If Love Wins, What is Lost? A Response to Rob Bell

Paul Coulter continues his review of Rob Bell's book Love Wins by considering Bell's view on the scope of salvation.

Exclusivity, Inclusivity or Universal Salvation?

The core accusation about Bell’s view of salvation is that he advocates ‘Universalism’, which is one of three views of the scope of salvation that have been found within Christian thinking. The three positions are:

• ‘Exclusivism’ – the belief that only those who have heard the proclaimed message of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection and have responded to it in faith will be saved. This view takes New Testament texts that speak of those who believe in Christ being saved and those who do not believe being condemned (e.g. John 3:18; 1 John 5:11-12) to refer to all people rather than simply those who have heard the gospel. Three distinct schools of thought can be identified within this Exclusivist camp, each of which represents a different view about what happens to people who have never heard the gospel prior to death:
     o ‘Restrictivism[1] – the opportunity to respond in faith to the gospel is restricted to this life alone. Those who die without hearing the gospel cannot be saved. Historic proponents of Restrictivism have included Augustine of Hippo, John Calvin, Carl Henry and Jonathan Edwards. More recent proponents include R.C. Sproul and Ronald Nash.
     o ‘Postmortem evangelisation’ – those who have not heard the gospel in this life will be given an opportunity to respond to it after death. Proponents of this view generally appeal to the mention in 1 Peter 3:18-4:6 of Jesus preaching through the Spirit to spirits in prison. Opponents point out that this passage is one of the most difficult to interpret in the whole New Testament and that it is unwise to base a theory so firmly on an unclear passage. Historic proponents of this view include Clement of Alexandria. More recent proponents include George Macdonald, Donald Bloesch and Gabriel Fackre.
     o ‘Universal opportunity before death’ – God will gave all people who would respond in faith to the gospel (or perhaps all people without exception) an opportunity to do so during this life whether by sending a human missionary to them or through more supernatural means (e.g. dreams, visions, angelic messengers). Proponents point to biblical examples such as Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams (Daniel 2), the Ninevites in the time of Jonah, and the Ethiopian official in Acts 8. Historic proponents include Thomas Aquinas and Jacobus Arminius. More recent proponents include Norman Geisler and Robert Lightner. One variation of this view, known as the ‘final option theory’ that has been proposed by Roman Catholic theologians including John Henry Newman claims that Christ encounters all people at the moment of death providing them with an opportunity to repent and believe.

• ‘Inclusivism’ – the belief that those who have not heard the gospel faithfully proclaimed may be saved if they respond in faith to whatever ‘light’ they have been given by God (whatever knowledge about Himself God has revealed to them). These people will realise after death that the light they had responded to came from God and that Christ was the ultimate object of their hopes and their faith. Inclusivists generally argue from the fact that Old Testament believers were saved despite obviously not having heard the name of Jesus or understood the details of his death and resurrection. They claim that Romans 2 raises the possibility of people being saved through general revelation without receiving special revelation from God.[2] They also argue that the texts about the condemnation of those who do not believe in Jesus that Exclusivists claim in support of their position actually refer only to people who have heard the gospel and rejected it and cannot apply to those who have never heard. Historic proponents of Inclusivism have included Justin Martyr and John Wesley. More recent proponents include C.S. Lewis, Clark Pinnock, Wolfhart Pannenberg and John Sanders.

• ‘Universalism’ – the belief that all people will eventually be saved through Christ (strictly this is ‘Christian Universalism’ since it retains belief in Jesus as the only Saviour). It is important to realise that Universalists may be either Exclusivist (if they hold to the ‘Postmortem Evangelism’ or ‘Universal opportunity before death’ views) or Inclusivist in their views about how God will save people but they cannot be Restrictivists. There is a range of opinion among Universalists about how God will achieve this universal salvation and what degree of knowledge and faith is required for a person to be saved. Universalists who believe that God will not save anyone against their will must argue either that there is a universal opportunity to respond to the gospel before or after death and that all respond in faith or that Hell is purgatorial in the sense that God allows people a lengthy time (as long as it takes) to respond to His grace. Historic Universalists include Origen and Friedrich Schleiermacher. More recent proponents include William Barclay and Jacques Ellul.

It should be noted that all three of these views maintain a belief, based on texts such as John 14:6 and Acts 4:12, that Christ is the unique revelation of God and the only Saviour, thus distinguishing them from ‘Pluralism’, which claims that all religions are equally true and that there are many ways to reach God. It is also worth noting that these various positions cut across other theological divides within Christianity including the distinction between Calvinism and Arminianism. A Calvinist, for example, will accept that only the elect will be saved and will hold to the distinctive view that God’s saving grace is irresistible but they may hold to different views about how many people are elect and how and when God shows His grace to the elect. With the exception of Universalism, all of these views allow for the possibility of Hell as a final place of separation from God for those who are not saved, but they allow for either the traditional view or Annihilationism.

It should also be noted that many Christians have held an agnostic view (concluding that we cannot be certain) on the fate of those who die without hearing the gospel on the basis that they find insufficient evidence in the Bible to reach a conclusive decision. These people generally hold to the belief that God wishes all people to be saved and that He will ensure that as many people as possible are saved. They maintain that the scriptural evidence focuses only on those who have received special revelation from God and that it is not concerned to answer our questions about those who have not. By definition if we are reading the Scriptures we have received God’s special revelation and will be judged on the basis of our response to it. God will judge those who have not heard fairly and justly and although we can hope that many might be saved we cannot say definitively how many will be saved or on what basis. Finally, it should also be noted that none of these views precludes the idea or the necessity of Christian mission. Restrictivists alone will be motivated by a belief that if people do not hear the gospel they cannot be saved, but all of the other views can point to other motivations for mission including obedience to Christ’s command and the greater benefits and blessings in this life for those who know Christ and have access to Scripture. A discussion of the relative merits of exclusivism and inclusivism in light of Scripture is beyond the scope of this review, but both have excellent pedigrees within evangelical thought.[3] In contrast, evangelicals have traditionally rejected the idea of Universalism on the basis of the many New Testament references to people who will be judged and condemned to Hell, although some have argued that it is a good thing to hope that all might be saved.

Is Bell a Universalist?

On page 9, where he asks what happens if the missionary gets a flat tyre and cannot come to tell someone about Jesus, Bell is clearly concerned to attack ‘Restrictivism’ but he does not mention the possibility of Inclusivism. Later in the book, Bell considers John 14:6, where Jesus says that “I am the way the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me”. Bell’s discussion of this verse shows conclusively that he is not a ‘Pluralist’, since he insists that it shows “Jesus alone as the way to God” (p.154) and explicitly rejects the claim that “good people will get in, that there is only one mountain, but it has many paths” (pp.154-5). Interestingly, Bell calls this false view “inclusivity”, while he uses the word “exclusivity” to describe the view that:

Jesus is the only way. Everybody who doesn’t believe in him and follow him in the precise way defined by the group doing the defining isn’t saved, redeemed, going to heaven, and so on. (p.154)

This view, which Bell also rejects, is what we have described as Restrictivism. Bell’s decision to describe Pluralism as the alternative to it using the label ‘inclusivity’ without mentioning the possibility of Christian Inclusivism as described above would appear to be further evidence of his tendency to force the reader to choose between polar opposite views. This is another example of the practice we saw in his consideration of views about Hell of attacking the view that is most different from his own and not taking seriously a view that is less distant from it. In the context of Hell he did not seriously consider Annihilationism, which overcomes some of his objections to the ‘traditional’ view of Hell, and in the context of the scope of salvation he does not seriously consider Inclusivism, which solves some of his problems with the Exclusivist position. I do not intend to imply that the Annihilationist or Inclusivist positions are necessarily correct, but I am simply pointing out that Bell appears determined to drive people towards the views he favours by painting the views at the opposite extreme in the worst possible light using caricatures and emotive language and neglecting to mention that there are alternative views that sit between the two extremes. This is not an honest way to consider any topic and it is regrettable that Bell takes this approach. Having dismissed these two extremes, Bell presents his own position, which he calls “exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity” (p.155), as the moderate position. His description of this option is, however, somewhat confused. At one point he appears to conceive of it in terms similar to what we have called ‘Inclusivism’:

This kind insists that Jesus is the way, but holds tightly to the assumption that the all-embracing, saving love of this particular Jesus the Christ will of course include all sorts of unexpected people from across the cultural spectrum. (pp.154-5)

This would almost suffice as a description of the Inclusivist position, but Bell proceeds to describe the “exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity” view in terms that sound like Universalism:

What Jesus does is declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody. And then he leaves the door way, way open. Creating all sorts of possibilities. He is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe. He is as exclusive as himself and as inclusive as containing every single particle of creation. (p.155)

This statement reaches far beyond what Jesus actually says in John 14. He does not say that he is “saving everybody”, nor does he say anything about breadth or narrowness. Just as we saw in our consideration of his views on Hell, Bell stops short of endorsing one perspective unequivocally but he pushes the reader inevitably towards one conclusion, in this case ‘Universalism’.

Bell’s main discussion of Universalism is in Chapter 4, Does God Get What God Wants? This title is derived from Bell’s discussion of 1 Timothy 2:4 (already mentioned in our consideration of his view of God’s character), which is located in the earlier part of the same chapter. Bell uses a series of questions to open up the possibility in the reader’s mind that God may eventually save all people before promising to discuss “some specific responses” (p.103). As we consider the responses he mentions we must remember that Bell is firmly committed to the idea that people must choose to respond to God’s love. This raises the obvious difficulty that many people die without ever doing so. How can this be reconciled with the hope that all people might be saved, which is, after all, God’s stated desire? The responses to this conundrum that Bell considers, which he assures us have all been proposed by “serious, orthodox followers of Jesus” (p.109), are:

• The view that we can only choose to respond to God in this life (Restrictivism), with the variation among some that people who reject God become progressively dehumanised.

• The view that there is a single second chance after death (the ‘Postmortem evangelisation’ view as described above). On page 106 he appeals to Martin Luther as a supporter of this view (see our discussion of the nature of the book for the problems with this quotation).

• The view, which he considers to be a logical extension of one post-mortem opportunity to reconsider, that there are multiple repeated ‘second chances’ and that God gives us, “As long as it takes” (p.107). Bell is at pains to emphasise that this view is found throughout church history from the early church in a “long tradition of Christians” (p.107). He names Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Eusebius as people within this tradition and says that Jerome, Basil and Augustine acknowledged it was the predominant view (pp.107-8). It should be noted that although all of these historic figures believed in some type of postmortem opportunity to repent, not all of them were Universalists, although Bell does not make this distinction clear.

This third view would appear to be most compatible with ‘Universalism’ and it is the only one that can allow for the purgatorial view of Hell that Bell favours, but does it find support in the Bible? Although we may agree with Martin Luther that God is capable of offering people an opportunity to repent after death, the only biblical passage that is regularly presented in support of this theory is 1 Peter 3:18-4:6, which is, as we have already said, one of the most notoriously difficult in the whole New Testament to interpret (reference to any commentary will confirm this). It is a basic principle of biblical interpretation that no doctrine should be founded on one unclear passage. Furthermore, there are very strong suggestions elsewhere in the New Testament that the final judgement will be based on the actions of individuals during this life alone. Hebrews 9:27 says that “man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgement”. In the description of the final judgement in Revelation 20:11-15 there is no suggestion that anyone will have a final chance to repent before being cast into the lake of fire. What is depicted is that those people who have died are gathered from the sea, from death and from Hades (the place of the dead) to face God’s judgement on the basis of the deeds they had committed during their life with the final decision to cast them into the lake of fire being made on the basis that they are not named in the book of life. In John 5:28-29 Jesus says “a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.”

The idea of postmortem evangelisation is, therefore, purely speculative and we may say the same about the idea that God presents people with a universal opportunity before death. Although I would not be dogmatic in denying that either of these is possible I cannot defend either view from Scripture and, in my judgement, the balance of biblical evidence would appear to weigh against both views.

Bell suggests three reasons for considering Universalism. Firstly, he mentions several Bible passages that supposedly point towards it. On page 107 he mentions parts of three verses (Matthew 19:28, Acts 3:21 and Colossians 1:20) that appear to point in that direction, but he does not engage in any discussion of any of these verses or their context. In a later chapter Bell he returns to his speculation on Universalism and offers four scriptures in support (p.134). In each case, however, he fails to understand the verse correctly in context:

• Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:22 that “as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive”. Bell misses the fact that Paul is not saying all people will be made alive but all those who are ‘in Christ’, a characteristically Pauline term for those who have believed in Him (see Romans 8:1).

• Titus 2:11, which says that, “the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men”. Bell does not mention the two common understandings of this verse which are either that “all men” means all kinds of men or that God’s grace appear to all men but people are free to reject, since Paul does not say that all are saved.

• Romans 5:18, which speaks of “life for all men” through Christ’s righteous act. This phrase is interpreted either as meaning all kinds of people or on the basis that the wider context makes it clear that it is only those who are ‘in Christ’ who receive this life since the contrast is with those who are in Adam and thus receive condemnation. In fact, the immediately preceding verse shows that it is only “those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace” who will reign in life. In the wider context of Romans this can hardly mean all people.

• Jesus’ claim in John 12:32 that he will “draw all men” to himself. Bell writes that, “He is sure, confident, and set on this. All people, to himself” (p.151). Again this verse is often understood to mean all kinds of people or that all are drawn but some can resist that drawing.

All four of these verses, then, are compatible with Exclusivism or Inclusivism and none demands a Universalists interpretation. Bell also appeals to the Old Testament prophets for support of Universalism. He takes the prophecies about the inclusion of the Gentiles to mean that, “God will be united and reconciled with all people” (p.100), yet the prophets wrote simply that all nations would be included. There is an important distinction between saying that people from all nations will be saved and claiming that all people without exception will be saved, yet Bell blurs this. In the same discussion he also misuses Malachi 2:10 to support the idea of God as the father of all people (p.99), when the context clearly shows that this verse is about the nation of Israel and whether they have been faithful to their Father God. There is no suggestion that God is the father of all people, and Scripture is careful never to make that claim – the term ‘father’ is one that only God’s own people can use to speak of Him. In the same argument Bell uses Paul’s quotation of a Greek poet in Acts 17:28 to claim that “Paul says” we are all God’s offspring (failing to distinguish between Paul’s own words and the words he quotes as a starting point for a lengthier discussion) and Ephesians 3:15 to suggest the same when that verse is actually about God as the origin of fatherhood rather than God as the father of all people.

Secondly, he argues that God receives greater glory through universal salvation than the traditional concept of Hell:

the belief that untold masses of people suffering forever doesn’t bring God glory. Restoration brings God glory; eternal torment doesn’t. Reconciliation brings God glory; endless anguish doesn’t. Renewal and return cause God’s greatness to shine through the universe; never-ending punishment doesn’t. (p.108)

Bell offers no biblical basis for this belief which appears to reflect his own judgement of what he thinks should glorify God most. We may wonder why the Bible authors (or the Spirit who inspired them) did not seem to think that God’s glory was lessened by their depictions of people being judged and lost. Revelation, the book that speaks of people being cast into the ‘lake of fire’ (20:15) speaks of God as the one who deserves all glory because he is Creator (4:11), Redeemer (5:13) and Judge (19:1-2) without any sense of contradiction. It appears that God is equally glorified through all three actions.

Thirdly, in another echo of the book’s title, Bell expresses his confidence that God’s love is so great that it must ultimately be triumphant over human resistance:

an untold number of serious disciples of Jesus across hundreds of years have assumed, affirmed, and trusted that no one can resist God’s pursuit forever, because God’s love will eventually melt even the hardest of hearts [...] Which is stronger and more powerful, the hardness of the human heart or God’s unrelenting, infinite, expansive love? (pp.108-9)

This way of speaking about God’s love comes very close to denying what Bell later goes on to say, that love must allow its object freedom to reject it (p.113). Some Christians do believe that God’s grace cannot be resisted,[4] but Bell does not. The above quotation reflects a perennial problem for Christian Universalists, which is how to reconcile the belief that love must include the freedom to reject it with the hope that all will one day be saved. A discussion of predestination and election is beyond the remit of this study but it is worth noting that the biblical idea of an elect people is difficult to reconcile with the idea that all will be saved, however we believe the membership of the elect is decided.[5] We might suggest, however, that ‘Universalism’ is not truly logically consistent with a belief in the kind of freedom that Bell believes in.[6] The only way to be a convinced Universalist is to believe that God is committed to saving everyone and that He will have His way with every person whether they choose to accept Him or not.

This inability to reconcile the freedom to reject God’s love with the hope that all will be saved would appear to be the only reason why Bell falls short of endorsing ‘Universalism’ unambiguously. He clearly finds it appealing as a story that is “bigger, more loving, more expansive, more extraordinary, beautiful, and inspiring than any other story about the ultimate course history takes” (p.111) and writes that:

Whatever objections a person might have to this story, and there are many, one has to admit that it is fitting, proper, and Christian to long for it... To shun, censor, or ostracize someone for holding this belief is to fail to extend grace to each other in a discussion that has had plenty of room for varied perspectives for hundreds of years now. (p.111)

Frustratingly, Bell doesn’t identify what these many objections are. What he does say is that the questions of whether everyone will be saved or some will “perish apart from God forever because of their choices” are “tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires” (p.115). Although this open position may seem very non-dogmatic, Bell is happy to be dogmatic in his rejection of some views of Hell and the whole chapter within which he makes the statement reads as a fairly passionate proposal of the Universalist position. We can only say that Bell is at best inconsistent and at worst hypocritical on this point. He is not honestly asking for openness but building a case for a certain position. He is also ignoring his own advice about the dangers of speculation:

Hard and fast, definitive declarations then, about how God will or will not organize the new world must leave plenty of room for all kinds of those possibilities. This doesn’t diminish God’s justice or take less seriously the very real consequences of sin and rebellion, it simply acknowledges with humility the limits of our powers of speculation. (p.116)

This is a remarkable statement to make towards the end of a chapter in which he has engaged in extended speculation as well as criticism of alternative views in a spirit that does not demonstrate great humility. So, then, Bell is attracted to ‘Universalism’, but in the final analysis it is just one of a number of speculative suggestions about which we cannot be dogmatic. This conclusion would be acceptable if Bell engaged in a serious exegetical study of the verses he mentions and of the many other verses that could be listed as ‘proof texts’ against ‘Universalism’ including all those that speak of ungodly people ultimately being judged, condemned or punished.

Are We Resigned to Speculation?

Bell’s reference to speculation raises the question as to whether we have really been left by God without any evidence that might point us towards a more certain conclusion. After all, speculation about a person’s views is only necessary when they have not revealed them, but God has spoken to us. We have already considered some verses that Bell proposes in support of Universalism, but there are several other lines of biblical evidence that must be considered. One obvious problem for Bell’s idea of multiple opportunities to be reconciled with God after death is the urgency and seriousness that the Scriptures appear to attach to the response we make to God here and now. Nowhere is this more evident than in the parables of Jesus. Bell restricts the application of these parables to our use of time in the present life, as the following quotation demonstrates:

These are strong, shocking images of judgment and separation in which people miss out on rewards and celebrations and opportunities. Jesus tells these stories to wake us up to the timeless truth that history moves forward, not backward or sideways. Time does not repeat itself. Neither does life. While we continually find grace waiting to pick us up off the ground after we have fallen, there are realities to our choices. While we may get other opportunities, we won’t get the one right in front of us again. That specific moment will pass and we will not see it again. It comes, it’s here, it goes, and then it’s gone. Jesus reminds us in a number of ways that it is vitally important we take our choices here and now as seriously as we possibly can because they matter more than we can begin to imagine. (p.197)

So, according to Bell, these parables are intended to make us think about better choices. They are not intended to warn us that we must respond to God’s offer of salvation before it is too late and there is no possibility of a further choice. Yet in each of the parables of Matthew 25 there is a sense of finality and these parables are set in the context of Jesus’ concern to warn his hearers that the day of His return (the coming of the Son of man) is unknown and therefore they must be ready (Matthew 24:36-44). There can be no doubt that Jesus is setting these parables in the context of the Old Testament idea of the day of the Lord which, as we have already seen earlier, He associates with a coming of the Son of Man “on the clouds of the sky, with great power and great glory” and the gathering together of God’s elect (Matthew 24:30-31). In other words, Bell is simply wrong to suggest that the parables apply primarily to the everyday choices we make. They are all about the day when God separates his own people from the other people of the world, the urgency of ensuring that we are in that group and the horror of ending up outside it. In each parable some people end up inside and others outside – there is a clear separation of people that is incompatible with the idea of Universalism.

There are many other passages that Bell does not consider which create serious problems for the ‘Universalist’ position. Jesus said much about entering the Kingdom (e.g. Matthew 18:3) and receiving eternal life (John’s “I am” sayings). Why urge people to enter the Kingdom now if there is no concern that they might one day end up outside it? Or consider his warnings in Matthew 7 at the end of the ‘Sermon on the Mount’. What can the image of the narrow and wide gate in verses 13-14, or the warning that even some who did miracles in His name would be told to depart from him in verse 23, or the image of the wise and foolish builders in verses 24-27, mean if they are not intended to warn that the decisions made in this life have eternal consequences. Or what sense is there in the urgency with which Paul worked to see some saved (e.g. 1 Corinthians 9:19) if all would eventually be saved anyway? True he envisaged a day when all would acknowledge Jesus as Lord (Philippians 2:11) and when all things would be reconciled to God through Christ (Colossians 1:19-20), but these verses do not require that those people will acknowledge this truth gladly or be reconciled into a loving relationship. Paul’s confidence was that God would be ultimately victorious and that nothing would be left in rebellion against him, yet this is exactly the possibility that Bell imagines when he writes of people being allowed to continue as their own gods forever if they continue to reject God’s love (pp.115-6, quoted earlier). How are the warnings of Hebrews about the consequences of ignoring the salvation God has provided in Christ (Hebrews 2:3) to be taken seriously if there is, in fact, no “judgement and [...] raging fire that will consume the enemies of God (Hebrews 10:27)? Or what of Peter’s belief that the coming day that would bring salvation for those who have faith in Christ would also be a “day of judgement and destruction of ungodly men” (2 Peter 3:7)? Adding all of this to the testimony of Revelation we must conclude that the consistent expectation of the New Testament is that history is moving relentlessly towards a climactic day when God will act decisively in judgement, creating a new world where only righteousness will be permitted and condemning those who have rejected him to eternal destruction. None of the writers of the New Testament seem to have shared Bell’s reluctance to reach a conclusion on how God would arrange the details of the new world. Rather they were concerned, as God inspired them, to warn people about the eternal consequences of the response we make to God in this life.

Go to Bell on Christ and the cross


[1] It should be noted that some authors, confusingly, use the term ‘Exclusivism’ to mean what we have called ‘Restrictivism’.
[2] ‘General revelation’ refers to what can be known about God by all people through nature, conscience and natural law. ‘Special revelation’ refers to verbal revelation especially the Scriptures and the person of Jesus Christ.
[3] Those who are interested in reading further are encouraged to read John Sanders (editor), What About Those Who Have Never Heard? (1995, IVP) which contains a useful overview of the various views and detailed presentations of Restrictivism, Inclusivism and Postmortem Evangelisation with responses to each presentation by the other writers.
[4] ‘Irresistible grace’ or ‘efficacious grace’ is a key part of the theological system known as Calvinism.
[5] One possible way to reconcile this difficulty is the idea that election, whether of Israel or the Church, was never about salvation but about becoming God’s agent in the world – election to service rather than salvation. Bell does not discuss this idea and neither will I, but I mention it for the sake of completeness.
[6] Bell believes in ‘libertarian’ or ‘counterfactual’ freedom (that freedom must include the real possibility of an alternative choice) but ‘Universalism’ requires belief in either determinism or the concept of ‘compatibilist’ or ‘non-counterfactual’ freedom (that we have freedom to choose but that this does not require that we could have chosen otherwise).

Go to Bell on Christ and the cross

© 2011 Paul Coulter
This article is published on bethinking.org by the kind permission of the author.