People of the Books: The Universalism Debate, part 1

School is just around the corner—that is, if you think of weekends as corners, which makes a weird kind of sense to me.  We begin Tuesday, and IN NO WAY am I prepared for this year.  I have a strong sense that next weekend will be me peeling myself off the floor from having been utterly stomped by the overwhelming nature of my unpreparedness.

But, in the spirit of the ending of summer, I felt like I can do a sort of What I Did With My Summer Vacation essay (I mean, besides attending funerals).  Remember these?  All the other kids always had grand adventures, like going to Disney World or learning to rock climb.   When I was a kid, highlights of my summer usually included making friends with the tree in my front yard and reading for hours on end perched in a branch.

But this summer, I accidentally made a wide study of two things:  the television representations of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, which was actually pretty awesome, and the general arguments about the existence and nature of hell.

So these two weeks be a review of all the books connected with that.  It will be long.  Sorry about that.  At least you’ll get lots of pictures.  And snark.

Love Wins by Rob Bell (4 stars):  The One That Started It All.  My church read this for a book study back in the spring, and I got curious.  Nothing good ever comes from that, of course.  Academically speaking, the book is crap—the typeset is terrible and wasteful, the editing is sub-par, there are absolutely no citations for his assertions, and even his Biblical references lack verse numbers.  But then, this clearly isn’t meant for academics.  It’s a pop culture call to assess what we mean when we tell someone they’re going to hell, and for that I respect Bell.  Granted, this would have done better as a pamphlet, but his style is accessible, his attempts to take incredibly dense theology and present it in such a way that it’s neither forced nor didactic are laudable.  I really appreciate his views on heaven and the importance of not screwing up the only planet God gave us.  Bell made me think, and I really appreciate books that make me think.  I also really appreciate that Bell doesn’t say “I am right” but “I am trying to start a conversation.”  Granted, a lot of the ways he starts that conversation feel an awful lot like “I am right,” but that’s the nature of arguing.  Not everybody can be right.  Whatever else I disagree with Bell in, I do agree that these questions need to be asked, and we need to continue to push ourselves to think about the things that play havoc with our boxes of a defined God.

Christ Alone by Michael Wittmer (4 stars):  Since I’m an academic and strenuously trained to question everything and everyone ever, I wasn’t content to stop at LW.  So I went looking for responses, and found this one, which is actually a direct response to Bell.  As in, it’s in the subtitle.  And the marketing.  And it’s a decent response.  Again, I respect that Wittmer doesn’t start with “I’m totally right and y’all suck” but instead “Bell invited us to a conversation, and I’m entering that conversation.”  His views are totally the other side of the fence, as Wittmer is coming from a heavily Reformed theology where We Have Screwed Up So Very, Very Badly and again, I don’t agree with everything.  But he brings up some great points about church tradition and the nature and impact of the cross that I felt even before I’d read this.  I taught two sections of a book study on this at church this summer (hence the Summer Vacation) and I think we really got some great moments out of recognizing what we’re saying when we talk about elective salvation, sacrificial theology, and the human demands for a loving God Who also has to be holy.  Like I said, I don’t completely agree with this, either, but I’m very glad to have read it so as to be aware of the ends of the spectrum.

God Wins by Mark Galli (2 stars):  Let me start by saying there were good things about this book (although most of them were also stated in CA).  Calling Bell out for the way he treats the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is a good thing. Really hammering the difference between the boundaries allowed by grace and those of judgment is a good thing. But so much of this is so short-sighted in taking on Bell’s statements. The book itself claims to be “not about Rob Bell or Rob Bell’s theology,” and for the most part that’s true, which is good, because some of the response books are just vicious attacks of idiocy. But this gets really bogged down in Bell’s statements: in trying to say that we can’t talk about Christianity as if it’s all about us, Galli never provides a way that we can talk about it when the only lens we have is ours. It makes assumptions about the assumptions of LW and doesn’t fully present a case to replace its “incorrect” ones (like on page 71, when Galli asserts that LW “assumes that human beings are unbiased moral agents who stand above the fray and make independent decisions about the most important matters.” Wrong. LW is always aware of the bias of humanity; it just has more faith in our making the correct decisions despite this than Galli does). And where LW errs on the side of human choice, GW seems to err on the side of sovereignty—I think for the doctrine of free will to be true, you have to allow a certain amount of breaking away from God and yet accept that this does not make Him “helpless.”  I felt there was more righteous indignation than real theological argument here, and I don’t care about how much you think Bell is making Christianity look bad.

There are two more, which I’ll save for next week because this is running long by now.  Oh, the anticipation!

Have a delightful holiday weekend, Reader.  Wish me luck for whatever’s around the corner—I seem to have misplaced my hand mirror so I can be ahead of it.



3 thoughts on “People of the Books: The Universalism Debate, part 1

  1. […] do that.  What Prudence understood was that I am an exclusivist in my theology, which means that I do believe in a Heaven and a Hell and I do believe that dying isn’t an automatic ticket to Heaven, […]


  2. […] in heaven beyond “yup, there is one.”  I have a few more ideas on hell because I read up on it, but even that I don’t think about it in a visual sense.  (Odd, considering how […]


  3. […] Final Good that Makes the Good News Good Is God.”  I think I was drawn to this in light of the Hell-wrangling I did this past summer, because Piper points out the conundrum that if we’re going to get really […]


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