Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Spencer Burke: More on hell and universalism

Anyone who operates under the law of non-contradiction recognizes that a given proposition cannot be true while its corresponding and opposite proposition is true as well. Postmodern soteriology is at least toying with this line. Many in the ECM are attempting to flirt with universalism while upholding a doctrine of hell. Rob Bell, for instance, writes in Velvet Elvis,

While we were unable to do anything about our condition, while we were helpless, while we were unaware of just how bad the situation was, Jesus died. And when Jesus died on the cross, he died for everybody. Everybody. Everywhere. Every tribe, every nation, every tongue, every people group. Jesus said that when he was lifted up, he would draw all people to himself. All people everywhere. Everybody’s sins on the cross with Jesus. So this reality, this forgiveness, this reconciliation, is true for everybody. Paul insisted that when Jesus died on the cross, he was reconciling ‘all things, in heaven and on earth, to God.’ All things, everywhere. This reality then isn’t something that we make true about ourselves by doing something. It is already true. Our choice is to live in this new reality or cling to a reality of our own making.

To Bell, since Jesus paid for the sins of the whole world, then the whole world is already reconciled to Jesus. The only choice now is not to make this reconciliation true – there is no call for faith and repentance. Rather, the question is: “Are you going to live in this new reality or will you cling to one of your own making?” It has been suggested that Rob’s work has been highly influenced by neo-orthodox theologian, Karl Barth. Notice the similarities; Barth writes,

The conversion of the world to God has thereofre taken place in Christ with the making of this exchange. There, then, in Christ, the weakness and godlesness and sin and enmity of the world are shown to be a lie and objectively removed once and for all. And there, too, in Christ, the peace of the world with God, the turning of man to Him, his friendship with Him, is shown to be the truth and objectively confirmed once and for all. That is the history which Paul has to narrate. And such it is the history of God with Himself, as he has already said in v. 18. But now it is also the history of God with the world, as we are told in v. 19. And notice that in this respect too (and the two cannot be separated) it has taken place once and for all, the history of a decision which has been taken and which cannot be reversed or superseded. That is how He was in Christ – we might say with Jn. 3:16 that is how He loved the world – and it is the fact, and it is so, it is in force, and must and will be, whether there are few or many who know the fact, and whatever attitude the world may take to it. The world is God’s. Whatever else we may have to say about it (e.g. that it perishes) we must also remember that it is God’s – not merely because it is His creature, not merely because God has sworn to be faithful to man, but because God has kept His oath, because He has taken the world from a false position in relation to Himself, becuase He has put it in that place which belongs to it in relationship with Himself. The reconciliation of the world with God has taken place in Christ. And because it has taken place, and taken place in Christ, we cannot go back on it. The sphere behind it has, in a sense, become hollow and empty, a sphere which we cannot enter. The old has passed away, everything has become new. The new is conversion to God. In v. 18 Paul said that this had happened to him personally in Christ. In v. 19, and as the basis of the former verse, he says that it has happened to the world in Christ. It was a definitive and self-contained event.

If everyone is already reconciled to Christ, then the questions naturally follow: “Who goes to hell?” and “Is there a real place called hell?” Bell gives some answers in his first chapter of Sex God, entitled “God Wears Lipstick.” He writes,

Now if there’s a realm where things are as God wants them to be [heaven], then there must be a realm where things are not as God wants them to be. Where things aren’t according to God’s will. Where people aren’t treated as fully human. It’s called hell.

Ask Rob Bell if he believes in hell and he will tell you that he does. However, his comments in Velvet Elvis may suggest otherwise; he writes,

“Heaven is full of forgiven people. Hell is full of forgiven people.”

The preceding sentence only makes sense if one works off the definition from Sex God. So, it should make perfect sense that Rob preached a recent sermon series entitled, “Saving Christians from Hell.” Bell has no problems flirting with and almost embracing universalism; hell is nothing more than a really bad time on the earth. Besides, to Rob eternal life has nothing to do with God taking us somewhere when we die; it has everything to do with God coming to us (see Velvet Elvis, last chapter).

This tendency can be observed in McLaren as well. In Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Conversation, Carson observes this same phenomenon from reading McLaren’s The Situation We Find Ourselves In. Carson retells the story in which one character asks another about the existence of hell. When the teacher skirts the issue, the character, Dan Poole, pushes harder. He ends by being rebuked for needing to ask such a question. Carson comments specifically concerning this epidsode,

So Dan Poole has been rebuked for having the ‘need’ to ask a question that Jesus himself dares to address. This strikes me as a kind of teacher’s cheap shot: If you do not want to answer a question, make the student feel guilty for asking it.

That’s exactly what Bell did in his ooze interview! It is evident that leaders within the ECM do not want to answer the questions, “Does Hell really exist?” and “Who goes to hell?

Spencer Burke, among others, has tried to bring resolution to this conflict. Spencer’s solution goes something like this, “You are in until you opt out.” In other words, each person is born “in” because of God’s grace and the payment of Christ on the cross for the whole world. They only end up in hell because they opt “out” of God’s grace. Burke writes,

. . . We are already in unless we want to be out. This is the real scandal of Jesus. His message eradicated the need for religion. It may come as a surprise, but Jesus has never been in the religion business. He’s in the business of grace, and grace tells us there is nothing we need to do to find relationship with the divine. The relationship is already there; we only need to nurture it. Of course, growing up, I had a much different concept of grace. I grew up in an environment where grace was described as ‘unmerited favor.’ The only problem was that getting this ‘unmerited favor’ still required doing something – namely, ‘asking Jesus in your heart’ or praying a prayer.

Burke even goes so far as to call himself a “universalist that believes in hell.” He says that his “tongue is firmly planted in cheek,” but his book’s content reveals that he is in fact a sort of universalist. He writes,

You can either believe that heaven will be filled exclusively with people of your particular faith (a sentiment heard time and again on television), or you can find a way to reconcile your belief in a good and loving God who works things out in ways beyond our understanding.

Burke goes on to explain,

I may be a universalist. . . but I also believe in hell. Do I mean a place filled with fire, brimstone, and flames that burn bodies forever in eternal torment? No. If I did, that would run counter to everything I have said about God so far. . . The God I connect with does not assign humans to hell. And yet I do think it’s possible to reject God’s grace. There is a strange little verse tucked away in Matthew’s gospel that reads this way: ‘He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters. And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.’ Theologians have wrestled with this one for a long time, and it does suggest some kind of action that can exclude someone from God’s grace. I certainly don’t want to build a case for hell on the basis of one snippet of Scripture, but I do think it brings up an interesting point.

Revelation 14 and 21 are hardly snippets of Scripture; Burke’s view is incoherent in a biblical framework. The ECM does not want to talk about an eternal future judgment, nor do they want to speak of individuals being left out of heaven; in so doing, they have left Jesus out of their conversation. Carson observes that “Jesus himself talks more about hell than anyone else in the Bible.”

So, the charge will naturally come that I like to think about people burning hell. I would expect it, because they use the “what kind of warped person really wants to defend the view of a real and literal hell?” line. So, allow me to explain that I understand (1) that God is glorified when people turn to him and become true worshippers and (2) God will be glorified when every knee bows in the eschaton and the unbeliers are cast into the lake of fire. It’s a hard statement, but it’s biblical truth (read the book of Revelation). However, God is most glorified in my life when I am so satisfied in him, when Christ is so magnified in my body that I must passionately cry out to the world, “Be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ!” If the whole world is already reconciled, if hell is only here, then what message do I have to preach? Nothing more than “God has a wonderful plan for your life.” Brothers and sisters, that is not the gospel! Don’t be deceived.

 Try to see it clearly_

  1. #1 by Siew H. on November 7, 2007 - 6:26 pm

    Nice. I have read both of Rob Bell’s books and I find myself with the same frustration. It completely underplays the reality of hell…and yeah. I like your last comment. It’s so true, even in Cru we (we as in the organization) tend to sometimes underplay God’s judgment. A little frustrating, but we as leaders have talked about it with our Bible studies before…it’s a good thing to talk about. Alas, I ramble. But good write.

  2. #2 by Ben on January 9, 2008 - 11:01 pm

    I think one of the reasons that they underplay is that sometimes we way overplay it. In the NT it is not always the motivation for following Jesus, the motivation is usually quite different.

  3. #3 by Billy on August 30, 2008 - 6:55 am

    To see my massively huge response, go to:

  4. #4 by Paw-paw (Terry) on November 11, 2008 - 6:14 pm

    Universalism at its best. Everyone is OK. I’m OK – you’re OK. You can believe what you want and live like you want because in the end we’re all going to heaven. So eat, drink and be merry – it doesn’t matter what you believe or what god you believe in, because we’re all going to heaven anyways.

  5. #5 by Richard on December 9, 2008 - 2:32 pm

    Universalism is a response to postmodernity. It gives a better image of God but we have to be careful not to go to far. Rob Bell and McLaren do not firmly believe in universalism but use it as a way so see christainity in a different light.

  6. #6 by René Barrow on October 28, 2009 - 7:37 am

    Nice post!

    I appreciate it…so glad to hear there are more Universalists nowadays!

    I was a conservative Evangelical missionary in the past…I was so conservative I didn’t believe in kissing before marriage! I even called everyone who believed in Annihilation heretics – people like John Stott, Nicky Gumbel and John Wenham. I was definitely a defender of Eternal Torment.

    Then I went to theological college…and read about Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Clement of Alexandria, studied some New Testament Greek, and researched into the Early Church doctrines of Theosis, Apocatastasis and Irenaeus’ pre-Augustinian theodicy.

    And realised…pretty simply…Evangelical theology is simply Roman Catholic theology in ‘Saved by Faith’ clothing (not by Grace).

    Evangelicals are just followers of St. Augustine’s interpretations.

    Good old Augustine of course couldn’t read Greek, and believed all babies would go to hell forever unless they were baptised in water…Good old Jonathon Edwards believed that God would roast non-Christian babies over the flames of hell.

    Now, I’m definitely a liberal Universalist follower of Jesus!

    As my conservative Evangelical friends say, “There are no dumb liberals are there?”


    All the best!


  7. #7 by clearly on November 5, 2009 - 11:45 am


    You error is couched in generosity and seeming kindness, but it’s still error.

  8. #8 by Matt on December 1, 2009 - 11:39 pm

    Good commentary here, for sure. Good questions to be asking. I agree that the leaders of the ECM need to be more clear on their stance of literal Heaven and Hell, seeing as Hebrews 6 refers to “Eternal Judgement” as a “principle of the doctrine of Christ.” However, one of the resounding points in Bell’s “Velvet Elvis” is how much of everything is subject to some sort of interpretation – in our case, Bell’s provided statement “This reality then isn’t something that we make true about ourselves by doing something…” I feel what has been misinterpreted is that Bell is not saying we are already saved and we are all good and happy. I merely believe that he is reiterating one of the principles of our faith, that we are not saved by works. If Christ is the ultimate reality, and has paid the price for each and every one of us, then there is nothing we can do to earn this – we must merely accept it. Salvation is, after all, something God does for us. Just my thoughts, I hope they help bring clarity.

  9. #9 by Shane on December 15, 2009 - 8:01 am

    Is it ok to desire that God will save all of humanity or is it sinful? Does God desire that all humanity will be saved or does he desire that only a few will be saved? What is wrong with believing hoping that God can figure out a way to reconcile all things to himself?

  10. #10 by Shane on December 15, 2009 - 8:06 am

    When Jesus said it is finished, didn’t He mean it just started now it’s up to humanity to finish it? ie Jesus made possible salvation but it’s up to every human being to decide if Jesus was a success or failure. Is it theoretically possible that no humans would accept Christ’s atoning sacrifice? Therefore isn’t it theoretically possible that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross would have been an utter failure and therefore wouldn’t that mean Jesus was a failure (not God). Is Jesus the savior of the whole world and especially believers?

    If Jesus is the savior of the whole worl doesn’t that mean that he has to save the whole world and not just some (less than half)

  11. #11 by Rodger Tutt on June 20, 2010 - 8:36 am

    Calvinism, Arminianism, or Christian Biblical Universalism

    Which view of salvation is true?

    Two good expositions specifically answering that question!



  12. #12 by Johnny on August 26, 2010 - 6:40 am

    Bottom line is this, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you WILL be saved” (Acts 16:31).

    Simple.In the end, it doesn’t matter what you believe about hell or who’s in/out. It’s what you believe about Jesus/God that counts. He will be the final gateway into eternity, John 14:6.

  13. #13 by Owen Richard Kindig on January 11, 2011 - 11:07 am

    I met Spencer at a conference in Seattle and had an interesting discussion on this issue… I told him I am the opposite of him. Not a universsalist, and not a believer in hell. I agree with Rene that Augustine was way, way, off track. To me the issue is simple and both sides of elements of truth.

    God DOES and DID save everyone from Adamic condemnation. The exchange, Jesus the man for Adam the man, releases the entire race. Christians receive their release now, through the process of faith and obedience. Unbelievers will receive their release in the next age, under the mediation of Jesus and his church. Christians now must fight and win a victory over sin, with the reward of glory, honor, and immortality in heaven. The rest of mankind must overcome their sin patterns and learn to act justly and walk humbly with God… same character but without the tougher fights that Christians face now.

    And hell? My, how I wish folks would just read Jesus a little more closely. He spoke of God’s ability to “destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.” So hell in the “lake of fire” sense is the destruction, not preservation of the soul and the body… the cessation of life. It is reserved only for those who are incorrigible in the face of all God’s grace, extended in two ages of salvation.

    So I’m not a universalist because I believe God has standards that all who liver eternally must get in line with. But I don’t believe in an eternity of torment. The conscious torture of the Rich Man and Lazarus was the conscious torment the living representatives of the Jewish people felt during their dark ages exile from God’s grace. Now they’re back in the Land, and will soon be the blessors of the world just as God promised Abraham. The other passage that speaks of torture is in Revelation 20ff, where it uses the word Basanos… a reference to the painful process of having one’s inner thoughts and actual character exposed. This, too, is a reference to the discomfort and mental anguish of the Millennium, when everything will come out, and everyone must change from the inside out. But it’s also a time when tears are wiped away and all people will have a full opportunity for new life and full restoration with their friends, family, and an entire redeemed world.

    Sorry to write so much….

  14. #14 by Susan on March 6, 2011 - 3:15 pm


    1) All of us have flaws in our understanding of God/Bible/theology at some points. None of us has perfect theology.

    2) That being said, some theology is right/orthodox/Scriptural and some theology is wrong/heterodox/unScriptural.

    3) It seems to me possible that certain Emergent Church teachers, in their efforts to effectively communicate with postermoderns have either:

    a) masked their genuinely orthodox underlying beliefs in unfortunate, murky language of
    “tolerance” in order to create greater appeal for Christianity, thereby watering certain
    truths down, or
    b) some emergent teachers perhaps do not genuinely embrace orthodox Christianity
    themselves after all, or
    c) these teachers embrace the Christ of orthodox Christianity, but are still
    flawed/developing in their understanding of His nature, character, the nature of God, etc.
    and therefore communicate fundamental truths in a diluted way

    I may be wrong, but I don’t see any other options right now. Of the three, I hope that it is either A) or C)! B) means they, and their congregants are in a lot of trouble and need our prayers desperately!

  4. NT Wright on Hell « seeing clearly

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