The ‘Preface,’ entitled ‘Millions of Us’ contains one of the passages that has already become notorious – entirely wrongly, in my view. I’ll get to that.
Bell begins with the comment ‘I believe that Jesus’s story is first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us.’ (p. vii) I struggle to have a problem with that. He rapidly moves on to the claim that ‘…Jesus’s story has been hijacked by a number of other stories…’ (p. vii) and states that the book is written ‘for all those, everywhere, who have heard some version of the Jesus story that caused their pulse rate to rise, their stomach to churn, and their heart to utter those resolute words, “I would never be a part of that.”‘ (p. viii). OK again – most of us have heard presentations of the gospel that were so distorted as to be offensive. The blue touch paper gets lit in the next assertion, offering an example of one of these distorted gospels. In Bell’s own, already endlessly-quoted, words:
A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better … This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message (p. viii)
This is a full-frontal attack on historic orthodoxy, isn’t it? Bell must be opposed, denounced, corrected, and bid farewell, because he has ceased to believe the gospel found in Scripture and taught by the church down the ages, and this paragraph is sufficient proof of that, surely? This proves that Bell is a heretic, right?
This is going to be a long discussion, because some historical detail is necessary. So let me state a conclusion as briefly and bluntly as I can: in saying this, Bell is saying nothing that has not been held by the vast majority of Christian theologians down the ages, taught explicitly by many of them, and repeatedly defended as Biblical by the most conservative scholars.
What is Bell actually saying, first? If we read the passage carefully, the core claim is about proportion: the offence is in the ‘select few’ who are saved – not the nature of heaven, nor the nature of hell, but in their relative populations. The message of God’s love demands that we hold that God saves many, or most, or all – that the gift of grace is not given parsimoniously. And this is not about the nature of hell, but about who God is – the claim of the book is that love wins.
The question of the relative populations of heaven and hell come the eschaton was asked quite frequently in the Reformed tradition. B.B. Warfield published an essay under the title ‘Are they few that be Saved?’ His argument was exegetical; his answer a resounding negative. In closing, he paused to point to others who held that the number of the saved would far outnumber the lost: R.L. Dabney; Charles Hodge; W.G.T. Shedd. I could add A.A. Hodge and Jonathan Edwards.
This is not a catalogue of woolly-minded liberals.
This was the united witness of Old Princeton, a position taken by at least two of the writers of The Fundamentals. These names are the very definition of Calvinist orthodoxy. These are the people whose respect for Scripture was such that they developed and defined the doctrine of inerrancy. These are the people with whom Bell is agreeing.
And when you burrow in to what they actually said, the point becomes more striking still. Charles Hodge calls the number of the lost ‘very inconsiderable’ on the last page of his Systematic Theology. Shedd actually suggests that the error of believing that only a few are saved is equal and opposite to the error of universalism. That’s Shedd, the Calvinist’s Calvinist, asserting that the point Bell writes to oppose is a grave heresy – albeit one that seems presently to be being vigorously defended by all manner of men (they do all seem to be men…) whose zeal, unfortunately, apparently far outweighs their knowledge.
(Warfield does point to one Reformed writer who holds that the number of the saved will be few, Johann Heidegger. Remember that name; I’ll come back to him in the next post. He also mentions a couple of Lutherans, including Quenstedt, so the doctrine was held by at least one theologian whose fame and intellect are both of the first order. I have done a quick search through those Reformed sources I have available, and through my memory of others. I cannot extend the list of Reformed writers who believed that the majority of the human race would be lost beyond Heidegger – nor could Warfield, who knew the tradition quite well.)
This is not an argument that Bell is right to reject a ‘gospel’ that asserts that few will be saved – although I think he is (hence the tendentious scare-quotes…) – it is an argument that, on one of the two points, so far, on which he has been endlessly castigated and criticised, he is in line with the most impeccable Reformed orthodoxy. If you want to call Bell a heretic or a liberal on the basis of this quotation, you must apply the same terms to Warfield, Hodge, and Edwards.
Now, of course, there is a question of how a writer defends the idea of near-universal salvation. The older Reformed tradition played two cards. On the one hand, in pre-antibiotic days, they generally held that those dying as infants (a significant proportion of the human race) would all be saved; on the other, they tended to assume a postmillennial eschatology under which the last age of the world would be marked by unimaginable prosperity, and so population growth, and by near-universal Christian commitment. The vast preponderance of believers in this millennium so far outweighed the numbers of unbelievers in all earlier ages that salvation was the general norm for humanity.
Rob Bell does not think this.
Instead he posits a post-mortem gospel offer, held endlessly open. I’ll say more about this later, but for now, let me note that it is a well-attested position in recent theology – C.S. Lewis held it, for instance – and that it is a position that I find simply unconvincing.
I suppose that Bell does not even know that the position he is defending is traditional Reformed theology – surely, he would have mentioned it if he did know this? It remains the case, however, that on this point, on the question of the relative proportion of the saved to the lost, it happens that Bell is on the side of historic orthodoxy and his many zealous detractors are not.
This is profoundly important, it seems to me. This is about who God is. A God who saves only a few is niggardly and ungracious – that is why Shedd regards it as a grave error to believe that only a few are saved; it necessarily posits an unbiblical doctrine of God. Warfield’s essay is fascinating on this point. He notes that the argument that few will be saved has apparent exegetical support; Heidegger reached that view by reflecting on texts such as Mt. 7:13-14. Warfield thus sets himself to find alternative readings to the apparently-natural ones because the straightforward reading of these texts would be theologically impossible. The broad witness of Scripture is overwhelmingly to the generosity of God in salvation, or so Warfield, Hodge, and most others thought.
The preface ends with some comments on methodology, but that is for another post.