God is all-powerful, and God desires the salvation of every person. Does God get what God wants?
This arresting sentiment from Rob Bell’s controversial Love Wins forms a basis for Bell’s implicit – albeit unstated – universalism. Of course God gets what God wants, but even Bell recognizes that God’s desires and inner motives are too complex for him to conclude that all go to heaven just from this reasoning. Which is why he turns to something more easily understood: human nature. Bell’s argument is as follows:
“There’s a better question, one we can answer, one that takes all of this speculation about the future…and brings it back to the one absolute we can depend on in the midst of all this, which turns out to be another question. It’s not ‘Does God get what God wants?’ but “Do we get what we want?’ And the answer to this is a resounding, affirming, sure, and positive yes. Yes, we get what we want. God is that loving.”
Mark Galli, senior managing editor for Christianity Today (and recent Mbird Conference speaker) weighs in on the Universalism/Emergent Church debate with his own book, provocatively titled God Wins. Despite the book’s context, however, no one should mistake it for a simple manifesto on the existence of hell and judgment. While Galli certainly makes a well-reasoned and scriptural case for the justice of God, the book is much more that that. For one, it’s hard to imagine a better statement of orthodox Christian faith than Galli develops in his opening chapters on God, atonement, faith, and the afterlife. But it’s not merely the content of these chapters that makes them good – it’s Galli’s focus on the strands of Bell’s book that go deeper than the universalism question.
The main problem with the emergent church isn’t its soteriology. The denial of hell has certainly generated the most controversy in the media, and of course it’s given certain Christians some major headaches. The truth, however, is that the denial of eternal punishment may not even be Bell’s most radical claim.
Galli does well to devote the bulk of his book to refuting the root of Emergent church soteriology, which is a (frankly) absurd view of mankind. In the passage I quoted from Love Wins above, Bell goes on to reason that human beings want light, truth, goodness, and grace. Based on this absolute, he implies that yes, God does get what God wants. As Galli wisely points out, however, most humans have no idea what they want. We’re a mess of conflicting desires, many of which we manufacture or project. Later, in classic Reformed style, Galli expresses more surety about what humans want spiritually:
“According to [Bell’s] theology, then, what really wins is freedom of choice. Love Wins exalts that very American virtue to the highest place, making free choice the human value upon which our destiny is determined…
“Freedom in the Bible is not freedom to choose between two alternatives, the right to choose or not choose God…the Bible is clear that we have no such freedom. The metaphors it uses to describe our situation – darkness, deafness, death – all suggest the impossibility of seeing or hearing God, or living in him, without a miracle.”
In other words, the brand of universalism associated with the Emergent church is based on the premise that God gives humans freedom to choose. Humans, because they naturally incline toward goodness, love, truth, grace, etc – will choose God and become the sort of people fit to populate a new heaven. It’s like an “Invictus” in which we’re paddling with all our might towards the New Jerusalem. In this scheme, as Galli notes, Christ’s death isn’t so much atonement for guilt as it is triumph, liberation, and reconciliation. All of these, of course, are apt metaphors, but Love Wins has a flawed Christology for the same reason it inclines toward universalism – an inordinately high anthropology, one in which sin is worldly brokenness and disharmony – not so much something we do as something we follow Christ in fixing. Galli, in contrast, quotes Psalm 51 – against God, and God alone, we have sinned.
In this “high-anthropology universalism,” the overwhelming tendency is toward anthropomorphism: remaking God in our own image. This is why Galli focuses not only on beliefs, but on epistemology as well. In contrast to false reasoning based on human experience and (sometimes imaginary) desires, Galli stresses divine revelation, insisting that we contextualize our reasoning by revelation, not vice versa. He cites a passage from Romans, proclaiming, “I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose.” In an especially insightful and compassionate section, Galli combines his low anthropology with this emphasis on God, not man:
“Isn’t that a choice, to trust in Christ? Yes and no…It is not my trust which reconciles God to me or me to God. It is the death and resurrection of Christ that reconcile God to me, and the faith empowered by the Holy Spirit that reconciles me to God…
“And of course, we do not believe enough to be saved. Of course, selfishness rules our hearts in too many ways. Of course, we have doubts and confusion about God. It’s called sin. But the gospel calls us to stop looking at ourselves – at our doubts, our sins, and our choices. The Gospel says look to Christ…Faith includes a human response, but it isn’t the main point; the Savior is.”
Unlike many other treatments of the universalist/particularist debate, Galli’s book is holistic. It uses scripture not merely as evidence for hell’s existence, but also it recognizes the Emergent church phenomenon as one inordinately focused on human agency, with a correspondingly low view of God as a sort of partner or enabler in human affairs. It’s not just people looking for clarity on the universalist question who should read this book, but anyone looking for a succinct and well-reasoned overview of Reformation theology. It’s also good for those who didn’t get a chance to read through Bell’s book. As Tom in Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan memorably put it, “I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get the novelist’s ideas along with the criticism.”
This book is certainly good criticism. The only negative might be that its polemical context renders it a little less potent for more theologically serious universalists, or those with significantly lower/more sober anthropologies. That is, those taking their bearings from Origen’s and Gregory of Nyssa’s apokatastasis, or from Barth’s or von Balthasar’s undecided hopefulness, may not find a great dialogue partner here because the book is so immersed in responding to Bell’s view of man. It is Galli’s treatment of Bell’s full argument and his corresponding affirmation of Reformed anthropology, however, that makes it so accessible and (universally) relevant.