means of grace and reconciliation to God. “Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father,” 1 John 2:23 states. “Nor is there salvation in any other name,” Peter preaches in Acts 4:12, “for there is no other name under heaven…by which we must be saved.” Some universalists, surprisingly, agree to this, but argue that the Gospel will be preached to the lost after death until all of them are converted to faith in Jesus. Eternal loss, they believe, does not fit with a loving God.
I agree with them that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). But I think their view misunderstands love.
Love is a mutual bond of self-giving and fidelity between two personalities who must be absolutely free not to love each other. If one person is not free to refuse the bond of love, then the bond is illegitimate, a kind of slavery. I think everybody instinctively knows that love coerced is not really love.
The British theologian John Hick, a supporter of universalism, wrote that no one in the afterlife would resist the Gospel once they discovered their error. After all, who would choose to continue in hell instead of seizing their ticket to heaven? I would challenge Hick’s entire premise here—there are probably souls who are spiritually obstinate enough to remain on the outskirts of paradise and blame God for their errors, as in C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce—but let’s assume that Hick is right and every lost soul comes to God, tail between its legs. Would their salvation be from a true love of God, or would it result, as Hick implies, from a desire to escape hell? Real love cannot be coerced.
The only time when we can receive a relationship with God is now, in our present life, when we have total freedom to resist God’s offer. God does love all of us, and desires all of us to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4), but love is not fulfilled if its object refuses it. This is as true of a rejected marriage proposal as it is with God. And he knows love enough to know the choice rests with us.
I don’t pretend to be unaware that this is difficult for people. Everybody has a felon cousin or an alcoholic uncle or a shoplifting neighbor whose soul they might fear for. But our emotions can entangle us into a wrong view of God and an unworthy idea of what love means. In John 4:34-36, no one less than Jesus reminds us that the harvest is now, not months and years from now. Any belief that would lessen the urgency of his Great Commission (Mt. 28:18-20) is an insult to his Gospel.
Anthony Otten has published stories in The Jabberwock Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and Wind. He has been a finalist for the Hargrove Editors' Prize in Fiction. Still: The Journal has published an excerpt from his novel. He lives in Kentucky.
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