In 2011 Evangelical mega-star Rob Bell published his (infamous?) book Love Wins. In some ways this was Bell’s farewell to the evangelicalism of his early ministry. In the book, Bell advances a brand of universalism typically referred to as inclusivism or Christian inclusivism. The idea is that because God is love everyone, in the end, will be saved by Jesus regardless of what they have done or believed (though Bell does seem to hold out the possibility that some may be so unwilling to let God love them that they remain in some sense separated from God). In short, everyone will be saved, Bell claims, because love wins.
The idea is beguiling. After all, who relishes the idea of sinners being sentenced to eternal punishment? But we know from God’s Word that hell will be populated by impenitent sinners. We know that God does not acquit the guilty lest he be emptied of his righteousness. Jesus himself warned against the coming judgment more than anyone in the New Testament. Indeed, the Scriptures are filled with warnings for sinners to repent and be saved from the wrath to come. But still many professing Christians either struggle with or completely deny the Bible’s teaching concerning the judgment to come (Deut. 9:7; 2 Kings 23:26; 2 Chron. 12:7; 28:11; Ezra 10:14; Ps. 2:12; 21:9; 56:7; 78:38; 90:11; Isa. 13:13; Jer. 29:12; 30:23; Ez. 7:8; Micah 5:15; Matt. 3:7; 5:22; 5:29; 10:28; 23:33; Lk. 12:5; Jn. 3:36; Rom. 1:18; 3:5; 9:22; Eph. 2:3; 5:6; 1 Thess. 1:10; Heb. 3:11; 2 Pet. 2:4; Rev. 6:16; 11:18; 19:15).
It must also be acknowledged that even those Christians who have been well taught – those Christians who have sat under a faithful preaching ministry which upholds both the love and justice of God – are not unaccustomed to moments of inner conflict. We think about the many unbelievers we know who are good and decent people and wonder if it is really in the interest of justice for them to be excluded from life in the new creation.
The thought crosses our mind: “My father was not a Christian but he was a fine man. He loved my mother and his children. He was honest and hard working. He helped people whenever he could. He behaved better than some Christians I know! Would God really exclude him from salvation?” We know what the Bible says, but still we wonder.
God is Love
What a marvelous truth it is that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). He is neither cruel nor capricious. Because God is simple and not composed of various parts, we know that he does not merely do loving things but that he is love in his very essence. It is impossible for God to be or do anything that is in conflict with love.
God provides a far better definition of love than do parents, a spouse, the entertainment industry, or our own sentiments. So we must have our notions of love shaped by the character of God rather than expect God to conform to our ideas of what love must do in all circumstances. There are times when what love truly is and does (i.e. God’s love) will conflict with what we believe love ought to do. Given that we are both finite and sinful we should expect this sort of gulf between the truth and our expectations.
It is also important to know that as the perfect Creator and Lord of all things, it is appropriate, indeed necessary, for God to love himself. Since God is love then he certainly loves the most pure, perfect, and lovely Being. This is a challenge for us to grasp because our love for self is inherently corrupted by sinful impulses. Because we are monads, our love for self will inevitably become sinfully selfish. But God is triune. His love for himself is a love between Persons and is therefore always being given and directed toward the Other. The indivisible God lives in eternal love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Unlike us, God’s love for himself cannot ever be anything other than the perfect love between Persons. Because God is simple and not composed of various parts, we know that he does not merely do loving things but that he is love in his very essence. It is impossible for God to be or do anything that is in conflict with love. Click To Tweet
God loves himself in all of the purity and perfections of Father, Son, and Spirit. That means that God loves justice for he is just. He loves righteousness and holiness for he is righteous and holy. For God to turn his back on that which demands justice would require that he diminish his love for his own perfections. For God to wave away that which justice requires would mean that he must diminish his eternal love for himself. To ignore sin; to fail to be just would require that God’s love be diminished for he would fail to love what makes him truly lovely.
We must be careful to not collapse God into a single attribute. Nor can we pit one attribute against any other as though God is at war with himself. God is not conflicted. His attributes are not contradictory forces which must be balanced against one another. God is love; gloriously so. But he is also just. God is merciful and kind. He is also righteous and holy.
The love of God persists each moment of each day as he continues to draw people to himself from around the world. Only God knows the true number of those who will be saved in the end. But the final population of the saved will be immense. God promised to Abraham a vast legacy of spiritual descendants.
And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness. (Gen. 15:5-6)
Those who will come to faith in Jesus Christ – those related to Abraham by faith – will be numbered like the stars in the sky. This is so because God is love.
Sin is worse than we think (and so are we)
We will never be able to properly navigate the question about God’s love and the reality of hell apart from a right understanding of sin. As much as we try to avoid the truth, we are not born good or even morally neutral. The Psalmist confesses that he was sinner from conception (Ps. 51:5). We are born with a prejudice against God and his mercy. What child has ever had to be taught to sin?
Everyone knows that something is deeply wrong. Even if we deny that the problem is within us we cannot deny the groaning in our souls. It is a groaning for redemption (Rom. 8:18ff). And the reason why the human soul groans for redemption is because we all, without exception, know that we ourselves have gone terribly wrong. What we fail to recognize however is that a price must be paid to save us from all this death and decay. Redemption for sinners is costly.
From her essay, “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” Flannery O’Connor appeals to our innate awareness of our need for redemption:
There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. When he reads a novel, he wants either his sense tormented or his spirits raised. He wants to be transported, instantly, either to mock damnation or a mock innocence.
It is difficult for sinners to reckon with their sin. A right assessment of our problem requires that we rid ourselves of the defensive reflex to appeal to our imagined goodness. We indulge in euphemisms replacing the word “sin” with “mistakes.” We acknowledge being “imperfect” as though anyone expects us to be perfect in the first place. In these ways we seek to blunt the moral catastrophe of our sin. Such efforts then place the onus on God to prove how he could not save such basically decent folk like us.
Why won’t everyone be saved?
Back to Rob Bell for a moment. When Love Wins was released, Sally Quinn of The Washington Post interviewed Bell and inquired about the controversy surrounding the book. At one point in the conversation Bell said:
If, billions and billions and billions of people, God is going to torture them in hell forever – people who never heard about Jesus are going to suffer in eternal agony because they didn’t believe in the Jesus they never heard of – then at that point we will have far bigger problems than a book from a pastor in Grand Rapids.
Bell is implying that there is something deficient or lacking in God’s love unless he saves everyone. Indeed, apart from some sort of universal salvation then God is a torturer which, Bell says, presents us with a far greater problem than the skeptical questions of a simple pastor from Michigan. But however convincing Bell’s moral calculus may be to some, he actually misrepresents quite grossly what the Bible actually says.
Men and women do not go to hell because they have failed to believe in the Jesus of whom they have never heard. People go to hell because they are sinners; because they are enemies of God.Men and women do not go to hell because they have failed to believe in the Jesus of whom they have never heard. People go to hell because they are sinners; because they are enemies of God. Click To Tweet “For the wages of sin is death…” Paul writes (Rom. 6:23). We are all, without exception, born spiritually lifeless and at enmity with God (Eph. 2:1-3). We are guilty of mutiny against God whether we ever hear about Jesus or not.
The Apostle Paul makes this very case as he builds his gospel superstructure in the Book of Romans. He begins by presenting the problem of human rebellion against God. He writes:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
Therefore, God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. (Rom. 1:18-25)
God has revealed enough about himself in his works of creation as to render all people accountable to him. Before the bar of God’s perfect justice, no one will ever be able to plead ignorance. People do not go to hell because they fail to jump through a hoop that no one told them about. People go to hell because they refuse the truth which God has made plain to them and instead prefer a lie and end up worshipping anything other than God.
Since God is Love…
There is something highly presumptive about the various types of Universalisms (including Christian inclusivism). The presumption is that in some way God is obligated – either by a force within himself or outside himself – to grant salvation to everyone. The idea is that a salvation limited to those who believe upon Christ is a violation of God’s justice and/or love. More often than not, this position is arrived at not through careful exegesis of the Scriptures but by an imposition of human sentiment upon God.
Typically, the question concerning a seeming inconsistency between God’s love and his justice begins with the words, “If God is love…?” The question begins from a position of agnosticism. It assumes at the very least the possibility that God may indeed not be love; that he may be cruel. This places God in the dock, so to speak, with the agnostic prosecutor demanding he justify himself.
But God must never be approached in this way. The clay does not make demands of the Potter. The creature does not cross-examine the Creator (Rom. 9:19-24). This is not to say that we cannot come before the Lord with questions, dismay, and even believing complaints as do the Psalmists. However, like Job, once our questions and griefs cross the line into the territory of accusation, we have gone too far.
The question, “If God is love why won’t everyone be saved?” betrays a basic misunderstanding both of man and of God. If we properly understood the sinfulness of sin and the holiness of God, we would not be conflicted over the fact that salvation is not universal. Rather, we would marvel over the fact that God saves anyone at all.
And since God is love he provided a way for sinners to be reconciled to him. Since God is love he sent his dearly loved Son to die in the place of sinners so that justice would be satisfied and the way to salvation opened. Since God is love he chose to overcome the stubborn hearts of untold billions of people from across the face of the earth and replace them with hearts of flesh. Since God is love a vast multitude of sinners from every nation, people and tribe will be saved. If we properly understood the sinfulness of sin and the holiness of God, we would not be conflicted over the fact that salvation is not universal. Rather, we would marvel over the fact that God saves anyone at all. Click To Tweet
The moral and merciful perfection of God
At the heart of the effort to conceive some form of universal salvation is the lack of appreciation for the holiness of God. So enamored are we with sentimental ideas about God and his love that we fail to stand in fearful wonder of his blazing holiness.
God’s holiness carries with it the idea of his moral perfection. He is unstained by any sin. He is purity par excellence. When the prophet Isaiah beheld the Lord in the temple he did not seek to be near the Divine. In that terrifying moment the prophet did not see anything in the vision of the Almighty which was similar to himself. At that moment he beheld the great distance between his sinful self and the holy, holy, holy God. The only words the prophet could muster were those of grieving repentance:
“Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isa. 6:5)
What is the sinner to do about such a seemingly hopeless predicament? God’s holiness demands that sinners be punished. God’s holiness requires that justice be done. For God to casually dismiss the rightful charges against sinners would require that he “de-god” himself. It would mean that God be emptied of his justice, holiness, and righteousness. It would require God to compromise his impeccable goodness with the filthy rags of human sin. Such a solution to the problem of human sin is inconceivable and, indeed, undesirable.
So the pressing question is not how can a loving God not save everyone. The question that must be answered is how can a just and holy God save any sinner? The true wonder is not that many will not be saved but that so many will be saved.
This solution for the salvation of sinners – the message announced in the gospel – displays the moral perfection of God. What was accomplished in the dying and rising of Jesus was actual atonement. Sins were atoned for on the cross. Sinners were forgiven when Jesus was offered as a propitiation. The Apostle Paul tells us that the dying of Christ vindicated the righteousness of God. Through thousands of years of patience with sinners, God was open to the charge of injustice; the accusation that he had overlooked sin. But the cross is God’s vindication for it demonstrates that God is indeed just. He will not acquit the guilty. He will not turn a blind eye to evil.
God’s solution for the salvation of untold multitudes of sinners throughout the ages was to provide the very thing he demanded. In God’s moral universe, sin requires a sacrifice. God supplied the sacrifice. Indeed, in the Person the Lord Jesus, God became the sacrifice.
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:21-26).
In the end, the question of the consistency of God’s love and the reality that the impenitent will face final judgment is answered by the perfection of his justice. We can be assured that all things will be right. God’s love for his people, his love for justice, and his love for all that is good leaves us with the hope that all of his judgments are right and true. While interceding for wicked Sodom, Abraham confesses his confidence in God’s commitment to do what is right:
Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen. 18:25)
The late Leon Morris concluded his fine book The Biblical Doctrine of Judgment with these words:
The doctrine of final judgment enshrines many important truths. It stresses man’s accountability and the certainty that justice will finally triumph over all the wrong which are part and parcel of life here and now. The former gives a dignity to the humblest action, the latter brings calmness and assurance to those in the thick in the battle. This doctrine gives meaning to life. The Greek idea of history as a cyclic process shut men up to a treadmill in which they might strive mightily, but neither gods no men could advance. The Christian view of judgment means that history moves to a goal. O.C. Quick refers to ‘God’s completing act in a fellowship of redeemed souls in a universe which is at once a new world and the perfection of the old.’ Judgment protects the idea of the triumph of God and of good. It is unthinkable that the present conflict between good and evil should last throughout eternity. Judgment means that evil will be disposed of authoritatively, decisively, finally. Judgment means that in the end God’s will will be perfectly done.
 Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970) p. 48
 Leon Morris, The Biblical Doctrine of Judgment (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960) p. 72.
Image credit: Michael Cheval, Flying Dutchman