A special session convened in light of Rob Bell's book Love Wins. The panel, moderated by Kevin DeYoung, included D. A. Carson, Tim Keller, Crawford Loritts, and Stephen Um.
Listen to the audio of "God: Abounding in Love, Punishing the Guilty."
Carson framed the discussion giving a brief and clarifying overview on universalism:
- Be clear about definition of universalism, don't muddle what it is.
Universalism is built out of several different assertions: a) everyone is savingly loved by God and is reconciled to God already; b) because of the wideness of God’s mercy, people of other religions will somehow find their way to heaven; c) initially, the only lost people are those who reject God’s love; d) despite their rejection of his love, these people are still loved by God.
This set of beliefs invariably teaches other things that are often not articulated. It affects your view of atonement, impoverishes the love of God by disconnecting it from his holiness, and it assumes that Scripture always speaks the same way about God's love.
- Despite different claims to the contrary, universalism is a later development. It has never been accepted in confessional Christianity.
- A few notes on biblical texts thought to defend and justify universalism:
2 Corinthians 5:19—“world” is not everyone without exception, but everyone without distinction.
Romans 5:18—“all” does not refer to the same locus of people. The broader context deals with two humanity, one in Adam and one in Christ. There is a contrast to these two different humanities.
John 12:32—“draw all people to himself,” in the context we see that Gentiles try to approach Jesus understands this as precipitated the cross. They do not come on the basis of past covenants, but on a new covenant rooted in the cross.
Revelation 21:25—"its gates will never be shut." The symbolism of the gates open is not about whether people can get in day or night. Gates were shut for defense, but in the new heavens and new earth there is no more threat for violence.
Carson pastorally asserted that universalism's handling of the atonement itself is deeply manipulative—even blasphemous. We must not talk flippantly about the cross of Christ, explaining that penal substitutionary atonement is not built on a proof text but is woven through the entire biblical narrative.
Panel Discussion (led by Kevin DeYoung)
To Keller — Is our response to this subject worth it?
Yes. It's sort of like the bird in the ecosystem who if goes extinct throws off everything. Anything other than endless punishment lessens sin and the God who has been sinned against. If you take away the infinity of punishment, everything diminishes.
To Keller — There is one thread that says Bell is saying the same thing as C. S. Lewis. How do you respond?
Lewis was rebelling against the spirit of the age, which said that Hell is bad. His whole project was to tweak his contemporary scene and show that Hell and judgment make sense. It appears that Bell does just the opposite and acutally sympathizes with the spirit of the age.
To Carson — In John 10:16, does the phrase “many sheep are not of this fold” refer to other religions?
Although there are more recent readings that try to take it this way, the context is clear that “fold” refers to the Jewish people. “Not of the this fold” refers to Gentiles who are outside of the old covenant. It is about becoming one new people, Jew and Gentiles, as the church.
To Carson — What do you think this reemergence of universalism may or may not signify about underlying shifts in Christianity in North America?
This is not new. The early twentieth century and the rise of liberalism started the project of trying to defend Christianity by jettisoning everything the age considers unreasonable.
Evangelicalism is so broad and diverse, and also thinner. The newer generation is making choices: many who want to be more acceptable to this age and others who are embracing the gospel, wanting it to be heard as it is. There is a big division taking place and Bell's book is a marker to this.
To Um — Respond to Bell's statement that the position saying only a certain number will be saved is "misguided, toxic, and ultimately subverts Jesus’ message of love.”
There are several assumptions that need to be addressed. One assumption is that God is obliged to show favor to a sinful humanity. We should remember that Jesus spoke more about Hell than anything else. Rejecting Hell has serious implications for what we think about Jesus, undermining his entire ministry. I understand the heart: no one delights in seeing people in eternal conscious torment.
To Loritts — What would you say to someone who has cut their teeth on Bell? They are not committed to this view, but are sympathetic to it.
We all need to be careful when we talk about these things not to overcorrect. We are to love unbelievers and we are to preach the love of God. I would encourage this person, not only to pursue right exegesis on this issue, but to the study of the nature of God altogether. Look at the wholeness of who God is. Secondly, look at how we really view Scripture. Thirdly, we need to understand that God does not need a PR agent or marketing firm. The whole idea of wanting to have a Jesus who the world can embrace is wrong.
DeYoung — "God does not need a publicist, he calls preachers."
Teachers will be judged more strictly(James 3:1). Questions are one thing, let’s talk about them all. Allow people to ask them, ask them yourself. But we must stay in the realm of mystery. If you are a teacher, at some point you need to let clarity be king.
To Keller — In light of your commitment to the gospel, how did Bell's book make you feel?
The first thing that disappointed me was not the content so much as the attitude. There is an immediate ridicule of apparent “close-minded” people. A conversation about conflict cannot begin with ridicule.
We should not pit the doctrines of God against one another. At the cross, the love and holiness of God both win.
To Carson — What advice can you give about receiving criticism? Does disagreeing immediately make you the bad guy? Where does the younger generation need tweaking here?
First, I worry about ministries that focus just on correcting everyone. What I hope to do in all my writing is to promote the truth and proclaim it positively. When we correct, we do it because we think that the glory of God is being diminished.
Part of a positive faithfulness to proclaiming the truth involves refutation. Our articulation of right doctrine also involves saying what it is not. And all our correction should be done thoughtfully and humbly.
Um asserted that universalism is unhelpful for sinners in need of atonement. Universalism subverts the work of Jesus on the cross. This whole situation is a wonderful opportunity for correction, for us to understand the finished work of Christ.
Loritts encouraged those considering universalism to write down all the issues their struggling with and go to the word of God. We should ask the Spirit to illumine our minds. We have listened to too many other voice. Go to the source.
Keller agreed with with Loritts and DeYoung and closed in prayer.