The question, then, is just what compels one to be an evangelical universalist? Some resort to prooftexting, operating with a naive, selective reading of Scripture. I’m going to do the evangelical universalist a favor and ignore such a strategy, only because I think it can be so easily refuted. (Many of these evangelical universalists would pounce on such selective prooftexting in other contexts.)
No, the motivation for evangelical universalism is not really a close reading of the Bible’s claims about eternity. Instead, it seems that the macro-motivation for evangelical universalism is less a text and more a hermeneutic, a kind of “sensibility” about the very nature of God as “love” (which includes its own implicit sensibility about the nature of love). Two phrases you will often hear from evangelical universalists involve hope and our imagination. (For a sample combination of this constellation of concerns, see Lauren Winner’s essay on Rob Bell in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review.) The concern is often formulated something like this:
1) “I can’t imagine” that a God of love would condemn Gandhi to hell. (Always Gandhi. Why Gandhi? As Ross Douthat asks, can you insert Tony Soprano here? Doesn’t the evangelical universalist case of Gandhi imply a kind of salvation by works? But I digress…) Or, as Winner puts it, evangelical universalists “can’t imagine their secular friends aren’t going to heaven.”
2) “I don’t know if all will be saved but I hope this will be true.” I’m firmly committed to the particularity of Christ, the evangelical universalist will emphasize. I just hope that God’s salvation is not so particular that he only saves some. And it is precisely God’s love and mercy that make me hope in this way.The question then is: are these hopes and imaginings sufficiently warranted to overturn the received, orthodox doctrines concerning final judgment and eternal damnation? Are these sufficient to overturn the narrative thrust of Scripture and the clearer reading of biblical passages that suggest otherwise?
Read the rest for a thoughtful response.
And for those continuing to follow the Rob Bell discussion, here is a radio debate/discussion between Bell and Adrian Warnock. From what I’ve been able to hear thus far, they get into quite a few issues and Adrian handles himself quite well.
Update: For those who want a book-length response to Bell, Michael Wittmer has published the first (though I’m sure not last).