Monday, February 28, 2011

Jesus > Heaven

If you're a Jesus Nerd like me, you know that there was a huge blow up this past weekend in theological circles. (Yes, there are theological circles.) HarperOne released the promotional material for Rob Bell's latest book, Love Wins, and speculation quickly grew that Rob had become a Universalist. It started at Justin Taylor's blog at The Gospel Coalition, and then John Piper tweeted "Farewell, Rob Bell" with a link to the blog post. There has been a veritable firestorm of bloggers and tweeters since then, with many condemning Bell and many supporting him.

My first response, which I left on two friends' Facebook posts, was "I'm disappointed, but not surprised." All I had to go on was the HarperOne promotional blurb and a short video of Rob speaking. I have not, of course, read the book yet. I was foolish to pass judgment so quickly, and wish that I hadn't done so. Perhaps Rob Bell has become a Universalist, and perhaps he hasn't. I'll have to wait for the book. (By the way, bravo HarperOne for your marketing strategy. I'm not sure you intended to do it this way, but you've just generated A TON of interest.)

If you don't know, a Universalist is someone who believes that God welcomes every person into heaven. Hell is either empty or it does not exist at all. One of the toughest questions that faces Christians is this: "How could a loving God send anyone to hell?" The Universalist's answer is, "He doesn't".

This little dust up got me thinking about Universalism, heaven, hell, and the afterlife. Whether or not Rob Bell is a Universalist is beside the point. Universalism seems to be a reaction against a strict fundamentalism which places a great amount of emphasis on the afterlife, escaping hell, and getting into heaven. Gandhi is often the Universalist's prime example of justification for their view. If Gandhi is in hell, they might say, then God truly is unjust. The Fundamentalist's retort would be, of course, "Unless Gandhi placed his faith in Christ, he's burning in hell."

The trouble with Universalism and these strict forms of Fundamentalism is that they get things all backwards. Heaven is not the grand prize; Jesus is. Heaven is just the parting gift. The only reason heaven is great is because that's where Jesus reigns. Jesus makes heaven great. Universalists are wrong because you can't reject the grand prize and then demand the parting gift. If a potential employer clears the company account and rolls out the red carpet for you, and you turn down the job, don't expect them to validate your parking.

Fundamentalists and Evangelicals get it wrong when we say that Jesus is the way to heaven. He's not. He's what makes heaven worth pursuing. Heaven is nothing without Jesus. In fact, without Jesus (and the Father and the Holy Spirit) there is no heaven, because wherever they are, that is heaven! Let's make sure we're getting these in the right order. Jesus > heaven.


Jennifer said...

So then, what happens to Gandhi?

andy said...


I suppose we need to ask the question, "Did Gandhi ever sin?" If the answer is "no", then we are at odds with Christian faith. If the answer is "yes", then the follow up question is, "What was done about it?" God provided his only Son to be a sacrifice for the sins of everybody on earth for all time. The only stipulation to that sacrifice was, "Believe in him and trust him. He's the way to Me." There is no sacrifice we can make--no amount of money given or causes championed or homeless rescued or sick cared for--that can do for us what the death of Jesus has done. If Gandhi was unwilling to abide by God's single stipulation, then I suppose he will be left on the outside. Like I said in the post, rejecting Jesus and demanding heaven is like turning down the $1 billion grand prize but demanding the toaster oven as your parting gift. It just doesn't make sense.

Preston said...

Andy -

As a loving Christian how do I reconcile "not willing to abide by God's single stipulation" with "not willing that any should perish?"

Gandhi may be a poor example and an ironically good example at the same time, having been attributed the quote "I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ."

I can almost accept sending Gandhi to Hell for not taking the step of putting his faith in Christ, a figure with whom he was obviously familiar. But what of the child in a third world country who simply never heard? This question is a tired cliche, but I'm curious where you stand. Is that why we are called to make disciples if the nations? If so, the blame for the eternal fiery torture of all the unevangelized people groups I haven't yet personally reached is on my head, making me deserve Hell more than any sin I could ever imagine committing. I can't imagine there being no tears in heaven knowing that I had been such a tragic failure yet got in because I knew the owner.

So often fundamentalists paint things in black and white. Yes, God's existence is fact, so that's a black and white issue... but "faith in Jesus" versus "rejection of Jesus" is a false dichotomy. Nobody believes in Jesus and affirms that God sent him as a get-out-of-Hell-free card yet consciously chooses to reject that gift, opting instead for countless trillions of millennia of painful conscious torture. People either accept Christ or they accept something else (atheism, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, etc.). Is it fair to paint a fervent, honest, even presumably evidence-based faith in something else as a wanton rejection of the one true God?

I don't know if I'm a universalist or not, but I definitely need more concrete evidence and a well-constructed explanation of what there is to love about the God the fundamentalists are pushing. I'm the one who gets loved even though he doesn't deserve it... not God. My God is infinitely deserving of love.

I don't know if Rob Bell is a universalist either, but I've pre-ordered his book and I pray that he'll have some answers for me.


Jennifer said...

Andy- Fundamentalists-1, Gandhi-0.

Love you guys ;)