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.