Love Wins – Reflections on Universalism

Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? Saith the Lord GOD: and not that he should return from his ways, and live? [Ezekiel 18:23]

Rob Bell’s (pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church) wrote a book a while back titled: Love Wins, that has raised a some controversy in Evangelical circles. He has taken the position that “love wins”, means hell is empty (or non-existent) and everyone goes to heaven. This is a doctrine known as “universalism” that is considered a heresy by many evangelicals. Eastern Orthodoxy has a softer attitude toward universalism, but also understands the problem in a different manner. I believe that most lines of Evangelical reasoning have the following assumptions:

  • God punishes people for their sins (unless they believe in Jesus).
  • Heaven is the presence of God where people experience the pleasurable love of God.
  • Hell is the place of exile from God, where people experience His wrath and punishment.
  • Heaven and Hell are distinct and separate places.
  • Since there is no repentance and change in the future, eternal punishment serves no corrective purpose and only exhibits God’s justice and wrath.

Given these assumptions, Rob Bell sees only two logical options:

  • If God punishes eternally, he is not a loving god, though he may be a just and/or an angry god.
  • If God is a loving god then he does not punish eternally (ie. there is no hell).

The first option is generally not acceptable to most Christians, forcing (as Rob Bell sees it) the choice of the second option. Most Christians do not like this rigid “either/or” choice, but it is hard to evade the logic1.

A Word of Caution

While universalism is generally not held by most Orthodox, it is not a heresy, and in various forms has been held by a number of prominent people in the Orthodox Church (Origin, St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Silouan and more recently by Bp. Kalistos Ware). While the early church condemned the followers of Origin’s Platonism, the church did not condemn his universalism. Before going into details, some general assumptions need to be stated.

  • Orthodox are dogmatic only about things that directly relate to our salvation, everything else is open to a ranger of opinion. Thus, the future (heaven and hell) are outside what we can do about our salvation in this time, and are considered speculation.
  • Orthodoxy cautions us not to judge our own salvation and future. We know that the Orthodox Church teaches the fullness of the true salvation, but what God does outside of the Church we cannot speculate. Rob Bell is correct on this point, we cannot say for sure that we know someone is going to hell (or heaven).
  • From a proper understanding of Christianity (not just Orthodoxy), I don’t look forward to an eternity in heaven. Heaven may be a place where my disembodied soul temporarly goes after death, but our hope is the resurrection and life in the new heaven and earth. We await the coming of the heavenly Jerusalem to the new earth as our home (Rev 21:2).

Different Problems

Rob Bell’s thinking is quite different from the Early Fathers. For him, the problem is the nature of God. His issue is philosophical speculation about how can God be both just and loving. The Church Fathers did not have this philosophical problem, for them the struggle was a subjective emotional issue, they personally knew the love of God and could not envision anyone not desiring it as they had came to know God’s love. Some, like St. Silouan, so intensely experienced the love of God that they subjectively found it impossible to think that even Satan could resist God’s love through eternity, and not be reconciled.

The real problem of Universalism

Both views of universalism have the same fundamental problem – human free-will either does not exist, or ultimately cannot resist the will of God. If everyone is reconciled to God, any decision to reject God becomes meaningless. This is a pastoral problem, because if our choices ultimately make no difference, then it makes no difference what choices I make at this time. Without free-will, my actions are of no consequence or significance; this is something that neither side really wants to say – we are insignificant beings. This is a problem that even the Church Fathers who leaned toward universalism acknowledged.

The Philosophical Problem

2From a traditional Orthodox position, there are two fundamental flaws in Rob Bell’s logic:

  1. That the determination of heaven or hell is God’s choice,
  2. The assumption that the heaven and hell are geographically distinct places.

To the first point, at the edge of speculative Orthodox theology, it can be said that there is no future judgment for sin – through Christ’s death and resurrection God has destroyed death (the power of sin), and has forgiven our sins. God is not juridically just, He is merciful, gracious and forgiving. Sin is no longer a barrier to God. Since death has been destroyed, there will be no future separation from God, everyone will be in his presence. This is approximately the theology of Basil and Gregory – “love wins”. However, in Orthodox theology there is still a problem with the second point.

The Perception of Fire

St. Basil and St. Gregory do not come to the same conclusion as Rob Bell – to them the problem is not God’s justice, but how we respond to and experience God’s love. Throughout scripture, there is the imagery of God as a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29): the burning bush (Exodus 3:2), the pillar of fire that led Israel out of Egypt (Exodus 13:21), the fiery chariot that took up Elijah (II Kings 2:11), the tongues of flame that came down at Pentecost (Acts 2:3). The critical question for the Church Fathers like St. Gregory was about how we will experience the love and grace of God which is this purifying, consuming fire.

The Free-Will Problem

Following this line of thought: there is no geography of heaven or hell, there is only the kingdom of God – God is  present everywhere.  Heaven and Hell are a subjective perception, how the love of God is experienced is the critical issue. This is not a choice God makes, but a choice I make about how I prepare myself to meet God. For those who have united themselves to Christ (have been justified), and to the degree they have purified themselves from sin (have been sanctified) the presence of God’s consuming fire will be an experience similar to the three men thrown into the fiery furnace (Daniel 3), it can be experienced as a cool dew. For those who have not embraced this refining fire and reject (or are not prepared for) God’s love, it may be experienced as a hellish torment, as it was for the soldiers who threw the youths into the furnace.

Practical Concerns

Orthodox are cautions about judging their own state of sanctification, and should be even more careful in judging others. Within the Orthodox tradition, the consuming love of God is a mystery that lacks full understanding, but this dual nature of its experience is taken quite seriously – the choices we make are significant. As such we are cautions in our prayers and pastorally focus on our need for repentance and cleansing. At every liturgy, before the Eucharistic sacrament where we consume the fiery body and blood of Christ, the following prayer is said: “may my partaking of your holy mystery not be to my judgment nor condemnation, O Lord, but for the healing of my soul and body”. This attitude was well expressed by Abba Sisoes (a 4thcentury monk, known for his holiness):

When St Sisoes lay upon his deathbed, the disciples surrounding the Elder saw that his face shone like the sun. They asked the dying man what he saw. Abba Sisoes replied that he saw St Anthony, the prophets, and the apostles. His face increased in brightness, and he spoke with someone. The monks asked, “With whom are you speaking, Father?” He said that angels had come for his soul, and he was entreating them to give him a little more time for repentance. The monks said, “You have no need for repentance, Father” St Sisoes said with great humility, “I do not think that I have even begun to repent.” “After these words the face of the holy abba shone so brightly that the brethren were not able to look upon him. St Sisoes told them that he saw the Lord Himself. Then there was a flash like lightning, and a fragrant odor, and Abba Sisoes departed to the Heavenly Kingdom3.

1 On a more technical note, the rejection of universalism by Augustine (and why the West is willing to call it a heresy) is because the question assumes that “punishment” is the active willing of God to meet out suffering on a select group of people to satisfy his justice. The issue of reconciliation would then demand a change in the (unchanging) will of God.
2 Much of the thinking about heaven and hell are bases more on pagan mythology than the Bible. For a more detailed explanation:

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