The place: Northern Germany; the time: Late 15th, early 16th century. Martin Luther had posted his 95 theses; he had had his famous confrontation at the Diet of Worms at which he had refused to take back any of his teachings or writings. After a contentious debate all of his supporters had walked out of the Diet (assembly) leaving his enemies, who promptly passed articles of condemnation and excommunication against Luther. Why? He was preaching Grace! He was teaching that St. Paul had proclaimed that we are brought into relationship with God through Christ on the basis, NOT of anything we do, but only on the basis of God’s love and grace. This was a dangerous teaching. One Cardinal expressed that if this kind of theology caught on then the church was doomed. If the church was not needed to broker forgiveness, to maintain and adjudicate God’s law, to sell indulgences on the basis of which is determined who goes to heaven and who doesn’t, then who needs the church?
I was reminded of this dispute as I read a recent article in Time Magazine about the controversy surrounding Rob Bell’s book: Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. His own evangelical colleagues have been harsh in their condemnation. “Universalism,” they cry! “Theologically disastrous!” Albert Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is quoted as saying “When you adopt universalism… you don’t need the church, and you don’t need Christ and you don’t need the cross…” Sounds a lot like the Medieval Cardinals complaint about Luther. Both of them are saying – If God is about love, then who needs us?
So, is Rob Bell guilty of universalism? I think not. Bell is deeply committed to Jesus. But, like Luther, Bell has found a way to present the Gospel of grace in new and fresh and compelling ways. The problem for the establishment is that that shatters the “arrogant certainty” which characterizes so much of the discourse between Christians these days. Bell is suggesting that we Christians need to first, rediscover that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a Gospel of love (See the lectionary Gospel texts for Easter 5, 6 and 7 A - for example, not to mention all of John's account of the last supper and the final discourse that follows). And second, judging is not in our job description. We need to accept that God is bigger than any of us; and that God might choose to reach out to the whole world in a variety of different ways. And rather than us sitting in judgment on others, we Christians are called to recognize that heaven (and hell for that matter) are already in our midst and that we are called to reach out in the love of God to this hungry and hurting world – yes, the entire world. Even to people whom we don’t like or we don’t agree with or who think differently than we do, and who have different priorities and recognize that we are all children of God.
Bell reminds us that the grace and love of God is completely beyond our comprehension. The grace and love of God are also beyond our control – praise God. The grace and love of God are extended to all of the world that God created and declared “good.” While we humans want to be in control and limit heaven to folks like us – God has other ideas. This is exactly what the Gospels say. The false Gospel of the tyrant God who was suppose to destroy the world and visit havoc and misery on millions of people on May 21 is a lie; the false Gospel of the tyrant God who will destroy all that God loves in creation is a lie; the false Gospel of the tyrant God who expects mental assent to a series of propositions is a lie. We are brought into the heart of God not through our good deeds, our right belief, our certainty, our passion, or anything else – we are brought into the heart of God on the basis of God’s love and grace – only!
And then what is the church. If the church is not needed to broker God’s grace and forgiveness; if the church is not there to determine who is in and who is out then what is the point. The church is a community of those who God loves. We come together to celebrate this love and to be reminded and strengthened in our faith through hearing the Word and receiving the Sacrament of Bread and Wine. The Church it is the people – living out their lives – called, enlightened, sanctified for the work of Jesus Christ. (Jay Beech - "We Are the Church") The church is like an outpost of the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth – where those who God loves can be in relationship with others who God loves and through whom others can experience this love.
I actually did not find the book to be terribly new. I had read it all before in the New Testament and in Luther. But Bell has a unique way of writing and of using language that makes him easy to read and understand. This is a wonderful book. I commend it to everyone and hope you will all take a little time to read it. I have placed my copy in the church library and will be buying a couple more copies to put in there for you. Read it - read it – read it! I can’t lift up this book enough.
I will let Pastor Bell have the last word. At the end of the book he writes:
Love is why I’ve written this book and love is what I want to leave you with. May you experience this vast, expansive, infinite, indestructible love that has been yours all along. May you discover that this love is as wide as the sky and as small as the cracks in your heart no one else knows about. And may you know, deep in your bones, that love wins.