For Christian ministers to wrestle with traditional concepts of heaven and hell - and the equally traditional concept of G-d as “The Good Shepherd” (Matthew 18:10) and come out in favor of a G-d of love and eternal patience rather than a G-d of eternal punishment is nothing new. In my own Religious Society of Friends, two ministers, Phillip Gulley and James Mulholland, authored a book ( If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person, HarperCollins, 2003 ) in which they argued just that point: Yes, G-d will save EVERY person, if G-d is the way Jesus describes G-d - leaving the 99 sheep safely in the fold to go out after that one lost sheep.
And Gulley and Mulholland have endured a similar wrath as that being experienced by Rob Bell!
Of course, the debate goes back much farther than that and includes variations on the theme such as predestination, limited predestination, free will, and Christian universalism. Take a look at the various denominations of Baptists in the North Carolina mountains: Primitive Baptists, Hard-Shell Baptists, Two Seed in the Spirit Baptists, Free Will Baptists, Missionary Baptists - each evincing a different take on whether G-d predestines humans to eternal reward or punishment, or G-d wills that every person should be saved.
Of course, those denominations are arguing about a once-for-all decision, an acceptance of the truths of Christianity in THIS life as determinant of ones place in the afterlife. For those who believe in a literal heaven and hell, it is a question of utmost importance! Bell, Gulley, and Mulholland are arguing for something different: a G-d who has quite a bit of time on the Divine’s hands! And if G-d so chooses (and the parable of the Good Shepherd seems to imply this), G-d can be that “Hound of Heaven,” baying on the heels of the lost throughout eternity until they are found.
What gets many Christians upset about this understanding of universalism is what it makes of missionary activity, of evangelism. The religion of my youth often tried, literally, to “scare the hell” out of me! Threats of eternal damnation if I strayed off the straight and narrow were enough to keep me abstemious throughout the 1960s! Mighty powerful stuff that threat of an eternity roasting over that great Barbecue in Hades! As recently as the publication of If Grace Is True, a Friends minister said publicy that if that book is true, then what would be the reason for anyone to convert and accept Christ?
Gulley and Mulholland’s response was, “Gratitude, perhaps?”
I am not going to settle this argument in a blog for the Washington Post - nor will any other respondent. But I do wonder why, if whole denominations have been able to accept predestination as a valid theology - and go ahead to conduct evangelistic crusades (The First Great Awakening and George Whitefield, anyone?!), then there is no reason to believe that the evangelistic endeavor cannot proceed with a belief that G-d will eventually save everyone.
As for me, I prefer the sentiments of the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier, who, when confronted by some iron-willed Calvinists in his day (d. 1892) penned these lines in “The Eternal Goodness:”
“I know not what the future hath
Of marvel or surprise,
Assured alone that life and death
[G-d’s] mercy underlies.
I know not where [G-d’s] islands lift
Their fronded palms in air;
I only know I cannot drift
Beyond [G-d’s] love and care.
Ultimately, Whittier could not conceive of a G-d who would condemn the kind of sentiment in a human being that would have them revel in the gruesome torment of another human being, yet display that same behavior. And if that would be wrong for us - then how could it be good in G-d?
More importantly for me, we know what is right and good - both from outward sources of revealed truth and the “law” written on our hearts. I prefer to try to do what I know I ought to do and not worry about rewards and punishments. Let others wrestle over abstract theological notions of which nobody has a direct experience; I’m busy enough wrestling with what I already know and have experienced. That will be enough for me to do in this lifetime - and maybe the next!
Max Carter | Mar 17, 2011 4:15 PM