A few weeks ago, Rob Bell’s promotional video for his new book set off a series of responses from evangelicals who were upset about what they perceived to be his universalism. I am disturbed by a lot of the reactions he’s getting, and I’ve been trying to put my finger on why this is striking so many people at the core. Here are my thoughts.
I feel that evangelical culture is driven, in many ways, by a fear of hell–hell being a future state of complete separation from God. Much of our evangelism is centered around hell and trying to keep people from going there. “You have to tell people the bad news before the good news sounds good” is something I heard growing up. Translation, for non-evangelicals: “You have to tell people what their problem is (that they’re sinners and on their way to hell) before the good news, the solution (that Jesus can save them from sin and hell), will sound good to them.”
Sharing the gospel has become synonymous with telling people that without Jesus, they are hell-bound. If we didn’t have a hell to appeal to–if the stakes were not eternal damnation–we wouldn’t know how to talk to people about Jesus. Do we know Jesus as the good news who transcends where we will be after we die? Rob Bell’s alleged universalism strikes not just at the doctrine of hell and who we think will be there. It strikes, for many of us, at the gospel itself. At our fear-driven, hell-focused, afterlife-centered gospel.